Thursday, July 25, 2013

Summer Foods, Summer Memories

Summer gives us some of our fondest food memories.  We remember those meals we ate at home over a summer vacation.  Our moms made us lunch, and we ate in the backyard or with friends without teacher supervision, cafeteria trays, or food from ice cream scoops.  We ate outside, maybe next to a pool or in a park.  We didn’t have to quickly eat so we could get back to class.  On the weekends neighborhoods filled with the smell of grills.  Burgers, hot dogs, baked beans and chips brought people together.  And for many, whatever we ate then holds some special place for us now.  We may have become foodies and turn our nose up at certain ingredients or combinations.  Maybe we are health conscious and have sworn off certain foods.  But when that special memory pops up we cannot help but indulge that summer treat.  I have a few summer foods I’d like to share, but be sure to share yours here too.  Mine are not complex, fancy, foodie treats - they're foods kids love and can make for themselves.

Macaroni Salad – Ubiquitous no doubt, but like Thanksgiving Day stuffing, your family’s is always best and different from everyone else’s.  My mom’s was simply elbow macaroni, Miracle Whip, a touch of ketchup, some paprika and as much chopped red onion as you can handle.  On a summer day the coolness of the mayo mixed with the crunch of the onions was sheer perfection and was absolutely the taste of summer.  It was served in the same green bowl each year and the leftovers would feed me for days it seemed.  The second day the onions would start to color the macaroni and mayo pink.  When I make it now I am the only one who eats it, and I don’t mind a bit.        
Cucumber Sandwich – This is so simple and anti-foodie it cracks me up, but I love it.  Peel a cucumber, and slice it as thin or as thick as you like.  Smear Miracle Whip on a couple slices of white bread – and Wonder Bread really is perfect.  Place as many cucumber slices as you like on the bread, top it with the other slice and eat up.  The cucumber slides around, and its juices mix with the mayo requiring you to eat quickly or make a giant mess.  Eventually the bread will become gooey if you aren’t fast enough, and it will undoubtedly stick to the roof of your mouth.  A cold root beer is the best solution.  The crispness of the cucumber, coolness of the mayo, and texture of the whole sloppy mess is exquisitely summer.  Little triangles of perfectly uniform finger sandwiches at some Brit themed lawn party be damned.

Tomato Sandwich – See above, but with tomatoes and some salt.  But eat faster; tomatoes are juicier.  And this can be dressed up a bit with a crusty, stronger bread, even a toasted sourdough.  And of course you can keep going and turn it into a BLT.  And if you must, take it a California step further and add a perfectly ripe, creamy avocado.  But now we’re treading too close to becoming high maintenance foodies.  That said, find a good tomato.  When we were kids heirloom tomatoes were simply tomatoes.  These insipid pink things at the grocery store didn’t exist yet, so it’s okay to get all ‘foodie” on this one.  Keep it simple and the kids can make their own.  The juices running down their arms as they eat will just make them giggle.
Iceberg Salad – One summer late in grade school I think I ate this a few times a week.  One head of iceberg lettuce, one can of drained red kidney beans, some bacon bits and blue cheese dressing.  Done.  Crispy crunchiness mixed with cool creaminess – that’s summer.

Orange Creamsicle – Every summer lunch needs a dessert and to me there is no finer in the summer sun than an orange creamsicle.  Yes, vacationing in New England next week, I will indulge my cravings for ice cream most evening, but the brightness of the orange and the creamy richness of the cream are unmatched in the heat of the day.  For a while Goose Island Brewing in Chicago was making an Orange Cream soda that was a liquefied version, but there’s still nothing like the real thing, sitting on cement stairs thinking about what to do next with your summer vacation.   

What are your favorite summer food memories?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ah, Mon Cheri

Do you remember when you discovered the joy of cooking or the pleasures of a particular food?

I know my first real interest in cooking came in the summer between fourth and fifth grades.  My mom made it pretty clear; if I wanted to eat certain things I needed to cook them.  She didn’t say this in a mean or sarcastic way at all.  She was just inviting me to be self-sufficient.  I’m glad she did because I clearly love to cook now. 
But my first memory of eating a specific processed, manufactured food was entirely different.  My family moved to Luxembourg just before I started seventh grade.  It was a dramatic change, needless to say, from living in northeast Georgia.  Among the lifestyle shifts was taking the city bus to school.  I walked down the street through a grocery store parking lot and got bus number ten each morning, often in the dark and went off to an international school with fewer kids in the junior high and high school than in my entire sixth grade back in Georgia.  In the afternoon, the trip home frequently meant hanging out with classmates downtown before making my way to the bus.  Even once back in the neighborhood a stroll through the grocery store, the Cactus, was often necessary for a little snack before heading home and doing homework.  Another American family lived in the area and their kids, a few years older than me, often rode the same bus.  One afternoon early in seventh grade we all wandered through the grocery store together.  I have no idea what I was buying, but in the checkout lane one of the other Americans picked up some candy (do checkout lanes the world over all have candy?) and suggested I try one.  I’ll try anything so I grabbed one.  In fact, it was four individually wrapped candies in clear cellophane.  Once into the parking lot the other kid gave me the necessary instructions.

“Ok, you can’t just bite into these.  They’re filled with liquid so you have to put the whole thing in your mouth or be careful.”
I unwrapped one bright pink wrapper and held a small dark chocolate block in my hand.  I popped it into my mouth and bit in.  Wow!  A seriously alcoholic juice filled my mouth as I bit through the chocolate and into a soft cherry.  I choked like, well, like a kid trying any strong liquor would. 

Ok, now I knew what to expect.  Time for another one.  I unwrapped it and looked at it carefully.  It obviously had a very thin chocolate shell, one easily crushed if not careful.  I popped this second one into my mouth but bit into it much more slowly.  The liquor leaked out slowly.  It tasted delicious, but strong.  The chocolate almost seemed to evaporate.  The cherry was soft and soaked in booze.  I let the flavors swirl and knew then that I had eaten something spectacular and completely unknown in the States.   I had a new love, Mon Cheri.  For the next several months I bought these beautiful little chocolates as often as I could.  After a while I shared these at home.  I am pretty sure my mother was horrified that her 12 year old son was coming home popping these things like over grown M&Ms, but I guess European libertarianism had gotten under her skin.  She never forbade me from eating them.
Mon Cheri, that’s what this candy was called, is actually filled with kirsch liquor and a Portuguese cherry and is manufactured by the Italian chocolate giant, Ferrero.  You probably know them as the makers of Nutella.  Manufactured since 1956, the Mon Cheri is the flagship product of Ferrero, even if they sell more of their other products.  Exceptionally difficult to get in the States, I never stop looking.  I found them once at the Christkindlmarket in Daley Square one Christmas in Chicago.  I bought a significant stash.  One bite and I was instantly transported to the Cactus parking lot.  On trips to Europe since I have found them, most often in duty free shops.  An Italian friend tells me they are almost impossible to find in the summer time (I’m a teacher and most often travel in the summer) because they melt and cause quite a mess.  She even suggested they weren’t even made in the summer.  What is it with me and chocolates only available in the winter?  
Alas, Mon Cheri, we were meant to love years ago and allowed only a few fleeting, clandestine rendez-vous since.  A bientot.           

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


I recently had the opportunity to visit Minneapolis.  After attending a few years of college over in St. Paul (at the wonderfully liberal and global, Macalester College), I had not been to the Twin Cities in a very long time.  A short visit in June reminded me why I loved the area, but I must admit, it was awfully nice to be there in late June and not November through March.  As is the case with all my travels, I made sure food took center stage.  Here’s a brief rundown of my dining experiences.

Brit's Pub – I spent much of two afternoons at Brits working on my book.  On day one I sampled the Scotch eggs.  Oh my, they were soooo good.  Crisp on the outside, just spicy enough to wake up dreary taste buds and perfectly cooked eggs.  A couple hoppy IPAs recommended by my server and a few hours later, I had fallen in love with the place even if I had not written as much as I had hoped.  The next day I committed to drinking water and root beer – I had to get work done – but had to sample the cod bites.  True to a good pub, the fish was great.  More important to me on days like these was the accommodating staff.  I love feeling as though they truly don’t mind me taking up some space and dropping lots of money.  In these situations I am always inspired to tip particularly well.  So thank you staff at Brit’s for your patience and your recommendations.  A word about décor…If you are looking for a British pub, you’ve found it.  A fireplace downstairs that features a shrine to the royal family, soccer and rugby on the tube, appropriate pub grub, and rooftop lawn bowling…what can I say?
Loring Kitchen and Bar  – Just on the north edge of Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis sits a quiet, comfortable restaurant with a diverse menu, trendy, cool interior and sidewalk seating perfect for passing a summer afternoon.  We had a couple drinks, cauliflower fritters, quinoa and black bean sliders and walleye sliders.  Every bite was delicious.  The flavors in the sliders popped with freshness and made wonderful afternoon snacks.  Though not exactly on a thoroughfare, the park across the street provided for good people watching.  In the evening we have to assume this place is very hip. 

The Local – Nicolett Mall`s other ode to the traditional pub (a few blocks north of Brit’s) has a more Irish theme and a very lively evening culture.  The atmosphere of this place is something special.  A gigantic back bar, multiple snugs, including one called the Kissing Booth and an overwhelmingly dark, intimate interior, the place feels like the kind of place I would love to call my local.  The food is also excellent.  The quinoa salad had some of the creamiest avocado and the fish and chips met all expectations for a good pub.  Service was great.  The only reason I didn’t spend some writing time her was the lack of wall plugs for my laptop.
Bar La Grassa – This place is special and precisely the sort of place I look for.  At 8:30 there was a 45 minute wait unless we wanted to sit at the kitchen bar and watch the work.  That was right up our alley.  But this speaks to the popularity of the place.  The music was hip, and the décor respected the history of its warehouse setting.  There were guests dressed in coat and tie and others in jeans and all seemed comfortable.  However, as every big city has seen in recent years, it’s easy to make a place hip and comfy and not so easy to support that with quality food and great service.  BLG need to worry.  From the moment we took our seats at the far side of the kitchen we were treated to amiable, helpful, very well-informed service.  We were first treated to an amuse bouche of marinated gigante beans that were flavorful and bright.  This served to heighten our expectations for the rest of our meal, and we were not disappointed.  Our server poured my wife’s wine, but then poured another small glass of her second choice wine just so she could try it.  We sampled a bruschetta  with white anchovies and avocado and a crispy salad saporoso – both truly excellent.  Next I had to try the carbonara.  This too, though not as great as Salt Lake City’s Vivace, was delicious and creamy.  Our server explained that they are prepping the eggs for carbonara using sous vide.  I love that he knew this and that the chef is looking for ways to safely stay committed to traditional carbonara in light of most Americans’ squimishness with “raw” eggs.  My wife had the pasta negra (black pasta made with squid ink) and sea urchin, mussels and tomato.  Exquisite…one of the most delicious pastas I’ve had in a long time.  For dessert we tried the house made limoncello – also very flavorful, but maybe a touch thin.  By the time we were done much of the restaurant was empty.  The hostess offered to call a cab if one wasn’t on the corner, but that wasn’t a problem.  A wonderful evening marked by all the elements of a great meal – great, knowledgeable and warm service, casual, comfortable atmosphere and excellent food.     

Key's at Foshay Tower  – Looking for a typical diner breakfast?  This is it.  Keys feels like it’s been here forever, the sorts of place that politicians and journalists shared stories off the record over coffee and cigarettes 60 years ago.  Breakfast here can be as large and artery-clogging or as simple and healthy as you like.  The sausage patty satisfied any craving for grease and spice I needed for June.  The oatmeal hit the spot, warmed the soul.  My egg was cooked perfectly with a runny yolk, but crispy burnt edges.  Efficient service showed just the sort of warmth to out-of-towners that makes a diner a perfect place for breakfast. 
Zelo – For those unfamiliar with Minneapolis, Nicolett Mall is a wiggly downtown street made so to slow traffic and encourage pedestrian meandering.  It is lined with shops and restaurants, many on the second floors accessible by skyways – elevated sidewalks that connect most of downtown (it gets very cold during Minnesota’s very long winter).  Those restaurants at street level virtually all have sidewalk seating in the summer along Nicolette, and it must be one of Minneapolis’ true gifts.  And perhaps by virtue of those long, frigid winters, the sidewalk seating is exceptionally popular all summer.  We took in one of the most inviting of the sidewalk seating areas and ate at Zelo.  Zelo sits at a busy intersection featuring a bus stop and Target’s flagship store; the people watching is superb.  We tried four dishes, the fried calamari, ahi spring roll, salad Brasiliana and lemongrass crabcakes.  The calamari was very lightly breaded and tender.  The spring roll was beautifully presented and so delicious it was hard not to come back to Zelo again just for that.  The Brasiliana was crisp and bright with hearts of palm and bib lettuce, one of the best restaurant salads I have had in a long time.  And the crabcakes…filled with flavor, filled with crab and amazing.  In fact, they may be the best crabcakes I’ve had – and certainly the best I’ve had anywhere more than 10 miles from the ocean.  As delicious as the food was, the service was actually better.  Lauren, our server, recognized our pace and let us linger between courses, just as we wished.  When we asked her for places to see, drink spots, live music spots and other places to eat on our visit she was warm, welcoming and helpful.  In fact, she was the first one to mention Bar La Grassa.  She was a great ambassador for her city.  Furthermore, our server truly made the experience at Zelo memorable – thank you.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Come check out LikeSteam

I have posted and promoted this before, but I would love to again in the interest of growth.  If you have gone online to find a restaurant in a city you’re planning to visit, this site or app is for you.  Come check this out...and I look forward to seeing you over there.  

Come sign up for LikeStream because you want great restaurant recommendations from the friends and experts you trust and want to hear from. Who better than a passionate local with a point of view, to help you discover more hidden gems? 

LikeStream has a couple knowledgeable and adventurous local foodie experts to help you in your quest for new dining experiences. 

Michelle Syracuse is the author of a tasteful blog called Gather365. With the motto of "Go forth, Gather, Eat good food", she engagingly narrates her dining experiences in and around Oakland and San Francisco. Best way to describe Michelle's choices and reviews - down-to-earth, warm and thoughtful.  

Mark Janda is the author of a thought-provoking blog called It Takes A Kitchen. Mark is a history teacher with a penchant for exploring new food and dining, so you can imagine the learning and adventure that comes from following his reviews around his hometown of Santa Cruz, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Europe.

Sign-in, go to our "foodies & friends" page and follow them from our "famous foodies" tab to see their reviews in your search results.

p.s. A local expert foodie yourself? or know of one? Just let us know, we would love to promote you or your friend on our famous foodies page!

Here's what to do...

Sign up or go to the app from your desktop.

For the bio and photo, just go to the "Settings" page and click on "More about you!" to add a photo and a short bio (six words or less!)

For the reviews, set the "Where" field to the appropriate city e.g. San Francisco and then search for your restaurant by name.  When you find it, click on “Rate It” and you’ll see a window allowing you to enter a short or long entry.  Hit Save and you’re all set.
Come on over and take a look around.  If you find features you like, let me know.  If you don’t find features you’d like to see, let me know.  
See you there.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Finally, I am back...

How on earth have two months gone by without a post?  I guess May and June are my busiest times.   We have celebrated a first communion, multiple birthdays, Mothers’ Day, and the end of the school year all followed by a ten-day business trip, a five-day leisure trip during which I spent most of my time working on the book, another four-day trip spent with family and time at home catching up on house things.  Wow…now I am tired.  But I am back and the posts will start again.

My first trip was to Salt Lake City.  This was my second prolonged visit to SLC, and I must admit to being pleasantly surprised again.  It’s a place of weird dichotomies.  On the one the one hand, you have sizeable city with a vast business/industrial area stretching for miles from downtown past the airport to the west and sprawling, faceless suburbs to the south.  But to the east, beautiful mountains in which you can have yourself thousands of feet higher and feet in the snow faster than from virtually any large city in America.  The physical beauty of the area is striking, the city spotless and compact enough for easy walking, even if the roads are freakishly wide.  The people are also an interesting mix of youthful, progressive and inked and conservative, traditional and Mormon.  What you may have heard about SLC being dry or at least needing a membership to drink in bars – false.  Rolling up the sidewalks at sunset – false.  Nothing to do or eat after dark – false.  The truth is, I really like SLC, and I ate quite well.  Here’s a quick rundown of my culinary highlights…
Squatters Pub – So you thought Salt Lake would be bereft of brew pubs and beer meccas, uh?  It’s not at all.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not Portland or San Diego, but it does have a few.  Squatters must be the largest.  Housed in a gigantic building it features two levels each with large bars and seating for seemingly hundreds.  Downstairs feels like your average sports bar, while upstairs offers some great views of the mountains and a smaller, more intimate bar and fewer TVs.  The beer has the typical assortment from a lighter pilsner, a reasonably hoppy IPA and a rich stout and stops along the spectrum.  They do nothing extreme, but do what they do well.  The food is typical bar food, also good.  I am partial to the Ahi spring rolls. 

The Bayou – This place is something special for beer fans, in fact they call themselves Beervana.  Just south of the immediate downtown area, it’s housed in an old warehouse and features a Cajun and Creole theme and global beer selection.  Want to see the folks the Mormons rejected?  You will see them here.  Live music and spicy food brings out the area’s version of counter culture (again, this isn’t Portland).  The food is delicious; I am partial to the oyster po’ boy, but you won’t go wrong.  Beer selection makes this one of America’s great places to tour the brewing world without leaving your seat.  And if you’re committed to trying the locals when you travel, this place has them all. 
Gracie's – Gracie’s is the one place downtown at which you are virtually guaranteed to see a crowd every single night.  Two great patios, one upstairs with a view to the east, live music and good food draw in the young crowd.  Food and drink are both good and reasonably priced.  I can’t stop eating their nachos. 

The Green Pig – The Pig, with its TVs, live music and its upstairs patio, is a true, blue collar bar with appropriate name, lots of activity, diverse crowd, excellent service and an awesome Cuban pork sandwich.   
Beerhive – Utah is the Beehive state, and the beehive motif abounds everywhere you look.  Right downtown, perfectly placed to be a happy hour watering hole for businesspeople, politicians, bureaucrats and tourists alike, is the drinkers’ play on a theme, the Beerhive.  Has some feel of an old-fashioned, Old West barroom, with upscale drinks, good beer selection and good service.  The novelty ice bar will keep your drinks cool if you opt to sit there.  Ask for some Utah-distilled Underground and relax. 

Vivace – Vivace is one of my great surprises in SLC.  Nestled into a car dealership in an old neighborhood going through new development and revitalization on the west side of downtown, Vivace’s setting will transport you to hip neighborhoods of NYC or San Francisco with the authentic cuisine of Italy.  Casual with seating along large windows that roll up when the weather demands or at a bar so you can watch the kitchen, you will quickly recognize that this place is all about fresh, delicious, flavorful food.  Go with a prix fixe, and you will get a proper sampling of all this place can do.  As a “collector” of carbonara, Vivace’s is among the most authentic I have had in the States – no peas, no cream – just eggs and pancetta.  Grilled veggies and chicken were amazing.  This is a must stop for the Italiaphile.    
Cannella's – A hip hangout with great food.  Greeted by a man with a handle bar mustache, bowler hat and inked sleeves, I sat at a table with two friends on their delightful sidewalk and had a refreshing beer, excellent antipasti plate and a chopped salad with anchovies added…and all tasted great, served with a charming smile.  Great menu littered with clever quotes.  My favorites…



It was a near-perfect post-ride, late dinner.  I need to visit again.   

Rio Grande Cafe – In a refurbished train station to the west of downtown, Rio Grande is historic and quirky.  Check out the Chick-in Taco over the bar.  Inexpensive Mexican food, family-friendly with great service.  It’s not a SoCal Taqueria, but it satisfied a craving.
Ruth's Diner – One of the oldest restaurants in the state and made famous on Diners, Drive-in and Dives, this spot is well outside of downtown.  In fact, it’s out past the University and the Zoo on your way up Emigration Canyon.  If you’re a cyclist and wander past here on your way up the canyon you will smell the kitchen before your round the corner.  Then you’ll see the overcrowded lot and the cars parked on the shoulder across the street.  After you climb 2000 feet and 20 miles later you’ll come screaming past in the other direction good and hungry.  Take a shower, head back in a car, and you’ll replace the calories you burned.  Great chicken fried steak, excellent diner food, charming service, quirky atmosphere decorated with flamingos…why?  Don’t ask…just eat!  You’ll be so glad. 
Thanks, Salt Lake City for a great time this year.  See you again next June.