Tuesday, July 21, 2015

top ten Tuesday: ten drinks.

Remember when I told you about the ten foods I dream about?

Now it’s time for the ten drinks I dream about!

(Forgive me for ending those sentences in a preposition. “The ten drinks about which I dream” just doesn’t have the same flow.)

I find that beverages are an integral part of your dining experience. Some people can eat their meals without anything to wash it down. I am not one of those people.

And that could be why I’ve imbibed some truly great beverages in my time.  Here I present my ten favorite beverages from a few of my very favorite locations.

frozen hot chocolate at the Summer Arts Festival
See the straws? There's frozen hot chocolate nearby.
You’ve heard plenty from me about the Brookings Summer Arts Festival, so I’ll keep it quick. I go there as much for the people watching and the food as I do for the actual art, and I can’t leave without having had (at least one) frozen hot chocolate. The place that makes them also specializes in kuchen, but I only have eyes for frozen hot chocolate. They blend it all up with ice and milk, and it’s everything you could hope for. And it pairs perfectly with cheese curds.

iced chai at the Common Cup
During my final year at UMM, I worked at the local coffee shop: the Common Cup. It was a great job for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we were allowed a free meal and drink while we were working. My shift was usually 6am – 10 am, so my meal of choice was breakfast. I was due in class by 1020, so I’d make myself a breakfast sandwich (egg, bacon, and cheese on a croissant) and an iced chai. While working at the Common Cup, I had not yet learned to enjoy espresso drinks, so chai it was. I don’t know how I started on the iced chai, but the Common Cup used Oregon Chai. You can find it in some grocery stores: it’s a purple and yellow carton, and it’s fantastic.

hurricanes at Pat O’Briens

It should come as no surprise to you that New Orleans boasts three of my favorite beverages. All three are iconic, but only two are potent potables. The hurricane is a deep red drink that comes in a gigantic plastic cup. It’s got some cherries and oranges floating about, and it’s so tasty that you don’t realize that it’s pretty much all alcohol. James and I have made hurricanes for two years’ worth of Mardi Gras dinner parties, and they’ve been just delicious. One year, we ran out of ice, so we simply ran outside and scooped some fresh snow into our glasses. Thus the Minnesota Hurricane was born.

hand grenades at Tropical Isle
Don't worry. I didn't drink both of them.
Hand grenades are a lot like Hurricanes in that they taste so good and are almost entirely alcohol. Hand grenades even come in a gimmicky plastic glass that is shaped like a hand grenade at the bottom. Hand grenades come in two options: with or without ice. Without ice is twice the price.

café au lait at Café du Monde
My absolute favorite New Orleans beverage does indeed come from the French Quarter, but unlike the others, you don’t need to show your ID to get it. While I am not much of a coffee drinker, I love the café au lait at Café du Monde. It’s one part coffee to one part steamed milk, plus a dash of chicory. You can order café au lait up north, but it’s missing that essential chicory flavor. James and I got café au lait every morning when we were on our New Orleans honeymoon, and nothing starts your day off better than piping hot café au lait and a fresh batch of beignets.

mojitos on the beach at El Cid
Or mojitos at a swim-up bar in Mexico.
My family took a vacation to Cancun in January 2013, and let me tell you, that place is heaven on earth. White sandy beaches, shimmery blue water, gorgeous blooming flowers, the whole shebang. Plus, it helped that it was the absolute dead of winter back home, and a tropical vacation was just the cure. This was also six months before James’s and my wedding, and it was the sweet spot right before wedding stress and accompanying drama began to hit. Cancun was the calm before the storm, and I remember it so fondly. Cancun was the first place I’d ever had a mojito, and if heaven exists, I think it’s a Mexican beach where I have a mojito in hand. Or a swim-up bar. I’ve ordered mojitos since then, but none of them are ever as delicious as the mojitos in Mexico. James makes mojitos with mint from our garden, and they come close – but our lawn in Luverne is somehow less scenic than a white sandy beach in Cancun. Plus, we don’t have a swim-up bar.

La Crescent at Four Daughters Winery
I realized that going to wineries for fun is a typical late-twenties married couple thing to do, but you know what? I’m fine with it, because wineries are awesome. Four Daughters was the first truly good winery that James and I visited, and we almost skipped it entirely. Four Daughters is in southeastern Minnesota, and James and I just happened to drive by it on our way to an ill-fated camping trip in Lanesboro. If you remember that story, it rained the entire time while we were trying to tent camp, and everything sucked. We didn’t go to Four Daughters on the way to camping because we wanted to hurry up and get to our site so we could go river tubing: but river tubing was canceled because of high waters, so never mind. On the way home from Lanesboro, we drove by Four Daughters again. We were tired and wet and crabby, so we briefly discussed going and decided we’d rather just go home. We actually drove right past it… but then turned around. After all, how often were we going to be on this side of the state? Turns out? We absolutely made the right choice. Four Daughters is breathtakingly gorgeous, and we ordered the white wine sampler. There wasn’t a single wine that I didn’t like, and we went home with a bottle of white wine called La Crescent. It’s been more than a year since we’ve been to that winery, and we still haven’t opened our bottle. It’s that delicious, and you can’t get it around here. We’re saving it for a special occasion, though I’m not sure what that special occasion is. Our two-year anniversary, maybe? Yeah, let’s go with that.

Lawrence Elk at Prairie Berry Winery
This is a sampler, but there's Lawrence Elk in there for sure.
Four Daughters opened our eyes to the possibility of local wineries producing truly good wines. (The two wineries we’d been to before Four Daughters boasted syrupy-sweet wines that we choked down and lied about how good they were.) We took a trip to the Black Hills for our first anniversary, and the Prairie Berry Winery was on our itinerary. I had heard that their Lawrence Elk wine was more or less ambrosia, so I got that in my sampler. Ambrosia indeed. It’s a chokecherry wine, and I think everybody I know who has tried it has liked it. Even the non-wine drinkers. Prairie Berry has tons of other fantastic wines: Blue Suede Shoes (blueberry and raspberry) is a favorite, and I really like Gold Digger (pear) and Calamity Jane (red grape). But Lawrence Elk clocks in as my all-time favorite wine. Plus, it’s called Lawrence Elk, and that is awesome.

(A brief mention of another wonderful winery that didn’t quite make the list: Carlos Creek in Alexandria. I loved their wine, namely Wobegon White: a Riesling and my third favorite wine of all time. It’s part of their Minnesota Nice series of wines, which also includes Hot Dish Red and You Betcha Blush. You have to love a winery with a sense of humor.)

Tanqueray and tonic at the Sterling Café
You know how everyone has a default drink that they order at a bar when they’re not sure what to order? Mine is a gin and tonic. It’s a universal drink that bars are more or less guaranteed to have, and you don’t have to try and explain it to anyone. And it’s hard to screw  up. However, not all gin and tonics are created equal. I learned this after years of just ordering a gin and tonic and not specifying my gin brand. Let me tell you: it makes a HUGE difference. When the Sterling Café opened in Luverne, James and I went there right away for drinks. I was going to order a gin and tonic, and James suggested I order it with Tanqueray gin. I did just that, and I was rewarded with the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had. I’ve ordered Tanqueray and tonic at other bars, but so far, the Sterling Café makes the best one.

cardamom latte at River Rock Coffee
James and I drive to Minneapolis a LOT. His family lives near the cities, and there’s so much to see and do there that we can neither see nor do in Sioux Falls. We love Minneapolis, but we loathe the drive. One day, we were driving through St Peter (roughly halfway there) when we decided that we needed a break. We got out, stretched our legs, and walked into a coffee shop for a much-needed pick-me-up. I saw that there was a cardamom latte on the menu, and I was sold. I had learned to appreciate the wonders of cardamom thanks to James’s mom Maria. She uses cardamom in her cinnamon rolls and in this totally magical Finnish bread called nissoua. So was cardamom just as good in coffee? You bet. Now, River Rock Coffee is a regular stop on our way to Minneapolis, and that cardamom coffee makes our journey that much better.


And here we are: ten beverages to go with the ten foods from last time. I don’t know about you, but I’m parched.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

top ten Tuesday: ten foods.

You know how they say that you either live to eat or eat to live?

I live to eat.

I will never forget to eat lunch and am baffled by those who do. Not eating breakfast will likely ruin my day. If I order something at a restaurant that isn’t very good, my disappointment is palpable. There are so many delicious foods out there: I hate to waste a mealtime on a sub-par dish.

When James and I go on vacation, we not only plan the sights we will see: we also plan which restaurants to visit. We live in Luverne – something of a food desert – so we want our vacations to be full of delicious food that we can’t get at home. My family recently went to Kansas City, and my list of places to eat was actually longer than my list of things to see and do. Priorities.

Thanks to this food mission, I’ve tried a lot of amazing fare. However, many of my absolute favorite foods can be found in those towns and cities in which I have spent the most time. These are the top ten foods I dream about.

burgers at Nick’s
If I could eat only one thing until I died, I would choose Nick’s hamburgers. As I have already dedicated an entire blog to Nick’s (and many mentions in between), I won’t elaborate too much. I will say that I grew up eating Nick’s hamburgers with my grandparents and parents, and I have passed on that love to James. Nick’s serves little slider-sized hamburgers, and they’ve been doing it since 1929. The buns are fresh, and the burgers are tank-fried in front of you. Nick’s was even a part of James’s and my wedding: not once, but twice! We had Nick’s for our rehearsal dinner, and we had the Nick’s wagon come out to my parents’ house for the day-after get-together. Nick’s is not just a burger joint: it’s a tradition.

cheese curds at the Summer Arts Festival
Like Nick’s, I’ve already written an entire blog about the Brookings Summer Arts Festival. And like Nick’s, it’s so glorious that it bears repeating. The Summer Arts Festival is THE event of the summer: each year, it’s held in Pioneer Park in Brookings. And each year, it gets bigger and more delightful. I have a handful of Summer Arts Festival food must-haves: frozen hot chocolate, mini donuts, and (most importantly) cheese curds. The cheese curds at the Summer Arts Festival are so fresh that the cheese squeaks when you bite them. They’re greasy and wonderful and I am counting down the days until I can have them. (Four days, if you’re curious.)

chocolate ice cream at the SDSU Dairy Bar
Or wherever the SDSU ice cream truck happens to be.
This list is a little Brookings-heavy, but I can’t help that Brookings is home to three of my very favorite foods. I consider myself a chocolate ice cream connoisseur: I’ve tasted chocolate ice creams far and wide, and I have yet to come across a better chocolate ice cream than SDSU’s. It’s made in house and doled out in generous scoops, and I wish I could eat it every day. Alas, the SDSU Dairy Bar is only open during the week until 5, so it’s rather difficult for me to make it there. Hence the reason I purchase it by the half-gallon.

toast at Don’s
Toast on my 19th birthday: 2006.
I spent my college years in Morris, and one of the very first things I learned is that I had to get the toast at Don’s. Being the rule-follower that I am, I dutifully went to Don’s – a tiny café in tiny downtown Morris – and ordered their toast. What arrived was a plate of the most delicious toast I had ever eaten – or WILL ever eat, for that matter. Their homemade bread is sliced thick and slathered with butter, and it tastes best with strawberry jam. I can’t even count the number of times I went to Don’s for toast. As was my solemn duty as a UMMer, I made sure to bring any visiting friends or family to Don’s for toast. Whenever I make it back to Morris – which isn’t as often as I would like – Don’s is #1 on the to-do list.

focaccia and balsamic vinegar at Café Bella
Glenwood is a lovely town on Lake Minnewaska, about thirty miles from Morris. Glenwood was home to the fanciest restaurant I had ever visited: an Italian place called Café Bella. I’m not sure what brought me there in the first place, but a few friends and I made a pilgrimage there for a Christmas dinner during our freshman year, and I’ve been on at least three first dates there. (But one of those dates was James, so it all worked out!)  (But it is really a first date if you go there after being friends for two years and having just decided to date? I digress.) I do not remember what kind of entrée I had, but I do remember the cheesecake being absolutely delectable. But my very favorite thing at Café Bella was the bread. Weird, I know, but this bread was like no other appetizer bread I’ve ever experienced. It was warm focaccia, and it was served with this tangy balsamic vinegar/oil mixture that was so delicious that I had to stop myself from licking it right off the plate. No other bread-dipping mixture has ever lived up to Café Bellas. I’m sad to say that I think the restaurant is closed now – otherwise, you know I’d be there with a plateful of focaccia.

beignets at Café du Monde

Oh, New Orleans. I miss it so much that it hurts. I spent a week there in college, four months doing an internship after college, and another week there for our honeymoon – and it feels like home. During that four months I was there for an internship, I was too poor to really experience the food: when I could buy both hotdogs AND eggs, I felt rich. Luckily, beignets aren’t that expensive. I had first had them during the college trip, and I totally fell in love. Beignets are French doughnuts that are fried and served drenched in powdered sugar. You could buy three of them for about four dollars, and even I – the unpaid intern working two part-time jobs – could scrape up enough money for those. My parents each came to visit while I was living in New Orleans, and I took each of them to get beignets. Mom – who is not a dessert person – thought they were pretty good, but Dad – who IS a dessert person – loved them. When James and I were in New Orleans for our honeymoon, we got beignets every single day. Alas, there are no beignets up here in the Great White North. You have to go to Kansas City to get an approximate – and those beignets were tasty, but nothing beats the original.

blackened catfish at Remoulade
Seafood in New Orleans is just heavenly. Fresh from the Gulf and prepared like only Southerners can. I’ve had some amazing seafood in New Orleans – BBQ shrimp at VooDoo BBQ, char-grilled oysters with Mom and the Poboy Festival, shrimp remoulade with fried green tomatoes… but nothing even comes close to the blackened catfish. Upon arriving in New Orleans for our honeymoon, James and I wandered through the French Quarter and stumbled across this little restaurant. On a whim, I ordered the blackened catfish – having never had catfish before. It was delivered to me on a tin plate, and it was the most extraordinary fish I have ever eaten. James (who had gotten stuffed crab) was envious of my delectable dish, and we even went back a second time at the end of the honeymoon so we could both get more catfish.

violet gelato at Paciugo
There are so many foods I love in Minneapolis; it was awfully tough to narrow it down. My other two major contenders were Raising Cane’s chicken strips and the apple and brie pancakes at the Colossal Café. The gelato won out because a.) it didn’t seem right to place food from a national chain on my list of local delights, and b.) James can replicate the apple and brie pancakes, so I can eat those any time I want. Gelato it is. I had never really had gelato until moving to Minneapolis, and I find it quite delightful. This particular shop is located in the Mall of America, and their flavors swap out from time to time. I’ve tried all sorts of crazy gelato there, many of them flower-based: rose gelato, lavender and blueberry gelato… but none has been better than violet gelato. (Side note: Sioux Falls recently got a gelato stand it its mall, and their strawberry gelato is to die for.)

rolled quesadillas at La Azteca
I don't have a picture of the quesadilla, so here's a margarita at La Azteca.
I’ve had Mexican food many times in many different places – including Mexico. But the best Mexican food I’ve ever had was in – believe it or not – Worthington, Minnesota. Yes: Minnesota. James moved to southwestern Minnesota for a teaching job while I was still living in Minneapolis, and he discovered La Azteca and told me all about its wonders. I moved to Sioux Falls in 2011 – leaving Minneapolis was hard, but Sioux Falls was so much closer to James and my family, so here we are. James’s birthday was about a week after I had started my new Sioux Falls job, so we went to La Azteca – and I was floored. I ordered the rolled quesadilla, which is just a regular quesadilla rolled up and cut in slices. I’ve been getting going to La Azteca for almost four years now, and I’ve never ordered anything else. I may be in a rut, but it’s a tasty rut. 

lemon glazed salmon at the Sterling Café
I also don't have a picture of the salmon... so here's a picture of me at
the Sterling Cafe with a Guinness.
James and I moved to Luverne mere days after we got married in summer 2013. We chose Luverne because it was the closest we could find to half-way between our jobs: James works twenty miles one direction, and I work thirty-five miles in the other. Living in Luverne is a necessary evil. There are a few good things: affordable housing, a drive-in movie theatre… but overall, Luverne is too small-town for me. One of the biggest problems we faced when we moved to Luverne was the lack of dining options. There was one good restaurant, a few fast food places, a couple of pizzerias, plus a diner with weird hours and a DeToy’s-esque establishment that could out-DeToy DeToy’s. Translation: it was terrible. (If you went to Morris, you will understand my reference.) James and I longed for something more – and in late 2014, we finally got it. The Sterling Café opened downtown, about a year behind schedule. Their food is upscale and exciting, and my absolute favorite entrée is the lemon glazed salmon with citrus rice. The flavors are bright and un-Minnesotan, and I just love it. I was going completely stir crazy in Luverne, and the Sterling Café was my salvation.


I wasn’t hungry when I wrote this, but now I feel as though I may starve to death. So many good foods in so many places. I’ve eaten many other delicious foods from places near and far, but these foods are from the places I’ve lived and loved. (Or just lived. Maybe “loved” will come someday, Luverne.)

You may have noticed that there are no beverages on my list. My friends, those deserve a blog post to themselves. Stay tuned!