Friday, December 30, 2011

Dinner at Home: Grilled Cheese

As referenced in a recent post about my visit to the Burnett Dairy Cheese Store in Wisconsin, I've been making up a few tasty kitchen creations with my cheese choices. Most notably, I used the cranberry muenster cheese to make fancy grilled cheese sandwiches at my friend's suggestion.

Oh, baby, these were wicked good.

I started by melting some butter in the bottom of a frying pan and placing a slice of whole grain bread in the pan. Next up, a layer of turkey (I like the Healthy Ones low sodium brand you can get sliced up at the grocery store deli counter).

Then, a generous layer of cheese followed by another slice of bread and a tad more butter to brown the second side.

Mmmm....melted gooeyness!

Paired with a nice little side salad (romaine hearts, grape tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese and Ranch dressing), the turkey grilled cheese is perfect for the season. And so awesome, I had it twice in one week :)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dinner at Masa

I recently met friends for dinner at Masa, the Mexican D'Amico restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, which is pretty perfectly situated on Nicollet Mall.

I have to point out right away that I quite love the look and feel of Masa with its full range of colors and impressive decor. The exposed kitchen gives patrons an inside glimpse at a bustling and well-run staff.

This was my second visit to Masa in the last few years, and after having really enjoyed my first visit, I had fairly high expectations for the second visit. We ordered a couple of appetizers to share, starting with the serrano relleno - two serrano peppers filled with queso and lightly fried in meringue batter. They come served with charred tomatillo and chile piquillo salsa. I didn't know what half of those things really were, but the important translation = HOT!

Frankly, it was just a bit too spicy for me, and my mouth was on fire so I couldn't really even enjoy it. Even my more adventure-seeking companions were gulping down water like it was nobody's business.

To tame things down a bit, we paired it with the gordita - a masa cake griddled and fried with carnitas, guacamole, red onion and salsa.

This was much more up my alley, and I definitely enjoyed my third of the app.

For my entree, I went with the choice of three tacos, served with rice and frijoles charros (pinto beans stewed with onion, garlic and bacon). The three tacos I selected were the 1. steak (marinated skirt steak with lettuce and onions), 2. chicken (shredded chicken with chipotle crema) and 3. carnitas (roasted pork, cilantro, onion and lime).

In general, I was pretty much so-so on this meal. What I liked: the chicken taco, which was actually very delicious, and the beans, which packed great flavor. The carnitas taco was good, though I've certainly had far better versions at other spots throughout the city. The rice would have been good but it was under-cooked, and the steak taco actually didn't do anything for me...I thought it had a funky taste and left half of it on my plate.

And, on top of the meal not meeting my expectations, our server was a bit off. Surrounded by other well-meaning and attentive servers (one who even stopped at our table to see if we needed anything), she just seemed kind of indifferent. Not bad necessarily...just not really into it.

I wasn't quite ready to give up after dinner, so I insisted we order the one absolute favorite thing I remembered from my first visit for dessert: the churros. Oh, the churros. Served warm with a rich, hot chocolate dipping sauce, I was sure these would save our meal. By the time they came to our table, I forgot all about taking a picture and dug right in!

They were almost as good as I remembered, but at that point, I think we were all just a bit disenchanted with our dining experience. I'm still debating whether I'll give Masa another go in hopes that this was just an off night...but with so many other great restaurants to choose from (including D'Amico's Lurcat, which ranks as one of my all-time favorites), the jury is still out...

20 Day Holiday Workout Challenge
I'm still trucking on the 20 Day Challenge and hoping I'll hit 20 come Dec. 25...just need to work out each of the six remaining days!

1. Tuesday, Nov. 29: spinning and core classes at the gym
2. Thursday, Dec. 1: spinning and core classes at the gym
3. Sunday, Dec. 4: hot power fusion (yoga) at Corepower
4. Monday, Dec. 5: personal training session with my workout buddy at the gym
5. Tuesday, Dec. 6: hot power fusion at Corepower
6. Wednesday, Dec. 7: cardio and strength training at the gym
7. Saturday, Dec. 10: a game of racquetball at the gym (probably more chat session than kick butt workout)
8. Sunday, Dec. 11: candlelight flow at Corepower
9. Monday, Dec. 12: brisk late-night walk through Uptown (forgot I had after-work New Year's Eve plans!)
10. Tuesday, Dec. 13: hot power fusion at Corepower
11. Wednesday, Dec. 14: cardio and strength training at the gym
12. Friday, Dec. 16: candlelight flow at Corepower
13. Saturday, Dec. 17: cardio and strength training at the gym
14. Sunday, Dec. 18: candlelight flow at Corepower

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


The post title itself almost says it all. I finally made it to Bar La Grassa this weekend and was so excited, I actually bumped it ahead of a few other posts :) 

For those of you who don't know or have never been, Bar La Grassa is an Italian restaurant located in the Warehouse District/North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. Isaac Becker (of 112 Eatery fame) is the executive chef and co-owner. He was named 2011 Best Chef - Midwest by the James Beard Foundation if that helps to shed light on my excitement.

BLG has a rockin' ambiance - old renovated warehouse space, gorgeous dark, rounded booths, great woodwork and lovely lighting. Our reservations (yes, you absolutely need them) were right when the restaurant opened, so don't let the apparent lack of patrons confuse you - it filled up in mere minutes.

We had the Barbaresco red wine from the Piedmont region in Italy, which I can only assume means very good. I know next to nothing about red wine and am only starting to acquire a taste for it, so I let others do the ordering for me. It was very good and a nice complement to dinner.

We were also immediately provided a butter bean palate teaser and fresh bread to share. I was surprisingly delighted by the bean dish, since I'm normally quite indifferent to beans in general. But they did their job setting the stage for what was to come.

We went all family-style all the way, starting with a selection of three different types of bruschetta: ricotta and roasted tomato, soft eggs and lobster and marinated pork shoulder.

All three were ah-mazing, and it was hard to pick a favorite. The ricotta and tomato one was so rich and creamy. And I'm talking really creamy. None of that typical grocery-store-ricotta-graininess.

The soft eggs and lobster was also fantastically rich. The lobster was to-die-for and the eggs fluffy. The marinated pork was served cold and packed so much flavor. In the end, the lobster-lover in me won out, and I chose that as my favorite.

As a group, we then also shared three different pasta varieties and a vegetable (to ease our carb conscience) - the gnocchi with cauliflower and orange, the mushroom and taleggio agnolotti, the spaghetti carbonara and the broccolini in prosciutto brodo.

All together now...

Each of the pastas was absolutely magnificent and truly awesome in their own right. The gnocchi had a strong and delicious orange flavoring, the cream-stuffed agnolotti was perfectly paired with the mushrooms, and the carbonara...well, one word: bacon.

This seriously was one of the most ridiculously decadent and amazing meals I've had in a long time. Bar La Grassa has easily slipped in as one of my absolute favorites in all of MSP.

Oh, and let's not forget the service. Look no further than BLG for perfect service. Our wait staff was more attentive than we could have asked for (and not in that annoying way either). The kind that just fills your water glass when it needs to be, clears plates without interrupting conversation and always knows what's going on at every table even when they're busy.

Okay, enough La Grassa love fest :)

20 Day Holiday Workout Challenge
My thighs were killing me from yesterday's "perfect squat" tutorial, but I powered through some downward dogs and baby back bends like a champ tonight. Day 5 down.

1. Tuesday, Nov. 29: spinning and core classes at the gym
2. Thursday, Dec. 1: spinning and core classes at the gym
3. Sunday, Dec. 4: hot power fusion (yoga) at Corepower
4. Monday, Dec. 5: personal training session with my workout buddy at the gym
5. Tuesday, Dec. 6: hot power fusion at Corepower

Monday, December 5, 2011

Shabby Chic and Cheese!

Just before Thanksgiving, I ventured up to my favorite of the wee little cities for a short weekend adventure with one of my best gals. We spent Friday night in Pine City and then headed out on a mini road trip Saturday morning.

She and I (and her hubby makes three) started with dinner at the Wild Bamboo, perhaps Pine City's finest ethnic dining establishment :) I ordered the chicken lo mein, which I now believe is the same thing I ordered on my only other visit here. Good thing I like it! I'm drawn to the noodles with their opposite of wide egg noodle-look. I also love the big chunks of still-crunchy vegetables. 

After dinner, we headed to our friend's production of "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" at Pine City High School (catch the official trailer here on good ol' YouTube). Quite adorable. And a good reminder to enjoy all of those Charlie Brown holiday specials on now through Christmas.

After a lovely home-cooked breakfast (complete with my very first butter braid), we set out on the open road. Wide open spaces...headed to...Wisconsin! For cheese!

The Burnett Dairy Cheese Store in Alpha, Wis., was quite spectacular.

Surrounded by farmland and deer hunters ('tis the season).

The store kind of serves as your everything store...with a gift section, an ice cream counter, your everyday groceries and much more.

Like dairy case after dairy case of cheese.

I really, really love cheese. And it didn't take long for me to stock up on a number of Fancy-brand goods. Specifically a bacon ranch cheddar spread, cranberry muenster cheese (look for an upcoming post where I make grilled cheese with this), cheddar cheese sticks, salsa-flavored string cheese and an Alpha's Morning Sun (blend of cheddar and gruyere qualities with rosemary). Yummers.

And, somewhere between Wisconsin and Minnesota - after the snow began to fall - we came across this shabby chic little gift shop out on an old country road.

And, I found two little treasures. This charming little necklace for just $2.

And, this vintage tray for the low, low price of $3!

I'd been looking for a perfect little tray for my bedside table, so it's like it was meant to be. :)

20 Day Holiday Workout Challenge
Oh, and one other last little update. With the holidays drawing near, my renewed focus on fitness and a little inspiration from Iowa Girl Eats, I'm embarking on an aggressive goal to work out 20 days between now and Dec. 25. She's working out every weekday between Nov. 28 and Dec. 25, but, given that I was feeling pretty sub par much of last week, I have to use a few weekend days to meet the goal. Posting it here, so I stay accountable :)

Tuesday, Nov. 29: spinning and core classes at the gym
Thursday, Dec. 1: spinning and core classes at the gym
Sunday, Dec. 4: hot power fusion (yoga) at Corepower
Monday, Dec. 5: personal training session with my workout buddy at the gym 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Potluck: Pumpkin Gingersnap Cheesecake

Thanksgiving dinner this year was a potluck held at my aunt and uncle's house. And I was told I could bring anything I wanted. So I scoured some of my favorite blogs looking for the perfect contribution, and landed on this delicious-looking pumpkin gingersnap cheesecake on Iowa Girl Eats.

I waited until Wednesday to make this and brought all of my ingredients to grandma's house, where she served as my trusty dessert-making sidekick.

Pumpkin Gingersnap Cheesecake - Serves 12
1 1/2 cups gingersnap crumbs
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 8-oz packages 1/3 less fat cream cheese, room temperature
1 3/4 cups pumpkin puree
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (this one I actually had to hunt for; thank goodness for my new favorite Penzeys Spices shop in Uptown)
3/4 cup egg substitute
Cool Whip
Extra gingersnap crumbs

Start by crushing your gingersnaps. Some people might use a food processor; I opted for the good ol' plastic Ziploc bag and soup can method. Made with extra love ;)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place your gingersnap crumbs in a bowl and combine with melted butter.

Next, spread the gingersnap crumb mixture into a sprayed non-stick 9" spring form pan and press the mixture to form the crust.

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the pumpkin, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla and cloves. Beat until creamy and slowly stream in the egg substitute with the mixer still running.

Pour the mixture over the crust on the pan. Use a spatula to smooth out the top (along with grandma's tried and true shaking-the-pan smoothing technique).

Place a casserole dish full of water on the rack at the bottom of the oven and bake the cheesecake on the center rack for 1.5 hours or until the center is set. Let cool for an hour and then place in the fridge for at least four hours or until firm.

The beauty of the spring form pan is that you can just unsnap and remove the sides, serving your cheesecake straight from the pan base (depending on your cheesecake, you might need to run a sharp knife around the edges before removing the sides; I forgot that step but it wasn't needed for mine).

Serve the cheesecake with a dollop of whip cream beneath a sprinkling of gingersnap crumbs.

I really thought this was quite delicious. Rich and creamy with just the right amount of spice. The flavor was perfect. The texture smooth. My only hiccup was convincing the family to try it. Dinner was so filling and the dessert options so plentiful that I almost thought I'd have to twist arms to get people to try it. After some aggressive light prodding, I successfully served up all but a few pieces. And the general consensus was also that it was very good :)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Another Pizza Adventure

Before galavanting off to Wisconsin last week (and before the first snow hit the ground), I had another fun pizza experience. This time...making pizzas!

I was invited to a pizza party where the hosts had their very own wood-burning brick oven in their backyard. What a fun way to entertain guests :)

We started by rolling out our dough, spreading on the pizza sauce and adding all of our favorite ingredients. I used red sauce, lots of mozzarella, pepperoni, some sausage, mushrooms, basil, black olives and a few red peppers.

Next up: a hot minute (or five) in the brick oven.

And, ta-da! Almost instant deliciousness. There's something extra special about brick oven pizza...just the way the crust tastes is so good (and probably why there's a cult-like following of this type of pizza establishment across the metro).

And, allow me to say that having the freedom to pile on as much cheese as I wanted made it even better.