Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake

My love for Minnesota summers is a bittersweet affair, marked by the ever-present knowledge of an impending separation.  Slurping down ice cream from Sebastian Joe’s and the Grand Ole Creamery, laying on a picnic blanket by the Mississippi River, eating sauteed CSA zucchini on our patio, walking around Lake Harriet, picking pounds and pounds of strawberries–the finite number of blissful summer moments makes each one more heart achingly lovely than the last.  A couple of years ago, I decided to embrace the transience of the season with a Scandinavian-inspired Midsummer party, and after a hiatus last year (because we were actually in Scandinavia!) I hosted a belated Second Annual Midsummer Party this past Sunday.

The dinner menu was the same as my previous party: Finnish sour rye bread, new potatoes tossed with butter and dill, smoked salmon, Swedish meatballs with lingonberry preserves from Ingebretsen’s, and deviled eggs garnished with fresh dill in a ploy to make them Scandinavian.  Mike mixed up some excellent Dala Horse lingonberry cocktails with lingonberry syrup from Ikea, vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice.  For dessert, I made an Icelandic Hjónabandssæla, or happy marriage cake.  The rhubarb jam filling makes it a perfect early summer dessert for cool climates, when sturdy rhubarb is the only produce you can rely on.  The oatmeal-based cake has texture similar to fudge oatmeal bars, denser and much firmer than a typical cake.  The sweetness level is subtle, making the leftovers eminently suitable for mid-morning coffee breaks.

If you don’t have access to fresh rhubarb, you can use one cup of pre-prepared rhubarb jam for the filling, or substitute one cup of berry jam (I suspect raspberry would be delicious).  Tightly covered, this cake keeps quite well for at least four days in the refrigerator.

Rhubarb jam adapted from Outside Oslo; cake adapted from Iceland Review

Yield: one 8 inch by 8 inch cake (16 modest servings)

Ingredients:

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake Rhubarb Jam Ingredients

Rhubarb Jam
3 cups chopped rhubarb (about 3 medium stalks)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake Ingredients

Cake
1 cup rhubarb jam
1 3/4 cup quick oats
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons (1 stick plus 6 tablespoons) butter, softened
2 eggs
whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)

Rhubarb Jam
Combine the rhubarb, 1/4 cup sugar, and vanilla in a medium saucepan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb has completely broken down, about 25 minutes.  Reduce heat to medium-low if rhubarb starts sticking to the saucepan.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake Rhubarb Jam

Remove jam from heat and cool completely.

Cake
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine the oats, flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and baking soda in a large bowl.  Mix in the softened butter until evenly incorporated.  Add the eggs and mix until a stiff dough forms.

Grease an 8 inch by 8 inch baking dish, using the wrapper from the stick of butter if desired.  Evenly press about 2/3 of the dough into the prepared dish.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake

Spread with about 1 cup of rhubarb jam (see instructions above to prepare the jam).

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake

Using the remaining 1/3 of dough, take a Ping Pong ball-sized piece of dough and flatten it between your hands.  Place piece of flattened dough on top of rhubarb jam.  Continue in this manner, using smaller pieces of flattened dough to fill in the gaps between the larger pieces, until the rhubarb jam is completely covered.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake

Bake for 20 minutes, or until top of cake is lightly browned.

Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake

Mushroom, Chard, and Noodle Soup

Mushroom, Chard, and Noodle Soup

Over the past month, I’ve passed by the culinary signposts marking the beginning of summer: cotton candy and deep-fried cheese curds at a local festival, linguine with asparagus and pine nuts, malted-vanilla-malted-milk-ball ice cream from the Pumphouse Creamery, a picnic by the Mississippi River.  Our first CSA box arrived last Tuesday, heavy with jars of raspberry jam, honey, and maple syrup, and with cilantro, basil, and chive seedlings peeking out over the top.  As expected, there was lots of lettuce, a bundle of asparagus, a few radishes, and the first of many zucchini.  There were also some new-to-us vegetables: turnips and Swiss chard.  I made the turnips into a rather soggy, oddly flavored batch of turnip fries (Mike diplomatically referred to them as “about as good as they could have been”).  The chard met a more auspicious end, in a mushroom and noodle soup.  The mushrooms add a meaty depth to the broth, while the chard soaks up the flavors of ginger, garlic, and Sriracha.

I recommend using sesame oil for the added flavor, but you could use canola oil in a pinch.  On the other hand, the sesame seeds themselves don’t add much to the finished soup (they sink to the bottom of the bowl as soon as you dig in), so feel free to leave them out if you don’t have any on hand.  I used 3 tablespoons of soy sauce, and the resulting soup was definitely on the salty side; if you want to dial back the sodium, reduce the soy sauce to 2 tablespoons.

Adapted from the Kitchn

Serves two

Ingredients:

Mushroom, Chard, and Noodle Soup Ingredients

1 tablespoon sesame oil
8 ounces baby portobello mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce
2-3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
4 ounces dry whole wheat spaghetti noodles
1 cup thinly sliced chard leaves
1/2 tablespoon sesame seeds, to garnish (optional)

Heat a Dutch oven over medium-low heat.  Add sesame oil and tilt to evenly coat.  Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have started to brown, about 4 minutes.  Add the ginger and garlic and cook for an additional minute.  Stir in the Sriracha sauce and soy sauce and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are completely browned and have started to give up their juices, about 2 minutes.

Add the broth and bring to a boil.  Add the noodles and chard and reduce heat to a low boil.  Cook until noodles are tender, about 5 minutes.

Serve garnished with sesame seeds, if desired.

Mushroom, Chard, and Noodle Soup

Whole Wheat Muffins

Whole-Wheat Muffins

I usually cite July 2009 and pasta with fresh sauce as the moment when I learned how to cook.  Although that summer did mark the point when I started to step away from packets of instant mashed potatoes and into the world of actual potatoes, drizzled with olive oil and roasted with fresh rosemary, I actually learned the mechanics of cooking several years earlier.  In 7th grade, I spent three months in Mrs. Annoni’s family consumer science class, a tired-looking beige room ringed by ranges and sinks.  We started off with slice and bake cookies, probably to reassure Mrs. Annoni that we could operate the ovens without burning down the school.  Next we moved on to Ting-a-Lings, a Christmas cookie made by mixing chow mein noodles and peanuts with melted chocolate and butterscotch chips, and caramel pull-aparts made from refrigerated biscuit dough.  There were also turkey enchiladas, complete with a condensed cream of chicken soup sauce formulated to appeal to Minnesota taste buds, and a homemade version of Orange Julius.

It’s easy to look back at the curriculum and decry the prevalence of processed foods and sugar and the lack of vegetables and whole grains, but Mrs. Annoni was constrained by a 45 minute class period and a tight budget.  And there was more than chow mein noodle cookies and blender drinks.  We roasted a class turkey and made stock from the carcass.  We made apple muffins from scratch, grating fresh apples on battered box graters.  I learned that you need to pack brown sugar when you measure it and that you can’t blindly rely on a recipe’s recommended baking time.  I got in the habit of completely reading a recipe before making it–we would spend the entire class period before a lab studying the recipe, making sure we had all of the ingredients and watching Mrs. Annoni demonstrate any unfamiliar techniques.  Those apple muffins taught me the fundamentals I needed for my yearlong bread adventure and many batches of biscuits, popovers, and pretzel rolls.

But despite how it all began, I don’t bake muffins all that often.  I need a breakfast with some heft–muffins are delicious but insubstantial, the kind of food that leaves you hungry by 9 am.  Last week I finally hit upon the answer: muffins for dinner.  Banana chocolate chip or pumpkin muffins would work with hash browns and eggs, but they’re too sweet to pair with most entrees.  Instead, this is a recipe for a basic, almost savory whole-wheat muffin, just enough to fill out a bowl of curry lentil soup into a meal.  If you prefer sweeter muffins, or if you want to eat the leftovers for breakfast, these are lovely when spread with honey or raspberry jam.

Adapted from the Hillbilly Housewife

Yield: 12 muffins

Ingredients:

Whole-Wheat Muffins Ingredients

1 egg
1/4 cup canola oil
1 cup milk
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat the egg.  Stir in the oil, milk, brown sugar, and salt and mix until well-combined.  Add the baking powder and flours and mix just until the flour is completely incorporated into the batter.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared muffin cups.

Bake for about 20 minutes, or until muffins are lightly browned.  Remove from pan immediately and place on a wire rack to cool.

Store completely cooled muffins in an airtight container at room temperature.

Whole-Wheat Muffins

Review: Chef Shack Ranch

The Chef Shack Ranch is a hard place to pin down.  The decor is eclectic antique (a bathroom wallpapered with the pages from 1950s magazines, wall art made from well-worn cake pans, the classroom map of Minnesota I remember from eighth grade geography), but the Caesar salad includes trendy ingredients like kale chips and quinoa.  Brisket and pulled pork are prominently featured on the menu, in tacos and the signature “Big Boy Ranch Plate”, but there are also vegetarian-friendly tacos and a tempeh Reuben.  Most intriguing of all are the Indian spiced mini doughnuts, a state fair classic back from a sojourn in Bangalore.  The interesting cuisine and down-to-earth atmosphere attracted a wide variety of patrons on the Friday we visited, from heavily tattooed college students in cutoffs and flip flops to party of eight celebrating Grandma’s birthday dressed in their Sunday best.

Chef Shack Ranch

Caesar salad with kale chips and quinoa

The aforementioned Caesar salad starts as usual, with dressed romaine lettuce and shaved Parmesan.  Then come the unorthodox additions: kale chips and a token sprinkling of quinoa.  Besides a novel papery texture, the kale chips contribute a slight bitterness that mellowed the richness of the dressing.

Chef Shack Ranch

Sweet potato taco

The sweet potato taco also includes baked beans and lettuce.  As served, the mashed sweet potato is a bit bland, but this can be rectified with a side of hot sauce–similar in texture to a pureed salsa, it admirably adds the necessary heat.  My major quibble is that the tempeh, mushroom, and sweet potato tacos are the same price point as the pulled pork and brisket versions, $4 each, which seems a bit steep for a single vegetarian taco.

Chef Shack Ranch

Half Big Boy Ranch Plate (clockwise from upper left: smoked brisket, biscuit, potato salad, pickles, slaw, barbeque sauce, sausage with sauerkraut and mustard, beans, and pulled pork)

The Big Boy Ranch Plate (get the half size if you’re eating it solo) includes three types of meat and five sides, wildly varying in quality.  The smoked brisket, pulled pork with barbeque sauce (the sauce is a must, the pork is too dry without it), and the unexpectedly gingery slaw are the plate’s strongest components, making you wish you could go back to the kitchen for a second helping.  Unfortunately, the potato salad, curiously devoid of seasoning, and the parched specimen of a biscuit were hardly worth finishing.  The beans, pickles, and sausage were in between, tasty but not notable.

Chef Shack Ranch

Organic Indian-spiced mini doughnuts

No matter how much you’ve eaten, no matter what else is on the dessert menu, order the Indian-spiced mini doughnuts.  They arrive at your table still hot from the fryer, little doughy pillows encrusted with sugar, cardamom, and the slightest hint of salt.  One serving (about 20 mini doughnuts) generously serves two, making it the restaurant’s best bargain.

Is the Chef Shack Ranch’s cuisine impossible to neatly categorize?  Definitely.  But that–and the mini doughnuts–are what make it worth a visit.

★★★ out of 4 (recommended)

Chef Shack Ranch
http://chefshackranch.com/
3025 East Franklin Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55406
(612) 354-2575

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New York City: Non-food Tips

One World Trade Center

One World Trade Center

 

Although you may not have suspected it from my previous posts on iconic New York foods, food destinations, and restaurants, we saw much more on our trip than bagels and gargantuan pieces of cheesecake.  We looked down on Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building, took the ferry to Liberty Island, saw a Broadway show, and rode the roller coasters at Coney Island’s Luna Park.  Here’s some information about our favorite sights and walks of our trip, as well as advice about seeing New York on a budget and miscellaneous tips.

Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sights

  • After checking out Grand Central Terminal’s iconic Main Concourse, head downstairs to the dining concourse.  A collection of famous New York eateries have kiosks or restaurants, including Junior’s (of cheesecake fame), Shake Shack (founded in NYC), Magnolia Bakery (known for their cupcakes featured on Sex and the City), and Zaro’s Bakery (the best pretzel I’ve had outside of Germany).  The terminal also houses a mall’s worth of shops; my favorite is the New York Transit Museum Store, which sells subway-themed apparel, jewelry, home goods, and toys (I bought this shirt and a subway map potholder).
  • Central Park was much smaller than I expected (probably because the park reserve I live next to is nearly six times larger than Central Park).  As a mediocre bicyclist with a sticky front brake, I was still able to bike around the park’s big perimeter loop in about an hour.  However, the major downside was that many of the park’s points of interest are only accessible via pedestrian paths, so by biking you miss out on much of the Central Park experience.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the world’s largest art museums, with over two million works of art housed in two buildings, the Main Building on the Upper East Side and the Cloisters in northern Manhattan.  Admission to the Main Building includes same-week admission to the Cloisters, but if you’re using the New York Pass, you only get same-day admission.  In that case, time your visit for a Friday or a Saturday, when the Main Building is open until 9 pm. Start your day at the Cloisters when it opens at 10 am, take a break for lunch (the outdoor Trie Café at the Cloisters is a picturesque option), and then head back down to the Main Building, pausing for a walk in Central Park so that you don’t get art museum overload.  Grab a museum map and figure out your game plan: personally, I focused on the excellent Egyptian Art collection (which includes an entire temple), European impressionist paintings, and the Met’s three Vermeers.  I recommend stopping by the larger-than-life-size Washington Crossing the Delaware if you have time (I literally gasped when I walked into the room, much to the amusement of the security guard).  If it’s open, visit the Roof Garden Café and Martini Bar for one of the best views in Manhattan (it’s fine to just take in the view if you don’t want to buy anything).
  • The American Museum of Natural History is another vast museum, so do some research on the exhibits to decide what you want to see.  I recommend the fossil halls, especially the dinosaurs; the Hall of Human Origins, which includes life-sized models, skeletons, and fossil casts of different hominin species; and the Hall of Ocean Life, featuring a life-sized model of a blue whale.  Mike spent most of the day at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which he would like to point out is engaging for adults but not particularly accessible to children.
  • The Bronx Zoo has two different pricing structures: you can either buy a general admission ticket ($19.95 for an adult) and add entrance to premium exhibits for $5 each, or you can buy an all-inclusive, total experience ticket ($33.95 for an adult, small discount if you purchase online).  It’s worth checking out the premium exhibits beforehand on the zoo’s website and running the numbers.  If you’re interested in two or fewer premium exhibits, go for the general admission; three or more, spring for the total experience.  Since many of the premium exhibits are geared toward kids, we went with the general admission and paid for the Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit–the baby gorillas alone were worth the extra $5.
  • In a vacation that featured many museums, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was our favorite.  Located in a restored tenement, the museum can only be seen via one of the guided tours that tell the stories of actual residents who lived in the tenement during different time periods, from German saloon owners in the 1870s, Eastern European Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, and Italian immigrants during the Great Depression.  The tours are an immersive experience (it’s one thing to read about how each three room, 325-square-foot apartment housed up to 10 people, and quite another to be crowded into one of those apartment with 9 other people), and the tour guide was great at presenting information in an engaging, interactive format.  We took the Sweatshop Workers tour, and are planning on taking in another tour on our next trip.
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View of Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park

Walks
See my Food Destinations post for information about my walks through Chinatown and Brighton Beach.

  • Brooklyn Bridge Park, a waterfront park along the East River, offers incredible views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan–visit at dusk so you can see the lights of the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge get brighter and brighter as darkness falls.  Stop at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (cash only), located at Fulton Pier, for some chocolate-chocolate chunk ice cream with a gelato-like creaminess.
  • Our favorite evening stroll was through the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, dense with elegant brownstones and stately churches.
  • Times Square is impressive by day, but it’s absolutely magical by night.  The illuminated billboards put out enough wattage to make it as bright as day, and you can see the theater lights down Broadway and the famous New Year’s ball.  Yes, there are hordes of fellow tourists, but it’s a quintessential part of the New York experience.
Brooklyn Heights Historic District

Brooklyn Heights Historic District

 Money

  • I’m not sure if this is a New York-specific or a regional thing, but I was surprised by how many restaurants and shops were cash only or had a $10 credit card minimum (in Minneapolis, nearly everyone accepts credit cards for small purchases, thanks to Square).  We ended up going through much more cash than we have on any previous U.S. vacations.
  • Although the legality might be a bit dicey, Airbnb offers excellent accommodation options for the budget traveler.  We rented a studio apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone with a sitting room, double bed, bathroom, and a decent kitchen for about $100 a night, a fraction of what a basic hotel room would have cost.  Plus, we got more space (which was much appreciated after long days of sightseeing amongst the crowds), and we saved some additional money by eating in for most breakfasts and a few dinners.
  • Depending on your itinerary, you may be able to save some money on admission fees with the New York Pass, which is offered in 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 10 day durations and includes entrance to over 80 attractions.  The price fluctuates since there is always some sort of online sale going on–I got our 5-day passes for $180 each, plus a $4 service fee per pass.  Ultimately, we came out $10 ahead, which doesn’t seem like much, but there are two major benefits besides the cost savings.  First, several attractions have a fast track entry line for pass holders, which allowed us to skip long lines at the American Museum of Natural History and the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum.  Second, because you want to make the most of the money you spent on the pass, you’ll probably end up seeing some attractions that you might not otherwise have considered–the 4-hour unlimited ride wristbands at Luna Park brought us out to Coney Island for one of our favorite nights of the trip.  But there are also some drawbacks: some attractions have limitations (for example, you can’t reserve tickets to get into the Statue of Liberty; you need to see the Met’s Main Building and the Cloisters on the same day) and blackout dates (Luna Park).  Definitely figure out your itinerary and do some math to see if buying a pass makes sense for you.  The competing CityPASS is another option, although it didn’t work out for us based on what we wanted to see.
Flatiron Building

Flatiron Building

Miscellaneous

  • As someone coming from a relatively small city, I didn’t have a frame of reference for how crowded New York City would be–I had to readjust my expectations, and anticipate that no matter what I wanted to do at any given time, hordes of other people would have the same idea.
  • The attire at the Broadway show we attended on a Tuesday night was much more casual than I expected.  I was worried that my knit dress wouldn’t be dressy enough, but most women were wearing dress slacks, a significant minority were wearing jeans, and I even saw some shorts and flip flops (plus there was the woman sitting in her theater seat and eating a sandwich during intermission, but that’s a whole other issue).
  • New Yorkers are much nicer that they get credit for.  Several people noticed our confusion and helped us navigate the subway, and one passerby was particularly helpful in explaining how to catch a connecting bus to the airport.
  • If you want to see a lot of the city on the cheap, the subway is your friend.  The 7-Day Unlimited MetroCard is a great deal, and probably worth buying even if you aren’t staying a whole week–single fares add up very quickly.  Check out the MTA website for fare information, handy tips geared towards tourists, and service advisories (we ran into a lot of construction closures over the weekend; there are usually signs posted in the stations about any applicable service changes).  The New York Subway MTA Map and Route Planner app was an invaluable resource, although the route planner was occasionally inaccurate–double check your route against a map and posted route information before setting off.
  • If you want to get some historical context before your visit, New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part miniseries that gives a great overview of the city’s development and major historical events (it’s available to rent from Netflix or you can purchase it on Amazon).  The Bowery Boys podcast is another excellent resource, with engaging episodes about the history of everything from Little Italy to the subway system.
  • Most importantly, accept that New York City is huge and you can’t do it all.  Even if you’re an obsessive planner, inevitably something will be closed for renovations, a subway service interruption will leave you stranded in Brooklyn, or the crowds will be too daunting.  Take a deep breath, savor your time in New York, and start a list for your next trip.
Rooftop Cafe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from the Roof Garden Cafe and Martini Bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York City: Restaurants

To say that we barely scratched the surface of the New York restaurant scene is overstating things.  Our trip was only a week long, and as I mentioned in a previous post, we had a few home-cooked dinners of produce from the Greenmarket at Union Square and pasta from Eataly.  But it was vacation, after all, so during our week in New York we also sampled classic deli fare, sophisticated ramen, pre-theater sushi, massive desserts, and a vegan wrap.

Beyond Sushi

After a steady diet of pizza and bagels, the vegetable-heavy cuisine at the counter-service Beyond Sushi was a rejuvenating change of pace.  The menu is completely vegan, with various sushi rolls featuring ingredients like tofu, avocado, mushrooms, and marinated vegetables; a few colorful salads; and burrito-style rice paper wraps.  There isn’t any seating at the Chelsea Market location, although there are some standing-height tables nearby in the market’s main hall.

Spicy Shroom Wrap at Beyond Sushi

Spicy Shroom wrap at Beyond Sushi

I opted for a Spicy Shroom wrap, with baby greens, buckwheat noodles, cashews, pickled ginger, and enoki, shiitake, and portabella mushrooms.  The wrap was drizzled with a spicy sauce, and then there was a nifty little tube of peanut sauce to squeeze onto each bite.  The bold flavors of the sauces and the ginger combined with the varying textures of the lettuce, grilled mushrooms, and cashews to make each bite as interesting as it was healthy.

Haru Sushi

The sushi and appetizers at Haru Sushi aren’t particularly distinctive, but the restaurant’s sleek decor, proximity to Times Square, and Monday through Friday happy hour specials make it a perfect pre-theater stop.  You need to sit at the bar or sushi bar to get happy hour pricing, but you should sit at the sushi bar anyway so that you can watch the chefs deftly prepare roll after roll.

Haru Sushi

Happy hour at Haru Sushi (from upper left, edamame, string bean tempura, crunchy spicy salmon roll, and spicy garlic wings

The edamame and crunchy spicy salmon roll were well-executed standards.  The spicy garlic wings were likewise delicious, but not quite as described–they were heavy on the spice, in the form of a raw jalapeno slice atop each wing, but there wasn’t any detectable garlic.  The surprise favorite was the string bean tempura, when drizzled with lime juice from the accompanying wedge and dipped in the seasoned salt.

Katz’s Delicatessen

Katz’s Delicatessen is where the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally took place, and there’s a helpful sign pointing out where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal were sitting in case you want to have what she’s having.   The restaurant is a New York icon, with photos of visiting movie stars and presidents adorning the walls, and it’s priced accordingly (our tab came to almost $40).  The set-up is odd: there’s a bouncer who gives you a ticket when you enter, and everyone who gives you food from one of the counters keeps a tally of the amount owed on your ticket.  To leave, you give the bouncer your ticket and proof of payment (pay at the dessert counter in back by credit card or the front desk with cash).

Katz's Delicatessen

Brisket sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen

Katz's Delicatessen

Matzo ball soup at Katz’s Delicatessen

Despite the high prices, the food is so-so: the brisket sandwich featured slightly dry brisket on forgettable white bread, and the matzo ball soup had a barely seasoned institutional quality.

Katz's Delicatessen

Square potato knish at Katz’s Delicatessen

The potato knish was also basic, but in a reassuring sort of way–if mashed potatoes are comfort food, deep-fried mashed potatoes are comfort food squared.  Knishes were originally brought to America by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and Katz’s traditional version is a thin layer of dough wrapped around a simple mashed potato filling.

Blackberry Cheesecake at Katz's Delicatessen

Blackberry cheesecake at Katz’s Delicatessen

The highlight of my meal was dessert (mentioned in a previous post), a dense, tart cheesecake with a jam-like blackberry topping.

Would I make a return visit to Katz’s?  Probably not.  But it was worth experiencing, and I got a decent knish and a slice of blackberry cheesecake out of the deal.

Junior’s

As I mentioned in my write up about cheesecake, we stopped at the Times Square Junior’s after a Broadway show (you can also get your cheesecake fix at the original restaurant in Brooklyn or the to-go bakery and full-service restaurant at Grand Central Terminal).  The cuisine is classic American, plus there’s delicatessen specialties like brisket and Reuben sandwiches and Eastern European Jewish favorites like matzo ball soup and potato pancakes.

Devil's food cheesecake at Junior's

Devil’s food cheesecake at Junior’s

We skipped dinner and cut straight to dessert, which honestly is the best way to do it since the size of a cheesecake slice is dinner-worthy.  I wrote about the devil’s food cheesecake in my iconic New York foods post; it was hands-down the best dessert of the trip.

Hot fudge sundae at Junior's

Hot fudge sundae at Junior’s

The “Mountain High” hot fudge sundae was just as impressively sized as the cheesecake: two large scoops of your choice of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, or coffee), with lots and lots of hot fudge and a veritable mound of whipped cream.  It could easily be shared by two, but be bold if you’d rather just eat the whole thing yourself–you’re in New York.

Ivan Ramen

Our “foodie” dinner of the trip was at Ivan Ramen, which I learned about via the 2 Food Trippers.  It’s the first restaurant I’ve experienced where the waitress literally identified which dishes on the menu were “getting a lot of press,” and all the female patrons were attired in swingy little smock dresses that haven’t yet made an appearance in Midwestern malls.  Also, attempting to eat ramen with my mediocre chopsticks skills made me look like an idiot.  But hipster atmosphere and utensil trouble aside, Ivan Ramen really is worthy of a lot of press.

Triple pork triple garlic mazemen at Ivan Ramen

Triple pork triple garlic mazemen at Ivan Ramen

The triple pork triple garlic mazemen is nearly brothless, with thick wheat noodles and bits of seasoned chashu pork.  “Triple pork” isn’t an exaggeration: the noodles are infused with such an intense pork flavor that they actually taste more meat-like than the pork itself.  In the face of the triple pork, the garlic becomes a subtle background note.

Vegetarian ramen at Ivan Ramen

Vegetarian ramen at Ivan Ramen

The rye noodles of the vegetarian ramen were served in a soy sauce and vegetable broth so substantial that I would have sworn under oath it was really beef broth.  Once the broth’s initial umami fades, it hits you with an unexpected slow-burning heat that still manages to be surprising with every slurp.  The ramen comes topped with a handful of arugula, a roasted tomato, and a somewhat hard to eat bundle of enoki mushrooms, and you can add an optional egg for some extra protein.

New York City: Food Destinations

When travelling, what I want to eat is almost as important as what I want to see.  Happily, New York City offers the best of both worlds, with markets, shops, and neighborhoods that serve up feasts for the eyes and stomach.  The city’s diversity and our well-worn Metro cards allowed us to sample cuisine from Italy, China, and Russia, plus Eastern European Jewish specialties and fresh local produce.  Here are some favorite New York City food destinations and what we found there:

Spring Pea Ravioli and Taglioni from Eataly

Spring pea ravioli and tagiolini from Eataly

Eataly

At 50,000 square feet, this Italian food destination is like my beloved Cossetta on steroids.  Eataly contains a tangle of aisles of pasta, olive oil, sauce, pesto, and jams; cases of fresh pasta, meat, and cheese; and counters serving every Italian specialty imaginable, from elegant samplers of mozzarella and salumi to gelato and paninis.  Honestly, after a hectic morning of sightseeing it was all a bit overwhelming, and I was bummed that the Nutella Bar was closed for renovations.  Instead of fighting the crowds for an afternoon snack, we picked up some fresh pasta for dinner: spring pea ravioli with ricotta, Pecorino Romano, and mint; cacio e pepe, a pasta stuffed with Pecorino Romano, ricotta, and black pepper; and tagiolini, a long, thin pasta.  Our pasta dinner back at our rented apartment was one of the best meals of the trip–the fresh pasta was springy to the bite and made with the best ingredients, and we could linger over our dinner in relative peace and quiet.

Sourdough, tomatoes, and asparagus from the Union Square Greenmarket

Sourdough, tomatoes, and asparagus from the Union Square Greenmarket

Union Square Greenmarket

My favorite NYC shopping destination isn’t Macy’s or Saks; it’s the Greenmarket at Union Square.  Open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, there’s a different selection of vendors each day (check the market’s website for a helpful map and index).  Since we visited in late May, the produce was limited to lettuce, somewhat tired-looking apples from last fall, new potatoes, hothouse tomatoes, fiddleheads, herbs, radishes, and lots of asparagus.  There were also producers selling sustainable meats and eggs, honey, maple syrup, jam, and pickles.  Best of all, there were several bakeries with loaves of rustic breads, sweet and savory pastries, and cookies.  We got a fabulous loaf of sourdough from Hawthorne Valley Farms, as well as a hearty zucchini turnover (a pyramid-shaped whole-wheat pastry, with a savory zucchini filling) and a delicious Reuben roll (basically a savory strudel, filled with sauerkraut and sprinkled with caraway seeds).

 

Russ & Daughters

Russ & Daughters

Everything bagel, cream cheese, and pastrami-cured salmon from Russ & Daughters

Everything bagel, cream cheese, and pastrami-cured salmon from Russ & Daughters

Russ & Daughters

The food destination that merited a return trip was Russ & Daughters, a small appetizing shop on the historically Jewish Lower East Side.  Glass cases run down each side of the narrow shop, one with chocolates and sweets and the other with slabs of smoked fish and tubs of cream cheese and caviar.  I mentioned the bagels, lox cream cheese, and black-and-white cookies in a previous post, but my favorite find was the pastrami-cured salmon.  Expertly cut into translucent slices, the salmon has a silky texture thanks to the cold-smoking process, and the pastrami rub of 14 herbs and spices provided a pescatarian-friendly way to enjoy a New York specialty (for reference, I bought a quarter of a pound of salmon, which came out to five slices and enough for three bagels).

Chocolate Babka from Russ & Daughters

Slice of chocolate babka from Russ & Daughters

Although fish is the store’s specialty, don’t neglect the bakery case.  I thoroughly enjoyed a piece of chocolate babka, a complex swirl of bread and bittersweet chocolate.  It’s sweet without being cloying, and the layers of bread are just hefty enough to convince yourself that you’re eating a snack and not dessert.

Chinatown

Once you get off Canal Street, away from the women trying to sell you fake Rolexes, the rickety racks of curling postcards, and the crowds of fellow map-toting tourists, Manhattan’s Chinatown makes you feel like you’ve crossed the street into another continent.  Most of the signs and menus posted in restaurant windows are in Chinese, and even the official street signs are bilingual.  You can eat well and cheaply at one of over 300 restaurants (I even spotted a few that were exclusively vegetarian or vegan).  Or you can buy everything you might need to prepare a feast at home from the many Chinese grocery stores and specialty shops stocking fresh fish, jerky, dried mushrooms, candy, or a dizzying assortment of rice cookers.  There are produce vendors on the sidewalk, selling everything from grapes and squash to lychee and durian.  We only spent one afternoon in Chinatown, so it’s high on my list of places to explore further on my next trip.

After a morning of intense walking, we carb loaded at the Mott Street Fay Da Bakery, a local chain that has a couple other locations in Manhattan and several in Queens.  Most of the bakery case is devoted to filled baked and steamed buns, but you can also get individual tarts and cakes at bargain prices.  The store is cash only, but even the large, meat-filled buns ring in at $1.70 each–we stuffed ourselves for under $10.  Just grab a tray and a pair of tongs and pick out your selections from the bakery case, which helpfully lists English names for each of the buns.

Fay Da Bakery

Clockwise from upper left: Sweet potato puff, scallion and green pea twist, sweet topping coconut bun, and chocolate walnut bun, all from the Fay Da Bakery

Showing a distinct lack of culinary adventurousness, Mike selected a hot dog bun (exactly what it sounds like, dough wrapped in a spiral around your standard American wiener); a dry pork wrap (pork, lettuce, mayo, and egg rolled up in a flatbread); and a scallion and green pea twist, which I also tried for myself.  The scallion and green pea twist was made of a wonderfully flaky pastry, which I was able to enjoy without guilt thanks to the token vegetable content.  The sweet potato puff, a substantial, slightly crusty roll filled with sweet potato puree, is another tasty way to ingest some vegetables.  For dessert, Mike got a chocolate walnut bun–basically a cinnamon roll, but with chocolate and whole walnuts in lieu of cinnamon.  I suspect an American version would have been overly sweetened, and I preferred this version with its understated bittersweet chocolate.  I opted for a sweet topping coconut bun, which contained a hefty amount of lightly sweetened coconut on the inside and a crackly topping with a hint of sugar.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Red bean ice cream from Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Red bean ice cream from Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Round two of dessert came from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.  Their house-made ice cream comes in familiar American flavors like Oreo and Rocky Road, or you can branch out to black sesame, lychee, or green tea.  My scoop of red bean ice cream was a refreshing afternoon pick-me-up.  Since there isn’t any seating in the store, walk a couple blocks west on Bayard Street to enjoy your ice cream in Columbus Park.  On the Saturday we visited, the park was a venue for several informal performances of traditional Chinese music.

Brighton Beach

Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood is sometimes known as Little Odessa, for the Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants who arrived from Odessa, Ukraine in the 1940s and 1950s; another wave of Russian immigrants arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Brighton Avenue, which is lined with shops, restaurants, and other businesses catering to the Russian community, is easily accessible via subway–just get off at the Brighton Beach station and walk down Brighton Avenue until you get to the Ocean Parkway station (or vice versa if you’re heading in the other direction).

We visited Brighton Beach on a Sunday evening just as most of the shops were closing, but Vintage Gourmet Specialty Food was still open.  The front of the store is devoted to bulk bins of nuts, dried fruit, and candy, all reasonably priced (although often not labeled in English).  We got a giant chocolate covered marshmallow, a couple mini chocolate bars with a cherry filling, a handful of wrapped chocolates, a couple of chocolate-covered wafer cookies, a handful of Turkish delight, and a small gift box of Turkish delight for a grand total of $6.50.  Definitely one of the best deals of our trip, and I’m looking forward to making a return visit and exploring more of the neighborhood on our next trip to New York.

New York City: Iconic Foods

Going to New York City was Mike’s idea: he took a memorable trip there as a child, and now he wanted to see the city from an adult perspective.  He was eager to take in a Broadway show, walk around SoHo, and see the new One World Trade Center Building.  I was less enthusiastic.  As a lifelong Minnesotan, my conception of New York was that it was an expensive, overwhelming metropolis, filled with people who would viciously elbow me on the subway and sneer openly at my small-town ways.  But Mike brought me around to the New York vacation scheme using the thing that can bring me around to just about anything.  Yes, he bribed me with food.

New York City is one of the best food cities in the world.  You could publish tomes about the restaurant scene, and specialty food stores and markets abound.  In the unlikely event that we ever move there, Mike’s plan is to affix a map of the city to the living room wall and throw a dart at it every Saturday night to decide where to eat, because you can probably find great food everywhere.  In a city that you could spend several lifetimes eating your way through, I had a week.

I decided to focus on sampling iconic New York foods and exploring notable food destinations.  We ate memorable restaurant and home-cooked meals, while seeing as many museums, landmarks, parks, and historic neighborhoods as possible.  I’m starting my series of New York City posts with the iconic foods that were on my must-eat list: pizza, bagels, and cheesecake, plus the black-and-white cookies that I discovered along the way.

Cheese Slice at Sal & Carmine's

Cheese slice at Sal & Carmine’s

Pizza

First up on the list was a slice of authentic New York pizza.  According to Wikipedia, New York style-pizza is a large, hand tossed pie, light on the sauce, crispy around the edge but pliable enough to fold in half lengthwise to eat (in the Twin Cities, you can get New York-style pizza at Andrea Pizza).  I did some web-based research on the best slices in New York and settled on Sal & Carmine’s on the Upper West Side.  At first glance, the simple storefront with a few well-worn tables at the back didn’t seem like anything special, and I wondered if it had really been worth the subway ride.  But then I took a bite of my massive cheese slice, and all was right with the world.  Sal & Carmine’s pizza is chewy on the edges, like most slices, but it maintains that chewiness all the way through to the center of the pie, robustly holding up the toppings.  The sauce has a flavorful helping of salt, and the cheese isn’t too greasy.  The only drawback was that we went to Sal & Carmine’s early in our trip, and all the other slices we ate were a disappointment by comparison.

Ess-a-Bagel

Ess-a-Bagel

Salt and pumpernickel bagels at Ess-a-Bagel

Salt and pumpernickel bagels at Ess-a-Bagel

Bagels

If our trip had a culinary motif, it would be bagels.  We tried puffy mass-produced bagels from the convenience store across the street, trekked across the neighborhood to Holesome Bagels, and even ate an overpriced bagel at the airport before the flight home.  There were everything bagels, plain bagels, toasted bagels, bagels with cream cheese, and bagels with lox.  And then there was the best bagel of them all, a Rubenesque pumpernickel from Ess-a-Bagel in Midtown (recommended by Daryl and Mindi at 2foodtrippers).  The bagels are giant, with a thin, almost crispy exterior and an impossibly soft, dense interior.  The pumpernickel version was richly flavored with caraway, and Mike’s salt bagel had the perfect salt-to-bagel ratio.  Tip: when we arrived at 9:30 on a Sunday, the slow-moving line was already out the door.  However, if you just want bagels (no toppings or toasting), there’s a separate counter at the back of the shop where the line is minimal to non-existent.  Since I actually prefer fresh bagels sans cream cheese, it was worth skipping the line.

I found the runner-up for best bagel at Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side.  You can get bagels with cream cheese at the shop or bagel sandwiches at the nearby cafe.  The average-sized, extra-chewy bagels (sourced from Brooklyn’s Bagel Hole) are best when spread with a thick layer of lox cream cheese.

Blackberry Cheesecake at Katz's Delicatessen

Blackberry cheesecake at Katz’s Delicatessen

Cheesecake

Embarrassingly, I forgot that New York-style cheesecake was a thing until I saw it in the dessert case at Katz’s Delicatessen.  Obviously, I had to rectify the situation by trying a slice of the blackberry cheesecake.  Katz’s cheesecake means business, dense and solid (none of that whipped nonsense), with a tartness that serves as a satisfying foil to the jam-like blackberry topping.

Devil's food cheesecake at Junior's

Devil’s food cheesecake at Junior’s

However, my ultimate cheesecake experience was a slab of devil’s food cheesecake at Junior’s, big enough to feed at least two people (which makes it not a bad deal for $7.50).  Ganache a couple of levels past rich is layered with a strip of cheesecake, which somewhat balances the sweetness of the chocolate, and then there’s devil’s food cake, more ganache, and chocolate chips.  Is it overwhelming and over-the-top?  Yes.  But that’s New York City on a dessert plate, and I ate almost the entire thing.

Black-and-white Cookie from Russ & Daughters

Black-and-white cookie from Russ & Daughters

Black-and-White Cookies

Black-and-white cookies are a New York specialty that I found by happenstance.  They’re a thick, cake-like cookie with a hint of lemon, dramatically iced with half chocolate and half vanilla.  I found a very tasty (albeit overpriced) example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s cafeteria, and the more reasonably priced version pictured above at Russ & Daughters.  Most Jewish delis (including Katz’s Delicatessen) and many bakeries seem to have them on hand, so you should stumble across them too if you want to try one yourself.

What iconic New York foods should I sample on my next visit?  Any bagel recommendations? 

Review: Jasmine Deli

The food at hole-in-the-wall restaurants is often good, and sometimes very good.  But it’s usually good in a specific way, with simple ingredients in a straightforward preparation, served in utilitarian rib-sticking portions.  The Jasmine Deli has all the earmarks of a classic hole-in-the-wall: a modest storefront location with scraggly houseplants in the sole window, rickety chairs, and a kids’ bike parked in the graffiti-covered restroom.  But as plates of food began piling up on our tiny table, it became clear that the Jasmine Deli serves up cuisine that far outstrips its humble surroundings.  The vegetables are crisp and plentiful, the sauces are house-made, and everything is flavored with a generous handful of fresh herbs.  Vegetarian options are available in every section of the menu, from spring rolls to banh mi.  Noodles make an appearance in soups, salads, and stir fries, and there are broken rice plates too–just choose your protein of choice.  The thick bubble teas are similar to smoothies, with flavors including coconut, plum, lychee, and mocha.

Jasmine Deli-Tofu Spring Rolls

Tofu Spring Rolls

The tofu spring rolls set the tone for a the rest of the meal: a visually appealing arrangement with a tiny bowl of peanut sauce, artfully drizzled with sriracha and sprinkled with peanuts.  The dominant flavors were fresh mint and the spicy peanut sauce, while the texture was balanced between crisp bean sprouts, slippery rice noodles, and spears of chewy tofu.

Jasmine Deli-Pork Basil Rolls

Pork Basil Rolls

The pork basil rolls featured the same crisp vegetables, but were flavored with basil and a vinaigrette dipping sauce.  Meat lovers may take issue with the slight slice of pork, but the vegetable-heavy focus makes for a delightfully crunchy, light appetizer.

Jasmine Deli-Vegetarian Soup

Vegetarian Soup with Rice Noodles and Fried Tofu

The vegetarian soup with rice noodles and fried tofu comes with a plateful of garnishes: fresh bean sprouts, a lime wedge, and slices of jalapeno.  The soup had a respectable vegetable quotient in the form of carrots and broccoli, in addition to the tangle of rice noodles.  Flavor-wise, the soup needs the lime juice and jalapeno garnishes to truly shine; give the jalapenos a chance to work their heat into the broth before digging in.

Jasmine Deli-Stir Fried Noodles

Stir Fried Egg Noodles with Beef

The beef stir fried egg noodles had an expectedly sweet sauce that paired well with the slices of beef.  The dish had the same fresh touches as the other menu items, with a salad’s worth of broccoli and carrots mixed into the stir fry and a generous cilantro garnish.

Jasmine Deli-Sesame Roll

The night’s dessert special was a sesame roll, a thin layer of chewy sesame dough with a small ball of coconut and red bean paste rattling around inside. Our waitress compared it to an Asian doughnut, but it was actually quite wholesome tasting, with a manageable sweetness level and delicate hint of coconut.

The Jasmine Deli will never win any points for its décor or ambiance.  But the food, bursting with the fresh vegetables and flavor profiles hipster places like to brag about, enough vegetarian and vegan options to satisfy the most discerning eater, and bargain prices?  Judged by that measure, the Jasmine Deli is top-notch.

★★★½ out of 4 (recommended)

Jasmine Deli
http://jasminedelimpls.com/
2532 Nicollet Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55404
612-870-4700

Jasmine Deli on Urbanspoon

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

Sometimes acquaintances label my food choices “interesting.”  In Minnesota, this can be a passive-aggressive putdown, a way of saying “You eat weird stuff that I wouldn’t touch with a proverbial ten-foot pole,” but I choose to view it as a compliment.  Life is short, so why order plain chocolate ice cream when you can opt for chocolate with sea salt and fudge, or settle for a cheese pizza over a pie topped with arugula and truffle oil?  If I never ventured beyond the familiar, I would be living a very different sort of life, one without a food blog or Ethiopian cuisine, a life that would lack many of very things that have come to define me.

However, I will admit there are drawbacks to my culinary approach: the occasional flavor combinations that don’t quite work and my tendency to overlook truly delicious, simple foods in favor of their fussy esoteric counterparts.  Take, for instance, coffee cake.  The humble combination of white cake and cinnamon sugar is not the kind of thing I seek out–I’m too busy pursuing French pastries or gourmet doughnuts.  But whenever I happen across coffee cake, usually in a church basement, the first bite makes me pause with appreciation.  Sometimes, basic foods are what people eat so often because they’re delicious.  Sometimes you don’t need a lemon and vanilla bean cupcake with cardamom-infused frosting; what you need is a down-to-earth coffee cake, moist and laden with cinnamon.

This is a classic coffee cake, perfect for a mid-morning coffee break or brunch.  The very thick cake batter is a bit difficult to work with, particularly when you’re spreading the second layer of batter while trying not to disturb the cinnamon sugar topping underneath.  But the resulting cake is worth it, with a fluffy moistness and a lovely ribbon of cinnamon sugar running through the middle.

Adapted from Gimme Some Oven

Ingredients:

Sour Cream Coffee Cake Ingredients

Cake
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened  to room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces (by weight) reduced fat sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Topping
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease a 9×13 pan.

Using a hand mixer, cream butter and 1 cup granulated sugar in a large bowl until fluffy.  Mix in the eggs, one at a time, until well combined.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Add half of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix until combined.  Stir in the sour cream and vanilla.  Add the remaining flour mixture and mix until a stiff batter forms.

Mix 1/4 granulated sugar, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl until well combined.

Spread half of the batter into the prepared pan.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake Batter

Evenly sprinkle with half of the prepared sugar topping.  Repeat with remaining batter and sugar topping, spreading the second layer of batter very carefully to ensure the first layer of topping is not disturbed.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake Before Baking

Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake