dolma, donuts, and maple syrurp soda OR a culinary mashup

After dropping my daughter off at an across-town playdate, I couldn’t resist driving down Central Avenue–a street known for its ethnically diverse hole-in-the wall (read: authentic) restaurants and grocers. Thinking I’d spot somewhere fun to stop right away, I was sorry to see that Central Ave, much like the suburbs, is now peppered with chains. I have Applebee’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Wendy’s in my neck of the woods as well, so I drove a bit further until I saw a sign for Filfillah Restaurant. Advertising gyros, schawarma, and other Middle Eastern fare, it seemed a good spot to try.

While divey from the outside, the inside was clean, polished, and handsome. Even better, the service was first-rate: The charming and gracious (and handsome) staff went out of their way to serve. After finishing my order of finger-licking good dolma, I hopped over to the cash register to grab a napkin to clean said fingers. Soon after I’d sat down again, a server appeared at my table with an entire napkin dispenser. (Either he was being genuinely gracious or figured I was a mess of an eater.)

The dolma were adorable. I’d last had them ten or so years ago when I’d developed a recipe for these lamb-stuffed grape leaves for a client. Filled with pine nuts and currants and served with a cool tzatziki, Filfillah’s version was lovely.

pretty dolma and dip

I also ordered a Jerusalem Falafel Wrap, which promised falafel, eggplant, feta, and tahini all wrapped up in lavash. Wow–this sandwich blew me away. I wish I could better describe the distinct flavors; the best I can do is say that there was just enough salt, lots of savory, and plenty of hints of “I need another bite.”

amazing Jerusalem falafel wrap–so so good

I was given a container of housemade baklava upon leaving, with my server apologizing for “inconveniencing” me by making me wait for him to come to my table to take my order. (I think I waited about four minutes after entering the store to have my order taken.) These guys take customer service seriously.

Driving home, I impulsively pulled into Heights Bakery as I’d passed it many times before without stopping and it looked like a gem. It was old-school all the way with baked goods laid out under glass on pale pinkish-rose food-service trays. I bought donuts for the family (vanilla sprinkle for youngest daughter, chocolate sprinkle for the oldest, and cinnamon-sugar for Mr. foodforfun), then filled up the box with what I wanted to try. An apple fritter made the cut as did a cinnamon twist, blueberry-filled crispie, and date-filled bear claw. I’ve tried a bit of each (save what I bought for my loved ones–had at least that much self-control) and have since drifted off in a carb-infused coma.

a simple package

delish old-school donuts

My final food fun for the day was following up on a brainstorm that had come from a piece in the local paper’s Taste section. Angry Trout Cafe had been reviewed as serving up excellent housemade maple syrup soda. Why couldn’t I make the same drink? I have that soda maker, remember? I whipped up a batch of soda water, then played with maple syrup amounts until I liked what I tasted. (1 cup soda water, 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup, dash lemon juice, smaller dash vanilla extract) Definitely a drink I’ll make again. Cool, crisp, refreshing–perfect for the heat wave this summer has brought.

I hadn’t expected to try authentic Middle Eastern food today, nor did I think I’d enjoy crazy-good pastries and make my own maple syrup soda. This is why I love food: It’s always fun to see what tasty little surprises each new day brings.

friday’s (culinary) field trip on franklin

I’ve written before how I love to escape from suburbia and I had a chance to do so today. A friend and I met for lunch at Seward Cafe on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. It was a funky and grungy spot–lots of soy on the menu. I enjoyed a TLT, which was multigrain bread spread with Vegenaise, then topped with marinated tempeh and organic tomatoes and lettuce. It had been ages since I’d had tempeh and the tasty sandwich inspired me to pick up a package at a later stop.

Walking back to my car, I passed Shega Bakery and Spices. Thinking it might sell pastries and such, I walked on in. Turns out Shega is an East African grocery store/take-out deli, so I had the pleasure of wandering aisles trying to guess what was on the shelves and what they might be used for. I bought fresh collard greens, a pack of the thickest carrots I’ve ever seen, a sourdough bread labeled Diffo Dabo, and a bag of injera.

now those are carrots

love how it lists “All purpose Water” in the ingredient list

Ethiopian sourdough bread and the banana leaf it was wrapped in

beautiful injera

Made from teff flour, injera is an extremely tangy fermented pancake-like flatbread used as food, plate, and utensil in Ethiopian cuisine. I’ve loved injera since first tasting it at an Ethiopian cooking class nearly 20 years ago. The teff flour I once bought with the intent of making my own still sits in my pantry, so I was happy to buy a fresh batch of the finished product.

Next stop: Seward Co-op. I’ve shopped this green-tiled co-op before and needed to stock up on oats and oil. I also picked up a package each of tempeh (a fermented soybean cake that is one of the most meat-like meat substitutes I’ve found) and tofu. I’ll enjoy playing with them in the very near future.

Seward Co-op is easy to spot

I had passed Franklin Freeze on my way over to the co-op, so made sure to circle back to sample one of their 26+ soft serve flavors. Housed in an old Dairy Queen, it is indeed soft-serve mecca, including even vegan varieties in its lineup. I snapped a quick photo of my Kahlua-and-cream cone before it melted, then enjoyed. Sweet and creamy–textbook soft serve.

melting!

I went a few blocks off Franklin for a quick trip to The Donut Cooperative. I’d been there before, but couldn’t resist returning as long as I was in the area. My chocolate crispy donut and chocolate sandwich cookie were both amazing. They made it home uneaten only because I wanted to take a photo before devouring.

Donut Cooperative got its start with the help of kickstarter

fun treats

I covered a lot of culinary ground in the few hours I had this afternoon: A healthy lunch, Ethiopian food, take-home soyfoods, soft serve in a cake cone, and amazing from-scratch baked goods. These “field trips” are a huge treat for me. They usually start with at least one planned destination, but much of the fun is what’s found on the aimless wander. It seems there is plenty of deliciousness to be discovered.

backyard chickens and a scrambled egg

My youngest and I took a most excellent field trip this morning. Janice, a friend and colleague, invited us over to see her backyard chickens. As a talented recipe developer and food writer, Janice blogs about her chickens (and other food-related topics) and also has written a cookbook about her experiences–Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes.

Janice’s chickens are gorgeous. The three older ones ran about her beautifully landscaped backyard, pecking at grains and hiding behind trees. The two baby silkies are kept in a large pen until they’re old enough to frolic with the others, though they did come out to be held. They all have names (Cleo, Ruby, Roxanne, Isabelle, and Jasmine) and looked like they were having the time of their lives. Janice said she started keeping chickens for their eggs, but soon came to appreciate and love them for their distinct personalities.

I loved that my daughter could see a piece of urban farming. As well, she was seeing a woman following a personal passion to the extent that she brought it into her professional life. Janice was kind enough to send a freshly laid egg home with my daughter (padded well in paper towels and a plastic bag for safe transport), so we scrambled it up for her lunch.

Even in its shell, the egg was gorgeous. A very pale brown, it made conventional supermarket eggs look ho-hum.

pretty pretty

Cracked into a bowl, the egg was still a stunner: A perfectly round sunny and golden yolk surrounded by a crystal clear white.

cracked open–beautiful

On the plate, the egg was fresh and rich and it tasted real. I only got a bite as it was my daughter’s lunch, but the bite I had confirmed that fresh eggs taste far better than what you buy in the mainstream stores.

scrambled

Buying organic eggs exclusively isn’t in my budget, but I treat myself during farmers’ market season. I will add Janice’s book to my collection, though, as it promises to be a good read containing creative and solid recipes. And my 6-year-old now has memories of holding a chicken (two, actually) in her lap, finding an egg not too long after it’s been laid, and taking said egg home for lunch. It was indeed an excellent field trip.

chow mein circa 1980s

I’m sure there are other children of the ’80s who have this memory: A hole-in-the-wall (no sit-down dining, only take-out) Chinese restaurant where my parents occasionally picked up an order of chow mein and rice for supper. We transferred the food from its white take-out containers to our dinner plates and I remember thinking it was fun eating directly from take-out containers. Such rebellion. Our spot was named Wong’s and of course it’s long gone.

Even without Wong’s and spots like it, Asian food is easier to find now more than ever and its scope is so much broader (stir-fries, spring rolls, noodle dishes, rice bowls, pho, and then some). But back in the day, in suburban middle America at least, chow mein was plenty ethnic and exotic.

Because I enjoyed that chow mein as a child, it’s still something I seek out. I love the fall-apart-in-your-mouth celery, the savory chunks of meat, the tiny flecks of onion, and, most of all, the thickened and savory gravy that binds it all together. Served on a pile of steamy rice, it’s comfort food that brings me back.

I’ve never found a chow mein recipe that creates what I remember this dish to be, so I tend to make it up as I go along when the craving hits. Chow mein was on tonight’s menu as it seemed a good vehicle for the leftover chicken in our fridge. I managed to get proportions right (doesn’t always happen) and was pleased with the final dish. It’s a healthier version of the chow mein of my childhood as it’s loaded with veggies, leaving meat as accent. I also tossed in baby corn as it was in my pantry and I’m a huge Chinese 5-spice fan so had to use it. It’s not exotic and it’s not fancy. But it is hearty, healthy, and full of flavor. And for me, it’s comfort.

chow mein cooked up in cast-iron

on the plate

Chicken Chow Mein

Amounts for all ingredients are approximate.

  • 1 teaspoon peanut oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 4 cups chopped celery
  • 1 (15-ounce) can chopped baby corn, drained (sliced water chestnuts would also work well)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated gingerroot
  • 1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice
  • 1/4 cup stir-fry sauce (I used a tasty black stir-fry sauce which is bottled and sold by a local chef)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed into 2 to 3 tablespoons water
  • Sliced almonds
  • Soy sauce

In large skillet, heat oil over medium (or so) heat. Add onion and garlic; stir-fry 3 minutes or until fragrant and onion starts to soften, adding stock as needed to keep pan from drying out.  Add celery, baby corn, gingerroot, and 5-spice. Stir-fry 5 minutes, continuing to add stock as needed, until celery starts to soften. Stir in stir-fry sauce; cook until vegetables are coated and celery is tender. Add cornstarch slurry; cook, stirring frequently, until sauce is bubbly and thickened. Serve sprinkled with almonds. Season with soy sauce as desired. Makes 4 servings.

defending the little guy

My youngest and I ran errands today and I looked forward to lunch out with her. She lobbied for Mc D’s or Subway, but I held strong to trying a local spot I’d often driven past, but never had time to stop at. Razs Coffee & Ice Cream Cafe also advertises soups, sandwiches, and bakery, so I was sure lunch could be found.

The shop was small and mostly empty, though arriving at 1:30 meant we had probably missed any lunch crowd. The sandwiches looked decent enough, but I couldn’t get excited about chicken, tuna, or egg salad fillings. The soup for Monday was Chicken Noodle–bingo. My daughter and I each ordered a bowl. It came with a roll and crackers–standard cafe fare. I also ordered an Americano as the shop’s coffee scent was beautiful and strong.

Our soup was very very good. I doubt it had been made using fresh local ingredients; it most likely came premade in a plastic pouch. But it was for sure a step up from canned. The noodles were so soft they fell apart on the spoon (not the al dente you want in a proper pasta dish, but just the ticket in chicken noodle soup), the chicken chunks were big and meaty, and the broth was salty and rich. It was a fun soup to slurp with my daughter and we emptied our bowls. The Americano was also excellent–it included the elusive crema you don’t always find floating atop espresso drinks. Not everything was amazing, though: The rolls were on the dry side and the packaged crackers were borderline stale.

In the end, dessert trumped all: Ice cream was a must–this was Razs Coffee & Ice Cream, after all. (Though I was tempted to take home one of the chocolate chip cookie bars as they looked fantastic.) My Caramel Collision Malt was truly yummy and my daughter’s ice-cream streaked mouth was proof that she enjoyed her mint-chocolate chip kiddy cone.

As we ordered our ice cream, I noticed Daughter getting dangerously close to a display of breakable serving dishes. I approached, ready with my “look with your eyes, not with your hands” speech, but instead fell in love with a small ribboned cake stand. It was priced at an incredibly affordable $10 and was just what I need for my Easter centerpiece. I added it to our $15 tab (couldn’t have had the meal for less even at McD’s) and left with a cake plate in one hand and my daughter’s little hand in the other.

found this at an ice-cream shop--so pretty!

The meal at Razs wasn’t 5-star, but I felt better about handing my dollars over to a man behind the counter who actually owned his one-of-a-kind shop rather than pay for a so-so meal at one of the many chain giants that seem to rule today’s dining scene. It was delightful to find good food and Martha Stewart–worthy servingware in a suburban strip mall. I’ll be back. I still need to try the chocolate chip cookie bars.

escape from suburbia

Yesterday, I escaped suburbia and had a blast doing it. Large cities invigorate me. The air seems charged somehow. I breathe deeper, my blood flows stronger–cliches, yes, but everything is more alive. My life in the ‘burbs is a good one and there are solid reasons I live where I do. Just the same, when I have a chance to go urban, I grab it.

Which is why I was happy to join a friend for lunch at Eat Street Social. This stylish spot, just two-weeks young, was too hip for signs, so it took me a while to figure out exactly where it was. Once I (finally) found the door, I sat in the darkly paneled dining room and ordered a salad (greens, pickled radishes, sliced kumquat) and grilled turkey sandwich. The sandwich was decent enough, but Jen’s burger beat it for taste.

My favorite “dish” was the cocktail. I had recently seen the Copper Dagger reviewed and knew I had to try it. Ingredients: verna Amaro, Lemon Hart 151, St. Germain, lemon, and egg white. While I don’t know much about the first three spirits (though had just read about each in Boozehound), the drink seemed sophisticated and I liked the idea of frothy egg white crowning my cocktail. The Copper Dagger was fantastic. My dessert–chocolate-olive oil cake–had a slew of lovely and tasty garnishes: salted Marcona almonds,  coffee ice cream, vanilla syrup, and a terrific buttercream, but the cake itself was a touch dry and try as I might, I couldn’t detect the olive oil.

Walking back to my car, I passed Truong Thanh, a Vietnamese grocery. Remembering that I needed fish sauce, I added the shop to my itinerary. Ethnic grocery stores thrill me–strange packages with wording I can’t read; unfamiliar produce, meat, and dairy; foreign cooking equipment and serving dishes. I love walking the crowed aisles trying to decipher products, even if just by photo. I eventually selected a fish sauce, but also found green tea pumpkin seeds, a strainer skimmer, ginger candies (the same brand my daughter enjoys at half the price I usually pay), and lemongrass. At check-out, I struck up a delightful conversation with the owner, a tiny older woman, about acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Making this connection was fun and amazing; who sees–much less chit-chats with–the owner of a local Costco? Another reason the city brought me to life.

My last stop was Rye Delicatessen–a much talked-about and reviewed new eatery in Minneapolis. There’s been so much hype (it’s amazing, it’s rotten, everything in between), I wanted my own take on it. Filling a brown bag with goodies (black-and-white cookie, ruglach, sour cream and bacon knish, day-old bialy), I tried it all and concluded it was indeed good stuff–amazingly buttery would be my overall descriptor. But I also decided that Jewish deli food isn’t my thing–too heavy. My mission completed, I found the freeway and flew home in time to get my girls off the school bus. I’d enjoyed a great foodie escape and look forward to the next.

Mixed greens and my Copper Dagger sidecar at Eat Street Social.

green tea pumpkin seeds--taste a bit like Fruit Loops