Jake’s one of those people to whom strangers spontaneously share their life stories. I don’t know if it’s his energy or open face. On the other hand, strangers never unload their life’s stories on me I’m kind of OK with that. As a woman, I’ve had enough creepy encounters just trying to go about my day-to-day business. Therefore, I try to employ an effective “fork off face” running errands or walking through the skyways (expressed in the style of Eleanor Shellstrop).
Jake and I don’t have many traditions.
Since we got married, we’ve lived two-three hours away from our families who both reside in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan area. Sometimes they visit us, but mostly we visit them. Holidays are weird for us. We spend them all in the Twin Cities and our folks go to great lengths to decorate their homes and treat us to holiday meals. Therefore, I don’t bake many Christmas cookies or put up Christmas lights. It’s kind of OK and it’s kind of bittersweet.
Our one and only Christmas tree adorned our old Bloomington condo. We picked it out ourselves at a tree farm and Jake tried to trim the trunk with a cheap, serrated kitchen knife. I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Injury, blood, and a tree that dried out quickly and dropped pine needles everywhere. It sure did smell good, though.
I’m grateful we can still share our parents’ traditions, but have also realized that just because we don’t have kids doesn’t mean we can’t create our own traditions. After Christmas, I’m going to prepare a post-Christmas dinner for two in our Mason City home and am intrigued by a friend’s idea of hosting a Febgiving in February.
Jake’s birthday does involve a tradition. Ever since we started dating, my birthday gift to him is a home-cooked meal of his choice. He requested Pad Thai, lasagna, and chicken enchiladas for his last three birthdays. This year he went easy on me and chose gyros. For birthday dessert, Jake always chooses the Fruit Crisp from the Cafe Brenda Cookbook. This crisp is different from any other. The crumble is prepared from roasted and ground oats which makes it taste more like the most delicious oatmeal cookie in the world and it’s minimally sweetened with thickened apple juice. You’ll have to check out the book find the full recipe.
The gyro meat was not as au natural. I was surprised to find it at Fareway for about $6.99 per pound.
I like Fareway’s meat counter. The majority of their meat is not prepackaged and its quality and price is better than the typical grocery store’s. You place your order the old-fashioned way; from men in paper hats and white jackets who take your order and wrap everything in butcher paper.
When I visit Fareway’s meat counter, I can’t help but to gaze at the dizzying array of retro meat products, many of which I recognize from my school cafeterias. If you are seeking a taste of nostalgia sold by the pound, you’ll find chicken crispitos, pizza burger patties, and what my grade school referred to as “Mr. Ribs.” The butchers treat all of their meat with the same dignity. They carefully measure and wrap everything from Mr. Ribs to bone-in ribeyes in tidy little packages.
Once home, I was faced with this quandary: “What is the best way to cook thawed gyro loaf slices that have the texture of paste?” I’m not sure if there’s a great answer to this question. When I delicately placed the gyro slices in my Foreman grill, they sizzled and shrank at an alarming pace. I had to empty the drip tray twice and feared the worst. Fortunately, the gyro meat tasted like typical gyro meat. With homemade pita, fresh vegetables, and Wanderlust Kitchen’s Authentic Greek Tzatziki sauce, Jake’s birthday gyros were a success.
I may return to Fareway for a retro meat product tasting extravaganza.
The Every Bar In Mason City Crawl: Mason City Brewing
Our birthday weekend in Mason City wouldn’t have been complete without an Every Bar In Mason City Quest stop. We’re embarrassed to admit that this was our first visit to Mason City Brewing. We kept asking ourselves why we hadn’t visited earlier, as I’m sure many of you are.
The brewery’s space downtown is beautiful. Staff were hospitable and happy to answer questions. Thoughtful touches like live music, board games, decks of cards, a big bowl of pretzels, and a nifty hot/cold water dispenser with cups encourage customers to linger for a while.
We shared this beer sampler of the brewery’s current offerings.
The sampler tray numbered each sample which corresponded to a handwritten list a bartender kindly provided. Jake gravitates towards bitter beers while I prefer lighter ones. Both of our beer tastes intersected at the sweeter Barleywine and Brown Porter which had a coffee note. We look forward to returning to the brewery soon.
The bar quest will take a detour this week. I’ll join the North Iowa Bloggers at Carson Tree Farm in Hampton where we’ll learn how to make holiday wreaths. I’m the least crafty person I know, so I’ll consider the class a success if my wreath doesn’t end up looking like a big, green blob. I don’t often buy things I can’t eat, so I welcome these types of opportunities that challenge me try new experiences. Following the class, we’ll dine at West Fork Wharf in Sheffield, a reader-suggested restaurant. I’m driving so it’s a mocktail for me.
This Saturday, I’ll join six North Iowa Bloggers on a road trip. Deb of the Webster City Chamber of Commerce invited us to spend the day in Webster City where we’ll meet the mayor, visit local shops and restaurants, and tour the historic Jane Young House (among other activities).
As always, I enjoy hearing about your favorite restaurants and bars. What are your favorite holiday traditions? I’m curious; married folks, when did you first start your own holiday traditions?
I’m having a difficult time writing about Chicagoland.
The city is a monster. It’s so massive. Mindblowingly diverse and strikingly segregated. I wanted to eat everything. The buildings are tall and there’s nowhere to park. We hit a terrible, $4 tollbooth (that’s not a toll, that’s extortion!) and Jake got his first traffic ticket, yet we love it anyway.
One and a half years ago, we got married amidst a small group of family and friends with a reception the following April. We were transferred to Mason City so quickly the next summer that we couldn’t even think about planning a honeymoon. With the reality that life will never slow down, we took off part of a week from work and hit the road towards Chicago.
My cousin Brian, his wife Sara, and their five children invited us to stay with them in Calumet Heights. You may remember Brian wrote the guest post How to Make the Perfect Frozen Pizza. Growing-up, our family spent every holiday with Brian’s family. He and his brother always seemed much older than us, even though they are within about six years. It’s been a joy to get to know them and their wives as adults and relate more as friends.
The architecture is so different from what we’re used to. The homes are mostly built from brick and stone and adorned with sculpted shrubbery. From the outside, houses look small. Inside, they are deceptively spacious because they’re built long and in multiple stories. People seemed surprised that we were staying on the south side of Chicago, but Brian’s family likes their quiet neighborhood and we do too. I would totally live there.
One of my favorite moments occurred when Jake awoke to a new kind of alarm clock. The kind that’s two years old and sits in your face, diaper first. On Sunday morning, Matthias told us early risers he wanted to wake-up Uncle Jake. We instructed him not to, yet none of us tried very hard to stop him. Oops.
Here are some culinary highlights from the first two days we stayed with Brian and family.
Brian and his daughter Grace took us to Calumet Fisheries for our first meal. Grace likes to explore new places and try every kind of food. She reminds me of myself a gazillion years ago.
- We ordered the smoked salmon with black pepper & garlic, smoked trout, and smoked shrimp.
- The smoked salmon had the most beautifully creamy texture.
- Everyone’s favorite was the smoked shrimp. Lightly smoked so it didn’t overwhelm the natural shrimp flavor. Perfect snappy texture. Not cheap at $23/lb. but they are large and worth a taste.
- Housemade hot sauces. The mild was our favorite. It tasted a little bit like BBQ and the kids liked it too.
Brian took us to explore Mariano’s Fresh Market in Greektown. Here’s why this grocery store is so magical:
- Large organic produce section with affordable prices.
- Giant cheese section.
- $1 donuts. Brian encouraged us to try his favorite salted-cashew variety.
- Sushi bar, oyster bar, juice bar, wine bar, gelato bar with $1 scoops. The lemon was my favorite.
- Seafood section: Grace’s class took a field trip behind the seafood counter earlier this year. She excitedly asked us if we saw the whole fish with eyes and the little squid.
- I tweeted that Mariano’s should come to Mason City. They said they’d, “pass my interest along.” I hope they are serious.
After wandering through Mariano’s, we explored Greektown.
- Lunch at Mr. Greek Gyros: Gyros the size of fetuses, lots of tzatziki, and practically a whole onion’s worth of slices (which I like). The boys ordered combos which came with a large bag full of french fry planks. I’m glad I skipped the combo. One gyro was big enough to tide me over well into the evening.
- Brian also took us to Artopolis Bakery. We were too full to try their pastries, but Jake got a strong, Greek Coffee.
We met some of our old Fargo friends at Revolution Brewpub in Logan Square.
- Loud and busy. Service was friendly.
- This may be heresy, but I prefer light, cheap beer in bottles. Even though I was in a brewery, I chose the cocktail with absinthe because, well, absinthe. Jake enjoyed trying the tap beers.
- Calamari was fine and I appreciated that it was not greasy. However, the barley-feta salad was weirdly the most compelling thing on the plate.
- I was surprised when the side salad was only $3. It was generously sized and full of cherry tomatoes, carrot curls and cucumber. Not a limp lettuce leaf in sight. Perfectly dressed with house vinaigrette.
- Our favorite food was the Farm Burger topped with spinach, roasted beet, horseradish cream & a fried egg. The burger was cooked medium-rare as requested and juicy. We loved the combination of burger + beet. My friend who lived in Australia told us that burgers topped with egg and beets are more common there. I hope we see this combination more often.
Thanks Dahlen family for opening your home to us and showing us some of your favorite places!
Stay tuned for Part II. I’ll tell you about the unique bed and breakfast we stayed at in Lincoln Park and our first experience dining in a Ghanaian restaurant.