The weather is still wintry here in the North – stubborn snow piles linger, and more snow is falling as I type this. A few days have been warm enough to provide a hint of spring, but today is not one of them. Everyone is bundled back up in their puffy jackets and boots. A perfect time for a bowl of thick, creamy goodness.
This is a recipe I saved from our local newspaper. It was originally written by Bea Ojakangas, Duluth’s Scandinavian version of Julia Childs. I have modified it over the years to make it wheat- and corn-free, plus I’ve changed some of the spices more to my liking. If you want to make it with wheat, the original flour measurements are included. If you want corn, simply add a can of corn when you add the beans. Instead of cream, I prefer evaporated milk because cream is just too rich for me these days. This makes 4-6 servings.
White Chicken Chili (Wheat- and Corn-Free)
½ lb butter 1 T chopped garlic (or ½ tsp dried minced garlic) 2 lbs chopped chicken or 2-10 oz cans of chicken 2 cups white onion, cut in large chunks (one large onion) ¾ cp gluten free all-purpose flour (or ½ cup regular flour) 2 tsp cumin sprinkle of chili powder salt to taste (I use 1-1/2 tsp sea salt) pepper 4 cups chicken broth (I use Imagine organic vegetarian no-chicken broth) 1 pint cream (or 1 can evaporated milk) 2 cups cooked navy beans (1 can beans)
Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add garlic and cook until it starts to brown, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken and onion and stir together. Slowly add the flour to absorb the butter. Add the cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and broth. Simmer approximately a half-hour. Add evaporated milk (cream) and beans. Simmer another 15 mins.
Serve topped with sour cream, shredded white cheese and chopped parsley, if desired.
I saw an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune yesterday saying that Owamni Restaurant was designated as the newspaper’s top restaurant for 2021. It reminded me I still needed to follow up on my promise to write about Russ’s and my experience at this Native American eatery during our weekend Romancing the Minneapple.
I’ve wanted to eat at one of Chef Sean Sherman’s places (he has a food truck, as well) ever since I saw him speak at a launch for his cookbook in Duluth. Sherman focuses on precolonization food (food that Natives used to eat before all us Europeans immigrated and mucked up their lifeways). This includes ingredients that Natives grew themselves or foraged, like squash, wild rice, venison, chestnuts, fish, berries, and cedar boughs.
He’s trying to reconnect Natives to their pre-European culture, so much of which has been lost. I suppose it’s also a way to show us nonnatives what life used to be like in America historically, plus the food is super healthy – no wheat flour, dairy, or refined sugar.
Several recipes from his cookbook have found their way into my permanent recipe file, notably the squash apple soup with cranberry sauce and cedar-maple tea.
Russ and I were late in planning our trip to Minneapolis and only began making reservations for it a couple of weeks beforehand. Owamni has been featured in the New York Times, Lost Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, among others, so, as you can guess, reservations are booked months in advance. But, they have first-come, first served bar seating, so we decided to take a chance on that. If it didn’t work out, we had a Plan B restaurant in mind.
We took a snowy ¾ of a mile walk under a full moon over and along the Mississippi River from the Nicollet Island Inn to get to Owmani, which is housed in an historic water works building. We figured if we got there early in the evening (5:30 pm), the wait might not be as long. I think this was a good strategy. We only had to wait about 45 minutes for seats at the bar.
One of the first things you’ll notice is that the menu isn’t typical. There are not separate listings for appetizers, plus the entrees are sharable. When I expressed confusion to our friendly bartender, he explained that the concept is like a Tapas Bar, where you end up ordering lots of small plates and sharing. That way, you can sample a variety of selections.
To begin, we ordered (and shared) the cedar maple baked beans, the wild game salad, and the bison pot roast. They also have a good selection of wines and nonalcoholic drinks available. Everything was wonderful. The beans, because they are flavored with maple syrup instead of brown sugar, aren’t as sweet as usual, but that allows the natural bean flavor to come through, with cedar lurking in the background. The wild game salad featured dried duck and turkey, which could be a bit chewy, on a bed of kale garnished with a duck egg. Russ is normally not a big fan of kale, but he said it was delish and ate it all!
The bison pot roast was the piece de resistance – a slow-cooked and tender hunk of bison surrounded by natural gravy, hazelnut-crusted carrots, a mustard green sauce and a horseradishy sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) puree, topped with an edible purple violet. The meat melted in our mouths. It’s the first time I’ve had bison and it was truly memorable.
For dessert, I had a chocolate chia cake with sorbet and a caramel honey sauce, and Russ had a berry-walnut milk parfait. Both were excellent.
The neat thing about sitting at the bar is you can watch the workers and see the other dishes and drinks they are preparing. I noticed a cranberry nonalcoholic drink that I’d like to try if I eat there again. Diners with reservations got tables near windows that overlooked part of the river (Owamni Yomni) considered a site of peace and wellbeing for the Dakota and Anishinaabe people.
Most of the workers looked to be of Native American descent. Most of the diners looked like well-to-do white people. That felt rather weird to me. Is this just another way for white people to appropriate Native American culture? Have we turned these Natives into slaves serving us food we want to eat just because it’s the latest trend?
Although I was a bit uncomfortable with those feelings, it seemed like it was high time that Native American foods were celebrated. After all, we have Mexican restaurants, Chinese, etc. However, these cultures haven’t been oppressed like the Natives have. Part of me feels like this restaurant should only be for Native Americans at first. I felt like I was taking the chair of someone who might need this food more than I did in order to feel whole.
I am still struggling with these feelings and I’m not sure what to make of them. But I probably wouldn’t let them stop me from eating there again.
Alas, the restaurant is closed for a mid-winter break right now. But it plans to reopen on January 19 (2022) for a winter dinner series. Proof of vaccination will be required to enter.
I’ve been busy at work lately, giving birth to a new podcast. If you want the latest “dish” about Great Lakes fish, you’ll want to listen to “The Fish Dish.” I host it with longtime coworker and friend Sharon Moen, Sea Grant’s Eat Wisconsin Fish Outreach Specialist. Besides introducing you to the people behind Wisconsin’s fishing and aquaculture industries, each episode includes a “Fish-o-licious” section where we cook a new fish recipe.
The first episode features Craig Hoopman, a sixth-generation commercial fisherman from Bayfield, Wisconsin. Hoopman shares his beginnings in the business, current challenges, plus his dreams for the future. Also, Sharon and I share our backgrounds in fishing and introduce listeners to the Eat Wisconsin Fish campaign. During the “Fish-o-licious” part of the show, we cook Greek-Style Lake Whitefish at Hoopman’s recommendation.
Tying it all together is ska music by Twin Ports band, Woodblind. Take a listen — let me know what you think!
The New York Times recently published an article about eating invasive species as a means of control. It reminded me of a demonstration project we undertook when I worked at Minnesota Sea Grant in 1996. We received money from The Great Lakes Protection Fund for two years to study the overseas market potential for Great Lakes sea lamprey.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the story: lamprey, with their penchant for sucking blood, are a parasitic exotic species that entered the Great Lakes and almost wiped out the Great Lakes fishery by the 1940s. This led to a control program coordinated by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission that is ongoing even today. Every year, the commission’s various lamprey control programs cost millions of dollars. Sea lamprey are clearly still an enduring threat.
In the mid-1990s, the commission’s lamprey control program routinely landfilled thousands of female lamprey they trapped. At that same time, lamprey populations in their native countries like Portugal and Spain were becoming decimated due to overfishing and habitat loss. This was an issue because lamprey were/are considered a culinary delicacy in Portugal and Spain. Like the lobster aquariums found in American restaurants, Portuguese restaurants offered tanks of sea lamprey where people could pick their dinners. Exclusive and expensive clubs even formed around lamprey consumption.
Jeff Gunderson, the fisheries and aquaculture specialist with Minnesota Sea Grant at the time, took an idea from a University of Minnesota food professor and the extension leader at Minnesota Sea Grant and turned it into a project to find a use for the excess, unwanted Great Lakes lamprey by seeing if chefs in Portugal and Spain would find them as palatable as their native lamprey. He set up a team that included a professor in Portugal who would conduct market testing, University of Minnesota experts, a NOAA international marketing expert, and a fisheries biologist.
My job was to garner visibility for the project and its results. When Jeff first described the project to me, one of my first questions was whether the lamprey had been tested for mercury. “I don’t want to promote something that’s going to contaminate people,” I recall saying. He assured me the lamprey had been tested and were within U.S. standards. But what I didn’t know at the time was that only a small sample of lamprey were tested. (More to come on this later.)
To figure out my publicity strategy, I consulted a couple of my news reporter friends. I think it was Mike Simonson, the well-known and now dearly departed Superior bureau chief for Wisconsin Public Radio who said, “You gotta have a taste test!”
That sounded like a capital idea, so my first step was to find a local chef willing to cooperate. I approached my favorite restaurant, Bennett’s Bar and Grill, run by Bob Bennett. This “forefather of contemporary cuisine in Duluth” was game.
The Portuguese professor had given me several traditional sea lamprey recipes, at least one of which involved using lamprey blood. Ewww. Anyway, I showed these to Chef Bennett, and we came up with a taste-test plan. He would prepare two traditional recipes and create two of his own. Gunderson talked the original Lou of Lou’s Fish House in Two Harbors into smoking some lamprey for the taste test, as well.
Next, we had to find some brave lamprey consumers. Somehow, I managed to convince the Duluth mayor (Gary Doty) to participate along with the University of Minnesota Duluth chancellor (Kathleen Martin). Several members of our Sea Grant Advisory Committee also agreed as did a freelance graphic designer who worked for us, a congressional office manager and the Minnesota Sea Grant director (Michael McDonald),
We held the lamprey taste test at Bennett’s restaurant, which was on Superior Street in downtown Duluth. Eight intrepid tasters were seated at a long table facing into the room so that reporters could easily see them and ask about their reactions to the food. We gave them a rating form. We also provided an aquarium with several lamprey in it, just to add to the room’s ambiance, and the smoked lamprey and some crackers for snacks.
Simonson was right about the lure of the taste test. We were mobbed by local reporters, both print and broadcast. Reporters from the Twin Cities even made the trip up north for it. The resulting stories went everywhere, even internationally. The Associated Press picked up the print story, and Gunderson said he talked to someone who saw it on a television station in Seattle. The story eventually made it into Newsweek and The New York Times.
Back in my office after the test, I received a phone call from the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant in Boston who saw the news stories and wanted to know how to obtain lamprey. She told me lamprey was a traditional Sunday dinner in Portugal, just like American pot roast. Her father was so excited when he saw the news, he implored her to find out more. I had to give her the disappointing information that lamprey were a regulated invasive species without a commercial source yet.
The highest rated dish was Bennett’s own lamprey stew with garlic mashed potatoes, rated 4.5 out of a possible 5. The smoked lamprey came in second, earning 3.7 out of 5. The taste of the lamprey came out more strongly in the traditional dishes, which did not suit these American taste-testers.
I ate both the lamprey stew and the smoked lamprey. I enjoyed the stew, although the chef forgot to take out the lamprey’s cartilaginous backbone (called a notochord), which made it a bit crunchy for my taste. I bet if he had removed the backbone, the dish’s ratings would have been higher. The smoked lamprey tasted rather like any kind of smoked fish – very good!
The taster’s comments included: “Surprisingly good. Try selling it without telling people what they are eating. It would be better.” And, “I would not order this out, but Bennett’s dishes were by far the best.”
More extensive taste tests were run in Porto, Portugal. Eight restaurants with lamprey-cooking experience, two homemakers and 16 individual taste testers participated in two studies. The restaurant chefs were asked to rate how the lamprey looked while alive, how they cooked compared to Portuguese lamprey, how they smelled/tasted/looked after cooking, how the lamprey tasted to them, and how their clients or family members liked them.
Overall, the Portuguese taste testers enjoyed the strong flavor and firm texture of the lamprey, noting the lamprey had a pleasant “turf” taste and was less soft and fatty than Portuguese lamprey. (A turf taste refers to an earthy flavor, somewhat like mushrooms or liver.) They rated the flavor 4.5 out of 5 – a definite win.
During the second year of the project, more lamprey were shipped to Spain for taste tests. The results weren’t as glowing, perhaps because only frozen and canned Great Lakes lamprey were shipped instead of live wriggly ones. The Spanish testers liked the texture and that some contained eggs. Yes, lamprey are a delicacy in Spain, but lamprey caviar takes it to a whole other level.
The death knell for this innovative program came from subsequent contaminant tests on the lamprey. The Great Lakes lamprey contained mercury levels that were too high to meet European Union standards. They tested at 1.3 ppm for mercury. The EU standard at that time was 0.3 ppm. This information came too late for our taste testers, but hopefully, one meal of lamprey was not detrimental. I certainly didn’t feel any ill effects.
Gunderson summed it up like this: “At least we have an answer to the question that has been debated for nearly 40 years. Yes, Great Lakes lamprey are marketable in Europe. Because of current control programs and experimental programs, a commercial harvest of lamprey would not have been a priority even if mercury levels were acceptable. But given time, a commercial harvest could fit into lamprey control and management. Lamprey are here forever and who knows if the funding for lamprey control will last that long. If funding ever does wane, let’s hope it’s not before mercury levels decline to acceptable levels so that lamprey harvest can be evaluated as part of a low-cost management program.”
That was almost 25 years ago. A Lamprey and Rice Festival is apparently held in Portugal each year, so it still must be popular, but I fear that the people who used to love eating them for Sunday dinner are aging out of this world.
Unfortunately, mercury levels in Great Lakes lamprey are still high. According to a 2018 study by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and the University of Wisconsin, levels in adult lamprey were still beyond that deemed safe for human consumption.
In any event, this project was one of the highlights of my career. It seemed like a win-win idea: The U.S. could rid itself of an expensive invasive species, and European diners could eat a traditional and much longed-for dish. Yes, I promoted something that could have contaminated people. But I did a darn good job of it.
I first had this confection at the baby shower for my second son. My office coworkers organized the event and one of the highlights was this tasting this fruit pizza for the first time. Our venerable administrative assistant, Judy Zomerfelt, baked it and kindly gave me the recipe (and permission to feature it here).
Since then, I’ve become sensitive to wheat and corn, so I have modified the recipe. Most recently, I made it for the 4th of July – if you top the whipped cream with blueberries and strawberries, it makes a patriotic red, white, and blue dessert. Enjoy!
Fruit Pizza (wheat- and corn-free) Inspired by Judy Zomerfelt
1 cup powdered sugar (Be sure it doesn’t contain cornstarch. I use one that substitutes tapioca starch.)
1 cup cane sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup canola oil
1 tsp wheat-free vanilla extract (I make my own with potato vodka)
4 cups flour (I use a mix of white rice flour and Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose flour, 2 cups each)
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar
(For people without food allergies, simply use 1 package of sugar cookie dough instead, and cook accordingly.)
Cream the sugars and butter together. Stir in the oil, eggs, and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Pat the dough out on a nonstick cookie sheet or a greased rectangular baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Let cool.
1 8-oz package of organic cream cheese
1 cup cane sugar
Fresh fruit (I use strawberries and blueberries)
1 pint organic whipped cream
Mix the cream cheese and sugar. Spread on the cooked cookie dough. Cover with whipped cream. Top with fruit.
If you can’t find fresh fruit, you can use a can of fruit cocktail, drained well.
If you know Marie of “Marie’s Meanderings,” you know a few things. She loves her family, which includes biological kin and people like Russ, Buddy the Wonderdog, and me. She enjoys food and foraging, is committed her job at Sea Grant, and devours books. Knowing these things about Marie prompted me to ask her if I could share some words with you about food and COVID-19.
If you are reading this, then she said, “Yes.”
“No, no, a thousand times no!” That’s what I imagine Marie said when a far-right-wing talk show host spluttered his willingness to eat his neighbors in the aftermath of the pandemic, given the high meat prices and shortages. She is against cannibalism and stuff like that.
Someone like Marie would invite you over FOR dinner, not AS dinner. If you accepted the invitation and whatever COVID-19-inspired guidance was in vogue, Marie might deftly turn a local invasive species into haute cuisine.
Here in Minnesota, invasive species foragers could rustle up a rusty crayfish potpie in a cattail-root crust accented with dandelion salad. If in Florida, they might prepare a double lion: lionfish with dandelion greens.
Posh, eh? I bet someone like Marie would even ferment some dandelion wine to complement the meal, if only there were time. I know for a fact that she recently cooked fern fiddleheads from her local forest.
A speared lionfish in Belize. Be careful not to touch the poisonous spines! Image by Mike Sierszen.
I’ve joined Marie for meals and meanderings from Scotland to St. Martin. Believe me, the experiences were memorable! I’ve also had the privilege of tagging along with people trapping rusty crayfish in Minnesota and spearing lionfish in Belize to be used as food.
During these adventures, I learned a few valuable lessons about attracting and handling these pesky invaders:
Pro tip #1: Bait your invasive crayfish traps with fish heads and leave the traps in the water overnight. You’ll likely have a pile of bones and a mess of crayfish by morning.
Pro tip #2: Tie scissors to your spear when hunting lionfish. Use the scissors to cut off the poisonous spines before touching the fish.
One night’s rusty crayfish catch on the St. Louis River several years ago, reflects the scale of infestation: 57 traps, 2,140 crayfish. Image by Sharon Moen, Minnesota Sea Grant.
I also learned that as invasive species harvests make their way to tables, people along the way often gain a better perspective about why these species are so economically and ecologically harmful. Aquatic invasive species like rusty crayfish and lionfish tend to outcompete native species and disrupt food webs through their sheer numbers and voracious appetites. Crayfish claws and lionfish spines also make playing in water more hazardous. Their presence can reduce property values, and hurt recreation and tourism industries.
Through her job at Sea Grant, Marie and her colleagues conduct public education initiatives helping to control the spread of aquatic invasive species. During her storied career, Marie even organized an invasive sea lamprey taste test.
While you wait for her to tell you that story, consider reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma in which Michael Pollan challenges readers to understand where food comes from, what’s in it, and the processes involved in bringing it to human lips. The challenges of feeding yourself and those you love have always been real but they are manifesting differently through the COVID-19 pandemic. Be a thoughtful omnivore. Weigh the choices about what could be eaten and what is et.
If you’ve ever eaten Mexican chocolate, you know one big thing that makes it different: cinnamon. Here’s my twist to the traditional French Silk Pie recipe, in case you are searching for new cooking adventures during this global pandemic.
Some of my friends joke that they are gaining the COVID-19 pounds from staying at home (and near food) so much. This pie is very helpful if that is your goal, ha ha!
Mexican (French) Silk Pie
9-inch baked pie shell or graham cracker crust
¾ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
Cook pie shell, if needed. Melt and cool chocolate. Blend butter and sugar in mixer bowl. Add vanilla and cinnamon. Add eggs, one at a time, beating two minutes after each addition. Blend in chocolate. Spread in pie shell. Chill at least one hour. Garnish with whipped cream and nutmeg, if desired. Keep refrigerated. Makes 8 servings.
We meandered down to Orlando, Florida, last week for a work conference. We stayed at a huge hotel with almost 3,000 people just for our conference, plus thousands of others who were attending other conferences held there.
The hotel housed half a dozen restaurants, but they were incredibly noisy. After a couple of days of hoarse voices from talking over other people, we decided to venture off-site for dinner. After a quick Google search for nearby places, we decided on Casa del Marisco, a seafood restaurant that features Peruvian and Ecuadorian seafood.
The worry began when we arrived. The restaurant seemed to be in the basement of a repurposed hotel. By repurposed, I mean there were tattoo parlors, fast biz cash loan offerings, and other questionable business ventures.
Our sense of dread did not abate when we opened the restaurant doors and found ourselves the only customers. The restaurant was white and clean, yes, but with its mirrored walls and tiled floors, the ambiance harkened back to the 1980s.
We were quickly greeted and seated, however. After perusing the menu, I looked up and could see through a window into the kitchen. The cooks looked like they could be Mexican or Edcuadorian. I suspected that this dining experience could be either very good or very bad.
Our waiter was friendly, and it was obvious that English was a second language to him.
I chose the arroz marinero, a paella rice and seafood mixture served with fried plantains. It arrived as pictured above, with healthy doses of mussels, shrimp, squid and scallops. As my dining companions enjoyed their dinners, it didn’t take long for my taste buds to realize that this was going to be a great dining experience!
The rice was zesty, but not too spicy for my Minnesota palette, the seafood was not overcooked, and the plantains were tender and sweet.
Only one other person entered the restaurant during our dinner, and that was to wait for a to-go order. But the kitchen staff was busy, presumably making other to-go orders. An “uber pick-up” sign made us think the place must do a good take-out business.
When the check arrived, the numbers were in Spanish, with a comma where the decimal point should be. It all seemed thrillingly ethnic to us northerners.
So I am here to say, don’t let the appearance of this place put you off. The food is worth the retro ambiance. In fact, some people might even like the ambiance, since the 1980s are hip once again.
This is a drink I spontaneously created while on vacation on the island of St. Martin with ingredients we had on hand. It’s a perfect summer cocktail when you can’t decide whether you’d like a margarita or wine.
I named the drink for the island and for the name the zipline instruction guys called me when I was getting ready to throw myself off the zipline platform. Yes, I am a fifty-year-old “princess!” It became my trip nickname. This is a perfect summer drink.
White zinfandel wine
Key lime juice (not just any old lime juice, it must be Key lime!)
Simple syrup (a 1:1 cooled mixture of water and sugar that has been heated so the sugar dissolves)
Pour the wine in a glass until it’s ½ to 2/3 full. Add lime juice (1+ tablespoon, to taste). Add enough simple syrup to sweeten. Add a couple of ice cubes. Enjoy!
Yesterday, Russ and I paid good money to eat food we couldn’t see. The dinner was a fundraiser for the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss, a local group that helps people with vision problems. (You may recall that I volunteer for this group by reading the Sunday newspaper aloud over the airwaves once a month.)
The event was hosted by a local TV news personality and the keynote speaker was a man who lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa. From him, I learned that blind people make jokes just like the rest of us (imagine that!) and that 66% of visually impaired adults are unemployed.
Another speaker before the dinner was a woman who lost her vision to diabetes. Her best joke was that this was one night when she didn’t have to worry about how awful she eats. (Because everyone else will be blindfolded. Get it? Maybe you had to be there.)
Then two speakers instructed us on how to go about eating when blindfolded. The main tips were: to sit close to the table; put a napkin in your lap or tuck it into your shirt; feel slowly with your hands where your silverware and drinks are first; think of your plate as a clock face and have someone tell you where your food is in relationship to that; use the edge of your fork to circle your meat and determine what size it is; and keep the sharp side of your knife down when cutting meat.
Before the food was brought out, we were instructed to don black blindfolds that were provided near our place settings. Once our plates arrived, I cheated and took mine off so I could tell Russ where his food was on his plate.
I found that cutting meat was the hardest part. I attempted several cuts, but couldn’t tell if my knife was sharp-side-down or not. I ended up just stabbing a large piece of pork and tearing off pieces with my teeth — not exactly fancy dinner behavior, but hey, it worked. I appreciated the advice about reaching slowly for water glasses and silverware. I am proud to report no spillage or droppage.
Once I mostly emptied my plate, finding the remaining food became more difficult. I can’t imagine having to eat that way all the time. The experience gave me a greater appreciation for the challenges that visually impaired people face and the important work that organizations like the Lighthouse Center do.