Monday, September 27, 2010

Jean takes a cooking class!

I recently entered "The Masters Division" (runners will know what that means). As a present for entering "The Masters Division," my Mom got me a gift - she enrolled me in a cooking class!

The class was offered through the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, a school that is focused on "celebrating traditional northern crafts." They offer all kinds of classes - woodworking, outdoor skills, ecology, various art forms, timber framing, knitting, and even a blacksmith class, to name a few. And of course, there are some food classes as well.

I attended a half day course called "Cooking with the Seasons." It was held inside the kitchen of Chez Jude, a well respected fine dining restaurant in Grand Marais. The chef and owner of Chez Jude, Chef Judi Barsness, was our instructor.

The theme of this course was wild rice, a rice-like grain famous in Minnesota, hand harvested by a local source. Wild rice would appear in each of our dishes - wild rice chowder with wild rice and thyme scones, roast duck with wild rice and butternut squash "orzotto" (a risotto made with orzo pasta and wild rice) and cranberry port chutney, and wild rice waffles with caramelized apples and sage ice cream.

We were divided up into teams. I ended up on the wild rice chowder team, and we also ended up making the cranberry port chutney. There were only eight students in the class, so there was a lot of personal attention and it was easy to ask questions. It was a good group, too. Lots of friendly folks with a common interest, so it was enjoyable cooking with like-minded people.

The chowder we made was a lighter version, made with the classic mirepoix, leeks, bacon, shiitake mushrooms, and lots of chicken stock with a little white wine and just a touch of half and half for some creaminess. It was fun to prepare the chowder with my team. Chef Judi made sure we tasted at various stages for proper seasoning (when we tasted early on, we declared it needed a little more of "everything!", and we increased the amount of herbs, salt, and pepper accordingly until it was to our liking).

We also were tasked with making a cranberry port chutney, which consisted of frozen cranberries, dried cranberries, port wine, orange juice, and local maple syrup. "Chutney" was more of a play on words, as this was really an elegant and sweet cranberry sauce. I told Chef Judi that I would put this on ice cream, to which she replied, "Now you're talking!" :)

While we worked on teams, Chef Judi always made sure we all got to see, and even feel, various important stages of the other dishes being prepared so we did not miss out on anything. So, we got to see how wet and loose the dough for the scones was, how the duck breasts are scored before roasting, how the "orzotto" comes together, etc. The Chef was a great instructor.

Each team was tasked with serving their dishes. Our wild rice chowder was served with wild rice scones. As noted earlier, the chowder was a lighter version that was more stock-based, different from the heavier, creamier wild rice soups that are popular here. It was delicate, nutty, sweet, and light. Delicious. But the wild rice scones absolutely rocked. I have never had a scone so light and fluffy with such a fine crumb. Awesome. (Sorry, I didn't get a photo of our dish - I have trouble photographing soup!)

The main course was the roast duck with wild rice and butternut squash "orzotto" and our cranberry port chutney. The duck was outstanding, roasted in the restaurant's wood burning oven, cooked to a perfect medium rare. And while not being a fan of squash, I found the "orzotto" very flavorful. I loved the contrasting texture of the soft orzo pasta and the somewhat puffy wild rice. The cranberry chutney added a nice sweetness to round out the dish.

The roast duck and wild rice "orzotto" we prepared for class, along with the chutney my team made

Dessert was really interesting - wild rice waffles with caramelized apples and sage ice cream. The waffles contained wild rice and were seasoned with "fall spices" (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove), so they had a lot of flavor on their own. They apples added a syrupy sweetness. Sage ice cream falls into that "sounds weird, but is really good" category - Chef Judi explained to us that sage is from the mint family, so it makes sense that it can be used in ice cream. And she was right. It was incredible. You definitely have a dusty sage flavor, but there is also a lot of sweetness, and it did indeed taste sort of minty!

Wild rice waffles for dessert!

I had the best time. What I learned, and a couple of mistakes that were made:

1. I need better knives! The chefs knife I used to dice bacon, finely slice leeks, and plow through a couple cups worth of fresh shiitake mushrooms, cut like a laser. Must get new knives!

2. It was really interesting to cook in a professional kitchen and to see the environment the chef and her staff get to cook in. It was small, and on a busy day they crank out 100 covers for dinner. Incredible that they can put together all those amazing dinners on a six burner stove.

3. The scone recipe was nice to see demonstrated because the dough looks almost too wet and loose. It became clear to me that this would be easy to overwork, so the key to the scones appears to be that you mix until it barely comes together, and then just walk away! Related to this, I learned that flour ages and may require more or less liquid depending upon how old the flour is, and that is why feeling the texture of the dough becomes so important.

4. Mistake #1 - The "orzotto" recipe - this was stirred too much and broke up the chunks of butternut squash too much. The flavor was still good, but the chef wanted to be able to see the chunks and retain that texture. So, a gentler hand was needed when stirring.

5. Mistake #2 - Caramelized apples need to be made in something other than a non-stick skillet! We essentially made a flavorful apple sauce, and it didn't quite achieve the correct brown color and sticky texture. Tasty indeed, but not quite what we were after.

In the end, it was a most enjoyable experience. I had a blast. Chef Judi did a really nice job working with all of us in her kitchen, my classmates were fun, and I learned a few tips along with some nice recipes I got to take home (well, except for the sage ice cream, which is a restaurant secret!). What a great day! I definitely want to do this again.

Thanks for my "Masters Division" gift, Mom! :)

Monday, September 20, 2010

This weekend in the kitchen

With the weather turning cooler, it has been enjoyable to crank out a few comfort foods in my kitchen.

Saturday I brewed up some tasty chicken noodle soup. Nothing terribly fancy, and very much a classic recipe based on these principles. The only difference was the addition of a few dragon carrots from last week's farmers market purchase (in addition to regular carrots). You can easily spot the dragon carrots in the photo below; they retain some of their purple color, and they also made the chicken stock somewhat darker! Very flavorful soup, and not a drop of chicken base or bouillon was added.

By the way, soup is difficult to photograph! Too much reflection... :)

Sunday, I really needed to use some of my purple fingerling potatoes, so I made my Minnesota Viking-style potato gratin Dauphinoise. This, too, it very much a classic preparation - layers of thin sliced potatoes, garlic, nutmeg, salt, pepper, half & half, and Gruyere cheese - that's the entire ingredients list. The only thing not traditional, obviously, is the layers of purple potatoes alternating with layers of Yukon golds to give us the Vikings team colors!

There is kind of a cool effect when sliced, as the purple potatoes retain some of their color to give us the distinct layering. And the gratin is unbelievably good with the creamy layers of potatoes with a hint of garlic, and a dark, flavorful crust of Gruyere cheese on top. What is not to like? Could be my favorite potato dish. It is even good the next day, served warm or even cold (I confess I have been known to unceremoniously break off a cold hunk of the gratin and eat it standing in front of the fridge!). And while the Swedish potato sausage and fresh Brussels sprouts in the photo below were delicious, the star of this meal was the gratin. It was easily better than Minnesota's performance against Miami, that is for sure...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A crisp, fall-like day

Today I ran 13 miles on what was a crisp 46 degree morning. Fall is most certainly upon us!

It was quite nice out there. Still warm enough to get away with shorts and a long sleeved top, although I met some people in running jackets, full pants, even stocking caps! And, my run was good. It is much easier to keep a decent pace on cool mornings like this. This is some of my favorite weather to run in.

Saw some fun birds and animals today - The gray catbirds and the common yellowthroats are still here, but they will be leaving soon. Numerous white-throated sparrows were singing in woods along the creek bottoms. They don't nest in my area, so they just arrived from up north and are passing through. I saw a few migrating warblers as well; yellow-rumped ("Myrtle"), palm, and Nashville. Gray squirrels are starting to develop their fuzzy winter coats. And, I scared six deer on the trail. I think I was more surprised to see them than they were to see me! Lots of action on the trails.

Below are some photos from today, including my run this morning, and a hike later in the afternoon. It was a lovely day (never got above 60 degrees here), and it is really starting to look like fall. The colors are becoming more brilliant by the day It is predominantly the maples and sumac showing the most color right now:

From this morning's run - Dawn breaking over my local lake

New England asters blooming along my trail. These are some of our last flowers of summer to bloom, so fall is almost here!

A rather brilliant maple tree in my neighborhood

A colorful setting along my local trail

Love this time of year!

Football season = Chili season

Football season is here, which can mean only one thing - time to make some chili.

I have been making chili for decades now. Of course, I have always liked chili, but I didn't really start brewing my own until college. It was cheap to make, and you could get multiple meals out of it, so chili became something of a staple when I had to fend for myself on the weekends during my senior year.

A place I worked at in the mid 1990's had a chili cookoff every winter - a sort of fun excuse to have a potluck in the office. I never won (heck, I don't think I ever even placed), but it was always a good time. No two chili recipes were the same, and the differences were always staggering. I was always inspired tasting other people's creations.

It has become something of a tradition for me to make chili on the first weekend of NFL football season, so that is what got cooked up last Sunday. My recipe has changed over time as a result of years of tweaking. It is never really quite the same each time I make it, but this is pretty much the general framework.

By the way, I realize that the debate of "chili with beans vs. chili with no beans" has been known to incite many arguments and occasional fist fights. I am firmly entrenched in the "Beans = hell yeah!" camp. I like 'em, it is a free country, and I am making no claims of authenticity, so they are included in my chili. But feel free to do as you wish.

Oh yes, and beer is featured prominently in the recipe. This is a common ingredient that you will see in many chili recipes, and it adds a nice tangy flavor to the finished product. Just be sure to use some sort of amber beer or brown ale, not a stout or porter or anything like that. For the recipe below, I used a Summit Oktoberfest.

Here is how I do it:

Jean's Beer Chili

-2 lbs. ground beef*
-1 medium yellow onion, diced
-6 cloves garlic, minced
-Salt and pepper
-3 T. tomato paste
-1 4 oz. can of roasted green chilies
-3 T. chili powder
-1 T. ground cumin
-1 t. ground coriander
-1/2 t. dried Mexican oregano
-1/2 t. dried thyme
-1/2 t. crushed red pepper
-1/2 t. cayenne pepper
-1/4 t. ground sage
-28 oz. can tomatoes, broken up
-1 c. beef stock
-12 oz. of beer (something amber or brown)
-1 14 oz. cans kidney beans, drained
-1 14 oz can black beans, drained
-1-2 T. brown sugar (optional)
-Sour cream, chopped onions, cheese, and your favorite hot sauce for serving

*Feel free to mix and match here, using 2 pounds of meat as your guide. Sometimes I used a combination of beef and homemade chorizo sausage. I have also done this with venison. You could even use cubes of beef chuck if you wanted a more chunky-style chili. Ground turkey would work, too. The choice is yours!

In a large Dutch oven or deep kettle, brown the beef with the onions and garlic over medium-high heat. Season with salt and pepper. Drain any excess fat.

Add the tomato paste, green chilies, and all of the spices and seasonings to the meat. Stir well until everything is nicely coated.

Add the tomatoes, beef stock, and beer. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and allow to cook (covered) for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, skimming off any accumulating fat.

About a half an hour to an hour before serving, add the kidney beans, black beans, and the optional brown sugar (if you feel a little sweetness is needed).

Serve with some sour cream, chopped onions, cheese, and your favorite hot sauce if desired, and prepare yourself to curse and swear at the Minnesota Vikings! :)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Late season farmers market finds

It is the middle of September. The sweet corn is starting to lose its luster, so I haven't purchased any over the last couple of weeks. However, I am still finding some great stuff at my local farmers market:

Farmers market bounty

I found some gorgeous dragon carrots. They have a beautiful purple exterior, but when you cut into them they are orange. A great sweet flavor with some spiciness to them. I have a hard time passing up Brussels sprouts, and these were some of the cutest I have seen. And, I got some green zebra tomatoes. Don't let the green fool you - they are incredibly sweet, and not at all tart.

In fact, the tomatoes made their way onto my pizza tonight.

Ready to bake

I had a ball of dough left over from my pumpkin pizza with pumpkin ale. It was topped similarly with bacon, oven-roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, Gorgonzola and mozzarella, but I also included basil and a few slices of the green zebra tomatoes.

Pizza, pizza!

So good! The green zebra tomatoes were a nice touch. The high heat of the oven really intensified their sweetness and made for a great, and pretty, topping. A very tasty pizza.

I am happy to still be finding things like this at my farmers market as the leaves are starting to turn.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nearly fall

From yesterday's run. It is getting kind of yellow around here...

It is looking more and more like fall each day!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pumpkin Pizza Dough with Pumpkin Ale

I hate pumpkins.

There. I said it. I've never been a fan of pumpkins as a food. Generally, anything that comes in gourd form has been my nemesis over the years (especially squash). Sure, they are pretty to look at, but something about the earthy flavor has always been off-putting to me. And I have never understood its use in dessert. Vegetables do not belong in dessert. At Thanksgiving, I am the reason Mom also has to make an apple pie.

However, I also like to believe I am open minded. Since have managed to overcome aversions to things like potato salad, I decided to try something interesting with pumpkin to see if I can change my mind.

I stumbled upon this recipe for a pumpkin pizza crust that incorporated pumpkin directly into the dough. Hmmmm. It sounded intriguing, kind of seasonal, and fall-like. And I certainly love pizza. Let's give it a try!

But why not take it to the next level? In the past, I have made pizza dough using beer as the primary liquid ingredient. And, because fall is nearly upon us, "pumpkin ales" are starting to show up on store shelves (these are beers brewed with real pumpkin that have become something of a trendy autumnal release for many breweries). Therefore, why not make a pizza dough with pumpkin and pumpkin ale? Game on!

To get started, I needed one of these:

And, I would also need some of this:

The rest of the ingredients include your typical pizza making materials - flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and olive oil.

The first thing was dealing with the pumpkin. I bought a small pumpkin and roasted it using these instructions. Once I scooped out the pumpkin and allowed it to cool, I ran it through my potato ricer on the smallest die. This served two purposes; it squeezed out the excess liquid (and there was a fair amount), and it pretty much pureed the pumpkin into a pulp. From there, it was ready to use in the recipe.

As for the beer, there are a number of pumpkin ales on the market, so it is pretty easy to find some this time of year. I used a beer from New Holland Brewing Co. out of Michigan - their "Ichabod" pumpkin ale. In addition to the pumpkin, it also includes some other "fall spices" like cinnamon and nutmeg. Very tasty on its own, I might add. A great fall sipper!

Rather than use the recipe provided, I thought I would try to base it on my standard pizza dough recipe (which is really based on Alton Brown's with a few minor tweaks) and simply work some pumpkin into it. While kneading the dough in the stand mixer, I found that I did have to sprinkle in some additional flour, as the dough was slightly wet and sticky. I think this is something you just have to adjust to, since the amount of flour needed might be dependent on how wet or dry your pumpkin pulp is. I kept adding very small amounts of flour until it looked and felt right.

In the end, it came together nicely. And the dough had a great rise, easily doubling in size. The picture below doesn't really do it justice, but there are tiny little flecks of orange pumpkin bits all over, so the pumpkin pulp got evenly distributed. And it had a pleasing ale aroma from the beer. The dough was quite light and supple as well:

After the dough rested overnight in the fridge, tonight I cooked one up. What to top it with? Well, I liked the idea from the pumpkin pizza crust recipe of using caramelized onions. And what goes better with caramelized onions than Gorgonzola cheese and bacon? I also added my basic pizza sauce, a little mozzarella, and some oven-roasted tomatoes I made yesterday as well. A sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds was the final touch (I figured it was more than appropriate, given the theme of the dough - think of them as pine nuts!). Here is the pizza ready to bake:

After a 7 minute bake on a pizza stone in a 500 F oven, how did it taste? Excellent. Actually, this was one of the better pizzas I have made in some time. The crust wasn't overly "pumpkiny," but you could tell it was present. You could really taste the beer, which added a definite tangy, yeasty flavor. Not sure using pumpkin ale made a big difference or not. You could probably use a regular ale with similar results, but the menu poetry just wouldn't be the same. :) And the crust itself had great texture. Nice and crispy on the bottom, but still delightfully chewy.

It was hard to go wrong with the toppings - sweet onions and chunks of roasted tomatoes, smoky bacon, creamy Gorgonzola, and some nuttiness from the pumpkin seeds - yum! I am declaring this experiment a huge success! Once again, I am taking some positive baby steps in order to overcome some food aversions.

However, I still think pumpkin pie still sucks. ;-)

So that was a somewhat verbose synopsis. Here are the specifics:

Pumpkin Pizza Dough with Pumpkin Ale
-Makes two 12-inch pizzas

-1 3/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra if needed
-1/4 c. whole wheat flour
-1 1/2 T. sugar
-2 t. Kosher salt
-3/4 c. pumpkin ale, at room temperature
-1 t. instant yeast
-1/4 c. roasted pumpkin, riced or pureed
-1 T. extra virgin olive oil

Add both the flours, sugar, and salt to the bowl of your stand mixer.

In a measuring cup, add the pumpkin ale. Stir in the yeast and allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes to wake up the yeast.

Add the roasted pumpkin to the flour. Pour the pumpkin ale and yeast mixture on top of the flour, also adding the olive oil. Using the dough hook attachment, start the mixer on low speed until the dough starts to form.

Increase the speed slightly and allow the dough hook to knead the dough for roughly 15 minutes, or until it comes together. You might need to add additional flour depending upon how wet or dry the pumpkin was, so play this by ear. If your dough is really sticky and wet, add small amounts of additional flour until you get a dough with a nice, smooth texture.

Drizzle some olive oil in a large bowl and swirl to coat. Divide the dough into two equal sized parts. Shape each part into a ball and place in the bowl. Roll the dough around to coat with the olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm, draft free place.

Allow the dough to rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size. Punch each ball of dough down, reshape each into a ball, and place inside of a Ziploc plastic bag. Transfer to the refrigerator and allow to sit at least overnight. This will keep well for up to six days in the fridge.

Before using, take the dough out for at least a half an hour to allow it to come to room temperature. Roll or pat the dough out, top it however you like, and make your pizza.

Again, I follow Alton's recipe and bake my pizzas directly on a pizza stone at 500 F for roughly 7 minutes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fall approaches

Running has been much better as of late. Over the last couple of weekends, I have enjoyed 12 mile runs with temperatures in the 50's. Much more hospitable than most of my runs this summer. I am feeling like I am getting my mojo back!

Field full of late season goldenrod

Goldenrod mixing with some colorful red sumac leaves

We are nearing the middle of September, and the landscape is starting to change. Ever so slightly, we are seeing more and more color each day. The images above are from this morning at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve. It was a beautiful morning, as you can see. The goldenrod are brilliant at the moment, and some of the sumac have turned bright red. Of the deciduous trees, the maples are starting to display a yellow hue as well. Over the next couple of weeks, it will start to get very pretty around here.

Some of the last warblers of summer are passing through on their way south. Today I saw the black & white and Nashville warblers. Other migrants include numerous blue jays, eastern bluebirds, eastern phoebes, red-eyed vireos, and many sparrows, (song, field, and clay-colored).

More images to come as the colors intensify. I love this time of year.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Eggplants gone wild

At the farmers market on Thursday, I found these really cool eggplants. The dark ones are your classic variety that we are most familiar with. I learned the slender purple eggplants are called "pingtung," a variety that originated in Taiwan.

Nice looking eggplants

Honestly, I can count on one hand the number of times I have purchased eggplants. And, full disclosure - I am not even sure I like eggplants! They have never excited me all that much. But I bought them simply because they were pretty and would decide what to do with them later after a little research.

So, I would like to see eggplant parmigiana, please...

Truth be told, I have never made a dish like this before. I found this beautiful looking recipe and decided to use it as my guide. As per usual, I did a few things differently.

First, I only made about half the recipe and used and 8x8 glass baking dish. And, I draped some sliced prosciutto on top of the internal layers (just because prosciutto rocks).

Also, I decided to bake my breaded eggplant slices instead of frying them. I am not big on pan frying, and I thought this would help to lighten the dish. And for some reason, something so seemingly simple as breading a slice of eggplant turned into a Jacques Clouseau-esque ordeal.

I had the worst time trying to bread the eggplant. Clumps of panko bread crumbs were sticking to my fingers, looking like giant thimbles. My work surface looked as if a bag of unbleached all-purpose flour had been dropped from a height of fifty feet. Beaten egg was inadvertently drizzled all over the counter. There was also a lot of clumping in the bowl that I was using for breading, so it became a challenge to evenly coat the slices. Argh!

I was frustrated. There was cursing. I was so pissed off I almost pulled the plug on even finishing the dish. But, I decided to forge ahead. Worst case scenario - I had leftover take-out Kung Pao beef in the fridge in case the eggplant really sucked.

So, onward I went. I baked the breaded eggplant slices in a 375 F oven for about 20 minutes. Everything seemed to come out fine. The eggplant cooked down a little bit, and the breading held together. I tasted a slice, and it was good. Perhaps this was going to work out in the end?

The dish was assembled per the recipe, creating the layers, adding the ricotta, cheeses, sauce, and my optional prosciutto. The top layer got some sauce and cheeses, and I baked it at 350 F for about 35 minutes until it was nice and brown. Here is what it looked like:

Out of the oven

After letting it rest for a half an hour, here is what a slice looked like:

Eggplant Parmigiana, plated up

It was not necessary to eat my leftover Kung Pao. :) Despite the breading difficulty, the eggplant parmigiana was really tasty. The dish is somewhat like a lasagna with the eggplant in place of noodles, but the texture is much softer. The breading sort of melts into the sauce and cheese, and you get a little bit of textural contrast with the crispy browned top. The flavor was quite nice. Of course, just about anything with tomato sauce and ricotta is going to taste good, but I really enjoyed the eggplant. And I was glad I added the prosciutto. It was like a pleasant porky surprise in between the layers.

Though frustrating and a little involved (I have to believe that was due to my ineptitude), I would make this again. In the end, it was kind of fun to take an unfamiliar ingredient, try a new dish, and turn it into something delicious.

For my next trick, I will work on my breading skills... :)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The season for baking and soup

The weather has turned decidedly cooler (46 degrees on the drive to work this morning!). I am declaring it the start of baking and soup season. That is, if there are indeed such seasons - if not, there should be!

Monday, I baked a batch of cookies - peanut butter cookies with chocolate and peanut butter chips. I used this recipe and followed it to the letter with only minor adjustments; I went with super chunky peanut butter instead of smooth (the bits of peanuts add a nice texture, I think), opted for semi-sweet chocolate chips instead of dark, and I actually forgot to add the tablespoon of milk! Although, I don't think anything was hurt by the accidental omission! I did my best to underbake them slightly so they would retain a softer, chewy texture. The cookies were wonderful and will become a fixture in my cookie repertoire. So tasty and good. Mmmmm....cookies.

Peanut Butter Cookies with Chocolate and Peanut Butter Chips

Monday night, I made split pea soup. And given the impending fall season, I put a little "Oktoberfest" spin on it. By and large, it is your classic split pea soup (based on this recipe) with bacon, ham, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and potatoes. But I also added some tasty Sam Adams & sauerkraut bratwurst (sliced and browned before adding to the soup) that I bought at Mackenthun's meat market in St. Bonifacius. And, I frequently add beer to my split pea and bean-based soups as it imparts a nice tangy flavor. So I used a bottle of Summit "Oktoberfest" beer as part of the cooking liquid, since these beers are just starting to show up in stores. It seemed like a perfect match for the season. Great soup! Leftovers will be wonderful this week.

Oktoberfest Split Pea Soup

I'm so glad it is baking and soup season. And soon, it will be stew season, which is even more exciting!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Crowded Zoo

After what could only have only been described as a week from the ninth circle of hell, I was greatly looking forward to a long holiday weekend. Saturday was pretty spectacular, and I made the most of it.

The day started out with a 12 mile run. Temperatures were in the upper 40's at the start, and 52 when I finished. Not a cloud in the sky, and a gorgeous, crisp, fall-like day. This was easily the best run I have had in three months. I feel like I can run forever on days like this. Just an absolute treat.

After watching a little college football on TV (college football is back, baby....YES!), I headed down to the Minnesota Zoo in the afternoon. I haven't been here in a couple of years, but it is always fun to visit.

The Minnesota Zoo does a very nice job with their animals and exhibits. The animals and birds all have lots of space, and their environments are quite natural. I got there late, so I buzzed around the Tropics Trail, Minnesota Trail, Northern Trail, and took in the Russia's Grizzly Coast exhibit in the span of a couple hours.

A humorous observation (at least, to me) - I had just finished checking out the tigers, and I saw a red squirrel run across the trail. While the tiger was on display, the squirrel was decidedly not. He was just roaming free, completely unaware that he is in a zoo. This just happens to be his home! The squirrel was also carrying a potato chip. Clearly, living in the zoo has its benefits.

Some of the creatures from the zoo:

Caribou taking a nap

The cute little prairie dogs. Several of them were doing their barking routine.

The brown bears at the Russia's Grizzly Coast exhibit. The bear on the left was growling at the other, and you could hear it through the glass!

"Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur..." Or in this case, not so much! A rather large tiger, sizing me up. :)

The main reason I was here was because I was attending a concert. They have a "Music in the Zoo" concert series in the summer at their outdoor amphitheater - a beautiful setting next to a lake. And it was perfect day for a concert outside.

The opening singer was Lawrence Arabia and his band, a group out of New Zealand. They have a sort of jangly pop sound with lots of nice harmony and falsetto. I liked them. They put on a good show and interacted nicely with the crowd. I am going to buy some of their music.

Lawrence Arabia performing at the Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater

The main act was the group I was truly excited about; Crowded House. I love Crowded House. I have enjoyed their music since I first heard them in high school. What a treat that they came to Minnesota!

I do need to tell you about the fat, drunken lout who, naturally, had the seat next to me. He smelled like a brewery when he arrived and went at least four beers deeper over the course of the show. One of these annoying, uber fan sorts who is overly gregarious, attention seeking, demonstratively plays the "air drums" during the songs, and tries to impress everyone within earshot of his knowledge of the band. I did my best to ignore him, giving extremely short answers when asked something, hoping he would take the hint, but people like this never do. He also kept shouting for the band to play "Weather With You," a song from their their early days. As the "request" kept getting passed over, the guy leaned over to me and said, "I guess they can't hear me!" - and I think he was serious, believing that the band would have dropped everything and played it if they did. As if Neil Finn was waiting for this idiot to suggest a song to play! Mercifully, he ended up bonding with the guy sitting in front of me and pretty much left me alone to enjoy the show. But it further reinforces why I tend to avoid many events that involve the general public - and that is because they involve the general public. :)

However, this dimwit in no way ruined the show for me. In fact, that experience was almost worth it just for the story! Truth be told, I had a marvelous time.

I have to believe the place was sold out, because the amphitheater was packed. Crowded House performed really well. They did their big hits ("Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong"), along with a lot of their other classic songs like "Private Universe," "Fall At Your Feet," "Chocolate Cake," "Four Seasons In One Day," "World Where You Live," and "Mean To Me." There were also some nice selections from their new album that I am just getting to know. Aside from my neighbor, the crowd was cool and quite savvy, singing along at various points, and dancing in the aisles. A tremendous amount of fun. The band sounded great, really rocking out on a few of the songs, and they were funny and had a playful rapport with the audience. A great night. I am so excited that I got to see these guys in such an intimate venue!

Crowded House in concert!

One of the funny things about going to concerts in the digital age - I had seats towards the back, and at any given time, you could see several dozen small video screens being held by audience members. Everybody has a pocket camera or mobile device these days, so people are busy capturing pictures and video clips, and I am sure some are even uploading them while the show is in progress. I remember days when it was sinful to bring any sort of recording device to a show, and now you can practically do live video streaming and nobody bats an eye. The girl in front of me had both a camera and some sort of iPhone-like device that she kept alternating between to capture images and video from the show. Incredible! In fact, here is some footage that I found from last night's show:

"Don't Dream It's Over" at the Zoo

A fantastic Saturday. Sunday has been pretty good, too. But I can write more about that later...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I got in to Zoom! Yah! Yah!

Being a Minnesotan, for the most part, sucks. Our sports teams (Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild, Gophers), when not hapless, often play just well enough to get our hopes up only to break our hearts in the end. People from elsewhere make fun of our long "O's" ("Minn-ah-SOH-tah!") and think we all speak like the cast of "Fargo." For all intensive purposes, we have two seasons - winter, and a few months where the snowmobiling is poor (seriously, there are areas of the state with a 90 day growing season if they are lucky). True, it can be hot and humid during those few months where the snowmobiling is poor. But mainly, it is cold. Come January on those occasional -20 F below zero mornings, we all question our sanity for living here.

Heck, it is even so cold that we have to run some of our marathons inside.

I found out this morning that I got in to the Zoom! Yah! Yah! Indoor Marathon this coming January at St. Olaf College. You read that correctly - an indoor marathon! The name of the race plays heavily on the St. Olaf Fight Song, "Um! Yah! Yah!" It consists of 150 laps around the field house track. Each runner is assigned a personal lap counter to keep track of their progress, and they change direction every 30 minutes. Because of the small size of the facility, there is a lottery and they only take about 40 people. I missed the cut last year, but this year I made it.

So, I already have a race scheduled for 2011. Looks like I will be logging some big miles in December, which could be interesting. But, I am really looking forward to it. After a summer of being burned out on running in the heat, September is here, and I am feeling inspired again. Zoom! Yah! Yah!, here we come...

(And, regarding being a Minnesotan - of course, I am more than slightly exaggerating. It doesn't suck that much. Truth be told, it is a beautiful state, and there is really nowhere else I would rather live!)


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