After our unusually wet June, blueberry season is finally here, with a vengeance. At least that's the case at Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wis., the absurdly scenic destination for blueberry (and currant and gooseberry) lovers.
Unpredictable weather kept me away from my original Friday morning blueberry picking plans. When I called the farm on Saturday to inquire about the day's conditions, I got the one-word response that every U-pick-er wants to hear: "Awesome."
That was an understatement. When we arrived an hour later, the parking lot was jammed, and the farm's nine miles of blueberry bushes were lined with pickers of all ages. My good side was happy to see so many fellow blueberry enthusiasts patronizing the farm, my not-so-generous side could think of only one thing: Competition. When we were instructed to head to the far end of the farm, I became slightly discouraged. Were we too late? Were the best berries already in someone else's hands?
Hardly. I've been visiting the farm for a decade, and I've never seen such abundance. Not all of the farm's 14 varieties of blueberries are having a banner year, but many "are as good as we've seen," said co-owner John Cuddy. No kidding. Up and down the row I was working, the bushes were heavy with berries, and the task was so easy that it became the U-pick version of shooting fish in a barrel. In less than an hour we picked more than we know what to do with.
The farm's landscape, tucked into the wooded curves of the Rush River valley, couldn't have a more breathtaking setting, and John and his wife Terry -- who treat their customers like long-lost friends -- do everything in their power to make the setting even more beautiful. Horticulturalists specializing in hollyhocks, clematis and coneflowers could make a study of the couple's lushly planted gardens. Pack a picnic and spread it out on one of the garden's tables.
A few housekeeping details: The farm is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Because the season is so unpredictable, always -- always -- call before setting out. This year's blueberry price is $4.75 per pound. There's a limited supply of pre-picked berries, priced at $9 per pound; best to call ahead and pre-order.
Post-picking, we zipped into nearby Maiden Rock, a tiny town that hugs the dramatic bluffs ringing Lake Pepin. It's probably five minutes south from Blueberry Valhalla, and so worth the quick diversion. For two reasons.
First, I can't imagine being in the neighborhood and not stopping in to survey the counter at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop. Baker/owner Sandra Thielman's handicraft sells fast -- another motivation for making an early start to the farm -- and whatever you purchase (if there's quiche, or a berry pie, buy it, by the slice or the whole pie), it's best enjoyed on the bakery's welcoming front porch, which overlooks Thielman's well-tended flower garden. We arrived mid-afternoon and found a fairly picked-over inventory.
The shop's signature lavender-ginger sugar cookies were already gone, but we did luck into a handful of the chewy, raisin-filled oatmeal cookies (a steal at $1) and a few of the cardamom rolls (pictured, above), a new addition to the Smiling Pelican but familiar to old-timers who remember them from the Jenny Lind Cafe in Stockholm, Wis., the next town down the river. Jenny Lind owner Ruth Raich is now giving Thielman a much-needed hand, and one of her contributions is the revival of these tender, not-too-sweet and better-than-cinnamon-pull-apart rolls, with their bracing cardamom bite. I can't believe they're only $2.50. By the time we returned home, I was consumed with regret: Why didn't we buy more cardamom rolls? And that last (and gorgeous) quiche that was sitting on the counter and calling our names?
The other reason: A leisurely browse through the gallery-like Cultural Cloth, a wowser of a store that showcases hand-crafted textiles, all imported by women artists from around the world. To say that there is no other place like it is an understatement. (Note to Thursday blueberry harvesters: both the Smiling Pelican and Cultural Cloth are open Friday through Sunday).
Back to blueberries. Because I've been an annual visitor for more than a decade, my brain habitually associates "U-pick blueberries" with "Rush River Produce." But there are of course many pick-them-yourself blueberry farms in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Here's a list, offered with unsolicited advice: Don't make the journey without calling first.
BLUEBERRIES -- MINNESOTA
Meeker County: Leafblad Produce, 67784 330 St., Watkins, 320-693-2486
BLUEBERRIES -- WESTERN WISCONSIN
As for what we plan to do with our bounty, that's easy: Bake. I'm sure that this impressive blueberry-lemon-sour cream coffee cake is part of our not-so-distant future, along with this uncomplicated blueberry-pecan coffee cake. My colleague Kim Ode's formula for blueberry pierogi has caught my attention. Oh, I'll definitely spend a few mornings with these blueberry-cornmeal pancakes, an oldie-but-goodie recipe that always comes to mind when I see a box of Rush River Produce berries in our refrigerator.
CORNMEAL BLUEBERRY PANCAKES
Note: I've always loved this pancakes recipe, and pull out my batter-spattered copy when blueberry season rolls around. They're from a 2007 Taste story featuring Scott Rosenbaum, who was then the chef at Wilde Roast Cafe in Minneapolis. "When I was growing up in Nebraska, my granddad would make these when we would spend the weekend with him," said Rosenbaum. "They're so good we would eat them plain off the griddle, with lots of butter and maybe a little sorghum molasses." Rosenbaum suggests preparing the batter the night before and refrigerating it in a tightly sealed container. "That way the cornmeal softens a bit more," he said. "Although they're just fine if you use the batter right away, they'll have a nice little crunch. That's why the recipe calls for boiling water, because it begins that softening process." To use frozen berries, place them in a strainer and rinse until water runs clear. Spread on a paper towel to dry.
1/2 c. flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 c. boiling water
1/4 c. whole milk
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 c. fresh blueberries, or thawed frozen berries
Preheat griddle over medium-high heat (350 degrees if using an electric griddle). In a small bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder and reserve. In a large bowl, stir together cornmeal, salt and sugar. Add boiling water, stir and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in milk, butter and egg. Add flour mixture and stir until smooth. Pour batter onto a hot griddle. Sprinkle pancakes with blueberries and cook until pancake is bubbly all over and edges are crisp. Turn pancakes and cook an additional 2 minutes, until pancake is golden brown. Serve with butter and pure maple syrup.
Realistically, you could be serving mini-hot-dogs on a stick and they would still be a delight when served in the stunning gardens at the Minnesota Arboretum, which held its Toast and Tastes fundraiser last night under a sunny sky with balmy temperatures.
Nonetheless, those at the gathering had far better dining options -- in fact, the best in many years of the festivities. Here were some of the highlights:
Shrimp chorizo with fennel, from chef Hakan Lundberg of the Minneapolis Club, topped my best-of list. Unexpected (ground up shrimp, shaped), fun (on a stick) and really tasty (I had to grab a second one, just to be sure it was as good as the first!).
A close second: carrot-cured hamachi sashimi with apple and radish from The Rabbit Hole (Midtown Global Market). Served with sparkling lychee kombucha. Wow. Make that two wows.
Duck breast with farro, pickled rhubarb and kohlrabi puree, with a chocolate bouchon on the side filled with passion fruit panna cotta, from chef Scott Graden of the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth.
Housemade roasted andouille sausage with two sauerkrauts on brioche from chef J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club (St. Paul).
Korean glazed pork belly on-a-stick from chef Scott Pampuch of the University of Minnesota (Arboretum Catering).
And the flowers and greenery, of course.
That’s what the guys behind Eagle Street Grille in downtown St. Paul are doing. Their effort to diversify brings them to the corner of Western and Selby avenues this fall with a steak-and-seafood spot that will play homage to classic tableside service. The Salt Cellar — a nod to the grand past of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood — is expected to open in late October.
“We decided a while ago that we wanted to step out and open up a different venue, a high-end steak-and-seafood restaurant. We want to stretch our wings and bring out classic service and do something different from we have been doing,” said Kevin Geisen, who with Joe Kasel, owns Eagle Street Grille. Both grew up in St. Paul.
They’ve gathered a team to help them that includes Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, as consultant, and Blake Watson, formerly assistant manager of Interlachen Country Club, as general manager. The restaurant will be located in a building that formerly housed the College of Visual Arts, at 173 Western Av. Interior design will be from Joe Kasel and Elements Design of Davenport, Iowa. Mohagen Hansen of Wayzata is the architectural firm behind the effort.
“Joe and I, when we started this concept, we were looking at bringing back a classical style of service that really isn’t practiced as much anymore. It’s service I performed in the past at restaurants when I was younger," said Geisen. "Joe and I want to bring it back with a twist, a feeling, if you will, that we remember when we were kids when we were out with our families. We may not have nailed down everything we’re going to do yet, but it’s the tableside service that we’re really focusing on."
That means a classic Caesar salad prepared tableside, chateaubriand dished up with flair, bananas foster flambéed, all presented with just enough drama to assure a sense of special occasion.
"It's kind of like bringing the kitchen out onto the floor, making it a little more interactive for the guests," said Geisen.
The dining room will seat 150 to 160, with more in the lounge; a private dining room will be available. Entrees are expected in the low $20s to low $40s. “Big picture is this is St. Paul. We’re a working class city so we’re keeping that in mind and pricing our stuff accordingly,” said Kasel. In other words, no $80 steaks on the menu.
The emphasis will be on updated classics, whether it’s cocktails or entrees (think martinis and veal Oscar). Grass-fed beef will be center-of-the-plate for many diners; seafood will definitely include walleye. Watson will curate the wine list. “There will be a small cellar in the restaurant and great wines by the glass in the bar area," he said. And no big markups — more retail than restaurant markup.
“I think it will be a pretty spectacular looking place, with lots of glass,” said Russo. “You can see into the prep area off the street. There will be lots of visual cues as to what’s going on. You’re going to pretty much see everything.”
That includes the butchering of meat. The space includes sufficient room for a large meat locker. “They will be bringing in whole animals, using the same methods and techniques that we use at Heartland. They will be making their own sausage. And they want to bake their own bread as well,” said Russo, who has a prospective chef and sous chef in mind.
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said Geisen. “We’re definitely looking forward to moving into the neighborhood and working with the people around there and building that relationship. The team that we’ve assembled, with Blake Watson and Lenny Russo, is something we’re really proud of.”
Laurie Crowell is still smiling.
A day after President Barack Obama stopped by her gourmet food shop, Golden Fig Fine Foods, in St. Paul for a visit, she is still giddy. Bubbling over, in fact. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling,” she said in an interview.
Hard to know if it was the presidential hug that prompted her smiles (more on that in a moment). Or the 30-minute chat she had with the president. Or the knowledge that he dropped by because of a letter she wrote.
About that letter: Through weekly emails she gets from the White House, she realized the president would be in town. “So I replied to the email as though the email was just for me. And I said, ‘I’m glad you’re coming to Minnesota and if you have time you should definitely swing by my store. Everything is made in the U.S. We buy mostly local, and so there’s local grass-fed steaks and chocolate and jams and jellies and milk in glass bottles. It’s all about direct from the producers and the farmers.’
“Of course I got the auto-reply and figured no one would see it. But apparently they did,” she said..
At 4 p.m. on Thursday, the first day of the president’s visit, her store manager called to ask when she would be back in the building. “I said I was just going to go through the car wash and stop at the bank. And she said, ‘Could you not do that? Could you just come here?’ ”
When Laurie got to the store, the Secret Service was there, along with bomb-sniffing dogs. “They were rolling racks in front of the doors so no one could come in behind them. And they asked if the president could come for a visit,” said Laurie. “And I thought, ‘Are you kidding? Of course'.”
And President Obama did. They chatted for a half hour on the importance of buying local, and about sustainability and organics and researching bee issues.
He bought about $80 worth of Minnesota foods and paid with cash. “I don’t know if they jam everything, but we couldn’t make any phone calls; we couldn’t run credit cards. No one’s internet worked,” she said.
At the cash register, the president opened up his wallet and said, “Pretty much all I have is cash and a Chicago driver’s license," she said. “He showed me his license and I looked at his hair in the photo, and we both laughed because it was much more full and not gray. He said, ‘Yeah, it expires in 2016 so I’m good for a few more years’.”
The president left the store with two bags of Minnesota-made products, which Laurie – ever the entrepreneur – has pulled together into the Presidential Gift Box, wrapped in red-white-and-blue ribbon, should any shopper want to bring home the same.
That includes the raspberry jam from HeathGlen Farms (from Forest Lake), Minnesalsa and whole-grain blue tortilla chips, Mademoiselle Miel honey bon bons, sea salt caramels, chocolate-covered caramels from Painted Turtle, Golden Fig balsamic vinegar and apple chips from Eden Apples of Eden Prairie.
Then the president headed out for a stroll down Grand Avenue after noting that he was in the mood for ice cream.
And about that hug.
“I’m a total hugger, but I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to hug him – I didn’t want to be thrown down to the floor by the Secret Service because that would have been embarrassing!” she said with a laugh. “I went to shake his hand and he said “Wait, come here” and he totally gave me a hug.”
Other food spots the president visited:
RASPBERRY RHUBARB PIE
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. “Our raspberry rhubarb pie is another sought-after treat at the New Scenic Cafe,” writes Scott Graden in “New Scenic Cafe: The Cookbook.” “I have always enjoyed the tart and bitter flavor of rhubarb, and it is traditional to use it in desserts in Minnesota, though I add just enough sugar to soften the rhubarb’s singular impact. When it is in season, I use as much fresh rhubarb as I can get my hands on. Use fresh for this recipe, if it’s available, but frozen rhubarb also works well."
3/4 c. vegetable shortening
1 3/4 c. flour, plus extra for rolling crust
1 tsp. kosher salt
5 oz. ice-cold water
2 lb. rhubarb
12 oz. frozen raspberries
1/2 c. flour
1 1/3 c. plus 1 tbsp. sugar, divided
Freshly whipped cream
To prepare crust: Before beginning, chill the vegetable shortening in the refrigerator. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in shortening, until shortening pieces are no larger than the size of peas.
Add water to mixture, using a fork to blend it together lightly until dough looks evenly damp (you should be able to see small clumps of shortening in the dough). Lightly flour a work surface. With floured hands,form dough into a ball, then divide dough into 2 equal parts. Gently shape each piece of dough into a smooth, round disc and wrap each disc tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes.
To prepare filling: If using frozen rhubarb, allow it to defrost fully (though the raspberries should remain frozen). For fresh rhubarb, clean the stalks and chop them into 1/4-inch pieces. In a large bowl, combine rhubarb, raspberries, 1/2 cup flour and 1 1/3 cups sugar, and stir until evenly combined.
To prepare pie: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove dough discs from refrigerator and unwrap. On a floured work surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll dough until it is just wider than the outer rim of the pie pan. Transfer dough into pie pan, and press dough into pan’s edges, making sure the end of the crust just barely hangs over the rim of the pan all the way around. Place pie pan in the refrigerator.
Roll the second dough disc to the same size as the first. Remove pie pan from refrigerator, fill it with prepared fruit filling. Transfer second crust to the top of the pie, making sure there are no air pockets between the filling and the top crust. Roll and crimp edges of the top and bottom crusts to seal them together. Using the tip of a knife, cut several vent holes in the top crust, and dust with 1 tablespoon sugar.
Place pie pan on a baking sheet and bake pie for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake pie for another 35 minutes. Using an instant-read thermometer, check temperature at the pie’s center, baking until it reads 170 degrees. Any juices that have bubbled out should appear clear rather than cloudy, indicated doneness, and the crust should be light golden brown. Remove pie from oven, place pie pan on a cooling rack and allow it to cool to room temperature (at least 1 hour) before slicing. Serve with freshly whipped cream.
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