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How I stopped short-order cooking for my kids

26 Apr

My daughters, Anna and Elise, are 4 1/2 years old, and have been pretty picky eaters since they gained enough independence to make decisions about what foods they like and don’t like — especially for dinner.

Maybe more than 2 years ago, for lunches, I introduced the “snack plate”, which was an ice cube tray that I filled with little bites and nibbles of a variety of foods: lunch meat, cheese, crackers or chips, raisins, nuts, cut-up fruits and vegetables — and very occasionally, a sweet treat.

But around that same time, for dinners, I found myself making a meal for the girls, and then a meal for Christopher and me. Sometimes, I would get brave and hopeful, and I would make something especially for them with hidden vegetables or beans — butternut squash mac ‘n’ cheese, spaghetti pie with garbanzo noodles, zucchini-turkey meatballs with marinara — and other times, I relied on the staples: chicken nuggets, (boxed) mac ‘n’ cheese, pizza, waffles or pancakes, and sandwiches.

Rejection after rejection left me feeling dejected and under-appreciated — by two little 3-year-olds! I was cooking food especially for them — delicious AND nutritious food — and they hated it…and thus, they hated me. (#overdramatic)

Fast forward to about 3 weeks ago: I joined a Facebook group run by two mamas of little ones, who also happen to be registered dietitians and have a lot of knowledge and first-hand experience with feeding children. The conversation among the women in that community was immediately inspiring.

Simultaneously, Christopher and I have been starting to prepare the girls for the next developmental stage: kindergarten. Anna and Elise are beyond ready, academically, and for the most part, socially and emotionally, but they still have some growing up to do…and one of those benchmarks is being able to eat a well-balanced meal, focus on eating and not talking or playing (because 20 minutes is all they will have for lunch in the cafeteria), and having good table manners.

So, a little more than 2 weeks ago, I decided the girls were going to eat the same dinner (or almost the same dinner) as Christopher and me. And it’s gone surprisingly well!
Here’s how I did it:

1. I involved the girls in the meal-planning process. I sat them in front of my Pinterest boards and my cookbooks, and I suggested recipes they might like, explaining the ingredients and flavors with familiar and positive words. I didn’t limit it to dinner, either; I let them select breakfast, lunch, and snack recipes, too, if things caught their interest.

2. I involved the girls in the cooking process, as much as possible, and when appropriate. They dumped ingredients into the mixing bowl when we made snack bars and muffins. They helped roll up lasagna noodles when we made spinach-ricotta lasagna rolls. They rolled meatballs when we made zucchini-turkey meatballs.

3. I purposely served our first family meal on a weekend night, when we all could eat together at the table. Christopher and I were both there to encourage the girls, as well as model good manners and good eating habits. We continue to eat together, at the table, whenever possible — most usually on the weekends.

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3a. I purposely deconstruct as much of the meal as possible. For example, we selected a spring vegetable and gnocchi skillet, and while Christopher and I had it all together in a bowl, the girls had their gnocchi, vegetables (corn, tomatoes, and zucchini), and kielbasa separate.

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4. I ask that they take at least one bite of anything new or different on their plate. Some parents don’t believe in making their children take a “no thank you” bite, and prefer to let their children make the decision about what and how much to eat. I disagree; I believe that even one small, apprehensive bite could lead to more and enthusiastic bites. Just the other night, Anna and Elise took nervous slurps of coconut carrot soup, only to finish their entire servings.

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5. I put at least one or two things on their plate that they will definitely eat. Most nights, the girls get some kind of fruit with dinner — applesauce, strawberries, or mandarin oranges. Sometimes, they get bread or crackers with cheese or hummus. For example, when we had that coconut-carrot soup, the girls had a piece of French bread with cream cheese, a hot dog, and a pickle with their small bowl of soup.

5a. I am not above hiding veggies in familiar snack foods. We’ve made roasted carrot-oat bars, and while the girls don’t like them plain — they prefer them with a simple cream cheese frosting — they still are eating a pretty nutritious snack. We’ve also made chocolate-avocado muffins, and the girls love them.

6. I incentivise the act of trying new foods. I did this shortly after preschool started this past fall, because the girls would come home and tell me what their snack was, but admit that they hadn’t taken even one bite of the fruit or vegetable, and I was tired of them a) not getting a well-balanced snack and b) wasting food. We used a sticker chart: The girls received a sticker every time they tried something new, and they could pick a small toy from the dollar store after they earned five stickers. It was very motivating for them, and since then, the girls have grown to love grapes, oranges, and raspberries, and they have tried salsa. More recently, the incentive is a lot simpler: I tell the girls to think of how proud Daddy and I will be if they try (and better yet, finish) these new and different meals. And it works! Last night, the girls literally shouted when Christopher walked in the door, “Daddy! We had carrot soup!”

My method might not work for you and your children, but it might give you some ideas. And my method is nothing new or unusual, but it is comprised of tried-and-true strategies. I encourage you, if you are struggling, to just try one or two of these tactics. Maybe start with a sticker chart, or start by having your kids eat one meal a week the same as you and your partner. Maybe start with lunch, rather than dinner. Maybe take it a step further and let your kids (this works especially well for older children) pick a new fruit or vegetable at the store, and then help you decide how to prepare it for a meal.

I don’t know why we waited so long, but I guess the silver lining is the girls must have been ready, because this transition has gone really smoothly. And my stress level has gone way down.

The only tricky part is finding meals and recipes that fit this new normal…

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Monroe, Wis.

27 Nov

Christopher and I met in Monroe, Wis., in 2006. He was a sports reporter and I was a news reporter for the Monroe Times, a small six-days-a-week paper in a small, rural town in southwestern Wisconsin. We left the area for bigger and better things and haven’t been back in quite a while.

Monroe is quintessential Wisconsin. Its lush, rolling countryside is dotted with dairy farms and cheese factories. Its signature festival, Cheese Days, which is held only in even-numbered years, is a celebration of all things Swiss, cheese and beer. It oozes gemütlichkeit.

On a whim, Christopher and I returned to our old stomping grounds this past weekend.

We started with a spin through the Christkindlmarkt, an old-world-style holiday marketplace, at Turner Hall, and bought an adorable Wisconsin-shaped cutting board.

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We walked around the downtown square and popped into Chocolate Temptation for coffees and chocolates.

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We took the tour at Minhas Craft Brewery, the second-oldest continually operating brewery in the country.

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The tour, which costs $10, starts in the Lazy Mutt Lounge, where we enjoyed a couple samples and some popcorn. We watched a 10-minutes video about the brewery, then we followed our tour guide through the brewery, from the brewhouse to the bottling, canning and packing building and back to the lounge.

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The tour includes access to the Herb & Helen Heydock World of Beer Memorabilia Museum, too. We enjoyed looking through the three rooms of advertisements, coasters, growlers and steins, knick-knacks and other beer paraphernalia.

We left with our gift packs, which included four beers, a root beer and the glasses we used for tasting during the tour. Hell of a parting gift, eh?

We ended our trip with a stop at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern.

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The is tavern is a local legend, open since 1931. It’s famous for cheese sandwiches and locally brewed beer. It features Swiss-themed murals and sassy signage all over the walls; dollar bills dot the ceiling.

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Christopher was brave and ordered the limburger and soft salami sandwich, while I stuck with a favorite and got the hot pastrami and Swiss sandwich.

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Christopher and I had such a wonderful afternoon in Monroe. We saw many of our old haunts and even did something new. We aren’t going to let five years go by before we go back the next time.

Zucchini and Asparagus “Quiche” with Hashbrown Crust

12 Aug

Our garden has been doing so well. We’ve pulled several pounds of green beans, a couple heads of broccoli and cauliflower and loads of zucchini. I’ve used the vegetables in some of our favorite dishes, as well as in some new recipes.

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We love eggs around here. Quiches, frittatas and scrambles are quick and easy dishes that lend themselves well to garden-fresh vegetables and pack a protein punch for a nutritious and satisfying lunch or dinner.

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Zucchini and Asparagus “Quiche” with Hashbrown Crust

This dish is a cross between a quiche and a frittata. Its light and full of green vegetables (frozen asparagus and garden-fresh zucchini) but warm and tucked into a cheesy hashbrown crust. It’s quick and easy and perfect for lunch or dinner.

(Adapted from Paula Deen and Michael Chiarello)

Ingredients

For the crust:

2 1/2 cups frozen shredded hashbrowns, squeezed between paper towels to remove some of the moisture

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

2 teaspoons grated parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

For the “quiche” filling:

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium-large zucchini, sliced into thin rounds

12 spears asparagus, cut into ½-inch pieces

2-3 tablespoons chopped basil

5 eggs

1/4 cup milk

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

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In a greased pie pan, combine the hashbrowns, melted butter, parmesan cheese and salt and pepper. Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of the pan to form the crust.

Bake until the crust is starting to crisp and turn golden brown, about 20-25 minutes.

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In the meantime, in a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic until it is fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Add the zucchini and asparagus to the pan, season with salt and pepper and sauté until the vegetables are tender, about 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle in the basil and remove the pan from the heat.

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In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and salt and pepper.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

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Spread the sautéed vegetables over the par-baked crust, then pour the egg mixture over top and shake the pan to distribute the mixture around the vegetables.

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Bake for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and sprinkle the parmesan cheese on top. Bake for another 10 minutes.

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Christopher and I really loved this “quiche.” Christopher took it for lunch a few days, and I had it for dinner a few nights; it reheated really well. We loved the comforting feel of the dish; the cheesy hashbrown crust made it feel like an indulgent quiche. We also liked the light, healthy taste of the dish; the eggs and vegetables (without all the cream and cheese) made it feel like a frittata.

The basic idea can be adapted to include any combination of vegetables and cheese. Spinach, red pepper and feta would make for a Greek-inspired dish, while corn, peppers and cheddar would make for a more Southwestern-style dish. The possibilities are endless—and even better if the veggies are coming from your garden or the farmers market!

Celebration (part 2)

13 Jun

Christopher and I kicked off the second day of our little getaway with brunch at Café Benelux in the historic Third Ward; we wanted to sit on the rooftop, but we opted for an immediately-available seat at the bar and lucked out because we had a great bartender/server.

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We started with cocktails appropriate for drinking before noon—Christopher got the Muddy Larry, Hirsch Kentucky corn whiskey, house-made bloody mary mix with a pimento-stuffed olive; and I got the Beer Mosa, High Speed Wit (brewed exclusively for the restaurant) beer and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

We then chowed down on our main dishes:

BRUSSELS PANNENKOEKEN
a Dutch pancake topped with asparagus, fried eggs, pancetta, parmesan and Belgian beer-cheese sauce

MRS. HOLLANDER
two fried eggs, smoked ham and Belgian beer-cheese sauce on a croissant with hashbrowns

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Café Benelux, which opened within the last year or so, is one of several restaurants in a local restaurant group that is known for their incredible European beer selection, delicious food and fun atmosphere. The restaurant offers a fabulous brunch menu, complete with unique cocktails, in a casual, European-inspired environment. We both devoured our dishes and especially loved the beer-cheese sauce. We enjoyed chatting with our bartender, too; he even offered to snap a picture of us to commemorate our anniversary.

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We then headed to Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. Our beloved Brew Crew was playing the San Diego Padres and looking to take the series and come out on top of a nine-game homestand.

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We cracked a beer—an extra-large Hoppin’ Frog Turbo Shandy summer ale—and shared it on the walk from the car to the stadium. We waited in a snaking line, got our Nyjer Morgan bobblehead and made it to our section just in time for opening pitch.

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We took our seats—14 rows behind freakin’ home plate—and settled in for the first four and a half innings. We then took a walk to get margaritas and BBQ brisket baked potatoes; we even met a few friends who were at the game, including my best friend, Valerie, and her husband, who were sitting just one row behind us.

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We watched our new, young catcher, Martin Maldonado, blast a three-run home run to center to give the Brewers a 4-2, a shot in the arm they so desperately needed in the sixth inning. We saw Ryan Braun crank a two-run homer to left if the seventh inning, runs they ended up needing by the ninth.

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We watched set-up man Francisco Rodriguez pitch a mediocre inning then watched closer John Axford give up a run-scoring single and walk in another run before striking out a guy with the bases loaded and securing the win, 6-5. We cheered so loud for our boys in blue white and felt so happy to witness a win, complete with a couple home runs and a heart-stopping final three outs.

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We walked back to the parking lot and cracked open a couple more beers—a Central Waters Belgian-style Blonde ale and a Lakefront Brewery Wisconsinite weiss beer—to celebrate the victory and wait for traffic to clear.

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We made the two-plus-hour drive home, then curled up on the couch to catch our Sunday-night shows and dig into the cupcakes from our wedding, which made the trek to Milwaukee, melted in the hot car and made the trip back to Dixon. (Thankfully, they still tasted good, even if they didn’t look pretty.)

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Christopher and I had such a wonderful weekend just being together and being out and about in our city, eating, drinking and doing things we truly enjoy together.

It’s been a really special year for us: We’ve weathered the storms to find the rainbows. We’ve learned a lot about one another and about our marriage. And we’re as in love, if not more in love than we were on our wedding day.

What’s on the horizon for us? We’re not sure, but we can’t wait to find out!

Celebration (part 1)

11 Jun

Christopher and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary Sunday.

First, let me tell you that it has been an incredible year. We’ve  had our ups and downs. We’ve shared lots of laughs and some tears. We’ve fallen deeper in love.

And now, let me show you how we celebrated one year of wedded bliss.

We spent the weekend in Milwaukee!

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(Source)

We started at the Milwaukee Art Museum—just in time to watch the daily closing and opening of the the Burke Brise Soleil, a moveable sunscreen with a 217-foot wingspan that is both art and a city icon.

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We perused the special exhibition, “Posters of Paris,” which features dozens of the ubiquitous posters of the late 19th century that advertised everything from theatre productions to bicycles. We really enjoyed learning the origins of these famous posters and dissecting the distinct styles of each poster artist. We wandered through the expressionist, impressionist and modern art exhibitions, too.

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We got lunch at Apollo Café on Brady Street and ate outside to soak in the sunshine and people watch in the ultra-hip, über-eclectic neighborhood.

Christopher ordered the pastitsio, or Greek lasagna, which came with a side of spinach-tomato rice, and I ordered the falafel, which came with a Greek salad and pita bread.

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Apollo Café is a local favorite for its authentic Greek food and chic location. The restaurant offers big portions for reasonable prices. We both devoured our dishes; everything tasted homemade and cooked with love and care.

We then got frozen yogurt—our first-ever foray into the super trendy world of self-serve dairy delights—at the brand new Yo Factory on Farwell Avenue, near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. The shop was having its grand opening, and people who claimed an offer on Facebook got buy-one-get-one free froyo.

I got Dutch chocolate and cake batter froyo and topped it with dark chocolate sauce, peanuts, Heath bar pieces and mochi. Christopher got Dutch chocolate and mint froyo and topped it with dark chocolate sauce, chocolate-covered chocolate (Seriously…we think…) and Oreo pieces.

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Yo Factory was packed, in part because of the grand opening and in part because a local radio station was there for the festivities. The line was long and the shop was congested, but the staff were really friendly. The cashier weighed our yogurt and told us, because we had the Facebook offer, we could take either one off; I took the heavier one off, naturally. We both really enjoyed our dishes, although we also were really full after the last bite; the yogurt was tasty and refreshing, and the toppings were plentiful.

We headed out to our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, in Wauwatosa to check in, cool off in the pool and get ready for the night.

We then went to dinner at Balzac on Brady Street, right around the corner from where we had lunch.

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We started with a couple cocktails—Christopher got the Arlington, Few whiskey and Sauci dessert wine served on the rocks with ginger beer and an orange twist, and I got the Zen Sangria, Wollersheim Winery Prairie Fume, Stirrings pomegranate liqueur, green tea vodka, pear purée and apricot nectar.

We decided to get the most out of our experience and share four small plates:

TOMATO TARTE TATIN
a twist on a classic; savory-sweet caramelized tomatoes and onions on a shortbread crust; served with fresh ricotta cheese and mixed greens

FRITES
a French-fried blend of traditional white potatoes and sweet potatoes; served with chipotle aioli and jalapeno ketchup

COQ AU VIN CHICKEN WINGS
eight plump chicken wings cooked in this classic French style with bacon and crisped on the grill

DUCK NACHOS
white tortilla chips topped with roasted duck, bacon, gruyere cheese blend, scallion crème fraîche and pico de gallo

Balzac collage

Balzac is another local gem known for its extensive wine list and one-of-a-kind small plates served in a casual, yet elegant atmosphere. The restaurant offers unique takes on typical bar food, and the small-plate concept allows diners to try a variety of items. We cleaned our plates! We especially loved the chicken wings—the meat literally fell off the bone—and the duck nachos; we also liked the jalapeno ketchup and chipotle aioli that came with the fries.

We were all dressed up (and sadly forgot to get a picture of the two of us) and went to Hot Water, a dance club in the Fifth Ward, just south of downtown. It was salsa night, so an instructor offered a brief salsa lesson and then the DJ spun Latin music. We arrived in time for most of the lesson and danced a few songs; we didn’t stay too long, though, because neither of us is very confident in our salsa skills, and we felt out of place.

We opted to go to At Random in Bay View—the place we celebrated our first dating anniversary three and a half years ago—for nightcaps.

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At Random is a special place; it’s unlike any other bar. Dim lights, crooner music and cozy booths create a romantic atmosphere. Specialty drinks and ice-cream drinks are the only libations on the menu.

Christopher ordered an ice-cream drink with blue Curacao and crème de cacao, and I ordered one with amaretto and crème de cacao. We toasted to one year of marriage, stared lovingly into one another’s eyes and slurped down our dessert drinks.

We called it a night and headed back to the hotel; we were stuffed and exhausted and needed to rest up for another day of fun in the city.

Taste of Chicago

29 Jun

Another weekend, another “Taste of…” event in the books.

Christopher and I headed to Chicago to meet up with my dad and brother, Kyle, for the Taste of Chicago, which bills itself as the nation’s premier outdoor food festival.

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We spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons roaming through Grant Park and through a sea of smells and tastes from more than 50 Chicago eateries.

We took the same approach we did at the Taste of Muskegon—we opted to first try things we’ve never had or things we couldn’t get elsewhere and then to try things we just wanted to eat. We also agreed to divide and conquer—we all bought tickets and got what we wanted, but we shared everything with the group so we could taste more items.

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Here’s what the four of us sampled (Beware, it’s a long list!):

Main dishes

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  • Dry chili chicken from Lao Sze Chuan
  • Combination platter (Brazilian sausage, bacon-wrapped chicken breast, garlic-marinated picanha (sirloin) and quinoa salad) from Texas de Brazil
  • Mustard-fried catfish from BJ’s Market and Bakery
  • Jollof rice and oxtail from Iyanze

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  • Crawfish boil and chicken and waffles from Lagniappe

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  • Textured vegetable protein nuggets with sweet and spicy sauce from Loving Hut
  • Grilled bourbon chicken wrap from Oak Street Beach Cafe
  • Buffalo popcorn shrimp from O’Brien’s
  • Deep-dish sausage pizza from Reggio’s
  • Steak jibarito sandwich from Sabor Latino
  • Pulled pork slider and pulled chicken slider from Smoke Daddy
  • Pad Thai noodles from Star of Siam
  • Red beans and rice with grilled jerk chicken and jollof rice with sautéed goat meat from Vee-Vee’s

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Sides

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Desserts

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  • “Skinny” chocolate cheesecake from Eli’s
  • Lemon Italian ice from Franco’s Ristorante
  • Bissap sorbet from Iyanze
  • Molten chocolate lava cake with ice cream, key lime pie and plain cheesecake with caramel-pecan sauce from JR Dessert Bakery

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Miscellaneous

  • Boba shaved ice with milk and jelly from The Noodle

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We had some amazing food and some not-so-amazing food. But the standouts are hard to forget.

Christopher’s favorites were the jollof rice with oxtail, dry chili chicken and chicken and waffles.

My favorites were the potstickers, chicken tamale and falafel and hummus with pita bread.

Everyone’s favorite sweets were the atomic cake and the molten chocolate lava cake.

I’m drooling just thinking about all of it again.

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We walked through the loop area of the city to search for a place to stop for drinks and then for a place to have dinner. We visited The Public House (which had the coolest legend for its beer list) and Harry Caray’s (where we enjoyed unlimited homemade potato chips at the bar) for drinks and stopped at Eatt, a diner-style restaurant (where I ate a meatloaf for the ages), for dinner.

We also ran the Race to Taste 5K on Sunday morning, but I’ll do a full race recap on that another day.

All in all, we had a fabulous time strolling through our second-favorite city, sampling the delicious fare from some amazing restaurants and catching up with my dad and brother.

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Taste of Muskegon

20 Jun

I love “Taste of…” events. I think it’s an excellent way for people to explore a town through its food and for a town to draw people to its center.

Christopher and I checked out the fifth-annual Taste of Muskegon in downtown Muskegon on Saturday and Sunday.

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Almost 20 local restaurants had items for sale from $1 to $5 apiece—from barbecue ribs to crab cakes to ice cream. We tried to sample things we’ve never had before, so that ruled out a few places, like Buffalo Wild Wings, Red Robin and Texas Roadhouse.

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Here’s what we tasted over the course of lunch Saturday, dinner Saturday and lunch Sunday:

  • The Twist pizza and The Fire Bird pizza from BernieO’s
  • Strawberry smoothie from The Coffee House
  • Jerk chicken and jambalaya from Donnie’s BBQ
  • Applewood smoked BBQ ribs and smoked pulled BBQ pork from Greek Tony’s

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  • Cha sui (BBQ pork) and egg rolls from House of Chan

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  • Tennessee toffee ice cream and Scout’s honor mint chocolate cookie ice cream from Ruth Ann’s Ice Cream
  • Cannoli from Teddy Spaghetti’s

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Christopher’s favorites were The Fire Bird pizza, which is topped with ghost pepper, the hottest pepper in the world, and the Tuscan bean and goat cheese dip, which came with homemade, seasoned tortilla chips and homemade, toasted pita triangles.

My favorites were the jambalaya, which just spicy enough for me, and the Maryland-style crab cake, which came with a spicy remoulade for dipping.

We worked the Muskegon Lumberjacks table, getting the word out about tickets and the free All-Star games that were going on this weekend, in between walks and mini-feasts. We also took in said hockey games and stopped home in between shifts this weekend.

All in all, we had a great time—soaking up the sun, tasting some yummy food and discovering new restaurants. We’re pretty stoked for Taste of Chicago next weekend. 🙂

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Does your community host a “Taste of…” event or have you ever been to one?