Let us celebrate our independence by adhering to a strict dinner-party menu

While the desserts are patriotic colors, I couldn't commit to a true all-American theme. But there will be many coolers of beer. That's a national pastime I can get behind.

My name is Cavan and I’m a planaholic. So it’s no surprise that part of my routine for getting ready for parties now includes creating a menu on my iPad. Mind you, these menus don’t always make it to the actual party. They’re just for me. I mean, the iPad is busy during the party serving as a cookbook and stereo. It can’t just sit around on the table telling people what the food is.

… That’s why you also create labels for each dish.

Other people do these things, right?

Well. Anyway. Here’s what we have in the works for tomorrow’s Fourth of July party at our house.

I will never get tired of grilling pizzas. It seems hard, but is really so simple. Make a dough that’s somewhat thin and easy to handle, brush some olive oil on it, grill it for a few minutes to let it firm up, then hand it over to a party guest to top it. A few more minutes on the grill, and you’re in Pizza Heaven. Or as close as you can get without owning a wood-fire oven. This is yet another cooking trick I picked up from Sweets by Natalie Kay, proving her expertise even beyond sweets.

Another new trick is watermelon granita. Just like the vodka sodas, these started as a fancy desesert from bon appetit that I quickly transformed into a cocktail. It’s easy and magical. Fill your blender about 3/4 full with watermelon cubes (go small to help your blender out), two heavy splashes of lemon juice and a few tablespoons of sugar. Blend. Top with ice. Blend. Taste and add sugar to get to your own sweetness preference. Throw in some glub-glubs* of vodka.

*I stand by my belief that the best cocktails adjust themselves accordingly as the evening goes on, whether this means increasing or decreasing glub-glubs of vodka as the night goes on. The point is, add however much vodka you can handle. And then add a splash more. You can do it. I believe in you.


Spice my brunch up

Not having the ability to go into the future and show you the food I am making for brunch tomorrow, I instead offer you the view from where tomorrow's pre-brunch 5K will be. Hey -- Minneapolis. I love you.

Tomorrow I’m going to HeartBeat 5000, a 5K benefiting Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. I’ll be under the registration tent as a volunteer, not under the sun as someone who would willingly run three miles. I’m volunteering with a group of friends, and afterward they’re all coming over for brunch. While I am opposed to the cutesy joining of two words to form a new word (guesstimate!), I support the juxtaposition of classy dishes alongside normally-not-classy drinking-before-noon. They cancel each other out in a way that society has deemed appropriate. It’s best not to question it.

I’ve set a spicy theme for the brunch. I’m also opposed to themed meals. But, as established in the previous paragraph, brunch defies logic.

But wait, you say. Get back to this spicy theme. OK, I say. Let’s examine the menu:

  • huevos rancheros – spicy black beans with salsa and sour cream atop a crispy tortilla! (I demand more reasons to use the word “atop”)
  • spicy cheddar hashbrowns – made from scratch!
  • pepper jelly pastries – puff pastries filled with pepper jelly (duh) and cream cheese!
  • Bloody Mary bar – with horseradish vodka and tomato vodka!

Here’s a secret, though. Don’t tell anyone. I have a few things on the menu that are not spicy, as I enjoy overplanning:

  • watermelon granita – a delicious blend of watermelon, lemon juice, sugar and vodka!
  • champagne granita – champagne thrown in the ice cream maker!
  • yogurt with strawberries, blueberries and agave nectar – to make sure there is enough for everyone!

So. Help me. Let’s just say yogurt, champagne and watermelon do not require spice. We’ll break theme. Don’t tell whoever keeps track of brunch themes. (Wait. Is it me?)

What other spicy dishes or drinks would you serve for brunch? Say things. I’m lonely. And I have to make this stuff tonight.

I ate. I laughed. I cried. Then, later on, I ate more.

Giordano's Deep Dish Pizza and Sam Adams

If you're going to spend your loved one's birthday alone in a hotel room in another city, make sure beer and deep-dish pizza can be delivered to your room.

Oh, hello!

It’s me again. Cavan. I’m the guy in every blog. Surely you remember me.

When I travel, I focus on food. Golden Gate Bridge. Gorgeous. Alcatraz. OK. But what do I get to eat before, during and after those things? I appreciate all the wonderful aspects of traveling. I just want to appreciate them while eating.

With that, more on my recent trips to San Francisco and Chicago:

Because I won’t pretend I am a sommelier but am in expert in “Hey! This food tastes good!” I am no stranger to wine tastings. I did not, however, know olive oil tastings existed. So while wandering through Sonoma, I was thrilled we made a stop at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards and The Olive Press. I was also thrilled when an employee explained that while we could dip bread in each olive oil, we were also welcome to just drink each one as well. It was incredible. There was an unexpected range of tastes in the unflavored olive oils. Then we spent a healthy amount of time getting to know the fruit vinegars and flavored olive oils, and olive oil ice cream. We joined the Jacuzzi wine club and recently got our first shipment. But I’m also having a ball trying tomato vinegar on cheese, in Mexican dishes and with eggs.

Lucky Creation

Staring at the fish-shaped item for vegetarians to confirm it is not fish-shaped fish for fish-eaters.

Like shooting starchy root vegetables in a barrel: As you saw before, we tried a fish-shaped item for vegetarians at a really great find in Chinatown called Lucky Creation. It was made from taro root and, while I’m not honestly sure what fish tastes like, seemed to have the texture spot on. We also tried a gluten sampler, with what I think were takes on sweet and sour pork, sesame chicken and … well, three other types of gluten. The point is, it was delicious enough that we didn’t mind sharing a table with two other groups and squeezing by the staff in their claustrophobia-inducing kitchen to reach the restroom. Any place that can take a pretentious bastard like me, shove me at a table with two other groups, force me to battle claustrophia as I squeeze my way through the narrow kitchen and into the restroom and still have me grinning the entire time because they offer a whole new world of vegetarian options is good in my book. Or my blog, rather. I haven’t written a book. I didn’t want you rushing to Amazon to buy it. Stay here.

Salty! I looked forward to visiting Millennium for my 30th birthday so much that I memorized parts of the menu and couldn’t wait to discuss multiple dishes with our server, only to be passed from a hostess to a bartender to a general manager to a server during the course of our meal and having such terrible service that I was heartbroken. My much anticipated conversations about the seasonal menu and local ingredients were reduced to, “Yeah, well, just order both.” On the bright side, now I know where to go next time I want to taste my own tears.

Scott's Bachelor Chow

While I dined on gourmet tacos in Chicago, Scott was back home preparing his version of Bachelor Chow -- nachos (plural).

What taco dreams are made of: While in Chicago, I was able to try Big Star with my friend Leah, who writes Eating With Integrity. Initially, we were told we were on page three of the list and likely wouldn’t get a table at all. The hostess then quickly decided she liked us, led us inside, told two people they’d better move on for the evening, and we got a few seats. Our newfound friend didn’t explain her change of heart, but I’m guessing it’s because Leah is adorably pregnant, and it’s never wise to stand between adorably pregnant women and their $3 gourmet tacos. You know what this means: If you go to Big Star, you have to bring Leah. If you bring some other pregnant friend and don’t get a seat right away, then you know your friend is not adorable and likely won’t make good dinner company anyhow. The highlight of the food: roasted peanuts in long bean tacos! I have never heard of such things. I must have more.

Those were my food adventures. They kept me, and, subsequently, you, from my kitchen. But we’ll get back to it soon, friends. I swear on my tomato vinegar.

Where I’ve been and what I ate

Wine Country!

I've never been to heaven, but I imagine it has a lot of grapes and looks like this.

Dear Diary,

Where did May go? I went places and I ate some stuff. Observe:

May 11
What I Did: I had a minor surgery. I am OK. Thank you for asking.
What I Ate: Needing comfort food, I asked Scott for a Blizzard from Dairy Queen. I did not know what Dairy Queen until I got to college, the result of parents who knew ahead of time what a food snob I would become.* So I’ve only gone five times in my life. Four of those times, I got the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. Once, I got the Pumpkin Pie Blizzard. I regret nothing.
What I Drank: Water with painkillers.

My Birthday Cake from Sweets by Natalie Kay!

May 13
What I Did: Scott planned a surprise birthday get-together at Bradstreet Crafthouse!
What I Ate: My friend Natalie, of Sweets by Natalie Kay, made an amazing champagne raspberry cake. It was delicious, as always. Natalie is amazing. Do you need a cake, cookies, cake pop or other form of baked goodness? Of course you do. Now you know where to get the best ones.
What I Drank: Everything Bradstreet has with whisky in it. I know this because I kept asking the server for new takes on whisky cocktails and she said, “You’ve already had everything we have with whisky in it.” I regret nothing.

Taro Root Fish

Fish-shaped item for vegetarians!

May 14-17
What I Did: Scott planned a surprise birthday trip to San Francisco and Sonoma Valley!
What I Drank: This is a trend with my birthdays. We’ve now gone on winery tours in Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota and good old Wine Country. (Sorry, Minnesota, but you were the worst.) At one point during our Iowa tour, we were invited to the winemaker’s cellar to try some very odd flavors (my favorite thing!) like basil wine and garlic wine. My friend Tonya had to suck the wine from the barrels out of a big tube. I found her later eating what she called a new kind of plant in the winemaker’s farm. It was grass. And it was his yard, not a farm. We regret nothing.
Oh, You Were Asking About My Photo of a Fish-Shaped Item: We ate vegetarian fish, made from taro root, at a place called Lucky Creation in Chinatown. I’ll tell you more later. I promise.

Scott's Cake Pops from Sweets by Natalie Kay

May 22-24
What I Did: Then it was time to celebrate Scott’s birthday, so I went on a business trip to Chicago and left him home all alone. Some people might think this is unfair considering how much Scott had just done for my birthday the week before, but Scott is not one of those people. He is kind and caring and selfless and I am a bastard, so we really even each other out!
What Scott Ate: I left Scott birthday gifts while I was gone. We had a birthday cake for a get-together later in the week, but on his actual birthday, he got to feast on dark chocolate raspberry cake pops, again thanks to Sweets by Natalie Kay. I’d go so far as to say that, were there ever a war between cake pops and cake, I might side with cake pops. I’m just so grateful this war has not yet taken place and we can eat both.
What I Ate and Drank: My 50-minute flight to Chicago turned into a 3.5-hour ordeal. I got to the hotel late, ordered deep-dish pizza form Giordano’s (my Orlando and Chicago habit, I suppose) and had beer sent to the room. I’ve never been a member of a royal family, but I imagine it is not dissimilar to how I spent that evening. I regret nothing.

Good News: I ate other things in May. Let’s wait until June to discuss. Highlights:

  • Another surgery!
  • Attacking squash with a mandolin!
  • Bruschetta Gone Asian!
  • More birthday cake!
  • Big Star in Chicago!
  • Sonoma Valley wineries!
  • That thing that excites you that will make you come back to read more!

*Also: I was chubby and they were trying to help me out.

Never waste a reason to drink Tequila Fresca

Tequila Fresca

It’s Cinco de Mayo! I hope your evening involves Tequila Fresca and Nacho.

If it doesn’t, you’ve made some terrible decisions today. I’m disappointed. What are you doing that’s more exciting to celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Tell me. Tell me now.

If your shame leads you to want to make a meal that consists of more than liquor and a single chip, may I suggest my Layered Potato and Spinach Enchiladas.

Soda jerks.

Did Scott like my Blackberry Mint Soda recipe, or did it put our marriage in peril? Let's find out.

Say, do you remember last week when we made three types of vodka sodas? If you don’t, then I bet you’ve been making them every night since! Now, if you would, sober up just long enough to see how my taste test went.

As soon as I wrapped up taping for the vodka soda video, my husband walked in from work. Is there anything more American than having a cocktail ready to go when you’re husband walks in the door? I mean, aside from the overwhelming amount of camera gear, the ingredients in the glass that were not vodka and the fact that we’re both dudes, it was like a scene out of “Mad Men.”

Remember, the Strawberry, Lemon and Basil Soda and Spicy Ginger Soda recipes were from bon appetit, and I made up the Blackberry Mint Soda recipe on the spot. Did Scott like mine as well as the chef’s recipes? Watch and find out.

Also: I told you about how protective he is of that flour sifter!

Soda three ways

Blackberry Mint Soda, Strawberry, Basil and Lemon Soda and Spicy Ginger Soda

I read about the trend of restaurants making their own sodas in the latest bon appetit and was intrigued. I decided I’d give it a shot soon. Moments after that, I thought, “Oh boy — I can add lots of vodka when I make mine!” Moments after that, I was at the grocery store. Moments after that, I was making this video for you so you can make your own, too. All told, these were some pretty productive moments.

I decided to try bon appetit’s Strawberry, Lemon and Basil Soda and Spicy Ginger Soda recipes. Then I created my own — a Blackberry Mint Soda.  The idea here is simple enough: take fresh fruits, herbs and spices and bring soda water to life with their flavors. I used a different technique for each — muddling the ingredients, making a puree and making a simple syrup. This is easy stuff, and definitely worth doing. Mashing strawberries and basil in a glass with some lemon juice, sugar and salt takes but a few moments.

There’s nothing special about the soda water here, either. It may be called seltzer water or sparkling water. Club soda works, too, if you can’t find those, but it may have a slight flavoring to it, whereas soda water is just carbonated water.

I shot a taste test with a very special guest for these three sodas; I’ll have that video ready for you soon. But suffice to say, my Blackberry Mint Soda was an experiment and an attempt to compare the muddling method with the pureeing method. Truth be told, next time around, I’m just going to muddle everything in the glass or make a simple syrup. The puree took a few extra steps that didn’t add much to the flavor or texture.

Blackberry Mint Soda (in the video)
Puree 2 pints of fresh blackberries. Pour two tablespoons of the puree into a glass, rip up six mint leaves, fill the glass with ice, fill with soda water and top with a shot of vodka.

Blackberry Mint Soda (just do it this way)
Muddle eight blackberries, a tablespoon of sugar and six mint leaves in a glass. Fill the glass with ice, fill with soda water and stir to chill. Strain into another glass filled with ice (unless you’re fine with a chunky soda … . (I am.)). Top with a shot of vodka.

Before shooting this video, I asked on Facebook and Twitter what flavors I should make. Two flavors that piqued my interest: pear cardamom and lavender lemonade. What flavors of soda would you make?