Good Food


If you have lived in or around Wisconsin, then you already know all about the awesome-ness of cheese curds. If you are from a more coastal state, then you possibly feeling a little disgusted and wondering why any food would include the word “curd.”

A cheese curd is basically the first substance you get when making cheddar cheese. After milk, culture, and a coagulate come together, the curds and whey separate (yes, we are all thinking about Little Miss Muffet right now). Whey is drained from the cheese vats, and the curds remain.  Typically, these curds are then pressed into molds to be aged and turned into the cheddar cheese blocks that we all know and love (mild cheddar ages the least amount of time, extra sharp cheddar can age for years). However, if you can snag these curds before they become cheddar cheese blocks then you have scored yourself a tasty treat.

Cheese curds are mild tasting, slightly rubbery in texture, and salty. They squeak when you bite into them, which causes them to also go by the moniker “squeaky cheese.” The thing about cheese curds is this: they HAVE to be fresh. I don’t mean they were made two days ago and flown to you from a Wisconsin farm. I mean REALLY fresh. If a cheese curd was created at six in the morning, you’re going to want to be eating that cheese curd for lunch. Or breakfast.

It’s not like they are poisonous after a day has passed, they just aren’t quite as good. Don’t get me wrong, if someone gives me a two-day-old cheese curd, I’ll eat it…but I wouldn’t spend any money on these over-aged cheese particles. The tell-tale sign of a cheese curd past its prime is that it no longer squeaks when you bite into it. You can cheat a little bit by bringing your curds to room temperature (10 seconds in the microwave usually does it) which brings back the squeakiness, but that trick usually only works for a day or two.

So herein lays the eternal problem for a west-coast gal who loves cheese curds: You have to buy cheese curds directly from source (i.e. a dairy farm). Once cheese curds have gotten to the supermarket, they are no longer fresh (even if they’ve been vacuum sealed). This is why cheese curds are primarily a Wisconsin treat. Tons of farms in Wisconsin make cheese curds every morning, so you are guaranteed to get the good stuff. But Wisconsin is far away.

There ARE places in and around Seattle where you can get cheese curds, but most of the curds have been flown in from Wisconsin days ago and are therefore not worthy. A few Pacific Northwest farms (Ballad Family Farm in Gooding, Idaho and several of the Tillamook farms along the Oregon coast) and Beecher’s Cheese shop at Pike Place Market do make cheese curds, but not on a daily basis – so you can’t count on them for freshness. When I was little there was a place in Mt. Vernon that made fresh curds every Sunday. My Wisconsin-bred father would take me and my brother there. We would take our ice cream cones up to the observation deck to watch the workers drain the whey out of the cheese vats and churn up the cheese curds. But that place closed years ago, so back to Wisconsin we must head.

This is one of the good things about living in Colorado – I’m three states closer to Wisconsin. Luckily I have several family members residing in Wisconsin, so I have non-cheesy reasons to visit too. I headed that way a couple weeks ago with my family, driving past endless rows of cornfields until we reached our destination. Shortly after hitting the Wisconsin state line, my parents and I were at Cady cheese, making our first cheese curd purchase of the week. I’d had a minor panic attack the previous day, worrying about whether or not I could eat cheese curds, because apparently un-pasteurized cheese and pregnancy don’t mix. But all ended well. Cheese curds are pasteurized. Thank goodness. I can handle the no-drinking part of these nine months, but the inability to eat raw cookie dough and soft cheese is a little tougher.

We stopped at Cady cheese a few days later on the way out of Wisconsin, buying several bags so my dad could take some back home to my brother – a task he failed to accomplish when packing his suitcase early the next morning. My poor brother therefore didn’t get his cheese curds until several days later when my mom returned home with them. And if you’ve been paying attention, you know this delay is completely unacceptable.

So if you’ve ever had a non-Wisconsin cheese curd and were left unimpressed, do yourself a favor and head up to America’s Dairyland. Get the real stuff. Somewhere between the squeaks you’ll be glad you did.

I didn’t think there would be much to blog about during my drive through Nebraska and Iowa. It’s not like I was going to come up with anything interesting after then ten hours of this:

But eventually the corn fields give way to Lincoln. Luckily for me and the 263 thousand people who live there, the capitol of Nebraska (and home of the University Nebraska Cornhuskers) is actually a cute town.

The place to be on Friday evening is the Historic Haymarket District. (Then, if you are into the bar scene, head seven blocks east.) These few blocks are between the North/South 7th and 9th streets and the East/West running O, P, Q, and R streets. This logically laid out grid makes it hard to get lost. At the northwest corner of Haymarket (7th and Q), a kid’s park and water fountain down by the old Amtrak station offers views of the huge new stadium being constructed nearby. There is also a parking lot here. We easily found parking at a metered lot here, and a local assured us that meter maids didn’t work past seven on weekends…although she also told us that tourists got a get-out-of-jail-free pass, so I probably shouldn’t quote her here as a reliable source.

From Iron Horse Park you can follow your nose to the old Creamery Building at 7th and P and stand in a line that suggests that this is THE place in town for ice cream. In reality, Ivanna Cone’s was a cute shop with average ice cream. (Unless you get the lemongrass basil flavor, which I would classify as far below average ice cream). Also in the creamery building is the Indigo Bridge bookstore featuring post “Occupy Lincoln” lectures and the TADA theatre, currently showing the hilariously (if inappropriate) Avenue Q puppet show.

It was suggested that we enjoy dinner at the New Orleans-y Buzzard Billy’s (8th and Q), but we opted for Lazlo’s Brewery & Grill (7th and P) instead, which was FABULOUS. I had the best salmon (pesto crusted!) that I’ve ever eaten. Isn’t that typical? I grew up in Seattle and my favorite salmon thus far has been in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lazlo’s also has Omaha steaks for people who believe in more geographically appropriate dining. My beer-loving father reports that the brew was good, with a mild-yet-acceptable IPA. Being seven months pregnant, I can also report that the water was delicious. Lots of tasty ice.

Before heading out of town on Saturday morning, we checked out the Farmer’s Market, also in the Historic Haymarket District. The market is open from eight to noon weekly from May through October. It features tons of people, slightly pricey vegetables, not as much corn as I’d expect in Cornhusker territory, and (as typical in the mid-west) barely any fruit.

There are several hotels downtown, (the Embassy Suites on 13th and the Holiday Inn Downtown on P are both in the Haymarket District) but if you want to save some money, choosing a hotel out by the airport is a good option. It’s a quick ten minute drive into town. We took the scenic route into town, past waterfront lakes, fishing ponds, and the Sea Dogs Minor League baseball stadium. These sights all convinced me that I would gladly spend an extra day or two in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Even if I suddenly become a computer programming genius (not likely), there is no way that I could submit my resume with the other 7,000 applications DAILY that the company acquires. The reason?  Google employees are never more than 100 feet away from free food.

Google recently sponsored a teacher-workshop I attended. The workshop caught my eye because they offered free  breakfast, lunch, and dinner. How could I refuse? I spent the weekend happily eating bagels, pizza, cookies, and M&M’s as I worked on computer simulations that will (hopefully) convince my students this fall that learning Geography is awesome.

But on the tour through the Google Boulder campus, it was revealed that their employees get free food EVERY SINGLE DAY. Plus snacks. And soft drinks. We are talking serious spreads. Lunch included a BBQ of elk burgers, bison burgers, veggie burgers, and fried rattlesnake, cookies, a salad bar and the aforementioned soft drinks.

Furthermore, if Google employees should for some reason happen to find themselves hungry between meals the need to walk 100 feet in a random direction until reaching a “micro-kitchen,” a Google sponsored snack shack. I slipped some chocolates in my pocket, and when confessing my non-crime (it WAS free, after all) to my fellow teachers, they all started pulling Cliff Bars and string cheese out of their purses and bags.

In addition to all the free food, Google also has “decompression rooms” where employees and take catnaps, recreations room filled with rock climbing walls and pool tables, and a company gyms. If it’s time for a meeting, these overfed computer programmers can meet in a teepee or a gutted VW bug instead of a boring ol’ conference room.

Taxpayers should be relieved to find that public school employees are not treated to such luxuries. There are no rock climbing walls at my school. There is no place where teachers can take naps, but this in an activity I’m pretty sure I could be fired for anyways. We may have a BBQ in August to kick off the school year, but elk/bison/rattlesnake have never been on the menu.

When I lived in Seattle’s University District I used to go to the Farmer’s Market on 50th and Brooklyn every weekend. I didn’t buy any food because my monthly food-and-drink budget was dedicated solely to liquor. My roommates and I used to throw huge parties every month. We were the only college students who supplied several hundred of dollars of booze at our parties. We obviously rocked the party scene.

Anyways, getting back to the subject on hand, I used to go to the Farmer’s Market just as it was closing and buy a single Gerber Daisy from the vendors. They’d usually just give it to me for free. This provided a nice decoration amid the vodka bottles at the aforementioned parties.

While traveling I like to hit up Farmer’s Markets for meals. Sometimes you can even get a meal’s worth of samples if you wander around long enough. A couple of my favorites have been the Farmer’s Markets in Boise and Kansas City.

Kansas City’s go-to place is the Historic City Market. City Market has tons of events going on through the year (and week), the Farmer’s Market being the Saturday event. There is also a garage sale/swap meet type row of stalls nearby is you are in the need of some cheap knickknacks.  Produce and food prices were actually pretty good (Farmer’s Markets are usually not bargains, but KC was!) and the market is in a great location, surrounded by local shops and restaurants. Though don’t fill up at the market though – save your stomach for massive amounts of Kansas City BBQ instead. City Market is at 20 E. 5th Street, Kansas City, MO 64106. Surrounding parking is pretty easy to find. The Farmer’s Market is open March through October Saturday from 6 – 3 and Sunday from 8-3. November through February hours are 8-3. Check out their website for more information (including a guide regarding what is in season) and other events.

The Capital City Public Market in Boise, Idaho is HUGE and crowded – at least it was on the summer day I was there. I especially liked the hang-out place surrounding fountains that kids (and even some of their parents) were running through. Make sure you stop by the Ballad Cheese booth for cheese curds. They aren’t as good as Wisconsin cheese curds, but the further west you are, the harder cheese curds are to find. The Boise Farmer’s Market is at W Idaho Street and N 8th Street. Street and lot parking where pretty easy to find once you get a few blocks away from where all the action is. The Market is open Saturday’s from 9:30am – 1:30. The 2012 season started on April 21st and is expected to run through December 22nd. I don’t expect running through the fountains would be too much fun in December though. Check out their website for more information.

What is toted as Denver’s “best” Farmer’s Market opened up in the beginning of May, so I headed out to Cherry Creek to check it out. I was not expecting greatness because it was May in Colorado and my roommate’s “garden” still looks like this:

My low expectations were right on target. The entire market consisted of one produce booth. Well, two if you count this one:

The rest of the booths were things that do not depend on good weather: Cheese, bread, specialty pickles, pies, tamales, cake pops and coffee. I joined the Greek Gyro’s line (the longest line at the market) and enjoyed a decent Aegean burrito. Things are due to pick up at  Cherry Creek in the summertime. The Cheery Creek Farmer’s Market is open Saturdays from 8am until 1pm. Things got started on May 5th and will run until October. The Cherry Creek Market is located across from Whole Foods at East 1st Avenue and University Blvd. Parking is available either behind the Bed, Bath, and Beyond or (as a last resort) in the mall parking garage behind Nordstrom’s. For information on this and other Denver Farmer’s Markets, check out http://www.coloradofreshmarkets.com.

In the spirit of Mother’s Day, I’d thought I’d give a shout out to my mom and her blog. Because my mom is also a teacher with the summertime off, she’s spent quite a few hours traveling with me over the past year. Because of this Mom has been subject to many blog-related travel delights and woes. I’ve subjected her to delayed hotel check out’s because my pictures were loading to slowly, travel to strange places because no one else has written about them (hello, North Dakota), sudden swings off the road to take pictures, and strange travel desires (“I hope we get towed here! How cool would Modes-tow be for a blog title!?!” I’d exclaimed in the crappy central California town. Luckily for Mom we did not get towed there). She’s happily endured camping in a mosquito-infested sinkhole by the train tracks in Montana, hiking through the Rocky Mountains in the pouring down rain, and eating every fried-on-a-stick-food in Minnesota. Best of all, she usually pays for more than her fair share of the trip! What a deal J

Instead of resenting blogging, Mom has embraced it. A few months ago she started her own. Plate and Planet is her sustainable nutrition/healthy eating blog. She did NOT do a post on Minnesota State Fair food. Check out her blog for gardening tales, advice on how to trick your family into eating healthy, commentary on the sustainability of soy burgers, tips how to cook without a kitchen, and recipe for her rhubarb bars that actually are pretty good.

The fact that I not only read but sometimes even follow the advice of Mom’s blog is actually kind of a miracle. My eating habits have been a constant source of pain and frustration for my poor Mom. Until I reached the embarrassing age of twenty-two I was the pickiest eater in the world, refusing anything except spaghetti, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese and Doritos. Travel solved this problem, as none of this food was available in China. After starving for a couple weeks I finally broke down and expanded my food repertoire. Mom wishes she would have sent me to China at age five.

But my anti-nutritious streak wasn’t over yet. Just as I was getting over my healthy food aversions, I moved to Las Vegas where I started eating several pounds of bacon at buffets each Sunday. Then I married a fast-food aficionado and discovered Taco Bell. Travel again saved the day, as a trip to Colorado a few years ago caused me to fall in love with the healthiest state in the USA. Mom is delighted that I now live surrounded by composting/gardening/Food-Inc loving vegans who gasp in horror when I mention that I kinda like McDonalds. So now I HAVE to read her blog so I have something to talk about with my fellow Denver-ites.

So Mom: Thanks for all the travel memories. I can’t wait to go to Wisconsin, Kentucky and Tennessee this summer. You’re paying for gas right…? J And even though I’ve been a tough convert, thanks for the healthy eating knowledge. I’m going to go make a kidney bean salad RIGHT NOW I swear. Just as soon as I finish this Drive-Thru hamburger (just kidding!) And don’t worry, this post wasn’t your present – the real one is in the mail.

The Mad Greek Cafe is a popular stop along the well traveled stretch of highway between Southern California and Las Vegas. It’s THE pit stop for families, truckers, and those heading home from Vegas seeking hangover cures in the form of tzatziki sauce. Although it’s the not tallest building in the 600 person town of Baker, California (that would be the world’s tallest thermometer, across the street), it’s definitely the most popular. Wall Drug type billboards advise travelers of how many miles are between them and the Mad Greek.

The exterior of Parthenon pillars and white Greek God statues standing between trash cans and handicapped parking spaces cue you in to the fact that the décor is slightly on the tacky side. Inside are huge, ugly pictures of Athens and the Greek Isles. I didn’t even KNOW it was possible to take an ugly picture of Santorini. Just typing the name of the island brings me back to the most gorgeous place I’ve ever visited. I think I spent most of the Grecian part of my honeymoon exclaiming that Greece “looks just like the pictures!” Luckily I was referring to the gorgeous shots in my Greece Isles calendar that my future (and now ex) in-laws had bought me. The Mad Greek’s gray dingy shots bear no resemblance to that calendar. Or the Aegean islands. Thank God.

Anyways, the food is great. Lamb kabobs, gyros, pita bread, rice, and baklava are the things to get, but regular breakfast and diner fare (eggs, hamburgers, etc) are also on the menu. Their milkshakes are good too. They are open 24 hours. Give them a ring at (760) 733-4354 or stop by. They are in the middle of town at 7211 Baker Blvd, not like you need the address. You can’t miss it.

Where the Mad Greek tends to attract gluttons, vacationers, partiers, and ON-the-beaten-path-road-trippers, my other favorite drive in is quite the opposite.

Zeke’s Drive-In (44006 State Route 2, Gold Bar, WA 98251. 360-793-2287) is in Gold Bar. All the greenery and gray sky is a good clue that the town of Gold Bar is somewhere near Seattle. And indeed, it is – about and hour and a half northeast of the Emerald City. There are no long lines, no statues, and no parking lots at Zeke’s. This place attracts hikers, skiers, snowshoers, and fishers.

Although a drive-in, Zeke’s does have a little indoor place to eat, with picnic tables, trail maps on the walls, and no heat. If you are freezing cold because you just hiked six miles in the pouring down rain (and you probably did), it’s best to stay in your car with the heat cranked up.

I don’t know if Zeke’s food is particularly good or if it’s just that ANY hamburger is good after a long day hiking or skiing. Whatever the case, Zeke’s burgers, shakes and fries always bring happy thoughts and memories.

The first time I was in a New Mexican restaurant in Baltimore. I warily looked at the menu and ordered the not-so-southwestern brie and apple cheeseburger. Much to the additional horror of my foodie-friend, I added a liberal amount of ketchup to my meal.

“You have got to get it together,” she said to me, shaking her head in a mixture of disgust and pity.

She was right. I was due to be in New Mexico for a press trip soon and this type of behavior would probably not acceptable. I’d better learn to eat chiles (green, red, and both) stat.

So I did. While in New Mexico I fell in love with Southwestern cuisine. I gobbled up green chile cheeseburgers, posole, lamb stew with cilantro, and Navajo tacos with the best of them.

Then I had to leave. I had to spend two months in Seattle and Las Vegas, pining for frito pies and those cheeseburgers. Luckily I’m in Colorado now, and cuisine from the state next door is readily available at several places around Denver.

Julia Blackbird’s New Mexican Restaurant

There is something different about people who love New Mexico: Their speech is peppered with words like “Earth and Spirit, global connections, beautiful soul” and especially the word “spiritual.” The earthy/new-age feel can be felt as soon as you get five feet off any interstate in New Mexico or as soon as you enter Julia’s restaurant in Denver’s West Highlands. Although the exposed ceilings of her restaurant fit in with Denver style, the rest of the place is all New Mexico. Mexican, Southwestern and Native art decorate the walls (which are painted to look adobe). On the menu is a note from Julia that closes by stating “…feasting and exchange of food reflect the depth of common ideals of reciprocity, community, and the relationship to all life…” It wasn’t just the language and decor that was New Mexico, the food was too. 

For dinner I had Taos style tacos: beef, lettuce, pico and queso on blue fried corn tacos. Delicious. Although the taco shells were just a tad on the soft side.  The Ancho Chili BBQ ribs, chicken cordon green and pecan stuffed acorn squash all sound interesting too, so I’ll have to go back. For desert I probably should have had the pastel de chocolate Diablo, but I went with the not-so-southwestern key lime pie instead.

Julia Blackbirds is open weekdays for lunch from 11 – 2. Dinner hours on Tuesday – Thursday are 5-9, Fridays they are open until 10. Dinner is not served Monday. The restaurant is open from 11-10 on Saturdays and noon – 2 on Sundays.

Jack-N-Grill

This is one of those “if you eat this million calorie gross thing, your picture goes on the wall” kind of places. Don’t come here if you are on a diet. I got one of their more modest burgers (aka it only had one patty) and could only finish half of it. And I can eat a lot. The vibe here is very “family roadhouse.” All the burgers and meals are named after the owners kid and grandkids. Apparently the family came from Albuquerque, started selling burgers, and the rest is history. Although the place doesn’t look particularly New Mexican (no adobe anywhere), the menu has the requisite sopapillas, posole, and green chile menu items.

I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t really like Jack N Grill. They’ve won tons of local and national awards, so go ahead and give them a whirl, but I wasn’t feeling it. I had a Jaxx burger, complete with onions, guacamole, bacon, cheese and green chiles. For some terrible reason, the bacon was infused with maple syrup, making the whole burger taste faintly of a pancake breakfast. The bun was a little weird too, too soft and sweet for me, although maybe I’m still reacting to the bacon.

My house

I made my first posole the other day, which was a little intimidating because my roommate is one kick-ass soup chef. I’m more of a baker, but armed with hominy corn and a recipe from, I was ready to go.

Even though the recipe was definitely on the “easy” side, I think I used like ten pots and pans to make this. I also splattered everything within a ten foot radius of the stove when I was frying up the lamb. The posole turned out great though. I mostly stuck to the recipe, but I did add half an onion to the recipe, and garnished with radishes. I also made cute little cornbread muffins to go with the posole (see above). Good stuff.

I still haven’t found a good place for Navajo tacos (open faced tacos on fry bread), but now whenever I need posole, green chile cheeseburgers, or a chance to ‘feast while reflecting on the common ideals of humanity,’ I don’t have to go all the way down to New Mexico.

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