Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Shop Minnesota museums for the most unique holiday gifts

If you crave gifts that are unexpected and go up a notch on the cool factor, skip the big retailers. Head to your local museums instead.

Museum gift shops celebrate regional artists, authors and local flavor in a ways you won't get at most stores. By shopping at museums, you're supporting Minnesota's cultural scene as well as taking a breather if you're able to enjoy the exhibits, too.

Mill City Museum, Minneapolis
The Mill City Museum (left) in particular melts into the holiday mood thanks to its focus on Minneapolis' history as the flour capital of the world for half a century. General Mills with its Betty Crocker icon and Pillsbury with its Dough Boy continue the homey kitchen legacy. I always leave with an urge to go bake cookies.

What you can find here: Lip balm scented like Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, stuffed Dough Boys, hot dish cookbooks, Minnesota-invented Bundt cake pans, wonderful junior chef bakeware for kids, and aprons with attitude: "I'm not Betty Crocker. Deal with it!"

Minnesota History Center,  St. Paul
Visitors to the Minnesota History Center will find top-of-the-line local treats that tie into its new show, "Chocolate: The Exhibition." On loan from the Field Museum in Chicago through Jan. 2, it follows the history of how a humble cocoa bean became one of the world's most sought-after flavors.

It's also an ideal place to pick up something for book-lovers such as Peg Meier's "Wishing for a Snow Day: Growing Up in Minnesota," beautifully photographed "Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness" from Greg Breining and Layne Kennedy, and novels such as Dean Urdahl's "Uprising," the first in a trilogy about the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.

Need stocking stuffers? Look for light-hearted loon flutes, ladyslipper socks and Ole and Lena fortune cookies.

Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul
This is the greatest shop for nature and biology kits, guidebooks, rocks and minerals, dinosaur puzzles and other wonderful hands-on gifts for curious kids (or adults).

A sampling of goodies for under $20: hand-held, take-apart brain-teasers similar to Rubik's Cube; origami kits for folding bunnies that hop and birds that can flap their wings; a build-your-own kaleidoscope kit; and DVDs of favorite IMAX movies.

To shake things up a little, you can pose with Anubis (left), a 26-foot-tall replica of the Egyptian god erected this week at Landmark Plaza. It makes for an enchanting Christmas outing with a stop at the free Wells Fargo ice rink. Anubis precedes the upcoming King Tut exhibit, "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," that opens Feb. 18. Tickets went on sale this week and can make great stocking stuffers, along with tickets to the general museum or Omnitheater.

Tip for parents: If you have kids ages 10 and under, stop by the Mississippi Visitor Center in the museum's lobby. Like other national park sites, you can get a free workbook to learn about the river and earn a Junior Ranger badge.

Art museums
Art museum gift shops have always been spot on for unique jewelry, art cards, journals, whimsical umbrellas, puzzles, prints and posters, funky desk toys and, of course, art supplies. The Walker Art Center's Totem building cards and crayon rocks for kids look especially intriguing. The
Minneapolis Institute of Arts also is worth a look. Plus admission is free with the exception of special exhibits. Check out its family center and look for monthly family days.

Regional museums
Don't forget smaller regional museums either. They're especially good for older relatives who enjoy memoirs, nostalgic gifts and the funny ones. Our favorite find one year was from St. Cloud's Stearns History Museum: Nunzilla, a stern, wind-up nun who walked and shot sparks from her mouth. It was perfect for an aunt who attended a strict Catholic school and spent many Halloweens dressed in a habit.

For more information on museums statewide and art centers, go to Explore Minnesota.

For additional gift ideas, check out some of the best Minnesota-made apparel and accessories.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Add wild rice to your Thanksgiving menu

Just harvested grains of wild rice.
I'm deviating from travel posts to share a few recipes after seeing the huge interest in earlier wild rice posts.

One dish become almost as important as turkey and mashed at our family Thanksgivings since friends shared the original recipe in the 1970s. It has since spanned the globe from Hawaii to Germany.

It's designed for cultivated wild rice, which requires longer to cook. If you're using the hand-harvested truly wild rice, it only takes about 20 minutes. We usually double the recipe so there is extra to freeze or make creamy wild rice soup with the leftovers.

Read more about great restaurants serving wild rice or the difference between hand-harvested and cultivated wild rice in earlier posts.

Wild rice soaked overnight.
Wild rice with mushrooms & pecans
This recipe has followed us from Hawaii to Germany as we've shared it with everyone. We often double it and use leftovers for a creamy wild rice soup.
4 T. butter
2 T. grated carrot
2T. finely diced celery
2 T. finely diced onion
1 C. wild rice (let it soak overnight & drain it)
1 tsp. salt
2 C. chicken broth
½ lb. mushrooms, coarsely chopped
2 T. finely chopped fresh parsley
¼ C. finely chopped pecans (or almonds)

Melt 2 T. butter over medium heat until it foams. Add vegetables and cook, stirring occasionally, 10-15 min. They should be soft but not brown. Stir in cup of rice plus salt. Cook 2-3 minutes. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover pan tightly, turn heat to low and let cook undisturbed for 45 minutes until rice is tender and liquid absorbed. About 10 minutes before rice is ready, melt remaining 2 T. of butter. Add mushrooms and parsley and cook about 5 min. Add pecans & cook 2-3 more minutes. Add to rice and fluff with a fork. Enjoy!

Wild Rice with cherries and red pepper
This is a more unexpected version of a wild rice side dish that's served at Quivey's Grove, a restaurant in Madison, Wis. It's one of my most memorable dining experiences for the historic atmosphere and their focus on traditional Wisconsin ingredients. The dried cherries sweetly complement the nutty taste of wild rice.

2 T. olive oil
3 T. white wine
1 minced shallot
1/2 leek (the white part) cleaned and finely diced
1 finely diced celery rib
1/2 half finely diced red bell pepper
1/2 t. coriander
1/2 T. fresh sage
1/2 C. dried cherries
1 C. wild rice
3 C. chicken broth
Rinse the wild rice well in a colander under cold, running water. Saute the leek, celery, and pepper in the olive oil and wine. Heat the stock. Add the rice and stir to coat thoroughly. Add the spices and dried cherries. Add the simmering stock and cover. Simmer gently until all the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. 4 servings.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christmas chocolate cravings

Canelake's delightfully old-fashioned Iron Range candy shop.
Upper Midwest's best candy shops

It's a pregnant woman's fantasy: chocolate-covered dill pickles and even chocolate-covered green olives. How can you not give in to curiosity and give them a try?

My mom and I found these savory, strange sweets at Carole Widman's Candy Company in Fargo, North Dakota, last winter. It takes a bit for your tastebuds and brain to process an utterly unpredictable taste combination--mostly with the olives. It requires you to chew slowly, let it linger, say "Hmmm..." and then try it again. It's a strangely addicting combination of sweet and salty, and I'd have to say I preferred the olives. The dill of the pickles seemed too overwhelming.

Since we're probably all recovering from the sugar and calorie comas of Halloween's predictable treats--Reese's, M&Ms and Kit Kats--it's a good time to seek and celebrate what's different and what creative candy makers at small chocolatiers are serving.

Think of it as a sensory gift, too, a sweet hit of aromatherapy. Remember that magical French mint whiff you'd get walking past Fanny Farmer stores?

If you're not drooling yet, give it a minute. Here are a few tasty picks from Minnesota and the Dakotas. Most offer mail order for Christmas if you can't get there in person.
Watertown Confectionery, Watertown, SD

This store nestled into a wonderful old-fashioned  downtown serves my favorite chocolate-covered potato chips. The kettle-style Dakota chips are thick and crunched up for maximum density and texture. Even better: try the clusters jalapeno-flavored potato chips drenched in chocolate. It's a surprisingly brilliant combination: a kick tempered with sweetness and a dash of salt.

Owners Mike and Vickie Marotz also are known for their South Dakota cow pies and chocolate mints you can smell throughout this tidy, spacious shop--unless it's coffee roasting day. Breathe deeply and enjoy.

Carole Widman's, Fargo, ND
If the novelty of chocolate-covered pickles and olives seems too out-there (or you can't eat them right away before they expire), go for a fresh take on traditional hand-dipped chocolates. We loved the sunflower-seed-studded bars of chocolate (a perfect nod to local crops) and the crisp-crunch of chocolate with flax seed. That, too, gives a nod to local farming and bites like a more delicate Nestle Crunch Bar with a nutty, fun kick of roasted flax.

Their most famous chocolates? Chippers, chocolate-covered potato chips, heavy on the chocolate.

The pink-themed store seems like a candy newcomer buried in a strip-mall by big-box stores, but Widman's business has been around for about 100 years. Other family members run stores in Grand Forks and Morris, Minn.

Canelake's, Virginia, MN

If you love that stick-in-your-teeth butterscotchy goodness of Butterfingers, you'll love Canelake's "Hot Air," an old-fashioned foam candy dipped in chocolate. Of course it's much airier and more puffed up than a Butterfinger with its unusual texture. 

This downtown Virginia institution with its vintage red-and-white-striped storefront screams nostalgia in the best way possible. The Canelake's candymakers have been stirring buttery caramel, adding real cream, roasting nuts, and cooling hand-dipped chocolates on marble tables since 1905.

You can buy assortments by the box or put together your own mix with minty Swiss chocolates, chocolate-caramel-pecan frogs, glazed and chocolate-dipped apricots and just about any nutty, fruity or creamy candy-store combination.

Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen, Knife River, MN
 You'd never know this adorable red-and-white shop used to be Mel's Fish store. This long-time Knife River icon seems like such a natural fit for a sweet little candy shop. Pamela and Patricia Canelake and Pamela's husband, Dennis--grandchildren of the Canelake's founder--bought the building and replanted the family's chocolate roots in 2007.

Like Canelake's, one of Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen's best-known sweets is the chocolate-covered sponge candy dubbed "Air Crunch." Among their other standouts are spicy ginger caramels with a hint of cinnamon, a maple cream bar covered in chocolate-covered peanuts, chocolate-covered sea salt caramels, and the wittily named U Betcha Bars--a generous caramel square dipped in chocolate and rolled in walnuts. It's on a stick, which is a fun nod to Minnesota's legendary on-a-stick state fair food.

Indecisive? A Knife River Nibbler box can take care of that. And if you're missing Mel's Fish, you'll have to go to Russ Kendall's for your smoked fillets, but grab the candy shop's tribute to Mel first: a chocolate fish.