Monday, August 31, 2015

Downtown Milwaukee boat rentals

An afternoon pontoon cruise on Lake Michigan

What do you do when your lovely and insanely talented coworker leaves for a new job? Why, celebrate her and wish her all the best — on a boat! Let me explain: Last Friday was my coworker Melody's last day at work. She's off to conquer the design world, and though she'll be seriously missed, what more can you say? Go do great things, girl.

To ease the transition, our boss Scott treated our team to an impromptu "Farewell Melody!" party on a boat Friday afternoon — sweet in every sense of the word. The boat was a so-called "party barge" (pontoon boat) through Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rentals, fitting up to 10 people and available to rent at an hourly rate. All we had to do was sign our lives away in waiver and voila! The boat was ours for two hours. Boat pick-up happens near Old World Third Street. Easy peasy.

We feasted on Cousin's Subs (chicken salad = never again), Colectivo donuts (yep — they sell raised donuts every Friday!), and margaritas. Our other designer, Jenny, played barkeep while Melody manned the music; a little Beirut really set the river-cruising mood. "I feel like I'm in Italy," Scott said as he commandeered the party barge.

The weather was a little chancy — a fact my phone reminded me of repeatedly with push notifications like "100% chance of rain in 15 minutes!" I swear that had never happened before. Luckily the rain held off and the worst we had to endure was some misting and the chill of the lake (the lake was noticeably colder than the river).

Before heading back to land, Scott made sure we set off the drone. Newsflash: Drones are kinda freaky. The whirring, the fear of it breaking, the watchful eye... We girls had never been so up close and personal with the drone before, so we maintained as safe a distance as possible when you're stuck all together in the middle of a lake.

Determined to get a group pic, Scott set the drone in flight with Pete, our Illustrator, on hand to catch and release it. No pressure, Pete! There were a lot of shrill screams from the peanut gallery, but we got our group photo and the drone lived to fly another day. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

3 summertime sweets

A throwback to a few of my favorite desserts 

Can we all agree to blissfully ignore the fact that it's back-to-school, almost September 1st, and just four months until Christmas is over? Say it with me: Denial. To celebrate denial, here are three yummy desserts just begging to be made before summer's end. Which means you have plenty of time, right? Of course right. 

Lemon chiffon cake. There's something about lemon that says "summer" to me — especially in layers of light, airy, creamy deliciousness.

S'more pie. Summer = Camping = S'mores. Bring the campfire inside with this yummy pie. It's super easy and all the key players are present. 

No-bake peanut butter cup bars. Holding out hope for more hot days, these are perfect when you don't want to turn on the oven.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Lemon & herb summer pasta salad

Lighten up a favorite summer side dish

This recipe came to me from Giada by way of my dear friend Fritz. Originally an orzo salad, I was forced to shake things up because I couldn't find orzo at my local store — and nobody has time to run all over creation searching for orzo. I nabbed a box of small shells as an orzo stand-in, and let me tell you: I may never go back. 

First of all, the flavor in this salad would be awesome no matter what. The herbs and dressing are a delight. And sure, itty bitty orzo can be great. But with bite-sized ingredients like chopped tomatoes and garbanzo beans, the small shells were not too big and not too small — they were just right. They sweetly cradled those beans and veggies. So go for orzo, another small pasta, or even quinoa — I'll be over here with my small shells. Other tweaks I made to the original recipe: To make this a main dish, I added chicken and spinach.

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4 cups chicken broth
2 cups small pasta, dry
1 15-oz. can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups red and yellow grape tomatoes, quartered 
3/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil 
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint 
1 package/small tub crumbled feta cheese (I used garlic & herb)
2 grilled chicken breasts, chopped (optional) 
2–3 handfuls baby spinach, chopped (optional)

1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon, juiced)
2 tsp honey
2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp pepper
1 cup olive oil

1. Bring chicken broth to a boil. Stir in pasta and cook about 7 minutes or until al dente. Drain the pasta and douse with cold water to stop the cooking and cool the pasta. Transfer to a large bowl.

2. Add the quartered tomatoes, drained/rinsed garbanzo beans, and chopped red onion to the pasta. Fold together. If desired, add chopped chicken. (Do not add the herbs/spinach/feta yet!)

3. Whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients until combined, then fold into the salad fixings to taste. I added just half of the dressing, but reserved the rest in case it needed more the next day.

4. Just before serving, fold in chopped basil and mint (this way it won't wilt). Add the feta (you could add the feta earlier, but be sure to wait until the pasta is thoroughly cooled — otherwise it'll melt the cheese!). If desired, add chopped spinach.

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A few quick notes: First, you probably don't have to cook the pasta in chicken broth — but boy, does it add a ton of flavor! So just do it. You may never go back to boiling pasta in water. Second, if you think you won't miss the mint, think again. I'd never cooked with mint before, but it definitely lent a lovely freshness to the salad. Don't skip it! Third, I really don't think you need all the dressing. But I'm not a fan of pasta salad drowning in oil — you do you!

I brought this salad to our picnic before The Labyrinth at Film on the Hill and it was a hit. Not unlike the creamy pasta salad I made a couple weekends ago, I also couldn't stop snitching bites of this one while I was mixing it up. That's the sign of something good, right? So thanks, Fritz! Thanks Giada! We've found another keeper.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Dreamgirls" first rehearsal

A peek at the Milwaukee Rep's fall 2015 musical

As the Milwaukee Rep gears up for their 2015–2016 season, the people behind the scenes put out a call for local fans to be part of their social media club. I applied, made the cut, and the rest (as they don't really say) will be documented in full on my blog. I'm so thrilled for the chance to see and write about what I'm sure will be some outstanding Milwaukee theater. Last year I saw the Rep's Harvey and Peter and the Starcatcher and loved them both tremendously.

The new season at the Milwaukee Rep kicks off with the musical Dreamgirls. Musicals at the Rep are a relatively new tradition — just six seasons old. The last Rep musical I saw was Ragtime and it blew me away. In similar mind-blowing fashion, Dreamgirls promises high-power vocals, an affecting story, and (bonus!) lots of sequins.

To show off the company's talent and get the theater community buzzing about the fall production, the Rep hosted a rehearsal and reception at Mount Mary College. Members of the social media club were treated to reserved seats in the front row (I'm loving the perks of this new gig already). Along with about 500 Rep fanatics, we heard from the Dreamgirls director, costume designer, and other notable theater folks. Then we heard from the cast in two jaw-dropping songs, the best of which they saved for last: Nova Y. Payton's "And I Am Telling You" brought the crowd to their feet and mist to my eyes — a total visceral reaction to such an impassioned performance.

And this is only the first rehearsal?! Friends, you're not going to want to miss seeing this one. Dreamgirls runs from September 22nd to November 1st. Get your tickets now! 

Pear & goat cheese salad

For those salad-for-dinner nights

Confession: I don't know if I've actually cooked chicken in our apartment all summer. Well, maybe once or twice. Why? Because it's so much easier to run to the Sendik's deli and buy either their grilled or lemon pepper grilled chicken breasts as I need them. They're consistently tasty and never, ever have what I call "funny pieces" in them. You know what I mean — gristle and such. No thank you. 

I've turned to Sendik's grilled chicken for a lot of summer weeknight suppers. It's not only easy, but having salad for dinner keeps our apartment cool (no stove/oven needed), and adding chicken turns a side salad into a meal. That said, you can make this salad sans chicken for a yummy side dish too — your call. It's delicious either way.

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** These amounts make dinner for two**
Baby spinach (a few handfuls), roughly chopped
1 pear (any kind), sliced or chopped
1 chicken breast, chopped
diced red onion, to taste
2–3 TBS chopped walnuts
2–3 TBS sunflower seeds
2 TBS dried cranberries
1 TBS chia seeds 
goat cheese, crumbled (I like Montchèvre's garlic & herb)
Vinaigrette dressing (I like Marie's lemon herb vinaigrette)

Chop up the choppables and toss all ingredients together with dressing in a large bowl. Plate it for two and enjoy!

**Note: Certain ingredients can sub in or out with other things (trade walnuts for pecans) or can be omitted completely (chia seeds). Things I wouldn't omit: The obvious pear and goat cheese, as well as the cranberries and nuts. They add a lot of taste and texture.

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Okay, so I took these pics in an attempt to showcase all the goodies in this salad, but in reality I make this like a chop salad instead. I really dig chop salads — they're so easy to eat and you're more likely to get yummy stuff in every bite. Also, to keep this an easy weeknight meal, I used jarred dressing. However I have found my new favorite dressing recipe, which I'll share another time. Such suspense!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Film on the Hill at Humbolt Park

The night we (kind of) saw The Labyrinth

When I heard Humbolt Park would be playing 1986's The Labyrinth starring David Bowie, a young Jennifer Connelly (#acting), and a bunch of weirdos from the Jim Henson Studio, I knew I'd have to be there. We arrived a little before 7:00 and the hill was packed. It sounded like the organizers were a little surprised at the turnout. Can you blame us? You're showing a fantasy cult classic starring David Bowie in high-waisted stretch pants! People show up for that. And naturally sing along to "Magic Dance." It was, as they say, everything.

We weaseled our way into the middle — to what we thought would be an okay spot. Here are a few things we learned: Those camping chairs ruin everything for people on the ground. And the screen will be the size of a postage stamp if you aren't sitting right underneath it. My brother had a clear shot of just half the screen the entire time, and Adam eventually gave up and just laid back on the lawn, listening instead of watching. I craned my neck and stuck it out, but note to self: Get there way earlier, or pray that Humbolt (hopefully!) gets a bigger screen and/or props it up higher next summer. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Soaps & Scents greeting cards

A haven for card lovers in Wauwatosa

You can keep your gifts — just give me the card. A high-quality, made-in-the-USA, "hand-printed on an antique press and printed on 100% recycled paper" card with a killer envelope. I will obsess over it and it will never leave its special spot on the fridge. You have my word.

I love getting cards almost as much as I love buying and sending them. Call me crazy, but greeting cards really are my weakness. Other girls can't say no to designer shoes, fine leather handbags, or everything at T.J. Maxx — but I can't walk into a boutique-y card shop and leave without spending around $30. Might not sound like much moolah, but it's all relative — I'm talking about cards here after all.

I believe good cards are a great thing to stock up on, and when you see one that jives with you, buy it. Someday you're going to want to thank somebody, send condolences, or say "I love you" — you know that perfect card will come in handy. If you don't buy it, you're left scrambling, running to Walgreens and settling for something that's all wrong. So snatch up the good ones when you can.

The card offerings at Soaps & Scents are wonderful. They carry lots of different designers, so the variety is grand and still every single card met my crazy-card-lady marks for quality (good paper stock, nice size variety, solid envelopes, and plenty of blank options so you're not stuck with a stupid pre-written sentiment that sounds nothing like you). I stocked up on cards for babies, birthdays, and thank-yous — all good to have in your arsenal. I can't wait to go back to Soaps & Scents for Christmas cards — I'm sure they won't disappoint! 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Soaps & Scents

An enchanting boutique gift shop in Tosa

Anyone remember Soaps & Scents, the charming little shop at Mayfair next to Panera? I always loved going in there to browse the gifts, children's books, and of course the soaps. Well if you're looking to get your specialty scents and soaps at the mall these days you'll be disappointed. But fear not, boutique soap lovers! The shop simply moved to a much more fitting location: Historic Downtown Tosa.

Soaps & Scents is now just up the street from Le Reve, with welcoming picture windows and a door that's always propped open (Wisconsin weather permitting). The first thing I noticed walking in are gorgeous, lightweight robes hanging on the door and gently swaying in the breeze — so pretty. Some day I'll splurge on one.

As you step inside, there's a feast for the senses: whimsical hanging lights, walls of soaps and lotions in beautiful packaging, candles, French tablecloths, aprons, gorgeous books worthy of anyone's coffee table, tote bags, decorative boxes, and plush animals for the kids.

And cards. Oh the cards! Soaps & Scents is a veritable paper wonderland. I think I looked at literally every card in the place, leaving no stone unturned. I left with about $30 worth of paper goods — par for the course in my book. But I'll delve a bit deeper into the cards themselves in another post. Just know that Soaps & Scents carries a gorgeous variety and it's worth checking it out.

Really, Soaps & Scents is a one-stop-shop for gifts of the lovely variety. Fellas, this is the place to get your girl something special to pamper herself. Ladies, I'd check out Soaps & Scents for baby and wedding shower gifts before succumbing to a big box store. There's a shift in our culture these days — a shift back to the small, boutique-y, and homemade. Thank goodness, because it leaves room in this crazy, over-developed world for enchanting places like Soaps & Scents. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cafe Bavaria

A little piece of Germany in Tosa

I first went to Cafe Bavaria on its opening weekend. My friend Rachelle was visiting from out of town and a friend of hers was the bartender there. He recommended yummy drinks (Schofferhofer forever!) and gave us free jelly-filled donuts. He doesn't work there anymore. 

Anyway, I finally made it back for dinner a couple weeks ago with my mom on Pippin's grooming night. We sat outside even though it was a little chilly for a summer night — hence the warm, frothy chai latte. 

For food, my mom went for a pair of bratwurst sliders smothered in sauerkraut and relish while I scarfed down the Ludwig smash burger — juicy, meaty goodness topped with almond-bacon-apple chutney and herbed garlic cheese on a pretzel bun. Your potato options at Bavaria are either homemade kettle chips or steak frites — both yummy, especially when you factor in the array of dipping sauces. 

My mom and I enjoyed our eats, but agreed that there's lots of other scrumptious-sounding stuff on the menu that we'd like to try next time. Personally I'd love to go back to Bavaria just for some of the apps — mainly the tater tots, cheese curds, and Munich pretzel. And the Schofferhofer. Always the Schofferhofer. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Creamy shell pasta salad

Pasta + veggies + salami + creamy goodness

Oh my heavens, this pasta salad. I love my Aunt Kathy's Italian pasta salad recipe, but wanted a change of pace for Fritz and Tim's barbecue. My search on Pinterest resulted in Mom's Macaroni Salad. I tweaked it slightly, adding more stuff than the original recipe calls for. It turned into a giant bowl of creamy deliciousness. The kind of thing where I snitched one noodle, then another, then another, then told myself aloud "I'm done now" — then went back for more anyway. We're lucky any of this made it to the barbecue really.

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1 box large shells or macaroni
2/3 to 3/4 cup matchstick carrots, chopped
2/3 to 3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
2/3 to 3/4 cup chopped bell pepper
1/4 to 1/2 of a red onion, chopped
1 roma tomato, chopped
6 to 8 oz. block of cheddar cheese, cubed
1/4 to 1/2 lb. genoa salami, chopped

1 and 1/2 cups mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 TBS dijon mustard
2 TBS sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper, plus more to taste

Cook the pasta, drain, and rinse under cold water. Mix up the dressing (I combined the ingredients in a 2-cup measure and mixed with a fork). Combine the cooled pasta, chopped stuff, and dressing in a large bowl and fold together. 

*Note: If you're making the pasta to serve almost immediately, you won't need all of the dressing. I found that 1/2 of the dressing was enough to make it yummy. But after sitting in the fridge overnight, the dressing dried up and I had to add more before serving. So if the salad will be sitting overnight in the fridge, either add 3/4 to all of the dressing right away (it should dry up just enough to be the perfect amount), or add 1/2 of the dressing and more to taste just before serving. In the end, I used just 3/4 of the total dressing — that way the salad was never sitting in pools of mayo. But I'd still make the whole amount just to be safe! 

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This pasta salad is impossible to keep around for very long and got lots of compliments and recipe requests. I'm more than a little obsessed with it. In fact, I selfishly put some aside for me and my family to share later, since I guessed that whatever I brought to the barbecue would be gone by the end of the night — and I was right! 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Grills, fests, & house plants

A weekend recap

It's been one of those weekends that feels full of activity and also full of laziness. So really, the best kind of weekend. On Friday night we braved the storm moving through Southeast Wisconsin — the type of storm that makes my dad say "It's a twista! It's a twista!" 

At the end of the storm lay a bonfire/barbecue hosted by Fritz and Tim. Lucky for us all, Tim has a finished garage with plenty of room for circling up some camping chairs and even moving the grill inside. I tried a new pasta salad recipe just for the occasion (recipe to come this week!). Eventually the rain cleared and we were able to have our bonfire — and we had it until 4:00 AM. Newsflash: My body didn't thank me for that one. But it did thank me for pasta salad.

After sleeping in and taking naps on Saturday, Adam and I joined my family and some friends at Irish Fest — the best fest! It's my happy place, and I know that there are a lot of local folks with Irish blood who would agree with me. As always, we ate McBob's rueben sandwiches — yummy, but soggy on the bottom. And consulting last year's blog post, we went for the Irish nachos again. Mistake. Maybe it was just the person who made our order, but there wasn't enough cheese sauce. Nachos sans proper cheese saucing are just a dry plate o' chips.

We went to see Scythian, and as always they tore it up. The fiddling skills knocked our socks off. They brought out the Trinity Irish Dancers for part of a song. They played "If Ever You Were Mine" — a tune that made my friend Shea and I turn to each other and say simultaneously: "THIS IS SO PRETTY." We followed up Scythian with Gaelic Storm, but it was such a madhouse and a little hard to handle. I like that Scythian is manageable and every bit as entertaining. 

On Sunday, Adam and I slept in as much as possible in our sweltering hot apartment and then headed out on a mission: house plants! We have a few colorful cacti already, but Adam's been itching for some greenery. We bought a few small plants for the windowsill and a Arboricola — commonly called Dwarf Umbrella Tree. How cute is that?

A lady at Stein's says she's had her Arboricola for 30 years — so welcome to the family, miss! We may or may not have named her Pamona after Professor Sprout from Harry Potter. Yep, we suddenly became those people who name their house plants. Anyway, she's not potted yet, or pruned — apparently you can't move, repot, and prune all at once or you'll shock 'em. We don't want to shock Panoma! Wow I love naming plants, and I don't care who knows it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Boozy Bard presents: Shakespeare Raw

As You Like It + beer + plenty of innuendo

What happens when you take a troupe of theatrical Milwaukeeans and feed them lines of Shakespeare and plenty of alcohol? Boozy Bard Productions. The company has been around since April 2014, and it's exactly what it sounds like: Shakespeare (The Bard) and booze. The actors drink, the audience drinks, and there's even a drinking game that's all about 1590s innuendo (the "length of his sword," sure). On top of the booze, the actors draw their characters out of a hat moments before showtime, adding to the raw feel. Then they don costumes, read from the script, and just make it work.

Before the show started, we learned that back in Shakespeare's day the actors would get the script mere days before the show. They would rehearse any highly choreographed scenes in the light of day (sword fights etc.), then move to the local bar at night to learn their lines by lamplight. So the experience of The Bard and booze truly does date back to Shakespeare's day. Who knew this was the authentic way?!

The company performs a different play by Billy Shakes every month at the cozy Best Place at the Pabst Brewery. Shows run three weekday nights at 7:00 PM and tickets are $10 ($5 for those in themed costumes; themes vary from show to show). The entire thing was a hoot and not your grandma's Shakespeare. The actors take liberties with the script, from performing in a Brooklyn accent to colorful cursing, and sport wacky costumes (lots of shirtless and pantless dudes). But if you have a sense of humor and can handle it — and the sometimes-annoying, rowdy crowd — this is one Shakespeare company not to miss. 

The Boozy Bard's Merchant of Venice will play at the Best Place on September 14th, 15th, and 16th. One tip: If you're not familiar with a particular play, I suggest finding a movie version to watch before, or at least brushing up with an online summary. I wasn't familiar with As You Like It, and though I laughed plenty and followed the basic plot, I really didn't know the details of what what going on or why... And these actors' first concern isn't annunciating — it's entertaining. So do your homework for an even more enjoyable experience. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Healthy baked oatmeal

Mix up rolled oats for a guilt-free breakfast

I don't know that anything can top my mom's baked oatmeal — it's in a league of its own. It also has a good amount of butter and sugar in it. So for baked oatmeal with a healthy twist, I tried a new recipe (altering it a bit) with yummy results. Will it replace Mom's? Not likely. But a guilt-free option is great to have in your arsenal.

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1 and 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 egg, beaten
1/8 cup oil
1/2 cup milk 
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup applesauce or mashed banana
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla 
warm milk, cinnamon, extra brown sugar (for serving)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a square baking pan. In a large bowl, mix egg, oil, and sugar until combined. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until combined. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes and serve with warm milk and toppings of your choice. 

*Note: This will make about 4 to 6 servings, depending how hungry your party is. Leftovers keep well in the fridge the following week — just reheat with milk in the microwave.

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I love that this comes together in one bowl (yay minimal clean up!). I also love that there are easy ways to add extra flavor: Use cinnamon applesauce or vanilla almond or soy milk in place of dairy milk. Try adding mix-ins to the oatmeal before you bake it (apples, berries, nuts). This really is a great base to experiment with. So go and get your healthy oatmeal on! That way you can indulge next week.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dinner at Swig // Dessert at Benelux

Sidewalk & rooftop dining in the Third Ward

When it would be easier to stay in, eat butter toast, and binge watch Parks and Recreation, I'm instead making a conscious effort to get out and enjoy Wisconsin's fleeting, warm summer nights. So on what could have been a lazy evening at home, Adam and I instead put on our Sunday clothes to roam the Third Ward and find some yummy outdoor dining.

We settled on Swig — a place I've been to twice before but Adam had never tried. My first visit to Swig was an indulgent girls night (there was chocolate fondue). My second trip to Swig was relatively recent: lunch with Mom during Downtown Dining Week. We particularly loved the black bean cakes and turkey sandwich with brie, arugula, and red onion jam on rosemary focaccia. I don't remember the last time I've been so excited over a sandwich. The yumminess haunts me.

But the Swig menu switches to more fancy eats in the dinner hour — no turkey sandwiches here. Adam chose a pork dish, which was good but not life-changing. I was happy with my choice: grilled salmon with a ginger sesame glaze served on a bed of quinoa with caramelized brussels sprouts. I'd for sure get it again. Our only complaint about Swig's outdoor dining: They could really use some ambiance. Candles on the tables maybe? String lights overhead? Otherwise, we were pleased. 

For dessert, we walked to Cafe Benelux and asked for a rooftop table. The wait was about 30 minutes, so we strolled along the Riverwalk to pass time. When our table at Benelux was set, we ordered dessert: skillet brownie topped with ice cream, whipped cream, and fudge sauce. Oh, and the ice cream has pretzel bits in it, so sometimes you'll get a bite of salty crunch mixed in with the sweet, warm/cool brownie/ice cream. Divine. And way too much for two people who just ate a full dinner. But ladies, this brownie has Girls Night written all over it! So grab your girls, go to Benelux, get four spoons & dig into Heaven.

Wisconsin State Fair

4 favorites from a fair-weather fair-goer

There are some people who wouldn't miss the State Fair for the world. I've never been one of those people. I'm not big into rides. I love fried food as much as the next person, but festival prices give me buyer's remorse. So for these and whatever other reasons, I hadn't been to the Wisconsin State Fair in years — until this past weekend. 

While I don't feel like I've been totally missing out, I do feel like I discovered things that are worth going back for — things that could make an annual fair-goer out of me. Here are my State Fair favorites.

#1 Bunnies. I could've spent all day in the rabbit and poultry pavilion. But it probably would've become increasingly difficult to not touch all the rabbits and stuff one in my purse. 

#2 Baked potato with everything on it. Yes, I paid $7 for a palmful of cheese curds as my token fried food of the day, but I've had better. The baked potato, however, was pretty awesome. For $6, Adam and I shared a piping hot potato so baked it was basically mashed inside its skin. The potato artists topped it with cheese sauce, broccoli, chili, sour cream, chives, and bacon bits. Worth every penny.

#3 The Wisconsin Products Pavilion. Note to self: Stop here first before succumbing to the fried food. These are real, home-grown products: meats (bison, lamb, jerkies), Door County cherries, local honey and maple, apples, Cedar Crest ice cream, milk, and more. All delicious (though not deep-fried) and definitely more affordable.  

#4 Apple cider donuts for the win! At just 75 cents each, these are a steal. They're smaller than your average donut, but bigger than a mini donut — raised, doused in cinnamon & sugar, and still warm with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Still dreaming about them? You bet.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Buckley's restaurant & bar

Sidewalk dining + fancy eats + carrot cake to die for

Have you ever driven by that charming restaurant on the corner of Cass and Wells with the sidewalk seating and darling black-and-white cafe umbrellas? I've been driving by for years, always thinking the spot looks so warm, inviting, and a trifle magical. Well that restaurant is Buckley's, and thanks to my Aunt Kal who knows what's good and sometimes takes me along for the ride, I finally tried it last week.

We went to Buckley's for dinner with my Uncle Charlie, and for dinner this place gets nice. I mean, I'm sure it's always nice, but at dinner it's nice like grilled octopus, mussels, and oysters nice. The lunch menu looks a bit more accessible, which is probably how I would have gone about my first trip to Buckley's if I hadn't been with Kal. But she steered us in a delicious and un-intimidating direction: We shared burratta, which is akin to a gooey ball of mozzarella the size of your fist served with bread, roasted tomatoes, and pesto — divine. 

We also shared the special gnocchi in a light butter sauce with lemon, herbs, mushrooms, and plenty of Mmmm. Seriously yummy. Seriously wish it was a regular menu item. I'm still dreaming about it.

My Uncle Charlie went for the bulgogi meatballs, which came in a cute little ramekin, and roasted tricolor cauliflower. Both looked and smelled like I need to go back again soon to satiate my curiosity. 

We sat at a sidewalk table for over an hour, enjoying a bottle of wine and eventually coffee. Again, I was lucky to be with my aunt who insists on such luxuries — including dessert. She and Charlie raved about the carrot cake, so that's what we shared between us. 

This is the carrot cake to end all carrot cake. The frosting is a heavenly vanilla bean buttercream, and the cake itself is dense but moist — just the most wonderful texture and flavor throughout. And carrot cake isn't even my favorite kind of cake, so if you're a freak for the carrot cake, drop what you're doing and get to Buckley's. 

P.S. The inside of Buckley's is just as charming as the outside, so venture there for date night or fancy girls night, rain or shine.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mars Cheese Castle

What lies beneath that giant sign in Kenosha

The Mars Cheese Castle. We've all seen it. Growing up and in all the times my family drove past the Castle, I never knew the truth behind it — so my imagination ran wild. What could possibly sit beneath that towering sign but something super kitschy? Like maybe a Martian castle made of Swiss cheese. Well after our day at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, I finally found out what lies beneath that giant sign.

Basically it's Heaven for a party host. If you need crackers, meat, cheese, specialty mustards and jams, unique sodas and beer, candy and chocolates, and fresh bakery (including kringle!), the Mars Cheese Castle is the place to stock up. The space itself isn't huge, but the variety is impressive. Honestly, it was more than a little overwhelming. Faced with such a selection, I left with only a can of Italian blood orange soda and a black & white cookie. But I'd love to go back sometime when I'm more mentally prepared. 

There's also a deli of to-go sandwiches and such. Adam got a Chicago-style hot dog that looked absolutely picture perfect. So yes, there's a lot to recommend the Mars Cheese Castle that you'd never know from its sign. Methinks we need to stop driving past it on our way to and from Chicago — rather, we should stop and smell the cheese.

8 tips for visiting the Bristol Renaissance Faire

Bring sunscreen, water, cash, & imagination

Last weekend, we drove 50 minutes to Kenosha to the village of Bristol for the annual Renaissance Faire. I hadn't been in years, but from what I recall, not much has changed. Still, attending as an adult is inherently different. You're responsible for your own sun screen and it's a lot easier to say "no" when you ask yourself if you can have that expensive floral head wreath that you're never going to wear again. Here are some other tips and tidbits from me to you.

#1 Buy your tickets at Walgreens. You'll save $4 on a $24 ticket. Also, know going into it that parking is $5. The Faire is open from 10:00 to 7:00. Arrive early — it only gets hotter and more crowded.

#2 Sunscreen. Apply in heavy layers and often. This place looks lovely and shady, right? And at times it is! And at other times *cough*JOUST*cough* you're left baking in the sun and dripping sweat. So carry your sunscreen with you. 

Also water. You're not supposed to bring in food or beverages, but I read before going that water is $3/bottle. There are some bubblers, so you can always refill your from-home bottles there. 

#3 Plan your day around side shows you want to see. We came upon shows in progress, and by that time it's standing room only. You also kind of feel like you're late to the party on the inside jokes. So if you want to really enjoy a side show, arrive in time to snag a seat and see it from the beginning. 

#4 Arrive at least 30 minutes early for the joust — at least. We arrived about 30 minutes early and the stands on the shady side of the arena were already packed. So we were stuck sitting in the sun. Cue the melting and burning! Don't get me wrong; the joust is worth your time the beating sun, but it would have been better in the shade. 

#5 Relax and enjoy the people watching. We happened to be at the Faire on Costume Contest day — so there was even more spectacle to be had! Some of it was downright breathtaking — others were breathtaking for a wholly other reasons. And some of it seemed to say "I'm taking my shirt off because it's socially acceptable here." However you look at it, it's some grade A people watching. God I love people.

#6 Let the kids play games — but know that they cost money. And you need to bring cash. There are a couple of ATMs on the grounds, I heard, but better to just come prepared. For a taste of the prices: Adam did knife throwing ($3 for 6 knives), Jacob's ladder ($2 for 3 tries at climbing), and archery ($3 for 6 arrows/$5 for 12 arrows).

#7 Make way for the professionals. This pirate-looking guy sure schooled Adam on Jacob's Ladder — and look! No hands!

#8 Keep a keen eye for photo ops. If you're not careful, you might miss a camouflaged performer, pretty little nook, or Hobbit hole.