This spicy-sweet take on a fair-food classic is a worthy tribute to the cuisine of late summer festivals.
Billed as the Great Minnesota Get-Together, the Minnesota State Fair is the last big gasp of summer. In a state that may be snow-covered for nearly half of the year, that’s a big deal — and so is the fair, which takes place on its permanent grounds in St. Paul for 12 days, ending on Labor Day. It’s the largest state fair in the country when ranked by daily attendance; on one record-setting day in 2014, over 250,000 people came through the gates.
There’s a lot to see and do. The large, vibrant midway and other rides and attractions throughout the fairgrounds attract families and offer places for teens to hang out. Exhibits in the Department of Natural Resources Building educate visitors about Minnesota’s natural wonders; the giant outdoor fishpond is stocked with finny critters that give people a chance to actually see what they’ve been trying to catch all summer. Demonstration barns and a milking parlor provide city dwellers with a look at farm life, and youth come from across the state to show livestock, poultry, rabbits, and other critters. Musical and other performances take place throughout the day at various stages, and nightly at the grandstand, where they are followed by a fireworks display. And of course there’s food … lots and lots of food, which is the main attraction for some fairgoers.
When it comes to food, the Minnesota State Fair is famous for one thing: food on a stick. Offerings on-a-stick include alligator sausage, deep-fried candy bars, bacon (plain or chocolate dipped), ostrich, nut rolls, grilled chops, bacon-wrapped turkey tenderloins, chocolate-covered cheesecake, pretzel dogs, mashed potatoes (yes, indeed, and in two varieties), frozen Key lime pie, fruit chunks (fresh, or battered and fried), fried cookie dough, and lots more. One booth offers spaghetti and meatballs on a stick; it’s a bit of creative advertising, because only the meatballs are on a stick, while the saucy spaghetti is served in an accompanying dish. Of course, there are the on-a-stick standbys of caramel apples, cotton candy, and corn dogs (at dozens of booths scattered across the fairgrounds, in regular or foot-long sizes; one is never far from a corn dog). Phew!
Plenty of other non-stick foods are sold — some commonplace, some not so much. Popcorn and caramel corn, ice cream, sodas, fresh-squeezed lemonade, mini doughnuts, fresh potato chips, and French fries are found at state and county fairs all over. But how about beer gelato, Middle Eastern grilled lamb testicles, and bison hot dogs? Specialties like Iron Range pierogi, walleye mac and cheese, beef-tongue tacos, and birch beer give nod to Minnesota’s rich and varied heritage. Grease-weary fairgoers will also find simple, fresh fruit, as well as sushi and frozen apple cider push-ups.
There’s so much more to see at the Minnesota State Fair that it’s worth the trip. If you’re in the area just before Labor Day, plan to spend a day … and wear loose pants.
Thai Peanut-Caramel Popcorn
The thick caramel on this popcorn, enriched with peanut butter and Thai spices, makes this a delicious change from the regular caramel corn found at fairs and festivals. This stuff is pretty addictive, once you get into it.
- 6 cups popped popcorn (from about 3 tablespoons popcorn kernels)
- 1 cup very coarsely crushed peanuts (crushed in a plastic bag with a rolling pin)
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
- ⅓ cup peanut butter
- ⅓ cup light corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot pepper sauce
- ½ teaspoon finely minced fresh gingerroot
- ¼ teaspoon finely minced garlic
- Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Coat a very large mixing bowl with cooking spray. Add the popcorn and peanuts to the bowl. Stir together the soy sauce and baking soda in a small bowl.
- Stir together the brown sugar, melted butter, peanut butter, corn syrup, hoisin sauce, oil, Sriracha, gingerroot, and garlic in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes. The mixture will be foamy and should pull together into a soft, taffylike mass, coming slightly away from the edges of the pan; take care not to burn the thin coating that will form on the bottom of the pan. Remove from the heat. Stir the soy sauce mixture again, and stir it into the peanut butter mixture.
- Immediately pour the peanut butter mixture over the popcorn and peanuts, tossing with two large wooden spoons as though mixing a salad to distribute the hot mixture as best you can; the popcorn and peanuts will not be evenly coated, and that’s fine. Spread as evenly as possible on the prepared baking sheet.
- Bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes to distribute the caramel more evenly. Remove from the oven and let the popcorn cool on the baking sheet. Break up into clusters. The popcorn will keep for a week or longer in a tightly sealed container at room temperature.