Monday, November 30, 2009

Giving Thanks: Our Tiny Feast

It's always nice to have a bit of time away during a holiday weekend... time off from work, from life, from the computer.  But, now we're back -- and it seems fitting that we reflect a bit on our feasting, however humble it might have been.

We were married the day after (American) Thanksgiving in 1998. As a result,  the holiday has become a relatively intimate affair. No huge family gatherings. No record-breaking turkeys. No controversy over whole cranberry sauce versus cranberry jelly. No battle between the white and dark meat folks. And no copious leftovers.

Instead, Thanksgiving day ends up being just the two of us chatting and sipping a bit of wine as we cook up a little feast.  Often, we do slightly more adventurous dishes -- rabbit ragu, turkey mole, roast duck.

This year, we decided to create a variation on the usual Thanksgiving theme.  First, it was our goal to be as local as possible -- so we started off by visiting the Milwaukee Winter Market for our ingredients. We procured a delicious little pheasant from the GBM Elk Farm, a pound of fresh brussels sprouts from Jen Ehr Family Farm, and some delicious Wisconsin cranberries, fresh Italian sausage, and  from Outpost Natural Foods.  I grabbed a few leeks out of our backyard garden, took the stone ground corn meal from Great River Organic Milling out of the fridge.

We put together a delicious savory bread pudding with homemade corn bread, cranberries, Italian sausage,  fontina, and leeks.  By far one of the best recipes I've come up with in a long time -- this bread pudding/dressing was even better as a leftover and simply perfect reheated and eaten for breakfast over the holiday weekend!

We brined our pheasant, and then roasted it with a few strips of Beeler's bacon on top, resulting in a very tender, flavorful bird.  My one complaint about the dish is that the brine effectively masked a good percentage of the pheasant's natural flavor, so I'm not sure I'd use it again on a pheasant.  But, I'm definitely interested in using the recipe on my next turkey.

Recipe: Wisconsin Brine

And we braised our brussels sprouts with apples in a bit of apple juice seasoned with crushed juniper berries. This turned out to be one of the most interesting dishes of the day. We were definitely surprised by the flavor the juniper berries brought to the dish (more sweet and peppery than piney) -- and we'll be sharing the recipe with you soon, since it's definitely a dish to experience.

Definitely an awesome local feast!

Sometimes I miss all the excitement associated with a big family holiday. But, I'm also grateful for the simple opportunity to reconnect with Peef and reflect on the wonderful life we've built together.

I hope each and every one of you had a fantastic Thanksgiving (for those of you in the states who were celebrating) and/or weekend!  Rest assured, one of the things we've been thankful for over the past year is your friendship, readership, and great advice.  Blogging has changed the way we live, cook, and eat. And it's all because of you!
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Worth the Journey: Italian Sausage Risotto with Brown Rice

It's all true, those rumors that you've heard. I really am one of those people who will try anything once -- I figure that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So, why not?

I'm particularly adventurous when it comes to food.  
Differently colored vegetables? I'm in.
Strange seafood I've never heard of? ALL over it.
Funny smelling cheese?  Oh, yeah. Gotta get me some of that.

Needless to say, when the opportunity arises to make something healthier, I generally find myself unable to resist. This time around, it started with a bit of ordinary brown short-grain rice.   

Outpost Natural Foods had it on sale in one of their bulk bins, and I found myself thinking (always a very dangerous proposition).  If you can make risotto with white arborio rice, which is short-grain, why couldn't you make risotto with brown short-grain rice? So, I decided to give a try.

I pulled out a bag filled with the Principe Borghese tomatoes that we'd dehydrated last summer, and pondered the possibilities.  It seemed as if I could make the most of their intense tomato flavor by rehydrating them in the stock I was using for the risotto.  So, that's exactly what I did. 

While the stock was warming, I got all of the other ingredients together -- market fresh locally grown rainbow Swiss chard (along with their gorgeous stems), locally made Italian sausages, and some diced sweet onion.

I sauteed the onion with the chard stems in a bit of olive oil until they began to show signs of tenderness. I added the sausage, which I'd removed from its casing, and gave it a bit of time to brown just a bit around the edges. My sausage was relatively lean, so it didn't leave off too much fat.  What it did render, I left in the pan for flavor. I added the rice and gave it a whirl in the pan to coat the grains with the oil; and, after they toasted a bit I added a splash of dry white wine to give everything a bit of additional flavor.  When the wine was fully absorbed into the grains of rice, I started adding the stock cup-by-cup.

Those of you who have made risotto before know that this process doesn't take long at all, and it's by no means arduous.  You simply stir the rice faithfully until the grains absorb the liquid, and then add additional liquid.  The entire process might take 20 minutes -- and, to be honest, I've really grown to love it.  For me, risotto is real cooking. It takes practice to tell when the rice has absorbed enough liquid that you can add the next dose.  It takes rhythm to stir the grains, turning them onto themselves so that they absorb the liquid evenly and efficiently.  It's repetitive. Relaxing. A meditation of sorts.

Well, I'm here to tell you that it takes quite a bit longer when you use brown rice.

Before you write me off as a completely ignorant dork, I need to tell you that I definitely expected to have to add a bit of time to the process. After all, brown rice simply takes longer to cook than white rice.  But, I didn't expect it to take... an hour and fifteen minutes.

uh-huh. So much for all that talk about meditation. I stirred. I added stock. I waited. I watched. And I felt a little bit like I was watching the pot that was never GOING to boil, simply because it was being watched. I even walked away for a while and just let the risotto simmer away for a while. Just as I was about to give up hope and declare my project a failure, the rice actually submitted to my charms and began to achieve the nice creamy consistency that you expect in a good risotto. I will admit to feeling a bit victorious.

I stirred in the rehydrated tomatoes, along with a liberal handful of freshly chopped basil.  I also added about a cup of grated pecorino romano cheese.

Even after the long wait, it was difficult to be disappointed with the risotto. Even the mere smell of it as I scooped it into serving bowls was simply intoxicating.  The fresh peppery smell of the basil slipped out of the pan first -- followed by the distinct briney odor of the romano cheese.  Even the deliciously sweet smell of the fennel from the Italian sausage was evident in the steam that wafted up from the bowl.

In taking my first bite, I noticed that the rice still put forth a bit of resistance against my teeth -- just the sort of resistance you want with an al dente risotto.  Even better yet, the brown rice imparted that slightly nutty flavor that only a whole grain can give.  I was really loving what I tasted.  It was more than just healthy -- it was exactly right.

And I smiled.  Sometimes dinner isn't about the journey. It's about the destination.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ward's House of Prime: How would you like YOUR steakhouse?

Sometimes food blogging has its perks.  One of the benefits is being given the opportunity to check out some of the new restaurants on the block.  And that makes for some pretty delicious field trips.

This weekend, we had the pleasure of attending the soft opening for a new Milwaukee steakhouse. And, despite the fact that we're not your typical meat and potatoes folks, we were pretty curious about Ward's House of Prime.

The question at the tip of our tongues all evening was: "Does Milwaukee really need another steakhouse?" After all, Ward's is located on the corner of Mason and Jackson Streets in Downtown Milwaukee (in the spot formerly inhabited by Yanni's) -- just blocks away from the Zagat-rated Carnevore Steakhouse Moderne, Mason Street Grill, and not far from the Milwaukee location of Mo's... A Place for Steaks.

But, Ward's is making some pretty hefty claims -- high-end entrees at reasonable prices,  an "upscale yet relaxed atmosphere," and an extensive 500-bottle wine list that promises to be one of the best deals in the city.  So, we were eager to give them a chance.

We arrived early, figuring we'd beat the crowds; but, we found quite a number of curious onlookers had already arrived to check out the scene. Attentive wait staff were just beginning to offer bite-sized portions of menu staples. The bar was open and the house wine was flowing.

The Menu
Ward's menu includes standard steakhouse favorites, including prime rib, filet mignon, New York strip, and rib-eye, as well as a nice selection of seafood and chicken dishes. We were most disappointed with the menu's lack of regard for the vegetarians among us. Certainly, the emphasis here is steak. However, there is an increasing demand for vegetarian entrees in Milwaukee -- particularly at upscale restaurants which seek to "wine and dine" Milwaukee tourists and corporate travelers. The one vegetarian entree on the current menu is fair, but none-too-inventive -- butternut squash ravioli in boursin cream. Other veggie options could include stone-fired flatbread pizza or salad, and a fair selection of vegetable add-ons (including seasonal brussels sprouts, asparagus, the prerequisite creamed spinach, and green beans almondine); but, it's always a shame when the vegetarians in the crowd have to settle for the side dishes. Deal breaker? Probably not.  But, we'll be interested to see if Ward's can expand their menu to be a bit more inclusive.

In today's economic times, starting a business can be risky; but, Ward's appears to be saddling up for the challenge. One of the distinguishing aspects of Ward's menu is its "all inclusive" nature; entrees are served with a choice of soup or salad, and potato. While many downtown steakhouses feature pricey entrees with a la carte side dishes, Ward's provides the whole shebang at a price that won't break your pocket book.

Ward's also plans to offer a bar-only menu that will feature more casual food.
"I don't want this to be known as just a 'special occasion' restaurant," says owner, Brian Ward, "I want this to be an everyday sortofa  place.  Casual, but upscale."

How the menu looks is all well and good, you say, but how does it TASTE?
Well, we did have the opportunity to give a number of the major offerings a try -- and we found that Ward's food lived up to the hype. 

We sampled:
  1. Smoked beef carpaccio -- tender, smoked beef on crisp crostini with just a hint of briney goodness from the black olive tapenade.
  2. Chicken brochettes -- grilled chicken, pineapple, green pepper, and onion with a sweet hoisin glaze.
  3. Succulent shrimp cocktail -- nothing too exciting about this basic appetizer; but the shrimp was fresh and tender, and the cocktail sauce more along the lines of a petitely diced salsa than a sweet puree.
  4. Vegetable flatbread -- al dente zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes and a caramelized glaze topped this crisp pizza appetizer.
  5. Caprese salad smartly featured bright cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and sweet basil with a pleasant olive-oil vinaigrette.
  6. Mushroom risotto -- delicious al dente rice with earthy mushroom flavor.
  7. Prime rib -- succulent, well-seasoned beef. Tender and perfectly cooked.  Definitely worthy of the Ward's name.
  8. Bacon-wrapped water chestnuts -- the classic appetizer. Flavorful smoky bacon wrapped around crisp water chestnuts. Peef was in heaven.
  9. The Prime rib chili was probably the most disappointing dish we sampled -- a bit too sweet for our taste, with few seasonings to note.  Unique concept -- but definitely not the best use for an otherwise delicious prime rib.
The Guys Behind the Steak

Brian Ward, Owner,  began his restaurant career as a busboy at Open Hearth Restaurant in Milwaukee.  After training in MATC’s culinary program, he served as Head Chef at Smith Brothers Fish Shanty in Port Washington, General Manager of Highland House in Mequon, and most recently, General Manager of Mo’s – A Place for Steaks. 

Bill Baumann, Executive Chef, is a self-taught chef who began his career at Milwaukee’s landmark German-American restaurant, Karl Ratzsch’s. After leaving Ratzsch’s, Bill honed his craft as Sous Chef for Ristorante Bartolotta. In 2000, he became the Executive Chef of Mo’s – A Place for Steaks, where his culinary skills helped the steakhouse become a Milwaukee favorite. It was a few years into his tenure at Mo’s that Baumann began working with then-General Manager Brian Ward.

The Verdict

Ward's House of Prime officially opened its doors to the public yesterday (Monday, November 16th). 

While it isn't the most original restaurant to come out of downtown Milwaukee, it appears that Brian has a good gauge of his prospective audience. Milwaukee is a fairly traditional town, which means that uber-trendy establishments usually get the boot after a year or two (at best).  Ward's brings a modern twist to the traditional steakhouse with affordable "full plate" entrees, an impressive (but not daunting) wine list, and a downtown neighborhood feel.

Our kinda place? Probably not. But, it's exactly the sort of spot we'd probably take our parents the next time they're in town.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Daring Cooks November: Sushi

We. Love. Sushi.  And we've eaten (probably literally) tons of it in our two short lives. But, we'd never made it before.  So, we were pretty excited about this month's challenge.

The challenge had four parts:
Part 1: Making proper sushi rice – you will wash, rinse, drain, soak, cook, dress, and cool short grain rice until each grain is sticky enough to hold toppings or bind ingredients. Then you will use the cooked rice to form three types of sushi:
Part 2: Dragon sushi roll – an avocado covered inside-out rice roll with a tasty surprise filling
Part 3: Decorative sushi – a nori-coated rice roll which reveals a decorative pattern when cut
Part 4: Nigiri sushi – hand-shaped rice rolls with toppings

Of course, before we could start the challenge, we needed to gather our supplies. Turns out we needed to pick up quite a few things.
  1. Rice vinegar (for some reason, I thought I didn't have any on hand. Turns out I ended up buying an extra... typical!)
  2. Sushi rice (no, you can't be all creative and use Arborio... I don't care HOW Italian you are)
  3. Seaweed: Kombu (kelp) and toasted nori sheets  (turns out I had some Kombu from the last time I made miso soup... but I really did need the nori)
  4. A sushi rolling mat (you don't absolutely need one, but it makes you feel very cool and official -- and we did find it made the process of rolling much easier)
  5. Sushi meats:  We found unagi (barbequed eel) in the frozen section at our local Asian grocer; we also found sashimi grade tuna and salmon at Grasch Foods in Brookfield
  6. Sushi veg: cucumbers, red carrots, beauty heart radishes, shiitake mushrooms, sweet potato, avocado
  7. Miscellaneous items: black sesame seeds, lumpfish roe, wasabi powder (46% true wasabi), and sushi ginger
A few words of advice.  If you're going to make your own sushi rice in the traditional manner, be sure you allow yourself enough time.  You'll need time to rinse, drain, soak, cook, and cool your rice. 

Despite much eye-rolling, Peef was Exceedingly Gentle with the rice -- rinsing and draining them carefully so as not to split the grains.  And he exhibited a Saint's Patience when it came time to dress the rice with the prepared sushi vinegar mixture and fan the rice until it had cooled.

One look at the rice told us that all the work was well worth the effort -- the grains were perfectly cooked -- sticky-yet-separated -- and they had a gorgeous sheen.  The rice also had great flavor. The flavor of the vinegar was present, but not pronounced...  we were ready to roll!

Off to the fun part!!  First, we tackled the dragon/caterpillar roll.
In retrospect, we maybe should have started with something a bit more straightforward... But, despite some initial challenges with the sticky rice, and a few exclamations while arranging the roll on the plate, I think he turned out to be pretty cute.

The roll itself wasn't much to look at (even with the red lumpfish roe on top), but once we embellished the dragon with the avocado scales and gave him gorgeous fuschia-colored armor, things came together nicely.  A couple of red carrot slivers and a bit of fancy scallion-flame work, and we were pretty pleased with ourselves.

Next, we put together our decorative sushi. We decided to go with the traditional (and relatively straightforward) spiral roll.  We filled our roll with sweet potato, seasoned & cooked shiitake mushrooms, beauty heart radishes, and cucumbers.  So pretty!!

And finally, we put together a few lovely nigiri sushi -- salmon, tuna, and mixed vegetable.

I was particularly pleased with the look of the mixed vegetable sushi, which really featured the gorgeous veining in the radishes, and the lovely color of the red carrots.

After we'd finished the prerequisite rolls for the challenge, we did a couple more rolls just for fun.  First, a shiitake mushroom sweet potato uramaki, or "inside out roll" (we called ours the "autumn roll").

And then, spicy tuna maki. We made our spicy tuna with chopped tuna, mayo, and rooster sauce and embellished the roll with a bit of scallion.

And the best part?
Why -- eating the sushi, of course!

Interested in trying it out for yourself?
Sushi - instructions for sushi rice and rolls

The November 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was brought to you by Audax of Audax Artifex and Rose of The Bite Me Kitchen. They chose sushi as the challenge. 

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Indian Summer Eggplant Lasagnette with Cherry Tomato Sauce

Autumn this year sucked.  It was cold, dreary. Prematurely grey.
But, I was being a good sport. I turned the heat on in the house. I wore my winter jacket outside (sometimes with a scarf).  And I had myself all geared up for cold weather comfort food.

And then, something strange happened. The frosty 36ºF days suddenly became balmy 69ºF days. The sun came out. Woodland creatures crept out of their premature hibernation and began to frolick once again. And a day lily in my garden burst into spontaneous autumn bloom (seriously, folks -- I wish I had taken a picture).

For some reason, it seemed wrong to blog about risotto when I could pull out the stops and hearken back to one of those luscious late summer dishes that makes your head swim with lusciousness.  And so, I changed my mind.

Instead of hauling out the photos of that risotto, I took a mental journey back to those warm September days when the garden was ripe with cherry tomatoes. I thought back to the delicious end-of-summer lasagnette that's become a tradition at our house. Layers of delicious fried eggplant, roasted cherry tomato sauce, tangy goat cheese, salty parmesan, and plenty of Italian parsley. 

Yeah, this was the sort of food I was in the mood for.
Just look at those gorgeous fruits. Succulent. Sweet. Bursting with pure tomato flavor.

On this particular occasion, I took about 4-6 cups of the tomatoes and placed them on a roasting pan in a 425ºF oven with a few nice long sprigs of fresh rosemary.

They sweltered, and burst.  Their sugars caramelized and their juices mingled with the flavors of the rosemary branches.

I sauteed about 2 cups of red bell pepper and about the same amount of onion in olive oil. I added 2 cups of uber flavorful homemade chicken stock, a bay leaf, and all those luscious tomatoes.  And I let the sauce simmer away for about 30-35 minutes. 

Meanwhile, I turned my attention to the eggplant I'd picked up at the farmer's market. And took a sip of the glass of wine Peef poured me while I was making the sauce.

I sliced it thinly, salted it liberally, and then left it to drain for about a 1/2 hour or so; then, I rinsed them briefly and dried them thoroughly.  Now, I know that there are skeptics among you -- skeptics who scoff at salting eggplant. Who claim that eggplants don't NEED to be salted.  And maybe that's true.  But, I'm not into doing extra work if there's no pay off.

In this case, I didn't salt the eggplants because I feared they were bitter; rather, I wanted to draw out some of the moisture from the fruits.  This accomplishes three things:  1) It firms the flesh of the eggplant, which renders them texturally more pleasing for the lasagnette; 2) It adds a bit of flavor to the dense eggplant flesh; and 3) A salted (and dried) eggplant will absorb less oil when fried.

I seasoned some flour with salt, pepper, and garlic, and dredged the eggplant. When every slice was nicely powedered, I shallow fried every last piece of it in olive oil.

A few pieces got snarfed up straight out of the hot pan. But, most of them made it to the paper towels to drain. After all, both Peef and I knew what was coming.

While the eggplant was frying, the sauce was busily transforming itself into something positively fabulous. Peef took our stick blender and gave the sauce a whir to smooth things out a bit. He let it simmer for a little while longer, until everything had reduced and thickened. And then, he pulled everything off of the heat. He added a few tablespoons of chopped fresh oregano, Italian parsley, and fresh basil.  Finally, he stirred in a pat of butter to give everything a bit of extra richness.

Then, the assembly of the lasagnette began.  First a layer of sauce on the bottom of the pan.

Then, layers of eggplant, crumbled fresh goat cheese, chopped parsley, and parmesan cheese.  And repeat. Keep layering until you've used up every last bit of eggplant.  Then, top with bread crumbs and additional parmesan cheese. Bake at 375ºF for about 30 minutes, or until the lasagnette is browned and bubbles slightly along the edges.

Serve up the lasagnette in generous slices with a bit of extra cheese. Maybe a nice salad alongside.

A pan feeds 6-8 easily. Leftovers are amazing. And it freezes beautifully.  In fact, we just ate the last of this batch a couple of weeks ago in the midst of a cold snap. And it was perfect.

Thick Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cold Comfort: Root Veggie Stew with Beef

This weekend, we both were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Sure, there were leaves to rake... and a house to clean... but after all was said and done, we finally found ourselves back in the kitchen. And craving a bit of good old fashioned comfort food.

I have fond memories of coming home from elementary school and being greeted by a warm bowl of succulent stew -- tender beef and chunks of potato and carrots surrounded by a delicious brown sauce flavored with onion and bay leaves.  Mom always ate her stew like soup -- in a bowl, with a spoon. Dad always piled his stew on top of the bread like a big, open-faced sandwich -- slicing through each bite and eating it with a fork.  And me?  Well, I remember eating all the vegetables first so that I could savor the few pieces of stew meat in the bottom of the bowl, and use my bread to sop up the delicious sauce.

Some things never change.
The weather has been sunny, but chilly, here in Wisconsin.  When we ventured out to the farmer's market on Saturday morning we were surprised by the bone-chilling wind that greeted us when we got out of the car.  Wow!  Those farmers are sure dedicated folks!  And we were glad.  Our stash included loads of great stuff -- fresh mustard greens, red kale, end-of-season broccoli, winter squash, Ida Red apples, and rutabaga.  The big question became "What would we make with our loot?"  Well -- stew, of course!

The stew I make these days still resembles the one I grew up with... but I've taken a few liberties with the ingredients. Taking my cue from all the great chefs who remind us that a fantastic dish is contingent upon fantastic ingredients, we start off with a pound of our favorite grass-fed beef. This beef not only tastes better than your average supermarket meat, but it's seriously nourishing.  Among its benefits, grass-fed beef is a great source of vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids (7 times more than grain fed beef), vitamin C, and beta-carotene. Grass-based farming is also great for the environment (excellent article here at Mother Earth News, if you're interested).  Healthy as it is, we're still judicious with our use of red meat. We use the beef primarily as a flavoring for the stew (rather than as the main event), so we can get away with using only about one pound of meat for 6-8 solid servings.

Another update to our beef stew involves... and you've probably guessed it... BEER!  Yes, indeed.  One of our favorite "stew brews" just happens to be one that's made right here in the Dairy State.  Tyranena "The Devil Made Me Do It" Coffee Imperial Oatmeal Porter.  Dark and sweet with plenty of coffee flavor, this beer really bumps up the flavor quotient in our stew.  And it's mighty nice for drinking on the side too...

And then there are the veggies -- a couple of nice rutabaga, a few delicious carrots, and a handful of Yukon gold potatoes.

We chop the veggies into nice, rustic chunks.  This stew cooks for quite a while in the oven, so we don't want everything turning to mush (anyone have BAD memories of overcooked carrots in their mom's beef stew??... yeah, that's exactly what we want to avoid).

Toss the cubed beef with a quarter cup of flour seasoned with salt & pepper.

And now, the cooking begins.
Brown the stew meat in large, oven-safe pan (a Dutch oven, if you have one).

When everything is nicely browned, remove the meat and saute a couple of sliced onions in the same pan.  When the onions are just about tender, add 8 cloves of chopped garlic and saute briefly.

You'll notice all sorts of delicious browned bits developing as the onions cook.  Feel free to giggle with delight -- all those crusty bits are going to impart some seriously amazing flavor to our stew.

Add a tablespoon of dried thyme to the onions, and stir well. Deglaze the pan with 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar and a cup or so of the beer. Scrape up those crispy bits as the mixture comes to a boil. They should come off the bottom of the pan surprisingly easily as the vinegar and beer do their thang.

Add the remaining cup of beer, along with 3 cups of good quality beef broth, 2 tablespoons of Dijon style mustard, 2 bay leaves, and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. Bring the liquid to a boil.  Then add your reserved beef, chopped vegetables and three sprigs of fresh rosemary (if you've got 'em).  When everything is boiling again, you can cover your pot and transfer the stew to a preheated 350º oven.

Check your stew after about an hour and a half.  If the vegetables are tender, you're good to go. If things need a bit more time, you can let it go for another half hour or so.

If the stew seems too thin for your liking, you can remove some of the vegetables and use your choice of methods to thicken the sauce (I like pureeing a few of the vegetables, or adding a roux and simmering it for a bit).  Otherwise, just spoon into bowls and serve.

Now, seriously... where's my chunk of crusty bread?  It's time for dinner!

Recipe:  Root Veggie Stew with Beef

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