Thursday, February 25, 2010

Exciting News for the Burp! Blog

We have some very exciting news to share with all of you!!

Thanks to all of your votes, we've been selected as the first of four finalists in the Family Recipe Revival.  

As part of our prize pack, we'll receive Strauss pasture-raised veal loin chops, three months of free digital cable from Time Warner Cable, a dough cutter and pastry scoop from Wolf and Sub Zero, a Regal Ware baking pan and an Il Mito points card worth $25.

But, THE BEST PART is, our Chocolate Hazelnut Schaum Torte will be featured on the menu at Il Mito Trattoria from Sunday, February 28 through Saturday, March 6. All of the net proceeds from the sale of our dessert will benefit the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee!

So, here's your excuse to eat more chocolate!  After all, it's for a good cause. 
We'll definitely be swinging over to Il Mito sometime next week... maybe you can join us?  Check in at the Burp! Facebook page for all the details (and become a fan)!

As if all that isn't exciting enough, our recipe will be automatically entered into the Family Recipe Revival Finals, which means we'll be competing with three other recipes (yet to be chosen) at the end of March for the chance to be crowned Family Recipe Revival champion. If our Schaum Torte recipe wins the popular vote, it will be featured on the Il Mito menu for an entire year!  Again, the net proceeds of the torte would benefit Hunger Task Force.

Voting on the final four recipes begins Monday, March 22 and runs through Sunday, March 28 -- so we'll be rallying the troops again for another round of voting later on in March.

In the meantime, thanks for all the support!
And we hope to run into you over at Il Mito Trattoria!

Of course, if you're not in the area, you could always make one up for yourself!
Chocolate Hazelnut Schaum Torte

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Why I cook

It wasn't a difficult question. So, why did it give me so much pause?

Michael Ruhlman, cookbook author and blogger extraordinaire, recently posted a challenge to bloggers to write about the reasons we cook -- because "Writing it down forces you to know what you think."

Maybe it's that I didn't really know the answer to the question.  Or maybe it's that the answer was woven so deeply into the core of my being that I had trouble finding the language to describe it.  Cooking, after all, is tied up in the very soul of who I am.

I don't cook because it's "easier".
Or because I feel obligated.
Cooking isn't something that I do just because I was told I should.
And I definitely don't cook just because I want to eat (although that's motivation enough, some days).

Cooking = creation.  And for me, that creative process is everything. It empowers me. It forces me to engage with chemical processes and living organisms -- leavening, fermentation, yeast, baking soda. Ultimately, cooking allows me to glimpse yet another facet of who I am as a person. A woman. A friend. A wife.  Cooking gives me the opportunity to bring something new into the world. To create wonderful new things. And to share them with others.

For me, cooking is relaxation. It's about repetition. The cracking of one egg after another on the countertop. It's about the meditation of chopping vegetables after a long day at work. And the hum of the water coming to a boil on the stovetop. It's about satiating that deep ache with something that fills me up and reminds me that life is good.

I cook because it gives me power over the food that goes into my body. Let's face it, in today's world the quality of the food we eat is often in question.  Cooking gives me the opportunity to take the reigns and create new options.  Cooking allows me to say "no."  No GMO's. No fast food. No high fructose corn syrup. No unhappy cows or chickens or pigs. No fake food.  Cooking allows me to say "yes."  Yes to frosting made with real butter. Yes to locally grown organic produce.  Yes to real ingredients that I can actually pronounce. Yes to nourishing traditions that make a difference for myself and my family.

I cook to regain a connection to my food and the human beings who produce it. When I visit the farmer's market on a Saturday morning, I feel like a forager in search of wonderful, hidden treasures.  The ingredients I find often predict the meals I'll cook for the next week. And the friends I make along the way are priceless. They're farmers, artisans, business owners.  They're people who care just as much about where their products come from as I do. And they're the human beings that I've chosen to support with my food dollars. 

Cooking gives me the opportunity to share what I know, the places where I've been, and the experiences I've had.  When I pull that jar of dried harissa from the cupboard and mix it with water, olive oil, garlic, and salt, it takes me back to another time and place.  My flavor memory transports me to the dusty streets of Tunis, the markets of Hammamet, the ruins of Carthage.  But, that harissa also allows me to share a piece of that memory with people who weren't there with me -- my husband, my best friend, my sister, my grandmother. It offers me a segue to share those stories, to relive those moments, and to create new memories with the people I love most.

I cook because I'm grateful. The ability to cook is a gift. And it's something I can give back to others.  I can share it with my family. My friends. I can use it to not only entertain them -- but nourish them. Cooking gives me the opportunity to care for others around me. To create an experience they're remember -- something that will weave itself into the memories they carry with them, which make them who they are.

I cook because cooking leads to eating. And eating is one of the most intimate acts in which we can engage as human beings.

Why do YOU cook?

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chocolate Hazelnut Schaum Torte: A Family Recipe Revival

Unless you’re from Wisconsin, you may never have heard of Schaum Torte (foam cake), a favorite among German immigrant families.  You may have heard of this dessert called simply "a meringue," “Pavlova” or even a "Bizet."  Essentially all of the desserts are one in the same -- meringue, filled with sweetened whipped cream, and topped with fruit.  
Like pavlova, there are two schools of thought when it comes to schaum torte -- one side insists that the meringue be crisp on the outside, but squoodgy (marshmallowy) in the center; the other camp insists that a good schaum torte is dried and crisp throughout.  

My family staunchly swears by the first approach. In fact, I actually grew up utterly convinced that the women at church who made the crisp version were simply bad cooks who had made the mistake of baking their schaum tortes too long!!  Similarly, Peef has fond memories of sneaking seconds of the fabulous Schaum tortes made by members of the German-Lutheran Ladies' Aid at his church. Although his boyhood palate didn't discriminate against any sort of sugary goodness, he will confess that he always preferred the marshmallowy version to the "old crusty kind."

My grandmother, who turns 90 this March, has made Schaum torte every year for Easter for as long as I can remember.  Hers was always baked in a springform pan, flavored with both vanilla and almond extract, and topped with sliced strawberries (often those she picked and froze from her own garden). And it was always topped with freshly whipped cream.

I'll never forget the day I made my first schaum torte. It was toward the end of my senior year in high school, and I caught wind of the fact that my prom date loved the dessert.  Since we'd be gathering at a friend's house to hang out after the dinner and dance, I decided I'd surprise him with a homemade Schaum torte.  I called my grandmother and asked her for her recipe.  She even lent me her favorite 11-inch springform pan -- which she claimed gave the torte a particularly good rise.
The original recipe -- jotted into my notebook!
I was understandably nervous about the project. I'd never made a meringue before, and I was certain that all manners of tragedy would strike.  So, I followed her recipe to the very last detail... room temperature ingredients. Beat eggs for 15 minutes. Pour in sugar while beating (no stopping!). Add baking powder, lemon juice, and flavorings. Beat for another 15 minutes.  Spread into buttered springform -- and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes.
I held my breath during the last ten minutes of baking, but I didn't peak (she'd also warned me that peeking was a bad idea, since the meringue could fall).  Finally, I took my masterpiece from the oven. It was gorgeous -- the meringue had risen well and was towering above the edge of the springform pan like a mound of foam. I could see that the center was set -- but still tender -- while the top was crisp and crackery.  Just perfect.

If I remember correctly, everyone was too distracted by a number of prom night tragedies (a last minute break-up, some late-night miscommunication, an off-handed comment) to pay much attention to my torte. But, the act of making the torte became, itself, a kind of symbolic gesture -- something done out of love and affection.

Since that day, grandma's Schaum torte recipe has seen many variations. I've baked it in my own springform pan with great success. I've shaped it into individual tortes.  I've used the leftover egg yolks to make lemon curd to serve alongside. And I've served it with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and pomegranates.  This particular version happens to be a chocolate variation made with hazelnut extract, cocoa powder and little bits of bittersweet chocolate... layered with a bit of whipping cream, and embellished with fresh raspberries.  Honestly -- it might be one of my favorite versions.  After all, everything is better with chocolate, right?
Now, I know this is nothing more than shameless self-promotion. But, coincidentally, we've submitted this recipe to the "Family Recipe Revival" -- a local effort to bring back the treasured family recipes and renew the true meaning of mealtime—togetherness and bonding.  If you have a moment, please consider visiting the Recipe Revival web site to vote for our recipe.  You can vote for our recipe once a day through March 15, 2010... and we'll take all the votes we can get!

The Final Grand Prize winner gets a new cookware set, dinner for four in Chef’s studio and their recipe served on the Il Mito restaurant menu for an entire year. Net proceeds from the sale of that menu item goes to the charity of their choice.

If we win, we'll be donating the proceeds from the sale of our Schaum torte to the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, a local advocacy group that works to prevent hunger and malnutrition by providing food to people in need today and by promoting social policies to achieve food security tomorrow.

Recipe (on Burp! Recipes): Chocolate Hazelnut Schaum Torte

Schaum Torte on FoodistaSchaum Torte

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Daring Cooks February: Mezze

When I heard that the Daring Cooks challenge for February would be mezze, I decided to do a little bit of research. After all, the tradition of the mezze table is a long and fascinating one -- and I wanted to be sure I approached the challenge in the proper spirit.  I was actually surprised to find that I didn't know as much about the tradition of mezze as I first anticipated.
I've owned Clifford A. Wright's book, Little Foods of the Mediterranean, for some time now, but have only dabbled with the recipes.  I was excited to think that this challenge would allow me to explore the concept of mezze a bit more deeply.  So, I started reading.  And the more I read, the more I realized how much more there really was to know. Clifford does a great job of explaining the differences between mezze, tapas, antipasti, and hors d'oeuvre. And, although the book is fairly academic in its approach to culture, it also does a great job of giving the reader an appreciation for the sensuality of the foods and flavors of the Mediterranean region.

As I read, I realized that I had been introduced to a very important aspect of mezze on my trip to Tunisia back in the early '90's -- the concept that the "small plates" of the mezze table are, in fact, meant to be a full meal -- not simply something to whet the appetite. In fact, the concept of an "appetizer" is all-but-absent from Mediterranean culture -- so it's generally inaccurate to consider mezze to be a precursor to something more substantial. Wright explains it best when he says:
To think of these small dishes as appetizers or tapas is to misunderstand the Arab or Near Eastern culinary sensibility. For the Arab, and this goes for the Turks and Greeks too, the notion of a food needed to “open the appetite” is completely foreign. The Arab simply starts eating; one is hungry and the stomach enzymes are ready to go to work [...] it is more appropriate to compare mazza to the Scandinavian smörgåsbord, to which it is more philosophically related, rather than hors d’oeuvre, antipasti, tapas, or appetizers.
So, as we approached our mezze for the challenge, one of my goals was to create a collection of dishes that stayed true to the spirit of mezze -- a nourishing collection of small plates that would stand in for an ordinary meal.  Our final menu included dishes from Cyprus, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and the Middle East -- a varied menu that included a bit of meat, but also lots of vegetables:
  • Homemade pita bread
  • Hummus
  • Baba Ghannouj
  • Green olives stuffed with ground beef in a piquant tomato ragu
  • Harissa
  • Grilled haloumi with lemon and capers
  • Beet salad with orange flower water and Moroccan spices

The first thing we set to work on was the chickpeas for the hummus.  After an overnight soak, we cooked put the chickpeas on to boil in plenty of cold water, seasoning them with a few dried chile peppers and a couple of bay leaves.

We prepped our eggplant for grilling by washing and drying it, and then pricking it all over with a fork.
Then, we took it outside to cook on the grill. We filled our smoker box with applewood chips to give everything a nice, smoky flavor, and we grilled the eggplant until it was browned on all sides, and very soft.
We peeled the eggplant, cooled down the flesh, and whirred it up in the food processor with garlic, lemon juice, tahini, and a bit of salt.  All at once, we had a delightfully smoky baba ghanouj. 
Meanwhile, we put some beets on the stovetop to boil.
Once they were tender, we peeled them, sliced them into rounds, and put them away to marinate in a mixture of orange flower water, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, lemon juice, and sugar.
By this point, the chickpeas were cooked. We drained them, rinsed them with cool water, and removed their skins. Then, we blended them up with some garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and salt to create some of the smoothest hummus we'd ever tasted.  We garnished it with za'atar and pinenuts, and set it aside.

Next, we put together the dough for the pita bread. The dough was a pleasure to work with. It started off with a sponge made with yeast, water, and about 3 cups of flour. We allowed the sponge to rest for almost two hours before incorporating the salt, olive oil, and the remainder of the flour and giving it about an hour and a half to rise.  Once the dough was risen, we punched it down and cut it into pieces, which we rolled out into flat pitas (less than 1/4 inch thick).
One of the tricks to pita bread is to bake it in a VERY hot oven -- so we preheated ours as high as it would go (550ºF).  After about 2 minutes on our baking stone, each pita puffed up into a lovely little balloon.  The pitas deflate rapidly after being removed from the oven, creating the bread some call "pocket bread". We put all of the pitas into a bowl covered with a towel and kept them warm.

While the pita bread was cooking, I set Peef to work stuffing green olives with a mixture of grass-fed ground beef, parsley, eggs, cumin, cayenne pepper, garlic, and onions.  Although we bought the largest green olives we could find, the task was still pretty challenging. Peef ended up using the pointy end of a teaspoon to scoop and stuff the filling right into the olive.
When the olives were stuffed, we cooked them in a mixture of tomato paste, harissa, red pepper flakes, and water until the filling was thoroughly cooked -- just under an hour.
While the olives were cooking, we grilled up some halloumi, which we plated up with some sliced lemons and a liberal dose of capers.
We also arranged the beet salad.
By the time the olives were finished cooking, we were both ravenous. We put together our mezze table -- using colorful dishes and linens, we tried to make everything as visually appealing as possible (after all, the mezze table is meant to please the eye, as well as the palate).  We poured ourselves a nice big glass of wine, and started in on the eating.
One of the wonderful things about a successful mezze table is that there are so many different flavors to enjoy -- briny, smoky, tangy, spicy, and fresh. It seems there's a little bit of everything here. And even though the plates are "small," the meal itself is more than fulfilling. Since there is so much food offered on a typical mezze spread, it's not generally expected that every dish will be finished at the end of the meal. Diners are satiated -- but, not only by the food, but the company as well. It's such an appealing concept, it makes me wonder why we don't do it more often.

Fortunately, it looks like we have enough leftovers from our Daring Cooks mezze table to feed a small crowd of hungry Mediterraneans. So, it's likely we'll be putting together another spread pretty soon.

Care to join us?

The 2010 February Daring COOKs challenge was hosted by Michele of Veggie Num Nums. Michele chose to challenge everyone to make mezze based on various recipes from Claudia Roden, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Dugid.

Recipes for Pita Bread and Hummus
Remainder of recipes taken from Little Foods of the Mediterranean (Wright)

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Hyped Up Shepherd's Pie with Mushrooms and Greens

I haven't a single fond childhood memory of shepherd's pie.

It's not that my mother made BAD shepherd's pie.  Or even mediocre shepherd's pie.  The truth is, my mother never made shepherd's pie... or cottage pie... or even cowboy pie.  And I followed in her footsteps. Until sometime this fall.
I was inspired by the turnips at the farmer's market. They were gorgeous things -- all pretty and white, with the most perfect greens attached. I simply had to take them home with me, despite the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I'd do with them.  Fortunately for me, it was the weekend. So, I had plenty of time to sit and wait for inspiration to hit.
Turns out it didn't take long. I ran across a post written by Peter from Kolofagas about Shepherd's Pie.  He made that darned pie look so incredible, I could have just about eaten it right off the page.  And right then and there, I knew what we were having for dinner.

At this point, you're probably starting to wonder what in the world this has to do with my turnips... but, trust me, they were part of my vision. When it came to the turnips themselves, it's possible I envisioned them roasting alongside a well-seasoned, pastured chicken. They'd caramelize in all that lovely schmaltz and become the best thing since mashed potatoes.  But, the greens... why not create a shepherd's pie with some serious nutritional punch by throwing them into the mix?

And so, off to the kitchen we went. Chopped up plenty of vegetables -- onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and shiitake mushrooms.  Oh, yes, and we can't forget about those gorgeous turnip greens.
I sauteed the shiitake mushrooms in a bit of butter. When they were done, I set them aside and gave the vegetables a bit of the same treatment. When theys were just starting to soften, I added about a pound of local ground lamb, browning that up nicely. I threw in a dash of worchestershire sauce, and I added a couple of teaspoons of fresh chopped rosemary and thyme leaves.
Once the herbs were incorporated and I could smell them letting off their fragrant oils, I added a bit of flour to make a roux.  Stirred in about 1/2 cup of zinfandel, allowing the alcohol to dissipate, and then poured in about 1 1/2 cups of mushroom stock and tossed in a couple of bay leaves.
While the sauce was simmering, I whipped together my mashed potatoes and set them aside.
By then, the sauce had thickened up nicely and the flavors had really started to meld. I could tell simply by how everything smelled... but I took a quick taste just in case I needed to adjust the seasonings.

Determining that everything was just the way I wanted it, I added what a veg-head like myself would likely consider to be the Pièce de résistance -- those stunning turnip greens.  I should mention that any tender greens would work well here -- swiss chard, mustard greens, or spinach would all do nicely.   I left them in the stew just long enough for them to wilt (4-5 minutes, tops), stirred in the reserved mushrooms, and then I took everything off of the heat.
I poured it all into a large baking dish, spreading things out evenly.
And then I topped the whole mess with mashed potatoes.  I did go through the effort of fluffing the potatoes up a little bit with a fork before sprinkling on a liberal dose of paprika... and that went a ways in making things look a bit more appetizing.  But, I didn't go through quite the effort Peter did. He piped his potatoes on top of the pie so very beautifully, while I just slopped mine on, right out of the pan.  Some of you may judge me for this. But, I can assure you, the finished product (while it might have been lacking in the looks department) tasted just fine.
In fact, once everything has baked together for about 45 minutes, and the kitchen starts filling up with the aroma of the lamb, the veggies, and the intoxicating scent of the rosemary and thyme, you'll forget all about the fact that your potatoes aren't all that pretty.
The torture comes when you take the casserole out of the oven. Despite the overwhelming impulse to scoop right in and start devouring your humble feast, it's really a much better idea to allow the casserole to rest for 15-20 minutes before serving. It will be painful, but I assure you, you'll be glad you waited.

After a good rest, you can scoop that delicious mess into bowls.
And yeah, you can even garnish your bowl with a nice sprig of fresh rosemary.  It's a lovely touch -- but, like so many niceties, it's not necessary. In fact, the final product would be just as delicious eaten right out of the pan with a big fork.  But, that doesn't make for a very good photo op. Does it?

The reality is, if you're looking for good old-fashioned comfort food, shepherd's pie is where it's at.  If you're looking for a kicked up version with a bit of serious vegetable action -- this recipe does a pretty good job of delivering.  And hey, if you decide to make it on one of those cold winter's nights... invite me over for a bite. It would be difficult to refuse.

Hyped Up Shepherd's Pie with Mushrooms and Greens

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Power of Soup

We hosted our first "soup night" in December, 2007.  At the time, we were looking for a way to create more community among our family, friends, and neighbors -- to unify some of the disparate groups that make up our circle of acquaintances. And we thought a casual Sunday evening affair would accomplish our goal nicely.
Soup night wouldn't be a complicated matter. In fact, the concept was beyond easy. One Sunday evening a month, we'd make up a few pots of soup. We'd invite just about everyone we knew, and guests would show up at will. Nobody was required to RSVP, guests were welcome, and the only rule was "no worries". People could bring something to pass (bread, crackers, dessert)... or not. Strangers would meet and mingle.  And we could all enjoy a casual night of nourishment and conversation.

We hosted four soup nights that year. And they were an absolute blast.  We had a great time, and we vowed to hold soup nights for years to come.  Unfortunately, in fall of 2008, Peef lost his job.  Afraid (amid other things) that we'd have to start asking the guests to bring the soup, we put a hold on the festivities. After a year's break, we both wondered if we'd have the nerve to start things up again.

2009 came and went. The economy tanked. Despite dismal odds, Peef acquired gainful employment. We watched as friends and neighbors alike pulled in the reigns on their spending. Ultimately, we found that we saw some of our friends even less often than in the years before. The timing seemed perfect for bringing back soup night. So, we sent out a few invites and got to work on our soup.

We hosted our first soup night of 2010 this past Sunday.  And gosh, it was like coming home. The regulars came back with a vengeance -- colleagues from Peef's old workplace, friends we haven't seen in weeks (and even months), family we don't get together with nearly often enough.  And we had a few amazing new-comers this year.  We were privileged to meet fellow food blogger (and "common soul"), Rebecca, from CakeWalk. She brought her friend Sasa, another local foodie; and we had a great time chatting about food like old friends.  Bryan, who we met through his work with Jen Ehr Farm, brought his wife,  Mrs. Jen Peters, and their son, Oliver, who happens to be the same age as my niece, Reagan. The adults talked, and the kids became fast friends -- playing with Elmo the cat, unlocking hidden treasure, and bringing plenty of boundless 2-year-old energy to the party.
Seems so strange to give the food a back seat to everything else.  But, in this case, it's more than appropriate. The three soups -- a Cuban inspired black bean, a southwestern corn chowder (with poblanos and applewood smoked corn), and a pork and black-eyed pea chili -- were warm and delicious.  The corn chowder was the clear favorite, disappearing well before the last of the guests even arrived.  And we got a request or two for the "Cowboy Chili" recipe. But... eh...

Despite its name, soup night is really far more about the company than the soup. It's about that feeling you get when you're surrounded by the people who really count. When all the turmoil outside doesn't seem to matter so much inside. And those times when life is... well... just plain good.

I know it's simple. But, I can't help from thinking... maybe all the world REALLY needs is another soup night.

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