Thursday, April 29, 2010

EWG Dirty Dozen: Sad News About Blueberries

So, I wasn't planning to post today. But, then I saw that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released their 2010 versions of the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 -- pocket-sized lists which highlight the fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide residues, based on current EWG research/testing.  EWG research has found that:
... people who eat five fruits and vegetables a day from the Dirty Dozen list consume an average of 10 pesticides a day. Those who eat from the 15 least contaminated conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables ingest fewer than 2 pesticides daily. The Guide helps consumers make informed choices to lower their dietary pesticide load. Source: Environmental Working Group
If you're curious, I won't keep you in suspense.  Here's the list:

2010 Dirty Dozen
  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Bell Peppers
  8. Spinach
  9. Kale
  10. Cherries
  11. Potatoes
  12. Grapes (Imported)
5/2/10 - UPDATE: Here's the full list of produce tested for 2010 (in order from best to worst).

 Now, here in the Burp! kitchen, we've always tried to avoid  buying conventional versions of peaches, strawberries and celery -- which have been known to be high in pesticides for years (incidentally, celery is ranked #1 this year).  But, there was at least one surprise on this year's list which will make us change our buying habits.

I was really disappointed to find my favorite berry on the new list. Blueberries, which ranked #31 in 2008, are now #5 in the Dirty Dozen -- which is sad news for consumers like me who rely on some conventional produce every now and again to save a few food dollars.

Was glad to see that avocadoes, mangoes, and pineapple are still listed among the "Clean 15" (tropical fruits tend to be safer, as a general rule).  Corn is also listed -- though it's also among the most commonly GMO'd crops, so I'd tend to avoid buying conventional corn (unless I can get it from a local farmer who doesn't plant GMO'd crops).

We've been wanting to go 100% organic for a while now, and maybe this will be the year.

If you're interested, you can download the
2010 EWG Shopper's Guide. It's a great resource to carry along with you when you shop.  Kinda like the pocket seafood selector and pocket sushi guide -- both put out by the Environmental Defense Fund (great resource for buying sustainable fish!)

Most importantly -- spread the word.  There's no better time to start making a difference by voting with your food buying dollars! 

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring Comfort Food: Mexican Bean Pot with Spinach & Chorizo

Spring in Wisconsin is always an interesting proposition. While the weather improves overall, there's no telling what any given day might hold -- rain, flurries, sun, or clouds.  It's also difficult to tell from day to day what the temperature is going to be like.    As the saying goes, Wisconsin is one of the only states where you can experience all four seasons in the span of a week (or less)!

This recipe is for the damp, cool days of spring.  The ones that still leave you longing for a bit of warm comfort food.  And it's the perfect recipe for someone who wants to try out cooking beans from scratch.  If you've never done so, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the texture of home cooked beans -- which are a bit more firm than canned beans, and (IMHO) infinitely more flavorful. There's also a chance that the beans are infinitely more nutritious -- but, I'll leave that to the discernment of the experts who can actually measure such things.  The fact is, I cook my beans from scratch because they taste good.

Of course, my technique (as with many other things) for cooking beans, is still a work in progress. For example, the jury is still out for me on whether or not to soak beans.  Soaking definitely cuts down on the cooking time, but I'm not certain that it bears much other benefit. Lately, I've been ignoring the pre-soaking -- particularly for black beans, which seem to lose a great deal of color when soaked. As a result, I tend to cook my beans on the weekend, when I have plenty of time to wait for them to cook.  I've also been adding a strip or two of kombu (seaweed) to my beans as they cook. Like other seaweeds, kombu contains trace minerals -- which give a nutritional boost to the beans.  It also contains enzymes that reportedly help to break down the raffinose sugars in beans (the cause of excessive gas and bloating), increasing digestability.   The added nutritional benefit is enough for me -- but if it happens to also reduce some of the unpleasant side effects associated with beans, all the better.

This particular bean pot was inspired by a lazy afternoon when the rain was coming down in torrents outside the window.  Fresh Mexican-style chorizo was on sale at the Outpost, and I had almost two pounds of spinach languishing in the refrigerator.  I wasn't in the mood for soup -- but I was seriously craving a pot of beans.

I cooked the beans simply -- in plenty of water with a large red onion and some garlic cloves. I let them cook gently in my dutch oven for most of the afternoon -- pausing to test every 15-20 minutes during the last stages of cooking. Black beans are done when the skin easily gives way when pressed between two fingers, and the creamy flesh oozes out in a fantastic display of nutty deliciousness.

When the beans were nearly cooked, I sauteed a bit of chorizo and a large red pepper.  I also pulled out a 15 oz can of chopped fire roasted tomatoes and a couple of chipotle peppers, which I chopped finely.  I added everything to the cooked beans with a bit of salt, and allowed them to simmer for about 20 minutes -- just to let the flavors meld. Then, I added the chopped spinach.

Once the spinach was wilted, I removed the pot from the flame, and spooned the beans into bowls, topping them liberally with cilantro and a nice squeeze of fresh lime.

We scooped up our beans into warm tortillas, slurping up the flavorful sauces as they dripped.

The sheer simplicity of this dish made it an immediate favorite.  Seasoned with little more than the spices from the chorizo, a hint of sweetness from the red bell pepper, and a bit of smoky heat from the chipotles, this was one of the best pots of beans I'd ever eaten.   And it was even better the next day for lunch, alongside a cheese and jalapeno quesadilla.

Excellent paired with a well-mixed margarita with plenty of lime. 

Mexican Bean Pot with Spinach & Chorizo

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Move Over Elvis, Mr. Brunch is Here (and he's got Girl Scout Cookies)

It all started with a tweet.
@mke_brunch (a.k.a. Mr. Brunch) declared that he was eating cookies in bed. Next thing we knew, we were meeting up at AJ Bombers for a Girl Scout cookie hook-up.

We promised Chris we'd come up with a clever way to use the 10 delicious Tagalong cookies he gave us, so I knew we'd have to come up with something pretty delicious. Fortunately, Peef declared that he had an awesome idea.

"How about a peanut butter-banana-bacon-Tagalong panino?"
I made a face.
Peef ignored me completely and hauled out a whole mess of ingredients and laid them on the island.
I was pretty skeptical, but I played along. After all, this idea could be crazy enough that it just might work. I suggested Peef start off by frying up the bacon.  Meanwhile, I cut up the bananas. 
I sliced them on the diagonal to increase their surface area, and then I threw them into a pan with a couple tablespoons of butter.  I let them sit in the hot butter for a couple of minutes without moving them at all. When they started browning on one side, I flipped them over.
Then, I added some brown sugar, a dash of cinnamon, and just a dab more butter.  I let the bananas cook for a few more minutes, until the sugar coated them nicely.  And then I pulled them off of the heat and let them cool down a bit.

They were awfully pretty... but they were also seriously hot (which I found out the hard way, by trying to taste one right out of the pan).  By now, Peef had finished up the bacon... so we started assembling our delightful creations.  First, we spread a few slices of bread with peanut butter.  Then we laid a few caramelized bananas down on the other slices.
We topped the peanut butter halves with Tagalongs... and the bananas with bacon.
And then we smashed everything together.
It's fortunate we have a nice panini press that accommodates thick sammiches -- cuz these little suckers were pretty tall.   Interestingly enough, it didn't take long for the stack to smash down into a melty, oozy, delightfully sweet mess.
I could feel the drool starting to accumulate in the corner of my mouth.  Slowly-but-surely, the skepticism I'd felt earlier in the day started to melt away.  And I found myself craving some of that peanut-butter-banana-cookie-bacon-bliss.
As we bit into those fantastic little sammiches, Peef's face said it all:
Turns out Tagalongs make a pretty fine panino. Especially when paired with caramelized bananas and bacon. The sandwiches were slightly sweet, with a delightfully peanut buttery flavor and just a hint of chocolate. The cookies lent a nice crunch, a lovely foil for the tender caramelized bananas.  The truth is, they really were pretty awesome.

What's even funnier about these little creations is that they'd be just perfect for brunch. Whaddaya think, Chris?

Chocolate Peanut Butter Bacon Panini

While you're at it, don't forget to check out the Girl Scouts Blog (thanks for the info, Sarah!)

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Ripple Effect: FRESH, the movie

"Americans fear only one thing: inconvenience." 

This quote from Iowa farmer George Naylor's college roommate gave me pause. The sheer truth of it made me lean in toward the movie screen.  Isn't that really what it's all about? Our industrialized food system?  It's about convenience. It's about the fast and easy. The cheap and sleazy. The lean and the mean.

But are those really the words we want to describe the foods we eat?

Tonight we attended the 2nd of 3 screenings of the movie, FRESH, here in Milwaukee. We were in the company of strangers -- not only the strangers who sat with us in the theater on Downer Avenue, but also the strangers on the screen. Farmers, grocers, educators, community organizers. People who decided to think outside the box to make a difference in the food industry. In the course of an hour and a half, those strangers managed to inspire us. Endear themselves to us. Make us think a little bit differently.

FRESH is the story of people who care.  People like:
  • Russ Kramer, a pig farmer and owner of Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative in Missouri who saved $14,000 in the first year he stopped using antibiotics/drugs on his pigs
  • Joel Salatin, a farmer from Virginia who believes that chickens should be allowed to "fully express their chicken-ness."
  • Diane Endicott, Kansas farmer and founder and director of Good Natured Family Farms’ alliance - a collective of more than 100 family farms who raise animals humanely and care for the earth in a sustainable fashion.
  • Will Allen, a farmer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who raises 150 varieties of micro- and salad greens on less than three acres of urban land and vermicomposts over 1 million pounds of food waste from Milwaukee area businesses.
Sure, the movie deals with some dark material. There are brief snippets of the factory farming industry -- the overcrowded animal pens, the chemicals being sprayed on fields from airplanes, the cow suffering from mad cow disease. Mr. and Mrs. Fox, the owners of an industrialized chicken farm, are filmed in a grey, dreary setting. They don't look happy; and they feel trapped by an industry that they feel they need to survive. But, the story doesn't stop there. Unlike some other films, FRESH takes the time to focus on the brighter side.

FRESH is the story of people making a difference. And it's a pretty inspiring scene.

People often refer to a "ripple effect" when they talk about grassroots movements.  And it's an apt description. Just think about how even the littlest of stones makes a huge impression when thrown into a body of water. Even if the body of water is ginormous, the little ripples from that stone spread outward, creating movement in otherwise still waters.  And that's really what FRESH is about.

If you can catch a screening of the movie in your area, I'd strongly urge you to consider going.  But, even if you can't, there are plenty of things you can do to capture the spirit of FRESH in your own lives.

As Will Allen says at the end of the film, "You can do this."
And it's easier than you think.  Here's a list to get you started.

Fresh Ideas (adapted from Ana's 10 Fresh Actions) 
  1. Plant a garden. Even if it's on your patio. Build a raised bed, or grow a pot of herbs. Build some intimacy with the soil.   
  2. Visit your farmer's market -- and really get to know at least one local farmer. Ask them questions. Buy their produce. Spread the word about what they do to others you know.  
  3. Build community. Get to know your neighbors. Forge connections in disparate places. Participate in what's going on around you.  
  4. Consider composting. Start a compost pile in your backyard. Use the black gold for gardening. No space? Consider red worms. Vermicomposting takes up very little space, and can be done indoors.  
  5. Think small. Support your local economy.  Buy local produce and products. Support local business owners who pull dollars back into your local economy. Give up one "big box" store in favor of a "mom and pop" shop.  Even spending as little as $10 a week at that shop is all it takes to send a positive message.  
  6. Ask more questions. At restaurants and grocers, inquire about where they get their fish... their meat... their produce.  The more questions we ask, the more awareness grows about what we'd like to see in the marketplace.  
  7. Start reading labels at your supermarket. Take the time to consider what you're putting into your body. Avoid GMO's (Since almost all the soy, corn, and canola in the US is genetically modified, over 70% of all processed food contain GMOs from by-products of these grains.). Abolish high fructose corn syrup from your diet. Avoid artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated oils.  Make choices that reflect your values, and vote with your food dollars.  
  8. Get back to basics.  Eat more whole foods. Stock up on local fruits and vegetables while they're in season. Cook, can, and freeze the harvest. You'll be grateful when you have fresh tasting tomatoes in the middle of February.  
  9. Get inspired. Share your passion with others. Engage in friendly conversation about things that are meaningful to you. Spread the word.  
  10. Get Fresh.  Why not host a FRESH screening of your own?   Kits available on the FRESH Web site. 
 Join the ripple effect.  It's absolutely contagious. 

Full disclosure: We did receive free tickets to attend the screening of FRESH as part of our farm-to-table dinner at Meritage. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly our own. 

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gifts and Bread and Delightfully Runny Eggs

The past week has been filled with myriad gifts.  And they've all been wonderfully unexpected -- and positively delightful:
  • a handful of delicious Girl Scout cookies (stay tuned to hear all about these on Thursday)
  • a spectacular dinner at Meritage
  • a Glorious grilled cheese event filled with delicious food and new friends
  • a loaf of bread

That last one was a particular doozy.  We were the lucky recipients of one of those fantastic looking loaves of  Cook's Illustrated Multi-grain Sandwich Bread that Rebecca from Cakewalk made this week.

To be honest, I've been drooling all over myself ever since she brought a loaf of Lahey bread over to our house for Soup Night (seriously -- it was one of the best loaves of homemade bread I've ever had in my life -- and Peef just about inhaled the leftovers).  So, I was pretty excited when she dropped that hefty paper bags into my hand as we were pulling out of her driveway.  I just knew this loaf of humble bread would be the beginning of something wonderful.

And it really was.
We got up fairly early on Saturday. It was an ordinary day (barring the nasty pinched nerve I seemed to have developed in the muscles surrounding my left shoulder blade).  But, the sun was shining, and we had no place to be but home.  I'd been craving an egg sandwich all week, so I was delighted to remember that loaf of bread, which was sitting on the counter.

Just this side of 2 minutes later, we had bacon grease sizzling in our cast iron frying pan... and eggs dropping out of their shells into gently sputtering pools. Next thing I knew, Peef had four slices of that delicious bread slathered with mayonnaise (and one with mustard -- since that's how HE rolls)... and the eggs were done.

It's interesting how, after eleven years of marriage, I still ask Peef how he wants his eggs cooked for egg sandwiches.  He always answers exactly the same -- "runny."  What he means is that he'd like them over-easy -- cooked just enough that the whites aren't "snotty."

Sometimes it's difficult to get four eggs perfectly cooked -- so we often end up with a combination of kindof-right, mostly-right, and perfectly-cooked eggs.  But, not today. Today was a special day.  I slid the eggs out of the pan onto the bread, and Peef placed the final slices on top.
The slightest bit of pressure sent the yolk from one of the eggs exploding down the side of one of the sandwiches -- into a gloriously orange puddle of deliciousness.

We bit into our sandwiches.  The tender crust yielded just perfectly, and we chomped through it into the impeccably cooked egg.

We both smiled.
Sometimes the best gifts come in the most unexpected packages.

So, while we're on the topic, how do you like YOUR egg sammich?

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Cheese! Glorious Grilled Cheese.

Like grilled cheese?
Wow -- do we have a treat for you.  It's the Grilled Cheese Academy.

And I quote:
“First of all, do not be fooled by our name. We are neither a cooking school nor an establishment of higher learning. We are, however, an institution dedicated to deliciousness. United by our love of Wisconsin Cheese, we are relentlessly committed to creating the tastiest and most sublime gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to ever grace plate or tempt palate. We hope you find your visit both inspiring and, of course, mouthwatering.”
Complete with a sandwich directory and a cheese index, the Academy is the kewlest site you may ever see dedicated to grilled cheese. And these aren't your ordinary run-of-the-mill sandwiches. The Academy takes the humble bread-and-cheese sandwich to an entirely new level -- adding ingredients like caramelized onions, knackwurst, pineapple, duck breasts and watercress. The site is not only a tribute to mouth-watering sandwiches, but a source of inspiration for those of us who like to take the concept of an ordinary grilled sammich and kick it up a notch.

But, before you head off to check out the site (never to return), we've got some pretty delicious pictures of our own to share. The fact is, we were Very Honored to have been invited to the party celebrating the launch of the GC Academy Web site this past week. We embarked on our journey to Madison with foodie friends. Both SJ Whipp (from Ramblings) and R and J from Cakewalk drove along with us -- which made the experience all the more enjoyable.

The event was held at the Soleil Cafe -- baby sister restaurant of the esteemed L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin.

Like Meritage in Milwaukee (which we visited earlier this week), L’Etoile features year-round seasonal menus composed from local ingredients. This remarkable feat is achieved thanks to their relationship with many small-scale farmers and the restaurant’s strategy of putting up quantities of local produce throughout the growing season.  L’Etoile values its relationship with the farmers tremendously and their best products: delicious meats, like grass-fed dry-aged Scottish Highland beef and Berkshire pork, artisan cheeses (from local producers like Widmer's, Hook's, and Farmer John), and the freshest produce available, are an essential part of every L’Etoile menu. 

So, it wasn't a particular surprise when the first thing on the agenda was local cheese-tasting. The spread was fantastic. And the cheeses were even better.
We were privileged to sample:
  • BellaVitano Raspberry Cheese (soaked in New Glarus Raspberry Tart Ale)
  • Roelli Dunbarton Blue Cheese (reminiscent of English cheddar with the bite of French blue cheese)
  • Carr Valley Benedictine Cheese (hand rubbed and cellar cured sheep & goat's milk cheese)
  • Roth Kase Buttermilk Blue (creamy and tangy)
  • Widmer's 4-year aged Cheddar (sharp, nutty and crumbly)
  • Holland's Family Marieke's Raw Milk Gouda (sweet, with notes of caramel; aged on wooden boards)
Although we enjoyed every one of them (who can resist cheese?), we particularly enjoyed the raw milk gouda and the BellaVitano Raspberry cheese.  The gouda possessed a particular complexity -- something you don't always find in goudas made from pasteurized milk. The cheese's subtle sweetness was appealing, as was the creamy texture. And the raspberry cheese was simply a delight.  The cheese itself resembled an aged parmesan. The lactic acid crystals present in the cheese gave it a great texture, and the light sweet raspberry flavor on the finish made it a real stand-out for eating out of hand.

Once we'd eaten our fill of cheese, we each grabbed a beer and headed over to the grilled cheese sandwiches -- which were being made fresh by L'Etoile's own, Chef Tori Miller. 

While most of the guests mingled in the back of the cafe, we decided to take a spot by the window, where the lighting was better for photos!
Each grilled cheese was served in a sample size, with a recommended locally brewed beer pairing.  Here are some that we tried!

The Lil' Kahuna - Pepper Jack, pineapple, and sauteed bell peppers on King Hawaiian bread
Paired with Groovy Brew, Sand Creek Brewing Co., Black River Falls, WI -- A Kölsch style beer reminiscent of sparkling wine in its crispness. It has mild fruit flavors of green apple, grape and a touch of citrus. The finish is light and fleeting on the palate.
The Monroe -Limburger, bacon, caramelized onions, and fig jam on a whole grain baguette   
Paired with Wild Ride IPA, Sand Creek Brewing Co., Black River Falls, WI: An Imperial Pale Ale with moderate hops. Balancing the mild herbal bitterness typical to IPA's are underlying elements of pine, grapefruit and apricot which provide a touch of sweetness as the flavor develops.  

The Francesca - Mozzarella, pepperoni, and sauteed shiitake mushrooms on rosemary ciabbatta
Paired with: Organic Revolution, New Glarus Brewery, New Glarus, WI: A self-styled American Pale Ale that drinks more like a Dortmunder-style Lager. Yeast and raisin aromas meet with understated hops and lightly honeyed malt. Finishes easily with slightly grassy and minty notes.
The Biloxi - Fontina, pulled barbeque pork, and creamy coleslaw on buttermilk white bread
Paired with: Matacabras, Dave's Brewfarm, Black River Falls, WI: A unique ale with cross-stylistic qualities; mild nuttiness and fruitiness, caramel and a spicing of hoppiness come together to create a smooth almost creamy texture.
The Bavaria -Edam, knackwurst, and sauerkraut on dark rye bread
Paired with: Matacabras, Dave's Brewfarm, Black River Falls, WI: A unique ale with cross-stylistic qualities; mild nuttiness and fruitiness, caramel and a spicing of hoppiness come together to create a smooth almost creamy texture.
The Athena - Feta and seasoned grilled eggplant on grilled pita bread with tzatziki
Paired with Groovy Brew, Sand Creek Brewing Co., Black River Falls, WI -- A Kölsch style beer reminiscent of sparkling wine in its crispness. It has mild fruit flavors of green apple, grape and a touch of citrus. The finish is light and fleeting on the palate.
And... for dessert: 
The Bianca - Marscapone, dulce de leche, and raspberry preserves on cinnamon raisin bread
Although the sandwiches were sample sized, we found ourselves getting full fast.  There were simply too many delicious things to try!

That said, if the sandwiches were fabulous, the company was even better.  Over the course of the evening, we met a delightful group of foodies from all over Wisconsin.  Among them were some of our favorite blogger pals -- Mel from A Taste of Life, Allison from Post College Kitchen, and Mandy from A Serving of Life. It was like a little Wisconsin blogger party!

At the end of the night, we fell into bed -- exhausted by the sheer delightfulness of our grilled cheesy day.

Truth is, it would have been great if all of you had been able to join us. However, I did manage to bring a little bit of the magic back with me.  I managed to get a hold of a recipe to share with all of you.  This grilled cheese was the hands-down favorite among the members of our group -- and for good reason.  Just imagine that slow cooked pork -- slightly smoky, thanks to a bit of Wisconsin bacon -- paired with fontina cheese and delicious homemade coleslaw.  Sounds like a win to me.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Feasting for a Cause: Meritage Farm to Table Dinner & Fresh the Movie

FRESH is more than a film, it is a reflection of a rising movement of people and communities across America who are re-inventing our food system. Directed by ana Sofia joanes, FRESH celebrates the farmers that are really making a difference -- individuals like Milwaukee's own Will Allen, whose vision and guidance has made Growing Power one of the most successful urban farming projects in the nation.Fresh is about inspiration -- not scare tactics.The film offers a practical vision for the future of sustainable agriculture -- and empowers ordinary people to take action that incites real (and lasting) change.

FRESH is currently being screened in selected cities (and homes) around the nation. And the screenings are being accompanied by a series of great events promoting local eating and sustainable agriculture.

Sustainability is at the heart of our food philosophy here at Burp! So, when the good people at FRESH asked us to be the official bloggers at one of their farm to table restaurant events, how could we resist? Of course, we had no idea that our dinner at Meritage would be one of the best we've eaten in the Milwaukee area.

Sure, Meritage has a Zagat rating of "Very Good to Excellent" with comments ranging from "a welcome addition to the West side" to "can't wait to go back." They're soon to be named among the "Top 25 Restaurants" this week by Milwaukee Magazine. And yes -- friends have recommended we eat there many-a-time in the past... but we failed to heed their call. Silly Peef and Lo!

When we arrived at the restaurant, we were seated promptly. The host even granted our request to be seated at the window, where we'd have better natural lighting for our photography. Our waiter, Peter, was an absolute joy. Friendly and knowledgeable, Peter put his 25 years of restaurant service experience to work from the get-go. He started off by walking us through the prix fixe farm-to-table menu:
  • Spinach salad with buttermilk apple cider vinaigrette
  • Portabella mushroom pizza with feta cheese, spinach, and roasted tomatoes
  • Our choice of entrees: Bison ribeye with roasted fingerling potatoes and vegetables OR Vegetable paprikash with tofu, broccoli, carrots, and celery root
  • Meritage's signature dessert: Chocolate Lover's Cake
The spinach salad arrived at the table with a glass of Charles DeFere Brut -- a delicate, yet concentrated, champagne with elegant bubbles and a pleasantly toasted aroma. It paired beautifully with the spinach salad -- which featured locally grown (and stored) apples, local greenhouse spinach and red onions, with a delightfully sweet-tart buttermilk dressing.
The portabella mushroom "pizza" also paired nicely with the champagne. Composed of a grilled portabella mushroom cap, tomato-based sauce, sauteed spinach, roasted Roma tomatoes, and feta cheese, this dish reminded us of the sort of starter you'd find served in a Napa Valley eatery. The dish was bursting with flavors -- salty, sweet, and briny -- with the flavor of freshly cracked pepper lingering on the finish. Even the bed of watercress on which the "pizza" was served seemed to complement the dish swimmingly.
Our entrees were similarly impressive.
The vegetable paprikash was a virtual cornucopia of late winter vegetables -- celery root, broccoli, carrots, and tofu -- encircling a mound of rustic mashed potatoes. The sour cream-based sauce was perfectly balanced, with just the right amount of paprika, giving the dish a warm, yet sweet, flavor. The wine pairing, an Argentinian Malbec from Nieto Senetiner, turned out to be a well-rounded, honest wine with a surprising amount of character. Soft spices and pungent blackberry flavor mellowed into an oaky finish that seemed to balance well with the warm notes of the paprika.

The grilled bison rib-eye was perfectly cooked to a medium-rare -- and covered in richly flavored sauteed wild mushrooms. It was accompanied by a generous helping of sweet, roasted fingerling potatoes, more of the roasted Roma tomatoes, and a luscious pile of roasted celery root. The dish was paired with a Wisconsin gem -- Big Mouth Red by Stone's Throw Vineyard -- a wine bursting with cherry flavor, augmented by a bit of pepper on the finish.
And then there was the dessert: Chocolate Lover's Cake. Although we were nearly too full to move, we couldn't resist this sumptuous treat. Layers of flourless chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and chocolate ganache came together in a chocoholic's dream that was further topped with whipped cream and a sprig of mint. It was even more perfect when paired with Ramos Pinto Porto Riserva (Portugal) -- an unfiltered ruby port with sweet cherry notes and plenty of complementary chocolate flavors.

Throughout dinner, Peter was happy to guide us through the menu -- answering questions about the various farms that had supplied the dishes we ate, and running back to the kitchen to check on items about which we had questions. Turns out Peter himself grew up on a farm in Dubuque, Iowa, where his father farmed and his mother gardened and captured the summer bounty by canning and preserving. He learned first-hand what "farm to table" meant -- and it's fed his passion for the restaurant business. His eyes shone as he spoke about his boss, Chef Jan Kelly.

"There's no Milwaukee chef better than Kelly..." he crooned, "she has the restaurant business in her blood, and there's no one who pairs flavors quite like she does."

Peter also introduced us to Chef Kelly, herself, who took the time to talk with us about her philosophy in bringing farm-fresh produce to her restaurant table.

Kelly has been involved with "restaurant supported agriculture" programs for almost three years now. She was a founding member of "Braise RSA" -- the brainchild of David Swanson -- an organization which provides the infrastructure for local farmers to easily distribute and sell to restaurants and businesses who support local food in Southeast Wisconsin. She also supports local farms and businesses like Growing Power, Sassy Cow Creamery, Simple Soyman, Yuppie Hill, Pin-Oak Ridge Farms, and Lakeview Buffalo Farm.

"These are not corporations," Kelly commented, "they're people. And we're supporting families, not just buying product."

Kelly suspects that up to 70% of the food she serves at Meritage is sourced either locally or regionally -- which is pretty fantastic, considering we live in Wisconsin (a lovely place, but not one known for its long growing season).

"This is the hardest time of the year," she confesses, though judging from the meal we'd just finished, she's doing pretty well. "Braise is great," she added, "but Growing power gives us balance during the winter months -- fairly soon we'll be able to get green tomatoes from their greenhouse."

Ah -- the thought of fried green tomatoes made us feel a little bit woobly inside. And we couldn't help but feel excited when she told us that they'd be growing Chinese long beans for Meritage during the next growing season.

We chatted for almost a half-hour as we sipped our locally roasted Alterra coffee. It was difficult not to feel utterly welcome -- as if we'd been invited into Kelly's living room for a visit. Of course, that might not be so far from the truth. In fact, our night ended with a hug from the Chef... and the feeling that we'd just done something pretty awesome.


Of course, one night of awesome only goes so far... we need to stick with it... which is exactly what FRESH is all about. One person at a time, making little changes that have a big impact.

Here are a couple of things you can do right now to bring a little bit of "FRESH" into your own lives:

We'll be back next week to tell you all about the movie. And talk a bit more about things we can do to really make a difference. One little bite at a time.

Disclosure: We were not paid or compensated in any way for writing this post.  We were asked to write about the experience by the crew over at FRESH, but the opinions are our own. In other words, the experience really was that awesome -- which makes it all the easier to share.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's a Keeper: Irish Whiskey Cake

We're not the type of people who stand strictly on ceremony when it comes to holiday meals. The reality is, we like to change things up a little bit too much to keep on doing that same things over and over again, just because it's "expected". 

However, our annual St. Patrick's Day feast is one day when the menu always looks pretty much the same. There's always corned beef.  And we always serve side dishes featuring cabbage and potatoes. Often there are carrots. We're never without a few bottles of good Irish ale and a nice, dark stout.  And there is ALWAYS Irish Whiskey Cake for dessert.

You're probably wondering why I'm bringing this up now.  "It's April," you're saying to yourself, "Doesn't she realize that St. Patrick's day passed us by almost a month ago?  What kind of food blogger waits a whole month to tell us about a holiday recipe?"

Well, you're not wrong -- an entire month has passed.  But, the Irish Whiskey Cake is fresh in my mind.  In fact, I just ate the last little slice today with a cup of coffee. And it was almost as good as the day we made it. This cake hearkens back to the English pound cakes of old -- dense and buttery, chock full of raisins, with a hint of lemon and a healthy dose of whiskey flavor. Yeah -- it's THAT kind of cake.

The recipe came from an old college friend, who'd clipped the recipe out of an Irish book or magazine years before.  She knew I was interested in cooking, and that my family celebrated St. Patrick's Day, so she gave me a photocopy. Over the years, I've adapted the recipe to our own taste.

The cake only requires a hint of forethought -- and then it's pretty simple to put together.  If you have time, you want to start off by adding the zest of one lemon to about 3 oz. of Irish whiskey and letting it sit overnight.  I also like to soak my raisins in a bit of whiskey, allowing them to plump up a bit.  Everything else is pretty straight-forward, as you'll see.

Cream butter and sugar together until light. Then you add egg yolks, whiskey, and raisins and stir everything together.

Whisk your egg whites until stiff in another bowl, and then fold them into the batter.
Similarly, you'll fold in the flour.  What you should end up with is a nice, fluffy batter with lots of lovely visible air pockets.
Turn the batter into a greased cake pan (or bowl) lined with parchment paper, and bake for about an hour or so.  I bake mine in a stoneware bowl, but an 8 inch round cake pan would do the trick nicely.  A toothpick will come out clean (with moist crumbs clinging to it) when the cake is done.  Turn it out onto a cooling rack, and allow it to sit for about an hour.
When the cake is mostly cooled, you'll want put it on a serving plate and prick it all over with a toothpick or skewer.  Then douse it liberally with some additional Irish whiskey.  This can be repeated every few days if you're storing the cake for an extended period -- although, I wouldn't advocate planning on having leftovers.  This cake usually disappears shortly after it's cool in our house. 

Alternatively, you can glaze the cake with a powdered sugar & whiskey glaze -- which is also quite nice, if you'd like a bit of extra sweetness.

This moist, buttery cake is perfect for St. Patrick's Day.  But, I'd venture a guess that it would do for just about any little occasion.

Irish Whiskey Cake

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