Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chakchouka: Vegetable Ragout with Eggs

We're not vegetarians, but (as you've probably already noticed) we're big fans of vegetable-based fare.  Part of the reason is that we simply love veggies of all kinds.  But, we also love the challenge of coming up with recipes for whatever is freshest and best at the farmer's market.

We both came from solidly carnivorous households where meals were comprised of a protein, a vegetable, and some sort of starch. But, in the years since we've been married, our diets have changed considerably.  These days you'd be just as likely to find us mowing down on a plateful of roasted root vegetables, a slice of crusty bread and a glass of wine as you would a medium rare steak with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach.  And, if it weren't for Peef's obsession with all things bacon, some people would probably suggest that we've moved even closer to the vegetarian side of things in the past few years.

I'm always surprised when someone comments that they find vegetarian food to be "boring" or "flavorless". On the contrary, I've discovered that the more vegetarian food I eat and prepare, the more appreciation I develop for the intricacies of flavor that can be created (*gasp*) without the addition of meat.  And this recipe is no exception.

Chakchouka is a Berber word, which means simply "vegetable ragout". The dish, which is also called Ojja in Tunisia, is traditionally made with a combination of paprika, onions, peppers, and tomatoes and seasoned with harissa.  It's usually served topped with eggs that have been poached in the juices from the vegetable mixture.  However, it can also be served with fried eggs -- or without any eggs at all.

This recipe is a version I developed after visiting Tunisia (read more about my love for North Africa here).  It utilizes the traditional harissa paste (which is quite spicy -- so it should be adjusted to your liking) and peppers. However, I've taken the liberty to use fire-roasted tomatoes and smoked paprika -- both items that impart a pleasantly sweet and smoky quality to the dish.

I love making this at the end of our Wisconsin growing season -- when we have plenty of fresh red and green peppers to choose from. It's delicious made with a combination of sweet bell peppers, wax peppers, and poblano peppers. But, any peppers you have on hand will do.  It also works wonderfully with previously frozen peppers or fire-roasted peppers, though you'll want to adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Spicy. Smoky. And infinitely complex, chakchouka makes an incredibly delicious breakfast, served alongside a crusty loaf of French bread. However, it also makes a delightful light lunch scooped into warm pitas.  And, quite frankly, if you're determined to be carnivorous about it, chopped Spanish chorizo makes an excellent addition to the tomato & pepper mixture.

RECIPE: Chackchouka

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Local Joy: Fire Roasted Poblano Peppers

Mole sauce... pumpkin poblano corn pudding... pineapple poblano salsa... polenta with mixed pepper sauce... caramelized onion & poblano enchiladas...

It's not difficult to admit that I'm a huge fan of roasted poblanos. 

However, I'm a little bit hesitant to admit that it's almost therapeutic for me to venture out in the midst of winter to pick up a few imported poblanos from the Mexican grocer & throw them underneath the broiler to give them a good char.  The roasty toasty smell of the peppers, combined (if I'm fortunate) with the refreshing taste of one of Peef's famous margaritas, transports me somewhere far away from the Wisconsin winter snow -- and to a place that's almost, well, tropical.  Best of all, a couple of the sweet roasted peppers pull in an awful lot of flavor into an otherwise bland winter dish -- saving me from the winter cooking doldrums.

But, we've been trying to commit to eating more and more locally as time wears on.  So, a couple of Saturdays ago, I decided to take the bull by the horns and head off those mid-winter temptations.  We headed off to the farmer's market in search of a small goldmine of those lovely green peppers. About fifteen minutes and $10 later, I had myself a half a bushel of them -- and I was pretty excited to get home.

Originally, I planned to roast the peppers in the oven, before peeling off the charred skin, extracting the seeds, and packing the peppers into containers to pop them into the freezer.  But, it occurred to me that there was an even better way to deal with a boatload of peppers.
It might sound silly, but pulling out the charcoal grill was a bit of a revelation.  First of all, I don't think I realized quite how much time we'd save (the direct flame really goes to work on the peppers, and chars them in about half the time).  I also didn't exactly think about all of that sensual, smoky flavor that would be imparted to the peppers from the hardwood charcoal.  But, as the peppers roasted, I found myself feeling a little bit giddy. And, as I stood over the island, scraping charred bits of skin and seeds from the green flesh,  I started to envision the roasted poblano rice... the chiles rellenos... and the southwestern corn chowder made with poblanos & frozen grilled corn... And, by the time we'd packed all of the peppers away, I was seriously stoked.

Even if I'm not particularly looking forward to that first winter snow storm, I'm definitely looking forward to pulling some of these babies out of the freezer in mid-winter.  Talk about therapy...

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Fresh Blackberry Swirl Ice Cream

Ufda. Uff da. It's been so long since I've been in the kitchen. Fortunately, this recipe is a treat worth waiting for.

Berries are definitely my favorites when it comes to summer fruits.  And blackberries -- well, they pretty much take the cake as far as I'm concerned.

Because they don't ship well, you'll seldom find blackberries in the market .  And the sheer rarity of them probably fuels my seemingly insatiable desire for them. However, if (like me) you're lucky enough to find a local source for them, you may be able to get your fill during the latter days of summer.

If you've ever been fortunate enough to pick your own, the flavor of blackberries -- tart, yet sweeter then their distant cousin the raspberry -- is likely to conjure nothing less than images & memories of sweltering summer days, brambly thorn-ridden bushes, and the inevitable purpled fingers. 

This year, I happened to have sourced my berries at Outpost, our local food co-op.  There weren't many, but I bought up everything that I could, knowing that I'd find a use for them before they turned bad.  I didn't quite have enough berries to make Megan's Blackberry Basil Jam (though I'm still haunted by the thought of it). And, as much as eating pints of berries out of hand sounded like a great plan, I really wanted to stretch it out as far as I could -- to prolong the joy, so to speak.

To be honest, there wasn't much conversation at all before we decided on making a batch of ice cream. No surprise there, right?

So, we did what we usually do.  We dragged out all the ice cream cookbooks we could find and started playing around with recipes.  What we came up with was an absolute delight -- rich, creamy vanilla ice cream with plenty of daubs of tart/sweet berries. Exactly the sort of thing you'd want to pile into a cone on a warm late summer's night and enjoy right out on the patio.  Or, in our case, feed to our adorable niece!  (She, btw, declared the icecream "marvelous" and proceeded to tell everyone that we'd made it "just for her.")

The recipe for the ice cream is basic -- just a rich vanilla base with a blackberry swirl. That said, I want to share a couple of pieces of information with you while I'm writing all of this down.

We mashed 1 1/2 cups fresh blackberries with a fork and about 3-4 tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. We took David Lebovitz's advice and added a bit of vodka to the berries to keep them from freezing solid, and then we layered the blackberries in with the churned ice cream.  The trick didn't work quite as well as I'd hoped (the berries froze a bit more solid than I would have liked) -- not sure exactly why. But, I plan to play around with the proportions of berries to alcohol next time to see what I can come up with.
Beautiful. Luscious. And perfectly local.  Just about nothing beats a bowl of blackberry ice cream.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Shrimp and Grits Turn Political

This is one of those blog posts that may never have been written had the circumstances been different.  The fact of the matter is, this recipe (a modified shrimp & grits made with locally sourced wild mushrooms, shrimp, and cheesy polenta) was pretty much a flop.  What started as a great idea (using deliciously fresh ingredients) turned out to be a royal mess-up at worst, and a learning experience at best.

The flavors were off, the shrimp got slightly overcooked, and the overall dish just didn't have that *something* that made it worthy of becoming a published Burp! recipe.  But, it got me thinking -- really thinking -- about seafood, particularly Gulf seafood.  And I though it was important to share my thoughts.

If you've been a reader for a while, you might remember me talking last summer about our discovery of the Fabian Seafood truck  --  a purveyor of Gulf seafood based in Galveston, Texas.

Fabian started their family business selling fresh shrimp throughout most of Texas and Oklahoma from the back of pick-up trucks. Back then, they would buy the shrimp fresh from the shrimping boats, ice them down, and drive overnight several hundred miles or more inland to sell them the very next day.   People were skeptical of buying shrimp out of the back of a truck (as was I) -- but Fabian proved themselves by supplying some of the freshest shrimp anywhere and developing a loyal following of customers.

The BP spill happened about 300 miles away from Galveston and the oil headed primarily north and east, away from Fabian's business. In fact, these days their business has been primarily affected -- not so much by the oil contamination & dispersants -- but by overall higher wholesale prices and low supply due to the closure of about a third of the fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Unfortunately, they have also felt a drop in business due to the perception that all Gulf seafood is contaminated -- which isn't the case. In fact, according to Fabian's Web site, two thirds of the Gulf is still open to fishing and the shrimp boats.  And businesses are still able to source fresh, uncontaminated seafood from these areas.  They've even posted information on their Web site to ensure that their customers have the information they need to make an educated decision about buying their seafood.

We're doing a fund-raiser here in Milwaukee this weekend called the Gumbo Git Down which aims to bring some relief to the Gulf region through money donated to the Gulf Restoration Network.  And, while you may not live close enough to attend, I'd ask you to consider doing something locally to help out those Gulf fishermen (like Fabian) whose livelihood is at stake.  Keep buying seafood from safe sources.  Keep supporting those workers who keep the Gulf seafood industry alive.  And do your part to spread the truth about what's going on in the Gulf.  

Even better, read up on the work that the Gulf Restoration Network is doing to mediate the issues in the Gulf -- and consider giving them your support.  After all, the BP well might be plugged, but the issues in the Gulf are a long way from being solved.   

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wine & Dine Wisconsin 2010

The foodies are alive and eating well here in Wisconsin. And we've got proof:  Wine & Dine Wisconsin.

In its second year, Wine & Dine Wisconsin features some of the best in wine, beer, food, and spirits in the area.  Interested onlookers can sample delicious creations, imbibe a variety of delicious drinks, and learn more about locally made products.

We managed to make it downtown for a few hours this morning to enjoy the festivities. And here are some of the highlights of our day.

First, there was plenty of wine.  But, it's "Wine & Dine Wisconsin" -- so you'd sort of expect that, wouldn't you?  What you might not expect to encounter is a whole line of libations produced in support of God's work. And I present: Holy Spirits: Great Wine on a Mission.
There were also plenty of Wisconsin Dairy products represented -- including a stunning array of Wisconsin cheeses like this Olive Oil & Rosemary variety from Sartori Foods and ice cream from Sassy Cow Creamery.
As expected, there was also plenty of beer -- including a wide range of bottled brews for sampling, and a few from Stella Artois on tap.  Though the Stella Artois beer garden was quite impressive (and a variety of WI brews were represented among the 40 craft brews offered by greatbrewers.com),  we were a bit surprised that there wasn't more representation from our talented Wisconsin breweries.
Fortunately, we saw plenty of our favorite local artisans, including Scott from Bolzano Artisan Meats. In addition to some scrumptious charcuterie, Scott also has a pretty impressive moustache -- look at it in the photo below!  Rumor has it, he keeps up his snappy style with a bit of Elmer's Glue.  Scott -- fact or fiction?
Restaurants also offered impressive fare -- including this delicous seafood salad offered by Tutto.
And uber fresh oysters on the half-shell from our friends at Molly Cool's Seafood Tavern. (Incidentally, Molly Cool's will be serving up some of their delicious fare at the Gumbo Git Down next weekend... you won't want to miss it!)
While the beer wasn't particularly local, some of the spirits were -- and we were happy to see the Great Lakes Distillery serving up some of their finest vodka, gin, and their newest release -- Roaring Dan's Rum -- deliciously smooth stuff with a hint of Wisconsin maple syrup.
We were also pretty stoked to have the opportunity to meet Nick & Ira, the master minds behind the Bittercube brand.  These amazing mixologists showed us how to brew up our own nifty homemade bitters and flavored liquors.  In addition to being clever, they also mix up a pretty mean Whiskey Old Fashioned (a recipe they actually call the "Old Double Gold" so as not to confuse WI folks who think an old fashioned needs mashed up orange & maraschino cherry).
We were also happy to find mixologists of another type at the event -- employees of Oro di Oliva oil & vinegar shop -- mixing up delicious blends of olive oils and vinegars for sampling.
 Of course, there was no better way to finish our field trip than with a few sweet treats.  First, we sampled deliciously smooth gelato from our neighbors at Cold Spoons Gelato.  First, we tried the amazing salted caramel gelato... and we cleansed our palates with some of their amazing lemon sorbetto. YUM.
But, no foodie adventure would be complete without Peef's favorite indulgence -- a bit of chocolate. And so we'll leave you with something smooth and spicy -- a bit of chocolate from Indulgence Chocolatiers in Waukesha, Wisconsin.  Truly exceptional stuff.   The Mayan Spice bar is fantastically rich, with an amazing kick from cayenne pepper.  And the milk chocolate sea salt chocolate... well, you've just got to try that to believe it.
Wine and Dine Wisconsin runs through tomorrow, October 3rd.  Tickets are $49 at the door.

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