Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chicken Parmesan Sandwiches with Tomato Basil Jam

I love February.

It's the time of year when everything in the produce section at the grocery store is either months old (storage veggies like potatoes, onions, and root veggies) or imported from a warmer climate (all of which are bajillions of miles away from Wisconsin). 

It's the season in Wisconsin when the idea of fresh locally grown herbs is a complete anomaly -- unless your green thumb allowed you to get a pot of them to grow in a warm, sunny window at the southeastern corner of your house.

It's the time of year when all the plants outside look dead.  The grass is covered in dirty snow.  And the only thing that looks remotely green are the evergreen shrubs planted in front of most houses on my block.

Ah, yes... despite these things, I really do love February.

You think I'm joking, don't you?
But, I'm not.  The reason I love this time of the year so much is because I'm pretty well prepared for it.  I have a hat to wear when it's cold outside.  And warm, waterproof boots that allow me to tromp through the snow without a care in the world.  And, best of all, my basement pantry and freezer are stocked with items that, when opened, take me back to the days when a sunny day meant a warm day.  When vegetables were in season and at their prime right in my backyard.  And the farmer's market was teeming with new delights each week...   tomatillo salsa, roasted tomatoes and peppers,

And one jar of tomato basil jam -- gifted to me by my friend Rena, whose generosity is surpassed only by her ability to make my day better just by being around.  She gave me the jar of jam last summer, after the tomato harvest, and I've been simultaneously hoarding it and waiting to break into it ever since.

Fortunately, a particular craving inspired me to break it open.  Peef was hankering for a panini.  And I was thinking about summer.  I also happened to have chicken breasts on hand, along with a bit of Wisconsin Sartori Reserve Sarvecchio Parmesan cheese, and a delicious loaf of sourdough bread.

It didn't take much effort to get my creative juices flowing.  First, I took the chicken breasts and pounded them nice and flat between two sheets of waxed paper.
Then we seasoned them up with some Historic Third Ward Seasoning (a delicious Italian blend from our local Spice House), and browned them up in a bit of olive oil.

A few slices of cheese, a spread of tomato basil jam, and a handful of winter greens from Growing Power (an awesome urban farm in Milwaukee that grows fresh micro-greens & salad mixes all winter long-- read more here), and we had ourselves a pretty amazing sandwich.
The tomato basil jam smells of the essence of tomato.  And its flavor followed suit -- reminiscent of a sweet tomato concentrate with just the right hint of fresh basil lingering on the finish.  Although I might ordinarily think that it was a bit too sweet for a sandwich, I really enjoyed how the fresh tasting jam played off of the saltiness of the cheese and the Italian seasonings of the chicken, coming together almost like the sweet/salty combination of a delicious Italian salad dressing.

All in all, opening that jar was like opening a perfectly preserved jar of summer.  Just the sort of thing to cure your February blues.

And just in case you'd like a link to bookmark this jam for next year's summer tomato harvest:
Tomato Basil Jam

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Want more? Read Lo's latest ruminations at FOODCrush, her Milwaukee Magazine blog.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Adobo Tuna Steaks with WI Cranberry Salsa

Winter meals in Wisconsin often conjure up a particular heaviness.  They're usually rich, calorie-laden dishes that rely on long, slow cooking and plenty of winter-hearty vegetables.  And trust me when I say I don't find anything wrong with that.

But, sometimes I crave something a bit lighter and less laborious.  And, on those evenings, I'm likely to look to frozen fish filets for a quick dinner that's both fast and delicious.  Not local, necessarily -- but definitely nutritious.

Of course, I'm also always on the look-out for seasonings and condiments that really kick up the flavor quotient.  And I get doubly excited when I'm able to source the majority of the ingredients locally.  Case-in-point:  my new-found love for winter salsa.

Now, this is no time to talk about your typical tomato based salsa.  Nope, nope.  Winter tomatoes are decidedly mealy, watery, and not really worth seeking out. But, cranberries!  Now you're talking.

If you thought cranberries were only useful as a sauce or relish served at Thanksgiving time, I'm going to ask you to think again.  These tart little numbers freeze impeccably for up to two years without losing flavor or texture.  So, I always stock up on them while they're on sale and in season during the autumn months.

As one of only three commercially cultivated fruits native to North America, the cranberry has a long history in Wisconsin.  In addition to using cranberries as a food preservative and fabric dye, many Native American tribes believed cranberries were healing agents that could calm the nerves and draw poison from arrow wounds.  By the 1800’s settlers in Berlin, Wisconsin capitalized on the fruits versatility by planting the first commercial cranberry marshes.  Today, Wisconsin alone produces over 60% of the nation’s cranberry crop, with a large emphasis on sustainable growing practices. More info here.

This particular salsa recipe, which makes use of Wisconsin cranberries and winter oranges, was inspired by Peef's Dad, who makes a cranberry orange relish for Thanksgiving that everyone loves.  I decided to take the idea behind his recipe and create a savory salsa that capitalizes on the tartness of the cranberries & the freshness of citrus, while incorporating the decidedly savory flavors of freshly chopped scallions, jalapenos, and cilantro.  Interestingly enough, it turned out to make one of the most flavorful winter salsas I've ever eaten.  In addition to being delicious eaten on a tortilla chip, this salsa is also excellent served alongside pork roast, salmon, or even grilled tofu steaks.

For this particular evening's dinner, we decided to go with a couple of sustainably raised tuna steaks for our meal.  Asimple sprinkling of adobo seasoning is all these lovely steaks needed to give them a ton of flavor before grilling on our trust Calphalon grill pan.
The finished steaks were perfectly grill marked and heated through, yet with a slightly pink center that belies that bit of juicy, tender rareness that really makes them shine.

A dollop of cranberry salsa is all that's needed to pull the flavors in this dish together.  Served with a side of deliciously creamy kefir-mashed potatoes and blasted broccoli, this is the perfect sort of winter meal -- one that makes you pretty confident that spring is just right around the corner.

Wisconsin Cranberry Salsa

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Want more? Read Lo's latest ruminations at FOODCrush, her Milwaukee Magazine blog.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Benedictine Mac & Cheese with Caramelized Onions & Rosemary

If the way to someone's heart is really through his/her stomach, then this post is probably as good as a love potion when it comes to enchanting and delighting your beloved.  Although macaroni & cheese might be a bit heavy to serve as a Valentine's Day dinner, it's the perfect dinner for a chilly winter weekend when you can't think of anything better than snuggling up on the couch with a glass of wine and your lover.

Serve this delicious pasta with a crisp green salad and a glass of a nice full red wine. Either an earthy red Bordeaux or a spicy, fruit-forward Zinfandel would pair very nicely.

This post is featured as part of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's 2nd Annual 30 Days 30 Ways with Macaroni & Cheese. Be sure to give them a visit and check out all the other scrumptious recipes created by food bloggers around the nation using Wisconsin cheese. 

If you conjure your fondest childhood memories of macaroni and cheese, what do you envision?
A steaming bowl of creamy stovetop pasta graced with American cheese?
Baked macaroni & cheese with scads of gooey sharp cheddar & a sprinkling of crispy bread crumbs?
Or how about a serving of that ever-popular electric orange macaroni & cheese from a box?

Regardless of your specific orientation to the dish, macaroni and cheese remains one of the most popular—if not the most popular—American comfort foods.

As a result, there are hundreds of recipes for mac and cheese out there.  And you must trust us when I tell you that we’ve tried most of them.  At heart, we’re big fans of simple, old fashioned macaroni and cheese.  However, we also really like venturing out and coming up with great new flavor combinations for this classic dish.  And this version is one of our favorites so far.
Imagine sweet slices of perfectly caramelized onion paired with the earthy and slightly piney flavor of fresh rosemary and the pleasantly toasted notes of whole wheat elbows. 

Now imagine those ingredients cloaked in a fantastically creamy sauce made from Carr Valley Benedictine cheese – a delightful and intensely nutty washed rind cheese made from a combination of sheep, goat, and cow’s milk.
While this somewhat inventive version of the popular dish will probably not take you back to your mom’s kitchen, I promise it will give you that same creamy dreamy comfort food feeling in the depths of your belly.

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Want more? Read Lo's latest ruminations at FOODCrush, her Milwaukee Magazine blog.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mustard + Beer = Spicy Beer Mustard = YUM

My mustard obsession, I will confess, began with a yellow barrel shaped bottle. I squeezed a bit on a brat with some sauteed onions and all at once, my condiment-schmeared face broke into a grin.  I'd caught it.

The mustard bug.
It bit me hard.

Eventually, I graduated to Dijon. A hint spicier, but sweet and seductive. This stuff was just as sophisticated as the commercials made it out to be. From there, no mustard was left behind. The more unusual flavor the better.

Why this obsession with mustard? Dunno. But I'm not the only one. After all, there is a National Mustard Day (August 6, 2011) so there have got to be other mustard-obsessors out there. I'm pretty sure there was never a mustard shortage in my house when I was growing up. Thinking about it, my dad probably was the one that got me hooked. Next to me, he's probably the second most mustard-obsessed person I know.  Who knows, maybe it's genetic!?

But, I digress.  A while back, our good friend Rebecca at Cakewalk made some Spicy Guinness Mustard. She was characteristically generous and shared a jar with us at one of last year's soup nights.  It was so delicious that we got hooked on the idea of making some mustard of our own and experimenting with the flavors a little bit.  More specifically, we wondered what would happen if we kicked up the spice quotient a notch by using one of the wonderful local pumpkin brews in place of the Guinness.
Now, history tells us that, even way back when, wealthy Romans would make mustard at home by grinding up the seeds and mixing it with wine. So, mixing it with beer really isn't such a stretch. And really, living in Milwaukee, it seems only fitting to use what's local. Right?

The beer we used for this particular batch was Tyranena's Painted Ladies Pumpkin Spice Ale. This is their fall seasonal brew and one of our favorite pumpkin brews.  The mellow pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices balances out the sharpness of the crushed mustard.  We also used unfiltered raw apple-cider vinegar, which gave the mustard a unique fruity flavor that really paired well with the pumpkin.
Now for a little lesson in nutrition.  Not only is it tasty, but the mustard plant also has some significant health benefits. The seeds contain nutrients called isothiocyanates (We have the interwebs at our house, so don't look so amazed). These isothio things have been shown to prevent the growth of cancer cells, specifically to stomach and colon cancer. The seed also contains selenium which is good for reducing the intensity of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. And if you have high blood pressure or frequent migraines, the seeds have magnesium which may reduce both of these things. Typically mustard is fat free and has very few calories.

So go ahead, double dip!

Of course, before I finish up this post, I also need to mention that the National Mustard Museum is right here in Wisconsin and all of an hour and half away from Milwaukee. We need to make another trek over there because they recently relocated to a bigger facility in Middleton. They have over 5200 different types of mustard on display. Road Trip!

Spicy Pumpkin Mustard

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Tuna Chowder: Memories in Every Bowl

My mother was a great cook.  But, for some reason, she wasn't very good at making brothy soup. It could have been our uninitiated palates, but my siblings and I always joked that her chicken noodle soup tasted like water with vegetables floating in it... and her beef & barley soup was virtually the same, albeit a much darker hue.   Needless to say, none of us usually got overly excited when the word on the street was that we'd be having soup for dinner.

Unless it was tuna soup.

For some reason, my mother was a miracle worker with a can of tuna.  She made the best tuna salad sandwiches. The best casseroles. And, apparently, the very best soup.   

There are some dishes that , once eaten, leave an indelible impression. For me, "tuna soup" was one of those dishes. Mom made it regularly.  And she frequently brought it to pot-lucks and soup dinners.   The flavors of the soup were so indelibly ingrained in my head by the time I went to college that I took after my mother, cooking up pot after pot of this fantastic soup.  Of course, I had to give it my own special twist. So, I started calling it tuna "chowder" -- after all, a chowder is much more sophisticated sounding than a soup. Right?

Like tuna casserole, this deliciously creamy soup pulls together the comforting flavors of tuna, dill, cream, and peas.  But, rather than noodles, you'll find spoonful after spoonful of perfectly cooked potatoes that have been rendered deliciously tender by a gentle 20 minute milk bath.

It's quick. It's nourishing. And it's basic enough to appeal to the most frugal gourmet's budget.

Tuna chowder... it's what's for dinner.

Tuna Chowder

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Want more? Read Lo's latest ruminations at FOODCrush, her Milwaukee Magazine blog.