Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blue Flower Soup & Lessons on Friendship

In the past, no one would EVER have described me as a socialite.

It's not so much that I don't like people, but I've always drawn fairly definitive lines when it comes to "friends" and "acquaintances."

For me, acquaintances are people you run into at the grocery store or exchange passing waves with at the post office -- but most certainly NOT the people you choose to hang out with, reveal yourself to, or go out of your way to seek out.  Friends are the ones who fulfill our need for human connection, bonding, and community.  Not strangers. Whenever someone would ask about my friends, I'd always tell them that, for me, it was about quality not quantity, and that I could count the number of friends I had on one hand.

I'm a very loyal person who tends to hold her friends to exceedingly high standards. My devotion to my friends is probably somewhat unusual in its depth and breadth (I really believe friends are worth sacrifice) -- and, I can point to specific scenarios where my loyalty has actually caused conflict due to incompatible (and arguably unrealistic) expectations in my relationships.

So, when I came to Peef four years ago and told him I was planning on putting together an event called Soup Night -- a no RSVP required, large scale, everyone's invited sortofa gala -- he probably looked at me like I was completely nuts.  But, I persisted, insisting that I really wanted to open up my home to others, to build community, and really give myself a chance to get to know people who might otherwise remain strangers.

Rather than shutting me down, Peef fed my dream.  And Soup Night was born.

This year, we've had a particularly rich series of soup nights.  And, for the first time, I feel as if the concept that I had in my head all along is really coming to fruition.  Strangers are making connections. Old friendships are being renewed.  And I'm beginning to realize that our lives are enriched by a seriously awesome group of people.

Even better, much like the villagers from the old Stone Soup folk tale, on Soup Night everyone takes part in this amazing community of nourishment -- both physical and spiritual. There's adventure. And sharing. And somehow, regardless of how many people show up, there's always... enough. It's like nothing I've ever seen before.

This past weekend marked the final Soup Night for 2011.  And it was lovely.  We served three soups -- Reuben (with toasted rye croutons & Swiss cheese), Red Lentil (best when topped with a spritz of fresh lemon juice), and Blue Flower Soup (a creamy cauliflower soup with cracked anise & blue cheese).

Guests brought wine, loaves of French bread, awesome goat cheese, pear, and walnut appetizers, cookies made with delicious homemade poppyseed paste, deliciously addicting Bacon Bourbon Popcorn, cheesecake bars, and chocolate cherry meringues.

And people stayed well past their usual 7:30pm departure time.  It was as if we all knew a good thing was coming to an end and we wanted to make the most of it.

I still believe in quality over quantity.  However, in the past few years I've been blessed to meet quite a number of amazing people who I feel privileged to call my friends.  And soup night has been a big part of that.

Thanks to every single one of you who came... and shared... and participated in my dream.
I can't wait for next year!

Red Lentil Soup
Blue Flower Soup

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pasta with Winter Squash Sauce, Chorizo, & Greens

Spring in Wisconsin is a fickle beast.
Just last week, we were enjoying gorgeous sunny days with temperatures close to sixty degrees. The breeze was sweet and light, and I was just beginning to get into the mood for serious spring fare like asparagus, fresh peas. Premature, I know, especially since we won't be seeing local asparagus or peas until May or June (and you really can't beat the flavor of fresh local spring produce). But, a girl can hope.

Unfortunately, that little taste of fine weather ended up to be just that... a taste.  And, as of this week, the weather is dreary and drippy and downright COLD.

Maybe it's God's way of preventing me from being tempted by all that organic California asparagus showing up on the shelves at Outpost Natural Foods.  Or maybe it's the last little boost I need to actually make good use of the last of the delicious food I've got stored up in the freezer.  Either way, I'm making peace with the idea that, despite what the calendar may indicate, spring has not quite arrived.

The fact is, I've got the perfect solution to a wet, cold spring day.  It's called winter squash sauce. And I've got a freezer full of it at my disposal.

The concept for this sauce was born nearly five months ago. On a brisk but sunny Saturday last October, we headed off to the market and stocked up on winter squash. I bought a number of fabulous heirloom varieties -- beautiful creamy yellow & green acorn squash, thin-skinned delicata, pimply Galeux d'Eysines, gorgeously hued Queensland Blue squash, and huge old style butternut squash.

We ate quite a bit of the squash roasted simply.  I made gratins, risottos, and wonderful steamy bowls of squash soup.  And then, after we'd eaten our fill of fresh squash, I started freezing squash puree for use in future recipes.  And I decided to get to work on squash sauce -- something I envisioned as not only a stand-in for the standard tomato based sauce, but also a possible base for squash soup. 
I spent a good portion of the late fall and winter tweaking this recipe to get it just the way I wanted it -- sweet (but not TOO sweet), smooth, and complex.  Although it makes use of plenty of savory flavors including celery, onions, and tomato paste, it turns out that a few roasted red peppers were just the thing that ended up taking the sauce to a whole new level.

You could easily make this sauce any time of the year using storage squash or frozen squash puree. But, since it freezes well, it's a recipe to tuck away for one of those industrious autumn weekends when you feel like making best use of all that squash from the market.

Although the sauce is perfectly delicious on its own (or mixed with cream to make a delicious soup), it makes a delicious pasta --  paired with a bit of browned Mexican chorizo, sauteed greens, and cubes of deliciously salty Monterey Jack cheese -- and then baked in the oven until it's bubbly and browned and crisp around the edges.
Perfect comfort food for a rainy spring evening -- or anytime you have the hankering for something warm and nourishing.

Winter Squash Sauce

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

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stout Ice Cream with Irish Whiskey Caramel Sauce: Pure Guinness, er, Genius

And here we are. Wearin' the green on one of my favorite days of the year. St. Patrick's Day!

At our house, that means one thing:  wrangling up all the Leprechaun charms we can finagle and whipping up a wee bit o' magic in the kitchen.

The Irish do love a good stiff drink. So, why not toast to the luck ‘o the Irish on this St. Patrick’s Day with a glass of…ice cream?

Yeah, we've been futzing around with ice cream flavors again. And this time we've come up with something truly festive.  This amazing ice cream brings together the darkly wonderful toasted malt flavor of stout beer with a strikingly lovely caramel sauce.

The bitter notes of the beer are balanced nicely with a touch of sugar and the richness of cream, while the caramel sauce brilliantly marries caramel notes with the deliciously complex notes of Irish Whiskey and a wonderfully creamy texture that assists in balancing the bite of the ice cream.

It's a bit like an Irish Car Bomb in ice cream form.
As we speak, our corned beef for tonight's dinner is bubbling gaily in the slow cooker. And we're looking forward to a fine feast in celebration of all things Irish. Even if you won't be joining us for dinner, we'd encourage you to join us in spirit by whipping up a delicious batch of this stellar ice cream.

It's absolutely delicious.  Creamy and rich, with the perfect balance between bitter and sweet. Seriously good stuff...  and that's no Blarney.   We used a local brew - Tyranene Down 'N Dirty Chocolate Oatmeal Stout - for the ice cream.  But, any delicious craft brewed oatmeal stout will do.  And use the best Irish whiskey you can get your hands on for the sauce.  You won't regret it.

Stout Ice Cream
Irish Whiskey Caramel Sauce

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Monday, March 14, 2011

St. Patrick's Day Burgers with Irish Whiskey Onions & Cheddar

Get out that green shirt and the Kiss Me I'm Irish Today button because we're getting ready to celebrate one of the most hallowed days on the Burp! calendar -- St. Patrick's Day.

In some ways, we're all about (Irish-American) tradition. St. Patrick's Day is the perfect time to pull out all the stops when it comes to dinner. First, you need a slab of Corned Beef Brisket, accompanied by some delicious cabbage and a pile of potatoes (boiled, roasted, or smashed). A nice Irish Stout is usually the beverage of choice. And it would be a shame to end our St. Patrick's Day feast without a slice or two of Irish Whiskey Cake.

But, we also find ourselves longing to change things up a little bit every  now and again.  And that's when we come up with delicious experiments like Cheesy Colcannon with Leeks and Reuben Risotto.

This year, our imaginations got the best of us.  Peef was craving burgers.  And he'd read something somewhere about braising onions in Irish Whiskey.  Needless to say, we decided it sounded like a pretty winning combination.  So, we got to work.

First, it only seemed right that an Irish burger, similar to a Reuben, would be served on rye bread. So, we mixed up a batch of our favorite focaccia dough (yeah, yeah, I know -- Italian dough for an Irish sandwich...) -- only we subbed out all of the all-purpose flour with rye flour.  And we kneaded a small handful of caraway seeds into the dough.

While the bread baked, I set to work caramelizing a nice big batch of onions. When the onions were just about finished, I swirled in a nice splash of Power's Irish Whiskey, which functioned to deglaze the pan and impart a nice, smooth malty flavor to the sweet onions.

Since I figured it wouldn't hurt to tie in a little bit of "corned beef" action, I also hauled out some classic corning spices like juniper berries, allspice, mustard, coriander and cinnamon and ground them up in our spice grinder. These got mixed in with the better part of pound of fresh ground beef.  We grilled the burgers to medium-rare on our stove-top grill pan and then topped them with slices of Irish Dubliner cheese, cooking them just long enough for the cheese to melt & begin drooping down the sides.

By the time the focaccia was finished baking, we were both drooling like maniacs. Almost didn't get pictures of the burgers, we were so hungry...

And so, I present:  The Irish Burger.  This deliciously spiced grass-fed ground beef burger sits atop a slice of sourdough rye foccaccia. It's enrobed with the slightly sweet, nutty tang of the cheese and topped off with the impeccably sweet and flavorful Irish Whiskey-infused onions.
Messy to eat, but extremely satisfying, these burgers were a perfectly unconventional way to begin our pre-St. Patrick's Day celebration.

Irish Burgers with Whiskey-Caramelized Onions
Sourdough Rye Focaccia

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

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fat Daddy Ice Cream: A Peanut Butter Chocolate Revolution

Even when the ground outside is covered in a blanket of white, my fingers are frigid, and the northern winds are causing the windows in our old bungalow to rattle and creak, I'm still almost always up for a bowl of ice cream.

Why?  I couldn't really tell you... though I like to joke that it's based in part on the theory that the colder your insides are, the warmer it feels outside.  I mean, let's be honest. That seems as good a reason as any to enjoy this deliciously creamy treat, doesn't it?

I answer with a resoundingly confident: YES!  Especially if it contains two of my favorite things -- peanut butter and chocolate -- which this amazing ice cream does.

The idea for Fat Daddy ice cream was inspired by a particularly delicious Ben & Jerry's flavor that bears a similar name:  Chubby Hubby.  According to B&J's description, Chubby Hubby consissts of "Fudge Covered Peanut Butter Filled Pretzels in Vanilla Malt Ice Cream Rippled with Fudge & Peanut Butter".  Umm... really. How can you argue with that?

So we didn't.  But, we did set out to make our own version of this sensational favorite.
A bit of labor chocolate-coating peanut-butter filled pretzels... and a couple of experimental batches of peanut butter fudge sauce (even the flops were totally worth eating)... and we were pretty sure we had stumbled onto an ice cream flavor that was equally as delicious as B&J's.  And it wouldn't cost us even close to $4/pint to create in our own kitchen.

So, we set out and churned up a nice big batch of malted milk ice cream, and layered it into pint-sized containers with drizzles of peanut butter fudge and plenty of chocolate covered pretzels.  After an hour or two in the freezer, our creation was ready to be tested.

Heh. Testing ice cream is always our favorite part.

But, you don't have to take our word for it.  Based on the reviews of a couple of friends who taste-tested this particular flavor for us (thanks, Mike & Ann!!), I think we can be pretty confident that this recipe is ready to be released to the public.

Fat Daddy Ice Cream

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

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Milwaukee Mardi Gras, Part II: Bananas Foster Bread Pudding

If you thought we were done celebrating... well, you've got another thing comin'.   Those amazing langostinos & grits were just the main course. Now we're moving on to dessert!

Yeah, I said dessert.  And I meant it.

I'm a big fan of bread pudding.  First -- although I know that not everyone would agree -- in my world there are no bad bread puddings.  There are good bread puddings.  And better bread puddings.  And then there are the best bread puddings.

The best bread puddings are rich and custardy.  They're made with light, fluffy bread that puffs up like a souffle as it finishes cooking.  Best of all, these bread puddings have a lovely hard sauce poured over them.  Usually, the sauce is made with bourbon or whiskey.  But, I've been persuaded by decadent rum sauces, and even the occasional sauce made with brandy. The fact is, sauce is important. Even a so-so pudding can be transformed into something far more palatable if you pair it with the proper sauce.

So... when I decided to get a little creative with bread pudding for this year's Mardi Gras dinner, I figured there was very little risk involved.

This particular variation is an an adaptation of that famous New Orleans dessert, Bananas Foster, crossed with another Southern classic, bread pudding.   This is a custard-style bread pudding, which means it's tender and moist, and loaded with milk and eggs.  It's also studded with a double dose of banana goodness -- pureed banana in the custard base, and sliced bananas layered between each decadent custard soaked bread layer.   (Not so secretly, I think this particular bread pudding would be more than appropriate to eat for breakfast...  it's got both eggs and fruit in it after all...)

The best part of all is (of course) the sauce, which is absolutely swoon-worthy and really makes this dish feel like dessert.  It's made from a generous portion of high quality dark rum, sweet brown sugar, a splash of cream, and a pinch of cinnamon.  And it's easier than sin to make.  So, there will be no excuses for not going through the motions of making it.

Heck, even if you're not a bread pudding fan, make the sauce.  It would be awesome poured over a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

Bananas Foster Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce

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

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mardi Gras in Milwaukee: Langostinos & Caramelized Onion & Parmesan Grits

One of the things I love about having a food blog is that we get to make excuses for celebrating all sorts of crazy holidays that we wouldn't normally observe.  One of these happens to be a particular favorite of mine -- Mardi Gras.  And one of my favorite recipes to celebrate Mardi Gras just happens to be the classic shrimp & grits, a low country dish that makes use of two southern classics, creamy grits and plentiful gulf shrimp.

According to the Houston Press, shrimp & grits "started out as a seasonal fisherman’s dish of shrimp cooked in bacon grease served over creamy grits in the Low Country where they were also known as “breakfast shrimp.” The simple seafood breakfast became an iconic Southern dish after Craig Claiborne wrote about it in the New York Times in 1985"

In an effort to be frugal, I decided that this year I was going to rely on pantry & freezer staples to make our Mardi Gras inspired meal. Although we didn't have shrimp, we were fortunate to have a bag of frozen Langostino tails on hand from Trader Joes. An affordable (and delicious) alternative to lobster, langostino tails are meat from squat lobster, a shellfish with a similar flavor and texture.  And I just knew they would be perfect for this dish.

I also decided that, rather than the classic andouille sausage that often appears in New Orleans' style shrimp & grits dishes, that we'd rely on locally produced applewood smoked bacon to provide a bit of smokiness to the final dish.

And off to the kitchen we went. 

In our version, creamy grits are embellished with a hefty dose of caramelized onions and plenty of Wisconsin Parmesan cheese & enrobed in a delicious cream sauce made with langostino tails, local applewood smoked bacon, celery, onions, and deliciously decadent Crystal Ball Creamery cream.

The results, if I do say so myself, were positively divine.  Sweet and creamy, slightly spicy and full of great texture, this dish made impeccable use of simple quality ingredients.  The grits were particularly heavenly -- with the sugary sweet onions balancing perfectly with the flavor of the salty parmesan.

The dish also got reviews from Peef, who declared that I could make it for him once a week for the rest of his life and he'd never grow tired of it.

So, pour yourself a nice big Hurricane and whip up up a batch of Langostino Tails & Grits for your own Shrove Tuesday celebration.  What do you have to lose?

Langostino Tails with Caramelized Onion & Parmesan Grits

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Soup. And more Soup: February Soup Night Highlights

It's that time again... time for us to tell you about our monthly soup night & all the joy it brings to a Sunday evening in the middle of winter.

February Soup Night turned out to attract a fantastic mix of both new faces & good old stand-bys.  Everyone brought great dishes to pass, and I'd venture a guess that a pretty great time was had by all.

New faces included Rachel from Cream City Green. You may recall a little fund raiser we did last fall called the Gumbo Git Down -- well, Rachel was the other mastermind behind that event.  We've been trying to keep in touch ever since, so it was great that she and her hubby, Greg, were able to join us this month.

Other welcome new guests included Joe from Eating Milwaukee and Nicole (from On My Table), with husband Nate (of NathanAle's Brewery), who happens to be brewing up some pretty amazing beer. Nate was kind enough to bring a variety pack of his craft brews for us to sample!  And both Joe & Nicole supplied our table with some pretty amazing bread, including this Soda Bread, which was served with beer butter!

We were also pleased to see our good friend Rebecca from CakeWalk, whose return to Soup Night was a particular delight.  After all, she brought samples of a truly amazing cinnamon plum Panna Cotta that you should read about. A.Maze.Ing.

It was a great night of food and conversations, and again we both feel so blessed to have so many great people in our lives. So what did we have??

Here goes...

Roasted Red Pepper and Fennel Soup
This soup is a great remake of a favorite served at one of our favorite local restaurants, Kil@wat.  It brings together the lovely, sweet flavor of roasted red sweet peppers, the pleasantly licoriced aroma of roasted fennel, and a hint of kick from jalapeno peppers.  Whirred together into a soup with leeks, celery, and cream, this soup is one of our favorites.

Creamy Smoked Turkey and Apple Soup
This soup is a brand new addition to our repertoire.  The creamy broth consists of pureed apples and onions, a pinch of thyme and just a hint of cream. But, the soup is made hearty with the addition of carrots, smoked turkey (we used leftover maple brined turkey that we smoked with a bit of applewood), and applewood smoked corn leftover from our summer harvest.

Lasagne Soup
This soup is our variation on the many great Italian inspired soups out there on the Internet.  Chock-full of Sweet Sicilian sausage, basil, oregano, and garlic, this soup is embellished with fire-roasted tomatoes and plenty of fresh spinach. YUM.

The Turkey and Apple soup was the clear favorite since the crock pot containing it was emptied well before 6:00pm. That might be a new record. But since we don't really keep track of that stuff, it's kinda hard to say.

Regardless, all of the soup was devoured and before I knew it, the house was emptied, the dishwasher was humming, and Lo and I were sitting and sipping on a glass of wine in front of the fireplace.

Soup. It's such rewarding work.

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