Monday, January 31, 2011

Soup. Soup. Soup.

What happens when you make some soup and open up your home to friends and family?

That's what we were aiming to find out when we hosted our first Soup Night in the winter of 2007.  Interestingly enough, the concept was a raging success.  So, we're here to share our secrets.

The concept is simple. Take 3 parts soup, invite friends and family over and ask that they bring something to pass if they are so inclined. Add a cold Sunday evening. Open a bottle or two of wine. Stir in some conversation and laughter. Allow to simmer until everyone is deeply satisfied.

Once the event is over, it's time to do a little cleaning, finish the last few sips of wine and reflect on how blessed you are for having such good people in your life. Believe us. Any work involved is completely worth a couple of hours spent in the company of great friends.

We hosted our first soup night of 2011 this past Sunday. And boy, oh boy was it a good time.

The regulars came back with a vengeance -- colleagues from Peef's old workplace, a dear high school friend who we haven't seen in years, and even a few fantastic new-comers. Chris, from Milwaukee Brunch Reviews, joined in on the fun. We were privileged to host former farm intern/blogger, Neil, from stream of consciousness. He brought his girlfriend Sarah, another locavore, and we had a great time chatting about food like old friends. Now, it's possible that the threat of getting buried under 2 feet of snow in two days is enough to motivate people to get out while they can. But we would like to think that the idea of sharing some soup and warm conversation would be enough motivation for anyone even on the best of days.

The three soups this month consisted of an Italian Bean soup (chock full of vegetables & good stuff),

Tuna Chowder (separate post and recipe to come),
and the ever-popular Smoky Sweet Potato Chowder.
If soup night is nothing else, it's the perfect ending to a weekend -- or better yet-- the perfect way to start a long snowy week.

Twenty-four inches of snow in 48 hours? Bring it on!

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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cuban Pulled Pork: Next to Bacon

If you have been reading our blog for any length of time, it probably won't shock you when I suggest that pulled pork ranks exceedingly high on our "OMG" list.   The fact of the matter is, it's the next closest thing to bacon in my book.

Cuban pork also happens to have a special place in Lo's heart. For years, Lo's friend Gail taunted her with stories about her mother's delicious empanadas.  She shared recipes for her fool-proof flank steak, mango bread, and the always memorable Psycho Chicken.  She taught Lo to make a great pot of beans.  She also introduced Lo to the concept of marinating pork in orange juice, lime, and garlic -- which, if you've never tried it, is an absolute miracle.

So, when Lo stumbled upon Rebecca from Foodie with Family's recipe on Facebook, I knew it was only a matter of time before we'd be indulging in this wonderful Cuban variation on pulled pork.

We didn't use a roast as mentioned in the original recipe since we already had some country style pork ribs in the fridge just begging to be used. We suspect that the fact that the meat was cut up into pieces assisted in intensifying the deliciously citrusy flavor of the meat since we were able to layer the seasonings in between each piece of meat, thereby increasing the surface area that was exposed to the orange-garlic deliciousness.

Yes, the recipe is a process.  But, no, it doesn't require a great deal of hands-on time.  It simply requires a bit of patience... and maybe some self-control, since the smell that emanates from that slow cooker is bound to drive you a little bit insane.

This pork is so tender, so flavorful that you just might not know exactly what to do with it first.  But, trust us when we say that, once you taste it, you'll have no hesitation in finding ways to get it into your belly!

Might we suggest the first night to simply wrap a bit of that luscious meat in a warm corn tortilla and have a side of black beans and rice? Maybe the next night, you could make a pizza with pork, jack cheese, and some refried beans... Or throw together a nice pulled pork panini with plenty of deliciously creamy cheese, as we did.
Of course, if you tire of eating pulled pork every night of the week, you should also be assured that it freezes impeccably, so you can always save it and recreate the perfection that is pulled pork all over again some other time.  And doesn't that sound awesome?

So, pour your margaritas (I have a recipe I'll share with you later this week) or Cuban Sidecars and enjoy this delicious Cuban pork however you desire.

Cuban Pork
Suggested listening: Buena Vista Social Club 

Revised to include a quick note for those of you thinking of making this recipe: Pay attention to DAY 2 of the recipe, and don't skip the additional finishing sauce!  The addition of the pork sauce reduction to the meat really ramps up the flavor of this dish. 

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

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lemony Crepes: Perking Up A Winter Weekend

 After indulging in Peef's rich & savory cassoulet this week, I've apparently gotten caught up in all things French. My mind is now drawn to pondering rich creamy cheeses, delightfully earthy wines, and creamy sauces.  Since French cooking is delightfully tied to the changing seasons, it seems all the more appropriate that I've been dedicating my time to dreaming en Francais.

That said, I'm also fully conscious that, as the Milwaukee winter turns snowier and more blustery, my mind also has a tendency to wander to thoughts of more tropical climes where inhabitants sip limey drinks in the warm sun. The increasing presence of citrus fruits (including one of my very favorites -- the satsuma tangerine -- a fruit whose candy sweet flesh is surrounded by an inexplicably easy-to-peel skin that makes it easy to consume multiples in one sitting) has me craving bright, sunny dishes

Fortunately for me, I've just returned to the grind from a delightfully long weekend during which we had a little bit of time to poke around the kitchen and create some delicious new dishes.  One of the highlights was a plate of deliciously tender lemon crepes strewn with beautiful seasonal pomegranate seeds, a perfectly welcome brunch dish that would also double as a light evening dessert.

To make my favorite lemony crepes, spread the pale side of a warm homemade crepe with a bit of butter, sprinkle with sugar, and embellish with a generous squeeze of lemon before rolling up into a loose cigar shape.  Top with powdered sugar or a generous sprinkling of pomegranate seeds or other fresh fruit.
Now crepes may sound fancy and complicated to the uninitiated.  But, for anyone who knows a few basic secrets, these deliciously light pancakes are one of the easiest (and most versatile) French dishes to master. They were one of the first dishes I learned how to make in my high school home economics class, and I've made the recipe so many times I quite nearly have it memorized.

Secret #1:  There really are no secrets.  Most information about successfully making crepes can be found right on the miraculous Internet... so don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Secret #2:  The crepe batter is actually best made ahead. After mixing, the batter needs a rest so that it can relax and absorb the flour, ensuring that the finished product is supple and tender.  Rather than being a nuisance, this is actually an advantage to the home cook with less than scads of time.  Be sure to make the batter at least 1/2 hour ahead of time... but you can also make it the night before and allow it to rest in the refrigerator until you're ready for it in the morning.  Your crepes will thank you by being deliciously tender & easy to deal with.

Secret #3:  You don't need a special crepe pan to make crepes. And don't let the so-called experts try to fool you. Any old 8-10 inch non-stick skillet will do.  I used any number of pans for my crepes before I finally broke down, in a moment of uncharacteristic weakness, and procured a 10-inch non-stick crepe pan from

Secret #4:  You'll probably mess up a couple of the crepes when you make a batch. So what? I've made lots of crepes, and I still mess up at least one per batch. Sprinkle some sugar on it and enjoy it as a snack. It will taste just as good as the rest, even if it's not quite as gorgeous.

Secret #5:  Crepes are the perfect playing field for getting creative with more interesting flours.  Try substituting half of the wheat flour with buckwheat, quinoa or corn flour.  If you're gluten-free, crepes can also be made with a wheat-free blend, such as Bob's Red Mill.

I tend to make an entire batch of crepes at once, stacking them on a warm plate.  The residual heat from the crepes will keep them warm enough while you're working that you shouldn't have to reheat them before filling and serving.

Once you've got your crepes made, it's up to you to let your imagination run wild.  Crepes are delicious with as little as a sprinkling of cheese or a drizzle of honey. But, they can be fancied up with any number of either sweet or savory fillings.  

Of course, I'd recommend a smattering of sugar and a drizzle of lemon juice... it's a sure cure for just about any winter funk.

Basic Crepes

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

Friday, January 14, 2011

Daring Cooks January: Cassoulet

Since Lo decided to take a brief hiatus from blogging, I begged and pleaded to do this month's Daring Cooks Challenge... especially once I found out it was going to be cassoulet.  After all, EVERYBODY loves a good cassoulet, right?

Heh. I'll be honest, I thought cassoulet was just a fancy name for a casserole... or a "kick-asserole,"which is the name we've coined for the really good casseroles.  You know -- the ones that put all others to shame.

And trust me, I've learned a little bit about casseroles over the years. As a child, I attended my fair share of church potlucks. And I endured my share of nasty casseroles.  Surprisingly, I still love tater tots. But I prefer them baked or fried and eaten plain, rather than sprinkled on the top of ground mystery meat mixed with can of cream of mushroom soup.  But, I digress...

It doesn't really seem like cassloulet would be that big of a deal to make. I mean, c'mon! It's beans layered with meat... and more beans... and then you bake it.  Peasants made this stuff way back in the 1300's before electricity, right?  How hard could it be?

So, I did a little bit of reading.  I found out that cassoulet is a slow cooked stew/casserole that's named after the vessel in which it's cooked, the cassole, which is essentially a big pot that has slanted sides (You might find it interesting to note I like to pronounce the word, cassole, with a nice thick northern WI accent so it sounds like I'm calling someone a bad name. Lo prefers to let it roll off her tongue like she is a pretty lady from France. Ying and Yang I tell ya...) It is truly unfortunate that we do not possess a cassole. But we do have a huge LeCrueset dutch oven. And it's French. So I decided it would do just fine. And fine it did.

I washed my hands, waxed my mustache, and did a little dance.  I also may or may not have pulled out my very long, very skinny cigarettes and insist that Lo refer to me as "Pierre"...

And then, I took a look at the recipe.
The first mandatory requirement was to make a confit. Well, remember that pork belly we procured a while back? It was much too large to eat all at once (even over French Fries), so we confited the rest of the pork belly in olive oil. Well, as luck would have it, we still had some left. Mandatory requirement number one accomplished! So, thanks to Lo, I got out of having to do the complicated stuff.

Second step -- make beans.  Ha! Making beans is so Cooking 101.  I was also required to make up a batch of caramelized onions, brown sausages, and then layer things with bacon. Hmph. These were all things that even a person with minimal cooking skills (such as myself) could easily do. 

Looks like once I had that altogether, it was as simple as taking the whole shebang, putting it into the oven, and letting it do its thing. Mmmm, meat and beans.

I continued reading. Turns out the instructions didn't stop there. Oh no. This Kick-assoulet was going to be so good, it required me to cook it all over again the next day.

WHAT?! I had to read the directions again.
I looked at Lo, who knew exactly what I was thinking.  She smiled.

"So, THIS is why she needed a break from the blogging world", I thought to myself. "This is the beast that broke Lo's back." Or something like that. Actually, I think I just looked up and said something about how good it is that I don't have a job because this business of "making kick-assoulet" was going to consume me for at least the next 3 days.

And that is when my three day affair with Kick-assoulet officially began.

Since our confit utilized pork, I was hesitant to use more pork sausages for the cassoulet.  So, I went to my friendly little butcher man (not really little, quite large actually), and inquired about my options for duck sausage.  He provided me with some lovely duck-links, and about a pound of homemade bacon, which he hand cut right to my specifications. Once I had my meat, I made another stop at the local co-op to get some dried beans before making my way  home.

Since I'd procured butter beans (large lima beans), I soaked the beans for 24 hours, then cooked them in the slow cooker for another 16 hours or so. Started them on high for a few hours then switched to low overnight. They were not done yet in the morning, so I let them go for a few more hours. When they finally decided to be done (beans can be stubborn this way, I'm discovering), I drained them and reserved the cooking liquid.

Next I browned the duck sausages. The recipe instructed me to do this in duck fat, but (always the rebel) I did it in bacon drippings. I call that an upgrade. Sausages came out and I cut them into chunks so it would be easier to dish up. Then the sliced onions went in to do their thing.  Aren't they pretty?
The caramelized onions made their way into the blender and I ran it until they were smooth. Finished by taking the pork belly and browning it up. And then, it was time to assemble.

I should warn you. This is when it gets really good. I took the thick cut bacon and lined the dutch oven with it.
I put in a good layer of beans. Then I added some duck sausage chunks, topping them off with some of that awesome caramelized onion love from the blender. Repeated that layer again, adding a bit more love puree. I saved the pork belly for the top layer. Added the rest of the heavenly puree and topped with the last of the beans. And then it was "Into the oven with you."

By the time the first round of baking was over, the smells coming out of the oven made me want to rip the door off and shove my face right in the pot. But I didn't. I waited like a good boy.  And I didn't even snitch a taste while the beans were cooling down and waiting to be put into the fridge.

The last day was the best day because I had the opportunity to smell all of those intoxicating smells all over again. And this time, I knew that once it was done I could reap the rewards of actually eating it.  It took a bit longer to heat through than the recipe indicated, but I was pleased to note that it was worth the wait.

This kick-assoulet was completely amazing. The smokey bacon infused the beans. The duck sausage was succulent and delicious. And the pork belly....well...there are few words that can really describe how good it tasted in my mouth. A wonderful meal for any winter's night.

Recipe: Cassoulet

Our January 2011 Challenge comes from Jenni of The Gingered Whisk and Lisa from Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. They have challenged the Daring Cooks to learn how to make a confit and use it within the traditional French dish of Cassoulet. They have chosen a traditional recipe from Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman. 

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

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Blogging: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." 

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."  ~ Alice in Wonderland

You'll pardon me (I hope) for this brief interlude.

The fact is, I've been feeling a bit bedraggled lately, and the whole blogging bit has started to feel a bit like a chore. When we started out, we were fueled by the challenge of creating something new. Stoked about honing our skills. And ready for anything.  But, the truth is... life has gone a little crazy.

If I'm honest, I'll admit that it's been pretty insane adjusting to the writing load of two blogs (while working full-time, mind you).  And, while I vowed that my commitment to Milwaukee Magazine wouldn't interfere in my enjoyment of -- and dedication to -- Burp!, I must confess that I was stressing about things pretty hardcore just before the holidays.  I was starting to feel tapped out.  And I seriously wondered if I could keep this whole blogging thing up for much longer.

In the nearly two weeks I had off of work around the holidays, I found myself taking a much needed break from blogging.  I didn't warn people or call attention to it, in part because most of you were off taking vacations of your own and you probably didn't even notice.  I didn't write. I didn't cook much (aside from working on a seriously delicious recipe development project that I committed to before the holidays). I did a ton of reading (many thanks to Peef for the Kindle he got me for Christmas).  And I took the opportunity to breathe a little bit.

Wow. It's amazing what a bit of oxygen will do for your brain.

Since the break, I've been a little slow on the uptake. But a few days ago I managed to get myself together and I started reading blogs again. I'm not quite back to my old pace, but I did manage to glimpse a few posts that are worth mentioning.

These are the sort of posts I adore.  The pieces that inspire me to stretch.  The ones that remind me that food blogging isn't just about quantity... it's also about quality and authenticity... the pieces that underscore some of the reasons why I'm still here blogging.
Last spring, I read an article discussing the use of social media as tools for "connecting," rather than "networking."  In it one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, gave this advice:  "It’s much more important to write than to blog," he said, "so only blog if it makes you happy and if you have something to say."

If I'm honest, I have to admit that there's very little in life that makes me happier than cooking, writing, and blogging. And the fact is, despite the fact that the Web is now positively glutted with food media (some of which, I must admit, isn't worth reading), I am still enjoying what I'm doing.  So, I guess I found my answer.

So, as crazy as it sounds, I'm going to keep on believing in those impossible things. And writing about them too... Maybe even before breakfast.

For those of you wondering why in heaven's name I'd bother to post these ramblings -- I just want to offer a few words of explanation.  If there's one thing I've learned (and appreciated) about food blogging, it's that there's a real community surrounding the writers and readers of food blogs. One thing I'm certain about is that you've all "been there" in some way, shape, or form. So, you can relate to where I'm coming from. And hey -- if you have any advice to share, I'm all ears.

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

Monday, January 3, 2011

Greek Feast: NYE 2010

My goodness, how time flies. Here we are -- three whole days into the new year already and I think I just started to get hungry again after all that New Year's Feasting...

Seriously. I'm barely kidding.

If you've been paying close attention to our habits over the years, you may have noticed that it's tradition for us to celebrate New Year's Eve at home in the company of our good friend Steph. It's customary for us to get together the week before Christmas to choose a theme for our celebration. And then we spend the days before New Year's gathering up a slew of great looking recipes to challenge us in the kitchen. Last year, we cooked up an amazing Asian feast that took us almost three whole days to consume.

This year, we were inspired by an issue of Saveur magazine that featured a number of Greek small plates.  So, we decided to pull out all the stops on an amazing Mediterranean theme.

Oddly enough, even the weather cooperated with our concept.  You probably won't believe me, but I've got to get it on record that it was 55 degrees here in Milwaukee on New Year's Eve Day.  Um... yeah.  Absolutely balmy. For those of you who aren't familiar with Wisconsin weather, it's pretty unbelievable to get above 30 degrees in late December, so fifty was a pretty nice treat.  Although it was a little bit rainy, we spent part of the morning outside sipping wine next to the grill while our eggplant and peppers blackened. 
We took the smoky vegetables, peeled away the burnt skin and then pureed them with jalapeno peppers, garlic, and plenty of fresh parsley to make Melintzanosalata, an amazingly spicy smoky eggplant dip.   We also pulled together some Tzatziki and a batch of garlicky Skordalia (which we made with walnuts, instead of the more traditional almonds).
The dips were amazing served with crudites (mostly sliced fresh fennel, in our case) and crackers, but they also made great toppings for the Laganes (Greek flatbreads) we prepared.
For our first round of small plates, we made deliciously herbal Dolmades, which were the perfect complement to the minty & garlicky tzatziki.
 And we loved the Garides Saganaki (shrimp with tomatoes & feta) -- which was not only delicious on its own, but perfect scooped up into the Laganes.
We took frequent breaks to play Trivial Pursuit, as well as this year's newest board game acquisition, Smart Ass (which turned out to be a seriously fun time, despite its awkwardly large dice & strangely small game pieces).
And when we'd get hungry again, we'd go back into the kitchen and whip up amazing little snacks like Piperies Gemistes me Feta (peppers stuffed with feta).  After oohing and aahhing over the dish, we'd go back to playing games for a while... until we got a hankering for our next dish.
It took a while, but we managed to get through almost every one of the recipes we'd chosen -- including delicious lamb meatballs with feta, oregano, & garlic...
Fried calimari... which was amazing when paired with the smoky eggplant dip...
And our perennial New Year's Eve favorite, Spanikopita -- which has become such a staple, we don't even bother using a recipe anymore.  This year's spinach pies were flaky and bursting at the seams with spinach, scallions, dill and garlic. 

We made a particularly large batch, but it wasn't a problem at all since we were delighted to have leftovers to eat for lunch on New Year's Day.

When we tired of cooking, we settled in with our flat-bread and dips, chatting animatedly as we sipped refreshing glasses of iced ouzo and nibbled on olives & pomegranate seeds.  The hours and minutes remaining in 2010 slipped away almost effortlessly -- as time tends to do when we're eating & drinking with good friends.

What did you do for NYE this year?

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