Sunday, November 21, 2010

Holiday Cooking School: Perfect Pie Crust

Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re missing—and when you finally find out, it’s enough to make you cry. I love the line in Stanley Tucci's 1996 film Big Night when, after the most memorable meal of her life, a woman is sobbing at the table:

Asks the boyfriend: “What’s wrong?”
She: “My mother was such a terrible cook!”

Ok, so my mom was NOT terrible cook; best spaghetti sauce EVER, best cream puffs, best holiday meals. But pies were never her thing. I grew up with Pillsbury read-made, ready to roll pie crusts procured from the refrigerated section of Piggly Wiggly, and they just weren’t that great—certainly not the appropriate vehicle for an amazing sour cherry filling, or any other perfect fruit of the season. My grandmother (also no slouch in the kitchen) was no help either, making her pie crusts with oil and flour. They were brittle, pale and tasteless—not exactly a recipe worth passing down to the next generation.

Shortly after getting married, I gave the homemade crust the old college girl try. My tragic attempts all seemed to end the same way; with a heap of crumbled dough in the trash and my defeated, greasy hands clutched around a giant glass of wine. What was I doing wrong?

Everything, according to my friend Renee, who agreed to take me under her wing a few years back to school me in making THE perfect pie crust. During the course of an entire autumn day spent making a dozen apple pies, I learned the following:

1. You must use shortening AND butter. Butter gives you amazing flavor, but the shortening (which is filled with millions of little bubbles produced during hydrogenation) contributes that tender, flaky texture that everyone wants in a good crust. Lard can yield that same texture, but frankly, I’m just not going there. Yet.

2. Every ingredient needs to be cold, cold, COLD. When your dough gets too warm, your fats melt, and working with the dough (rolling, shaping, etc.) becomes incredibly frustrating. This was one of my main areas of struggle before…

3. An overworked dough is a tough dough. Visible flakes of fat mean that as that fat melts in the oven, it will create little pockets of steam which push the structure of the dough up and out…creating flakes of crust. It’s a beautiful thing.

4. Next to love, an amazing pie is the best gift you can give to anyone. Period. Test this and just you see.

Perhaps you are one of the many who have endured the pre-made grocery store imposters all your life. Maybe you THINK you’ve had some decent pie at the church potluck or neighborhood picnic. Forget about all that, and just make this. When you finally realize what you’ve been missing, you may just tear up. You’re welcome.

(P.S. Thank you, Renee, for your hospitality and your culinary smarts.)

Perfect Pie Crust (Makes one bottom crust and one top crust)

2 ½ cups flour
2 T sugar
1 t salt
8 T cold shortening
12 T cold butter
6-8 T ice water

1. Cut butter into 1/4” pieces and place them on a small plate in the freezer; proceed directly to step 2.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt.
3. Add in cold shortening and blend in by hand with a pastry blender, for a minute or two. There should still be plenty of visible balls of shortening in the flour mixture.
4. Add in the butter from the freezer. Contine to blend until mixture takes on the texture of small peas.

5. Add ice water, and stir very gently to “sort of” combine. The mixture should look rough, like this:

(Pretty shaggy...)

(But holds together when it needs to...)

6. Dump mixture onto a large piece of plastic wrap sitting atop your counter. Use the plastic wrap to shape the dough into one solid mass (less direct contact with your warm hands is always better). Divide into two equal parts. Shape each part into a disk, measuring about 6 inches across. Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before using.

(note the visible flakes of shortening and butter.)

7. Bake according to the directions of whatever pie recipe you are using. (For fruit pies—like my favorite, sour cherry—I am loyal to my Joy of Cooking recipe that bakes at 425° for 30 minutes, then lowers the temp to 350° for the final 25-30 minutes. This yields a fully-cooked, non-soggy bottom crust.)

(rolled out, you can still see the flakes of fat...mmmm....)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bam! Memorial Day (Emeril's Spicy Root Beer and Bourbon Glazed Baby Back Ribs)

I’ve always found the story of Adam and Eve intriguing. Out of the dust of the earth, God fashioned a man. But to give him a proper companion, God uses a rib from Adam’s body, creating woman. The way I figure it, if a rib was important enough to be included in the story of mankind, we owe it to ourselves to enjoy a heaping pile of them every chance we can get. And hey, it’s a holiday weekend!

This is my favorite recipe for baby back ribs. The glaze is sweet and spicy, and the slow cooking method yields a fall-off-the-bone, meltingly tender quality that will leave you completely impressed with your mad cooking skills. Best served with a cold Newcastle and some homemade blue cheese dressing and celery sticks.

Emeril's Spicy Root Beer and Bourbon Glazed Baby Back Ribs

Monday, May 10, 2010

Toot Toot (the sound of my own horn)

I have to admit, it felt pretty damn great to walk into Barnes & Noble last week (while tracking down a good Posole recipe) and see this book on display in the cooking section:

Edible Communities recently published a coffee table book about local food across the country, and I was fortunate enough to contribute two stories to the content. Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods is a beautiful book, and contains dozens of inspiring stories of the dedicated small farmers, culinary artisans, and chefs who make it their business to feed us from the riches of our own land and waters. The book also includes a huge recipe section, not to mention the gorgeous photography characteristic of every Edible publication (there are now 65 publications across the country…and growing).

I could go on about the local food movement—about the positive impact on your local economy that results when each person dedicates even a small percentage of their monthly food dollar to local food; about the environmental impact of monocropping, GMO’s and shipping in produce from another hemisphere; about the complex and far superior flavors of an antique variety of apple grown just a few miles from your front door—but I hardly need to say all that. Edible Communities is already doing a great job in that capacity; and now you can read all about it in bookstores everywhere. Cheers!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cinco de Mayo (Pozole Rojo)

Ever since I had my first taste of posole at El Barzon in Detroit last spring, I have been meaning to try a recipe from scratch at home. This version from Rick Bayless is definitely tasty; the rich pork broth is the color of wet terra cotta, made so by the mixture of toasted red ancho and guajillo chiles. Studded with shreds of pork and fluffly hominy, posole is a satisfying peasant soup. Similar to phở, another one of my favorite soups, posole is simple in and of itself, but you make it your own by adding the condiments you love the most—shredded cabbage, sliced radishes, cilantro, onion, oregano, avocado, or even fried pig's skin.

I ventured out to Avanza supermarket on South Federal Boulevard in search of the chiles, as well as pig’s head and feet, which are called for in the original recipe to lend rich flavor to the broth. When I asked the gentleman behind the meat counter if they had pig’s head, he simply replied, “Aisle 8.” Perplexed yet determined, I found the pig’s head in the frozen food aisle, but frankly the thought of letting a cabeza de Puerco thaw in my fridge for a couple days was less than appetizing. Luckily, the meat case back in the meat department had a whole pile of meaty bones designated “pork for posole,” so I settled for a large package of those to serve as the base for my soup. Bayless’ version also calls for using pig’s feet, allowing bits of cartilage and connective tissue to linger in the soup when served. While this certainly sounds authentic, it grosses out my husband (whose idea of authentic Mexican is Chipotle), so I opted to omit the trotters altogether in the interest of marital accord.

This soup takes a long time to make—not because it’s complicated, but because the stock needs to simmer away for hours in order to become properly flavored, and at least an hour or two more in order for the hominy to become tender once added to the pot. I guess this is why posole is typically served only on weekends in Mexican restaurants. This recipe is also very mild; if spice is what you crave, I suggest including the seeds when pureeing the toasted chiles (set them aside for pureeing but do not toast them; they will just burn), or adding hot sauce or chopped jalapeños to your selection of condiments. Nevertheless, I’m calling this venture a success. The recipe made enough to feed a small army, and the juxtaposition of warm soup and cool, crispy condiments is perfect to enjoy during a Colorado spring, when the sunny warm days give way to chilly evenings.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Posole Rojo
(from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen)

4 quarts canned hominy, drained and rinsed
4 pounds meaty neck bones
1 ½ pounds lean, boneless pork shoulder in a single piece
4 large garlic cloves
4 large ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and deveined
4 large guajillos chiles, stemmed, seeded and deveined
1 Tablespoon salt

8-10 radishes, sliced thinly
1 ½ cup onion (finely chopped)
1/3 cup dried oregano
2-3 limes
15-20 crispy fried tortillas or tortilla chips

1. Make the broth. Place meaty bones and pork shoulder in a very large stock pot. Cover with seven quarts of water; add garlic. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and allow so simmer for 2-3 hours. By this time the meat should be completely fork tender and falling off the bones.
2. Meanwhile, tear chiles into large, flat pieces. Toast them (one or two pieces at a time) in a heavy skillet over medium heat until they crackle and blister on both sides. Remove chiles to a large bowl, cover with boiling water. Submerge and soak for 30 minutes; drain. Place in a blender with ½ cup water and blend until smooth. Strain through a sieve into small bowl. Set aside.
3. Remove bones and pork from the stock; shred the meat with a fork, reserving the meat in a bowl and discarding bones, fat and cartilage.
4. Add hominy and pepper puree to the stock, bring back to a simmer and continue simmering for another hour or two, until the hominy has softened and “bloomed.”
5. To serve, place a bit of warmed, shredded pork meat into a bowl; ladle in soup. Garnish with condiments.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lean, Mean and Green: Smoothie

In honor of Earth Day, I’m going green. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing nutritional consultant Eloise Nelson for an assignment with Edible Front Range magazine. She showed me how to make an amazing smoothie, packed with fruits and vegetables. This recipe is a variation of hers**, and makes enough for two huge servings—one for breakfast, one for mid-morning snack. It makes you feel clean and light all day long, which is more than I can say for the platter of giant muffins lurking in your typical office break room.

Combine the following in a blender:
1 banana, peeled
1 apple, chopped (leave skin on)
1 pear, chopped (or, you can substitute 1 cup of fresh or frozen pineapple or berries)
1 cup coconut water (unsweetened)
1 cup cold water
2 T chia seeds (Yes, they are the same seeds used to sprout your Chia Pet...and you can find them in the bulk section of any health food store)

Blend to combine; allow to sit for 2 minutes (the chia seeds not only add protein and essential fatty acids, but act as a thickener). Then add:
1 cup tightly packed spinach leaves
2-4 kale leaves (stems removed, chopped)
2 T organic hemp protein powder
3-4 ice cubes

Blend again and serve. This smoothie is meant to be enjoyed the day you make it. Leftovers oxidize and lose their nutritional value quickly.

**from her book, the 14-Day Gourmet Cleanse and Rejuvenation Program

Friday, April 2, 2010

Flex Your Mussels

Sometimes life gets busy. Not so busy that I’ve resorted to Cheesy Blasters—ok, maybe I have spent a lunch or two in the home office with a Lean Pocket and some stale shiraz—but this is dinner we’re talking about. Everyone deserves a dinner good enough to right the day’s wrongs and usher us into our comfort zone (mine involves a big red couch, a second glass of wine and Mad Men on DVD).

Shellfish isn’t exactly in the forefront of our minds when it comes to the quick weeknight supper, but it really should be. In about the time it takes for pizza to be ordered and delivered, you can steam up a batch of these mussels in spicy tomato-cilantro broth. Serve them with a cold beer, a salad made from pre-bagged spring greens and a crusty baguette, perfect for sopping up the amazingly flavorful broth. It really is the perfect way to end the day, and much less regretful than, say, inhaling half a Domino’s pizza.

How to Prepare Mussels
There are certain culinary skills that seem mysterious and complicated, but are in fact shamefully easy. They are also the skills that you can talk about at a cocktail party (well, maybe just the kind of cocktail parties I like to go to) and come off looking like a badass in the kitchen. Preparing mussels is one of these many skills (a few others include properly using a chef’s knife, neatly carving a turkey, and making anything involving meringue). The first item of business is to scrub and debeard your mussels if necessary, which is not nearly as challenging or creepy as it sounds. The mussel’s “beard” consists of a fibrous material that the mussel uses to attach itself to rocks on the ocean bed. Harvested from the wild, the beards can be a little, shall we say, “wild and woolly”, and require more effort to remove. But most blue mussels we buy in the supermarket today are farm raised and cultured on ropes, so their beard (if any at all) is very small and easy to yank off. (As a side note, farm raised mussels are a sustainable source of seafood, and fairly inexpensive—quite fit to feed the hungry masses.)

You can buy them from the seafood department in your supermarket, found either loose on ice or in one-pound net bags. They should smell fresh and salty, like the ocean, and most of the shells should be closed tight. When you get them home, pick out any mussels that have shells slightly open and rap them smartly on the countertop. If the mussel closes back up, it’s alive and fine to eat. If it stays open, the mussel is already dead and should be tossed out. Give your mussels a quick rinse under cold running water (If I have extra time, I’ll give mine a soak in cool water—for up to an hour—just to wake them up a little and let them filter in some fresh water. But that is not necessary.) Now they are ready to be steamed, which takes only 4-5 minutes.

Mussels Steamed in Spicy Tomato-Cilantro Broth

1 ½ cups bottled clam juice
3 ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
¼ cup lime juice
3 Tablespoons hot pepper sauce
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½" cubes
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
¾ cup thinly sliced green onions
Crusty bread

Bring first 5 ingredients to a boil in a large pot, stirring occasionally. Add mussels and butter. Cover and cook until mussels open, about 4 minutes (discard any mussels that do not open). Stir in cilantro and green onions. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among bowls and serve with crusty bread.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fennel Prosciutto Salad with Pomegranate & Mint

It’s the same old story—on the first sixty-degree day of the New Year, I dig out a few items from my spring/summer wardrobe. I try (tug) on my shorts and skirts, let loose a string of expletives and vow to stop resting in the comforting arms of pot roast and mashed potatoes. With a new resolve, I start investigating fresher dishes that will keep my interest and shave off the layer of winter insulation, readying my legs and upper arms for the light of day. This salad is the first of many to come this season.

Fennel Prosciutto Salad with Pomegranate & Mint
(serves 4)

2 Fennel bulbs (green stems and fronds removed; cored and sliced very thinly)
1 large pomegranate, seeded
1 small bunch fresh mint
8 thin slices prosciutto

Extra virgin olive oil
Mineola tangelo
Salt and pepper

In a medium bowl, combine sliced fennel with a drizzle of olive oil and the juice of one tangelo. Season lightly with salt and pepper, tossing to combine. For each serving, arrange a helping of fennel and two slices of prosciutto. Garnish generously with a handful of fresh mint leaves and pomegranate seeds.

(Prep Tip: Pomegranate juice has a way of staining everything—your clothes, cutting board, countertop—but separating the juicy ruby seeds from the white membrane doesn’t have to be a trial. Submerge the fruit in a bowl of water while seeding; the membrane will float to the top, the seeds sink to the bottom, and mess is minimized.)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sunday Spanakopita and Phyllo School

Ah, the Greeks—fathers of democracy, inventors of the vending machine, and makers of my favorite comfort food, spanakopita. This delicious dish, made of layer upon layer of buttery phyllo and filled with a mixture of spinach and feta cheese, is savory and satisfying—perfect for a Sunday supper—and I have Ms. Donna to thank for sharing her family’s version with us many years ago. I’ve yet to taste a better recipe.

Ms. Donna is one of my mothers’ oldest and dearest friends. Their husbands worked together for over 15 years, and they had kids at the same time. We all lived just a few streets away from each other, and so many of my childhood memories involve sleepovers with Donnas’ girls, summers by the neighborhood pool, and holiday dinners spent around the same table. Growing up in super-homogenous South Carolina, Donna stuck out like a refreshingly sore thumb—spunky, loud and proud of her giant Greek-Armenian family. She made spanakopita for special meals like Thanksgiving or Easter supper, and even though I shunned green vegetables for most of my childhood, I took an exception to her spinach pie, smacking my lips as the crispy, buttered layers of phyllo crumbled down the front of my shirt.

She taught my mom how to make spanakopita, and my mom taught me. This dish is not that complicated to make, once you get over your fear of phyllo pastry. Phyllo dough can be very temperamental stuff; the translucent, paper-thin layers dry out fast, and once they do they crumble into pieces in your hand. But a little practice (and preparing a phyllo-friendly work station before you begin) will assure you success.

This is a perfect dish to make on a weekend afternoon, when you are relaxed and in no hurry. Just strap on an apron, pour yourself a glass of wine, channel your inner Greek goddess and enjoy the process of working with your hands to make something amazing for your plate.


2-3 onions, chopped
3 bags fresh spinach, washed (remove stems if using mature spinach leaves)
6 eggs, beaten
8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
8-16 oz. cottage cheese (small curd)
4 Tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper
1 package of phyllo dough (if purchased frozen, thaw overnight in refrigerator)
1 stick butter, melted
Olive oil

1. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Sauté onions in olive oil until translucent and softened. Do not brown them.

2. Turn heat to medium-high, and add spinach to pan. Stir and cook, allowing it to wilt.

3. Remove spinach and onions from heat, allowing it to cool for 5 minutes or so. Then, mix spinach and onions in a large bowl with the eggs, feta, cottage cheese and flour. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Create a safe environment for your phyllo dough. Place a damp dish towel on the countertop. Over the towel, place a layer of plastic wrap. Open half the package of phyllo and lay it out on plastic wrap (place the other half of the package back in the fridge for now). Cover phyllo with its wrapping, another layer of plastic wrap and another damp dish towel. Keeping your phyllo covered and in a moist(ish) environment will keep your delicate layers from becoming a brittle, breaking mess.
NOTE: Before you start assembling the dish, your work station should include the phyllo (covered properly), a bowlful of melted butter, a pastry brush and a 13x9” baking pan. (The photos below show a square 8X8" pan; a half-recipe.)

5. To assemble, first brush the bottom and sides of the pan with butter. Create a single layer of phyllo (using 2-3 sheets, depending on their size) in the pan, going up the sides of the pan. (NOTE: You want layers overhanging the sides of the pan. Eventually, you’ll roll them up to make a sealed crust.) Brush that layer with butter, then make another layer of phyllo. Repeat this until you have 8-10 layers of phyllo laid. Butter top layer. This will use half the package of dough.

6. Add filling.

7. Place top layers on over filling, always remembering to brush on butter in between each new layer….add another 8-10 layers.

8. Similar to how you would seal a pie crust by rolling under the top and bottom crusts, do the same with the top and bottom crusts of the Spanakopita.

9. With a very sharp paring knife, score crust into equal pieces.

10. Bake at 350° F for 40 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.

Sacrilege (OR: trimming the fat): Now imagine that I am typing this in a whisper. I whisper because I’m guessing that real Greeks would shame me for even suggesting what I am about to suggest. But I’m not Greek- so there. And there is no glory in a spare tire around my middle caused by copious amounts of buttered phyllo. So this is what I do: I alternate brushing one layer with butter, then spraying the next layer with Pam cooking spray, the next with butter, and so on. I have eaten my share of Spanakopita both ways, and let me assure you, you will never know the difference. You’ll just save yourself half the butter calories. Bada Bing.

Crumbled Goat's milk feta


Wilted in the pan...

My phyllo-friendly workstation (notice the towel covering the phyllo sheets to the left of the pan)...

Filling's in...

Ready for the oven...

Ready to eat!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Colorado In My Glass- Michigan In My Heart (Michigan Winter Seasonal Beers)

Let me tell you, this was a very tough job—tour the best microbreweries in Southeastern Michigan and return home with the ‘Ol Bonneville’s trunk weighed down with gratis beer, each to be tasted with careful consideration. Well, someone’s gotta do it.

I had a blast, and so did the chefs that volunteered their time developing recipes especially for this article, utilizing two of the great winter seasonal beers we reviewed. For the recipes, pick up a copy of the latest edition of Edible WOW magazine

Read about Michigan Winter Seasonal Beers.

UPDATE (1/25/10): One of my readers brought to my attention the fact that the full article is no longer available on Edible WOW's website. I checked and sure enough, they removed the full content after the first few paragraphs. So below the photos I have posted the article in its entirety. Enjoy!

Original Article (Full)

Warm Up, Drink Up with Winter Seasonal Beers
By Alex Harrison

I you aren’t drinking Michigan beer, and regularly, then I have to ask: Why not?

Perhaps you don’t know where to begin, and understandably so; there are over fifty breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in Michigan alone. In our region of Southeastern Michigan there are two dozen, each with their own body of hopped and malty work.

Admittedly, buying a six-pack of unfamiliar beer can be somewhat of a risk; perhaps you’ve been burned before. But we guarantee you that just about any beer you rustle up locally will be miles apart from the watery shadow-of-a-true-pilsner that you’ve been schlepping home from the supermarket. The best part is that wintertime is the perfect time for Southeastern Michigan beer. Just as our family dinner menus shift from platefuls of Caprese salad to warm bowls of hearty stews, winter seasonal beers make their return with flavor profiles to match your favorite cold-weather dishes. And edibleWOW is here to demystify the best of what Southeastern Michigan has to offer to all who are thirsty this season, highlighting three of our local breweries.

Dark Horse
First on our list of venerable brewers is Dark Horse Brewing Company, located in the tiny town of Marshall, an hour due west of Ann Arbor. Owner Aaron Morse runs a crew of crazy, ink-covered badass brewers who make no apologies for their big beers. Most are 6% alcohol by volume or higher, and boast a rich mouthfeel. These are no session ales, but they are perfect when served with a meal.

Their Scotty Karate Scotch Ale is the lightest winter seasonal of the group, with an aroma that reminds you of baked apple crisp. On the palate, big caramel and smoked malt flavors appear—Dark Horse smokes their own barley—with a lightly hopped, balanced finish. This beer is delicious on its own, sipped while you labor in the kitchen to get dinner going, but it shines when served with a chicken pot pie, Scotch Broth with lamb or even roasted salmon.

The first of the two coffee-infused brews in our winter beer lineup is Perkolator Coffee Dopplebock. This lager is a great ride on the palate, but promises to be gentle when it comes to the finish. Thanks to coffee beans roasted at Ypsilanti’s Ugly Mug Café and steeped in the base brew for twenty-four hours, any sense of bitterness is wrapped in the fruity coffee aroma. The rich flavor and finish make it a great match for a roasted pork, and would be perfection with a slice of chocolate cake.

Finally, Dark Horse gives us their Holiday Stout Series, five velvety and roasty beers that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The Tres Blueberry Stout is the most surprising of the bunch. Adhering to the motto, “beer first, fruit second,” it walks a delicate line and keeps all flavors in balance. It pairs well with the spicy, fruity flavors of barbecued meat. In fact, Aaron Cozadd, chef at (what restaurant these days?) developed a barbecue sauce using the beer itself, to be glazed over a succulent bone-in pork chop. (See the recipe section.)

Jolly Pumpkin
Our next group of exciting winter seasonal beers come from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. Located in Dexter, Michigan, Jolly Pumpkin’s Belgian-style sour beers have created serious buzz within the national beer-geek community these last few years. A “sour” flavor component might not initially sound like something you’re looking for in a beer, but super-hopped bitter beers (think I.P.A.’s) have soared in popularity over the last decade. Owner and brewer Ron Jeffries nurtures his beers slowly and with the care of a craftsman. Jolly Pumpkin beers get their pucker-up sour notes from open fermentation, followed by aging in oak barrels, which allows wild yeasts and natural sour bacteria to work magic, producing amazingly complex flavors.

First in the seasonal releases is Maracaibo Especial, a brown Belgian ale. With a huge, fluffy cappuccino-colored head, the aroma is yeasty and pungent, like malt vinegar and spice. Use your entire palate to taste this beer—notes of chocolate (from real cacao) and orange peel, followed by a serious astringent sourness. You can sip this beer all you like, but it really comes into its own when served alongside a nice, fatty meat like duck. The bright acidity cuts through the velvety fat on your palate, allowing its notes of spice and chocolate to linger a little longer. (See our recipe by chefs Max Sussman and Eve Aronoff of eve, Duck Breast Stuffed with Beer-Braised Cabbage.) (Chris, the recipe max gave us is for “cabbage/Brussels sprouts”…which veg. did Pam use during testing and choose here?)

Next comes Noel de Calabaza (released in December), a Belgian dark ale that combines the best of sour beer with the flavors of the holidays. Dried figs, plum, cinnamon and spice linger despite the flavors of tart sour fruit and oak. For the non-wine drinkers at your holiday table, a beer like this is a perfect match for spreads that include rich favorites like creamed spinach gratin, buttery fingerling potatoes and gravy.

Finally there is Madrugada Obscura, the Belgian stout with a dark, dark heart. Nearly black with a pungent aroma of wet wood, coffee and the barnyard, this beer is slightly foreboding. But take and drink; flavors in the middle include vanilla and even milk chocolate. Just brace yourself for that sour berry fruit finish. Served with Pernil, a Cuban-style roast pork shoulder whose marinade traditionally includes juice of the sour orange, this beer will compliment flavors in the marinade, as well as play off of the lovely fat in the pork.

Arbor Brewing Company
Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti does a fine job of creating a body of brews diverse enough to appeal to any beer drinker, novice or geek alike. Owner Rene Greff created an identity for Arbor Brewing that includes true-to-style beers as well as unique offerings that mix styles, creating something altogether unique. Their seasonal beers stay true to beloved classic styles.

The Espresso Love Breakfast Stout, though a year-round favorite, is perfect for chilly Michigan winter days. This oatmeal stout is velvety-smooth, and similar to Dark Horse’s Perkolator brew, uses cold-brewed coffee from the Ugly Mug Café’s roasted beans. Without a trace of bitterness, this rich stout is laden with chocolate and roasted malt flavors. The sweetest of all the beers reviewed here, it is an indulgent drink paired well with pastries or chocolate desserts.

ABC’s Phat Abbot series includes a Belgian Dubbel and Belgian Tripel. Both use Belgian candy sugar to lend traditional Trappist characteristics. While the Dubbel possesses the deep, sweet lingering flavors of dried sugar plums and raisins, the lighter Tripel smells of banana and yeasty bread dough, with flavors of tropical fruit, spice and a drier finish. The Tripel would make a fabulous accompaniment to your Christmas ham, while the Dubbel would be perfect with an after-dinner cheese course.

Michigan winters may narrow our choices of locally grown produce, but seasonal beers can fill in the gap for those of us willing to seek out the best of anything local and delicious. Whether serving as recession-friendly weeknight indulgences, sure-bet hostess gifts, or edgy alternatives to the predictable table wine, it is time for you to discover the pleasures of local winter seasonal beers.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Colorado Stouts and Porters (Plus Gnocchi)

Ah, the New Year...rhymes with New Beer. And I like the sound of that.

Since pretty much every Colorado beer is still new to me (and because I dared to proclaim to a friend that Michigan stouts and porters are amazing and would therefore be very hard to beat...apparently, them's fightin' words), a few of us decided that a Colorado stout and porter tasting was in order.

I designed a menu around five stouts and porters chosen by our dinner companions, which turned out to be a delicious, but completely over-the-top plan. After the meal, it took me nearly 24 hours to feel hungry again. But it was worth it. Here was the menu:

Course 1:
Ricotta Gnudi with Brown Butter, Pancetta, Crispy Sage and Cider Gastrique
Cutthroat Porter (Odell Brewing Co.)
Black Jack Porter (Left Hand Brewing)

Course 2:
Fennel and Parsley Salad w/Lemon Vinaigrette

Course 3:
Stout-braised Short Ribs w/White Bean Puree and Gremolata
Milk Stout (Left Hand Brewing)
Oatmeal Stout (Breckenridge Brewing)

Course 4:
Chocolate Pots de Crème (recipe here)
Cocoa Porter (Tommyknocker Brewery)


Odell’s Cutthroat Porter: This beer had a slightly spicy nose (think cinnamon), with hints of cola. It was surprisingly lighter on the palate than expected, with enough hops to provide a nice refreshing finish. It paired nicely with the gnocchi appetizer (I made a last minute substitute as the homemade ricotta gnudi was a spectacular failure; see recipe at bottom), complimenting the flavors of both the bracing gastrique and the rich pancetta and brown butter.

Left Hand Brewing’s Black Jack Porter: In comparison to the Cutthroat Porter, this beer was hoppy in the nose, but almost completely lacked that characteristic on the palate. This medium bodied beer had flavor notes of chocolate and dark plum, but was by no means so rich that it would deter me from going back for more; overall, a nice beer to drink alone or enjoy with a meal.

Left Hand Brewing’s Milk Stout: Oh mama…Lactose does work its magic on a good stout. The smooth, luxurious head foretells of the pleasures of the first sip—malty, creamy with notes of chocolate. Since it was light for a stout, it was my favorite pairing with the rich short ribs, which were draped in a velvety layer of sauce.

Breckenridge Brewing Oatmeal Stout: This was a perfectly good beer, a classic breakfast stout. But I’ll be honest; by this point in the evening my taste buds were growing numb from the onslaught of malt, meat and butter. I had also already knocked back three beers after slaving in the kitchen most of the day without pausing to eat. When I looked back at the notes I scrawled down about each beer, the only word I had written beside this beer was “Oatmealy.” Oh well.

Tommyknocker Cocoa Porter: I am sure there are people out there who like this beer, but those people do not include me. From the aroma, I could tell this beer was going to tank for me; an overwhelming scent of honey and chocolate. This translated into a taste reminiscent of Tootsie Rolls—which I hate anyway. There was just no balance to this beer, and so it was disappointing. And much like my own disposition by the time dessert was served, I noticed that most of our dinner companions left their Cocoa Porters…half drunk.

So to sum up, we ate well and drank even better. We also had great company, which frankly has a lot more to do with the success of any evening than either the food or the drink. As for my challenge to the Colorado beer community, I will concede that you showed me a porter or two that rival the Michigan beers that nursed me through the last few winters. Cutthroat Porter and Left Hand's Milk Stout are now on rotation in my fridge.


The menu was a lot of fun to put together—my first attempt at short ribs (a success, thanks to Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef) as well as gnudi (as stated before, a total failure). Gnudi is kind of like the cheesy, lighter cousin of gnocchi. I have heard raves about the ricotta gnudi served at New York’s über-popular Spotted Pig. I also figured by the time I actually go back to New York, gnudi will be “So Yesterday,” so why not try it now at home? Wrong. I f*cked it up royally.

Using a recipe from Zen Can Cook, I gave these little semolina-covered pillows of ricotta a whirl, but unfortunately they had not “set up” long enough before it was time to cook them. They disintegrated in the boiling water. To be fair, I had been warned that this could happen; depending on the moisture content of the ricotta cheese, the gnudi could take anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days to dry out enough to be “set” and ready to boil.


Still Good...


So I went with Plan B—store-bought gnocchi—and it turned out just fine. So fine, in fact, that I’m posting the recipe.

Gnocchi with Brown Butter, Pancetta, Crispy Sage and Cider Gastrique
Serves 4 liberally as an appetizer or side

2 ¼ inch slices of pancetta
3 sprigs fresh sage
1 16-oz. package gnocchi (either shelf stable or from frozen)
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter

Apple Cider Gastrique
2 cups apple cider
¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1. Make your cider gastrique. In a medium saucepan, combine the cider and the cider vinegar. Cook over medium heat, simmering and reducing until syrupy and thicker—the mixture amounts to about ½ cup. Set aside.
2. Set a large pot of water to boil on high heat.
3. While water for gnocchi is heating, dice pancetta. Cook in a frying pan over medium heat, until crispy. Remove from pan to a plate covered in paper towel. If there is enough fat rendered from the pancetta, you can go ahead and fry your sage leaves in that. Otherwise, fry sage leaves in olive oil until crisp. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.
4. When your gnocchi water is about to reach a boil, melt butter in a clean frying pan over medium heat. Swirl the pan as the butter heats and turns a golden brown. Keep an eye on it; do not let it get too brown. As soon as it reaches the desired color, turn off the heat on the burner.
5. Meanwhile, as butter melts, drop gnocchi into the water once it’s boiling (remember to salt your water!). Cook the gnocchi according to package directions (when they float, they’re ready). Transfer the cooked gnocchi immediately into the pan with the browned butter. Toss to coat.
6. To serve, divide the gnocchi among 4 plates. Spoon a bit of brown butter over them, then garnish with pancetta and a few sage leaves. Drizzle on the gastrique. Eat immediately.