30 October 2012

What's Brewing: Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale

"Don't bother with pumpkin beers," warned a Facebook friend when I mentioned I was aiming to develop my beer-tasting savvy.

Bah! I said to myself. Why not? Who wants to read only good reviews?

So I wasn't expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised.

The pumpkin libation I sampled, Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, was bubbly and crisp, with no hint of bitterness. The foam head is thick and golden. The beer is the color of burnished copper: Think old bowls and pots from Paris's E. Dehillerin.

There is a mere hint of pumpkin and a fair amount of spice (ginger?)  here, with the tiniest trace of - what? - apple? This malty beer tastes of autumn.

The beer has body. My husband liked that.

"I'm waiting for it to warm up because I like beers that taste good at room temperature," he said. "Let's see how it tastes when it warms up."

Me, I like my beer cold. That probably means I'm a novice. Well, I am. But I can learn, right?

(The truth is, neither of us is a big beer drinker. We prefer wine. But I became intrigued with beer tasting a decade or so ago when Country Living Magazine ran a beer column. It was cleverly and vividly written by some guy.)

As it turns out, Harvest Pumpkin Ale retains its spicy, pumpkin hints, even when warm. If anything, as it warms the broad fruity flavors come through for an overall refreshing experience.

"It's good warmer, too," said my husband. "I like it. I like it."

Harvest Pumpkin Ale has an almost cider-y feel. About five sips into my half-glass, I started to crave Beer Nuts, those salty, semi-sweet nuts that used to be ubiquitous in drinking establishments. After further imbibing, I started thinking of ham and cheese with mustard on pumpernickel.

Yup, we'll buy this one again. So much for staying away from pumpkin beer. But after sampling Harvest Pumpkin Ale, I realized I had not considered a few crucial factors like the speed of head formation (who knew?) and the appearance of the liquid. I just looked at the color. That's how I buy cars, too. Is there something wrong with that?

I did notice the scent, but since I'm rather experienced in purchasing perfume that observation came naturally. Maybe I should apply it to pulse points?

There are a few more factors I need to consider, too. I'm not aiming to become an expert, just seeking to find a few drinkable brews to pair with meals. And use for beer bread, which I really like.

It's a learning process. But it's more fun than math.

26 October 2012

Frugal French Friday: Green Beans with Shallots and Pancetta

Clean Out the Fridge Month, which was nearly two months in duration, came to a back-breaking climax when we thoroughly cleaned our refrigerator this week. It took hours, and our blue recycling bin was quickly filled to the brim with empty jars, cans, and bottles. When we were finished, I tackled the pantry shelves, a two-day effort.

Our next project is the freezer. Right now, because of my recent flurry of soup-and-stew-making activity, the freezer is filled with individual servings. The contents should see us through the next three months.

Now my task is to eat up what's in the freezer before buying or making more. First challenge: A bag of frozen organic green beans.

What do you do with a bag of frozen green beans? I'm not the first person to ask that question. Here's an approach I really liked. I will try that sometime.

Given what I had on hand and what I wanted the dish to accompany, this recipe was a good alternative.

(You can never go wrong making Elise Bauer's classic blog, Simply Recipes, your first stop when you need a recipe that fits a specific ingredient, season, or occasion. Her ingredients are generally very accessible. I love that she wasn't afraid to use Ritz Crackers as an ingredient recently. This is how real people eat.)

This tasty side dish was incredibly simple to make and incredibly delicious to eat. The pancetta was a great foil for the blandess of green beans, and the shallots held the two flavors together nicely.

Cost: The total came to about $4. This is a side dish that will yield 3-4 servings, at about $1 per serving. I would serve this with chicken and roast potatoes. Or, make it with your Thanksgiving turkey, in place of that other green bean casserole.

Wine Pairing: Of course, this depends on what else you are serving. I'd go with a dry, crisp white. But experimenting is 50 percent of the fun.

25 October 2012

What's Brewing: Capital Brewery's Hop Cream

Among the many things I want to learn now that I'm no longer working full time is how to taste beer.

You might think that living in Wisconsin, I'd have been born with that skill. But the truth is, I was born in Michigan, about a half mile from the Wisconsin border, and I missed early acquisition of that particular gene.

I prefer wine, anyway. Although perhaps perversely, when in France I often order beer at caf├ęs. Go figure.

Fortunately, the Italian Market in my home town offers a mix-and-match six-pack option in its beer-and-wine shop. So I stocked up, with the intention of making beer bread soon.

Each week - or at least most weeks - I'll taste and review a different brew. More often than not, my beer of choice will be a Wisconsin brew. I like to eat and drink local. I'll do the same with wine. (I've taken a wine-tasting course and held several wine tastings so I feel more confident there.)

I'm certainly not a novice at drinking beer, but I am at reviewing it. So bear - or is that beer? - with me.

We'll start with Hop Cream, from Capital Brewery in Middleton, right next to my old stomping grounds of Madison, Wis. Not coincidentally, Capital Brewery was the first brewery I visited about 26 years ago when I was fresh out of college and out on the town with friends a good deal. Beer was cheap and I was broke most of the time.

On to our recent tasting.

Hop Cream is golden, almost copper in color with a creamy, almost tan foamy head. A hoppy aroma is followed by an initial creamy taste. This beer is relatively smooth, light bodied and crisp. It took me a while to identify the fruitiness of it: It's almost citrus. There's a floral note, too.

The finish is smooth, but a tad bitter. Not offensive, but bitter. My husband thought so, too. He found the bitterness masked a fruity aftertaste. The bitterness seemed to increase as the beer grew warmer. I agreed.

We sampled the beer without a food pairing, trying to imagine what would draw out and balance the beer's flavor. My best guess is an egg salad sandwich on a rustic, whole grain bread with a side of spicy, home-made potato chips. I'll try that sometime; I think tanginess and saltiness would provide a good foil for this beer.

While I did not find Hop Cream to be unpleasant, I probably won't buy a six pack of it. I would order it, though, or even buy another single bottle.

Splitting a brewsky on a Friday night was fun, and I'm looking forward to our next beer tasting.

21 October 2012

Pumpkin-Quinoa Bread Pudding

Pumpkin has finally arrived. After many years of being restricted to pies, muffins, cookies and tea breads, pumpkin started making its way into other recipes both savory and sweet about 15 years ago.

I'm not complaining. I wish I had more time to enjoy pumpkin in its various forms. But, if we could have fresh pumpkin all year long, it would no longer be the quintessential flavor of fall.

I've been saving pumpkin recipes since college, so I've got a 30-year stash to work my way through this fall.

Pumpkin is arguably one of the best comfort foods. That goes double when it is incorporated into bread pudding, a breakfast worth getting up for, even on a Monday.

Pumpkin-Quinoa Bread Pudding

  • 5 cups of torn-up quinoa bread (or raisin-cinnamon bread for a lighter dish)
  • 6 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup sugar (use brown sugar for richer flavor)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon allspice
  • pinch ground cloves

Pre-heat oven to 350.

Cut or tear the bread into chunks. Toss with melted butter, raisins and tablespoon of sugar in a large bowl. A Set aside.

Blend milk, eggs, pumpkin, sugar and vanilla in a second bowl, using a whip. Add spices and blend further. Pour this mixture over the bread chunks and toss. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes so that bread is soaked through; don't skip this step if using quinoa bread.

Pour mixture into a baking dish, and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until pudding is fairly firm.

A hearty dish, this pudding is delicious served hot with vanilla yogurt. You could certainly serve it with a lemon or caramel sauce with whipped cream for a filling dessert. I wanted mine to be a breakfast dish, something I could serve with sausage or bacon.

If you prefer your bread pudding on the sweet side, up the amount of sugar to 3/4 cup. The quinoa bread makes for a firm pudding, so if you prefer sweet and light, opt for cinnamon-raisin bread.

Eat Local Note: I buy my quinoa bread from The Wooly Sock, a vendor at one of my local farm markets. The eggs are from Mill Creek Farms. I could have used fresh pumpkin from another local source, but I had a can of pumpkin left over from last year.

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18 October 2012

Frugal French Friday: Slow Cooker Vegetable-Lentil Soup

Perhaps the mark of a truly good cook is the ability to make a meal out of nothing, or at least make a meal out of what is on hand.

When I ponder this, it always brings to mind the traditional story of stone soup, which my father told so many times I began to think he was one of the soldiers (or travelers) who made the soup in one of the many versions of this legendary tale about sharing and cooperation.

At any rate, the ability to use scarce resources to make a nourishing meal is something I pride myself on being able to do. In my college days, it was an absolute necessity; now that I'm retired, it's fun.  

My approach has always been simple: When in doubt, make soup. So it was this week, when I surveyed the ingredients in my refrigerator and pantry. What could I make that did not involve a trip to the supermarket? The weather has been, for the most part, gray and damp. Not leaving the house but staying inside to sip soup was extremely desirable.

I keep about a dozen soup basics on hand at all times: Lentilles du Puy, frozen vegetables, stewed tomatoes and, of course, onions. (I have made my own stewed tomatoes one or twice, but I usually don't have time for this, and while I may try it again, for this particular recipe I used canned tomatoes.)

Lentilles du Puy are smaller than ordinary green lentils. They seem to retain their shape and crunch in the slow cooker. You can read more about them here.

I found this recipe online, and thought it was perfect for Frugal French Friday. When I go to France, I stock up on lentilles du Puy and other "necessities" for future kitchen adventures. I had everything else on hand. What could be more frugal?

I did not make any other ingredient changes, other than to use plain old mixed vegetables, which I bought last week on sale, earmarking them for vegetable soup.  I did place two small bay leaves in the slow cooker while the soup was cooking. I used French thyme from my own garden and onions that were grown locally.

Prep time is about 40 minutes. I found that my soup needed seven hours to bring out the maximum flavor and tenderness. My slow cooker is old, so perhaps it is a bit slower than most.

Cost: The entire production cost about $7-8, and I expect to get 12-14 servings from it. That's about 66 cents per serving. I'm freezing about two-thirds of it for suppers on cold winter nights. It will be stashed away next to the beef stew and cabbage soup I've already made and popped in the freezer this fall.

Wine Pairing: A rustic syrah is recommended.

15 October 2012

A New Venture: Brown-Rice Krispie Bars

I should have chosen a different name for this blog. My intention when I started it in mid 2006 was simply to learn more about classic French cooking.

I also wanted to learn more about blogging so I could help my college freshmen and sophomores add news blogging to their basic journalism skills.

As it turned out, none of them really wanted to blog. They preferred text messaging, which of course has grown by leaps and bounds in the past six years. They liked short and punchy.

Blogs, I eventually figured out, have more appeal to Boomers and Xers. I don't mean to generalize, but that's my observation. That's not to mean that twentysomethings don't blog: They do. In droves. And I love reading their posts and pondering their perspective. My students just didn't jump on the blogging bandwagon.

When I started this blog, I had a fairly flexible schedule, and I could dabble with recipes that were, if not complex, not exactly simple. But that changed when I took a new job. Now, five years later - as you know - I've left that job to "rewire."

What I really want to say here is this: I need another food blog venue. Because I like what I call simple comfort food a lot, especially as cold weather approaches. I want a blog that focuses on experiments with inexpensive meals. It's not always fancy at my house and it's not always French.

I need a place where I can write about my burning desire to elevate things like tuna salad and Tater Tot casserole.

At the same time, I want French Kitchen in America to slowly return to its culinary roots, focusing on rustic French soups and stews and classic provincial dishes. And of course, desserts. I will focus on eating locally as much as possible. Every once in a while I might try something fancy.

A few years ago, I started a blog that I used only occasionally for, uh, let's call it venting. I named it after a post I did here, following a visit to one of my favorite niegborhoods in Paris.

That blog, A Humble Little Cafe, will now become a repository of down-home and sometimes only partly homemade recipes. I make no apologies.

It will also be a spot for experiments. I have time for that now.

My first experiment was Brown Rice Krispie Bars. Not too bad.

14 October 2012

Pear-and-Cabbage Slaw with Golden Raisins

Pear-and-cabbage slaw with golden raisins.

On a recent inclement weekend, I made this recipe for beef stew in the slow cooker, picked up some French rolls at the Italian market and prepared cole slaw.

I was inspired by this recipe for pear slaw, which is part of a delicious repertoire of recipes for pears that I think I will work my way through over the next 10 years.

Pears remind me of Grandma Annie, as you know. In middle age, Annie often took a short trip in the early autumn, then settled down to begin her holiday preparations and settle in for the winter. It was part of the rhythm of her life.

On dark, wet fall days like today she baked, usually date bread, or spice cake, or something that reflected this the rich flavors of this darker, deeper time of year.

She always seemed to have pears on hand, and while she would have never put them in cole slaw, I am pretty certain she would appreciate the subtle mix of flavors in this tasty side dish.

The slaw added the right degree of crunch and tartness to a meal built around the stew, which turned out to be wonderfully savory and just the thing to ward off the chill on a blustery weekend.