Family Table Cooking Club

Last night I had the wonderful opportunity to volunteer as a facilitator at the first Family Table Cooking Club, hosted by West CAP and the St. Croix Falls Buy Local Initiative. The focus of the event was helping low-income families in the area learn how to utilize more fresh ingredients and whole grains into their diets, as well as discussing the benefits of shopping locally and purchasing locally produced goods. Katelin, one of the VISTA volunteers with the Buy Local Initiative, was the primary organizer of the event. Her and I had been working the past several weeks to organize a menu, purchase food, advertise, and secure a location to host the event, among many other things.

Our menu was built around the basics: dishes that could easily be modified to fit the tastes of a family. In addition, we wanted the recipes to be simple as well as delicious and made with readily available ingredients, in order to increase the likelihood that they would try the recipes at home. After tossing around several recipes, we settled on lasagna, baked egg muffins, and pumpkin breakfast cookies. Katelin and I went shopping at Fine Acres Market, a local organic foods market in downtown St. Croix Falls, to pick up ingredients we could buy in bulk (whole wheat flour, spices, etc.) as well as some locally grown onions. Clutching an afternoon cappuccino from the Lucky Cup (St. Croix's new coffee shop), we took over the small room that housed all of their bulk ingredients. It was crazy buying so much flour, baking powder, and spices; we bought 16 cups of each kind of flour we used! I find buying in bulk oddly satisfying; maybe its the work of searching for the ingredient, scooping it into a little bag, and labeling it. Whatever it is, I love doing it and highly encourage others to do the same! Anyway, back to the cooking event...

I arrived at the St. Croix Falls High School FACE kitchen to help with the preparations, including organizing ingredients at each station, prepping recipe binders, and putting out snacks. Participants started arriving at about 5PM and, after a short discussion and introductions, we got to work. There were six stations total, and with three items on our menu, we allotted two stations per menu item. The turnout was perfect, so each person got their own station to work with. After about 30 minutes at their station, they switched to the next one. At the end, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and they were delicious! Plus, each participant got to take home a pan of lasagna they could could cook at home (they got to keep the pan), a dozen egg muffins, and all the cookies they baked.

While eating, we talked about what everyone thought of the pilot session. Everyone was so satisfied with how the class went they were already talking about the next one; one participant even had the great idea of sharing favorite recipes. They also asked for recipes that were twists on old favorites (like chicken or ground beef). It was a delicious and satisfying evening for everyone involved and I was so happy to be a part of it.

Since my station was preparing Pumpkin Breakfast Cookies, I have printed that recipe below. These cookies are soft, almost cake-like, and have a wonderful balance of pumpkin and spices. This particular recipe seems more like dessert to me, but if you add an array of dried fruit and/or nuts and some ground flax seed, these could be more like a breakfast on the go. Or you could add chocolate chips and make them a delicious dessert cookie. Either way, they are really delicious and really simple to make!

Pumpkin Cookies
Makes about 4 dozen

1 15-oz can pureed pumpkin (feel free to use homemade pumpkin puree here)
1 1/2 c brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 c vegetable oil
1 1/2 c flour
1 1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 tbsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 c raisins (optional)
1 c walnuts or hazelnuts, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Mix pumpkin, brown sugar, eggs, and oil thoroughly. Mix the rest of the ingredients (except the raisins and nuts) in a separate bowl. Add these dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture and stir until blended. Add raisins and nuts, if using.

Drop by teaspoonful on a greased cookie sheet (cooking spray or a non-stick mat work great). Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.

Note: If you are interested in the recipes for the other dishes we cooked, let me know and I'll send them to you!


Homemade Chai

I awoke this morning to a lovely sunrise over a snow-covered lake. Sounds great, right? Well, it is as long as you are inside. Because of a winter storm warning yesterday, my dog did not get her usual hour long walk around the lake, so I felt obligated to get her out today. The moment I stepped outside, the bitter cold wind hit me like a slap to the face. Wind chill, I thought. I guess I had forgotten (and was happy I had forgotten) what it felt like. With the wind chill today, the thermometer read negative 18 degrees. The dog really needed a walk though, so I trudged out into the snow and down the road, leash in hand. The air was so cold that the moisture from my breath froze into ice on my scarf. Bailey's whiskers and nose were covered with ice. I would have turned around if she had seemed uncomfortable but, other than a small ice chunk that got caught in between her toes, she didn't seem to mind the cold. I, on the other hand, was ready to get back home and get something warm to drink. While I would usually opt for fair-trade coffee or organic green tea, today called for something with warm spices that reminded me of good friends. I needed some homemade chai.

DISCLAIMER: For the purposes of this post, it is important to point out that I did not make the recipe posted below today, because I lacked the fresh ginger needed. Instead, I had Rishi Masala Chai loose tea steeped in milk with a little brown sugar added. However, I have made this recipe many times before and it is phenomenal.

I received this recipe via email a few years ago from my very dear friend Amanda, who was my roommate for two years in college and has been an amazing friend ever since we met. I love chai because it reminds me of cold afternoons in small coffee shops where Amanda and I would sit for hours, her reading about anthropology or botany, and me about international politics or Irish history. It reminds me of snowy afternoons in Shorewood, Wisconsin when Chris and I would leave our tiny apartment and sit at the local cafe, watching the snow fall. Even when I am alone, this drink brings back wonderful memories that comfort, warm, console, and make me smile.

The key to this recipe is having fresh ginger and whole spices, since this is where the chai gets most of its flavor. If you can buy your spices in bulk, I would recommend it since it is less expensive and less impactful on the environment (less packaging). Also, buy more than you'll need for this recipe, so then you'll have the spices on had should you ever want to make homemade chai again (which I hope you do)!

After preparing the spices, they're simmered with black tea, then milk and brown sugar. Once strained, you can have some right away and refrigerate the rest to consume throughout the week. Just a word of caution: make sure the chai is completely cool before you put it in the fridge or whatever you are storing it in (unless it is plastic) will crack and you'll have a big mess on your hands (speaking from experience). The chai tea is delicious hot or cold, so don't hesitate to bring out this recipe on a hot summer day. Most importantly though, share it with friends :)

Homemade Chai

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, cut into thin rounds
2 cinnamon sticks (you can add more for extra flavor, if you prefer)
1 to 1 1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns
10 whole cloves
6 cardamom pods
6 bags organic black tea (preferably Darjeeling)
2 cups milk or soy milk
1/2 c packed golden brown sugar

Using a mallet or the back of a large spoon, lightly crush or braise the spices, including the ginger. Placed the crushed spices in a medium pot. Add 6 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce head to medium-low; partially cover and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Add tea bags and steep for 5 minutes. Discard tea bags. Add milk and sugar. Bring to a simmer over high heat, whisking until the sugar dissolves. Strain chai into a teapot. Serve hot or cold.

Note: You can gift chai spices to friends and loved ones for the holidays so they can make their own! Check out these instructions from Yoga Journal.


Go Local for Holiday Shopping

As the holiday season begins, when we dig the decorations out of the basement, hang lights, and put trees in our living rooms, we also start to think about giving gifts to our friends and loved ones. I love this time of year because I love to buy gifts for people. My favorite thing about gift-giving is finding the perfect gift that I know will make them smile and let them know how much I appreciate that they are a part of my life. I also love gift-giving because it gives me another excuse to peruse the local shops.

While it may seem easy to place an order at Williams-Sonoma or head over to Best Buy, consider going to some local stores in your area. Shopping locally supports your local community, as a significant portion of what you spend at a local store goes back into your community. I read that for every $100 spent at a local business, $45 stays in your community; spend $100 at a "big-box" store and only $13 stays in your community. Shopping locally also keeps local stores thriving, providing more local jobs and creating a stronger and more vibrant community. The personal service you receive by shopping locally far exceeds the service provided in many chain stores. The people who own the businesses are your neighbors, maybe your friends, who will go out of their way to keep your business.

Aside from benefiting your community, shopping locally also means you can get some really unique, locally made products that you cannot find anywhere else. Some stores may not sell locally made products, but your purchases still benefit your community. Here are a few examples of some of my favorite local shops from cities I have lived in in Wisconsin:

- Indian Creek Winery, St. Croix Falls: carries locally made salsas, dipping oils, and marinated veggies. In addition they have a great selection of Wisconsin wines.
- Cafe Wren, Luck: aside from regularly selling locally made soaps & lotions and having amazing coffee and food, this cafe also hosts a local art sale just in time for the holidays and regularly features excellent work by local artists.
- Pop Deluxe, Madison: this place has been named best gift shop in Madison for many years running. They just have some really awesome stuff; that's all there is to it.
- Barriques, Madison: with two locations, they have anything you want for the wine lover or coffee lover on your list.
- Three Rivers Outdoors, La Crosse: Also called 3RO, this store has everything you need for the outdoorsy people you're shopping for, from SmartWool socks to kayaks.

I'd love to hear what local places in your community you're shopping at this season, so please post them to my comments. The next time I am in your neck of the woods I'll check them out!

If you prefer to shop online, check out Etsy.com. This website is a showcase for artisans to display and sell their work, from clothing to pottery to purses. The prices range from cheap to expensive, and your bound to find some unique and amazing gifts. While I know this is not shopping locally, it does support some really talented people who make some really great stuff on a pretty small scale.

So as the holidays draw near and you are checking your list twice, consider making your purchases at the local shops in your community before you head to the mall. You'll support your local community and find some pretty cool gifts at the same time!

And since none of my posts would be complete without a recipe, here is a simple one that I am planning on using with the sack of winter squash I got today as a part of a local food fundraiser (I'll add pictures once I make it):

Roasted Squash with Spinach & Blue Cheese
Serves four

4 squash (acorn, autumn cup, carnival, or sweet dumpling work best)
9 oz spinach leaves, washed
7 oz blue cheese (Point Reyes is the best if you can find it)
3 tbsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the tops off the squash, then scoop out and discard the seeds. Place the squash, cut-side up, in a roasting pan. Drizzle squash with 2 tbsp of the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then bake for 30-40 minutes, or until fork-tender.

Heat the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat in a large frying pan and add the spinach leaves. Saute for 2-3 minutes or until the leaves are just wilted. Season with salt and pepper and divide between the squash halves.

Top the squash halves with the cheese, then return to the oven for 10 minutes, or until the cheese has melted. Season with ground black pepper and serve warm.


Venison Burgundy

Last week being deer hunting weekend in Wisconsin, I felt it appropriate that my next post be a venison recipe. For many years growing up we always had an overwhelming amount of venison and were always looking for interesting ways to use it. Over the years, I have found great recipes to use for venison, including delectable cabernet cherry reductions and savory grill rubs. For this particular recipe, though, I will be resorting to an old friend: the crock pot.

Crock pots are wonderful, even for the experienced cook, because they create excellent meals with little effort and make your whole house smell amazing. I chose a crock pot recipe for this particular dish because I am making it for my parents, who are dog sitting for us this weekend while we are up north to Lake Superior for my husband’s work holiday party. I am preparing it in the morning the day they are coming so it will be ready when they arrive. After a full day’s work and a drive north to our house, they will enjoy having dinner waiting for them, accompanied by a nice bottle of wine, of course!

This recipe is a twist on the classic French Beef Burgundy. Using venison will change the flavor slightly, because venison has a stronger flavor than beef. I used a combination of round steak and strip steak that I pulled out of the freezer yesterday and let it thaw overnight. In the morning, after a snowy walk with the dogs, I came back to prepare the dish. I cut the venison into chunks and dredged it in a mixture of flour, salt and pepper. To dredge meat, take the piece of meat and roll it around in the flour mixture then shake it out in your hand to remove any excess flour. The meat is then seared quickly on both sides in a skillet of hot oil. Make sure you just sear the meat; don’t cook it through or it will toughen. This step allows the meat to remain in cube form, rather than fall apart, which will happen in a crock pot without this step. After adding the veggies (all local) and spices, it was time to add the wine.

When cooking with wine, I always use a wine I would want to drink with the dish. I do not recommend using a cheap bottle of wine you have never had before, or a wine you know you don’t like. After all, if you don’t like the flavor of it in a wine glass, it’s not going to taste any better in your food. However, for the sake of your wallet, don’t use the expensive wine that you’re saving for a special occasion. Pick a good, consumable red at a good price. For this dish, I love using Blackstone Merlot. Blackstone is a wonderful winery in Sonoma that produces consistently good wine at a great price (less than $10 per bottle). For this recipe, I recommend a California Merlot or a French Burgundy. Cabernet, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and other such wines will impart to strong a flavor on the dish and it won’t mesh well with the rest of the flavors.

After adding all the ingredients, I set the crock pot on low and went about the rest of my day, while the house filled with delicious smells.

About 6 hours later I reduced the heat to warm to stop the cooking process but still keep the dish warm for when my parents arrive. I’m leaving a bag of organic broad egg noodles for them to eat with the burgundy, but the dish is also excellent over mashed potatoes, which provides an excellent vehicle for sopping up the delicious broth.

Now it’s off to Lake Superior!

Venison Burgundy
Makes 6 servings

¼ c flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs venison steak, rinsed and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
8 mushrooms (button, crimini, or portobella), sliced
½ cup fresh parsley, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 c burgundy wine (or merlot)
½ c beef broth

Combine the flour, salt and black pepper. Dredge the venison cubes in the flour mixture, and brown in the olive oil in a medium skillet. Place the venison and remaining ingredients in the slow cooker and mix thoroughly to combine. Cover; cook on low for 4-6 hours (or high for 2-3 hours). Serve with broad egg noodles or garlic mashed potatoes.