Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Last of the winter comfort food?

Dare I say the weather forecast looks like it is shaping up? 46 degrees today, and climbing to near 50 by this weekend. I like it!

Since spring has to arrive soon, the days of hearty dishes are winding down. Before long, thoughts will start to drift towards lighter spring fare. So, on Sunday I made what I hope will be the last batch of winter comfort food for the season - pörkölt, a traditional Hungarian stew featuring some sort of meat, onions, sweet bell peppers, garlic, and lots of paprika.

I first discovered this dish a few years ago in a free magazine called "Real Food," published by the local Lund's/Byerly's grocery store chain. The article was written by Bruce Aidells, the famous sausage maker and cookbook author. I have adapted my recipe from his.

I am actually surprised that I had not made this dish at all over winter. It has become one of my favorite stews. Tender chunks of meat, sweet peppers, tangy sauerkraut, in a peppery, exotic sauce with a hint of caraway, and finished with sour cream - what is not to like? This is a fantastic one-pot dish for the winter months, and the leftovers are even better.

Not a bad way to close out winter comfort food season (hopefully...this has been a long winter!).

-adapted from Bruce Aidells in the Winter 2008 edition of Lund's & Byerly's "Real Food"

As noted, this can be made with a variety of meats. Aidells used pork. I used beef chuck since I had one in my freezer that needed to be used. If you go with something like pork or even chicken, you might want to go with chicken stock instead of the beef stock I used below.

Meat Mixture

-1 t. kosher salt
-1 t. Hungarian sweet paprika
-1/2 t. dried marjoram
-1/2 t. cracked black pepper
-2 lb. beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes

The rest of the stew

-2 T. Olive oil
-1 large sweet yellow onion, thinly sliced
-5 cloves garlic, minced
-2 roasted red bell peppers (or 1 red & 1 yellow), diced
-3 T. Hungarian sweet paprika
-1/2 t. caraway seeds
-3 oz. tomato paste
-1 c. beef stock
-1 12 oz. bottle dark beer (I used a brown ale)
-2 c. sauerkraut, drained, rinsed, & squeezed dry
-2 bay leaves
-1/2 c. sour cream (plus more for serving if desired)
-Fresh Italian parsley for garnish, minced (optional)
-Cooked egg noodles for serving

For the meat mixture, mix the kosher salt, paprika, marjoram, and black pepper together. Sprinkle the seasoning over the beef, ensuring the beef is well coated.

In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sear the meat until it is nicely browned on all sides. Do this in batches so as not to crowd the pan. Set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onions, and season with a little salt and pepper. Allow to cook until the onions are nicely browned. Keep stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan to scrape up the flavorful browned bits.

Add the garlic and let cook for just a minute. Then add the roasted bell peppers, paprika, caraway seeds, and the tomato paste. Allow to cook for another minute, stirring continually to mix everything together.

Add the beef stock and the beer. Stir well, and give the bottom of the pan another good scrape to release the browned bits. Return the beef and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add the sauerkraut and bay leaves.

Cover, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 3 hours or so, stirring occasionally, while also skimming off excess fat.

Discard the bay leaves. Just before serving, stir in the sour cream and mix until well incorporated. Add the parsley if desired. Serve over egg noodles. Makes 4 servings easily, up to 6.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring birds

Our weather has vastly improved over the past several days. While the weekend was chilly, the past couple of days have been in the upper 30's and low 40's. Very nice running this week.

With the nice weather, I am starting to see spring bird arrivals on almost a daily basis. Here are some recent sightings.

Saturday, March 26th - Common grackle, lesser scaups, and about a dozen hooded mergansers in the open water of my local lake

Monday, March 28th - Great blue heron, mourning doves (I had a couple of doves in my yard all winter, but they are now here in greater numbers)

Tuesday, March 29th - Eastern bluebird, and five wood ducks (I think this is the earliest I have ever seen the wood ducks)

It is great to see signs that we are leaving this absolutely awful winter behind us!

And in celebration of spring, how about a colorful, spring-like pizza?

One colorful pizza

This one sort of had a Spanish theme with some sliced Cantimpalo-style chorizo, salchichon, serrano ham, and Iberico cheese (a little fontina & mozzarella too, so not all Spanish!), along with roasted red & yellow peppers, crimini mushrooms, and asparagus spears. So good, so fresh, so fun. Love seeing vibrant colors on top of a pizza.

Bring on spring!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spinning my wheels, and random acts of pushing and shoving

It is spring in Minnesota! Naturally, we got a few inches of snow overnight.

The view from the office this morning - the snow was almost completely melted yesterday, and then this happens!

My day was rather interesting. I managed to get my car (a.k.a., "The Silver Hornet") stuck three different times.

The first two times were on the way to the office. I work near one of the largest corporate campuses in the west metro, yet these are historically the last roads to ever get plowed. And they definitely weren't this morning. We are talking 4-5 inches of the wettest, heaviest, greasiest, rutted up snow imaginable.

I managed to bury my car right in the middle of an intersection. Other cars crawled around me as I struggled for several minutes to free myself. A few more sat behind me, waiting for me to get out of the way. Eventually, after rocking back and forth, I finally gained enough traction to make it to the office parking lot - where I got stuck again.

The parking lot had not been plowed. I stalled right out in the open amidst the thick blanket of slush. The snow was so slick that I couldn't move forward or backward. I actually had an easier time going sideways, as the lot sits at an angle! Several more minutes of spinning my wheels and rocking back and forth, I broke free and was able to park my car.

Upon leaving work, I arrived at my car to find that the kind-hearted plow guys took it upon themselves to plow me in. Seriously, I should have taken a picture. There was literally a box of snow around The Silver Hornet. Not only did I have to rock my car (which I am getting really good at, by the way!), but I also had to get out and try to clear the snow from around my tires. Again, other people passed me by as I was spraying snow all over the vehicles near me. It took me at least ten minutes to free myself.

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, but scary - there were numerous vehicles in the ditch along the freeway. Lots of slick spots remained, even after the storm had passed. Just an ugly day here.

On stressful days like this, it is almost mandatory to go running. That, too, was interesting.

I think we got 6 inches of snow, so the trails were tough to navigate. Couple that with a strong wind, along with drifting and blowing snow, I encountered some snow drifts that were up to my knees! Certainly running was difficult, however it was somewhat fun in an odd sort of way. Nobody had been on the trails, so the only tracks were mine. And busting through the drifts was kind of cool! But man, did that wipe me out. What an exhausting day.

About a block from my home, I saw a woman having some difficulty. The scene looked familiar as I approached. She had her car absolutely buried in a pile of snow at the end of her driveway (which was, of course, left there by "Mr. Plow.") Tires were spinning. A shovel sat on the ground next to the vehicle where she had been trying to dig herself out. A neighbor a few doors down was out lazily shoveling his own driveway, seemingly oblivious to her struggles. All she was trying to do was pull into her garage, and her car was hanging halfway into the street, wedged into a man-made drift.

The car door was open, and she looked like she clearly needed a hand. So I decided to do something that nobody offered to do for me today.

"Ma'am, do you need a push?"

A look of relief came over her face. "Yes, yes! I could use a push!"

I got behind the car and gave her a few instructions. She gently accelerated, and I started shoving and rocking the car. After a few attempts, and thanks to my manly, brute strength (OK...might be exaggerating a little here!), we managed to dislodge the car and get it into the garage.

The woman was thrilled. "Thank you! Thank you!" she shouted. I said I was happy to help, that it was no problem, and continued on my way home.

A rough day, but helping out a damsel in distress was not a bad way to end it. At the very least, Sam Walter Foss would have been proud.

Here is to a better day tomorrow...and hopefully one without snow!

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Saturday morning I noticed the red-winged blackbirds have arrived in my neighborhood! I know for a fact they were not here Friday, as I was specifically looking for them. These birds were all over the place on my run, their piercing yodel echoing from the swamps.

This is a true sign of spring in these parts. People often make a big deal about the first robins arriving. I actually have a few robins that winter in my neighborhood because they have abundant food and water, so it is somewhat hard to tell. But when the blackbirds show up, you know the transition to spring is underway.

With the red-winged blackbird, it is never one or two stragglers that arrive. They all show up at once. It is really an amazing thing. Red-wings were everywhere I went yesterday, and they were quite noisy. Hard to miss them! And, they are pretty consistent. In 2009, they arrived on March 17th. Last year on March 18th. And this year on the 19th. Next year on the 20th? :)

Sunday dinner's - I made this recipe - Fettuccine & Meatball "Lasagna."

It is sort of a play on lasagna using cooked fettuccine for the pasta layers instead of the traditional lasagna noodles. Really, quite similar to a baked spaghetti. I followed the recipe closely, except I used a mixture of mozzarella, provolone, and Trugole cheeses, and I added some extra seasoning and spice to the meatballs (fresh thyme, ground fennel seed, crushed red pepper, and dried Italian seasoning).

I really enjoyed this. You can put tomato sauce and ricotta cheese on just about anything and it would taste good! But I enjoyed the texture of the fettuccine, and the meatballs were awesome. A great meal, and a fun twist on a baked pasta dish.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Signs of spring

55 degrees!!!

What a day. It was an treat to run in this weather. Please allow me to share with you some signs of spring that I have noticed:

1. Check out all the melting occurring on the lake in the background. Also notice how happy the runner is!

2. Snow is melting rapidly along the trails. It is incredible how much snow has melted this week.

3. Pasty white, untanned legs that haven't seen any sun since last fall! Yikes! :) At least I can wear shorts again.

(OK, I am sorry about the picture of my legs. Nobody needed to see that. But being able to wear shorts outside is a HUGE deal here in Minnesota!)

4. I have no picture of this, but a flock of trumpeter swans flew over my place tonight. So cool. And so loud!

Spring is definitely getting closer. I love this!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cold and frosty Sunday

I saved this week's long run for Sunday, since Saturday had us on the cusp of a Blizzard Warning (yes, I said Blizzard Warning!). We got less than an inch of snow, however there were terrible winds, and the little snow that we received was blowing and drifting. My goodness, this is getting old.

Sunday was, without question, the better option, even if the temps were in the low teens with wind chills in the single digits. Trail were in good shape with only minor drifting in areas. I even explored some new trails today, which was fun. They took me thorough beautiful creek bottoms and past a waterfall that I did not know existed. Gorgeous! I will be utilizing this newly discovered route more this spring.

Birds were quite enthusiastic this morning as well.

I was greeted by the beautiful calls of cardinals and chickadees everywhere I went. Blue jays have started to make their funny spring sounds. The familiar "kwirrrrr!" of the red-bellied woodpeckers echoed through the woods. I saw a pileated woodpecker in the park, too. But the best sighting was the northern shrike. I saw this guy over a month ago in the same area, so clearly these are his hunting grounds. It is great to start seeing and hearing more bird activity.

Since St. Patrick's Day is around the corner, I thought I should cook something with Irish roots (even though I am not the least bit Irish). So I whipped up some shepherd's pie. I used this recipe as my guide, but the end result represents nothing of the original.

Shepherd's Pie, out of the oven

I used ground beef instead of the traditional lamb (Technically, the dish would be called a cottage pie if made with beef, but we seem to use the term interchangeably). Mushrooms, fresh thyme, parsley, garlic, Worcestershire sauce all found their way into the meat mixture. And sliced green onions went into the potatoes (I feel like I am putting green onions in everything these days).

But why stop there? Wanting to put a little extra Irish spin on it, I incorporated some porter beer into the meat mixture. And, I added some aged Irish white cheddar to the mashed potato topping!

Shepherd's Pie with Porter and Irish Cheddar Potatoes, all plated up

The porter beer added a chocolaty richness to the sauce. I would gladly make the potatoes as a simple side dish - they were great on their own! The meat mixture was well seasoned and flavorful. All in all, a yummy, filling dish. This was some tasty Irish-inspired comfort food on a chilly day, and really hit the spot after my run this morning. Sláinte!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pizza with moving pictures

So this past winter, I have been shooting some goofy, really low quality, Zapruder-esque home cooking videos that I have mainly been sharing on Facebook with my buddies. I thought would finally share one here, as this is such a great recipe.

I shot this a couple of weeks ago over the course of several days to document how I make my sourdough pizza. The recipe for the dough is this one from Slice with a half teaspoon of sugar added. I've been making this recipe for months now with great success.

One thing I am going to do for my next episode is change the theme music. I just discovered that there is an Aqua Velva commercial using the same tune! I just can't be associated with bad aftershave. :) (Clearly, Aqua Velva used iMovie to produce the commercial!)

Obviously, I am no Giada (then again, who is?). But I hope you will see how working with sourdough starter to make pizza dough really isn't such daunting task.

Please enjoy my low budget pizza production - bad camera work, poor audio, unattractive host, and all! :)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Short post - the quintuple "P"

Pizza. Pancetta. Pineapple. Peppers. Provolone.

Pizza perfection! :)

Salty pork, sweetness from the pineapple, heat from some sliced Fresno and serrano chile peppers, some sharpness from the melted provolone, all on top of a sourdough crust. This is a great combination of flavors.

That is all!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A bevy of wildlife, and a busy trail

A rather pleasant 20 degree morning greeted me today. Slight breeze, but nothing to quibble about. I did a long run utilizing my southern route, eventually looping back around my lake trails.

An amazing morning for wildlife. My report:

1. I observed chickadees doing their flirtatious wing flutter - definitely a sign of spring, or at the very least, mating season.

2. Twelve deer were holed up down in a wooded hollow. I spooked them slightly as I ran past on the trail. But eventually they stopped, and I saw twenty four fuzzy ears and twelve faces staring at me intently as I continued on my journey.

3. The wildlife highlight involved wild turkeys - fourteen of them! Most were roosting in a tree, but four were down on the ground. A few of them craned their necks to see what I was up to. Sensing that I was only a runner who stopped to count turkeys and was therefore of no concern, they resumed their napping. Such huge birds. What a sight!

Throughout the winter, I rarely see many people on my local trails. Granted, the winter weather tends to keep numbers down. When I do meet runners, it is always the same familiar faces.

Today was different. I hit the lake trail and found myself smack dab in the middle of a huge group of women running together. My normally quiet trails were a complete madhouse. I felt like I was in a race! There were at least a couple dozen runners, and I have never seen any of them out here before. All were complete strangers. In fact, I only recognized one running "regular" the whole time.

Marathon training season has begun! :)

A couple of unrelated items:

I had all kinds of shopping to take care of today. So while running my various errands, I stopped in at The Four Firkins, a fantastic craft beer specialty shop in St. Louis Park. I love shopping here. It truly is a candy store for enthusiasts of interesting beer. Anyhow, they posted this video of Bryan at The Four Firkins sampling a very old can of Billy Beer! Bryan was the guy I bought my beer from today, and I told him I was glad he was still with us after this tasting. He said it nearly killed him. :)

Finally, for dinner tonight I made a shrimp and lobster scampi. I had a small, warm water lobster tail and some shrimp in my freezer, so I sauteed those in garlic, butter, and olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, lemon juice, lemon zest, white wine, green onions, crushed red pepper, and chopped parsley. Everything was tossed with spaghetti rigati.

Shrimp & Lobster Scampi with Spaghetti Rigati

Nicely cooked sweet, plump shrimp and chunks of lobster, a garlicky, buttery sauce, some bright acidity from the lemon and wine, and freshness from the herbs and green onions - so good, so light, and very tasty. Kind of spicy, too, as I used a hefty pinch of the crushed red pepper. Got to love a little seafood pasta after a busy day of running and shopping.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Face down in a snowbank

Allow me to set the scene for you.

A sidewalk near my place. A lady (not svelte) walking a small black lab mix. Me on my run, attempting to pass them. Nothing can possibly go wrong with this, can it?

Nice running weather this afternoon. 30 degrees, light winds, quite pleasant. I was approaching a lady walking away from me with her dog. From quite a distance, I saw her turn and look at me, so she had to have known I was approaching.

As I got closer, her inattentiveness was apparent. She and the dog were practically blocking the entire sidewalk. With plenty of warning, I offered up a courtesy "Coming up on your right!" to get her attention. For some reason, rather than moving over, the lady stopped right in the middle of the sidewalk and looked at me. I attempted to pass, barely having enough room to squeeze by, but thought I was in the clear.

The problem was she didn't have control of the dog.

The excitable pooch managed to circle her and undercut me. Cujo went right for the knees. I tried to stop dead in my tracks, but that didn't work very well. When the dog ran into me, I completely lost my balance. Trying not to fall directly on the dog, I ended up crashing into a snowbank.


Yours truly, playing the role of Frazier...

You might think the dog owner would have at least said something apologetic. All I got was a dull, monotone, "You OK?"

There were a lot of things I would have liked to have said, but I am too nice of a guy. I dusted off the snow, let out an exasperated, "Yeah, I'm fine," and ventured on my way.

So did anyone else get tackled by a dog on their run today? :)

Two more things, completely unrelated:

1. Also this afternoon, I saw practically new Jaguar with a pizza delivery sign on the roof. Apparently the delivery guys in my neighborhood roll in style!

2. Speaking of pizza, you are probably getting sick of pizza pictures - but I am not sick of making them, so tough luck! :) Last night's sourdough pizza with pancetta, Beldi olives, and caramelized onions. Yum!


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