Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A field trip to the Anheuser-Busch Merrimack Brewery in which I become the pride of my family

At our Wilson family cookouts, there are two things that can always be counted on: Anheuser-Busch beers and the booming voices of my uncles.

You’d develop a booming voice, too, if you’d grown up in a family of five boys who were separated in age by just seven years. My dad and his four brothers must have felt the need to out-boom each other in order to be heard over the din of pretending to kill one other (a mother-torturing incident involving ketchup, a white t-shirt, a dart, and a little boy sprawled out on the floor) and actually almost killing themselves (metal toboggan runners to the face, a near-drowning in the Saco River, knocked out teeth, bike-riding wipeouts on railroad tracks, hockey pucks to the forehead…the list is a long one).

Five wild boys and their dad, 1965

Brothers and their Bud Light cups 47 years later

So I think the booming is an honest byproduct of that.

As familiar to me as my uncles’ voices—especially in the form of their joyful, unguarded laughter—are the Budweiser, Busch, and Michelob Ultra cans and bottles that are in their hands at every family event. For my Uncle John, it’s Budweiser in bottles; he’ll reputedly walk out of a restaurant that doesn’t serve it. For Uncle Paul it’s Michelob Ultra, and for Uncle Mike it’s Busch.

I admit that I didn’t inherit their affinity for light beer, or their booming voices, either. I’m a craft beer drinker (although not a beer snob) and am actually one of the more soft-spoken members of my family.

That’s why I wasn’t sure what to expect during a Beermaster Tour and food pairing at the Anheuser-Busch Merrimack Brewery in Southern New Hampshire. 


Brian gamely poses at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery

But I was immediately and pleasantly surprised when the tour began with a sample of Shock Top Chocolate Wheat, a beer that I didn’t know was brewed by Anheuser-Busch. We sipped the darkly colored beer, which had notes of vanilla mingled with chocolate, and heard from our tour guide, Chris, about the history of the 162-year-old brewery and the story behind its famous Clydesdales (they were a seriously ballsy gift from August and Adolphus Busch to their father to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition).

Next, we suited up like air traffic controllers in goggles, reflective vests, and headsets that allowed us to hear our tour guide in loud areas of the brewery—we were venturing into a busy factory, after all—and set off.

I think warning yellow is our color

On the tour with Brian and me were three other guests: Rob—sporting a “This Guys Needs A Beer” T-shirt with two cartoon thumbs pointing up at his head—his wife, Jennifer, and their friend, Valerie, all of whom were enthusiastic Budweiser drinkers and brewery tour regulars. In fact, Rob said he had “tears in his eyes” the first time he saw the massive Bud Light finishing tanks where the beer rests before being bottled and pasteurized.

This affable guy got a bunch of beer

I didn’t have tears in my eyes, but I was impressed by the precision and care that goes into ensuring that every single bottle of Budweiser tastes exactly like what my Uncle John expects it to taste like. We even got a peek into the mission-control-like room where wall-to-wall computers measure and calibrate every aspect of the brewing process.

The highlight of the tour was getting to sample Bud Light right from one of the finishing tanks, which Jennifer promised would be “the best beer you’ll ever taste.” Chris tapped the tank and gave us each a glass of the unpasteurized, super-cold beer, which was unbelievably crisp and even thirst-quenching.

Chris taps the Bud Light finishing tank

We toasted each other (Jennifer quickly handed her glass to Chris for a refill) and chatted for a while among the gleaming stainless steel finishing tanks before ending the tour by hearing about the 275,000 cases and 10,000 kegs that were stored in the warehouse.

“I know that sounds like a lot of beer, but that’s not even two days’ supply for the New England area,” Chris said.

Why does that not surprise me?

After doffing our protective gear, we were ushered to the hospitality room, where a bar, a crackling fireplace, couches, tables, and chairs welcomed people for a post-tour beer or two.

Get comfy with a beer in the hospitality room

We were greeted there by Otto Kuhn, the Merrimack brewery’s head brewmaster, a Purdue University-educated chemical engineer with an assertive handshake who’s brewed Budweiser everywhere from Argentina to England to Spain.

“When you make a clean, crisp beer like this, all the mistakes come out,” he said, explaining the meticulousness with which Budweiser is brewed. Therefore mistakes are not an option. For Budweiser, that results in a beer that, above all, is easily drinkable and has no lingering aftertaste. And the recipe is unchanged since the brewery’s founding.

“You have to be true to taste and true to style,” Kuhn said.

That’s not to say they can’t embrace the explosion of food and beer culture
, which is why the Anheuser-Busch Merrimack Brewery recently started offering “Brews & Bites,” which are monthly, themed food- and beer-pairing events.

We got a taste of the Thanksgiving-themed Brews & Bites, which included “Budweiser Biscuits” paired with Budweiser; a lovely pork loin stuffed with raisins, sage, and cloves that was paired with a roasty and caramel-noted Budweiser Black Crown; spicy mashed sweet potatoes spiked with Matilda pale ale and paired with Beck’s Oktoberfest; and rich and decadent pumpkin pie bars paired with Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat.

Stuffed pork loin roast paired with Budweiser Black Crown

The food was great, the beer was great, and together they were even better. Unlike wine dinners which come with an intimidation factor and the fear of somehow getting wine “wrong” (Only fools and losers drink White Zinfandel, you oaf!), beer dinners are so much easier and more accessible. Either you like a beer or you don’t, you taste what you taste, and it’s all totally OK. For me, the clove and shallot flavors in the pork loin really popped after a sip of the clean and pleasantly bitter Budweiser Black Crown, and the Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat echoed the flavors of the pumpkin pie bars beautifully. At a cost of $15 for advance tickets, a Brews & Bites event is definitely an easy, fun, and tasty experience that's worth making the short trek to Merrimack for.

Brian and I lingered around the brewery for a little while after the tour and tasting, visiting the enormous chestnut Clydesdales in their stables and buying a four-pack of the Shock Top Chocolate Wheat beer in the gift shop.

I'm deathly allergic to these steeds, so I booked it out of there pretty quickly

And when I posted a picture on Facebook of me and Brian in the hospitality room, my Auntie Jodi replied with a message from one of the guys I’d been thinking about all day: “Uncle John is proud!”

If You Go:


Free tours are offered at the Merrimack Brewery and include beer samples.

The two-hour long Beermaster Tour is a fun, in-depth, and intimate experience that delves deeper into the brewing process. The cost for Beermaster Tours is $25 for adults 21+ and $10 for kids aged 13-20. Reservations are required; call 603-595-1202 or email merrimackbrewerytour@budweisertours.com.

To learn more about the complimentary and Beermaster Tours, visit BudweiserTours.com and click on the Merrimack, New Hampshire tab.

Check the Merrimack Budweiser Tours Facebook page for information about upcoming events, including monthly Brews & Bites tours, as well as other events such as the annual Ribfest and the Merrrimack Bierfest.

If you make this for Thanksgiving, you'll be very happy

Tour, travel and other expenses provided by  Anheuser-Busch; all opinions are my own.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Zero-waste week day 4: Leftovers from leftovers and What YOU’VE been up to!

On day four (yesterday), I had lots of leftovers from the week’s meals: Extra ricotta mixture from ravioli making, plus lots of leftover pasta, sauce, and meatballs.

I combined them all! I crumbled the meatballs and mixed them with the pasta, ricotta, and sauce. Chloe got her own mini-dish starring a crumbled lentil ball instead of meatballs. Next, I spooned the mixture into a greased casserole dish, grated the last Parmesan nub over the top, and baked for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees until heated through.

These ugly fellas became a yummy dinner.


Yum! The best meal of the week!

I was also so excited when my friends and family sent me pictures of their OWN no-waste week dinners! Check them out:

From my Auntie Jodi:
"Baked mac and cheese. Used all my leftover cheese and spices.
Yesterday sausage patties in buns from way back in the freezer,
and Monday spaghetti and meatballs."


From my friend Rosie:
"On the menu for tonight: 3 half-empty boxes of different kinds of pasta,
1/2 container of ricotta, Parmesan cheese, shredded string cheese in my food processor
in place of the mozzarella cheese, and hamburger bun garlic bread."


From my friend Brianna:
"I had wild rice, farrow, and barley sitting in the back of the cupboard.
The meatballs are made from ground sausage and crushed stuffing mix that was going stale,
carrots, onions, and garlic from the fridge, chicken stock from the cupboard,
and kale from the freezer! Garlic bread from a loaf that was past its prime as well."


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Zero-waste week day 3: Beer-brined pork chops and English muffin stuffin’


On day three, I realized: “Crap! I don’t have anything for Chloe to bring to school for snack!”

Then I remembered: We had popcorn kernels! So I popped a ¼ cup of kernels with a teaspoon of oil in a sauce pan (HINT: Put the salt right over the oil and kernels before you pop it. Makes the salt stick better!), and sent her off to school happy as a pig in…no that’s an inappropriate thing to say about your little girl. As happy as a kid in popcorn.

On the dinner menu that night: Forgotten, defrosted pork chops and a winging-it stuffing.

First I made a brine for the pork chops in the middle of the afternoon because I work from home. But it would be easy for someone to do it before work. A brine is like a marinade but not. Don’t ask me the difference. I don’t know. But I know they’re really forgiving, and just need salt. In fact, you could really make a brine out of just salt and water, if you needed to. But more flavors are better, so you could use apple juice, vinegar and water, or beer, like I did here.

I dug through the fridge and cabinets and came up with this brine:

A couple of brine ingredients

  • A can of Sam Adams Octoberfest beer
  • About 1 cup of apple cider vinegar (I bought the raw organic kind last month because I’d read it was a witch-doctor-ish cure for kidney stones. Guess what? It’s not.)
  • A couple of smashed garlic cloves
  • A tablespoon of honey that I’d warmed in the microwave so it could be stirred into the cold liquid
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme and sage
  • ¼ cup of salt

I poured the brine over the chops in a large zip-top bag and put it in the refrigerator to do its magic for a few hours.

Try to squeeze out as much air from the bag as you can
When dinnertime rolled around, I got busy making the stuffing out of rescued leftovers:

  • Slice in half and cube 3 almost-stale English muffins
  • Toss the cubes in a pan with a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil and a chopped onion
  • Stir until the muffin cubes get crispy edges and the onions are soft
  • Add chopped fresh sage and thyme and about ½ cup of dried cranberries
  • Cook another minute
  • Add ½ cup of chicken broth a little at a time, letting the bread drink up little bits of broth until it's all added
  • English muffin stuffin'


Next:

  • I put the stuffing into a cooking-oil sprayed loaf pan
  • Drained the chops of their brine and seared them over medium-high heat
  • Baked the chops and the stuffing in a 375 degree oven (the chops for 10 minutes, the stuffing for 20)

I also steamed some leftover carrots and made rice to round out the meal. Ms. Vegetarian Chloe had all the veggie and grain sides with an egg salad sandwich.

The result? Decent. I really like the stuffing, but thought the chops were overcooked. At least the brine gave them a nice flavor.

Also, as an aside, I woke up many, many times last night, and each time it was from the same dream: I was making the stuffing again and writing this blog post. I guess I was pretty excited about it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Zero-waste week day 2: Pasta and ‘balls’


On day two of our use-it-or-lose it cooking project, I defrosted a pound of ground beef that's been in the freezer since the summer and made meatballs for the two omnivores in the house. I got creative and made lentil-balls for our little vegetarian, Chloe.

After staring at a bag of dried lentils for a few minutes like a cat staring blankly at a sink drain, I decided to experiment and make “meatballs” out of cooked and pureed lentils.

First, I boiled ½ cup of lentils in water for about 25 minutes until they were soft, then drained them and buzzed them smooth in a food processor.

Treating the lentil puree exactly as I would ground beef, I added all of the secondary ingredients from my go-to meatball recipe: About 1 cup of panko-style breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, an egg, ½ teaspoon of garlic powder, ½ teaspoon of Italian seasoning, and about a tablespoon of olive oil. I mixed it all together; scooped and shaped the mixture into balls; and baked them on a cookie sheet for 10 minutes per side at 350 degrees.

Lentil balls, before baking
I had no spaghetti, (no grocery shopping allowed, remember?) so I used veggie elbow macaroni that I had on hand.

I had no spaghetti sauce either (sigh), so I made that, too, by simmering for about an hour the contents of a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes in heavy puree (why did I ever buy this? I don’t remember buying this.); 2 tablespoons of tomato paste; ¼ cup of red wine (which I somehow always have on hand); ¼ cup of olive oil; 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, a tablespoon of salt, and some garlic powder.

Although Brian and Chloe don’t eat tomato sauce on pasta, we all agreed that the varied balls had a better taste and texture after simmering for a little while in the sauce.

The verdict? It was all a hit! Especially the lentil balls, which got an enthusiastic seal of approval from all three of us. For real...I’m as surprised as you are, to be honest. I’ll definitely make the lentil balls again. It’s a (MUCH) cheaper and healthier alternative to meatballs, and I never would have discovered it without our little project.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Zero-waste week: Day One


The first day of our use-it-or-lose it cooking project brought an ear infection for Chloe and homemade ravioli for dinner.

After rushing around to meet my two Monday article deadlines and bring Chloe to the doctor, I finally finished my work and headed to the kitchen. It was about 4:00 pm, which left me plenty of time to make homemade ravioli.

As I’ve written before, making homemade ravioli isn’t particularly difficult, but it is rather time consuming, mostly because you have to let the pasta dough rest twice in between kneading it and rolling it out.

The rolled-out dough.

I used that time, though, to make the ravioli filling, which consisted of what was left of an already opened tub of ricotta cheese (about 2 cups), some grated Parmesan cheese (I used the rest of a half-used block for about 1 cup of grated cheese), about 10 fresh sage leaves (about 1 teaspoon, chiffonade), and the rest of a box of baby spinach, chopped (about a cup unchopped).

The filling

I stuffed the ravioli, sticking the edges of the dough together with an egg wash (a beaten egg with a teaspoon or two of water). Then, I placed them on a baking sheet in the fridge to firm up while we waited for Brian to get home. They weren’t gorgeous, but they tasted good.

The finished product, before cooking

Digging into the fridge also revealed two packages of long-forgotten chicken sausage, which I must have bought in bulk because of a sale (lesson learned!). Happily, the use-by date was still six weeks away, so I threw those into the oven, too.

Brian, inspired by the week’s mission, whipped up some homemade garlic bread out of hamburger buns that surely would’ve gone stale otherwise (I had to buy 6 buns for a 4-pack of Chloe’s veggie burgers). Brian softened some butter in the microwave, spread it on each of the bun halves, sprinkled them with garlic powder, and crisped them up in the toaster oven.

Yum! It was a feast that didn’t feel like we were eating leftovers at all.

Now, I realize that many people don’t have the time or inclination to spend 90 minutes making homemade ravioli. But that ricotta filling could have easily gone into stuffed shells, lasagna, or baked ziti. And spending a couple of hours on a Sunday doing meal prep for the week using what’s on hand is not only doable for anyone; it’s also a weeknight time saver.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, "what the hell is chiffonade?," this is how the hell to do it:

Stack the leaves, roll them up, and slice into thin ribbons.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Zero-waste week OR Use it or lose it OR Stop before you shop

None of the above headlines really captures what I’m trying to do this week: Reduce our family’s food waste by cooking with foods that are already in our fridge and cabinets.

I don’t know about you, but we waste a buttload of food up in this house. Whether it’s unfinished meals that we scrape off our plates into the trash, forgotten leftovers, or ingredients that I bought for a single recipe and never used again, I’m ashamed to admit how much we throw away.

I recently cleaned out our cabinets and tossed so much food, from a bag of faro that everyone hated and I never cooked with again, to expired boxes of noodle soup and saltines that I bought when one of us was sick. I clean out the fridge about once a week, and throw away a lot from there, too.

And we’re not alone: The Environmental Protection Agency says 20% of what gets dumped into municipal landfills is food, adding up to a whopping 35 million tons of food in 2012, says a new NPR article.

Not to get all “starving kids in Africa,” but seriously…there are starving kids in Africa. And America. And everywhere.

Still unmoved? OK, let’s say you’re a heartless megalomaniac and don’t give a shit about starving kids. Think of your wallet, then: If you spend $100 a week on groceries, that’s $20 a week you’re chucking in the trash…and $1,040 a year.

Our waste-not week begins with a refrigerator/pantry audit. We have (among other things):




  1. A mostly unused tub of ricotta cheese leftover from our broken noodle dish
  2. Carrots and onions leftover from making chicken pot pie and chicken noodle soup
  3. Half a box of baby spinach leftover from making spinach and artichoke pizza
  4. Several nubs of Parmesan cheese from various recipes, since I’m forgetful and often forget that I already have Parmesan cheese
  5. A box each of fresh sage and fresh thyme, leftover from making chicken pot pie and chicken noodle soup
  6. Chicken broth leftover from making chicken pot pie and chicken noodle soup
  7. A bowl of cooked rice
  8. Half a spaghetti squash
  9. Eggs
  10. Cherry tomatoes, apples, a banana
  11. The usual pantry staples: Rolled oats, rice, pasta, flour, baking ingredients (like sugar, spices, peanut butter chips), canned tomatoes, olive oil, breadcrumbs, vinegar, etc.
  12. Cans of salmon (Chloe’s vegetarianism doesn’t extend to fish).
  13. Sandwich bread
  14. In the freezer: Mostly frozen meat, including a pound of ground beef, and some cuts of pork from a pig that my cousin and his wife raised.
As you can see, there’s a lot of food just hanging around in this house! This is all without doing the week’s grocery shopping. Without much thought, I already see a few dishes shaping up:
  1. Homemade raviolis stuffed with ricotta, Parmesan, spinach, and sage
  2. Pasta and meatballs with homemade sauce from canned tomatoes and meatballs from the frozen ground beef
  3. Pork chops in a vinegar-thyme brine and served with rice and cooked carrots
  4. Peanut butter oatmeal cookies
Admittedly, this is a lot of cooking from scratch, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly swimming in time. I have a full-time job and a kid (who happens to be home sick right now). But it’s a challenge that I want to take, and I’ll spend the week blogging about it.

Wish me luck!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Kidney stones, broken noodles, and tablets in the kitchen


Brian’s been going through something that I will refer to only as the Wretched Ten-Week Kidney Stone Saga, which should give you enough information to know that:

  • It hasn’t been pleasant
  • You don’t want to hear anything else about it. Trust me.
Suffice it to say we’ve been at the doctor a lot, which is often part of our lives anyhow, because of Chloe. So…things have been even more hectic than usual around here.

Which is why a beautiful Samsung Galaxy Tab, sent to me by the good people at Verizon Wireless* for kitchen-test-driving purposes, has been sitting untouched in the FedEx box it arrived in for quite some time.

Until now. Chloe was doing her homework and didn’t need help with it. Brian was busy convalescing. The dishes were done, and the floor was clean (-ish). I had a rare moment of nothing to do. So I opened the box and pulled out the tablet.

After a couple of embarrassing minutes trying to get it connected to our wireless internet (I might have accidentally taken a picture of the desktop, which made me feel like I wasn’t far from needing one of those evening community college computer classes for old people), I found the fabulous library of recipe apps that the Verizon Wireless folks had loaded onto it for me.

Even though there were hundreds of recipes at my fingertips, I was skeptical about finding something that we’d all like. My family isn’t the easiest to cook for. Chloe is newly vegetarian again, and Brian’s list of absolutely-will-not-eat-it foods include tomato sauce, chocolate, fish, and any meat that is still on the bone (yes, I take apart and cut his meat like he’s my giant man-baby, so what? I love him). He also has trouble digesting dairy. Fun.

Anyhow, I clicked on a recipe that sounded promising: Broken noodles.

Because I like noodles and I break a lot of shit.

The first, enticing words in this recipe’s introduction: “Not even enough time to boil water?”
Yes. This is a machine that knows me.

The Martha Stewart recipe called for broken bits of papardelle to be cooked right in a pot of boiling marinara sauce that’s been thinned with water. It’s served with a dollop of ricotta cheese on top. So easy, so fast. I’m ashamed that I never thought to cook pasta in the sauce before. It’s the ultimate in yummy laziness.

Of course, Brian doesn’t like marinara sauce. But I do, and papardelle is my pasta weakness, so I waited for the day when the kidney-stone saga finally came to an end to make it for myself and Chloe. (My man-baby likes to eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries when he’s feeling under the weather. So what? Want to start something?)

I used an entire jar of Newman’s Own brand marinara sauce, which came to a boil in just a few minutes; much faster than water. Although I had to cook the noodles longer than the recipe called for, and the noodles stuck to the bottom of the pan without pretty regular stirring, the recipe truly was easy. Start-to-finish—from dumping the sauce in the pan to spooning the meal onto the plate—took about 20 minutes. Not bad!

The resulting meal was a thick and rich pasta dish where the sauce was much more a part of the noodles than it would have been if you’d simply poured sauce over cooked noodles. It reminded me of a casserole, in fact. The addition of ricotta cheese made it even thicker and heartier.

I really loved it, but Chloe? Not so much. Turns out, she’s inherited her dad's hazel eyes, his appreciation of The Three Stooges, and his deep dislike of marinara sauce.

Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck

“Why can’t I have plain noodles with butter?” she wondered, like she usually eats when I make pasta. Seriously, kid? Oh well.

Since this post is dedicated to how well the tablet functions in the kitchen, here's a pro/con list:


PROS
  • Much easier to use than a cookbook, since there are no pages that flap shut mid-recipe
  • Much easier to browse recipes via apps than in cookbooks, thanks to the search functionality and easy sorting by things like ingredients, chef, etc.
  • Better to use than my smartphone (which I often use to read online recipes during cooking) because all or most of the recipe fit on the entire tablet screen. Also, the font is larger than the one on my phone.
  • Was big enough to stand upright on a cookbook stand 
  • Easy to select and bookmark favorite recipes
CONS
  • The tablet screen kept turning dark during cooking for energy savings. I’m sure there’s a setting to make this stop happening, but I was too lazy to look for it.
  • I was very nervous about messy sauce bubbling onto the expensive device. But there are special, plastic tablet covers designed to solve just this problem. (Or just stick the tablet in a gallon-sized plastic bag, as CNET suggests).
Overall, I'd recommend the tablet for cooking, without a doubt.

I would recommend the broken noodles recipe to marinara lovers.

And I wouldn't recommend the kidney stones to anyone.

*Note: Verizon Wireless sent me a tablet to borrow, test, and return. I received no compensation for this post, and all opinions are my own.

Friday, September 5, 2014

3 DIY cucumber spa ideas for when you're sick of eating them



It’s late summer, which means that cucumbers are sprouting faster than chin hairs on an old lady. I’ve pickled them, sliced them up for salads, and served them as simple appetizers with olive oil and salt every damn day for weeks. And now, I’m sick as fuck of cucumbers. So here are three things to do with cucumbers besides eat them (no, not that, you pervs), all of which will make you feel prettier, too. 
  • Slice them up for spa water: Slice a cuke into ¼ inch rounds and put them in a pitcher with several cups of water. Let it steep in the fridge for a few hours, and tada! Refreshing, cucumber-infused “spa water” that you can serve to your pals. Wicked fancy and wicked tasty, especially for those who regularly reach for flavored bottled water. Other additions might include lemon slices or sprigs of mint.

  • Slap a few slices over your ojos: Ojos means “eyes” in Spanish for all you uncultured slobs. I’m allergic to my cat, and every so often he makes my eyes turn into red and watery puffs of ickiness. I mean, I look truly scary. This happened to me a few days ago, so I placed a cucumber slice over each eye for a few minutes, and felt the swelling go down. “Can you eat them after you take them off your eyes?” my five-year-old, Chloe, asked. Ummm, I guess you could, but they’d be all warm and allergy-ish, so that’s pretty freaking gross.
  • Make a body scrub: A quick Google search yields tons of recipes for homemade scrubs that consist of little more than pureed cucumber, sugar, and a few drops of oil. Although some of the scrubs call for fancier oils, like grapeseed oil, I’m thinking that olive oil would work just as well.

Happy home-spa day!