Archive for June, 2009

Testing, Testing, 123

Holey Wheat

The time the Everyman and I have spent at Negroni during the last month (I think it’s averaged out to once a week, actually) inspired my latest project.

One of the reasons I enjoy their paninis so much is the use of their amazingly flavourful, crusty ciabatta bread (which they really should take to market on it’s own!).  To date, my bread-making exploits have primarily centred around quick breads, baguettes and the occasional foccacia, even though the beautiful pictures in Local Breads make me salivate every time I see them.

This weekend I decided to change all that.  I pulled out the book, rolled up my sleeves and resolved to attempt ciabatta.  Flipping through the two page recipe, it didn’t seem overly challenging, so I felt confident.  It was one of the recipes in the book that called for the use of a prefermented biga, which is sort of like a poolish or sourdough starter.  So, on Sunday afternoon I whipped up my biga, (which was a really easy process in itself) flipped it into the fridge to ferment for 16 hours and put things on hold until the following day.

Monday morning I woke up excited to peer at my biga.  As promised by the book, it had taken on a sheen and increased in volume from a lump of dough about the size of a lime to a glossy ball about the size of an orange (I intended to photograph the transformation but forgot).  Next, the recipe called for diluting it in water and breaking up the biga, then mixing it with the rest of the dough ingredients in a stand mixer set on high.  It was a little early, and the Everyman was still asleep, but I threw caution to the wind and assumed it would never rouse him up anyway.  After allowing the machine to vigorously (and loudly) mix the dough for 20 minutes, it ferments again for several hours (which ended up being much more while I was away at work).

When I returned home last night, I revisited the dough, stretching it out onto a baking sheet into 2 slightly misshapen loaves that were dimpled, then allowed to proof again.  Once ready, I tossed them into a blazing oven (one at a time) for a bake on the bread stone.  I (accidentally) left one in a little longer than the other, so I have a very definite variance to determine a favourite with. (more…)

Nostalgia

Black Hooflets

This weekend I pulled out an old cookie cutter from my repertoire (yes, that really is a pig-shaped cookie!) and it’s existence reminded me of a funny Foodie story.

Years ago, when I was 18 and had first moved out on my own, I was living with my then-boyfriend and 2 other couples in a shared townhouse.  It was Christmastime and neither of us was able to make it home for the holidays.  I’d decided (in my overly ambitious way) to try and concoct something similar to a holiday celebration at our house, instead.  Out came the stuffing, cranberry and fudge recipes, and of course, the coveted gingerbread.

Because it was both my first holiday and home away from home, I barely owned any decent cooking or baking materials.  Heading to the mall to pick up a few things, I decided I would splurge (I was flat broke) and buy a nice gingerbread man cutter to really make the cookies special.  Well, it turned out that trying to find a gingerbread man cutter 2 days before Christmas was damn near impossible.  All sign of cutters bearing even the vaguest resemblance to holiday shapes were long gone at that point, and all that was left were a few miscellaneous letters and some assorted farm animals.

To this day I have no idea what possessed me to buy that pig-shaped cutter, but I did.  If I had to guess, I probably just didn’t want to go home empty-handed after all of that hassle.  When I finally got home I baked and iced close to 12 dozen dainty gingerpigs, happy that I had one (somewhat deformed) thing to remind me of the holidays at hand.

On Christmas eve, the then-boyfriend and I both arrived home from our shit-ass part time jobs around 9:30pm, starving for any form of sustenance.  We scraped together enough money to order a pizza, and eagerly awaited our steaming Christmas pie.  When the delivery man finally showed up, the snow was swirling wildly and it was almost 11pm.  The date and time alone made me feel like such a tool.  But then, when the then-boyfriend went to pay for our dinner, he realized that our pooled cash didn’t leave enough to give the man a tip.  With a burst of inspiration, I quickly scooped up a dozen gingerpigs, stuffed them into a paper bag and handed them over to the delivery person.

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The Allure Of A Home Cooked Meal

For a while now I’ve often wondered if I’m overreacting, or whether the problem I see with my generation is real…

It seems like more and more people in my age group love to eat gourmet food and watch the pretty people flipping and whisking and tossing food around on the shiny, happy Food Network machine.  Yet, for all this love of celebrity chefs, gourmet kitchens and cooking culture, fewer people actually do any home cooking, or even know how to, for that matter.

In my opinion, it’s an alarming sign of the times that the popularity of meal assembly kitchens is drastically increasing.  These innocuous-seeming “cooking” centres make people believe they’re cooking, as they stumble aimlessly from station to station to assemble the ingredients of a pre-posted recipe from little containers of mise en place.  It is to real cooking what paint by numbers is to the Mona Lisa.  The quick and easy defence of these establishments is the same old saw about modern people leading busy lives, etc, etc, but that can only hold so much salt.  Meal preparation and nourishment will only be important to my generation (or the ones that come after it) if they make it important by declaring it a priority.  People say they have no time to cook, yet they’ll happily spend hours zoned out in front of a television or computer screen, or wasting countless time on social networking utilities, which are one of the most ironic inventions.  Everyone spends less time having face to face conversations with the people they care about, and more time isolated with their gadgets and trinkets communicating in LOLspeak.  Yeah, I can totally see how that would be considered “social”… (eyeroll)

I attribute that change in social dynamics to the decline of the home-cooked family meal.  The dinner table used to be the central area in any household for family to gather and discuss the day’s events over a hot meal, but how many people even eat at a table together, anymore?  Without that daily interaction, we’re raising a generation of kids who can’t properly communicate or carry on a decent conversation, nevermind manage to cook on their own.  Or worse yet, the old Sex and the City joke about Carrie using her stove as storage space never seemed to be met by the appropriate response (how sad) but instead by the giggles of women thinking to themselves, how quaint.  The reality is, if she’d eaten all of her meals outside of the home instead of cooking for herself, she’d probably be closer to 300 pounds; but that image is not quite as “sexy”.  They laugh because culturally we’ve rebelled against the idea of cooking being women’s work by leaving the household and holding down full time jobs of our own instead, but cooking isn’t “women’s work”, it’s everyone’s work!  The injustice of it all is that by rejecting cooking in favour of working, we’ve actually helped to create a generation of kids that don’t know how to cook, because they never experienced it at home.  Such a travesty.

The funniest thing is that people are fatter and lazier and unhealthier than ever, yet so few people see the correlation between taking the time to prepare food for themselves and living a healthier lifestyle.  Food prepared outside of the home is more likely to contain preservatives, chemicals and additives (like Twinkies) that you may not know anything about, but if you read food labels, you already know that.  Better yet, it just makes sense to buy food that doesn’t need to have a label (like whole foods) because then you know they have less additives.  When you take the time to cook for yourself, you have the choice to bypass all of those unhealthy extras, whereas you are bloody helpless and at the mercy of a food company if you buy something prepared.  The bottom line?  Cook for yourself and you are as in control of what you put into your body as you want to be.  Leave it up to someone else and who knows what you’ll get, because the truth is they probably don’t have your best interests at heart, they just want to make money.

40 years ago home cooking and baking was still a pretty commonplace activity in most households.  Nowadays when I mention to friends that I bake, or jar my own slow-cooked tomato sauce, I’m met with an equal mixture of awe and confusion.  It is so far outside of their realm of experience or knowledge anymore that they just can’t imagine taking the time or making the effort to do these things on their own.  And in the rare cases that they could, they don’t seem to have the faintest idea where to start.  It’s a shame too, because preparing even the simplest meals now seems to be so sadly esoteric to a great swath of my generation.  I’m not immune to this scenario either, as the Everyman only knows how to make 3 chicken dishes (plus grilled cheese) which practically guarantees that if I want a home-cooked meal I’m liable to have to make it myself.

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Well Preserved

You could say that I have an affinity for the art of preservation, but the words come too lightly to convey how much I enjoy this particular practice.

According to the news media, sales in the canning sector (who knew it had it’s own sector?) increased by almost 25% over last year.  The article extrapolates this jump to be connected to the local food movement, but if anything, it probably has more to do with the recession.  Buying up produce while it’s in season (thus, relatively cheap) and then preserving it was a method commonplace among the octogenarian set back in the day and is slowly but surely regaining ground. Preservation is a basic, primitive form of guaranteeing a local diet, too.  If you’re not keen on foregoing your favourite fruits and vegetables over the long winter, you find a way to preserve them somehow (canned, dried, jammed, etc) so that you can enjoy them year round.

Today it’s almost unheard of for my generation to devote time and effort to such a (perceived to be useless) pursuit.  Most people in my age bracket see a jar of jam sitting on the supermarket shelf and think, if I can buy that for $2.50, why on earth would I pay for jars, fruit, other ingredients and my own time instead?  Or they purchase the gourmet, fancy $10 jam to assuage the guilt of not doing it themselves.  Those people are part of the lackadaisical, spoiled, me-me-me, self-centred generation I am so ashamed to be lumped together with.  As any true jamfiend knows, you don’t just do it for the cost effectiveness (though it is comparable to store costs once you’ve made the investment in jars).  You do it for the taste.  For that fleeting moment when the sun beat down on a strawberry bush and warmed those blistery, bursting orbs of succulent sweetness.  That is what we go to all that trouble to capture.  So that in the dead of winter you can open up a jar of preserves and reminisce about a summer that is now long gone.

Amongst my friends I am the only one I know who bothers to preserve food each year.  The irony is that there’s always a line full of those same people wanting to partake in my latest batch of goodness.  They recognize a quality product, but are too lazy to prepare it themselves.  A select group have access to my preservation pantry, on the caveat that they get nothing more until they return my empty jars.  Not returning jars is a sure way to get yourself on the blacklist, believe me.  Just consider it a sign of respect or gratitude, or an investment in future jars of edibles and you’ll do just fine.

Thinking back to my youth, I am unable to pinpoint any memories, moments, people or places that connected me to a desire to extend the harvest beyond it’s natural season.  As far as I recall nobody in my family (immediate or extended) was ever big on canning or any other form of preservation.  If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that my predilection stems from a childhood spent having a little less than enough.  A recent inventory of our sunroom found a bookshelf laden with more jars of preserves than I will possibly ever eat or need.  The urge to ensure I’ve not wasted a crumb and will always have food has led me to concoct jar upon jar of jams, pickles, chutneys and sauces that I may never realistically use.

Case in point?  The multiple jars of lemon pickle that I accidentally scorched into more of a lemon marmalade.  Or the limequat jam that I still haven’t found a standout use for.  Or we could even talk about the 4 more jars of stout-laced whole mustard that I thought would make an excellent condiment (it did, but it will take me eons to get through 5 jars).  Having a pantry full of options like that is the best security of all.  Because no matter what happens, there will always be some form of food to nourish myself in case of an emergency.  And that on it’s own is nothing to balk at.

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Gimme Gimme Never Gets

Do you remember when food used to be seasonal?

I (barely) do.  It was a time when fiddleheads meant spring was upon us, or strawberries and asparagus signalled the beginning of summer.  You knew fall had arrived when it was time for apple picking, and winter was ushered in by the harvesting of root crops and the planting of garlic.

To paraphrase Dylan, oh how the times have changed.

Though I’m too young to recall a time when animals were only slaughtered at a certain time of year, my organic grocer tells me that there are still some local farms (not many) operating with that principal in mind.  The farm that supplies us with our sides of pork and beef subscribes to this ethos, but they also go to the trouble of keeping their animals grass fed and free range, too.  With the exception of plants that are not yet cultivatable (like ramps, morels, truffles and fiddleheads) you’re liable to find just about anything you want, at any time of year at your local megamart.  It may be shipped all the way from Chile, Mexico, Argentina or China, and probably tastes like cardboard or better yet, nothing at all, but you can have it your way, baby!

I’m not overly virtuous when it comes to food, let’s all just be clear on that.  I enjoy chocolate, vanilla beans, coconuts, lemons, limes and bananas; all things that will probably never be local to my less than temperate Canadian climate, though I’m working on that citrus-growing thing.  I have no intention of giving up those foods, either.  What I consume will never be 100% local, and I’m (mostly) ok with that.  When imports are kept at a minimum, I can be comfortable that 90% of the food I eat is sustainable, organic and local, and that all of it is ethically produced.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  What really makes my stomach turn is walking into a grocery store and seeing something like this.  In general our population’s become so spoiled by our food supply that we have no problem sourcing everything and anything from other provinces, states or countries, just because we want what we want and we want it right now.  How many people are still (or worse yet, only) buying those giant, flaccid strawberries from California (even while we’re in the midst of local strawberry season), just because they look bigger or better?  By and large, if something I enjoy eating grows here, I will wait until it’s in season to buy it and enjoy it’s seasonality, regardless of how fleeting that may be.  By doing so I almost guarantee that I’m getting a varied diet, because there are very few items (barring greenhouse foods) that will grow here year-round.  Not to mention that anything consumed within hours of picking (rather than days, or even weeks) is typically more flavourful and nutritious than something artificially ripened in an ethylene chamber.

What’s the point of all of this, you’re wondering?  Well, we got our first CSA farmshare delivery of the season on Wednesday night, and the box was brimming with local tastes and seasonal flavours.  Our $50 farmshare netted us the following this week:

  • 1 pint strawberries
  • 1 bunch rhubarb
  • 1 bundle (super) baby bok choi (we think)
  • 1 head red leaf lettuce
  • 1 bunch kale
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • 1 bag (1 lb) mixed baby greens
  • 1 lb radishes
  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 1 bunch garlic scapes
  • 1 bunch green onions
  • 1 bunch baby beets
  • 1 head romaine lettuce
  • 1 head bibb lettuce
  • 1 bunch chard

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The Extent Of My Stupidity

One night last year I was desperately looking for something new to slather on a few quarter chicken legs that I intended to barbecue.

Something I had read on the internet or seen on television (I can no longer remember which, though I vaguely recall Alton Brown) prompted me to attempt to create my own signature dry rub.  I swear I saw Alton talking about it on one of his shows, and how it was important to label said spice rubs with dates and ingredients, lest you open up your cupboard 6 months later and have no clue what the heck that jar full of brown was.

Two guesses about what I didn’t remember to do…

I have this glorious little 4 ounce tin of a spice blend I made that is absolutely transcendent; hot, tangy and pungent – but I have no recollection of what exactly is in it.  For a while I thought I had written my recipe down somewhere, but at this point if I did, I put it somewhere so safe that even I can’t find it.

I know you’re thinking how hard could it possibly be to recreate, right?  Well, blending it took me the better part of a half hour because I put in about 20 different herbs and spices.  I think at the time my intent was to come up with my own kind of ras al hanout-type blend, something that would have many layers of flavours throughout.  Based on visual cues alone I can identify a handful of its contents (celery seed, epazote, pimenton), but not nearly enough to properly duplicate it’s majesty.

Fuck.

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Meat, Meat And More Meat

Precariously Balanced 'Nduja

I’ve been working on a lot of meat-based projects lately.

It’s beyond long overdue, but I finally got around to hanging my ‘nduja and csabai this past weekend.  They were both smoked a few weeks ago, but the lack of opportune curing space in our condo has had me stymied for some time.  Up until this point both were sitting in the fridge, contaminating my other foodstuffs with their pungent, smoky aromas.  If it weren’t for our household of kitties I would have had the perfect environment for curing in the basement, but unfortunately I’m almost certain that the ammonia smell from their litterboxes would eventually permeate (and ruin) perfectly good meat.  After all the work I’ve put into these projects that was not a risk I was willing to take.

In the end I decided to jerry rig a few suspension apparatuses around my kitchen that will (hopefully) be able to withstand the job.  So far they seem to be holding up just fine, and the way I figure it, it’s only going to get lighter anyway, as the meat begins to lose it’s moisture.

My apologies for the general crappiness of these pictures; I doubt you’ll be able to discern what it is I was doing.  It’s difficult to properly capture ‘nduja hanging suspended from a broomstick just outside the top of a kitchen windowsill.  It’s also just below the air conditioning register in the ceiling, which should keep it nicely cooled, I think.  Despite the rather bad lighting, I can assure you that after several days of smoking these salamis have taken on a burnished mahogany cast and slightly firmer (but squishier) texture.  I originally intended to hang them for about a year, but now that they’re out in the open in my kitchen I may have to rethink that strategy.  At the very least I’ll do 6 months, but in the end it’s going to be something I play by ear.

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The Foodie 13 – Recommended SOLE Media

I’ve been quietly ruminating over my impressions of Food Inc. for a little while now.

The more I try to collect my thoughts, the angrier I find myself getting.  Actually, perhaps that’s not quite the right word.  Indignant is probably closer to the mark.

The movie itself is brilliantly made, and walks the fine line between eye-opening/educational and graphic/sensationalism rather successfully.  It’s an important movie, and one that I hope will get a more widespread release, because I think it’s something that people need to see.  Here in Canada, (according to tribute.ca) it is only being screened at 2 theatres; one in Toronto and one in Montreal.  I’m somewhat surprised that nobody bothered to get it into a major urban market like Vancouver, but maybe the powers that be think (like I sometimes do) that they’re a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to getting back to “real” food, anyway.

In light of that, I thought this would be the perfect platform to discuss what I consider to be essential reading/viewing material for those interested in the  SOLE food movement.  Some of these may not exclusively focus on SOLE, but in the instances where the overall message meshes nicely with those ideals, I have chosen to include them on the list, anyway.

So without further adieu…

1 – The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan - When I first picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s seminal work, I thought it was quite a novel idea.  The thought of tracing one’s food back to it’s source was entertaining, in a wouldn’t that be nice to know kind of way.  I was never a big fast food/junk food supporter in the first place, but after reading this book, I found my opinions changed in ways I hadn’t expected, specifically pertaining to organics and the skewed view we all have of them.  I’ve yet to meet a person who’s read the book and not had their food philosophy altered.  If you’re interested in re-evaluating your relationship with food, this book is a great place to start.

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Better Now Than Never

Meyer Lemons

I’ve purposely avoided talking about the garden thus far this year because it’s become quite the point of contention.

Whereas by this time last year I was already knee deep in lush and healthy plants, this year I’m seriously struggling to get them out of the ground.

The influx of cooler, rainier weather has been a hindrance to the rooftop growth, but as of this weekend it looks like we’re finally starting to get somewhere.

Chinese Hot PeppersAnchosJalapenos

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Another Way To Get Your Strawberry Fix

The Finished Loaf

As I may have already mentioned, I really really love banana bread.

My recent experiments with chocolate fig bread convinced me that I could successfully recreate the strawberry lemon loaf that the Everyman loves so much from the farmer’s market.  By the time we get to that market on Tuesday nights, they’re always sold out of the breads, so trying to find an alternative really made sense.

Strawberry Puree

I used my base recipe for banana bread as a guide, and then began making substitutions.  The fun thing about this bread is that because it’s slightly acidic from the berries and lemon, when you mix the wet and dry ingredients together, they start foaming like crazy.  It’s like high school chem class all over again, and in pink!  The end result was slightly moister than the market version, but the flavours were spot on.  I’ll probably tweak this a little more over the next few batches, but the recipe as is makes a pretty damn fantastic bread, too.  Enjoy! (more…)

Tasting Little Italy

The Taste Of Little Italy kicked off on College St. last night.

Being that Little Italy is right outside our front door, and we had such a blast last year, we made a point of heading down to the festival for dinner.

Once we got to the top of the street, we made a beeline for the completely underrated, but absolutely fantastic chili lime grilled corn from Friendly Magnolia.  This corn was the one thing we were both really looking forward to, because we’d so thoroughly enjoyed it’s smoky, salty simplicity last year.  I was also excited for a second offering that the owner of Magnolia had mentioned to me recently; a homemade funnel cake stand!  I showed amazing restraint, and held off for a bit so that I could sample some of the other fare.

Walking around, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that Italian restaurants are no longer the majority in Little Italy anymore.  Over the years it’s become more of a multicultural area and festival, but you still have Il Centro Del Formaggio, Cafe Dip, and a few others slinging decent Italian food.  We stopped at an amazing little storefront next to Riviera Bakery called Bis Gourmet that had the best selection of Italian foods, so we camped out there and went to town.  Offering tomato and bocconcini salad, puffy mini pizzas, both meat and cheese cannelonis, prosciutto and melon, hot and sweet cacciatore sausages, and the piece de resistance, a whole porchetta splayed on the table, the Everyman and I knew we had possibly found our food nirvana.  We ordered a little of everything (except for the porchetta, which was served on a gut-filling bun, and the prosciutto and melon, which wasn’t available yet) and copped a squat in front of another storefront to dig in.  Both of the cannelonis were amazingly moist and flavourful, but the meat-filled one was the clear winner with it’s smooth and slightly creamy interior and tomato and cheese studded crust.  The tomato and bocconcini salad was passable, but we both found the cheese to be slightly rubbery and unpalatable.  The pizza was killer, and the cacciatore sausage (which we purchased to take home) tasted as good as the wild boar version we’d had at Negroni.

Wandering around to see what the rest of the street had on offer, I saw that Il Centro was selling homemade tiramisu.  I had a little mental argument over my dessert options, but in the end decided to stick with the funnel cake.  The Everyman was lured to a lemonade stand by a passerby sipping on a freshly pressed glass, and wound up with a rather tart and tangy limeade.  Strolling back up the street toward home, we stopped for a funnel cake, and I ordered myself a “premium” which came with strawberries, icing sugar and my choice of flavored sauce (I opted for caramel).  The strawberries were pretty gross; being overly macerated and scooped out of a giant vat, but the funnel cake was exactly as it had been advertised to me.  Light, airy, and exceptionally fresh, it’s heady vanilla scent had festival-goers eyeing me up greedily every time they walked past.  The thing was massive, and even with the Everyman’s help I only managed to eat half, but without the strawberries, it was incredibly decadent.  I could easily go back for another today and tomorrow.

Luckily, there was way too much food around to sample in just one go, so if the weather cooperates this weekend, I plan to return for more grilled corn and other gastronomic pleasures.  Tiramisu, here I come!

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Beans, Beans The Musical Fruit

Barbecued Chicken N' Beans

I’m quickly becoming the undisputed barbecue queen in our household.

A few weeks ago while grilling some spice-rubbed chicken for dinner, the Everyman commented that it would be nice if we had a traditional southern accoutrement like baked beans to enjoy with our meal (I know, how nice of him to suggest I do more work when I was already making dinner, right?)

At any rate, this week I started thinking that baked beans actually sounded like a half decent idea, so I started scouring the tower of cookbooks for a base recipe to work off of.  Being that my track record with cooking beans is pretty awful, I wanted something that would take a lot of the guesswork out of the equation, but also make the process relatively easy.

This is where Beth Hensperger came to the rescue, with her enlightening tome, Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker.  I don’t often use my slow cooker, but it does come in handy for  things like slow braises, jams, and the occasional pot of tostadas.  Skimming over the recipe, I was even more psyched that it was something I could throw together before work and find ready when I got home (or so I thought).  I set a bowl of dried beans to soak overnight and went on to bed, while visions of baked beans danced in my head.

The next morning I assembled all the necessary ingredients in the slow cooker and headed out for the day.  The recipe calls for an ingenious hour and a half boiling on high with a sprinkle of baking soda; supposedly to dismantle the gaseous compounds in the beans.  It sounded like malarkey to me, but I was game to try anything.  Once the baking soda boil is done, the beans are rinsed and drained and put back into the cooker with the remainder of the flavourings and set on low for 12 hours.  The intent is for the liquid to reduce to a syrupy paste during that time, but when I came home it was still exceptionally watery.  At that point I transferred the lot to my Dutch oven and set it to simmer on medium high for an hour.

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On The Go

Just a quick pictorial to share what I’ve been working on with you…

Smoky Poblano and Pork Sausage

It’s hard to make raw meat look sexy (doubly so when it happens to be sausage) but these juicy links of homemade smoky poblano and pork sausage are just crying out for a grill and some Mexican-inspired menus. Tequila anyone?

Roasted Tomato Foccacia

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