What's Cookin'

Madison's Forkful of News foodies share their favorite ingredients, inspirations and more

They work furiously in their own Madison-area kitchens, but the local contributors to Forkful of News share their culinary adventures to a wide online audience on the collaborative food blog. We asked them to dish about their trials, triumphs and cravings.

Lindsay Christians

What’s the most impressive meal you’ve ever made?

Thanksgiving, 2004. We were living in California and had a friend visiting, and I got very, very ambitious with my menu—several kinds of stuffing, two kinds of salad, three appetizers, Cornish hens and many bottles of wine. Too many. By the time the birds were done, we were all marinated ourselves. I seem to recall that the wild rice was undercooked, the birds were slightly overcooked and the ice cream melted before we finished it, but it was still a fantastic meal.

What’s the most intimidating item you’ve gotten in your CSA basket (or picked up at the Farmers’ Market) and what did you do with it?

The first time I picked up a pomegranate at a farmers’ market, I was baffled—do you eat the seeds? The pith? The outside? We made a huge mess, but I fell in love with the fruit. Now I sprinkle pomegranate seeds on salad with goat cheese and roasted, salted pepitas, pop some on vanilla ice cream and use them to top appetizer toasts with smoked salmon, cucumber and a mild, creamy cheese.

What’s your favorite cooking ingredient?

Currently I’m obsessed with ancho chili powder. It’s amazing on the grill and with hummus, and all winter I sprinkled it on roasted root vegetables and winter squash. Ancho sweet potatoes, ancho-spiced nuts, ancho steak tacos. All delicious.

What’s the most underestimated or underutilized ingredient?

Don’t underestimate the power of leftover wine. Splash some red in a spaghetti sauce for depth, in a risotto for flavor, in anything you’re going to reduce—it’s fantastic. And it doesn’t have to be great wine; heat is the great equalizer.

What local restaurant inspires you the most?

I have recreated sandwiches from Gotham Bagels and Alchemy Café, but I’m most often inspired by Café Soleil (downstairs from L’Etoile). They use seasonal ingredients so simply and well, I frequently base my own salads and sandwiches around what’s on their menu.

What’s on your cooking “bucket list”?

Make gnocchi, bake a pie with two crusts, boil a live lobster, make sorbet, infuse a berry vodka, decorate a homemade cake and become comfortable with Japanese ingredients.

Why do you like to cook?

I love the process—the colors, the smells and textures and tastes. I also love the bigger stuff: the connection to the land and history and culture, and how food is a window into that. More practically, cooking calms me after a stressful day. I can make something tangible and delicious to show my love to friends and family—they even eat the failures!

Emily Bingham

What’s the most impressive meal you’ve ever made?

The six-course Moroccan dinner I made for ten people recently. Started out with sun-dried tomato tapenade with veggies, moved into an orange salad dressed with Argan oil. The main course was beef tagine with tuna-stuffed tomatoes and red quinoa with roasted veggies. For dessert were rice crepes with Amlou spread and saffron-infused coconut ice cream Best of all, my friends just happened to bring the perfect wine to pair with each course.

What’s the most intimidating item you’ve gotten in your CSA basket (or picked up at the Farmers’ Market) and what did you do with it?

My boyfriend goes to the market to buy the oddest thing he can find to challenge my ability to cook anything. He stumped me with stinging nettles. I ended up putting them in a stir-fry, lasagna and even smoothies. They do indeed sting but it turns out they taste great anywhere you would usually use spinach.

What’s your favorite cooking ingredient?

Using flavored vinegars as a seasoning is something I’ve been obsessed with lately. Fig vinegar (I get mine from Jacob at Vom Fass) especially seems like an unlikely addition to one’s cooking repertoire, but it’s amazing. It’s great in a vinaigrette to put on salads, mixed in hamburgers with a little herbes de Provence for a French kick, and it even makes Brussels sprouts tasty when drizzled over them.

What’s the most underestimated or underutilized ingredient?

Flax seeds. With a little hot water, ground flax seed is a vegan alternative to eggs. I like to put flax meal in peanut butter cookies as a more healthful alternative to oatmeal. It is delicious in all sorts of baked goods like breads and muffins to give a chewy, nutty kick to the flavor.

What local restaurant inspires you the most?

There aren’t many restaurants that can accommodate my limited diet, but Eno Vino and the Icon both have very inspiring wine lists that I would love to taste my way through.

What’s on your cooking “bucket list”?

One day I will successfully make a soufflé that doesn’t collapse, conquer the delicate Parisian macaroon and bone a duck. I would also like to try cooking with some of the more interesting meats of the world like rabbit, venison, alligator, kangaroo and squid as well as experiment with making the less attractive bits of meat like liver and kidney appealing.

Why do you like to cook?

As a person with food allergies I cook so that I can control what’s in my food. I always know it’s safe and delicious; no one else can make gluten-, dairy-, sugar- and citrus-free food better than I can in my own kitchen. Learning to cook well and adventurously means I will never feel deprived. Cooking the intense foods that I make and then blogging about it is my way of showing the world you can have allergies and still eat interesting foods. I want to inspire other people with food sensitivities that it is possible to eat exciting things and stay away from harmful foods. If I can make dairy- and sugar-free ice cream that my friends say is better than most frozen custard I know, making anything is possible.

Kristin Czubkowski

What’s the most impressive meal you’ve ever made?

Because I usually just cook for myself, most of my “meals” are often one-pot recipes like chili or soup or something simple like a fried egg sandwich. So, this example may not be impressive to some people, but as someone who fears cooking meat a bit (I almost always overcook my chicken!), making my first steak this year was quite a feat. I served it with roasted red potatoes with garlic and onions, and it was quite good (although not as rare as I usually order my steak).

What’s the most intimidating item you’ve gotten in your CSA basket (or picked up at the Farmers’ Market) and what did you do with it?

Picking up intimidating ingredients (intimidating to me, anyway) and trying to find something to do with them is one of my favorite pastimes! I would say the most intimidating item for me has been the artichoke—I’ve struggled with preparing these a couple of times, but I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that the edible part of an artichoke is much smaller than I originally thought. After trimming the ends of the leaves, I usually steam them in a basket with garlic and lemon in the water, then serve them with a balsamic mayo.

What’s your favorite cooking ingredient?

I’ve found that I’m a big fan of any recipe that calls for chipotle peppers in adobo sauce—they give most foods a nice, smoky heat and can generally be found in the ethnic foods section of any grocery store. I also think any dessert can be improved with homemade, lightly sweetened whipped cream.

What’s the most underestimated or underutilized ingredient?

I would say there are a ton of vegetables that people don’t give enough credit to—I’m pretty well-known on the blog for my love of kale, which can replace spinach in just about everything and has more structural integrity after cooking. I also feel like beets have an undeservedly bad reputation, but I think they’ve already started to make a comeback, judging from local restaurant menus.

What local restaurant inspires you the most?

Generally speaking, I try to order dishes that I can’t or won’t make myself, but one dish that prompted me to immediately create my own version was The Old Fashioned’s grilled vegetable sandwich with goat cheese and olive tapenade. I still order it more than I make it myself, but I can now put together a delicious facsimile.

What’s on your cooking “bucket list”?

In the near future, I would love to try making my own sushi and making my own custard—in particular, I have a total obsession with crème brulee and making my own would be a dream come true. It’s hard to justify getting my own torch at the moment, but someday …

Why do you like to cook?

I used to create a lot of art when I was younger, but since college, cooking has been my main outlet for creativity—while being a journalist often lets me get creative with words and story structure, there’s something special about using my artistic impulses to create something tangible (and delicious!). It’s also a nice escape from the day-to-day pressures of my job—I can get lost in cooking very easily.

Travis Reinke

What’s the most impressive meal you’ve ever made?

One of my best friends from high school is also a foodie and on a recent trip back to town we got together and spent an evening making a meal of veal involtini, stuffed cremini mushrooms and flourless chocolate cake. Not the most technical dish in the world, but a full four-course Italian meal felt fancy and comforting at the same time. That’s what I’m all about.

What’s the most intimidating item you’ve gotten in your CSA basket (or picked up at the Farmers’ Market) and what did you do with it?

While I’ve never participated in a CSA myself, one of the Barriques locations that I work at acts as a drop-off location for a local CSA and I was lucky enough to snag some leftovers last season when they were left behind. I had never even seen a kohlrabi before, let alone cooked with it. After staring the bloated stem down for a while, I ended up making a pretty tasty vegetable curry (rare for a meat-loving omnivore like myself).

What’s your favorite cooking ingredient?

Bacon would be the easy answer here, but I’m going to go with ground-dried chipotle. I’m a spicy-food addict and the sharp smokiness makes everything better, from pizza to mocha lattes.

What’s the most underestimated or underutilized ingredient?

Certainly not underutilized by me, but the humble can of tomatoes is something that I never have fewer than two or three of in my pantry. From whipping together a quick pasta sauce to restaurante-style salsa in a couple of minutes to the base for any number of wintertime chillis, canned tomatoes should always be in your cupboard. Always.

What local restaurant inspires you the most?

Cafe Costa Rica has long been a spot that I can never frequent often enough. Tucked in a basement with seating for about ten and not much bigger than his former Mango Man food cart, owner/chef Thony Clarke makes simple, delicious comfort food and treats you like family. We need more of that in the food world.

What’s on your cooking “bucket list”?

I really want to make sushi at home and I really want it to be good so I can spend less money at Takara and Muramoto.

Why do you like to cook?

The Zen of mise en place. The simple pleasure of mindlessly chopping vegetables for a meal after a long slog at work. The satisfaction of sharing a simple home-cooked meal with friends and family. Proving to myself that, yes, even I can re-create passable versions of some of my favorite dishes from around the world.

For more information on Forkful of News, visit forkfulofnews.com.

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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