Beer. Here?

I have been to the Sunflower State’s newest brewery.

And it was weird.

The Walnut River Brewing Co. opened to the public on Saturday in El Dorado.

(For you non-Kansas-natives, it’s important to pause here for a lesson on pronunciation: “El Dorado” is pronounced closer to “potato” than anything else. “Ell Door-AY-doe.” Now you’ll sound hip when you tell your friends.)

Getting back to my point. We went to the grand opening of the brewery on Saturday. Armed with the address, we found a tall, white-washed building at 111 W. Locust with a Walnut River banner hanging haphazardly from the front.

But we couldn’t find the door. This was our first clue that we were stumbling in to something unusual.

After walking around the building, we finally guessed at the entrance (it’s the closest thing that resembles a door on the front of the building) and stepped in to an antique store of sorts, where we were greeted by boxes of “fashion rings,” vintage glassware, ancient electronics, books, baskets and toys.

And, along the east wall, we found a brewery.

I really didn't take enough photos to do this place justice. Check out the bar top - a slice of a very large tree that they encourage you to autograph.

I really didn’t take enough photos to do this place justice. Check out the bar top – a slice of a very large tree that they encourage you to autograph.

The story is familiar, but it’s always a good one: a homebrewer who loves the craft decides to try his hand at brewing beer on a larger scale. So he finds a good business partner and builds a MacGuyver-like brewery out of second-hand equipment in a building that also, coincidentally, houses a second-hand shop.

The result is almost a pop-up brewery, as much as that’s possible with a cooling room and a couple of fermenting tanks.

The beer, however, is really quite amazing. We tried the Kölsch-style ale, one of the closest representations of a German beer that I’ve had outside of Germany; the California Common, which was toasty and reminiscent of an Anchor Steam; and the super-malty Irish Red.

So we stood in this melee of stuff, resting our sample cups on a case full of baseball cards, and marveled at the scene. Great beer? Check. Fantastic people-watching? Check. Need a toaster? They’ve got you covered.

A growler, a sample, and a full case of baseball cards. Par for the course.

A growler, a sample, and a full case of baseball cards. Par for the course.

For now, they’re selling the beer in growlers direct from the brewery, but soon hope to move to restaurants in and around the Wichita area. And there are apparently plans to expand into the entire space, which would not be the same as what we saw on Saturday, but will be very cool anyway.

Now that I think about it, the experience was everything I hope for when I go to a new place for the first time. It’s fun to feel like a pioneer, to see things that you can’t wait to tell the folks at home all about. And it’s fun to find an experience that, while authentic, defies all logic and expectations.

We left with two growlers tucked under our arms and a hope that this place makes it. Y’all should check it out.

Fusion food in my ‘hood

We’ve experienced great kindness from our fellow Wichitans since moving here earlier this year.

On my second week of living here, in full exploration mode, we popped in to an Indian grocery that happens to be less than a mile from our current home.

The India Emporium sits in a non-descript white cube of a building, next to a Korean BBQ joint (I know! In Wichita!) and across the parking lot of a tire shop. A small green-and-gold sign along the top of the building  was one of the few clues that tipped us off to what might be inside.

We had just a few minutes before closing, but browsed the aisles of spices, stacks of bagged long-grain rice, racks of bottled drinks and parcels of snacks and candy. We found an incredibly affordable jar of tahini, replenishing our supply. We’d discarded the rest of our ancient tahini stash when we moved, and thoughts of hummus danced in our head.

They didn’t dance for long. The kind and bespectacled proprietor sized us up in a matter of seconds. “You like hummus? I’ll bring you some of mine.” After ducking into the back, he brought us each a spoonful of the creamy, garlicky concoction. I completely forgot that I was standing very close to a large display of saris and other traditional Indian attire.

He urged us to come back for lunch sometime, gesturing to a small menu on the counter. We thanked him, paid for our jar, and left, intending to return soon to eat more of the creamy chickpeas.

Fast forward three months. Last week, after a handful of meetings, I found myself in that state of being that can only really be described as “hangry.” The trip to the grocery store would come later that evening; the last CSA box was but a distant memory. I remembered the lunch invitation and headed over.

The luncheon menu is Mediterranean, not Indian; there’s schwarma as opposed to saag paneer; falafel instead of dal. I’ve had both the beef and chicken schwarma (because I might have gone back a second time already.) They defy classification: thinly sliced meat, hummus, tomatoes and a wonderfully spicy cilantro sauce are all wrapped up in what I believe is a tortilla, then are grilled on a panini press into a slightly flat, burrito-shaped wrap.

Beef schwarma with fattoush salad. It's a keeper.

Beef schwarma with fattoush salad. It’s a keeper.

I can’t completely bend my brain around this; all I know is that it’s delicious, and it comes with a generous helping of fattoush (or Greek, if you’d prefer) salad to boot.

Some of my favorite colleagues loved the Indian buffet  down the street from my old office in Topeka, and a good plate of that amazing Indian turnip dish is hard to beat at lunchtime. I might have been a little bummed when I realized I was getting into something completely different than the food to which I’d become accustomed.

But I came up with a solid compromise: mango ice cream, fetched from the frosty cooler near the cash register and pried from the tub with flat wooden planks. A fitting end to any meal.

You can put sauerkraut on that.

A few months ago, I decided to make sauerkraut.

This wasn’t exactly a spur of the moment decision. Part of it was a desire to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, and of all the others in my family who made their own kraut throughout the years. Part of it was a plan to become my dad’s favorite child, since it’s one of his favorite things to eat.

And part of it was because I wanted to ferment SOMETHING.

My brother started brewing beer in our basement. His special ladyfriend makes her own kombucha. We’ve dabbled in kimchi and okra pickles the past few summers when our CSA provided us with a glut of fresh veggies. (And if you’ve seen “Portlandia,” you’ll think this is kind of funny. I just pickled this blog!)

Last October, I tasted some smoked jalapeno sauerkraut at a farmer’s market in San Francisco. The heavens opened, the angels sang, and I thought, “I want to do this.”

So the stars aligned in March, when I put a whole bunch of stuff in my Amazon shopping cart because I figured I needed it to be successful.

And then I put it all back when I found this recipe for small-batch kraut. We’re talking VERY small batch: one head of green cabbage, one quart-sized Mason jar.

The first batch was all right. It’s a bit dry, which I think I can remedy with a little practice. I gave half to my dad, who noted the dryness, and mentioned that his grandma never put so much caraway seed in her kraut. (But, he said, keep trying.)

The finished product, divided in two. I was mostly just excited that it looked like sauerkraut at this point.

The finished product, divided in two. I was mostly just excited that it looked like sauerkraut at this point.

Now I have a pint jar of kraut in my fridge, and not a lot of ideas for it.

We eat brats every now and again; obviously it’s an excellent accompaniment to a good smoked sausage of some sort.

Lately, I’ve been eating it for lunch as a quesadilla.

Laugh if you must, but sometimes it’s the true highlight of my day. It’s kind of tangy, and the texture of the chewy kraut and slightly crispy tortilla is at least complex enough to keep me interested. I usually put a little bit of cheese on it to glue the whole thing together, but not always.

One of these days I’ll try it with a little turkey or corned beef, and some nice mustard, and call it a reuben (or a rachel) quesadilla. I’m all about the fusion food.

In the meantime, send me your thoughts on what I can do with the remaining half-pint of sauerkraut. I’m starting to get worried that the novelty of the quesadilla will wear off.

On cooking with a CSA

I love spring. I partially credit my April birthday; but it’s also a season that keeps you on your toes. Rain, thunderstorms, HUGE thunderstorms, and this year, snow, all came with my favorite season.

My birthday dinner growing up almost always included asparagus (topped with Cheez Whiz!) and strawberries. The beginning of my new year means there’s a reliable source of fresh fruit and vegetables in Kansas, and I couldn’t be happier.

For the last six years we belonged to a CSA in the Kaw and Wakarusa river valleys in northeast Kansas. Much like spring weather, a CSA brings its own surprises. Each week we would receive a bag full of whatever fresh vegetables were in season. In April, that meant mostly lettuce and other tender greens, the much-coveted asparagus, and green onions. Later in the summer, we’d progress into tomato and pepper season. And in the fall, butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

But there was always the thing we’d never seen or eaten. Kohlrabi looks more like Sputnik than something you slice up and eat with peanut dip. There were the fresh edamame, which of course are soybeans, but when they come on a long stalk and are covered in a bit of fuzz… we initially wondered if our farmers pulled them from a ditch on the way to the drop-off.

The unusual veggies, along with those we thought we didn’t like — oh, if I could get back all those lovely pink breakfast radishes! — often ended up, shamefully, to molder in the back of the fridge.

Over time, we learned the proper way to fix what we got. The biggest challenge to overcome wasn’t a fear of trying new things, but rather trying new things AGAIN if a recipe didn’t work out the first time. The radishes from our former “don’t like” list are now dipped in butter and salt, a French tradition that agrees with us. Even the leafy beet tops that used to go straight to the trash are now sautéed or otherwise fixed along with other greens.

We got our first share of our new CSA here in Wichita last week, which means that spring is really here. Included in the offering: two kinds of lovely lettuce, thick green onions, tiny red beets, kale, a turnip, arugula, and some herbs.

We ate salads topped with balsamic-marinated flat iron steak and spicy chicken wings (separate occasions, and the second was, well, it was a Friday); coarsely chopped the kale and threw it in to a pot with some browned andouille sausage and cooked lentils, all topped with a decent amount of smoked paprika; and braised the greens in white wine and garlicky oil to go with broiled salmon and couscous.

Beet greens, turnip greens, baby tatsoi and who knows what else, with a little garlic, next to the salmon and couscous.

Beet greens, turnip greens, baby tatsoi and who knows what else, with a little garlic, next to the salmon and couscous.

At this point, the only thing left are the tiniest little radishes you ever did see. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the fridge…

Potlucks are the BEST.

I’m not sure I love anything more than eating really great home-cooked food.

Which means, of course, that potlucks are the best thing EVER.

One of my favorite springtime events during the past two years has been a soup potluck at the East Lawrence home of William S. Burroughs, the beat poet, troubled marksman and, at the end of his life, Kansan. (I’m claiming him. I think it counts.)

The Burroughs house in East Lawrence.

The Burroughs house in East Lawrence.

The setup involves a crowded stovetop and a host of crock pots bearing the most fantastic soups: some old family recipes, some new favorites, all homemade and all delicious. Salads, bread and dessert round out the meal — for the lucky ones who have room left in their bowls.

A few of the soup offerings, in the sunny kitchen window.

A few of the soup offerings, in the sunny kitchen window.

It’s tough to pick a favorite when everything is AMAZING, but here are some worth noting:

  • A simply gorgeous beans and greens soup with gigantic Christmas lima beans and kale. A dish so earthy and complex that I said “mmmm!” with every bite.
  • A pork posole, with a bright red broth, tender pork and soft hominy. All texture, all the time. The soup went under a pile of fresh radishes and jalapeños that added an additional layer of crunchy goodness. (We snuck back over for another bowl of this for lunch the next day. I can truthfully report that this got even more amazing over 24 hours.)
  • A creamy golden corn chowder, the color of late-afternoon sunbeams, with roasted red peppery sweetness and a hint of spice.
  • An Italian wedding soup with dainty meatballs and thick-cut homemade noodles.
  • A Greek avogolemono, a soup that almost defies logic: the broth is neither thin nor thick, but an opaque white and oh-so-lemony. There’s orzo, too, and some other chewy goodness involved.
  • A wonderful warm borscht with tender beets and a deep dill flavor.

And then there was the gingerbread. With fresh whipped cream. DELIGHTFUL.

Extra bonus points were awarded to this particular potluck because we got to hang out with some awesome if not a bit distant cousins who were also in attendance, including Mazlo, the next generation of Schneweis descendants to rule the Earth.

This is my cousin Mazlo and his awesome mom Laurel. I think Mazlo and I are like 61st cousins, or something like that. His great-grandpa was a first cousin of my great-grandma. So, you know, we're tight.

This is my cousin Mazlo and his awesome mom Laurel. I think Mazlo and I are like 61st cousins, or something like that. His great-grandpa was a first cousin of my great-grandma. So, you know, we’re tight. Cute kid, right?

Family, friends and food? Kind of like Christmas. In April.

A trip to Cuba

Last week, before the heat and the sleet kicked in, I made a trip to Cuba.

Cuba, Kan. has been well-documented by others, including Jim Richardson of National Geographic fame. My recent trip was my second to the tiny town of about 150 in far north-central Kansas.

I drove up through the Ark River Lowlands and through the gorgeous Smoky Hills, crossing the Saline and Republican Rivers, to get to the location of a sunny Thursday meeting.

Cuba's main drag.

Cuba’s main drag.

It’s possible to do some urban exploration, even in the tiniest of Kansas towns. The meeting took place in a community space tucked away behind an unmarked door on the downtown strip. A handwritten sign on the wall indicated that the space had been used for community events years ago — perhaps as recently as the 1980s — but was now used for smaller gatherings. Card games, maybe? Pitch is big here. The group that gathers at the cafe on Thursday mornings invited me to join for a hand or two. (I declined, mostly because of the meeting, but because I grew up playing six- and seven-point pitch. Woe to me when I inadvertently ditch the trey.)

I'll take an apricot kolache and a cup of coffee (hot), please.

I’ll take an apricot kolache and a cup of coffee (hot), please.

No kolaches were to found in town, but the luncheon special at the cafe was a deconstructed bierock, swimming in cheese sauce but boasting a thick and homemade crust.

After the meeting, I made a stop for the thickest-cut smoked pork chops at the Cuba Cash Store, which also has some of the best homemade ring bologna around. The pork chops rode home in a cooler on the back seat and became a fantastic kässler rippchen for Monday’s supper.

Perhaps not the most typical version of this meal, but definitely delicious. It screams, "welcome, Spring! Bring on your potatoes and asparagus."

Not the most typical version of this meal, but definitely delicious. It screams, “welcome, Spring! Bring on the boiled potatoes.”

Scenery, geography, history, food, exploration and kind people make for a pretty fantastic day.

Home delivery

The latest, greatest find in Wichita: home-delivery ice cream.

Salted Creamery, from Newton, makes available a list of ice cream flavors every Monday. They post the flavors on their Facebook page; customers leave a note with their order. A few days later, the ice cream comes to your door, or a central pickup location in town.

Ice cream from Salted Creamery. In my home. (That's the point.)

Ice cream from Salted Creamery. In my home. (That’s the point.)

The home delivery of food seems to be a thing here. The CSA we’re preparing to join delivers to its members, instead of a central drop-off point. I wonder what else we’ll find that uses this kind of a model?

But back to Salted: we tried the Dark Chocolate Truffle and the Gas Station Latte on our inaugural order.

The chocolate came out of the carton a deep, matte mahogany, with a taste to match. Rich and thick, it was the first to go over a couple evenings after supper. The aptly named coffee ice cream had a thick concentration of what I would call coffee grounds, giving it an incredibly strong flavor if not a bit of a gritty texture.

Both came from Salted’s standard menu. The rotating weekly flavor when we ordered was Peppermint Patty, and I hope they offer it again, because I’d love to try it.

Their Facebook page is currently their sole means of marketing, although they note that they’ll be in local stores soon. At $5 a pint, it’s not the cheapest option for an after-dinner treat. But between the novelty of using new social media, with old-school delivery options… I’d say it’s worth it.