Monday, August 15, 2016

Odds and ends from the garden? Pickle them!

This is a post from City Girl Country Life, centering around fresh veggies and fridge pickles. The blog City Girl Country Life is heading into retirement so many of the recipes originally shared there will make an appearance here over the next several months. This story was originally published in May, 2015.

This recipe is a great way to use up the last garden stragglers too- you can use any vegetable you like in this recipe. Some you may want to blanch, others can go straight into the brine. 


Ohhhhhh pickles!!!

When I was first getting into home canning in a big way, pickles were among the first foods I learned to make. Spicy dills, bread and butter pickles- my favorite, pickled carrots, pickled onions, quick asparagus pickles, relishes of all kinds. Dills. So many dills. Chunks, slices, whole, spears. Blue ribbon winning pickles. 

There are two types of pickles- brined pickles and fermented pickles. Fermented pickles, like sauerkraut, get their sour flavor from being fermented in a crock in a salty water mixture. I prefer to make brined pickles- pickles that get their sour flavor from a vinegar brine. It's quicker and since I have fur kids, I don't want to have crocks of fermenting foods sitting around. I prefer my pickles with no fur.

Adding spices to the brine changes the flavor of the pickles. Dill, of course, gives a tremendously green and fresh flavor to pickles, and garlic, mustard seed, black peppercorns and even hot peppers bring varying levels of heat and spiciness to the brine. I got the bright idea to add ghost peppers to jars of pickles one time- wow!! Talk about spicy!! 

Pickling is also a great way to preserve those beautiful summer veggies and a great addition to your relish tray for parties and holidays. I will pickle pretty much everything. It's easy to whip up a quick brine, add some herbs and aromatics and pour over a colorful mix of veggies. You don't even have to "can" the pickles- fridge pickles, also known as quick pickles, go right in the fridge and last for weeks. 

If you have a crinkle cutter you can make gorgeous slices of
bright carrots. You can also purchase crinkle cut "chips"
What kind of veggies should you pickle? Whatever you like! That's the great thing about pickles- the brine adds the necessary acidity to make your vegetables safe for canning at home, and using a colorful combo makes the jars beautiful and interesting. 

Isn't this gorgeous? I just couldn't say no
Strolling through the produce section at the big grocery store in the city I had so many choices to make. I found gorgeous little shishito peppers back on the shelf so I had to grab a couple handfuls to use in this pickle recipe. There was a fabulous display of cauliflower and broccoli set up including the most beautiful purple cauliflower. Naturally I chose one of those. I considered baby carrots but instead went with "carrot chips"- slices of large carrots cut with a wavy blade. Those are going to look great in the jars. Fresh green beans and red onion round out the veggies for this batch.

Shishito peppers are sweet with an occasional odd spicy one
I have included directions for processing the pickles in a boiling water bath canner for shelf stability if you want to go that route. I did not. These are so popular around here that they go straight into the fridge and get eaten up pretty quickly. I personally prefer fridge pickles over processed pickles- the veggies stay crisper and brighter.

Kicked Up Veggie Pickles

1 head cauliflower
1 pound fresh green beans, ends trimmed
1 lb baby carrots (or regular carrots, peeled and sliced)
2 ears fresh corn
2 onions
3 bell peppers or other peppers of your choice*
3 cups apple cider vinegar
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
yellow mustard seeds
garlic cloves
dried cayenne peppers*

*Instead of bell peppers I bought a couple handfuls of shishito peppers and used them whole. If you use a spicier pepper you can omit the cayenne pepper. I used dried Serrano chilies instead of the cayenne since I have so many.

Cut the cauliflower into good sized florets. You need about 3 cups. Cut the bell peppers into strips. I used whole shishito peppers so I just cut slits in them to allow the brine to get inside the peppers. Clean the corn with a veggie brush to remove all the silk, then cut it into one inch chunks, then cut into halves. Cut the onions into wedges. 

Fresh corn on the cob makes an interesting addition
Bring a stockpot of water to boil. Add the veggies and boil for one minute. Remove from water and into a large bowl. DO NOT use an ice bath!!

Bright veggies make beautiful jars of pickles
Meanwhile, in another pot, combine the water, vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the salt (or you can add a teaspoon of salt to each jar). 

Pack the hot vegetables into hot canning jars. Add a teaspoon of mustard seed, several peppercorns and 2-4 cloves of garlic (smash them a little to release the flavor) and a cayenne pepper (or half) to each jar. Pour the hot brine over to 1/2 inch headspace. Fix the lids and rings, place in boiling water bath canner. Process for 10 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 pints.

Make it easy on yourself- use the wide mouth pints for this pickle recipe. The brine is great for all different kinds of pickles so use your imagination. The brine acts as a preservative and the heat of processing in the boiling water bath seals the jars. Remember, you can also make the pickles and just pop them in the fridge instead of processing in the canner. I chose to make them a quick pickles this time because of the vibrant color of the cauliflower- I wanted to preserve that stunning purple as much as possible.

NOTE: This recipe has not been tested by the NCHFP. If you are not comfortable canning untested recipes, please do not use this one.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Kitchen Basics- Fried Chicken

It's been nearly a year already but let me just say again- Whew!!!  Moving stinks!! You never know how much kitchen stuff you have until you are looking at a stack of empty boxes, trying to fit it all in there. The days of lake living behind us now, The Chef and The Baker are making our home in the city once again, and it's a good thing. Much has changed in the five years we spent adjusting to rural life. New stores, new restaurants, new breweries and wineries have popped up all over the place, and Des Moines has become quite a culinary destination. 

I have really enjoyed exploring some of the new foodie hot spots around town. In the East Village section of the city is a specialty shop called Allspice that's filled with- you guessed it, spices. This was one of my first forays into city life again. While I really didn't need any more spices, I surely wanted them, and Allspice met that need and more so. In the Valley Junction area is a gourmet kitchen store I want to check out, West Des Moines is home to a brand new Fresh Thyme Farmers Market grocery store, and Vom Fass is in the trendy Shops at Roosevelt shopping area. I first discovered Vom Fass on a trip to the Mall of America and was thrilled to see one located in Des Moines.

One of my favorite places to shop when I lived in the city before was Gateway Market, located in the historic Sherman Hill district just on the fringe of downtown. I think of all the cool places in the city, this is hands down my favorite foodie place. The beautiful produce, incredible baked goods, outstanding wines selection, and of course- THAT olive bar........I couldn't wait to reacquaint myself with this fantastic shop and it didn't take long! A quick stop in Gateway on my way home from work is just as easy as hopping off the freeway and hopping back on.

Since I now have access to all kinds of amazing herbs and spices it's time to restock my kitchen shelves with some of my go-to basics. I have always made herb and spice blends and rubs of my own to use in cooking. It's so convenient to whip them up and cup or two at a time and have them ready on the spice shelf. I love trying meat rubs and spice mixtures from other sources but my own blends are my most-used combinations. A good seasoned flour mix is always great to have on hand. Not just for fried chicken but good with fish, chicken fried steak, dredging roasts and stew meat- anything that needs a quick dip into flour before being seared or fried goes great with this flavorful blend of seasonings. Dare I say, I think it's even better than the Colonel's 11 Herbs and Spices!

My All Purpose Seasoned Flour

2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons dry mustard powder
4 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon celery seed
couple dashes ground cayenne pepper

Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to grind the celery seed to a powder. Combine all ingredients in a bowl; spoon into jars for storage.

I love having this mixture ready to go on the shelf- it is soooo useful in so many dishes. One of my favorite of all comfort foods is good old fashioned homemade fried chicken. It's easier than you think too. Fried chicken has always been a much-loved food at our house, even an obsession when it came to our beloved cat Georgie. Although he is no longer with us you can't have fried chicken at our house without laughing about Georgie's Daring Chicken Robbery. You see, one weekend the Chef and I were spending considerable time perfecting our fried chicken recipe, tweaking the seasonings, trying different brines, and making batches of fried chicken. Now.... you could have roast chicken, baked chicken, chicken salad, barbequed chicken- George paid no attention, but the minute he smelled FRIED chicken, he'd lose his mind. Like a possessed wild animal he would do anything to get some, and after a lot of cooking and finally coming up with the perfect buttermilk brined fried chicken, the Chef was just sitting down to eat dinner with a perfectly prepared fried chicken breast on his plate. The Chef got up to grab a fork and thought he saw a flash of orange fur from the corner of his eye- and sure enough, faster than the speed of sound Georgie had stolen that perfect chicken breast.....

So in honor the the late great Georgie the Cat, let's butcher a chicken and get ready to make fried chicken. Start with a chicken, of course- I usually cut up a whole chicken myself but you can use chicken pieces, all breasts, all dark meat- whatever your family likes. I learned how to butcher a chicken from my mother and that's just what I prefer. Besides getting all the traditional pieces I like to cut the breast halves in half again crosswise so all the pieces are approximately the same size.

A good quality knife is critical when butchering whole chicken, or any other meat. My knife of choice is a Cutco chefs knife. This thing is badass. It can cut right through bone and never seems to dull.

To cut up a whole chicken start by rinsing the chicken thoroughly and pat the skin dry with paper towels. I know the current trendy thing is "don't wash your chicken" but honestly, I rinse my chicken under gently running water, I don't slosh chicken water and juices all over so I have no concerns about flinging bacteria around. In fact I'm much more concerned about the bacteria the chicken picks up in processing than I am about any potential contamination. If you prefer not to rinse your chicken, that's fine too. Place the chicken on a plastic cutting board (not wood) and start by loosening the thighs from the body. When you have loosened and snipped the skin use your hands to separate the thigh joint from the body, then use a sharp heavy knife to cut through and remove the leg quarter. Cut through the joint between the drumstick and thigh and set the pieces aside. Repeat with the other side. 

Use a similar technique to remove the wings and set them aside. Then stand the chicken up and cut through the ribs to separate the  back from the breast. Reserve the back portion for stock if you make your own, otherwise discard it. Now, it's easiest to place the breast skin side down and split it in half from the back. I split the chicken breast into halves lengthwise, then again crosswise to make four breast pieces. I also rinse my chicken again to make sure there are no bone fragments anywhere. 

Bone-in chicken is always best and thighs are delicious
Some people like to brine their chicken overnight, in a very salty brine. I love brining poultry- you end up with a spectacularly juicy and delicious bird. To make the brine, dissolve 1/3 cup salt in one quart cool water. Place the chicken in a gallon size zip top bag, pour the brine over and seal the bag, pressing the air out. Place in a bowl in the fridge overnight. Rinse well and pat dry before cooking.

Another way to impart fantastic flavor and juiciness to your chicken is to let the chicken bathe in buttermilk overnight. Follow the same method with the zip top bag, and when you're ready to cook, simply shake off the excess buttermilk and roll in the seasoned flour to coat. I love this method because you get a thicker crust on the chicken.

Frying chicken is easy too. A great big deep cast iron skillet is the traditional way to go but any deep heavy pan will do. Heat a good amount of oil over medium high heat until nice and hot. After dredging the chicken in the seasoned flour mixture place the chicken pieces carefully in the hot oil and fry, turning often until golden brown all over. Remove to drain briefly on paper towels and then finish the chicken in a 400 degree oven until cooked completely- 165 degrees is what you're shooting for. Is gravy your thing? Use some of those tasty drippings and more of the seasoned flour to make a delicious cream gravy. If this isn't comfort food..... I don't know what it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Housewife Food- Cheesy Chicken Black Bean Enchiladas

Wait....housewife food? What the heck is housewife food? I actually made this term up but I'm sure it will be a trending topic before long- once the internet sees how ingenious of a term it really is. That's my hope anyway. So back to what I'm talking about. You all know The Chef and I cook all the time. He in the restaurant kitchen, myself for competition and recipe development. This usually doesn't include a lot of homestyle food and casseroles and the types of things a busy homemaker might make to feed her 4 kids and hungry hubby. THAT is what I call housewife food- the simple, easy to make, but filling and homey meals that reminds us of an era in the past. Maybe we remember our own moms being at home when we got home from school with a big pot of spaghetti sauce simmering away or just searing off that pot roast, or maybe we remember the television moms that never seemed to leave the kitchen......

Sometimes even The Chef and I crave those comforting foods. We both are absolutely nuts over a pan of tator tot casserole, and who wouldn't be? Beefy, creamy mushroomy goodness topped with crunchy tots. Yum. We even sometimes get a serious craving for tuna noodle casserole. Imagine that, with all the gorgeous produce and interesting foods we have to cook with, we sometimes just want something that starts with a can of cream of something soup.

The Chef, of course, cooks for a living. Myself, my career field is far less glamorous-insurance. My day can be a little on the dull side, or it can be stressful as heck with angry insureds calling about one reason or another. It's not unusual to be yelled at several times a day by a person in a bad circumstance who just wants to blow off some steam and raise a little hell and I'm the person on the other end of the line. It's all good. We've all been there.  I also spend a lot of hours in front of dual monitors typing. Typing a lot. Notate every conversation. Document every specific. Make notes, check notes and make more notes. While not physically demanding, it can be mentally demanding and many days I get home and regret planning on making an elaborate pounded, stuffed and rolled steak dish with a potato side that includes numerous steps, a specific baking dish and a countertop full of ingredients. Plus a salad- always a salad, right?

I was so thankful today when I got home from just such a day that I had the foresight to buy a couple convenience products. Especially that can of soup. Tonight's dinner took some of the simplest ingredients and turned them into something really good, really filling and definitely housewife food. What did I use? A bottle of store-bought salsa, a jar of queso dip, a can of black beans, a couple chicken breasts and a can of nacho cheese condensed soup. Amazing results from everyday ingredients, let's make some enchiladas!

Cheesy Chicken and Black Bean Enchiladas

1 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 small bags shredded cheese
10 flour tortillas
1 jar queso cheese dip
1 jar salsa
1 can condensed nacho cheese soup
1/2 cup water

Season the chicken breast with salt and pepper and cook until done. I poached them in just a small amount of water until cooked through. Let cool slightly, then shred or cube and place in a large bowl. Toss with one bag of the cheese, the black beans and half of the sliced scallions. Set aside.

In another bowl combine the queso dip, 1 cup of the salsa, the nacho cheese soup and water. Mix well. Add about 3/4 cup of this mixture to the chicken mixture and mix. Divide the mixture among the 10 tortillas and roll up.

Spread a few tablespoons of the sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 pan or two square pans. Arrange the enchiladas in the pan and spoon remaining sauce over the top. Sprinkle with the other bag of cheese.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 35-45 minutes until hot and bubbly. 

Serve with additional salsa and the remaining sliced scallions. They are delicious with a dollops of sour cream or even some guacamole, but guess who forgot to buy sour cream when she was at the grocery store?

This recipe absolutely goes against our rule about fresh cooking and real foods and not buying stuff in cans and bottles but every once in a while you just have to. It doesn't make us bad people, or lazy, or unhealthy. Let's face it, sometimes life is hectic and cutting the occasional corner isn't a bad thing at all. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

It's A Pickle Party In Puyallup

I'd have to say that honestly I am pretty content living in Iowa. There is a lot of cool stuff here. Incredible pork. The world famous state fair. All the corn you could ever want. One hundred wineries and growing, plus an impressive collection of breweries. Gourmet restaurants and foodie events. Templeton Rye. Apple orchards and pumpkin patches. Yes, I would say that this is my happy place. Recently I heard about a very unique business in Washington state that spoke to my heart and my love of home canning and quick pickling. How about a cucumber farm that not only sells cucumbers grown on the premises but offers pickling parties? I am sooo there !!! Well....I wish anyway.

So what is this farm called? Where is it? What is this all about? Tamara Harden, who lives in Puyallup, Washington, shared this story with me, about Duris Cucumber Farm, a very unique business that's part farm, part store and part pickle factory in Puyallup. I visited the company's website and learned all about the history of this business and how it all started back in the mid-50s when Hazel Duris asked her husband Al to help her get a garden started. She wanted to grow cucumbers for pickles, as well as other fresh vegetables. Like so many gardeners experience, Hazel soon had cucumbers in abundance and began selling her extra produce. Little by little their garden plot grew into a farm, now operated by their children. The farm's chief crop is pickling cukes and with that, everything you need to make pickles. The farm also features a shop where you can find everything you need to make fresh quick pickles- spices, jars, cookbooks, vinegars, and of course, the cucumbers. They even have cute labels and twine for your finished pickles, as well as pre-made canned and pickled foods and other cute canning-themed items for you to purchase.

Customers make their selections from different sizes and
varieties of farm fresh pickling cucumbers.
Every Saturday the farm's shop has a pickling demonstration. They teach customers the cold-pack method, what I call quick pickles or fridge pickles- fresh cucumbers, spices, pickling brine, and no heat processing. These are not shelf-stable pickles- they go into the fridge, and believe me, the best pickles are made this way- always crisp and crunchy. Their recipe is featured on the website and interestingly, they use two sizes of cucumbers in each jar. Just looking at all the pictures made me crave pickles!

The shop features pre-packaged spice mixtures for
different types of pickles- so easy!
Let's talk about this pickle party. Tamara tells me it's a ton of fun and very versatile- you can come just by yourself or bring friends (up to 23 people per party). You just schedule a time and when you get there, they have everything you need on a tray for each party-goer. You get the jars, a paring knife, one grape leaf per jar, sliced onion, sliced red pepper, fresh dill, garlic cloves, spices, and a label for your jar. 

What an awesome setup, all ready for the Pickle Partiers
The center of the table is piled with different sizes of pickling cucumbers. The first thing you do is choose your cukes and fill your jar, then you return to your tray, remove the cucumbers from the jar and get ready to pickle. 
Shaking those pickles!
The instructor walks you through each step, how to add ingredients to your jar and in what order, and you make your jars of pickles, topping with the pickling brine. The cost of the class is per jar- $8 for quarts and $6.50 for pints, and you can make one jar or many many jars- totally up to you. This sounds like so much fun!

They even sell commercial mixes for people who want to
make pickles with a minimum of fuss and measuring.
Luckily for those of us who don't live nearby, the Duris Farm shares their pickle recipe on their website. Let's make some Duris Cold Pack Refrigerator Dills. For each quart jar you will need:

(add in order)
1 grape leaf
1 stalk fresh dill wound in a small circle
3 peeled cloves of garlic
1/8 sliced white onion
3 teaspoons pickling salt
2 teaspoons mustard seed
15 whole black peppercorns
1/2 to 1 dried red chili pepper
1/4 teaspoon alum
1/4 fresh jalapeno pepper, sliced
1 slice sweet red bell pepper (place against the side of the jar)
5 medium cucumbers, blossom end removed
2-3 small cucumbers, blossom end removed
1/2 cup of 5% apple cider vinegar

Fill the jar to 1/2 inch headspace with tap water. Top with a lid and ring, tighten, and shake to dissolve the powders. Store in the refrigerator. Pickles will be ready to enjoy in 3-4 3 weeks. Enhanced flavor is achieved by allowing them to cure in the fridge longer.

Pickle jars in every size and color!
How easy is that? I am a huge fan of fridge pickles- no need to drag out the big bulky canning pots and I can make every jar a little different. The pickles are always so much crisper and fresher than heat processed pickles and they retain their color better too.

Tamara is a big supporter of local producers and frequents the produce stands all over her area. She tells me the Puyallup Valley has some of the most fertile soils anywhere as well the areas surrounding eastern Washington, which is a huge agricultural area. Tamara likes keeping in touch with local growers so she gets a heads up on great deals so she can preserve fresh foods for her family at home, and is an avid home canner. She really loved sharing the Pickle Party with her granddaughters. Maybe they will be the next generation of home food preservers!

Abby and Tamara show us each step
**All the photos in this story were taken by Tamara on her recent visit to the farm.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, July 29, 2016

An Old Favorite Gets a New Look- Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna

It's a million degrees in Iowa today. Normally on such a hot day I'm not big on making something like lasagna, a dish that needs to spend an hour in the oven. I'm hot, crabby, just went through road rage on the commute back to the peaceful lake, and now I'm going to fire up the oven? I must be nuts.

Actually I am a little sad that it's blazing hot out there. This weekend downtown Des Moines is home to the annual Italian American Heritage Festival and as much as I'd love to go I just can't deal with the heat and humidity. Growing up on the south side of Des Moines this annual festival was one of my favorite things. Back in the early days the festival was held in Columbus Park. Carnival rides arrived, food stands were built, bocce ball courts set up, and crowds of hungry folks eating pasta and enjoying music and activities filled the park the entire weekend. As a junior high girl, this was THE spot to see and be seen, the place to meet guys, the reason for spending 2 hours in front of the mirror with a curling iron, only to have the humidity turn those curls into nothing. In those days my best friend Liz and I hung out at the festival- all three days- and rode The Scrambler, ate cavatelli usually catered by Guido's or maybe a group of Italian ladies from one of the Catholic churches, played carnival games (I never won anything) and tried to catch the eye of the guys from the other junior high school. Risque times, for sure.

These days the festival is held downtown in Western Gateway Park. The event had grown tremendously and has moved several times. The rides are no longer around but plenty of activities keep festival goers entertained. Old guys still play bocce and lots of live music still entertains the crowd. The food has improved, with lots more food options and some very upscale vendors are really bringing the goods.

Learn more about the Italian American Heritage Festival by clicking HERE

In the spirit of that great Italian classic, lasagna, we are also having a little bit of pasta at the Little Lake House tonight but we are switching things up and bringing a whole new look to an old friend. Instead of the usual meat and red sauce and ricotta cheese lasagna we're having an All-American version- straight from Philadelphia. Yep, you got it- Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna. It's super easy to put together- savory ground beef with grilled peppers, onions and mushrooms layered with melty cheese, tender noodles and Alfredo sauce. Use your favorite brand of sauce in this dish- we're cheating a little with bottled sauce and you'll never know! Definitely not your Nona's lasagna, but it's gooooood.

Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna

1 package no boil lasagna noodles
2 lbs lean ground beef
1 large onion
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 medium green bell peppers
salt, pepper or favorite meat seasoning
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon beef soup base
2 jars Alfredo sauce
1 lb shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
cooking oil

Prepare the vegetables: I use a very large onion. Cut the onion into small julienne strips. Remove the seeds from the peppers, cut into similar sized pieces. 

Heat a couple tablespoons of cooking oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to brown. Don't let them get too soft. Season the veggies with the meat seasoning. Remove to a large bowl and set aside.

Crumble the ground beef into the same skillet; break up with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle with the Worcestershire sauce, some of the meat seasoning and add the beef base, mixing it into the meat drippings. Cook meat until browned and cooked through. Add to vegetables in the bowl and mix.

Using a large baking pan spoon about 1/2 cup of the Alfredo sauce in the bottom and spread it around. Arrange 4 noodles on top, breaking them to fit. Spoon half of the meat mixture over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the cheese. Pour the remaining Alfredo sauce in the first jar over evenly. Top with another four noodles. Spread the remaining meat mixture over, including any juices in the bowl, another 1/3 of the cheese. Layer another 4 noodles on top and pour the second jar of sauce over all.

Add about 1/2 cup of water to the jar, cover, shake, and add water to the pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/3 cheese, bake another 15-25 minutes until hot and bubbly, noddles are tender, and cheese is starting to brown. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Yes, I did use some pre-made sauce in this recipe because, let's be honest, who wants to make homemade Alfredo sauce just to turn around and make lasagna? Not me! Probably not a lot of busy families either, when kids are hungry, laundry needs to be done, the dog needs a walk and you just want to get something on the table with a minimum of fuss. Toss together some crispy salad greens and pop some garlic bread in the oven, or breadsticks, and you have a whole new take on lasagna.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Product Review- Skyline Cincinnati Chili

Every region has its favorite foods. Whether local restaurant specialties or produce that's unique to the area chances are you can associate a food of some sort with everywhere you've been. Think of Hawaii and you probably think of pineapple. Coastal states from Maine to Florida to Texas on the Gulf coast boast seafood those of us in the landlocked states cannot imagine. I live in Iowa and we are always associated with Iowa corn, especially sweet corn, and juicy and delicious Iowa pork. We're famous for it. Pork tenderloin sandwiches bigger than your dinner plate are served all over Iowa and different cities have different favorites. Here in Des Moines the most famous local dish is hands down Steak DeBurgo. While many restaurants have their own version, the original recipe belongs to Johnny and Kay's in the old Hyatt House hotel.

Having traveled extensively and lived in numerous places I've experienced lots of different regional favorites. One that always intrigued me was Cincinnati chili. A couple years ago a friend opened a small restaurant here and that was their big feature- pizza and Cincinnati chili. I'd heard of this chili and knew how it was served but it was something I had never been all that interested in trying. The lingo was so foreign- a two-way, three-way, four-way. Who thinks this stuff up?

Fast forward a few years and I am finally introduced to Cincinnati chili from an expert- my friend Katie. Having family in Cincinnati Katie visits there all the time and of course, gets her chili fix. Skyline Chili, Katie tells me, is THE home of original Cincinnati chili, and besides having lots of locations for their restaurant, they also package and sell the chili for you to make at home. During one of her visits to Ohio, Katie stocked up on Skyline Chili and shared some with me when she returned home. She sent me home with several cans of Skyline and thorough directions on how to prepare it the right way. Spaghetti. Beans. Chopped onions. Shredded cheese. Lots of shredded cheese. The plan was to go home and have the traditional Skyline Four Way, spaghetti, red beans, chopped onions and a mountain of shredded cheese.

Dinner time came and I heated up the chili. It has an unusual smell- not like chili I am used to, but a sweet cinnamony-clovy fragrance. The meat is very broken down, as one of the unusual techniques in making this dish is to start with uncooked ground beef and cook it in the liquids, which breaks the meat down into tiny pieces- no big clumps of burger. The consistency of the chili is also very thin, again unlike the thicker robust chili I am used to. Once the spaghetti was cooked it was time to plate up our Skylie chili. Pile of pasta in the bowl, pour over the chili, add beans, chopped onion and top with a pile of finely shredded cheddar cheese.

The verdict? It was ok. I didn't hate it but I didn't love it either. I missed the heat and the chili flavors I am used to. The cinnamon and cloves were definitely big in the flavor profile and it just was not a combination with the meat and tomato and onions and beans. I put what I thought was a big pile of cheese on the plate, and Katie said it wasn't enough cheese- but honestly any more than that would have been way too much for me. 

On another night we tried Skyline on chili dogs and I liked it even less. The consistency of the chili is too thin for my taste, and made the bun too soggy. Maybe I'm just stuck in my ways but I missed the richness, thickness and spice of chili con carne on my chili dog.

So Skyline, I like you just fine, but you didn't change my life like I thought you might, and that's perfectly ok.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Foodie Field Trip- Bubba

There is something very exciting about hitting the newest hot spots around town before the big public grand opening and inevitable crowds and long lines and waiting for ages for a reservation. Over the last several years Des Moines has become a booming mecca for hip new dining spots, inventive new chefs, great night spots and an entirely revived downtown neighborhood that's filled with outstanding restaurant and nightlife options and beautiful places to live. In the not so distant past you had to visit Chicago or L.A. or New York to experience cuisine prepared by a James Beard nominated chef or a restaurant that's been featured on a national television show. These days you can walk from your elegant downtown loft to have dinner in a restaurant that's grabbing the national spotlight and quite possibly has been featured in a magazine or two.

For all our new "worldy" ways and big city style, Des Moines can still be a bit of a small town when it comes to the culinary scene. Everyone I know is good buddies with a chef who owns or practices in one of the best restaurants in town. We went to school with them. We live next to them. Our best friend is their brother in law. We bump into them in the grocery store and we know where they like to go for a meal out or for drinks on a night off. Now more than ever when it comes to getting in good with the culinary elite it really is all about who you know. I have been very lucky to get to attend some openings of some of the most successful restaurants around town, and Bubba is no exception. My daughter invited me to join her and her boyfriend Josh for an evening seating during the soft opening- and of course I said yes!

I first heard about this new restaurant just by chance. Skimming through social media I came across an advertisement for a new restaurant that was hiring staff. I immediately thought about my own Chef and wondered if this might be something he would be interested in. As I read more I realized who the owners were and more importantly, who the Executive Chef is! You guys already know how much I love Malo, the upscale Latin restaurant downtown, and this chef spent time in the Malo kitchen. I knew this was going to be a very very special restaurant. I was not disappointed. Bubba is located in the same spot formerly occupied by the Raccoon River Brewing Company. As expected, the brewery had a very rustic feel, lots of exposed brick and ductwork, beer equipment around the rooms and a party like atmosphere. Stepping in the door of Bubba was like being transported to someplace completely different. The red brick is toned down and the restaurant has a whitewashed Southern feel with interesting artwork, sterling silver serveware and an entire wall of framed bow ties. Beautifully upholstered banquette seating lines the wall with sparkling chandeliers overhead. It is gorgeous. Most of the dining room is on the mezzanine level overlooking the bar and entrance with a fantastic view of the street through huge windows.

Since we were there for the soft opening we each received a slightly different menu. Each table got to select an appetizer to share, each diner chose an entree, and a dessert to share as well. We started with the cocktail menu. The full bar was available but a special cocktail menu for the evening featured four signature cocktails- Banana Bread Manhattan, Bourbon Berry Fizz, Bubba Julep and Southern Sunrise. Josh chose the Banana Bread Manhattan, which arrived in a large martini glass garnished with a slice of banana and a cherry, soaking in the boozy deliciousness. This cocktail is made with Bulleit Rye, Antica Carpano vermouth, banana nut syrup and black walnut bitters. It is a knockout drink- the perfect blend of boozy and fruity. Laurie chose the Southern Sunrise which as a clever play on the tequila sunrise, made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, orange juice, cranberry juice and a bit of grenadine. Delicious !! My cocktail of choice was the Bourbon Berry Fizz. Muddled basil and crushed strawberries hang out in the glass with Bulleit Bourbon and a splash of soda for fizz. The crushed strawberries were sweet and fruity and the basil added an unexpected flavor that was awesome and so Southern.

Banana Bread Manhattan

Southern Sunrise

Bourbon Berry Fizz

The appetizer selections made it so hard to chose just one. There were a couple familiar names- like crab cakes, which I'm sure would have had Bubba's Southern touch, but the real stars were the totally Southern options. Fried okra spears. Fried green tomatoes. White cheddar grits cakes. It was monumentally hard to decide but we chose the biscuit sliders- three perfect flaky buttermilk biscuits piled with smokey pulled pork, crispy fried onions and a homemade rhubarb jam that took these tiny sandwiches to another level altogether. Chef Jammie shared the story of the jam and said it would change seasonally to use the freshest in season fruits. I can't wait to see what fruit makes the dish next.

The dinner selections were just as tempting. No Southern restaurant would be worth a darn if they didn't serve fried chicken so of course it's a star on the menu here. Ever heard of a Kentucky Hot Brown? No? Well, you can try one here. Chicken fried steak, which I wanted soooo badly, is served with white cheddar mash, creamy pepper gravy and smokey green beans. Yum! Catfish is another Southern staple and that's on the menu as well as a twist on Succotash, used to stuff a Chile Relleno. At our table Josh chose the Chicken and Waffles which arrived as a crispy waffle with pecan honey butter, HUGE pieces of buttermilk fried chicken, house made bread and butter pickles and Chef Jammie's secret hot sauce. He would not give up the secret but you can taste a touch of honey in there and its amazingly delicious.

Laurie went with the Dr. Pepper Braised Short Rib. This version is boneless and slow braised in a rich Dr. Pepper based sauce until it's melt in your mouth tender. Served with black eyed peas, roasted rainbow carrots, crispy onions and drizzled with the sauce, it's a stunningly beautiful dish and one of the most delicious meals I have ever tasted.

I had a terrible time deciding. I love chicken fried steak and it's a pain to make at home and not served in very many good restaurants anymore but I decided to try something completely new and decided on the Shrimp and Grits. Good choice too, this is a dish I will have again!  Don't be one of those people who says they don't like grits. Just try this. The grits are creamy and cheesy and the perfect partners for the slightly spicy, lightly blackened grilled shrimp piled on top. The shrimp were huge and perfectly cooked, just as I'd expect. Sweet corn puree added a sweet note and that house made hot sauce was part of the party too. Crispy fried BIG lardons dotted the grits and added a crunchy component that I really loved. And those grits.......

Let's just say I was VERY happy with my dinner.......

Laurie suggested we all try something else we never tried before- collard greens. The greens arrived in the cutest little cast iron pot and were loaded with bit hunks of ham, cooked beautifully and yes, very very delicious.

The meal wasn't over just yet. Dessert was next and once again, tough choices had to be made. Bourbon Pecan Pie. Bananas Foster on a giant brown butter waffle. Pineapple Upside Down Cake baked in cast iron. Peach and Blueberry Bread Pudding. Ugh- how do we choose?  We went with the bread pudding. It arrived with a scoop of creamy vanilla bean ice cream and draped in a creamy custard sauce. It was a HUGE hunk of soft and warm bread soaked in eggy custard with huge fresh blueberries and slices of fresh peaches. So incredibly delicious, I highly recommend this. It was not overly sweet either, just the perfect amount of fresh fruit and baked goodness.

I can't wait to visit Bubba again and try some of the other items we didn't get a chance to try this visit. So much delicious, so little time.

You can learn more about Chef Jammie Monaghan by clicking HERE.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an invitation to attend the soft opening of this restaurant at no cost, with no expectation that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe are of good quality and safe. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."