Friday, February 28, 2014

The food tv addiction

Not everyone is into food tv. It's not a new thing. I grew up with my dad watching Julia Child, the Cookin' Cajun and The Galloping Gourmet on Iowa Public Televsion. Decades before Food Network would come along. Years before "celebrity chefs" became the norm. A whole collection of those awesome vintage tv chef cookbooks will pass down to me someday. 

Back in the mid 90s I found myself at home for a few weeks recovering from surgery and having satellite tv, somehow I stumbled across a new network called Food Network. I was instantly hooked. Cooking shows! Real cooking shows, techniques, recipe demos, the whole bit. "Cooking Live" with Sara Moulton, "East Meets West" with Ming Tsai and of course, "Molto Mario" became a daily part of my life. The shows were inspiring to an already pretty accomplished cook and further fueled my desire to write a cook book and own my own restaurant.

Fast forward a couple decades and Food Network is still going strong. Many of the chef/hosts have become celebrities in their own right. Many tour the nation appearing at conventions and expos and meeting with fans. I had the awesome experience a few years ago at the Iowa Food and Wine Expo of meeting Sandra Lee and Guy Fieri. Guy has always been a favorite of mine, even though he got his start on the network in the type of show I dread the most- the competition show. 

Guy rode a Harley into the auditorium for his demo blasting the Motley Crue.
I was transfixed instantly  and a little starstruck meeting him. He was very
down to earth and funny!

The programming has changed. The "cooking shows" are confined to day time hours and the evenings are filled with entertainment and competition shows. Some of them are interesting and some are overdone. Some are favorites and some I never watch. Some themes are overly repeated. Too many cake shows. Too many elimination shows.

Made famous by her "Semi Homemade" recipes and cookbooks,
Sandra Lee was very gracious and took the time to visit with all of us.

A couple years ago I discovered The Cooking Channel, Food Network's cousin network. I now have TWO networks to feed my obsession!! The first thing I loved about Cooking Channel was that they still had technique and cooking shows in the evening- not all travel and competition shows. Many of their shows have a different edge than FN's shows- like instead of competing for a food truck, they have people visit food trucks and tell us about the awesome offerings. Some of the food choices are amazing! 

"Unique Eats" is a favorite of mine. You can catch old seasons of Julia Child and Mario Batali there, "French Food at Home" with Laura Calder is one of my very favorite shows- French cooking is my passion and I love her homey style. But amazingly enough the CC show that really draws me in is Nadia G's "Bitchin Kitchen". I ADORE her crazy rock chick style and her SHOES !! I'm such a geek I have her autograph on her cookbook! Total groupie!

Unfortunately for me, Iowa is often passed over for the good expos these days. We haven't had such big draw names in a long time. It's hard for a chef groupie! I need to make some road trips- I have made some amazing friends in the foodie scene since starting my blogging adventure and I'd love to meet them in person, and fill my scrapbook with foodie fun!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Product Review: Perks and energy and a reason to heat up the oven

Let's face it- it's Iowa. It's February. It's winter. Energy? Are you kidding me? I'm doing good to get up and get dressed, particularly on the weekends. Something about wind chills and frozen pipes and icy roads just zaps my energy and makes me wanna stay in the house.

Until I heard about Oatomic Energy Bars. Guys, I have to tell you, if energy bars are your thing, or even if you just like a nutritious snack, this is for you. If you are concerned about what is in your food, this is for you. Avoiding chemicals and preservatives......this is for you.

Another blogger told me about this email he had received from the company that makes these bars- he didn't feel his blog was a good fit for a food review but heck, RTK is all about food! Lauren contacted me by email, took down my mailing info and a free sample pack was on the way. For free! Today the mailman arrived with a box from Lockhart Fine Foods, and the fun began.

I could hardly wait to get in the box! Inside was a package of the ready to bake dough and a package complete with instructions and ingredients. I have to be honest- I am normally NOT a fan of the usual granola bar-type snack. A lot of brands are too sweet and the "healthy" ingredients are barely noticeable. The first thing I noticed about the Oatomic bars is the LACK of refined sugar and no HFCS. Oats, raisins, wheat flour, butter (you know how I am about butter), nuts, seeds and unsweetened applesauce are in there as well. No chemicals I cannot pronounce, no fake fats, nothing artificial. 

And no preservatives- that's the best part. You bake them fresh. Eat them while fresh. Bake more when you need more. No sitting in a box on a store shelf losing nutrients for who-knows-how-long. Much like refrigerated cookie dough you simply break the pre-scored dough into bars, bake, and enjoy. do they taste? Health food generally is not "supposed" to taste good because all the tasty garbage is missing, right? WRONG! These bars are delicious! You don't even miss the bad stuff. The oatmeal and butter keep the bars soft and moist. The oats, nuts and seeds add crunch and texture and the raisins are chewy and sweet. All those protein-packed goodies in a bar you bake fresh yourself.

Try them! You will not be disappointed. You can get YOUR amazing Oatomic Energy Bars dough at Costco !!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope 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."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Guest Chef- Slinging Mexican, Italian style, by an Irishman- this cannot go wrong !!

As you know, I LOVE sharing not only mine and the Chef's cooking, but highlighting friends and other foodies that are part of our lives. There are MANY. My friend-family includes such a diverse group of people you'd be amazed. The professional. The students. The attorney. The nurses. The doctor. The blue collar workers. The bums. The musicians. The stay home moms. Grandparents and new parents. I enjoy the company of many many people- it makes life interesting, and along with such a diverse group of friends is an extremely adventurous and varied menu of food items that I get to enjoy throughout the years.

For example, the friend whose goal right now is the launch of a fantastic grilled sandwich business. Believe me, as soon as that is up and serving, you will be the first to know !! Tasting shall commence! I have Asian friends who cook some of the most incredible food that I am totally useless at mastering. My friends include cookbook authors, bloggers, reviewers, restaurant critics and some of the best home cooks you will ever meet.

Every once in a while, someone will surprise you. As a human, we can't help but occasionally judge a book by it's cover. It happens. You wouldn't expect a glam/punk Irish rocker man to be an ace in the kitchen if he isn't belting out tunes in some raunchy punk club. You just wouldn't. But low and behold, I happen to know just such a person....... my good good friend Dizzy (whose real name is super secret and I'll never tell). Dizzy and I share two passions- music and food. Real food. Like me, dreams of being a chef have also been a part of his plan, and I'm always hoping he achieves that goal. I think he belongs on tv cooking, but....... he may not agree. I know he will make an impact on the culinary world when the time is right. He has too much talent to NOT.

Anyway, he often shares his kitchen masterpieces with the world on his blog, Gutbombs. Cooking, restaurant reviews, an interesting mix of all that makes up this complex character. Music selections that are so incredibly different it's like an education everyday. "What will Dizzy play for me today?" I often wonder. Just the other day he shared a picture of a recipe he had "thrown together" and it was just too good to NOT share with all of you guys. Familiar flavors, an interesting twist on a classic, it's something cooks of just about all skill level can make.

Sadly, my friend now lives far away and we won't be able to share the kitchen and cook this together, but he has shared  his idea and recipe with me and I am going to recreate it and hopefully, do it as well as the originator. So with that in mind....... let's get ready for the ...........drumroll please.............

Irishman's Mexican Lasagna

You are going to need:
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb chorizo
  • red and green onions
  • an ear or two of sweet corn (see note about corn)
  • canned black beans, rinsed and drained
  • large can enchilada sauce
  • tomatoes and green chiles (Rotel- large can)
  • an "irresponsible and irrational amount of cheese" - yes he really said that
  • lasagna noodles (I am going with the no boil kind because they are easier)
  • salsa, sour cream , cilantro for finishing if desired
Before you start the big prep for this dish, we have a corn situation to deal with. Corn brings a unique texture and sweetness to dishes and fits PERFECTLY with this flavor profile. BUT- we don't want to just throw a can of Green Giant Niblets in there. Oh no. A Dizzy Dish is a masterpiece and has unexpected twists and turns to keep you wondering how that guy does it !! You're going to need to prep your corn, and this can be done in several different ways. The goal is roasted sweet corn with little browned and charred bits to add a smoky depth to the dish. You can do this lots of ways- fresh or frozen corn on the cob- brush with a little oil and broil it, turning often. Roast it over an open flame on your stovetop or grill. Use a grill pan or skillet. Any of those will work as long as you get a little bit of browning and caramelizing going on. If you have to use kernel corn, that's ok too- heat a little oil in a skillet and it'll serve just as well. Set that aside to cool so you can cut it off the cobs and then head on over to the meat.

Break up and brown the ground beef with about half of the chopped red onion. Add the chorizo as well. 

Now, depending on the TYPE of chorizo you have you will either be breaking it up like the burger OR dicing it into teeny cubes. Get that going so the chorizo browns up nicely.

Drain off any grease. Add beans, corn, enchilada sauce and Rotel to the pan, cover and simmer. Add about three big handfuls of cheese to sauce and mix in well.

At this point I'm going to talk about seasoning. Because of the addition of chorizo, and your own particular taste buds, you may or may not want to add something a little Mexicany here. I generally avoid commercial taco seasoning in favor of individual spices such as a dash of cumin or chili powder. This is up to you and consider who your serving as well. I've been known to throw a big blob of crushed ghost chile into dishes but then that rules out about 99% of my friends from trying it out. I added NOTHING extra as far as seasoning and the combo of spicy chorizo and Rotel was just perfect.

The rest is easy for anyone who has ever made a lasagna before- start building your dish. Sauce, noodles,  sauce, noodles,  etc until you have filled the pan or run out of sauce. Since this is Mexican inspired, for cheese I would go with a mix of Monterrey Jack, some mild cheddar, maybe queso fresco, maybe pepper jack..... if I'm really wanting some kick. The most important thing to remember is to make sure you END with sauce on top. For now anyway, especially if you're using the no boil noodles or you went crazy overboard and used tortillas (which would also be amazing in this dish). MAKE SURE you save a big pile of cheese for the top !!!!!

Cover the pan loosely with foil and pop in the oven. 350 degrees and an hour or so should get you thoroughly heated and bubbly if you have a typical 9x13 pan. If not, replace the foil and go a little longer. Once the lasagna is piping hot all through, remove foil, cover with a mountain of that insane amount of cheese that you reserved. Back into the oven, or pop under the broiler, to melt and brown up that cheese.

After you have removed from the oven, standing time is vitally important here. You didn't make those layers just to have to scoop it out like a sloppy lunch lady in a prison dining room. Let it rest and firm up just a bit before cutting and serving. You'll appreciate the view so much more.  Serve with salsa, sour cream, sliced green onions and the remaining red onion, and chopped fresh cilantro. I'm thinking a margarita alongside is pretty much a requirement but that's your call.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Not your Italian grandmother's risotto

As you might remember, the Chef and I have been exploring new grains- trying some of the ancient grains that have been around for many many years. Some of them have become trendy, like quinoa, and some have remained a little obscure. They definitely aren't easy to find in most supermarkets. I've had to really hunt them down!

Today we're going to get to know the grain Amaranth. Amaranth has been grown by people for about 8,000 years. That's definitely an ancient grain if you ask me. The Aztecs ate amaranth as one of their staple foods, and often used it in religious ceremonies. It also is very popular in Mexico and is considered a native crop in Peru.

Today amaranth is grown commercially and also grows wild, known as pigweed, although pigweed generally is not eaten as a food crop. Because it does well in poor soil and less than ideal conditions, it's a very profitable crop, and continues to gain popularity as people change how they look at their food and explore different food sources. It's very high in calcium, iron, magnesium and other nutrients. And PROTEIN- amaranth is probably the grain highest in protein. It also may help lower cholesterol in the blood. Who doesn't want that ? And, it's gluten-free, which makes this healthy grain option available to a lot of people who cannot eat other grains. Sheesh, I sound like a text book, don't I?

Now let's get to cooking this grain. There are lots ways to prepare amaranth- it can be "popped" and used in recipes like that, cooked like a hot cereal, and many other uses. We are going to cook our amaranth in a risotto-style dish, with lots of mushrooms, herbs, and deliciousness.

Amaranth Risotto with Leeks and Mushrooms

1/2 cup chopped fresh mushrooms
2 leeks, cleaned, chopped
2 tb olive oil or butter
1 cup amaranth
salt, pepper
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 to 1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Heat butter or oil in heavy saucepan. Add mushrooms and leeks and cook until leeks are wilted and mushrooms are softened. Stir in the amaranth. Add stock to pot (starting with 1 cup). Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Stir well and add seasonings. Continue simmering, covered, until the mixture is creamy like risotto and the amaranth is tender, about 10 more minutes, stirring once in a while to prevent sticking and burning. Add a splash more stock at a time if needed. If you like richer, creamier consistency, stir in a couple tablespoons of butter. Sprinkle with additional thyme if desired before serving.

NOTE: Amaranth is done when it is tender but still has texture- it shouldn't be too mushy but shouldn't taste gritty either.

We served our amaranth risotto with beautifully fresh fillets of lake-caught fish with a splash of lime juice and herbs. Since we live in the Little Lake House we have an abundance of fresh fish almost year-round. Some roasted fresh asparagus with a sprinkle of olive oil and sea salt.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Culinary School Adventure

If you haven't figured it out by now, I am a chef groupie. I love hanging out with foodie friends and people who enjoy food as much as I do. I don't mean someone who can make 27 trips to the buffet, I mean someone who ENJOYS a perfectly prepared dish. I mean the food experience. The nuances of perfectly blended seasonings that enhance the food. The perfectly paired wine. The plating and presentation. Judging the sear on that scallop, the freshness of that raw tuna. Taking in the aroma of an exotic spice blend on a masterfully prepared dish.

So I surround myself with interesting people. Wine lovers. Beer connoisseurs. Food writers and reviewers. And chefs. I love chefs. I love getting to pick the brain of a skilled craftsman in the art of food. Cooking IS an art form, and each chef expresses themselves in a different way, in a different medium- be it baking, pastry, restaurant, seafood, sushi. I love reading books written by chefs. I have learned so much from them, even if I don't get to spend kitchen time with them. My brain is a sponge and I am always eager to learn more.

And in case you didn't know, I also love doing interviews. I love hearing what motivates people, what they feel their strong points and weaknesses are. You are often your harshest critic so it's nice to sit down and have to answer some questions about yourself to see just how awesome you really are. 

But as much as I want to learn, I just don't have the commitment to go to culinary school. Cooking classes held in my favorite kitchen specialty store, sure! Working in a restaurant kitchen is really not in my future, and while I'd love to learn all the amazing techniques and basics, it's just not something I feel is for me. 

However, I can live vicariously through my friend Deberah Tedesco-Roberts, who is currently enrolled in the culinary program at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. I have asked her to share her experience with me so I can share with you. So let's get to know Deberah!

1. You seem to be a very accomplished cook already-  so why culinary school?

I love to cook, that is no secret....I recently was made aware that I was entitled to some military education benefit that I didn't know that I still had. Having already obtained two degrees in unrelated fields, I thought "Why not?" I decided to do something that makes me happy. It's a little elementary in the start, but I'm loving it nonetheless.

2. Do you think your home cooking skill gives you an edge?

It definitely serves me in the classroom. That and the fact that I'm one of the oldest people in the class, there is definitely an advantage to having thirty plus years of cooking experience under my belt.

3. Do you plan on working in a restaurant kitchen after you graduate?

That's a tough one. I'm more the type to own my own place, but who really knows what path lies ahead. I'm a bit bossy....just sayin'.

4. Do you have a favorite local or celebrity chef that you look up to, and possibly hope to emulate their success?

I really love Giada DiLaurentis. She is the perfect blend of sweet and savory. What a hottie!  She makes it look so easy, as it should be!

5. Is there any particular cuisine that you are partial to? Any particular one that you want to master more than others?

I have a true love for Asian cuisine! I do it all, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese. I think that what makes it so appealing to me is the "mise en place"- the preparation. I love chopping all the veggies and seeing all the beautiful colors in the bowls. The most fantastic combinations  of flavors, colors- it blows my mind.

Deb does Asian BIG TIME at home
6. Is there any particular technique you have no mastered but want to ?

Sauces- it's coming next week! I'm thrilled! Also, I've decided to step outside of the box. I have always been a hot cook. I have never been interested in baking.This year I have decided to take a baking class. It's very precise.  I'm more the "pinch of this, pinch of that" girl so it's a challenge to be so exact as a baker. Stay tuned- this could definitely get interesting!

Deb's rolls made on Baking Day
7. How about a favorite kitchen utensil?

My knives, of course!

8. And what is your favorite brand of knife? I know chefs and even home cooks like meget pretty attached to our knives!

My favorite knives are Mercer.

9. Do you have any favorite ingredients to work with ? Protein? Vegetable? Starch?  Any that you hate ?

I love all foods. I have yet to develop a dislike for any ingredient. Is that weird?

Beef stew packed with vegetables and juicy beef.
10. Before culinary school what do you think was your best dish?

Mustard Braised Chicken Thighs with Melted Leeks- undoubtedly the best. If you ask nicely, I'll give you the recipe!

11. It's pretty early in the game but have you learned anything that changes what you feel your best dish is?

Funny that you ask that. I'm relearning the basics right now, I'm really surprised at the habits I have that are being refined. Little ways that I can be better. I'm humbled by the experience.

12. How did you feel the first time you dressed in full uniform?

A little embarrassed. Because of shipping issues, I didn't have time to get my uniform pressed or dry cleaned. I felt "less than." My prior military background trained me to take pride in my dress, the way I present myself. In the kitchen it's equally important. I feel proud to wear the Chef's uniform. I'm working very hard to earn the right.

13. Is there anything you dread working with or learning to cook? How about any "gross" ingredients or foods you just refuse to eat?

Broccoli could be voted off the planet forever and I wouldn't miss it. I use it in my cooking but won't allow it on my plate for a second. Cauliflower pulls a close second.  I will, however, happily eat sea urchin, fish row, anything slimy, tasty and obscure!

14. Tell me about your biggest kitchen failure- at home or in school ?

Oh that is easy- one year my husband decided he wanted a "Christmas Goose"for the holidays. Being the accommodating wife, I agreed. Of course the whole family came to dinner, and the goose was the greasiest, nastiest thing I've ever cooked. Luckily I had a backup! Tom the Turkey was roasting quite nicely in the second oven. Urgh! That was a disaster!

15. A few years ago I wanted to own my own bistro- simple menu, two maybe three options changing nightly depending on what was in season and available. Obviously that did not happen. Where do you hope to see yourself 5 years after completing school?

Some friends of ours have a B&B at the entrance to Zion in Utah. They want to sell, we are considering buying. Just a thought, might be fun, I'm just not sure I am a country girl.

Heirloom tomato salad, by Deb.
16. Do your plans include working in a restaurant kitchen or straight to ownership/management?

Definitely an owner- I don't take direction well!

17. Ever consider hosting your own Food Network show or compete on Chopped or a similar show?

I've actually had dreams of being on Chopped. I always choke. I worry about not being able to come up with an original dish. Maybe nightmares is a better word!

18. Another lifelong dream of mine that's currently in the works is writing a cook book- how would you feel about writing a cook book or maybe even an autobiography of your culinary school journey?

I'm not sure my journey is very interesting, but I would definitely contribute to a cookbook. I've got some good dishes in the cupboard, if you know what I mean!

So with that I get to experience, through my friend, the experience of culinary school. I'm so excited to share in her journey and see where her path leads her, and hopefully I will make it to Las Vegas again and can experience her cuisine!

Another MacGuyver Meal gone gourmet

Don't laugh! I am the MacGuyver of the kitchen!! My best friend always says I can take black pepper and an ice cube and come up with a gourmet meal- so that's what I'm going to do tonight. Totally going to experiment with an idea I have been working on for a long time in my head and use my Chef as the guinea pig. Fun, huh?

I've been playing around with the idea of stuffed chicken rolls for some time. I've seen similar things in cookbooks and online, but I just wasn't sure what flavor profile I wanted to go with. Sun dried tomato and ?? Italian seasoned ?? I just wasn't sure. But then I got the idea of glazing......and bacon.....and sweet/hot and crunchy/smoky won out.

As you know, we LOVE hot and spicy here, so I'm going in a spicy direction- jalapeno spicy. Not quite ready to get all crazy with ghost chilies just yet this year. That comes later. I also have to consider my somewhat limited options at the grocery store in town if I'm looking for a special ingredient. In this case, I really wanted goat cheese, but try to get that in a town of 1600 and........cream cheese it is. I will be adjusting that flavor to a little more tangy with a little tiny bit of lemon juice. 

I am also going to make good use of items I already have in my pantry and fridge. Things I have canned myself (don't worry, the recipe will be available as well as substitutions if you don't want to go that route), pantry staples, herbs from the garden......

So are you ready for this "take 3 toothpicks, nail polish, hair ties and build a bomb" dinner?

Blueberry Jalapeno Basted Bacon Chicken

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
sliced bacon (regular, not thick sliced)
8 ounce package cream cheese, softened (I wanted goat cheese but it was unavailable)
1/4 cup chopped candied jalapeno slices  (click for recipe) **
1/2 cup blueberry jam
1/4 cup syrup from jalapeno slices, approximately **
big pinch chopped chives
4 cloves garlic, finely minced 
1/4 cup finely minced onion
Salt, pepper, cooking oil

Rinse chicken breasts and pat dry. Between sheets of plastic, lightly pound out the breasts to about half an inch thickness. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Another option, if you don't want to pound out the chicken, you can butterfly the breasts and fill the pocket with the stuffing mixture.

In small skillet add just a touch of oil and briefly saute the garlic and onion- no need to cook it long, just enough to get the "raw" out. I tossed the chopped jalapeno in there when the onions and garlic were sweated down nicely.

In small bowl combine cheese, chopped jalapeno, garlic, onion and chives. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Taste test it- if it's too "sweet" hit it with a little lemon juice to mimic the tartness of goat cheese.

Divide mixture between the four chicken breasts and spread out but NOT to the edges. Roll up the chicken. Using one or two strips of bacon per breast, roll around the chicken to seal the edges tightly. Secure with kitchen twine or toothpicks.

Transfer to rimmed baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees. A rimmed sheet is important to circulate the heat around the bacon and crisp it evenly.

Meanwhile, combine jam with liquid from jalapenos. Start with half the amount of liquid and check consistency. When you have a nice syrupy consistency, brush or spoon some of the glaze over the chicken and continue baking, glazing occasionally, until chicken is cooked through, bacon is crisp and glaze is sticky and golden, about 45 minutes to an hour or until chicken is 180 degrees.

** The jalapenos I used for this recipe are called Cowboy Candy and you can find my recipe by clicking here. HOWEVER, if you don't have this, or don't want to make it, you MIGHT be able to find sweet pickled/candied jalapenos in the grocery store. There are a few brands that make it. If you cannot, it's ok to use regular jalapenos from the jar but you will want to use LESS for the glaze or it might be too vinegary. Taste as you add it and use caution. You can also skip the glaze altogether if you are unable to find a suitable substitute. I don't recommend fresh jalapenos for this recipe.

I served my Blueberry Basted Bacon Chicken with roasted baby purple potatoes and fresh asparagus. I am a sucker for those cute little baby vegetables when I see them in the store. I sneak them in the cart when I can. Asparagus is one of my very favorite vegetables and even though it's February and they definitely are not in season, I still pick some up occasionally. I love their fresh flavor and crunch when just lightly roasted with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.

And what did The Chef have to say about dinner? He said it "was the best meal he's ever eaten" so I'll take that as a win!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Smokin' in Waterloo

Facebook is one of those things that makes the world very, very small. Even smaller when you join networking groups and start to connect with other people who share your likes and dislikes. Take food, for example. I have met so many amazing food bloggers, writers, foodies, even amateurs like myself who just enjoy meeting people and talking about food!

That's exactly how I got to know Dan Rote. Through mutual friends, a shared laugh at a joke- I can't even remember, but you get to chatting with someone, realize you live in the same state, know a few of the same people and strike up a friendship. Dan lives clear across Iowa from me in Waterloo. We have shared many conversations- football, the crappy weather, the differences between men and women, and food. Dan's current area of interest is barbeque but I will let him fill you in on that. Let's get to know Dan-

1. How did you get your start in the restaurant business?  I have been in and out of the restaurant industry since 1976. I started at a diner style restaurant as a dishwasher, moved to grill cook and learned the world of comfort food.In the late 70s I moved to a pizza and sandwich shop, which served truly hand-tossed pizzas. After that, I managed a pizza joint. I actually got out of the restaurant business in the 80s and spent 14 years in college pursuing other careers. But I kept cooking for friends and family.

2. Opening a barbeque restaurant in Waterloo, Iowa seems a little risky. Iowa is not a hot spot for good barbeque- what made you decide to go this route?   In 2012 I had the opportunity to open my own brick and mortar restaurant in a building I had plumbed while working and a plumber and since the last non-commercial barbeque joint in the Cedar Valley, it was a no-brainer.

3.You mentioned before that you have participated in competitions- tell me about that experience.  In 2004 I started dabbling in barbeque and by 2005  had my first smoker and was holding test cook for 50-75 friends every other weekend in my backyard. I entered my first competition in 2005 and did well. Didn't win the huge prizes but it lit the fire. In 2008 I took the CBJ Class (certified barbeque judge) in Kansas City and started judging in 2009, at the same time refining my barbeque by making and bottling my own rubs and sauces. I only compete in 1-3 competitions a year now, when it fits in with the million other things I do.

4. I've watched a lot of the Pitmaster shows- some of those guys are SERIOUS about their secret rub recipes. Do you have Dan's Secret Rub (and no, I am not going to ask you whats in it)?  I do- I currently have 5 rubs and 6 sauces that are available by special order. 

5. I've seen LOTS of pics of your amazing smoked foods. They look soooo delicious. Tell me about the WORST disaster you've had in the restaurant kitchen.  This one is TOUGH. I have had a few disasters in the kitchen. I am into molecular gastronomy and it's a science that is hot or miss at times. I love to bake, and that is a science also. Creating baked goods that look and taste great can be challenging unless you do it every day. I also cure and prepare meats and sausages and that can get hairy also until you figure it out. One of my biggest faux pas smoking meat was when I had 100 pounds of meat in the smoker. Normally my smoker is a set it and forget it unit I built myself. This day was not the case. I went to get some ingredients and was gone less than an hour and when I returned to the restaurant the smoker was going wild! I had not cleaned the grease from the bottom and it caught fire. Needless to say, I ruined 100 pounds of meat. Second one I can think of was using molecular gastronomy. I need to make a raspberry POWDER but what I ended up with was raspberry GLUE. It was so sticky even the robocoup couldn't turn.

6. If you weren't smoking meats, what would you be cooking? If you weren't cooking, what would you be doing?  When I'm not curing and smoking meats I can usually be found creating comfort food dishes. Most everything you see me post on Facebook every day is what I am cooking as a private chef. I generally make 2 to 6 servings. I love to create new dishes that are comfort food related with a fine dining twist.

7. You're a Denver guy- do you plan to head west at some point and make your mark on the culinary scene in Denver?  Eventually I will move back to Denver. The Denver culinary scene has already seen some of the things that I create. I send food coast to coast for friends and have friends in Denver that are chefs- we trade ideas and recipes often.

8. Who would you say are your influences or favorite chefs ? Influences and favorite chefs- I have MANY. I would say Guy Fieri, since I'm a comfort food/diner guy. I get a lot of ideas from his show Triple D (Diners, Drive-ins and Dives) and he is also a barbequer and does a lot of cool things with barbeque, such as pulled pork egg rolls and sushi. The places that he visits are real places that operate everyday offering simple, yet complex foods that make people smile.

9. Do you have a favorite ingredient to work with? My favorite is beef and second is pork. With those two proteins you can rule the world.

10. You're on an episode of Chopped. You open your basket. What are the worst possible 4 ingredients you can imagine having to cook with? Oh man- durian, stinky tofu, rose water syrup and brains of any kind.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Buenos Nachos!

Actually, this has nothing to do with nachos, really. I mean they ARE a menu item, but not what we were going for. It's a very rare treat for The Chef to have an extra night off, and we like to do something special, or entertaining. Sometimes a movie, sometimes a drive to the city to visit family or friends. 

Tonight we stayed close to home and enjoyed All You Can Eat Tacos at Stuart, Iowa's newest restaurant, Los Altos. If you're not from here you will have no idea about Los Altos. The original restaurant owned by Luis Huerta opened in Greenfield a little more than a year ago and like the family's other restaurants in Shenandoah, Glenwood, Osceola, as well as two locations in Nebraska, was a huge success. Here in poor little Stuart, we had just lost a longtime popular restaurant in town and were suffering from fast food fatigue. That happens when you're on an interstate exchange I suppose.

Anyway, back to Los Altos. 

If you are looking for chain restaurant, pre-made, packaged garbage like ChiChi's and On The Border, stay away. You won't find that here. This is the real deal, homemade food made by Mexican cooks that know their stuff. Everything, and I mean everything I have had on the menu, at both locations, has been absolutely delicious.

The Chef fancies himself a bit of a competitive eater. He hasn't entered any competitions yet but we just haven't found the right one. This one isn't going to be it either- but more on that later. Tuesday night is All You Can Eat Tacos for $5.99. These are not your skimpy Taco Bell tacos- these are REAL tacos, made with chicken or beef, crunchy corn tortillas or soft flour tortillas STUFFED with the most delicious fillings. Fresh lettuce and Manchego cheese top off that juicy beef filling. Filling is the key here- The Chef made it through a mere seven flour tacos. He asked our waiter what the most anyone has ever eaten on All You Can Eat night and he totally floored us with the answer- 30!! So, like I said, this record will not be challenged by The Chef!

Everything on the vast menu is so delicious and fresh. From fajitas to enchiladas to my very very favorite, Camarones Rancheros- bacon wrapped shrimp, served with grilled tomatoes, onions and peppers and sprinkled lightly with Manchego. To die for.

I have never had a bad or even a so-so meal at Los Altos. Every dish is fresh and homemade and authentic. No ChiChi's. No On The Border mass produced garbage. Real. Authentic. Mexican.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

It's NEVER too cold to fish !!

Up here in Winter Land we never stop fishing. Lake frozen over? No problem. Drill a hole and fish in it. Now, while I do not personally own any ice fishing gear I DO have friends who live for the sport, and they catch so much fish they share!! Generous friends are awesome to have!

So we have an abundance of beautiful bluegill fillets. Literally from lake water to my kitchen in a matter of hours. Couldn't be fresher unless I walked across the street and caught them myself from our lake. The majority of them were frozen on a wax paper lined sheet pan and then bagged in freezer bags (easy to pull out what I ant to cook and no frozen lumps of fish), but enough were set aside for dinner.

Now what to do with it. This is going to be a little different than the usual recipe format. I'm just going to tell you what I did, and it's so super simple you will be able to do it too.

Buttery Shrimp and Fish

Butter, garlic, herbs. We are starting right here. Using a good sized skillet (nonstick, stainless, cast iron- whatever you like to cook in), melt about 2/3 of a stick of BUTTER (please please please do not use margarine- you will not get the same result). Add 3 or 4 minced garlic cloves or about a good tablespoon if you use the jars of chopped garlic (which is fine, we use it too). Give that a minute or so to soften the garlic but not brown. Bring the heat up a little and add 10 peeled and tailless black tiger shrimp. Allow the shrimp to cook about 2 minutes, then flip over. At this time add the fish to the skillet (see note below).

Cook another couple minutes until the shrimp are done and the fish is ready to turn. Flip the fish and set the shrimp on top to prevent overcooking. Give the pan a nice hit with the herbs or spice of your choice and a big squeeze of lemon juice (add some rind if you like). I used chives and thyme. You can go anywhere with seasonings- southwestern, Asian spices, Italian herbs, whatever you love.

I served the fish and shrimp over a bed of quinoa that was also cooked with thyme and garlic. Delicious !! Drizzle lots of the buttery sauce in the pan over the dish. Some home-canned green beans alongside and......Heaven!

Ok, a couple things about the fish. I used bluegill fillets.They are small and pretty thin. They cook quickly. If you are using a thicker fillet of fish you can either start the fish first or remove the cooked shrimp and add back to briefly reheat. Just be sure the fish is cooked just until it flakes and the shrimp are not overcooked into rubber chew toys. If you like one but not the other- leave it out- go all shrimp,or all fish, it's your dish! I also didn't give a quantity of fish fillets- again, that depends on your appetite and how many people you're feeding. It was just the two of us and bluegill are small fillets so I used 6. Just adjust your amounts accordingly. 

This would also be amazing served over pasta. I'd also like it with mashed potatoes.

Now.........what am I going to cook up with all the rest of that fish ?????