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 big 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."

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Long Overdue Foodie Girls' Weekend

I mean seriously long overdue. With moving, adjusting to a new job and life's every day challenges it's been a while since I've been able to get out and explore some fun foodie destinations, so when the chance to head to Missouri to visit my friend Mary, I knew I'd have to do it. You might remember Mary. She has shared recipes with us before and has an amazing selection of recipes from her "labouratory" in The House on Vine. The House on Vine is located in a quaint small town about 20 miles from Hannibal, Missouri, and is a mecca for friends who are looking for a fabulous dinner or a spacious and welcoming porch to relax and enjoy a cocktail to wind down. Mary's front porch is the perfect all American spot- wide overhang, big white pillars, loads of shade and comfy furniture, accented with pots of beautiful flowers and colorful candles to light the night. Wispy outdoor curtains flutter in the breeze. It's so perfect.

So anyway, we made plans to spend a weekend doing fun foodie things. I arrived in town on a gorgeous summer afternoon and was treated to a tour of the town. The weekend was wide open- do we cook? Do we eat out? Mary has planned ahead and has everything on hand to make a light dinner of grilled bruschetta caprese or a pear and brie pizza, but after visiting a while we decide to head to the local Mexican spot for dinner and a margarita. Dos Primos in Monroe City was a great dinner spot. Like my favorite Mexican place out by the lake Dos Primos is a family owned and operated restaurant with delicious food and fantastic margaritas.

We were both ready for a cocktail when we got there and who passes up a margarita in an authentic Mexican place? Not us!! Mary decided to go with a house special- a salad topped with grilled steak and I had the Pollo Vallarta- a thin-pounded chicken breast, seasoned and pan seared, topped with grilled shrimp, queso blanco and vegetables. It was so ridiculously good. We left full and happy and headed back to the porch for a glass of wine before hitting the bed. Tomorrow we planned on getting up bright and early and heading to Quincy, Illinois, and Hannibal for more fun and some foodie adventures.

Mary has fresh quail eggs! We simply MUST play
in the kitchen with these guys!!!
Saturday was a bright, sunny and warm day- perfect for some touristy stuff. Mary made us a light breakfast of avocado toast with tomato and a couple slices of bacon- it hit the spot and staved off the hunger until lunch time. As we headed out I got to see a little more of Monroe City including a produce resale shop, where the local Amish bring their produce to sell. I got a nice bag of fresh green beans and a bunch of onions to bring home with me, and then we were off on the road.

I got the tour of Quincy and we stopped at a couple shops, then headed to the riverfront for lunch. The Mississippi River makes quite an impression if you've never seen it. Riverboats, barges and small boats were all out and about that day. Like a tourist, I took several pictures. Right on the riverfront is a cute little restaurant and bar called Chicks on the River.

It reminded me of the Court Avenue District here in Des Moines- exposed brick inside, lots of patio seating and an open kitchen. The restaurant features "lips" which turn out not to be lips at all but a chicken breast filet which is battered and fried and served with all sorts of delicious things. We both chose the Spud with Lips, a great big baked potato with cheese, onion, bacon, ranch, sour cream and chicken tossed in your choice of sauce. I chose the barbeque (because I have been craving barbequed chicken for weeks) and Mary chose Buffalo. Oh man.... talk about delicious! The batter  is light and crispy and the chicken stays so juicy. The barbeque sauce was sticky, spicy and sweet.

As a side we split the Mushroom Fries- a huge portabella mushroom cap sliced, battered, fried and served with dipping sauce. I had never tasted anything like this and would gladly drive back to Illinois just to have one!

After lunch we headed back across the river to Missouri and were on our way to Hannibal. We saw a few touristy sights, and went downtown to stop in the Mississippi Marketplace- which is exactly the kind of store I love. The shelves were lined with gourmet spices, mixes, teas, coffees, candies, and kitchen gadgets and dishes. Kitchen towels were displayed everywhere, and incredibly enough I resisted buying any, nor did I buy anything from the large display of Rada knives, though I was very tempted. We browsed, sampled, browsed some more and made our selections.

The next stop was Java Jive. This cool little coffee haven boasts a large menu of sandwiches and baked goods, loads of tempting coffee drinks and teas, Italian sodas, soups and more. The room is filled with comfy couches and chairs and beckons for you to sit and relax a while. We sure did. Mary ordered an iced chai tea and I had the ginger peach iced tea which was fabulous!

We toodled around town after, passed the Fiesta Del Sol Craft Beer Fest downtown and headed to our dinner destination, LaBinnah Bistro. Set in an old Victorian home that some claim to be haunted, LaBinnah is an enchanting restaurant with cuisine from all over the world. Soft lighting warms the room, draped ceilings give a romantic feel, and a gorgeous fireplace as the focal point in the dining room makes this restaurant truly special. We started out with a glass of wine- Chardonnay for Mary and Pinot Grigio for me.

The menu is surprisingly large and varies from American style dinners such as grilled steaks- HUGE steaks, as we saw on our dining neighbors' table, to Turkish and African specialties. Mary's choice was The Chicago, an unbelievably juicy and tender roasted chicken breast with an apricot ginger medley, lightly steamed asparagus and new potatoes. It was so succulent and tender- I have never in my life seen or tasted chicken so tender.

I chose the South Pacific, a large portion of great big shrimp with lime, herbs and coconut, grilled not fried like so many other coconut shrimp, served with the same vegetables. The shrimp were huge, perfectly cooked and expertly seasoned. The potatoes were draped in an aioli that was just like velvet and so flavorful. This was truly a very memorable dinner.

The dessert menu was massive. I've seen many many many dessert menus and at the most, they may feature five or six items. This dessert menu had no fewer than twenty offerings. Cakes, tortes, truffles, cheesecakes, and housemade baklava. I bet you can guess what we chose. I've never had baklava before, if you can imagine that, so we split dessert and it was heavenly. Loaded with walnuts between layers of tender filo, sticky syrup and just a little fluff of whipped cream on the side. So so so delicious.

We capped our Saturday night with another evening on that gorgeous porch, with the cool summer breeze blowing, and a chocolate martini for a nightcap.

Sadly......weekends don't last very long, and neither did this one. It was time to head back to Iowa way too soon, but you can bet Mary and I are already planning our next Girls Weekend adventures.