GUEST POST: A VISIT TO CREME CUPCAKE

Every now and again, I ask folks from the community to contribute to The Formaro Files, especially if they have a food experience worth sharing. So, here’s one to get us rolling – this entry, written by local food writer Tom Perry, is an account of recent visit he and his wife made to Crème Cupcake, 543 28th St., Des Moines. 

Since opening a little less than a year ago at its new location just north of Ingersoll Avenue, Christina Moffatt’s Crème Cupcake has made a sweet transition from bakery to sophisticated nightspot. Sure, the cupcakes there are amazing. Proof of that came just last month with Crème Cupcake’s star turn and runner-up finish on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. But for an honest-to-goodness, change-of-pace experience, go in the evening (perhaps after dinner) to Crème Cupcake’s dessert lounge; a place where desserts and cocktails are paired.

Smart and sophisticated: “Violet” it’s blueberry semifreddo, Himalayan sea salt, chevre, butterfly soup. Pictured with the Violette Bubbles.

Prior to our visit, we had heard only praise for the evening scene at the place. One friend called it “smart and sophisticated.” Another described it as a “great way to cap off a night out.” They were both right on the money. Crème Cupcake’s dessert lounge is truly a special place, with an urbane vibe all its own.When we arrived on a Saturday evening, after taking in a performance downtown, every table in the cozy dining room was taken. We grabbed two spots at the small bar – this gave us front row seats to the non-stop whir of the cocktail-making show.

Even though it was a warm evening, I had been craving a port wine. After I ordered, I regretted my decision, only because it didn’t give me the chance to sample the talents of Blake Brown, Crème Cupcake’s chief mixologist. My wife was smarter than I – she ordered “The Upper West Side,” Brown’s riff on on a cocktail with roots in New York City. Made with Grey Goose vodka, mint leaf, lemon juice, simple syrup, and Secco Bubbles, strained up, the drink was amazing.

Blake Brown at Crème Cupcake: A mixologist who honors tradition by putting his own spin on classic cocktails.

Now a word about Blake Brown: Blake first made a name for himself cooking up fantastic, classically-inspired cocktails at Des Moines’ Americana. He’s a guy who takes his craft seriously – when asked about his motivation, here’s what he’ll you:

“What inspired me to do classic cocktails is the long tradition of bartending and mixology. I wanted to take the time and study up on something that is meaningful. Hopefully, someday, I will be part of that tradition. And the best way to learn your trade is to start with tradition.”

For our dessert, we decided to share the Chef’s Dessert Sampler. For me, one rule of thumb is that if you’re not sure what to order, go with the chef’s choice. We were rewarded with the three perfectly-portioned desserts being featured that evening. Key lime pie, pan perdu and the chocolate crème brûlée were plated in such a way they were almost too pretty to eat. Each dessert was splendid – I’m a guy who loves to eat, but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. Still, I enjoyed every bite. What I most appreciated is that while some restaurants try to cut corners with their desserts, Crème Cupcake drills down its focus on dessert – and you can taste it.

Key Lime Pie as featured in the dessert lounge of Crème Cupcake – a perfect summertime treat.

Our experience was totally positive. The only caveat to the recommendations we’ve been making to our friends has been that the place can get packed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The bustle can create a lively vibe – anyone who prefers mellower settings might be wise to visit on a weeknight. Whenever you decide to visit, an evening at Crème Cupcake is a great way to cap a night out.

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FORMARO FAVORITE: MR. BIBB’S

Sometimes when you walk into a place, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. From the décor of the room to the equipment in the kitchen, the place is like a fully operational time capsule. To me, these places are always some of the best – they don’t update or change with the times because their track record shows they don’t need to!

Several restaurants jump to mind when I think of a classic spot, unchanged by time – and one of my favorites is Mr. Bibbs. It’s a very small “joint” – a minimal building sporting counter service at a semi-open kitchen and six booths set against the walls. The surprisingly large menu includes everything from classic burgers and ham and cheese sandwiches to fried catfish fingers and shrimp baskets.

Mr. Bibbs is like a fully-operational time capsule – great food paired with classic decor.

The burgers are solid, 1970’s fast-food-style lean pre-pattied beef; with their fat-to-lean ration, the patties don’t shrink much. Cheeseburgers are adorned with ketchup, onion and pickle if you desire. All of this is set on what I refer to as “white squishy bakery buns” – a traditional bun that’s the perfect choice when you are jonesin’ for a classic drive-in burger. Mr. Bibb’s also features crinkle cut French fries expertly fried and salted to delicious, crispy perfection. Although the fries are frozen, I don’t hold that against them – they’re too tasty!

Although their burgers are great, that’s just a nice aside to the real purpose for my visit. Any time you visit a place for the first time (or even after an extended absence), you always need to ask what the restaurant might be known for. You wouldn’t want to walk into a whorehouse and order a biscuit now would you? (Ok, if I owned the joint, you might!) Whenever I read a restaurant review, I want to be drawn there by something – especially that special item that’s the star of the menu.

A Mr. Bibbs meal for two – featuring their signature pork tenderloin.

If you read a review on Mr. Bibbs and they don’t mention the pork tenderloins – crumple up said review and throw it directly in the trash! This place is known for tenderloins – the “Iowa Skinny” or “Pork Fritter,” depending on who you talk to. This iconic midwestern sandwich’s invention is claimed by both Iowa and Indiana – I prefer to think of it as an Iowa product, but don’t mind sharing the love with every other state in the nation! (For further reading on tenderloins, you might enjoy The Pork Tenderloin – Iowa’s Edible Icon by Jim Duncan. Also Des Loines, a great blog for tenderloin-lovers.)

Whoever was manning the fryer has serious skills – this tenderloin was fried to perfection.

Pork tenderloins are often imitated with frozen alternatives, sometimes chopped, formed back together and served at carnivals and ballparks. These imposters are to be avoided!  Like Mr. Bibbs, the best tenderloins are hand-made with a single piece of meat pounded flat – when you can get one of these breaded babies, I suggest you do. Mr Bibbs uses a well-seasoned, cracker breading; their tenderloins are fried crispy, but are surprisingly free of the greasy heaviness of some tenderloins. You get a choice of toppings and a nice, squishy, old-school white bun. The onion rings have a similar cracker breading – a lost art when it comes to onion rings.

Mr. Bibb’s is a classic Iowa joint – a little bit off the beaten path, completely free of hype, and a must-visit to experience one of Iowa’s iconic foods.

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HOT DOG PARTY 3: ENCASED YOU MISSED IT

Are there two more beautiful words in the English language than “encased meats?” Probably, but nothing comes to mind.

It may not come as much of a surprise that bratwurst, sausages (both smoked and fresh), hot dogs and even vegetarian versions of these all hold a special place in my heart. They can be simple or extravagant and are easily and quickly prepared for an impromptu party (a “sausage party,” if you will), especially at this time of year. They can play starring role in big tailgating productions and low-fuss family get-togethers alike. And after a night of indulging in fizzy lifting drinks, they taste pretty good in your very own 1 a.m. after-hours kitchen bar.

Gateway is the exclusive retailer for the new Big Mo’ Brat, which tastes fantastic, especially in a South Union Bakery bun.

If you’re searching for unique, delicious encased meats, look no further than Gateway Market. We have a great selection of special brats, sausages and dogs worth highlighting.

As some of you might know, we have used Carl Blake’s Iowa Swabian Hall pigs at both Centro and Django. They are a unique Iowa breed, a heritage version of a prized German pig raised at Blake’s Rustik Rooster Farm near Frederika. These hogs are also cousins of the very fatty Chinese Meishan pig and the muscular Ossabaw pig, a wild breed from Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Georgia in the United States. They have a particularly tasty fat that makes them a perfect candidate for encased meats – especially bratwurst. Over at Gateway Market, we have teemed up with Mo’ Rub, an independent, Des Moines-based spice maker, to be the exclusive retail distributor of the Big Mo Brat! Stop by the meat counter at Gateway to try the now-famous Iowa pork, which has been featured on Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern and the Colbert Report.
Gateway Market is also making some very tasty brats and Italian sausages in-house, both cased and bulk. We also offer sausages from Chef Martin in Chicago, which specializes in European-style products.

Portuguese-style sausage is something totally different to put on the grill this summer. It can be found near the meat counter at Gateway.

If you’re looking for a different type of sausage, try the Amaral’s Portuguese sausage (Linguica and Chourico) in the cooler case adjacent to the meat counter. Gateway might be the only place west of the Mississippi to offer these sausages which are popular in the Portuguese-American neighborhoods of southeastern New England. An Iberian relative of Mexican chorizo, these garlic-paprika-laced Portuguese sausages are best cut to bun length and butterflied before being grilled over charcoal. (They can also be sliced or diced and served with eggs if it rains on your cookout.)

I love these Boar’s Head Beef Frankfurters, which can be found in the open cooler near Gateway Market’s cheese counter.

Other stars in the sausage stables would be the Boars Head hot dogs, which as I mentioned last week are quite possibly one of the tastiest dogs I have ever had… and that’s saying something! (You will find these dogs in the cooler to the north of the cheese counter at Gateway.) The Niman Ranch sausages and dogs hold a special place in my heart and stomach because I love those people and their products. The hot dogs are especially good cooked over charcoal – get a nice char on them for optimum flavor!

Gateway has all kinds of encased meats that you’re sure to love. Today is the final day of our “Meat Sack Sale” – 15% off any and all meat you can fit in a reusable shopping bag, so be sure to stop by before firing up the grill for all your Independence Day festivities. Let the “Hot Dog Party” begin!

You can check out the previous two “hot dog party” blog posts here and here.

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HOT DOG PARTY 2: LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL

Last week we coined the term hot dog party – an “association of the sexes where the eating and enjoying of hot dogs is the chief amusement.” So now, here we are, ready to let the hot dog party and the good times roll.

For me, hot dogs are a year-round food. But they certainly gain in popularity when grilling comes back into fashion. I have been waiting all winter long to do a post about dogs and here at long last it is – the season for sharing a few of my tips.

A Few of My Tips for Dogs

As mentioned in my previous blog, great dogs can be made at home, easier than most celebrated foods. Here are a few of my thoughts on what makes a great dog.

  • I like a plain, charred dog with mustard, onion and kraut. But unlike my taste for a very simple pizza or burger, I tend to go all out with dogs.
  • Using a grill? Nothing is better than charcoal or wood! Gas grills are fine, but if you can throw a few chips or let some grease drip onto the grill and make smoke, the dogs will taste better!
  • If you are boiling a hot dog, more is better. The flavor increases as you let those puppies stew in that water!
  • Frying dogs gives some dogs great flavor and texture. For Jersey-style rippers, the idea is to let the sausages split before you pull them from the fryer.
  • Chili for dogs should be thick! There’s nothing worse than runny chili on a dog.
  • Why limit yourself to hot dogs or the obvious substitution, brats? Try subbing other sausages and encased meats for a tasty spin on the average frank. Gateway Market has a fine selection of cased meats, which we’ll cover in my next blog post.
  • As with most food, quality matters for hot dogs, too. You have a lot of choices out there, many of them quite inexpensive. But in my view, Boars’ Head dogs are some of the best of the dogs I have ever had. I know we all use the words “best ever” all the time, but these Boars Head dogs can be enjoyed plain without any fancy accompaniments!

Dogs From Across America

While I am a fan of a great-tasting naked dog, I also encourage giving into creative impulses. When it comes to hot dogs, nobody does it better than the good ol’ USA.

The list below will give you an idea of the regional divide and, perhaps, inspire some interesting flourishes at your next hot dog party.

  • Detroit Coney: A Michigan frank is served smothered in Greek-style all-beef chili, raw white onion, yellow mustard, and shredded cheddar.
  • Chicago: Yellow mustard, relish, chopped onion, tomato slices, sport peppers (spicy pickled green peppers), a pickle spear, and a dash of celery salt sit in a poppy-seed bun with a Vienna all beef hot dog.
  • Southern Slaw Dog: What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have? At the Varsity’s famous drive-through, Atlantans order their hot dogs “dragged through the garden”― sliced bun with coleslaw.
  • New York City: A hot dog sold from the typical sidewalk cart (aka, “dirty water dog”) is adorned with little more than brown mustard and onions stewed in tomato/chile sauce.
  • New England: A real New England hot dog is served in a roll with flat sides, like we use at Zombie Burger and sell at Gateway Market. The roll can be toasted, but is more often buttered and “griddled” on the sides. The typical toppings are mustard, relish and onion; ketchup is rarely seen. The New England style bun is the same bread of choice for Lobster rolls.
  • D.C. Half Smokes: These are a cross between a smoked sausage and a hot dog and are smothered with a spiced, no-bean chili; mustard and chopped raw onions.
  • Alabama Birmingham Style: Hot dog with ground beef (mildly seasoned) sauce that resembles BBQ sauce (not too sweet) and topped with sauerkraut.
  • Jersey Rippers: These are dogs that are dropped in a fryer. Popular ordering styles are the in-and-outer (in the fryer for a short time) to the cremator (these are left in the fryer for a long time and are considered very well done). Traditional dog relish is a mustard flavored cabbage relish.
  • Italian Fried Hot Dogs: A variation on the ripper with a fried dog,fried potatoes and fried onions in fresh Italian bread.
  • Sonoran Hot Dog: A Sonoran hot dog is a bacon-wrapped hot dog put into a soft Mexican roll topped with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno sauce, cheese, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. They usually come with a roasted chili on the side – sometimes even with roasted green onions. Some have sour cream.
  • Hawaiian Pukka Dog: It’s a grilled posh sausage in a bun with a hole in it. The bun is toasted from the inside. Tropical relishes and sauces and mustards.
  • West Coast Dogs: Toppings like pastrami, nacho cheese, bacon, chili or whatever. All things are a go with some very creative hot dog creations, especially at the famous Pink’s in Hollywood.
Zombie Burger’s New Jersey Rippers
Finally, I want to talk about our hot dog selection at Zombie Burger + Drink Lab. Our current lineup of New Jersey Rippers have a loyal following, but I have been saying since day one that I wanted to expand our hot dog menu. In the gear-up for this blog post, I got together with Zombie Burger executive chef Tom McKern for a special work session (OK, it was playful fun). We experimented with different topping combinations and shot some photos, which we happily share here. Some of these dogs may soon be stalking patrons at Zombie Burger… stay tuned! Many of these can easily be made when you’re grilling at home or ’round closing time when that 1 A.M. home bar is open for business!

 

Some cool slaw tops off this BBQ Dog

 

The Chicago Beef Dog captures flavors of the Windy City.

 

This dog is for anyone who can’t get enough Crab Rangoon.

The Trailer Park Dog features thick chili, corn chips and cheese sauce.

 

Shrimp and a tangy sauce make for a perky Creole Dog.

 

This is our Dog of the Dead. It won’t kill you.

 

Onions on The French Dog will have you saying “Oui!”

Greek flavors can be found on the Gyro Dog.

 

Here’s a dog for when you’re craving kimchi.

 

Seafood lovers will love latching their claws on to a Lobster Roll Dog.

 

Pastrami works on dogs! Here’s a frank with pastrami, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato.

 

Pastrami again with the simple deli flavors of Swiss cheese and mustard.

 

The Philly Dog brings home all the classic flavors of Philadelphia’s famous sandwich.

 

Rich gravy and amazing fries make the Poutine Dog an over-the-top treat.

 

A popular potluck dish inspired the Taco Dip Dog.

 

Y’ all might enjoy The Southern Dog with bacon and slaw.

 

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THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR A HOT DOG PARTY!

The hot dog is one of my “hall-of-fame” foods. By now, you’re probably aware that the foods that excite me the most are those “everyday classics,” just made with quality ingredients and done at an exceptionally high level.

Hot dogs fall into this category. And, with summer here, the time is right for throwing a hot dog party! So will be taking a close look – in three parts – at these seasonal icons. With the Fourth of July fast approaching, I’ll share some dog tidbits and history that fascinate me. Also I’ll take a quick look at the local hot dog scene. Then, next week, we’ll dive in to all the amazing combinations possible out there. After that, we’ll go in another direction with European-style brats – the grandaddy of the hot dog – and other encased meats!

Let your imagination run wild with hot dogs.

Great burgers and pizza are difficult to do at home, but not impossible. Sourcing great beef and buns has become easier, especially since we opened Gateway Market. Quality ingredients like our signature George’s Grind and South Union Bakery buns are simply going to taste better than run of the mill stuff. And I’ve posted a lot about making great burgers at home.

As for pizza – I have always said that I wanted Gateway Market to be like a crack house for pizza addicts. With all of the prepared dough, assortment of flours and topping inspirations throughout the store, we’re accomplishing that mission. But sometimes special grills and stoves are required for designer burgers and pizza. That gets us to the tubed meats!

Hot dogs are made for home experimentation. They can be basic, or the can be a show-stopper if you give in to creative impulses. No matter what, you can make a killer dog in the comfort of your own home (or deck). When we opened Zombie Burger + Drink Lab we placed some special dogs on the menu. We’ve always intended to go back to revisit them, but I’m happy to report that there are some other great places here in Des Moines for a sausage fix, including longtime favorites Ted’s Coney Island and Jim’s Coney Island, the recently-opened Hotshots, Capitol Pub & Hot Dog Co., and a German sausage stand at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market.

Here are some of my favorite books that tell great hot dog stories.

A LITTLE HISTORY

All hot dogs are descended from sausages; it’s kind of the way all dogs are descended from wolves. Sausages have been around for centuries, but the earliest use of the term “hot dog” is in the Sept. 28, 1893 edition of the Knoxville Journal. Previous terms used for our beloved dog were “frankfurter” and “red hot.” Meanwhile, in Europe, the Viennese referred to them as “wieners.” The cartoonist T.A . Dorgan of the New York Journal is said to have immortalized the name “hot dog” in a 1906 cartoon – there is little evidence that this is true, but this legend has been a long time favorite of ours.

Since I am a bread guy, I was fascinated by a detail about the bun that I came across recently. One recipe for buns in a 1907 baking book refers to them as “Columbia Rolls” because they were sold in very large quantities at the Columbian Exposition during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. If you’re interested in food history, as I am, I’d recommend checking out the book “The Great American Hot Dog Book: Recipes and Side Dishes from Across America.” by Becky Mercuri.

A BIT OF CRAZINESS

Ok , so I geek out on some pretty crazy shit, I recently was in search of slang terms for food and came across a 1942 copy of The American Thesaurus of Slang, quite possibly the most entertaining-in need of cheering up, no-brainier read EVER!

After giggling my way through slang terms for various bodily parts and functions (including my favorite, a petting party – an association of the sexes where the exchange of caresses is the chief amusement), I turned to the section that actually drove me to buy the book in the first place – food slang. (Of course, had I known of this chief amusement thing earlier, I would have purchased this sooner!)

So now here we are at hot dogs, which are also known as barkers, beagles, bow-wows, Coney Island blood hounds, dogs, frankfritters, franks, German Dogs, ground hogs, hot pups, puppies, hounds, links, picnic specials, purps, weenies, winners, dachshunds, long frankfurters, tubbies, short frankfurters, bulldogs, husky dogs, pups, Scottie dogs, teeny-wienies, chili dogs, Coney Island red hots, Coney Islands and red hots.

Throw some chili on them for hounds on an island, sub in sauerkraut for chili for dogs in the hay or dogs in manure, Fido and Shep and bale of hay, strings and pig, or wienies and kraut. Frankfurter sandwiches were barkers, beagles, bow-wows, wiener sands, clowns, dogs between sheets, dogs-on-it, growls, or zeppelins in a hanger.

And my addition to the book, a hot dog party, an association of the sexes where eating and enjoying of hot dogs is the chief amusement!

Gateway Market has an impressive variety of fresh brats this summer.

SO MANY DOGGONE CHOICES

We proudly give dogs and sausages a lot of love at our places. Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, Django and Gateway Market offer a variety of options. The legendary New Jersey Rippers at Zombie Burgers have been a hit since we opened. The Django Dog is a grilled house-made sausage, in a griddled challah roll with caramelized onion on Dijon mustard that I really like. Meanwhile, Gateway Market has some new hand-made sausages at the meat counter that are going to taste fresher and better than most sausages shipped in. For example, Gateway is proud to be the exclusive retailer for new, locally-made brats from the folks at Mo’ Rub.

That said, I would like to give some shout outs to other aforementioned places to go in Des Moines for hot dog or sausage fixes. Two venerable institutions, Jim’s Coney Island and Ted’s Coney Island, both have loyal followings for good reasons.  These locally-owned spots both honor tradition by focusing on the basics and doing it well, day-in and day out.

Hot Shots is the new kid on the block in Des Moines. At 1220 Locust St., James Bruton and Tony Lemmo’s recently-opened lunch spot is a good place to see just how creative you can get with hot dogs. “Gourmet dogs worth relishing,” is how The Des Moines Register described the sandwiches served there and that seems right. I had a great-tasting sausage dog that was a riff on the Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich with pickled onions, carrots, cilantro and mayo. Their Cincinnati chili is especially tasty and there are choices that let you go a little more guilt-free if you like.

Capitol Pub & Hot Dog Company opened a couple of years ago at 400 SE 6th St., which at the southern edge of the East Village. A popular place for sports fans, Capitol Pub offers more than a dozen hot dog choices. Again, they gave in to their creative impulses. Oh you can “go naked” there, but they also came up with dogs that are tempura battered or bathed in Buffalo wing sauce, or slathered with nacho cheese and, this being Iowa, of course there is a dog that is wrapped in bacon, crisped in the deep fryer and served with cream cheese.

Another place I like to get my sausage fix is at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market. Located at the western edge of the market on Court Avenue, Michael Leo’s Strudl Haus has long been known for serving outstanding pastries and great Dutch Letters. A few years ago, he introduced different types of European-style sausages. Leo has weiss wurst (pork with parsley), nuerenburger (pork and veal), knack wurst (mild pork and beef sausage) and Vienna sausage (pork and beef sausage), just to name a few. These are more in the tradition of German bratwursts than hot dogs. But what you might like about these is they will give you a great-tasting sense of how and why we started our  all-American love of hot dog parties!

NEXT UP: Start your own hot dog party with some inspiration from Zombie Burger Chef Tom McKern and me!

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NOW IS THE TIME TO BUY LOCAL

New pennants went up recently on the lamp poles at Gateway Market. One of the pennants displays the words, “We Cater to Local.” If timing really is everything, then this particular message was perfectly placed. Finally, we have arrived at the dawn of Iowa’s farm-to-table season. I know I have blogged about local before, but this is something I believe in. Buying ingredients when they’re in season gives you a huge advantage in the kitchen. You can create the simplest, yet best tasting of recipes with ease.

A sign of the times at Gateway Market.

Growing up, I knew that summer had arrived when my dad’s garden would come into maturity. We celebrated with the season’s first Italian tomato salad – most Italian-Americans know this one. A simple recipe of tomato wedges, sliced onions, peppers, chopped garlic, fresh basil, a pinch of dried oregano, salt, pepper and oil. We usually left out olive oil because it would harden when it gets cold, but we have changed that part of the recipe. And we would devour a whole loaf of bread tearing it piece by piece and dipping the bread in the juice that naturally occurs in this salad. It always amazed me that the longer the salad sat, the more sauce seemed to appear!

You can get all those ingredients (and some great bread for dipping) at Gateway Market. The Gateway team works hard to provide customers with high quality local produce and products. Not everything, of course, is all local all the time. But Gateway is proud to be a Des Moines-area leader in buying and promoting local. The reasons for this are twofold: First, fresh, local produce simply tastes better. Second, buying from Iowa farmers helps the local economy.

Chefs and serious home cooks know there’s a link between the quality of ingredients used in a dish and the flavor profile of that dish. It’s pretty simple math. As soon as a vegetable comes out of the ground it starts to deteriorate. It is as if the flavors begin jumping ship instantly.

Local asparagus is great for simple recipes.

Something as simple as a grilled asparagus panini with cheese and herbs is great! Here’s an instance where less can be more. The same idea works with the other local vegetables. Slice them up lengthwise and toss them with a little olive oil, salt, seasoning, garlic, thyme, basil, or whatever, and pop them on the grill right next to the steak.

Squash blossoms are one of my favorite things in the garden. A simple recipe is to wash them in water, dredge them in seasoned flour, then into beaten egg, followed by grated Parmesan cheese. Shallow fried in oil until crispy, squash blossoms can be magical.

This is a also a happy time for our restaurants. We are committed to local products whenever we can get our hands on them – we buy more sustainably raised pork then any restaurant group in the state, and contract with local farmers to raise goats and lambs specifically for our restaurants. At Centro, Chef Derek Eidson is currently using raspberries grown by Khanh and Neil Hamilton at Waukee’s at Sunstead Farm.

“These early raspberries are perfect. Not too sweet, not too tart,” Chef Derek says. “I puree them with Lindemann’s framboise to make sabayon filled tarts.”

Derek’s also looking forward to baby leeks, fennel and beets. “Their sweetness is great this time of year, before they get too big.”

Chef Derek’s favorite: Red Tropea onions from Cleverley Farms in Mingo. “Their sweetness, flavor and appearance is unmatched. They are perfect for pizzas, pastas and salads,” Chef Derek says. “They are also great salt-baked and finished with a nice olive oil.”

Iowa sweet corn will soon be here.

Corn, corn, corn! Our Iowa sweet corn is a few weeks away now. But once the season begins, some people will eat corn on the cob several times a week. No need to get fancy with fresh Iowa sweet corn – it’s too good to mess with!

Also, salads should be in the same “keep-it-simple” mode during the farm-to-table months. Get some local lettuces or greens and dress them with a fine olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, shallots, your best vinegar and spoon of Dijon mustard. Pair this salad with some bread from South Union Bakery and you have the perfect warm weather snack.

Mozzarella made by hand at Gateway goes perfectly with basil and tomatoes grown here in Iowa.

A lot of Iowans grow tomatoes. So do local farmers. Whether from a backyard garden or a farm, these tomatoes will make a huge difference in sandwiches. BLT, or just T with mayo. Here’s an idea worth repeating: Toasted South Union Bakery bread, Ceverley Farms or Sunstead Farms arugula, Niman Ranch bacon, mayo and tomatoes (local tomatoes straight from the vine will taste so much better; pretty soon they’ll be everywhere and you gotta use them).

As the summer transitions to fall, the taste of the season changes and you’re in prime vegetable-roasting and soup season. More on that later. Right now, I’m just happy we’ve reached the time of year when we can finally “cater to local!”

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THE DAY THE MUSIC STOPPED

I romanticize many things in my life. Hopelessly in love with food culture and history, I can can get caught up in the song and dance of nostalgia and sentimentality. I enjoy eating on vintage plates and cooking on antique cookware. I love restaurants in historic buildings and collecting old cook books (the more dog-eared, the better).

Lori Dowie Reeser passed away Monday. Her leaving hit me hard. Executive chef at the Iowa Culinary Institute – DMACC since the 1980s, she was so much more than simply one of my cooking school instructors.

I will always know her as “Chef Dowie,” a friend and mentor to whom I owe so much. “Chef” is a term I don’t use lightly; in fact, I insist that no one call me that, perhaps because I have such great respect for those I still call “chef.” Chef Dowie holds that status for me; if there was ever anyone that was bigger than the game, it was Chef Dowie.

Chef Dowie used to remind us that what we in our business call a “line,” the French call a “piano.” It was such a romantic notion for me; anyone one who loves this business can understand why. Cooking is truly is like making music. If you know me, you know that I love being on the “piano” – the melodies are sweet and satisfying. It’s almost like its not even work to me.

When I got the news about Chef Dowie, I was unable to play the song I’ve played for the past 25 years or so. For me, the melodies went quiet and the music stopped. I needed some time to regroup. But after one day, Chef Dowie got in my ear. “Get your ass back in there!” She brought me pack to the piano, of course.

A picture I snapped from another photo published in the Des Moines Register back in Nov. 11, 1987. Chef Dowie’s in the middle; I’m the bearded guy on the right.

In my professional career, I feel I owe a debt to those who believed in me when I found it hard to believe in myself. Those are the people who were with me through thick and thin. I work everyday to make sure I never let them down. Chef Dowie is chief among them.

When she first arrived on the scene at DMACC, she was tough! Her personality was more like what you would encounter in a real restaurant – not the traditional classroom setting. She was confident and knowledgeable, like a walking, talking food dictionary. She always had very high standards and expected us to do things the right way. She was hard on me – I know now it was because she could see the potential in people before they could see it in themselves.

I’ll always remember an important lesson I learned in one of her labs. I wouldn’t always follow the exact procedure in our recipes; this would result in her docking points from my overall lab score. This specific lab, I was making some pasta dish under a tight deadline. I didn’t have a pot to boil the pasta in, so I used what we call a six-inch hotel pan to get it done (incidentally, I would do the same thing today if need be). She saw it, made me stand in front of the class and said “George – what did you learn today?”

“Don’t GET CAUGHT cooking in hotel pans.” I said. She made me repeat my statement for the class – she knew I wasn’t going to change the way I said it (with the emphasis on “GET CAUGHT”)!

She could be a stickler. But she also allowed us to “color outside the lines” and not follow a recipe to the exact specifications… so long as the technique was followed and the recipe tasted great. That encouraged me to challenge recipes and understand the difference between a good one and a bad one. She pushed us hard, knowing who was going to be in the industry for the long haul and who was not. We had a great class; some of them are not in the business any longer, but I sure would like to get the band back together again for one last gig!

When I was at DMACC, I was juggling a full time job, raising a family and going to school. It was the start of an extremely hard road for me, but I always felt she was looking out for me in the early stages of my career.

Then, over time, things came full circle, as they sometimes due in life. For me, one of those full circle moments came when my son Anthony Formaro was accepted to the Iowa Culinary Institute. I was especially pleased to know Chef Dowie was one of his favorites, and I felt that she was looking out for him too, just like she did for me.

A few years back Anthony was accepted for an internship in France and I decided to go along; I was hoping Chef was going to go, too, but she was unable to make it. Had she gone along, I can just imagine all the things we could have seen and done in France.We often talked about the great French chef and culinary writer Auguste Escoffier, who many regard as the father of modern French cooking.

Even though Chef Dowie couldn’t make the trip, I wanted to give back to those students the way the ICI and she had given to me.,. so I made sure that we dragged our asses out of bed early to visit all the bakeries and markets we could get to. I think we squeezed two trips in one!

When I was in school, there was no internet or Food Network; you learned the most by learning directly from other people. Chef Dowie helped take my love for classical cooking and food history to another level, and I am still inspired by her work and dedication.

This week, in the quiet, I’ve been caught up in all my fond memories of Chef Dowie. She will never really be gone to me. Although she won’t be around to look out for any more long-haired, bearded, loud-mouth kids like me, I’ll do my best to carry on her habit of recognizing and cultivating the potential in people… even if they don’t know it’s there.

We used to talk about how cool it would be to meet Escoffier… put in a good word for me, Chef!

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GUEST POST: SAVING CLEVERLEY FARMS

Today, I wanted to share this guest post from my sister-in-law Rachel Formaro addressing a local news story that came to light in the last week or so. Larry is a great friend – not only is he a big supplier of locally-grown produce to Orchestrate restaurants, but he is also a supporter and patron of our properties.

SAVING CLEVERLEY FARMS (Guest post by Rachel Formaro)

Upon moving to Iowa, it didn’t take me long to become what I’ll lovingly call a “Farm Geek.” Yes, there is the famous Downtown Farmers’ Market. But I attribute much of the passion I’ve developed for understanding farming and local organic foods to farmer Larry Cleverley of  Cleverley Farms and his wife Beth.

I first met Larry many years ago, when he, my brother-in-law George, and George’s business partner Paul came to visit San Francisco on a food, market and restaurant reconnaissance trip. Tom and I met up with George, Larry and Paul a couple of evenings for dinner in the city – Delfina and The Slanted Door (put them on your list if you ever visit).

When we moved to Iowa a couple of years ago, we reconnected with Larry and met his wife Beth. When Larry introduced a flexible CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, we were among the first to sign-up. We have also attended their Spring Garlicpalooza for the last two years, despite the rather miserable weather for the event this past Memorial Day weekend.

Larry and Beth are incredibly welcoming at their farm. They want their customers (most of whom become friends, as we did) to see and know where their food comes from. I’m happy to say that my daughter’s first tastes of spinach, salad greens, rapini, cantaloupe, and yes, nettles, all came from Cleverley Farms.

So, it struck me all that closer to the heart when we found out last week that the Iowa Department of Transportation has proposed highway re-design plans that would result in Larry losing his home and half of the acreage (including all the acreage they have been growing their produce on for the last 17 years). There are two proposals the DOT is considering. As reported by the Des Moines Register one plan would take all three houses on the land—Larry’s house, his father’s house and his sister’s house.

The DOT’s proposed plans hope to reduce the number of fatalities and accidents in the area—apparently largely resulting from a poor highway design in the first place. When I spoke with Larry though, his point was that there are other alternatives to consider first, such as a reduced speed area with a stoplight.  It seems reasonable to start with a solution that doesn’t wipe out a farm that has contributed to the well-being of so many, and destroy the home and history of a family that has been there for 85 years. Not to mention the comparative cost to taxpayers.

What can we do about it? Sure, the mighty DOT has eminent domain rights, but we all have a voice we can use. If you want to help support Larry and his family and their efforts to continue providing the community with certified naturally-grown food, I invite you to do two things:

  1. Provide a public comment to the DOT on the proposals
  2. Keep up to date by visiting the Cleverley Farms’ Facebook page where they expect to have an online petition activated soon

I’m looking forward to many more Spring Garlicpaloozas, seeing my daughter walk those fields every year and pointing out to her where she first took a nap near the spinach.

(Also published at Des Moines is NOT Boring)

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GETTING AN EARLY START ON SEASONAL FOODS

Welcome to the dawn of local food season!

I love using fresh, local ingredients when they’re available. I still like to enjoy the best products from around the world, too… wine from Piedmont, olive oil from Sicily, cheese from France, salt from Trapani and oregano from the mountains of Greece. And let’s face it: if you love seafood as much as I do, it’s not coming from any waters near Des Moines.

But we live in a part of the world that is special to me; an area that offers huge access to fresh ingredients for a good portion of the year. There are so many amazing things we can do with what we can get in season; at Gateway Market, we are seeing the early-season bursts of green. Asparagus, stinging nettles, ramps, arugula, and spring garlic are all climbing to the stage. To me, spring garlic is like a promissory note that an onslaught of local veggies is on its way!

Speaking of spring garlic: many years ago Larry Cleverley (an area farmer well-known for his excellent produce) and I were on a nationally-televised show called “The Best of…” (I like to joke that it was my 15 minutes of Food Network fame). The program featured South Union Garlic and Potato Soup. This is one of my favorite soups and recipes; I still use today all these years later. Here’s the recipe… I think you’ll enjoy it, too!

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/the-best-of/south-union-spring-garlic-and-potato-soup-recipe/index.html

 

This Ricotta Gnocchi recipe is ideal for showcasing early-season veggies.

This is a great time to start incorporating fresh produce into your meals. Even if a recipe doesn’t call for it, adding or substituting local veggies can give a fresh spin on some fantastic dishes. Early in the season, toss spinach and sliced asparagus in the gnocchi recipe below. Then change it up over the course of the summer using different ingredients, depending on what’s freshest.

Ricotta Gnocchi

This is one of those extremely easy and versatile dishes. I like to think of it as an easy “no recipe recipe” since it’s so easy to change up with different seasonal ingredients. For example if you can get your hands on morel mushrooms, definitely throw them in for a delicious treat. Also, you can add cherry tomatoes in with the butter, as I did here.

Ingredients (serves four)

  • 1 pound ricotta cheese
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
  • 3/4 to 1 cup 00 flour
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups leeks, cleaned and chopped. (If they’re in season, try using chopped ramps)
  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 cups loosely packed stinging nettles, chopped (if nettles aren’t available, sub spinach)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (plus extra to season water for pasta)
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved (or seasonal whatever seasonal tomatoes you prefer, diced)
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese
  • And if you are not over truffle oil, feel free to drizzle a bit over each dish of gnocchi

Preparation

Line a strainer with three coffee filters or paper towels; place it over a bowl. Add the ricotta and let it drain for about an hour. (This can be done several days in advance.)

In a large bowl, mix the strained ricotta, egg, grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese and 3/4 cup of the flour until all ingredients are incorporated. Let it rest for about 15 minutes. Dough should not be sticky; if necessary, add additional flour a tablespoon at a time. Refrigerate dough for another 15 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove.

Sprinkle a baking sheet/cutting board, your work surface and hands with flour. Break off a ball sized piece of the dough and roll it on your work surface into a log about 3/4-inch thick.

Using sharp knife or a dough scraper, cut the log into ¾-inch pieces. You can leave them as is or shape them into the traditional grooved gnocchi by rolling them off the back of a fork with your thumb.

Transfer this batch to the baking sheet and toss with flour to prevent sticking. Repeat rolling process with the remaining dough.

Add 1 tablespoon of salt to the water and half of the gnocchi. Gently stir the gnocchi to make sure they don’t stick. Once they rise to the surface, let them cook an additional 2 minutes. Remove gnocchi with a slotted spoon and transfer to a colander set over a bowl to finish draining. Repeat with second batch of gnocchi.

Melt the butter; sear gnocchi in melted butter until lightly brown on one side.

Heat a large sauté pan or pot. When pan is heated, add olive oil. Then add nettles, ramps, mushrooms, garlic and salt.

Cook until all the liquid has evaporated and vegetables are done.

Toss in the seared gnocchi. Heat thoroughly and add the butter and grape tomatoes. Toss until butter is melted, then garnish with Parmesan cheese and truffle oil.

Toss the gnocchi with sauce and serve immediately, or sear in butter, let brown then add sage and parmesan, season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

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JUST LIKE MOM USED TO MAKE

Memories of Mom in the kitchen can bring a twinkle to the eyes of anyone. But when you get a group of chefs and cooks together (particularly those over the age of 40), sooner or later the conversation steers toward reminiscing about their favorite childhood foods that Mom used to make. A lot of us can remember that Mom didn’t always use measurements, but the food was still remarkably consistent.

My Mom and Bella, my daughter, with me at the old South Union Bakery in Des Moines around 2006 or so.

Back in the day, my mom stayed at home and took care of the house and the four of us kids, which was hard work. Almost all meals were cooked at home. We seldom went out to eat, and when we did it was for a special occasion.

The Sunday meal was my favorite, by far. Mom would start preparing early in the morning and would typically prepare a huge meal of pasta and meatballs. If I was lucky, mom would make rigatoni (my favorite choice for cut of pasta). The Sunday “sugo” started out with olive oil and finely minced garlic and onions, cooked until they were done but not yet brown. Then tiny riblets (the cut end of a rack of ribs still held together) were added and cooked. Occasionally, pieces of chuck roast, sausage, chicken or tiny meat rolls called “braciole” found their way into the sauce. She would season everything with a small amount of dry basil, a bay leaf and black pepper. Next, she would add a few cans of tomato sauce, tomato paste and water to make a thin sauce.

As the sauce began to simmer, mom would mix the meatballs. These consisted of ground beef, freshly grated bread crumbs, Parmesan, fresh parsley, fresh basil and eggs. She mixed everything just enough to bind it all. The meatballs would be fried in a small amount of oil. Then Mom had a trick – she would hard fry the meatballs dark brown, cooking them only about half way in the center. When meatballs are only partially cooked they get penetrated and braised by the simmering sauce. She also filtered the frying oil between paper towels to re-use it – and as you know, this results in some great flavored oil!

Mom’s sauce would simmer for several hours until all the meats were “fork-tender.” The meats would all be removed and placed in a large bowl to be served on the side, as is done in Italy. Mom would boil the pasta and add a small amount of oil followed by a bit of sauce. The last step was dishing up giant bowls of pasta for each of us, topping each portion with additional sauce. If you ever came to my house for dinner you might be amazed at the size of the portions; but with the care and attention that went into Mom’s Sunday “sugo,” you would not be surprised by the extended generosity.

To me, she was “Mom,” but her friends knew her as “Gina,” (short for Giaocchina.) Here we are again inside the old South Union Bakery.

Here are some other favorites of mine:

Sicilian Eggplant Relish

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 – 3/4 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 large sweet onion, peeled and chopped
  • 4 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 cup large green olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1 jar capers (3 ounces), drained
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 large firm eggplant, diced
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 6 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1  1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

Preparation

First, place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with salt and let drain for at least 30 minutes. Prep the other items while eggplant drains.

Pre-heat a deep pot over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When heated, add peppers, onion, and celery to the pot. Once vegetables are all in, increase the heat a bit but do not brown. When veggies are done remove from pan.

Place pan back on heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pot. When heated, add the eggplant and brown.

When the eggplant is done, leave in pan and add back vegetables. Toss in olives, capers and garlic. Stir in tomato paste, vinegar, sugar and water. Add toasted pine nuts and cook on low heat covered for 25 to 30 minutes.

Zucchini Fritters

This is a great recipe for late summer and fall when zucchini is fresh and plentiful. The yield will be about 10 2-1/2 inch fritters.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (about 2 medium) zucchini
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus extra to taste
  • 2 scallions, chopped (greens and white)
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 4 leaves fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Olive oil (or another oil of your choice) for frying

To serve (optional)

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 small minced or crushed clove of garlic

Preparation

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Have a baking sheet ready.

Trim ends off zucchini and grate them on the large holes of a box grater. In a large bowl, toss zucchini with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Wrap the zucchini in a clean dish towel and wring out the moisture. You can also place in a colander and press all the liquid out.

Add zucchini to a stainless steel mixing bowl. Stir in scallions, egg and some freshly ground black pepper. Mix together flour and baking powder, then stir the mixture into the zucchini batter.

Add Parmesan cheese, chopped garlic, dried and fresh basil. Mix thoroughly.

In a large heavy skillet (mom used a cast iron pan that looked like it was 100 years old) heat 2 to 4 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Drop large spoonfuls of the zucchini mixture onto the skillet only a few at a time. Flatten with the back of a spoon. Cook the fritters over moderately high heat until the edges underneath are golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over and fry them on the other side until browned, about 2 to 3 minutes more. Drain briefly on paper towels then transfer to baking sheet and then pop into the warm oven until needed. Repeat process, adding more oil as necessary.

Arancini

This is a recipe for fried rice balls. The dish is believed to have originated in Sicily in the 1100’s.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 2 pound bag arborio rice
  • 8 cups of vegetable stock or chicken stock (kept warm)
  • 1 package saffron powder
  • 3 cups grated cheese: You can use provolone, mozzarella, Swiss, young Asiago or a blend.
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh garlic
  • 1 / 2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon chopped parsley

Breading

  • 2 cups flour
  • 6 eggs
  • 4 cups Italian bread crumbs (or fresh made)

Preparation

Heat a large sauté pan. Add the olive oil, followed by minced onion. Sauté the onions, careful not to brown.

Add rice and cook for I minute. Add white pepper and saffron powder and turn heat to low.

Add heated stock 1 cup at a time, letting it get absorbed by the rice before adding the next cup.

Repeat until rice is al dente. You may need more or less stock, depending on your cooking preference.

Remove the rice from the heat and spread out on a cookie sheet to cool for about an hour
You can do this a day ahead if you like.

Add Parmesan cheese and grated cheese, fresh garlic and parsley.

Once cool, roll the rice into little balls and  bread using standard breading procedure: roll into flour, then roll into egg followed by an even coating of bread crumbs.

Fry at 350 until golden brown and cheese is melted.

To serve, spoon on marinara sauce or meat ragu with peas on each rice ball as you serve them at them. Yum!

(Variation: You can add a cup of a combination of the following: diced pepperoni, salami and coppacolo when you add the cheese.)

A RECIPE FROM ANOTHER MOM

Speaking of Mom recipes… Rene Onofre, a cook at Django, shared a family favorite with me recently. Back in Puebla, which is in southern Mexico, his mom, Sandra Camocho made the best beans. Known as “borracho beans,” these legumes are different from the refried beans familiar to most North Americans. Note that a bottle of dark beer is used, which is probably how “borracho” (or “drunk”) beans got their name!

BORRACHO BEANS

Ingredients

  • 4 quarts water
  • 2 pounds of pinto beans
  • ¼ cup of lard
  • 2 medium-sized yellow onions
  • 1/2 lb chorizo
  • 1 lb fresh authentic chicharron
  • 1 lb smoked bacon, diced
  • A couple sprigs epazote (dried or fresh)
  • 1 bottle dark beer
  • 1 cup of diced tomatoes
  • Cilantro (to garnish)
  • 1 pound of carnitas (to garnish)

Preparation

Soak beans in water overnight.

Place water with salt in a sauce pan; add pinto beans. Let it cook until the beans cook almost tender.

In a separate pan, heat 1/4 cup lard, sauté onions lightly then add the chorizo, chicharron, and smoked bacon. Cook until done, then add to pot of almost-tender beans with the beer and epazote.

Let simmer about two hours in a low flame. Don’t forget to stir. Taste.

When beans are tender, add diced tomatoes. Stir slowly and simmer for about 20 minutes longer.

Serve in a bowl and garnished with about 3 to 4 ounces of shredded carnitas and finely chopped fresh cilantro. If you want, you can add some spicy kick with some fresh jalapeños or chipotles in adobo sauce.

So there you go; plenty of dishes straight from Mom. You can bet she never pulled out a recipe card to make these at home; but for the rest of us, these steps will get us a little closer to recreating those Sunday favorites from our childhood!

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