Posts Categorized: Mississippi Mirth

Mississippi Mirth: Chicken Noodle Soup


A Chicken in Every Pot
…Or the magical powers of chicken noodle soup
By Jim McCaffrey • Originally published in the Winter 2012-13 Inspire(d)

Which came first the chicken or the egg?

Honestly? Who cares. Both are delightful ingredients for a winter/cold/flu season staple: chicken (egg) noodle soup!

Chicken noodle is not just any soup. It’s a soup that is cherished by many cultures throughout the world. Many different versions abound. Today ours is made from scratch with handmade egg noodles. Oh yeah baby, not your mama’s Campbell’s Soup, that’s for sure.

So lets get started. Broth is the key ingredient. You can use canned or boxed chicken broth. NOT!! (Well, maybe in a pinch, I guess. NOT!!!) Using a homemade broth in soups is just so far superior to the store-bought versions. There are a couple of ways I make my own broth (and you can too!). At the restaurant, we bake a lot of chicken. And, consequently, we have a lot of pan juices that we save. Think of it as liquid gold. We let the juices cool, and skim off any fat that might rise. The juices are then poured into plastic containers with tight lids. These we date using freezer tape and store in our freezer for future use. We pull out as needed, oldest first. Since we are constantly using the juices for soups and gravies, we don’t have to worry about shelf life, but if you’re not breaking out the big pots as often as us, a year is the max to store and I personally would toss after six months. When ready to use, thaw your stock-base out in the refrigerator the previous day. This base is naturally concentrated, so all you have to do is add water and seasonings (salt, pepper, herbs to taste) to fill out your soup. This works well if you have leftover chicken that you’d like to toss into a soup.

Another great way to make broth is to take a whole plucked and thawed chicken, remove the liver and any excess fat, and put it, along with about three to four inches of water, in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cover. Cook for about an hour. Usually, when the chicken floats, you are good to go. To make sure, use tongs and grab a leg. If it becomes detached, chicken is ready to go. If not, simmer a few minutes longer. Remove the chicken and let broth cool. Skim off the fat and it’s time to make soup, with your chicken AND stock ready to go.

Congratulations! You have just passed Chicken Broth 101!


Let’s move on to handmade egg noodles. Every good egg noodle has a story behind it. Mine goes like this: I was living in Iowa City in the early 1970s. Every few weeks I would come back to Decorah for the weekend. I have some great friends, Steve Olson (Ole) and Juanita Riveria (Goochie). They were living up by Burr Oak, it was winter, and I arrived at the door. “Come on in.” I walked into the kitchen and here was Goochie covered with flour, rolling out dough that almost completely covered the four by six-foot wooden kitchen table. “What’s going on, Goochie?” I queried. “Well, Barb Winter gave me a couple of chickens and I’m going to make chicken noodle soup. But first I have to make noodles and you can help.” I reply, “Ok, I’m in, but I’ve never done this before.” Fortunately, for Goochies sake, I am a quick learner and soon we were slicing the dough into long noodles and draping them onto any available space to dry. Backs of chairs, hung over counters, off of the table, etc. Man, noodle art at its finest. It would have made Andy Warhol proud. Thanks for the lesson, Goochie! If you have never had fresh-made egg noodles you are in for one of life’s great treats. I guarantee it is bliss.


After all that noodling, it’s time to really sweat. Veggies that is. Like your mother always said, eat your vegetables! I like to sauté the veggies that I put in my soups. When they start to get soft, they also start to lose their water. I find this accentuates the vegetable flavors. The unami of soup flavor. Add it all to the pot. Yummy, to say the least. Of course we still have to have seasoning. The key word here is fresh. Just remember fresh is best when it comes to herbs. In almost all of my soups I like to use fresh thyme. It is extremely versatile. Then I crank it up with additional herbs. My mom was a big fan of sage. Although she primarily used dried herbs, she always said sage should be a big part of poultry dishes. And I always listened to my mom. You should too. Your mom, I mean, not mine. So into the chicken soup the fresh sage goes.

Now that your chicken soup is seasoned, put it to use for another season: the giving season. It’s all about sharing with your loved ones and friends, and a great way to start off this year is to divvy up a steaming hot bowl of chicken soup for everyone. Pass around some crusty bread and pour a crispy white wine. Enjoy the camaraderie and spread the love. This also works for the cold/flu season as you share the healing powers of chicken soup. It’s truly a magical winter concoction.


Jim McCaffrey is a chef, author, and co-owner with his family of McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita restaurant and Twin Springs Bakery just outside Decorah. He is author of a humorous cookbook titled “Midwest Cornfusion.” He has been in the food industry in one way or another for 40 years.


Chicken Noodle Soup

1 3 1/2 -4 lb. whole chicken
1/3 cup olive oil
6 stalks celery, chopped
4 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
Homemade egg noodles (recipe to follow)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 sprigs fresh thyme, minced
1 Tbl fresh sage, minced
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Remove liver and excess fat from chicken. Place in a large pot and cover with water by 3-4 inches. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for about an hour. Meanwhile, pour olive oil in a large skillet. Sauté celery and carrots over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add onions and garlic and sauté 3 minutes more. When chicken is thoroughly cooked (see column directions) pull from broth and let cool. Let broth cool somewhat and skim broth off. When chicken is sufficiently cooled remove skin. Remove meat from bones and dice. Bring broth back to a simmer. Add sautéed vegetables and noodles. Add lemon juice and spices, adjusting as needed. Soup is good to go when noodles are nice and chewy.

Homemade Noodles

1 1/2 cups flour
2 eggs
2 teaspoons salt

Make a mound of flour on your work surface. Make a well in the center. Whisk eggs and salt. Place in well. Slowly, by hand, mix flour and egg mixture until eggs are incorporated. If the mixture is to dry, add water a little at a time until you have a pliable ball of dough. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes. Divide in half. Roll out each half as thin as possible. Take a sharp paring knife and cut into strips, however wide you want your noodles to be. Hang off of counters and chair backs to dry, about an hour.


One Pan(ish) Wonders!


Just Keep It Simple

By Jim McCaffrey. Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols

My lovely wife, Brenda, and I have been hanging out together for nearly 36 years. Wow! Seems like only yesterday that we were making googly eyes at each other while shooting pool at the Cavern bar on Winnebago street. Now there’s a blast from the past. Speaking of blasts, we used to entertain a lot. As a matter of fact, when I was writing my first cookbook, Midwest Cornfusion, there were people at our house every weekend for the better part of a year helping taste-test the recipes I had come up with during the week. Sometimes we would have 15 or 20 people show up on Sunday afternoon to indulge and voice their opinions. And perhaps partake in a favorite beverage or two. I have a friend, Eric, who was working on the road for three years. On weekends he would come with his son, Sern, and we would both cook for the kids and all of their friends for a couple of days. Young men growing up and having a couple of dads feeding and nurturing them: It doesn’t get any better than that.

Now, because of our crazy schedules at the restaurant, entertaining is virtually at a standstill. In fact, just making something at home for the two of us on our scarce time off can prove to be a challenge. I suspect that we are not the only rowers of the upstream boat-of-life who do not have time to lift the paddle out of the water, take a break, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. These days it seems everybody is working full time, raising two and a half munchkins, being soccer moms and dads, and – in other words –just being busy. So I decided we should look at making dinner a little less challenging. In other words: Let’s keep it simple, baby. I happen to follow the food blog Iowa Girl Eats. Kristin, the blogger, is a busy mom with a one-year-old son… same age as my grandson, Rowen. Brenda and I babysat him the other day for about six hours. Whew! I don’t know how young parents can manage all of that energy! One pan wonders to the rescue! Kristin posted a wonderful recipe called One Pan Mediterranean Chicken Pasta. Everything cooked in the same pan – no muss, no fuss. I will pass it on to you at the end of this column. By the way, Kristin was recently diagnosed as having Celiac Disease, meaning she is on a gluten-free diet. Her recipe used Barilla gluten free penne. I have been working on a gluten-free mac and cheese for the restaurant and tried Barilla elbows. I liked them better than wheat noodles. The gluten free industry has come a long way, baby. Well, at least Barilla has. Be adventurous, try some. You may have a new road to follow.

Back on the blasts from the past, Brenda and I traveled to Rome and Naples, Italy probably 10 years ago. We booked the trip through a company called Tourcrafters out of Chicago. The trip was for sightseeing but also to study making pizza in wood-fired ovens. So when Tourcrafters found out we wanted to stay in Naples, they got us a room at the Grand Hotel Oriental in the downtown area. Reasoning being we were coming in by train and apparently there was a lot of pick-pocketing activity at hotels near the train station.


So, after we got settled in, we went to the front desk and asked if there was a restaurant that served wood-fired pizza for lunch within walking distance. “Sure: Bellini’s.” They gave us a map and out the door we went. Around the corner there was an old man standing on a doorstep with a single rose in one hand, ringing a doorbell with the other hand. All of a sudden, another man walks up behind him and picks the old man’s wallet right out of his back pocket. So much for downtown Naples hotels. We decided to grab a cab instead. Now you ask where am I going with this diatribe? Let me assure you there is a method to my madness. After returning from a wonderful meal and service at Bellini’s, we retired to our room to rest up for awhile. Later, when it was time to replenish our bodies with some Italian substance, we decided to try out the hotel dining room. It was stately, with fine white linens, plush white curtains, and the maître d’ was dressed to the nines in a three-piece white suit. Something told me we weren’t in McDonalds-country anymore, Dorothy. I honestly cannot remember what I ordered. And it doesn’t matter. Brenda’s discerning eye caught the hidden gem of our entire trip. It was a charming dish of risotto and asparagus tips. Neither one of us for some reason or another had ever had risotto. Brenda took her first taste and exclaimed “OMG Jim. You just will not believe this dish. Try it! Try it!” Who could resist that arm twisting? Ahhhh! Sheer bliss.

So this is what nirvana is all about. I think I could immerse myself in this type of pleasure for a very long time. Risotto is made, most commonly, from a short, fat rice called Arborio rice. It has the unique ability to absorb a lot of moisture. The choice for that is usually a good chicken stock, preferably homemade. The result is a luxurious and creamy entrée that certainly is in my top ten faves. And the best part of the whole dish is that it is extremely easy and quick to prepare. You will never use Uncle Ben’s again! The Inspire(d) tasting-team comprised of Benji, Aryn, Brenda, Fawn, James Ronan, and myself. We had a leisurely lunch out on the restaurant patio – just what a busy crew needed. Do yourself a favor, keep cooking to a minimum, and just enjoy the experience of food, family and friends.


Jim McCaffrey is a chef, author, and co-owner with his family of McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita restaurant and Twin Springs Bakery just outside Decorah. He is author of humorous cookbooks “Midwest Cornfusion” and “Mississippi Mirth”. He has been in the food industry in one way or another for more than 40 years.


Mediterranean Chicken Pasta

¼ cup olive oil
2 large chicken breasts (cut into 1” chunks)
Salt and pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken broth
15 oz can quartered artichoke hearts (cut in half)
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
½ lb penne pasta
2 Tbl lemon juice
2 Tbl drained capers
1 cup cherry tomatoes (halved)
1 cup parmesan cheese
½ cup chopped fresh basil

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Salt and pepper chicken. Sauté until golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Do not cook too thoroughly. Add garlic and sauté 30 seconds more. Add chicken broth, artichoke hearts, red pepper flakes, ½ tsp salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Add pasta and make sure it is all covered with broth. Place a lid on top and turn heat down to medium. Simmer for 2 minutes less than package directs. Remove lid and add lemon juice, capers, and tomatoes. Turn heat to high for 2-3 minutes to reduce sauce. Remove from heat and add in parmesan cheese and basil. Let set 2-3 minutes to thicken before serving.

Lemony Asparagus and Shrimp Risotto

5 cups chicken broth
¾ lb asparagus, trimmed (Cut into 1 inch pieces)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced fine
4 Tbl unsalted butter, divided
1 ¼ cups Arborio rice
¼ cup dry white wine
¾ lb medium shrimp (peeled and de-veined)
3 Tbl lemon juice
¼ cup grated parmesan
2 Tbl chopped parsley

Bring broth to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Spread asparagus out on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and set under broiler at high heat for 4-5 minutes. Be careful not to burn. Set aside. Sauté onion in 2 Tbl butter in a 4-quart heavy saucepan for 5 minutes over medium heat. Stir occasionally. Add rice and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add wine and continue stirring until absorbed. Add ½ cup of broth and briskly simmer, stirring often, until absorbed. Keep adding broth ½ cup at a time letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is creamy and tender but still a little al dente (about 18 minutes). There will be leftover broth. Stir in shrimp and cook until pink (2-3 Minutes). Add asparagus, butter, lemon juice, parmesan, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.

Spring Brunch


By Jim McCaffrey • Originally published in the Spring 2014 Inspire(d)

The grips of winter are behind us! Let’s party! Church lutefisk and school chili suppers are so last season (literally) – but spring is the perfect time to invite friends over for a noon get-together of food and drink – maybe even outdoors!

Middle of the day parties can be highly uplifting and delightful. The great thing is that they can be so diversified – eggs mingle on the menu with pork loin. Coffee is served alongside cocktails. We tend to say if it’s after eight and before noon, it’s brunch! The rest is up to you, and the possibilities are endless!

We belonged to a group of five couples that used to get together every six weeks or so to have food and camaraderie. The hosts of the event would make the main dish and everyone else was assigned a side dish. Usually, there was a theme to work around. Everybody would dress up accordingly and group pictures were always on the agenda. I decided to shake it up a little and do a noon brunch.

We decided to go with a Hawaiian theme – a somewhat traditional luau. And I did what any shanty Irishman would do: Armed with a mere shovel, I proceeded to the backyard and promptly dug a hole. Well, actually a pit: A firepit. It just so happened that I had a partial hog grate on hand so I dug the pit so the grate could lie on top. Next step was to procure a hog. Actually, a suckling pig. Fifty pounds of pure pork.

Since banana leaves were nowhere to be found, I decided to buck tradition and cover the pig with a heavy-duty canvas tarp. On the day of the big hoopla, I was up at 6 am, filling the pit with charcoal and split hardwood firewood. In a couple of hours, we had a great pile of hot coals and it was time to let the games begin. After placing the grate over the coals, I laid the pig on top and covered it with a piece of canvas heavily soaked in water. Six hours later, our guests arrived and the party commenced. Things got off to a good start. A round of mojitos were in order, accompanied by an appetizer consisting of quartered red and yellow peppers topped with herbed creamed cheese and grilled chicken breast. Yummy! Next we dined on a mandarin orange and almond salad. The main course was, of course, loads of tender melt in your mouth pork, served with red potato salad and
gingered carrots. Everyone was drooling. Seeing that this was a Hawaiian theme, what better finish than a pineapple upside down cake? Oh boy! A few Mai Tais were passed around and we were good to go. It doesn’t get any better than that.


Most brunches that I have attended or been involved with, though, have at least some sort of egg component. So I decided for this diatribe I would focus on three different dishes that all use eggs but are totally different from each other. That is the beauty of brunch. I started out with a new salad that I recently created for our restaurant. We call it the Dolce Vita.

As a base, I am using a lettuce called charita, suggested to me by a local family we work with from West Union who are year-round growers of lettuce and herbs. They know what they are talking about. It is tender, sweet, and melts in your mouth.

However, if that is not available, a spring mix of lettuce would be totally acceptable. I then added one sliced hard-boiled egg per salad. Ok, ok. I will give you the secret to perfect-every-time hard-boiled eggs. Rule of thumb, the older the egg the easier it is to peel. That being said, cover your eggs in water by an inch and bring to a boil.
Boil for one minute and remove from heat. Let sit for exactly twelve minutes. Then drain and run cold water over in your sink until eggs are cool. Works all of the time for me, anyway. Back to the salad. I then added some chopped bacon, onion, pecans, and avocado. Topped with an orange balsamic and ginger vinaigrette and some grated parmesan, it’s a meal in itself.

Next, I have a simple recipe for potato latkes. Traditionally, they are served in the Jewish culture for Hanukkah. They are simply a hash brown and onion that is fried and then topped with sour cream and chives. You are going to love it.

Finally, I’m including a recipe for a great French toast. Brenda and I spent a wonderful week camping at Cape Cod with friends a few years ago. On our way back, we stopped for breakfast at a small café. Brenda ordered a dish called French Kiss. “OMG Jim” she cried, “You just have to taste this!” It basically was French toast stuffed with cream cheese and strawberries. I’ve done an Irish interpretation and included it for you. We had an “Inspire(d)” bunch the other day. Aryn, Benji, and foxy Roxie were in attendance, along with James Ronan, Brenda, myself, Fawn and our lovely granddaughter, Stella. I served the following recipes and everyone was delighted. Brunch is a wonderful activity to involve your friends with. There is just a myriad of possibilities to put together. So get out there and enjoy!


Jim McCaffrey is a chef, author, and co-owner with his family of McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita restaurant and Twin Springs Bakery just outside Decorah. He is author of humorous cookbooks “Midwest Cornfusion” and  “Mississippi Mirth”. He has been in the food industry in one way or another for more than 40 years.

RECIPES (click to print)

Dolce Vita Salad (serves 4)
12 oz lettuce
8 oz cooked bacon, chopped
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled
2 avocados
½ onion, sliced
24 whole pecans
Fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Divide lettuce into four bowls. Add chopped bacon to each. Carefully slice and add one egg to each bowl. Slice each avocado in half  the long way. Remove pit. Carefully remove with a tablespoon the avocado meat from the skin and slice. Add to each salad. Place six pecans on each salad. Generously spread vinaigrette on each salad (recipe follows). Sprinkle with fresh Parmesan.

Orange Balsamic Ginger Vinaigrette
4 Tbl onion, minced
2 Tbl Garlic
4 Tbl brown sugar
6 Tbl orange juice
2 Tbl ginger, minced fine
5 Tbl white balsamic vinegar
3 Tbl course grainy mustard
5/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a food processor or blender. Blend together. With the machine running, slowly add olive oil. If you can’t find white balsamic vinegar, substitute regular balsamic wine vinegar.

Potato Latkes
2 cups uncooked hash browns
1 Tbl grated onion
1 egg, beaten
2 Tbl flour
1 ½ tsp salt
½ cup peanut oil

Sour cream
Handful of chives, chopped small

Place potatoes in a strainer. With a paper towel press as much moisture out as possible. Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed skillet until hot. Use a large spoon to scoop hash browns and form four patties in skillet. Press down to 1/4 inch. Brown one side, and then the other. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot and cover tops with sour cream and chives.

French Kiss
8 slices of bread of your choice
3 eggs
1 Tbl sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Cream cheese filling:
8 oz softened cream cheese
2 1/2 Tbl cream
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
8 oz fresh strawberries, sliced and diced

Mix cream cheese filling ingredients until smooth. Spread filling on all pieces of bread. Press two slices together to form a sandwich. Repeat. Mix eggs, sugar, and vanilla in a bowl. Dip sandwiches in egg mixture and fry in butter until both sides are golden brown. Top with your favorite topping. We used real maple syrup.

That’s All Folks!