Posts Categorized: Mississippi Mirth

Tapas Talk


By Jim McCaffrey

In 1976 my childhood and lifelong friend, James Ronan, and I decided that in order to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America, we would travel to Southern Europe. We would immerse ourselves in some of the diverse cultures that have combined to make up our vast country. In other words, we were looking to party hearty. As opposed to working for a living, seven weeks of backpacking, traveling by train, and hanging out in youth hostels seemed like nirvana. So we both went out and bought ourselves a bible. Not the King James version. Arthur Frommer’s version. Europe on Five Dollars a Day. No self-respecting backpacker would be without a copy.

However, it was almost the trip that wasn’t. We were going to fly on Icelandic Airlines out of O’Hare. We caught a ride with our good friends, Bruce and Karen, and stayed overnight in the suburbs. In the morning we got up and got moving. All of a sudden I heard a “What the H…?!?” from James. It turns out that his passport and wallet were missing. They were conveniently sitting on Bruce’s coffee table back in Decorah. It would be impossible to make a mad dash back to Decorah and return in time for the 5 pm boarding. James called Bruce’s then-roommate Steve Matter (Quality Chicks) and somehow convinced him to go on a road trip. Dave Stanley rode shotgun. They made it with 10 minutes to spare. Whew, that was close! After profusely thanking our knights in shining armor, we boarded and headed toward Luxemburg.

We didn’t have a clue of what we should be doing. We met a young woman on the plane headed to Paris. So we tagged along. In Paris we procured some cheese, baguettes, and wine at a little neighborhood grocery and headed to a youth hostel. There we ran into a young man from Australia named Sandy Aich. He had, unbelievable as this may seem, an ITINERY. In the morning we hooked up with him at breakfast and decided that an organized plan was much better than no plan at all. Sandy was headed to Boudreaux and on to the southern half of Europe. We left Paris without even checking out a museum, a church, or Pere Lachaise Cemetery (final resting place of the late great Jim Morrison). Like I said, we didn’t have a clue.

After a great day in Boudreaux sightseeing and drinking delicious wine we headed to Zaragoza, Spain where our friends, Jim and Janice, were living. Getting there was, to say the least, a little bit hairy and scary. At the French and Spanish border we had to change trains. The train track in Spain was of a different width then that of the French. It was midnight and the train station is deserted, locked, and out in the middle of nowhere. The three of us sat on benches outside the station, smoked cigarettes, and try to be nonchalant. Definitely not on Sandy’s ITINERY. Finally a passenger train backed into the station. We boarded. It had old wooden seats out of the 1900s. No heat but at least we were moving. Well, sort of. Two hours later at 3 am, the train stopped in the middle of another nowhere, surrounded by the La Guardia, the national military police. They were holding sub machine guns and ordering everyone off the train along with baggage. Our backpacks were ripped open and contents dumped unceremoniously onto the desert dirt. All we could do was just sit there and hold our breath. Finally, we moved out again to Madrid, where Jim and Janice picked us up. It was certainly good to see familiar faces.

Zaragoza was to be home for me for the next 10 days. We made our way there, where Janice had made us some supper and then it was time to check out the local bar scene. They lived in an upstairs apartment and around the corner was a small bar called the Cosa del Sol, open 24/7. Owned by three brothers, each worked an eight-hour shift everyday. Talk about dedication. Upon walking in I was struck by all the food laid out on the bar and smoked hams dried in nets hanging from the ceiling. There were seven or eight types of huge olives along with several different types of cheese, sardines, anchovies, crusty breads, small chorizo sausages, and shrimp. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I wanted to try everything right then and there. So I pretty much did. This was one of the many tapas – or finger food – bars found all over Spain. You make up a small plate, order a drink and repeat, repeat, repeat. Sometimes the food is free, sometimes there is a small charge. The tapas differ from town to town and area to area. One of the best at the Cosa del Sol was fabulous homemade onion rings they kept churning out hour after hour. I’ve never had better.


James and Sandy decided to go to Toledo and then on to Morocco for a few days. I wanted to take in the locals and hang out with Jim and Janice. So while Jim was working I spent time at the Cosa del Sol. I got to know the regulars. We shared a lot of laughs.

Most of them were retired and the Cosa del Sol was their social club. Turned out to be mine as well. They were all interested in the political scene in the US. I also got to know the bar owner brothers and their families. I had long hair down to the small of my back and a pretty good beard. One of the brother’s sons came up to me, touched my hair and said “Boofalo Bill.” That became my handle for the rest of my stay. On my last day, the regulars decided they wanted to show me the town. This involved taking me around to all of the tapas bars in probably a 12-block area for a small glass of wine and a small bite. There were a lot of tapas bars in that area. My favorite served one of the national dishes of Spain called the Spanish Tortilla. (Recipe to follow). It is simple and wonderful.

Clueless as James and I were, we had a wonderful experience and it is time to thank Steve and Dave for making it all happen. (I mean it’s only been 35 years).


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.

TAPAS RECIPES (print ’em here)

Spanish Tortilla
6 eggs, beaten
2 Yukon Gold potatoes
2 or 3 green onions, chopped until light green parts
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Slice potatoes into 1/8 inch discs. Pour olive oil into a nine-inch cast iron skillet. (Must be able to put under oven broiler). Heat it over medium high until a test end piece of potato sizzles when it hit’s the oil. Work potato slices in batches, frying one layer at a time until lightly browned. Dry on paper towels and salt and pepper to taste. Drain most of the olive oil. Sautee the onions until just crisp. Turn off pan. Spread onions evenly around the bottom of the pan. Top with potato slices in a scalloped pattern. Turn heat back to medium. Add eggs along with salt and pepper to taste. Shake the pan so eggs completely cover potatoes. Cook until the edges begin to set. Cook under broiler for 5 minutes until top is browned. Remove pan. Let cool for 5 minutes. Place a plate on top and invert pan. Remove pan and you have a Spanish Tortilla. Cut into wedges. This can be served cold as well, which how I had it in Zaragoza.

Shrimp and Chorizo Tapas
5 Tbl olive oil
2 tsp salt
1 lb chorizo
1 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onion
1 1/2 lbs peeled raw med shrimp
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbl lemon juice
1/2 cup dry sherry
2 tbl minced parsley
1 tbl paprika
1 crusty baguette

Slice chorizo into ½ inch diagonals. Brown in one tbl olive for 7-8 minutes. Add onion, stirring off and on until caramelized, 4-6 minutes. Add garlic and ¼ cup sherry and stir for 1 minute. Devein shrimp. Add along with paprika, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp black pepper and cook until pink, 4-5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, stir to combine, and remove from heat. Spoon on small plates with juices and pass the bread for mopping up.


Say Cheese, Please: Recipes and Musings


By Jim McCaffrey • Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols

So let’s talk about the product that made Wisconsin famous. (No, not beer.) Cheese! I have been blessed in this life to be lactose tolerant. Good thing, too, because I am woefully enamored by the astounding number cheese varieties produced in the world. And what is more astonishing is that they all are created from a single source: Milk. Cow’s milk is the most common, but let us not forget sheep, goats, water buffalo, and not to be left out, yaks. According to Wikipedia, the earliest archaeological recording of cheese making dates back to 5500 BC in Kujawy, Poland, where strainers with milk fats have been found. Now that’s some well-aged cheese! Theory has it that cheese was probably created by accident. The idea is that when sheep were first domesticated approximately 8000 BC, their stomachs were used to store milk. The milk mixed with rennet contained in the stomach and turned into cheese curds. To this day, all of us lovers of fermented milk have a few nomad shepherds to thank for their culinary contribution to world society. Who’d a thunk?

I decided to put together a lunch, a cheesy lunch at that. Any excuse for a staff meeting. I brought to the table a motley crew of rogue cooks and bakers, including this shanty Irishman, to construct a four-course meal starring cheese. Lets start with an appetizer! I have a good friend, Greg Eaton, who was a former chef at the Spring Green Restaurant just outside Spring Green, Wisconsin. I was at a party at a rural farmstead near Waukon some years ago and in walks Greg. He’s carrying a big cast iron skillet and a large bulging paper grocery sack. He starts pulling out quart mason jars of peanut oil and I knew that something good was about to happen. “Whatcha making?” I queried. “Oh, I got some jack cheese and green chili that I’m going to fry up in wonton wrappers.” He did not disappoint. I took it a step further and made up a simple dipping sauce in my rendition of this tasty appetizer.


Second course was just a simple salad served with strawberries, grapes and McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita bleu cheese dressing. At the restaurant we make all of our salad dressings from scratch. I’m a firm believer in transparency, so I decided to share how we make our bleu cheese with you. We have a customer who comes in and always orders it for his salad. He thinks we should give up the restaurant business and concentrate on marketing this dressing. Some days you have to wonder!

Our next course is courtesy of the man Jacques Pepin has described in the following manner: “Mitch Omer makes Anthony Bourdain look like an altar boy.” Mitch, along with his wife, Cynthia, and with Mitch’s sous chef, Steve Meyer and wife, Kim, are founders of Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis. Currently, it is an 8000 square foot area located in the basement of 80 South 9th Street just off of Nicollet Ave. Open 16+ hours a day, it is manic, wild, and absolutely delightful. Oh, did I mention the same applies to Mitch? His food is eclectic, with dishes such as Bison Sausage Bread, Mahnomin Porridge, and the best peanut butter I have ever tasted. Like me, Mitch is also a big believer in transparency. So much so, he, along with Ann Bauer, conspired on a cookbook named, appropriately, Damned Good Food. It is a collection of great life stories (believe me, it’s a wild ride) and 157 recipes from Hell’s Kitchen. All pretty much from scratch – my kind of chef. I contacted Mitch to get permission to reprint his recipe for Macaroni and Cheese. He grew up on it and “Never realized until he went to college that Kraft made an unremarkable product libelously bearing the same name.” Original recipe follows. I changed it up a little for our lunch, though. I used RP’s gluten-free fresh fusilli pasta. Pretty much my first foray into the world of gluten free, this pasta produced in Madison, Wisconsin is remarkable. It is also available at the Oneota Co-op in Decorah. To top the mac off, I sautéed some oyster mushrooms from Back Forty Farms and the last of our fresh asparagus. Delightful. Thanks, Mitch.


Dessert came in the form of Turtle Cheesecake. Not long after we opened the restaurant, we decided to make our own cheesecakes. So I went to the Internet and typed in Best Cheesecake Ever. There were several. I picked one out and tried it. Pretty good. In walks Tanya O’Connor, former head of wait staff and baker at the once-famous-in-Decorah Café Deluxe. With a mischievous grin, she said “Not bad, Jim. But I think we should tweak it a bit and add some ricotta cheese.” We did and came up with this light and fluffy cake that we think is outrageously good. The following recipe is our head chef, Brock Dansdill’s version. See what you think.


Time for lunch. Staff lunch that is. Aryn and Benji from Inspire(d) were there with their newly turned one-year-old daughter, Roxie. Adorable and couldn’t get enough mac and cheese. I’m on their staff. Jim Ronan came as well. He’s on our staff helping out with all of the music venues. Our staff as Dolce Vita owners included myself, Brenda, Shanon, Fawn, Conor, and Sara, as well as our newly born member of the family: Rowen Ash McCaffrey. He joined our staff, er…family on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 6:54 am. Not quite ready to devour a four-course meal, he was content to look around, sleep, and pass gas. Aw, the sweet life!

Green Chili and Jack Cheese Wontons
Peanut oil
40 wonton skins
8 oz. Monterey Jack Cheese (Cut into 40 small pieces)
2 (two) 40 oz. cans diced green chilis
2 cloves garlic, minced fine

Dipping Sauce
1 C sour cream
1/4 C spicy brown mustard

Assemble! Place a piece of cheese just over center on a wonton skin. Add a little green chili. Wet the two sides of the wonton skin the cheese is on and press top edges to bottom edges into a triangle. Using a candy thermometer, heat about an inch of oil in a heavy skillet to 350 degrees. Check with a candy thermometer – hotter and it might burn. Slip wontons in one by one. Cook for 15 seconds and turn. When golden brown, drain on paper. Whisk dipping sauce ingredients ahead of time and chill. Enjoy!

Bleu Cheese Dressing
1 C Bleu cheese crumbles
4 turns fresh ground black pepper
4 C mayonnaise
1 Tbl. lemon juice
1 cup +/- heavy cream
1 Tbl. white vinegar
3 cloves minced garlic
Pinch of Kosher salt

Whisk all ingredients together and chill.

Mitch’s Macaroni and Cheese
7 qts water
1 stick unsalted butter, divided
1 lb. penne pasta
5 Tbl. all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp garlic powder
2 C rich chicken broth
1 C whole milk
1 C heavy cream
1 C shredded fontina cheese
1 C shredded Vermont white
1 C shredded Swiss cheese
1/2 C shredded Wisconsin sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 C crumbled Maytag blue cheese
2 Tbl. Kosher salt
1 C Seasoned Bread Crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat water, salt, and 2 Tbl butter in a large pot to a rolling boil. Add pasta, cook for two minutes and remove from heat. Cover with a lid or a kitchen towel and let rest six minutes. Remove the cover and drain pasta into a colander.

Melt 6 Tbl of the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour, dry mustard, cayenne, and garlic powder and whisk vigorously with a wire whip until flour mixture begins to bubble. Slowly add chicken broth, milk, and cream. Cook and whisk continually about five minutes, or until sauce begins to thicken. Add all cheeses, cook and whisk continually until completely incorporated and sauce thickens. Remove cheese sauce from heat.

Butter four ovenproof ramekins or one large baking dish. Divide pasta among the ramekins, or pour into the baking dish. Pour sauce evenly over the pasta, and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Place on center rack of the oven, and bake for 29 to33 minutes, or until top(s) have just begun to brown.

Turtle Cheesecake
1 1/2 C graham cracker crumbs
5 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 C white sugar
1 3/4 C white sugar
2 oz. butter, melted
2 Tbl all purpose flour
6 (six) 8 oz packages cream cheese, softened
16 oz ricotta cheese
1/4 C heavy whipping cream
3 oz pecans
Caramel and chocolate syrup

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix graham cracker crumbs, white sugar, and melted butter together. Press mixture into the bottom of a 10-inch spring form pan.

In a large bowl, combine cream cheese, eggs, and egg yolks. Mix until smooth. Add the remaining sugar, flour, and heavy cream. Blend until smooth. Pour into prepared pan. Spread pecans over the top and drizzle heavily with the caramel one way and chocolate the other way creating a grid pattern.
Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn temperature down to 300 degrees and bake for one hour or until batter is set. Knife the outside edge all around so cake does not adhere to sides. Let it cool on a perforated rack, 2-3 hours. Release spring form. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 3-4 hours. Divide the cake into equal slices and dish it up. We top it with homemade whipped cream. No cholesterol or calories here! Have fun with this, Mitch.


Jim_RowanJim 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.

Now, That’s Italian! Recipes and Musings…


By Jim McCaffrey • Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols

I have been kind of enamored – okay, totally hooked – by the food and culture of Italy ever since my good friend, James Ronan, and I backpacked Southern Europe the fall of 1976. We spent three memorable days in Venice.

On our first outing we ventured down to the open-air fish market right near the Rialto Bridge. A plethora of freshly harvested sea inhabitants was set out on ice. The fishmongers used long water hoses to constantly spray their wares, keeping everything as fresh as possible. Well, looking fresh, anyway. The buckets packed with squirming live eels are indelibly etched in my mind even now, close to 40 years later. Eeew!

Being young men on the go, hunger was always just around the corner, so we moved down to the end of a pier to a little takeout restaurant. Clueless to what to order and being on tight budgets, we went with the least expensive item on the menu. OMG! Mind-blowing. That spinach gnocchi had just added a credit or two to our culinary credentials. We enjoyed it so much we repeatedly kept returning back for more during our three-day stay.

I’ve been back to that fair country a couple of times with my wife and current traveling companion, Brenda, and the food never disappoints. The meals are always simple and totally delicious. I decided for this month’s column I would like to recreate this dining experience for you (or really, for a fun group of my friends – you will recreate it for yourself with these recipes!). For the main dish I would prepare gnocchi from scratch, pan seared in a brown sage butter. Add to the plate Chicken Marsala with organic oyster mushrooms. Raised by local food producers, Fred and Caroline Finch of Back Forty Farms. They’re located just north of Harmony, Minnesota, and their mushrooms are to die for! I can’t get enough of them. If you like mushrooms at all, you positively have to try these beauties. Great bold flavor and texture. They’re available to the public at the Oneota Food Co-op in Decorah. Yum!

Anyway – back to the meal! Chicken Marsala is a surprisingly simple dish to prepare. Fifteen minutes from start to finish. Being a culinary genius is not a requirement here. Just bring your poultry to the kitchen counter, follow the easy instructions, and your loved one (ones) will be fawning all over you. Ok, maybe not quite fawning, but you get the gist. Finishing out the plate, I decided on asparagus drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Simple. Delicious.

But that still leaves the best part: dessert! Every good Italian meal should have a scrumptious dessert. My choice was Torta de Mele con Pinoli e Uvetta. Translation: Apple torte with pine nuts and raisins. I found this recipe a few years ago in a Williams Sonoma cookbook called Savoring Tuscany. I’m usually not much of a dessert person, but this rendition is decadently delicious. (Don’t forget the spring form pan; it makes life so much easier.)


Our Italian dinner party happened to be a lunch party – we invited Aryn, Benji, and Roxie out, and the latter goes to bed too early for any late-night camaraderie. I realized that I have been working with Inspire(d) for almost four years and we haven’t really ever gotten together and broken bread, so it was high time! I also invited my erstwhile traveling companion James Ronan, and rounding out our little venue was the hostess with the mostest, my lovely wife, Brenda. High noon arrived and so did our guests. Everybody got settled in and I started by serving a simple salad with choice of homemade dressing. While Brenda and our guests were working on that, I went to the kitchen to prepare the main meal. Since the Marsala Chicken had the longest cooking time I began with that. Next I put my asparagus under the broiler. Timing is everything. I had already boiled my gnocchi and now pan seared those delectable puffs of potato pasta in a fresh sage butter. I plated up everything and brought it out just as salads were being finished. I got a few utterances of delight as Brenda and I served, and the Chicken Marsala was a hit with Roxie. Aryn almost couldn’t cut it fast enough to feed her. We chatted, laughed, and giggled through the meal, and everybody sat fully sated. But I jumped up: I’d forgotten to serve dessert! We managed to make room for that decadence just in time for Roxie’s nap…and I think we were all ready to second that notion. Ciao Baby!


3 large russet potatoes, washed
1 egg yolk
2 1/3 cups flour
½ stick butter
1 Tbl fresh sage, chopped
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prick and bake potatoes until soft (about 90 minutes). While still hot, cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Let cool. Scoop potatoes out of skin and mince with a food scraper. Spread potatoes into a 24” by 12” rectangle. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle beaten egg yolk over potatoes. Add 1 ¼ cups flour and cut into potatoes. Turn mixture over on itself and fold together. When dough looks like coarse crumbs bring mixture together into a ball. Sprinkle a little flour unto the work surface. Flatten the ball into a disk. Add a little more flour.

Fold and press dough until flour is incorporated. Add a little more flour until dough is no longer sticky. Roll into a compact log and cut into 8 pieces. Lightly dust work surface with flour. Roll each piece into a ½ inch cylinder. Cut into 1 inch pieces. Use the back of a fork to indent each piece. Heavily salt a pot of water and bring to a boil. In three batches, drop gnocchi in water for 2 to 3 minutes until they float. Retrieve with a slotted spoon and place on a plate. When ready to serve, melt butter in a skillet and add sage. Pan sear gnocchi until slightly browned. Plate up and add parmesan. Yum!

Now, for the Italian Recipes you’ve been waiting for…

Chicken Marsala
¼ cup all purpose flour
4 Tbl butter
½ tsp salt
4 Tbl olive oil
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 cup sliced mushrooms (Oyster if available)
½ tsp dried oregano
4 skinless, boneless chicken
½ cup Marsala wine
breast halves-pounded ¼ inch thick
¼ cup cooking sherry

Combine flour, salt, pepper, and oregano. Dredge chicken breasts in flour mixture. Melt butter in oil in a large fry pan in medium heat. Lightly brown chicken, turn over and add mushrooms. Add wine and sherry. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, turning once. Chicken should be no longer pink inside. Enjoy!

Apple Torte with Pine Nuts and Raisins
2 Golden Delicious apples
1 cup cake flour
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp baking powder
3 eggs
1/8 tsp salt
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
1 stick butter, melted
1/3 cup raisins, (soaked ½ cup milk in warm water 30 minutes)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup pine nuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 10 inch spring form pan. Dust with flour and shake out excess.
Peel apples, halve and core. Thinly slice and place in bowl with lemon. Whisk eggs and sugar together in a bowl. Stir in butter, milk, and vanilla. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder, and lemon zest. Gradually pour and stir in egg mixture. Drain raisins and add along with pine nuts into the batter. Pour batter into spring form pan. Arrange apple slices on top in concentric circles. Bake for 45 minutes until a toothpick comes clean after inserting in center. Let cool completely. Cut into wedges and serve.


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.