Posts Categorized: Mississippi Mirth

Comfort Food

1DumplingsBy Jim McCaffrey • Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols

The weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful, and since there’s no place to go, let it snow, let it snow…wait a minute! Let the sun shine! Guess that’s not quite as catchy.

But we really could use a break. Last winter in the Driftless Region was no piece of cake. In fact, to my understanding, it was the coldest winter we have had for 35 years, and this week is feeling like déja vu. BRR! When weather like this moves in, people tend to hunker down. So while you are in the throes of hunkering, you might as well treat you and your loved ones the pleasures of comfort food. Come to think of it, anytime is a great time for home-cooked comforting meals.

Growing up, one of my favorite comfort foods was Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup fortified with an equal amount of milk and store-bought white bread slathered with butter for dipping. I guess I’ve come a long way from that, baby, but boy it was enjoyable!

There is probably a different comfort food for everyone on the planet (…more than one!). Take Italy alone. How many variations of pasta have the Italian mamas been cooking up for generations? France has Coq Au Vin (braised chicken with mushrooms and onions). Go to Wales and find Cornish Pasties (little meat turnovers the miners used to carry for lunch at work) and Ireland has Guinness. Need I say more? Closer to home, Canadians have long been enamored by their poutine, a crazy dish originating in Quebec which is basically French fries smothered in gravy and covered with cheese curds. Who’d a thunk, EH?

Back here in the States, a nationwide love affair is centered on our beloved mac and cheese. Although when one thinks about it, a blue box comes to mind. That’s all our kids would eat growing up. But actually mac, made from scratch, is a hundred notches above that. I included a recipe for mac and cheese in issue 35 issue of Inspire(d) (find it at Mitch Omar, owner of Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis, grew up on it and it is to die for. Try it, you will like/love it.

Even closer to home, we have a Norwegian community that swears by a traditional dish called lutefisk. Well, probably half of them swear by it. It is essentially dried cod soaked in lye, which was the standby in Norway before refrigeration. When Norwegians immigrated to America, those crafty dogs brought lutefisk along with them.

One of MY all-time favorite comfort foods is chicken and dumplings. This was the highlight of the lunch I made the other day for the Inspire(d) crew. The number one comfort food for my wife is salad, though. I swear she could eat salad three times a day and be one happy camper. For her, I made a wonderful winter salad of mixed greens with both sweet and tart apples, toasted pecans, and topped with white cheddar cheese. Drizzled with an apple cider vinaigrette and Brenda was good to go. And everyone else was as well, for that matter.


Next on the agenda was the chicken and dumplings. I cheated and bought a couple of rotisserie chickens and diced the meat up. I’m glad I did because it added immensely to the overall flavor of the dish. I also cheated and used Bisquick for the dumplings because I had it on hand. But that doesn’t make me a bad guy or does it? Basically, I made a simple chicken and vegetable soup and added dumplings. Homemade comfort food: It doesn’t get any easier than this.

Rounding out our meal was a dessert straight out of heaven: Pears poached in red wine. I first had this delightful dish back in 1976 when James Ronan and I backpacked across Europe for seven weeks. We were staying with some friends in Zaragoza, Spain. They took us out to eat at this restaurant located in a huge and ancient basement that had an equally huge fireplace. The chefs had long spits over the fire on which they were searing and cooking enormous slabs of pork. Highly entertaining and wonderful food. But the highlight of the evening was the dessert. I think it might have been the highlight of the entire trip. Go ahead, surprise your loved ones with this and you will reap praises from all. I guarantee it.


And just remember, a chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.


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.

Winter Salad

1 head green leaf lettuce
1 head red leaf lettuce
1/2 head romaine lettuce
1 Large Granny Smith apple
1 Pink Lady apple
1 cup pecans, toasted
6 oz block sharp white Cheddar cheese

2 1/2 T. cider vinegar
6 T. olive oil

Chop all lettuces and toss. Quarter the apples and core. Slice thinly lengthwise. Add to lettuce. Add pecans. Shave cheese with a vegetable peeler over the top. Whisk vinegar and olive together with some salt and pepper and drizzle over the top of salad. Yum.

Chicken and Dumplings
2 rotisserie chickens
4 stalks celery, sliced
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, diced
8 oz sliced button mushrooms
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
4 qts chicken broth, preferably homemade
1 T. dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
6 cups Bisquick
2 cups milk

Remove chicken skin and bones. Dice meat and set aside. Sauté vegetables until soft, about 5 minutes in a large pot. Add chicken and broth. Mix Bisquick and milk and form a soft dough. Bring soup to a boil. Using a dinner teaspoon, cut dough into spoon sized pieces and drop into soup. Reduce heat. Cook uncovered for 10 minutes, and then covered for 10 minutes. Serve and enjoy. Yum Yum!

Note: If you do not want to use Bisquick just mix 6 cups flour with 2 1/2 T. baking and 1 tsp baking powder.

Pears Poached in Red Wine

4-6 Bosc pears, peeled, cored and sliced in half the long way
1 1/2 cups dry red wine (I used Shiraz)
3/4 cup sugar
2 T. lemon juice
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp cinnamon

Combine all ingredients except pears in a large sauté pan and bring to a full boil. Turn heat to a simmer. Add pears and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Turn over and simmer until fork tender. Remove and cool. Reduce wine sauce to one half.

Pour over pears and top with whipped cream. Yum Yum Yum!

A Brief Diatribe on Thanksgiving Dinner

By Jim McCaffrey

Let’s talk turkey.

Contrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving was not invented by the National Football League to sell another days worth of beer advertising. It is, however, a traditional American holiday during which families and friends from all over the United States gather together once a year to catch up and eat dinner at the same time: halftime…ha! (And sometimes once a year is far too often!)

Traditionally as well, the star attraction of the feast is none other than our Native American fowl, the turkey. My lovely wife, Brenda, and I have hosted Thanksgiving dinner for probably the last 25 years. It is not unusual to have 50 or 60 people show up including both sides of the family, friends, as well as a couple reprobates of society thrown into the fray. That amount of humanity necessitates a large quantity of food and drink. A couple of fresh, not frozen, 20-pound-plus turkeys and a ham the size of a small car engine are always on the roster.

How DO you do it, you ask? Well, since we have been doing this extravaganza so long, I keep trying to come up with new ways to prepare the upcoming meal. First: get help. Especially when you’re combining turkey and hot oil, like we did two years ago.

On Wednesday, Thanksgiving Eve, our daughter Fawn came over to help prep. While Brenda tidied up the house, Fawn and I toasted up six loaves of white and whole wheat bread. Chop! Chop! Chop! Our knives flew through the bread, fresh mushrooms, celery, red onions, and cloves of the stinky rose, garlic. It was human vegematic at its best.

I set about prepping our big birds. Turkey number one I submersed in a kosher saltwater brine with sliced up oranges, lemons, and limes. Turkey number two was destined to be the star attraction. We were going to deep fat fry it the next day on the east deck. So I made up a concoction of apple juice, onion juice, garlic juice, and Cajun seasoning and with a syringe, injected it all throughout the bird. We then rubbed the entire bird with Cajun seasoning and put it to rest for the night.

Early Thanksgiving morning, I put coffee on and started working on our brined turkey. After patting it dry, I laid it on its back and gently worked my hands under the skin covering the breasts. Once the skin was loosened up, I placed pads of butter and fresh sage leaves underneath. We were good to go. Into the oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, breast side down. I turned it over on its back and reduced the heat to 325 degrees. Rule of thumb with a bird this size is to cook it for fifteen minutes a pound. I always check, however. You want to insert a meat thermometer into the thigh meat and have it read 165 degrees and have the juices run clear. Try not to overcook it or you will have a dried disaster on your hands. Trust me, I have been there.

Time to finish the stuffing.

Three pounds of fried, drained pork sausage, a dozen whipped eggs, enough chicken stock to make it moist, a little dried sage, and some salt and fresh ground black pepper all went into the mixture. Into a roaster covered with aluminum foil at about 200 degrees. Whew! Time for a cup of coffee with cream. The adrenaline was starting to kick in. A lot of prep lay ahead and time was growing shorter.

The ham was next on the agenda: cut a crisscross pattern, place it in a roaster, cover with pineapple slices and baste with rosé wine.

Back to baste turkey number one, then on to the spectacle: my outside cooker. You probably have seen those outside turkey cookers advertised on TV complete with a perforated stainless steel basket to lower the turkey into the hot oil. Well, our setup is a little more sophisticated. My outside cooker is about waist high. Add to that a tall pot. Add peanut oil about halfway up. The trick is enough oil to cover turkey number two but not enough to boil over. We straighten out a wire coat hanger and truss up the turkey’s legs with one end. We then make a loop on the other end. When the oil is at 360 degrees on a candy thermometer, it is time to give our fowl a soothing oil bubble bath. At high noon, the two sons of the family, Shanon and Conor, climb up the ladders with a broom handle inserted through the wire loop and gently lower the turkey into the churning froth. Talk about shanty Irish!

Back inside to baste.

Fawn, thank God, showed up just in time to help peel and cook 40 pounds of potatoes and help concoct a salad of iceberg and spring mix lettuces, red onions, green peppers, green and black olives, tomatoes, grapes, strawberries, and feta cheese. Guests started to arrive bearing side dishes, desserts and beverages of their choice. Pretty soon every counter in the kitchen was covered with delectable delights.

I started the potatoes boiling then went to check on our boiling bird. Not quite ready. It takes about three minutes a pound to cook. When the turkey floats, it is good to go, but always do that check with a meat thermometer. Back in the house, I made gravy and quickly mashed the potatoes. The time had grown near to pull this all together.

Brenda had decorated marvelously, and also had brought out every plate in the house along with all of the silverware and wineglasses. We pulled the turkeys and ham and placed them on platters. While they rested for ten minutes, we gathered everyone together and my brother, Pat, led us in a prayer of thanks. Three of us started carving, plates began filling, and pretty soon every available seat in the house was occupied. Even the steps leading upstairs were filled with some of the younger folk. It was a feeding frenzy. Seconds, Thirds. An hour later, it was all over but the crying. Except for cleanup, of course….

Brenda, her sisters, and sister in-law stepped up to the plate, er plates, and in no time reduced a mountain of dishes into oblivion. The rest of us sipped our beverages contentedly, engaged in small talk, played cards, slept, and occasionally watched on TV guys with helmets and shoulder pads beat up on each other. With a glass of wine in hand, I mused to my brother in-law “You know if Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the national bird of the country would have been the turkey. That means a certain football team from Pennsylvania might have called the Philadelphia Turkeys. Now there is food for thought.” Speaking of food, it was time to start a second round and dive into the leftovers. Nothing like a cold turkey or ham sandwich. Ah, life is good.

Gerda (Mom) and Jim’s Homemade Stuffing
1-1 lb. loaf white cottage bread 1 lb. Ground pork sausage
1-1 lb. loaf whole wheat bread 4 oz, slivered almonds
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced Ground dried sage
6 celery stalks, chopped fine Salt/Fresh ground black pepper
1 large onion, diced 3 large eggs, whisked
4 garlic cloves, minced 32 oz. chicken broth

Toast bread and cut into ½ inch pieces. In a large mixing bowl, combine toast, mushrooms, celery, onions, and garlic. Fry up sausage and drain. Add to mixture along with almonds. Lightly season with sage, salt, and pepper. Toss and season again. Repeat twice more. Add eggs and mix thoroughly. Add chicken broth and mix well. Bake in oven in a large covered casserole dish at 325 degrees for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Stuffing is ready when the middle reaches 165 degrees. (Serves 12-16)


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.

Hold the Lutefisk!

By Jim McCaffrey

Even though I have lived in the heart of Norwegian culture for more than 50 years, I still haven’t been able to put a handle on the Scandahoovian enamorment with a piece of white fish (usually cod), coated and preserved in an ample amount of lye. And that’s no lie. This dish is considered a delicacy?

I, personally, have had first-hand experience with removing the lye residue to make the cod fit for human consumption. Well… maybe Norwegian consumption. I worked at a local grocery store in Decorah – Jack and Jill – owned by a wonderful couple, Bob and Arlene Houlihan. Being a small establishment, everybody pitched in on whatever project was needed each day. When the Thanksgiving and Christmas season rolled around, the meat department would get big wooden crates shipped in. They were loaded with large filets of cod steeped in, of course, lye. I, and my fellow stockmen, were handed large, heavy-duty, blue rubber gloves that went past one’s elbows. Wayne, the meat department head, told us to put ‘em on and start grabbing fish. But no eye rubbing! Talk about caustic. Someone would hold a filet over the sink while another sprayed it off. Once rinsed, it was patted dry and sent down the line to the butchers for packaging. That did it for me. I can’t even bear to watch the lutefisk-eating contest at Nordic Fest now…. ugh!

Luckily, our Scandinavian friends are famous for delicacies that are – in my book – far more delicious. Hold the lutefisk! Let’s talk Norwegian pastries! Wonderful, delicate, and truly great treats. I know –from lutefisk to krumkaker – just go with it! My Norwegian friends will burn me at the stake for desecrating the sanctity of their beloved lutefisk, so I thought I better share one of the many redeeming qualities of their native food heritage. These delightful creations definitely earn the redemption!

I contacted Darlene Fossum-Martin, Education Specialist at Vesterheim Museum and unofficial Norwegian Pastry Specialist in the Decorah area. She’s been making

“Well, Jim, I am doing a demonstration of Norwegian pastries at the Bethania Church in a couple of weeks. Why don’t you come join me?” Talk about serendipity! It was an invitation I couldn’t resist. Darlene was deep-frying a rossetter when I arrived. “These would get a white ribbon while my mom’s would always take the blue,” she says. I don’t know, Darlene, they looked and tasted pretty good to me.

Rosettes, along with krumkaker and fattigman, are some of the more popular Norwegian treats to make, and were the three Darlene was featuring at the class.

“These were the Christmas cookies my grandmothers grew up with and my parents grew up with. Christmas was not Christmas if these cookies did not grace the tables,” she says. “When I was young my job was to put the rosettes in the sugar after they came out of the hot lard, roll the krumkaker onto the wooden dowel and sprinkle the fattigman with powdered sugar.”

She showed me an electric krumkaker iron (think waffle iron). The iron’s plates had intricate designs that she thought were from pre-electric days when krumkake was made over open fires. Pretty cool!

Darlene teaches a Seven Cookies of Christmas every year at Vesterheim as well (mark your calendars: April 13, 2014).

“I do it in hopes that these traditional Norwegian Christmas cookies that have been served at Christmas beginning with Norwegian immigration will remain a popular cookie for generations to come,” she says. “In visiting with Norwegian students from Norway, and attending Luther College, I have found that many have not even heard of these cookies and if they have heard of them, they have not tasted them. There is a lot of truth to the fact that Vesterheim is a caretaker of many of the old Norwegian traditions that came with the first immigrants to this country.”

The following recipes are from Darlene’s collection and are mouth-watering delicious. Mange Tak, Darlene!

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 egg
1 cup whole milk
1 ¼ cup flour & ½ tsp. baking powder, 1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

In a medium bowl beat sugar and eggs until light and fluffy. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Mix well. Add milk & vanilla. Mix well. Add melted butter and beat well. Let batter stand for about 20-30 minutes before baking.

Preheat krumkaker iron. Open iron; lightly spray top and bottom of iron with vegetable oil or brush with shortening or melted butter. Spoon one tablespoon batter onto center of hot iron and close. Bake about 1 minute until cookie is lightly browned. (When iron stops steaming check to see if cookie has browned). Insert tip of knife under cookie to remove from iron. Roll hot cookie onto a round or cone form immediately. Cool on rack. Cookies become crisp as they cool. Repeat with remaining batter. Store baked cookies in airtight containers. You can also keep them frozen for several months.

Rosetter (Delicate, tender pastries)
Although rosetter are an old Norwegian traditional food, they never attained the popularity in Norway as they did in Norwegian America. They grace the Christmas table in their many shapes of stars, snowflakes, flowers and hearts to only name a few. They will keep up to six months in an airtight container or in the freezer.

2 eggs
1 T. sugar
3 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup whole milk
1 cup flour

Beat slightly the 2 eggs with an electric mixer, set aside. Combine 1 cup flour and 1 cup milk in a bowl, beat well and strain to remove any lumps. Add 1 tbsp. sugar, ¼ tsp. salt and 1 tsp. vanilla. Mix well with electric mixer. Lastly stir in the two slightly beaten eggs only until blended. Heat Crisco shortening in a deep-fat fryer 350 – 375 degrees. While heating shortening dip the rosette iron into fat and heat this at the same time. Blot the hot iron quickly on a paper towel and dip iron into batter just to the top edge of the iron. Do not let batter flow over top of iron. Lower the iron into the hot oil. Loosen the rosette from the iron when it starts to turn color. Turn the rosette carefully and cook until the rosette is golden brown on both sides. Drain well on a paper towel and dip in granulated sugar when still warm. Place finished rosetter on a cookie sheet with paper towel and place in a 225-degree oven for 25 minutes. This draws out some of the oil resulting in a crispier rosette.

Fattigman (dough twisted into a fancy shape and deep fried)
A respected Christmas cookie dating back to the mid 19th century. Cookies fried in unsalted fat have medieval origins. Those of lesser means often employed this method of food preparation, as perhaps attested by the name fattigmann (poor man). Cream, eggs and butter were easy to come by on the Norwegian farms where the recipe probably originated. They were popular in towns among every class. Fattigmann achieved early and widespread popularity among the Norwegian immigrants in America as well.

2 eggs, well beaten
2 1/2 tsp. sugar
½ tsp. brandy
½ tsp. lemon extract
½ tsp. rum
1/8 tsp. salt
¾ cup flour (may need a little more to make a soft dough)

Beat eggs until light and fluffy. Add extracts, sugar, salt and mix well. Stir in flour to make a soft dough. Chill overnight. Work with small portions of dough, handling as little as possible, keep remaining dough chilled. On a lightly floured board, roll dough out to 1/8” thickness and cut into 3” x 3” diamond shapes with a fluted pastry wheel.  Make a lengthwise slash through the center of the diamond. (Corner of dough can be pulled through the slash to form a half knot). Deep fry in Crisco oil at 350 – 375 degrees to a golden brown. Turn the cookies as soon as they float to the surface or there will be bubbles in the dough. Turn the cookies a couple more times. Cool on absorbent toweling and dust with powdered sugar. Store in an airtight tin in a cool place.