Posts Categorized: Mississippi Mirth

Dining with the Stars

By Jim McCaffrey

When I was growing up, we moved from Cedar Rapids to a farm just outside of Decorah. It was a move from the bright city lights to dark country nights. And it was an absolute pleasure.

We had an outside yard light that could be turned off from the house. You’d shut it off and just step outside. On cloudless evenings, the heavens would open and reward you with a panorama of twinkling orbs – a treasure trove of dancing and glistening stars. My sister, Angie, and I got books on the various constellations and set out to memorize their locations. My favorites were Orion the Hunter and the Big and Little Dippers also known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Boy, did we know how to have a good time! Stargazing at its finest.

The other day I got reminiscent about those nights and my crazy, twisted, Irish mind formulated an idea: Why not create a menu that would serve well on a moonlit evening? My most recent evening outdoor parties have all been in southern Provence, France, at a couple of country estates where the sky was not infected by the glare of city lights. Five course meals were always on the agenda. And wine, of course. Dinner can last a couple hours or more, then a lot of twirling and dancing usually follows…sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. At one such party our French connection burst into their national anthem. Not to be outdone, the American contingent rose to the occasion with the Star Spangled Banner. What fun and camaraderie.

So the plan was to start with a Salad Niçoise that has its origination where else but in southern Provence. The classic French version consists of canned tuna, cherry tomatoes, Niçoise olives, and anchovies. The Americanized version includes cooked green beans and potatoes. We had our first taste of this delightful dish at some friends’ house in Cassis, France, while overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. For today’s version I substituted fresh sushi grade ahi tuna steaks for the canned. These can be seared to rare or medium rare for best results. I sort of followed a recipe of Food Network chef Tyler Florence, which included a wonderful vinaigrette with fresh tarragon. You can start salivating now or wait until we get to our main course…it follows directly.

I decided to go to another region of France for the next dish. Burgundy is well known for its great wines and probably its most famous dish is Boeuf Bourguignon, more commonly referred to as Burgundy Beef Stew in the US. A few years ago Brenda and I were in Paris and there was a small bistro – Cosmos – just down the street from where we were staying. The owner was a guy from Kentucky who had married a Parisian lady. Over the course of a few days we got acquainted and he brought over his version of this signature dish. Bistro food: Absolutely delightful. He shared with me and so now I’m sharing with you.

If you are not moonstruck by now you will be after you try our choice for dessert. A black forest tart is destined for the outdoor table. It’s a sensual combination of chocolate and cherries to tease your palate, and a little whipped cream to seal the deal. Warning: You will be hooked.

Now go to the garage and haul out those tiki torches that have been gathering dust for years. And maybe the candelabra that has been languishing in the attic. Gathering some wood for a campfire would be a nice touch as well. You can go casual or a bit more formal, but the important thing is finding a good place with an unobstructed view of the sky. It will probably help if you bone up on the constellations too. That way you can talk smart and really impress your guests. Outdoor evening dinners can be so magical. (Well, except the occasional mosquito… or swarm of them. Probably a good idea to have some repellant close by too!)

Our intrepid crew of taste testers, unfortunately, did not have the option of dining under the evening lights. Foxy Roxie, Aryn and Benji’s wonderful daughter, has an eight o’clock bedtime – and that’s still daylight. So we made it an early lunch date.

Our regular Inspire(d) lunch group consisting of Aryn Benji, Roxie, James Ronan, Fawn, Brenda, and I. We were joined by Shanon, and, at the last minute, Conor showed up with our grandson, Rowen. This truly was a fun lunch/dinner to put together. In fact, Shanon exclaimed, “This the best salad I’ve ever had in my life!” I think there was a lot of concurrence on that. A couple of notes: I made the tart up the day before and put it in the refrigerator to serve it cold. For the salad a symmetrical presentation (see picture) really kicks it up a notch. It is not necessary to use a wine from Burgundy to make the Boeuf Bourguignon. It is more important to follow the instructions for cooking and seasoning. It does not have to be an expensive red wine, just use one that doesn’t make you grimace when you drink it. So now, you are on your own. Enjoy the evening with friends and family under the Milky Way, dining with the stars.

Salad Nicoise
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3 tbl red wine vinegar
2 tsp lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
2 tbl flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbl fresh tarragon, minced
Salt and ground pepper to taste

1 pound small red potatoes
8 large hard boiled eggs
½ lb green beans
2 lbs fresh sushi grade tuna
2 tbl olive oil
Salt and ground pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes
16 anchovy fillets
Fresh chives cut in half to garnish
16 capers
1 cup Kalamata olives

Combine all vinaigrette ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until emulsified. Set aside.

Cook potatoes until tender. Cool and cut in half. Peel eggs and cut in half the long way. Place beans in a colander. Steam over boiling water for five minutes. Let cool. Sprinkle tuna with salt and pepper generously. Pan sear in olive oil over medium high heat for two minutes. Turn over and repeat. Slice into1/2 inch strips allowing 4 ounces per person. Place a few beans in the center of each plate. Lay salmon strips over the top. Place a half potato at the top of the plate and one at the bottom. Arrange a half egg on either side of the plate. Cut tomatoes in half and symmetrically place four halves on the plate. Add a couple olives, anchovies, and capers to each plate. Garnish tuna with chives. Drizzle each plate with vinaigrette.
(See picture for assembled dish.)  Serves 8.

Boeuf Bourguinon
6 slices bacon cut into one-inch pieces
2 lbs boneless beef sirloin or tenderloin cut in one-inch cubes
1/2 cup flour
2 cups red Burgundy or other dry red wine
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 lb fresh roasted asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
1 tsp beef bouillon
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp black pepper
4 medium onions, sliced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 tbl butter
Snipped parsley
1 lb egg noodles, cooked
French bread

Fry bacon in Dutch oven until crisp. Remove to paper towels. Coat beef with flour and fry in bacon grease until browned. Drain excess fat. Add wine and just enough water to cover beef. Stir in garlic, bay leaf, asparagus, salt, bouillon, thyme, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 1 ½ hours until beef is tender. Cook onion and mushrooms over medium heat until onions are tender. Add to stew and cook an additional 10 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Garnish with parsley and serve over noodles. Accompany with French bread. Serves 8.

Black Forest Tart
1 ¼ cups chocolate wafer crumbs
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup butter, melted

½ cup butter
6 – one-ounce squares semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
2/3 cup flour

1 – 21-ounce can cherry pie filling
2 – one-ounce squares semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 tbl heavy whipping cream

Combine wafer crumbs, sugar and butter. Stir. Lightly grease a 10-inch spring form pan. Press wafer mixture in to cover bottom. Bake 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees. Melt butter and chocolate and stir until smooth. Let cool 10 minutes. In a large bowl, beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt until slightly thickened, about four minutes. Add flour, mix well and pour over crust. Spread evenly and bake at 350 degrees 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean after being inserted in center. Cool completely. Spread pie filling over top. Microwave chocolate and cream 20-30 seconds and stir until smooth.
Cool five minutes and stir. Drizzle over tart. Chill completely.
Serves 12.


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.

Cinco De Mayo! Recipes and Fun

By Jim McCaffrey

My brother, Pete, loves a good party. Especially on May 5th, his birthday. Coincidentally, it’s also the date of the Mexican holiday Cinco De Mayo. Primarily a regional holiday in the Mexican state of Puebla, it celebrates the unlikely 1862 victory of an under-armed Mexican militia of just 4000 troops over a French army that was double its size and vastly more equipped. Significant for the United States, the defeat stopped Napoleon III from supplying arms and money to Confederate rebels engaged in the Civil War against the Union Army. That helped the Union defeat the Confederates in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Worldwide, Cinco De Mayo has become a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. Beyond the flamenco dancing and mariachi bands, it is a wonderful opportunity to experience local cuisines from different regions of our southern neighbors. Brenda and I have been fortunate enough to have traveled to Mexico several times. Our first trip was to Mazatlan on the Pacific coast. We stayed at the Riviera Beach Resort otherwise known as “Party Central.” An ice-cold bucket of beers (8) was $6. Every other hour was Happy Hour and you got TWO buckets of beer for $6. No extra charge for slices of lime. Having not studied Spanish, we felt that it was of immediate importance to immerse ourselves in the language. Hector Cortez, the head bartender, graciously accepted the role of teacher. The two phrases of greatest significance he taught us were, “Dos cervesas, por favor” (Two beers, please) and “Donde este el bano?” (Where is the bathroom?). A wise man, that Hector.

All joking aside, Brenda and I have found the people we met in Mexico to be warm, gracious, and very giving. Family and friends always seem to be at the core of life there. When a party happens, everyone is invited. Aunts and uncles, matriarchs and patriarchs, siblings, nieces and nephews, etc., etc., etc. People dress up in their Sunday best to pay respect to the family putting on the extravaganza. Food is always the star attraction, shared by one and all. I think one of the reasons that Cinco De Mayo is so popular in the United States is that it affords Mexican immigrants and descendants an opportunity to remember and carry on their family cultural heritage. And lucky for all the rest of us, we can participate too.

Since Napoleon III and future French attempts failed to colonize Mexico and turn the Gulf of Mexico into The New World French Riviera complete with little bistros serving baguettes and lattes, Spanish and Portuguese influences on local cuisine were more predominant. One of these influences was the introduction of limes in the mid 1600s. Limes could be used for many purposes but one of the most significant was the ability to pickle fresh fish and other seafood with their acidic juices. A combination of lime juice and local indigenous ingredients such as chiles, tomatoes and avocado produced the Mexican version of ceviche. Ceviche is a wonderful appetizer served up and down both coasts of Mexico as well as Central and South America. I like to serve it in footed sundae glasses accompanied by tortilla chips. Throw in a few Corona or Dos Equis beers complete with wedges of lime and you will have a great beginning for a Cinco De Mayo party of your own. And don’t forget to invite my brother, Pete.

The daily bread of Mexican cuisine is the tortilla. It has provided sustenance for hundreds of years. Actually, evidence has been produced that a basic version of the tortilla dated back to 10,000 B.C. The versatility of the tortilla is seemingly endless. It is the backbone for tacos, tostadas, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and more. The primary ingredient is corn but in Northern Mexico wheat has been introduced as an alternative ingredient. The age-old dilemma of what to do with leftover bread, in this instance, tortillas, exists in Mexico also. In French cuisine, day-old crusty baguettes are sliced, put in a rich hot sautéed onion beef broth, and covered with gruyere cheese that is then placed under a broiler. French Onion soup becomes a fantastic venue for leftover bread. Lesser known – but equally fantastic – is Mexico’s favorite son, Tortilla Soup. When Brenda and I stayed at the Riviera Beach Resort for the first time, we found it necessary after a couple hours of “Happy Hour” festivities to head over to the resort restaurant, El Ancla. Proper nourishment was in order. Brenda chose soup and salad, her custom request. I opted for chicken fajitas. When our food came, Brenda had a spoonful of her soup and said, “Jim, you have to try this.” I did. I felt I had just grabbed the brass ring on the merry-go-round at the county fair. It was Tortilla Soup and the taste was out of this world. I had to have the recipe. I asked our waiter if I could speak to the chef. “Si, Si.” The head chef, Ignacio, came out. He could speak about as much English as I could speak Spanish. I eventually went out and corralled Hector, who was able to convey my request. A couple of days later, when we went down for breakfast, Ignacio slipped me a piece of paper handwritten in Spanish. The Holy Grail of soup. It took me a couple of years to get it translated correctly but it is certainly worthy to adorn your Cinco De Mayo table.

Hasta la vista! Time for me to round up a few Coronas and a Mariachi band for Pete’s birthday. Anybody know any flamenco dancers? Have a great Cinco De Mayo!

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.

Seafood Ceviche
8 oz. precooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 small red onion, sliced thin 2 ripe avocados
8 oz. bay scallops
2 tsp. Mexican oregano 8 oz. fresh or thawed haddock or cod cut in ½ inch cubes
Fresh ground black pepper
10-12 limes
Fresh parsley or cilantro sprigs
4 Roma tomatoes, diced
Tortilla chips

In a 9 x 13 non-metallic baking dish, combine seafood, tomatoes and onion. Cover completely with lime juice. Cover and refrigerate for about 4 hours. Drain. Place in large bowl. Cut avocados in half lengthwise. Twist sides and remove pit. Scoop out avocado meat and dice into ½ inch pieces. Add with oregano to seafood mixture.

Salt and pepper to taste. Plate up, garnish with sprigs and pass the tortilla chips. Serves 6.

Ignacio’s Tortilla Soup
3 T olive oil
32 oz chicken broth
2 garlic cloves, minced
white pepper
1 medium onion, diced fine
1 can evaporated milk
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1 lb shredded Chihuahua cheese
1oz.fresh basil, shredded small
1- 28 oz tomato sauce (fresh or canned)
2 avocados, peeled and sliced
24 tortilla chips

Saute garlic and onion until translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add chicken broth, tomato sauce, oregano, basil and white pepper to taste. Simmer twenty minutes. Place 3 tortilla chips in the bottom of a soup bowl. Add some milk and cheese. Pour soup over top. Garnish with avocado. Serves 8.