Posts Categorized: Recipes

Mississippi Mirth: Decorah Community Meal + Chili, Cornbread, & Brownies!


Community Matters: McCaffrey’s cooks a main course monthly for the local Community Meal

By Jim McCaffrey • Photos by Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Winter 2015-16 Inspire(d)

In the early eighties Brenda and I owned the Café Deluxe and McCaffrey’s Supper Club in Downtown Decorah. It was a time of economic recession, though – there was a lot of unemployment and financial stress for individuals and families. Sure, there were food stamps available, but it was minimal. As I recall, food pantries weren’t as developed, either, especially in rural areas like the Driftless Region.

After reading about soup kitchens in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area – they were getting their food from a myriad of sources such as donations from grocery stores, restaurants, church groups, can drives, personal giving, etc. – I thought, “Why can’t something similar be accomplished in the rural areas?” I envisioned a non-profit organization that provided an umbrella to cover basic food needs necessary to sustain families in need. I wanted to call it “The Hunger Express,” with its logo being a speeding steam engine train bearing goods.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Unfortunately, the recession caught up with us as well. We sold the Café Deluxe to one of our employees. It saved 25 jobs, but resulted in the closing of McCaffrey’s. Brenda and I began work with two larger companies, but I never was able to get The Hunger Express out of my mind.

Moving on to present day, we’re lucky to have the wonderful First Lutheran Church Food Pantry in Decorah, registered with the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and well connected in the community. Especially since we have all just experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression of the thirties.

But that’s not all this community wanted to do. As most of you know, Brenda and I are currently running our restaurant, McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita, just outside of Decorah. About five years ago, Otter Dreaming came out and talked to me about a project he and a small group of forward-thinking individuals were working on. The idea was to create a monthly meal where everyone and anyone in the entire community were welcome – at no charge.

They approached the council of the First Lutheran Church to establish a venue. It was decided to make it a once monthly affair on the third Thursday of each month with one entity providing the main meal and various other organizations – service groups, sororities, etc. – providing salads, bread, and desserts. Otter asked if we would be willing to make the first main course. I never hesitated. Well, I guess I did ask how many they expected. Seventy-five was the number they were predicting and that was about perfect. I talked to Otter after the event and they said they wanted to keep it going. I told him I would continue to make the main meal, so they didn’t have to worry about that aspect. Fawn has also jumped into the fray and is helping with the meal and baking bread.

The Community Meal has continued to blossom: On average, 200+ people are being served – we have even gotten close to 300 a couple of times. That’s great, and what’s even greater is Sodexo at Luther College threw in their hat and is providing a main course on the first Thursday of each month. So now the Community Meal is held twice a month!

So what really is the neat aspect of this project is that everyone is welcome to come and participate. There are no barriers or restrictions as to who may join in. My understanding is that even a certain shanty Irishman would be welcomed if he could somehow break free from his restaurant duties. It is a great social community event. Why not come and join in the experience? Don’t be shy.


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.


Decorah Community Meal is held on the first and third Thursdays of every month from 5 to 6:30 pm in the fellowship hall of First Lutheran Church in Decorah. All are welcome.

If your group, business, church, or civic organization would like to participate in the Decorah Community Meal, please send a message to


Café Deluxe Chili (serves 12-16)
I came up with this recipe for the Café Deluxe in our early stages of ownership. It is very simple and easily adaptable for large groups.

2 lbs. ground beef
2 large onions, diced
2 large green tomatoes
2-28 oz. cans diced tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 28 oz. cans beans in chili sauce
Salt + ground pepper to taste
Tomato juice (optional)

Brown ground beef and season with salt and pepper (fresh ground if available) to taste. Drain. Place in large pot. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Use tomato juice to thin out to desired consistency.

Note: As an option I usually add diced canned green chilies, 2-3 small cans, and offer fresh chopped onions and grated cheddar as an optional topping.

Green Chili Cornbread
A wonderful accompaniment to chili on those cold winter nights.

1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 4oz. Can diced green chilies
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, diced
2 large eggs
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 tsp sugar
1 tbl. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup white flour

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put buttermilk, chilies, onion, and garlic in saucepan and cook over low heat for 5-6 minutes, stirring often. Let cool for 15 minutes. Beat in eggs and add cheese. Mix together dry ingredients. Fold in wet ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until blended. Try not to overdo the mixing so the batter stays light. Pour into a greased 1 ½ quart baking dish and bake 40-45 minutes or until golden brown. Test with a toothpick in center of dish. Cornbread is ready when toothpick comes out clean. Enjoy!!


Finger Licking Brownies

½ cup canola oil
1 cup white sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup all purpose flour
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9X9-inch baking pan.

In a medium size bowl, whisk oil, sugar, and vanilla. Whisk each egg individually into mixture. Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Stir in walnuts if desired. Use a wooden spoon to fold in wet ingredients. Spread evenly into greased pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Brownies will be done when starting to pull away from pan edges. Let cool on a wire rack. Frost and cut into squares.


3 Tbl. Butter
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
2 Tbl. Milk
2 Tbl. Cocoa
1 tsp. vanilla

Melt butter in small saucepan. Add cocoa and remove from heat. Stir in remaining ingredients until smooth. Spread over brownies.


Chinese New Year + Dumpling Recipe!


Story and photos by Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Inspire(d)

Gung hay fat choy is something you may have heard belted out in late winter, especially in a major city (especially, especially in San Francisco). In China, you might hear xin nian kuai le (depending on your location). No, it’s not a curse to winter – it’s a greeting!

Gung hay fat choy is Cantonese, (most commonly spoken in southern China) and means “Best wishes and congratulations. Have a prosperous and good year.” Xin nian kuai le is Mandarin, the dominant language in mainland China, and means “Happy New Year”.

Either way, they are both said during the same fun, late winter holiday: Chinese New Year!

In China, this holiday is known as “Spring Festival,” and marks the end of the winter season and the start of a new lunar year. The festival begins on the first day of the traditional Chinese calendar and ends with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day. In 2016, the Chinese New Year starts on February 8. Within this ancient calendar, each month follows the cycle of the moon. That means that Chinese New Year falls on different “traditional” calendar dates year-to-year. Each new year is associated with one of the 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac, and 2016 is the year of the monkey.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Why is Aryn talking about Chinese New Year? We’re not just in the middle of the US, we’re in the middle of the middle!”


This festival has a magical place in my heart. From August 2004 to August 2005, I lived in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, in a “little” town called Foshan near the quite large (8.5 million) city, Guangzhou. I taught oral English to middle school students, one high school class, and tutored a handful of kids too. It was one of the most amazing and life-changing years I’ve had. Not only did I get to live in another county, I got to travel all around China and Southeast Asia, and made a best-friend-for-life, Li Qian (her English name is Cathy). Qian was a “proper” English teacher at our school, meaning she actually had a degree in teaching and knew what she was doing. I, on the other hand, was so clueless and completely terrified going in to that first class (think hyperventilating on the stairs nervous)…but quickly got the hang of it.

ArynLiQianJust as quickly, Qian and I grew closer in our friendship. We started going on trips together. We visited Thailand for the first time, zipped off to Hong Kong on numerous occasions, and she arranged Christmas in the Guangxi province in a mountain town called Yangshuo, probably the most touristy and Western village ever…and just what myself and some fellow expats needed for that holiday away from family.

And for their major holiday, Chinese New Year, Qian invited me to celebrate with her family in the Sichuan province.

Li Qian’s parents didn’t speak English at all, and I didn’t do terribly well with Mandarin, let alone the dialect most commonly spoken in her hometown, Nanchong. But we all got along just fine, eating, drinking, and celebrating the coming of another lunar year.

Within China, customs and traditions of the Spring Festival vary widely. Often families will clean their house to clear out bad luck and make way for the good, then brooms and dustpans are stored away on New Year’s Day so the good luck won’t accidentally get swept out. Homes are decorated with red paper cutouts of Chinese couplets with positive themes of happiness, wealth, or longevity. And buying new clothes and getting a haircut symbolizes a fresh start to the year.


Highlights for me from that amazing Chinese New Year’s Eve include buying lucky red underwear the day before (red is an auspicious color and helps scare away evil spirits), eating a huge meal with the family – food covering every part of the table –making sure not to finish everything because that meant you didn’t have enough, rolling dumplings with Qian’s wai po (grandma) later that night (dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape is like a Chinese coin), wrapping a string of fire crackers around the handle of a broom, holding that broom out a window, and lighting the end of the string, creating a deafening crack, crack, crack that only joined the booms and cracks outside on the streets and throughout the neighborhood. I’ve never heard anything so loud before or since…apparently making all that noise is also supposed to help scare away evil spirits. Plus it’s fun.

For Luther College music professors Xiao Hu (from Wuhan) and Du Huang (from Shanghai), Chinese New Year stateside is more subdued. “Normally we would invite some local friends, especially Chinese friends, to get together, cook a nice meal, and spend an evening watching Chinese TV,” says Hu. “Sometimes, we got invited to go to the local Chinese restaurant in Decorah, Great Dragon, by the owner. He would cook a huge, fancy meal for all of his friends, and the kids would run around together, and each will receive a red envelope with you know what in it. Fun!”

That “you know what” is money – early the next morning, New Year’s Day, children wish their parents a healthy and happy new year, and get money in red paper envelopes called hong bao. Traditionally married couples or elders give these envelopes to unmarried friends and family or children. It was definitely my oral English students favorite thing about Chinese New Year.

“My niece made more than 6000 yuan last year,” says Luther College Chinese professor Hongmei Yu. (That’s almost $1000!) From the northern Chinese city, Tianjin, Yu celebrates the festival similarly to Li Qian’s family when in China. When she’s in the US, though, she’ll still have a party with dumplings and food and sometimes even hong bao, but it’s not quite the same. “We could not have the fun part, the firecrackers!”


After returning to the US, I have tried to make a Chinese New Year’s Eve party an annual thing in our household, including the fun part (the firecrackers…shhh…). It’s the perfect time of year to have a get-together: Enough time has passed after Christmas and traditional New Year’s Day, and it’s still the dead of winter (at least here in the Midwest) so people are more than happy to get out of their houses. If you’d like to bring a little Chinese New Year Fun into your winter, here’s what you do.

  1. Send out or email initiations – I like to include the animal of that year, so there would be a sheep on this year’s invites. Remind your guests to wear lucky red underwear too!
  2. Plan a simple menu with only one rule – you gotta have dumplings. Look online for food ideas. Chinese cooking isn’t generally difficult – it’s really quite fun. We also like to order custom fortune cookies, even though fortune cookies aren’t a real Chinese thing. You can get 50 cookies with five different personalized messages for less than $40 (we order from
  3. Pick out some fun decorations or make your own (learn how to make Chinese paper lanterns here).
  4. Print some interesting facts or tidbits about Chinese New Year, the Chinese zodiac, or China itself. It’s great to learn things at parties and who doesn’t love trivia?
  5. Practice saying xin (sheen) nian (knee-en) kuai (kwhy) le (luh)!
  6. Make some dumplings ahead of time (see following recipe). They are a little time-consuming to prepare so we often freeze some in advance and bake/steam those during the party. We also make some veggie ones too (just omit the pork from the recipe) to appease our non-meat-eating friends.
  7. Secure your firecrackers and warn your neighbors! Decorate your place, maybe put on a Chinese-themed movie (I like Mulan or Kung Fu Hustle), chill the drinks, cook some snacks (I like to make Sichuan food because it’s my favorite – dry fried green beans and kung pao chicken, plus dumplings are pictured here).
  8. Have fun!

Aryn Henning Nichols loved her year in China and hopes to return one day soon! She hopes you make some dumplings with your family this winter and think about all the great traditions of letting go of the bad and letting in the good for this Chinese New Year! Happy year of the Sheep!



What happens on New Year’s Day and beyond?

The year I was in China, on New Year’s Day we visited a Buddhist temple – there were so many people heading up the hill, so much incense and ash falling to the ground like snow. People light incense in honor of their ancestors and pray for a prosperous year, and Qian’s father added his to the massive pile outside the temple. We then went inside and kowtowed at each deity – there were many, maybe 25 – and after we finished, we had the oranges we bought on the way up blessed, then ate them just outside the door. It was important to eat all of it this time, so as to not start the year off with waste. The same went for the vegan longevity noodles in the “cafeteria” near the temple. Each day over the next two weeks is included in the celebration, although the more old fashioned traditions are starting to fade. The fifteenth day – the Lantern Festival – is still a major part of Chinese culture, though. Lanterns adorn many streets in China, and families walk the street that night carrying lighted lanterns and also light candles outside their homes as a way to guide wayward spirits home.

The Chinese New Year tradition is to reconcile, forget all grudges and sincerely wish peace and happiness for everyone.



Pork & Cabbage Dumplings Ingredients:

Pre-packaged dumpling wrappers (find them at your local grocery store or co-op – I use the square ones more commonly used for wontons)

1 C ground pork
2 T soy sauce
1 tsp salt
1 T rice wine
1/4 tsp ground pepper
2 T sesame oil
2 green onions, finely minced (save the green parts for the dipping sauce)
2 C finely shredded cabbage (the food processor works well for this)
1 T ginger, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Mix all filling ingredients together in a large bowl.

Set up your dumpling rolling station at your table with a cutting board or other surface to keep your space clean, a bowl of water, the filling, your bamboo steamer (if steaming dumplings instead of baking or frying), and a cookie sheet to hold additional dumplings before cooking.

To roll:

  1. Put one wrapper on middle of cutting board.
  2. Place one tablespoon of mixture in the center of the wrapper.
  3. Dip your fingers in the water and wet the edges of the wrapper all around.
  4. Fold the bottom corner up to the top corner and “crimp” the edges toward the middle tip.
  5. Set tip up in bamboo steamer or cookie sheet.
  6. Repeat until all filling is gone!

This is fun with a crew of people, making it a great family Chinese New Year’s Eve tradition!

1 2 3

To cook:

Place bamboo steamer over simmering water and steam for 25 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place dumpling on greased cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until slightly browned. Keep an eye on them, you may need to flip sides.

Put enough vegetable or peanut oil in shallow skillet to cover the bottom of pan. Preheat pan ‘til oil is sizzlin’ hot, then place (carefully!) the dumplings in the pan, cooking 7 minutes per side.

Dipping sauce:

1/4 C soy sauce
1 t Siracha or other chili sauce
Remainder of green onion, finely minced

Combine ingredients in a small bowl. Dip in your cooked dumplings. Enjoy!

Easy Maple Granola Recipe!


Easy Maple Granola Recipe & images by Benji Nichols, Inspire(d) Media 2016

There are few things that smell more heavenly than granola baking in your oven. We had the fun experience of having a surplus of real maple syrup in the pantry, which acted as the catalyst for developing this recipe. Whether you’re snacking away, packing on the go, or topping your favorite yogurt or ice cream snack – this is an easy, fun, relatively healthy granola recipe that you can tweak to the liking of your friends and family.

Don’t be afraid to add or subtract ingredients (like the shredded coconut – or types of nuts) to suit your granola tastes. The wheat germ acts as a nice intermediary and binder, but isn’t necessary if you can’t find it in the store or have eaters with wheat sensitivity (we buy it in bulk at our local Coop). This recipe easily doubles, but you will need to either use 2 baking sheets, or adjust the baking time. If you start to smell an overly ‘toasted’ smell in the final half of baking, pull the granola right away. Overall, this recipe is incredibly giving – and forgiving! Don’t forget to share…

Easy Maple Granola Recipe:

Dry Ingredients:

2 Cups rolled oats
1/2 Cup Pecans or walnuts
1/4 Cup Almonds
1/3 Cup Wheat Germ
1 Tablespoon Pepitas (dried pumpkin seeds)
1 Tablespoon shredded coconut (optional)
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Wet Ingredients:

1 teaspoon Vanilla
1/3 Cup (real) maple syrup
1/4 Cup Coconut Oil (melted but not hot)
1 egg white (optional)

Add Later:

1/2 Cup Dried Cranberry (chopped)



Mix all dry ingredients together, set aside.

Combine all wet ingredients. The egg white is optional and acts as a binder that will allow the granola to have more clusters in final form. If you choose to add the egg white, make sure that the coconut oil is not too warm (to avoid cooking the egg white).

Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir until dry ingredients are evenly coated. Spread out onto either lightly oiled, parchment, or (our favorite) silicone sheet (Silpat) covered baking sheet.

Bake 325 degrees for 30 minutes, stir/turn the granola with spatula, bake an additional 20 minutes and let cool. Granola will not get crisp until it cools.


Once granola is mostly cooled (or as long as you can stand it) add the chopped cranberries and gently stir to mix evenly. Once fully cooled, store in an airtight container  – if you really want to go over the top, throw a few chocolate chips in once cool. Lasts easily up to 2 weeks (Yeah, right! It’ll be gone long before then!!!)