Posts Categorized: Recipes

The Potluck: Finger Foods


The Potluck: Taking a Midwest Tradition Local

Story and photos by Aryn Henning Nichols • Photo/Food Assistant Thea Satrom

Getting together with friends is the stuff of summer.

Getting together with friends, eating food grown by friends, is the stuff of a Driftless summer.

When you live in a place like the Driftless Region, you sometimes forget that you’re even eating local…you’re just serving up the produce grown by farmers up the road! They might even be sitting across the table from you – ‘cause this is the Midwest, people. We’re friendly. And we like to potluck.

In case this is your first day in the Midwest, a potluck is “a gathering of people where each person or group of people contributes a dish of food to be shared among the larger gathered group.”

It’s a beautiful thing not just because it’s a great format for a party, but also because sometimes summertime livin’ isn’t so easy; it’s busy. Make it a little simpler by having your friends make all the food. Okay…you still have to make one dish, but that’s a lot better than a whole meal.

What goes into planning a potluck? Just an email, text message, or phone call with a loose “you do a main course, I’ll do veggie, they’ll bring dessert” sort of thing. Take it a step further and challenge potluck-goers to use local produce in their dishes. Buying locally is good for your environment, economy, and – most importantly – yourself. And shopping in season at your area farmers markets and food co-ops is also way more affordable than you’d think!

We put together our own potluck of local foods for this issue – from local shrimp (yep!) to bacon-wrapped dates to a beet and apple salad to cheese curd caprese skewers, we’ve got you covered. We’re featuring the recipes online here throughout the summer. Today, we’re highlighting finger foods!

Make it a potluck-y summer, friends, and enjoy!




Cheese Curd Caprese Skewers

1/2 C balsamic vinegar
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
1/2 lb fresh cheese curds
fresh basil leaves, cut or ripped in half if large
salt & pepper
Drizzle of olive oil

Bring balsamic vinegar up to a boil in a saucepan, then lower heat to medium and simmer until it’s the consistency of very thin maple syrup, about 10 minutes. Pour into a bowl and let cool.

Cut large tomatoes in half / leave small ones whole. Thread a small cheese curd, basil leaf, and a tomato onto a toothpick. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Sprinkle with salt & pepper, then alternate a drizzle of balsamic reduction and olive oil on top.

Bacon-wrapped dates (makes 36)
12-ounce package of bacon, cut into thirds
8-ounce package of pitted dates

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Position oven rack in the center of the oven. Cover a cookie sheet with tin foil. Using scissors, cut bacon slices into thirds. Wrap one (third) piece of bacon around each date. Make sure the bacon seam is on the bottom, so it is less likely to unravel. Repeat until all of the dates are wrapped in tasty bacon.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until crisp (go a little longer if they don’t look crispy). Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.


Deviled Eggs

12 hard-boiled eggs
1/2 C mayonnaise
2 T milk
1 tsp yellow mustard
1/4 tsp salt ( or to taste, I use seasoned salt)
1/8 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/4 tsp garlic powder
Paprika for dusting

Slice the eggs in half lengthwise; remove the yolks, and set whites aside. Add all ingredients except for paprika into food processor (it makes it so much smoother!), or whisk by hand if you must. Spoon mixture into a plastic bag, snip one corner, and pipe into the whites. Sprinkle with paprika and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.


Tzatziki Dip
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 C plain greek yogurt
1/2 C sour cream
2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste

Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate for 2 hrs. before serving.  Serve with fresh veggies and pita triangles, or try it on top of grilled or roasted meats like lamb, chicken, or gyros.


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!