Posts Tagged: Mississippi Mirth

Mother’s Day + Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

By Jim McCaffrey
Originally published in the Spring 2011 Inspire(d)

Happily, winter is just a sleeting memory. With the advent of spring comes an ever-changing cornucopia of newly-sprouting varieties of vegetation. Lilies of the Valley, Fiddlehead Ferns, Dutchman’s Breeches, Bluebells, and Jack in the Pulpit abound in the woods around the Driftless Region. One finds the spark of new life in the cultivated gardens of the area as well. Asparagus loves to nudge its pointy little head out of the earth at the first advent of frost packing it in for another season. Freshly planted onion sets strive mightily to reach out and touch the sun. Lettuces frolic with wild abandon, seemingly screaming out “Pick me! Pick me! And slather me with homemade Green Goddess dressing!” But the most formidable spring garden plant just has to be rhubarb. Once it takes hold, it is just like the Energizer bunny. It keeps growing and growing and growing.

So let me share a story from the McCaffrey Family Chronicles. A tale of rhubarb deception or at the very least, a mother’s indiscretion. I grew up the son of a father who went through the Great Depression and a mother who escaped with her sister from East Germany during World War Two. Together my parents some how came up with the down payment on an 80-acre farm just west of Decorah. I’m sure making the ends meet while raising five children and sending them to the Catholic school as well was no picnic in the park. After all, my dad was a rural mail carrier and like most families at that time, he was the sole wage earner. In order to make do, we had a couple of large gardens and raised various species of livestock that graced the table throughout the year. One year we raised 400 chickens in the garage. We spent an entire weekend butchering and pulling feathers. We then proceeded to have chicken for supper six days a week. On the seventh day we rested and had hamburger. I still do like chicken in spite of that experience. Needless to say, a lot of effort was necessary to keep the farm above the waterline.

We pretty much lived out of the gardens year-round. What wasn’t eaten fresh was preserved in one fashion or another. Potatoes and onions were piled on pallets in a dark abyss of a corner in the basement. To this day I can remember distinctly the raw spud aroma that permeated the basement air. Hey, my father was Irish, so 400 pounds of potatoes hanging out in the basement was not uncommon. We also amassed a trove of canned vegetables and pickles that were stored in a large floor-to-ceiling cupboard in the cellar. Mom was the “preserve principal” in our family. She had a small wooden-handled paring knife that she used for her culinary cutups. As a chef I marvel at the amount of food she processed with that knife. Bushels of sweet corn were voided of their kernels by several swift strokes. She spent hours at the kitchen table being the human vegematic. I can just see her slicing strawberries, chopping up rhubarb, and cutting green beans French style.


Rhubarb was usually the first of the yearly harvest. Mom would slice the stalks into small pieces and freeze most of them for when the strawberries were ripe and delicious. She then made some delicious strawberry and rhubarb jam and pies. My favorite of her desserts, however, was her so-called Rhubarb Upside Down Cake with a sweet butter sauce. Mom passed away a couple years ago and no one can find that recipe. I decided to use some Irish ingenuity and see if I could come up with something close. So I Googled Best Rhubarb Upside Down Cake. “What is wrong with this picture?” In fact, “PICTURES.” Every recipe with a picture of the cake had the rhubarb on top. Even Martha Stewart’s. (One can’t argue with America’s culinary maven). Mom’s rhubarb was on the bottom. My childhood conception of upside down cake has been completely shattered. Mom, how could you have led me so astray? OK. Take a deep breath and breathe easy, breathe easy. Time to come up with a plan. In the future, I will call it Rhubarb Upside Upside down cake and the heck with Martha. I plan on making this for my family in honor of my mom on Mother’s Day this year. It isn’t the original recipe but it is close. Oh, and Mom, I still love you.


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.


Rhubarb Upside Upside Down Cake

8 Tbl butter
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
8 cups cut up rhubarb
3/4 cup butter
2 cups granulated sugar
4 cups all purpose flour
2 Tbl baking powder
2 cups milk
3 eggs
1 Tbl vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 8 Tbl butter in large skillet or pot.
Add brown sugar and stir until blended. Add rhubarb and mix until well coated.
Grease an 11 X 18 baking dish. Cover the bottom evenly with rhubarb mixture.
Cream butter with sugar in an electric mixer. Add the rest of the ingredients.
Mix until smooth. Gently pour over the rhubarb mixture and smooth with a rubber spatula. Bake 40-50 minutes until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Sweet Butter Sauce
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 cup cream or 1/2 and 1/2
2 tsp vanilla

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan on medium low.
Cook and stir for about 10 minutes or until sugar is dissolved.
Pour warm over cake slices and enjoy!

Ed. note: Benji made this delicious – seriously delicious – cake for these photos and halved the recipe, baking it in a 9” round cake pan and two eggs. It worked beautifully. (Sorry, Jim, it’s not upside upside down, but we served that way, and MAN was it good.)

Mississippi Mirth: Chicken Noodle Soup


A Chicken in Every Pot
…Or the magical powers of chicken noodle soup
By Jim McCaffrey • Originally published in the Winter 2012-13 Inspire(d)

Which came first the chicken or the egg?

Honestly? Who cares. Both are delightful ingredients for a winter/cold/flu season staple: chicken (egg) noodle soup!

Chicken noodle is not just any soup. It’s a soup that is cherished by many cultures throughout the world. Many different versions abound. Today ours is made from scratch with handmade egg noodles. Oh yeah baby, not your mama’s Campbell’s Soup, that’s for sure.

So lets get started. Broth is the key ingredient. You can use canned or boxed chicken broth. NOT!! (Well, maybe in a pinch, I guess. NOT!!!) Using a homemade broth in soups is just so far superior to the store-bought versions. There are a couple of ways I make my own broth (and you can too!). At the restaurant, we bake a lot of chicken. And, consequently, we have a lot of pan juices that we save. Think of it as liquid gold. We let the juices cool, and skim off any fat that might rise. The juices are then poured into plastic containers with tight lids. These we date using freezer tape and store in our freezer for future use. We pull out as needed, oldest first. Since we are constantly using the juices for soups and gravies, we don’t have to worry about shelf life, but if you’re not breaking out the big pots as often as us, a year is the max to store and I personally would toss after six months. When ready to use, thaw your stock-base out in the refrigerator the previous day. This base is naturally concentrated, so all you have to do is add water and seasonings (salt, pepper, herbs to taste) to fill out your soup. This works well if you have leftover chicken that you’d like to toss into a soup.

Another great way to make broth is to take a whole plucked and thawed chicken, remove the liver and any excess fat, and put it, along with about three to four inches of water, in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cover. Cook for about an hour. Usually, when the chicken floats, you are good to go. To make sure, use tongs and grab a leg. If it becomes detached, chicken is ready to go. If not, simmer a few minutes longer. Remove the chicken and let broth cool. Skim off the fat and it’s time to make soup, with your chicken AND stock ready to go.

Congratulations! You have just passed Chicken Broth 101!


Let’s move on to handmade egg noodles. Every good egg noodle has a story behind it. Mine goes like this: I was living in Iowa City in the early 1970s. Every few weeks I would come back to Decorah for the weekend. I have some great friends, Steve Olson (Ole) and Juanita Riveria (Goochie). They were living up by Burr Oak, it was winter, and I arrived at the door. “Come on in.” I walked into the kitchen and here was Goochie covered with flour, rolling out dough that almost completely covered the four by six-foot wooden kitchen table. “What’s going on, Goochie?” I queried. “Well, Barb Winter gave me a couple of chickens and I’m going to make chicken noodle soup. But first I have to make noodles and you can help.” I reply, “Ok, I’m in, but I’ve never done this before.” Fortunately, for Goochies sake, I am a quick learner and soon we were slicing the dough into long noodles and draping them onto any available space to dry. Backs of chairs, hung over counters, off of the table, etc. Man, noodle art at its finest. It would have made Andy Warhol proud. Thanks for the lesson, Goochie! If you have never had fresh-made egg noodles you are in for one of life’s great treats. I guarantee it is bliss.


After all that noodling, it’s time to really sweat. Veggies that is. Like your mother always said, eat your vegetables! I like to sauté the veggies that I put in my soups. When they start to get soft, they also start to lose their water. I find this accentuates the vegetable flavors. The unami of soup flavor. Add it all to the pot. Yummy, to say the least. Of course we still have to have seasoning. The key word here is fresh. Just remember fresh is best when it comes to herbs. In almost all of my soups I like to use fresh thyme. It is extremely versatile. Then I crank it up with additional herbs. My mom was a big fan of sage. Although she primarily used dried herbs, she always said sage should be a big part of poultry dishes. And I always listened to my mom. You should too. Your mom, I mean, not mine. So into the chicken soup the fresh sage goes.

Now that your chicken soup is seasoned, put it to use for another season: the giving season. It’s all about sharing with your loved ones and friends, and a great way to start off this year is to divvy up a steaming hot bowl of chicken soup for everyone. Pass around some crusty bread and pour a crispy white wine. Enjoy the camaraderie and spread the love. This also works for the cold/flu season as you share the healing powers of chicken soup. It’s truly a magical winter concoction.


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.


Chicken Noodle Soup

1 3 1/2 -4 lb. whole chicken
1/3 cup olive oil
6 stalks celery, chopped
4 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
Homemade egg noodles (recipe to follow)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 sprigs fresh thyme, minced
1 Tbl fresh sage, minced
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Remove liver and excess fat from chicken. Place in a large pot and cover with water by 3-4 inches. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for about an hour. Meanwhile, pour olive oil in a large skillet. Sauté celery and carrots over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add onions and garlic and sauté 3 minutes more. When chicken is thoroughly cooked (see column directions) pull from broth and let cool. Let broth cool somewhat and skim broth off. When chicken is sufficiently cooled remove skin. Remove meat from bones and dice. Bring broth back to a simmer. Add sautéed vegetables and noodles. Add lemon juice and spices, adjusting as needed. Soup is good to go when noodles are nice and chewy.

Homemade Noodles

1 1/2 cups flour
2 eggs
2 teaspoons salt

Make a mound of flour on your work surface. Make a well in the center. Whisk eggs and salt. Place in well. Slowly, by hand, mix flour and egg mixture until eggs are incorporated. If the mixture is to dry, add water a little at a time until you have a pliable ball of dough. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes. Divide in half. Roll out each half as thin as possible. Take a sharp paring knife and cut into strips, however wide you want your noodles to be. Hang off of counters and chair backs to dry, about an hour.


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.