Friday, November 30, 2012

Thinking of Becoming an Innkeeper?

Here is some food for thought, in this case, no pun intended. First ask yourself why you want to be an innkeeper. If you think it would be fun, it is. If you think it’ll be an easy retirement job that will make some extra money? Think again. Innkeeping is not only a full time job but a full time commitment. It involves working holidays, weekends and basically all those days that others generally have off. You are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the physical labor is often grueling. Next, you should ask  yourself if you are a people person. Do you enjoy entertaining? Are you ok with people touching and looking through your personal items? If so, innkeeping is for you.
Keep in mind that if you believe that starting up a bed and breakfast sounds like a lucrative investment, it isn’t. You will never become rich as an innkeeper. But, you will have wonderful times, be an entrepreneur and be self employed. This comes with a lot of perks and a lot of downfalls, biggest one being the lack of benefits which come with a normal 9 to 5 job. If you are smart, you’ll diversify, as most bed and breakfasts do. Maybe you’ll serve meals, maybe you’ll do cooking classes and you will likely want to sell some retail. All of these will contribute to your bottom line, but not by much. Innkeeping is ultimately a lifestyle choice and one that can be tremendously rewarding.

Before you begin, make sure you have written yourself a very clear and detailed business plan. You should be absolutely certain of your finances. Know what you can afford before you start looking because banks don’t understand innkeeping as an industry and getting a loan is a tremendous challenge. Then, estimate your expenses at about 20% more because even if you purchase an existing property, which you should, you will likely end up with hidden expenses you didn’t anticipate ranging from home improvements to marketing. With regards to getting an existing property, there are pros and cons to that. A newly built facility, whether from the ground up or taking an existing property and building to suit, is great because you can get exactly the amenities and floor plan you want. However, a very serious pitfall often encountered by would be innkeepers is zoning. You cannot apply for zoning to become a bed and breakfast until you own a property and if your request is denied, you are stuck with a property you bought with the intent of turning it into a business and cannot do anything with it. We have known several innkeeper friends who spent months fighting their county boards and thousands in legal fees trying to get their inns zoned properly.

Next thing to consider is location. Where do you want to be in terms of potential business? Keep the following factors in mind. It always helps to be near a major thoroughfare, such as a highway, so that people can reach you easily. Secondly, being near things to do is helpful, for example shopping, outdoor activities, historical sites, wineries. Your guests will want a reason to come see you. Third, having a significant population within a two to three hour drive is a must. If you are more remote than that you will have a tough time drawing an audience. People who frequent inns tend to keep their searches to within a two to three hour drive.

Finally, you should consider the amenities you want to offer. What will set you apart? What is your identity as a bed and breakfast? Are you a foodies destination? Are you going to try to capture a market focused on hunting and fishing? Do you want to have a winery attached to your property? There are an infinite number of approaches you can take, all of which will determine what kind of marketing you will undertake which is probably the single most important aspect to getting into this business. Marketing has become an almost full time job in and of itself. Having an action plan and understanding your avenues of promoting yourself will make the difference between success and failure within the first year.

There are a number of fantastic resources available to aspiring innkeepers. Most state organizations offer training programs and several properties do weekend seminars for would be innkeepers. Additionally, there are many books are out there for aspiring innkeepers that offer more expanded versions of what I outlined here that are fantastic reference sources. One of my personal favorites is Mary White’s “Running a Bed and Breakfast For Dummies.” Hers was one of the few books that set a positive tone, encouraging future innkeepers to jump into this endeavor rather than discouraging them or scaring them away with all kinds of fear mongering as some of the other books did. Mary is the founder of, is a leader in the industry in terms of advocacy for inns and a regular contributor to numerous publications on the subject of innkeeping. Above all, ask questions. Innkeepers are a friendly bunch and will gladly discuss their industry with you. Pick their brains and you will glean great insight into the many different approaches that have worked and not worked. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

You've probably all played this game before. Name 5 people dead or alive that you'd like to have to dinner. I've seen the game circulate on Facebook and through various emails numerous times. It's always fun to see who people select and why and to think about who I would select and why. Lo and behold yesterday Jeff and I started thinking about it yet again only this time, we wanted to limit it to specific groups. I got to thinking about who would be the food world figures I'd want to have around a dinner table. Now, our dining room table seats 14, so counting us, that means we would have space to invite 12 special guests. Here is my wish list. I can only imagine how fascinating the conversation would be.

1) Julia Child-That one was obvious as I am probably her biggest fan ever. But more importantly, Julia is a fascinating character for two major reasons. I would argue that she pioneered the notion of a TV Celebrity Chef. Secondly, she broke into a field that prior to her was dominated by men and to a certain extent opened the doors for other women to pursue culinary professions.

2) Anthony Bourdain-The irreverent chef, author and host of several travel/food shows is not only fiercely intelligent but quite thought provoking on the subject of all things food/culture related. He is also uber sexy.

3) Michelle Obama-Her Let's Move campaign is something I have been passionate about for a long time. What we eat and how it relates to our health both as individuals and as a nation is extremely important and someone in her position gives so much credibility to the cause.

4) Michael Pollan-This journalist who wrote my favorite book Omnivore's Dilemma is someone who I greatly respect with regard to his diligence in exposing the dangers of a corporate dominated food system. He opened my eyes to many of the things I am now passionate about, i.e. organic, fresh, local food and eating for health.

5) Thomas Keller-Arguably one of the most influential chefs of the last 20 years. His French Laundry revolutionized the culinary scene and he has since trained numerous brilliant chefs who currently head the top rated restaurants in the world. I particularly am inspired by his creative and playful approach to food and his down to earth demeanor.

6) Grant Achatz-The current big man on top with respect to the food scene. Next and Alinea are certainly two of the top restaurants in Chicago and perhaps in the world. I also find his story of battling throat cancer and how it influenced his cooking to be tremendously awe inspiring.

7) Jamie Oliver-He is a hero in my book for his dedication to battling youth obesity and trying to change the food system in our schools. His Food Revolution prompted me to act personally with regards to educating kids about real food and how it can impact their lives long term.

8) Paula Wolfert-Chef and author of the first cookbook on Moroccan cuisine called Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco and more recently The Food of Morocco has inspired me since my early days in the kitchen. Her work was integral in my research for my Master's Thesis on Moroccan Tea Ritual and her knowledge about Moroccan food and culture is tremendous.

9) Mark Bittman-Chef/author who regularly contributes to the NY Times on the subject of food. Fiercely intelligent, outspoken and en pointe with his assessments about the current state of food in this country.

10) Ferran Adria-Often cited with starting the trend of molecular gastronomy and owner of what was long considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world prior to its closing in 2011, El Bulli.

11) James Beard-The flamboyant chef/author was oft cited as being larger than life. He was passionate about food and was certainly influential in bringing haute cuisine to this country during the 20th century.

12) Auguste Escoffier-Father of the brigade de cuisine system still utilized in formal kitchens to this day and credited with codifying haute French cuisine.

That rounds out the group. An eclectic mix to say the least. Now, what would I serve them? That's a topic for another blog post.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The “inns” and “outs” of innkeeping: Playing the Amenity Game

The most requested amenity made by potential guests calling to inquire about reservations for any bed and breakfast is also the one that gets the least amount of use. Can you figure out what it might be? If you said Jacuzzi tub, you’d be correct. Everyone thinks it would be great to have one, but when push comes to shove, they end up not using it. We of course have antique ceramic tubs from the 1920’s that we would never replace because of their historical value, so that amenity in our case is “out.” So what’s “inn”? Read on.

The amenities game is a big question mark in the bed and breakfast industry. If you were to look at a list of every possible configuration of amenities you could offer the list would boggle your mind (and put you “out” of business). No one inn could ever offer them all so each innkeeper must decide what fits the identity of their inns and their personalities. What are you selling? It is a marketing game that you have to constantly play with in order to maximize appeal.

We decided early on that our primary amenities would revolve around our identity as a “foodies bed and breakfast.” These included home baked goodies, chocolates in all the rooms, beverages including a gourmet assortment of loose leaf teas, full hot breakfast and of course our four-course fixed price dinners. In addition we felt that enjoying a nice glass of wine or a beer with a meal was important to creating a gourmet ambiance so we bit the bullet and got a liquor license which most bed and breakfasts do not have.

In addition to the “foodie” theme, we also had a few specific items we knew we needed to focus on as far as amenities go. First off, why do so many hotels, even high end ones, skimp on the quality of the toilet paper they use? It may sound bizarre to say, but Jeff and I felt that it was important to have nice toilet paper and not that single ply stuff that feels like sandpaper. And believe it or not, guests notice. We have had many comments on it.  

Second, and perhaps one of the most important amenities because it is in the name of our business, is the bed. We actually spent several hours with a mattress expert going over the pros and cons of beds and trying to identify what kind would be ideal across the board for everyone. We ended up deciding upon a Simmons Beautyrest single coil mattresses as opposed to the Tempurpedic mattresses because the Tempurpedics tend to sleep hot and that can make things uncomfortable for some.

The third important amenity to consider was the bedding. You can have a great mattress but if the bedding isn’t soft and the pillows aren’t plush, it won’t matter a bit. It took us a long time to find the sheets we love which are soft and wash well and we recently upgraded all our pillows to those “My Pillow” pillows you see on TV. Yes, they work. A couple of additional items we like to have in our rooms include signature toiletries, robes and bottles of water.

This next amenity is more about our personalities than anything else, but we decided that media was something we wanted to focus on. Business clients must have Wi-FI and most men won’t go to a bed and breakfast if there is no television available. That being said, we ended up getting satellite TV and put VCR/DVD combos in all the rooms along with a list of approximately 1000 movie titles they can choose from to watch while they are here. Jeff and I are huge movie buffs so honestly, it was an excuse for us to get a bunch of movies under the guise of an amenity for the inn.

Finally, it was important for us to maintain nice gardens, including a vegetable and herb garden that guests could enjoy. We keep our patio manicured and lush looking so guests can sit outside with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. We will never, however, get a pool or a Jacuzzi tub because of the potential liability involved with the combination of a liquor license and drowning.

The bottom line is that if you are planning a trip to a bed and breakfast, you should decide what specific amenities are important to you and then do your homework before deciding upon a property. All of them have websites and they generally outline clearly what they do and do not offer so you can make an educated decision as to what fits you perfectly.

Courtesy of the Bureau County Republican

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday Julia: A Loving Tribute

This August 15 would have marked the 100th birthday of the late great Julia Child. Around the country restaurants and individuals alike are celebrating the life and legacy of this great woman. She was more than just the woman who taught us to cook French food. Her greater achievement perhaps was the reintroduction of the joy of cooking to an America that was being sucked into a vortex of fast, easy and convenient. Her delightful nonchalance, infectious laugh, breathless warble and certainly her unusual height made her unforgettable. As for me, she represents everything I have ever strived for and worked toward, not just as a chef, but as a woman.

Julia McWilliams was not born a chef and foodie. In fact, she did not arrive at her passion until well into her 30's. "I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate." Her discovery of good food and wine was directly a result of having met the love of her life, Paul Child. Not unlike Julia, I did not particulary have an affinity for food and cooking until I met the love of my life, Jeff. Our courtship revolved around him taking me to new restaurants of various ethnicities and showing me that food wasn't taboo. It was an opportunity to learn something and to experience a social experience unlike any other.

Julia became a Francophile as a result of her introduction to food and her lifelong mission was to teach people not only of the virtues of French cooking, but to appreciate French sensibilities of life, love, good food, good company and passion. To her, the greatest things in life were the company of good friends around a fantastic and carefully prepared meal. "In France, cooking is an art form and a national sport." I was a Francophile prior to my introduction to cooking. I have always had a passion for the language and the culture and in fact got one of my two bachelor's degrees in French. Having spent 6 months in Paris for my Sophomore year study abroad, I understand the infatuation Julia had with the city and the country in general. There is something you simply cannot explain to those who have not been there. Some kind of warmth, like a passionate embrace that envelopes you the moment you step out onto the Parisian streets.

Julia's foray into the world of television was really a case of being in the right place at the right time. Not necessarily her ultimate goal. That being said, she was nothing if not a natural. Not a beautiful woman by any means, in fact, in many ways she was quite awkward and gangly at 6 feet 2 inches in height. But she had that je ne sais quoi. That IT factor that you so often hear people talk about. She was quick witted, funny, unashamed of her imperfections and down to earth. People could relate to her and weren't intimidated by her. If she could do it, then there was no reason why you or I couldn't do it. "Find something you are passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it." Her passion for what she did was evident even until her later years in life when her health began to fail. Everyone who met her was instantly enthralled by her. Her charisma was infectious to say the least.

And always with her was her partner in crime. Her best friend and lover. The butter to her bread. Paul. I think it was truly one of the great partnerships in history. One that I believe inspires me and Jeff to do what we do every day. Nothing in life is worth much if you cannot do it besides the one you love. "The secret of a happy marriage is finding the right person. You know they're right if you love to be with them all of the time."

Dear Julia. Happy birthday. Thank you for your inspiration, your guidance and your honesty. Myself and many of us will forever remember you fondly. I will leave you with a couple of my favorite Julia quotes and a reminder that no matter what might go wrong in the kitchen, always think to yourself, what would Julia do?

"Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon or not at all."

"Everything in moderation, including moderation."

"How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex."

"The best way to execute french cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit."

Bon appetit Julia!

Love, Mini Julia

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Food Politics: Big Business Versus the Future

"Congressional reluctance to favor children's health above the rights of soft drink producers is a direct result of election laws that require legislators to obtain corporate funding for their campaigns. Like most corporations, soft drink companies donate funds to local and national candidates. More rational campaign financing laws might permit Congress to take positions based on public good rather than private greed." p. 217, Food Politics by Marion Nestle

This quote more than perhaps any other in this 400 page tome summarizes in a nutshell what the book Food Politics is all about. It analyzes every aspect of the food industry from its marketing practices to new product development to regulation of supplements. It is a brilliant, eye opening work, which despite the fact that it was published in 2003 is as relevent if not more so today when corporate donations are even more inextricably tied to the works of Congress and the election of candidates for office.

One of the central issues at hand in the politics of food is the conflict of interest between freedom and regulation. According to Nestle, what we perceive to be our freedom to choose what we put into our bodies is not actually a result of democracy but rather a product of brilliant marketing which subliminally if not blatantly drives our decisions about consumption. The primary target of this marketing tends to be the most economically deprived and even more heinously those who cannot make sound decisions for themselves, our children.

It's no secret that there is an obesity epidemic in this country. Statistics about current childhood obesity and estimates of the levels of obesity in the coming decades are on the news constantly. We are in a serious health crisis in this country that will not only affect our individual rights, but the economics of our future. Individuals who are dying of diseases directly attributable to diet are a burden on society and particularly in the younger set will create a serious gap in manpower in the not so distant future. For example, many of today's kids will not be able to pass a fitness test necessary to serve in our armed forces. If there was a need to build an army and nobody is fit enough to serve our national security is in serious trouble.

Today more than ever, we have a situation where we are concerned with economic growth. Let's face it, all businesses are alive to make a profit. That's what business is all about. But, at what point does responsibility to society as a whole come into the picture? I'm not talking about socialism, I'm talking about the perpetuation of society and the golden rule. Should businesses be allowed to profit on the backs of those who are becoming ill and dying from what they produce? At what point does life mean more than money? It's something we all have to ask ourselves when we step into the voting booth. Food corporations and agribusiness lobbyists are amongst the largest in the country and they are wooing candidates on both sides of the aisle.

Awareness of health and nutrition is out there and more and more people are subscribing to the tenets of farm to table and sustainability. But this represents a very small portion of our food system. While government makes it easier for corporations to produce frankenfoods with outrageous health proclamations by relaxing their regulations, it makes it increasingly difficult for small family farms to grow and sell real natural food to you and me. That's no mistake. That is by design.

So what can you or I do about it? Money talks. Where you choose to spend your dollar speaks volumes. Your purchasing habits may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but if everyone were to act with their dollars that would send a message to these corporations where it counts, in their pocketbooks. Ultimately we have to take back control of our lives by choosing wisely and voting wisely because what is happening is not ok. Become your own advocate. And next time you are in the grocery store and deciding upon the liter bottle of sweetened cola, pass it by and purchase some juicy naturally sweet fruit instead. Your body will thank you.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


One of the things I find most exciting about being a chef is when I am inspired to create something out of the blue. Sometimes it is a random thought or something I read that sparks the inspiration, but often it is a result of a need to create something to accommodate a dietary restriction. Some people find this incredibly stressful. I find it a unique challenge and a distinct opportunity to express myself creatively while creating a special experience for someone that has been marginalized to some extent because of what they can and cannot eat. If I can give someone pleasure through food when they felt like that opportunity was no longer available to them, I have done something truly remarkable and something that I feel very proud of.

This week, despite the fact that I'm still in recovery mode after having had surgery just a couple of weeks ago, I was inspired by just such a challenge. I needed a dessert for someone who was lactose intolerant so my usual go to that I am quite well known for, creme brulees of various flavors, was out. Chocolate desserts are also out as most involve some kind of dairy. I was leaning toward sorbet but I didn't want to do someting average, namely a mainstream flavor. Then I thought, what if I was in Morocco. What flavors would I lean toward for a special sorbet?? Then I looked at what I had in the house and decided I'd try an orange sorbet.

While I don't have an exact recipe because I was just tossing and adding stuff until it tasted right, the basic recipe included 2 Cara Cara oranges, zest from those two oranges, 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of honey, 2 tbl vanilla extract, 2 tbl orange blossom water, 2 tsps ground cinnamon, 2 tsps ground ginger, a huge pinch of saffron, roughly a cup or so, perhaps more, of Simply Orange juice and finally just a cup or so of plain soy milk (although I suspect almond or rice milk would work just as well). A final last minute addition was about 2 cups of toasted almond slivers that I folded after I had frozen the sorbet to about a soft serve with an ice cream machine. So I guess you'd call it a Moroccan Inspired Orange, Saffron and Almond Sorbet. It yielded about 12 or so large servings.

I heated the water and sugar in a microwave on high for 3 mins. Then stir to dissolve any remaining sugar. Then I heated an additional 3 minutes to create a simple syrup. This was then added to the 2 peeled oranges, the zest from those oranges, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla and the orange blossom water in a Vitamix or food processor and pureed until smooth. I then strained the mixture to get any bits of pith out of the mixture. To that I added the honey, orange juice and soy milk and whisked until well combined. This was frozen in a home model ice cream machine until soft serve, folded with the almonds and then I put it in the freezer overnight to finish freezing. And voila. Here is a photo:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Problem with Next Food Network Star

Many of you are going to look at the title of this blog and think, ok, sour grapes. Quit whining. While there is some truth to that, I think I can back up my stance pretty easily. It's no secret that I've been yearning to have my own show on any tv network focusing on Mediterranean inspired cuisine. Many of you have supported me in this endeavor, seen my pilot, came to my fundraiser to help find an agent and sent in letters to the Food Network. Over and over again upon teaching cooking classes or after appearances on Paula Sands Live! you encourage me, telling me I should have my own cooking show or I'd be great on Chopped.

Well, here is the problem. I've tried. I have repeatedly sent in applications to show after show after show to no avail. Apparently I am having trouble getting their attention. It doesn't matter if I cook food that many people love or if I have natural ability to cook, teach and entertain at the same time as I often do in my cooking classes. The network execs simply don't know I exist and are having trouble finding this needle in an ever growing haystack of would be Julia Childs.

Why?? I have a theory. Have you noticed how arrogant and nasty some of the personalities on these shows can be?? Many present an over the top persona that not only looks over the top but appears to have over the top ego. The problem is I'm too much Tinkerbell and not enough Lady Gaga. I have lofty ideas that I might be recognized for being a good chef, one who presents the kind of food that is missing on the television scene and one who is just cute, nice and down to earth. Unfortunately, while this may be the kind of person who would ultimately produce a "star," it isn't the kind of person who would initially get ratings on a reality competition show that thrives on conflict.

So the question is, how does someone who refuses to play the bitch get the attention of the kind of formulaic media production that is the Food Network?? How do I convince them that nice and talented are enough for ratings and in the long run will create a star that has staying power, not just a one shot wonder??

I'm not sure of the answer but I'm certainly going to keep working at it. Until then, I'll keep doing what I do best, which is cooking with passion and passing along that passion to those who really love food, not sensationalism. Perhaps one day this passion is what will get me noticed. I may be a small fish in a big pond, but eventually even a tadpole grows up into a bullfrog and can hop onto the biggest lily pad in the pond. I'm hoping that this bullfrog will be hopping onto the Food Network lily pad sooner rather than later.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Sad Truth About Our Industrialized Food System

I find it incomprehensible how institutions like schoools, hospitals and nursing homes have become the lowest rung of importance in our industrialized food system. I don't know if any of you have had the occasion of late to experience any of the foods served at any of these institutions but the situation is atrocious.

Many of you know that I have spent some time working with children and doing cooking demos at schools trying to educate kids on the benefits of healthy eating. Part of that was inspired by the likes of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, part by the White House Let's Move initiative, but basically I was motivated to try to connect with kids and show them that healthy doesn't necessarily mean yucky. Believe it or not, kids are much more open minded than we think they are. If you give them the opportunity to try new things, they are quite receptive. That being said, when you see what they are actually being fed by school cafeterias, it is incredibly disheartening. All the education and encouragement in the world won't be worth a darn thing if they continue serving the slop they do in schools.

Many kids in this country only have 2 meals a day and they are the 2 that they get for free at school. When all they are being fed is fried, fatty, white starches and processed, pre-packaged frankenfoods it is no wonder that we are suffering from an epidemic of obesity amongst school aged children. It is absolutely disgusting.

However, if you think schools are bad, nursing homes are even worse. About a month and a half ago my grandmother had to be admitted to a nursing home and I frequently had occasion to visit her during meal times. A sampling of the "food" she has been fed that supposedly meets some kind of minimal nutritional requirement includes items like cheetos, white bread, mashed potatoes from a box, chocolate cookies, chocolate or strawberry milk, sloppy joes and mystery meat I have yet to identify as having come from any particular animal. While I understand there are huge costs associated with running a nursing facility, many older individuals suffer from numerous dietary restrictions associated with everything from diabetes to heart problems to diverticulitis to acid reflux. You can't tell me that these foods qualify as healthy for those individuals. Heck, I don't think they qualify as healthy for even a younger individual without any health problems.

And last week, when I was in the hospital after what I'd call moderately invasive surgery, the items offered to me for meals included hamburgers, pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, cake, cookies, flavored milk, veggies with ranch dressing and JELLO. When I asked the gentleman if they had yogurt, I was promptly told that never in the years that he has been working at that hospital has anyone ever asked for or been served yogurt. I was mortified.

What has to occur in the history of an industrialized food system that places such little value on the most vulnerable members of the population? I understand the food lobby is huge and I get that food manufacturers are being paid government subsidies to provide these institutions with cheap food in abundance, but why do we stand for it?? Are we so desensitized to what good food is that we actually believe that this kind of food is healthy or even remotely nutritious??

It makes sense that kids are not standing up for something better because they don't know any better, but their parents should be angered by what they are being fed. And the adult children of those who are in nursing homes should be even more insensed by what their parents are being fed. What's more is that any patient who has ever been in a hospital should be outraged by the offerings they are being given when they are at their most fragile. I don't know about you but for me, it's not ok. Something has to be done. I don't believe that the system cannot be changed by a few people. If one person gets another person to speak up against this kind of atrocity, eventually we'll have an army of folks speaking out against what I think is the deliberate poisoning of a vast segment of our population. We have to realize at some point that what we put into our bodies in the form of food is as important if not more important than any kind of medication you might be prescribed. We have to get back to a society where food is real, not synthetic. Respected, not abused. It's time for us all to wake up and smell the coffee before it's too late.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dear Mr. Comedien

Dear Mr. Comedian

A couple of weeks ago we were watching comedian Bill Engvall do stand-up and he came to a section where he was ranting about his awful experience at a bed and breakfast. While obviously he was going for a laugh, he proceeded to outline a list of stereotypes about bed and breakfasts that we as innkeepers fight to debunk constantly. As a result, I felt compelled to write a letter to him. Here it is. Enjoy.

Dear Mr. Bill Engvall.

My husband and I are big fans. We happened to catch one of your stand-up routines recently where you were describing your terrible experience at a bed and breakfast your wife dragged you to. As innkeepers, we felt the need to share a few things with you about bnb’s that you may have not realized. Gone are the days of the home stays where you are surrounded by lace and “antiques” that are more what I’d call old stuff rather than something expensive and historical. Here to stay are properties that want to compete with the top luxury hotels in the world, pampering you in every possible way they can think of. High tech amenities like wi-fi, satellite tv, vast movie libraries and innkeepers who Tweet, Post on Facebook, Pin and make cool videos on Youtube are the new norm. But let me be more specific and address some of your unique qualms.

First, shared bathrooms. While shared bathrooms were common in bnb’s when they first hit the scene, most American bnb’s know that people do not enjoy sharing and most have en suite private baths. Not only that, many offer upgrades like Jacuzzi tubs, heated floors/towel racks, signature spa quality toiletries, fluffy robes, soft water and super fluffy towels. That way you don’t have to worry about who is going to “smell” after you and you won’t have to worry about running into anyone in the hall in the middle of the night in your skivvies.  

Second, hard mattresses and uncomfortable bedding. I can assure you that the bedding/mattress industry for bnb’s is big business. Not a conference goes by where numerous vendors don’t appear with the highest quality sheets and newest upgrades in pillows and mattresses. In fact, most bnb’s have upgraded pillow top mattresses that would rival any high end hotel. Sheets are so satiny it is like sleeping on an Indian sari and pillows have been designed to be snore resistant, sweat resistant, crick in the neck resistant, stain resistant, bug resistant and practically perfect in every way like Mary Poppins.

Third, frou frou breakfasts that you have to eat with a bunch of other people you don’t know. Now, as a bnb that specializes in gourmet food, I’m not going to feed you foams on a cloud of egg dust with essence of bacon. I’m going to feed you a hearty yet elegant breakfast that you will feel satiated by and will fuel you for a day of whatever it is you might want to do. And while you can opt to enjoy a meal with others at the bnb, if you make it known you are interested in dining privately, most inns will make it happen. We don’t require you to become best friends with the couple in the room next door as part of the inn’s rules.

Finally, area attractions that are less than attractive. Believe it or not, if you inquire about activities with the innkeepers of any bnb, they will give you a long list of many different kinds of activities geared toward almost any taste. Mancations are big business and if you are looking for fishing, beer, golf or something that doesn’t involve antiques and girly shopping, it’s out there no problem. You just have to ask.

So my point is give bnb’s a chance. I know that in the past things were a little different. But to quote the Professional Association of Innkeepers International bnb’s are the “Better Way to Stay.” Each is unique. Exploring them is exciting and an opportunity to experience intimately the best there is to see of any given area. So please Mr. Engvall, please come stay with us. Let us pamper you and change your mind for good about how great bnb’s can really be. And maybe if we succeed we could score a couple of tix to your next show? Wink wink.


Monika and Jeff Sudakov, Innkeepers

Chestnut Street Inn
Courtesy of the Bureau County Republican

Monday, April 16, 2012

Happy National Eggs Benedict Day!!!

Today is National Eggs Benedict Day. Eggs Benedict is definitely one of my favorite breakfasts. I happen to love my eggs poached and still runny. The creamy yolks to quote the movie Julie and Julia are like "cheese sauce." I do get bored with the traditional version however so I started messing around with the recipe and came up with the following. I served it about a month or so ago. The only thing traditional about it was the poached eggs and the Hollandaise Sauce.

A quick note about poaching eggs. You can poach them the old fashioned way in a pot of gently simmering water with a hint of vinegar in it, but that can be really tricky and very time consuming. My preference is to use an egg poaching pan, which you can get at most high end kitchen supply stores. It makes perfect little poached eggs that are all uniform in shape and size. To keep eggs warm if you plan on doing a bunch of them, place the poached eggs in a bowl of warm water until you are ready to serve. This keeps them warm, but stops the cooking process so they don't get overdone.

Also, I'm a Hollandaise Sauce snob. There is no place for a packaged mix of Hollandaise in my book, especially because many of the packaged mixes are not gluten free and have numerous fillers in them including a ton of sodium. It is extremely easy to make and nothing replaces the real thing. I use good quality cage free eggs that I know are fresh so there is no concern about salmonella.

Eggs Benedict a la Crab Louie

Crab Louie is a sauce made with crab, asparagus and Hollandaise that often goes over a filet or a chicken breast. In this case I decided to put it over my poached eggs for a new and improved version of Eggs Benedict. If you do not like crab or have an allergy, just do the roasted asparagus with the Hollandaise and skip the crab part. Instead of english muffins I use home baked rolls which are much heartier and absorb the creamy eggs and sauce really well.


Yields: 10 Servings

3 1/2 cups All Purpose Flour
6 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tsp Kosher Salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tsp granulated Sugar
2 tsps Yeast
1 1/2 cups water (110 degrees)

Place yeast, 1 tsp sugar and lukewarm water in a large bowl. Make sure the water is at the proper temperature or the yeast will not be activated properly. Allow to stand in a warm place for 10 minutes or until the yeast becomes frothy. Add salt, sugar, oil and flour and knead until the dough is smooth and not sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to proof for 2 hours in a warm place. Grease a baking sheet with cooking spray or more oil and divide the dough into 10 equally sized rolls. Allow to proof for an additional hour. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 20 mins. Allow to cool completely before using.

Hollandaise Sauce

Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

3 Egg Yolks
8 Tbl Unsalted Butter, Melted
Pinch Kosher Salt
Pinch Freshly Grated Nutmeg
Pinch Freshly Ground Pepper
1 tbl Lemon Juice
1 tbl water

Place egg yolks, water, lemon juice, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a large measuring cup. Puree with an immersion blender. Slowly add hot melted butter, pureeing with immersion blender until the sauce is light golden yellow and thick. If sauce begins to separate, simply reblend.


Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

1 lb asparagus, trimmed
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
2 tbl White Truffle Oil

Place asparagus on baking sheet and drizzle with oil. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly. Place in a 375 degree oven for approx. 15 mins or until the asparagus are just cooked through, but still crisp.

To Assemble:

Yields: 8 Servings

8 Rolls, halved and toasted (I cut off the very top of the roll to make it level so it doesn't tip over)
1 lb roasted asparagus
8 oz lump crab meat (You can get this in a can or in vacuum sealed pouches), room temperature
4 large beefsteak tomatoes, cut into 16 thick slices
1 batch Hollandaise Sauce
16 Poached Farm Fresh Eggs

Place one roll on each plate. Top each half with tomato slice, then asparagus, then poached eggs, then garnish with crab meat and finally a dollop of Hollandaise sauce. Garnish with a dash of Paprika. Serve with fruit, bacon or sausage and/or greens tossed in a light vinaigrette.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spinach: It Isn't Just for Popeye

Today is National Spinach Day so I thought I'd share a couple of my favorite spinach recipes. Spinach isn't just good for you, it is delicious. I happen to love it both raw and cooked. The key with cooking spinach is to always add just a hint of freshly grated nutmeg. It adds a bit of that je ne sais quoi. I am a bit of a spinach snob though. I don't really like frozen spinach and I definitely will not buy that mushy stuff they call spinach in a can. I like fresh baby spinach leaves that I can either get at the store or even better straight from the farm.

Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

Yields: 6 Servings

3 eggs
2 lbs baby spinach leaves
1 tsp sugar
6 Tbls Apple Cider Vinegar
Pinch Salt & pepper
2 Sliced Shallots
2 Cloves Garlic minced
8 slices thick cut applewood smoked bacon 

Place eggs in saucepan and cover with water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 mins. Rinse under cold water and let cool. Peel and cut egg into slices with an egg slicer. Chop bacon into smaller pieces and cook in a sauté pan until crisp. Remove bacon from pan and drain on paper towels. Do not discard the bacon fat. Combine vinegar with sugar, salt & pepper. Saute shallots in bacon fat until light golden. Add garlic and cook for one minute until the garlic begins to exude its aroma. Add vinegar/sugar mix and bring to a boil. Cook for one minute and remove from heat. Pour hot dressing over spinach leaves and toss quickly so the leaves do not wilt. Serve with egg slices and a sprinkle of the cooked bacon bits.


Creamed Spinach

Yields: 4 Servings 

2 lbs spinach, thick stems removed
3 shallots, sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbl unsalted butter
2 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
Pinch Nutmeg
1 Tbl AP Flour
¼ cup Heavy Cream
¼ Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese

Heat butter and oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add shallot and sauté until softened. Add garlic and sauté one minute or until fragrant. Add spinach and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook uncovered until the spinach has wilted and all the liquid has evaporated. Add flour and sauté for a couple of minutes to cook the rawness out of the flour. Add cream and bring to a simmer. Add parmesan and heat through to melt. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Messing Around

I am often asked by guests staying or dining with us if specific recipes are in my cookbook and often my answer is "kind of." Not a good answer I suppose but an honest one. I view recipes as guidelines that can be deviated from and played with. So I usually get a basic recipe that works, write it down and then mess around with it. I guess you could say I get easily bored or you could say that I like to be creative in the kitchen. Either way, the result is that I never make a recipe the same exact way twice.

Part of this involves availability of ingredients and what is fresh. Because I like to support local organic farms I often base my specific recipe on any given day on what I can get from those farms. While a recipe may call for spinach, if the farm has kale or arugula, I'll use it and find a way to make it work. Keeps things fresh and keeps me on my toes.

The other part of it is that I like to keep things new for repeat guests. We do get a lot of repeat guests and I want to keep them coming back for different and exciting things. If it is the same every time, they will get bored, so this is my opportunity to keep them guessing and keep them coming back for more.

With that in mind, this last weekend I happened to have a group of regulars coming for a special dinner party for their co-workers. I had served sausage stuffed mushrooms many times for them and others and I love my recipe but I felt like tweaking a bit. So I shook things up a bit and came up with a new version. I wouldn't necessarily say improved, just slightly different. I'll continue making both versions as they are both quite popular. Here are both recipes. Try them both, play with them and remember, keep it fresh. One of the safest places to try something new is in the kitchen. The worst that could happen is that you may not like something, but don't let that stop your creativity. Your taste buds will appreciate you.

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

Yields: 12 Servings

24 Stuffing Mushrooms (Stems removed and peeled)
¼ cup vermouth or sherry
1 pound Italian Sausage (Casings Removed)
1 Tbl Italian Seasoning
1 8 oz package cream cheese (Room Temperature)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese plus 2-3 tbls for sprinkling over top of mushrooms
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Pinch salt & Pepper
2 tsps garlic powder
1 egg

Begin by browning the sausage with some Italian seasoning in a medium saucepan over medium high heat for approx. 10 minutes or until no pink remains. If the sausage is very fatty, drain before assembling. If the sausage is only a little fatty, keep the juices as they will keep the mushrooms moist. Cool filling completely before assembling mushrooms. Place mushroom caps in a greased casserole and sprinkle with vermouth or sherry. Combine sausage with cream cheese, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, garlic powder and egg. Make sure the filling is well combined. It is easiest to use your hands for this process. Fill each mushroom cap with approx. 1 Tbl filling until all the filling has been utilized. Sprinkle each cap with more grated parmesan. Place mushrooms in a preheated 350 degree oven and bake approx. 25 mins or until the tops begin to turn golden. Serve hot.

Revised Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

Yields: 12 Servings

1 lb bulk sausage
1 onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 small sweet peppers, minced
2 tsps truffle oil
1 Tbl Herbes de Provence
1/4 cup dry sherry
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch Freshly Ground Pepper
1 tsp anchovy paste
8 oz mascarpone
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 Tbl chopped italian parsley
2 Tbl chopped cilantro
1 egg
24 stuffer mushrooms, stems removed and peeled

Place mushrooms on baking sheet. Place sausage in saute pan and begin browning over medium high heat. Add onion and continue sauteeing until tender, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic and heat for one minute or until fragrant. Add peppers, truffle oil, herbes de provence, anchovy paste, nutmeg, pepper and wine. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the sausage is cooked through. Add parsley and cilantro and stir to combine. Remove from heat. Allow to cool completely. Add mascarpone and parmesan cheeses as well as egg and combine well. Fill each mushroom cap generously. Bake at 375 degrees for approx. 15-20 mins or until the filling is golden brown on top. Serve garnished with a little balsamic reduction.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day

Saint Patrick was considered to be the person who brought Christianity to Ireland. Much mythology surrounds the life of Saint Patrick, including his description of the Holy Trinity using the three leaves of the Irish clover or shamrock. He is purported to have died on March 17, 461, which is the day chosen to commemmorate his life. The holiday has been celebrated by the Irish as a feasting day for over 1000 years, but ironically the first St. Patrick's Day parade was held by Irish Americans in New York in the late 1700's. Since then, Irish and non-Irish alike have adopted the holiday and the traditional corned beef and cabbage and green beer have become a favorite in households across the US.

I myself am not Irish, although many think that with my red hair I am, but I have come to appreciate the food traditions of the holiday and enjoy the festivities. As such, every year at the Chestnut Street Inn we put together a special menu honoring the occasion. This year, we are deviating from the traditional corned beef and cabbage with an Irish Stew. We also always include a good beer and cheese soup and dessert often includes Irish Cream liqueur. Here are a couple of my favorite recipes.

Beer and Cheese Soup

Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

3 Slices Applewood Smoked Bacon, cut into chunks
1 onion, diced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 lg Russett or Kennebec potatoes, peeled and diced
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
1 Tsp Smoked Hot Hungarian Paprika
2 Bay Leaves
2 Tbls Herbes de Provence
1 Bottle Beer (Stout or Ale)
4 Cups Kitchen Basics or Pacifica Chicken Broth
½-3/4 Cup Daisy Sour Cream
1 Cup Aged Irish or English Cheddar Cheese, grated

Cook bacon in a medium stock pot over medium heat. Remove to paper towels to allow to drain. Add onion to bacon fat and sauté until translucent, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant approx. one minute. Add carrots, celery and potato and sauté for an additional couple of minutes. Add spices and heat for one minute. Add beer. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, until all the liquid has evaporated. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer on low for 45 mins. Remove bay leaves and puree with an immersion blender. Add sour cream and cheese and puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with reserved bacon pieces and a dollop of homemade crème fraiche.

Irish Stew

Yields: Approx. 8-10 Servings

2 1/2 lbs Beef Stew Meat
2 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 lg onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb baby carrots
1 lb frozen pearl onions, thawed
2 lbs baby red potatoes or dutch potatoes, washed
4 cups beef broth
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly ground pepper
2 bay leaves
2 Tbl Herbes de Provence
3-4 Tbl all purpose flour

Place olive oil in a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add beef and cook for approx. 5 mins to brown. Add onion and sauté for 5 mins until translucent. Add garlic and sauté for one minute until fragrant. Add carrots, onions and potatoes and season with salt, pepper, bay leaves and Herbes de Provence. Add flour and stir for approx. one minute to cook through. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook for approx. 2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if needed. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with Daisy Sour Cream.

Friday, March 2, 2012

You May Not Care Where Your Food Comes From But I Do

It's no secret that I am passionate about food. Specifically, locally grown food. I make it a point to go out and purchase it and carefully prepare it for my guests to eat. I'm not shy about advertising it because it is something I believe in and I have found that in general guests appreciate my passion. So it came as quite a surprise last weekend when a guest who was dining with us seemed less than enthusiastic about the fact that I support local farms and serve their food. When I explained that my greens came from Indian Trails Farm in Kewanee, the butternut squash and sweet potatoes from Coneflower Farm in Tiskilwa and the eggs and meat from Meadow Haven Farm here in Sheffield, I expected the usual response, which generally is curiosity, enthusiasm and support. This gentleman said very loudly in front of an entire roomful of guests "I don't care. That does nothing for me." I could feel the others in the room sink into their chairs in a sense of deflation. And I wanted to go hide in the kitchen. Instead, I said something to the effect of "That's too bad because you are an organic being and you should care about what you are putting into your body." Perhaps a bit rude, but I felt the need to not only justify what I do but also to stand up for the farms that work so hard to grow nutritious and delicious organic foods for me to serve.

So as I say, while certain guests may not care what they put into their bodies, I do. When they dine at my restaurant I am responsible for what they eat and I take that responsibility extremely seriously. Yes, taste is the number one priority, but quality is a close second. I want to provide the freshest, most nutritious food possible whenever I can as the seasons allow. This involves several things in my eyes. First, the food should not travel thousands of miles to get to me. It should be fresh and that inherently means it cannot spend days on a semi making it's way into a grocery store where it will sit on a shelf for days before making its way onto the table. And let's be honest, I know this isn't always possible, particularly in the winter. But, some things are available year round and I can be discriminatory in terms of reading labels on foods at the grocery store and select those that have travelled the least to get to me. Secondly, I want to know how that food was grown and where it came from. I don't want to provide food that came from a foreign country where I cannot guarantee the growing practices were as regulated as they are in this country. I also want to know that when the chicken and eggs say they are free range, those chickens indeed spent time roaming the outdoors, soaking in the sunlight and didn't simply have the opportunity to go outside via one small door attached to their coop. Third, I cook from scratch as much as possible, avoiding processed foods that contain ingredients I cannot pronounce and don't recognize.

Supporting local farms isn't just a matter of quality and taste either. It is a matter of economics. I want to support Americans, but more specifically, I want to support those who are within my immediate community. Spending money locally directly benefits my local community. It keeps those dollars within our area. I can directly see the results of my relationship with those farmers in the form of say improvements they make on their farms, sending their kids to college or helping them pay for their health care. Locavorism isn't some idealistic hippie notion that only those in a commune appreciate, it is the wave of the future. Small businesses thrive when those in their communities step up and support them. They do not thrive on multi-national ad campaigns and big corporations. Our future depends upon these kinds of businesses making a go of it and being successful within their communities.

And finally, a statistic that I once heard that always sticks with me. Americans in general spend approximately 5% of their expendable incomes on food and about 25% on pharmaceuticals. These numbers are reversed in Europe where they spend approximately 25% on food and only 5% on pharmaceuticals. Europeans see the value in respecting the notion of "You Are What You Eat." This isn't just a catchy phrase. This is a motto to live by. What you put into your body has a direct correlation with what your body puts out. Eating natural, high quality food is like putting premium fuel into a car. It functions better, lasts longer and requires less care. I practice what I preach with my own body and I believe that by feeding my guests locally and naturally I am in some way nourishing their bodies, although I do give my car regular gas. Hospitality doesn't just mean being nice in my book, it means caring about my guests and feeding them the best possible quality food I can find. That's my philosophy and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is Gluten Free Healthier for Everyone??

Yesterday I appeared on Paula Sands Live! and she asked me point blank should someone who doesn't have a gluten sensitivity or Celiac Disease eat a gluten free diet. The short answer I gave her is no. The long answer requires a little more discussion. While eating a completely gluten free menu isn't going to harm you, if you don't need to eat gluten free, you shouldn't go out of your way to do so. The bottom line is that in recent years Gluten Free has become somewhat of a fad diet and many people are jumping on the band wagon without proper diagnosis, without a gluten sensitivity or intolerance and without considering the long term health benefits/detriments.

1 in approximately 133 individuals is affected with Celiac Disease. Celiac disease is defined as someone who cannot tolerate gluten. The gluten attacks the villi in their small intestine, which are the small hairlike protrusions that actually help to absorb nutrients, causing them to shrivel up and thus instigating a host of medical ailments ranging from gastro-intestinal problems to iron deficiencies to skin rashes to migraines. These individuals when taken off of a diet including gluten can regrow the villi and resume a normal life sans symptoms.

Wheat allergies, intolerances and sensitivities are not necessarily related to Celiac disease but are legitimate allergies nonetheless which also require an individual to remain on a gluten free diet. Symptoms again can range from mild skin irritations and stomach discomfort to full anaphylaxis. The bottom line is, the need to live gluten free exists. BUT, that being said, many believe that eating gluten free is somehow healthier for you. They equate gluten free with low fat, low carb, low glycemic or low sugar. This is often not the case. Many of the carbohydrates that are often included in a gluten free diet, i.e. rice, potatoes and corn, can often be higher in starches and sugars than flour and may in fact cause weight gain, not loss.

There is also a significant problem with many gluten free products that are being marketed to consumers. Gluten free is big business and many manufacturers see it as an opportunity to make money. While these products may be gluten free, they are not made with your overall health and wellness in mind. If you actively read labels you'll notice that often pre-packaged gluten free foods and snacks are actually quite high in fat, sugar, sodium and carbohydrates as well as a host of other ingredients that are included to create a certain mouth feel or texture people associate with like products with gluten in them. You might not get sick, but you may in fact create a myriad of other problems by eating these products like hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

I think the rule of thumb is that you should not self diagnose. You should consult a medical practitioner to determine if you have a legitimate allergy or Celiac disease before restricting anything from your diet. A simple blood test is needed to identify if you have a preponderance toward Celiac Disease, after which an endoscopy or biopsy may be performed to confirm the disease. One quick note: if you have already begun eating gluten free, you may test with a false negative even if you have it. You must be consuming gluten for the test to be accurate. As far as a wheat/gluten allergy, intolerance or sensitivity, there are various skin prick tests that can be performed to confirm such an allergy, but often a doctor will recommend you do an elimination diet to test your sensitivity to wheat or gluten.

Eating gluten free is not a diet plan. Case in point. Last year I attended a fairly well known Gluten Free Expo where a registered dietition was appearing as an expert in eating gluten free. The dietition was well over what I consider to be a healthy weight and if indeed she was practicing what she preaches, she was the poster child for the fact that consuming gluten free foods without need or without consideration of overall health and wellness will not make you lose weight. If you think you are doing something good for you by eating an entire bag of gluten free pretzels over the non gluten free ones because you think they won't make you gain weight, think again. Ultimately you have to read labels, know your body and know that there is no miracle short cut to losing weight, especially not a gluten free one. I always say, moderation is key, exercise is a must and knowledge about what you are putting into your body is necessary. Disappointing I know, but if it sounds too good to be true, it is, especially when it comes to losing weight.

Chef Monika is the author of "Let's Party: Gluten Free Entertaining for Everyone"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Messing with Mushrooms

Portabello mushrooms are one of my favorite vegetables. They can be stuffed, grilled, roasted, sauteed, you name it. They are incredibly versatile. I happen to love them in practically anything but they are particularly great as a meat substitute because of their uniquely robust umami flavor. Unfortunately I find that many people say they hate mushrooms. My theory on this is that they have never had them prepared properly. The biggest complaint tends to be texture and when they are treated with care, this mushy quality can easily be avoided.

First, take the mushroom and remove the stem. This is where most of the dirt resides and they are hard and woody anyway. If you happen to be making soup, clean them well with a damp cloth and you can use them in the stock for the soup. Otherwise, I simply discard them.

Next, peel the mushroom. As you can see there is a flap on the inside of the mushroom cap after the stem is removed that you can easily grab onto and pull the skin away. This step provides a double whammy. One, it removes the outer layer where there may be dirt and residue. Two, it helps to eliminate one layer of mush and leaves the mostly meaty layer of just the flesh of the mushroom. If you are still concerned about any remaining dirt, you can wipe the mushroom with a slightly damp cloth but DO NOT submerge the mushroom in water. Mushrooms become water logged very easily and then you really have mushy mushrooms. Note: This procedure applies to any mushroom. I always peel them.

Third step, scoop out the gills of the mushroom. This is mostly unique to portabellos and some larger mushrooms that have very pronounced gills. To me they have a distinct dirty taste and I just prefer them to be removed. I use a teaspoon and gently scoop away until most of the gills are gone and you have a clean surface to work with. I find this step particularly important when you are stuffing the mushrooms. The gills muddle the flavor of the stuffing you use and again, make the final product rather mushy.

That's it! You now have a clean, great textured mushroom to work with. From this point, grill, roast, saute, stuff, soup or whatever you'd like away! What I did with it this weekend was to grill it for a Vegetable Napoleon with Garlic Aioli, Capicola Crisp and Parmesan Tuile. Here's the Recipe:

While a Napoleon is historically a pastry filled with custard, I developed this recipe as a play on words. The grilled vegetables act as the pastry layers and the aioli as the custard. It is a wonderful salad course that you can use as an alternative to a caprese salad in the fall or winter when tomatoes aren’t exactly ripe. It also has spectacular stage presence. Just a lovely presentation that always impresses guests.  
Yields: 4 Servings

4 Portabella Mushrooms, stems removed, peeled and gills cleaned out
1 Large Red Bell Pepper, Seeds Removed and Cut Into 4 Slices
1 Small Red Onion, Cut into 4-1/4” thick slices
1 Small Eggplant, Cut into 4-1/2” thick slices
3 tbl extra virgin olive oil, for grilling
4 Slices Capicola or Sopressata
1 Head Garlic
1 Tbl extra virgin Olive Oil
½ cup Hellmann’s Mayonnaise
2 Tbl Whole Milk
Pinch Salt and Pepper
½ cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

For the balsamic reduction: Place balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered until the vinegar has reduced by 2/3. Cool.  

For the Capicola or Sopressata Crisps: Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven approx. 10 mins or until crispy like bacon. Cool.
For the Parmesan Tuiles: Divide parmesan into 4 equal piles on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place in a 350 degree oven for approx. 10-15 mins or until the parmesan has melted and become crispy. Cool. 

For the Roasted Garlic Aioli: Remove any of the outside paper of the garlic as possible. Place on a sheet of aluminum foil and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Seal foil tightly and place on a baking sheet. Bake in a 350 degree oven for approx. 1 hr. Cool. Squeeze all the roasted garlic out of the head into a bowl and combine with the mayonnaise, milk and a pinch of salt and pepper. Chill.  

For the veggies: Brush liberally with olive oil and place on either indoor or outdoor grill until grill marks form and the veggies are cooked just al dente.

To assemble napoleon: Place eggplant on the bottom, red onion next, portabella mushroom next and top with the grilled bell peppers. Top each napoleon with about a Tablespoon of the garlic aioli. Drizzle the balsamic reduction around the napoleon and garnish with one sopressata crisp and one parmesan tuile. Serve immediately.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Vacuums Suck

I say that with utmost respect for what they do assuming they are utilized in the proper fashion, but there have been numerous occasions where they simply did not do what they were supposed to. And did you know that while they may suck up dirt, they can also blow it around? I found that out the hard way. My first discovery of the dysfunction of the vacuum was on the occasion where 20 lbs of rice toppled onto the floor. Initially I tried the broom but found that there was so much of it that I just wasn’t getting anywhere. So, I decided to try the vacuum. Needless to say, all it did was push the rice around in circles and eventually just clogged the machine up. So much for that. Back to square one with the broom and dust pan. One would have thought that I learned my lesson regarding small grains the first time around, but when I dumped an entire bag of quinoa on the floor I decided to try the vacuum again. I have only one thing to say about that. Quinoa in its raw form is a lot like Styrofoam. It flies everywhere, sticks to everything and is so small you can’t see it half the time. In this particular case the dust pan wasn’t helping me much either so I had to resort to the mop. Once the little grains were wet, they stuck to the floor and then I could wipe them up with a damp cloth. This is a very major inconvenience when one is attempting to get dinner on the table by a specific time. I was only 15 minutes late that evening. I guess it could have been worse. With that in mind, you would have suspected I would have learned the lesson from the second time around, but no, third time is the charm. The culprit? Sugar. I curse sugar. I was baking scones one morning for breakfast and somehow knocked the bag over. Before I noticed the waterfall of sugar granules slowly filling into a pool on the floor, about half the bag had dumped out. This time expletives were uttered and I quickly ran for, you guessed it, the vacuum. Jeff, who is the usual duster and vacuumer in the house, happened to be out for the morning so I decided to tackle it myself. I poised the vacuum over the pool of sugar and turned it on. What happened next was like something out of a horror movie made for chefs. The sugar blew everywhere. When I say everywhere, I don’t just mean all over the floor. It was on every counter top, in the burners on the stove, in every cabinet, EVERYWHERE. The more I tried to suck up the sugar, the more it blew around until finally there was sugar in the butler’s pantry, the basement, the entryway and making its way into the dining room. I literally stopped and plopped myself down on the floor practically in tears. I didn’t know how to stop the spreading and settle the dust. Right about that time Jeff walked in the door and started laughing at me uncontrollably. He found my sugar debacle quite amusing. I didn’t think it was particularly funny so I told him to clean it up. We ended up mopping again and wiping the wet sugar up and off every surface of the kitchen. I think the floor was sticky for about a week, even with repeated mopping. So, like I say, vacuums suck. Use them wisely. For if they are used incorrectly, you may find yourself with a bigger mess on your hands than the one you were trying to clean up. Courtesy of the Bureau County Republican