Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from

Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom. The initial meal (the seder) and the way you eat for a week offer a small part of the ancient Israelites’ experience as they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the complexity of freedom. Breads, cooked on the run during their flight, didn’t have sufficient time to rise. The result? Matzo.

Every year, for the first few days of Passover, matzo seems somehow so new. A fat shmear of Temp-Tee ultra-whipped cream cheese and a tart and fruity jelly on top. Or soaked and fried into a matzo brei (a French-toast-like dish) crunchy with sugar and cinnamon. These are the foods of memory to me.

But the problem is that Passover is a weeklong festival. And when it comes to cooking and eating, it is a very long week indeed. Matzo is eaten all the time. I mean ALL the time. It’s in every food, every dish, every treat and in every course. It’s ground into breading, pulverized into cake flour, crushed into farfel and layered into mini “lasagnas.”

Matzo fatigue and the dreaded matzo-pation set in. Desperation takes over by around day four. But frankly, what bothers me the most is when matzo invades desserts. Folks often cook more on Passover than all year long, often pulling out heritage recipes. Even I, a modernist, will cook up a heritage dish or two along with my flights of imagination and globally influenced dishes.

When it comes to desserts, though, many holiday cooks reach for box mixes. Virtually none taste good. These mixes are often packed with processed ingredients and artificial flavors. As a professional cook and culinary instructor — and honestly, a person with taste buds — I don’t make them and I don’t buy them.

If I want heritage desserts, I buy Passover chocolates. That does the trick.

But making desserts at home? What can you do that tastes great and is still Passover-worthy? Matzo in desserts always makes itself known in taste and texture — and I don’t mean that in a nice way whatsoever. No matter how you cut it (pun intended, sorry), matzo desserts are definitely not what I want in order to make a holiday more special.

My advice? If you can put the time and effort into cooking desserts, fear not. Here is a solution.

Delicious Passover desserts

This Sirio Maccioni's Cirque Crème Brûlée has been adapted from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook -- a perfect Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

This Sirio Maccioni’s Cirque Creme Brulee has been adapted from Molly O’Neill’s “New York Cookbook” — it’s a delicious Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

Offer up some treats that are deliciously Passover-ready AND matzo-free and grain-free. Try a Pavlova, a macaroon, a flourless chocolate cake, ice cream, chestnut-flour crepes, custards, crème brûlée or nut paste-based cookies.

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Photo credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

A world of matzo-free desserts awaits you.

These Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 24 cookies

Ingredients

14 ounces pistachio paste, King Arthur or another all-natural brand preferred

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

2 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean pod

1 cup dried tart cherries

1/2 cup pistachios, lightly crushed

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the pistachio paste until it resembles big cookie crumbs, 20 to 30 seconds. Add the sugar and mix thoroughly. Add the egg whites, cardamom and vanilla. Mix until completely smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tart cherries.

3. Drop 2 teaspoons of batter per cookie on the sheet, leaving 1 1/2 to 2 inches between the cookies. Sprinkle the pistachios over the top of the cookies.

4. Bake until light brown but still soft, 12 to 13 minutes. (The cookies will firm up considerably as they cool). Store at in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Main image: Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from “The Perfect Scoop,” by David Lebovitz. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

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Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

As the Korean palate becomes more adventurous, a whole new meat has become South Korea’s next big culinary craze — lamb.

For years, lamb and mutton were considered unpalatable by Koreans — too strong, too smelly, not to mention too cute while prancing through the fields. Meat consumption was limited to beef, chicken, pork, sometimes duck, and very occasionally dog. But a booming Korean-Chinese population has got the country into the swing of lamb.

“When it started we aimed for Chinese people, but then they brought their Korean friends to the restaurant,” says Lee Hang-yung, a Korean-Chinese worker from Heilongjiang Province who lives in Seoul. “And people’s tastes slowly changed, and that’s what’s happened here.”

Chinese food booms

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee helps operate Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the first Chinese lamb restaurant in what is now a small Chinatown outside Konkuk University. The street is end-to-end with Chinese lamb restaurants, some that Lee derides as “imitators.”

Lee speaks Korean with a Chinese accent, and though he is ethnically Korean, he is, like most of the workers and owners on this street, a Chinese national, born and raised in the People’s Republic.

He is part of a growing minority in South Korea called — sometimes derogatorily — Joseonjok, a name that references a former Korean kingdom. Like ethnic Koreans from the former Soviet Union, Korean-Chinese are not granted automatic right of return in South Korea the way Korean-Americans, Korean-Japanese and many other ethnic Koreans are.

Still, since the re-establishment of ties between South Korea and China in the early 1990s, Korean-Chinese have come in large numbers, usually to work the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs local Koreans won’t do. Like immigrants the world over, some open restaurants, and Chinese lamb has proved to be the safest investment.

Serving up lamb

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South Korea; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

The flavors are a bit different, but the dish is basically the same as in China.

Yanggochi, meaning lamb skewers, are cubes of skewered lamb barbecued at the table over hot coals. Holding the skewers together while turning them is quite a skill, and as a result, most restaurants now have a machine that automatically rotates the skewers.

“In China, the yanggochi is prepared with the fat and the meat together,” Lee says. “But here it’s more like galbe,” referring to common Korean barbecue, with the fat trimmed from the meat. The meat and the seasoning is much less strong than in China, to cater to Korean tastes.

Once the skewers are cooked, they’re placed on a rack above the heat to cool, then dipped in a seasoning of red pepper, cumin, parilla, mustard seed and other spices. There is a bevy of side dishes that can go with it, including steamed dumplings, mapo tofu in hot and sour sauce, peanuts, cubes of radish kimchi, and thick sliced tofu with chili sauce. The lamb can be wrapped in ggotbbang — literally, “flower bread,” or mandarin rolls — a rolled, steamed bun, along with zha cai, pickled mustard plant stem.

For drinks, Chinese Tsingtao beer is a must for most patrons — a series of ad campaigns and clever product placements have made yanggochi and Tsingtao inseparable. Goryangju, a very potent clear Chinese liquor, is also popular, as is Korean soju.

Trying new flavors

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Korean lamb restaurants can be found all over this restaurant-dense city. The trade magazine “Meat & Livestock Australia” noted in a report this February that Australian mutton and sheep exports to Korea have risen sharply year-on-year over the last six years.

The report says that despite a continued “general negative perception” toward lamb, “the market’s younger generation is more willing to try new flavors, and there has been an emergence of Chinese-influenced lamb barbecue and skewer restaurants in Seoul, commonly frequented by male consumers in their 30s to 40s.” Australia is the source of 94% of South Korea’s sheep meat.

Yanggochi recently also got a boost when celebrity TV chef Baek Jong-won recommended it on his TV show a few months ago.

“In the past, our customers were all Chinese, but now it’s 80 to 90% Koreans,” says one young woman who works at Kondae Yanggochi, and declined to provide her name. “I think they’ve been trying yanggochi, have gotten used to it, and now they really like it.”

Main photo: Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea

Yunnan may not be on most Western foodies’ radars, but for those in the know, it’s one of the most exciting food spots in the world.

The province, which sits in a mountainous area that borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichuan, is the most biodiverse region in all of Asia. It’s also the most culturally diverse part of China.

For a quick tour of the region’s specialties, all you have to do is get to Kunming. The city is a lovely stop on any trip to China — it’s famous for its mild weather, its flowering trees and its laid-back way of life. A few meals in the city will give you a taste of all the best that Yunnan has to offer.

Here are seven particularly fascinating (and delicious) dishes to try when you get there:

Shaguo mixian

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Rice noodles are one of Kunming’s most popular foods — but you won’t find them in fancy restaurants. They are served at little hole-in-the-walls and streetside stands. The most popular are shaguo mixian, or “sandpot rice noodles.” These noodles are put into individually sized glazed clay bowls with stumpy handles, topped with broth, ground pork, pickled mustard greens and dried ground chile, and cooked on a high stove. The dish is often eaten right from the pot. Try them at the unnamed noodle spot on Jieshao Alley, just off Qingnian Road.

Mushroom hotpot

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city's mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan produces 400 tons of mushrooms every year, and foragers crisscross the mountains looking for matsutakes, porcinis and summer truffles to sell to exporters. The most prized specimens end up in restaurants and stores in Japan, Korea and the United States, but much of the bounty is eaten right in Yunnan. Every restaurant in Kunming offers a few mushroom dishes, but the best way to try the local fungi is to head to one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. On Guanxing Lu, near Baohai Park, there are three to choose from in just two blocks: Laozihao Wild Mushroom Restaurant, Junshuyuan Wild Mushroom Restaurant, and Wild Mushroom Emperor.

Grilled rubing

Grilled rubing, a type of firm cheese, is grilled with thin slices of local ham, or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Grilled rubing is a type of firm cheese grilled with thin slices of local ham or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

China is not known as a good place to eat cheese. But cheese has a long history in Yunnan. Different minority groups around the province have long eaten grilled, stir-fried, and toasted cheeses. The most delicious version is grilled rubing, a type of firm cow’s milk cheese. You can find it at Lao Fangzi, where it is grilled with thin slices of local ham, and at 1910 La Gare du Sud, where it is served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into.

Chrysanthemum greens

A tasty salad is made with feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

A tasty salad is made with chrysanthemum greens, a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Han Chinese also shunned raw foods, but many raw dishes can be found in Yunnan. One of the most surprising and delicious dishes in Kunming is a simple salad of feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. It can be found at any restaurant specializing in Yunnan specialties (including Lao Fangzi and 1910 La Gare du Sud).

Ghost chicken

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan’s most famous minority cuisine comes from the Dai people who live along the province’s borders with Laos and Burma. The Dai are part of the same ethnic group that populated Laos and Thailand, and their food is reminiscent of those cuisines, with lots of fresh chiles, herbs and chile-based spice pastes. Perhaps the most representative Dai dish  is “ghost chicken,” a bright combination of silky black-foot chicken, fresh chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. To try it — and other Dai specialties like pineapple sticky rice and vegetables grilled in banana leaves — head to Yinjiang Dai Restaurant, which has three branches in central Kunming.

Liang fen

Liang fen is made with slick, cool jello that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick "noodles." Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Liang fen is a slick, cool jello-like food that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

If you’re looking for quick snack — or just an entirely new and delightful eating experience — try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” These “noodles” are actually a jello-like dish that is made like tofu but uses ground chickpeas instead of soybeans. The slick, cool jello is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles,” and dressed with vinegar, soy sauce, ground dried chiles and fresh herbs. Sometimes it’s even topped with chopped nuts and a slice of freshly made tofu. The dish can be found all over the city, including at food stalls in Cui Hu Park.

Yiliang roast duck

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing's famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Since the Qing Dynasty, the small town of Yiliang, just 90 minutes outside of Kunming, has been producing remarkably delicious roast duck. The recipe is based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks until their skin is crisp and their meat is moist. But this version uses a local breed of ducks and roasts them over longs twists of pine needles, which gives the meat an exceptional flavor. If you’re heading out to the Stone Forest, a famous tourist spot, make sure to take the time to stop at Xue Cheng Restaurant.

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

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Savory Yogurt Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

The recent trend of meals served in bowls continues to show its appeal for so many reasons. Bowls continue to be quite popular on restaurant menus too, with endlessly clever combinations to suit any diet or meal.

As Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold put it, “Avocado toast? That was so last year. We are now in the age of the phenomenon I have come to think of as Things in a Bowl, a culinary invention that may depend on rice, pasta, whole grains or legumes but usually includes a poached egg of one sort or another and always, always comes with kale.”

Well, not always kale. On a recent trip through Santa Barbara, California, I had a delicious quinoa breakfast bowl at Backyard Bowls. The Southern California chain offers a choice of quinoa, acai, oatmeal, yogurt and muesli as the base, then builds on that with fresh fruit, nut milks and butters, nuts, granola, dried fruit and seeds. Diners can choose spirulina, bee pollen, goji berries and other super foods to sprinkle on top for added nutrition. My quinoa bowl with cashew milk, berries and honey was just the ticket, comforting, sweet and rib-sticking.

Another Santa Barbara outpost, Buddha Bowls, makes savory concoctions then stuffs them in hollowed-out bread bowls. Some of the fillings include chili, macaroni and cheese with bacon, Hawaiian barbecue and Mediterranean flavors with hummus and veggies — recipes designed to appeal to the mostly student population in that area.

Another restaurant just up the coast from Santa Barbara — Calafia Café in Palo Alto, California — uses noodles, lentils, brown rice and roasted yams for the base of its bowls then adds vegetables and proteins for either vegan or carnivore eaters. One of my favorites is the Fiery Bottom BBQ Pork Bowl with braised pork, barbecue sauce, sautéed spinach, fried quail egg, roasted yams and brown rice.

The Plant Café, another small California chain, has a dynamite bowl featuring wild salmon with ginger lime sauce and seasonal vegetables over soba noodles.

Even some yogurt purveyors have waded in – after all, yogurt was the base for some of the first bowls ever, usually served with granola and fruit. Putting a new twist on that mixture, Pinkberry added a line of savory Greek yogurt bowls to its offerings a few years back. Cucumbers, olive oil, sunflower crackers, toasted quinoa and pumpkin seeds were among the toppings. Pinkberry has since taken these items off its menu, but I like the idea for its versatility and for how easily it translates to the home cook.

Heck, when you have your pantry and fridge to choose from, many iterations of grain, noodle, vegetable, herb, bean, spice, seed or oil could work for a nutritious bowl, making a snappy lunch, snack or even appetizer to share in a jiffy.

Besides being a fantastic way to get food on the table quickly, bowls present a handy opportunity for using up leftovers. Think of the rice you cooked two nights ago, the leftover roasted chicken from Sunday and the asparagus and carrots that need to get used up. Steam the asparagus until tender/crisp and layer baby salad greens, then rice and then chicken in bowls. Top with coarsely grated carrots, the asparagus and some sesame seeds then drizzle with teriyaki sauce.

Or you could take the salad greens-chicken-rice combination a different direction with the addition of cilantro, pinto beans and avocado or use leftover noodles instead of rice and change up the vegetables. Heat up the ingredients or serve at room temperature depending on personal preference. To add spark and versatility, have on hand a few sauces such as salsa, chimichurri, Thai curry, peanut or lemon vinaigrette for drizzling on top.

So whether you’re a trendsetter or not, making bowls at home is easy, fun and quick. Here are a couple recipes to chew on:

Quinoa Breakfast Bowl

Quinoa breakfast bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Quinoa breakfast bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1 cup water

1/2 cup quinoa

2 tablespoons golden raisins

1/4 cup almond milk

4 strawberries, stemmed and quartered

1 tablespoon unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted

2 tablespoon slivered almonds, toasted

1 teaspoon agave syrup

Directions

1. Bring water and quinoa to a boil then lower heat and cover. After 10 minutes, stir in the raisins and continue to cook until the grains open up into translucent flat disks and liquid is absorbed, about 5 to 10 minutes longer.

2. Stir in almond milk and pour into a bowl. Arrange berries on top then sprinkle with coconut and almonds and drizzle with agave syrup. Eat while still warm.

Mexican-style Pinto Bean Bowl

Mexican-style Pinto Bean Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Mexican-style Pinto Bean Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1/4 cup shredded red cabbage

Juice of 1/2 lime

Butter, enough to grease frying pan

1 egg

1/2 cup whole pinto beans, warmed

1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1/4 avocado

Directions

1. Toss the cabbage with the lime juice and set aside.

2. Heat a small frying pan and add a little butter. Fry the egg to a perfect sunny side up. While the egg is cooking, layer the beans in a bowl, then top with the cooked egg then cabbage salad.

3. Scatter the tomatoes over the top and sprinkle with the cilantro, then perch the avocado on top. Serve immediately.

Savory Yogurt Bowl

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt, whipped with a whisk to enhance silken texture

1/2 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut in small dice

1/4 cup sesame sticks, broken into small pieces

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon gray Maldon sea salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pure New Mexico chile powder

Directions

1. Layer yogurt in a bowl. Top with cucumber, then sesame sticks. Drizzle oil over all then sprinkle with salt and chile powder to taste.

Main photo: Savory Yogurt Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

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Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

It’s the side dish of my childhood, what school cafeterias invariably paired with burgers, sloppy Joes, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches and sundry other entrée staples. Growing up, I must have eaten Tater Tots at least once a week, but after college I turned my back on those golden brown, crunchy-yet-soft, mild-yet-savory fried potato puffs.

While I never would have guessed that we’d be reunited, tastes and times have changed with the re-invention of my old school friend. Today these potatoes are no longer relegated to institutional fare. Tots appear everywhere from upscale, New American-style restaurants to bars, burger joints and food trucks. Nor are they merely side dishes for hot sandwiches. Chefs partner them with omelets, pulled pork and fried chicken or serve them on their own as a hearty appetizer or entrée.

Fond memories of Tater Tots

Tater tots have long been a staple of school lunches. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Tater Tots have long been a staple of school lunches. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Nostalgia drives this renewed passion for Tater Tots, said Julie Crist, owner of The Tot Cart in Philadelphia. “Parents used to make Tater Tots for their kids. Now they have souped-up versions of those elementary school lunches,” she said.

Among The Tot Cart’s offerings are “chicken tot pies,” which feature chicken potpie filling layered over potatoes, and a dessert tot consisting of tots tossed in cinnamon sugar and drizzled in dulce de leche. “The salty-sweet mixture makes tots ideal for dessert. With their crispy outsides you really can put anything on them,” said Crist, who serves more than 100 types of tots from her food truck in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

At Alexander’s Tavern in Baltimore, tots are the house specialty. “Tots play on Alexander’s theme of taking a childhood classic and giving it an adult twist,” said executive chef Faith Paulick.

Alexander’s Tavern diners nosh on “tot-chos,” potatoes smothered in queso and jack cheeses, salsa, sour cream and jalapenos, as well as chili- and cheese-covered tots and BBQ sweet potato tots. The best-selling item on the menu is Maryland tots, Paulick said. These are tots blanketed with lump crab meat, crab dip and Old Bay seasoning.

To keep tabs on the food’s popularity, Alexander’s Tavern maintains a “tots sold” counter on its website. To date, the restaurant has sold more than 3 million.

Tater Tots a boon to profits

Tater tots were created in an attempt to make use of the potato scraps leftover from cutting French fries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Tater Tots were created in an attempt to make use of the potato scraps leftover from cutting french fries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Although Tater Tots now feature in an array of clever dishes, they had far humbler beginnings. They simply were a way to use the scraps from freshly cut french fries.

In 1952 F. Nephi Grigg of Nampa, Idaho, began considering how he and his brother Golden could turn the leftover slivers at their potato-processing plant into something more profitable. At that time the cuttings were being sold as livestock feed. Grigg decided to try grinding up the pieces, mixing in some spices, pushing the concoction through a form and then deep-frying the bite-sized chunks. With that, Grigg created the first batch of Tater Tots.

He premiered his invention at the 1953 National Potato Convention in Miami, and the tots were an instant hit.

Thanks to Tater Tots, by the late 1950s the Grigg brothers possessed a quarter of America’s frozen potato market. In 1960 the brothers changed their company name from Oregon Frozen Foods to Ore-Ida, a nod to their facility’s proximity to the Oregon-Idaho border.

Five years and multiple new facilities later, the Griggs sold Ore-Ida and its Tater Tots to the H.J. Heinz Co. for $31 million. Heinz, in turn, made these frozen potatoes a staple of American kitchens, cafeterias and childhoods.

While I may have been raised on those mass-produced, frozen tots, I now prefer to make my own. It’s not a complicated or labor-intensive process. In fact, I only need a few ingredients — potatoes, flour, salt, pepper and oil — and a grater, a slotted spoon and a deep pot.

As I’ve learned through trial and error, the key to good tots is to fry rather than bake them. The difference between those two techniques is night and day,  Paulick said.

“Frying gives you nice, even cooking. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and cooked completely on the inside. Unfortunately, you don’t get the same result when you bake tots,” she said.

Crunchy tots allow you to pile on a host of ingredients, including cheeses, meats and sauces. They also enable you to serve them school-cafeteria-style, unadorned except for a dusting of salt and pepper.

Scallion Potato Tots

Scallion Tater Tots ready for frying. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Scallion Potato Tots ready for frying. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

2 pounds Russet potatoes, washed

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white ground pepper

3 tablespoons minced scallion, whites only

Grapeseed or canola oil, for frying

Salt (optional)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Prick the potatoes with a fork and place them in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are no longer too hot to touch.

Using a pairing knife, peel off and discard the potato skins. With a box grater, grate the potatoes into a bowl.

Add the flour, onion powder, salt, white pepper and minced scallion and, using a fork, toss together until evenly combined.

Fill a deep pot with 2 1/2 to 3 inches of oil. Heat the oil on medium-high until it reaches 350 F on a thermometer.

Drop the tots into the oil one at a time. Cook until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the cooked tots and place them on a clean, dry cloth to drain. Repeat until all the tots have been fried.

Sprinkle a smidgen of salt over them, if desired. Serve warm.

Main image: Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

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Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

In the world of craft beer and spirits, imagination and product innovation are never in short supply. Persimmon ale? Check. Smoked bourbon? Yep. Oyster stout? You betcha. But when it comes to wine, experimentation is usually limited to combining grape varieties that don’t traditionally go together. (Tempranillo with Merlot? Crazy!)

The U.S. wine industry racks its collective brain about how to capture some of the magic of other craft beverages, but at the same time, many vintners are reluctant to try something different in the cellar. Years of tradition, combined with the lingering feeling that U.S. wines still need to prove their worth on the world stage, have led to instinctive eye rolling at the mention of any wine that dares to venture beyond the use of lesser-known grape varieties.

Would it be so unthinkable for a vintner to produce a wine infused with locally grown berries, or partner with a craft distiller to age a wine in used bourbon barrels?

It’s already starting to happen.

Prairie Berry, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, specializes in fruit-infused wines such as Blue Suede Shoes, a blend of Zinfandel grapes and blueberries.

“At the start of my wine-making career, almost everything I made was unconventional,” Prairie Berry winemaker Sandi Vojta said. “I made wild fruit wines from South Dakota! I was by nature never a follower of traditions, and learning to make wine with unconventional fruit reinforced that in me. I have had the opportunity to wear traditional wine-making shoes as well, and doing so has taught me to respect and embrace all wine styles.”

Even mainstream wineries are starting to branch out. In late 2014, Fetzer released its “1000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, and in January, Robert Mondavi Private Selection launched a limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.

According to Robert Mondavi Private Select winemaker Jason Dodge, aging in bourbon barrels is “ideal for use in Cabernet, because Cabernet has such an intensely rich fruit character. Instead of overwhelming the wine it actually integrates with (the barrels) very well.” The most exciting thing about the project, he said, is being able to combine the art of wine making with the craft of bourbon production.

And why not? There’s no reason craft distillers and brewers should have all the fun.

Adventures in wine drinking

Tired of the same old Cab? Check out these boldly unconventional wines:

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Prairie Berry Blue Suede Shoes, South Dakota ($40): This fruit-infused wine is made with Zinfandel grapes and blueberries. It has a light ruby color, aromas and flavors of ripe blueberries and a pleasant sweetness balanced with acidity. Try it with blueberry pie or pungent blue cheese.

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Baker-Bird Kentucky Black Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): This Kentucky winery ages its Cabernet for one year in used, heavy-charred bourbon barrels. The resulting wine has a spicy aroma with underlying herbal notes. It has red fruit flavors and lively acidity, along with notes of toasted oak and vanilla.

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux Brut, California ($24.95): Packaged in a crystal-clear bottle to show off the wine’s Tiffany-blue color, this is a grape-based sparkler with blueberry extract added. While you might expect it to be sweet, the wine is technically dry. It’s light and fruity on the palate, with subtle blueberry and green apple notes.

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Spicy Vines Original Blend Signature Spiced Wine, California ($23): Inspired by German glühwein, this is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Grenache, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, clove and allspice. The wine has chai-like aromas, and flavors of spiced red fruit. The wine is slightly sweet and can be served at room temperature, warm (think mulled wine), chilled or mixed into cocktails.

Main photo: Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Vineyard tours were once reserved for people in the industry along with members of the media and wine clubs. Now, though, a handful of wineries in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast are redefining the wine-tasting experience and making such tours available to visitors by appointment. Among them, Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch, Alta Colina and Steinbeck Vineyards will immerse visitors in the region’s terroir and wines.

Visiting the vineyards in spring catches bud break on vines, signaling the end of winter dormancy. The fields are a riot of color, with mustard flower, lupine and cover crops such as clover and barley planted between vine rows, creating a picture-perfect vineyardscape.

An opportunity to showcase the vineyards

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

At Steinbeck Vineyards, tours were initiated by fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck in 2003 to showcase the family’s ranch.

Since the 1880s and for seven generations, the Steinbeck family has been the steward of a 600-acre property, 520 acres of which are planted with 13 grape varieties sourced by such noted wineries as Eberle, Justin and J. Lohr. The Steinbecks started bottling their wine in 2006 with a small production focusing on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

The one-hour “Crash Course” tour (named after the B26 aircraft that crashed on the property in 1956) with Steinbeck and her 3-year-old Yorkie, Cri-Cri, is a roller-coaster journey through the vineyards. Tours change with the seasons.

“In fall we encourage visitors to walk around the vineyards, give them clippers to taste the fruit,” Steinbeck said.

The winery from top to bottom, inside and out

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Bob Tillman’s two-hour Top-to-Bottom tour of Alta Colina starts in the hillside vineyards and works its way down to the tasting room, where the groups savor the Rhône blends. “This is not a produced tour, no tours are the same,” he said of the exploration of the 130-acre ranch, which has 31 acres planted with Rhône grape varieties.

Heading up to 500 feet elevation, tour groups see the exposed calcareous-rich hillside and learn about different types of trellising in the vineyards while trekking knee-deep in wildflowers dotting the organic Grenache vineyard.

“This gives you a vague idea of behind the scene of what goes in the bottle,” Tillman said.

Under an old oak tree, Tillman poured the 2012 Baja Colina, a white Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. “We are actually tasting wines in an environment where they are grown,” he said. The wine tastes delicious, laced with aromatics filling the air — and some debris from the nearby oak tree.

It’s a heady experience tasting Adelaida Cellars’s silky Pinot Noir standing amid the legendary HMR Pinot Noir vineyard. Or the minerality of Zinfandel at the foot of Michael’s Zinfandel Vineyard planted at 1,800 feet elevation, rich with rocky limestone soil.

Tailgating too

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Adelaida Cellars’ Tour, Taste & Tailgate (TT&T) takes visitors through such iconic vineyards as Viking, Anna’s and HMR. (Planted in 1964 by Beverly Hills cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, HMR is regarded as the oldest Pinot Noir-producing vineyard on the Central Coast).

Glenn Mitton, the winery’s ambassador, begins the tour at the newly remodeled winery and hospitality center, where visitors taste a white and red Rhône blend from Anna’s vineyard and the inky Syrah Reserve, among others.

Rising to 2,300 feet, the vast 1,900-acre estate is planted with 700-plus acres of organic walnut orchards and 157 acres of vineyards.

Mitton pointed to owl boxes and raptor perches used for pest control and rows of neatly tucked netting under the vines. “We pull up the net over the vines like panty hose,” Mitton said of the bird-control practice used in the summer.

Dating back to the 1880s, the 2,000-acre Halter Ranch Vineyard is nature’s haven, with a mere 280 acres planted to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. The rest of the ranch is dotted with redwood and oak trees and home to some 52 species of birds. The ranch is lush with gardens, a 5-acre holding pond and the seasonal Las Tablas Creek, which also functions as a wildlife corridor.

At Lion’s Point, the tour includes a taste of the refreshing 2015 Rosé of red Rhône varieties and, further up the hill, the 2013 Ancestor, a rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  A gentle breeze blew in some debris from a massive, ancestral oak estimated to be 500 years old and known as the largest coast live oak in California.

Upon returning to the winery and its 20,000-square-foot caves, visitors finish with a tasting of Rhône and Bordeaux blends that reflect the history and terroir of the ranch.

Trekking through Paso Robles’ scenic hillside vineyards offers a wine experience well beyond the swirl-sniff-sip scene of the tasting room.

Main photo: At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

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