Tag Archives: food

Food for Thought

August 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A couple months ago I was in Copenhagen.

No, I did not see the “Little Mermaid” statue in the harbor. I know everybody goes to photograph it when they visit the city. But I remember that this Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Andersen version, not Disney’s romantic feature film.

In the original telling, the mermaid does not get to marry the prince of her dreams and live the happily ever after. Instead, the young scion is married off to a genuine princess, the daughter of a neighboring king. Yeah, turns out the fix was in even before she gave up her fins.

Her mer-sisters offer a nice, sharp knife to gut the prince—a chance to void her contractual deal with the sea witch (which had stipulated marriage to the prince or death). But instead of stabbing her beloved, the mermaid dives into the waves, turns into sea foam, and becomes a creature of the air. The prince never realizes how close he came to being assassinated.

Fairytales are often a bit darker than we choose to remember them. I mean, for accuracy’s sake, shouldn’t the poor heartbroken thing have a knife in her hand?

Whatever, I skipped the obligatory visit to the scorned gold digger’s monument. 

I was in Copenhagen for food.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel here and there around the globe, and my first goal is always food. I believe you get the best idea of what a country is all about by discovering what the natives eat.

In Italy, the Mediterranean diet rules with divine pasta, fresh vegetables, and seafood. I’ve had the best roasted lamb in Trastevere, great liver (yes, liver) on the Via Sistina, and Genoese salami to die for.

Germany is where a Midwesterner can go for comfort food. Schnitzel is basically chicken-fried steak, and potatoes and gravy are everywhere you turn. At a street fair in Cologne, one booth specialized in deep-fried bacon. I felt like I was at the Iowa State Fair.

In Hong Kong, I recommend you try the spicy chicken feet or the hairy crab. Or grab a fish from one of the tanks at the street market and hand it to the woman in the next stall who will kill it, clean it, and turn it into the freshest fish stew you’ve ever eaten.

In Japan, everything is good—everything from street vendor yakisoba to Okinawa-style soba. Everything is good except the natto. Do not eat the natto. Just don’t (unless you enjoy munching chunky booger goo).

I wish I could time travel, because (according to Reddit) archeologists recently discovered the oldest ever recipe on a tomb wall in Egypt. It’s for a soup that includes hippopotamus and sparrow, two delicacies I have never had the opportunity to try.
I suspect the dish represents our primitive ancestor’s first attempt to deal with leftovers.

So anyway, there I was in Copenhagen, skipping the unarmed Little Mermaid statue, looking for good food. And what did I find?

Well, during my short stay, I had great Italian food, some of the best sushi this side of Osaka, along with fish and chips that beat anything in London.

I even found a Neolithic restaurant serving only what our hunter-gatherer forebears might have found while walking from here to there (basically plants and prehistoric roadkill). I skipped that place.

I did try the frikadeller and rugbrød with gherkins. Meatballs and bread. It wasn’t bad.

But here’s the point of the column. If you’re in Copenhagen, try the Danish.

Which, for accuracy’s sake, should be called “Austrian.” The pastry was originally introduced to the country by Austrian bakers when their Danish counterparts went on strike in 1850. After more than a century of acceptance, the pastry has become genuinely Danish. Kind of like an American, Disneyfied version of the Little Mermaid. But more delicious, and you don’t need a knife.


Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Early Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

This column was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Omaha Offers a Travel-Worthy Food Experience

July 26, 2018 by

There are numerous reasons why visitors travel to Omaha. Some are in the city for business or a convention, while others come for an extended weekend getaway to see attractions like the zoo and museums. But there is another reason Omaha is growing in popularity—our food.

In every corner of the city, you’ll find authentic cultural culinary creations that make Omaha quite the foodie destination. You can eat pizza certified by the Italian government at Dante in West Omaha and savor a steak prepared by a James Beard Award nominee at The Grey Plume in Midtown. In North Omaha, nobody does soul food like Big Mama’s–just ask the folks at the Travel Channel. And, despite a culture of fast food, in South Omaha you’ll find the Lithuanian Bakery, where bakers take three days to make a mouth-watering old-world Napoleon torte. 

 Having restaurants that offer such unique cuisine is the cornerstone of building Omaha’s travel-worthy reputation, an equally important component is letting visitors know about our great food scene. In April of this year, Visit Omaha hosted a Foodie Blogger tour to see how many bloggers would be interested in telling Omaha’s story—25 bloggers expressed interest. Out of those 25, Visit Omaha selected four bloggers with the most impressive audience numbers and invited them to enjoy Omaha’s food scene on us. 

The bloggers traveled from Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, and Minnesota. They visited Monarch Prime and learned how the restaurant dry-ages its steaks in-house. They took a culinary class at Provisions by The Grey Plume and experienced making their own pasta. The bloggers also enjoyed samplings at half-a-dozen foodie hot spots on an Omaha culinary tour. They did not leave disappointed; each was impressed with their Omaha dining experience and now plans to share Omaha’s story with a hungry audience of more than 357,000.

 The economic impact when visitors explore Omaha’s food scene is huge. Research shows that out-of-town guests spend $304 million every year on food and drinks while visiting our city. Those dollars help keep people in our community employed. These people—from wait staffs, to chefs and their kitchen staffs, to the drivers delivering the supplies to the restaurant—all have jobs thanks, in part, to all the tourists spending their money here. 

If it has been a while since you have had an evening out, give Omaha’s food scene a try. Omaha Restaurant Week (Sept. 14-23) is a great opportunity to try a new restaurant, or a new dish at an old favorite. After all, if people are traveling from places like Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio to sample the flavor of Omaha, it’s definitely worth the trip outside your neighborhood. 


Visit omaharestaurantweek.com for details.

This letter was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Whispering Roots Takes Root

July 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Highlander Village on North 30th Street between Lake and Cuming is a dramatic new development meant to revitalize the depressed neighborhood surrounding it. The center of this community (planned by 75 North Revitalization Corp.) is the Accelerator. The 65,000 square foot, Z-shaped building serves as a Creighton University and Metropolitan Community College-led health-education hub. An event venue and a ground floor coffee shop will be joined by established eateries and entrepreneurial startups. 

But what most grabs the eye is the Accelerator’s futuristic-looking urban agriculture facility for nonprofit tenant Whispering Roots. A see-through greenhouse sits majestically atop floors dedicated to education and production—all centered on aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic growing. As Whispering Roots founder and executive director Greg Fripp explains, nearly everything at the $4.2 million, 18,000-square-foot green site is designed for the next generation. Like the rest of Highlander, he says the custom design and construction, plus elevated location, are meant to raise people’s expectations in a high-poverty environment.

Slated to open by late summer, the facility is built on years of seeds sown by Fripp and company in inner-city public schools and neighborhoods. Whispering Roots teaches students how to build and maintain aquaculture systems that grow fish—tilapia or steelhead trout—for consumption. Fish waste is used to fertilize crops grown in the same system. The closed system’s water is naturally cleaned and recirculated. Floating raft crop, drip irrigation, and raised bed techniques are taught. 

The new digs will allow Whispering Roots to expand learning opportunities for youth and adults around organic agriculture, healthy cooking, and nutrition. It will refer participants in need of human and social services to on-site partners.

“We focus on growing, feeding, and educating,” Fripp says. “We’re touching different aspects of the community to address where the gaps are. By working with different folks and actually being out in the community and listening to the feedback—what’s working, what’s not working—it allowed us to design a facility that meets the needs of the community.”

Fripp says residents of the community have said they need more locally produced food, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM education, “and that’s what we do.”

To help address the community’s lack of access to fresh, local healthy food, Whispering Roots will sell the fish and vegetable crops it harvests on-site at farmers markets and select stores and to neighboring Accelerator food purveyors. 

Fripp sees this as just the start.

“The model is what matters—the techniques and how we build them and improve them in underserved communities—and then taking that model and replicating it at whatever scale makes sense for a community,” he says. “Where a lot of people make mistakes is they try to force a model and scale in a community that’s not ready to deal with it. The community’s overwhelmed.”

Fripp’s interest in urban ag and aquaculture goes back 20-plus years, to high school. After a U.S. Navy logistics career, he worked in the corporate world. He left an executive human resources position at TD Ameritrade in Omaha to follow his real passion full time.

He founded Whispering Roots in his home garage and basement lab with his own savings, and in less than a decade it’s now supported by major philanthropic players such as the Sherwood, Weitz Family, and Suzanne and Walter Scott foundations.

Funders bought into his vision, allowing it to ramp-up from micro to mega level. In learning to build and operate aquaculture systems, grow, harvest, package, market, and sell food, students will acquire portable skills.

Whispering Roots already has a presence as far away as Haiti and Madagascar and as near as Iowa and Missouri. It’s currently building a facility in Macy, Nebraska.

On the planning table is a full-scale commercial production facility that would supply food in quantity and create jobs.

“We not only want to replicate what we’re doing here but also to do economic development by developing this pipeline of kids and adults from the community who can then work in or run those facilities,” Fripp says.

Fripp and his team are much in demand as consultants.

“We’ve become subject matter experts for other communities that would like to do the same around the country. We have people calling from Kansas City, Minneapolis, wondering how we’re pulling this off in Omaha,” he says, adding that the model is what’s interesting to them. It challenges the way people view urban agriculture, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM in underserved and impoverished communities.

“We’ve been able to navigate government and policies and work on the community side, in schools, and to figure out how all these pieces work together,” he says.

From concept to completion, he says, “One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the vision because it’s so new. When I started my organization in 2011 and said we’re going to put fish and plants in classrooms to teach kids about science, people thought that was crazy. They said, ‘It’s never going to work, kids aren’t going to be interested.’ Now our problem is we don’t have enough bandwidth to handle all the requests we get from the schools. But when I started, no one believed this was even possible.” 

Even after capturing the attention of kids—who started winning science fairs—and making converts of educators, he says, “In talking about where we were going to build our new facility, we had people questioning why we wanted to go into the inner city and offering us free land to build in rural areas. But the goal was to do it in an underserved community to prove it’s possible to go into the toughest areas, build this thing, and show it can work. That’s not easy because you run into a lot of roadblocks. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about what education looks like in an underserved community, what people will tolerate, what will work. What we’re trying to do is change that view.”

On a recent tour of the new Omaha facility, a woman who resides nearby told Fripp, “I’m glad that you are here. This is close to my heart. It needed to be here. This is such a beautiful and good thing that the community will protect you.”

“That feedback,” he says, “tells me we’re on the right path. The key is that you are a part of the community so that people feel like they have ownership—this is their resource. That’s what we want. We want that community base. If it’s just a community place and there’s no connect, people don’t care. They’re like, ‘That’s not ours anyway.’ But if it’s community-based, then, ‘It’s ours.’”

Part of that buy-in, he says, is “trying to build our own pathway and network of students who then become the experts who teach and train.” The goal is creating self-sufficiency so that communities can feed themselves. 

Having an African-American at the head of it all is a powerful symbol.

“When intersecting with the African-American community, students need to see people who look like them doing this work,” Fripp says. “Then they can internalize it by saying, ‘Me, too.’ They need to know this is a goal that is achievable.”


Visit whisperingroots.org for more information

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Greg Fripp teaches aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic skills to the next generation.

#OmahaMunchMadness 2018

July 6, 2018 by and
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

For the main feature article (read it here) in Omaha Magazine’s July/August issue, we determined there are 49 zip codes in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area. 

We worked with a freelance food writer and a team of foodie-influencers on Instagram to assemble a list of one dish for every zip code.

Once we compiled the list, writer Sara Locke, editors, and the Instagrammers collaborated on narrowing the list down to the 32 most popular dishes in the zip code guide. 

Why did we narrow the field to 32?

Because it is time for Munch Madness! 

Munch Madness is Omaha Magazine’s take on March Madness (but with dishes representing zip codes). And instead of one month, this contest will span July and August.

We will announce the date pairings in this initial Round of 32 zip code picks at our July/August magazine launch at the Florence Mill on July 8. Zip codes will be randomly paired for the Round of 32. The subsequent round of Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four, and Championship will be determined by polls on Facebook.

Come back to this page for updates on the bracket and times. We will update the bracket as Munch Madness progresses. Each pairing will have 24 hours before a winner is declared.

Voting will take place on Facebook at @OmahaMagazine. We will tag each poll with the hashtag #OmahaMunchMadness to make the polls easier to find on Facebook.

Do you disagree with our team’s selections for each zip code? If you disagree with any zip code picks, let us know on Instagram at @OmahaMagazine by following these steps; we will repost your alternate zip code pick to spread the love:

  • Upload a photo of the dish you think is more worthy to Instagram.
  • Check in at the restaurant.
  • Write the name of the dish along with the hashtag #OmahaMunchMadness in the caption of the Instagram post.
  • Tag us at @OmahaMagazine

Most of all, we hope Munch Madness makes you hungry. Whether you agree or disagree with our zip code picks, don’t forget to vote in the Best of Omaha contest here: http://omahamagazine.com/best-of-omaha/.

Updates

Round of 32

July 9th
Azteca Burrito Supreme (68138) vs. Crispy Mushroom Sandwich (68028)
WINNER: Azteca Burrito Supreme (68138)

July 10th
Bolognese Bianco (68132) vs. Whole Catfish Dinner (68110)
WINNER: Bolognese Bianco (68132)

July 11
Oven-Fried Chicken (68111) vs. Hummus with Beef Shawarma (68114)
WINNER: Oven-Fried Chicken (68111)

July 12
Stuffed Eggplant Papoutsakia (68134) vs. Barbacoa Short Ribs (68106)
WINNER: Barbacoa Short Ribs (68106)

July 13
Negi Hamachi Roll (68164) vs. The Mia (68118)
WINNER: Negi Hamachi Roll (68164)

July 15
Pan-Seared Salmon (68146) vs. Pizza Rosso (68122)
WINNER: Pizza Rosso (68122)

July 16
Beef Bulgogi (68127) vs. Diavolo (68131)
WINNER: Diavolo (68131)

July 17
Thai Salmon Salad (68154) vs. Omakase (68005)
WINNER: Omakase (68005)

July 18
Wings with Habanero Sauce (68007) vs. Chicken Tikka Madras (68144)
WINNER: Chicken Tikka Madras (68144)

July 19
Classic Gyro (68130) vs. Flaming Saganaki (68105)
WINNER: Flaming Saganaki (68105)

July 20
Tonkotsu Ramen (68104) vs. Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)
WINNER: Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)

July 23
Croque Garcon Burger (68102) vs. Menudo (68107)
WINNER: Croque Garcon Burger (68102)

July 24
Tacos (51510) vs. Fried Ice Cream (68069)
WINNER: Fried Ice Cream (68069)

July 25
Pop Tarts (68135) vs. Country Sunrise (68137)
WINNER: Country Sunrise (68137)

July 26
Prime Rib (51526) vs. Egg Yolk Raviolo (68108)
WINNER: Prime Rib (51526)

July 27
Lust (68123) vs. Vermicelli Rice Noodles (68136)
WINNER: Vermicelli Rice Noodles (68136)

Sweet Sixteen

July 31
Azteca Burrito Supreme (68138) vs Bolognese Bianco (68132)
WINNER: Bolognese Bianco (68132)

August 1
Oven-Fried Chicken (68111) vs. Barbacoa Short Ribs (68106)
WINNER: Oven-Fried Chicken (68111)

August 2
Negi Hamachi Roll (68164) vs. Pizza Rosso (68122)
WINNER: Pizza Rosso (68122)

August 3
Beef Bulgogi (68127) vs. Omakase (68005)
WINNER: Beef Bulgogi (68127)

August 7
Chicken Tikka Madras (68144) vs. Flaming Saganaki (68105)
WINNER: Chicken Tikka Madras (68144)

August 8
Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124) vs. Croque Garcon Burger (68102)
WINNER: Whiskey Steak Sirloin (68124)

August 9
Fried Ice Cream (68069) vs. Country Sunrise (68137)
WINNER: Country Sunrise (68137)

August 10
Prime Rib (51526) vs. Vermicelli Rice Noodle Bowl (68136)
WINNER: Prime Rib (51526)

Elite Eight

August 14
Bolognese Bianco (68132) vs. Oven-Fried Chicken (68111)
WINNER: Bolognese Bianco (68132)

 

Choo-Choo-Choosey Sushi

June 25, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Who needs a menu with pictures when the actual dishes are floating past your table on a carousel conveyor belt?

Yamato Sushi Train & Grill leaves little to the imagination with Omaha’s only sushi train.

If you like what you see, just grab a dish. It’s a fun sushi experience that was first developed in Japan and has become popular in my hometown of Hong Kong.

I visit Yamato Sushi Train & Grill for a Thursday date night. As the steady stream of sushi plates make their way down the conveyor belt, a waitress explains that the color of each sushi plate indicates its price: black plates cost $5, purple costs $4.5, red costs $4, orange costs $3, and green costs $2.5.

Dancing Eel

Tongue-tied? Don’t worry. You don’t even need to know the name of what your heart desires. But be careful that you don’t grab too many items. The final bill adds up quickly with a stack of empty plates on the table.

Desserts are available on the sushi merry-go-round on Fridays and weekends, in addition to the otherwise daily train of maki rolls (where all ingredients are rolled into a sheet of seaweed), gunkan maki (where a strip of seaweed wraps around the rice ball leaving room for toppings), uramaki (where the seaweed holds fillings in the inside and the rice is on the outside), sashimi (slices of raw seafood), and appetizers (such as seaweed salad and edamame) for lunch and dinner service.

We snag a plate of uni (sea urchin) followed by salmon roe gunkan maki to start things off. Fresh sea urchin tastes sweet and creamy with bright and vibrant shades of yellow-orange. Yamato’s sea urchin is decent and pairs well with the juicy, red-orange salmon eggs bursting with saltwater flavor.

We wait and watch for the next plate to tantalize our grabby fingers. We catch octopus sashimi with lemon ponzu sauce, spice-rubbed seared ahi tuna sashimi, seaweed salad, inari sushi (rice ball wrapped in a tofu puff), Omaha roll (with spicy lobster, cucumber, avocado, imitation crab, and mango sauce on top), eel cucumber roll, and a Naruto roll (avocado, salmon, and tuna wrapped with a slice of cucumber).

We also order miso soup and a bowl of pork ramen noodles with tonkatsu (a pork bone-based) soup from the waitress.

California Roll

Tuna and octopus sashimi plates are highlights of the meal. Rubbed with Nanami seasoning (a seven-chili pepper mix), the ahi tuna sashimi was seared on the outside and rare on the inside. Drizzled in lemon ponzu sauce, the octopus tastes light and refreshing with slices of lemon placed between the slices of sashimi.

When asked about the most popular dish in the restaurant, both waitresses and the shop manager boasted a wide variety of menu options. The waitress recommends the bento box for its value—at $11.95, diners can select a chicken, beef, shrimp, salmon, or tofu main dish to go with side dishes including California roll, shumai, miso soup, salad, and rice. Shop manager Alex Walker says the fried rice at Yamato Sushi is “addictive” and also suggests the lo mein and pad thai.

Walker says Yamato receives shipments of seafood from both coasts three times a week. Although Yamato’s owner also runs the La Vista restaurant Dragon Café (serving Chinese and Japanese cuisine), also with sushi on the menu, the two venues are very different from a design standpoint. Contrary to Dragon Café’s traditional Chinese-inspired interior design, Yamato is going for a decidedly Japanese vibe with simplified, modern décor.

Hygiene and efficiency are a top priority in any establishment dealing with raw ingredients. Yamato does not disappoint. The sushi train is even enclosed with a clear roll-top lid (a feature not typical at the sushi trains I’ve experienced in Japan and Hong Kong). Walker says the train is cleaned two to three times every day.

Although dishes on the sushi train were sometimes lacking in their presentation—some rolls were not as tightly rolled as they should have been—this restaurant is a must-try for local foodies or folks looking for an entertaining, fast, and convenient bite to eat.

Assorted nigiri and Omaha Roll

Sushi Train from Japan to the World

In Japan, Yoshiaki Shiraishi is credited with inventing “rotation sushi” to solve his staffing problem in 1958. He was inspired to deliver “no-frills sushi” on a conveyor belt after visiting the Asahi Brewery. Dubbed “sushi innovator” by The New York Times, Shiraishi perfected the art of sushi train operation at a speed of 8 centimeters (approximately 3 inches) per second to ensure safety without sacrificing efficiency. The concept was an instant hit at the Osaka World Expo in 1970. His restaurant, Genroku Sushi, expanded rapidly between the 1970s and 1990s.

Genroku Sushi was introduced to Hong Kong—where I was born and raised—in the early 1990s, a time when Japanese pop culture was taking Asia by storm. Marketing its sushi at HKD $10 (approximately USD $1.28) and HKD $15 (USD $1.91) per plate, Genroku Sushi was a popular hangout for high school and college students as well as local families seeking inexpensive foreign food.

Unlike traditional Japanese restaurants, rotation sushi was accessible to the mass public with a price point comparable to fast food. Sushi train chains mushroomed across Hong Kong as my generation grew up playing video games from Japan, watching J-Drama, listening to J-Pop, buying Japanese fashion and cosmetics, and learning to speak Japanese. Genroku Sushi contributed to introducing the culinary art of Japan, inspiring many to pursue travel, study, or work in Japan.

Although Genroku Sushi has lost its international footprint and can only be found in Japan today, the conveyor belt sushi concept it pioneered has gained popularity around the world. And in the fall of 2017, a sushi train finally arrived in Omaha in the form of Yamato Sushi Train & Grill.


Visit yamatosushitraingrill.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The pictured sushi platter was plated by chefs at Yamato Sushi Train; it was not selected off the establishment’s sushi train.

A Cathedral for Cooking

June 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most first-time attendees at Crème de la Crème instructional cooking events enter chef Paula Dreesen’s home as if they are crossing the threshold of a church. Perhaps overly aware of their guest status, they edge in on padded feet and speak in hushed whispers, the kind usually reserved for the gentle echoes of a house of worship.

“They may enter as strangers,” the gregarious Dreesen says with a broad smile, “but they leave as friends. That’s what good food and good conversation does. It draws people together.” 

But the night I became a parishioner at Crème de la Crème was different. And loud.

It was Dreesen’s 150th event, and all the other cooks-in-waiting were repeat guests, longtime disciples with as many as five previous evenings under the belts of their aprons. The only icebreaking required this time around involved that which was needed for a decidedly less than pious procession of mojitos which ushered in the evening.

Teaching, now so seemingly natural for the outgoing Dreesen, was an evolutionary process paralleling the arc of her life in food.

“My mom started me in the kitchen when I was a little girl,” the chef says, “and I worked in and around the restaurant industry for 35 years. Cooking has always meant so much more to me; so much more than just food.” 

After years of being asked by friends for help or advice in the kitchen, she began informal instructional sessions in her previous home, then launched her Crème de la Crème business plan three years ago in the sprawling 1,000-square-foot kitchen of a new home that was designed specifically for such group culinary gatherings.

“People always ask me why I never opened a restaurant of my own,” the chef says, “but I don’t think I have that in me, the seven-day commitment and endless hours that go into making a restaurant work. What I do have is a husband [Dr. Adrian Dreesen], five kids, and a dog. Crème de la Crème is the perfect fit…the perfect way to find and express my creativity and share it with others in a fun, social environment.”

Several globetrotting themes are available for Crème de la Crème soirees and, taking the farm-to-table philosophy to its logical extreme, Dreesen rotates her menus based on the availability of bounty from her expansive backyard vegetable gardens and fruit orchards perched high on a hill overlooking the Elkhorn River in West Omaha.

Crowd favorites include such Mexican menus as “Casa de Crème” and “A Tale of Two Tacos.” Italian is also popular with her “Pizza Party” and “Cozy Italian” evenings. 

And, in tribute to Dreesen’s culinary idol, Julia Child, there’s even a more highbrow “French Crème Countryside” menu for pilgrims in search of new frontiers.

Dreesen also offers the “Crème Conquest,” a hit with corporate clients that use the experience as a team-building exercise. Groups are split into teams and given a set of selected ingredients, but no recipe. The challenge is to guess the secret recipe from which the ingredients are derived. Even if the food sleuths fail to solve the underlying mystery, they get to battle it out, Iron Chef-style, in devising and preparing a delicious meal to be shared by their co-workers.

But it was the “Grillin’ Cuban Style” menu on tap for the night I attended, where anxious students took turns in preparing pineapple mojitos, mojo-grilled chicken with black beans and crispy sweet plantains, all followed by a decadent tres leches cake.

Although I was present as a journalistic observer—and my culinary prowess is pretty much limited to melting Velveeta—I was also invited to participate.

My assigned task, perhaps mercifully, was to blend the tres leches ingredients into a velvety symphony of num-num-numiness ready for the oven. Based on the baking, cooling, and refrigeration time called for in the recipe, I had accurately surmised that Dreesen had prepared a cake, the one we would later be eating, a day in advance, but I was still resolved to approach my job as if I were engaged in the sacramental rite of turning flour and eggs into manna from heaven. My apron, not to mention my nascent reputation as a capable hand in the kitchen, emerged unscathed. High fives all around.

Dreesen is often asked to take her show into other people’s homes, but now it’s her turn to speak in hushed, reverent tones.

“It’s doing it here that makes it meaningful for me,” she explains. “Cooking right here. Cooking with family helping me. Not just in any kitchen but in my kitchen. It just wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.”


Visit cremedelacremeomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of OmahaHome. 

The Spice Of Guatemala on South 24th Street

May 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The proprietor of the city’s only Guatemalan restaurant says things have gone so well at Chiltepes that—barely a year after opening in South Omaha at 4833 S. 24th St.—she is already considering opening a second location in Lincoln.

That’s a lofty goal for a restaurateur new to Nebraska’s dining scene. But make no mistake; Floridalma Herrera is no novice to the food industry. She has been sharpening her business acumen since she was in elementary school.

The mother of five remembers breaking down 100-pound bags of beans and sugar into 1-pound packages as a schoolgirl in her native Guatemala City, where her father ran a grocery business as the country’s decades-long civil war raged around them. Once she finished her primary schooling at about 14 years old, Herrera set up shop in a local market, blending and selling juice by the cup.
Her seed capital? Earnings from a cow her father sold to get the fledgling business on its feet.

“I bought two blenders, a food processor, and cups,” Herrera says, noting that 10 percent of every day’s earnings went to pay her father back.

Within about two years, the consummate entrepreneur had grown the business to require a refrigerator and freezer, and she had six employees churning out juice concoctions made from papayas, strawberries, bananas, and beets.

Still, Herrera wanted more, and her next step would cost her some emotional capital.

Herrera endured six months of silence from her father after he learned his only daughter had suddenly left her native Guatemala to pursue a better life in the United States. She was 17 years old.

“My dad finally asked why,” Herrera says, “and I explained that I wanted to learn English and help the family more. I wanted more for him.”

Since then, Herrera has gotten what she wanted, and then some.

She’s realized her dream of opening her own restaurant. And she also gets to spread the cultural influences from her childhood in Guatemala, making her a sort of local ambassador to a pocket of Central American culture.

Immigrants from Central American countries like Guatemala comprise about 10 percent of Omaha’s Latino population, compared to about 81 percent who claim Mexican heritage, according to a 2015 analysis of U.S. Census data by the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Office of Latino/Latin American Studies.

Though greatly outnumbered by their former neighbors to the north, immigrants from the region are the second-largest group of Latinos living in the city.

As a Guatemalan immigrant immersed in South Omaha’s sea of Latino culture, Herrera only had to look down the South 24th Street corridor to realize a restaurant like Chiltepes has a place in the community.

“On every single corner, there’s Mexican food, but there’s none from [Guatemala],” Herrera says. (Although, Omaha does have a few Central American restaurants serving Salvadoran cuisine.)
Kenia Andrade, Herrera’s 19-year-old daughter who is also on staff at Chiltepes, says her family carefully renovated the space—previously home to a Mexican taqueria—so they, too, could feel at home there.

“We couldn’t see the future in the little space, so we had to remodel everything,” Andrade says.
If financial performance is any indicator, the community has enthusiastically embraced it.
The business plan conservatively projected Chiltepes to pull in about $7,000 a month when it got off the ground in December 2016. It did more than $50,000 in business through its first two months.

Business took off so fast that by the end of the third month, Herrera had to forego hand-cranking the traditional sausage that accompanies Chiltepes’ signature dish, churrasquito chapin.

The charbroiled beef platter served with sides of rice and black beans doesn’t seem to have suffered any from the substitution, however; Herrera says the restaurant sells 60-85 servings of the dish on any given day.

It’s a “dream come true” for Herrera, who came to Omaha in the mid-’90s after spending about five years in Los Angeles. There, she studied for eight months in culinary school before the financial pressure and risk of being an undocumented immigrant forced her to cave on that pursuit.

So Herrera took to working in a hodgepodge of L.A. restaurant kitchens featuring Thai, Indian, American, Italian, and Mexican food. With two children in tow, she eventually left for Nebraska, where better opportunities for her young family beckoned.

Although Herrera detoured into gigs on the lines at packing plants and as a personal chef before running the office for her husband’s construction company for a few years, she held tight to influences from her native culture.

Dishes, such as churrasquito chapin, feature Mayan influences and Guatemalan staples that include avocados and small, thick tortillas made of masa (a traditional corn dough).

“I do this because not many people know our culture,” Herrera says. “You can come in here and eat and…hear the music, see the decorations. I want to know that people understand our culture and experience a different kind of food.”


Visit Chiltepes’ Facebook page for more information at @chiltepesrestaurantomaha.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Makin’ Bacon

February 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Perfecting a fat slab of bacon at home is a skill worth practicing. Your friends and family will thank you.

Bacon is made by dry-curing or brining pork belly and then smoking the slab(s). Most store-bought bacons use nitrites and nitrates as a preservative, come from commercial farms, and are often frozen and thawed. If you have access to pigs—or know a farmer—you can make bacon locally sourced from organic pork, and you can make fresh bacon without the synthetic preservatives.

Nitrites and nitrates save the bacon’s color, prevent the fat from going rancid, and inhibit bacteria growth. But there are competing opinions about the health impact of consuming nitrites/nitrates, and the World Health Organization has linked the compounds to cancer in humans.

As an alternative, salt can be used in larger quantities to brine and essentially cure your at-home bacon. It won’t keep as long as nitrite/nitrate-rich bacon, but you’ll find the slab disappearing quickly once you get a taste of it.

SMOKED JALAPENO BACON RECIPE 

I use the same brine for many things that end up on the smoker. The ratios are easy to remember and simple to adjust as needed. In the end, it produces consistent results. It is actually a modification from a Betty Crocker turkey brine recipe I found many years ago. A similar whole brined turkey recipe is still offered by Betty Crocker. I have been toying with the same basic ratios of that recipe and they work for many meats.

The duration of the soak and the presence of additions such as brown sugar and sliced jalapeños make this brine a bit different than that of your Thanksgiving turkey.

—3 pounds pork belly
—1 pound sliced jalapeños
(or more)
—1 gallon water
—1 cup kosher salt, or more to taste
—1 pound brown sugar (or if you’re me, you’ll use the whole bag—be warned, this bacon will then burn in the frying pan if not carefully tended to. But it’s worth it.)
—1 tablespoon peppercorns
—1 tablespoon coarse ground pepper (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

Trim the skin from your pork belly, if you prefer.

In a large bowl, crush the jalapeño slices thoroughly. This aids in extraction.

In a large boiling pot, boil one gallon of water. Remove from heat.

Stir in salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, and jalapeños. Simmer until cool.

Submerge the pork belly in the brine. Refrigerate for 7-14 days.

Remove the pork belly from the brine after 7-14 days and rinse. Pat dry.

Rub the pork with ground pepper if you like.

Smoke indirectly at around 200 F for 3-4 hours.

Your bacon is done. Slice it. Fry it.

Go ahead and try a strip, and then tell me if you don’t eat the whole slab soon after.

The same general recipe works for other smoked meats with minor modification to the instructions. For example, try this same recipe with trout, but don’t leave them in the brine for more than 24 hours. Try it on chicken breasts (depending on the cut, smoke for 2-4 hours) or pork ribs (which could smoke for 6 hours or more). Be adventurous.

Feeding your friends and family delicious homemade bacon is a great way to make them appreciate you.

Visit Betty Crocker at bettycrocker.com/recipes/brined-whole-turkey for the brined whole turkey recipe that inspired this smoked jalapeño bacon recipe.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home.

A Taste of the Great Gatsby

November 3, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

The Monarch Prime & Bar resembles a scene from The Great Gatsby. Bartenders whip up whimsical cocktails; servers dance around with trays of food and drinks; meanwhile, poshly clad guests enjoy a whirlwind of happenings.

Omaha Magazine attended a preview dinner of the restaurant at Hotel Deco on Oct. 26. My dining partner and I sampled dishes composed of grasslands game meats and produce from local farms.

While waiting to be seated in the lounge area—connecting Hotel Deco’s lobby and the Monarch Prime dining area—my eyes fell on the top-shelf spirits, which included some of the most sought-after Japanese whiskies, such as Yamazaki and Hibiki.

A view of the bar

Although I normally prefer my whisky neat, Monarch’s “Blood & Sand” cocktail was tempting. Mixed with Johnnie Walker Black, Cherry Heering Cocchi di Torino, and fresh orange juice (with orange peel and olive garnish), the cocktail turned out to be an excellent aperitif.

My dining partner and I were escorted to our table through a short tunnel-like passage separating the lounge and dining area. A butterfly mural on the back wall provides the focal point of the restaurant. Other decorations include butterfly specimens displayed with preserved insects. Our server explained that the interior design incorporated themes of nature and royalty (after all, a monarch is a butterfly as well as a supreme ruler).

A view of the main dining area

On the main floor, tables are arranged intimately. Those who seek privacy, however, can reserve booths with curtains tucked into the arches. I particularly like the thoughtful lighting of the dining area; mono-point lights illuminate dishes in front of diners in an otherwise dimly lit, romantic atmosphere.

The menu features different courses in categories that range from “to begin,” “to continue,” “to dévour,” “to carve,” and “to add.” As our server told us about the game meats available and proudly introduced their in-house meat drying facility, the menu’s “elk osso bucco” and “30-day bison strip loin” piqued our interests.

She recommended we try the “potato and trout,” but we were torn between duck confit and chicken pate for an appetizer. We decided to go with the duck, “Monarch Burger with lamb bacon,” bison, adding a side of smoked maitake mushrooms, and ending the meal with donuts for dessert.

Meat aged on site

The duck was prepared by sous vide for 30 hours, rendering in duck fat, resulting in a creamy veloute formed into croquettes, lightly breaded and fried. Accompanied by a vibrant and sweet carrot puree, along with some crisp carrot and celery pickles, the duck is both rich and savory—my favorite dish of the night.

Our Monarch Burger, bison, and maitake mushrooms arrived at the same time. We dug into the bison immediately. Meat of bison is typically leaner and sweeter than beef; Chef Patrick Micheels grilled the aged bison and paired it with a light sauce that did not overpower the meat flavor. It reminds me of beef tataki and went really well with the earthy maitake mushrooms side dish.

Lamb bacon burger, bison, and maitake mushrooms

The burger came with frites and spicy aioli made of peppers from Spain. The ketchup, which they called “green tomato jam,” was a rich green and sweet with slight tang. We ordered lamb bacon with our burger—the bacon’s gaminess and fat added complexity to the flavor and aroma.

One note: you should always start with the burger before diving into other dishes as the house-made bun may soak up the cheese mornay sauce and become a little soggy—which is a shame, because their house-made bread tasted absolutely fantastic.

Our bill totaled about $130 before tip—including three dishes, two cocktails, one beer, and a dessert. While many of the items on menu were not yet available (or supply ran short on the night of our preview), we look forward to trying other game meats and unique desserts such as lemon goat cheesecake next time.

Visit monarchprimeandbar.com for more information.

Duck confit croquettes

Food for the Heart

August 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marie Losole still laughs when telling what she calls “the story of our escapade,” a 1967 elopement by train to Idaho, one of two states where 18-year-olds could get married at that time without parental permission.

Fifty years after running away together, Don and Marie Losole are still running—running a restaurant together. Its name, Lo Sole Mio, is a play on words, combining their last name and the famous Italian love song “O Sole Mio.”

Like their love, the restaurant has endured. August marks 25 years for the venture that embodies their passion and lifelong dream.

The couple, who met at Central High School, both come from restaurant families and began their restaurant careers at age 14. Don was head chef at a large country club by the time he was only 21.

In 1975, the couple opened their first restaurant, Losole’s Landmark, a favorite with the downtown lunch crowd. A job opportunity briefly took the family to California a few years later, but they soon realized the West Coast was not a good fit for them.

After their return to Omaha, Don worked on the supply side of the restaurant industry while Marie began creating dishes for delivery, a side business that “pretty soon got so big that we knew we couldn’t keep doing this from home,” she says.

In 1992, the family took a leap of faith that became Lo Sole Mio. Villa Losole, an event venue, followed in 1997.

Both facilities are located near the Hanscom Park area, tucked away in a quaint neighborhood, exactly the sort of location that the Losoles were seeking—a destination. The charming ambiance is a perfect backdrop for the Italian cuisine and family atmosphere.

“We are a family supporting other families…We are very blessed to have some good employees who’ve been here a long time and some loyal customers who have become friends,” Marie says. “I like to walk around and visit with my customers and see what brings them in, just thank them for coming here…I love being a part of people’s memories.”

Lo Sole Mio has employed all six of their children over the years and now some of their older grandchildren (they have 17).

“My mother always used to say to me, ‘as you get older, time goes by faster.’  Well, my summation of that is that time doesn’t go any faster, it’s just taking us longer to do what we used to do,” Marie says.

Sure, the couple boasts some artificial joints between them, and Marie says “my feet ache a little more, my back aches a little more,” but the Losoles are proud to continue maintaining their “old-school” work ethic and hands-on management approach.

“We make sure it’s something we’d want to eat; quality is very important for us,” Marie says. “We are now at the point where we can enjoy life a little bit more without having to be here 80 hours a week or more. But this is still our first priority. We will probably be here until we pass away, I would imagine.”

In fact, she says, “My husband says to me, ‘This is what’s keeping us young.’”

Visit losolemio.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.