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Life Itself X: Food Stories Through the Years – A Pot Liquor Love Archive


Issue 25

Life Itself X: Food Stories Through the Years

A Pot Liquor Love Archive

Follow my food writing at:

leoadambiga.com 

https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga

and in 

Food & Spirits Magazine

The Reader

Omaha Magazine

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/06/06/harvesting-food-…ory-and-art-meet

Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/06/06/journalist-autho…u-s-food-system

Finicky Frank’s puts out good eats

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/04/24/finicky-franks-puts-out-good-eats

Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/06/27/tenth-street-mar…ream-to-fruition

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity in North Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/11/a-systems-approa…y-in-north-omaha

Good Memories and Good Eats

http://thereader.com/dining/good-memories-and-good-eats/

Soul food eatery Omaha Rockets Kanteen conjures Negro Leagues past and pot liquor love menu

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/17/soul-food-eatery…liquor-love-menu

 

Tacos and Tequila Take Center Stage at Hook & Lime

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/11/zedeka-poindexte…t-for-her-poetry

Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/23/chef-jason-hughe…low-country-club

Culinary artist Jim Trebbien

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/02/culinary-artist-…ommunity-college

Eat to live or live to eat, Omaha’s culinary culture rises …

http://thereader.com/visual-art/eat_to_live_or_live_to_eat_omahas_culinary_culture_rises/

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

Chicken is King at Time Out Foods

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/28/chicken-is-king-at-time-out-foods/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/01/a-southern-road-trip-diary/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/

Book depicts area whole foods culture in stories, recipes …

http://thereader.com/visual-art/book_depicts_area_whole_foods_culture_in_stories_recipes_pics/_

Anne and Craig McVeigh Bring Beacon Hills Take on American Comfort Cuisine Back to Where Their Food Careers Started

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOURNEYS: 

Within Our Reach: Feeding a Starving World 

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/November-2014/JOURNEYS-Within-Our-Reach-A-Starving-World/

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/08/13/no-more-empty-po…t-in-north-omaha

Omaha Culinary Tours: 

New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/05/omaha-culinary-t…urist-attraction

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/18/two-old-market-f…brate-milestones

Chef-Owner Jenny Coco Proves She Can Hang with the Boys

Shirley’s Diner

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/shirleys-diner/

A. Marino Grocery 

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/a-marino-grocery/

Omaha Chapter American GI Forum

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-chapter-american-gi-forum/

Omaha’s Pitch Man: 

Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/25/omahas-pitch-man…business-venture/

Entrepreneur and Dealmaker Greg Cutchall

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/08/entrepreneur-and…er-greg-cutchall/

Doing Things the Dario Way Nets Omaha Two of its Most Distinctive Restaurants

Passing the Torch at the Dundee Dell

Vic’s  Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks: They Mentor Young People

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/21/vics-corn-popper…tor-young-people

George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: 

Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/06/remembering-the-…-alexander-payne

“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story”

Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/16/the-bagel-an-imm…documentary-film

George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/19/george-eisenberg…-never-grows-old/

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/in-memoriam-george-eisenberg

Issue 22

Itzel Anahi Lopez: Young Latina on the rise

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/24/itzel-anahi-lope…tina-on-the-rise

A Different Kind of Bistro

http://thereader.com/dining/a_different_kind_of_bistro/

The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/03/the-much-anticip…of-the-bagel-bin

Big Mama’s Keeps It Real

A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/big-mama’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/22/chef-mike-does-a…e-community-cafe

Favorite Sons: 

Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/28/favorite-sons-we…lse-little-italy

Allan Noddle’s food industry adventures show him the world

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/28/allan-noddles-ad…ow-him-the-world

Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/21/cousins-bruce-an…steaks-tradition

This version of Simon Says positions Omaha Steaks as food service juggernaut

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/15/this-version-of-…rvice-juggernaut

A Soul Food Summit

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/a-soul-food-summit/

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/11/charles-halls-fair-deal-cafe/

An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/14/from-the-archive…omaha-stockyards

It was a different breed then: 

Omaha Stockyards remembered

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/it-was-a-differe…yards-remembered

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Pot Liquor Love: Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Jenny Coco is well aware she’s an outlier as a female chef in a profession that’s still very much a man’s world, but she hasn’t let it deter her from carving out a successful niche in Omaha’s dynamic restaurant scene. After making a name for herself and her food at the Flatiron Cafe, she’s made her mark as chef-owner of J Coco, where she does American comfort cuisine in a fine dining way, and now she’s embarking on a second restaurant that will feature a distinct concept all its own. Chefs are artists and just like visual and performing artists, they develop a following and fan base, and Jenny Coco has cultivated a large and loyal group of foodies who’ve followed her from V Mertz to the Flatiron to J Coco. They will no doubt support her new as yet unnamed new place as well. My profile of Jenny for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) charts some of her journey and what makes her passionate about what she does.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

In the male-dominated culinary field men get the lion’s share of attention. In Omaha, Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik headline a deep roster of acclaimed chefs. But at least one woman, Jenny Coco, has proved her chops compare with anyone’s, regardless of gender.

Coco doesn’t make a big deal about breaking down the doors to this exclsuive boys club.

“It takes a certain personality, male or female, to do this and we all have the same type of mentality I think,” she said. “Since our brains are wired very similarly, it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. I mean, if I wasn’t meant to be doing this, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Besides, she added, “I know I can hang with them.”

Like the best of her male colleagues in town, she’s been nominated for the prestigious James Beard prize. Unlike them, she never went to culinary school. She’s learned everything she knows working on the line, reading and absorbing things where she finds them. The Omaha native paid her dues at landmark Omaha eateries. She did her first professional cooking at the Baking Company in an all women-staffed kitchen – a rarity then and now.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, she’s well aware that women chefs are still few and far between and often face a tough road.

“I don’t want to see that keeping other women from jumping in and I’m finally seeing that change,” she said. “I can count on one hand how many women I worked with after the Baking Company 30 years ago. There’s just not a lot of women chefs. A lot of them still do pastry.

There’s so much more, there’s so much talent.”

She’s heartened by the many talents, male and female, emerging from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts.

“They’re woven into the fabric of kitchens all over the city.”

“There’s so many restaurants in this town,” she said, that opportunities abound for young chefs starting out here or going away for more experience and coming back to make their mark.

Coco really honed her skills at V. Mertz and the Flatiron Cafe, where she developed a following.

Then, in 2012, ready to break from her chef-for-hire career, she opened her own J. Coco restaurant. The chic, not fussy spot at 5203 Leavenworth is all about her fresh take on traditional dishes using refined yet simple techniques and fresh, quality ingredients. Like so many of her contemporaries, she passionately elevates American comfort food to new heights, whether the espresso and chili-rubbed pork chop or peppercorn and porcini-dusted ribeye.

Directly across the street is a venerable bakery and cafe, Gerda’s, that features a German slant on comfort food. It’s namesake proprietor is also female. Indeed, Coco said the stretch of Leavenworth from 52nd to 48th Streets includes more than a dozen female-owned businesses.

It’s a full circle life for Coco. As a girl she ate home-cooked meals that her mother, Joan Militti, who went from lunch lady to school District 66 food services manager, prepared. Now Coco’s putting a gourmet stamp on things like oxtails, short ribs and mac and cheese that she grew up eating.

“It’s just taking what everybody recognizes and maybe showing them   something different or doing a new twist on things. I want to make sure my food is prepared properly and is as approachable and clean and simple as possible, so that we’re always on people’s radar. Maybe we’re not breaking down the culinary walls, but you’re going to get a wonderful meal here and we work very hard at that.”

Tradition is important to Coco, who located her restaurant in the former Wohlner’s grocery store. The iconic Wohlner’s occupied the brick building from the 1940s until moving a few years back. Before that, the structure housed another grocer, Newman’s. All this matters to Coco because her great-grandfather was part owner of Kotera & Sloup Staple and Fancy Groceries generations ago. A blown-up black and white photograph of that store’s proprietors proudly standing in front of their wares pops at one end of J. Coco. Adorning another wall are oversized prints picturing vintage goods from Wohlner’s.

Always wanting a neighborhood place of her own, she knew she wanted the Aksarben-Elmwood space as soon as it became available.

“It’s a beautiful building with a good history to it. We wanted to keep the neighborhood connection. There were such strong feelings after the store left. People were so mad. They liked seeing their neighbors here.

They liked coming every day and grabbing the food for that evening’s dinner. It was part of their thing, their day, their routine and then it was gone and being in this neighborhood here I know that’s who’s going to support us here day in and day out.

“Residents of this neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods are dedicated, devoted, supportive. They prove it over and over again.

They’re not going past 72nd (Street) – they’re here and they don’t want to go anywhere else.”

She said she’s taken pains to make her place “very comfortable,” adding, “It’s like eating in my dining room at my house. We have family pictures up at home, so why wouldn’t we here?”

With J. Coco established, she’s about to open a second, as-yet-unnamed, spot on the southeast corner of 50th and Underwood, in a building that’s seen much turnover and recently suffered a fire.

 

“It’s a big space we’re planning on dividing to have two concepts under one roof. One side will be a lounge-bar with craft cocktails and late night food. That’s where the restaurant side comes in. It will keep regular restaurant hours and then close down, but the bar side will be able to serve food later. There’s nobody doing late night food.

“What I’d like to move into now is more playful. Like doing a food truck inside that serves street cuisine or updating the Cheese Frenchee. I want to feature small plates that people can share. That’s how my friends and I eat when we go out.”

She said she meant to take J. Coco in a similar direction, though she has pared down its entrees and expanded the starters, but she and her patrons weren’t ready for it.

“I wanted this to be a complete break from what I’ve always done

but the customers wanted to see an extension of Flatiron. That was my comfort zone, too. I knew how to cook that style of food.”

Having her own branded place in J. Coco meant quite a leap for her.

“After spending 20 years hiding in the kitchen to now having my name on the wall has been different. People expect to see me when they come. They want to talk to me. So, now I split my time half and half between the kitchen and the front of the house. It was difficult at first. But if people can’t put the face to the experience, they’re not coming back. They like that connection. They like you to remember their name or their favorite drink or entree, and that’s nice, too, because people have been supporting me for so many years. It’s just a small gesture to be able to thank them face to face.”

She’s out front more, too, because she’s overseeing construction of the second restaurant, which she expects to open May 1 or after.

Another reason her kitchen time’s reduced these days is that she has a capable cook in Pedro Garcia, who was with her many years at Flatiron before following her to J. Coco. Another member of the kitchen team she led at Flatiron also followed her to her restaurant.

“They’re just blossoming and that was my goal. At Flatiron I got to spread my wings and experiment and teach myself and that’s the kind of kitchen I want here. While I might not be cooking every day, I’m a resource. But mainly it’s their turn and they’re taking the ball and running with it. If I’m there blocking their rise, then what’s the point.”

She said whether cooking in the back or meeting-greeting up front, it’s evident how much more sophisticated diners’ palates have become.

“The Food Network and Food Channel have brought a great education to everybody,” she said. “People are more engaged with what they’re eating. They want to talk it about more. They want more explanation.

People want to know what they’re eating, where it’s from. They want to feel involved, where years ago I think they just wanted to be told what to eat. They just don’t want to be told anymore.”

She said diners want farm to table food that showcase fresh, local, organic, sustainable products, which are the same things Coco strives to provide with the help of area small growers and producers. While she said ingredients once difficult to find here are now available, more work needs to be done to cultivate farmer-chef relationships in order to take full advantage of Nebraska’s vast arable land.

Coco said the restaurant business isn’t for everyone because of the long, crazy hours that mean missing family events.

“I know what I’ve given up,” said Coco, who’s married with two step-daughters.

Knowing that her artistry satisfies patrons makes it all worthwhile.

“When people love it, well, what could be better. I have a talent, a gift and I want to share it and when people love it that’s pretty amazing. When the room’s humming, it’s a pretty awesome feeling, it really is.

There’s like no better feeling.”

Coco’s never been tempted to try her hand outside her hometown.

“I don’t mind being in a little pond if I can be a little bit bigger fish.”

Now that J. Coco’s going on five years, she wants it to be an institution.

“I want to be here for the long haul. We don’t have to be top of the heap – we just want to be part of the heap. Slow and steady wins the race, We’re here to finish.”

Business is good.

“I think we’re doing okay. Our weekends are always booked. You always need reservations.”

Frequent parties and a brisk catering trade boost revenues.

Though several blocks south of the hot Dundee food strip that has Mark’s, Dario’s, Avoli, Pitch, Paragon, Amsterdam Falafel and others, J. Coco’s benefits from the foodies those places draw,

“Dundee had paved the way.They were already bringing people to the area when we opened. That was a big thing. We need more. That’s what makes it all work.”

Meanwhile, Coco’s doing her part for girl power on Leavenworth.

J. Coco is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to close.

Call or 402-884-2626 or visit jcocoomaha.com.

Pot Liquor Love: Doing things the Dario Way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

As anyone who’s even a little familiar with the evolution of the Omaha culinary scene knows,  this burg has seen an elevation in quality and variety of cuisines, especially in chef-owner eateries that routinely push the envelope. One of the leaders in this movement has been Dario Schicke, a native of Bosnia who learned his craft in Europe and New York before making a dramatic impact here, first with Dario’s Brassiere, which continues strong, and now with his second place, Avoli Osteria. Two eateries within a block apart in Dundee, which boasts the best strip of restaurants in town can outside the Old Market, with two totally different cuisines and aesthetics. Dario has a big personality and a big story to match. This is my profile of him in the winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Doing things the Dario way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

Half measures don’t cut it with Dario Schicke, the Bosnian chef-owner who bears a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin. Schicke’s helped raise the Omaha culinary scene through a pair of Dundee restaurants dedicated to distinct, authentic European cuisines.

His Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria located within a block of each other on Underwood Avenue represent unique concepts at the upper end of casual fine dining. Dario’s features a French and Belgian-influenced menu complemented by imported beers. Avoli’s features northern Italian fare paired with wines of the region.

Each eatery contributes to Dundee’s foodie haven reputation. Though widely acclaimed, including a James Beard nomination for Dario’s, they were risky niche ventures made more risky by Schicke adamantly sticking to his vision. He admits he used to be even “more hardcore” demanding things be done his way but he’s relaxed some since putting together systems and staff that execute his vision.

His stubborn refusal to compromise makes sense when you understand all he went through to earn the right to do things his own way. He fled his homeland at age 20 only a few months after the Bosnian War erupted. His refugee experience began in Croatia before he moved to Germany and reunited with fellow refugees who could work but couldn’t travel. He met his wife Amy, a native of Kearney, Nebraska, at a Munich beer house where he worked.

He grew up in a restaurant family in Sarajevo. While surviving in Germany he worked various food jobs. Then he and Amy moved to New York City, where they soon took over a Greek deli that sold imported beers he set about studying. That search led him to train at the French Culinary Institute and he used those skills to transform the deli into a French bistro. The couple planned moving to the south of France when Amy got pregnant. The first of their two daughters was born in NYC. Amy got pregnant again. Then 9/11 happened – with the twin towers collapsing less than a mile away. The business suffered and the trauma led Amy and the girls to resettle in Omaha while a shell-shocked Schicke tried salvaging the business, then searching for a buyer until recouping his investment and joining his family here.

He briefly worked at the French Cafe before landing at the Market Basket. His classically prepared chef dinners found enough of a following that he and Amy invested everything they owned in order to open Dario’s. Its staple entrees and beers set it apart. For less adventurous diners it proved too much an outlier.

“At the beginning it wasn’t easy. I can’t tell you how many people would look at our menu and just walk out,” Schicke said. “We didn’t sell  anything but Belgian beers, That was unheard of at the time. We lost a lot of business but it was the only way I could push our waiters and front of house staff to learn about those beers. All those beers didn’t exist in Nebraska, We had to special order them.”

Some customers resisted the hefty prices but he explained these hearty brews are far different than even domestic crafts. Besides, he argues, you get more for your money at Dario’s.

“Nobody has a problem paying $6 or $7 for a glass of so-so house wine with their meal, but in this case you get 11 ounces of the best of the best beer.”

People who tried it, invariably liked it. The same with the well north of $10 burger and fries, “I knew our burger and fries were going to be a hit because they’re delicious, but if we sold that for $6.99 that’s all we were going to sell. We had duck breast and scallops and mussels and crepes and chicken and pork chop. We brought our sandwich and entree prices as close as we could so we didn’t turn into a burger joint.

But even if you order a hamburger you’re still going to get braisserie service – you’re going to get bread and butter, a huge beer glass and water glass, both hand-washed and polished. You’re going to get all that, plus fries, for $11. Our fries are hand-peeled, hand-cut, soaked in water overnight, then blanched. You get what you pay for. There was nothing to compare to it at the time.”

He recalled a disgruntled customer who complained about a burger, fries and beer costing nearly $30 with tax.

“This guy told me, ‘I’m not happy.’ I was like, ‘Sorry.’ Two days later the same guy came in, even angrier, saying, ‘Damn it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that burger and fries.’ Exactly. So we just stuck with our passion and now the culture’s caught up with us.”

Then, with Avoli, he filled a local gap in northern Italian food. In keeping with that cuisine’s tenets, there’s no pizza or lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, rather a curated selection of fresh, homemade and imported dry pasta dishes.

“Both of our places are focused on a region in Europe and that’s what we’ve stayed true to from day one. Dario’s ten years now and three and a half years with Avoli. We don’t change for any trends or influences. That was the idea. As a chef and restaurant owner I really want to commit to the style and region we’re going to represent. We don’t want to deviate in any way.”

He couldn’t have crested more different eateries.

“They are so opposite these two restaurants that I can’t even mix a single person working in both places,” Schicke said. “Everything about them is different. There’s no overlapping menu items. I went so extreme even our security companies and computer systems are different. I didn’t want to open a second Dario’s – I wanted to start       something new.”

Besides, he said, “the only way for me to step outside of Dario’s was to do something else.” With Dario’s already well-established and having a “great crew there,” he devotes more of his hands-on time to supporting Avoli with its complex menu and larger kitchen and dining room. But he still starts and ends every night at his namesake spot, Dario’s.

He, Amy and friends did the interior designs of both places themselves.

“It’s very personal to us. Why pay somebody a lot of money to tell you what you like?”

Schicke’s passion for getting thing right and his hunger for always learning new things finds him taking off to hone his craft at restaurants. To prep for Avoli, he said, “I went to italy and worked in a whole bunch of Italian restaurants because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do what today’s Italian food is. So I went all the way down deep, from product to menu to how people eat, what they eat, how they source and how we translate that in Omaha.”

There are no fussy fusions at his restaurants. The dishes are created using the same ingredients and preparations as in Europe.

“At Avoli we use only Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. We don’t cut our parmesan, we get a wheel of parmesan every few months that’s about 95 to 110 pounds. It’s like a $1,200 to $1,400 piece of cheese. That’s what we use exclusively. When we grate our parmesan it’s like snow flakes and it just melts into the pasta. It’s a huge difference. We use certified olive oils. We went out and sourced authentic Italian olive oils. We get double zero flour from Italy. San Marzano tomatoes, farm fresh eggs. That’s what we do.”

He acknowledges his ability to adhere to such standards is made possible by the independence he maintains.

“I’m really lucky I have people at home supporting me because it could easily be a situation where partners say, “We could be making a lot more money serving something else.’ But we don’t have investors – we don’t have a lot of people involved. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do.”

If he took shortcuts, it would only spoil things for this perfectionist and traditionalist.

“I do this for passion but also you have to make a living doing it. I have a family to raise, I have a house. You have to be able to build a life around it. It’s exciting and challenging. Running a restaurant, dealing  with business aspects, being creative and cooking every day for two places, not easy, and a lot of times not fun. To mix all that in one bowl, it’s rough. That’s when those Belgian beers come in handy.

“Raising teenage girls – I need stronger than Belgian beer to get over that,” he said, laughing.

In the restaurant business there’s no option but to be committed,

“There’s too many moving parts, it’s too expensive,” he said. “Our art is probably the most expensive art in the world. We have to have heat, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical. insurance, all this stuff to practice our art. You need like a thousand bucks a day to practice, so you have to be smart about it. I tell people, if you don’t have passion, just don’t do it, do something else.

“Otherwise, you’ll get burned out.”

He said the success of his restaurants is simply a function of “our crazy passion and not giving up – we just do what we do and I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

Even though both places feature staples that never change, Schicke allows himself and his chefs freedom to experiment with new dishes. He recently introduced Avoli staff and diners to Croatian pasta.

“You make like a bread dough, roll it really thin, then bake it. Then you break it into pieces and cook it like pasta, so it’s twice-cooked pasta that has like a bread quality. We’re going to serve goose and the dried pasta’s going to be rehydrated and cooked in those goose juices, with

chestnuts and all that stuff. That’s my comfort food.”

Some inspiration is tied to the seasons. At Avoli, for example, he said, “You get to the summer and it’s all about great olive oil, vinegars, tomatoes, basil. You can’t help it. But as soon as it gets colder, the nights are a little longer, that’s when I shine with flavorful marinades and braises. A little more complex food – using less expensive ingredients and making them luxurious,”

Meanwhile, he’ll keep pushing his skills by guest working in kitchens.

“It’s fun, it keeps me excited, I learn to do things better. Then I come back here torturing everybody with what I saw.”

 

Dario’s, 4920 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

Saturday Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

402-933-0799

 

Avoli Osteria, 5013 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

402-933-7400

 

Visit http://www.dariosbrasserie.com and http://www.avoliosteria.com.

Pot Liquor Love

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

 

 

Pot Liquor Love 

Not long after Pam and I began getting to know each other, we discovered several things in common, and some of what we found we both have a real passion for has to do with food. Having been in a previous long-standing relationship with an African-American woman, I already knew that the food I grew up eating and the food that many African-Americans grow up eating share many similarities. This, despite the fact that I am of Polish and Italian ancestry, two cuisines you wouldn’t ordinarily or immediately associate with soul food. But much of the food my late parents grew up eating and that they then weaned my two older brothers and I on is what could be called peasant cooking, which is essentially what soul food entails. The peasant connotation simply refers to the fact that people of little means, whether Polish or Italian or Black, historically make do with whatever is at hand. including what they eat. The humble rooted people on both my dad’s Polish side and on my mother’s Italian side certainly made do with what they raised and tended on the land and with what scraps of meat they could afford to purchase. The same with Blacks, whose soul food tradition derives from what was available from the sweat of their own brow working the land and what they could scratch together to buy.

Thus, the Polish and Italian cuisine I grew up eating, just like the Black soul food cuisine I was introduced to years later, features lots of greens, beans, potatoes, pastas (think spaghetti and macaroni and cheese), grains (barley, rice, grits) and lower end cut, slow cooked meats, including pig’s feet, cheek, hocks,  butt, ribs, oxtails, smoked turkey wings and legs and beef liver, although some of those formerly low cut low priced meats have since become pricey gourmet items. There are pan-fried and deep-fried connections, too, between my roots and Pam’s, such as chicken livers and gizzards. and, of course, chicken.

My mom and dad split the cooking. Their go-to dishes included: smothered pork chops (his), bean soup with hocks (his and hers), oxtail soup (his), braised oxtails (hers), oven-baked chicken (his), beef stew (his), Italian stew (hers), pig’s feet (his), greens (hers),

Pam has expressed surprise over and over again when, upon talking fondly about various dishes her family enjoyed eating, I come right back with, “Yeah, we ate that, too.” She is fairly amazed even now that I have consumed more than my share of ham hocks, for example, and that I still cook with them today. We didn’t have collards, but we did have mustard and assorted other greens. My mom grew up eating dandelions and she’d once in a while incorporate them into our greens as well.

The whole idea behind this mode of cooking and eating is to stretch things in order to feed several hungry mouths without straining the budget. That means lots of soups, stews, casseroles, bakes and concoctions where you throw in everything on hand to make what Pam’s family used to call “stuff.” Every ethnic group has it own variation of this everything but the kitchen sink dish that is more about expediency than it is culinary style. But Pam and I both agree that there’s never a good enough excuse for making something that lacks flavor. We are both big on bold, robust flavors achieved through liberal seasoning and cooking methodology. When it comes to meat, and she and I are both classic carnivores, we prefer slow baking, roasting methods that produce copious amounts of natural pan drippings that we spoon right over the serving portions or that can be the base for rich, delicious gravies and sauces. You might say we are connoisseurs of pan drippings because we appreciate the layered, complex, concentrated flavors they contain.

The resulting “pot liquor” is produced whether cooking beef, pork or poultry, but you have to have cuts that are bone-in and contain some fat, too. Fat and bone, that’s where the real flavor resides, and all the seasoning and veggies you add only help enhance the flavor. Yes, pot liquor is the really deep, fat and marrow released and rendered goodness that gets deposited in those puddles, streaks and bits. We never serve a meat dish without  some of the pot liquor over it. I love that term because it’s so apt to what the essence of pan drippings are. Rendered fat and bone is where it’s at and when enough of it is released and it gets to coagulating and browning to where those alternately gooey and crusty bits collect at the bottom and edges of the roasting pan, it distills right there in the oven or even on top of the stove into a heady, briny brew that really is best described as pot liquor.

Pam knows by now that one of my favorite food things to do is to take a hunk of bread and sop up the smear of congealed pot liquor left on the pan. Oh, my, that is a burst of flavor that rivals the best bites I’ve ever eaten, Not even a 4 or 5 star restaurant can duplicate that taste.

There are other pot liquors not exclusive to meat dishes, such as the brew created by cooking collards with ham hocks. Pam makes some righteous greens with hocks or smoked turkey lumps whose pot liquor is enough to get intoxicated on when sopping it up with corn bread or pouring it over most anything.

With the holidays coming up I am already salivating at the thought of Pam’s roasted turkey – she makes the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten – and its pot liquor bounty that pairs well with the greens, the stuffing, the candied yams and everything else for that matter.

Sure, there’s more to life than food, but at the moment I can’t think what that might be. Cooking a meal for someone is as true an expression of love as I can think of. It is the epitome of sharing something precious and of delighting in someone else’s pleasure or satisfaction. Pam and I regularly take turns cooking for each other. Her home cooked meals bring me right back to my childhood and early adult years eating at home with mom and dad. She likes my cooking, too. It also takes her back. By now we both know what we like and what we don’t. Our tastes, with a few notable exceptions, are remarkably alike.

On our recent trips down South we experienced a few dishes with good to the last drop pot liquor love. Read those at–

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=southern+fried

Not sure whose turn it is in our couple cooking rotation. It doesn’t much matter though you see because whoever has the duty will be putting out big flavors. That’s what you get when you cook with love – flavor. The one cardinal sin we can’t abide is bland food. That and skimping on the pot liquor. When we sit down to dinner, it’s not so much “pass the salt” as it is “give me some more of that pot liquor, honey.”

I don’t mean to imply the lip smacking magic of our Pot Liquor Love is what keeps us together, but it sure helps.

A Soul Food Summit

May 31, 2010 4 comments

Black-eyed peas with ham hock and pepper vinegar

Image via Wikipedia

The following story reminds me I’m getting older because some of the people quoted in it are gone now and the soul food cafe it’s set in is no more.  I wrote the piece a few years into my coverage of Omaha‘s African American community.  I had been introduced to the Fair Deal Cafe a few years before and because I loved soul food I decided to convene an informal “Soul Food Summit” there with the joint’s owner and head cook, Charles Hall, and a few of his cronies. Two men who become valuable sources and favorite profile subjects of mine, Preston Love Sr. and Billy Melton, joined us, along with their mutual friend, Mae Williams.  All were well-established figures on Omaha’s north side.  The idea was to talk about what makes soul food soul food over lunch at the Fair Deal. Nothing earth-shaking came out of the experience, but I really like the piece for trying to get at an authentic slice of culture. Another reminder of  the decade that’s passed since this “Soul Food Summit” is that the newspaper the story originally appeared in, the Omaha Weekly, is no longer around.

A Soul Food Summit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly, a now defunct alternative newspaper

If you want to know the heart and soul of Black Omaha, then head to the Fair Deal Cafe at 2118 No. 24th Street. There, in a nondescript building that is a throwback to the past, the cultural traditions of a proud people are celebrated and the ties of a rich community renewed. And it all revolves around food.

Standing like a-tried-but-true testament to old times, the Fair Deal serves the most authentic soul food in town. Calorie counters beware venturing to this mecca of soul, as no short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine high fat, comfort food. A typical meal includes a plate of tender greens, beans or black-eyed peas swimming-in savory meat juices. Moist corn bread muffins melt in your mouth. Chops, chitlins and sirloin tips are browned in their own fat and slow-cooked to succulent perfection. Braised ham-hocks, pig’s feet and ox tails fall apart in delectable morsels. Thick gravies ooze pan dripping goodness. Candied sweet potatoes have that light, yet gooey made-from-scratch texture. From stew and chili to eggs and grits, it features well-seasoned food with an accent on big, bold flavor.

Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. Just don’t expect a menu at lunchtime. You see, the owner and chef the past 47 years, Charles Hall, only opens for lunch and breakfast these days and he caters to so many regulars that he offers a small rotating selection of entrees and sides that old customers know as well as the waitresses. The place, which is virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall eateries steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the Black City Hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a recent visit found a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners whose table side and counter top discussions ran the gamut from blues legend Johnny Otis to Omaha police officer Jerad Kruse.

 

 

However much times or issues change, the main bill of fare at the Fair Deal remains the same. Indeed, for cafe veterans like Mae Williams, the vittles there remind her of the grub she grew up with on her family’s farm in Muskogee, Oklahoma. “This restaurant right here cooks soul food like I remember it. Identical,” she said. According to regulars like Williams, Preston Love and Billy Melton, all of whom have been eating there for decades, the Fair Deal is the last of the once numerous north Omaha restaurants featuring this food of love. For them, it provides a satisfying connection to a fondly remembered past. “Soul food to me is a warm feeling,” Williams said. “When I smell greens or beans or hocks cooking, it takes me back to my roots. It takes me back to a warm childhood feeling.” Yes, this just may be the original comfort food.

For soul food devotees, it all boils down to flavor. Lots and lots of flavor. It is a Southern-derived flavor that blacks migrating to the north brought with them in the early part of the last century. Hall, whose parents hailed from Arkansas, has strived hard replicating the exact taste he recalls sampling in his mother’s cooking. “My mother was an excellent cook. Down through the years I have tried to get the taste and the flavor that my mother had, and I have found it some,” he said. “I use the stock from smoked meat (ham hocks, etc.) for seasoning greens and beans. I add salt, pepper and garlic powder. I slow cook those greens and beans in that broth, simmering them for hours. That’s one of the primary methods to get that soul food flavor we remember from down south. That’s the essence of it.”

Scholars agree the south is the birthplace of soul food and that its originators were slaves who made discarded hog parts, including organs and entrails, the base of this indigenous style of cooking. Slaves found endlessly creative ways of infusing these fatty but tasty scraps with sharp seasonings and then combining the meat with more nutritious ingredients derived from African culture (rice, beans, yams).

For Mae Williams, soul food is “a survival food” devised by a people desperate to feed their large, hard-working families. She admires the ingenuity of ancestors who, from the refuse of others, concocted a hearty and versatile cuisine that has endured for centuries. She said making delicious meals out of cheap staples is how poor black families got by during hard times. Hall said the low cost food has allowed generations of homemakers to stretch slim budgets. “My mother could take a little and make a big meal out of it.” Ironically, he said, once scorned items like chitlins have acquired delicacy status and now command steep prices. Billy Melton added, “It’s not just for making do with. It’s good food. Why do you think we still eat it?”

Today, the food itself has become a repository for old values and traditions harkening back to when families ate together at the same table. Sitting down to a soul food feast means enjoying a slice of black heritage too quickly passing-by.

“It’s our culture. We are conscious of this,” said Preston Love Sr., an Omaha musician and author (A Thousand Honey Creeks Later). The 79-year-old Love decries the scant interest young blacks pay to birthrights like jazz and soul food. “So many young blacks have been Americanized and Anglicized that they don’t know anything about their roots. They’re missing everything. That’s our heritage.” That’s why, he said, “it’s essential” to have the Fair Deal around to keep these traditions alive.

He said a soul food repast there is like a reunion of “brothers and sisters under the skin.” For Love, soul food is a direct expression of the zestful black experience. “I think the term ‘soul’ was first applied to us as a people to describe the feeling of our expressions and attitudes and language. It means a lot of heart and a depth of feeling. It refers to the pathos in our expression, musically and colloquially. It was probably first applied to black musicians, denoting they had a lot of soul. Later, it became applied to food with lots of flavor and a particular type of flavor identified with blacks. One of the key things in it is pork.” Like so much of southern cuisine, he said, pork fat “rules” here, too.

In keeping with soul food’s peasant roots, the 80-year-old Hall eschews printed recipes and precise measurements in preparing his signature dishes. From day to day he may add a dash more of this and that or try some new variation depending on his whim or a sudden burst of inspiration. That way, his product is constant without ever being exactly the same.

 

 

 

 

According to Love, that genius for spontaneity is a hallmark of blacks in any number of creative endeavors — from music and dancing to cooking. In the case of soul food, he said, necessity became the mother of invention for blacks forced to make a banquet from the meager stores and resources allotted them. “The limitations we lived under gave birth to these embellishments and improvisations. That’s what we did. We were masters of embellishment. Our cooks improvised by adding a little something — maybe some red pepper here or some garlic there — to get that flavor we craved.”

“You want to know the secret of soul food?” Billy Melton, 78, asked a visitor. “It’s slow cooked,” said the retired railroad man and brother-in-law of Hall. “Don’t rush soul food. This is the most important thing about it.” Indeed, everyone at the Fair Deal concurs it is the combination of piquant ingredients and their slow cooking over low heat that gives the food its deep, distinctive tang. Williams said the deeply imbued flavors arise in part from liberally seasoning dishes with aromatics at the beginning of the cooking process rather than waiting till the end. Further enhancing the flavor is the omnipresent pork fat. Adds Williams, “Anytime there’s fat in food, it’s going to taste good.”

As nutrition advisor supervisor for the Douglas/Sarpy County Extension Cooperative Service’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education unit, Williams and her staff of nutritionists work with many low income black residents to devise healthier versions of classic soul food dishes. Because many blacks suffer from high cholesterol and hypertension, her focus has been on cutting fat, calories and sodium in staple foods like sweet potato pie and collard greens. In pie fillings, she substitutes skim for whole milk and margarine for butter and in pie crusts replaces lard with vegetable oil. With greens, she uses de-fatted meat broth and limits the number of ham hocks per serving. She said the program has won over many seniors.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people to change eating habits. We don’t try to take these foods away from them, because black Americans want that taste. Instead, we show new ways to cook that cut out the fat. It’s never going to taste as good though.”

Hall has made some health conscious concessions over the years by reducing the fat content in his dishes. Old customers like Preston Love wouldn’t want him to go too far, however. “You’re going to get fat anyway, so why not enjoy it? Get all the flavor you can. Flavor to the end.” Amen.

The Fair Deal Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesdays through Fridays and for breakfast only on Saturdays. Call 342-9368 for details.

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