Coco Questionnaire… Five Questions With Audarshia Townsend

Illustration Of Audarshia


In every city there is a trusted authority people seek for the latest in food, wine , and cocktail industry news. I’m fortunate I can count Chicago’s Audarshia Townsend as a friend.  Her following is huge on Social Media and she’s  the Chicago Travel Expert for She is also a features journalist covering food, cocktail, culture and travel. She knows everyone and chronicles her dining adventures on her Facebook Page 312 Dining Diva. Continue reading “Coco Questionnaire… Five Questions With Audarshia Townsend”

Spice rubbed roasted leg of lamb

Roasted Leg Of Lamb and The Full Circle Process of Buying Meat

Lamb Illustration

This post about lamb is not only about one of my favorite meats , but how we get it, how it enters a more conscious supply chain. Truly the farm to table way  at home. It shows the whole cycle and industry behind conscious  good food. For a while I’ve wanted to purchase a lamb from a farmer mentioned by our family friends. I’ve only once purchased a whole spring lamb from a Halal Butcher that was very good. But I wanted to go further , and to the farm or Shepherdess herself. Helen Hettinger raises  lamb for eating and sells beautiful fleece. It’s not organic , but farm fresh and humanely raised. She provided  some samples of fleece that I want to start felting with when time permits. Here is an actual link to her blog.I put in an inquiry a few months ago and was told to call back in early March , for  Easter lamb. Helen explained the process and when she would take the lamb to the locker. From there I was instructed to call the Eureka Locker / Bittners for breakdown instruction. The service and Coordination was great. All that was left was for Certain Someone and I to drive the 200 miles or so to Eureka to pick up the lamb. I had to pay the butchering and hanging weight fee to the locker, and separately for the animal from the farm. It was all frozen except for one leg  to marinate and cook for Easter. Each part wrapped and labeled according to my instructions.

Interestingly enough Bittners   In 2005 Bittner’s Meat Company became the only “processing facility” in the state of Illinois to receive its Organic Processing Certificate. In order for a product to be labeled and certified as “organic” the product must have been raised organically and then must be brought to a facility that has been certified to continue the organic label. In such a facility, like Bittner’s, the product comes in live and thus is inspected by the USDA to insure “quality” for human consumption.  Sadly Scott Bittner, the young owner died in a tragic plane crash last year, but in reading , I’m amazed and touched on how the farming communities in Illinois, Chicagoland restaurants  and the local CSAs  lost a vital resource and champion. Luckily the business is continuing in the same great tradition.

Bittners Eureka Locker

butcher paper eureka locker

Now people I know that aren’t as aware or don’t want to know where their food comes are taken aback by this. I cant describe how this whole process feels as opposed to just going to a local market and picking up a cling film wrapped piece of questionably sourced meat.  It makes you aware of the cycle of an animals life. This lamb was humanely treated . In reality this is an one off experience. But there are many ways you can buy an animal for your freezer through your CSAs which the farming community linked ups with. I just wanted the spring drive and to go through the experience.

leg of lamb marinade

For Easter I made a simple leg roast marinated in toasted fragrant spices and lathered with olive oil.

Toasted spices

I roasted it simply in a large cast iron skillet with a bit of water to cover bottom of pan, and more olive oil brushed on top, in my new Thermador Oven on Convection Roast setting at 375 F. I turned it up to 425 for the last 10 minutes. Be sure to let your meat rest a bit before serving. Various cultures like their lamb  in different degrees of doneness. For chops I prefer them on the medium side, seared  nicely on the outside. However for roasted legs , my personal preference is for it to be more well done  like the Greek and Arabic cultures.

Lamb in cast iron.

In our household we love to take leftover lamb and brown it in a skillet , serve with unleavened breads,  cucumber based Tzatziki , tomatoes onions, etc. pickled vegetables, a hot sauce like a Gyro or “kebab” style sandwich.

Toasted Spice Marinade for Lamb
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
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  • 1 tbsp. of black Peppercorns ( or ground)
  • 1 tbsp. of fennel seeds ( or ground )
  • 1 tbsp. of coriander seeds ( or ground)
  • 1 tbsp. cumin seeds ( or ground)
  • 1 tbsp. of garlic powder
  • 1 -2 tsps. fresh or dried thyme. If using fresh, use less.
  • Kosher salt
  • Olive oil
  1. In a spice grinder grind all of the spice except the garlic powder and salt.
  2. Take a dry skillet and gently toast on med / hig temp until fragrant. Be sure to stir around so spices don't burn.
  3. Add the garlic powder,thyme and salt and mix.
  4. Slather onto lamb with enough olive oil to form a runny paste. Let marinade overnight.


Farmers Market Vegetables with Old El Paso® Mexican “Hummus” Dip

Old El Paso® Mexican “Hummus” Dip and Simple Summer Entertaining

I don’t know about your summer, but mine has been a whirlwind of entertaining and being entertained. When shopping for clients, or traveling in new locals, I always love to visit the farm stands and Farmers Markets in addition to my usual purveyors. Out of all the markets I have been too , I have to say the Ferry Plaza one in San Francisco is one of my favorites. Chicago doesn’t slouch in that category either. Green City Market attracts locals and the movers and shakers of the culinary world . But my all time  favorite one is in Vienna , the Naschmarkt.

Vienna 20112

There is nothing so pleasing to eye and taste buds than fresh produce and food, and the farmers and artisans, and chefs who present them. Simple , beautiful, pure taste. One thing I’m noticing from my clients and the parties I attend, is they simple classic down home fare.  Nothing complex, just the good food speaking for itself without any hocus pocus and additional fanfare. I went to a well known philanthropists annual birthday fete, and the most memorable dish was a simple shrimp and clam boil stand with new potatoes and fresh chucked corn. My clients have been requesting simple roasts, root vegetable gratins, fried green tomatoes sliders, artful salads, and fruitful desserts.

Recently Updated12

In another assignment for Old El Paso, I was tasked with using Old El Paso products to complement the wonderful bounty form the summers Farmers Markets. Taking an everyday trendy staple, with Middle Eastern Roots, I played on the legume theme of a classic hummus , using Old El Paso traditional Refried beans instead. Forget Pita, and use Old El Paso Flour Tortillas , deep fried as your tasty chip sprinkled with Sea Salt. A sprinkle of sumac on top of the hummus and WOW. Be creative with your crudite. Give a quick blanch and ice bath to keep its crunchiness. Use various small glasses or verrines, and cutouts to make an artful display and impress your guests with a healthy starter .



Old El Paso® Mexican “Hummus” Dip and Simple Summer Entertaining
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There is a beauty and nature and summers riot of vegetables available at the local Farmers Market. When we shop at them , we feel connected with our earth and community. The past decade, hummus, a Middle Eastern dish of pureed chickpeas, lemon, garlic and chickpeas has become a household staple in American homes and parties. Why not take this recipe and use Old El Paso Refried Beans for a tasty twist on this exotic , and healthy recipe? Serve it up in a spectacular arrangement of vegetables from the farmers market and deep fried soft Old El Paso tortilla wedges seasoned with Sea Salt. Your guests and family will be wowed!
  • Mexican Hummus
  • 1 can Old El Paso Traditional Refried Beans
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • ¼ cup Tahini
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 3 cloves garlic minced finely
  • ¼ cup chopped sundried tomatoes
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil. The fruitier the better.
  • Additional olive oil for finish drizzle
  • 1 teaspoon Sumac for garnish ( found in Middle Eastern section of grocery)
  • Vegetable Tray
  • 1 head cauliflower (blanched and plunged into ice water)
  • 1 /2 lb green beans (blanched and plunged into ice water)
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 yellow squash
  • 1 zucchini
  • 1 Sweet Red Pepper
  • 1 pot of boiling salt water
  • Deep Fried Soft Tortillas Wedges
  • 1 package Old El Paso Soft Tortillas
  • Canola Oil For frying ( approx 2-3 cups )
  • Sea Salt
  1. Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
  2. Make an ice bath in a large bowl.
  3. In a glass bowl combine all ingredients, except finishing oil and sumac, for the Hummus. Take and immersion hand blender and pulse until you have a smooth paste.
  4. Place in serving dish. Drizzle with oil and sumac. Cover loosely and keep refrigerated until serving.
  5. Prep and cut vegetables. Be creative and use cutters for carrots, ripple slicer for squash and zucchini, etc. Add cut vegetable to ice bath to keep color and crispness.
  6. Plunge cauliflower florets and trimmed green beans in to boiling water to blanch for a few seconds. Quickly remove from water with strainer, and add to the ice bath to stop cooking and retain color.
  7. Arrange on platter with dip.
  8. Heat up Deep Fryer at 350-375°.
  9. Cut small piles of soft tortillas into eights wedges.
  10. Fry in small batches until golden. Drain on paper towels and salt.
  11. Serve with vegetable platter.
Use your favorite vegetables that inspire you. Get creative with presentation. I use bud vases inside glasses to create a more dimensional serving effect. Add some spice of powdered chili instead of sumac, if you prefer your dip on the spicy side. Substitute fresh jalapenos for sundried tomatoes too. Keep it all chilled as the party goes on. Use trays on top of ice.

Happy Summer Eating. Visit the New Old El Paso site for other great ideas and see my recipes here.

Guinness Braised Lamb Stew with Herbs de Provence and Roasted Parsnip Crust

Artizone Chicago and My Daily Find Chicago is having a Flavors of Fall Cooking Contest. I created this Guinness Braised Lamb Stew  with Herb De Provence and Roasted Parsnip Crust using my surprise contest box. I picked the Slow Cooked Category and received the most beautiful large parsnips and a bag of aromatic herb de Provence.

After a week of challenging myself to come up with a creative recipe, I put together this hopefully winning combo. But I need your help. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the recipe is, I need to popular vote to get the next round, before the serious food judges look at it. Can you help me out?

Please go here to vote for me.

Don’t you want to see me on TV demonstrating this fantastic recipe that will wow your dinner guests?

Lamb shanks, minced red onion and bits of parsnip are gently braised with Guinness Stout and aromatic Herbs de Provence until tender for a few hours. Strips of large parsnips are sliced paper thin , lightly tossed in olive oil, formed into a crust in a mini spring form pan, and filled with the lamb stew to roast until crispy on top and tender as a bottom crust. The sweet parsnip, the mild American Lamb shanks,aromatic herbs de Provence, and the rich slightly bitter Guinness all form together for the simple,elegant fall entrée that will impress your guests.

Guinness Braised Lamb Stew with Herbs de Provence and Roasted Parsnip Crust
Recipe type: Entree
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
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Serves: 4
An elegant roasted parsnip crust filled with aromatic tender lamb stew.
  • 1 tablespoon Pommace oil
  • 2 lbs American Lamb shanks cut in half ( total 4 pieces)
  • 1 cup chopped cubed parsnip
  • ½ red onion minced
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon Herbs de Provence
  • 11.2 oz bottle of Guinness
  • Kosher salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 -3 very large wide parsnips
  • oloive oil for brushing
  • herbs de provence for garnish
  1. In a large sauce pan, heat the oil.
  2. Add the lamb shanks and season with salt and pepper. Brown on all sides.
  3. Add the red onion and chopped parsnip.
  4. Add the water and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat to very low, cover and simmer for 1 hour until tender.
  6. Remove lamb shanks from pot, and remove meat from the bone.
  7. Add the meat back to to pot with the by now reduced liquid.
  8. Add the Guinness.
  9. In a separate small fry pan, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir constantly as the butter and flour form a roux. Cook until deep golden in color.
  10. Remove from heat and add the lamb and vegetable stock.
  11. Stir the mixture and and cook for 15 more minutes until thickened.
  12. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  13. With a mandolin carefully julienne very thin strips of peeled parsnip .
  14. Toss the various pieces of parsnip with olive oil , kosher salt an pepper.
  15. Take mini spring form pans and line with parsnip along bottom, sides, etc. Take the larger pieces and tuck into side to overlap the pan, like a flower. This is not precise, but you want to cover the top of the " pie" by using the various sized strips.
  16. Sprinkle with herbs de Provence.
  17. Wrap bottom of forms with foil and place on a baking sheet.
  18. Roast at 400 F for 5 minutes until edges satrt to rapidly brown. Reduce temp to 350 and roast for another 40 minutes until deeply caramelized and bubbly.
  19. Carefully unlock spring form and release upwards the pie onto a plate. ( works better if it sits for a few minutes to cool down).
need 4 small spring forms mandolin


Some New Technology and a Farewell to the Culinary Mecca Charlie Trotters

The past few weeks have been insanely crazy. I have catered three successful events, held down the day job, cleared and cleaned out my old condo for visitors. In addition to all of this I signed on the become Midwest Savvy Gourmets for Verizon and culminated the week with a long-awaited reservation to Charlie Trotters. So where shall I begin? Lets start with the cool XYBOARD from Verizon I was given to test for the next six months. It’s pretty sweet. 4G speeds , loaded with apps, cool sleek , but tough exterior. Verizon selected a tight group of bloggers from the Midwest and other parts of the country. They want to see how we use the tablet for the kitchen and blogs. I need all the help I can get in keeping my catering affairs and blog ideas together. I’m having a ball playing with it and even Certain Someone got a little jealous and petulant when he saw it.

On Friday as I paid the taxi cab driver to take me to the Hard Rock Hotel to meet the group. I did a double take as I noticed Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen fame on the corner. I looked at her and she looked at me and I said ” Jaden…?” She remembered me from earlier interactions on the blogosphere. It was the equivalent of meeting a rock star in the food blog world. I appreciated her openness and honesty as she talked from the heart in how to maximize your blog, and turn into a viable brand and business. She also stressed most importantly to “Measure success in units of happiness not revenue.”  I also got to meet the cool Jessi Olsen of Cakespy, another longtime fave, who is also participating in the program.

Speaking of Measuring success in units of happiness and not revenue… This is a perfect segue into my visit to Charlie Trotters. Late last year it was announced that the famed Charlie Trotter, who was and still is a ground breaker in American Cuisine was closing his doors to his famed Lincoln Park Restaurant. Many of today’s hottest chefs have paid their dues under Trotter. As with all things sometimes the pioneers get forgotten or taken for granted.I have heard the question many times is Charlie Trotter still relevant is the food scene?I think those  that think he’s not are  too jaded. Many of the hot new modern chefs can owe their success to him directly or indirectly. Charlie Trotter knows he has nothing to prove and is closing his famed door in August to pursue other things like studying Philosophy. That’s a well-rounded healthy man who knows when to move on and change it up. I’m lucky to have a generous Certain Someone in my life who knew the importance of visiting  this institution. We dined with another couple and had a grand time.While the final bill  with the bottles of wine ,could have easily flown us to Europe, it was worth it. I loved the formality of the restaurant with the suited servers who attended to your every need. I even glimpsed Chef in the kitchen getting ready to greet another lucky girl who was blindfolded and being lead to his chefs table for a birthday surprise.Its a nice change from the grungy hipster edgy vibes you find elsewhere. The food was beautifully presented and a work of art. Small in portions, yet carefully crafted. That style of cooking is very hard to replicate and takes years of dedication passion and a cultivated eye and palate.

I tried to recreate a recipe I have from one of his cookbooks Workin’ More Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotters. Soft Shelled Crab with Curried Tomato Sauce and Cumin Vinaigrette.  This is my second crab post I realize, but this is the last month of the soft shell crab season. They are now available year round in frozen form as well. My favorite aspect of the recipe was the pine nut flour coating. This will be my go to breading for frying. It’s amazing. So many aspects of this recipe can be adapted to others.

Many years ago I would have been a bit intimidated to cook out this book. A revisit, and I find it approachable and inspiring. Whether Charlie Trotters doors are closed or not, the  true Master Chef  and Artist will continue to inspire , teach and influence.

Soft Shell Crabs with Curried Tomato Sauce and Cumin Vinaigrette
Recipe type: entree
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
Adapted from Workin' More Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter
  • For the Sauce
  • 1 shallot
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 2 teaspoon minced lemongrass
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 4 cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • For the Soft Shelled Crabs
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • ½ cups toasted pine nuts , grounded
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • 1½ grape seed oil or vegetable oil
  • 4 cleaned soft shelled crabs
  • For the Vinaigrette
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds , toasted and ground
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chives chopped
  • 4 leaves Belgian endive , julienned
  • ½ Granny Smith Apple
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper
  1. In a saucepan with the olive oil, saute the shallots , lemon grass, garlic and ginger on low medium heat until they become translucent. This will take 5 minutes approx.
  2. Add tomatoes, curry, cilantro , vinegar, and water. Simmer for 15 minutes until tomatoes break down and ingredients are combined.
  3. In a spice grinder ground the toasted pine nuts. Add flour, salt and peppers.
  4. Dredge the crabs in the pine nut flour mixture.
  5. Fry for three minutes on each side until golden.
  6. Carefully cut each fried crab in half with kitchen shears.
  7. Adjust seasoning if necessary with salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Whisk the ground cumin and vinegar.
  9. Slowly add the olive oil to form an emulsion.
  10. Gently simmer the vinaigrette until hot in a sauce pan.
  11. Add the julienned apples, endive , pinenuts, and cilantro.
  12. Plate by adding tomato curry sauce and vinaigrette to plate.
  13. Place crabs atop the sauce.
  14. Add more vinaigrette on top of the crabs.

Disclosure: I am participating in the Verizon Wireless Midwest Savvy Gourmets program and have been provided with a wireless device and six months of service in exchange for my honest opinions about the product.