An Incredible and Inspirational Man

I believe a smack across my hand with a ruler may be in order! I’ve been penning this blog for two years and although I’ve mentioned his name before, I have never once told you how much this man means to me:

Wait a minute… that picture is FAR too prim and proper to be Chef Jeff Igel…. HERE’S what my mentor REALLY looks like:

Or perhaps he’ll approve of THIS pic.

He’s in his second favorite environment. All that’s missing are a bag of his beloved Cheetos and an ice cold brew!

Why do I adore Chef Jeff (or CJ, as he’s permitted some of us to call him)? Without turning this post into a mushy affection fest, let me count the ways.

First, there’s CJ the family man. I find it incredibly inspirational that he makes room in his ϋber busy schedule to attend his son Jake’s athletic events, spend time with his daughter Cassie (who also attends FVTC), and to take his wife Paula out on a date night. As he’s said many times to his students, a successful life is about making a perfect balance of work, family, and personal time. CJ seems to be talking the talk AND walking the walk very well.

As if his ethics and moral character aren’t enough, he’s got an overall snappy happy Monday morning attitude, too. Aye carumba! I don’t know what kind of happy pills are being thrown into his Wheaties in the morning, but the man has a spring in his step and a smile on his face regardless of the nasty a** attitude that his cost controls students bring into the classroom with them on Monday mornings. He always seems to find a way to make his enthusiasm infectious. When the class starts at 8:30, we’re all grumping and bitching, but by 11:30, we’ve laughed, learned, and left MUCH better people than when we walked in the door.

I love (yes, I’m going to use that big “L” word, because “I have a fond affinity for him”, just doesn’t cut the mustard) Chef Jeff for his insatiable appetite for bringing out the very best in his students, and his talent for possessing the perfect timing to help us become better people. I’ve experienced it first hand, and I’ve also seen him do it with even the most unmotivated and stubborn of his students. He’s got a gift and he’s using it well! There have been times during this educational experience when I’ve felt defeated and was sure that I’d never make it through the semester, but Chef always knew what to say or do to keep me encouraged and pushing forward. Like last year, when he showed an incredibly inspirational video to us in his ethics and professionalism class. He gave me a heartfelt challenge to ponder what I wanted from my life and to continue chasing my dreams….so I did!  Besides that, he’s constantly making me laugh. Like the time I helped him with some administrative phone calls for the FVTC Cultural Cuisine event and he nicknamed me his “call girl”.

It’s been said that success in life is rarely achieved without first having a passion and willingness to work at making it happen.  While I believe that to be true, I also believe that an equally important step in the process is to find someone who encourages us and nurtures the seeds of self-confidence and enthusiasm that are surely needed along that long and winding road to the finish line!

Over the past two years, Chef Jeff has been an incredible source of knowledge, inspiration, and motivation to me.  He’s been my cheerleader when I needed one the most.  He’s helped me to dust the cobwebs from my brain, weed out my self-doubt, and begin to grow a beautiful garden of knowledge in my brain and happiness into my soul.

He is definitely one of a kind, and I will forever be grateful to him for what he’s done to help me along this amazing journey.
CJ, I am now and will forever be grateful to God for bringing you into my life just when I needed you the most…

In celebration of all things Chef Jeff, I think it only fitting that I share with you one of his grilling rub recipes. This rub brings the perfect flavor to a piece of brisket or flank steak and it’s the perfect treat to chow down on while watching your favorite ball game!

Chef Jeff’s Big Money Rub

Paprika Spanish                ½ Cup

Brown Sugar, light           ½ Cup

Salt, Kosher                        ½ Cup

Chili Powder, light           ¼ Cup

Black Pepper, coarse ground            ¼ Cup

Garlic, granulated or powder            2 Tablespoons

Onion, granulated or powder            2 Tablespoons

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How to Network Without Even Trying

I secretly want to rename this post, “Bacon at its best”.  Come on…you know me…I’m a bacon addict.  I use any and every opportunity to eat, breathe, and speak bacon.  “But, Becca, what does bacon have to do with networking?”  Well, my friends, the answer is PLENTY!

Every other Friday morning, a group of social media (and bacon) obsessed people from northeastern Wisconsin head to the Blueberry Hill restaurant in Appleton, Wisconsin for some great conversation over breakfast.  Besides the fact that I’m helping to support a great local business, I feel awesome about splurging a few bucks on a good cup of coffee and some crisp, crunchy bacon, because it allows me to network.  At this stage in my education, I can’t do enough networking.  As I’ve learned, it’s quite possible that the next person you speak with could be your future employer. 

I met a couple of people at this morning’s breakfast that I hadn’t met before.  I learned that one of them is engaged to be married next May.  He and his fiance are looking for a caterer to help them with their rehearsal dinner.  Well, what a coincidence…I should be graduating with an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts right around that time, and I would LOVE to pursue a job in catering!  Had it not been for my attending this morning’s breakfast, I may never have met this guy, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity for such great conversation…and a simultaneous bacon experience.  See what I mean about life being all about the bacon? 

You should really work on trusting me just a little bit more.  Baby steps…

Before I let another week slip by me, I thought I’d give you a brief recap of Cultural Cuisine 2011.  To say that it was an epic success would be an understatement.  We pulled off a party to end all parties!  Catering events for 700 people are hard work to plan and execute, but when you have teams of dedicated individuals who don’t care who gets the recognition for a job well done, the task becomes much easier to achieve successfully.  Besides great teamwork, the executive and sous chefs did a phenomenal job preparing the food, and the administrative team helped orchestrate, among other things, happy crowds, staffing (wait staff, bussers, dishwashers, greeters, etc.), equipment set up & tear down, and a silent auction that raised thousands of dollars in culinary scholarship funds.  As with any event, there were a few hiccups here and there, but they’re to be expected.  The key was not letting our guests know that the problems existed, and I think we managed to do that.  It was a phenomenal experience and I can’t wait to do it again next year…although it may take that long for my feet to stop aching from this year’s event!  🙂

There was some beautiful and tasty food served at the event, so I truly wanted to share one of the recipes with you, but I had trouble narrowing my favorites down to one choice.  I also acknowledge that I’ve been posting an inordinate number of dessert recipes with you lately, so instead, I’m going to share my love of seafood and cajun spice with you.  Incidentally, this is tonight’s dinner at my house.  One of the things I love about jambalaya is its versatility.  You can mediate the spice level to suit your taste, and you can play around with the ingredients as well.  For example, if you don’t care for ham, leave it out.  If you adore red bell pepper and want to add a bit more to the recipe, have at it!  I adapted this particular recipe (and borrowed the picture, since I prepared my dish yet) from MattyBaker

His recipe uses some veggies that I prefer not to have in my jambalaya, such as carrots and mushrooms.  As I said, versatility and adaptability are great attributes of jambalaya, so I’m planning to omit them from tonight’s version.  I also plan to use whole grain brown rice instead of white. I hope you have an opportunity to try this recipe.  It looks amazing!  Considering the use of the habeneros, it’s probably quite spicy, too, but you won’t hear me complaining about that.  Bring on the heat…I LOVE it!

JUMPIN’ JAMBALAYA

INGREDIENTS:

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves – diced
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup shrimp stock
1-1/2 cups long grain white rice
1/2 pound smoked sausage, sliced
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 orange habanero, finely chopped
1 16oz can of diced tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 pound of medium (20 ct) shrimp

DIRECTIONS:

1. Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently until soft. Add the chicken and continue cooking and stirring so that it does not stick. When the chicken is browned, add the celery, bell peppers and sausage and shrimp.
2. Pour in the broth, and bring to a boil. Add the rice, and season with cayenne, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, until rice is tender and broths have been absorbed.

The Power of Here and Now

I wish I had a quarter for every time I’ve thought, or said aloud, “…if only”.

Runner-up would be the statement, “Why didn’t I _____?”

God’s reply to those gems lately has been a blaring trumpet still small voice inside of my head whispering:

Becca…If wishes were kisses, you’d be covered from head to toe in red lipstick

So, it’s time to push myself to live in the here and now a little bit more. I’ve learned that life’s challenges are only there to make me a stronger, better person. I can accept that. In fact, my inner perfectionist loves that philosophy. What I’m struggling with, however, is letting my past stay there.

Acceptance is the belief that everything that did happen in my past was for a GOOD reason. That wouldn’t be so difficult to do if I hadn’t lost healthy, loving relationships because of poor choices that I made. (Here’s the point where I stop writing, take my hand off of the keyboard, and give myself one of these!)

Yes Virginia, even bad things happen for a reason. If I hadn’t lost relationships with the people I loved the most, I very well would never have hit my proverbial “bottom”. You see, the sinking ship formerly known as my life had fallen deep, down to the bottom of the ocean floor, and as a result, I lost nearly everything. The devastation forced me to re-evaluate the way I was living (or rather, NOT living) my life. As a result, drastic changes were made. With lots of inner determination, faith and belief in myself, loving and supportive friends, and a forgiving God, I started down a road to restore my life.

However, I’m not perfect. Although I seek to learn from my mistakes and then leave them in the past where they belong, there are some days when it’s not so easy to do. Today is one of those days. The great news is that I have a reality check to put me back on track.

Author and blogger, Everett Bogue, summed it up quite well when he wrote, “The reality is that the past is dead. It happened, it shaped who you are, but it’s gone now, and it’s never coming back…and this is okay. The world changes and we evolve into new and better individuals every single day.”

So here it is… my light bulb moment for the day, month, year, and for the rest of my lifetime on this Earth…

I have overcome major physical, emotional, and spiritual hurdles for a reason. I am still standing for a reason. I am a college student at 47 years old because I wasn’t prepared to be one at 19. I am living a life worth living because every morning when I wake up, I make the decision to live my life under God’s agenda and time line and not my own. This time around, I’m making a conscious effort to look out for the welfare of people BESIDES myself, and I choose to make the most out of the day I’ve been blessed with.

“What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind.” — Henry Miller

Now that I’ve enlightened myself to how wonderful change can be, let’s see if you care to take my lead. I’m making a batch of French onion soup today. How does the thought of caramelized onions, rich beef stock, toasty croutons, and a blanket of melted gruyere cheese sound? Quite yummy, to be sure, but not too overly enthusiastic…until you add a SLOW roasting process to the onions and some crispy bacon to the recipe! NOW we’re talkin’ yumalicious!



THE BEST FRENCH ONION SOUP (with bacon!)

Serves 6

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated recipe

Ingredients:

Soup

  • ½ pound bacon, crisply cooked and crumbled
  • 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 6 large yellow onions (about 4 pounds), halved and cut pole to pole into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 cups water, plus extra for deglazing
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry (optional, or use extra beef broth)
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme , tied with kitchen twine, or 2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Ground black pepper

Cheese Croutons

  • 1 small baguette , cut into 1/2-inch slices
  • 8 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese (about 2 1/2 cups)

Directions:

For the soup:

  1. Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Fry bacon over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed, large (at least 6-quart) Dutch oven until crisp. Remove bacon and drain on paper toweling. Leave the bacon fat in the pot.
  3. Place the butter into the pot with the bacon fat, and add the onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, covered, for 1 hour (the onions will be moist and slightly reduced in volume). Remove the pot from the oven and stir the onions, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot. Return the pot to the oven with the lid slightly ajar and continue to cook until the onions are very soft and golden brown, 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours longer, stirring the onions and scraping bottom and sides of pot after 1 hour.
  4. Carefully remove pot from oven and place over medium-high heat. Using oven mitts to handle pot, cook onions, stirring frequently and scraping bottom and sides of pot, until the liquid evaporates and the onions brown, 15 to 20 minutes, reducing the heat to medium if the onions are browning too quickly. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the pot bottom is coated with a dark crust, roughly 6 to 8 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary. (Scrape any fond that collects on spoon back into onions.)
  5. Stir in 1/4 cup water, scraping the pot bottom to loosen crust, and cook until water evaporates and pot bottom has formed another dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat process of deglazing 2 or 3 more times, until onions are very dark brown. Stir in the sherry and cook, stirring frequently, until the sherry evaporates, about 5 minutes.
  6. Stir in the broths, 2 cups of water, ¾ of the bacon (reserve the rest for the top garnish) thyme, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, scraping up any final bits of browned crust on bottom and sides of pot.
  7. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove and discard herbs, then season with salt and pepper.

For the croutons:

  1. While the soup simmers, arrange the baguette slices in single layer on baking sheet and bake in a 400-degree oven until the bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

To serve:

  1. Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on baking sheet and fill each with about 1 3/4 cups soup. Top each bowl with 1 or 2 baguette slices (do not overlap slices) and sprinkle evenly with Gruyere. Broil until cheese is melted and bubbly around edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle the tops with crumbled bacon. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

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