Wagner Biscuits and Gravy in West Virginia

Making biscuits and gravy is a rite of passage in the extended Wagner clan of West Virginia. That treasured family ritual involves a heaping amount of bacon grease with no regrets.

My Uncle Mike grew up in Longacre, West Virginia, a poor coal-mining town, with a big pack of siblings. Now, Uncle Mike and Aunt Tawee live in northern California near Sacramento. They flew to Kansas City in July, where my sister Mary, her family and I drove with them to the Wagner family reunion. We crossed Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky until we arrived at Watoga State Park in Marlinton, West Virginia.

We joined an extended Wagner clan of brothers, sisters, spouses, kids, grand-kids and cousins. They told stories, laughed,  lovingly harassed each other and, most importantly, prepared hearty home-style food each day. Rick, one of Mike’s brothers and an excellent cook, taught the Kansas City–California contingent how to properly make biscuits and gravy like Mom Wagner (RIP) used to make.

Breakfast LA and Jadie making biscuits

The biscuit recipe is a straightforward blend of flour, baking powder, baking soda, butter and buttermilk. Once the dough is formed, Rick rolled the dough flat on a flour-dusted surface. Then he brought out the biscuit cutter, a key to the rite of passage.

In a deep, booming voice, Rick told the kids, grandkids, flatlanders and, really, anyone within earshot, about the heritage of the biscuit cutter. He held up a round 16-ounce tin can that was flimsier than cans today. The biscuit cutter in Rick’s hand dated back to the 1960s. His deceased father originally made it from an evaporated milk can. Decades ago, the ends were soldered onto the round can. His father held one end of the empty can over the stove fire until it heated up enough to pop the end off. Easy as pie, Mom Wagner had a biscuit cutter. The heirloom in Rick’s hand has cut hundreds of big, fat biscuits over the years.

Big Roger, the eldest of the siblings, the shortest in height and perhaps the biggest personality in the family, reminded everyone that he got to cut the first biscuit by rights. After he exercised his right, fellow siblings took their turns cutting and passing the can to the next person in line. The ritual extended from generation to generation, down to the youngest in the room and even us flatlanders, connecting everyone to Wagner family history and tradition.

Breakfast Sue and Jessica

Breakfast Tawee cutting
Big Roger observes Aunt Tawee and other family members participate in the biscuit-cutting tradition.

Breakfast Pete cutting

Once cut, the doughy biscuits were laid on sheet pan coated with bacon grease. Then, we generously dabbed bacon grease on top of each biscuit, wide as a catfish head, for extra flavor. That glistening grease also helped those precious biscuits turn golden brown as they baked.


Breakfast biscuits and bacon grease

Breakfast biscuit glazed with bacon grease

We weren’t done with the bacon grease yet. Earlier, Mary, Rick and Little Roger took turns cooking bacon and sausage in iron skillets. Grease from each batch formed a shallow puddle in each skillet. That grease would transform into bacon and chipped beef gravy and sausage gravy. Rick showed us how to heat up the grease to just the right temperature, add flour to form a loose, greasy base, let it heat more until it browned and began to smoke, add more flour to form a thick roux, stirring all the while with a whisk to get the bacon or sausage leavings worked in, until it was time to add evaporated milk (for richness, because it was sorely lacking, right?), stir more, let reduce, thicken and achieve the ultimate balance of thick, creamy, rich, soul-affirming gravy. Bits of bacon, chipped beef, black pepper and a touch of salt went into one batch; ground pieces of sausage added texture and flavor to the other.


Breakfast Mary cooking bacon

Breakfast bacon gravy beginning
Breakfast gravy roux

Breakfast making gravy

Breakfast bacon and sausage gravy

When the golden biscuits emerged from the oven, they were piled high on plates. Big Roger said grace in his sweet, rambling West Virginia accent to thank the cooks, family and the grace of God – and bless the dishwasher! Biscuits were quickly divvied up like bags of money among thieves after a heist. Hungry family members ladled gravy on top, added bacon and/or sausage and spooned June apples on the side.

As the name suggests, June apples are gathered that month, cooked into applesauce and saved to eat throughout the year. A slightly tart variety, June apples make a perfect light bite to offset gut-busting biscuits, gravy and trimmings.


Breakfast finished biscuits

Breakfast June apples
Breakfast B and G

Naturally, by rights and loud vocal declaration, Big Roger got the pone. The “pone” is the leftover scrap of biscuit dough after the cutting is done. Those scraps are formed into one big mound and baked. Double the size of a regular biscuit with more crust, the pone is highly sought-after but always wound up on Big Roger’s plate.

Biscuit making became biscuit eating. We ate. We ate second helpings, if we could help it. We ate as family, by blood and bacon grease.


Potato Candy

I tasted potato candy for the first time last week at Watoga State Park, located in the mountains of Pocahontas County near Marlington, West Virginia. Before this trip, I never knew that this sweet confection even existed.

My Uncle Mike, Aunt Tawee, sister Mary, her family and I drove from Kansas City to Watoga for the Wagner family reunion. Mike and his siblings hail from Longacre, West Virginia, a small coal-mining town. This year, the reunion was held at a beautiful, peaceful state park where we saw black bear, deer and other wildlife, but that’s another story.

Shortly after we arrived at the park and unloaded, we made our way to a large cabin that served as the central gathering spot. I saw Wagner family members that I hadn’t visited in 20 years. Everyone exchanged greetings, hugs and handshakes. We dined on Al burgers. Again, that’s another story. Eventually, someone revealed that a stash of potato candy was in the refrigerator. I had no idea what this candy looked or tasted like. It sounded weird.

Potato candy is made from four ingredients: potato, peanut butter, confectioners sugar and, if desired, food coloring. I couldn’t find any source for the origin of this sweet, but it is found throughout the South, East Coast and even New England, derived most likely from West European recipes. It’s a handy way to use up leftover mashed potatoes.


Potato candy stash
Potato candy Mike stash

Potato candy Mike shares
Potato candy tastes sweet (not surprisingly) like fudge. Uncle Mike begrudgingly shared a piece with the rest of his immediate and extended family. I enjoyed a bite of one piece but stayed away from the rest of the batch. A few pieces would prompt instant diabetes or a sugar coma. This part of the country was the Land of Sweet Tea. Sugar is a staple ingredient and almost required ingredient in many recipes.

Uncle Mike did share the stash of potato candy throughout the week like a king passing out bags of gold. He hid the box deep in the crowded refrigerator to protect his stash. Of course, pieces went missing from time to time but it wasn’t me gobbling them.

Here’s a recipe for potato candy with vanilla extract added.

Grating Coconut for Sticky Rice Dessert

It’s been years since I used a Thai “rabbit” grater. I brought mine out storage to grate fresh coconut for a sticky rice dessert that I prepared for a four-course Thai meal at Julian in March.

The grater is referred to as “rabbit” because the elaborate versions of the tool were once carved into that animal’s shape. Today, the wooden stool with a serrated blade extending from the neck is still referred to as a rabbit (gkra-dtai in Thai). A rabbit image is embossed on the thin blade. 


rabbit 2

coconut 2


The dessert uses steamed sticky rice topped with a blend of sweet corn, sugar, salt, coconut juice and shredded coconut meat. Preparation involves rinsing the rice repeatedly to remove excess starch before steaming. I use a woven basket filled with a quantity of rice that is suspended over a pot of boiling water for about 20-30 minutes until the rice is done. Sticky rice differs from long-grain jasmine rice because it is glutinous (glue-like and sticky, not gluten) when cooked. Other types of rice cannot be substituted for sticky rice and achieve the same result.

The other time-consuming dessert preparation involves shredding fresh coconut. Thai chef Kasma Loha-unchit writes in great detail about shredding coconut using a rabbit. Here’s a quick primer.

First, purchase coconuts that feel heavier than others. A heavy coconut contains more meat and juice inside. You should be able to shake the coconut and hear juice sloshing inside. The shell should have no obvious exterior cracks.

coconut 7

coconut 6


Before opening the coconut, set out a large bowl or pot. Take the back of a heavy chef’s knife or kitchen mallet. Hold the coconut in the palm of your weaker hand and whack the shell several times with the back of the knife (carefully!) or mallet until the shell cracks. Pry the shell open and let the juice drain out. Continue to pry the shell apart until it splits. Reserve the juice.

Whenever my Mom split coconut in this fashion, my sister, brothers and I vied for a taste of the fresh juice. That intense pure flavor reminds me of childhood and Thailand. It was always disappointing when a rare coconut yield sour juice, indicating it was spoiled. After tasting the juice, Mom usually enlisted us to grate the coconut on the rabbit.


coconut 3

coconut 4

coconut 5


The method involves sitting down on the stool with legs straddled on both sides. Using one or both hands, you push the coconut’s interior against the serrated blade to grate the meat. The shredded coconut is captured on a plate or tray below. Ideally, you develop a rhythm as you steadily grind the meat, rotating the shell and as blade works it way down. You don’t want to grind all the way to the shell’s interior or you’ll grate hard bits of the brown shell into the meat. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice if brown specks show up on the plate. Whenever we thought we were done, Mom would inspect the shell and point out that there was more to grate. After one half was complete, we grated the other half of the shell. As kids, it seemed like it took forever.

When I cracked the shell, drained the juice and grated a pair of coconuts, the entire process only took about 20 minutes. Out of practice, I found myself picking out tiny bits of brown shell from the white shredded coconut.

To finish the dessert, I strained the juice to remove any unwanted strands of husk and shell. I added a little bit of juice to the steamed rice for flavor. Too much juice only makes the rice mushy. I sprinkled a mixture of cooked, cooled corn kernels, shredded coconut, salt, and sugar over the rice. The only step left is to grab a spoon and dig in.



Urban Food Tour with Chef Ferran Adriá

It’s not every day that you meet world-famous Spanish master chef Ferran Adriá. Yesterday, a small entourage that included Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Director Julián Zugazagoitia, local media and I had the opportunity to accompany Adriá on an exploratory food tour through downtown Kansas City.

Adriá and his wife Isabel traveled from Spain to visit Kansas City this past weekend and promote the art exhibition Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity. The exhibition is on view through August 2, 2015 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Kansas City is only one of five cities in the world showing this touring exhibition.

Ferran Adrià Plating Diagram, ca. 2000-2004 Colored pen on graph paper Courtesy of elBullifoundation
Ferran Adrià Plating Diagram, ca. 2000-2004
Colored pen on graph paper
Courtesy of elBullifoundation


Ferran Adria, El Bulli. Courtesy of elBullifoundation.
Ferran Adria, El Bulli. Courtesy of elBullifoundation.


The master chef is known for boundless creativity and innovative cooking that earned acclaim for more than 2o years at his destination restaurant elBulli in Spain. Adriá‘s contribution to the culinary world includes not only nearly 2,000 original dishes the chef and his culinary team created, but also the distinctive, deliberate methods that fostered creative exploration through documentation and critique as a generative process. His thorough, relentless process enabled him to meticulously explore food, technique and culinary equipment as a foundation for creative thought and execution.

Over time, Adriá‘s use of drawings, symbols, language and visual organization expanded both the philosophy and practice of how cuisine could evolve. As notes on the exhibit state:

He created an innovative multi-sensory vocabulary and structure that expanded the ways in which we encounter, consider and judge our relationship to food and art.  Through sketches, models and diagrams Notes on Creativity charts the origins of Adrià’s intellectual and philosophical ideas about gastronomy that have forever changed how we understand food.

The exhibit is a must-see for anyone interested in food and the inner workings of a fertile mind that has examined food’s role and connection to society, culture and sense of place in striking new ways.


Our day began by meeting Julián Zugazagoitia (left), director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and acclaimed Chef Ferran Adrià, visiting Kansas City from Spain, in the museum's sculpture park.
Our day began by meeting Julián Zugazagoitia (left), director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and acclaimed Chef Ferran Adrià, visiting Kansas City from Spain, in the museum’s sculpture park.

Ferran Adrià and his wife Isabel.
Ferran Adrià and his wife Isabel.


While in town, Adriá, his wife Isabel, Spanish-speaking interpreter Sofia Perez (also a food editor/writer from New York) and company visited J. Rieger and Co. in the East Bottoms. Andy Rieger, Ryan Maybee and head distiller Nathan Perry discussed the history of their blended whiskey brand and distillery. We enjoyed samples to start our day’s trek.


Pete x Ryan Maybee Nathan Perry head distiller
Ryan Maybee and head distiller Nathan Perry.
J. Rieger's dream team poses with Ferran Adria in front of their copper still.
J. Rieger’s dream team poses with Ferran Adria in front of their copper still.
Sofia Perez, Ferran Adrià, and Isabel examine a bottle of J. Rieger whiskey.
Sofia Perez, Ferran Adrià, and isabel examine a bottle of J. Rieger whiskey.

Pete Ferran Adria J Rieger Whiskey

Chef Ferran Adria in front of barrels used to age J. Rieger whiskey.
Chef Ferran Adrià in front of barrels used to age J. Rieger whiskey.
Translator Sofia Perez, Adria, Maybee, Rieger and head distiller Nathan Perry.
Translator Sofia Perez, Adrià, Maybee, Rieger and head distiller Nathan Perry.
J. Rieger founders Andy Rieger (left) and Ryan Maybee discussed the origins of the brand and method behind their whiskey blended with sherry.
J. Rieger founders Andy Rieger (left) and Ryan Maybee discussed the origins of the brand and method behind their whiskey blended with sherry.


Later, we headed to Local Pig and Urban Provisions next door. At Local Pig, owner-chef Alex Pope and butcher Adam Northcraft prepared voluminous samples of charcuterie. It was difficult not to overindulge. Truffle chicken liver mousse? Lardo? Lonzino? Yes, please.

“Fantastico!”Adriá declared of Local Pig’s delicious fare.

Adriá visited with Pope and Northcraft while a butchery class was in progress. Pope even prepared a pork steak on the fly by request for his famous guest, known for eating with gusto. After a while, we met the proprietors at Urban Provisions. They prepared refreshing drinks and snacks using some of the foodstuffs they carry from KC Canning Co. and other vendors.


Ferran Adrià,  Julián Zugazagoitia and butcher Adam Northcraft.
Ferran Adrià, Julián Zugazagoitia and butcher Adam Northcraft.
Ferran Adrià and Julián Zugazagoitia sample charcuterie from Local Pig.
Ferran Adrià and Julián Zugazagoitia sample charcuterie from Local Pig.

Pete Lardo Tongue Terrine Local Pig

Pete Ferran and Alex Pope

Pete Ferran Adria at Local Pig

Pete Dulin Isabel
Posing with Adrià’s wife, Isabel.


Entering Urban Provisions for more exploring and tasting.
Entering Urban Provisions for more exploring and tasting.


Next, we ventured for a quick walk around the City Market and circled back to Happy Gillis for a multi-course lunch prepared by owners Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans and their kitchen team. As always, the food was on point and delicious.

Afterward, the group headed to Haw Contemporary Gallery for a brief visit with gallery owner Bill Haw, Jr. and exhibiting artist Andy Brayman. We concluded the day with wine and Green Dirt Farm cheese samples at Amigoni Urban Winery.


Chef Josh Eans.
Chef Josh Eans.
Abbey-Jo Eans, Josh Eans and Chef Ferran Adrià.
Abbey-Jo Eans, Josh Eans and Chef Ferran Adrià.
Kale salad with anchovies at Happy Gillis.
Kale salad with anchovies at Happy Gillis.
Ferran Adrià and Chef Josh Eans discuss Boulevard's Saison-Brett beer.
Ferran Adrià and Chef Josh Eans discuss Boulevard’s Saison-Brett beer.
Ferran Adrià and Julián Zugazagoitia discuss the historic building at Amigoni Winery
Ferran Adrià and Julián Zugazagoitia discuss the historic building at Amigoni Winery
Pete Kerry and Michael Amigoni with Ferran Adria
Kerry and Michael Amigoni with Ferran Adrià.
Sofia Perez and Pete Dulin.
Sofia Perez and Pete Dulin.


The food-intensive day was an adventure for all. The event offered an opportunity to showcase business owners dedicated to craftsmanship, whether it was whiskey, charcuterie, wine or a meal using local ingredients. At one point, Adriá acknowledged the “passion” inherent in both the people and the craft we encountered as demonstrated through food, drink and hospitality. By day’s end, the group was weary and content, ready to rest, digest and push on. This food tour is only one of many events scheduled during Adrià’s visit in town.

Adriá‘s stay only lasts until Tuesday morning; however, his impact will be felt for a long time throughout the food community he has generously spent time with on this whirlwind tour. Adrià’s influence on food through his art is more challenging to assess than his established, long-standing culinary achievements. Still, his rare, unique exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins is worth seeking out to explore the ideas, creativity and documented process of a striking mind.


Ferran Adrià at Amigoni Vineyard and Winery.
Ferran Adrià at Amigoni Vineyard and Winery.

Snow & Company Frozen Cocktails

I shot a series of photographs this afternoon at Snow & Company, which serves frozen cocktails using premium ingredients, for a KC Magazine assignment. The story, due out in August, is about cool sweet treats from local establishments. It is definitely a fun assignment.

Snow Camry 3 low res

rockefeller low res

purple rain low res

mallory rockefeller low res

mallory peach low res

Snow Sailor lowres
These shots are outtakes from my visit. Camry Ivory and her friend Mallory Taulbee were kind enough to sit in and sample some delicious (and potent) cocktails such as Purple Rain, A Kick to the Peaches, Sailor’s Gold, and my favorite The Rockefeller. The menu includes a half-dozen other drinks (including a non-alcoholic option) and a few of them use local ingredients ranging from Christopher Elbow’s spiced chocolate to Boulevard Wheat Beer.

Hot weather slowing you down? Cruise over to 18th Street and Wyandotte, order up a frozen cocktail, and sip responsibly.




EBT Restaurant

Recently, EBT Restaurant General Manager Adam Horner invited local writers and foodies to sample dishes from the menu updated by Chef Tate Roberts.

adam horner
Adam Horner

Renovated in 2006, the restaurant’s decor and atmosphere reflect its rich history and contemporary touches that offer a classy setting for drinks and dining.  Here’s a description from the restaurant’s website:

Much of the decor for the restaurant comes from the Emery, Bird, Thayer Department Store that operated in downtown Kansas City until the 1960′s. EBT Restaurant was opened to honor that department store, which has ties to Kansas City history dating back to the late 1800s. The stained glass, much of the masonry, wrought iron archways and most notably, the two brass elevator cages were all salvaged when the EBT Department store was demolished in 1971.

Guests can reserve a table in one of the two elevator cages for a touch of elegance and novelty or secure a table in the refined dining room.

The draw for this gathering was Chef Tate Robert’s additions to the classic repertoire of dishes on the menu. Roberts has been with the restaurant for a number of years as it has undergone change to revitalize its offerings and attract new clientele under the stewardship of Adam Horner. Roberts cuisine presents classic dishes with a contemporary touch. Nothing too cutting edge that will discourage traditionalists seeking comfort or so revered that it can’t be reinterpreted for modern adventurous palates.

New dishes under the heading of contemporary include pan-roasted duck breast brushed with sweet currant orange glaze and served with sweet corn and Yukon gold potato hash, and bacon green beans; rosemary studded Colorado lamb T-bone; and grilled vegetable Napoleon. Classic entrees range from peppercorn beef tenderloin medallions to pan seared Chilean sea bass.

Other new items on the starters menu are grilled flatbread pizzas (truffle-dressed spinach, ricotta and candied Shallots; hummus, roasted red peppers and mint infused goat cheese) and my personal favorite, bacon wrapped tiger shrimp. For a list of menu items, check www.ebtrestaurant.com/menu.

pizza 2

Among the new signature cocktails, I tried the Pimm’s “New” Cup and The Original (Old Fashioned). The Pimm’s ‘New’ Cup (Pimm’s Cup) blends Pimm’s No. 1 with cucumber-infused lemonade and is served on the rocks with a lemon twist and cucumber slice. Refreshing and crisp, this drink is the perfect antidote to a busy summer day when it’s time to relax.

pimms cup
The Original (Old-Fashioned) is a pour of Woodford Reserve Bourbon over an Angostura bitters-soaked sugar cube and muddled fresh peach and blackberries served on the rocks with a splash of soda and peach flag. While it was a fruit-filled alternative to the citrus and cherry flavors often found in an Old Fashioned, the execution was not quite as satisfying as the Pimm’s. The drink was too strong and the flavors were not clean and distinct.

I look forward to returning to the restaurant to explore the cocktails, wine list, and other dishes on another visit. Conveniently located at I-435 & State Line, the restaurant also houses a lounge with live music Thursday-Saturday.

Contacts:  www.ebtrestaurant.com | on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/EBTKansasCity || on Twitter @ www.twitter.com/EBTKansasCity |Book on OpenTable www.opentable.com/EBT |

Red Mesa Grill

red-mesaRecently, Pam Taylor and I traveled to Chicago and Boyne City/Traverse City in northern Michigan for a week’s vacation with the kids. We ate a few places that were easy to find if you’re in the area and were not touristy at all.

A standout discovery was Red Mesa Grill with locations in Boyne City and Traverse City. The menu features foods with Latin American flavors from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. The atmosphere was upbeat and cordial with bright decor. The Boyne City location seemed to have plenty of locals dining there, but I’ll bet this is a popular spot during the summer tourist season.

Pam had a Sour Cherry Margarita that was sweet, tart, and refreshing. I enjoyed a couple of lightly hoppy pints of Will Power Pale Ale from Right Brain Brewery, based in Traverse City.

The food had distinct flavor combinations and presentation that didn’t feel Americanized at all.

Subtly spiced ground beef empanadas were perfect light pastries with a chipotle cream dipping sauce. Peruvian armadillo eggs are not what they seem, but they are delicious as an appetizer. I tried the masa dusted sauteed whitefish which was sourced locally and prepared to perfection – light crust and flaky, tender filet. Served with steamed vegetables and a chile sauce, the whitefish was a pleasant change from heavy breaded fish and chips. The Cuban black bean cakes were a hearty vegetarian dish. And the Costa Rican garlic steak was a winner as well. We savored the variety of housemade sauces served with dishes as well as bottled sauces on the table.

Other dishes I want to try on some future visit include corn Roasted walleye, wild mushroom fajitas, and roasted pineapple quesadilla. We did leave room for dessert which was a good call. The coconut bread pudding was insanely tasty. The kids enjoyed trying habanero fried ice cream which sounded adventurous, but was more cinnamon and fried dough than peppery.

Service was friendly and attentive. The only drawbacks to visiting Red Mesa Grill were that we had to leave the area soon for the return trip home and that we couldn’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo there.

Until next time, I’ll settle for this recipe from the Red Mesa Grill’s website.

Roasted Tomato Salsa


5 lbs    Red Ripe Roma Tomatoes
6 each    Fresh Jalapenos
6 each    Fresh Garlic Cloves
1 tbls    Salt
3 tbls    Cider Vinegar
1 lb    White Onion Small Diced
1 bunch    Fresh Cilantro, rough chopped
1 ea 15 oz can    Salsa Diced Tomatoes


1)  Wash tomatoes and place on baking sheet, and roast in a 500 degree oven until well charred on the outside.

2)  At the same time on a separate baking sheet roast garlic, and jalapenos until charred.

3)  Place roasted garlic, jalapenos, vinegar, and salt in blender and puree

4)  Add charred tomatoes to jalapeno mixture and slightly puree, leaving salsa slightly chunky.

5)  Add onions and rough chopped cilantro to salsa

6)  Finish salsa with diced tomatoes.

Ventana Gourmet Grill

April/May 2012, Home in the Northland Magazine
Story By: Pete Dulin
Photography By: Brad Austin

A row of local shops line each side of the main strip in old downtown Excelsior Springs. Guests tour the Hall of Waters and Cultural Museum. Afterward, they pop into stores selling antiques, curios, spa services, and arts and crafts. When hunger arises, a good bet is Ventana Gourmet Grill where tourists will find locals proud and pleased to patronize the bistro.

Before Ventana existed, downtown had Ray’s Lunch and Diner (opened in 1932) and some specialty shops. Fast food and chain restaurants encroached on the commercial outskirts of the growing city. Sisters Jill Rickart and Wendy Baldwin decided that their restaurant could fill a need for an “upscale casual dinning experience” sorely lacking in the community.

Circa 2002, Rickart’s kids had started school. She wanted work that would allow her to have some family time. She and Baldwin, who had years of restaurant experience, committed to opening their first establishment together. This past February marked the tenth anniversary of Ventana Gourmet Grill, quite an achievement for any restaurant to survive through the upheavals of the economy over the past decade.

Baldwin knew this vocation was the right choice. She says, “Part of my gift is that I love people. I love creating and serving others. It’s something I really enjoy.”

Ventana, which means window in Spanish, is housed in a building that dates back to the 1890s. The building has seen its share of change. Former residents range from the Boston Mercantile to dime stores to a Ben Franklin retail shop in the Seventies.

Ventana’s aesthetic warmth draws from classic details. Original tin on the ceiling, red brick walls, and polished but weathered dark wood floors evoke a timeless presence. Wooden cafe-style tables and chairs suggest an European bistro’s ambiance. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly as sunshine paints a glowing mural of light in late afternoon.

Touches of yesteryear give Ventana a familiar coziness. A candy display holds bins of gargantuan jawbreakers, malt balls, Pixie Stix, Slow Poke, and other treats. In the corner, a Steinway piano with yellowed keys looks like it might hail from the era of Jesse James when a shifty-eyed musician banged away a tune in a saloon. Ventana does feature live piano music on Friday and Saturday nights, adding to the bistro flair.

People in the community come here to meet as much as to eat. Ladies lunch, business men and women entertain clients, couples celebrate with a romantic night out, and families mark special occasions such as wedding rehearsals and anniversaries with a trip to Ventana. The community’s pride and appreciation for having a nice place to gather is evident. “Customers get excited to come in, bring their friends, and introduce them to the staff,” says Rickart.

Ventana hires students from local and area schools for their serving staff. Cooks Josh Gall, Ambrose Alberts, and Jason Hallmark have worked in the kitchen for many years. Rickart adds, “We instruct our staff to learn customer names and their dining preferences so they can order ‘the usual.’ It makes customers feel important.”

Not surprisingly, the bistro’s regulars enthusiastically support this local business. “We have regulars come in on certain nights,” says Baldwin. “They call us if they can’t make it or go on vacation because they don’t want us to worry if we don’t see them. It’s amazing.”

This embrace of a local business goes beyond the adoration of hometown boosters. The food is a sure draw. Before Ventana opened, the city lacked a place to eat quality steak, pasta, and seafood. Not any longer. Ventana Gourmet Grill was also featured on KCPT’s food program Check, Please! Kansas City two years ago with favorable reviews.

The kitchen prepares its dishes from scratch including pasta and cheesecakes. The food is so popular that the sisters have not been able to change the menu in any substantial way.

“Everything is ordered so much,” says Baldwin. She cites a cheesy baked potato soup served on Fridays that has been on the menu since the second week of the restaurant’s opening ten years ago. “People like to have their favorites.”

Baldwin favors the shrimp scampi and Burgundy steak on the menu. Rickart likes to eat the 16-ounce rib-eye and gourmet veggie sandwich. The restaurant serves food to suit vegetarian, low-carb, and gluten-free diets.

Steaks are cut fresh from the local grocer are a popular entree as well as the Tuscan pasta, a colorful dish loaded with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, and spinach tossed with spinach fettuccine and feta cheese. The Sugar Burger is a six-ounce serving of ground Black Angus beef cooked to order, brushed with a smoky brown sugar glaze, and topped with sauteed onions, cheddar cheese, and bacon.

The menu offers an extensive array of appetizers, salads, and daily soups that could double as a weekly calendar for customers. Lobster bisque is the soup? It must be Thursday. The bounty of burgers, sandwiches, sides, and hearty entrees of pasta, steak, and seafood means never getting bored with the options. Homemade cheesecakes and bread pudding are worth loosening the belt and unsnapping the button on the waistband to indulge.

Ventana stocks a full bar, specialty beers, teas, and an array of wines from around the world to complement meals.

After a visit or two, don’t be surprised by the friendly smiles as the folks at Ventana Gourmet Grill make you feel at home. Whether it’s a short jaunt or a longer venture, it’s worth the drive to downtown Excelsior Springs to experience this crowd-pleasing local place of pride.

Mon.-Sat. Lunch & Dinner
Historic Downtown
117 W. Broadway
Excelsior Springs, Mo 64024

More photographs:  http://homeinthenorthland.com/index.php/ventana-gourmet-grill/

Judith Fertig and Karen Adler, authors of The Gardener and the Grill

The Gardener and the GrillSelf-titled BBQ Queens and prolific cookbook authors Judith Fertig and Karen Adler will release The Gardener and the Grill for publication (Running Press) in late April 2012. In this interview, they discuss their latest cookbook and share recipes such as Grilled Peach Halves with Lemon Balm Gremolata.

The Gardener and the Grill is a grilling guide for gardeners, seasonal eaters, and anyone eager to learn how to grill vegetables and even fruit–not just during the summer months but all year long. In addition to seasonal recipes, the book offers tips on grilling for preserving, a burgeoning “griller’s pantry” of rubs and versatile sauces, and more than 100 vegetarian recipes.

The authors are experts on grilling and barbecuing as demonstrated by their numerous cookbooks such as BBQ Bash, 300 Big & Bold Barbecue Recipes, and Weeknight Grilling. The duo has appeared on the Food Network and Better Homes & Gardens TV, and they both share their skills in grilling classes that have reached over 75,000 students.

Pete:  What’s behind the premise of your latest cookbook, The Gardener and The Grill?

Judith:  Both of us love to garden and both of us love to grill, so putting the two together in a book was a natural.

Pete:  What inspired the idea for this book?

Judith:  As women in barbecue, we think about what we like to eat that is beyond the parameters of meat and potatoes. Our Fish and Shellfish, Grilled and Smoked; 25 Essential Techniques: Grilling Fish; and 25 Essential Techniques: Planking feature more “finesse” barbecue. We love fresh flavors and colors, so grilling from the garden became our current project.

Pete:  What recipes do you suggest for the grill in fall, winter, and spring as produce availability changes with the season?

Karen:  In fall, it’s wonderful to grill apples and pears as well as root vegetables, winter squash, and hearty greens like Swiss chard and kale. There’s a way to grill just about everything. In winter, it’s more closing the lid on the grill or smoker and smoking potato dishes, grilling brussels sprouts (which are fabulous) or grilling greens to serve with a warm cranberry vinaigrette. In spring, it’s all the wonderful asparagus, leeks, snow peas and edamame in the pod, green onions, and fingerling potatoes.

Pete:  What are some items in the “griller’s pantry” that you recommend having on hand?

Karen:  The essential ingredients are olive oil, salt and pepper.  Beyond those, you can stock Dijon mustard, bottled hot sauce, wine vinegars, dried herbs and spices.

Pete:  Can you share some background about how you develop, test, and refine recipes?

Judith:  We both save recipes that we come across and keep a stash of them. We’ve also written quite a few books, so we have a body of work on which to draw. We both seem to like the same flavors and the idea of maximum return for ease of preparation, so we’re on the same page with that. We sit down and make a list of ingredients or recipe concepts we want to feature in a book, then create or tweak a recipe, then test it. With The Gardener and the Grill, we wanted to make sure we included as many herbs, vegetables, and fruits from the garden as we possibly could in ways that made sense and tasted great.

Pete:  What does this book offer for the novice gardener and/or griller or someone completely inexperienced in either/both areas?  Is this book a good entry point or do you suggest another title in your catalog?

Karen:  The Gardener and the Grill is for the novice as well as the experienced gardener or griller.  If you only have a pot of cherry tomatoes on your patio and have only threaded them on a skewer to grill, you can use this book.  If you have a big garden, you can extend your gardening repertoire by growing and grilling new varieties.

Pete:  Favorite recipe in the book?

Judith:  That’s hard to choose.  I have a new one every day.  Today, it’s Grilled Summer Slaw with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette. But I also have a hankering for Warm Honeyed Blackberries with Grilled Pound Cake.

Pete:  Where can the book be ordered and purchased besides Amazon, locally and nationally?  Is it available as an eBook?

Karen:  The Gardener and the Grill is at Pryde’s, A Thyme for Everything, The Kansas City Store, Kitchen Thyme, Webster House, Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie, Barnes and Noble. It is available in ebook format.



From The Gardener and the Grill by Karen Adler & Judith Fertig
Running Press, 2012

Charred Green Beans
Photo credit: Steve Legato

Charred Green Beans with Lemon Verbena Pesto
If you grow pole beans, you know that at first glance, you have only a few beans, and then suddenly there is an onslaught. That’s when bean varieties like the green Blue Lake or the yellow wax beans can be stir-grilled with a bit of olive oil for a very simple yet satisfying dish to use the surplus of beans. When you’re in the mood for a more robust sauce, try this lemony pesto tossed with the grilled beans right before serving. Serves 2 to 4.

Green Beans
1 1/2 pounds slender green beans
2 teaspoons olive oil

Lemon Verbena Pesto
1 cup fresh lemon verbena leaves (substitute fresh lemon balm leaves)
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts or English walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
Fine kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Prepare a hot fire in your grill.
Toss the beans with olive oil and place in a perforated grill basket or wok set on a baking sheet.

For the Lemon Verbena Pesto, combine the lemon verbena, garlic, cheese, and nuts in a food processor and pulse to puree. Slowly add the olive oil with the processor running until the mixture thickens and emulsifies, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The pesto will keep in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days or it may be frozen for up to 3 months.

Place the grill wok or basket directly over the fire and stir-grill tossing the beans with wooden paddles or grill spatulas until crisp-tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the grilled beans to a large bowl and toss with about 1/4 cup of the Lemon Verbena Pesto or to taste.

Grilled Peach Halves with Lemon Balm Gremolata
This recipe is very simple, yet full of flavor. A traditional gremolata has parsley, lemon zest, and garlic, but this is a sweeter version, delicious with fruit. If you don’t have lemon balm in your garden, substitute mint and add more lemon zest. If you use a Microplane grater, you get the flavorful yellow part of the lemon rind without the bitter white pith. By chopping the herbs with the lemon zest, the flavors blend together better. Serves 4.

1/4 cup packed lemon balm leaves
1 tablespoon packed mint leaves
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
Pinch kosher or sea salt
4 peaches, halved and pitted

Prepare a medium-hot fire in your grill. Chop the lemon balm, mint, and lemon zest together until very fine. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the leaves and chop again. Set aside in a small bowl.

Place the peach halves cut side down on the grill. Grill for 4 to 6 minutes, turning once, until the peaches are tender and blistered. To serve, place 2 peach halves in each bowl and sprinkle the Lemon Balm Gremolata over all.

Cooking, Eating, Philosophizing About Food

Ferran Adria Lately, I’ve been reading Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food written by Colman Andrews (Gotham Books, 2010). The book is an informative (and over-the-top, at times) read for those interested in cuisine and one of the industry’s notable names. The book fixates on El Bulli restaurant owner and chef Ferran Adrià, but it also examines the succession of people driven to create, refine, and serve cuisine at the famed Spanish restaurant that existed in obscurity for years.

A passage in chapter nine prompted thought about the nature of cooking, eating, and philosophizing about food. An excerpt follows:

The job of the cook has always been to change food physically:  first to separate it from its natural environment, either himself or through the agency of a forager or farmer or the like — to uproot it, cut it down, pluck it, catch it, slaughter it; then to shape it for further attention by peeling it, seeding it, gutting it, cutting it up, discarding its inedible or infelicitous portions; then — and this is as good a definition of “cooking” as any — to alter its molecular structure, either through a process like drying, soaking, salting, smoking, or marinating (or through the actions of induced fermentation), or, more commonly, especially in the modern age, through the application of heat; and finally to combine it with other, complimentary, foods and/or to add seasonings or flavorings to render it more palatable. It wasn’t until sources of food supply became regularized, though, and we were able to exercise some control over the growing of plants and animals, through agriculture and husbandry, that we had the luxury of actually thinking about how to make food taste better instead of how to just get our hands on it in the first place. And it almost certainly wasn’t until certain societies, or segments of society, found that they had an abundance of food on a consistent basis that they began to philosophize about it — to appreciate it as something more than a mere (mere?) adjunct of survival; that gastronomy was born.

That well-written passage covers an immense span of human culture. It touches on hunter/gatherer approaches to sustenance. It alludes to the agrarian and manufacturing processing, production, and distribution of food. It lists different techniques to prepare wild and domesticated ingredients. And it addresses consumption of food physically and intellectually.

I’m stuck on this notion of philosophizing about food and what that means exactly in today’s environment of foodie-ism and social/media coverage. Is it a luxury for people to philosophize about food when they don’t have to expend time, energy, and money to procure it for survival? Or is that a misguided notion? How is this appreciation of food’s value, socially and aesthetically, influenced by economic class, culture, race, and tradition?

The term “philosophy” evokes images of academia, erudite scholars, daydreamers, and self-appointed experts espousing schools of thought. At a gut level, I think that food itself and the appreciation of its value and role has been used historically to provoke thought, express ideas, uphold culture, and illuminate issues in many forms – art, song, film, oral tradition, poetry, etc. –  Further, that expression intersects with education, class, wealth, and other real-world social earmarks not limited to airy philosophical notions.

For instance, the heart of the Slow Food movement is based on considering local food sources, choosing sustainable and heritage foods, taking time to eat food as a social practice, and so forth. Its core tenets actually are a reminder of man’s relationship with food before industrial manufacturing and marketing and our go-go lifestyle came along.

In his passage above, Andrews doesn’t mention the modern accelerated pace of documenting food through media as another form of consumption.  Such consumers contribute to the appreciation, marketing, craving, and repackaging of food as experience. We’ve become an audience of product, service, and entertainment consumers to be marketed to. Aided by the internet and cable television fostering the Age of Celebrity Chef and Food Personalities, the appreciation of food and the cook has evolved over the past 40 years (thanks Julia Child and Galloping Gourmet!) into something that seemingly connects us to, but feels removed from, our food supply. (Insert sarcasm here.) Thank goodness for today’s mobile apps so we can post our location, thoughts, and photos while at our favorite restaurant, farmer’s market, or food truck.

Andrews’ observation about food philosophy suggests a parting between the professional cooks that procure and prepare food and the rest of us that “philosophize” or appreciate it on many levels. Foodie has become a ubiquitous shorthand for those who enjoy cooking, eating, and seeking out good food at their retail fingertips.  That is to say, a foodie is anyone with the disposable income and inclination to be one whether they adopt the moniker or not.

Meanwhile, the role of the modern cook (or chef) has gone beyond physically changing food and serving it in palatable form. Those cooks willing (and sometimes those who are not) to play the role of ambassador and social/media personality serve up a palatable presence for a (hopefully) appreciative audience. This loosely symbiotic relationship between foodie/customer/consumer and cook/social experience producer creates a full circle appreciation, if not outright celebration, of food as an extension (representation? expression?) of lifestyle.

To each their own. However, I have this gut feeling that there’s something much deeper and more powerful to how food can be more than a gastronomic indulgence, warm and fuzzy philosophy, or manifestation of an experience subsequently documented via social media. Are there examples of how food was and is integral to the state of our well-being as individuals and as a society? That food can play a pivotal role in larger events?

Take Upton Sinclair’s examination of the meatpacking industry in his 1906 novel The Jungle. His nonfiction reporting examines the mechanized processing of food and also taps into critical social issues of that era regarding poverty, poor working conditions, and corruption by those in power. The book was a catalyst for change where the public and government took stock of what was happening in this food-based industry and made changes to reassert more control over food.

Here is a current pop culture example. The Hunger Games, a book series that spawned a movie, touches on vital social themes. The novel’s premise addresses the great relationship of food between individuals and a society. A post-apocalyptic world gets to the heart of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs regarding food with a Machiavellian twist – procuring it, controlling it, lording it as a luxury for those in power, and using it as a device to develop social entertainment by subjugating those without access to food as recreational pawns. Despite its popularity, I don’t know that a book or movie like The Hunger Games will get anyone to think or act about food in philosophical terms any more than one of Michael Pollan’s books.

When it comes to food, we live in a weirdly connected/disconnected time. A significant portion of society in a First World country like the U.S. struggles to feed itself, as food policy expert Mark Winne or the folks at Harvesters can attest. At the same time just a few zip codes away from neighborhood food deserts, fellow citizens celebrate local cooks, farms, food-based businesses and locavorism. We’re getting back to the old ways of shopping at farmer’s markets, foraging, canning, and using traditional methods to make the most of food not simply for survival but to taste even better.

Far from concerns about procuring food for survival, foodies use social media to communicate their experiences with and about food – buying it, cooking it, seasoning it, celebrating it. To borrow from Andrews, certain segments of society have the luxury to philosophize about and appreciate food and the cooks, both professional and at-home, that prepare it. And other segments of society different than ours might be doing the same through the arts, passing on culinary traditions, and supporting establishments that foodies don’t know about yet.

With so many layers to our relationship with food distributed unevenly in society, it makes me wonder how these disparate experiences surrounding food will be expressed in our 21st century culture. Will the cooks, eaters, and philosophers from various segments of society grow closer or further apart?


Image courtesy of ElBulliFoundation.