Dust off that mixing bowl and fire up the burners because what’s a food issue without recipes. Five local cooks share their favorite, fail-safe dishes that are guaranteed to have your family and friends coming back for seconds.
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Easy Cashew Chicken
Meredith Nagel, Home Cook
In the throes of being a mother to three boys, an owner of her own successful law practice in Clermont, and a devoted wife to an equally hardworking husband, Merideth Nagel always finds the time to prepare a delicious, home-cooked meal.
“We have dinner at the table at least four times a week. It’s the meal that brings everyone together,” she says. “Now that my oldest son Jay has gone off to college, he tells me some of the best memories he has about home involve us all eating around the dinner table.”
Merideth’s grandmother heavily influenced her fondness for cooking. “My grandmother was a traditional Southern cook, and with her, I remember that cooking was always a way to show people you loved them,” she says. “I also learned from her it was okay to mess up because cooking is a form of artistic expression and a way to bare your heart and soul.”
Growing up enjoying Southern cuisine meant loving anything that was “fried or sauced.” Reaching her highest weight of 274 pounds, Merideth decided to keep her love for food, but change her cooking methods. Now, she is all about finding recipes that are not only healthy but also quick and easy to accommodate the life of a working wife and mother.
With a full repertoire of delicious recipes, Merideth settled on sharing two recipes with great meaning. “It was hard to pick my favorite recipe, but I decided on my cashew chicken recipe that my oldest son loves so much,” she says. “With him being away at college, I like making it because it reminds me of him. And when he came home over the Thanksgiving holiday, it was the first thing he wanted to eat.”
In addition to its sentimental value, Merideth also explains how it’s a great alternative to buying Chinese takeout. “When using the frozen bag of vegetables, you get more vegetables in your fried rice than you would normally get from a restaurant,” she says. “And with it being so easy, you can make it faster than ordering out and picking it up.”
Easy Cashew Chicken
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1-inch small pieces
½ quart buttermilk
Flour for dredging
Fresh grated ginger root (1/4-inch)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 10-ounce bottle of honey (orange blossom preferred, clover second best)
¾ cup unsalted, roasted cashews
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt, pepper, garlic powder, and red pepper flakes (to taste)
1. Cut chicken into small pieces. Pat dry, then season heavily with garlic powder, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.
2. Mix together buttermilk, grated ginger, and minced garlic. Soak seasoned chicken in buttermilk mixture for at least eight hours in fridge.
3. Drain chicken and brown in a skillet with vegetable oil, being careful not to overcook.
4. Drain cooked chicken well, then toss with honey and cashews. Serve over steamed rice or vegetable fried rice.
Vegetable Fried Rice
3 cups cooked white rice (Jasmine preferred)
½ cup onions, chopped
¼ cup red pepper, chopped
1 12-ounce bag of frozen vegetables (asparagus, gold and white corn, and baby carrot blend preferred)
Fresh grated ginger root (1/4-inch)
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons sesame oil
Reduced sodium soy sauce (to taste)
¼ cup scallions
Fresh chopped cilantro (to taste)
1. Soften red pepper and onion in a pan with sesame oil.
2. Toss in fresh ginger and garlic, being careful not to brown the ginger or garlic.
3. Add frozen vegetables.
4. When almost warm through, add rice.
5. Move rice mixture to the sides of the pan, leaving space in the middle to scramble the eggs.
6. When eggs are cooked, toss all together with soy sauce.
7. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with fresh cut scallions and chopped cilantro. Serve and enjoy.
Michael Rao, Student chef at The Villages Charter High School
While most kids were dreaming about exploring outer space or being president of the United States, Michael Rao wanted to cook. In kindergarten, he wrote down he was going to grow up to be a five-star chef one day. Now a senior at The Villages Charter High School, Michael still wants to be a five-star chef and the school’s culinary program has helped him get that much closer to his dream.
“I love cooking,” he says. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t cook. It’s like an art, you know — a way to express myself.”
Michael credits his mother for getting him into the kitchen at a young age. “My mom is Puerto Rican so she was always cooking a lot of the traditional Puerto Rican food, and she always asked me to help,” he says.
He was also heavily influenced by his father, who is Italian. “I come from two very food-centered cultures. I really do love to cook Italian foods but what I love even more is combining the two cultures to come up with really interesting dishes,” he says.
Recently, as part of a school assignment, Michael submitted a business plan to a local bank to open a Puerto Rican and Italian restaurant. Before he opens his own business, though, he hopes to attend culinary school either at Lake Technical Center in Eustis or Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando.
As for the recipe he chose to share, Michael says it’s one he is quite comfortable cooking. “I’ve made it a couple of times and what I love most about it, besides its taste, is the color from the red peppers and the basil,” he says. “Plus, it’s a part of the menu that I submitted with my business plan. I hope to have it in my restaurant, Miguel Rao’s, one day.”
Half pound of linguine, cooked al dente
16 ounces heavy whipping cream
6 ounces roasted red peppers, cut into thin strips
8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 pound prosciutto, chopped
1.5 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
Salt, pepper, and garlic, to taste
Fresh basil for garnish
1. Boil and cook linguine until al dente.
2. Sauté garlic in olive oil and butter in a skillet. Add prosciutto, cook until texture changes.
3. Add sliced mushrooms and cook until almost done.
4. Add strips of roasted red peppers and heavy cream. Season to taste with black pepper, garlic powder, and salt.
5. Stir in Parmesan cheese and let mixture simmer 2–3 minutes.
6. Put cooked linguine in bowl or serving dish. Pour contents in pan over linguine.
7. Garnish with fresh basil and enjoy!
Randy Young, Owner of Bubba’s Crab And Seafood
Three years ago, Randy Young opened his Leesburg-based seafood store as a favor to a friend. Retired from a career in telecommunications and looking to begin the next chapter in his life, he figured this venture was a sure thing since no one else was selling fresh seafood in Leesburg.
With his growing success came the idea to offer smoked seafood to his loyal customers. It become a fast favorite with some people traveling as far as 50 to 60 miles to buy it. “No one else in this area is doing smoked salmon,” he says. “Then I started getting a lot of requests for it. A lot of people buy it because they are health conscious and smoking the salmon gives it a lot of flavor.”
Randy first learned how to smoke fish from his grandfather who passed down recipes from his Great Depression days. “During the Depression, people around here would smoke mullet because it was easy to catch and plentiful,” Randy explains. “So I’ve taken my grandfather’s recipe and adapted it to salmon, which is way more popular than mullet.”
Being an avid camper, hunter, and angler helped add to his cooking skills. He also picked up some tips from his very first roommate and, of course, his mother.
For Randy, smoking fish is always a fun experience; however, he also enjoys exposing people to something different. “I like the entire process,” he says. “And I love seeing those reactions from customers who try it for the first time.”
1 large salmon fillet
Coarse sea salt (to taste)
Garlic powder (to taste)
Cajun seasoning (to taste)
1. Preheat an outdoor smoker to 180 degrees using a mix of black jack oak and hickory wood logs that have been soaked in water.
2. Place fillet on a large plate and season with salt, garlic powder, and Cajun seasoning, or use your favorite seasoning that pairs well with fish.
3. Place fillet on plank and cook in smoker for about 90 minutes.
4. Check doneness (the fish is done when it flakes with a fork). Once fillet is cooked, remove from smoker and serve.
Chef Ken Koenig, Certified Culinary Educator At Lake Technical Center
Chef Ken Koenig has had a variety of culinary experiences since graduating from the Southeast Institute of Culinary Arts in St. Augustine. He’s cooked in many kitchens, including a stint as a private chef on a 117-foot yacht. He’s also owned and operated a restaurant and catering business, worked as a sous chef for fine-dining establishments, and served as an assistant catering chef at the University of Florida. But teaching and helping the next generation of culinary chefs has been truly his niche.
Before coming to Lake Technical Center in 1995, he also taught at his alma mater, the Southeast Institute of Culinary Arts, and he has been an active member of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) since 1988. Ken plays a very active role in the Gulf-to-Lakes Chefs and Cooks Association fundraising activities. Over the past few years, the association has raised over $10,000 for scholarships, which allow students to pursue careers in the culinary arts field.
As a nod to the holiday season, Ken picked one of his favorite alcohol-inspired party recipes: homemade rum balls. “Chef Linda Lopez, who also worked at Lake Tech before she retired, gave me the recipe,” he says.
He recalls Chef Lopez making these delicious treats for the whole staff at the end of each year. To him, they symbolized the spirit of the season and the successful end of another year. It’s the perfect recipe to file away and pull out when the holidays come knocking again, or when you’re in the mood for a more adult dessert. “The rum balls are easy to make and lots of fun to eat,” Ken says. “You can’t just eat one!”
2 cups finely crushed vanilla wafers
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 cups finely chopped walnuts or pecans
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
¼ cup rum (I use dark rum and add a little more!)
Extra confectioners’ sugar, sifted for rolling
1. Mix together dry ingredients, then add wet ingredients.
If mixture is too dry, add more rum.
2. Form into 1-inch balls and roll in the confectioners’ sugar.
3. Serve and enjoy!
Chicken, Spinach, and Artichoke Lasagna Rolls
Chef Jessica Flynn, Owner of Gourmet Today
Although Jessica Flynn has been in the catering business for two years, food has been a passion of hers for nearly a decade. While working in a boring, stuffy office job, Jessica used to surreptitiously write recipes, keeping them hidden underneath her computer keyboard. However, what really solidified her desire to cook professionally was her and her husband’s love for eating out.
“We would eat a dish at a restaurant and then I would go home and try to recreate it,” she says. “Plus, my husband and I Iove eating ethnic food, so I wanted to learn how to make my own Thai and sushi dishes.”
After graduating from Valencia College with a degree in culinary management in 2010, Jessica shunned the conventional dream of opening a restaurant. Instead she jumped head first into opening a catering company with her husband. “What I love most about catering is the detail that goes into it, along with seeing people enjoy my food,” she explains.
One of Jessica’s specialties is taking traditional dishes and giving them a new twist. With her chicken, spinach, and artichoke lasagna rolls, she takes a lighter spin on a classic. “I had some leftover marinara sauce, and I thought I would make little individual rolls with the lasagna noodles so people could enjoy as many as they wanted,” she says. “Then I add shredded chicken for protein, and it became an instant hit with my family and my clients. It is certainly a comfort food without being too heavy.”
Chicken, Spinach, and Artichoke Lasagna Rolls
12 lasagna noodles (traditional, not oven ready)
2 cups shredded chicken breast (or shredded rotisserie chicken)
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
16 ounces frozen spinach, thawed, drained, and
squeezed to remove water
1 8.5-ounce can of artichoke hearts, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon Italian seasoning
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (to taste)
¼ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
5–6 cups of your favorite marinara sauce
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1. Bring large pot of water to a boil. Add one tablespoon of salt and cook lasagna noodles to al dente, according to package directions.
2. Drain and gently lay noodles flat onto large sheet pan or sheet of parchment paper.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, mix shredded chicken, softened cream cheese, spinach, chopped artichoke hearts, minced garlic, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and ¼ teaspoon of kosher salt. Stir well using a rubber spatula, or mix by hand.
4. Add Parmesan cheese and mix well.
5. In the bottom of a lightly sprayed 9-by-13 pan, ladle in one to two cups of marinara sauce and spread evenly across bottom of the pan.
6. To make the lasagna rolls, evenly distribute three tablespoons of filling across each lasagna noodle using a tablespoon or a small cookie scoop. Gently roll the lasagna noodle and place seam side down in the sauced pan. Repeat until all lasagna rolls are filled.
7. Ladle marinara sauce over each lasagna roll. Then sprinkle well with shredded mozzarella and allow rolls to bake uncovered at 350º for 25–30 minutes until cheese is bubbly and golden brown. Enjoy!