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Janet Lagerloef

Brownsville Barbacoa (or ‘holy cow, this is really good!)

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by Janet Lagerloef
Owner, The Catering Gourmets, Sugar Grove

In the ‘80s, my husband Jerry, son and I moved from Sugar Grove to Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville is about as far south as you can get in Texas while still keeping your toes in the U.S.—it is only a couple of miles from Matamoros, Mexico. Jerry had just graduated from college with an aviation degree, and he sent his resume to several small airports in the country hoping to land a flying job. Alta Vista Aviation in Brownsville contacted him, so south, south, south we went.

We found ourselves in a different world. All the kids in Ryan’s first-grade class were Hispanic. His little towhead really stood out in school, and I could easily spot him on a baseball field or when he played with kids in the neighborhood. Nearly everyone spoke Spanish, but the majority of folks in Brownsville also spoke English, which they graciously did when we were around.

We only stayed in Brownsville for seven years, but those seven years I will never forget, especially from a food standpoint.

I had quite an experience the first time I went into Jimmy Pace’s Grocery Store on Boca Chica Boulevard, a block from where we lived. The produce department was what I was used to, except I was fascinated by the edible cactus and row after row of every imaginable size, shape and color of pepper. But as I turned left into the meat department, I jumped and let out a small gasp—lined up in the meat case were heads of cow. Cow heads. About six of them. I didn’t see that coming.

As we soon learned, a south Texas tradition is to eat barbacoa on Sundays after church. Families start slow cooking a cow’s head on Saturday evening and shred, chop and mix together the cheek, brains, tongue and eyeballs in the morning. When they get home from church, they serve it in warm, handmade flour tortillas with the most lovely fresh salsas.

Many busy moms also bought barbacoa on Sunday mornings from Jimmy Pace’s Grocery Store, and most said it was as good as homemade. After living in Brownsville for about six months, we decided to try it. At the store, Jimmy asked us if we wanted the brains, tongue and eyes mixed in with the cheek (the cheek is the main part of barbacoa) or separately.

“Mix it in,” Jerry said.

“Keep it separate,” I said.

Ryan went pale. We kept it separate. We also bought flour tortillas. Most moms in our neighborhood made their own tortillas, but I wasn’t having any success there.

Well, a warm flour tortilla (even store bought) stuffed with that cheek meat was extraordinary. It was like the tastiest, most tender pot roast in the whole world. The tongue, which was cut up in small pieces, was also very tender, and Jerry and I liked it. Only Jerry was brave enough to eat the eyeballs. He said they were chewy. The brain was okay—I had a few small nibbles, but Jerry liked it. My little towhead hid behind the couch.

We bought barbacoa on many Sundays after that, and even Ryan grew to like the cheek. We also enjoyed cabrito (goat) and seafood cocktails made of squid, shrimp and octopus. One food Ryan and I didn’t conquer was menudo—cow stomach soup. It was a customary dish on New Year’s Eve. However, Jerry liked it with lots of onions and cilantro. We also ate the finest beef fajitas, chicken flautas and chili rellenos, all of which I learned to make and still make today.

Shortly before we left Brownsville to move back to Sugar Grove, I decided to make barbacoa. I walked up to Jimmy Pace’s meat counter, picked out a cow head and put it in my cart. The head and I roamed around the store a bit because I really wanted someone I knew to see us together. On my way home, I felt oddly un-alone in the car.

I originally planned to share my chicken flautas recipe with you this month, but I couldn’t resist offering my Brownsville Barbacoa recipe first.

Brownsville Barbacoa
• One cow head
• Salt and pepper
• Beer

Salt and pepper your cow head. Put it in a deep pot. Pour a couple of beers in pot (I think I drank a couple, too). Cover tightly with foil.
Cook in preheated 275-degree oven for seven hours. Remove foil, increase temperature to 400 degrees and cook for an additional 30 minutes.
Shred and serve on warm flour tortillas with salsa on the side. Enjoy.
Also, thank you to Ruth Franz of Sugar Grove and Cindy Abrahamson of Lily Lake for letting me know how much you liked making my pot roast recipe last month. You made my day.

Margo can make a lovely pot roast

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And I can (almost) play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’
by Janet Lagerloef
Owner, The Catering Gourmets, Sugar Grove

For 50 years, I’ve wanted to learn to play the piano. And last fall I vowed I wasn’t going to let another year go by. So I told my husband I wanted a keyboard for Christmas. It arrived under the tree with a little bench and everything. Suddenly I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

A bit bashfully, I called Margo Herrmann, a retired Kaneland second-grade teacher and a well-known piano instructor, and told her, “I’m almost 60 years old! I don’t have a musical bone in my body. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But I love piano music and I really do want to learn.”

We scheduled our first lesson for the next day. Margo showed up with a big smile and several books for beginners. She put me right at ease. Slowly, I’ve learned the scales. Reading notes is becoming easier for me. My wrists are no longer sore. I’ve tackled and mastered songs like “Camptown Races,” “Skip to My Lou,” and at long last, “Alouetta.” Now, I’m working on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I love that song. I am certainly not a natural, but I am determined and practice nearly every morning before I leave for my catering kitchen.

At the end of our lesson a few weeks ago, the savory bouquet of the pot roast, potatoes, and carrots I had roasting in the oven began to frolic throughout my house. “What in the world are you making?” Margo asked me. I took the roast out of the oven to show her, and when I lifted the lid, Margo’s eyes opened wide. I took a fork and easily pulled off a chunk of meat for her to try.

“When I make a pot roast, my husband, Vern, has to get out the electric knife,” Margo said. “Oh, please, teach me how to make one as juicy and tender as this. Vern would be the happiest man alive!”

Well, it’s as easy as playing “Chopsticks.” I just wish learning to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was as effortless for me as making a lovely pot roast was for Margo. She is quite pleased. And I got the nicest text from Vern.

Fork-tender Pot Roast
1. Always use a chuck roast; don’t bother with any other cut for a pot roast.

2. Season both sides generously with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.

3. Sear both sides well: heat the pot in which you plan to cook it on medium high on the stove until hot. Don’t add oil or anything. Let each side sear for a couple of minutes. Remove from the stove.

4. Pour in enough beef broth to completely cover the roast (this is the main secret to a tender pot roast, and you will have a lot of au jus).

5. Put on the lid and cook in a preheated 325-degree oven for three hours.

6. After three hours, add quartered potatoes (no need to peel) and peeled, cut-up carrots and cook, covered, for one more hour.

7. Instead of serving on dinner plates, my husband and I enjoy ours out of pasta or soup bowls so we can ladle on lots of glorious au jus.

This is a perfect recipe for a Sunday supper. But you can also serve it on a weeknight. Before leaving for work, simply season and sear the meat, put it in a crock pot, completely cover with beef broth, add potatoes and carrots, and cook on low for 10 hours.

Brown eggs revisited

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by Janet Lagerloef
Owner, The Catering Gourmets, Sugar Grove

I was going to share my secrets for a scrumptious pot roast in this month’s column, but minutes after “Of Roosters and cream puffs” came out last month, my dad and an old friend of mine called to remind me of two old brown-eggs stories they thought I should have included in the column. Luckily, I have a new egg recipe I am quite excited about.

Dad’s egg story involved his red and white Piper airplane. For a science project in seventh grade, my sister, Karin, asked him to drop a raw egg from 1,000 feet. She put one of our brown eggs in a nylon stocking, tightly suspended the stocking in a shoe box, wrapped the box in foil, then reinforced it with gobs of duct tape. If packed correctly, the egg would survive the fall.

The students eagerly searched the sky as they stood on the baseball diamond behind Big Rock Elementary School. Captain Dad’s arrival was on time. He dropped the box, tipped the wing, flew off, and several boys ran to retrieve the box from the nearby field. When Karin finally got the box opened, the egg was unbroken.

The second egg story is about my mom. She opened “The Little Store” in Big Rock 45 years ago. It was like “The Purple Store” in Kaneville, except smaller and green. Like (Hill’s Country Store owner) Pat Hill, she kept the ice cream freezer full. She also stocked the local farmers’ favorite chew. And as my friend reminded me, my mom also sold our brown eggs there. She collected and candled them each morning before opening.

Fifteen years after closing The Little Store, mom and dad started Deer Valley Golf Course in Big Rock. I figure I got my desire to open my own business from them.

Since opening The Catering Gourmets 10 years ago, I’ve had requests for egg casseroles. I typically decline, because I just haven’t found a recipe I am tickled with. But that changed a few months ago when I began testing egg frittata recipes and quickly landed on a fabulous one. As a matter of fact, we are going to unveil our first egg frittata at a brunch next Saturday for a lovely bride from Sugar Grove. I can hardly wait, and I am so happy to share this—particularly since it also helps me make good on those final (I promise) two brown-egg stories.

Egg Frittata
Serves 8-10

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

18 large eggs, beaten with a fork
8 ounces cream cheese, cut into .5-inch cubes
8 ounces crumbled feta cheese
1 pound pork sausage crumbled, cooked and drained
Several grape tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with kosher salt
and roasted in the oven on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 10 minutes
4 cups chopped fresh kale
1 large onion chopped
1 can pitted large black olives
Salt and pepper

In a large skillet, heat four tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Saute onions and kale for two minutes. Add the eggs, cream cheese, feta cheese, sausage, cherry tomatoes and whole black olives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Continue cooking over medium heat for one minute while gently pulling the eggs from the sides of the pan with a spatula. Do not stir. Bake in oven for 20 minutes or until eggs are set.

You can substitute or add any ingredients you would like, such as crispy bacon, sauteed asparagus, sauteed mushrooms, green olives, Italian sausage, pineapple or Canadian bacon. It’s a lot like making a pizza.

Soup’s on

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For years it was our goal to feature a food-oriented column in the Elburn Herald, and we spent many company meetings kicking around ideas such as a dining review, weekly cooking recipes and even a Q&A with a local chef.

None of the above suggestions panned out, obviously. It’s a conflict of interest for us to review a local dining establishment, especially when we want to see each and every Kaneland area business flourish. And what if said establishment advertises with us? That’s a problem.

And in terms of running an “ask a chef” column, we simply couldn’t find the right person for the gig. Cooking is no easy task, so we couldn’t realistically expect a local chef to take time away from their business to handle a monthly column.

Well, all of that changed in November when Janet Lagerloef, owner of Sugar Grove’s The Catering Gourmets, approached us with the idea of contributing a monthly cooking column dedicated to her favorite recipes and cooking methods. And because we long sought an opportunity to feature a chef column in our pages, we couldn’t say yes to Janet’s offer fast enough.

And lo and behold, the Elburn Herald’s guest chef column was (finally) a reality.

Janet’s first two columns instructed readers on how to create the “perfect” Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, and recreate a sugar cookie recipe passed down from her husband’s great-grandmother, Mina. This month, Janet will teach you how to make a signature dish from her all-time favorite cookbook. If it tastes half as good as it looks, you’re all in for a treat.

We hope you enjoy Janet’s column as much as we do. We look forward to further featuring her recipes, tricks and cooking insight in the Elburn Herald. Bon appetit.

From meat rocks to a glorious chicken pot pie

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by Janet Lagerloef
Owner, The Catering Gourmets, Sugar Grove

The first dinner I made my husband Jerry was meatballs. “A no-brainer. Who needs a cookbook?” I laughed to myself as I packed super-lean burger into big, tight balls and fried ’em in a flaming hot skillet … for a really long time. By the time I decided they were done, my shiny wedding skillet was forever scorched and the white eyelet curtains in my tiny kitchen had taken on a sort of yellowish hue.

Jerry certainly tried, but he couldn’t swallow even one bite of one meatball. And I clearly saw that when it came to cooking, I didn’t know my fannie from a cake in the oven.

Who would have dreamed that 30 years later I would own my own catering business, and that nice people would actually pay me money to make them food, even on their wedding day?

That Christmas, Jerry, whose mother is the finest cook I know, bought me a copy of the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook” at the bookstore. I read it like a novel—every single page—and was enchanted. The very first recipe I tried was the Louisburg Chicken Pot Pie. Yes, it could be swallowed! I made recipe after recipe from that cookbook, and each was divine. My love affair with cooking was born.

Today, I own about 100 cookbooks—and, I like them all—but my favorite is still Fannie’s, because there’s nothing laboriously silly about it—no recipe for foie gras or infused anything. It is a large collection of solid recipes for real people who want to prepare scrumptious, easy-going dinners on a regular basis—people like me.

And after all these years, I still make Fannie’s Louisburg Chicken Pot Pie for special occasions at my house, and it is on my catering menu. Just last week, we made it for a corporate party in Lake Holiday for 80 guests—the fourth year in a row they’ve ordered the dish. Thank you, Fannie.

Fannie's Louisburg Chicken Pot Pie
• 6 tablespoons butter
• 6 tablespoons flour
• 2 cups chicken broth
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1/2 teaspoon pepper
• Salt
• 4 cups chicken (rotisserie chicken)
• 1 cup frozen peas and carrots
• 1/2-pound pork sausage made into tiny balls and sauteed in butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Slowly add the broth, cream, pepper and salt to taste. Cook for 5 minutes until thickened and smooth. Put the chicken pieces in a deep pie plate or casserole dish, cover with the sauce, and add the frozen peas and carrots and cooked sausage balls. Place the piecrust over the casserole, allowing enough overhang so that the edges can be crimped. Cut small vents in the crust to allow the steam to escape. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned.

Basic pastry for a 9-inch crust
I never had luck making my own pie crust until I got a food processor—now it comes out perfectly every time. Before that, I bought Pillsbury’s premade crusts, which you simply unroll and use. I still think they are an excellent option.

• 1-1/2 cup flour
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 cup shortening
• 3-4 tablespoons cold water

Put the flour and salt into a food processor and pulse a couple of times; divide the shortening into four pieces and add, pulsing another five times. Slowly drizzle the cold water through the tube and process until the dough forms into a ball. Chill 20 minutes and roll out on floured surface.

Column: Family recipes are the best during Christmas time

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Photo: Lexi Lagerloef of Glen Ellyn, Ill., and Ansley Ruh of Elburn, love their great-great-grandmother Mina’s sugar cookies.

by Janet Lagerloef
Owner, The Catering Gourmets, Sugar Grove

Born in l880, and raised in Aurora, Margaret “Mina” Lord was my husband’s great grandmother, and a bit Calamity Jane. She could blow anything away—skeet, clay pigeons, bullseyes. No matter the target, Mina was a deadeye (she always carried a Colt .38 in her purse).

And that sharpshooter could cook, too—scalloped oysters, sugar cookies, pan-fried catfish. When she rang the dinner bell, family had a way of showing up.

Mina Lord passed away 40 years ago, but her recipes are still with us. We make hundreds of her sugar cookies at Christmas for catering events, and just as many for our families. These buttery cookies are soft yet edged in the perfect crisp, and are lovely piled in glass trifle bowls, which is a fun and beautiful way to take cookies to a Christmas party or set any stackable cookie on your dessert table.

Happy Holidays!

Mina’s sugar cookies

Makes 2 dozen
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
• Two sticks softened butter
• Three-quarter cup granulated sugar
• One egg separated
• Two teaspoons vanilla
• Two cups flour measured after sifting
• One-eighth teaspoon salt
• Green and red candied cherries
Beat the butter, sugar, egg yolk and vanilla until creamy. Mix in the flour and salt. Make the dough into small balls and place on a greased cookie sheet 2 inches apart. Flatten a bit with the bottom of a small glass. Brush the cookies with the egg white mixed with a little water. Sprinkle with sugar and top with a halved candied cherry. Bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly golden.

Another family favorite is Mina’s scalloped oysters. I serve them on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, and this is Mina’s most decadent dish. My family loves any manner of oysters—raw on the half shell or baked with savory fixings—but hands down, Mina’s scalloped oysters are the fairest of them all.

Mina’s scalloped oysters

Serves 20
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
• Three quarts shucked/drained oysters
• Three sleeves saltine crackers, coarsely crushed by hand
• Three sleeves Ritz crackers, coarsely crushed by hand
• Four sticks butter (to melt)
• Heavy cream
• Tabasco sauce
• Worcestershire sauce
• Salt and pepper

Mix the crushed crackers and melted butter in a large bowl. Layer half on the bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan. Evenly place the oysters on top. Drizzle with heavy cream, Tabasco sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Blanket the remaining half of crushed crackers on top. Bake uncovered in 375 degree oven for 45 minutes, or until browned and bubbly.

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