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    Jon Spencer, chef at Epic Chophouse close-up of his rack of lamb, potato cake, and asparagus.
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    Jon Spencer, chef at Epic Chophouse with his rack of lamb.

Home Cooking

By Page Leggett | Photography by Meredith Jones

Posted: Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012

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Most folks try to leave their work at the office, but when your job and passion are both centered around the food line between work and home life tends to get a little blurred. But restaurateurs and chefs wouldn't have it any other way. They love to entertain and cook for people, whether it's 100 hungry customers or a couple of close friends. And with the holiday season upon us, they're also serving up some helpful tips for you to use at your own table.

CHILL AND GRILL

Chef Tim Steen of Mickey and Mooch in Lake Norman says his entertaining style is suited to the temperate weather in the area. “I love to grill, and living in this climate, you can pretty much grill all year long,” he said. “I try and grill almost everything possible.”

Like the other chefs at area upscale restaurants, Steen is decidedly casual when he’s in charge of the party. “I try to have a lot of prep work done beforehand so I can enjoy my time with friends and family.” This pro advises the home cook/hostess to “prepare, organize and delegate.” He says, “If guests offer to help, let them. Everyone always congregates in the kitchen, anyway. Put them to work.”

Chef Steen’s ideal holiday meal is a carnivorous dream. He’d want prime rib, fried turkey and pulled pork. And, “Mickey and Mooch chocolate cake is a must,” he adds.

BACKDECK BONANZA

Party central at Jon Spencer's Mooresville house is his spacious backyard deck, where he frequently hosts get-togethers. It's the perfect spot to socialize, enjoy a delicious meal and an adult beverage-- the deck has a built-in bar complete with a fridge, bar stools, glassware and 150-year-old floor joists he got from Epic Chophouse in Mooresville, where he works as executive chef.

“I just want everyone to be comfortable and have a good time.”

As the chef at one of Mooresville's most popular steakhouses, it should come as no surprise that Spencer is a dedicated carnivore. Apparently it runs in the family. Growing up in Southport, N.C., he says his grandmother's holiday meals often consisted of heaping helpings of goose, ham and turkey.

Spencer's preferred entree this time of year is rack of lamb as well as osso buco, which are veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth. His best advice for someone who wants to entertain this time of year is simple, "I'd hire me to do it," he says. "Why stress out?" He says since so many homes on Lake Norman have massive kitchens, it's a snap for him and his staff to set up shop, prep, serve and clean.

A SIMPLE SOIREE

Before he started at The Peninsula Club in Cornelius last year, Frank Chiasera, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., worked as a chef at several prestigious restaurants, including The Harbor Club in Charleston, S.C., and the Citrus Club in Orlanda, Fla. And while Chiasera, who lives in Davidson, has spent much of his career preparing gourmet meals at upscale venues, The Peninsula Club's new executive chef likes to keep things casual when entertaining at home, especially during the holidays.

“Keep it simple" is his philosophy. This includes preparing dips, spreads and appetizers as a party's main attraction as opposed to a big, multicourse meal. Chiasera says he and his wife will often set out mango-cilantro salsa, pico de gallo, roasted red pepper hummus and tabbouleh and serve the dips with grilled pita chips. It's easy to prepare and easy to clean. When he does prepare a meal, one of his specialties is white chicken chili.

For folks creating their own holiday party meal, Chiasera advises to prepare ahead of time. For instance, hours or even a day before the festivities, wash, cut and seal the vegetables, or sear, wrap and refrigerate meats. This way the main components of the meal will be ready when you start to cook. "Don't wing it," he says. "Have a plan and a timetable."

Chiasera is also a big advocate of the crock-pot. "Chicken stew, jambalaya, you name it, I'll make it in the crock-pot," he says. "One-pot meals work best with big crowds and you don't have to spend the whole time in the kitchen."

HOLIDAY HOST

“People are always reluctant to invite the restaurant guy over for dinner,” says Jon Dressler, owner of Dressler’s Restaurant in Birkdale Village (and now also in Midtown). Lucky for his friends that he and his wife, Kim, entertain frequently – at least once or twice a month, he says. His friends know they can expect fine wine and great food. And it’s even more special when the Dresslers entertain for the holidays because Kim “decks the house extensively – inside and out,” he says.

How does he welcome guests into his home during the holidays? “It’s easy for me,” he confesses. “I can cheat. I might bring home crab dip or tenderloin we didn’t use at the restaurant.”

But even if he’s serving fancy fare, he keeps the atmosphere low-key, friendly and casual. “I don’t try to get too elaborate,” he says. “People are more into quality than quantity. I think hosts and hostesses should try to do four or five things really well rather than trying to do a dozen things marginally.”

Dressler often finds inspiration online. “If you have a great roasted asparagus out in a restaurant,” you can try to duplicate it at home, he says. “Look online and you’ll discover tons of ways to prepare it – with balsamic vinaigrette, goat cheese, pine nuts.”

His ideal holiday dinner is pretty simple, he says. “I’d want to be surrounded by a lot of family, fine wine and have football on TV.” His family is likely to have prime rib and hash brown casserole (an old family recipe) for their holiday meal. And, guests can be assured of “ample quantities of great wine” when they come to the Dressler home. “I’ll bust out the very best wine at the holidays,” he says. He’s served a 1997 Sassiacia and a 1995 Silver Oak magnum during Christmases past.

The Dresslers enjoy entertaining together and share the responsibilities. But it’s Jon who’s the sommelier for the night. He’ll always start with a white wine before moving on the big, rich reds.

But if you think Dressler’s at-home entertaining is of the upscale variety people have come to expect in his restaurant, think again. He and Kim make frequent use of their crock pot – and not just for family meals. “We are people on the go,” says Dressler. “We’ve been known to put a bunch of ingredients in the crock pot, come home eight hours later and be ready to serve guests.”

Recipes

Tim Steen’s Barbecue Ribs
1 rack of ribs (usually sold by the pound)
yellow mustard
Take the ribs and peel the skin off the back. Preheat smoker to 220 degrees. Spread a thin layer of yellow mustard onto the ribs using the back of a spoon onto the ribs. You can also add your favorite spice rub and sprinkle it onto the ribs covering all the meat. Cook the ribs for 4 to 6 hours at 200 to 220 degrees on the smoker. The ribs are ready when the meat pulls away from the bone with little effort. Sauce the ribs and serve.
If you don't have a smoker you can bake the ribs on a rack in a baking dish at 220 degrees for 4 ½ hours. For smoke flavor add 1/2 cup of liquid smoke and ½ cup water to the bottom of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap first and then aluminum foil. Take the ribs out and sauce them.

Frank Chiasera’s White Chicken Chili
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
5 Roma tomatoes (diced)
1 red onion
3 celery stalks
1 green bell pepper
1 jalapeno
1 small Rotel tomato with green chilies
2 cans dark red kidney beans
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons paprika
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Sautee the onions, peppers, jalapeno, celery and garlic in a little olive oil until translucent. Add diced chicken and cook until browned. Add Roma tomatoes and Rotel tomatoes, kidney beans and all seasonings. Cook on low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Jon Spencer’s Dijon Crusted Rack of Lamb with Rosemary Demi-Glace
1 rack of lamb (fat cap removed and bones cleaned)
½ cup Dijon mustard
2 cups panko-style breadcrumbs
½ teaspoon chopped rosemary leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup clarified butter or blended oil
1 cup Demi-Glace (thickened brown veal or beef stock )
In a skillet over high heat place 1 tablespoon of oil or butter. Season rack of lamb with salt and pepper and sear quickly all sides of the rack. Remove from heat and place on a half-sheet pan over an oven rack and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. While lamb is cooling, mix remainder of oil, ½ cup of rosemary and salt and pepper with breadcrumbs in a bowl. After lamb is cooled, use a pastry brush to slather lamb with Dijon then coat in breadcrumb mixture. Place in oven at 375 degrees for approximately 20-25 minutes. Roast to about 115 degrees internal temperature. Remove and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes. Heat Demi-Glace, spoon on to platter, slice lamb between bones and serve over Demi-Glace.

Jon Dressler’s Hash Brown Casserole
1 30-ounce bag of frozen Ore-Ida shredded hash browns
1/2 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 can cream of chicken soup
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cups chopped onion
2 cups sour cream
2 cup cornflakes, crushed
In large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except for cornflakes and butter. In saucepan, melt butter and add crushed cornflakes. Sprinkle on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Dressler’s Asparagus with Balsamic Tomatoes and Goat Cheese
1 pound asparagus, trimmed
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups halved grape tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon fresh minced garlic
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons crumbled goat cheese
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Cook asparagus in boiling water for 2 minutes until tender and then drain. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add tomatoes and garlic and cook 5 minutes. Stir in vinegar; cook 3 minutes. Stir in salt. Arrange asparagus on a platter; top with tomato mixture. Sprinkle with cheese and pepper.

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