The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

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In case you missed this big news over holiday, I wanted to give a much-deserved shout-out to my friend – and Stonewall Resort chef – Fransicso “Paco” Aceves, who has been selected to cook at the legendary James Beard House in New York City.


He will join four other chefs from Benchmark Hospitality International (Stonewall’s parent company) to cook a seven-course holiday dinner there on Dec. 16. It’s the sixth consecutive year chefs from Benchmark properties have been invited to cook at the James Beard House. Former Stonewall chef Dale Hawkins also received the honor a few years ago.

Before moving to the Lewis County resort, Paco was executive chef at Charleston’s Bridge Road Bistro under the direction of Robert Wong. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and worked in some pretty high-profile kitchens before landing in West Virginia.

He has been a banquet chef at the four-diamond La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa in Santa Fe and sous chef at the Houston Country Club in Houston, where he trained under Certified Master Chef Fritz Gitschner. (There are fewer than 100 Certified Master Chefs in the world, by the way.)

During his tenure there, Paco was chosen by Gitschner to participate as part of the United States culinary team at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, one of the world’s most distinguished culinary competitions. He also apprenticed at Handke’s Cuisine in Columbus, Ohio, where he trained under another Certified Master Chef, Hartmut Handke.

With credentials that impressive, it may come as no surprise that he’s cooked at the James Beard House before.

Way to go, Paco!

The Benchmark Holiday Dinner will begin at 7 pm on Dec. 16 with an hors d’oeuvres and wine reception, followed by a seven-course chefs tasting menu starting at 8. Reservations can be made by calling the James Beard House at 212-627-2308. The cost is $130 per person for members of the James Beard Foundation and $170 per person for the general public.   

The James Beard House was home to the storied James Beard, America’s first celebrity chef who is celebrated today as the dean of American Cookery. A gifted impresario who along with his great friend, Julia Child, led the way for many of today’s celebrity chefs, James Beard established cooking schools and published more than 20 important cookbooks, many of which are still in print.

T-Minus One Day and Counting … Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock

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 OK, we’re at T-minus one day and counting.

The menu is planned, the shopping is done and the big bird is thawing. There’s really not much left to worry about at this point. Except trying not to kill your guests.

Food poisoning is serious business and reported cases often spike around the holidays. Here’s what you can do to avoid spending your holiday laid up in bed – either yours or one at the hospital …

  1. Wash your hands often, especially in between handling foods that are dry and wet. 
  2. Before preparing food, carefully clean counters, cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water. Repeat cleaning in between recipes, especially if you have raw meat or leafy greens on the cutting board, both of which can carry salmonella.
  3. Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool running water and use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.
  4. If you purchased a turkey fresh and not frozen, refrigerate it immediately. For a frozen turkey, allow lots of time for it to thaw – about 2 hours of thaw time per five pounds of turkey. Thaw a turkey a high walled pan placed in the refrigerator, and do not let the water touch any other food.
  5. It is safest not to stuff a turkey, but rather put herbs inside the cavity to season it. If you must stuff, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing which must reach 165° F. Stuffings with meat or shellfish (oyster) ingredients are risky. Always cook these on the stove top or in the oven, and not in the turkey.
  6. A significant risk of food poisoning comes from undercooking the turkey. You can’t tell it’s done by how it looks! While recipes give you hints about testing for “doneness,” such as a golden brown color or seeing juices run clear, these may not be accurate. The only way to make sure your bird is cooked sufficiently to be safe to eat is to measure the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. It must reach 165 degrees F.
  7. It may not be in mom’s recipe, but bring gravy to a full boil before serving.
  8. Keep cold food like salads, Jell-O molds and salad dressing refrigerated until just before serving. Once dinner is over, refrigerate leftovers. If food has been sitting out for two hours or more, it may not be safe to eat.
  9. Use pasteurized eggs in homemade recipes.
  10. After eating, take the remaining meat off the bird and store in a shallow container in the refrigerator. Don’t put an entire carcass into the refrigerator — it won’t cool down quickly enough.

So how do you know if those cramps you’re feeling are innocent indigestion or something more sinister?

Food poisoning can cause fever, stomach pain, vomiting and/or diarrhea, often leading to dehydration. These signs usually appear within six, but up to 48, hours after eating or drinking a contaminated food or beverage. For the elderly, children, infants, pregnant woman and people suffering from compromised immune systems, food poisoning can be severe. When in doubt, get it checked out.

Maybe It’s Time You Just Picked Up the Phone …

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Still haven’t settled on a menu or picked up your turkey for Thanksgiving Day? You’re SERIOUSLY running out of time. Unless you thrive on stress, you may want to let someone else do your dirty work …

A few great local restaurants (Bridge Road Bistro, South Hills Market & Café) were offering pre-made holiday feasts you could order ahead of time, pick up Wednesday and take home to reheat on the big day. But those ships (i.e. deadlines) have sailed.

You may still have time to grab a Bob Evans carry-home Farmhouse Feast featuring a variety of almost-like-homemade holiday favorites. The hearty meal comes complete with your choice of a slow-roasted whole boneless turkey breast or sliced boneless ham, bread and celery dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, buttered sweet corn, green beans with ham, cranberry relish, rolls, a loaf of pumpkin bread and a pumpkin pie with whipped topping.

Call, stop by a restaurant or order at now through December, or while supplies last.

A few local hotels (including the Marriott and Embassy Suites downtown) are also serving Thanksgiving Day buffets. Just be sure to call ahead for more information and reservations.

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Two of the biggest questions on the minds of turkey cookers everywhere are:

  1. How long do I could the darn thing?
  2. And stuff, or not to stuff?

You have questions. I have answers …

How long should I cook my turkey?

This is where I have to give an obligatory speech about how important it is to cook the life out of your turkey so there’s no risk of killing your guests via nasty salmonella or other unsavory critters. Most sources recommend cooking to an internal temperature of 170, but I have a few caveats to add.

First, any bacteria that may have set up shop in your turkey kicks the bucket at lower temperatures, in the 140 degree range. What’s more: Even if you remove your turkey at 170, it’s going to keep cooking inside for a bit, to a higher temperature that will dry the poor thing out even more.

So definitely take it out the oven before it hits 170, and ideally even 10-15 degrees sooner.

How do you know when that is? Inserting a good ol’ meat thermometer into the thickest part of the bird gives you the best reading. Many turkeys also come with automatic pop-up timers these days. They’re convenient, sure, but also don’t pop until you’re past the 170 mark. Meaning they’ll keep cooking after that. And be dry as chalk.

But the “recommended” rule of thumb is this: Roast for 12-15 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature hits, ahem, 165-175 degrees – or, if you want tasty turkey, a little less.

To stuff or not to stuff?

Here again, food safety experts caution against stuffing your bird. A mass of stuffing inside draws heat away from the turkey itself, increasing the risk that your meat won’t cook to a safe temperature.

That could definitely happen. So I also recommend against stuffing the turkey, not just for safety reasons but also quality, too.

All of that bread inside can not only suck up your heat, but also soak up all of the turkey’s natural juices. That may make for mighty moist stuffing, but not tasty turkey.

Cross Wine Shopping Off Your Thanksgiving To-Do List

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Although it’s a wee bit early to start any Thanksgiving cooking, you can go ahead and cross wine shopping off your list today.

Few things stress out hosts more than the pressure of pairing perfect wines to complement the food they’ll be serving. Lucky for them, a traditional Thanksgiving menu is so varied in flavors that a complex (or even a specific) wine is not really your best bet. There are several simple reds AND whites that should work out just fine.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • White: German Rieslings are usually crowd-pleasers because their sweetness appeals to those who don’t think they like wine, yet they are subtly nuanced enough to be appreciated by more experienced wine drinkers. I still prefer a creamy and buttery Chardonnay, but a sweet Riesling or light Pinot Grigio will usually please more of the masses.
  • Red: The Gamay grape goes well with turkey, so look for a nice Beaujolais from France. (It’s light and fruity enough to please most without offending any.) Beaujolais Nouveau is the most prevalent you’ll see, but splurge a few dollars more for a better cru Beaujolais, like Morgon and Fleurie.
  • Sparkling: A festive bubbly is fun, and the touch of sophistication it adds leaves no doubt that you’ve gathered for a special occasion. Champagne (France) is nice, but don’t overlook a less-expensive Prosecco (Italy) or Cava (Spain) either. In fact, you could try both for the cost of a single bottle of decent Champagne.
  • Worth a Splurge: When you have the urge to splurge on some fabulous fruit of the vine, a big red is always a great choice. Opus One is a popular choice, but will set you back about $200. You could buy four or five really nice bottles for that price, so I’d go that route instead. Just explain what type of wine you like and let a knowledgeable employee or friend point you in the right direction. As for a high-end bubbly, there’s pricey Dom Perignon and Cristal, or the more reasonable – but still highly regarded – Veuve Cliquot.
  • And for Dessert: Choosing a dessert wine can be tricky, but Ports are a perfect winter treat with bottles running the price gamut – from $15 to $100-plus. My pick is a richly decadent Sauterne, a fortified French dessert wine that tastes of fine brandy and butterscotch more that straight sugar. Delicious!
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Having just spent a less-than-pleasant hour at a crazier-than-usual Kroger, trust me when I say you need to come up with your Thanksgiving menu – and secure all the necessary groceries – speedy quick.

You do NOT want to be battling these crowds the day before your feast, when there’s enough stress to deal with already.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

The star of your table is a no-brainer (you’ve already bought your fresh turkey, right?) although may want to serve a small ham alongside it for variety. After that’s settled, most of your obligatory side dishes fall neatly into place …

You have to have stuffing, but also mashed potatoes for all that good homemade gravy you’re making. And not just mashed potatoes, but sweet potatoes too. And rolls. (This is definitely a “no carb left behind” kind of meal.) A few token veggies are a must – usually green beans on my side of the family, but peas on my wife’s.

But I always like to throw in at least one or two new sides each year, just for kicks. This year I’m leaning toward a Brussels sprout hash (sautéed with a little bacon) and maybe a colorful succotash with edamame and fresh corn.

And we’ll round things out with buffet of sweet treats – pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, plus some sort or rich chocolate torte.
It’s a pretty basic menu, sure, but the holidays are all about keeping long-standing traditions alive. So bon appétit!

How to Cook Thanksgiving’s Guest of Honor – RIP.

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Yesterday we talked about buying your big Thanksgiving bird. Today, let’s discuss cooking that bad boy!

Here’s some advice from the venerable Old Farmer’s Almanac Everyday Recipes (and me) on how to roast it to earn raves:

  • Position your oven rack so the turkey sits in the lower third of the oven. If you’re cooking it in a bag – which I HIGHLY RECOMMEND – be sure you allow enough space above so the bag won’t touch the heating elements and burst as it inflates during cooking.
  • Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. This low-roasting temperature results in a juicier bird.
  • Remove the neck and giblets from the body cavity, drain any juices and rinse the bird thoroughly under cold water. Drain, blot it dry and set it aside to let it reach room temperature.
  • Stuff the turkey (if you wish) and then truss it: Take a 4- to 6-foot piece of cooking twine and tie the legs together at the ankles. Run the twine around the thighs and under the wings. Pull tightly and make a knot around the excess flesh where the turkey’s neck used to be. Trussing the turkey into a compact shape helps to ensure that it cooks evenly and makes it easier to carve.
  • Place the turkey on the oven rack in a pan deep enough to collect any juices that may run off during cooking. (You’ll want to save these to make awesome gravy later!)
  • Lightly brush the bird with melted butter or oil, then generously season with salt, pepper and your favorite herbs – either on the skin’s surface or, better yet, underneath it between skin and meat. (Just gently ply the skin away from the meet with your fingers, and slather your herbed butter mixture inside to better infuse the meat.) And don’t be stingy with the seasoning, either. Turkeys are big and their meat is dense, so they can withstand (and need) lots of flavorings.
  • Roast the turkey, basting with the pan drippings every 40 to 60 minutes. If you’re using a cooking bag, you don’t have to do this. Yet another reason to use the bag – less work, moister meat!
  • When the skin is golden brown, after approximately 1 to 2 hours, shield the breast with a tent of aluminum foil, shiny side out. To prevent over-browning.
  • Thirty minutes before the end of the roasting time, begin taking the turkey’s temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer in both the thigh and breast areas. Continue doing this in 15-minute increments until the thermometer reads at least 180 degrees in both areas.
  • Remove the bird, cover with aluminum foil and let sit for 30 minutes. This allows the juices to retreat back into the meat, making it easier to carve. (And tastier, to boot!)

When to Buy that Delicious Big Bird

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When you’re ready to head to the store to buy your big bird, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Plan on about 1-2 pounds of turkey per person. (Just depends on how many leftovers you want to enjoy and/or deal with!)
  • If you’re cooking a fresh turkey, allow only 1 or 2 days between buying and roasting it. Be sure to store it in the refrigerator on a tray or pan to catch any juices that may leak out. And don’t worry if your “fresh” turkey seems a little on the frozen side. By law, even fresh ones have to be kept no warmer than 30 degrees.
  • Avoid prestuffed turkeys, as harmful bacteria may be in the stuffing.

And if you go down the frozen route, here are two ways to safely thaw that beast:

  • In the refrigerator in the original wrapper – Allow approximately 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.
  • In cold water – Submerge it in cold water, allowing about 30 minutes per pound to thaw. But be sure to change the water every 30 minutes, and cook the bird immediately after thawing. (Do not refreeze!)

Drinking for a Good Cause

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If you’re gonna drink this holiday season, you might as well do it for a cause …

Gallo Family Vineyards has joined up with Meals on Wheels of America to raise awareness for hunger relief by offering a way for people to help feed American seniors and families in need – all while celebrating with their own friends and loved ones.

Between now and the end of the year, Gallo Family Vineyards will donate $5 to Meals on Wheels for every Gallo wine cork sent in. The company’s goal is to raise $25,000 by Dec. 31. That’s 5,000 corks, so get to sippin’!!

Corks should be mailed to Corks to Fight Hunger Donation, P.O. Box 1154, Grand Rapids, MN 55745-1154. Visit to learn more.

‘Tis the Season … for Eating!

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As I mentioned in this week’s column ( the holidays are a great time for family gatherings, heartfelt gift-giving and, especially, overeating. With office parties and tailgates and potlucks – oh my! – even the most vigilant of calorie-counters can lose their way.

Fortunately, you can adopt a few easy habits to help limit the damage:

  • Eat a substantial snack before going to a dinner party. I know eating before eating may not sound like a sound diet strategy, but it’s the same advice behind the concept of not going grocery shopping when you’re hungry.
  • Cut calories wherever possible. For example, replace regular cream cheese with the reduced-fat variety and you can shave more than 2,000 calories and 120 grams of fat from a typical cheesecake.
  • Give seconds a second thought. Wait 10 minutes before having a second helping. The delay can help keep you from eating too much before your stomach realizes it’s full.

So enjoy the holidays, just don’t ring in the new year with a Santa-sized midsection.