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Food Network?s ?Big Daddy? says simple dishes at heart of cooking

| Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012
Tiramasu Cupcakes
Tiramasu Cupcakes

Chef Aaron McCargo Jr. certainly knows how to spice things up for Valentine's Day.

Whether it's the hot pepper sauce in his Ultimate Chicken Salad, the chipotle chile peppers in his Spicy Beef Salad or the diced green chiles in his Pork Empanadas, McCargo's culinary creations can bring the heat.

And, it doesn't take a lot of effort to make it happen, says the star of Food Network's "Big Daddy's House" and Season 4 winner of "The Next Food Network Star," who will share some of his recipes in local appearances this weekend.

"That's why I created my cookbook," says McCargo, of his "Simply Done, Well Done" (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95) collection of easy, inexpensive recipes. "You don't have to feel intimidated with my simple dishes that aren't breaking the bank and come out with the same results as when I make them."

Whether the goal is to win someone's heart with a special dinner or to entertain a house full of relatives, McCargo finds strength in the power of bold flavors, especially for impromptu get-togethers.

When friends pop in, he says, "I always tell people to have some basic spices on hand. Some cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, scallions, chive and cilantro, along with some fresh fruit and fresh onion to flavor food; these are my essentials. You can strand me on an island with these, and I'll be just fine."

For Valentine's Day, the Camden, N.J., native says he is not a fan of old traditions or standard restaurant fare. In fact, he prefers to stay at home with his family on the holiday and prepare a special meal. He and his wife have three children, Josh, 18; Justin, 8, and Jordan, 5.

"If you don't go out, you can have a few special appetizers on the table," McCargo says. "You don't have to serve the standard 'sides' or the proper white or red wine. Instead of potatoes, you can have butternut squash and orzo or jasmine rice and bean sprouts. If you like cold beer with lobster tails, it's okay. This is me, 24/7."

McCargo was working as the executive chef of catering at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia when his wife persuaded him to audition for "The Next Food Network Star." Before that, he gained work experience in nine New Jersey restaurants and in 2003 opened a place in Camden, called McCargo's Restaurant. He attended Atlantic Cape Community College Academy of Culinary Arts.

He credits his hospital position for inspiring him to cook with flavorful spices, because he was responsible for preparing menus for patients with special dietary needs, many that included restricted-salt diets. Last February, he partnered with a national network of dialysis facilities to promote healthy diets for chronically ill patients.

"I have a lot of close friends with diabetes. I understand their struggle to follow their dietary guidelines and still enjoy delicious meals with big and bold flavor," he says. McCargo continues to support causes that promote healthy eating. In 2009, he served as the spokesperson for a nonprofit organization, Share Our Strength, and its efforts to work with the restaurant industry to combat childhood hunger in America.

"It's something I can do with the gift that I have," he says.

He has demonstrated his casual cooking style in recent TV appearances on the "Nate Berkus Show" and "The Chew" and says he currently is working on a project with a West Coast production company to develop a new healthy-cooking show. He also launched a signature line of spice blends through The Great American Spice Co.

These recipes are from Aaron McCargo, Jr.'s "Simply Done, Well Done" (Wiley, $19.95)

Tomato and Fennel Soup

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium-size fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced (about 2 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 can (15 ounces) peeled tomatoes, drained and diced
  • 1 1/2 quarts chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a large stockpot, heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat until the butter melts and the mixture is hot and bubbling. Add the fennel, garlic and thyme and cook, stirring, until the fennel softens, for about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, broth and lemon juice, and bring to a boil. Season with the salt and peppe,r and serve.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Spicy Beef Salad With Peppers, Onion and Fresh Herbs

For the vinaigrette:

  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup Sriracha or another hot pepper sauce
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sugar, to taste

For the steak:

  • 6 chipotle chile peppers in adobo sauce
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/4 pounds flank steak
  • Oil to coat grill grates

For the salad:

  • 4 whole roasted, jarred red peppers, cut into strips
  • 2 jalapeno chile peppers, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1 medium-size red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup salted peanuts
  • 1/2 cup freshly shucked corn kernels or thawed frozen kernels
  • 2 bags (10 ounces) mesclun salad mix, or 1 bag (10 ounces) mesclun salad mix and 1 bag (11 1/2-ounces) baby spinach

To prepare the vinaigrette: In a small glass, ceramic or another nonreactive bowl, whisk together the orange juice, soy sauce, Sriracha and olive oil. Season with sugar and set aside.

To prepare the steak: In a blender, puree the chipotle peppers, olive oil, lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste to a thick paste. Rub the paste over both sides of the flank steak and put the steak in a glass dish. Set aside at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes. (Do not leave the steak at room temperature for longer than 60 minutes.)

Meanwhile, prepare a medium-hot to hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill and oil the grill grates. Grill for 6 to 7 minutes on each side, until medium-rare. Transfer to a cutting board, let the steak rest for about 5 minutes, and slice on the bias into thin slices.

To prepare the salad: In a large glass, ceramic or another nonreactive bowl, toss together the roasted peppers, jalape?s, cilantro, red onion, peanuts and corn. Dress with the vinaigrette, reserving a few tablespoons to dress the steak. Arrange the greens on a serving platter and top with the peanut-corn mixture. Shingle the steak over the salad, drizzle with the remaining dressing, and serve.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Stuffed Grilled Boneless Pork Chops With Hickory Bacon, Smoked Gouda and Marmalade Glaze

For the glaze:

  • 1 cup orange marmalade
  • 1/4 cup chopped green onions, white and green parts
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup spicy chile oil
  • Oil to coat grill grates

For the stuffing:

  • Water
  • 9 ounces fresh baby spinach
  • 6 slices hickory bacon, cooked and coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 6 ounces smoked Gouda cheese, cut into small cubes
  • 1 tablespoon chopped chipotle chile peppers in adobo sauce

For the chops:

  • 6 (8-ounce) boneless pork loin chops
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil

To prepare the glaze: In a small bowl, stir together the marmalade, scallions, soy sauce, and chile oil. Set half the marmalade sauce aside for cooking and the other half for serving.

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill and oil the grill grates.

To prepare the stuffing: In a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, bring about 1 inch of water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Steam the spinach in a steaming basket set in the saucepan until wilted, for about 2 1/2 minutes. (Alternatively, wilt the spinach in a microwave-safe bowl covered with plastic wrap. Microwave on high power for 2 to 3 minutes.) Lift the spinach from the steaming basket and transfer to a large bowl. Add the bacon, cheese and chipotle chiles, and mix well.

To prepare the chops: With a small, sharp knife, slit the side of each chop to create a pocket that goes nearly, but not all the wa,y through the chop. Wiggle the knife in the incision to open the pocket.

Using a spoon or your fingers, stuff each chop with the spinach filling. Secure the openings with toothpicks, and season the chops with salt and pepper. Brush both sides of the chops with the canola oil.

Grill the chops for 6 to 8 minutes with the grill covered, turning the chops 3 times during grilling. Remove the lid and brush the tops of the chops with the marmalade sauce for cooking. Continue grilling, turning once and brushing the other side with the marmalade sauce for cooking, until both sides of each chop are nicely browned and cooked through, for 2 to 4 minutes longer. Remove the chops from the grill and let them rest for 10 minutes before serving with the reserved sauce.

Makes 6 servings.

Tiramasu Cupcakes

For the filling:

  • 1 cup mascarpone cheese
  • 3 tablespoons coffee liqueur (such as Tia Maria or Kahlua)
  • 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 container (8 ounces) frozen whipped topping

For the cupcakes:

  • 1 box white (18.25 ounces) cake mix
  • 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 3/4 cup hot brewed coffee
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

For the frosting:

  • 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons white chocolate liqueur (such as Godiva)
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • Dark chocolate shavings

To prepare the filling: In a large bowl, using a handheld mixer on medium speed, beat together the mascarpone, coffee liqueur and condensed milk until smooth and blended. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the frozen whipped topping. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and for as long as 6 hours.

To prepare the cupcakes: Bake the cupcakes according to the package directions. Let cool on a wire cooling rack. In medium-size bowl, stir the confectioners' sugar into the hot coffee until the sugar dissolves; stir in the vanilla and set aside.

To prepare the frosting: In a large bowl, using a handheld mixer set on medium speed, beat the cream cheese and butter for 2 to 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and white chocolate liqueur. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the confectioners' sugar to the frosting until it reaches a spreadable consistency.

Using a fork, pierce the cupcakes several times and brush each liberally with the sweetened coffee. Spoon the mascarpone mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip and inject small amounts into the center of each cupcake (insert the pastry-bag tip into the top of each cupcake). Using a spatula, frost the cupcakes liberally with the frosting. Garnish with the chocolate shavings.

Makes 24 servings.

Additional Information:

Celebrity chef Aaron McCargo Jr.

What: Cooking demos from Food Network celebrity chef

When and where:

• Noon Saturday at Pine Market District

• 5 p.m Saturday at Robinson Market District

Cost: Free, but make reservations for limited seating

Details: Website

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