Flavors: Holiday Tips from Chefs Joanie Swords and Travis Stimpson

Dec 18, 2017

Storefront of Local Kitchen and Bar in West Billings.
Credit Stella Fong

The dark chocolate cake edged with perfectly piped ribbons on a bright white cake stand.  The auburn browned turkey on a silver platter garnished with glistening identical cuts of carrot.  These are images on the cover of food magazines. You are mesmerized, and then say “I can do that.” So you challenge yourself and spend the hours securing the right ingredients, and then preparing and cooking in the kitchen. At the very end, your cake and turkey vaguely resembles the photo. Furthermore, you are not all that sure the tastes warranted the effort.

Executive Chef Travis Stimpson of Local Kitchen and Bar and Pastry Chef Joanie Swords of Harper and Madison provide some hints on how to enjoy preparing the holiday meal for your friends and family. They also share some dishes that can be easily prepared. Chef Stimpson will go through the steps of searing duck breast accompanied by shaved Brussels sprouts and mashed sweet potatoes while Chef Swords shares her cinnamon bread pudding made with her delectable caramel rolls.

Executive Chef Travis Stimpson with seared duck breast, shaved Brussels sprouts and mashed sweet potatoes.
Credit Stella Fong

"I have a great story on trying to make something on the cover of Gourmet Magazine. A white chocolate 'fru fru' cake. This was a long time ago. It had white chocolate ruffles. It was a three-day process and at the end of the three days I ended up putting my fist in the middle of it,” Swords told with a smile and continued, “I was so frustrated. It was not turning out and it was awful but I learned a good lesson. Don’t try to do something you don’t have the skill sets for and I didn’t have the skill set at the time.”

The holidays are not the time to test your skills. Because there are so many other added pressures it is best to keep it manageable and comfortable. At Harper and Madison, Swords has a large binder with recipes secured in plastic covers. She says, “Nothing is too complicated in our binder.” This is because Swords hires help of all levels even those who do not have cooking experience. This allowance of hiring people who have want and passion to cooking may be likened to Alice Waters’ allowance of those into the Chez Panisse kitchen back in the 1970s. Not only did Waters create a local food movement, but she spurned a love of food for those who wanted to cook and for the diners.

Chef Stimpson encourages preparing in advance.  At Local Kitchen and Bar, Stimpson shares, “In the kitchen we think rapid-fire fast because we do it all the time every day. In your own home, you don’t want to think that quickly or rapidly. My strong recommendation is for the things you see on TV or in cookbooks, potentially plan that out.  Put a couple days in advance. Preplanning ahead can help preparation of dish.” He even further recommended stepping through each recipe and putting a time to each step. Then for recipes that go awry, renaming the dish as though you purposely aimed for the final result, will alleviate your angst whereas the diner will never know you made a mistake.

Mise en place for the makings of Cinnamon Bread Pudding at Harper and Madison.
Credit Stella Fong

We first step into the kitchen of Harper and Madison where Chef Swords walked us through making her Cinnamon Bread Pudding. Cut-up chunks of caramel rolls and leftover bread go into a mixture of eggs and cream. The secret to delicious success is to use some of her caramel rolls she makes at Harper and Madison and to be sure to accompany the pudding with Brandy Sauce. The bread pudding can be prepared a few days in advance and then heated up to be served with warmed Brandy Sauce and a dollop of whipped cream.

Harper and Madison, a neighborhood gathering space in the hospital corridor.
Credit Stella Fong

At Local Kitchen and Bar, Chef Stimpson cooks up a seared duck breast with mashed sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. He began with scoring the skin of the duck breast with cross hatch marks, being sure to not cut all the way into the flesh. Then before putting the breast into a pan heating with canola oil, he seasons the meat with salt and pepper. As the duck cooks, first fat side down, the fat renders into the pan. After a couple of minutes, basting of the melted fat onto the duck continues the cooking. Finally the duck breast can finish cooking in the over or basting can continue on the stove top for about 7 minutes more for medium doneness.

Next Stimpson sautés thinly sliced Brussels sprouts with onions. Cooking in a hot pan caramelizes the vegetable and gives it a sweetness that would otherwise be lost if the Brussels sprout were boiled. In fact, according to Stimpson, boiling brings out the sulfur characteristics imparting a bitter taste. 

With the mashed sweet potatoes, Stimpson believes baking brings out the most sweetness in the potato. He uses the light color tuber versus the bright colored yam. After peeling the cooked potato, he adds paprika for spiciness as well as color.  Then cinnamon, brown sugar and garlic powder are added along with milk. The milk gives the concoction richness and lightness.

The potatoes and Brussels sprouts are plated with the duck breast that has been cut at an angle into 5 or 7 pieces. Stimpson believes placing the meat in old number slices on the plate provides for better visual presentation.

During these holidays, enjoy the time you cook for family and friends with some preplanning and preparing recipes that are within your comfort and skill level. Your table does not have to imitate those magazine photos. What is more important is gathering friends and family and sharing the spirit of the holidays.


From Joanie Swords of Harper and Madison:

The Alice Waters of Billings, Pastry Chef Joanie Swords.
Credit Stella Fong

Cinnamon Bread Pudding

10 cups cubed bread (white, wheat, or cinnamon raisin)
3 cups half and half
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup white granulated sugar
5 eggs
1 tablespoon cinnamon

In a large bowl, mix together sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon. Add eggs, cream and half and half and whisk until mixed. Pour over bread cubes and soak for 30 minutes, tossing once at 15 minutes. Spray a 9x13 pan with pan spary and press cubes into pan. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour at 300 degrees. Remove foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes.

Duck breast scored with cross hatch cuts.
Credit Stella Fong

Brandy Sauce

2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
8 egg yolks
2 cups heavy cream
¾ cup brandy
1 tablespoon vanilla

Beat sugar, butter and eggs until fluffy. Heat cream to a simmer. Add cream to the egg mixture to warm it. Transfer to a saucepan and cook to consistency of heavy cream. Add brandy and vanilla.

From Travis Stimpson of Local Kitchen and Bar:

Pan Seared Duck Breast

1 duck breast (6 to 7 oz)
1 T. oil
Salt and pepper

Take the duck breast, fat side up, and score the fat with the point of a knife to make a cross hatch pattern across all exposed fat.  Heat a saute pan, with the oil, on high on the stove top, getting the pan very hot.  Place the duck breast, fat side down, in the hot oil.  This will sizzle and pop very quickly so take care placing it in the pan.  Once it is in the pan allow it to cook for about a minute and then give it a quarter turn to expose the fat to hotter spots in the pan.  Allow it to cook in this position for about two minutes then turn the duck breast so the flesh side is down and the fat is up.

Gently tilt the pan and begin basting the breast with spoonfuls of hot fat and oil pooled in the lowest part of the pan.  Continue to do this for two minutes and then turn the breast over and repeat the process on the flesh side. 

Repeatedly doing this will cook the duck through to center but you can also finish it in the oven.  Should you choose to do so, heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Remove the duck breast from the stove top and place it in the oven, preferably on a pie tin or metal dish of some kind.  There is no need to add fat or oil to the roasting pan you are using.  Cook the duck for 6 to 10 minutes depending on your preferred level of doneness. 

Regardless of the chosen method of finishing, remove the duck from the heat and allow it to rest on a cutting board for about 3 minutes.  Once it has rested you can then slice the breast without worry of it being dry, and plate it.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes

2 large sweet potatoes
1 T. paprika
1 T. brown sugar
1 t. cumin
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. cinnamon
¼ c. milk

Roast the sweet potatoes whole for 1 to 1 ½ hours at 375 degrees.  Once they are soft enough to put a knife through with no resistance, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool slightly. 

Regardless of the chosen method of finishing, remove the duck from the heat and allow it to rest on a cutting board for about 3 minutes.  Once it has rested you can then slice the breast without worry of it being dry, and plate it.

Once they’ve cooled, peel the outer skin off, which will have separated from the flesh of the potato.  Put the potato into a mixing bowl and add the spices.  Mix together until they are combined and the sweet potatoes take on the bright red color from the paprika.  Add the milk and whisk until smooth.  Then heat them back up to preferred temperature on the stove top in a saute pan or sauce pan.

Thinly slicing Brussels sprouts for optimal cooking.
Credit Stella Fong

Shaved Brussels Sprouts

1 pound of Brussels sprouts
½ red onion
Salt and pepper to taste

Thinly shave the Brussels sprouts, discarding the nub cut from the stalk.  Dice the red onion to a very fine dice.

Start a saute pan on the stovetop, on medium high, with about 1 T. of oil and allow to heat for a little under a minute.  Once the pan is hot, throw in the Brussel sprouts and immediately add the onion.  Toss the pan, or stir with a wooden spoon, to evenly coat the ingredients with the hot oil.  Allow them to cook on that heat for about thirty seconds before stirring again.  Continue to stir over heat occasionally until they have caramelized to the desired doneness.