A Journey Begins…and it starts with Rick Bayless and Sargento cheese!


Last week, I spent the day at Sargento, the cheese company near Milwaukee, and met Rick Bayless, a “celebrity” chef who is admired for his Mexican-themed cookbooks and highly-acclaimed restaurants.

A few months ago, Sargento hired Rick to develop a list of the top 10 food trends.  The company also hired a group of food writers and recipe developers, myself included, to create recipes over the coming year incorporating one or two of the as yet unassigned trends and, you guessed it, cheese.

I have never been one to consciously pay attention to trends in food or fashion, for that matter.  Yet trends open us up to fresh ideas, some of which may stick.  Though bell-bottoms may have had their day, these billowy pant legs paved the way for boot-cut jeans and various other options, which have, indeed, had staying power.

Ten years ago, kale was merely a bitter garnish. As it came into vogue more recently, this dark, leafy green became available to people who tried it and liked it.  Now, many people consume this nutrient-rich vegetable regularly and often have a choice among several varieties; some even grow it in their gardens.  So, if trendy translates to accessibility and variety, I am jumping on board.

Towards the end of a fun and informative day touring the Sargento facility, spending time in the test kitchen, tasting, and learning to grade cheese, we listened as Rick Bayless talked about trends ranging from habanero peppers and fermented foods to Peruvian and Middle Eastern cuisine and the use of herbs in desserts.

At “the big reveal”, I was tasked with bitter greens and braised meats.  And while there will still be salads with spring greens, baked oatmeals and grilled options, I am truly excited about using these trends as a stepping stone to flavorful new recipes that can be enjoyed at home.

Just as spinach was once the bridge to kale, kale will now serve as the gateway to such options as collard and beet greens.  So, when you buy a fresh bunch of beets at the your local market, think twice about tossing the nutrient-dense leaves.  And while braising may not be a new technique, sometimes a little nudge is helpful to move us beyond our go-to recipes and try something altogether new.

Coincidently, the day before I left for Milwaukee, I created the following recipe inspired by a Greek cookbook I reviewed called  A Greek Journey with Fork and Pen.  It merges my food trends perfectly, and the final topping of cheese brings together all the flavors.  Perhaps next time I should swap the spinach for, say, dandelion greens?

Braised Chicken with Rice and Spinach
Although this recipe requires a slow braise, it is largely a hands-off meal. The slow cooking will reward you with exceptional flavor in this wholesome, one-pot dinner.
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  1. 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  2. 3 tablespoons olive oil
  3. 1 large onion, chopped
  4. 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  5. 1 cup water
  6. 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh, minced)
  7. Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  8. 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  9. 3 1/2 cups chicken broth
  10. 3/4 cup (5 ounces) brown rice (see notes)
  11. 5 ounces (about 4 cups, lightly packed) curly spinach, roughly chopped (could use other dark, leafy green of choice)
  12. 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  13. Parmesan or Manchego cheese, for serving...Sargento's 6 Cheese Italian or Colby-Jack would be delicious options, too
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat. Sauté the onions for about 5 minutes, or until they begin to soften and brown a bit on the edges.
  2. Add the chicken, and cook for about 5 minutes, browning on both sides.
  3. Add the tomatoes with their juice, the water, thyme, sugar, salt and pepper. (I adjusted over the course of cooking and found a total of 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and a scant half teaspoon of fresh pepper to be perfect for our tastes.)
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
  5. At this point, I removed the chicken to a plate and half shredded, half cut it into bite-size pieces, and then returned to the pot.
  6. Finally add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, then add the brown rice. Cover and continue cooking over low heat (you want the mixture to be at a very gentle simmer) for another 45-50 minutes or until the rice is cooked but is not mushy. (Check early a time or two as the rice will continue to cook in the hot broth for a few more minutes after being removed from the heat.)
  7. Stir in the chopped spinach, the balsamic vinegar, and check for seasoning.
  8. Serve with a sprinkling of cheese, if desired.
  1. Using 3/4 cup of rice will yield a finished product that is like a thick soup after the mixture sits for a few minutes. If you would prefer to use white rice, you will only need to simmer for 20 minutes or so. If you use pasta, as was done in the original recipe, you may only need to simmer 10-15 minutes, depending on the type of pasta being used.
The Fountain Avenue Kitchen http://fountainavenuekitchen.com/

The best seat in the Sargento headquarters!

No lack of cheese at the Sargento company store!

Chef Urich prepares a mulit-course lunch in the Sargento test kitchen using all the latest trends and, of course, lots of delicious cheeses.

Learning to “grade” cheese involves boring a hole in a large block to retrieve a sample.

Meeting with Rick Bayless in advance of “the big reveal”–learning which flavor trends we would be working with this year.

This I HAD to try! Chocolate cheese is shockingly delicious…sort of like fudge, but better!

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  1. Mary Lou Keller

    Ooh my! I am so jealous Ann! All tha t cheese? My idea of heaven on earth! What an exciting opportunity for you…
    I will look forward to some new recipes!

    1. Ann

      Thanks so much, Mary Lou! This is going to be fun…and with all the cheese options, it is bound to be delicious!

  2. Audra

    What an amazing opportunity! I am truly looking forward to the wonderful, trendy recipes that will evolve this year. You are an amazing recipe creator and I can’t wait to experience the trends you set for the food blogger world in the near future!

    1. Ann

      Thank you for your kind comments, Audra! I am looking forward to the challenge and excited about trying some new things myself…and sharing them!

  3. Beverley

    I’m not a great lover of cheese but what an experience for you! Can’t believe how big that block of cheese is! You look great xoxo

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    1. Ann

      Thanks so much, Sonali! It was a memorable day, for sure. Perhaps you should come and cook with me one of these days!!

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