Category Archives: Helena

The Flood

I cannot think of a better title. “The Flood”. It’s been my life for the last month. My small burrito shop here in Helena experienced a minor flood on December 10th, 2009 when a sprinkler head froze and then thawed and went off in the middle of the night. It’s now January 11th, 2010 and the burrito shop is still not open.

It’s been one trying last month. I see a light at the end of tunnel. I now have a beautiful new decorative concrete floor in the store. I will have new paint on the walls by Friday. Kleen King has been in and will be in tomorrow and possibly Thursday cleaning up the dust created by the concrete floor install. I will meet with my food and beverage distributors on Thursday to plan for Monday deliveries. My staff have been notified of the long awaited opening date.  On Wednesday, January 20th, Taco del Sol Helena will reopen.

Decorative concrete flooring at Taco del Sol. Now all we need is trim, tables, chairs and customers.

I have to remind myself that in whole scheme of things, this is not a terrible loss. It could have been a lot worse. A lot worse. Through this though, I realize that I am one that needs to feel useful and be the one who knows what to do, and then simply gets it done. Handling the insurance issues and not being able to determine what’ll happen right then and there is beyond my normal scope of experience and being. I have struggled the most with this.

I’ve kept myself busy by hosting a cocktail party right before Christmas, making a few Christmas gifts (definitely less than originally planned-I have a luscious Early Grey with Orange chocolate ganache still sitting in my fridge that was to be made into small gifts), and working in Butte, MT helping a fellow entrepreneur get his Taco del Sol up and running.

Unfortunately, I have not been cooking. And I feel its void in my life. Sometimes I think I am crazy that I like cooking so much and that it means so much to me. But I have just finished the movie Julie & Julia and felt kinship with both ladies. I am not such a freak afterall!

Three months ago I had bought second hand copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volumes 1 & 2 and am ashamed to say that I have yet to open them.  But having now seen Julie & Julia, I have pulled the volumes off of my bookshelf.  Now what I do with them will be up to me.  Maybe I have friends over for dinner and wine, having cooked a complete meal out of the cookbooks.  I like that idea.  And then I will write about it.

I may have fallen off of the horse but I will get back on and pick up where I left off on this blog.  I have a feeling that I will go into a frenzy of cooking once I feel that Taco del Sol is on the right track again and I can concentrate on my food experiences without distraction.  I long for that day.


Winey Goat Soup

My friend Kim and I shared a 1/2 hog and a 1/4 beef from Montana City Meats.   I needed to clear out my freezer to make space in preparation for the bounty of meat that would be arriving.  I pulled out a package of goat stew meat from one of my favorite vendors at the Helena Farmer’s Market, John & Jodi Mann of Sheep Spring Farm and put it in the fridge to thaw.

Well, a week later, I still hadn’t done anything with the meat and was feeling a little desparate to get it cooked up before it went bad.  I looked into my fridge and assessed my situation.  First, I kicked myself for not having pulled out a container of frozen goat stock that I had made last year with a goat shoulder bone.  It would take forever to thaw! 

I looked around desparately for a substitute, not even allowing myself to consider the high sodium, no flavor stock from the grocery store. I locked eyes on a half bottle of wine.  I am a wine snob and refuse to drink a red wine any older than 2 days, even if it’s been vacuum sealed after being open.  Yeah, yeah-I’m a snob.  I decided to give it a whirl and see what would happen if I were to make a wine stock soup. 

I simply poured the wine into a medium saucepan, added some water, and literally went shopping in my fridge. I pulled out parsnips, carrots, celery, panang curry paste, and some fat cut from a tenderloin steak that for some reason I had saved and added all of this to the wine water.

I looked around in my pantry and came up with dried herbs from the garden, bay leaves, and my “ultimate find”-dried morel mushrooms harvested while on a Rock Creek fishing trip 2 years ago.

Winey goat soup ingredients.

I let the concoction simmer on the stove for several hours and in the end was quite pleased with my creation; all pulled together with what I had on hand.  A side note about the fat.  I believe it may have added some depth to the stock.  At the end of the cooking time, I simply pulled out what was remaining and threw it out…. Actually, I lie; I ate it.  And it was good.


Serves 4


  • 1/2 bottle red wine
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp dried oregano, crushed
  • 1 tsp dried thyme, crushed
  • 2 tsp panang curry paste
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 red onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 1″ lengths, those then quartered
  • 2 medium parsnips, peeled, cut into 1″ lengths, those then quartered
  • 2 medium celery stalks, cut crosswise in 1/4″ slices
  • 10 dried morel mushrooms
  • 1 lb goat stew meat


Pour wine and water into saucepan and stir to combine.  Bring to boil over high heat.  Turn heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add the herbs, onion and garlic.  Simmer for another 5 minutes. 

Add the remaining ingredients, turn the heat to high and bring to a strong boil.  Turn heat to low or medium low and simmer gently for your desired cooking time (cook at least an hour but the longer it cooks, the more rich it will become).  Check it occasionally to determine if you need to add more water to keep it “soup” like.  Season with salt and pepper, serve hot.

Helena Farmers Market

Helena Farmer's Market

Helena Farmer's Market at the Lewis & Clark Fairgrounds

My friend Julian and I went to the Helena Farmers Market this morning.  It has moved from the summer location of Fuller Avenue to the Fairgrounds in the new grand stand building.  It will be held there for the next 5 weeks. 

The new space is great for this particular use.  The wall of windows on the southeast side of the building let the bright morning sun shine through into the market space.  I almost felt like I was back at Pike Place Market in Seattle.  Almost. 

There is still some fall produce being sold.  I bought some crisp, deep green spinach, fresh arugula, thick leeks for a crazy minimal price and a huge red onion from one vendor.  I found my favorite free range eggs from another Sheep Spring Farm

Farmer's Market purchases

My spinach, leeks, arugula, onion and free range eggs from the Helena Farmer's Market.

I got home loaded down with my “harvest” and got busy making breakfast.  When I sat down to eat, I realized that my meal was all local.  Now, the coffee beans obviously weren’t from here BUT they were roasted by Firetower Coffee here in town. 

There is some opinion that when you have an opportunity to either buy local or organic brought in from distant areas, your best option is to buy local.  The reasoning is that less fossil fuel is used to bring the goods to market, there’s a good chance that the producer is growing organic but cannot afford the certification nor the chemicals that would make it non-organic and that lastly you are supporting a local economy.  I also like the fact that you have the opportunity to actually talk to the producer and ask any pertinent questions about the goods.  I even ask if I can visit their farm/facility.  I always get a resounding “yes!” response.

Local Breakfast

My mostly locally sourced breakfast.

Thai Cooking Classes

Thai Class Setup

Ready for class. Ingredients and tools are set up in stations for each recipe.

My friend Heather asked if I would be interested in doing a Thai cooking class for her bridal shower.  The idea intrigued me, I love a good challenge and had been bandying around the idea of hosting cooking classes.  I said yes.

In the end, the bridal shower was themed “Thai the Knot”.  It was held in Butte, MT at a local church kitchen.  We had approximately 20 guests in attendance.  Fifteen of those participated in the “class” and the others sat back, chitchatted and observed the activity in the kitchen.  All total, they made a Vietnamese Meatball appetizer, Thai Cucumber salad, shrimp Panang curry, Tom Yum Goong (Thai shrimp soup), and for dessert a sticky rice pudding.

It was a fantastic way to celebrate a friend’s upcoming wedding.  In the end, we had a full Thai meal and everyone walked away with a better understanding of Thai cooking.  For me, the fun was in the details; I answered many a question about where particular ingredients such as kaffir lime leaves, Panang curry, and lemon grass could be found.  I was able to highlight their local market, Front Street Market, for some of those ingredients.

A few weeks later, my friend Amy asked if I would put on a Thai cooking class for her aunts, mom and sister who were coming to visit Helena for Amy’s birthday. I agreed and adjusted the menu for 8. We held it on our usual Thursday Martini night. In addition to Amy’s family, Erin and Cooper joined us. Erin helped with dishes, Cooper took photos.  It was an amazing evening; drinking, cooking and finally eating a wonderful meal with great people.

Van Dam Class Participants

Amy and family. Chai martinis in hand.

Prep for Cucumber Salad

Prepping for Thai cucumber salad


Erin's dishpan hands. Thanks Erin!

If you have any interest in hosting a cooking class put on by me, email me at There are many options for classes (Indian, Thai, Sushi, Mexican, American, etc) and for numbers of attendees. Classes will range from $30 to $50 per person depending on the class subject.

What’s for Dinner? 11/8/2009

I just finished a yummy dinner of leftovers from the previous night.  They were from a dinner that I shared with my friends Cooper, Erin & Jeremy before we went to the last showing of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Myrna Loy Center

It was a lovely time replete with gin martinis expertly mixed by Cooper for a pre-dinner cocktail,  a Fess Parker chardonnay with dinner, and good conversation over delicious food.  Ah yes, the food.  We had Souvlaki beef skewers made with tenderloin steaks from MT City Meats, Greek yogurt tzatziki, a cauliflower/parsnip gratin and a “house” salad with homemade salad dressings.

As for my rendition of the leftovers, I simply sauteed the remaining beef and onions with the marinade over high heat to make a “gravy” out of the marinade while cooking the beef.  I reheated the cauli/parsnip gratin at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.  I added sauteed cubed sweet potatoes as another side dish.

Souvlaki Leftovers

Rendition of leftovers. Plate by Emily Free Wilson.


serves 4-6


  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 small red onion, cut into 1/2″ square pieces
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons crushed, dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds beef steak, cubed into 3/4″ cubes


  • 8 oz Fage Greek Whole Milk Yogurt
  • 1/2 English cucumber, sliced lengthwise, deseeded and shredded
  • 1 garlic clove minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Pinch of salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Mix all of the marinade ingredients together in a small mixing bowl.  Place cubed meat and chopped onions into ziplock bag.  Pour marinade over meat and onions, seal bag and work the marinade around in the bag so that it completely coats the beef and onion.  Lay bag flat in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours to overnight.

Mix the tzatziki ingredients until well combined.  Place in refrigerator to let flavors meld. 

30 minutes before you are ready to make skewers of the beef and onion, pull the marinating bag out of the refrigerator and let sit on the counter.  When ready to start creating the skewers, light your outdoor grill or start heating the Cuisinart Griddler (what I used).  Skewer the beef and onions.

Cook over searing heat, turning every couple of minutes.  Grill for 8-10 minutes.  Place on serving plate and let rest for a few minutes.  Serve with Tzatziki sauce.


Serves 4 – 6

  • 1 large head cauliflower, roughly chopped
  • 4 – 6 parsnips, peeled, cut into 2″ long pieces, the thicker pieces further cut into halves and/or quarters
  • 1 1/2 cups finely grated parmesan; divided
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt and pepper

Place cauliflower and parsnips into steaming basket and steam over boiling water for 12-15 minutes until very tender when pierced with a fork.  When done, pull off of heat and let them slightly cool.

Meanwhile, make garlic butter.  Melt butter over medium heat  in a small saucepan.  Once melted, add minced garlic and swirl pan.  Turn heat to low and let the garlic meld with the butter.  Do not brown the garlic.  Let sit on low heat for 3-4 minutes, turn heat off.

Put steamed vegetables into mixing bowl of large cuisinart.  Pour 1/2 cup cream over the top.  Add garlic butter and 1 cup parmesan.  Puree mixture until you reach a desired consistency, adding more cream as necessary.  I like mine to be that of mashed potato consistency.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Spread mixture into buttered 9″ round metal baking pan.  Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese on top.

Bake in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.  Broil for 4 minutes.  Serve hot.