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What's Cooking? - Posted April 28, 2017 noon
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

Open-Air Dining

One of the area’s most skilled and awarded culinary talents, Chef Rocky Dunnam knows exactly why we crave fresh foods in the spring. “As we come out of a long winter, the weather gets warmer and our bodies feel the necessity to be a little lighter,” says the Elizabeth Jane Bivins Culinary Center’s executive chef. “We go from wanting stews and heavy protein, red meat, to lighter meats like chicken or fish. It’s the beginning of garden season. We want good seasonal berries, vegetables and fresh produce.”

For this issue, he followed that lead by suggesting recipes meant to be enjoyed outdoors during the Panhandle’s nicest period of weather. His brie-and-fig sandwich tickles every single taste bud with a savory, sweet, tart combination. Ahi tuna is one of his “all-time favorite” dishes, and he flavors it with a simple dry rub containing brown sugar, ground chili powder, and smoked Spanish paprika, “similar to what I’d do with a brisket.” For dessert, he suggest a mint-berry panna cotta. Italy’s version of flan, this velvety cream dish employs mint to give it a fresh taste –and a unique light-green tint.


Ahi Tuna with Cilantro Gremolata
2 ahi tuna steaks
2 ounces olive oil
1 bunch cilantro, fine chopped
1 jalapeño, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, fresh and ground to paste
1 clove garlic, fresh and ground to paste
Juice/zest of 1 lime
2 ounces soy sauce
2 ounces brown sugar
1 ounce salt
1 ounce pepper
Optional:
1 avocado
¼ red onion
Drizzle of Sriracha sauce

For tuna, season steak with salt and pepper. Sear in hot pan with olive oil, approximately 1 minute each side. Rest tuna before slicing. To make cilantro gremolata mix cilantro, jalapeño, lime zest, ginger and garlic. Add brown sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour half of mixture directly onto steak while searing second side. Reserve other half for plating. Slice tuna against grain into thin slices. Fan slices onto plate. Top with fresh gremolata. Optional: Garnish with avocado, onion and sriracha.

Makes 2 servings


Brie Fig Sandwich
4 slices bread (I like Honey Oat.)
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ red onion, julienned
1 teaspoon sugar
2 ounces fig jam
4 ounces brie
Butter
1 Granny Smith apple, cut into thin slices
¼ cup Arugula

Saute onion and sugar in oil until caramelized. Spread one side of each piece of bread with fig jam. Slice brie and place on top of jam. Follow with apple slices. Top with arugula and onions. Finish with second slice of bread. Add butter to saute pan. Grill sandwich on low heat for approximately 2 minutes each side. Cut in half and serve warm.

Makes 2 servings


Mint Berry Panna Cotta
½ cup whole milk
1 package unflavored gelatin
1 ½ cups heavy cream
3 teaspoons mint jelly
¼ cup sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1 white chocolate bar
1 dark chocolate bar
3 ounces mixed berries

Place milk in saucepan. Sprinkle gelatin over milk and let stand for 5 minutes. Add cream, jelly, sugar and salt. Slowly heat until sugar dissolves completely. Stir continuously. Pour mixture into serving vessels. Chill until set, 6 to 24 hours. When set, garnish with chocolate shavings and berries.

Makes 4 servings

Meet the Cook: Chef Rocky Dunnam of the Elizabeth Jane Bivins Culinary Center and Nineteen49 Catering

Growing up in the northeast Panhandle town of Darrouzett, Chef Rocky Dunnam taught himself to cook when he was around 8 years old. After his parents’ divorce, Dunnam and his sister went to live with their father – who didn’t know how to cook. “I realized, at a very young age, I was either going to have to learn to do this better or settle for mediocre food,” Dunnam says. Rather than settle, he started experimenting in the kitchen.

After high school, he pursued a pre-law degree in Oklahoma while working for a variety of restaurants. “I was good at front-of-house stuff – serving, bartending – but always was able to explain a dish so well [to customers] I wanted to eat it myself, because it sounded amazing,” he says. After shifts ended, he often would prepare food in an Applebee’s kitchen, serving it to his fellow wait staff. It became a passion. “I’d be sitting in class thinking about trying a new recipe, a new dish. I couldn’t wait to get to work,” he says. That’s when he realized a law degree might not be his best career choice.

Before long, Dunnam had jumped into the culinary world with both feet. In 2006, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona, then considered the No. 1 culinary school in the nation. After graduating, Dunnam worked alongside celebrity chef Beau McMillan at Elements, a luxury restaurant at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa. A year later, Dunnam partnered with a friend to open Fired Up Grill, an American-style, Italian-influenced restaurant. His career had taken him from Texas to Oklahoma to a French culinary school and an Italian restaurant with a Southwest influence.

When his friend and business partner got sick, however, Dunnam had to step away from the restaurant. “After he passed away, his wife told me to spend more time with my family,” he says. Dunnam and his own wife, Nicole, began looking for ways to embrace a better quality of life outside the stressful restaurant environment. He’d heard of chefs giving up prestigious restaurant jobs to take positions in the world of health care, where they’d begun revolutionizing the negative reputation of “hospital food.” The idea attracted him.

So in 2012, Dunnam returned to the Panhandle and joined the team at the Bivins Foundation. Leading a staff of 13 in the 5,000-square-foot production kitchen of the Elizabeth Jane Bivins Culinary Center, today Dunnam develops menus and oversees the preparation of around 2,700 meals every week. Prepared to meet special dietary guidelines, these are consumed by nursing home and assisted living residents, students in private schools, and clients of the Foundation’s catering arm, Nineteen49 Catering.

Despite working in an industry not always known for gourmet food, his skills have not gone unnoticed. In 2015, Dunnam competed on an episode of “Cutthroat Kitchen” on the Food Network. That same year, he won Amarillo’s Restaurant Roundup Battle of the Area Chefs. He credits his talented colleagues at Bivins. “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have such a stellar team behind me,” he says.

by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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