At home with chef Pete Loren

Judith Harris Solomon
Special to The Detroit News

Pete Loren, the director of culinary development for all three of the Nino Salvaggio International Marketplaces, says he had zero interest in cooking when he was a child but he did like food.

“I was a fat little kid and liked eating,” he says. “But my mom didn’t like me in the kitchen.”

While attending middle school in Livonia, the chef got a job delivering the afternoon edition of The Detroit News — a job not to his liking.

“I hated it,” Loren, 62, said. “But a Pizza Inn restaurant was located next door to the paper pick-up station and I noticed there were kids working inside there where it was warm and that really appealed to me.”

Loren ditched the paper route and got a job at the restaurant doing prep work. And he continued to work in one family restaurant or another all through high school.

At the suggestion of his school counselor who was concerned about Loren’s low grades, the chef enrolled in Bentley High School’s vocational culinary program and excelled in the courses.

“I started feeling good about myself. It made me happy and my cooking made other people feel happy too,” Loren said.

After his high school graduation, Loren attended the culinary school at Oakland Community College and earned an associate’s degree at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. He remained at the institute, teaching there on a fellowship for 18 months.

Loren’s extensive cooking history includes teaching at both Macomb County Community College and Monroe County College, directing the food operations at Opus One restaurant in Detroit and serving as corporate chef for the Epoch Restaurant Group which included Forte restaurant in Birmingham, Tribute in Farmington Hills and Latitude in Bay Harbor.

The West Bloomfield resident began working at Nino Salvaggio in 2003 and currently oversees all of the preparation of all the food in all of the stores. He also travels all over the world to taste foods and to learn what’s trendy and what customers want.

Loren says he also mentors a lot of chefs.

“I tell them first you have to be passionate about food to be good. And when preparing foods taste comes first and then, if you have artistic ability and are able to present food beautifully, you’re way ahead of the game,” he said.

When he finds the time, Loren enjoys cooking for friends in his unique and interesting home that is chock full of furniture and accessories that he has handcrafted.

Loren is very particularly fond of his pumpkin panna cotta recipe, perfect for Halloween. . “As much as I love pumpkin pie, I think I like my panna cotta recipe even more,” he says. “This particular recipe uses no eggs and is, as a result, tender, light and has a very clean pumpkin taste. And it’s no bake,” he says.

The chef also says: “I love Thai food and this Thai peanut curry sauce is one of my go-to recipes that I use as a warm dipping sauce and also in sauté dishes. And when you thin the sauce with water, it becomes a fabulous salad dressing.”

One of his other go-to dishes is his chicken enchilada. “Think of this recipe as a Mexican lasagna that uses tortilla chips instead of pasta sheets. I make this often, then chill it and cut it into single serving portions which I wrap and freeze.”

Chicken Enchilada Casserole

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups sweet onions, cut in strips

1 cup multi-colored bell peppers, cut in strips

Vegetable spray

1 pound corn tortilla chips, gently broken

4 cups enchilada sauce (homemade or canned)

2 pounds cooked pulled chicken meat (from approximately one chicken)

1 and 1/2 pounds of Mexican-blend shredded cheese

1 cup canned black beans, drained

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Sauté the onions and bell peppers in olive oil until softened. Season with salt and pepper then set aside to cool.

Spray a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish generously with vegetable spray.

Cover the bottom of the casserole dish with gently broken tortilla chips.Ladle 1 cup of the enchilada sauce over the tortilla chips evenly. Then sprinkle half (or 3/4 pound) of the pulled, cooked chicken evenly over the enchilada sauce. Sprinkle half of the cooked onions and pepper sauté over the chicken. Evenly sprinkle 1/3 of the shredded cheese evenly over the chicken and onion/peppers mixture.

Spread 1/2 cup of black beans over the dish. Sprinkle 1/2 of the chopped cilantro over the black beans.

Repeat adding the broken chips, sauce, chicken, sauce, onions and peppers, cheese beans and cilantro.

After the second layering of ingredients has been completed, finish the casserole with a topping of the last 1/3 of the tortilla chips, 1 cup of enchilada sauce and the last 1/3 of the cheese.

Place casserole in a 350-degree oven (uncovered) and bake for approximately 45 minutes.

Remove the casserole from the oven and allow to rest 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with enchilada sauce if desired. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 769 calories; 40 g fat (18 g saturated fat; 47 percent calories from fat); 43 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 196 mg cholesterol; 1,522 mg sodium; 57 g protein; 7 g fiber.

Thai Peanut Curry Sauce

3 tablespoons fresh ginger root, minced

3 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced

3 tablespoons green onion, chopped fine

1 medium seedless Jalapeno pepper, minced

3 tablespoons red bell pepper, minced

1/4 cup sesame oil

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup teriyaki sauce or soy sauce

2 tablespoons sweet sherry

1/2 pound smooth peanut butter

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon fish sauce

In a 2 quart saucepan, briefly sauté garlic, ginger, green onion, jalapeno and bell pepper in 1/2 of the sesame oil. Add the chicken broth, teriyaki sauce and sherry and bring mixture to a simmer. Then add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer whisking briskly. Adjust seasonings to taste and use as desired for sauté dishes.

Makes approximately one quart or 16 servings.

Per serving (per 2 ounces): 156 calories; 11 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 63 percent calories from fat); 11 g carbohydrates; 8 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 474 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber.

No-Bake Pumpkin Panna Cotta

2 1/2 cups half and half

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

1 cup pureed canned pumpkin

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whipped cream (for garnish)

8 gingersnap cookies

Put 1/2 cup of the half and half in a 6 or 8 cup saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let sit for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, blend together the remaining half and half, pumpkin, sugar, pumpkin pie spice and vanilla. (The mixture should be smooth, so it is best to use a blender.)

Turn the heat under the saucepan to low and cook the half and half and gelatin mixture, stirring occasionally, until the gelatin dissolves. Then add the remaining half and half, pumpkin pie spice etc. mixture to the saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until steam rises. Then turn off the heat and ladle or pour the mixture into eight 4-ounce ramekins. Chill the panna cotta for 6 to 8 hours before serving. When serving, garnish with a dollop of whipped cream and a gingersnap. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving (per 4 ounces): 202 calories; 10 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 45 percent calories from fat); 24 g carbohydrates; 18 g sugar; 30 mg cholesterol; 70 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber.