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At home with chef Nick Rodgers

Judith Harris Solomon
Special to The Detroit News

While attending Howell High School, Nick Rodgers, executive chef of The Root Restaurant and Bar in White Lake Township, worked at a local restaurant called TW, along with his friend, James Rigato, whom he met at summer camp when Rodgers was 12 and Rigato was 11.

Upon his high school graduation in 2001, Rodgers enrolled at Western Michigan University with the intention of becoming a teacher. But, after spending three years there, he realized he wanted to pursue a cooking career. “I had to grow into it,” he says. “I always loved the camaraderie and the action you get working in a kitchen, but never thought of it as a career until my daughter was born when I was 22. That gave me a lot of motivation to put my pedal to the metal,” the Brighton resident says. “My drive to be a teacher wasn’t there anymore and my drive to be a chef was much stronger.”

Then, after line-cooking stints at the Cherry Blossom in Novi and Morels and Shiraz, both in Bingham Farms, and “bouncing around with Rigato here and there,” the two friends started a catering business together and then, in 2011, opened Root with Rigato as executive chef and Rodgers as sous chef. And when Rigato opened Mabel Gray last year, Rodgers became the executive chef at Root.

The 33-year-old says long hours spent at the restaurant prevent him from cooking for his family during the week, but he enjoys making family meals on Sundays and on holidays. “And when I do cook at home, it’s all about being economical and delicious,” he says. “For example, the mac and cheese recipe printed here is a great family-style dish, easy to make and good as long as you use good cheese and good dairy. And roasting a chicken is economical and easy to make. One chicken can feed four easily.”

Rodgers says he particularly wanted to share his Brussels sprouts and quince recipe because “quince is a fruit from the Mideast that is probably only available in the fall. It’s sweet like an apple, but starchy like a potato. And while you can’t eat it raw, it’s really delicious when roasted.”

Adds Rodgers: “The difference between a good and a bad home cooking is proper seasoning. For example, just squeezing a lemon into your mac and cheese can make a huge difference.”

Whole Roasted Chicken

1 whole Amish chicken, brined

1 orange, halved

8 sprigs of thyme

7 cloves garlic

1/2 stick of butter

Salt

Pepper

Smoked paprika

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cut orange in half and squeeze the juice onto the chicken. Stuff chicken body with the oranges, thyme, and garlic. Season chicken with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika until coated to taste. Cut butter into cubes and stuff under the skin of the breast. Place chicken on roasting rack in oven. Cook for 20 minutes at 325 degrees. Rotate chicken. Increase temperature to 375 degrees and cook another 40 minutes until cooked through. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

Per serving: 480 calories; 32 g fat (13 g saturated fat; 60 percent calories from fat); 5 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 162 mg cholesterol; 506 mg sodium; 42 g protein; 0.4 g fiber.

Mac and Cheese

1 box of your favorite dried noodle

1/2 cup whole butter

1/2 cup flour

4 cups 2 percent milk

1 pound Michigan white cheddar cheese, grated

1 teaspoon mustard powder

6 dashes Tabasco

1 lemon, juiced

3 cups of your favorite chips, crushed

2 tablespoons chopped herbs (use whatever you have in the fridge)

In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to instructions on the box. Rinse with cold water and set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a small pot over medium heat, melt butter. Add flour and stir until a paste is formed, about one minute. Slowly add milk, whisking continuously. Slowly add cheese a little bit at a time. Add mustard powder, Tabasco and lemon juice, stirringly constantly until combined and melted, about five minutes. Once melted, add cooked pasta. Pour mixture into a baking dish. Evenly cover the top of the mixture with crushed chips and herbs. Place in oven and bake for 12 minutes, until bubbly. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

Per serving (without salt): 1,421 calories; 78 g fat (41 g saturated fat; 49 percent calories from fat); 126 g carbohydrates; 16 g sugar; 196 mg cholesterol; 1,189 mg sodium; 54 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Quince and Maple Pumpkin

Vinaigrette

1 pie pumpkin, roasted and pureed (about 2 cups)

1 cinnamon stick

3 star anise

3 cloves

1/2 cup champagne vinegar

1/4 Michigan maple syrup

1 cup olive oil + 1 tablespoon

Salt

Pepper

1 pound cleaned Brussels sprouts

1 quince

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

2 tablespoons toasted pepitas

To prepare the pumpkin vinagrette

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Place pumpkin, spices, vinegar, maple syrup and one cup olive oil in a food processor. Add salt and pepper to taste. Puree for about one minute or until combined, creating a pumpkin vinaigrette, about 1 minute.

To prepare the Brusssels sprouts

Cut quince into 12 wedges. Remove ends of Brussels sprouts. In a small bowl, combine the two and coat with remaining olive oil, salt and pepper. Coat with pumpkin vinaigrette and toss. Then place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until Brussels sprouts and quince are tender. Remove from oven and garnish with blue cheese and pepitas. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Per serving: 745 calories; 65 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 79 percent calories from fat); 38 g carbohydrates; 18 g sugar; 13 mg cholesterol; 377 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 8 g fiber.

Hot Dogs and Beans

The beans

1 cup northern beans

1 cup black beans

1 cup cranberry beans

1/2 pound bacon, diced

2 small Spanish onions, diced

5 tablespoons molasses

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1/2 cup brown sugar

2-4 cups chicken stock

Salt

Worcestershire

Tabasco

Hot dogs

2 1/2 pounds ground pork shoulder

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons ancho chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

1 tablespoon fresh oregano

1/2 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 tablespoon Spanish paprika

1/2 cup roasted, peeled and seeded hot peppers of your choice

4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, plus extra for garnish

4 foot-long hog casing

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Shaved fennel, for garnish

To prepare the beans

Place beans in individual bowls and cover with cold water. Let soak overnight. Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium saucepan, cover beans with water. Place on high heat. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until al dente, about 50 minutes. Strain and set aside. In a large ovenproof pot on low, cook bacon until crispy. Drain fat, leaving some on bottom of the pan. Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add beans, molasses, mustard, brown sugar and 2 cups chicken stock. Stir until combined, scraping bits off bottom of pan. Season with salt, Worcestershire and Tabasco to taste. Cover pot and place in oven for two hours. Check every 30 minutes. Add chicken stock if beans get too dry. Set aside.

To prepare the hot dogs

In a large mixing bowl, mix together pork, salt, ancho chili powder, cumin, oregano, garlic and paprika. Add peppers and cilantro. Place in stand mixer with paddle attachment and combine while slowly adding 1/2 cup water. Mix on medium until liquid is incorporated and sausage is sticky and uniform. Stuff sausage into hog casing and twist into 6-inch links.

In a large saucepan on high, add oil and sausage links. Sauté until cooked to 150 degrees, about 8 minutes.

To serve the hot dogs and beans

Ladle beans in a bowl. Top with sliced sausage, fennel and cilantro. Serves 8.

Per serving: 751 calories; 31 g fat (10 g saturated fat; 37 percent calories from fat); 72 g carbohydrates; 26 g sugar; 108 mg cholesterol; 1,721 mg sodium; 47 g protein; 16 g fiber.