You know the old saying: “Good things come to those who wait.”
Before local restaurateur Matt Haley went to India for ongoing humanitarian efforts in August 2014, he and I chatted at a fundraising event. I told him that I’d tried without success to highlight a couple chefs at his SoDel restaurants. We exchanged business cards and he said, “I’ll fix that when I return from India.” Sadly, he was killed in a motorcycle accident on that trip.
About a year ago, Debbie Ruley, a member of the Post 17 Lewes American Legion Auxiliary (as am I), and mother of chef Doug Ruley, vice president of SoDel Concepts, told me that she would put me in touch with her son to highlight in my column.
Doug and I finally met at the American Legion in September, to celebrate his sister Nichole’s birthday. Well worth the wait! Like my husband, Jim, Nichole enjoys singing on karaoke night. She’s a big fan of her older brother’s cooking.
“I really love his chicken and pork chops,” she said.
Doug Ruley was born in Elkton, Md., and at a young age spent time with his grandparents on their small farm in Rising Sun, Md.
“They had a one-half-acre garden plot,” he said, “and they also raised cattle and pigs. Visiting my grandparents really exposed me to the simplistic idea of you grow the food, you cook the food and then you eat the food. I learned where food comes from, and I spent many weekends in the garden picking string beans and sitting on their porch cleaning them.
“My grandmother pickled and canned, so I learned how to make pickles early on. Tending to my grandfather’s smokehouse introduced me to the different cuts of pork. It was a way of life for them and, looking back, I think it imprinted the ‘culinary bug’ in my being.”
Doug said that his “first real dish” was scrambled eggs. Every morning, he watched his dad whip them up, and by trial and error, he became pretty good. He now tries to teach his own children, Emma, 12, and Chase, 9.
“My daughter makes a mean mac-and-cheese,” he said, “and my son’s specialty is fruit salad. My wife, Lisa, says she is the Lasagna Queen.”
The family makes an effort to eat dinner together as often as possible.
“But with my schedule — especially in the summer — that can be a challenge,” he said. “But I think we do a pretty good job.”
As a young man, Doug worked at the popular Jude’s Diner in Newark, Del. Jude recognized his talent and encouraged him to pursue culinary school. He followed her advice and, in 1996, graduated at the top of his class from Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. His commencement address was delivered by one of the most famous chefs of all time — Julia Child, who in 1996 would have been 84 years old.
“She gave a great commencement speech,” Doug said. “The one thing that stuck in my head was that she said, ‘Just love the food you cook, and love will shine through.’ I think that is so true.”
After graduating from Johnson & Wales, Doug moved to Hilton Head, S.C., to work as a sous chef at the Melrose Club. After a year, he moved back to Elkton to work at Iron Hill Brewery, where he stayed for 10 years.
He then came to Delaware and became the head chef at Bluecoast Seafood Grill (here in North Bethany, in our little neck of the woods). As way leads on to way, and his talents developed, he is now a vice president at SoDel Concepts.
When I asked Doug what he most enjoys about being a chef and also a VP at SoDel, he said, “The best part is that every day is completely different from the previous one. One day I can be working the line cooking, the next traveling to New York or I’m in the office working on recipes and menus. The vice president position lets me expand our brand outside of the Culinary Coast.”
One of the ways that expansion has seen the light is cooking at the James Beard House in New York.
“Matt Haley was presented with the 2014 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year award,” Doug said, “which is the highest culinary honor you can receive. Matt and I were to cook together at the Beard House, but on that same night, he was in Washington, D.C., accepting another culinary award, so I spearheaded the dinner myself and have been asked back two more times, selling out both events.
“Cooking at the Beard House is like playing a concert at Carnegie Hall. It’s such a great experience. Having done it three times now is amazing! Hopefully, another dinner is in the works for next fall.”
SoDel Concepts includes nine restaurants: Fish On and Matt’s Fish Camp in Lewes; Lupo Italian Kitchen and Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria in Rehoboth Beach; Matt’s Fish Camp and Bluecoast Seafood Grill in North Bethany; NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View; and Catch 54 and the first Papa Grande’s location, in Fenwick Island. Restaurant No. 10, Bluecoast Seafood Grill & Raw Bar, is scheduled to open in the Rehoboth Gateway Shopping Center in the summer of 2017.
“At SoDel we have nine chefs and numerous sous chefs,” Doug said. “I work closely with them on basically everything food — menus, recipes, ordering, special events, etc. As a team, we are constantly talking food. My mission is to create a sounding board for them while keeping true to our philosophy, which is ‘Beautiful Simple Food.’ We change menus with the seasons. Each chef also has input on what is on his or her restaurants’ menu.”
SoDel uses fresh, local produce year-round.
“Our relationships with local farms keep growing with every crop, and it shows on the plate,” Doug said. “We do extensive work with Magee Farms, East View Farms, Berry Lovers Farm, and Bay Water Greens.”
In 2015, Doug participated in a one-of-a-kind experience.
“I cooked in a maximum-security prison, alongside inmates, for a farm-to-table dinner titled, ‘Breaking Bread Behind Bars.’ As far as I know, it is the only event of its kind in the world,” he said.
Doug also attended a James Beard Foundation Chef’s Policy for Change Boot Camp, in which celebrity chefs from around the country meet and participate in workshops on food waste and how to advocate for waste reduction.
“It took place over three days in Montana,” Doug said. “It was intense and eye-opening.”
And recently, Doug was crowned champion at the Southern Delaware Wine & Food Festival.
“I competed against chef Robbie Jester of the Stone Balloon Ale House, Newark, Del., who has won ‘Guy’s Grocery Games,’ and also won the ‘Beat Bobby Flay’ challenge on the Food Network. The contest was a mystery basket, and you had 30 minutes to create a dish. I came out on top,” Doug said.
Doug shared with me how he felt about Matt Haley, both then and now.
“Matt had a larger-than-life persona,” he said. “His message becomes simpler with every passing day: ‘Love what you do, and help people along the way. Help people that can’t help themselves.’ It’s an easy message to get behind,” Doug said. “Matt chose to do this through his restaurants, and as his restaurants became more successful, he gave that much more. He used to tell me, ‘Just have fun, man.’ It’s something I think about a lot when times are tough.
“Scott Kammerer, who is now president of SoDel Concepts, did a tremendous job of pulling our team together and moving forward after Matt’s passing. We had all the tools in place, so we just put down our heads and kept working.”
Doug’s signature dish is gumbo.
“It’s a dish I learned to make when I was a young chef at Iron Hill,” he said. “If I were hosting a dinner party, the menu would consist of oysters-on-the-half-shell to start, followed by a local green salad with a citrusy dressing. The showstopper would be a jumbo shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo ladled over Anson Mills cheese grits. For dessert, I would ask my guests to bring potluck sweet dishes. And, of course, great beer and wine. I like to keep it simple so that I have time to socialize with my guests and keep cleanup to a minimum.”
In Chef Ruley’s recipes, three items may not be staples in your pantry: maple sugar, vanilla paste and veal demi-glace.
For the purists among you, vanilla paste is sold in a jar and has the consistency of a very thick extract; it is flecked with real vanilla bean seeds. You can buy it locally at Good Earth Market (Clarksville and Rehoboth Beach) or order online from Nielsen-Massey, Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table.
Maple sugar (which is twice as sweet as white sugar) can also be ordered online from many providers; just type in “purchase maple sugar,” and up they come.
As for veal demi-glace, you can make your own if you have hours and hours to spare, or you can order a veal soup base. My favorite soup-base online company is Minor’s, at www.soupbase.com; 16 ounces of veal base is $15.95.
But the practical Chef Ruley said that you can also just use regular vanilla extract, beef stock instead of demi-glace, and brown sugar instead of maple sugar.
Braised Lamb Shanks
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
4 lamb shanks
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced celery
2 cups diced onions
2 fennel bulbs, diced
1/4 cup sliced garlic
2 ounces freshly chopped rosemary
4 bay leaves
3 dried chiles (one ancho will work)
6 cups dry red wine
1 quart veal demi-glace
Salt and pepper to taste
Method for Braised Lamb Shanks:
In a pan large enough to hold all the lamb shanks, heat the oil. When the oil is hot, sear the shanks on all sides until golden brown. Remove lamb and set aside. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, sauté the carrots, celery, onions, fennel, garlic, rosemary, bay leaves and dried chiles. Once the vegetables are lightly caramelized, deglaze the pan with the red wine; add salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Place the lamb shanks back into the pan. Cover and braise in a 300-degree oven for three hours, or until the lamb can be pulled off the bone with a fork.
Once cooked, remove the lamb from the braising liquid. Add the veal demi-glace to the braising liquid and reduce until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Serve over Creamy Polenta (recipe follows). Yield: 4 servings.
2 cups whole milk
2 cups vegetable stock
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 cups white polenta (cornmeal)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons butter
Method for Creamy Polenta:
Bring milk and vegetable stock to a simmer. Add salt and slowly whisk in polenta. Let simmer for seven minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking on the bottom. Once the polenta has absorbed the milk, finish with Parmesan cheese and butter. Yield: 4 servings.
To plate: Place four ounces of creamy polenta in the center of four large bowls. Place one lamb shank on top of each polenta portion. Finish by spooning the sauce from the lamb on top.
If you plan to make Chef Ruley’s Apple-Walnut Ice Cream, give yourself a couple days’ head start, because the ice-cream base must chill overnight, and then the finished ice cream must also freeze overnight.
Apple-Walnut Ice Cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup maple sugar
2 large granny smith apples peeled, cored, and chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Directions: In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine butter and maple sugar. When the mixture comes to a bubble, add apples and cinnamon. Stir often, until the apples are soft and caramelized, about 15 minutes. Set aside and let cool overnight in the refrigerator.
Walnuts: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
1 quart water
3/4 cup whole walnuts
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
In a small sauce pan, bring one quart of water to a boil. Add walnuts and boil for 5 minutes. Put powdered sugar into a small bowl. Strain walnuts and add to the powdered sugar, tossing until sugar is dissolved. Place walnut mixture on a baking sheet and toast at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown. As the walnuts cool at room temperature, they will harden. When cool, finely chop and set aside.
Ice Cream Base
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup maple sugar (divided)
2-1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla paste (used the next day after base has chilled overnight)
In a large bowl, whisk egg yolks with 2 tablespoons maple sugar; set aside. In a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat, add cream, salt and remaining sugar. Stir and simmer until cream is hot and sugar has dissolved. Next, take half of the hot cream mixture and slowly whisk into egg yolks, very slowly, to avoid cooking the eggs. Add this hot egg/cream mixture back to the sauce pan with the rest of the hot cream.
Simmer the ice cream base over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until it is thickened and reaches 175 degrees. Strain the base through a fine mesh sieve into a new bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight, stirring occasionally, until thoroughly chilled.
Next day: In a blender, add chilled cooked apples, 1 teaspoon vanilla paste and half of the ice cream base. Puree until smooth. Combine with the rest of the ice cream base and add to an ice cream-making machine; freeze according to manufacturers’ instructions. During the last couple of minutes of churning, add the chopped walnuts. When done, transfer ice cream to a freezable container. For best results, freeze ice cream overnight.
For Doug’s Warm Spiced Butternut Cake, the baking temperature is correct: 360 degrees F., not the traditional 350 degrees. His recipe calls for cake flour, not all-purpose flour. Cake flour creates the lightest cakes with the most tender crumb.
Warm Spiced Butternut Cake
Preheat oven to 360 degrees F.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup maple sugar
1/2 cup softened, unsalted butter
1 cup butternut puree (steamed, then mashed)
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 tablespoons molasses
2 large organic eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1-1/2 cups sifted cake flour
Method for Warm Spiced Butternut Cake:
In a large bowl, whisk together granulated and maple sugars and butter until light and airy. Next, add butternut puree, mayonnaise and molasses, and mix well. Slowly whisk in each egg until incorporated. Add all spices and baking powder.
Next, slowly add the cake flour, mixing well until smooth. Spoon batter into mini canelé molds (French copper molds; also now available made of silicone) or mini Bundt molds. Bake at 360 degrees for approximately 35 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm, topped with Blackberry Jelly and Brown Butter Caramel (recipes follow). Yield: 3-4 mini cakes.
Chef Ruley’s Blackberry Jelly is another make-ahead recipe. It requires two nights of refrigeration before it’s ready to serve atop the above Warm Spiced Butternut Cake.
2 pounds fresh blackberries
1 cup maple sugar
Juice of one lemon
Method for Blackberry Jelly:
Rinse berries and, in a large bowl, toss with maple sugar. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, in a large sauce pan, warm the berry/sugar mixture with lemon juice until softened. With a food mill, press berries through into a bowl to remove the seeds. Place puree back into the pan and heat until thickened. Place jelly in a container and chill overnight.
Brown Butter Caramel is also a topping for the spice cake.
Brown Butter Caramel
4 ounces unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
Pinch of sea salt
Method for Brown Butter Caramel:
Heat a thick-bottomed pan on medium-high heat. Add butter cubes, whisking and letting butter cook. Butter will foam, then slowly start to turn brown; specks will appear. Remove from the heat and set aside. In another sauce pan, slowly cook the sugar until slightly thick and golden. Add the brown butter and whisk. Add the heavy cream and stir continuously for two minutes. Remove from the heat and add sea salt. Caramel will thicken as it cools.
(Editor’s note: If you have recipes to share, or recipes you want, contact Marie Cook, Coastal Point, P.O. Box 1324, Ocean View, Delaware 19970; or by email at ChefMarieCook@gmail.com. Please include your phone number. Recipes in this column are not tested by the Coastal Point.)