Easy Bistro's Erik Niel in 'Best Chefs of America'

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photo Erik Niel

Congratulations are in order for Erik Niel, owner/chef of Easy Bistro and Bar, for his nomination as one of the country's top culinary talents in the inaugural edition of "Best Chefs America."

This is the first-ever peer review guide of U.S. chefs, who were chosen after extensive interviews between their fellow chefs and "Best Chefs America" analysts. Niel has been showcased in the informative and exquisitely produced 386-page coffee table book that was released earlier this spring.

"Chefs themselves truly understand what it takes to be successful in this competitive industry," says Elizabeth Fishburne, lead analyst for "Best Chefs America."

Growing up just outside of New Orleans, Niel was surrounded by the culture of food and fascinated by Creole cooking from a young age, according to a news release. Here in Chattanooga, Easy's menu features classics as well as daily features made with ingredients raised and grown at local farms.

An authentic Raw Bar highlights the Plateau de Fruits de Mer, a feast of raw seafood served on platters of ice. The bar is known for its thoughtfully crafted cocktails as well as its carefully selected wine list.

And it's all served in the dramatic interior of a century-old building which was the world's first Coca-Cola bottling plant.

So next time you're at the restaurant, located in Chattanooga at 203 Broad St., give Niel a high-five.

When my youngest daughter left after spending a week at home over the Christmas holidays, she left behind a couple of bags of dried cherries she'd picked up at Trader Joe's in Atlanta before coming home.

How I wish we had a Trader Joe's in Chattanooga, but we'll save that column topic for another time. This one's all about the cherries.

We munched on one bag of the dried fruit, much as one would a box of raisins. But the other bag just sat on the counter, relegated to an area of my kitchen that's a catch-all for all sorts of goodies that never seem to get eaten.

Recently, though, I got tired of looking at the bag of cherries and went searching online for a good way to use them. I ended up with an incredible confit made after soaking the cherries in vinegar. They didn't reconstitute immediately, but once the confit sat in the refrigerator overnight, the cherries were back to their big, beautiful plump state.

The confit is the yin-yang of condiments, with its deep savory flavor intermingling with a slightly sweet taste gained from the cherries and just a hint of sugar. I tweaked the recipe a bit, though, using things I already had, rather than having to make a special trip to the grocery store.

Instead of white-wine vinegar, I used red-wine vinegar. Green onions were used in place of shallots. And I substituted Truvia for the sugar. Then, to top things off, I added big splashes of port wine until I reached a delicious flavor.

Oh, and I also halved the recipe, making one cup of the most scrumptious condiment I've ever placed on a piece of grilled chicken. It dressed it up beautifully and added a nice dimension to a staple of warm-weather cooking. And trust me, as I've never been a big fan of cranberry sauce, the confit will definitely appear at Thanksgiving.

Until we get a Trader Joe's, you can get dried cherries at Whole Foods for $10.99 per pound and at Earth Fare and Fresh Market for $9.99 per pound.

Dried Cherry Confit

11/2 cups dried sour cherries (about 1/2 pound)

1/2 cup white-wine vinegar

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

2 cups thinly sliced shallot (about 1/2 pound)

1 cup finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons sugar

In a bowl, let the cherries soak in the vinegars for 30 minutes. While the cherries are soaking, in a heavy skillet, cook the shallot and the onion in butter, covered, over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes or until the shallot is soft. Sprinkle mixture with the sugar and cook the mixture, covered, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes. Add the cherries with the soaking liquid, simmer the mixture, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until almost all the liquid has evaporated, then season the confit with salt and pepper. The confit may be made a day in advance, kept covered and chilled, then reheated.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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