Charred Corn

One of the benefits of living in the Midwest is that in the summer time, corn is extremely inexpensive. When the sweet corn crop is in full swing — around July through September — it can get as low as $.10/ear or even less. That makes it one of the affordable vegetables you can buy.

Charred Corn in the Summertime

Release the sweetness of corn’s natural sugars by giving it a nice char on the grill

The best thing about sweet corn is that it is so versatile. You can eat it off the cob or cut it off and eat it as a side dish. Or it can be incorporated into just about anything.

In fact, today corn is probably the most important crop in the US, even more so than wheat. That’s because there are a lot of uses for it besides eating it, such as the alternate fuel ethanol, feed for livestock, distillation into whiskey and other liquors, the sweetener high fructose corn syrup, industrial applications, and many others.

Where I live, in northeast Illinois, corn is the biggest and most important crop. As soon as you get out of the city and suburbs of Chicago, you find hundreds of miles of corn fields in every direction. Farmers around here alternate their fields with corn one year then with soybean the next in order to provide the most nutrients in the soil to ensure maximum yield of both crops.

Charred Corn

Whiskey made in Peoria from Illinois Corn

Generally, Illinois corn isn’t used for eating. Most of it is sent to factory farms where it is used to feed livestock. The rest is sent either downriver to Peoria where for generations it was turned into corn mash and other liquors at the Hiram Walker distillery. Archer Daniels Midland now uses corn to make vodka, gin and other liquors at the plant.

Or the Illinois corn travels upriver to Summit, outside Chicago, where it is used to make corn starch at the big Argo plant, which is about three miles from my home. I can often smell aroma of cornstarch being made when the wind is blowing from the west.

Personally, I love the taste of charred sweet corn. As its name implies, sweet corn is full of natural sugars.So when you let it get a nice dark char, the sugars will caramelize, giving it a unique and delicious flavor.

Usually, I will cut the charred corn off the cob so that I can add it to salads, sauté it with zucchini or other vegetables, or toss it by itself with a little olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper.

All you do is remove the corn from the husk and pull off any silk, then boil it for about nine minutes. I will often do this ahead of time — such as in the morning — then store the fully-cooked cob corn in the refrigerator until I’m ready to grill it.

Spray it with a little pan spray, season it with salt and pepper, then throw it onto a pre-heated grill. You don’t have to pay a lot of attention to it. Just turn it once or twice so that it gets a relatively even char.

Remove it from the grill, let it cool completely, then use a knife to cut it off the cob. Charred corn can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for at least a month until you are ready to use it. It’s very handy to have around and will add a sweet distinctive flavor to just about anything.

Charred Corn

Summer in Chicago

Thanks to efficient transportation, fresh corn still in the husk from Florida, California and Mexico is available pretty much year round. But it is at its sweetest, freshest and cheapest during the height of summer here in Chicago.


Baked Buffalo Wings

Who doesn’t love Buffalo Wings? They go perfectly with watching football.

Baked Buffalo Wings

Baked Buffalo Wings

But they are something that usually are enjoyed at a restaurant because most people don’t have a deep fryer in their home kitchen.

Breaded and deep fried Buffalo Wings are super high in fat, so they are not something you should eat everyday.

But what if there a way to enjoy Buffalo Wings in your own home? And what if they had far less fat than the traditional sports bar appetizer, yet had all the great flavor?

That was the challenge I came up with for myself. The result were these delicious baked Buffalo Wings.

While chicken wings are still higher in fat than low-fat diet staples like boneless skinless chicken breast or ground turkey, because these Buffalo Wings are baked instead of submersed in hot cooking oil they have less fat and fewer calories than those found at Hooter’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, or your favorite watering hole.

Chicken wings are also some of the least expensive proteins you can buy. Usually, you can find them for $.99/lb or less.

Only a few decades ago, chicken wings were either thrown away or used to make chicken stock.

But back in the 1970s, a woman named Teressa Bellisimo – owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York — invented them on the spot to feed a bunch of hungry college students her son Domonic brought home unexpectedly. She threw a bunch of wings in a deep fryer then tossed them in a mixture of cayenne pepper sauce and butter, then served them up with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks.

They quickly became a fixture on sports bar appetizer menus everywhere.

Franks Wing Sauce

Franks Wing Sauce

My reduced fat recipe uses the same sauce — melted butter and Frank’s Buffalo Wing Sauce — but the wings are baked instead of fried, then tossed with bread crumbs and baked again.

The result is a delicious, reduced fat version of this classic appetizer. And just in time for the NFL playoffs!

Baked Buffalo Wings

1 lb. Chicken Wings (about 8 to 10 wings)

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/2 cup Unsalted Butter, melted

1/2 cup Franks Buffalo Wing Sauce

1 cup Bread Crumbs (I used Panko, Japanese-style breadcrumbs that are larger than traditional breadcrumbs)

Celery Stalks

Blue Cheese or Ranch Dressing

1/4 cup Blue Cheese Crumbles

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Separate wings  at the joint. If the wing tip is included, you can either save it for stock or discard it because it doesn’t have enough meat on it to make it worth keeping. Spray a baking sheet with pan spray and lay out the chicken wings. Season with S&P, flip over and season the other side. Bake for 20 minutes and remove from oven.

2. Combine melted butter and wing sauce in a mixing bowl. Add chicken wings and toss so that all are thoroughly coated. Add bread crumbs and toss again. Return wings to sheet pan and return to oven for another 10 minutes.

3. Remove from oven. Combine dressing and blue cheese crumbles. Serve on the side with celery stalks.

A question for my foreign readers: Are Buffalo Wings strictly an American phenomenon or are they popular elsewhere as well? I’m just curious!

Meat Free Mondays – Vegan Pizza

Veganism is something I think I could do, with one exception: Pizza.

My love for pizza is well-documented. I could eat pizza seven nights per week … and before I was married, I often did!

Vegan Pizza

Vegan Pizza

Living in Chicago, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great pizza places. There are many world-class pizza places within delivery distance to my house: Palermo’s in Oak Lawn, Louise’s in Crestwood, Papa Joe’s in Oak Lawn, Lou Malnati’s, Vito and Nick’s (featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), Home Run Inn, and Phil’s, to name a few.

Even the second-tier pizza places — Conte’s, Leonardo’s, Fox’s, Augustano’s, etc. — are far superior to the best pizza offerings in most cities. I’m not saying this to brag: It’s just the truth. Chicago is known for its great neighborhood pizza places.

Turning my back on pizza in Chicago would be like somebody in Indianapolis swearing off auto racing or somebody from Kansas City refusing to eat barbecue: It’s too hard because it’s what defines that city.

So when I found out that soy-based mozzarella “cheese” was an actual thing, my hopes that vegan pizza could be a reality were raised.

I found a place online called Food Fight Grocery where I could buy it — along with a lot of other cool vegan stuff — and placed my order. A few days later it arrived.

I have to admit that this tube of soy-based mozzarella sat in my refrigerator for a couple of weeks before I worked up the nerve to actually try it. I mean, what if it was really good? That would mean the final obstacle to my going completely vegan would be removed.

After all, the package stated that it tastes and melts just like real dairy-based mozzarella and that it even had the same stringy texture.

Finally, I tried it. Using my standard vegetarian pizza recipe — including the homemade whole wheat dough I always use —  I put together my pie.

057The first sign that something wasn’t right with this “cheese” was that you couldn’t grate it like you can fresh mozzarella. It wouldn’t hold together well enough to withstand the grater. It was too watery. So instead I had to cut it into discs.

Then, when I cooked the pizza, the cheese only melted slightly and wouldn’t get brown and bubbly, not even when I turned on the broiler for a couple of minutes. It stubbornly stayed the same white color.

Finally, it came time to taste it. The flavor, while mozzarella-esque, lacked the buttery undertones that real, fresh mozzarella has. In fact, it didn’t have much flavor at all.

The texture was similar to mozzarella, but despite what the packaging claimed, it didn’t have the stringiness and gooey texture we’ve come to associate with high-quality dairy-based mozzarella. While it wasn’t exactly like putting tofu on pizza and calling it cheese, it was close enough that I don’t think I’ll try it again.

In a way, I’m relieved because I don’t think I’m ready to commit 100% to vegan — or even vegetarian — lifestyle. Still, I enjoy cooking vegan much more frequently than ever before and am continually seeking out new recipes — especially on such great blogs as Becky’s at VegHotPot — so that I can cut down drastically on the amount of animal protein I consume.

But nothing will ever take the place of my Chicago pizza.

Thank God!

Homemade Barbecue Potato Chips

When I was in college, I used to take the South Shore train home to Chicago from South Bend some weekends. My dad would pick me up in Hegwisch, which is the southern-most neighborhood in Chicago, and we would drive up the Bishop Ford Expressway to the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Corned Beef Reuben with Homemade Barbeque Potato Chips

Corned Beef Reuben with Homemade Barbeque Potato Chips

Where the two expressways meet is where the Jay’s Potato Chip factory used to be located. It’s now closed, but back in the early 1980s, whenever my dad and I would swing around that big access ramp I would catch a whiff of the sliced potatoes that were frying in huge vats of grease inside the factory and I knew that I was home.

I don’t eat a lot of potato chips these days, but I still cherish that smell.

Potato chips always seemed to be around when I was growing up. Usually, my family opted for Jay’s, probably because since they were locally made they cost less than Ruffles or other national brands.

Jay’s came in a variety of flavors, including sour cream and onion and Hot Stuff, which were coated in fiery seasonings and are still the favorite of my older brother, Michael. He always makes a point of getting a bag whenever he returns to Chicago for a visit because he can’t get them in Oregon, where he lives now.

But my favorite were the Barbecue because of the nice balance of sweet and spicy they had.

This wouldn't last five minutes in the McCullough house

This wouldn’t last five minutes in the McCullough house

With five kids in our house, a bag of Jay’s Barbecue Potato Chips wouldn’t last very long once it arrived from the Jewel’s. It was one of those items you staked out as my mom unpacked the groceries so that you could nab the bag before anyone else noticed it.

While I don’t have a deep fryer in my house (I wish), I came up with this oven-baked version of homemade barbecue potato chips. While the crispiness of the chips isn’t as consistent as the commercial variety — some were a little soft in the middle, but still delicious — the barbecue coating tasted exactly the way I remember.

I served these with Reuben sandwiches. Now, there’s nothing complicated about a Reuben — rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing all fried in butter or oil — but I’ve noticed that some restaurants can’t seem to get it right. Usually, it’s the Thousand Island they forget, or else they serve it on the side.

Thousand Island dressing is something you should never buy commercially. Not only because commercial tend to be loaded with preservatives and additives — ever wonder why they almost never go bad? — but also because it’s easy to make and you probably already have everything you need in your kitchen right now.

So here’s my Homemade Barbecue Potato Chips recipe you can make in your oven, along with an easy-peazey Thousand Island dressing recipe.

Homemade Barbecue Potato Chips

2 or 3 Russet Potatoes, skin-on (or about 1 potato for each person)

2 TBS Canola Oil

2 TBS Barbecue Seasoning (or more, be generous)

Mandoline Slicer

Mandoline Slicer

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Slice potatoes very thin, using either a mandolin or simply a chef’s knife. Don’t worry if they aren’t all precisely the same width; they will be more rustic if there are sligh variations. Immediately submerge sliced potatoes in to a mixing bowl filled with cold water. Leave the potatoes in the water for at least 10 minutes to draw out some of the starches. This will help them become more crisp while cooking.

2. Remove potatoes from water, drain and then lay flat on a kitchen towel. Place another kitchen towel on top of the potatoes and pat off all the moisture. You want the chips to be dry, which will also improve crispness. Transfer to a bowl, add oil and toss so that every chip is completely covered.

3. Lay chips out on a couple of sheet pans sprayed with spray, trying to avoid overlap. Sprinkle generously with the barbecue seasoning. It already contains plenty of salt, so you don’t need to add any additional salt.

4. Bake until chips are crisp, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

Thousand Island  Dresssing

1/2 cup Mayonnaise

2 TBS Ketchup

1 TBS White Vinegar

2 tsp Sugar

2 tsp Sweet Pickle Relish, or chopped pickles

1 tsp White Onion, fine dice

1/8 tsp Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper, to taste

1. Combine ingredeints in a bowl. Stir to combine and refrigerate for at least on hour to let the flavors meld, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

If I were to guess, I would have said that the pineapple upside down cake became popular during the 1950s, when Hawaii became a state and all things Hawaiian were all the rage.

In reality, this decorative and delicious cake has been part of American culture for much longer than that. In fact, the concept of cooking a cake in a cast iron pan then inverting it onto a plate has been around since the Middle Ages.

Originally, nuts and chopped fruits such as apples and cherries were placed on the bottom of the pan, but pineapple slices became the norm around the turn of the 20th Century after Jim Dole, owner of th Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Pineapple) perfected a way to tin sliced pineapple so they could be shipped back to the mainland.

In an effort to popularize the super sweet fruit, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sponsored a recipe contest, asking people to submit creative ways to serve pineapples. After the company received more than 2,500 recipes for pineapple upside down cake, it launched a national ad campaign to promote the cake and an American icon was born.

There are two ways to make pineapple upside down cake: the easy way and the hard way. With the easy way, you use a yellow cake mix. For the hard way, you make the cake yourself, which is the route I took.

You can buy special pans with rounded bottoms that are made exclusively for pineapple upside down cake, but because this was only the second time I’ve made this cake — and the first time was in culinary school — I decided to go with my tried and true cast iron skillet. Besides, it was more old school.

Pineapple upside down cake is by no measure a healthy dessert. It’s chocked full of butter, brown sugar and eggs. Not to mention the psychdelic-red maraschino cherries. Those things can’t possibly be good for you.

Still, a little decadence is good for you occasionally. At least that’s whay I’m going with.


Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Sandi enjoying her Pineapple Upside Down Cake as Isabel and Bud look on expectantly.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

1/4 cup Butter (1 stick)

2/3 cup Brown Sugar

20 oz can Pineapple Slices, undrained

Maraschino Cherries

2 Eggs, separated

3/4 cup Granulated Sugar

3/4 cup All-Purpose Flour

1/8 tsp Salt

1/2 tsp Baking Powder

1. Melt the stick of butter in a cast iron skillet over a low heat. Remove from heat and spread the brown sugar evenly over the bottom of the skillet. Set aside.

2. Drain the pineapple, saving the juice. Arrange the pineapple slices in a single layer on the bottom of the pan. Place a maraschino cherry in the center of each pineapple slice. Set aside.

3. Beat the egg yolks on medium speed until thick, about two minutes. Gradually add the granulated sugar, beating well.

4. Heat 1/4 cup of the pineapple juice over a low heat. Gradually add the juice mixture to the yolk mixturre, beating until blended.

5. In a mixing bowl, combine the AP flour, salt and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the yolk mixture, beating at low speed.

6. Beat the egg whites on medium-high until stiff peaks form, about three minutes. Fold beaten egg whites into the batter until combined, then spread the batter over the pineapple slices.

7. Bake at 325F for 45 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool cake in the skillet about 30 minutes, then invert onto a plate. Make sure the surface of the plate is larger than the diameter of the skillet.

If you make your pineapple upside down cake using the easy way, follow steps 1 and 2, and then just follow the directions on the cake box.


Oven-Roasted French Fries

I like a book that tells a great story. But when you get a great story and an amazing recipe — such as this one for oven-roasted French fries — it’s a double bonus!

I’ve been a Steven King fan since I was a kid. I can recall being scared out of my wits by “Carrie” and “The Shining”, immersing myself into the dense, rich world of “The Stand” and being being too frightened to go to sleep after finishing “Salem’s Lot” — all before I graduated eighth grade!

As I grew older, there came a period where I turned my nose up at King’s books for pandering too much to the masses. With my Notre Dame English literature degree, I couldn’t be bothered with “popular” writing about horror and the supernatural.

Fortunately, I eventually climbed down from my high horse and returned to King’s books simply because they were entertaining, had terrific plots and characterization and, well, I liked them.

I’ve read nearly all of his novels and most of his short story collections. While they aren’t all winners (“Lisey’s Story” in particular, I recall throwing across the room), King has been consistently readable and fun. I look forward to his books the way I’m sure 19th Century readers loooked forward to the new releases from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.

What does this have to do with food? Good question.

In his latest book, “11/22/63”, King tells the story of a high school English teacher who travels through a time portal to the late 1950s, where he attempts to thwart the Kennedy assasination. It’s an exciting and entertaining story that kept me riveted from start to finish (with the brief exception of a pie fight sequence inserted into the middle of the book which momentarily took me out of the story).

After the book’s conclusion, King (or his editors) added appendixes that list some of the most popular music of that era, an interview with King, a list of questions for book clubs, and the recipes for many of the dishes referenced in the book.

With most of the book set in Texas in the early 1960s, it’s not surprising that most of recipes are for the type of food found in old fashioned Texas barbeque joints, including milk shakes, black bottom pie, broiled ham steak, sour cream pound cake, and this recipe for oven-roasted French fries.

French fries are one of those foods that are hard to replicate at home because most people don’t have deep fat fryers in their kitchens. But this recipe — which makes spicy, crisp and delicious fries — does a pretty good job, especially if you serve them hot right out of the oven.

Oven-Roasted French Fries

1 lb Russet Potatoes (about four)

2 TBS Vegetable Oil

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1/4 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper

1. Preheat oven to 450F. Peel and cut potatoes into 1/2 sticks, then soak in cold water for at least 10 minutes. Drain and dry well with between paper or kitchen towels.

2. Place potatoes in a mixing bowl and toss with the oil. Spread on a sheet pan and bake, turning occasionally, until golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes. Turn out onto a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb some of the grease, then season generously with the salt, pepper and cayenne.

In true Texas BBQ style, I served mine under some barbeque grilled chicken, so that the excess barbeque sauce dripped down onto the fries, adding even more flavor. The squash served on the side is from our garden!

Reading a great story from a favorite author is pretty enjoyable in itself, but when the book comes with bonuses such as easy-to-make recipes, it’s something special.

P.S. Did you hear King is writing a sequel to “The Shining” to be released in 2013?! I can’t wait!

Chicken and Biscuits

When I was growing up, there occasionally would appear in my family’s cupboard a product called Chicken in a Biscuit.

These were crackers that tasted like chicken. I think my dad liked them. Even as a very young child, I knew that something about this just wasn’t right. Crackers aren’t supposed to taste like meat!

Chicken in a Biscuit crackers frighten me in some primal way, even though I now know they simply have a little chicken base mixed into the cracker dough. Still, I do enjoy the flavors of chicken and biscuits. And with yet another hurricane heading for poor, embattled New Orleans, I felt it was a good time to make some comfort food.

I debated whether to make fresh biscuits for this dish, or simply used the kind that comes in a tube. I’m still a little cautious about my own biscuits, scones and other quick breads, seeing as how I thought they nearly killed me once.

In the end, I opted for the store-bought variety due to time constraints. I’m glad I did because these biscuits were more like puff pastry, with layer upon layer of butter dough.

This is a very simple and old-fashioned dish. The innovation I added was to cook the biscuits right on top of the chicken stew, sort of like a chicken pot pie. Given the biscuits’ puff pastry-like qualities, it essentially was chicken pot pie.

Only I forgot to add the frozen peas that I bought. Oh, well. Something to make it better next time.

Chicken and Biscuits

1/2 lb Cooked Chicken, pulled from bone and chopped (I used leftovers from BBQ Chicken I made the night before)

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Carrots, peeled and medium dice

2 Celery Stalks, medium dice

14oz can Chicken Broth

4 TBS All-Purpose Flour

1 TBS Chicken Base

1 cup Frozen Peas, thawed (which I bought but forgot to add!)

1 tube Buttery Biscuits (makes 8 biscuits)

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1. Put an oven-safe pot over a medium heat. I used my Dutch Oven. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, celery and carrot. I threw in a diced green bell pepper from our garden because we are up to our ears in them, but they aren’t usually a part of this recipe. Stir around, cover and cook until onions are translucent, about five minutes. Stir in chicken, cover and cook another minute or two to heat the chicken through.

2. Add flour and chicken base to the chicken/vegetable mixture. Stir around until the flour begins to brown a little, about two minutes, then hit it with the chicken stock. Stir, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes, stirrring once or twice. The stock will thicken during this time. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Preheat oven to 350F. Place uncooked biscuits directly on top of chicken mixture then put the entire pot, uncovered, in the oven and cook until biscuits are browned on top, about 25 minutes.

To serve, remove or two of the biscuits to get at the chicken stew, ladle some of the chicken mixture into a bowl and then cap with the biscuits.

This chicken and biscuits is so much better than a box of crackers!