Meat Free Mondays — Summer Quinoa Salad

Here in Chicago, summer seems to be winding down already.

This year, we got all our really hot weather early: There were 44 days of 80F-plus temperatures from in June and July, which caused our garden’s harvest to arrive early. Tomato and pepper plants that usually produce fruit through the end of September are already startng to whither.

Still, it’s been a good harvest this year, with more Roma, Beefsteak and even Heirloom tomatoes than we could possibly use, as well as bushels full of jalapenos, green and red bell peppers. Even our yellow squash did well this year.

So far, I’ve already made garden tomato sauce, Caprese salad, bruschetta and any other tomato-centric recipe I could think of, not to mention desperately giving away surplus produce to anybody who will take it.

Having stumbled across this tri-coloed quinoa at Trader Joe’s (don’t you just love wanding the aisles at TJ’s, looking at all the fun ingredients and dreaming up recipes? I sure do!), I decided to make this summer quinoa salad. While it makes a great appetizer, the addition of some black beans and smoked mozzarella make it protein-rich enough to be served as an entree.

This is an example of a compound salad, which basically means you take a primary ingredient and build a salad around it using other ingredients. Compound salads can be protein-based (chicken or tuna salad), carbohydrate based (potato, rice or quinoia salad), or vegetable based (broccoli, carrot and raisin, coleslaw).

The great thing about compound salads is that they can be made out of just about anything. I’ve been the buffet chef at a lot of different restaurants, and having a large assortment of compound salads is a great way to add value to your salad bar.

When designing a compound salad, there are four elements to consider: Flavor, color, texture and nutritional value.For this particular salad, because quinoa is a nutty-flavored grain (texture), I wanted to add tartness (garden tomatoes), color (asparagus), and complimentary flavor (smokiness of the mozzarella).

Part of the garden, including a jalapeno plant, globe basil, regular basil, Greek oregano and some sort of spring onion plant

A lot of times, the dressing of a compound salad is a balance of sweetness and bitterness, usually accomplished through the use of some sort of vinegar and sugar or honey, such as a coleslaw dressing.

But for this particular salad, I wanted the nuttiness of this fun tri-color quinoa to be the central flavor, with the other ingredients either contrasting it and underscroring it, so I dressed it with plain Extra Virgin Olive Oil to add a lush richness but not to interfere with the other flavors.

Am I overthinking this salad or what?!

Summer Quinoa Salad

1 cup Tri-Color Quinoa (or plain quinoa)

2 cups Water

1/2 lb Fresh Asparagus

1 can Black Beans, drained and rinsed

6 oz. Smoked Mozzarella, cubed

1/2 Red Onion, small dice

2 stalks Celery, small dice

2 Jalapenos, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

3 Tomatoes, ribs and seeds removed, diced


Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

Cayenne Pepper

1. Combine quinoa and water in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for about five minutes so all the liquid is absorbed, then fluff with a fork. Allow to cool completely (I was in a hurry, so I transferred it to a sheet pan and spread it out so that it cooled down in about 10 minutes time).

2. Blanch aspagus by steaming it until cooked soft but still bright green, about 4 minutes, then immediately plunging it into ice water to stop the cooking process. Cut into 1/2-inch peices.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the quinoa, black beans, asparagus, tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, mozzarella and celery and toss together. Drizzle with EVOO, add  just a dash of cayenne,  and season to taste with salt and pepper.

While you can use cayenne pepper to add heat to a dish, adding just a small amount is a great way to bring out the flavors of other ingredients.

Whether I am serving a compound salad in a bowl on a salad bar or on plate for individual service, I always underline it with a leaf of red or green leaf lettuce. I wanted to add a little height to this salad, which otherwise just slumps on the plate, so I stuck some scallion stalks coming out of it, but in hindsight something bright red, such as thinly sliced red bell pepper rings, might have worked better.



Meat Free Mondays – Fried Zucchini

Our dog, Bud, is a very bad dog. I’ve already taken him through dog school twice and now my wife is taking him through a third course.

It happens to be at a facility that’s about 4 miles from home. In between our house and the dog school there just happens to be one of the best pizza places on the South Side of Chicago, called Papa Joe’s.

Papa Joe’s is one of those restaurants that has been around forever. The house I grew up in is only a few blocks away and when I was a boy, whenever I smelled roasting garlic, I knew that they were making the marinara sauce at Papa Joe’s that day.

Through the years, we’ve gone there for countless birthdays, graduations, first communions, funeral luncheons and so on.

Every Wednesday night, since Sandi and Bud just happen to be going past Papa Joe’s anyway, I’ve been ordering a pizza for them to pick up on the way home. The first time I did this a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the restaurant runs a promotion on Wednesdays: Order any large pizza and get your choice of any appetizer for free!

Whoa. Way better than a free liter of Diet Rite Cola!

Among the choices — garlic bread, tomato bread, fried mushrooms — the one I like most is the fried zucchini. The vegetable is cut into think strips, breaded and deep fried, then served with a roasted garlic dipping sauce on the side. Mmmmm.

It was delicious and almost momentarily made me forget about the amazing pizza that came with it. After I finished off the last peice, I knew I had to reproduce Papa Joe’s fried zucchini in my own home kitchen.

Sadly, I don’t have a deep fryer at home, so it was going to be a little more of a challenge. But with a little ingenuity, I was able to overcome it.

For the roasted garlic dipping sauce, I had only my taste buds to rely on because I didn’t have a recipe. Although I guess I could have asked my younger brother, who worked at Papa Joe’s in the early ’90s.

The sauce has rich butter and roasted garlic flavors, yet it’s thick and creamy. My guess was melted butter whipped into some mayonnaise with pureed roasted garlic cloves, a touch of cayenne, some cumin and a little water to adjust the consistency. I was close enough.

This appetizer can also be served with marinara sauce, if you prefer. Also, it can be made with yellow squash instead of zucchini, which is actually the way I went. The zucchini plant in our garden for some reason didn’t yield any fruit this year, but our crookneck yellow squash plant is doing fine, so I substituted. There’s really no flavor difference.

Fried Zucchini

1 large Zucchini or Yellow Squash, but into discs or sticks

1 cup All-Purpose Flour, seasoned with a little salt and pepper

2 Eggs, beaten

1 cup Bread Crumbs

2 TBS Parmesan Cheese

1. In one bowl, add the flour and season with a little salt and pepper. In a second bowl, add the eggs. In a third bowl, combine the bread crumbs and parmesan. One peice at a time, dredge the zucchini in the flour mixture, then cover with the egg mixture, and finally coat with the bread crumbs/parmesan mixture. Set aside on a plate. This is the three-stage breading method. It helps if you use only one hand for the dry ingredients and one hand for the wet ingredients, otherwise you have to stop and wash your Hulk hands every few minutes.

2. Put a cast iron pan over a medium heat. Add oil and let it get hot, but not smoking hot. Place each breaded zucchini into the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with the hot oil. Don’t crowed the zucchini peices, leave enough room in between so they can slide around. Cook them until nicely browned one one side, then flip them over and brown the other side, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate lined with  paper towel to absorb the excess grease.

Because of the pan size, this recipe has to be made in batches. The zucchini will stay hot enough while all the peices are being cooked, but if you want to make sure, you can heat your oven to 200F and

Bad dog! But thanks for the pizza!

store the paper-towel lined plate in there until everything is done.

In a way, I’m kind of glad Bud is a bad student at dog school because it means I have an excuse to get Papa Joe’s pizza PLUS a free appetizer every week! It almost makes all the chewed-up shoes worth it!



Crock Pot Cooking – Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

First, an apology: It’s been far too long since I’ve written a new blog. No excuses, but my only explanation is that my freelance writing career has demanded all of my time and I’ve been swimming in work since approximately mid-April. Hurray!

One project I was working on was a book on crock pot cooking. The project eventually collapsed due to, ahem, creative differences with the client but I suddenly find myself with more than 100 crock pot recipes, some of which I’ve already photographyed.

Hence, a new feature at Budget Cooking Blog: Crock Pot Cooking.

I’ve written many times about the convenience of using a crock pot, such as this blog, this blog and, oh yes, this blog. The best thing about the crock pot is that you just set it and forget it, and at the end of the day you not only have a delicious meal that will feed your family for days, but your entire home is filled with a lush, mouth-watering aroma.

This particular recipe is one of my favorites: Italian Sauasage in Tomato Sauce. The combination of slow-cooking the sauce and the addition of roasted garlic-flavored tomato paste really brings out the acidity in this sauce, but it is nicely balanced with the sweetness of the sugar and is given complexity by the oregano and fennel.

While enjoying this classic appetier, it’s easy to imagine yourself dining al fresco along Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood, watching as the parade of people pass by.

While this would be wonderful as an entree served over pasta, I like to serve it as an appetizer over hard polenta. The primary difference between hard polenta and soft polenta is that the former is made with water and the latter with dairy, such as milk, cream or whatever you happen to have on hand.

Hard polenta — which is not actually hard but is poured out onto a sheet pan and allowed to set up — can be cut into any shape you like, which gives you a lot of versatility for plating. It also can be pan fried or even grilled if you would like some additional color and flavor.

Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

1 lb Spicy Italian Sausage, either bulk or casings removed

1 small Red Onion, small dice

1 Carrot, peeled, small dice

1 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes with Italian Seasonings

6 oz can Tomato Paste with Roasted Garlic

1 tsp Dried Oregano, or 1/2 tsp fresh

1 tsp Fennel Seeds

1 tsp Granulated Sugar

1/4 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

6 oz Hard Polenta (recipe follows), cut into any shape you like

1. Put cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add sausage, onion, carrot and bell pepper. Cook until sausage is browned, about 7 to 8 minutes, breaking up the sausage as it cooks.

2. Transfer sausage mixture into crock pot. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, fennel seeds, sugar and black pepper. Cook and cover until mixture simmers and thickens, about 4 to 6 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high.

To plate, arrange polenta on an appetizer plate then use a kitchen spoon to ladle a generous portion of the sausage mixture over half the polenta, leaving the other half exposed. Garnish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a sprig of parsley.

Hard Polenta

4 cups Water

1 cup Polenta (coarsely ground corn meal)

1 TBS Whole Unsalted Butter

3 TBS Grated Parmesan Cheese

1/2 tsp Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

1. Bring water to a boil then slowly whisk in polenta, stirring constantly so that it doesnt clump. Reduce heat and cook until polenta thickens to the point where it pulls away from the walls of the pot, about 12 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.

2. When thick, turn off heat and fold in butter and parmesan. Season with pepper. You don’t need to add any salt because the parmesan already is quite salty.

Let the polenta cool for a few minutes, then pour it out onto a greased baking sheet smoothing it with a spatula to create an even level. Let it cool completetly at least an hour. You can then use a knife to cut the polenta into triangles, stars, circles or whatever shape you want. These polenta peices can be grilled or sauteed, or stored in your refrigerator or freezer for another time.

For creamy polenta, substitute dairy such as milk, half and half or heavy cream for the water and kick up the butter to 1-1/2 TBS or more, depending on how rich you like it.

My apologies once again for my absence. I have missed writing this blog and am looking forward to sharing more easy, delicious and inexpensive recipes in the coming weeks and months.

Meat Free Mondays – Spinach Artichoke Flatbread

Flatbreads are like pizza in the same way paninis are like grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s pretty much the same thing, except a little classier.

I like flatbreads on a number of different levels. For one, they are a lighter alternative to heavy pizza, making them perfect for outdoor dining or a light appetizer.

For two, they are really inexpensive to make, but people are willing to spend money on them. In some restaurants I’ve worked, flat breads were a popular seller and they only had about a 12% food cost. Compare that to the industry average of 27% and you can see why they are an appealing item to put on a menu.

Plus they are very simple to make because you usually don’t make the flatbread yourself. In most places, I’ve bought lavash bread, which is a Middle Eastern bread that is sort of like a cross between a pita and a tortilla.

In this recipe, however, I found these wonderful spinach tortillas. They gave just the right flavor to this flatbread, plus they crisped up wonderfully in the oven. It was like eating off of giant spinach-flavored crackers.

One of my favorite appetizers of all time is spinach and artichoke dip. The flavor of this flatbread reminded me of that dish, with its tart artichoke, iron-rich spinach and sweet grated parmesan.

But the beautiful thing about flatbreads is that you can make them with anything. I’ve used pulled barbequed chicken, beans and corn, even flaky fish. They are pretty much fool-proof and a consistent crowd pleaser.

So now that the weather’s warming up and soon we will be able to dine outdoors occasionally, start thinking about what kinds of flatbreads you can make for your family. They are fast, easy, inexpensive and, most of all, delicious.

Spinach Artichoke Flatbread

2 spinach tortillas

1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed

1 can artichoke hearts, drained and rough chop

4 oz crumbled blue cheese

1/2 cup fat free blue cheese dressing

1/2 cup fat free ranch dressing

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 cup green onions, sliced thin

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Lay tortillas out on sheet pan and spray with pan spray. Flip and spray other side. Bake in oven until crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. This can be done up to a day ahead of time.

2. Combine ranch and blue cheese dressings in a mixing bowl, then brush mixture on the bottom of both tortillas. Arrange spinach, green onions and chopped artichoke hearts in an even layer, then sprinkle with blue cheese. Finally, sprinkle with parmesan.

3. Return to oven and bake until slightly browned, about 12 minutes. Cut into four large peices for an entree, or eight smaller peices for an appetizer and serve immediately.

What kinds of dishes do you make when the weather starts to get warmer? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Hummus Times Three

Hummus is one of our favorite foods in our house because it is so easy to make and fun to eat.

Hummus is also highly adaptable in that you can give it any flavor you want. In past blogs, I’ve written about plain hummus, roasted red pepper hummus, Kalamata olive hummus, and roasted garlic hummus.

This time, I decided to try a hummus made with roasted tomatillas, poblano chiles and jalapenos; a hummus made with chipotle salsa; and a hummus made with carmelized onions.

I started with a big batch of plain hummus, triple the amount I normally make. Then, I removed the hummus from the food processor, cleaned it out, added back one third of the hummus, then added one of the three flavorings. Then I repeated the whole process twice more with the remaining two flavorings.

The result was a trio of delicious hummus that can be enjoyed right away, or kept in the refrigerator and sampled for up to three or four days with some delightful whole wheat pita. We ate ours with some shish-ka-bobs and couscous the first night, but there was plenty left over for lunches and snacks.

Hummus usually is served with flatbread, such as pita, or with fresh vegetables like celery or carrot sticks, or green or red pepper slices. It’s 100 percent natural and is high in iron and Vitamin C.

I always use my food processer to make hummus because it’s super easy, but you also can make it in a blender. Or, if you are adventurous, people have been mashing it by hand for thousands of years.

Basic Hummus

1 can chickpeas, drained (save the can)

¼ cup tahini

1-2 cloves garlic

Juice of 1 lemon


1 tsp honey

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne or a couple drops of hot sauce

1. Combine all ingredients in food processor or blender and mix until smooth. Use the can from the chickpeas to pour a little tap water into the mixture as it blends until the hummus has the consistency of cream of wheat.

2. Transfer to an airtight container and let rest in your refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving so the flavors can meld. The hummus will also thicken a little during this time. Serve the pita whole and let your guests tear it up with their hands (fun!) or cut it  into wedges for a nice presentation.

Triple this recipe if you are super ambitious and want to try all three!

Roasted Tomatilla, Poblano Chiles and Jalapeno Hummus – Peel the papery wrapper off 6 to 8 tomatillas and rinse off the sticky residue. Chop them in half and throw them in a mixing bowl. Cut two poblanos and two jalapenos in half and remove the seeds, ribs and stems and discard, then throw the peppers in the bowl. Drizzle about 2 TBS EVOO into the bowl, toss so everything is coated evenly, then pour out onto a baking pan and roast at 375F for about 45-50 minutes so they get a nice char, stirring once during cooking. Allow to cool completely. This can even be done the day before. Add to the hummus recipe listed above and puree completely.

Chipotle Hummus — Add about 4 oz of chipotle salsa to of the hummus mixture and puree completely. Or you can use canned chipotles, which are smoked jalapenos, but be aware that these are quite hot and spicy.

Carmelized Onion Hummus — Put your cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add 2 TBS of EVOO. When smoking, add 1 medium white onion, julienned. Toss to cook evenly, then cook until brown, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. At the very end, stir in 1/2 cup water and cover, and the onions will get super brown and sweet.

The roasted tomatilla hummus turned out quite spicy — I must have left too many jalapeno seeds in it — but it was still tasty with the smoky flavor of the charred tomatillos and peppers. The chipotle was not all that spicy, but also had a great smoky flavor. The carmelized onion was very sweet, so you might want to cut back or eliminate the honey if you are not into super sweet hummus.


Holiday Appetizers – Easy Parmesan Squares

One of the things I like about my family’s Christmas get-togethers is that we always have the same appetizers year after year.

Some may think that shows a lack of originality or a fear of the unknown, but the reality is we know what we love after many years of trial and error. The appetizers are generally very unhealthy and the holiday season is the only time we indulge in them, so they are something we all look forward to every year.

That’s one of the best things about the holidays: All the worry about diet and exercise go out the window, if only for a few days. The holidays have their origin in ancient feast days, in which people would load up on food and drink in celebration of the winter solstice and in preparation for the long winter days and nights ahead. It was both a celebration of community and a farewell to those who wouldn’t make it through the harsh winter.

The indulgent nature of the feast remains intact even today. After all, you can always make a New Year’s resolution to drop the pounds gained during the holiday season!

One of my favorites are these Easy Parmesan Squares. Given the velocity at which they disappear after they are set out, these probably are the most popular of all holiday appetizers. At my family’s party, if you want some of these, you better be quick!

Before Going Under the Broiler

Before Going Under the Broiler

Easy Parmesan Squares

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup parmesan cheese

1 TBS dried onions

1 TBS Worchestershire sauce

1 loaf mini party rye bread

1. Combine mayonnaise, parmesan, dried onions and Worchestershire sauce in a mixing bowl. Set in refrigerator for about an hour to thicken.

The Original "Secret" Recipe

The Original "Secret" Recipe

2. Turn on broiler. Using a butter knife or spatula, rub about a TBS of the mixture on each mini rye square and arrange in rows on sheet pans. Broil until brown and bubbly, about 2 minutes, watching carefully so they don’t burn.

3. Serve immediately while still hot.

What sort of holiday appetizers does your family enjoy year after year? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!