Meat Free Mondays – Vegan BBQ Sandwich

When I cook vegan, it  can sometimes be a drag. I tend to use the same ingredients over and over again — lentils, chickpeas, black beans, quinoa, rice and so on.

Soy CurlsThat’s why it was such a thrill to discover soy curls. These are tiny dehydrated twists made of soybean and nothing else. They will stay fresh practically forever, especially in the freezer, and require only a quick steeping in hot water in order to be rehydrated.

They can be substituted in any recipe that requires shredded meat, such as this vegan BBQ sandwich recipe.

The taste of soy curls is neutral like chicken breast, so they enthusiastically take on the flavor of  whatever other ingredients you prepare them with. Their texture is sort of like pulled pork, but without the globs of fat or stringiness (or the saturated fat).

Butler soy curlsThe only downside is that soy curls are not yet widely available. I had to mail away for them from a vegan grocery store on the West Coast after I found this recipe and wanted to give it a try. But they are quite inexpensive — I paid $4.15 for a 10 oz package, but that results in about 1.5 pounds of actual edible product once you add water — especially when compared to meat.

Plus, they are made from the whole soybean, are all natural, contain no preservatives or additives and are high in fiber.

Seriously, what’s not to love?

To make things even better, this recipe is made with a Sriracha Barbeque Sauce.

sriracha sauceSriracha — also known as “Rooster Sauce” due to the big rooster on the package — is a Thai spicy-sweet hot sauce and currently is my favorite obsession food.

I’ve been putting it on everything, but I especially love it over a couple of scrambled eggs inside a warm tortilla with a little queso fresco. (I literally had that for breakfast every day last week!)

Vegan BBQ Sandwich

1/2 package Butler Soy Curls, rehydrated according to the package instructions

1 Red Onion, slivered

1 Green Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, diced

8 oz Portobello Mushrooms, diced

For the Sriracha BBQ Sauce

1/2 cup Organic Ketchup

2 TBS Molasses

2 TBS Bragg’s Liquid Aminos

1 TBS Cider Vinegar

1 tsp Agave Nectar

1 Garlic Clove, minced

1 tsp Liquid Smoke

2 tsp Sriracha Sauce

Fresh Ground Black Pepper to taste

1. In a non-stick skillet, water sauté the onion, pepper and mushrooms until onions are softened, about five minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the soy curls and sauce and cook until most of the sauce is absorbed by the soy curls and they begin to brown a little, stirring occasionally, about five minutes.

3. Serve on pretzel bun with pickles on the side.

soy aminos natural soy sauce substituteSoy aminos is a liquid protein that is used as an all-purpose seasoning and tastes like soy sauce. It is made from soybeans and includes a bunch of essential and non-essential amino acids, and is much better for you than sodium-rich soy sauce.

Agave nectar is a natural sweetener extracted from the core of the blue agave plant, the same cactus that is used to make tequila. It’s tastes like honey and is 25% sweeter than sugar. I’ve been using it a lot anywhere I would use sugar or honey, such as in breads, sauces and salad dressings.


Restaurant Review – Chuck’s Southern Comfort Cafe

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe — located in a former rock music club in Burbank, Illinois, a southwest suburb of Chicago — has somehow become part of our family.

Last Thursday, we spent Thanksgiving at Chuck’s, just as we did the year before. On Easter, we also gathered at Chuck’s. And it’s a regular destination for birthdays and other family milestones.

When wife’s cousin family — who happen to live next door to us — celebrated their son’s graduation from law school, they rented out Chuck’s party room. When the power went out last summer in the middle of an important White Sox game, I headed over to the Voodoo Lounge, Chuck’s New Orleans themed bar, to watch the final innings.

Which got me to thinking about why Chuck’s has become my family’s favorite gathering place. Part of it is certainly the food. Chuck’s features Southern-style barbecue mixed with New Orleans Cajun and Tex-Mex.

The barbecue is amazing

The barbecue is amazing

All of it is amazing, but the barbecue in particular is really exceptional, especially the smoked pork, chicken and ribs. Everything is made from scratch. It’s the kind of place where they make their own barbecue sauce and sell it by the bottle at the cash register.

The staff is friendly and warm, and you feel like home when you are at the restaurant. Chuck himself — a bear-sized man with a booming voice and a permanent smile — constantly makes the rounds and checks in with every table to see how they’re doing.

This past Thursday, he came to our table to insist that we all try some pickled beets that he made from the harvest of his own garden. They were spectacular.

The restaurant is large and comfortable. The decor is like Mardi Gras meets Southwest. There’s lots of colorful masks and beads side-by-side with original paintings that are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe.

It’s a relaxing place where you are immediately put at ease the moment you walk through the door. And we always see people we know from the neighborhood dining at the tables in the dining room.

Chuck with my neice, Megan

Chuck with my neice, Megan

The South Side of Chicago tends to be a clannish place and outsiders are not usually made to feel welcome. Yet Chuck’s is the rare exception where everybody can gather for a good time, great food and a comfortable, relaxing dining atmosphere.

Chuck’s has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” as well as “Check, Please!” , the locally-produced restaurant review show. In both cases, the reviewers were glowing with their praise of the restaurant.

While Chuck’s is never going to win any Michelin awards or be written up in exclusive magazines, its combination of comfort food in a laid back setting make it one of my family’s favorite destinations.

If you ever find yourself on the South Side, make sure you check out Chuck’s Southern Comfort Cafe. Just give me a call first so I can join you!

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe is located at 6501 W. 79th St., Burbank, IL. The phone number is 708-229-8700. Reservations are accepted.

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!

Barbeque Baked Beans

Memorial Day weekend is coming up and that means three things: The Indianapolis 500, Irish Fest at Gaelic Park, and cookouts.

I’m a big fan of cookout food, especially baked beans. But I’ve never found a storebought baked bean product I’ve really liked, and most homemade versions I’ve tried have lacked oomph.

I think baked beans should stand up and poke you in the eye with their barbeque flavor. With this barbeque baked beans recipe that I modified from this one I found on the excellent How Sweet It Is blog, your baked beans will be noticed at your weekend holiday cookout.

It’s bold. It’s brassy. It’ probably gassy. But it’s super delicious and your guests won’t soon forget it.

Plus, you can make it in the crock pot. Bonus!

Barbeque Baked Beans

1 lb Navy beans, dry

10 slices bacon

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Garlic Cloves, crushed

2 cups Water

3/4 cup Barbeque Sauce (Any kind, I use Sweet Baby Ray’s)

1 cup Brown Sugar

1/4 cup Ketchup

2 TBS Molasses

1/2 cup Kentucky Bourbon (I used fake Jake Daniel’s)

1-1/2 TBS Dry Mustard

1/4 cup Apple Cider Vinegar

2 TBS Worcestershire Sauce

1. Place beans in a large pot and cover with water. Soak at least 4 hours up to overnight. Drain, return beans to pot, cover in water again and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for approximately 1 hour. Remove from heat, drain again, then pour out onto a sheet pan to cool.

2. Cook bacon slices in cast iron skillet. When all the bacon is cooked, chop it into small peices and set aside. Drain all but 1 TBS of the bacon grease from the pan, then return it to the fire and add onions. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes to carmelize, stirring frequently. Add garlic for the last minute, then remove from heat.

3. In a crock pot, combine water, bourbon, brown sugar, barbeque sauce, ketchup, dry mustard, vinegar, molasses and Worcestershire sauce. Stir in beans, onions and bacon. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours. When cooking cycle is over, leave crock pot on the warm setting for at least an hour so the beans can thicken up really nicely.

These beans are miraculous. I served mine with jalapeno cornbread and the pairing was so rich it could have been a meal in itself.

This recipe makes a large batch, so there will be plenty to share. They can be reheated the next day and in fact will taste even better. If you have an electrical connection in your backyard, bring the whole crock pot outside and keep your beans warm until you are ready to serve them.

What Memorial Day/beginning of summer food rituals do you look forward to every year? Share your story in the comments section below. And thank you for supporting my blog!

Country Style Pork Ribs

Barbeque season is here so it is a good time to review some BBQ basics.

When you cook barbeque, you have three major choices to make:

1. What to barbeque

2. Cooking method

3. Type of BBQ

There are almost an unlimited combination of these three choices. For example, you can barbeque any kind of meat or poultry, even fish or vegetables if you want, although that’s a little more exotic. And within each meat category, there’s different cuts to consider: ribs, briskets, shoulders.

Within the rib category, there are still more decisions to be made: baby back ribs, spare  ribs, country style ribs, rib tips. Baby backs are narrower and have curved bones, for example, while spare ribs — sometimes called St. Louis Ribs or Kansas City ribs, depending on how they are butchered — are longer and flatter. All are delicious and perfect for BBQ.

For this dish, I selected country style ribs. They are cut from the blade end of the pork shoulder and are meatier than other types of ribs. They usually contain just one long flat bone at the bottom, making them slightly less messy to eat.

Cooking methods include grilling, smoking, boiling, braising, baking or any combination of any of these methods. Because it was raining, I opted to go with braising.

Finally, there is the type of barbeque to consider. There are two primary types: Dry rub and wet.

Wet entails generously basting what you are cooking with a liquid barbeque sauce during all or part of the cooking process. The result is a sweet, smokey and tacky sauce that perfectly complements sweeter meat such as pork and chicken.

For this dish, I selected dry rub, which is when you rub the meat with a barbeque seasoning made up of a combination of many different herbs and spices before cooking it. You can buy a pre-made rub or you can make one yourself.

Most of the time, I use both methods, starting with a dry rub then brushing barbeque sauce onto the meat during the last portion of the cooking time. Abundanza!

Barbeque has become a rich summertime tradition. Many people ritualize the experience, and there are numerous BBQ competitions and festivals where people share their techniques and serve their secret recipes.

This recipe is no secret, but it is a quick and convenient barbeque dinner you can make to kick off the BBQ season. I served my ribs with a traditional homemade potato salad and some steamed, buttered green beans. If you like, you can serve barbeque sauce on the side, but these ribs were so succulent and flavorful that I didn’t find it necessary.

Country Style Pork Ribs

2 to 3 lb Country style pork ribs

1/2 cup Barbeque rub

1 cup water

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Generously rub the pork ribs on all sides with the barbeque rub. Place in a 9″x13″x2″ baking pan and pour the water into the bottom of the pan, being careful not to wash off the rub from the ribs.

2. Use aluminum foil to seal the pan and cook for 90 minutes.

Super easy, right?! Here’s the potato salad recipe:

Traditional Potato Salad

6 to 8 Medium red potatoes

2 eggs, hard boiled

2 stalks celery, diced

1/2 white onion

1/3 cup Pickle relish

1 cup Reduced-fat mayonnaise

2 TBS Dijon mustard

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

Paprika for garnish

1. Boil whole potatoes for about 25 minutes or until cooked through. You can test doneness by sticking a fork into the potato. If it easily slips off the fork, it is ready. Remove from water and set aside until cool enough to handle.

2. Cut potatoes into large dice peices and place in a mixing bowl with the celery. Grate the onion and egg into the bowl. In a separate bowl, make the dressing by combining the mayonnaise, mustard and pickle relish, tasting it to make sure you have the proper balance. Then dress the salad and mix with a spatula. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This salad tastes better if you let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving it so the flavors meld together. Garnish with the paprika.

Do you have any barbeque traditions that you would be willing to share? Tell us all about them in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!



Grilled Baby Back Ribs

The grilling season started early this year and I’m happy about it.

Whenever the weather’s even the slightest bit warm, I can’t wait to abandon my kitchen and head into the backyard to do my cooking.

In celebration of the warmest Spring in Chicago history, I decided to grill baby back pork ribs, one of my favorites. When it comes to grilling pork ribs, I usually use either baby back ribs or spare ribs.

Baby back ribs are shorter, meatier and more curved than spare ribs. They usually are a little more expensive than spare ribs, but they make for better grilling.

My secret to making the best ribs is to boil them in salted water for about an hour before putting them on the grill. This completely cooks them until they are nearly falling off the bone and it makes it easy to grill them just right.

Another option is to roast the ribs for about an hour, but this dries them out more. A third option is to smoke your ribs all day in a smoker, which gives them a rich, smoky flavor. But if you are pressed for time, boiling the ribs is the best solution.

You can boil them up to a day ahead of time if you want, then let them cool before refrigerating your ribs until you are ready to grill them.

Make sure you peel off the sheet of cartilage on the back of the ribs. It’s easily removed once they have cooled. Removing this piece makes the ribs easier to eat and taste better.

Finally, I finish my ribs by spraying them with pan spray, seasoning them with salt and pepper, and marking them briefly on both sides on the hottest part of the grill. Next, I brush on a generous amount of barbeque sauce, move the ribs to a cooler part of the grill with indirect heat, cover them and then cook the ribs until the sauce gets tacky, about 10 minutes.

The result are delicious, sticky and delightful baby back ribs that are fun to eat and taste amazing. I always serve extra barbeque sauce on the side and have plenty of napkins available, as well as a bucket to throw the bones.

I like to serve my ribs with some charred sweet potato discs. These are easy to make are great for plating just about anything because you can stack them any way you want.

Wrap a sweet potato in a paper towel, stick it a few times with a fork and then microwave it for 10 minutes. After it’s cooled, cut it into cross sections, spray them with pan spray, season them with salt and pepper, then put them on the hottest part of the grill until they get a nice char.

You can easily make these way ahead of time and just reheat them whenever you’re ready to use them. They are great for adding height to a plate or giving a dash of color. Plus they taste great!

Charred corn on the cob naturally goes with ribs, of course, but the final part is a cole slaw. The acidity of the vinegar cuts the fat in the pork ribs, so the two pair perfectly together.

This baby back rib platter is the perfect start to what hopefully will be a long and rewarding backyard grilling season!

Asian Cole Slaw

2 cups Napa cabbage, sliced thin

1 carrot, peeled and grated

4 radishes, grated

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

1 TBS sesame oil

2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

2 TBS honey

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Combine cabbage, carrot and radish in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the vinegar, sesame and olive oils and honey. Taste the dressing so that it is balanced between sweet and tart.

2. Dress the slaw with the dressing and season with salt and pepper. It tastes better if you refrigerate it for at least an hour before serving it.

What are your favorite things to cook out? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!


Barbeque Pork Chops

Probably the thing I miss most in the winter is not being able to use my grill or smoker.

It’s not that I can’t use them exactly. They are operable. They can be turned on.

The problem is the sun. It goes down too early, long before the time I normally make dinner. And I can attest from experience that grilling in the dark is not really a good option.

That’s why I love to find a barbeque recipe that can be made indoors. This one is an inexpensive, reduced fat version of breaded pork chops, with a BBQ bent.

Fried pork chops, chicken or chicken fried steak are some of my favorite things to eat, but unfortunately they are too high in fat to have very often, if at all. Usually once or twice a year at a family party is my limit.

But in this version, the pork chops are fried in only a very small amount of oil and most of the cooking is done in the oven. This is hardly a no-fat recipe, however, because potato chips and pancake mix is used in the breading, both of which are loaded with fat, plus the BBQ sauce is mostly high fructose corn syrup. So I won’t pretend this is health food.

Still, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to make in order to enjoy barbeque in the middle of winter. I served this with Rosemary Roasted Red Potatoes and steamed broccoli, and it was a delicious, wonderful mid-winter treat.

Barbeque Pork Chops

1 cup barbeque flavored potato chips (about 1 oz)

1/2 cup pancake mix

1 egg, beaten

2 TBS BBQ sauce

6 boneless pork loin chops 1/2 thick (about 1-1/2 lbs)

1 TBS vegetable oil or shortening

3/4 cup BBQ sauce

1. Place BBQ chips in 1 gallon plastic freezer bag and crush with rolling pin. Add pancake mix, seal bag and shake well.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together egg and 2 TBS BBQ sauce. Dip pork chops into egg mixture, then place in bag and shake to coat with breading. I realize this is just like Shake & Bake, from the 1970s. You could just dredge the chops in the breading if you preferred. Me, I liked the irony.

3. Preheat oven to 375F. Put cast iron skillet on the fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add pork chops a couple at a time and fry on both sides until just golden brown. Set aside on sheet pan. When all pork is marked, place sheet pan in oven and bake 25 minutes. To plate, nap the chops with BBQ sauce, leaving most of the breading exposed.

Pork is still relatively inexpensive — the chops were about $2/lb — compared to beef, which has been insanely high lately, so this worked out to be a pretty inexpensive meal as well.

What do you do in the kitchen during winter to keep sane? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches

When the weather is nice outside, I love to use my backyard smoker to smoke pork, chicken and beef for barbeque.

Now that Chicago’s warm weather is going into hibernation until next Spring, I need to find another way to satisfy my barbeque craving. The solution? Crock pot BBQ pulled pork.

This recipe is great because it makes its own barbeque sauce in the crock pot as the pork slowly cooks. All day long, the juices from the pork combine with the ingredients of the sauce. The result is a pot of sweet and tangy heaven.

There is a debate about whether these sandwiches should be served with or without dill pickle slices on them. I don’t know where this tradition started, but I usually include the pickles because the vinegar in the pickles is effective at cutting the fat from the pork. But I happily will serve them on the side or leave them off altogether if anyone requests  it.

In the same vein, this kind of tangy barbeque really needs to be served with some sort of slaw — cabbage, fennel or another kind. Not only does the vinegar help enhance the flavor of the pork, but the contrast between the cold slaw and the piping hot pulled pork is delicious.

So until Chicago weather allows me to fire up my smoker again — and it’s not looking like that will be anytime soon — I’m happy to hunker down with this easy-to-make crock pot classic.

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches 

2 TBS chili powder

1 tsp sea salt

3/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1-1/2 to 2 lb bone-in pork loin or pork shoulder

3 tsp EVOO

2 large white onions, sliced

1 cup ketchup

1/2 cup chili sauce

1/4 cup molasses

1/4 cup strong brewed coffee

1/2 tsp hot sauce

1. Put cast iron pan on fire. Combine chili powder, salt, pepper and garlic powder in a bowl and mix well. Roll pork in spice mixture so that all sides are covered. When pan is hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add pork, turning frequently so all sides are browned evenly. Place pork in crock pot to wait.

2. Return pan to fire. When hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onions and cook until carmelized, about 7 minutes, stirring frequently. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl stir together the ketchup, chili sauce, molasses, coffee, hot sauce and remaining spice mixture. When onions are nice and brown, pour sauce over onions, reduce heat and cook for a minute or two, stirring frequently so the sugars don’t burn.

3. Pour onion and sauce mixture over pork. Set the crock pot timer for 8 hours and the temperature on low. Cover and forget about it until its ready. After about six hours, you can easily pull the pork apart with two forks, or you can just wait untli the end. Remove any bones before serving.

To serve, use a tongs to pile shredded pork on whole wheat burger bun. Top with dill pickle slices and serve with any sort of slaw.

Do you have any summer favorites that you crave during the winter? Tell how you satisfy your craving in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!