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!


Wine on Wednesdays – Rigatoni Red

When I worked at my Uncle Tony’s liquor store in high school, I was often approached by customers asking me to recommend a wine to go with a particular dish.

Rigatoni Red

Rigatoni Red

Aside from the fact that they were asking a 16-year-old for wine advice, I did my best to accomodate them. Yet since my wine knowledge was rather limited at the time, some of the pairings were questionable.

Pork chops with apricot sauce? You might try this Mogen David made from Concord grapes. Cashew chicken? How about Richard’s Wild Irish Rose? Traditional Thanksgiving dinner? I suggest Riuniti on ice. It’s nice!

Well, a couple of wine importers from New York are offering a solution to the problem of which wine to serve with a particular entree. Cousins Darren and Ben Restivo, owners of Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, have launched the Food & Wine Collection, which pairs particular foods wines the company develops with selected vintners.

The wine I tried is called “Rigatoni Red” and it is made with a blend of varietals grown in Puglia, Italy, which is traditionally thought to be the place pasta was invented.

The wine was affordable, priced at $9.99/bottle. I paid $8.49 with the 15% discount I get at my wine store for buying 6 bottles or more at once.

I actually tried it twice, once without pasta and once with rigatoni and red sauce.The first time I enjoyed its smooth flavor on its own. It sort of had a Merlot-like mellowness going for it, with a little bit of a cherry tang. Definitely not a fruit bomb.

I wondered how it would stand up to a rich tomato-and-garlic pasta sauce. The answer is surprisingly well. The flavors of the wine and the pasta complemented each other so  that both ended up tasting even better than they would by themselves, which is the way successful food and wine pairings are supposed to work.

The company also offers Bar-B-Que Red, made with grapes from France’s Rhone Valley; Fresh Catch White, a blend of Sicilian varietals; and Ribeye Red, which is composed of a blend of grapes from Argentina’s Fanatina Valley.

I haven’t seen those wines yet, but I’m looking forward to trying them. Especially if they pair as well with those dishes as Rigatoni Red did with the pasta.


Meat Free Mondays – Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

It’s that pumpkin time of year!

Every autumn, there’s a three or four week period where pumpkins are everywhere and in everything, from our spiced lattes to our breads and bagels.

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

This year there must have been a bumper crop, because pumpkins are cheaper than I’ve ever seen them. Yesterday, I paid $2.98 for an enormous pumpkin the size of a basketball, which I quickly chopped in half, seeded and roasted off for its delicious and versatile meat.

In this vegetarian recipe, I used pumpkin as a thickening agent for a pretty traditional lentil soup. Lentils are are a type of bean — also known as a pulse – that are in the legume family.

Lentils are a staple of many vegetarian diets because vegetarians and vegans don’t eat animal protein, so they must supplement their diet with plenty of protein-rich lentils.

Lentils also are one of the oldest of all known foods, having been part of the human diet since at least the Neolithic periiod. They were one of the first foods that humans grew themselves, rather than gathered in the wild, with archeological evidence showing that they were eaten 9,500 to 13,000 years ago.

What I like about lentils are their versatility and their flavor. They make excellent cold salads, can be added to other dishes to contribute density, and can be mashed up, combined with other vegetables and be used as a veggie burger. They also can be served as a side dish, and, as seen here, they make delicious, hearty soups.

Lentils come in a variety of colors, including brown, red and green. Their flavor is sort of like a combination of kidney beans and peas. They have a meaty texture to them when cooked.

Unlike other dried beans, lentils don’t have to cook forever before they are done. Just simmer them in liquid for about 45 minutes and they are ready to eat. Dried lentils should be cooked in a 4:1 liquid ratio. So if you are cooking one cup of lentils, you should use 4 cups of water or other liquid.

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

1  cup Dried Lentils

15.5 oz can Vegetable Stock

2 cups Water

1TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 Carrots, peeled and chopped

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Celery Stalks, medium dice

2 Garlic Cloves, minced

1/2 tsp Smoked Paprika

10 oz can Diced Tomatoes

1 Bay Leaf

1-1/2 cups Cooked Pumpkin

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1 oz Queso Fresco (for garnish)

1. Fill a soup pot with water and add lentils. Stir them around to clean them, discarding any beans that float to surface. Drain and set aside.

2.Place the pot over a medium fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, celery and carrots. Stir and cook until softened, about two minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add lentils, paprika, vegetable stock, water and bay leaf. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook about 30 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, replace cover and cook until lentils are soft, about another 15 to 20 minutes. Add enough pumpkin to thicken the soup to desired consistency, season to taste with S&P and continue cooking just until pumpkin is heated through, about five minutes.

4. Remove bay leaf, ladle into bowls, garnish with queso fresco and serve.

I actually cooked my lentil and pumpkin soup in my new crock pot, combining all the ingredients — except the tomatoes and pumpkin — and cooking on low for 8 hours. I just threw the tomatoes for the last hour and thickened it with the pumpkin at the end. It turned out wonderful.

A programming note: For those who have been wondering why there have been long absences in this blog recently, there are two reasons: 1.) My freelance writing business has picked up substantially (yay!) and 2.) Sandi and I spent a long, relaxing weekend on Siesta Key, Florida, with my family earlier this month.

I’m  glad to be back in the saddle, however, and promise to try to be more consistent with my blog writing. Thanks for your patience.


Wine on Wednesday – Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine

The concept behind Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine is clever. It’s made from a blend of California grapes that are meant to represent the distinctive flavors of California reds.

But the exact type of grapes used to make the wine is a secret!

Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine

Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine

It’s a marketing scheme apparently dreamt up by Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Family Estates, the Clarksville, California, wine producer who makes this blend. There’s also a Secret Blend White Wine which I haven’t tried.

Okay, I thought, I love California wines. I’ll try it.

I found the Ameberhill Secret Blend Red Wine to be a good wine with bold flavors and very strong fruits that bordered on the sweet. I don’t care for sweet wines, and this wine wasn’t sweet, exactly. It just hinted at sweetness. Kind of like the way a puckery raspberry jam does.

The problem for me is that the Amberhill Secret Blend Wine didn’t taste like a California wine. When I think of California wines, I envision vegetal Zinfandels, mellow Merlots, or stately Cabernets. This wine reminded me more of a jammy Mogen David, which is a New York State wine made of the Concord grapes that grow well in that region.

I hope they don’t make Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine out of Concord grapes grown in California because that would be blasphemous. Come to think of it, that would definitely justify keeping the varietals it’s made from a secret.

I didn’t not like this wine. It was pretty good. And I get the whole “secret” thing as a marketing tool. I just don’t think it should be marketed as a wine that evokes the flavors of California wines. Even if the grapes were grown in that state, it doesn’t taste like California to me.

The price of the wine was great. I bought it for $5.94/bottle after the 15% discount my local wineseller offers for buying six or more mixed bottles at once. That’s far below my self-imposed ceiling of $7.99/bottle for affordable wines.

If Amberhill 2010 Secret Blend Red had been marketed as a California red table wine, I probably would have enjoyed it more because my expectations wouldn’t have been so high. In this case, a clever marketing campaign sort of sabotaged my ability to like this wine for what it is.

If that makes any sense.


A Christmas Miracle

Each year, from roughly the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, our house is converted into an insane asylum.

Between the planning, gift shopping, wrapping, decorating, cooking, and entertaining, for about a month our ordinary lives are shoved aside while our days become filled with a frenzy of hyperactivity. Invariably, my diet and exercise routines go out the window. Even the dogs, perhaps sensing the heightened  stress levels, are more irritable than usual.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Then, suddenly, it all comes to a screeching halt on Christmas Day.

Families are reunited. Feasts are enjoyed. Gifts are unwrapped. And, if only for a few hours, peace reigns on earth. Each year, we are rewarded with this Christmas miracle.

So from my family to yours, with heartfelt gratitude for reading and supporting my blog, and with every good wish for a happy and safe holiday, I wish you a miraculous Christmas and a happy New Year!

A programming note: This is my 100th blog post since launching Budget Cooking Blog last August. Hurray! I will be taking the next week off to recharge my batteries and will begin posting the next 100 blogs after the New Year.


Budget Cooking Blog Nominated for The Versatile Blogger Award

As I stand on the brink of my 100th posting since starting my blog last August, I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that Budget Cooking Blog has been nominated for The Versatile Blogger Award by Thank you so much for nominating my blog! It’s an honor to be recognized!

The nomination is a pay-it-forward type recognition in which select bloggers are asked to nominate 15 fellow bloggers who not only write a fun and entertaining blogs, but have been supportive and helpful to their fellow bloggers.

When a blogger receives the nomination, they are requested to:

  • Nominate 15 fellow bloggers.
  • Inform the bloggers of their nomination.
  • Share 7 random things about yourself.
  • Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  • Add the Versatile Blog Award logo on your blog post.

When I wrote my first blog in early August, I had only recently learned what blogging was! Since then, I have developed many rewarding and interesting relationships with a wide variety of people whose work I respect and enjoy reading every day. These writers not only write fun and entertaining blogs, but have been extremely supportive and helpful throughout the whole process of launching and developing my blog.These include, in no particular order because I love them all:


Madison Woods

The Big Fat Noodle

Frugal Feeding

Running Sunflower

The Sweet Kitten

Military With Zero Waste

Married With Food

Whatever The Route

Mother Meets the Road

The Tracey Show

Pursuit of Happieness

The 2 Beths

Tinkerbelle 86

West of the I

Seven Fun Facts About Myself

7. Whle working as an usher in high school, I once tried to kick “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks out of Wrigley Field because I didn’t recognize him. I’m a White Sox fan.

6. I once served a room service cheeseburger to the King of Soul, James Brown.

5. Despite being a classically trained chef, I could eat pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and before I was married, I frequently did).

4. In high school, I played guitar in a band called Blackjack. We sucked.

3. I attended Notre Dame during the awful Jerry Faust football years. Two years after I graduated, the Fighting Irish won the national championship under Lou Holtz.

2. My hobby is doing laundry. I’m not even kidding.

1. I have written a screenplay and am about halfway through my first novel.

Thank you again for this honor. It is nice to be recognized for all the hard work that goes into writing a daily blog!

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Here’s something you may not know: Chicago has an enormous Polish population.

There are more Poles living in Chicago than in Warsaw. The influence of this population is evident everywhere, especially where I live. Many store signs are in both English and Polish, and there are certain markets where no English is posted or spoken. When you walk in, it’s like being teleported to a store in Poland.

One of my fondest memories growing up was in 1979 when Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope, visited Chicago and climbed onto the roof of a high school only a few blocks from my house to greet a massive crowd of mostly Polish followers.

Poland has one of the richest cultures and proudest histories in the world. And Polish cuisine is among my favorites, even though my ethnic background is Irish.

Full disclosure: My first wife’s family was Polish and my daughter is half Polish. Back in those days, I used to look forward to family parties because it meant lots of delicious Polish food — kielbasa, pierogis, kolatchkies and today’s recipe, gołąbki (ga-WOOM-key) or stuffed cabbage rolls.

These are delicious and so easy to make. They bear a strong similarity to stuffed green peppers, but the tanginess of the cabbage adds a whole other level of flavor.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

6-7 whole cabbage leaves

3 cups cooked whole grain rice

1 lb ground beef or turkey


1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, medium dice

1 cup shredded cabbage

1 clove garic, crushed

4 oz can tomato sauce

2 TBS Italian seasoning, separated

1 tsp sugar

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1 TBS hot sauce

1. Bring a pot of water to boil. Add cabbage leaves and boil until softened, about 4 minutes. Drain in colander then return to pot and cover with cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. Place cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, green peppers and shredded cabbage and cook until onions just start to brown, about 3 minutes. Add ground beef or turkey and cook until meat is browned, about five minutes, stirring occasionally. In the last minute of cooking, stir in the crushed garlic and Italian seasoning.

3. To make the sauce, combine the tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and sugar in a small pot and cook together for about five minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Preheat oven to 350F. In mixing bowl, stir together the meat mixture, rice and about half the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Lay a cabbage leaf on a cutting board and spoon about 2 TBS of the mixture into the center. Roll up into a log shape and fold the flaps underneat to seal. Place in a baking dish. Repeat with the remaining cabbage leaves.

5. Cover cabbage rolls with the remaining sauce, then cover with foil and bake 35 minutes. Let cool for a couple of minutes before serving.

These are a great meal all by themselves because the protein, starch and vegetable are all contained in the individual cabbage roll. But they also go great with some seared kielbasa sausage and a couple of pierogi.

What ethnic cuisines are popular where you live? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

South Side Grocery Bargains – Week of Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2011

Before we get to this week’s bargains, I wanted to give a shout out to a few of  my favorite blogs. I apologize in advance to everybody I left out. I plan on making this a regular feature, so hopefully everybody will get a mention at some point:

Mother Meets the Road — An opinionted New Orleans-based blogger who offers up recipes and advice with attitude. She describes herself as a cross between June Cleaver and Courtney Love.

The Tracey Show — Great recipes and great-looking photos from a great mom and talented cook.

Future World – Although not food-centric, this Providence-based writer always entertains with musings and comments about the places life takes him.

Frugal Feeding – A UK counterpart to Budget Cooking Blog, his writing style is always enjoyable and his recipes are always a joy.

Guapola — Probably the single funniest blogger I’ve found on the internet. One of the most original voices out there.

Okay, enough with the plugs. Let’s start saving some money!

In the produce section, Aldi’s has grapefruit for $.29/ea. Fresh Pick Market, at 8749 S. Ridgeland Av., in Oak Lawn, has McIntosh apples for $.69/lb. Both Freshline Foods, at 5355 W. 95th St., in Oak Lawn, and Cermak Produce have bananas for $.39/lb. At Pete’s Fresh Market, red delicious apples are $.38/lb, cantaloupe, Florida tangerines and d’Anjou pears are $.68/lb and avocados are only $.48/ea. And Tony’s Finer Foods, at 8630 S. Harlem Ave., in Bridgeview, has 6 oz packages of imported blackberries for $.79/ea.

Cermak has 5 lb bags of red potatoes for only $1.49. Fresh Pick has 1 lb bags of carrots for $.33. Freshline has eggplant and crisp pickles for $.79/lb. At Tony’s, Roma tomatoes and bok choy or Napa cabbage are $.39/lb and zucchini and yellow squash are $.49/lb. And Food 4 Less has chayote squash for only $.33/ea, perfect for your next Meat Free Monday.

In the meat department, Ultra Foods has chicken leg quarters for $.68/lb. Fresh Pick has whole grade A chickens for $.89/lb and bone-in chicken breasts for $.99/lb, the same price as Tony’s.

Pete’s has ground beef for $1.98/lb in the family pack, and ground turkey for $1.48/lb.

For at least the fourth week in a row, pork prices remain low. Fresh Pick has whole pork butt for $1.19/lb. Ultra has bone-in pork sirloin chops for $1.29/lb. F4L has pork shoulder butt roast for $1.58/lb.

In the grocery aisle, both Pete’s and Freshline have 5 oz cans of Bumble Bee chunk light tuna for $.49/ea. Tony’s has 8 oz cans of Goya tomato sauce for $.33/ea.

In the deli, Fresh Pick has Carolina turkey for $2.49/lb.

In the baking supplies aisle, Jewel has 5 lb sacks of Pillsbury flour for $1.99.

In the dairy case, Tony’s has Country Delight milk for $2.49/gallon and grade A jumbo eggs for $.99/dozen. Aldi’s has 8 oz packages of cream cheese or Neufchatel for $.89/ea.

In the bakery, Tony’s has 1.5 lb loaves of fresh baked Polish rye bread for $.69 and 8″ apple or Dutch apple pies for $2.50/ea. Jewel has house brand white or wheat bread for $.88/loaf.

For this week’s Bargain of the Week, we return to Ultra, where Palermo’s classic frozen pizza is only $1.66/ea, the lowest price I have ever seen. As a former omnivorous teenager with a pizza-centric diet, I can tell you that’s a great deal.

If you find a bargain while shopping, please share it in the comments section below. See you at the grocery store!