Meat Free Mondays – Two Vegan Soups

I’ve been running into veganism around every corner lately.


Corn chowder (left) and Vegan split pea (right)

Corn chowder (left) and Vegan split pea (right)

Veganism is like vegetarianism except even more restrictive because not only can you not eat meat, but you can’t eat dairy products either. The benefits are  supposed to be include better health, including not only prevention of disease but the reversal of many serious medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

These benefits are explained in a documentary called “Forks Over Knives”, which was recommended by Somer, the excellent blogger who writes VedgedOut. She suffered from ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune condition that caused her considerable pain. The treatment resulted in substantial weight gain, severe acne and other health issues.

When she went on an entirely vegetable-based diet, however, not only did her symptoms go away, but her condition reversed itself. Now she’s a marathon runner and you can read her inspiring story here.

The film is available on Netflix and, while it’s not most professional-looking documentary I’ve ever seen, its message is powerful and effective. It documents a number of case studies in which people who faced serious, even fatal, health conditions literally had their lives saved by veganism.

Still, I struggle with the concept of being a vegan. I could probably live without meat if I had to — Sandi and I rarely eat anything other than chicken and ground turkey anyway — but it’s the dairy, especially cheese, that I would miss.

For example, I can’t imagine a life without pizza, which I could eat seven days per week (something I occasionally would do back when I was still single).

Still, the concept fascinates me, so much so that when we found ourselves Wicker Park — a hip, young neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side last week — we tried a vegan restaurant called Native Foods Cafe. It apparently is a small chain with a handful of stores in California, Chicago and a few other places.

I was not expecting the food to be as delicious as it was. The atmosphere was great, the people who worked there were gracious and seemed very happy, and the place was bustling.

When I returned home, I found a blog written by the amazing Becky at VegHotPot, who wrote a roundup of her best vegan recipes that she wrote about during vegan awareness month last month, all of which looked and sounded wonderful.

Then, a few days later, my older brother announced he was switching to a vegetable-based diet for health reasons. It’s like all the planets are aligning at the same time.

So while we’re not committing to 100% veganism, we’re going to try to incorporate more vegan dishes into our diet and see how it goes, starting with these two vegan soups.

Both were super easy to  make and very delicious, so much so that I didn’t even mind having soup for dinner two nights in a row.

So I’ve ordered a bunch of vegan ingredients that I couldn’t find at my local groceries from an online store and will be preparing a number of vegan dishes in the coming weeks, including a pizza made with vegan mozzarella “cheese”. Obviously, I will let you know how they turn out.

In the meantime, here are recipes for meat-free smoky split pea soup (which is adapted from one I found on Vedged Out’s blog) and a really great vegan corn chowder. Enjoy!

Smoky Vegan Split Pea Soup

1 Red Onion, small dice

4 Carrots, peeled and small dice

3 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 Russet Potato, peeled and medium dice

1 tsp Dried Thyme

1 tsp Dried Oregano

8 cups Vegetable Stock

1 TBS Liquid Smoke

1 lb Green Split Peas

2 Bay Leaves

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 tsp Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

Dash Cayenne Pepper

1. Put a soup pot over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onion, potato and carrot and sautee until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 second.

2. Add the remaining ingrediets and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the peas absorb all of the liquid, about 40 minutes. Remove bay leaves and serve.

The split peas continue to absorb moisture, making the soup even thicker the next day. If you prefer a smoother soup, you can use an immersion blender or let the soup cool and blend in a food processor or blender. This soup also can be made in a crock pot. Just let it cook on low until the moisture is absorbed, about 4 to 6 hours.

Incidentally, Liquid Smoke is an all-natural product that is 100% vegan.

Chunky Vegan Corn Chowder


1 Onion, diced

1 Garlic Clove, crushed

2 cups Vegetable Stock

6 Red Potatoes, diced

1 cup Baby Carrots, chopped

2 15.25-oz cans Whole Kernel Corn

1-1/2 cups Soy Milk

1 TBS Garlic Powder

2 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/4 cup Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

1/2 cup Soy Milk

1. Place soup pot over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrots and potatoes and cook until onions translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add all remaining ingredients except 1/2 cup soy milk and flour. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.

2. In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour and the remaining soy milk. Increase heat so soup returns to a boil, then whisk flour mixture into the soup and cook until soup is thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

So now I’m going to be on the lookout for great vegan recipes. If you have any, can you please share them with me? I’ll do the same. Thanks!

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.

Seafood Fridays – Tuna Cakes

Canned tuna is just something you sort of take for granted. It’s great for throwing together a quick tuna salad or for making a tuna casserole. But this recipe for Tuna Cakes takes tuna from a can to a whole new level.

Tuna Cakes

Tuna Cakes

I found this recipe on the wonderful Pursuitofhappieness blog, written by the amazing Sush. Her recipes are always spot on, so I knew this one would be delicious, and it was.

This Tuna Cakes recipe reminds me of the Salmon Patties we used to have when I was a kid. In fact, if you substitute canned salmon for the canned tuna, I’m sure it would be just as wonderful. My mom used to smother the Salmon Patties in a white sauce — which I’m sure was simply milk thickened with a roux — with peas.

I dressed this one up a little bit because I was feeling creative. I added a watercress salad — simply watercress, tomato slices, slivered onions and black olives tossed in a little balsamic vinegar — along with some steamed yellow squash that was tossed lightly in butter.

Watercress is such a versatile little green. It’slight, cool and crunchy, with just a little taste of pepper. I love to use it underneath lighter proteins, such as fish. I don’t think it would stand up to anything heartier, such as beef or chicken, however.

I punctuated the plate with drops of red and green habenero sauce, which not only added color but spice as well. While the tuna cakes packed a little punch due to the red chili paste, fish like tuna really benefits from something spicy. Sandi suggested a wasabi sauce, which is what I will try next time.

Tuna Cakes

1 Egg

3 small cans of White Albacore Tuna packed in water

2 tsp Dijon Mustard

1 tsp Red Chili Paste

2 TBS fresh Parsleyh, chopped fine (our parsley from the garden is still going strong!)

1/2 cup Old-Fashioned Oats

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1. In a bowl, mix together all of the ingredients except the olive oil. Then using your hands form into four balls of equal size. Pat down the balls into patties and place on a plate lined with wax paper. Cover with a second sheet of wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so the patties will hold together better and the flavors can meld.

2. Preheat oven to 375F. Put a cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the EVOO. When the oil is smoking, place the patties into the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Cook until the patties are browned on one side, then turn over and brown the other side, about 2 minutes per side. Then put the whole pan in the oven to finish, about 12 minutes.

I served these Tuna Patties with a honey-mustard barbeque sauce, which I made by whisking together equal parts of all three ingredients, then thinning it out with a few drops of water. I had wanted to put it into a squeeze bottle and zig-zag it across the patties, but I was getting hungry so I opted to drizzle it instead.

Wine on Wednesdays – Bridlewood Blend 175

When your goal is to find great-tasting wines under $10, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.

For example, I bought this Pinotage from Roberston Winery, out of South Africa. I have had South African wines before and found them to be generally high quality and extremely affordable. But this one had a flavor I’ve never experienced before in a red wine.

It tasted like bacon.

I’m not even kidding. This wine had the smoky flavor of bacon. I though perhaps I just had an off bottle or perhaps my sense of taste was warped that night, so I spent another $6.79 on a second bottle a week later and tried it again.

Nope, it tasted exactly like bacon right out of the frying pan. Apparently, Pinotage is a hybrid grape invented in 1925 in South Africa and is notoriously unrelialbe, much like the Pinot Noir grape, one of its parent grapes. Hopefully, all Pinotage wines don’t taste this way.

Anyway, at least I found a wine that will go well with a couple of fried eggs and some toast.

Another unpleasant surprise was this “Bostovan Black Doctor Red Wine”. This is one of those wines that comes in an unusual-shaped bottle that I found on way in the corner on the top shelf of my local wine store, the place where they put the wines they don’t necessarily want to promote. Sometimes you can find some interesting discoveries there, like Georgian wines.

The name of the winery was written in Cyrillic, so I’m not sure what it’s officially called or even what country produces it. (Editor’s note: It’s make in Moldova, according to Google). The only thing I know for sure is that if you are going to sell a sweet red wine, you should put that somewhere on the label.

I hate sweet red wine and this one was not only sweet, but the flavor was unpleasant as well. It was a waste of $5.60 because after one taste, I poured it right down the sink.

Fortunately, the day was saved by this Bridlewood Blend 175. This is a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes that were grown in the Central Coast region of California.

According to the winery’s official site, the grapes for this wine were picked mostly at night to keep the fruit cool, so the flavor characteristics of each grape varietal could be maximized. The grapes were then destemmed but not crushed so that large portion of whole berries were left in the fermentor.

“The must was fermented at a maximum 88F in order to emphsaize the dark, jammy fruit flavors in the finished wine,” it states. “This wine was racked frequently, allowing the rich fruit flavors to open fully.”

That sounds like a lot of work for a wine that sold for $9.34/bottle (after the 15% discount I received at my local wine store for buying more than six bottles at a time. The regular retail price was $10.99). Yet the care and attention to detail that the winemaker put into creating this blend really pays off.

Bridlewood Blend 175’s flavor is remarkably smooth and balanced, and the combination of varietals is simply delicious.

Bridlewood Blend 175 is one of the best wines I’ve tasted in years, and joins Coppola Rosso, Mark West Pinot Noir and Las Rocas as my favorite inexpensive wine discoveries of all time.

It even helped me get the taste of frog out of my mouth!

Sesame Chicken

There is a Chinese restaurant literally five doors down from where we live, so we can get takeout anytime we want.

The best thing about Chinese is that it’s never very expensive and you get enough food to feed you for days. The downside is that it’s not always very good, and our local takeout shop tends to be hit and miss.

Homemade Chinese is always so much better, anyway. And this simple Sesame Chicken recipe is no exception.

It’s also really quick to throw together, especially this dish which finishes in the oven while you can do other things.

I’m not going to tell you that I found it on How Sweet It Is because you probably knew that already. Can I just rename this blog “Recipes I stole from Jesssica” and get it over with!

I must be losing my mind as I grow older because as a classically trained chef, I always make sure I have my mise en place completely ready before I get started putting together a dish. But it was only after I had this one cooking that I realized I didn’t have any rice!

The same thing happened again this morning when I was making pumpkin spice waffles and realized I had no milk! What’s going on?!

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have some tri-colored quinoia that I had bought some time ago at Trader Joe’s, which actually worked out even better. In addition to the quinoa, I served this Sesame Chicken with a quick sautee of white onion, green and red bell pepper, and jalapeno. The peppers are among the last from this year’s garden (bonus!).

I also used boneless, skinless chicken thighs because the local Food 4 Less wanted $4.38/lb for B/S chicken breasts. Wait, what?!

Simple Sesame Chicken

2 lb Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts (or thighs if you’re not the Rockefellers)

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

3 TBS All-Purpose Flour

2 TBS Sesame Oil

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Garlic Cloves, minced

1 TBS Low-Sodium Soy Sauce

1 TBS Corn Starch

1 TBS Brown Sugar

1 TBS Rice Wine Vinegar

1/2 cup Reduced Sodium Chicken Stock

2 TBS Toasted Sesame Seeds

1. Preheat oven to 400F. In a bowl, whisk together chicken stock, brown sugar, corn starch, 1 TBS sesame oil, garlic cloves, soy sauce and vinegar. Set aside. In a separate bowl, toss the diced chicken with the salt, pepper and flour.

2. Place a large Dutch Oven over a medium-high heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add the chicken and cook until browned, stirring occasionally, about five minutes. Pour chicken stock mixture over the chicken, turn off heat and cover. Place entire pot into oven and cook 20 minutes.

To serve, spoon the chicken mixture over rice, noodles or quinoa. Arrange sauteed vegetables of your choosing along the side, then garnish all with the sesame seeds.

Meat Free Mondays — Apple Oatmeal Muffins

I swear I’m going ban myself from the blog How Sweet It Is. Everytime I read it, I find something I just have to steal make, such as these Apple Oatmeal Muffins

I am totally in awe of Jessica, the blog’s author. In addition to being a great cook, Jessica is also an amazing writer and one of the best food photographers I have ever seen. Everything she makes looks and sounds delicious, without exception. She inspires me on every level.

These Apple Oatmeal Muffins are only the latest recipe I’ve borrowed from her and used in my own blog. In recent weeks, it seems like every couple of days I’m ripping off from How Sweet It Is. Even my wife, Sandi, has subscribed to Jessica’s blog and I can barely get her to read mine!

This recipe turned out fine, but I took a few shortcuts  and made a couple of mistakes, so it could have been better. First, J’s recipe called for whole wheat pastry flour and I only had whole wheat flour an I was too lazy to drive to the store to buy the real deal.

Pastry flour is a finer grind than the whole wheat flour and results in a smaller crumb and fewer gluten strands. As a result, my muffins didn’t rise as well as they could have and were more dense.

Second, I didn’t have any apple cider — I haven’t seen any in the stores yet this year — so I used apple juice. They aren’t the same thing. Basically, cider has pulp and apple juice does not. While the flavor of the muffins was good, the muffins would have had a richer, smoother texture had I used the cider.

Finally, I didn’t have any cardamon so I left it out altogether, so the flavor wasn’t as complex as it could have been.

In short, Jessica doesn’t have anything to worry about. She’s still the best.

I only iced half the muffins because asked me to leave some plain so she could eat them without having to worry about the exra calories from the icing. What’s the fun of that?

Apple Cider Oatmeal Muffins

2 Honeycrisp Apples, small dice

3 TBS Apple Cider (or apple juice)

1-1/2 cups Whole What Pastry Flour

1/2 cup Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats

1 tsp Baking Soda

1/2 tsp Baking Powder

1/2 tsp Cinnamon

1/4 tsp Sea Salt

1/4 tsp Cardamon

1 pinch Nutmeg

1 large Egg

1/3 cup Brown Sugar, loosely packed

1-1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract

1/2 cup Unsweetened Applesauce

4 TBS  Brown Butter, melted and cooled

1/3 cup Apple Cider (or juice)

For the Apple Cider Brown Butter Glaze

4 TBS Brown Butter, melted and cooled

1-1/2 TBS Apple Cider

1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract

1/2 to 1/3 cup Powdered Sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Heat a small skilled over a medium-low heat, add diced apples and 3 TBS apple cider, a pinch of cinnamon and salt. Cook until apples are brown and soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. In a bowl, mix together flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Set aside. Linea muffin tin with liners.

3. In a Kitchen Aid mixing bowl (or just a large bowl), whisk together the egg and brown sugar until creamed. Add vanilla extract, butter, apple juice and 1/3 cup apple cider and mix until smooth. Then gradually add the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Don’t overmix or gluten strands will form and your muffins will be more like bread. Fold in the diced apples, then use an ice cream scoop to fill each muffin liner about 2/3 of the way full.

4. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until tops start to brown.

To make the glaze, mix together the brown butter, cider and vanilla, then mix in the powdered sugar until it reaches the proper consistency. Spread the cooled muffins with the glaze using a butter knife, or dip the muffins into the glaze and twist while pulling up.

By the way, brown butter is simply whole butter that you cook over a low heat until it begins to turn a golden brown, stirring constantly. It has a more caramel-like flavor than plain melted butter. But be careful to take it off the heat the minute it starts to brown. The difference between brown butter and burnt butter is about 30 seconds.

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.


Beef Chop Suey

Beef Chop Suey is one of those dishes I ate a lot growing up, but had kind of forgotten about.

My mother was/is a wonderful cook. But like anybody else, she had her repertoire so we tended to have the same dishes again and again.

Beef Chop Suey

Beef Chop Suey

We had Beef Chop Suey at least once every couple of weeks. I remember she would always cook it in her electric frying pan and served it with those little fried Chinese noodles, which we kids enjoyed more than we did the main dinner.

Another standard in our house was chipped beef, which was Buddig sliced “corned beef” in a sauce of milk thickened with a roux and served over mashed potatoes. Apparently, this was a variation of an well-known Army meal called “Sh*# on a Shingle,” which was chipped beef served over toast.

On Fridays during Lent, we would often have “salmon patties”, which were canned salmon mixed with mashed potatoes, formed into patties and pan fried. They were served with the same thickened milk sauce, except this time it had peas in it. Fancy!

My father’s favorite, however, was “gravy bread”. Basically, it was the drippings from a beef roast poured over a slice of white bread. I guess cholesterol hadn’t been invented yet back in the 1970s. Today this would be considered a heart attack on a plate.

On very special occasions, my mom would roll out her peice d’resistance: Stuffed Manicotti. These were tubular pasta shells stuffed with mixture of ricotta cheese, eggs and parsley (I think) topped with red sauce and melted mozzarella. It was was really great, so it deserved special status.

Anyway, here’s my Beef Chop Suey recipe. It varies a little from my mother’s but the flavor is remarkably the same.

When I ate this, it was like being transported back in a time machine to our family’s dinner table in the 1970s, with my brother kicking me under the table and my father admonishing us to keep our “elbows off the table”.

Good Catholic family that we were, every meal was preceded by “Grace”. We were never allowed to watch television during dinner in those days, even if your favorite show was on! And for some reason singing was also banned at the dinner table.

It’s funny what the flavor of a dish can make you remember.

Beef Chop Suey

The McCulloughs

That’s me in the red shirt, along with my mother, my younger brother Kevin and my older brother Michael, circa 1979

1/2 lb Beef, cut into cubes

2 TBS Corn Starch

3 TBS Low-Sodium Soy Sauce, divided

1 Large Garlic Clove, crushed

1/2 tsp Sugar

6 Button Mushrooms, quartered

1 Broccoli Crown, cut into bite-sized peices

4 to 5 Napa Cabbage Leaves (or Bok Choy), cut into bite-sized peices

1 Large Carrot, peeled and sliced at an angle

2 Celery Stalks, sliced at an angle

1/2 White Onion, sliced thin

1 cup plus 2 TBS Water, divided

1/2 TBS Chili Sauce

2 TBS Canola Oil, divided

1. In a bowl, toss the beef in 1 TBS corn starch, 1 TBS soy sauce, garlic and sugar. Set aside.

2. In another bowl, combine 1 cup water, remaining 2 TBS of soy sauce, 1 TBS corn starch and the chili sauce. Set aside.

3. Place cast iron skillet or a wok over a high heat. When hot, add 1 TBS canola oil. When smoking, ad beef and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Remove beef from pan and set aside. Return pan to heat. When hot, add remaining TBS of canola oil. When smoking, add vegetables and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Then add 2 TBS water, cover and cook 2 minutes more.

4. Add the liquid mixture and stir until it comes to a boil and thickens and vegetables are soft, about 3 minutes. Return beef to the pan, cook until heated through and remove from heat. Serve over rice or noodles.

To me, my mother’s Beef Chop Suey tasted like love.

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.