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.

Seafood Fridays – Crawfish Etouffee

Do you believe in love at first bite?

I can recall the exact moment when I fell in love with this dish. That’s because it was the same moment that I fell in love with the city and culture of New Orleans.

It was June, 1987. My girlfriend at the time and I had just made the long drive from Chicago to New Orleans for a week-long vacation. After getting settled in our hotel, we wandered the French Quarter for the first time.

I had never been to Europe (still haven’t, in fact), so the narrow, European-style streets filled with colorfully painted buildings with elaborate wrought-iron balconies billowing with the summer’s first flowers was like something out of a dream.

Hungry from our trip, we ended up at the Cafe Royale, where we were seated on the second-floor balcony overlooking the carnival-like atmosphere on Royale Street below us.

Even though I had never eaten crawfish before, I ordered the crawfish etouffee because it was the house specialty and because it just felt right. I was rewarded for my adventurousness with a bowl of one of the most amazing things I had ever eaten. Dark brown, slightly nutty and creamy, sweet deliciousness.

I distinctly remember taking my first bite of that wonderful stew, looking out over the Vieux Carre and thinking, “I love this. All of it.” It was one of those moments of perfect happiness that the late Spalding Gray used to talk about in his monologues.

This particular recipe doesn’t come close to approximating that first intoxicating bowl of crawfish etouffee. In fact, I substituted shrimp because the only crawfish I could find were whole, pre-cooked ones and that wouldn’t work. Chopped small, the shrimp were a good substitute and the flavor of this etouffee was close enough to transport me back to that moment in time.

This recipe also features another New Orleans tradition, Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning, also known as simply “Tony’s”. In fact, I adapted this recipe from one on their website. I’ve mentioned Tony’s in the past because it is a good, versatile seasoning for everything from soups to meats to seafood or even barbeque.

Crawfish Etouffee

4 TBS Unsalted butter

1 lb Raw crawfish tails (or shrimp)

3 TBS Tony’s

1 White onion, medium dice

1/2 Green bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

1 Jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

2 cloves Garlic, crushed

1 tsp Corn starch

1 cup Water

1 Green Onion, sliced

Brown rice, cooked

1. Melt butter in sauce pan. Meanwhile, toss the crawfish with the Tony’s then saute in the butter for 3 minutes. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. In the same pot, add the onions, peppers and garlic and saute 10 minutes. Return the crawfish to the pot.

3. Dissolve the corn starch into the water then pour into the pot. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmmer, then cook gently for 20 minutes. Season with black pepper — you won’t need any more salt due to Tony’s being pretty salty — and serve over brown rice, garnished with scallions.

I served my etouffee with jalapeno cornbread, changing the recipe slightly by substituting whole wheat flour for the all-purpose flour. It had very little impact on the flavor but added more nutritional value.

Has a dish you’ve eaten ever made you fall in love with a particular city? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Seafood Fridays – Shrimp and Grits

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? I do.

I haven’t been back down to the Crescent City since 2007’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, but I keep tabs on what’s happening by tuning in to WWOZ online every day.

And I reconnect with the city periodically from a culinary perspective, such as this recipe for shrimp and grits.

Up north, grits aren’t as big a deal as they are down south. We prefer polenta, which is also made of corn meal, but usually has a slightly finer grind.

But unlike polenta, grits have the ability to jump from your breakfast bowl onto your dinner plate, where they can serve as a delicious anchor for almost any dish: Shrimp and gits, pork and grits, chicken and grits. If I ever were to open a Southern-style restaurant, I would simply call it “And Grits”.

Grits can be sweet or savory. This past Sunday I took my daughter, Maggie Mae, out to brunch at Stanley’s — a great bar/restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood near DePaul University, where she goes to school — and among their breakfast offerings were grits sweetened with honey. They were fabulous.

For this recipe, I made standard grits —  with just water and little salt — then ramped them up at the end with butter and a ton of grated parmesan cheese. The result were creamy, nutty grits that perfectly complemented the strong flavors of the shrimp. Even my wife loved it, and she usually won’t eat shrimp.

I decorated the plate with a little braised green chard and some roasted corn-black bean salsa. It not only tasted great, but it looked pretty fantastic as well. I’ll have to save this one for the menu at “And Grits”.

Shrimp and Grits

1/2 lb 16/20 Shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 cloves Garlic, crushed

2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp Sesame oil

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp Pick-a-Peppa Sauce

Dash red pepper flake

Fresh cracked black pepper

6 TBS Grits (not instant)

2 cups Water

Dash sea salt

2 TBS Whole butter

1/4 cup Grated parmesan cheese

For the Roasted Corn-Black Bean Salsa

1 can Black beans, drained

2 ears Corn, shucked and boiled

3 Tomatoes, ribs and seed removed, small dice

1/4 cup Red onion, small dice

2 TBS Cilantro, chopped

2 TBS Parsley, chopped

2 Green onions, sliced thin

1 TBS EVOO

Coarse salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Combine shrimp, EVOO, sesame oil, Worcester and Pick-A-Peppa sauces, and red pepper flake in a mixing bowl, season to taste with black pepper, cover and place in refrigerator to marinate at least 30 minutes.

2. Place grits, water and salt in a small pot, cover, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat and let sit at least 10 minutes, then fold in butter and parmesan cheese.

3. Roast corn cobs on the grill until they get a char, then cut the kernels off the cob and combine with all the remaining salsa ingredients. Season to taste with coarse salt and black pepper, cover and marinate in the refrigerator until ready to plate. Using coarse salt rather than sea salt gives the salsa a little crunch.

4. Saute shrimp with marinade in non-stick pan until cooked through, about 4 minutes. To plate, pile grits in the center of the plate and arrange shrimp decoratively on top of the grits. Spoon salsa so that it is falling off the shrimp and grits. Garnish if you want with a little braised greens.

Now that the Lenten season is ending, I have to decide whether to continue Seafood Fridays or not. Does anybody have an opinion? I would love to hear it. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Jambalaya Casserole

Tuesday is Mardi Gras and the parade season is in full swing in New Orleans.

I’m a huge fan of New Orleans cuisine and culture, but sadly I don’t get there often enough. I am, however, a regular listener to WWOZ-FM, the city’s public radio station devoted to New Orleans music and culture. So I’ve been listening as the carnival parade routes are annouced each day.

While I can’t make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this year, I am getting the ball rolling with this Jambalaya casserole. Jambalaya is a Louisiana dish that can contain a wide variety of ingredients, depending on who is making it, but it usually has chicken, sausage and sometimes shrimp and is served with rice.

I’ve modified my standard jambalaya into a casserole because it has been very busy around here (one of the reasons I can’t make it to the Crescent City this weekend) and casseroles are versatile enough so that they can be made ahead of time then just heated up whenever it’s time to eat.

Mardi Gras is a celebration of the fun things in life prior to the start of the Roman Catholic season of Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday and runs until Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday” is traditionally the day people let loose, drink a little bit, eat rich food and enjoy all the other good things that are not allowed during the Lenten season.

Being the good Catholic that I am (University of Notre Dame ’86, go Irish!), I follow the Lenten protocols, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

But New Orleans fan that I am, I also celebrate the Mardi Gras and  hold a deep respect for the traditions of second line parades, floats, beads and everything else that make up this amazing cultural tradition.

So laissez les bon temps rouler, let the good times roll and enjoy your Mardi Gras weekend wherever you are!

Jambalaya Casserole

2 TBS EVOO, separated

1 boneless skinless chicken breast, about 8 oz

1/2 lb of Italian sausage

Sea salt

1/2 tsp granulated garlic

1/2 tsp onion powder

1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 yellow bell pepper, medium dice

1/2 red bell pepper, medium dice

1/2 green bell pepper, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 package dry egg noodles

1 cup fat free cottage cheese

1/2 cup fat free sour cream

4 oz can tomato sauce

1 TSP Tony Cachere’s Creole Seasoning

1 tsp Tabasco sauce

Fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Put cast iron pan on fire. When hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, make a cut down the center of each sausage, remove from casing and place in pan, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Use spatula to break into 1″ pieces and brown all sides, about three minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove from pan and set aside.

2. Return cast iron pan to fire. When smoking, season both sides of chicken breast with salt, pepper, granulated garlic and onion powder and carefully place in the pan. Cook until bottom side is browned, then flip and cook another two minutes. Place the whole pan in the oven and cook until chicken is fully cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the breast. Remove from oven. Cool then chop into bite sized pieces

3. Clean cast iron pan and return to fire. When hot, add remaining EVOO. When smoking, add onioins and peppers and cook until onions translucent, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute then remove from heat.

4. Cook egg noodles according to package directions, usually about 7 minutes. You want to undercook the noodles just a little. Strain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process then return to the pot. Add chicken, sausage, cottage cheese, sour cream, Tony’s, vegetable mixture, hot sauce and pepper. Stir and transfer to casserole dish. Sprinkle with shredded cheese then grated parm and cover. Casserole can be cooked right away or stored in refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.

5. Cook covered casserole 35 minutes at 350F then remove cover and cook another 10 minutes to crisp the top. If cooking from frozen, cooking time will be closer to an hour.

During the Lenten season, which starts this Wednesday, I’m planning on starting a new feature called Seafood Fridays. Each week I will be featuring a seafood recipe that is both delicious and Lenten compliant.

Happy Mardi Gras, everybody!

Hoppin’ John and Johnny Cakes

I love it when a dish comes with a side plate of history.

Hoppin’ John is one of those dishes. In the Deep South, this stew made with black eyed peas is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day because it is believed to bring good luck throughout the rest of the year.

There are all sorts of rituals that come with this practice, including leaving a coin under the bowl or even in the stew itself, or counting the number of peas to see how many lucky days you will have during the coming year, or leaving three peas in the bowl at the end of the meal — one for luck, one for money and one for love.

Whew! But that’s not all. Hoppin’ John is usually served with brasied collard, turnip or mustard greens because they are the color of money, and with corn bread because it is the color of gold.

Finally, leftover Hoppin’ John is eaten again the following day — only this time it is called Skippin’ Jenny — to show how frugal you are.

The name Hoppin’ John may refer to a legendary character, or it may simply come from the Creole French for black eye peas, “pois pigeons”. No one knows for sure.

Back in the northern states, our food rituals are not nearly as interesting. Johnny cakes are what people from New England used to call corn bread around the time of the Revolutionary War. Because they would stay edible even during a long day’s journey on horseback, with the flat, nasal Yankee accent “journey cakes” became “johnny cakes.”

I may have been a couple of weeks late with this dish, but I hope it brings me luck for the rest of this year!

Hoppin’ John

4 TBS unsalted butter

1 white onion, medium dice

1 green pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

2 stalks of celery, ribs and leafs included, medium dice

3 cloves garlic, crushed

4 cups dried black eyed peas (soaked 6 hours)

32 oz chicken stock

1/2 lb sausage (any kind, your choice, I used chorizo)

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

2 TBS red wine vinegar

Rice or bulgur, cooked

1. Soak black eyed peas in cool water for at least 6 hours to soften. Rinse before using.

2. In pot, melt butter then add onions, pepper, and celery and cook until onions translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove sausage from casing, add to pot, break apart and cook until brown, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute or two.

3. Add black eyed peas, chicken stock and seasonings and bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve over rice with braised greens and corn bread on the side. Good luck!

What recipes do you make that come dripping with history? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Shrimp Creole

I know a lot of people who are afraid of shrimp.

Maybe it is because when they are raw they look like little insects or perhaps because you have to peel and de-vein them before cooking them, but some people just opt out of shrimp altogether.

Which is a terrible shame because shrimp are one of the most affordable, delicious, healthy and versatile seafood you can find. Shrimp cocktail, shrimp shish-ka-bobs, shrimp with pasta, fried shrimp, popcorn shrimp, and peel and eat shrimp are all among my favorite menu items.

Unless you live on the Gulf Coast or in Thailand, the shrimp you buy at the market were almost certainly frozen at some point during their journey. That’s because fresh shrimp are highly perishable and unless you are cooking and consuming them right off the shrimping boat, they need to be frozen to maintain their quality.

Some shrimpers freeze and package the shrimp at sea on factory boats. Others process their haul at giant factories next to the docks. In the US, most shrimp come from the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts.

Fun fact: When you buy boxed shrimp that is frozen, it usually is the same as the shrimp displayed in your grocer’s seafood department. In most cases, they just took it out of the box and defrosted it first.

Shrimp is sold by its size, with the biggest shrimp costing the most. Shrimp are priced by the number of peices of shrimp it takes to make a pound — 41/50, for example, means it takes between 41 and 50 shrimp of that size to make a pound.

I usually use 16/20 shrimp which typically cost about $5 to $6/lb. But you can buy shrimp that go all the way up to U10 (under-10 shrimp to the pound), which at that point are basically like small lobsters.

This classic New Orleans recipe is delicious even for people who don’t usually like shrimp because the sweetness of the shrimp perfectly complements the tangy, slightly spicy flavor of the sauce.

Shrimp Creole

1 lb 16/20 shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 TBS unsalted butter

1 TBS EVOO

1 onion, medium dice

2 stalks celery, ribs and leaves included, medium dice

1 green bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3 TBS all-purpose flour

1 8-oz can of tomato sauce

1 cup water

Juice of one lemon

2 bay leaves

1/4 tsp granulated sugar

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 TBS tomato paste

2 to 3 shakes of Worchestersire sauce

Sea salt to taste

1/2 cup green onions, sliced thin

1. Peel shrimp by tearing away the shell starting at the legs, then carefully tugging off the shell at the tail. De-vein shrimp by using a paring knife to make a shallow cut down the back, then use the knife to pull out the vein and discard. Rinse shrimp under cold water and refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Put pot on fire and add oil and butter. When butter melts, add onions, green pepper and celery and cook until onion translucent, about five minutes. Add garlic and bay leaf and cook another minute, then add flour and stir around, forming a kind of pot roux.

3. When flour begins to turn slightly brown, add the tomato sauce, water, lemon juice, sugar, and cayenne. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Stir in tomato paste and Worcestersire sauce. The Creole sauce should thicken to the consistency of creamed soup. If it gets too thick, thin it out with a little additional water. Simmer 30 minutes.

4. Add shrimp and stir so that all shrimp are completely coated with sauce, then simmer an additional 15 minutes, stirring once or twice. Season to taste with salt. Serve over brown rice or pasta and garnish with green onions.

Are you afraid of shrimp? Don’t be, but tell us why in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

 

Red Beans and Rice

I am a New Orleanian trapped in a Chicagoan’s body.

I just realized this as I sit here streaming traditional New Orleans jazz on WWOZ-FM while a pot of Red Beans and Rice slow cooks in the kitchen, filling the house with the spicy, smoky aroma of a lazy Monday afternoon in the Crescent City.

Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice

You see, red beans and rice is traditionally made on Mondays using the leftovers from Sunday’s dinners. I have an old Times-Picayune cookbook that says this tradition that goes back to the city’s colonial days, when ham was what was for dinner on Sunday, and the scraps and leftovers were boiled with a pot of beans all day Monday, while the washing was done.

It is a dish still closely identified with New Orleans. When you visit the city, you will see it on a lot of restaurant menus, and a big pot of it is cooked whenever people gather together to watch a Saints game, for Mardi Gras or second line celebrations, or any other festive occasion, from what I’m told.

Red beans and rice was Louis Armstrong’s favorite dish. How cool is that? Also, how cool is it that the city’s airport is named for Louis Armstrong?!  What a place! (Can you imagine naming O’Hare after Chicago musicians? Buddy Guy International Airport? Styx Field? Wait, I actually kind of like both of those.)

You can put a lot of things in red beans and rice, besides the titular ingredients. Traditionally, there’s a mix of vegetables and ham or sausage in a tomato-based sauce, but there are really no limits. If you serve it with jalapeno cornbread, please call me because I will be there.

I like to mix all the ingredients the night before in the crock pot, then refrigerate it until the next morning. Before going to work, I pop it into the slow-cooker, set the timer for 8 hours on low and when I get home the house is filled with magic. Must drive the dogs nuts.

If you’re home, you can also cook it on the stovetop over a low flame for several hours. Just give it a stir once in a while when you walk past it.

If you buy one of those boxes of Zatarain’s red beans and rice, your heart is in the right place, but you’re not doing it right.

Red Beans and Rice

16 oz package Polska Kielbasa (or Turkey Kielbasa), sliced into medallions

1 medium white onion, diced

1/2 green pepper, diced

3-4 carrots, peeled and diced

2 celery stalks, diced

2-3 jalapenos, seeds and ribs removed, diced

15 oz can whole peeled tomtoes, hand crushed

12 oz can diced tomatos and chiles

2 cans red beans, drained and rinsed

1 bay leaf

1 cup Spicy V-8

2 cups cooked rice

Combine all ingredients, except the rice, in crock pot. Stir together and cook on low for 8-10 hours, stirring occasionally.

To plate, press rice into a ramekin and invert in the center of a soup bowl. Ladle the red beans mixture around the rice, and garnish with parsley or cilantro sprigs.

Serve with jalapeno cornbread or any kind of fresh made bread, turn on a little Professor Longhair and you officially are an honorary New Orleanian.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Share your Crescent City favorites in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!