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.

Crockpot Corner — Turkey Quinoa Meatballs

I’ve decided to start a new feature now that the cooler weather has arrived here in Chicago. It’s called Crockpot Corner and the first recipe to be featured are these wonderful Turkey Quinoa Meatballs.

The name Crockpot Corner sounds like it should be in a 1980s women’s magazine, I know, and if anybody has any better suggestions, I would appreciate it.

Anyway, who doesn’t love meatballs? They are so veratile. You can serve them over pasta, offer them as an appetizer, or — my favorite — put them on a hinged roll and melt some cheese over them for a meatball grinder.

When I was growing up, my older brother, Michael, introduced me to many of the more counter-cultural happenings that were going on in the mid-1970s, one of which was the “underground comics” of R. Crumb.

The one I remember most clearly was called “Meatball” and as far as I can recall it comprised mostly of ordinary people getting hit in the head with meatballs that were thrown at them from somewhere off-panel.

Ever since then, meatballs have always struck me as funny and I can’t eat them without remembering that R. Crumb comic.

Like all crockpot recipes, this delicious meatball recipe is simple to make and cooks all day at low temperature, filling the house with a rich, lush aroma.

It’s based on one I found it at the amazing blog How Sweet It Is, which is written by a wonderfully fearless madwoman named Jessica who consistently provides great recipes and generously shares details of her life with her readers.

Most weeks, I find at least one or two recipes on Jessica’s blog that I end up making  (I’m planning to make one tonight, in fact). And her incredible food photography always inspires me to improve my own.

Turkey Quinoa Meatballs

2 lb Ground Turkey

2/3 cup Cooked Quinoa

3 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 Egg, lightly beaten

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 TBS Grated Parmesan

2 tsp Dried Basil

1 tsp Dried Oregano

1/2 tsp Onion Powder

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

1 White Onion, cut into thin rings

28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes

10 oz can  Whole Peeled Tomatoes

6 oz can Tomato Paste

1. In a mixing bowl, combine turkey, quinoa, egg, olive oil, parmesan, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Mix together just until all the ingredients are combined, but be careful not to overmix because this can make the meatballs tough. With your hands, roll into meatballs about the size of golf ball. This should make about 24 meatballs.

2. In a crockpot, pour the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste and stir around until blended. Then lay the sliced onion on top.

3. Put a cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, drizzle in a little EVOO and wait until it starts to smoke. Then place about half the meatballs in the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Turn until all sides are browned, then place in the crock pot on top of the onions. Cook the remaining meatballs the same way and add them to the crockpot.

4. Pour the juice from the whole peeled tomatoes on top of the meatballs, then hand crush the tomatoes. I enjoy the tactile experience of hand-crushing my tomatoes, but it also allows the tomatoes to maintain some of their shape the sauce cooks down, adding texture. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 3 hours.

I served these on hinged rolls smothered in tomato sauce and then covered with a slice of provalone cheese. Then I put it under the broiler for just a minute to melt the cheese a little.

This makes a lot of meatballs, so I ended up having these for lunch for a few days afterwards. I eventually sliced up the remaining meatballs and put them on a homemade pizza.

I hope you like the new feature and watch out for flying meatballs!

Seafood Fridays – Cod Cakes with Tartar Sauce

Today we are making a New England favorite: Pan-seared codfish cakes with tartar sauce and lemon wedges.

You really could use any kind of firm-fleshed fish for this dish, substituting tilapia, swai, salmon or even catfish if you preferred. If you can broil it, you can use it!

I routinely add an extra russet potato or two whenever I’m making baked potatoes so that I will have some leftover the next day for breakfast hash browns or to be included in a dish such as this.

I served these on some homemade rolls I made by adapting this pizza dough recipe. To make the rolls softer, I doubled the fat content by substituting the 1-1/2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil with 3 TBS vegetable shortening. Then I brushed them with an egg wash and sprinkled them with sesame seeds just prior to baking.

On the side, I served a simple red potato salad.

Cod Fish Cakes with Tartar Sauce

1/2 lb Cod or other fish

1 Russet potato, cooked and grated

1/2 cup Bread Crumbs

¼ cup Chopped parsley, curly or Italian flatleaf

1 TBS Freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 clove Garlic, crushed

1 tsp Sea salt

½ tsp Fresh cracked black pepper

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 TBS Sunflower oil

½ cup Mayonnaise

1 TBS pickle relish

1 TBS Dijon mustard

1 lemon, cut into wedges

1. Turn on your broiler. While it is heating, spray a sheet pan with pan spray, then lay out fish filets on sheet pan and spray fish with pan spray. Place under broiler for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool at least 10 minutes.

2. Use a fork to break apart fish, removing any pin bones, and place in large mixing bowl. Add potatoes, breadcrumbs, parsley, parmesan, garlic, salt and pepper and egg to bowl and mix together thoroughly. Using your hands form into patties and place on a plate lined with wax paper. When all the patties have been formed, cover with a second sheet of wax paper and refrigerate at least 30 minutes so that they will hold together better in the frying pan.

3. Put a cast iron pan or a non-stick skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add the oil. When the oil begins to smoke, gently place the fish cakes into the oil, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Season with salt and pepper and cook until underside is golden brown. Carefully flip the cakes over, season other side with salt and pepper and finish cooking until both sides are golden brown.

4. Remove to a plate covered with paper towels to absorb some of the oil.

Meanwhile, make a quick tartar sauce by combining ½ cup mayonnaise with 1 TBS of pickle relish and 1 TBS Dijon mustard. Place sauce in a ramekin and serve on the side along with lemon slices.

This recipe is quick, affordable and easy to make. Besides other fish, you can substitute crab, chopped shrimp or lobster or just about any kind of seafood you wish and it will turn out delicious every time!



Egg Salad

When I was in culinary school, there was an entire class devoted to egg cookery.

That’s because in the restaurant business, eggs are one of the things you cook the most. You need to be able to cook eggs any style quickly, with several different types of eggs going at the same time: Over easy, scrambled, poached, over medium, omelets. Behind the line during the breakfast rush, it can get pretty complicated quickly.

Depending on the restaurant, eggs are cooked either in non-stick pans or on the big skillet. The key to mastering egg cookery is simply practice. After the first day on the job, after you’ve dropped dozens of eggs on the floor and accidentally broken countless yolks (you need to start over), eventually you get the hang of it.

One of the simplest methods for cooking eggs is hard boiling them. To get perfect hard boiled eggs that are easy to peel every time, there are a couple things to remember:

1. Older eggs work better than fresh eggs. If you are planning on making hard boiled eggs, use the eggs that have been sitting in your refrigerator for awhile. They will be easier to peel later.

2. It’s almost impossible to overcook hard boiled eggs. If you do, the worst thing that will happen will be that the outside of the yolk will become a little green. Once you mix all the hard boiled eggs together into a salad, you won’t even notice it.

3. Start your eggs barely covered in cold water. This will reduce the likelihood of the eggs cracking when you boil them because they won’t jump around as much.

4. To keep the egg whites from seeping out if they do crack, add a capful of vinegar to the water. This won’t effect the taste much and will discourage the whites from leaving the shell.

5. Bring the cold water to a boil, reduce it to a simmer and let simmer only about 2 or 3 minutes. Then turn the heat off, cover and let the eggs sit for about 15 to 20 minutes. Then pour out the hot water and replace it with cold water and let the eggs sit another 15 to 20 minutes.

These same principles apply whether you are hard boiling one egg or one hundred eggs.

Because Sunday was Easter, a lot of people this week have an ample supply of leftover hard boiled eggs. And you know what that means: Egg salad!

Egg Salad

1 dozen Eggs, hard boiled

1 cup  Mayonnaise (Reduced fat preferred)

3 TBS Dijon mustard

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Peel the eggs under cool running water to wash off any excess shell. One gritty peice of egg shell will ruin your egg salad. If you are using Easter eggs and some of the stain has seeped through to the egg, you can still use it, but use your best judgement because you don’t want to discolor your entire salad. Use the little air gap at the bottom of the egg to start your peel.

2. Dice eggs using either an egg dicer or a knife. Combine with mayo and mustard, season with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.

I served mine on some whole wheat bread thins with my new favorite chip — quinoia and black bean infused tortilla chips — both of which I bought at Trader Joe’s. Add a pickle and some cole slaw and you are good to go.

If you are making devilled eggs, the procedure is the same except cut the peeled eggs in half and combine just the mashed yolks with 1/2 cup mayo and 2 TBS mustard. Then pipe or spoon the yolk mixture into the egg halves and sprinkle with paprika.

Or you can make low-cholesterol egg salad by discarding the yolks altogether.

A belated Happy Easter to everybody!

Meat Free Mondays – Garlic Bread Vegetarian Calzones

I’ve been working to perfect my calzones recipe lately and after a few calzone disasters, I finally found one that I’m happy with.

First of all, for those unfamiliar with calzones, they are simply pizza that is folded up into itself, sealed and baked. The result is a mouth-watering pocket of gooey mozzarella, tasty tomato sauce and whatever toppings you prefer.

You can make calzones with any pizza dough recipe you would like, but I’ve been making this garlic bread pizza crust recipe that I found on the wonderful blog “Mom Makes” because it is really flavorful and especially delicious.

For the filliing, I wanted to use all vegetables, but I was concerned that they wouldn’t cook soft enough sealed inside the calzone, so I gave them a quick saute ahead of time. The pizza sauce was my super easy and dependable pizza sauce I always make, but since I’m avoiding white sugar, I replaced it with the same amount of honey.

Finally, I used cute little mozzarella ovalini, which are balls of fresh mozzarella that are about the size of a golf ball. I just cut them in half and put a few in each calzone.

But what really makes this recipe something special is making a garlic butter sauce then brushing the calzones with it just prior to baking. It really brought the flavor to an entirely new level and is something I probably will be doing all the time from now on.

Garlic Bread Vegetarian Calzones

For the crust

1 cup lukewarm water (baby bath temperature)

1 TBS active dry yeast (or one envelope)

1-1/2 TBS honey

1-1/2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

2 cups all purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp sea salt

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried oregano

2 TBS unsalted butter

2 cloves garlic, crushed

For the pizza sauce

8 oz can of tomato sauce

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1 tsp honey

For the pizza

8 oz Mozzarella ovalini, cut in half

1/2 yellow pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned

1/2 red onion, julienned

4 oz can of sliced mushrooms, drained

4 oz can of sliced black olives, drained

1. For the sauce, combine tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and honey in a small pot and heat until bubbly. Turn off and set aside. Meanwhile, saute the peppers and onions, add the mushrooms and olives for the final minute to heat through and set aside. Melt butter in a saucepan, add garlic and cook until the garlic just starts to brown. Turn off and set aside.

2. In Kitchen Aid bowl, combine water, yeast, 1-1/2 TBS of honey and EVOO. Let sit for about 10 minutes until it starts to foam, indicating the yeast has activated. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine flours, salt, garlic powder, basil and oregano and mix together with your hands.

3. Add nearly all of the flour mixture into the yeast liquid — reserving about 1/2 cup for kneading — and blend on medium using the dough hook attachment until a dough ball forms, about three minutes. Sprinkle some of the reserved flour mix onto a work surface then transfer the dough ball and knead adding additional flour mix as necessary until dough is springy and no longer sticky.

4. Grease a clean mixing bowl with about 1 tsp of EVOO and place dough ball into bowl, turning so that all sides are oiled. This prevents a crust from forming as the dough rises. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft free place until dough has doubled in size, about an hour. Punch down and let it rise again if you want, but it’s not essential.

5. Preheat oven to 500F. Knead dough for a few minutes and let rest for a few more. Then cut dough into four peices. Using your hands and a rolling pin, form each peice into a thin circle, about 8 inches in diameter. When all four circles are complete, add a small amount of tomato sauce into the center of each, then a small amount of the sauteed vegetables, then about 3 or 4 ovalini halves.

6. Fold each circle over so that it forms a half moon, then roll the edges in toward the center about 1/2 inch. Use your fingers to pinch closed all the way around. Transfer calzones to greased baking sheets and brush generously with garlic butter.

7. Bake for about 15 minutes or until brown and crusty.

What sort of pizza variations do you like to make? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!



Mexicali Taco & Co.

I’m a fan of Mexican food and in the area of Chicago where I live there are a lot of places where I can indulge my craving for a good taco or burrito.

But on a recent trip to visit my brother and his new bride in Los Angeles, he took me to a place that blows away any Mexican restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in Chicago.

Carne Asado Taco and Chicken Vampiro

Carne Asado Taco and Chicken Vampiro

Mexicali Taco & Co., located at 702 N. Figueroa St., in downtown Los Angeles, started out as a taco truck in a vacant lot, but this past February it expanded into an attractive, if spartan, storefront restaurant across the street from an adult high school.

The food was incredible. The menu is small — offering less than a dozen items — but each was prepared lovingly and tasted incredibly fresh and delicious.

My brother is a passionate fan of the place and even had them cater his recent backyard wedding reception from their taco truck, so I asked him to order for me. I wasn’t disappointed because he ordered everything on the menu.

Everything we tasted was wonderful, but the standout was the chicken vampiro, which is a perfectly crisp quesadilla made with a soft, lush Mexican cheese and garlic sauce. I also enjoyed the carne asada cachetada, which is a tostada topped with beef, Mexican cheese and an aoli chipotle sauce.

But it doesn’t end there because diners are invited to customize their selections with a wide variety of homemade salsas and crisp fresh toppings. It’s like I died and went to Mexican food heaven!

Even though we went during the lunchtime rush and there was a long line of people waiting to order, the counterworkers were efficient in moving the line quickly and the kitchen had our food ready in just a few moments. There’s even a walk-up window where people walking past the restaurant on the sidewalk can order food to eat on the street.

The prices were extremely reasonable — $2.25 for the finest taco you will ever eat and $3.75 for the vampiro. The most expensive thing on the menu was the nachos, and it was only $6.

Despite its humble beginnings as a food truck, Mexicali Taco & Co. is no roach coach turned Mexican restaurant. The people who created this menu and prepare this food really know what they are doing and the entire experience — from the brightly colored dining room to the “old school” bottles of Coca Cola made with real cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup to the cheerfulness of the employees — made it simply an unexpected treat.

My brother, Kevin, in front of his favorite Mexican restaurant

My brother, Kevin, in front of his favorite Mexican restaurant

Apparently, a group called LA Taco runs an annual “Best of” contest, and Mexicali Taco & Co. has won the top prize in the past. I’m not surprised because the food was great and the quality of the experience was superb.

So if you find yourself in Los Angeles at lunchtime — or even late night, the kitchen’s open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays — check out this treasure of a taco joint. I can’t wait to go back there!


Low Carb Chicken Roll-Ups with Spicy Avocado Sauce

I have been trying to cut out white sugar and white flour from my diet to drop some weight for the summer, but it’s been difficult.

Not so much that I have been craving these things, but because it seems like they are in everything!

So far, I’ve had to settle for drastically cutting back. This recipe, for example, features low-carb whole wheat tortillas, but they still contain some flour and a little sugar as well. Even the products that are suupposed to be better for you have sugar and flour!

This is a great use for leftover chicken. When I make chicken, I usually roast or grilll a whole chicken for just the two of us, so there is typically at least half of a chicken leftover. The next day, I separate the chicken from all the bones and skin, then pull the chicken into strips. Then I can either make it into a salad or toss it with some barbeque sauce and use it as a delicious pizza topping.

Avocados are one of our favorite foods, but because the weather has been so warm here in Chicago, we’ve had guacamole a lot already this year (OK, let’s face it, we never stop eating guacamole, even in the dead of winter).

So this time I went with a spicy avocado sauce that was super simple to make and was a delicious dressing for this wrap. The Sriracha sauce is very spicy, which was a refreshing compliment to the mellowness of the avocado and sour cream. But if you don’t like heat, you can reduce the amount or leave it out altogether.

This makes a delicious warm weather lunch or light dinner. I served it with plantain slices that I pan fried then simply seasoned with a little salt and pepper to give the dish a Carribean feel. The plantains were very good when they first came out of the pan, but they became soggy fast. Next time, I think I will either slice them thinner or grill them.

Low Carb Chicken Roll-Ups with Spicy Avocado Sauce

4 Low-Carb Whole Wheat Tortillas

1/2 lb chicken, pulled into thin strips

1/2 green bell pepper, ribs and skins removed, julienned

1/2 yellow bell pepper, ribs and skins removed, julienned

1/4 cup cabbage, sliced thin

2 green onions, sliced on the bias

4 to 5 leaves red leaf lettuce, chopped into thin strips

1/4 red onion, very thinly julienned

For the Spicy Avocado Sauce

2 avocados, mashed

1/2 cup fat free sour cream

1 TBS Sriracha Sauce

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Basically, you are making a chicken salad. Put the chicken and all the vegetables in a mixing bowl and toss together.

2. Combine mashed avocados, sour cream and Sriracha sauce in a separate bowl and mix together with a fork or spatula. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Combine chicken mixture with dressing and toss until evenly coated. Lay tortilla on a flat surface, spoon filling into center then carefully roll up into a tight wrap. Try to prevent the salad from coming out the ends. Seal with a toothpick placed in the center of the roll-up.

What kind of warm weather dishes are you looking forward to making in the summer months? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!