Stuffed Green Peppers

Funny story. I’m not allowed to make stuffed green peppers in my house.

And it’s not because of anything I did (for a change). It’s because when my wife, Sandi, was growing up her mother would serve stuffed green peppers at least once per week.

Stuffed Green PeppersThat’s because Sandi’s mom was, let’s just say, not terrifically skilled in the kitchen and stuffed green peppers was one of the few things she could make.

According to Sandi, her mom would make enormous batches of stuffed green peppers every few weeks then wrap them individually in recycled Wonder Bread bags and throw them in the freezer.

Whenever she was too busy to make dinner or didn’t feel like cooking — which apparently was quite often — out would come the Wonder Bread bags and Sandi and her sister would be served stuffed green peppers.

It was pretty much an unstated condition of our marriage that I would never make stuffed green peppers for Sandi ever, ever again.

And yet here we are.

Although I empathize with Sandi for her mother’s limited kitchen skills, I can also sympathize with her mom because stuffed green peppers are one of the simplest, most versatile and affordable dishes you can make. Especially when you have a couple of green bell pepper plants in your garden — like we did this summer — which produced more than a bushel of peppers each.

Plus, green peppers can be stuffed with almost anything. I usually use a rice and meat stuffing, and the meat could be ground beef, ground turkey or even leftover pork or chicken. But you could just as easily make a vegetarian version by using mushrooms or additional vegetables.

For this recipe I used a couple of hot Italian sausages I had in my freezer leftover from some pasta we had some time ago. Stuffed green peppers are fast, simple and delicious.

Sadly, it’s not something I can make anymore. At least not without invoking the wrath of Sandi.

Stuffed Green Peppers

4 Green Bell Peppers

3 cups Cooked Rice

1 TBS  Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 White Onion, medium dice

1 or 2 Jalapenos, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

1 Garlic Clove, crushed

1 lb Ground Beef, Turkey, Italian Sausage or almost any other protein (optional)

2-6 oz cans Tomato Sauce

1/4 cup Grated Parmesan, plus additional for garnish

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

0631. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, cut off tops of peppers, remove ribs, seeds and stems. Dice up the pepper tops and set aside. Drop peppers into boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes. Use a tongs to remove to a plate, pour out water, return peppers to pot and cover with cold water to stop cooking process.

2. Preheat oven to 350F. Place cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, diced green pepper and jalapeno. Saute until onions are translucent, about 2 minutes, tossing frequently. Cut sausage from casings and add to pan, using a wooden spoon to break up into small peices and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about a minute. Remove from heat.

0623. In a mixing bowl, combine rice, sausage mixture, tomato sauce — reserving about half of one can for garnish — and parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use a teaspoon to stuff each pepper with the mixture generously.

4. Spray a round or square 8″ casserole dish with pan spray. Place any leftover rice and meat mixture on the bottom of the casserole dish, then place the stuffed green peppers top side up in the dish. Garnish the tops with remaining tomato sauce and a little parmesan. Cover with foil and cook for 30. Remove foil and cook for another 10 minutes to crisp up the tops a little.

Stuffed green peppers are delicious, economical and easy to make. Just not in my house.


Oven-Roasted French Fries

I like a book that tells a great story. But when you get a great story and an amazing recipe — such as this one for oven-roasted French fries — it’s a double bonus!

I’ve been a Steven King fan since I was a kid. I can recall being scared out of my wits by “Carrie” and “The Shining”, immersing myself into the dense, rich world of “The Stand” and being being too frightened to go to sleep after finishing “Salem’s Lot” — all before I graduated eighth grade!

As I grew older, there came a period where I turned my nose up at King’s books for pandering too much to the masses. With my Notre Dame English literature degree, I couldn’t be bothered with “popular” writing about horror and the supernatural.

Fortunately, I eventually climbed down from my high horse and returned to King’s books simply because they were entertaining, had terrific plots and characterization and, well, I liked them.

I’ve read nearly all of his novels and most of his short story collections. While they aren’t all winners (“Lisey’s Story” in particular, I recall throwing across the room), King has been consistently readable and fun. I look forward to his books the way I’m sure 19th Century readers loooked forward to the new releases from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.

What does this have to do with food? Good question.

In his latest book, “11/22/63”, King tells the story of a high school English teacher who travels through a time portal to the late 1950s, where he attempts to thwart the Kennedy assasination. It’s an exciting and entertaining story that kept me riveted from start to finish (with the brief exception of a pie fight sequence inserted into the middle of the book which momentarily took me out of the story).

After the book’s conclusion, King (or his editors) added appendixes that list some of the most popular music of that era, an interview with King, a list of questions for book clubs, and the recipes for many of the dishes referenced in the book.

With most of the book set in Texas in the early 1960s, it’s not surprising that most of recipes are for the type of food found in old fashioned Texas barbeque joints, including milk shakes, black bottom pie, broiled ham steak, sour cream pound cake, and this recipe for oven-roasted French fries.

French fries are one of those foods that are hard to replicate at home because most people don’t have deep fat fryers in their kitchens. But this recipe — which makes spicy, crisp and delicious fries — does a pretty good job, especially if you serve them hot right out of the oven.

Oven-Roasted French Fries

1 lb Russet Potatoes (about four)

2 TBS Vegetable Oil

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1/4 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper

1. Preheat oven to 450F. Peel and cut potatoes into 1/2 sticks, then soak in cold water for at least 10 minutes. Drain and dry well with between paper or kitchen towels.

2. Place potatoes in a mixing bowl and toss with the oil. Spread on a sheet pan and bake, turning occasionally, until golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes. Turn out onto a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb some of the grease, then season generously with the salt, pepper and cayenne.

In true Texas BBQ style, I served mine under some barbeque grilled chicken, so that the excess barbeque sauce dripped down onto the fries, adding even more flavor. The squash served on the side is from our garden!

Reading a great story from a favorite author is pretty enjoyable in itself, but when the book comes with bonuses such as easy-to-make recipes, it’s something special.

P.S. Did you hear King is writing a sequel to “The Shining” to be released in 2013?! I can’t wait!

Chicken and Biscuits

When I was growing up, there occasionally would appear in my family’s cupboard a product called Chicken in a Biscuit.

These were crackers that tasted like chicken. I think my dad liked them. Even as a very young child, I knew that something about this just wasn’t right. Crackers aren’t supposed to taste like meat!

Chicken in a Biscuit crackers frighten me in some primal way, even though I now know they simply have a little chicken base mixed into the cracker dough. Still, I do enjoy the flavors of chicken and biscuits. And with yet another hurricane heading for poor, embattled New Orleans, I felt it was a good time to make some comfort food.

I debated whether to make fresh biscuits for this dish, or simply used the kind that comes in a tube. I’m still a little cautious about my own biscuits, scones and other quick breads, seeing as how I thought they nearly killed me once.

In the end, I opted for the store-bought variety due to time constraints. I’m glad I did because these biscuits were more like puff pastry, with layer upon layer of butter dough.

This is a very simple and old-fashioned dish. The innovation I added was to cook the biscuits right on top of the chicken stew, sort of like a chicken pot pie. Given the biscuits’ puff pastry-like qualities, it essentially was chicken pot pie.

Only I forgot to add the frozen peas that I bought. Oh, well. Something to make it better next time.

Chicken and Biscuits

1/2 lb Cooked Chicken, pulled from bone and chopped (I used leftovers from BBQ Chicken I made the night before)

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Carrots, peeled and medium dice

2 Celery Stalks, medium dice

14oz can Chicken Broth

4 TBS All-Purpose Flour

1 TBS Chicken Base

1 cup Frozen Peas, thawed (which I bought but forgot to add!)

1 tube Buttery Biscuits (makes 8 biscuits)

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1. Put an oven-safe pot over a medium heat. I used my Dutch Oven. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, celery and carrot. I threw in a diced green bell pepper from our garden because we are up to our ears in them, but they aren’t usually a part of this recipe. Stir around, cover and cook until onions are translucent, about five minutes. Stir in chicken, cover and cook another minute or two to heat the chicken through.

2. Add flour and chicken base to the chicken/vegetable mixture. Stir around until the flour begins to brown a little, about two minutes, then hit it with the chicken stock. Stir, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes, stirrring once or twice. The stock will thicken during this time. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Preheat oven to 350F. Place uncooked biscuits directly on top of chicken mixture then put the entire pot, uncovered, in the oven and cook until biscuits are browned on top, about 25 minutes.

To serve, remove or two of the biscuits to get at the chicken stew, ladle some of the chicken mixture into a bowl and then cap with the biscuits.

This chicken and biscuits is so much better than a box of crackers!

Oven Fried Chicken

Fried chicken is one of those things I only get to eat once or twice per year, usually at  family parties.

But I look forward to it because, in my opinion, chicken was meant to be fried. The crispy golden breading that comes from immersing the chicken into a pool of smoking hot oil goes perfectly with the moist, rich texture of the meat.

Sadly, because it’s too high in fat, in my house we don’t eat legitimately fried chicken. I remember one time I burned the dinner so I went out and bought some Popeye’s chicken. My wife simply refused to eat it.

But this recipe is lower in fat, doesn’t require a deep fryer or a dangerous pan full of hot shortening, and still results in a crispy delicious chicken.

Although I love to eat fried chicken for dinner, what I love even more is wrapping the leftover chicken in wax paper the next day and bringing it on a picnic. This recipe is suitable for both.

I served this oven fried chicken with some smashed potatoes and with a red cabbage cole slaw (recipe to follow) to round out a perfect summertime dinner.

Oven Fried Chicken

1 Chicken, cut into 8 peices

1/4 cup Unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp Paprika

1 tsp Granulated garlic

Pinch of Cayenne pepper

1 tsp Sea salt

1/4 tsp Fresh cracked black pepper

1/3 cup Margarine (or butter for the truly indulgent)

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Rinse chicken peices and pat dry with paper towels. In a bowl, combine flour, paprika, gran garlic, cayenne, salt and pepper. Dredge chicken peices so that they are completely covered with seasoned flour mixture. If you prefer, you can use the “Shake and Bake” method by putting all the dry ingredients into a large plastic bag, then putting the individual chicken peices in the bag, sealing it and shaking it around so that each peice is completely covered with the coating. You will get the same result.

2. Place margarine in a 9″x13″x2″ casserole pan and place in oven. When melted, remove from oven and arrange chicken peices in the bottom of the pan, skin side down. Return to oven and bake for 35 minutes. Remove from oven, turn peices over and bake another 15 minutes.

Red Cabbage Cole Slaw

4 cups  Red Cabbage (about 1/2 head)

1 Carrot, peeled

1/2 White onion

1/2 Green bell pepper, ribs and seedes removed, fine dice

1/2 cup Reduced fat Mayonnaise

1 TBS Apple cider vinegar

2 tsp Granulated sugar

1 tsp Whole celery seed

1/4 tsp Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1. Use a box grater to grate the cabbage, carrot and onion into a mixing bowl then add the green pepper. In a separate mixing bowl, make the dressing by whisking together the mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, celery seed and salt.

2. Combine the dressing and the cabbage mixture and toss together with a spatula until it has a consistent texture. Season with pepper to taste. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving so that flavors can meld together.

Ironically, up until a few months ago, there was a fried chicken restaurant at the end of our street (It recently closed and was replaced with a cash for car titles business!). Whenever I would walk the dogs past there, I would linger a few moments so I could absorb the smells of the frying chicken.

A fella can dream, can’t he?


Braised Beef Brisket

Braising a beef brisket is one of the easiest one-pot meals you can make.

It’s affordable, convenient and also delicious. It’s especially recommended if you are having company because you can assemble it hours before your guests arrive and it will sit patiently in your oven until you are ready to serve it.

The brisket comes from the chest of a steer, cow or bull. it is a triangular peice of meat  that on its own is quite tough. That’s because it is a muscle the animal uses a lot.

Meat that is naturally tender — such as the beef tenderloin or the chicken breast — are composed of muscles the animal rarely uses. Since chickens don’t fly, for example, their breast meat does not get much use.

But muscles that are used a lot — such as the leg and shoulder — build up strong connective tissue between the muscle fibers. This causes the meat to be tough to chew.

But you can dissolve this tough connective tissue by cooking the meat for a very long time. And in order to keep it from drying out, you can cook it partially submerged in a liquid. This is the precise definition of braising.

You can braise a beef brisket — which is the same cut of meat used for corned beef, incidentally — in just about anything. Some people use beer, others a tomato-based broth.

Both are great, but for this recipe I simply braised it in beef stock and some mirepoix, which is a combination of seared carrots, celery and onion. Add a couple of potatoes midway through the cooking cycle and you’ve got a wonderfully tender one-pot meal that’s perfect for parties.

Because the beef and potatoes is a little heavier, I balanced the plate with some light zucchini quickly sauteed with white onion and garlic.

Braised Beef Brisket

2 to 3 lb Beef Brisket, fat cap removed

2 TBS Barbeque seasoning

2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

4 Carrots, peeled and rough chop

1 white onion, peeled and rough chop

3 stalks celery, ribs and leaves included, rough chop

2 TBS Additional EVOO

1 bay leaf

16 oz Low sodium beef stock

1 lb Red potatoes, quartered

1. Season brisket on both sides with barbeque seasoning. Put cast iron pan on fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, place brisket in pan, being careful not to burn yourself on the hot oil. Char on both sides until golden brown.

2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375F. Place large pot on fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrots and celery. Cook until onion translucent, about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beef stock and bay leaf, then lay brisket on top of mirepoix. Put lid on pot and put entire pot in oven. Cook 90 minutes.

3. Remove pot from oven and add potatoes. Return pot to oven and cook an additional 50 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 200F and hold until ready to serve.

4. To plate, remove brisket to a cutting board. Use a slotted spoon to heap a pile of the potato/mirepoix mixture in center of plate. Use a sharp carving knife to cut thin slices of brisket against the grain and place on top of vegetables. Garnish if you wish with chopped parsley.

What easy meals do you like to make when company is coming over? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Corned Beef Hash

A confession: One of my guilty pleasures is corned beef hash.

The kind that comes out of a can and looks like dog food. I know, right?

Whenever my wife and I go out to breakfast at our favorite diner — or anywhere for that matter — I always order the same thing: Corned beef hash and eggs over easy with Greek toast. It’s become sort of a running joke between us that someday I will order something else, but that day has never arrived.

I just love the way corned beef tastes, especially when it’s all mixed up with the eggs and the hash browns. Health food, it’s not. But I could eat it every morning if I wasn’t afraid I would die of a heart attack before I turned 50.

After this weekend (St. Patrick’s Day, remember?), I found myself with some leftover corned beef and potatoes. So I thought, why not try to make “healthy” corned beef hash? At least healthier than the kind that comes out of a can.

Chef’s tip: In most restaurants that serve breakfast, the corned beef hash they sell still comes out of a can. They are just really big cans.

Anyway, it turned out delicious, although it didn’t hold together the way the canned stuff does. I think if I had a meat grinder attachment for my Kitchen Aid, I would have put it through the grinder to get that kind of consistency. But the flavor was still superior to the canned version and the crispiness as perfect.

So a belated happy St. Patrick’s Day to everybody. Now I have to figure out what I’m going to do with all this cabbage!

Corned Beef Hash

1/2 lb corned beef, cooked

2-3 red potatoes, cooked

Fresh cracked black pepper

1 TBS sunflower oil

1. Chop corned beef until fine. Cut potatoes into small dice size. Combine in mixing bowl and season generously with black pepper. You probably won’t need to add any additional salt because the corned beef already has a lot of salt in it.

2. Put cast iron skillet on the fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, place corned beef hash in pan, being carefuly not to splash yourself with the hot oil. Use a spatula to form a rough patty shape.

3. Fry corned beef over medium heat until bottom is brown and crispy, about 3 minutes. Carefully flip patty with spatula then fry other side until brown and crispy. Remove to plate lined with paper towel to remove some of the grease, then transfer to serving plate.

I made hash browns out of the leftover red potatoes by passing them through a box grater, seasoning them and then frying them until crispy in a cast iron skillet. The corned beef hash and hash browns can be made ahead of time and kept warm in a 200F oven if you are making breakfast for a big group of people and want to make eggs to order.

What sort of guilty pleasures do you indulge yourself in every once in awhile? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!


Easy Tuna Tetrazzini with Spinach

The weeks between the end of the holidays and the beginning of Spring always seem like the busiest time of the whole year.

It’s as if life says, “Okay, now it’s really time to get down to business.” Somehow workdays get busier and evenings begin to fill up with events and responsibilities that weren’t there only a few weeks ago.

From a cooking perspective, this gets complicated. That’s why in winter I always simplify matters with casseroles and crock pots.

Casseroles and crock pots allow you to prepare ahead of time for times you know you’re going to be stressful. Two or three meals can be prepared at once, then stored in the refrigerator or even the freezer until they are needed.

My crock pot has certainly gotten a workout in the past couple of weeks, so it was time to focus on hearty and filling casseroles. But casseroles don’t have to be the same old familiar standards time and time again.

This recipe is a twist on the tuna casserole recipe we’ve all had thousands of times before. It takes familiar ingredients and mixes them up in a way that’s fresh, delicious and unexpected. The tuna could easily be replaced with leftover chicken, ground turkey or beef, or even pork.

Easy Tuna Tetrazzini with Spinach

8 oz dry whole wheat linguine, broken into thirds (half box)

1 10-1/2 oz can cream of celery soup

1 10-oz box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

1/2 cup milk

2 6-oz cans white chunk tuna in water, drained

1/4 cup oven roasted tomatoes (or jarred roasted red peppers), rough chop

1/2 tsp granulated garlic

1/2 tsp onion powder

1 tsp Italian seasoning

1/4 tsp hot sauce

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1/4 cup Italian-style dry bread crumbs

2 TBS grated parmesan

1 TBS unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Spray 9-inch square casserole dish with pan spray. Cook linguine according to package instructions, drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine pasta, soup, tuna, milk and tomatoes. Season with granulated garlic, onion powder, hot sauce and Italian seasoning and mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to baking dish.

3. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, parmesan and butter. Use your fingers to mix the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter chunks are the size of small pebbles. Sprinkle evenly over casserole and bake in oven uncovered for 45 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.

What kind of dishes do you like to cook to make busy days more manageable? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Crock Pot Italian Meatballs

One of the few things I actually look forward to during Chicago winters is using my crock pot more frequently.

I’ve written before about how the crock pot is a central element of winter cooking in my house, but usually by this point in the winter I’ve already cycled through most of my slow cooking repertoire: chili, pulled pork, red beans and rice, chicken stew, etc.

So I’m always excited when I find a new recipe to try in my crock pot. In this case, it’s a very old recipe cooked in a new way: Italian meatballs cooked all day in the crock pot!

I was pleasantly surprised with how flavorful they turned out. Not only did they not fall apart — something I was worried about given the seven hours they cooked — but the flavors of the meatballs leached into the sauce, giving it a complexity and depth of flavor it ordinarily wouldn’t have.

Plus the sauce naturally reduced over time, concentrating the tomato flavor in a very interesting and delicious way. It started to have that intensity that tomato paste has, without the over the top acidity.

I served it over whole wheat spaghetti, but you could use any pasta you like. A quick note: A few years ago when whole wheat pasta first started to appear on the shelves, a lot of it tasted like wet cardboard when it was cooked. Recently, however, the manufacturers must have figured out how to make it more appealing because it now tastes every bit as good as pasta made with white flour, but with much more nutritional value.

Crock Pot Italian Meatballs

3/4 lb ground beef

3/4 lb ground pork

1 small white onion, diced small

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tsp Italian seasoning

1/4 cup Italian-style dry bread crumbs

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 28-oz jar marinara sauce

1 box whole wheat spaghetti

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Line sheet pan with foil and spray foil with pan spray. In large mixing bowl, combine the beef, pork, onion, garlic, Italian seasoning, bread crumbs and egg and mix well with your hands. Shape into 24 1-1/2 inch balls. Place on sheet pan and bake 35 minutes.

2. Place meatballs in crock pot. Cover with marinara sauce and cook on low for 6 to 7 hours, stirring occasionally.

3. Cook pasta according to package instructions, drain and return to pot with a little EVOO. To plate, place a heaping pile of pasta in the center of a pasta bowl, then use a kitchen spoon to arrange meatballs and sauce on top. Garnish with parmesan cheese.

Do you make any unusual recipes in your crock pot? Why not share your ideas in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!

Mini Turkey Meatloaf

When I found these miniature aluminum loaf pans at the dollar store, they were so cute I just had to buy them. I knew I would figure out a way to use them later.

Well, it turns out they were just perfect for mini turkey meatloafs. I simply made a batch of my turkey meatloaf recipe, then instead of using a regular sized bread pan, I stuffed it into six of these tiny disposable loaf pans.

The batch made enough for six mini meatloafs. I cooked off three and froze the other three for another time. Perfect!

I threw the pans away when I was finished with them, but you could clean them and re-use them if you wanted. They were six for $1.50, so I didn’t feel too bad about tossing them, though.

The individual meatloafs were both delightful and delicious. And they are perfect for when you have guests with diet preferences — no onions, for example — because you can make their meatloaf mix separate from the rest. Everybody’s happy!

We almost always have turkey meatloaf rather than the normal kind made with a mixture of ground beef and pork because it’s lower in fat and, in my opinion, there’s almost no difference in flavor once you add the seasonings and smother it in tomato glaze.

I served these mini meatloafs with Rosemary Roasted Red Potatoes, and steamed broccoli crowns.

Mini Turkey Meatloaf

2 lb ground turkey

1 yellow or white onion, diced

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 TBS sea salt

1/4 tsp cracked black pepper

For the Glaze

1/2 cup ketchup

1 TBS mustard powder

1 TBS brown sugar

1/2 tsp Worchestershire Sauce

1/4 tsp Tabasco or hot sauce

Preheat oven to 375F. Combine meatloaf ingredients in mixing bowl using your hands. Spray mini aluminum bread pans with pan spray, then stuff them with the meatloaf mix until filling is even with the top of the pan. Cook for about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, stir together glaze ingredients in small bowl and set aside. Remove meatloafs from oven and pour and scrape off the separated fat and gloop on top. Carefully remove them from the pans by inverting them onto a baking sheet, then thoroughly brush each mini meatloaf with glaze. Return to oven and cook until glaze starts to get tacky, about 10 minutes.

Added bonus: Turkey meatloaf is excellent the next day on a sandwich. It can be served cold or heat it up for a minute in the microwave before putting it between two slices of bread.

Programming Note: It’s the start of a new year, so here at Budget Cooking Blog we are launching a new feature. “Wines on Wednesday” will be spotlight inexpensive yet extraordinary wines for under $10/bottle to complement some of the dishes we’ve been cooking. “Wines on Wednesday” also will give tips on how to select the best wines, and how to successful pair wines with food to enhance your dining experience. Look for “Wines on Wednesday” starting this Wednesday on Budget Cooking Blog!

Improving the Cheeseburger

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, as a professional chef it can be dispiriting when the cheeseburger is the number one seller on your menu despite all the effort you put in creating interesting and exotic dishes.

One way to overcome this is to make your cheeseburger more exciting. If people are going to order it anyway, why not make it something special? So today’s blog is all about finding ways to improve the humble cheeseburger.

Bacon Mushroom Swiss Burger

Bacon Mushroom Swiss Burger

Probably the easiest way to improve the cheeseburger is to use a better quality meat. I’m not talking about $15/lb Kobe beef or even ground up Certfied Angus Beef. This is supposed to be a budget cooking blog, remember?

No, to improve the quality of your cheeseburger meat, look for ground beef that has a higher fat content. That’s right, higher! Ground beef that is 75:25, which means 75 percent protein to 25 percent fat, will be juicier and have a much better mouth feel than leaner ground beef, such as 85:15 or 90:10. Fat makes beef taste good. If you ate 100 percent lean ground beef, it would taste like sawdust.

Avocado Pepper Jack Burger

Avocado Pepper Jack Burger

The second way to improve your cheeseburger is to season it. This may seem obvious, but a lot of people skip this critical step. You need to season both sides of the burger with a good amount of salt and pepper in order to bring out the full flavor of the beef. If you want to mix a little S&P into your ground beef before forming into patties as well, then that’s a bonus!

A third way to make cheeseburgers taste better is to toast the burger bun. Rub it with a little olive oil or melted butter and put it into your frying pan or on your grill for less than a minute to give it a little crust. That way, when you bite into the burger, there will be a satisfying little crunch.

Burger Set Ups

Burger Set Ups

Burger set-ups are a restaurant secret that speeds up service. Before the customers arrive for the lunch or dinner rush, the cook lines up hundreds of little individual piles of lettuce, tomato and onion. When the orders start flying, the cook need only grab one of these and place it on the bun as the food goes out the service window. This same technique can speed up your dinner service as well.

Incidentally, unless you are working at McDonald’s, use red leaf or green leaf lettuce for your setups, not shredded iceberg lettuce. It may be the cheapest, but that stuff has little to no nutritional value. Plus it just screams fast food.

The final method to add dimension to your cheeseburger is to offer a variety of toppings. There are restaurant chains that have built their entire business model around this idea. Not only can burgers be topped with a variety of cheeses — American, Swiss, cheddar, pepper jack and blue cheese are some of the most popular choices — but other interesting toppings can be offered as well.

These include sliced olives, avocados, mushrooms, sliced jalapenos, sprouts and grilled onions. There’s even a famous Pittsburgh chain that tops its signature burgers with cole slaw, French fries and even a fried egg!

As long as we are breaking traditions, how about throwing out the French fries and serving your next cheeseburger with something different, like this potato casserole.

Cheesy Potato Casserole

Cheesy Potato Casserole
Cheesy Potato Casserole

3 russet potatoes, pre-baked and shredded

1/2 white onion, diced

2 scallions, sliced

8 oz cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1-1/2 cups)

8 oz cottage cheese

8 oz sour cream

1 tsp granulated garlic

Dash of hot sauce

Dash of Worchestershire sauce

Sea Salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

2 TBS butter

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Combine shredded potato, cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, granulated garlic, onion, scallion, hot sauce and Worchestershire sauce in a mixing bowl and gently mix together with a spatula. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix again. Spray a casserole dish with pan spray and transfer mixture to casserole dish.

2. Combine bread crumbs and butter in a small mixing bowl and cut together with a pastry cutter or just between your fingers until the texture is pebbly. Sprinkle over casserole.

3. Cook covered for 40 minutes. Remove cover and cook an additional 10 minutes to toast up the bread crumb topping. Remove from oven and allow to rest for about 10 minutes before serving to let casserole set up a little. If you serve it right away, it will be goopy.

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