Seafood Fridays – Tilapia

Is tilapia the new turkey?

It may not be featured on many tables this Thanksgiving, but Tilapia has become the go-to fish of the 21st Century. That’s because it can be farm-raised quickly and cheaply.

While the price of many other types of fish — especially fresh tuna, salmon and even halibut — are sky high, tilapia remains a true bargain, usually available for less than $2/lb.

Farm-raised tilapia is good for you, although perhaps not as good as other fish. In the US, most tilapia farms use corn as their primary fish food. This causes the tilapia to have lower amounts of Omega-3 fats, which are the healthy oils that prompt dieticians to recommend eating more fish in the first place.

On the bright side, farm-raised tilapia contain almost no mercury, which is not the case with wild caught fish.

Tilapia is a neutral flavored fish, which allows it to be paired with all kinds of other ingredients and it can prepared in a wide variety of ways. This, combined with its astonishing low price, is probably why it has become so popular in recent years. Since 2005, the US production of tilapia has almost doubled, from 1.5 million tons to 2.5 million tons.

Like turkey, tilapia is extremely low in fat and amazingly versatile, making it a good substitute for more fat-rich proteins such as beef, pork or even chicken.

In this recipe, which I adapted from this one on the wonderful How Sweet It Is blog, I used tilapia in exactly they same way I would ground turkey. Although the flavor was not completely neutral — you definitely could tell you were eating fish — it was not overpowering and served as a great conduit to highlight the other flavors in the mixture.

The texture was identical to ground turkey, however, and the cost was even lower. Once I got used to the idea of putting fish filets in the food processor, I found this to be an excellent light, summertime dinner that tastes terrific and offers a healthier alternative to burgers and dogs at your next cookout.

Tilapia Burgers with Watermelon and Avocado Salsa

1-1/2 lb Tilapia (fresh or frozen and thawed)

2/3 cup Panko breadcrumbs

1 egg + 1 egg white, lightly beaten

2 TBS Dijon Mustard

2 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/2 tsp Dried Basil

1 tsp Paprika

1 tsp Onion Powder

1 TBS Sunflower Oil

1 Avocado, peeled, pit removed, diced

1 cup Watermelon, seedless or seeds removed, diced

1/4 Red Onion, small dice

1 Jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

1/2 cup Cilantro, choppped

Juice of 1 lime

6 Whole Wheat Burger Buns

1. Add tilapia to food processor and pulse until chopped. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add egg, breadcrumbs, garlic, mustard, salt, pepper, parika, onion powder and basil. Mix with a spatula until combined, then form into 6 patties. Place on a plate covered with wax paper and cover with a second sheet of wax paper. Place plate in refrigerator or freezer so that patties can adhere together better.

2.  Preheat oven to 375F. Place a cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add patties and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 3-4 minutes per side, then put entire skillet in the oven to finish, about 10 minutes.

3. While burgers are finishing, make the salsa  by combining watermelon, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and avocado in a mixing bowl. Season with a pinch of coarse salt (for crunch) and more fresh cracked black pepper.

4. To serve burgers, toast bun then top with tiliapia patty. Use a tablespoon to add the salsa so that it is tumbling down from the top of the patty.

Panko is a type of Japanese breadcrumbs that are larger than ordinary breadcrumbs and are used to add additional texture. There really is no flavor difference, so feel free to substitute regular breadcrumbs if you prefer.

I’ve been reluctant to use Extra Virgin Olive Oil as a cooking oil ever since I read this blog by the fabulous Christina, from Whatever the Route, who says one of her professors told her EVOO transforms from a non-saturated fat to a saturated fat when it gets above a certain temperature. Not sure about the science on that, but until I can research it, I’ve been substituting sunflower oil.



Every year, on this day, families and friends gather to enjoy a traditional feast, and to be thankful for the people and things in their life that most other days they take for granted.

For me, personally, this has been a particularly difficult year. Since we all gathered together one year ago, Chicago experienced its worst blizzard in centuries, in the middle of which we lost power for three days.

Our Front Door after the Blizzard

Our Front Door after the Blizzard

As we huddled in the dark waiting for the heat to come back on, one of our dogs, Daisy, slipped from one of the six-foot snowdrifts in our driveway and fractured one of her rear legs. When doctors went to repair it, they discovered she had bone cancer. Although there was no guarantee Daisy would survive more than a couple of weeks or months, my wife and I decided to have the leg amputated.

Daisy's Recovery

Daisy's Recovery

Afterwards, Daisy, who my wife had rescued from a Wisconsin greyhound track, could barely stand, let alone run.

Daisy’s long recovery process was hard on everyone, but especially hard on our two other dogs, Isabel and Jay Z. Sadly, Jay, another greyhound rescue, became so distraught that he began eating tree branches and thorns in our backyard and developed bloat. In the midst of Daisy’s recuperation, Jay was rushed to the animal hospital, where doctors determined that even with surgery, it was unlikely that our beloved dog, weakened and in pain, would survive. I held him as the doctors put him to sleep.

Jay Z

Jay Z

Those were dark days indeed.

A few months later, I was unexpectedly layed off from my job at a downtown restaurant. I suddenly found myself trying to find work in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. For the first time in my life, I had to swallow my pride and file for unemployment insurance.

And yet, despite all this, I’m more thankful this Thanksgiving than I have been perhaps any other.

It’s true what they say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We’ve had a lot of hard times in the last year, but we’re still standing.

So this Thanksgiving, here’s some of the things I’m grateful for: Daisy’s recuperation brought our family together in a way that was unexpected and amazing. Cousins, sisters, grandmothers and nephews volunteered unasked to provide Daisy with the round-the-clock care she required. For weeks, Daisy lay on a dog bed in the middle of our living room as a houseful of people and voices and love revolved around her.

And now, nine months later, Daisy never fails to turn heads as she runs down our street on her three legs, as happy and full of life as she ever was.

While losing Jay Z was tough, we recently brought a new puppy, Bud, into our home. Less than a year old, Bud already weighs more than 70 pounds, only nobody told him he’s not still a little puppy. He richochets off the furniture and jumps up on guests in a way that would make Marmaduke blush. And although he’s often infuriating as he chews on every single thing in our house, we couldn’t love him more.

Daisy and Bud

Daisy and Bud

As far as work is concerned, losing my job forced me to follow through on my boasts that I would return to my writing career after 17 years in the restaurant business. I’ve tapped into my experience as a chef and manager to write this daily food blog for you fine people, and I’ve begun working on other writing projects as well.

When you love what you do, it is no longer work. I love writing about food as much if not more than I do cooking it, and I hope to keep doing it for the rest of my productive years.

So this Thanksgiving, I give thanks that the last year was so hard. Because we’ve come out of it stronger, happier and more appreciative of the things we formerly took for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!


Oatmeal Cookies

Did you know that in the United Kingdom, what we in the US call cookies are known as biscuits? And that in Scotland a cookie actually refers to a plain bun? Or that in South Africa, if you ask for a cookie you will be given a cupcake?

Let’s all agree on one thing, at least: These oatmeal cookies are delicious!

Growing up, oatmeal cookies were my favorite, especially those iced oatmeal cookies that came from the grocery store. My mother knew a handful of those would stop me in my tracks for at least a couple of minutes, so she always made sure she had a supply on hand.

I have always preferred homemade oatmeal cookies to chocolate chip cookies, which are often so sweet I get a headache after eating only one or two.

As if that would stop me! As if I could eat only one or two!

While these oatmeal cookies are certainly sweet, the sugars don’t overpower them and the fructose in the raisins balance out the sucrose in the granulated and brown sugars. Even better, try them with the lactose from a glass of milk. That will boost the glucose in your bloodstream. That’s a lot of -ose’s!

So whether you are eating biscuits in the UK, cookies in the US, or whatever South Africans call them, these oatmeal cookies are the bomb!

Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened to room temperature

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 egg

3 TBS milk

1-1/2 cups quick-cooking oats

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup raisins (or chopped walnuts)

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Cream the butter and sugars together in a Kitchen Aid (or use a mixer). Add the vanilla, milk and the egg and mix until absorbed. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Add the oats and raisins (or walnuts) and mix until just combined.

2. Use two tablespoons to drop cookie batter onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving at least 2″ of space in between for the cookies to spread. Bake 13 minutes or until cookies start to brown on the bottom. Remove from oven and immediately use a spatula to transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Cool completely before storing unrefrigerated in an airtight container.

This recipe also can be used to make oatmeal squares. Instead of forming cookies, press the dough into the bottom of an ungreased 8″x8″ baking pan. Bake about 25 minutes or until it turns light brown. Cut into 2″ squares while still warm.

Okay, it’s the time of year to share your favorite cookie recipes. Please share the wealth in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Meat Free Mondays – Winter Squash and Spinach Lasagana

In a previous life, I was a saucier in a fancy French restaurant.

Every day, I made a variety of sauces. Basically, every dish on the menu had its own sauce.

This was not as hard as it sounds because almost every sauce is a variation of one of six mother sauces:

1. Espagnole – Veal or beef stock with tomato thickened with a dark roux.

2. Demi Glace – Veal stock reduced to a gelatinous thickness.

3. Tomato Sauce – Standard pasta sauce.

4. Bechamel Sauce – Milk with seasonings thickened with blonde roux.

5. Hollandaise Sauce – Egg yolks and seasonings thickened with clarified butter.

6. Veloute – White stock, usually chicken, thickened with blonde roux.

These sauces, all of which are on the culinary school final by the way, can then be used to make almost every other sauce in classical cuisine. For example:

Espagnole + Mushrooms = Chasseur Sauce

Veloute + Heavy Cream = Surpeme Sauce

Hollandaise + Tarragon, Shallots and Red Wine Vinegar = Bearnaise Sauce

Back in the '90s, when I was a saucier

Back in the '90s, when I was a saucier

I mention all this because a basic understanding of sauces is very helpful in everyday cooking. Today’s lasagna recipe, for example, uses a Bechamel sauce, whereas a traditional lasagna recipe would use a tomato sauce. But because we are using winter squash instead of meat protein, Bechamel is more appropriate. Tomato wouldn’t work.

For this low-fat recipe, I used acorn squash, but you could easily use butternut, carnivale or even pumpkin. This lasagna makes an excellent winter vegetarian entree.

Winter Squash and Spinach Lasagna

For the Bechamel Sauce

3 cups skim milk

1/2 cup fat free half and half

1/2 cup unsalted butter

3/4 cup all purpose flour

1 tsp dried sage

For the Acorn Squash Filling

2 acorn squash

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped fine


Salt and pepper

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

For the Spinach Filling

1 lb package frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, crushed

Salt and pepper

16 oz tub fat free cottage cheese

1 egg, beaten

For the Lasagna

9 whole wheat lasagna noodles

8 oz shredded fresh mozzarella (about 1-1/2 cups)

1/2 cup grated parmesan

1. Cut acorn squash in half, scoop out seeds and strings, spray both sides with pan spray and place face down on baking sheet. Roast at 375F until soft, about 40 minutes. Cool, remove skin, then roughly mash. This can be done a day or two ahead of time.

2. Boil large pot of water. Add lasagna noodles and cook to al dente stage, which is slightly undercooked. The pasta will absorb the sauce as it cooks, so don’t overboil or it will be mushy at the end.

3. Put a large saute pan on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add garlic and rosemary and cook a moment, then add squash, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook about five minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

4. Return saute pan to fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onion and cook until translucent, about three minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add spinach and cook about five minutes. Remove from pan and cool a few minutes. Then combine with cottage cheese and egg and season to taste with salt and pepper.

5.For the Bechamel, melt butter in sauce pan, then whisk in flour and continue whisking until roux is formed, about the consistency of oatmeal. Cook for about a minute or two, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and set aside. Meanwhile, bring milk, half and half and sage to a boil in a sauce pan. Whisk in roux until thickened to the consistency of cream of mushroom soup.

6. To assemble lasagna, spray the bottom of a 9″x13″x2″ baking pan with pan spray, then line with three lasagna noodles. Spoon some sauce over the noodles, then add  a layer of half the squash. Then add a layer of half the spinach. Then half the mozzrella and half the parmesan. Then more noodles and more sauce. Then the remaining squash, the remaining spinach, any remaining sauce, and the final three lasgana noodles. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella over the top, then the remaining parmesan. This can be assembled the night before.

7. Cover with foil and cook in at 375F until brown and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Remove foil and cook another 10 minutes to crisp the cheese. Let sit about 15 minutes before cutting, otherwise it can get goopy.

Thanks for looking at my blog!

South Side Grocery Bargains — Week of Nov. 16-22, 2011

Is pizza a vegetable? According to Congress, the answer is yes!.

On Monday, Congress blocked an effort by the Obama administration that would have required public schools receiving federal subsidies for lunches to include at least one half cup of tomato paste in a single serving of pizza in order for it to qualify as a vegetable. That much of tomato paste would render a slice of pizza inedible, in effect disqualifying pizza from the vegetable requirement.

Backed by the big food industry, Congress also blocked the administration’s other proposed new rules which included requiring more whole grain foods in school lunches and cutting back on the amount of French fries students eat. You can check out the New York Times’ report on the controversy here.

The whole issue is reminiscent of when the Reagan administration tried to get ketchup reclassified as a vegetable back in the 1980s. What are these people thinking?

You know what I’m thinking? Let’s start saving some money!

In the produce section, Aldi’s has a 12 oz bag of fresh cranberries for $.99 and celery for $.49 bunch. At Fresh Pick Market, at 8749 S. Ridgeland Ave., in Oak Lawn, bananas are $.39/lb and cabbage is $.25/lb. Tony’s Finer Foods, at 8630 S. Harlem Ave., in Bridgeview, has navel oranges for $.99/lb.

Pete’s has collard greens for $.39/lb, and avocados for the same price each. Pete’s also has green beans for $.79/lb, zucchini for $.48/lb, and California blackberries for $.98/pint.

Cermak Produce has cauliflower, tangerines and honey crisp apples all for $.59/lb, as well as celery for $.59/bunch. At Freshline Foods, at 5355 W. 95th St., in Oak Lawn, broccoli crowns are $.49/lb. Food 4 Less has 10 lb sacks of russet potatoes for $1.78.

In the meat department, there are a lot of turkey specials available, but most of them require a minimum purchase and a coupon, so check the fine print before heading to the store. Both Cermak and Fresh Pick have whole pork butt roast for $.99/lb. Pete’s has ground turkey for $1.48/lb.

Fresh Pick has chicken drumsticks for $.69/lb. Food 4 Less has Tyson whole fryers for $.99/lb. And Tony’s has boneless skinless breasts for $1.49/lb.

In the grocery aisle, Ultra Foods has Ocean Spray cranberry sauce for $.88/can, Campbell’s Spaghetti-O’s for $.89/can, and Keebler club crackers for $1.78/box. Cermak has Del Monte canned vegetables for $.50/ea, and Tony’s has Barilla pasta for $.99/lb, both good prices for brand names.

In the dairy department, both Freshline and Pete’s have butter for $1.88/lb. Ultra Foods has Imperial margarine for $.48/lb. F4L has Kroger sour cream for $1/lb, same as last week.

In the frozen foods section, both Pete’s and Freshline have 1 lb bags of assorted frozen vegetables for $.69.

The baking supplies aisle will be crowded this week as folks start their holiday baking. At Aldi’s, a 12 oz can of evaporated milk is $.69. Ultra has a 5 lb bag of Pillsbury flour for $1.79. And Pete’s has 4 lb sacks of granulated sugar for $1.99, and a 1 lb box of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda for $.69.

In the bakery, both Tony’s and F4L have fresh baked apple, pumpkin or sweet potato pies for $2.50. Tony’s also has pecan pies for $3.99. Yum.

For this week’s Bargain of the Week, we return to Ultra, where sweet potatoes are on sale for only $.18/lb, a great price!

One last note: For all you seniors out there, every Tuesday Freshline offers a 3% senior citizen discount. For everybody else, stay out of Freshline on Tuesdays!

See you at the grocery store!

Green Bean Casserole

In my family, Thanksgiving is the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays. It gets no respect.

Take Christmas, for example. If someone in my family were to miss Christmas, you would hear about it for years, decades even. There is no conceivable excuse for missing Christmas, not even if you were hospitalized.

Like my handle-less casserole? Classy, right?

Like my handle-less casserole? Classy, right?

On Thanksgiving, however, you can get a pass. If there are in-laws to take into account, or if you have to work that day — as I did for too many years in the restaurant business — it is okay to skip Thanksgiving dinner.

In fact, I can think of once, maybe twice in the past 30 years when my entire family went full Rockwell, enjoying the holiday seated around the dining room table.

Instead, what usually happens is that those refugees who don’t have other commitments gather at a restaurant for a mid-afternoon feast. For example, I’ll be enjoying the holiday for the second year in a row at the wonderful Chuck’s Southern Comfort Barbeque with assorted family members. They serve an excellent traditional Thanksgiving spread with amazing Tex-Mex and Cajun flourishes. Highly recommended.

Despite all that, I still look forward to Thanksgiving, and the simple treasures it contains. And I’m not just talking about afternoon football on a Thursday!

Sure, there’s turkey and stuffing. Although they are a Thanksgiving tradition, you really could serve them almost anytime during the year and they wouldn’t seem out of place. No, I’m talking about those dishes that would freak my family out if I made them any day except Thanksgiving.

Dishes like green bean casserole.

Can you imagine bringing green bean casserole to a Fourth of July picnic, or serving it on Easter? My family probably would have me committed. At the very least, some smart aleck would say, “What is this, Thanksgiving?!”

Yet this simple recipe defines Thanksgiving for me. A fractured, schizophrenic Thanksgiving, perhaps. But Thanksgiving nonetheless.

Maybe that’s one of the things I love most about Thanksgiving. It never turns out the way it’s supposed to.

Baked Chicken, Green Bean Casserole, and Stuffing

Baked Chicken, Green Bean Casserole, and Stuffing

Green Bean Casserole

2 cans French-style green beans, drained

1 can Cream of Mushroom soup

2 TBS Sour Cream

Two dashes of Worchestershire Sauce

Dash of Hot Sauce

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

2 oz can Fried Onions

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except fried onions and mix well. Go a little heavier on the pepper than you normally would. Pour into casserole dish and top with onions. Cover and bake at 350F for 35 minutes, then remove the cover and bake another 5 minutes so the onions toast a little.

What are some dishes that define Thanksgiving for you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

My, Oh, My! Sweet Potato Pie!

For your next holiday party, I want you to try an experiment.

Instead of pumpkin pie, bring a sweet potato pie. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the reaction you get.

Here in the Midwest, sweet potato pie is not nearly as popular as its pumpkin cousin. Sweet potato pie is more of a Southern thing. When I tried this experiment recently, I found that most people had heard of sweet potato pie, but had never tried one.

I’m here to tell you: They are a revelation. And they are just as good if not better than pumpkin pie because they are just the slightest bit sweeter.

Plus, they are inexpensive and easy to make. It’s a win/win!

I like to introduce people to new foods, especially when it’s something I know they will love. Try this experiment and you will see how rewarding sweet potato pie can be.

Now, before we get into the recipe, I want to address the Crust Question: Make or Buy?

This time of year, I do a lot of baking. So I prefer the convenience of keeping a couple of frozen pie shells in the freezer.

Sure, they are super easy to make — just flour, fat, salt and water. But unless you are going for a particular flavor component in the crust itself — almond, pecan, or something else — standard pie crusts are pretty flavor neutral and don’t add a lot to pie except structure. So why not just skip that time-consuming step and buy some inexpensive pie shells at the Aldi’s? That’s my attitude.

So here’s a recipe for traditional sweet potato pie. Like the old TV commercial says: Try it, you’ll like it!

Sweet Potato Pie

4 oz butter, room temperature

2 cups sweet potato, cooked and mashed

2 cups granulated sugar

5 oz can evaporated milk (or 1/2 cup plus 2 TBS)

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 eggs, beaten

1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

2 prepared pie shells, unbaked

1. Cook sweet potatos in 375F oven until done, about 1 hour. Cool, peel and mash. This can be done a day or two ahead of time.

2. Mix butter, potatoes, sugar and evaporated milk until well blended. Add vanilla, eggs and cinnamon and mix well.

3. About 20 minutes before baking, remove pie shells from freezer and allow to soften slightly. Preheat oven to 350F. Pour batter into shells and cook until set, about 1 hour. Jiggle it just a little bit to see if it is ready.

I served this with just a dollop of dessert topping and it was heaven. Give it a try, you’ll see!

What are some of the recipes you love to make for holiday get togethers? Why not share them in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!