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!


Chicken Salad

The other day, Sandi and I were eating at our favorite neighborhood diner, Les Brothers, when a waiter walked past with a plate of chicken salad.

It was served old-school style inside a cut-up tomato. I don’t think I’ve seen chicken salad presented like that since the Reagan administration. I instantly knew I had to try it.

Serving compound salads — chicken, tuna, ham, egg, etc. — in hollowed out tomatoes used to be pretty common. But I suppose it had been done to death so people stopped doing it.

Well, I’m bringing it back! It not only is visually appealing, but it fits with my efforts to reduce the amount of white flour and white sugar I eat. Plus, now it’s nostalgiac. Bonus!

I served it with an Israeli cous cous salad. I wanted to make a macaroni salad, but Sandi wrinkled her nose at that, so I made this instead. But the joke’s on her because cous cous is simply a small, granular shaped pasta, so it’s exactly the same thing!

So much for my avoiding white flour, however.

Finally, I added one of my homemade dill pickles and garnished the plate with a few black, seedless grapes. I think it looks pretty elegant and wouldn’t be out of place on a posh lunch menu.

Chicken Salad

1 lb Chicken, cooked (I used half a baked chicken from dinner the night before), diced

1/2 cup Reduced-Fat Mayonnaise

1/2 cup Fat-Free Sour Cream

Juice of 1/2 Lemon

1 Garlic Clove, crushed

2 stalks celery, small dice

1/2 Red Onion, small dice

1/3  cup Dried Cranberries

1/4 cup Walnuts, chopped

1/4 tsp Lawry’s Seasoned Salt

1 Large Tomato

1. Combine chicken, celery, onion, cranberries and walnuts in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice and garlic. Mix a little of the dressing at a time to the chicken mixture until you get the proper chicken salad consistency, holds together but not too soggy. Season with seasoned salt. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes to let the flavors meld together.

2. Use a paring knife to make alternate zig-zag cuts around the perimeter of a tomato. Pull it apart then use the knife to remove some of the core from each half. Lay flat on the plate and use an ice cream scoop to place a large dollop of chicken salad in the center of the tomato half.

To plate the cous cous salad, I simply spooned the salad into a ramekin and patted it down. Then I placed the serving plate on top of the ramekin, turned the whole thing upside down and removed the ramekin. The salad will then hold the shape of the ramekin.

What kind of old school foods would you like to see come back into fashion? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!


Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

As the weather begins to get warmer, I begin a desperate effort to make just a few more crock pot recipes before it’s time to put it away for the season.

There’s really nothing preventing me from using the crock pot during the summer months, but it just doesn’t feel right. It would be like buying a snow shovel in July.

My crock pot is great for the winter, but it’s even better during these in between times, when the temperature is warming, yet still crisp enough to send a chill down your neck.

It’s precisely these kinds of days when a warm soup slowly stewing in the crock pot brings the most comfort. Mix up a batch of jalapeno cornbread just before dinner is served and you have the perfect dinner for a cool mid-Spring evening.

Like most crock pot recipes, this soup is extremely economical. Of course, beans and the produce cost next to nothing, but in this soup I used ham scraps leftover from a long ago meal that have been waiting patiently in the freezer for precisely this moment.

You also could use a leftover ham bone or a smoked ham hock. Or simply leave the ham out altogether for a delightful vegetarian dinner soup.

I used Cannellini beans because they are a little larger than Great Northerns and I think they give the soup a little more substance.

If you haven’t used it before, escarole is a type of rough lettuce, kind of like a mix between green leaf lettuce and kale. I don’t generally make a salad out of it on its own because it has a little too much texture, but it is perfect for fortifying other salad greens or throwing into a soup like this one.

Escarole adds an iron-rich flavor that is similar to spinach but not as strong.

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

1 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 Medium white onion, diced

2 Carrots, peeled and diced

2 Celery stalks, leaves included, diced

8 oz Ham, small dice

2  cans Cannellini beans, drained

1/2 head Escarole lettuce, rough chop

16 oz Low-fat, low-sodium chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tsp Dried thyme

1 tsp Dried basil

1 clove Garlic, crushed

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Place cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrot and celery. This combination of vegetables is called a mirepoix (MEER-eh-pwah) and is the basis for many soup recipes. Saute until onions are translucent, about five minutes, then add ham and saute another two minutes. Add garlic, saute another minute, then add to crock pot.

2. Add to crock pot the beans, thyme, basil and stock. Set dial to low and cook for about seven hours. During the final hour of cooking, stir in the escarole. Continue cooking on low for another hour. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

This very basic soup recipe can be transformed into any number of variations by adding or substituting different types of beans, proteins, seasonings and even greens.

You can even add pastas, such as elbow macaroni or orzo, and a little crushed tomato if you want to make a  more traditional Italian soup.


Italian Beef Sandwiches

Philadelphia has the cheesesteak sandwich. New Orleans has the muffaletta. But Chicago is home to the Italian Beef.

We have an embarrassment of riches here in Chicago when it comes to Italian Beef sandwiches because there are literally hundreds of beef stands throughout the city serving this delicious and inexpensive sandwich, and I have yet to find a bad one.

The Italian Beef sandwich was invented in Chicago and was the result of the combination of two events that occurred simultaneously in the city around the turn of the 20th Century — the rise of the meat packing industry and the wave of Italian immigration.

At one time, Chicago was the nation’s largest meat processor, with millions of cattle passing through its famed Union Stockyards on the city’s South Side. Although the industry moved out West more than 50 years ago, the smell of cattle still lingers in that area even today.

Not far away, in the Italian neighborhood around Taylor Street, newly arrived immigrants struggled to create a new life for themselves. Although most were poor, they still celebrated weddings and other important events the same way they did back in Italy — with enormous feasts.

Unable to afford the choicest cuts of meat, the immigrants would pool their money and buy more affordable, yet tougher cuts, from the meat packing houses. Then they would roast them off smothered in traditional Italian seasonings.

In order to feed hundreds of guests, they sliced the beef extremely thin then kept it from drying out by holding it all day in an au jus sauce. The beef was then served on a hinged roll made of soft Italian bread and the Italian beef sandwich was born.

Today, you can get your Italian Beef any way you want it — with red sauce and sweet peppers, or dipped in au jus, or even topped with melted cheese.

As we host our own feasts — this time to celebrate the big game — Italian Beef is still an affordable crowd pleaser. This recipe can be held in the crock pot so your guests can serve themselves throughout the day.

Italian Beef Sandwiches

4 to 5 lb eye or round roast or any less expensive boneless beef cut


1 TBS sea salt

1/2 TBS fresh cracked black pepper

1/2 TBS granulated garlic

1 tsp onion powder

1 TBS Italian seasoning

32 oz beef stock

1 onion, julienned

1 TBS EVOO, separate

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 TBS Italian seasoning, separate

Provolone cheese slices (if desired)

Hinged sandwich rolls

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Use a sharp knife to cut away excess fat and silverskin from the outside of the beef roast, rub with EVOO then season on all sides with salt, pepper, granulated garlic, onion powder and Italian seasoning. Spray the bottom of a roasting pan with pan spray then lay the roast in the pan and cook for about 1 hour or until internal temperature reaches 140F or higher (medium). Remove from oven and let rest until cool enough to carve. This can be done the day before.

2. Put cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add onions. Saute for five minutes, stirring frequently, then add 1/2 cup water and cover. This will make the onions carmelize faster. Cook until onions are brown, stirring occasionally.

3. Meanwhile, use a sharp carving knife to slice beef roast as thin as you can. Place all meat slices in the crock pot, add the beef stock, garlic, onions and Italian seasoning. Cook on low for at least 6 hours. Serve on sandwich rolls with au jus from the crock pot on the side. If desired, place cheese over beef and melt under the broiler for a minute or two.

Italian beef also can be served with a marinara sauce and giardiniera — pickled sweet peppers and other vegetables available jarred in Italian markets — on the side.

Is there a particular food your hometown is famour for? Tell us all about in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Wine on Wednesdays – Me and Wine

Like many people, I used to think drinking wine was for snooty Europeans and people with too much money. I had always been a proud beer drinker.

But in 2000, I became general manager of a fancy casino steakhouse. Knowing nothing about wine other than I didn’t like it, I gave myself a crash course in oeneology so that I could knowledeably talk about wines and food pairings with my employees and guests. I bought a bunch of books and ventured into mysterious parts of the liquor store I had never visited before: the wine aisles.

What I quickly discovered was that I really loved wine. I loved its rich history, its nearly endless varietals and brands, and most importantly its taste. Good wine tastes great, it’s a true pleasure to drink, much more so than beer. And an appreciation for good wine can make life better.

I enjoy red wine more than white, with pinot noirs, zinfandels and shirazes at the top of my list. And while I enjoy good wine, I can’t afford fine wine. I never spend more than $10/bottle, and except for a special occasion, I usually limit myself to $7.99/bottle or less. Usually far less.

Fortunately, there are many, many very good wines available at that price point. There also are a lot of truly bad wines at every price level. As a result of years of trial and error, I’ve been able to weed out those ones, and have compiled a rotation of 25-30 wines that are very inexpensive but also very good.

In this “Wines on Wednesday” feature, I will be identifying some of the best value-priced wines I have found since first discovering my passion for wine 12 years ago. I will describe some of the best places to find good, cheap wines, and how to pair wine with food to enhance even the everday dining experience.

Today, I want to start with one of my all-time favorite wines: Coppola Rosso, a red table wine produced by a vineyard owned by Francis Ford Coppola, director of two of my all-time favorite films, “The Godfather” and “Apocolypse Now”.

Although it’s nice that this wine is made by someone whose films I respect, it’s even nicer that this wine is super delicious and also very affordable. The discount liquor store near my house sells it for $6.99/bottle, or $5.97/bottle after the 15% discount you get if you buy six wines or more at a time.

In general, when a wine is made from one type of grape — such as the cabernet sauvignon, merlot or chardonnay grape, for example — it is designated as a “varietal” and can be called a cabernet, a merlot or a chardonnay.

But when a blend of different grapes is used, a wine can only be called a “red table wine” or a “white table wine.” Although Coppola Rosso is a table wine, it tastes  like a good California zinfandel, which are known for their earthy vegetable-like flavors.

Coppola has said that with his Rosso (Italian for “red”) he was trying to capture the flavor of the everyday, versatile Italian paisan red wines his grandparents used to drink. This wine definitely fits that bill. I’m a paisan and I could absolutely drink it everyday.

Coppola Vineyards make a variety of wines, including a Coppola Bianco, a white table wine, and a Coppola Talia, a sweet white wine named for his sister, the actress Talia Shire who played Rocky Balboa’s girlfriend in the “Rocky” series (“Adriaaaaaaaan!”). It also makes some more expensive, exclusive wines.

If you are looking for a really good, cheap red wine that goes with just about anything, you can’t go wrong with Coppola Rosso. It is versatile, delicious and definitely affordable.

Is there an affordable, delicious wine that you enjoy? Please share your discovery in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Here’s something you may not know: Chicago has an enormous Polish population.

There are more Poles living in Chicago than in Warsaw. The influence of this population is evident everywhere, especially where I live. Many store signs are in both English and Polish, and there are certain markets where no English is posted or spoken. When you walk in, it’s like being teleported to a store in Poland.

One of my fondest memories growing up was in 1979 when Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope, visited Chicago and climbed onto the roof of a high school only a few blocks from my house to greet a massive crowd of mostly Polish followers.

Poland has one of the richest cultures and proudest histories in the world. And Polish cuisine is among my favorites, even though my ethnic background is Irish.

Full disclosure: My first wife’s family was Polish and my daughter is half Polish. Back in those days, I used to look forward to family parties because it meant lots of delicious Polish food — kielbasa, pierogis, kolatchkies and today’s recipe, gołąbki (ga-WOOM-key) or stuffed cabbage rolls.

These are delicious and so easy to make. They bear a strong similarity to stuffed green peppers, but the tanginess of the cabbage adds a whole other level of flavor.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

6-7 whole cabbage leaves

3 cups cooked whole grain rice

1 lb ground beef or turkey


1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, medium dice

1 cup shredded cabbage

1 clove garic, crushed

4 oz can tomato sauce

2 TBS Italian seasoning, separated

1 tsp sugar

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1 TBS hot sauce

1. Bring a pot of water to boil. Add cabbage leaves and boil until softened, about 4 minutes. Drain in colander then return to pot and cover with cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. Place cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, green peppers and shredded cabbage and cook until onions just start to brown, about 3 minutes. Add ground beef or turkey and cook until meat is browned, about five minutes, stirring occasionally. In the last minute of cooking, stir in the crushed garlic and Italian seasoning.

3. To make the sauce, combine the tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and sugar in a small pot and cook together for about five minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Preheat oven to 350F. In mixing bowl, stir together the meat mixture, rice and about half the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Lay a cabbage leaf on a cutting board and spoon about 2 TBS of the mixture into the center. Roll up into a log shape and fold the flaps underneat to seal. Place in a baking dish. Repeat with the remaining cabbage leaves.

5. Cover cabbage rolls with the remaining sauce, then cover with foil and bake 35 minutes. Let cool for a couple of minutes before serving.

These are a great meal all by themselves because the protein, starch and vegetable are all contained in the individual cabbage roll. But they also go great with some seared kielbasa sausage and a couple of pierogi.

What ethnic cuisines are popular where you live? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Chicken Breast Stuffed with Mushroom Duxelle

People often ask me what is my favorite dish to prepare as a chef. The answer is the onle that peope will love the most and that will make the restaurant the most money.

When I was a banquet chef, this dish was among the most popular for weddings, awards banquets and other catered affairs. It is very easy to make in bulk, especially if you have a big work table and can set up an assembly line.

The mushroom duxelle can be made ahead of time, as can the pesto. I would prepare huge batches of these, and then knock out hundreds of stuffed chicken breasts in an afternoon. Commercially, I used a shredded gruyere cheese, but for home use I substituted a simple cheddar and jack combination. You can really use any type of cheese you like.

When I made this at home, I served it on a potato latke and sauced it with some sour cream I put into a squeeze bottle, then garnished it with scallions. But in the banquet kitchen, I would serve these napped with a chicken veloute sauce, with rosemary roasted red potatoes and a combination of steamed carrots, broccoli, zucchini and yellow squash.

Honestly, once you master this dish, you can make a fortune catering banquets. People love it. Plus, for the home cook, it is easy to make many of these at the same time if you entertaining or hosting a dinner party.

Chicken Breast Stuffed with Mushroom Duxelle

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts

1/2 cup basil pesto


4 oz container fresh button mushrooms, chopped fine

1/2 medium white onion, small dice

3-4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 TBS Italian seasoning

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1-1/2 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses

1. To make mushroom duxelle, put cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add the EVOO. When smoking, add onions and cook about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until all the liquid in them is evaporated and they start to brown, about 7 minutes. For the final minute of cooking, stir in the garlic and Italian seasoning. Remove from heat and let cool a little. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Place chicken breasts on cutting board. If they are large, cut them in half horizontally,as if you were cutting a deck of cards. Each serving should have about 6 oz of chicken. Place a plastic freezer bag over the breast, then pound it with a meat tenderizer or a rolling pin so chicken breast if flattened out to about the size of your hand.

3. Preheat oven to 350F. Rub both sides of the breast with pesto. Place about 2 TBS of the duxelle mixture and about a TBS of shredded cheese in the center of each breast then roll up into a log shape, tucking the ends underneath to form a seal. Spray a sheet pan with pan spray, then lay each chicken breast seam side down on the pan. Arrange stuffed breasts so that they are not touching — you want the heat to surround them on all sides so they cook evenly. Just before they go into the oven, rub them with a little more pesto. Bake for 35 minutes, then remove from oven. Let rest about 3 minutes before cutting.

4. To serve, cut each breast at bias into about 4-5 medallions, then shingle on the plate over potatoes, rice or whatever starch you are using. Nap with sauce or serve unsauced.

To make the potato latke, shred a leftover pre-cooked baked potato then mix with 1/2 onion, diced small, and salt and pepper. Heat a small cast iron pan. When smoking, add some vegetable oil and let it get smoking hot. Melt a teaspoon of butter in the oil, then place the shredded potatoes in the pan and pat down slightly with a spoon or spatula. Fry about 4 minutes, then invert onto a plate. Get the cast iron pan back up to temperature, add fresh oil, a tab of butter, and slide the potato uncooked side down back into the pan. Finish frying and invert onto a sheet pan.

You can make multiple latkes ahead of time and line them up on a sheet pan. When ready to serve, reheat for about 10 minutes at 375F. These can serve as a delicious base for many different entrees, or serve them by themselves with a little sour cream or apple sauce, and garnish with sliced scallions or chives.

Wow, I’m really giving away all my chef secrets today! Thanks for looking at my blog!

South Side Grocery Bargains — Week of Oct. 19-23, 2011

I don’t believe everything I read on the Internet, but a little fact-checking determined that this article which claims that child slave labor is used in the production of some Halloween candy may be true.

About 80 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, where human rights activists claim more than 284,000 children work in cocoa farms under hazardous conditions, many of whom were torn from their families and sold into slavery, according to the article.

Even if this is only partially true, I’m reluctant to pass out chocolate candies this year. As the author notes, there are fair trade chocolate candies available, and non-chocolate alternatives as well. I personally don’t eat a lot of chocolate, but I’ll definitely be keeping away until I’m convinced the big candy manufacturers are taking this issue seriously.

I’ll get off my soap box now. Let’s start saving some money!

In produce, Pete’s Fresh Market has bananas for $.28/lb, Mexican avocados for $.48/ea, and green cabbage for $.18/head. Ultra Foods has red seedless grapes for $.68/lb, which is much cheaper than it has been.

Cermak Produce has California plums, zucchini, tomatillos, and Florida juice oranges all for $.49/lb. Cermak also has carrots for $.25/lb. Fresh Pick Market has artichokes for $.50/ea.

There are lots of grapefruit specials right now. The crop must have just come in. The best bargain I found was $.20/ea at Pete’s. At Tony’s, a 5 lb bag is just $2.50.

In the meat department, Pete’s has whole chickens for $.68/lb, and boneless skinless chicken breasts for $1.48/lb.

Pork prices have come down this week. At Freshline Foods, loin end pork roast is $1.49/lb. At Tony’s Finer Foods, pork shoulder country ribs are $1.49/lb. And at Cermak, pork spare ribs are $1.99/lb.

Have I ever told you about the deli department at Cermak Produce, at 7220 S. Cicero Ave., in Bedford Park? There are always great bargains there, the service is friendly and efficient, and it’s never packed. It’s my favorite deli. This week, they have Old Tyme regular bologna for $.98/lb.

In the grocery aisle, Ultra Foods has Home Pride or Wonder Bread for only $.88/loaf, Armour Small Lunchmakers for $1/ea, and Prince Pastas for $1/box. Food 4 Less has Maruchan Ramen noodles for $.20/ea, Kroger canned vegetables for $.58/can, and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pastas for $1/can.

Freshline Foods has Campbell’s chicken noodle or tomato soup for only $.59/can. Jewel has College Inn broths for $1/14.5 oz can.

Get ready for baking season. Pete’s has Domino sugar for $2.38/4 lb bag. Tony’s has Ceresota unbleached flour for $2.49/5 lb bag. And Menard’s has chocolate chip, butterscotch or vanilla baking chips for $1.50/12 oz bag. I’m always delighted when I find food bargains at Menard’s. It’s a hardware store, for goodness sake!

In the dairy section, Pete’s has a dozen large eggs for $.98 and Prairie Farms milk for $1.98./gal. F4L has Kroger butter for $2.69/lb, and Kroger sour cream for $1/1 lb tub.

In the frozen foods section, Ultra has Flav-R-Pac Frozen Vegetables for $.89/1 pound bag.

Finally, for this week’s Bargain of the Week we return to Tony’s, where 32 oz Powerade is only $.59/each. I’ll have to stock up for the gym at that price!

Will you do me a favor? If you see a great bargain, will you share it with everybody in the comments section below? I would love for this to become a community where folks can go to one place to find the best prices!

See you at the grocery store!

Stuffed Acorn Squash

Did you mother ever tell you not to play with your food? Well, when you are a chef you are allowed, even required, to play with your food everyday.

People eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouths, goes the mantra at culinary schools everywhere. Creative plating is as essential as choosing the freshest ingredients and balancing flavors, colors and textures in a recipe.

Stuffed Acorn Squash

Stuffed Acorn Squash

It’s the chef’s role to make the food “pop” for their guests. How can I make this dish memorable, I always ask myself.

Garnish is one solution. A little peice of green onion, a sprig of parsley or a few stategically placed red pepper strips can add color to the plate. Think about an strawberry fanned over an orange slice on the side of a breakfast plate, and you’ll see what I’m driving at.

Another way is to give the plate “height.” In one restaurant, we used to make a lamb shank we (privately) called “Poke-you-in-the-eye lamb shank” for the way the bone protruded up out of the plate. Alternating vegetables into tall stacks bound together with a little onion confit or a tab of mashed potato is another example of adding height to a dish.

But I like to use squash as a vehicle, especially this time of year.

Squash is inexpensive, nutritious, flavorful and, most important, looks amazing on a plate. Butternut, pumpkin, acorn, spaghetti, carnival, calabasa. The list of squashes available right now is a long one. Each has its distinct color and shape.

When I saw a couple of beautiful acorn squash at the Farmers Market last week, my mind gears immediately started to turn, thinking about how to stuff them like a cornaecopia.

Cooked acorn squash stand up on the plate really well. You can cut the tops off them like a jack-o-lantern, fill them with your filling and bake them. Or you can cut them in half and plate them like one of those decorative overturned wheelbarrows with wildflowers sprouting out of them.

Either way, your guests will be impressed by your creativity, as well as your cooking skills.

So, go ahead. Play with your food. Your mother will be so proud!

Stuffed Acorn Squash

1 acorn squash

1 TBS butter, divided into 2 tabs


1 lb ground turkey (or beef or lamb)

2 cups brown rice, cooked

10 oz package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained

1/2 medium onion, diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 celery stalk, diced

2 serrano peppers, ribs and seeds removed, diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 oz crumbed Feta cheese

2 TBS dried thyme (or 1 TBS fresh)

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 cup beef stock

1/4 cup grated parmesan

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

2 sprigs fresh rosemary or other herb for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Cut acorn squash in half and use ice cream scoop to remove seeds and strings. Spray sheet pan and both sides of the squash with pan spray, then lay orange side up on sheet pan. Put the butter tabs inside each half, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 45 minutes.

2. Place cast iron skillet on heat. When hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add turkey and brown until done, about five minutes. Drain fat if necessary and remove to side plate. In same skillet, add the other TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrots, celery, and serrano peppers and cook until onions translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, thyme and cayenne and cook another minute.

3. Return turkey to pan, along with rice, spinach, Feta cheese and beef stock. Stir until heated through, about 2-3 minutes. Season to taste w/ salt and pepper.

4. To plate, place acorn squash at top of plate and push down so the “bucket” is at an angle. Use a serving spoon to fill each squash with filling to make it look like it is pouring out of the squash. Sprinkle with parmesan and garnish with rosemary sprig.

What fun plating concepts are among your favorites? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Oh, Boy! Mini Chocolate Chip Banana Nut Muffins!

I was at the dollar store the other day buying dog food with coupons (thanks, economy!) when I came across a cute little mini muffin pan for $4.

It has 24 little holes. How could I resist? I couldn’t, so I bought it.

Mini Chocolate Banana Nut Muffins

Mini Chocolate Chip Banana Nut Muffins

I couldn’t wait to use it when I got it home. When my wife told me she needed to bring something for a meeting at work, I almost leapt out of my seat.

“How about mini-chocolate-chip-banana-nut-muffins!” I shouted. She agreed, so I immediately set about making them.

The only difference between regular muffins and mini muffins is that they are smaller. That should seem obvious, but I’ve had some people tell me a different batter is required. Not true.

What is different is that the some of the ingredients may have to be a little smaller. In this case, the pecans are chopped a little finer and mini chocolate chips are used instead of normal-sized ones.

The best part about mini-muffins is that you don’t have to feel as guilty because they are so tiny and cute. Never mind if you eat three or four, instead of one normal size muffin. That’s not the point! These are smaller, so they are better for you, right? Right?!

I find it hard to commit to a full-sized muffin these days. It’s just too indulgent. I’ll eat the muffin top. Or I’ll split a whole muffin with somebody. But eat a whole muffin by myself? What are we, the Rockerfellers?

Anyway, if you happen to be at the dollar store and you happen to find a $4 mini muffin pan, take my advice: Buy it!

It will make you happy.

Mini Chocolate Chip Banana Nut Muffins

2 cups all purpose flour

1-1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

4 overripe bananas

1 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 eggs

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup pecans (or walnuts), chopped

3/4 cup mini chocolate chips

1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 375F. Spray muffin pan generously with pan spray (Even though it says it says non stick, it’s definitely “stick”).

In a small bowl, mash up two of the bananas with a fork so they are still chunky. Meanwhile, combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl.

In the Kitchen Aid bowl, mix together the remaining two bananas and the brown sugar until well mixed, about 5 minutes on medium (You can also use a hand mixer for this). Add the vanilla, the butter, then the eggs one at a time and mix well. Slowly add the dry flour mixture and mix until just combined (you don’t want gluten to form, which would make the muffin tough). Finally, fold in the nuts, chunky banana and mini chocolate chips.

Using a teaspoon, fill each hole in the muffin pan so the batter is about even with the top. Spinkle each muffin with a little sugar.

Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until a toothick comes out clean. Cool on a rack.

What kitchen gadget finds have inspired you to make something new? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!