Charred Corn

One of the benefits of living in the Midwest is that in the summer time, corn is extremely inexpensive. When the sweet corn crop is in full swing — around July through September — it can get as low as $.10/ear or even less. That makes it one of the affordable vegetables you can buy.

Charred Corn in the Summertime

Release the sweetness of corn’s natural sugars by giving it a nice char on the grill

The best thing about sweet corn is that it is so versatile. You can eat it off the cob or cut it off and eat it as a side dish. Or it can be incorporated into just about anything.

In fact, today corn is probably the most important crop in the US, even more so than wheat. That’s because there are a lot of uses for it besides eating it, such as the alternate fuel ethanol, feed for livestock, distillation into whiskey and other liquors, the sweetener high fructose corn syrup, industrial applications, and many others.

Where I live, in northeast Illinois, corn is the biggest and most important crop. As soon as you get out of the city and suburbs of Chicago, you find hundreds of miles of corn fields in every direction. Farmers around here alternate their fields with corn one year then with soybean the next in order to provide the most nutrients in the soil to ensure maximum yield of both crops.

Charred Corn

Whiskey made in Peoria from Illinois Corn

Generally, Illinois corn isn’t used for eating. Most of it is sent to factory farms where it is used to feed livestock. The rest is sent either downriver to Peoria where for generations it was turned into corn mash and other liquors at the Hiram Walker distillery. Archer Daniels Midland now uses corn to make vodka, gin and other liquors at the plant.

Or the Illinois corn travels upriver to Summit, outside Chicago, where it is used to make corn starch at the big Argo plant, which is about three miles from my home. I can often smell aroma of cornstarch being made when the wind is blowing from the west.

Personally, I love the taste of charred sweet corn. As its name implies, sweet corn is full of natural sugars.So when you let it get a nice dark char, the sugars will caramelize, giving it a unique and delicious flavor.

Usually, I will cut the charred corn off the cob so that I can add it to salads, sauté it with zucchini or other vegetables, or toss it by itself with a little olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper.

All you do is remove the corn from the husk and pull off any silk, then boil it for about nine minutes. I will often do this ahead of time — such as in the morning — then store the fully-cooked cob corn in the refrigerator until I’m ready to grill it.

Spray it with a little pan spray, season it with salt and pepper, then throw it onto a pre-heated grill. You don’t have to pay a lot of attention to it. Just turn it once or twice so that it gets a relatively even char.

Remove it from the grill, let it cool completely, then use a knife to cut it off the cob. Charred corn can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for at least a month until you are ready to use it. It’s very handy to have around and will add a sweet distinctive flavor to just about anything.

Charred Corn

Summer in Chicago

Thanks to efficient transportation, fresh corn still in the husk from Florida, California and Mexico is available pretty much year round. But it is at its sweetest, freshest and cheapest during the height of summer here in Chicago.

 

Restaurant Review – Chuck’s Southern Comfort Cafe

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe — located in a former rock music club in Burbank, Illinois, a southwest suburb of Chicago — has somehow become part of our family.

Last Thursday, we spent Thanksgiving at Chuck’s, just as we did the year before. On Easter, we also gathered at Chuck’s. And it’s a regular destination for birthdays and other family milestones.

When wife’s cousin family — who happen to live next door to us — celebrated their son’s graduation from law school, they rented out Chuck’s party room. When the power went out last summer in the middle of an important White Sox game, I headed over to the Voodoo Lounge, Chuck’s New Orleans themed bar, to watch the final innings.

Which got me to thinking about why Chuck’s has become my family’s favorite gathering place. Part of it is certainly the food. Chuck’s features Southern-style barbecue mixed with New Orleans Cajun and Tex-Mex.

The barbecue is amazing

The barbecue is amazing

All of it is amazing, but the barbecue in particular is really exceptional, especially the smoked pork, chicken and ribs. Everything is made from scratch. It’s the kind of place where they make their own barbecue sauce and sell it by the bottle at the cash register.

The staff is friendly and warm, and you feel like home when you are at the restaurant. Chuck himself — a bear-sized man with a booming voice and a permanent smile — constantly makes the rounds and checks in with every table to see how they’re doing.

This past Thursday, he came to our table to insist that we all try some pickled beets that he made from the harvest of his own garden. They were spectacular.

The restaurant is large and comfortable. The decor is like Mardi Gras meets Southwest. There’s lots of colorful masks and beads side-by-side with original paintings that are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe.

It’s a relaxing place where you are immediately put at ease the moment you walk through the door. And we always see people we know from the neighborhood dining at the tables in the dining room.

Chuck with my neice, Megan

Chuck with my neice, Megan

The South Side of Chicago tends to be a clannish place and outsiders are not usually made to feel welcome. Yet Chuck’s is the rare exception where everybody can gather for a good time, great food and a comfortable, relaxing dining atmosphere.

Chuck’s has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” as well as “Check, Please!” , the locally-produced restaurant review show. In both cases, the reviewers were glowing with their praise of the restaurant.

While Chuck’s is never going to win any Michelin awards or be written up in exclusive magazines, its combination of comfort food in a laid back setting make it one of my family’s favorite destinations.

If you ever find yourself on the South Side, make sure you check out Chuck’s Southern Comfort Cafe. Just give me a call first so I can join you!

Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe is located at 6501 W. 79th St., Burbank, IL. The phone number is 708-229-8700. Reservations are accepted.

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!

 

 

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 EVOO

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!

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

2 TBS EVOO

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!