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.

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!

Sunflower Seed Multi-Grain Bread

The weather has been particularly nasty around here the past couple of days. Since I currently work out my home office, I’ve been trapped in the house with our three dogs as the rain, wind and even snow have rolled through the Chicago area.

It’s days like these that are perfect for bread baking.

The oven warms the whole house and the aroma of baking bread wafts through every room, turning a lousy day into a magical experience. Even the dogs cheer up.

Autumn is perfect for a heavier bread, such as this multi-grain loaf with sunflower seeds. It’s denser than a traditional French baguette or a softer Italian loaf, yet not so heavy as a pumpernickel or Lithuanian rye. It goes perfectly with a bowl of hot homemade soup.

I reverse-engineered this loaf because I’ve had some sunflower seeds lying around that I bought a while ago while on a health kick and wanted to use them up. And they fit really nicely in this recipe. You can leave them out, or substitute walnuts or even raisins.

So when the weather turns nasty outside your house, mix up a batch of this dough, turn on your oven, and turn your day around.

Sunflower Multi-Grain Bread

1-1/2 cups lukewarm water (baby bath water temperature)

1-1/4 tsp active dry yeast (or one envelope)

2 TBS honey

2 TBS molasses

2 TBS vegetable shortening

3 TBS nonfat dry milk powder

1-1/2 tsp sea salt

2 cups all-purpose flour

1-1/3 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup rye flour

1/3 cup sunflower seeds

1 TBS EVOO

1 TBS corn meal

1 egg, beaten

1/4 tsp coarse sea salt

1. Whisk water, yeast, honey, molasses and shortening together in bowl of Kitchen Aid and let sit until mixture starts to bubble, about five minutes. Meanwhile, combine milk powder, salt and the flours together in a mixing bowl.

2. Using dough hook attachment (or just a wooden spoon), add dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix until dough is formed, about two minutes. Then add sunflower seeds and mix until combined.

3. Pour out onto slightly floured work surface and knead for a few minutes to finish dough. Grease the bottom and sides of a clean mixing bowl with EVOO then add dough ball, turning over to coat all sides. Cover with a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free space until about doubled in size, about an hour. Punch down, then let rise for another 30 minutes.

4. Spray a sheet pan with pan spray and dust with corn meal. Cut dough in half and form into desired shapes (I usually make one round loaf and one long loaf, or you can use bread pans). Place on sheet pan and cover loosely with a dish towel and let rest about 30 minutes.

5. Preheat oven to 385F. Use a sharp knife to make 1/2 inch slits every two inches or so, then brush loaves with egg wash and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Place sheet pan in oven and cook 30 minutes. Cool on racks.

This recipe makes two 1 lb loaves. You can also use it to make about 24 dinner rolls, if you prefer.

What do you cook to warm up a cold, blustery day? Why not share your ideas in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!

Historic Apple Butter Jumble Cookies

Old family recipes give us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who came before us.

Recently, I attended a presentation at Chicago’s famed Newberry Library by archivist Kelly Kress on a 19th Century family heirloom cookbook donated by the Blatchfords, a Chicago family of note who resided at their home, Ulmenheim (German for “Elm House”), which stood on LaSalle Street between Maple and Elm streets.

The topics of Ms. Kress’s insightful talk ranged from the kinds of foods families ate during the years leading up to the Civil War to the growing influence of immigrant cultures on American dinner tables. To help illustrate her talk, she served a traditional cider cake she made following one of the book’s actual recipes. Sadly, I arrived too late to indulge, but I’m told it was marvelous.

Another popular dessert from that era was jumble cookies, which are a mixture of a variety of ingredients, but usually include raisins, nuts and spices. They are a very old dessert, dating back to the Middle Ages, but also have been popular in the United States since the colonial days.

Martha Washington had a famous jumble cookie recipe and they are reported to have been among the items brought over on the Mayflower and were a staple in Jamestown.

Apple Butter Jumbles with Walnuts and Raisins and Brown Butter Glaze

Apple Butter Jumbles with Walnuts and Raisins and Brown Butter Glaze

Jumble cookies are simple to make, very flavorful and can be stored a long time without going bad, which probably accounts for their popularity though the ages.

Their name derives not from “jumble” as in a lot of things mixed together, but from the Arabic “jemel”, which means “twin” and refers to the shape into which they were formed. They are sometimes called “jumbals”.

The recipe I found in the Betty Crocker Cookbook (originally published in 1969) called for all ingredients to be mixed together in one bowl simultaneously, but I don’t think that would turn out so well. I’ve modified it to improve the end product.

The recipe also called for applesauce, but I substituted apple butter because I recently made a batch and wanted to use it up. Try this recipe if you want to bring a little history to your kitchen!

Apple Butter Jumble Cookies

3-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1-1/2 cups packed brown sugar

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

3/4 cup apple butter

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cloves

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 eggs

Brown Butter Glaze (Recipe below)

Preheat oven to 375F. Cream the shortening and sugar in Kitchen Aid bowl (or use hand mixer), then add the apple butter, vanilla, and the eggs one at a time until absorbed. Meanwhile, combine cinnamon, ground cloves, salt, baking soda and flour in a separate bowl. Slowly add the dry ingredients into the wet until just combined, then fold in walnuts and raisins. Use two teaspoons to drop onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving about 2″ between, and cook for about 14 minutes. Remove immediately from the cookie sheet and cool on racks. When cool, ice cookies by dipping them upside down into the glaze, allowing the excess to drip off.

Brown Butter Glaze

1/3 cup butter

2 cups powdered sugar

1-1/2 tsp vanilla

2 to 4 TBS hot water

Heat butter over low heat until it browns, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Once browned, remove from heat and whisk in sugar and vanilla. Thin out with water until proper consistency for dipping.

Does your family have dishes that have been passed down from generation to generation? Share your traditions 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!

Meat Free Mondays – Black Bean and Roasted Corn Chowder

Of roux, Gravy Master and bread bowls.

You and I need to have a serious talk. About roux.

Roux is a thickening agent made out of any kind of fat and any kind of flour. The two are whisked together to make a thick paste and cooked until the flour taste is gone. When roux is added to a soup or sauce, the flour and fat granules abosrb the liquid, resulting in a thicker, denser product.

Black Bean and Roasted Corn Chowder

Black Bean and Roasted Corn Chowder in a Bread Bowl

You can make a slack roux and tight roux (ie soupy or stiff), blonde roux and brown roux (ie light or dark), depending on what you are making with it. The proper proportion of roux is 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour.

For today’s recipe, I made a tight, dark roux out of vegetable shortening and all-purpose flour. It cooked it until it was just short of burning because I wanted it very dark.

I wanted the chowder to have the caramel color and denisty of a good gumbo, even though it obviously is not a gumbo because it lacks any kind of meat protein, file (pronounced FEE-lay, a thickening agent made out of ground young sassafrass leaves), or okra. I got pretty close, but I still had to add a few drops of Gravy Master, a magical meat-free chef’s secret liquid used to darken soups and sauces.

Bread bowls are a great way to increase the “wow factor” for when you make soups and stews. They are surprisingly easy and inexpensive to make. I made a simple rye bread dough and formed it into small round loaves. After the bread was cooked and cooled, I hollowed out the loaves and brushed the interior with EVOO and returned them to a 350F oven for 15 minutes. The oil forms a kind of seal that keeps the soup from oozing out when you fill it.

For this recipe, I used the last of the Farmers Market corn, which I soaked in water for about 30 minutes then grilled in the husk for about 20 more minutes, then cut from the cob when it cooled. This gives the corn a nice smoky flavor. But you could use canned corn kernels.

Black Bean and Roasted Corn Chowder

30 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 cups cooked corn kernels

2 TBS EVOO

1/2 white onion

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1/2 green bell pepper, diced

2 serrano peppers, ribs and seeds removed, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, ribs and seeds removed, diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 TBS cumin

1 TBS chili powder

4 cups vegetable stock

2/3 cup vegetable shortening

1 cup all purpose flour

Juice of 1 lime

1/2 TBS fresh thyme (or 1 TBS dried)

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

A few drops of gravy master (ssshh, that part’s a secret!)

1/4 cup cilantro leaves (for garnish)

Fat-free sour cream (for garnish)

Tortilla chips (for garnish)

To build the roux, heat the vegetable shortening (or butter) in a sauce pan just until melted. Whisk in the flour until it forms a tight paste, then continue whisking until it turns a dark, chocolatey brown. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Set aside.

In separate pot, heat vegetable stock. When boiling, quickly whisk in the roux and continue whisking until liquid tightens significantly, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, put a soup pot on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, stir in onions, carrots, celery and all the peppers and cook until onions translucent, about 10 minutes. Add beans, corn, garlic, cumin and chili powder and stir together. Add thickened vegetable stock, bring to boil, then reduce to simmer for about 10 minutes.

Add the lime juice and thyme and adjust color with Gravy Master, if necessary. Season with S&P to taste.

To serve, ladle into bread bowl, sprinkle with cilantro leaves, top with dollop of sour cream and a single tortilla chip.

What are some of your favorite meat free recipes? Why not share them in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!

Homemade Egg McMuffins

Okay, here’s the deal with me and McDonald’s: I don’t eat it.

It’s not because I don’t like their food. I do. A lot. I love it, in fact.

But how could anyone who has watched “Super Size Me” ever step foot in a McDonald’s again? That movie pretty much put me off most fast food forever.

The problem is that I grew up eating McDonald’s and I still occasionally crave it. This morning, I was driving around trying to find a Farmer’s Market (closed for season, sadly), when I had a strong desire for an Egg McMuffin and hash browns. Even though I drove past at least three McDonald’s restaurants, I was strong-willed.

And when I got home, I had to make homemade Egg McMuffins and hash browns. Turns out they are fun to make and pretty good, too.

So here’s what I did:

First, I preheated the oven to 375F. Then I sprayed two ramekins with pan spray and cracked an egg in each.

Don't they look like googley eyes?

Don't they look like googley eyes?

Then I heated a small cast iron pan. While that was warming up, I grated a baked potato that was left over from the other night.

Before

Before

After

After

A little oil in the pan, add the grated potato with a generous amount of salt and cracked black pepper. You want it to taste authentic, right?

Mm hmm, that's right

Mm hmm, that's right

Then I used a rocks glass to cut cotto salami into circles the width of an English Muffin. If you want authenticity, use Canadian bacon, but I didn’t have any.

Then I did the same thing with two slices of fat-free American cheese. The McDonald’s version are not fat-free. Actually, it may not even be actual cheese. I also toasted two whole wheat English Muffins. Again, not the McDonald’s spec.

Cotto Salami, Whole Wheat English Muffins, and Fat Free American Cheese

Cotto Salami, Whole Wheat English Muffins, and Fat Free American Cheese

Once the oven was at temp, I put the eggs in the oven for 12 minutes. They came out perfect.

Baked Eggs Turned Out Great

Baked Eggs Turned Out Great

Then all I had to do was assemble it and pop it under the broiler for a minute to melt the cheese.

I garnished it with a little apple (Chef’s hint: Always garnish breakfast plates with fresh fruit. It’s cheap, easy, and people expect it). And there it is: Homemade Egg McMuffins! How fun was that? And delicious, too!

Homemade Egg McMuffin

Homemade Egg McMuffin

Have you ever tried to recreate your favorite fast food dish at home? How did it turn out? Tell your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Red Beans and Rice

I am a New Orleanian trapped in a Chicagoan’s body.

I just realized this as I sit here streaming traditional New Orleans jazz on WWOZ-FM while a pot of Red Beans and Rice slow cooks in the kitchen, filling the house with the spicy, smoky aroma of a lazy Monday afternoon in the Crescent City.

Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice

You see, red beans and rice is traditionally made on Mondays using the leftovers from Sunday’s dinners. I have an old Times-Picayune cookbook that says this tradition that goes back to the city’s colonial days, when ham was what was for dinner on Sunday, and the scraps and leftovers were boiled with a pot of beans all day Monday, while the washing was done.

It is a dish still closely identified with New Orleans. When you visit the city, you will see it on a lot of restaurant menus, and a big pot of it is cooked whenever people gather together to watch a Saints game, for Mardi Gras or second line celebrations, or any other festive occasion, from what I’m told.

Red beans and rice was Louis Armstrong’s favorite dish. How cool is that? Also, how cool is it that the city’s airport is named for Louis Armstrong?!  What a place! (Can you imagine naming O’Hare after Chicago musicians? Buddy Guy International Airport? Styx Field? Wait, I actually kind of like both of those.)

You can put a lot of things in red beans and rice, besides the titular ingredients. Traditionally, there’s a mix of vegetables and ham or sausage in a tomato-based sauce, but there are really no limits. If you serve it with jalapeno cornbread, please call me because I will be there.

I like to mix all the ingredients the night before in the crock pot, then refrigerate it until the next morning. Before going to work, I pop it into the slow-cooker, set the timer for 8 hours on low and when I get home the house is filled with magic. Must drive the dogs nuts.

If you’re home, you can also cook it on the stovetop over a low flame for several hours. Just give it a stir once in a while when you walk past it.

If you buy one of those boxes of Zatarain’s red beans and rice, your heart is in the right place, but you’re not doing it right.

Red Beans and Rice

16 oz package Polska Kielbasa (or Turkey Kielbasa), sliced into medallions

1 medium white onion, diced

1/2 green pepper, diced

3-4 carrots, peeled and diced

2 celery stalks, diced

2-3 jalapenos, seeds and ribs removed, diced

15 oz can whole peeled tomtoes, hand crushed

12 oz can diced tomatos and chiles

2 cans red beans, drained and rinsed

1 bay leaf

1 cup Spicy V-8

2 cups cooked rice

Combine all ingredients, except the rice, in crock pot. Stir together and cook on low for 8-10 hours, stirring occasionally.

To plate, press rice into a ramekin and invert in the center of a soup bowl. Ladle the red beans mixture around the rice, and garnish with parsley or cilantro sprigs.

Serve with jalapeno cornbread or any kind of fresh made bread, turn on a little Professor Longhair and you officially are an honorary New Orleanian.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Share your Crescent City favorites in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!