Holiday Cookies – Magic Bars

This recipe started with a book I wrote recently about cookies. While conducting research, I came across this recipe for Magic Bars.

Magic BarsMagic bars are one of those things I know I must have had at some point, but don’t specifically remember when or where. Still the combination of such great flavors — a Graham cracker crust, chocolate and butterscotch chips, and coconut — sounded, well, magical.

The minute I read it, I knew I had to make it. Then, like most things that inspire me, I completely forgot about it.

Until this weekend, when Sandi and I found ourselves at Trader Joe’s doing some holiday shopping. TJ’s has a surprisingly diverse and affordable wine offering and this year’s gift giving is all about wine.

I came across a package of coconut flakes and instantly recalled that I wanted to make Magic Bars.

Flash forward to later that afternoon, and these temptingly delicious and easy-to-make cookies were cooling on my stovetop.

It’s a testament to how delicious these Magic Bars were that Sandi made sure I gave them away as quickly as possible. I don’t think she wanted the temptation of of these super-sweet cookie bars hanging around for a moment longer than they had to.

For the remainder of the weekend, Sandi was recommending people who would really like these cookies. She herself admitted that they were pretty darn good, even though she “doesn’t like coconut.”

Coconut is one of those divisive ingredients that turns the world into a black and white place. There are those people who like coconut and those who don’t.

In other words, you are either an Almond Joy person or a Mounds person.

Personally, I don’t like coconut, either. I would always choose Ho-Hos over Snowballs, and I don’t like Pina Coladas (or getting caught in the rain, for that matter).

But coconut tasted incredible on these cookies, possibly because it was toasted during the baking process. More likely, however, it was because the coconut was swimming in the sickeningly sweet condensed milk.

By Sunday night, nearly all of the Magic Bars had magically disappeared, having been packed off with anybody and everybody who showed even the slightest interest in them.

Magic Bars

1-1/2 cups Graham Cracker Crumbs

1/2 cup (1 stick) Unsalted Butter, melted

14 oz can Sweetened Condensed Milk

1 cup Butterscotch Chips

1 cup Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

1-1/3 cup Coconut Flakes

1 cup Walnuts, chopped

0271. Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 13″x9″ baking pan with aluminum foil, including the sides. Spray the foil with pay spray.

2. Combine the melted butter with the Graham crackers and mix well then press into the bottom of the baking pan. Sprinkle the chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, nuts and coconut even over the crust. Pour the condensed milk even over the top of everything.

3. Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool completely in the pan. Life up the edges of the foil to remove the Magic Bars from the pan. Cut into squares and lift each cookie off the foil.

By Monday morning, they were all gone!

Holiday Cookies – Pecan Sandies

Well, my intention was to start a new series featuring different holiday cookie recipes. But seeing as that it’s already less than two weeks until Christmas, that idea is pretty much shot. At least for this year.

019Unfortunately, my ambition got ahead of my common sense, so my cupboard is stuffed with cookie ingredients such as butterscotch chips, different kinds of nuts and sprinkles.

My enthusiasm also was dampened after one of my experiments failed: I thought I would make those peanut butter cookies that have the Hershey kiss stuck in the middle, but all I had were those red and white swirled candy cane flavored kisses.

Take my advice: Don’t ever try this. Peanut butter and candy canes don’t go together! Plus, the candy cane kisses have much lower melting temperature than the chocolate kisses, so it ended up being kind of a red and white striped blob.

Every year, I forget how busy December gets. There are so many things going: Holiday shopping, parties, other obligations. Plus, work always seems to pick up just when you the other parts of your life require more attention.

That’s why many people set aside one day or a weekend to cook all of their holiday cookies, rather than making a batch here and a batch there. I should try that next year.

At least this recipe for pecan sandies has the benefit of  being fast and easy. It’s basically a butter cookie recipe with chopped pecans added in. And I stuck an uncut pecan peice in the middle for decoration.

Unlike the peppermint kisses disaster, they were delicious.

Pecan Sandies

1 stick unsalted butter

1/3 cup Powdered Sugar

2 TBS Light Brown Sugar

1 tsp Vanilla

3/8 tsp Sea Salt

1 cup plus 2 TBS All-Purpose Flour

1/2 cup Toasted Pecans, chopped medium fine

Plus a few Pecan peices for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 325F. Using a Kitchen Aid or hand blender, cream the butter and sugars together until smooth. Mix in the vanilla and salt. Then slowly add the flour and pecans and mix on low until a stiff dough is formed.

2. Using a melon baller or just two teaspoons, scoop the dough into a ball and place on an greased baking pan.

3. Dip the bottom of a glass in flour then use it to flatten out the cookies. Stick the pecan garnish in the middle of each cookie and bake about 15 minutes or until the cookies are set and just starting to brown on the sides.

Cool the cookies completely on wire racks. Store in an airtight container. This recipe makes about 24 cookies.

Meat Free Mondays – Szechuan Vegetables

It’s been said that if you have Chinese food in China, it bears no resemblance to the version sold here in the US.

The flavors are bolder, the ingredients are more diverse, and the dishes that are spicy would probably be banned in this country as a public health hazard.

Szechuan cooking in particular is known for its spiciness, as well as its liberal use of garlic and chili peppers. It originates in the Szechuan province, which is in the southwestern part of China, and frequently features the Szechuan pepper, also known as the “flower pepper”.

This pepper has a citrusy flavor, is intensely fragrant and very, very hot. So hot, in fact, that is causes a “tingly-numbing” sensation in the mouth.

I enjoy spicy foods and wanted to replicate the Chinese restaurant standard Szechuan Vegetables in my own kitchen. Sadly, I’ve never had the authentic dish, only the watered down version sold to Americans. Yet I enjoy the spicy combination of stir-fried vegetables, pungent garlic and ginger sauce, and of course the tiny peppers bring heat to the dish.

I usually don’t eat the peppers themselves — unless I accidentally slip one into my mouth — but just their presence in the dish brings the spicyness quotient up several degrees.

I found an enormous bag of dried chile de arbol at the local Mexican produce market for only $2.38, so I bought it so that I would have essentially a lifetime suppy of the lovely spicy peppers. Unfortunately, the tiny, red peppers I purchased had their ribs and seeds removed, rendering them substantially less hot.

Still, the combination of all the different vegetables in this dish combined with the sauce I whipped together made this Westernized version of Szechuan vegetables an easy and delicious mid-week treat, despite its lack of heat.

Szechuan Vegetables

2 TBS Canola Oil

1 handful Chiles de Arbol (or Szechuan peppers, if you can find them)

1/2 White Onion, sliced thin

1/2 Green Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned

1 Yellow Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned

1 Jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, julienned

1 cup Savoy Cabbage, sliced thin

2 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1/2 cup Shittake Mushrooms, stems removed, rough chop

1 Large Carrot, peeled and sliced thin

2 cups Broccoli Crowns

3 Green Onions, rough chop

1 TBS Fresh Ginger, minced

2 TBS Soy Sauce

1 TBS Oyster Sauce

1 TBS Granulated Sugar

1/2 cup Water

1 TBS Corn Starch

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add carrots and boil until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add broccoli to the boiling water and cook until bright green, about 3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, oyster sauce, ginger, sugar, water and corn starch. Set aside.

3. Put a wok or a large saute pan over a high flame. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add the peppers and fry them for a few seconds to release their heat, then add onions, peppers and cabbage and cook until soft, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add mushrooms and garlic and cook until mushrooms are wilted, about 2 minutes, then add carrots, broccoli and green onions and cook until heated through, about 1 minute. Add soy sauce mixture and cook until it thickens, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

4. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve over freshly steamed white rice.

Traditional Szechuan cuisine is composed of seven basic flavors: sour, pungent, hot, sweet, aromatic and salty. Hopefully, someday I will be able to travel to China and try all of them.

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 – Two Vegan Soups

I’ve been running into veganism around every corner lately.


Corn chowder (left) and Vegan split pea (right)

Corn chowder (left) and Vegan split pea (right)

Veganism is like vegetarianism except even more restrictive because not only can you not eat meat, but you can’t eat dairy products either. The benefits are  supposed to be include better health, including not only prevention of disease but the reversal of many serious medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

These benefits are explained in a documentary called “Forks Over Knives”, which was recommended by Somer, the excellent blogger who writes VedgedOut. She suffered from ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune condition that caused her considerable pain. The treatment resulted in substantial weight gain, severe acne and other health issues.

When she went on an entirely vegetable-based diet, however, not only did her symptoms go away, but her condition reversed itself. Now she’s a marathon runner and you can read her inspiring story here.

The film is available on Netflix and, while it’s not most professional-looking documentary I’ve ever seen, its message is powerful and effective. It documents a number of case studies in which people who faced serious, even fatal, health conditions literally had their lives saved by veganism.

Still, I struggle with the concept of being a vegan. I could probably live without meat if I had to — Sandi and I rarely eat anything other than chicken and ground turkey anyway — but it’s the dairy, especially cheese, that I would miss.

For example, I can’t imagine a life without pizza, which I could eat seven days per week (something I occasionally would do back when I was still single).

Still, the concept fascinates me, so much so that when we found ourselves Wicker Park — a hip, young neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side last week — we tried a vegan restaurant called Native Foods Cafe. It apparently is a small chain with a handful of stores in California, Chicago and a few other places.

I was not expecting the food to be as delicious as it was. The atmosphere was great, the people who worked there were gracious and seemed very happy, and the place was bustling.

When I returned home, I found a blog written by the amazing Becky at VegHotPot, who wrote a roundup of her best vegan recipes that she wrote about during vegan awareness month last month, all of which looked and sounded wonderful.

Then, a few days later, my older brother announced he was switching to a vegetable-based diet for health reasons. It’s like all the planets are aligning at the same time.

So while we’re not committing to 100% veganism, we’re going to try to incorporate more vegan dishes into our diet and see how it goes, starting with these two vegan soups.

Both were super easy to  make and very delicious, so much so that I didn’t even mind having soup for dinner two nights in a row.

So I’ve ordered a bunch of vegan ingredients that I couldn’t find at my local groceries from an online store and will be preparing a number of vegan dishes in the coming weeks, including a pizza made with vegan mozzarella “cheese”. Obviously, I will let you know how they turn out.

In the meantime, here are recipes for meat-free smoky split pea soup (which is adapted from one I found on Vedged Out’s blog) and a really great vegan corn chowder. Enjoy!

Smoky Vegan Split Pea Soup

1 Red Onion, small dice

4 Carrots, peeled and small dice

3 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 Russet Potato, peeled and medium dice

1 tsp Dried Thyme

1 tsp Dried Oregano

8 cups Vegetable Stock

1 TBS Liquid Smoke

1 lb Green Split Peas

2 Bay Leaves

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 tsp Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

Dash Cayenne Pepper

1. Put a soup pot over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onion, potato and carrot and sautee until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 second.

2. Add the remaining ingrediets and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the peas absorb all of the liquid, about 40 minutes. Remove bay leaves and serve.

The split peas continue to absorb moisture, making the soup even thicker the next day. If you prefer a smoother soup, you can use an immersion blender or let the soup cool and blend in a food processor or blender. This soup also can be made in a crock pot. Just let it cook on low until the moisture is absorbed, about 4 to 6 hours.

Incidentally, Liquid Smoke is an all-natural product that is 100% vegan.

Chunky Vegan Corn Chowder


1 Onion, diced

1 Garlic Clove, crushed

2 cups Vegetable Stock

6 Red Potatoes, diced

1 cup Baby Carrots, chopped

2 15.25-oz cans Whole Kernel Corn

1-1/2 cups Soy Milk

1 TBS Garlic Powder

2 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/4 cup Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

1/2 cup Soy Milk

1. Place soup pot over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrots and potatoes and cook until onions translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add all remaining ingredients except 1/2 cup soy milk and flour. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.

2. In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour and the remaining soy milk. Increase heat so soup returns to a boil, then whisk flour mixture into the soup and cook until soup is thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

So now I’m going to be on the lookout for great vegan recipes. If you have any, can you please share them with me? I’ll do the same. Thanks!

Homemade Barbecue Potato Chips

When I was in college, I used to take the South Shore train home to Chicago from South Bend some weekends. My dad would pick me up in Hegwisch, which is the southern-most neighborhood in Chicago, and we would drive up the Bishop Ford Expressway to the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Corned Beef Reuben with Homemade Barbeque Potato Chips

Corned Beef Reuben with Homemade Barbeque Potato Chips

Where the two expressways meet is where the Jay’s Potato Chip factory used to be located. It’s now closed, but back in the early 1980s, whenever my dad and I would swing around that big access ramp I would catch a whiff of the sliced potatoes that were frying in huge vats of grease inside the factory and I knew that I was home.

I don’t eat a lot of potato chips these days, but I still cherish that smell.

Potato chips always seemed to be around when I was growing up. Usually, my family opted for Jay’s, probably because since they were locally made they cost less than Ruffles or other national brands.

Jay’s came in a variety of flavors, including sour cream and onion and Hot Stuff, which were coated in fiery seasonings and are still the favorite of my older brother, Michael. He always makes a point of getting a bag whenever he returns to Chicago for a visit because he can’t get them in Oregon, where he lives now.

But my favorite were the Barbecue because of the nice balance of sweet and spicy they had.

This wouldn't last five minutes in the McCullough house

This wouldn’t last five minutes in the McCullough house

With five kids in our house, a bag of Jay’s Barbecue Potato Chips wouldn’t last very long once it arrived from the Jewel’s. It was one of those items you staked out as my mom unpacked the groceries so that you could nab the bag before anyone else noticed it.

While I don’t have a deep fryer in my house (I wish), I came up with this oven-baked version of homemade barbecue potato chips. While the crispiness of the chips isn’t as consistent as the commercial variety — some were a little soft in the middle, but still delicious — the barbecue coating tasted exactly the way I remember.

I served these with Reuben sandwiches. Now, there’s nothing complicated about a Reuben — rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing all fried in butter or oil — but I’ve noticed that some restaurants can’t seem to get it right. Usually, it’s the Thousand Island they forget, or else they serve it on the side.

Thousand Island dressing is something you should never buy commercially. Not only because commercial tend to be loaded with preservatives and additives — ever wonder why they almost never go bad? — but also because it’s easy to make and you probably already have everything you need in your kitchen right now.

So here’s my Homemade Barbecue Potato Chips recipe you can make in your oven, along with an easy-peazey Thousand Island dressing recipe.

Homemade Barbecue Potato Chips

2 or 3 Russet Potatoes, skin-on (or about 1 potato for each person)

2 TBS Canola Oil

2 TBS Barbecue Seasoning (or more, be generous)

Mandoline Slicer

Mandoline Slicer

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Slice potatoes very thin, using either a mandolin or simply a chef’s knife. Don’t worry if they aren’t all precisely the same width; they will be more rustic if there are sligh variations. Immediately submerge sliced potatoes in to a mixing bowl filled with cold water. Leave the potatoes in the water for at least 10 minutes to draw out some of the starches. This will help them become more crisp while cooking.

2. Remove potatoes from water, drain and then lay flat on a kitchen towel. Place another kitchen towel on top of the potatoes and pat off all the moisture. You want the chips to be dry, which will also improve crispness. Transfer to a bowl, add oil and toss so that every chip is completely covered.

3. Lay chips out on a couple of sheet pans sprayed with spray, trying to avoid overlap. Sprinkle generously with the barbecue seasoning. It already contains plenty of salt, so you don’t need to add any additional salt.

4. Bake until chips are crisp, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

Thousand Island  Dresssing

1/2 cup Mayonnaise

2 TBS Ketchup

1 TBS White Vinegar

2 tsp Sugar

2 tsp Sweet Pickle Relish, or chopped pickles

1 tsp White Onion, fine dice

1/8 tsp Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper, to taste

1. Combine ingredeints in a bowl. Stir to combine and refrigerate for at least on hour to let the flavors meld, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve.

Seafood Fridays – Tuna Cakes

Canned tuna is just something you sort of take for granted. It’s great for throwing together a quick tuna salad or for making a tuna casserole. But this recipe for Tuna Cakes takes tuna from a can to a whole new level.

Tuna Cakes

Tuna Cakes

I found this recipe on the wonderful Pursuitofhappieness blog, written by the amazing Sush. Her recipes are always spot on, so I knew this one would be delicious, and it was.

This Tuna Cakes recipe reminds me of the Salmon Patties we used to have when I was a kid. In fact, if you substitute canned salmon for the canned tuna, I’m sure it would be just as wonderful. My mom used to smother the Salmon Patties in a white sauce — which I’m sure was simply milk thickened with a roux — with peas.

I dressed this one up a little bit because I was feeling creative. I added a watercress salad — simply watercress, tomato slices, slivered onions and black olives tossed in a little balsamic vinegar — along with some steamed yellow squash that was tossed lightly in butter.

Watercress is such a versatile little green. It’slight, cool and crunchy, with just a little taste of pepper. I love to use it underneath lighter proteins, such as fish. I don’t think it would stand up to anything heartier, such as beef or chicken, however.

I punctuated the plate with drops of red and green habenero sauce, which not only added color but spice as well. While the tuna cakes packed a little punch due to the red chili paste, fish like tuna really benefits from something spicy. Sandi suggested a wasabi sauce, which is what I will try next time.

Tuna Cakes

1 Egg

3 small cans of White Albacore Tuna packed in water

2 tsp Dijon Mustard

1 tsp Red Chili Paste

2 TBS fresh Parsleyh, chopped fine (our parsley from the garden is still going strong!)

1/2 cup Old-Fashioned Oats

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1. In a bowl, mix together all of the ingredients except the olive oil. Then using your hands form into four balls of equal size. Pat down the balls into patties and place on a plate lined with wax paper. Cover with a second sheet of wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so the patties will hold together better and the flavors can meld.

2. Preheat oven to 375F. Put a cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the EVOO. When the oil is smoking, place the patties into the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Cook until the patties are browned on one side, then turn over and brown the other side, about 2 minutes per side. Then put the whole pan in the oven to finish, about 12 minutes.

I served these Tuna Patties with a honey-mustard barbeque sauce, which I made by whisking together equal parts of all three ingredients, then thinning it out with a few drops of water. I had wanted to put it into a squeeze bottle and zig-zag it across the patties, but I was getting hungry so I opted to drizzle it instead.

Wine on Wednesdays – Bridlewood Blend 175

When your goal is to find great-tasting wines under $10, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.

For example, I bought this Pinotage from Roberston Winery, out of South Africa. I have had South African wines before and found them to be generally high quality and extremely affordable. But this one had a flavor I’ve never experienced before in a red wine.

It tasted like bacon.

I’m not even kidding. This wine had the smoky flavor of bacon. I though perhaps I just had an off bottle or perhaps my sense of taste was warped that night, so I spent another $6.79 on a second bottle a week later and tried it again.

Nope, it tasted exactly like bacon right out of the frying pan. Apparently, Pinotage is a hybrid grape invented in 1925 in South Africa and is notoriously unrelialbe, much like the Pinot Noir grape, one of its parent grapes. Hopefully, all Pinotage wines don’t taste this way.

Anyway, at least I found a wine that will go well with a couple of fried eggs and some toast.

Another unpleasant surprise was this “Bostovan Black Doctor Red Wine”. This is one of those wines that comes in an unusual-shaped bottle that I found on way in the corner on the top shelf of my local wine store, the place where they put the wines they don’t necessarily want to promote. Sometimes you can find some interesting discoveries there, like Georgian wines.

The name of the winery was written in Cyrillic, so I’m not sure what it’s officially called or even what country produces it. (Editor’s note: It’s make in Moldova, according to Google). The only thing I know for sure is that if you are going to sell a sweet red wine, you should put that somewhere on the label.

I hate sweet red wine and this one was not only sweet, but the flavor was unpleasant as well. It was a waste of $5.60 because after one taste, I poured it right down the sink.

Fortunately, the day was saved by this Bridlewood Blend 175. This is a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes that were grown in the Central Coast region of California.

According to the winery’s official site, the grapes for this wine were picked mostly at night to keep the fruit cool, so the flavor characteristics of each grape varietal could be maximized. The grapes were then destemmed but not crushed so that large portion of whole berries were left in the fermentor.

“The must was fermented at a maximum 88F in order to emphsaize the dark, jammy fruit flavors in the finished wine,” it states. “This wine was racked frequently, allowing the rich fruit flavors to open fully.”

That sounds like a lot of work for a wine that sold for $9.34/bottle (after the 15% discount I received at my local wine store for buying more than six bottles at a time. The regular retail price was $10.99). Yet the care and attention to detail that the winemaker put into creating this blend really pays off.

Bridlewood Blend 175’s flavor is remarkably smooth and balanced, and the combination of varietals is simply delicious.

Bridlewood Blend 175 is one of the best wines I’ve tasted in years, and joins Coppola Rosso, Mark West Pinot Noir and Las Rocas as my favorite inexpensive wine discoveries of all time.

It even helped me get the taste of frog out of my mouth!

Sesame Chicken

There is a Chinese restaurant literally five doors down from where we live, so we can get takeout anytime we want.

The best thing about Chinese is that it’s never very expensive and you get enough food to feed you for days. The downside is that it’s not always very good, and our local takeout shop tends to be hit and miss.

Homemade Chinese is always so much better, anyway. And this simple Sesame Chicken recipe is no exception.

It’s also really quick to throw together, especially this dish which finishes in the oven while you can do other things.

I’m not going to tell you that I found it on How Sweet It Is because you probably knew that already. Can I just rename this blog “Recipes I stole from Jesssica” and get it over with!

I must be losing my mind as I grow older because as a classically trained chef, I always make sure I have my mise en place completely ready before I get started putting together a dish. But it was only after I had this one cooking that I realized I didn’t have any rice!

The same thing happened again this morning when I was making pumpkin spice waffles and realized I had no milk! What’s going on?!

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have some tri-colored quinoia that I had bought some time ago at Trader Joe’s, which actually worked out even better. In addition to the quinoa, I served this Sesame Chicken with a quick sautee of white onion, green and red bell pepper, and jalapeno. The peppers are among the last from this year’s garden (bonus!).

I also used boneless, skinless chicken thighs because the local Food 4 Less wanted $4.38/lb for B/S chicken breasts. Wait, what?!

Simple Sesame Chicken

2 lb Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts (or thighs if you’re not the Rockefellers)

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

3 TBS All-Purpose Flour

2 TBS Sesame Oil

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Garlic Cloves, minced

1 TBS Low-Sodium Soy Sauce

1 TBS Corn Starch

1 TBS Brown Sugar

1 TBS Rice Wine Vinegar

1/2 cup Reduced Sodium Chicken Stock

2 TBS Toasted Sesame Seeds

1. Preheat oven to 400F. In a bowl, whisk together chicken stock, brown sugar, corn starch, 1 TBS sesame oil, garlic cloves, soy sauce and vinegar. Set aside. In a separate bowl, toss the diced chicken with the salt, pepper and flour.

2. Place a large Dutch Oven over a medium-high heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add the chicken and cook until browned, stirring occasionally, about five minutes. Pour chicken stock mixture over the chicken, turn off heat and cover. Place entire pot into oven and cook 20 minutes.

To serve, spoon the chicken mixture over rice, noodles or quinoa. Arrange sauteed vegetables of your choosing along the side, then garnish all with the sesame seeds.

Meat Free Mondays — Apple Oatmeal Muffins

I swear I’m going ban myself from the blog How Sweet It Is. Everytime I read it, I find something I just have to steal make, such as these Apple Oatmeal Muffins

I am totally in awe of Jessica, the blog’s author. In addition to being a great cook, Jessica is also an amazing writer and one of the best food photographers I have ever seen. Everything she makes looks and sounds delicious, without exception. She inspires me on every level.

These Apple Oatmeal Muffins are only the latest recipe I’ve borrowed from her and used in my own blog. In recent weeks, it seems like every couple of days I’m ripping off from How Sweet It Is. Even my wife, Sandi, has subscribed to Jessica’s blog and I can barely get her to read mine!

This recipe turned out fine, but I took a few shortcuts  and made a couple of mistakes, so it could have been better. First, J’s recipe called for whole wheat pastry flour and I only had whole wheat flour an I was too lazy to drive to the store to buy the real deal.

Pastry flour is a finer grind than the whole wheat flour and results in a smaller crumb and fewer gluten strands. As a result, my muffins didn’t rise as well as they could have and were more dense.

Second, I didn’t have any apple cider — I haven’t seen any in the stores yet this year — so I used apple juice. They aren’t the same thing. Basically, cider has pulp and apple juice does not. While the flavor of the muffins was good, the muffins would have had a richer, smoother texture had I used the cider.

Finally, I didn’t have any cardamon so I left it out altogether, so the flavor wasn’t as complex as it could have been.

In short, Jessica doesn’t have anything to worry about. She’s still the best.

I only iced half the muffins because asked me to leave some plain so she could eat them without having to worry about the exra calories from the icing. What’s the fun of that?

Apple Cider Oatmeal Muffins

2 Honeycrisp Apples, small dice

3 TBS Apple Cider (or apple juice)

1-1/2 cups Whole What Pastry Flour

1/2 cup Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats

1 tsp Baking Soda

1/2 tsp Baking Powder

1/2 tsp Cinnamon

1/4 tsp Sea Salt

1/4 tsp Cardamon

1 pinch Nutmeg

1 large Egg

1/3 cup Brown Sugar, loosely packed

1-1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract

1/2 cup Unsweetened Applesauce

4 TBS  Brown Butter, melted and cooled

1/3 cup Apple Cider (or juice)

For the Apple Cider Brown Butter Glaze

4 TBS Brown Butter, melted and cooled

1-1/2 TBS Apple Cider

1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract

1/2 to 1/3 cup Powdered Sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Heat a small skilled over a medium-low heat, add diced apples and 3 TBS apple cider, a pinch of cinnamon and salt. Cook until apples are brown and soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. In a bowl, mix together flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Set aside. Linea muffin tin with liners.

3. In a Kitchen Aid mixing bowl (or just a large bowl), whisk together the egg and brown sugar until creamed. Add vanilla extract, butter, apple juice and 1/3 cup apple cider and mix until smooth. Then gradually add the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Don’t overmix or gluten strands will form and your muffins will be more like bread. Fold in the diced apples, then use an ice cream scoop to fill each muffin liner about 2/3 of the way full.

4. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until tops start to brown.

To make the glaze, mix together the brown butter, cider and vanilla, then mix in the powdered sugar until it reaches the proper consistency. Spread the cooled muffins with the glaze using a butter knife, or dip the muffins into the glaze and twist while pulling up.

By the way, brown butter is simply whole butter that you cook over a low heat until it begins to turn a golden brown, stirring constantly. It has a more caramel-like flavor than plain melted butter. But be careful to take it off the heat the minute it starts to brown. The difference between brown butter and burnt butter is about 30 seconds.