Stir Fry Secrets

You’ve probably been in Asian restaurants where the menu is 30 pages long and there are literally hundreds of items listed. When I was a culinary student I used to wonder, “Isn’t it
expensive to prep for so many different dishes every day?”

Here’s the secret they don’t want you to know: Although there may be hundreds of dishes, they are all combinations of only a handful of basic ingredients. Each dish is a pairing of couple different vegetables (such as onions, peppers, pea pods, etc.), combined with a few kinds of proteins (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, etc), then served with your choice of starch (white rice, soft noodles, fried noodles).

All are quick cooked in very hot oil, usually in the same wok.

Obviously, there are variations. Sweet and sour chicken is breaded in a tempura batter, deep fried and served with a sweetened vinegar sauce. In egg foo young , vegetables are fried with an egg and flour mixture and served with a brown sauce. Moo shu sauce is made with sweetened plum puree.

But you get the idea.

Which brings us to why stir fry is the ultimate in budget cooking. Open your refrigerator and look around. Maybe you’ve got some leftover chicken, a half an onion and some garden fresh jalapenos. Guess what? You are now in the stir fry business!

Stir fry is one of the best ways to use up whatever leftovers you have laying around. Or you can buy a couple simple items and create an all-new quick and easy meal for your family.

Since I’m already spilling the beans, here are a couple of other stir fry secrets:

  • A little goes a long way: If you only have a small amount of leftover protein, you can stretch it out by mixing it with lots of inexpensive vegetables and rice or noodles. Kind of like ancient Chinese hamburger helper.
  • Rice and noodles don’t cost anything:  Okay, maybe they cost something, but it’s pennies per plate compared to other starches like potatoes or pasta. Filling up a plate with lots of white rice is a tasty and nutritious way to improve your family’s grocery budget.
  • Use the same basic marinade: Marinade chicken, pork, beef or shrimp in a little freshly crushed garlic, minced ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil and you will get an Asian influenced meal that won’t bust your wallet. Always keep these items on hand (ginger freezes excellently), and you will always have a quick and easy go-to meal guaranteed to please your family.
  • It’s thickened with the cheapest things on earth: Mix 1 TBS corn starch to 1 cup of water (this is called a “slurry”) and add it to your stir fry. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for five minutes and you’ll get a thick, flavorful
    stir fry that rivals anything from your local chop suey palace. In fact, that’s
    exactly same thing they do!

Want to make your stir fry more exotic? Spend a little more for baby corn cobs, water chestnuts or bamboo shoots. Or stop by the produce section to pick up some enoki mushrooms or bean sprouts. Easier still, during the last minute of cooking, throw in any leftover nuts you have lying around, such as cashews, peanuts or pecans.

Here’s a simple recipe I recently made that incorporates all of these ancient Chinese secrets.

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

For the rice:

1 cup dry white rice

2-3/4 cup chicken stock

1 TBS butter or EVOO

Salt and pepper to taste

For the protein:

6 oz leftover cooked flank steak (you can use any beef, chicken or pork you have)

2 cloves crushed garlic

1 TBS minced ginger

1 TBS sesame oil

3 TBS low-sodium soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

½ tsp red pepper flake

For the stir fry:

½ red (or white or yellow) onion, sliced

½ yellow, red or green pepper, julienned

1 garden fresh jalapeno, sliced (seeds and ribs included)

½ cup sliced mushrooms (totally optional)

1 small to medium head of broccoli crown, separated

A couple of green onions, sliced at an angle

1 TBS chopped parsley (only because I already had it)

For the thickening agent:

1 cup water or chicken stock

1 TBS corn starch

1. Marinade the beef in the other ingredients between 10 minutes and 24 hours, depending on how much time you have. The longer you marinade, the more flavor will be aborbed by the beef. But don’t worry: all the flavor is going in the pan anyway.

2. Make rice however you prefer. I have a rice steamer, which is SO easy: Just dump in all ingredients, turn it on and forget about it. Perfect every time. Here’s a link to another easy way to cook rice.

3. Heat a large pan over a high flame. When hot, add oil and allow to get smoking hot. Add all the vegetables except the broccoli, scallions and parsley and cook until onions transluscent, about 2 minutes.

4. Add the beef and all the marinade and toss around. Cook until heated through, about a minute. Stir in the broccoli and thickening agent (liquid and corn starch), stir, reduce to low heat and cover. Cook about five minutes, stirring once or twice.

5. For plating, pile white rice in center of pasta bowl. Use a slotted spoon to arrange stir fry beef and broccoli. Garnish with green onions, chopped parsley and maybe a few more red pepper flakes.

Now you know the secret.

Coupons, Who Knew?

I admit it, coupons have never been my thing.

Occasionally, I would half-heartedly wade through the Sunday paper and clip out a few coupons for products we sometimes use. But to me, the whole thing seemed like a lot of
work for very little benefit.

And then there’s the embarrassment of pulling out my coupons at the checkout line, inconveniencing the cashier and causing shoppers behind me to roll their eyes.

What’s next, a coin purse?

Well, that was all before our stagnant economy forced us to reconsider every aspect of our spending. Coupons are now a necessity: deal with it.

Fortunately, using coupons is a lot easier than I thought. It turns out there’s a whole community of people in the same boat, so there are sophisticated resources available to share information about what’s on sale where, and how to maximize the use of coupons and other discounts.

Tap into some of these resources you can easily slash your monthly food bill with very little effort.

For example, instead of going through Sunday’s coupons page by page every week, just write the date on the front page of the coupon packet and throw it in a pile. You can save these up week after week.

Then, when it’s time to shop, go to a website that catalogues every one of these coupons –  http://couponmom.com or http://hotcouponworld.com, for starters – and search for the items you already are planning to buy. These free sites tell you the dates these coupons appeared and when they expired. Go to that date’s packet and clip only the coupons you need.

These cataloguing sites also list any online coupons currently available, either from
individual stores or directly from manufacturers.

Easy, right?

Instead of searching through store sale pages (nine came in our mail Monday), try visiting a site that already has done the comparison shopping for you, such as http://www.facebook.com/ChicagoFrugalista or http://moneysavingmom.com/. There’s also forums for users to share money-saving tips and special offers they have
found.

Another great tip is to not throw away those printed coupons some stores give you with your receipt after you check out. These are called Catalina deals and are usually future discounts for products you just bought – so you’ll likely be buying them again soon. Other times, they are for cash or percentage discounts on future purchases – such as $10 off your next purchase of $40 or more.

Catalina Deal

Catalina Deal

Here’s some other great coupon tips I found:

  • Use coupons only if the item already is on sale. Grocery stores typically put items on sale once every six weeks. Wait long enough, and you’ll be able to substantially increase your savings.

  • Don’t worry if coupons expire. There will always be more coupons.
  • Look for stores that offer double coupons, either every day or on a particular day of the week.
  • Obviously, don’t buy something just because you have a coupon for it. An exception would be if the coupon makes the product free, such as when a double coupon combined with a sale price brings the cost to at or below $0.00. This actually happens.
  • Don’t throw out your junk mail anymore, you can’t afford it. Instead, mine it for treasures. Some of those offers you won’t find anywhere else.
  • To minimize embarrassment, find the right checkout line. Younger, less experience male cashiers typically will check you out quickest and with minimal fuss. Older, female, veteran cashiers hate coupons and are  more likely to slow  you down, according to one coupon website.
  • Sign up online for free sites such as Living Social, Groupon, or CouponMob. Sure, you’ll get a lot of junk emails, but occasionally there will be steep discounts on products or services you really use.
  • Planning to eat at a restaurant? Go to Coupons.com, input your zip code under “Restaurant Deals” and up pops dozens of local places offering deep discounts on gift certificates (such as $20 for a $50 gift certificate at Leona’s in Oak Lawn, one of our favorites). There’s usually a  minimum purchase, but if you’re planning on dining there anyway, that’s free money.

Let’s face facts: Times are tough right now. We can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring the discounts offered to us every day. Fortunately, there’s an entire subculture out there anxious to share information to make using these tools simpler.

Now, where’s my coin purse?

Budget Cooking – Soul Food

Back in the late 1980s, when I was working as a rewrite man in a downtown newsroom, I loved to take my lunch break at a restaurant near State and Lake called “Soul Food by the Pound.”

The concept was unique: The customer walked through a cafeteria line and piled whatever he or she wanted onto a plate,  then the whole tray would be weighed and the customer would pay a set price, about $3.99/pound as I recall. Only years later did I realize we must have been paying for the tray and plate every time.

Despite the eccentricity of the concept, this experience was the beginning of my love affair with soul food.

As press secretary for Cook County State’s Attorney Cecil Partee in the early 1990s, the campaign trail would often bring us to Army and Lou’s and other legendary Chicago soul food  restaurants.

Later, when I was in culinary school, one of my favorite source cook books was by Sylvia Woods, the “Queen of Soul Food” and owner of Sylvia’s Restaurant, in Harlem, New York. Long before “Julie and Julia”, “Dan and Sylvia” were cooking our way through the recipes in that amazing book.

For the most part, no one will mistake soul food with health food. Much of its lushness
is attributed to ample amounts of fat and salt. That’s a huge part of the pleasure of the experience.

But there are healthy variations of this amazing food genre.

For example, I love braised greens. They are rich in iron and other vitamins, not to mention delicious. They are a staple of many cuisines around the world. For example, in Greek cooking, they are served with almost every meal, drizzled with a little lemon juice.

Braising Kale with Salt Pork

Braising Kale with Salt Pork

This recipe I stole from Sylvia and have been incorporating into my menus for years. Each kind of green has a separate and distinct flavor – mustard greens have a distinctive tanginess, collard greens and kale tend to be smoother, and dandelion greens are pleasantly bitter — but they are all amazing.

Braised Greens

1-2 lb greens (kale, mustard, collard or dandelion)

2 chunks (about 2 oz) fat back (or salt pork, or bacon, or whatever fat you have)

1 clove garlic, punched

1/2 cup chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Remove thick ribs from greens and discard. Wash your greens in cold water at least twice. Most greens are grown in sandy soil, so you want to remove any and all grit.

In a large, lidded pot, render fat back, salt pork or bacon by cooking slowly over a medium to low heat to extract as much fat as possible without burning. Add the punch of garlic (smashed once, but still intact to add subtle flavor), then slowly add greens, a handful at a time, turning with a tongs.

The hot oil will cause the greens to collapse. When they are nearly all limp, stir in the chicken stock and cover, leaving a little space for some steam to escape. Cook over a medium low heat until the bright color of the greens washes out to a dark green color and they start to fall apart to the touch, about 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, lift greens from pot with a tongs and hold over the pot for a moment so excess liquid drains. This prevents pooling on the plate.

Another soul food staple – macaroni and cheese – is the ultimate comfort food. I don’t even pretend to make this one healthy, I just eat it in moderation.

Doesnt' that look amazing?

Doesnt' that look amazing?

In restaurants over the years, I’ve made a lot of fancy variations of macaroni and cheese, with everything from super sharp cave-aged cheddar to buttery gorgonzola to pungent gruyere. But nothing beats this traditional, and inexpensive, recipe for the world’s coziest comfort food.

Macaroni and Cheese

For the Bread Crumb Topping:

2/3 cup bread crumbs

1-1/2 TBS unsalted butter, cut into chunks

For the Pasta:

½ lb elbow macaroni

2-1/2 TBS unsalted butter

4 TBS unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp yellow mustard

Pinch cayenne pepper

2-1/2 cups skim milk

4 oz Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

4 oz Sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

For the bread crumbs: Combine the butter and bread crumbs in bowl. Rub the mix between your thumbs and forefingers until it forms an even meal. Set aside.

For the Pasta: Preheat oven to 375F. Bring 4 quarts salted water to boil in large pot with cover. Stir in macaroni, cook until done, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain in colander (don’t rinse) and set aside.

Building a roux

Building a roux

In same pot, add the 2-1/2 TBS butter and melt until foaming. Whisk in flour and cayenne to form a roux, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn. Cook out the flour taste, about 2 minutes.  Meanwhile, whisk the mustard into the milk. Slowly add the milk to the roux, whisking constantly to break up clumps. Bring to boil. As it boils, the roux will cause the milk to thicken into the consistency of heavy cream. This is awesome and takes about 5 minutes.

Once it’s reached the proper consistency, turn off the flame. Fold in the cheese until melted, then the macaroni. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the top, then bake uncovered for about 25 minutes, or until the bread crumbs turn a golden brown.

Remove, let cool for a minute or two and serve. You are now in soul food heaven. Serves 6-8. This cost about $4.25 to make, so the cost per person is $.53 to $.70/person.

Grilled Double Cut Pork Chop with Braised Kale and Macaroni & Cheese

Grilled Double Cut Pork Chop with Braised Kale and Macaroni & Cheese

Budget Cooking – Homage to Hummus

Traditionally, hummus is a Middle Eastern dip made from mashed chick peas, tahini (a paste made from sesame seeds), olive oil, garlic, honey and lemon. But really hummus is an easy and inexpensive way to show your friends or family that you are a culinary genius.

Almost everyone who has tried it loves hummus. It’s yummy, it’s fun because you eat it with your hands, and although it’s slightly exotic, it is also eminently approachable. It doesn’t taste at all weird. What I love about it is that it’s super easy to make, and you can add any flavors you want. You can even change out some of the key ingredients and it’s still amazing.

Hummus usually is served with flatbread, such as pita, or with fresh vegetables like celery or carrot sticks, or green or red pepper slices. It’s 100 percent natural and is high in iron and Vitamin C. It will stay fresh in your refrigerator for at least a couple of days. If the liquid starts to separate, just  give it a stir.

Bring it to a party and your friends will be amazed. Serve it at your family’s table, perhaps with grilled shish-kabobs and couscous, and they will be impressed how multi-cultural you are.

It’s easiest if you have a food processer, but you can make it in a blender, or people have been mashing it by hand for thousands of years. I prefer the food processer, though.

The main ingredients of hummus are available almost anywhere. Chick peas, also known as garbanzo beans, can be bought fresh, dried, canned or frozen. For me, canned is easiest and cheap. With a little searching, I can usually find them for $.75/can or less.

Tahini, or a beige-colored paste made out of ground sesame seeds, is available in a surprising number of mainstream chain grocery stores. A 12 oz jar – enough for several batches of hummus – is usually about $4.00, and will keep in your refrigerator for months. It tends to settle, however, so be prepared to stir it up if you haven’t used it in awhile.

Garlic, EVOO, honey and lemon, of course, are cheap and available year round anywhere. I’m going to give you the standard recipe, then some amazing variations. For bonus points, serve three or four different kinds of hummus at the same time.

Getting ready to make hummus

Getting ready to make hummus

Basic Hummus

1 can chickpeas, drained (save the can)

¼ cup tahini

1-2 cloves garlic

Juice of 1 lemon

3 TBS EVOO

1 tsp honey

Salt and Pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne or a couple drops of hot sauce

Complicated? Not. Combine all ingredients in food processor or blender and mix until smooth. Use the can from the chickpeas to pour a little tap water into the mixture as it blends (preserving any residual flavor) to thin the hummus out to a smooth consistency, about that of like cream of wheat.

That’s it. Transfer to an airtight container and let rest in your refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving so the flavors can meld. The hummus will also thicken a little during this time. Serve the pita whole and let your guests tear it up with their hands, or cut it  into wedges for a nice presentation.

For an extra visual pop, you can serve with a lemon wedge dipped in paprika (Hey, color!). I’ve also seen the hummus piped onto the plate to form a ring, forming a little pool in the middle, which is then filled with EVOO for dipping.

Okay, here are some cool variations:

Charring a red pepper

Charring a red pepper

Roasted Garlic Hummus – For a sweet, succulent hummus, use the same recipe as above, except substitute one head of roasted garlic for the raw garlic. For roasted head of garlic, cut off the top of a whole head of garlic, drizzle with EVOO, place inside foil and roast for about 35 minutes at 350F. Or alternately, peel all the cloves from a head of garlic and cook in a saucepan in a shallow pool of EVOO over a low flame for about 15 minutes or until light brown, stirring once or twice. This will fill your kitchen with sweet, nutty aroma. Also you can save the cooled leftover EVOO and use it as a garlic-infused oil in future recipes. Bonus points for also using it in the hummus.

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus – For a brilliant-hued, nuanced variation, add a few slices of roasted red pepper to the recipe above. Jars of roasted red pepper are available in most chain supermarkets, and certainly in ethnic markets or produce stores. They are handy to have around and will keep in your refrigerator for several weeks. Or, if you are really ambitious, roast your own red peppers by placing fresh red bell peppers directly onto the flames of burners of your stove, turning them frequently until all sides are charred black. Then put into a small mixing bowl and cover immediately with plastic wrap. Allow them to cool, about 25 minutes, then use a paring knife to gently scrape off the charred skin, ribs and the seeds under cold running water.

Kalamata Olive Hummus – Add a handful of pitted, marinated kalamata olives to the recipe above for a great tasting variation. You will need to reduce the amount of salt in the recipe since kalamatas already are pretty salty. Don’t forget to take out the pits, very important. I buy marinated kalamatas at a local ethnic deli, and they are pretty inexpensive and delicious in salads or even to eat on their own.

This is one of those dishes where you can really make it pop with the plating. Try making the basic recipe, then divide it into thirds, then make 1/3 of the Roasted Red Pepper, and 1/3 of the Kalamata variations. Serve all three side-by-side in little bowls with any kind of garnish (a couple whole kalamatas work well), surrounded by the pita wedges
pointy-side up. Sprinkle a little paprika and green chopped parsley or cilantro over it and you got yourself a standing ovation at your next get-together.

I’ve also made this with white beans instead of chickpeas, a little French twist, served with toast points. Also very good. Bon appétit (That’s French)!

Traditional, Roasted Red Pepper, and Kalamata Olive Hummus

Traditional, Roasted Red Pepper, and Kalamata Olive Hummus

Budget Cooking — Oh, Pizza!

To me, pizza is the world’s most perfect food. All the essential food groups are combined into one delicious package — the crust is your starch, the cheese is your protein, and the toppings are your vitamin-rich veggies. You can eat it with your hands, so there’s little cleanup, and at least in my house there’s hardly ever any leftovers. What could be more
efficient?

My family is fortunate enough to live in a city where there is an abundance of amazing pizza places nearby. Dial a number and some of the best pizza in the world can be at our door within the hour. But ordering a pizza can be a luxury if you are on a budget, unless you order from an inexpensive chain pizza store, where quality is often sacrificed at the expense of cost-savings and speed.

The good news is you can serve your family steaming, delicious pizza anytime you want for just a couple of bucks if you make it yourself. I’ve been making pizzas professionally and for my family for more than 20 years and it’s still one of my favorite dishes to make. It’s easy, fun, and can even provide priceless family time if you get the kids involved
kneading the dough or placing the toppings. The variations are endless and it’s also a great way to use up leftovers. Plus, pizza!

Today, I’m going to share with you my recipe for a mouth-watering cracker-crust whole wheat pizza. Although it takes a little time because I proof my own dough, it’s not complicated and all the ingredients are probably already in your cabinets.

This simple recipe makes enough dough for two 16” pizzas, or four mini (8”) pizzas. You can freeze whatever you don’t use. Pizza dough freezes great, and can last for months. When you’re ready to use it, just pull it out to defrost for a few hours, then roll it out. Nothing could be easier. Plus the cost is roughly $.50 per 16″ pizza crust.

The Dough

2 cups lukewarm water (105-115 degrees F)

1 teaspoon honey

1 envelope active dry yeast

4 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

1 TBS salt

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour

1.   Measure the lukewarm water into a large bowl. Don’t worry about using a thermometer to temp it, just make it the same temperature as baby bath water. Sprinkle the yeast into water then stir in the honey until dissolved. Wait about 10 minutes for the yeast to start eating the sugars in the honey, causing tiny bubbles to form. Meanwhile, combine the flours and salt in a mixing bowl.

2.   Once the yeast starts to bubble, stir in 3 TBS of EVOO. Save the remaining EVOO for later. Add about ¾ of the flour mixture into the liquid one cup at a time until it starts to form a loose dough. You can use a Kitchen Aid mixer on low with a dough hook if you have one, or just stir it with a wooden spoon.

3.   Transfer the dough to a lightly floured counter, then use your hands to knead it for about 8 to 10 minutes, slowly adding the rest of the flour mixture. When the dough is smooth and no longer sticky, form it into a ball. You can tell it’s ready when the dough springs back when you press your thumb into it. Spread the remaining EVOO around all sides of a mixing bowl using a paper towel or napkin, then roll the dough around in the bowl so that its covered with the oil. This prevents a skin from forming while it rises. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for at least an hour. This is called “proofing” the dough.

4.   Once the dough has roughly doubled in size, punch it down to its original size, knead it for about 30 seconds more, then let it rest for a couple of minutes. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into at least two pieces. I usually put one half in a plastic zip-lock freezer bag and freeze it for another day.

5.   Use a rolling pin to shape the dough into a circle or rectangle, depending on your cooking sheet. The dough should be slightly larger than whatever pan you’re using. Transfer the dough to the cooking sheet, then use your thumbs to crimp the sides to make a nice crust. Spray or brush the crust with a little EVOO to make it crispy. Use a fork to poke holes throughout the dough. This is called “docking the dough” and it keeps air bubbles from forming in the dough while it cooks.

Pizza Dough Crimped and Docked

Pizza Dough Crimped and Docked

6.   Cook in a 400F oven for about 20 minutes or until dough just starts to brown, turning once or twice.

The Sauce

There is nothing complicated about my pizza sauce, but it is delicious and very inexpensive – depending on the tomato sauce you buy, it can cost anywhere from $.11 to $.34/pizza. It’s easy to make it while your crust is cooking, plus the hearthy smells of the cooking crust and the tangy tomato smell of the simmering sauce are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

8 oz can tomato sauce (any kind)

1 TBS Italian Seasoning (or dried oregano)

1 tsp granulated sugar

Combine ingredients in a small sauce pan. Heat until just bubbly, stirring once or twice, then simmer for a minute or two to get the tin can taste out. Turn it off and set it aside until the crust is ready.

There's nothing complicated about my pizza sauce

There's nothing complicated about my pizza sauce

Assembly

Once the crust is ready, spread the sauce on the pizza using a spatula, then add whatever toppings you want.  I often use fresh sliced red onions and green pepper, canned or fresh sliced mushrooms, canned sliced black olives, partially cooked Italian sausage, or whatever I have at hand. Whatever you choose, it’s going to be delicious.

On this one, I put red pepper, red onions, black olives, sliced mushrooms and pulled smoked chicken

On this one, I put red pepper, red onions, black olives, sliced mushrooms and pulled smoked chicken

Cover your toppings with about 8 oz of low-moisture, part skim mozzarella, a package of which will cost anywhere from $1.49 to $3.00, depending on where you go and if it’s on sale. Or you can use fresh mozzarella if you want, but it’s going to be a little more expensive, usually about $2.98-$3.98 for a half pound. Before it goes in the oven, I usually sprinkle the pizza it with a little grated parm and Italian seasoning, some red pepper flake, and a little granulated garlic for some additional flavor oomph. Cook at 400F for about
20 more minutes, or until the cheese starts to just slightly brown.

Slice and serve with additional grated parmesan or Romano and crushed red pepper flake on the side. This recipe feeds about three hungry adults or a family of four. You’re a hero for under $4.00!

Oh, Pizza!

Oh, Pizza!

Budget Cooking: Burn Notice

My name is Dan McCullough. I used to be a chef. Before that, I was a writer, but not a food writer. I wrote for newspapers, which were these big sheets of paper with writing and pictures on them that somebody delivered to your doorstep each  morning.

About 17 years ago, dissatisfied with the path of my journalism career, I enrolled in culinary school and traded  in my press pass for a chef’s toque.

Dan before he was a chef

Ever since then, I have been hanging around the restaurant industry in a variety of jobs — executive chef, dishwasher, the chatty bartender, the anxious restaurant manager, the overworked purchasing agent, the snooty server, the grouchy fry cook, the salad girl, the guy who takes out the garbage, you name it.

I’ve worked in fancy French bistros, rock’em sock’em banquet halls, busy downtown bars, and four different casinos.  I’ve gone to work in tuxedos, chef’s whites, t-shirts and cargo shorts, and designer suits.

Now, thanks to troubling economic times and an unexpected layoff, I suddenly find myself with enough time  on my hands to reflect on these experiences and write about them.

In other words, I got burned.

And I couldn’t be happier.

I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences and have met all kinds of terrific people along my journey, but up until now I haven’t had time to process much of it. I can’t wait to get started.

So much has changed since the last time I sat down to write. For one, people write blogs instead of articles. These are published on the internet rather than in magazines or newspapers. These are read on iPhones, iPads and Kindles, things that were unimaginable
back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

But much has remained the same.  People still want to know how they can feed their families delicious, nutritious meals without going over their food budget. They want to know how to turn the essential human experience of preparing and eating food into something fun and enjoyable.

That’s where I come in: I can do  that!

If this blog were to have a mission statement, it would be:

“I want to share my experiences in the restaurant trade in a format that both informs and entertains; to help the home cook provide the best possible meals at the lowest possible prices; and to share insider industry tips and techniques for making the cooking  experience efficient, affordable and fun.”

Sure, you might call that turning lemons into lemonade, but isn’t that what life is all about? Adapting to  change?

My  last job, I had to get up at 3:45 every morning so I could take the L downtown where I would check in deliveries on loading dock by 5:30 a.m. Before that, I spent three hours/day driving back and forth between Chicago and my job in New Buffalo, Michigan.

So today, I’m actually grateful  to have some time between soul-crushing jobs to step back and reflect, to think about what it has meant and to try to pass on some of the things I’ve learned.

On USA Network’s television show  “Burn Notice,” ex-spy Michael Westen (played by the terrific Jeffrey Donovan) intersperses tips and techniques he’s learned in the spy trade with stories about helping people in trouble. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s a pretty good show.

That’s kind of what I’m aiming  for here. Although I’m certainly no former special forces agent like Michael, I think I can still use my experience to help people out during stressful times.

Except maybe without the trigger-happy ex-girlfriend.

So I hope you join me on this new journey. I promise to keep it fun and snappy. I hope to publish about twice per week. Maybe less if I have job interviews (So far that hasn’t been an issue).

Let’s see where this journey takes  us!