South Side Grocery Bargains – Week of Nov. 23-29, 2011

Do you love standing in long, slow-moving lines at the grocery store? Do you enjoy weaving your way through crowds of pokey shoppers? Are you happy to be 41st in line at the deli counter?

Me, neither.

I spend a lot of time in grocery stores researching this column and shopping for my family, so I’m adept at minimizing the time I spend in each store and maximizing the shopping experience while I’m there.

Here’s some tips to speed up your shoping:

  • Don’t shop during peak times. Try to do your shopping as early in the morning as possible or after everyone already has had their dinner at night. Shopping during Bears games is also a good idea (Afraid of missing a play? Two words: Ti Vo!). Stay out of Aldi’s right after church lets out and on the first weekday of the month.
  • Don’t shop if you are already in a hurry. Being anxious in the store will only make the experience more frustrating. If you are feeling uptight, stay home. If you must be there, take a deep breath and try to find your inner zen.
  • Stay away from those lines with a lot of senior citizens, especially during senior discount days. No offense to seniors, but they really do have all day to spend at the store. Plus, those change purses drive me nuts!
  • 15 items or less is a more of a guideline than a strict rule. Or, if you have only a few items, self-checkout may be a good option.

Let’s start saving some money!

In the produce section, Tony’s Finer Foods, at 8630 S. Harlem Ave., in Bridgeview, has green cabbage for $.25/head. Pete’s Fresh Market has California bosc pears, Mexican honeydew melons, Michigan golden apples or Florida juice oranges for $.48/lb.

Pete’s Fresh Market has Florida grapefruit for $.20/ea. Tony’s has 6 oz packages of blackberries for $.99. And Ultra Foods has Hass avocados for $.83/ea.

In the meat department, pork prices continue to be low, which may be why McDonald’s has reintroduced the McRib sandwich. At Pete’s, whole pork shoulder roast is $1.48/lb. At Tony’s, pork shoulder country ribs and end cut pork chops are $1.49/lb, and pork butt roast is $1.69/lb. Freshline Foods, at 5355 W. 95th St., in Oak Lawn, has pork steak for $1.59/lb.

At Pete’s, chicken leg quarters are $.48/lb and bone-in chicken breast are $.98/lb. At Ultra Foods, 73% lean ground beef is $1.88/lb if you buy it in the 5 lb pack or more.

In the grocery aisle, both Freshline and Pete’s have Centrella pastas and jars of pasta sauce for only $.88. That’s dinner for 4 for $1.76, or $.44/person. Freshline also has Centrella macaroni and cheese or select canned soups for $.29/ea. At Tony’s, select cans of Del Monte vegetables are $.50/ea, and 6 packs of Dutch Farm whole grain English muffins are only $.99.

Family Dollar has Jifffy corn muffin mix for $.50/box. Ultra has Wonder bread for $.88/loaf, 5 oz cans of Bumble Bee tuna for $.59, Campbell’s Spaghettio’s for $.89/can, and 8 oz cans of Goya tomato sauce for $.25.

In the dairy section, Tony’s has Country Delight milk for $1.99/gallon, limit 1.

In the frozen foods section, Tony’s has Orv’s assorted 12″ pizzas for $2/ea, an inexpensive way to feed hungry teenagers.

In the deli section, Ultra has Hormel deli boiled ham for $1.99/lb, and Freshline has 1 lb packages of Bar 5 jumbo franks for just $.99.

Finally, for this week’s Bargain of the Week, we head to Jewel (Hear that? That’s the sound of hell freezing over!) where 12 packs of Nestea iced tea are only $1.99/ea.

If you see an exceptional value at the grocery store this week, please take a moment to share it with everybody in the comments section below. Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend and I’ll see you at the grocery store!

Thanksgiving

Every year, on this day, families and friends gather to enjoy a traditional feast, and to be thankful for the people and things in their life that most other days they take for granted.

For me, personally, this has been a particularly difficult year. Since we all gathered together one year ago, Chicago experienced its worst blizzard in centuries, in the middle of which we lost power for three days.

Our Front Door after the Blizzard

Our Front Door after the Blizzard

As we huddled in the dark waiting for the heat to come back on, one of our dogs, Daisy, slipped from one of the six-foot snowdrifts in our driveway and fractured one of her rear legs. When doctors went to repair it, they discovered she had bone cancer. Although there was no guarantee Daisy would survive more than a couple of weeks or months, my wife and I decided to have the leg amputated.

Daisy's Recovery

Daisy's Recovery

Afterwards, Daisy, who my wife had rescued from a Wisconsin greyhound track, could barely stand, let alone run.

Daisy’s long recovery process was hard on everyone, but especially hard on our two other dogs, Isabel and Jay Z. Sadly, Jay, another greyhound rescue, became so distraught that he began eating tree branches and thorns in our backyard and developed bloat. In the midst of Daisy’s recuperation, Jay was rushed to the animal hospital, where doctors determined that even with surgery, it was unlikely that our beloved dog, weakened and in pain, would survive. I held him as the doctors put him to sleep.

Jay Z

Jay Z

Those were dark days indeed.

A few months later, I was unexpectedly layed off from my job at a downtown restaurant. I suddenly found myself trying to find work in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. For the first time in my life, I had to swallow my pride and file for unemployment insurance.

And yet, despite all this, I’m more thankful this Thanksgiving than I have been perhaps any other.

It’s true what they say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We’ve had a lot of hard times in the last year, but we’re still standing.

So this Thanksgiving, here’s some of the things I’m grateful for: Daisy’s recuperation brought our family together in a way that was unexpected and amazing. Cousins, sisters, grandmothers and nephews volunteered unasked to provide Daisy with the round-the-clock care she required. For weeks, Daisy lay on a dog bed in the middle of our living room as a houseful of people and voices and love revolved around her.

And now, nine months later, Daisy never fails to turn heads as she runs down our street on her three legs, as happy and full of life as she ever was.

While losing Jay Z was tough, we recently brought a new puppy, Bud, into our home. Less than a year old, Bud already weighs more than 70 pounds, only nobody told him he’s not still a little puppy. He richochets off the furniture and jumps up on guests in a way that would make Marmaduke blush. And although he’s often infuriating as he chews on every single thing in our house, we couldn’t love him more.

Daisy and Bud

Daisy and Bud

As far as work is concerned, losing my job forced me to follow through on my boasts that I would return to my writing career after 17 years in the restaurant business. I’ve tapped into my experience as a chef and manager to write this daily food blog for you fine people, and I’ve begun working on other writing projects as well.

When you love what you do, it is no longer work. I love writing about food as much if not more than I do cooking it, and I hope to keep doing it for the rest of my productive years.

So this Thanksgiving, I give thanks that the last year was so hard. Because we’ve come out of it stronger, happier and more appreciative of the things we formerly took for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

 

South Side Grocery Bargains — Week of Oct. 26 – Nov.1, 2011

Before we get into this week’s shopping values, alarming reports that the fish you are paying for may not be the fish you are actually getting.

Both Consumer Reports and the Boston Globe said this week that some restaurants and grocery stores purposely mis-label seafood — swapping inexpensive fish, such as tilapia and swai, for more expensive cuts, such as snapper or sole.

Consumer Reports said one in five fish they tested were falsely labeled, while the Globe said their investigators found almost half the fish they inspected were not the real deal.

This bait-and-switch is scary not only because it means some businesses are okay with ripping off their customers (surprise!), but because of the potential health risks, such as accidental allergic reactions. The Globe said some restaurants were offering snapper but serving escolar, a cheaper fish chefs call the “Ex Lax” fish because its high oil content can cause, shall we say, gastro-intestinal distress in some people.

As always, let the buyer beware. Now, let’s start saving some money!

In the produce department, both Pete’s Fresh Market and Cermak Produce are having ten cent sales. At Pete’s, it’s plums, lemons, zucchini, Jonathan and red delicious apples, and Bosc pears. At Cermak, it’s bananas, plum tomatoes, garlic, russet potatoes, banana peppers and loose carrots.

Tony’s Finer Foods, at 8630 S. Harlem Ave., in Bridgeview, has red grapefruit and tangerines for only $.59/lb, and tomatillas or jalapenos — perfect for making slow cooked pork and tomatillo stew — for the same price. Food 4 Less has Hass avocados for $.78, if you have a craving for guacamole.

Pete’s also has broccoli for $.48/lb. Freshline Foods, at 5355 W. 95th St., in Oak Lawn, has iceberg lettuce for $.69/head.

In the meat department, Tony’s has chicken leg quarters for $.59/lb and pork butt roast for $1.69/lb. Pete’s has whole chicken for $.88/lb and ground turkey for $1.48/lb, a good price these days. Ultra Foods has split chicken breasts for $.98/lb, and full slabs of cooked BBQ baby back pork ribs for $3.99/ea.

In the grocery aisle, F4L has Skippy peanut butter — smooth and crunchy — for $1.48/jar and Maruchan instant lunch cups for $.29/ea. Now that’s a cheap lunch.

Pete’s has Prince pastas for $.99/lb, a decent price for a name brand. Ultra Foods has Campbell’s chicken noodle and tomato soup for only $.59/can. Tony’s has 15.5 oz cans of chickpeas for $.50/ea, perfect for making hummus.

In the baking aisle, Tony’s has a 5 lb sack of Pillsbury all-purpose flour for $1.69, and Jewel has 4 lb sacks of sugar for $2.38/ea. Pete’s has 12 oz cans of Carnation evaporated milk for $.99. It’s time to stock up for holiday baking!

In the deli, one of my favorites, Scott Petersen liver sausauge, is on sale at Tony’s for $1.98/lb. Freshline has Scott Petersen jumbo franks for $.89/lb. Cermak has Carolina regular or smoked turkey for $2.49/lb.

In the dairy section, F4L has Kroger yogurt for $.50/ea. Has anybody found any milk deals out there? I found milk high everywhere this week.

For this week’s Bargain of the Week, we return to Freshline, where 28 oz cans of Red Gold tomatoes — whole, diced or stewed — are only $.29/ea w/ in-store coupon. Now that’s a loss leader!

If you see great deals, please share them in the comments section below. It’s important to look out for each other during these hard economic times. See you at the grocery store!

South Side Grocery Bargains — Week of Sept. 21-27, 2011

At the gym the other day, I watched Jim Kramer from the Mad Money TV program do a peice on the increasing popularity of dollar stores.

Dollar store stocks are on the rise because the struggling economy is forcing more and more consumers to seek out stripped down, rock bottom bargains.

That resonated with me because I visited a local dollar store this week for the first time since they were known as “five and dime” stores.

Bud, our new puppy

Bud, our new puppy

As readers of this blog may remember, we recently got a new puppy and, though he is a very good boy (good boy!), he is still prone to “accidents”. So I needed a can of Lysol.

I went to Food 4 Less, which usually is reasonably priced on most items. I was first shocked then angered to find they were charging $4.25 for a small can of Lysol. I mean, come on, that’s criminal!

So later I stopped by one of the many dollar stores in my area (and there certainly do seem to be a lot, once you start looking for them) and, sure enough, they had a comparable can of disinfectant — off brand, but so what? — for $1. And once I started looking around, I noticed a lot of other $1 items that I’ve been paying a lot more for at grocery stores.

So, Jim Kramer, you were right. Until the economy improves, the dollar store will be getting a lot more of my business.

Speaking of great values, let’s start saving some money!

In produce, there are a lot of $.10 sales this week. At Pete’s Fresh Market, a dime will get you Bartlett and Bosc pears, limes, plums, Idaho potatoes and Washington onions; and at Cermak Produce a dime will get you peaches, banana peppers, bananas, carrots and red potatoes.

Although this week I’ve had a lot of luck at Farmer’s Markets, other grocery store produce bargains include broccoli crowns for $.69/lb at Freshline Foods; iceberg lettuce is $.79/head and beets are $.33/lb at Tony’s Finer Foods; and cauliflower is only $.68/lb at Cermak.

There are a couple of good meat specials this week. Pete’s has whole chickens for $.78/lb; both Pete’s and Ultra Foods has bone-in chicken breasts for $.98/lb; and Tony’s has chicken leg quarters for $.49/lb in the family pack and chuck pot roast for $1.99/lb, which is perfect for this pot roast.

In dairy, Ultra has a dozen eggs for $.88; Tony’s has a gallon of milk for $2.49; Pete’s has Imperial margarine for $.88/lb; and Food 4 Less has Yoplait yogurt for $.50/ea.

There are a couple of good frozen bargains out there this week. At Tony’s 16 oz frozen vegetables are $.69/ea; and Ultra has Tony’s Pizza for only $2.00/ea, a good “buy and stock up” price.

In the bakery, Ultra has Butternut bread for $.88/loaf and fresh baked 16 oz white, wheat or French bread for $.58/ea.

Finally, in grocery, Cermak has La Preferida pinto beans for $.59/15 oz can; Pete’s has Del Monte vegetables and 15 oz Centrella tomato sauce for $.49/can; Ultra has 8 oz Kraft salad dressings and 18 oz Open Pit BBQ Sauce for $.88/ea; and Pete’s has General Mills cereals for $2/box.

And for this week’s Bargain of the Week, we return to Ultra, where you can stock up for school lunches with Armour Small Lunchmakers and 12 oz Oscar Mayer Bologna or Cotto Salami for only $.88/each.

Have you found any great bargains out there? Why not share them in the comments section below? See you at the grocery store!

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 – Language Barrier

Not long after starting my first job in a professional kitchen, I learned an important lesson – you probably won’t be speaking much English.

Depending on the restaurant, you might find yourself awash in a sea of Farsi, Italian, French, Spanish or Chinese, or a combination. One friend who spent time in Tunica, Mississippi, casino kitchens told me most dish rooms there spoke exclusively Senegalese.

In Chicago, I’ve found that Mexican Spanish is the most common kitchen language. In high school, I suffered through two years of Spanish, but that didn’t really prepare me for having to converse everyday in a fast-paced, dangerous kitchen where I was the only one who didn’t speak the common tongue.

I had to learn on the fly, and I did, mastering the essential curse words first. They were directed at me often enough, so that part was easy. Learning a handful of other commonly used Spanish phrases (“Get the hell out of the way!” “Why are you just standing there?” “Put out that fire!”, among others) brought me almost up to speed. Emphatic gesturing and pantomiming took care of the rest.

In one kitchen, a Mexican radio station blared day and night, and I soon became an aficionado of the top ten popular songs, often singing along when one of my favorites played (Check out Gloria Trevi, one of my favorites from those days, chewing up the scenery in the video below).  In another, I celebrated when the Bulls won two world championships in Spanish (“Los Toros son campeones del mundo!”)

But the language barrier worked both ways. I once worked with a small-statured dishwasher named Nardo. Like many Mexican men, he had a very macho attitude and,
perhaps because of his size, he constantly tried to impress with his swagger and masculinity.

One day, Nardo pulled me aside and asked me in Spanish, “How do you say, ‘I’m a
tough guy, a macho man?’ “ I whispered a few words in his ear.

Not long after, Nardo planned to return to Mexico. On the eve of his departure, he came to say goodbye dressed in brand new cowboy boots, a frying pan-sized belt buckle, a beautiful pearl-buttoned cowboy shirt, all topped off with a shiny suede ten-gallon hat. As the restaurant staff gathered in the kitchen to say goodbye, Nardo gestured for silence.

“I am a drag queen!” he announced, to howls of laughter.

Sorry, Nardo, I couldn’t resist.

Here’s a Mexican-influenced recipe that was one of my favorite during  my bachelor days. It’s fast, easy and super inexpensive – nothing is cheaper than rice and beans. Plus, you can put just about anything you want in it and it’s going to taste great, with just the right amount of heat. I still love to make this whenever my wife is out of town.

Frijoles Negros y Arroz (Black Beans and Rice) 

½ white onion, diced

1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 TBS EVOO

1 cup whole grain white rice (not instant, please)

1-3/4 cup chicken stock (or water plus tsp chicken base)

1 can black beans

2 ea chorizo sausage (or any kind of sausage)

½ tsp chili powder

½ tsp cumin

1 tsp dried thyme

1 TBS hot sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat small pot until hot, then add EVOO. When it gets to smoking temp, add onions and jalapeno, stir and cook until onions translucent, about two minutes.

2. Add dry rice and stir until every kernel is coated in oil. Cook for about one minute until you smell a nutty aroma. Add the chicken stock bring to boil. Stir, reduce to simmer and cover. Cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.

3. While rice is cooking, sauté chorizo, either whole or remove from skin and cook in chunks. Meanwhile, drain and rinse black beans.  When sausage is cooked through,
add black beans, garlic, cumin, chili powder, thyme and hot sauce. Heat through. Fold in  rice when it’s ready. Season to taste with S&P.

Serve by itself, or with tortilla chips or small corn or flour tortillas, slightly warmed.

If you have leftover corn on the cob, cut it off and add it in. Have a small can of diced tomatoes? Great. Both go great with this.

This can be served either as a side dish or as the main entrée. It’s very inexpensive, with chorizo or whatever sausage you use being the only relatively costly item. I priced the whole thing at $2.35, feeds two.

I am a drag queen! Still cracks me up.

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!