Thursday, July 27, 2017

Summer Greek Salad with Sautéed Red Peppers

Little tip--saute or roast red pepper and add it to your summer salad!  Also, season your salad with salt and pepper to add a little more depth.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sister City Cooking Project (Part 1)--Patzcuaro, Mexico (Carnitas)

For years, my kids and I have occasionally noticed the sister city signs posted on the outskirts of our town of Naperville, IL.  It's been a sister city of Nitra, Slovakia, since 1993.

Recently, we noticed that the sign now also mentions Patzcuaro, Mexico, as another sister city.  Apparently it's not enough for Naperville to just have one sister city.

Anyway, it's more than enough of an excuse for a cooking project since my food blog has been lacking ideas for some time.  I decided to choose a food project that represents a dish from each sister city. Nitra isn't exactly low-hanging fruit in terms of famous dishes to choose (goulash?), so I went with something classic from the Michoacan region of Mexico, in which Patzcuaro is located.

Carnitas is a fairly well known pork filling for real tacos, especially in the Chicago area or other places with large Mexican-American populations.  I could write a whole series of blog posts just about local taquerias!

Carnitas is a fairly simple concept--braise pork shoulder slowly in a citrusy liquid to essentially make soft pulled pork, but then quick fry it in lard for the crispy texture and rich flavor.  You can easily get good fresh lard from a local Mexican grocery (ask for "manteca" if you know a little Spanish).

I used both oranges and limes in my version, but most recipes just call for one citrus ingredient.  You can find a ton of examples.  Citrus and salt are the main ideas though.

The 4-5 pound pork shoulder will take awhile to cook, maybe 3 hours on low heat.  Some recipes just call for water, but others might suggest beer or even some milk.

The main thing here is to get some of the lard going hot in a pan and toss around the shredded pulled pork until it is slightly crispy, then drain some (but not all) the juices before adding it to a taco.  I like real corn soft tacos with cilantro, onion, and chihuahua cheese, plus some salsa verde.  I think in this photo I just used lettuce, chihuahua cheese, and some salsa verde from a jar but you can do what you prefer and don't worry about being "authentic" unless you like it that way!

Buen provecho!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Quick Weekday Stir Fry

My kids are big fans of stir fry, and we make one almost every week.  The ingredients are healthy and inexpensive.

Here's the basics:

1) Quickly fry chunks of chicken breast in peanut oil until about 2/3 of the way cooked.  Remove and set aside.

2) Boil water for noodles or rice--I prefer capellini or vermicelli, but also use ride noodles or sticky rice.  Use what is preferred and easiest.  Don't discount instant rice either! This isn't Saturday night.

2) Add more oil then stir fry sliced onion, pepper, bok choy, or any vegetable you want to add.  When the fresh veggies are somewhat caramelized and still with a bit of crunch, I add any canned veggies. We like whole water chesnuts for more crunch.

3) Add sauce ingredients and then add chicken back to finish.  Serve over noodles or rice, or to blend flavors, we like to add the noodles into the stir fry pan to coat thoroughly.

For sauce from scratch, I might use chicken broth, soy sauce, Chinese five-spice, garlic, etc.  For more of a teriyaki flavor, use some honey, ginger, garlic, soy, and broth.

Don't be ashamed of using bottled sauce, but if you do try Soy Vay Island Teriyaki.  It is packed with ginger and garlic flavors and is the best kind I have found.

Enjoy any weeknight!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Huevos Rancheros con Chorizo!

One of my favorite breakfasts is to cook up some Mexican chorizo in a pan, fire up an egg or two, quickly grill a corn tortilla, and adding Chihuahua cheese on top.  Cholula hot sauce on top is a given!

Tabbouleh My Way

Recently I made a tabbouleh salad on the fly; mine used cooked couscous, finely diced red pepper, salt, pepper, grated carrot, olive oil, chopped curly Italian parsley and lots of fresh lemon juice squeezed on top.

I'm going to skip the carrot next time and try cilantro instead of parsley.  I might add some diced red onion; it's a Mediterranean dish you can adjust to your liking!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fondue Part 2--Steak!

As a follow-up to my last post about cheese fondue, I wanted to show some pictures of the steak fondue I tried.  It worked out well but next time I'll buy a higher quality steak such as ribeye vs. the round steak I used.

For dipping sauces, I used a combination of bottled sauce as well as one I mixed using dijon, olive oil, honey, and spices.  You can all of this in any old pan, but it's fun using the fondue set:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cheese Fondue

Last year I picked up a fairly cheap fondue pot, and finally pulled it out of storage for a little food project:

I always loved doing fondue as a kid in the '70's--we cooked chunks of steak in oil and dipped them in a couple kinds of sauces.  I inherited my parents' lime-green fondue pot and even used it for a double-date back in the 90's that lasted until 2am since we couldn't get it fueled properly.  Despite its condition, I sadly lost it in the move from the city to the suburbs. 

Flash forward to last night--I pulled out the one I picked up on a whim last summer and my daughter and I put together a delicious cheese fondue.  Here's what we did:

  • 1/4 stick of butter or so melted first
  • little pack of goat cheese melted next
  • cheddar slices
  • gruyere cheese grated (gruyere is key!!)
  • splash of white wine for more liquid and sweetness
  • squeeze of lemon juice for acid tang flavor
I believe that some recipes call for more liquid (wine) and flour but my kids don't care for too much wine flavor (yet!).

We chopped up some fairly crusty french baguette slices and dipped them in for an awesome meal!  We also fondued some orange pepper slices to add veggies to the mix.

Separately, we melted butter and chocolate chips in a pan and dipped in strawberries so the daughter could have her dessert fondue also.  You really don't need a fondue pot to make these things but they are fun to use!

We are planning a steak and seafood fondue session for next weekend along with some custom sauces!  Fun for kids and it would make for a nice, albeit small, wine/food night for couples. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tips for Home Cooks Part 2--Better fried chicken, use of vinegar, home made mac n' cheese, pizza dough at home, leftover mashed potatoes, etc.

This is my second installment in a short list of tips for home cooks who want to put in a little extra effort and learn some quick little items to enhance their technique if you haven't already figured some of this out.  I read a lot of cookbooks and food magazines but I am constantly humbled by what I don't know.

I hope this is helpful for a few of you out there!

*Better fried chicken--I have always struggled with making great fried chicken at home, but today I tested out a technique I saw on some food show that really helps.  I don't have a deep fryer, but this worked fine in a pan with a half inch of canola oil.  My kids were starving, so I didn't even use my usual bone-in chicken; we sliced up the dreaded boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead!  (I just prefer bone-in almost all the time).

The key was to soak the cutlets in milk, dip in a flour mix ("Frying Magic" brand works fine if you don't want to mix your own), and then DIP A SECOND TIME IN MILK, then sprinkle on my flour mix.  Simple adjustment but the results were so much better.

*Vinegar--this is a tiny thing I read from one of Michael Ruhlman's incredible books; you can see his site by clicking here.  He's a great teacher.  The idea is to simply splash a tiny amount of vinegar into a soup to brighten up all the flavors.  Trust me, it works.  A teaspoon is often sufficient for a home cook's pot.  Chili recipes often use vinegar, so why not soups?  I like apple cider vinegar for many uses, and rice wine vinegar is an obvious component for Asian dishes.

*Home made mac n' cheese--I still enjoy the boxed stuff once in a long while, but making home made mac n' cheese is awesome and my kids love it.  You can search for recipes, but my basic plan includes a roux (butter & flour), then becomes a Bechamel when cream or milk is whisked in, then a rich cheese sauce when you fold in great shredded cheddar, gruyere, or whatever you prefer.  Then, fold in al dente elbow macaroni with a bit of salt and the secret ingredient--ground dry mustard.  Just a bit.  Then bake it with good breadcrumbs on top.  If you don't have time, skip the baking and it will still be superior to the blue box stuff. Optional ingredients include bits of cooked bacon or onion.

*See my recent pizza dough post on this!  Very worth the time and mess.

*Leftover mashed potatoes--again, see my new post on this.

*Squeeze lemon juice (from actual lemons) on veggies, grilled meat, etc.  Squeeze lime juice on your tacos and use real corn tortillas (fry them quickly on each side for maximum flavor).

Have fun and go the extra step to enjoy great food at home!

What to do With Leftover Mashed Potatoes: Potato Fritters

After Thanksgiving I had some leftover mashed potatoes; a simple way to transform them into a snack or part of a meal is to mix them with some egg, toss in chopped parsley and scallions, and fry them in real butter.

This was really simple and went well with a dollop of sour cream on top, much like what you'd do with German style potato pancakes.

Easy and Fun Home Made Pizza Dough That Kids Will Love to Make

It's really worth the effort to make your own pizza dough from scratch and then load up on various toppings to make your own awesome pizza at home.  It's tastier and less greasy than many delivery joints, and kids will enjoy making their own.

Here my daughter and I made pizza dough from a simple water, dry yeast, and flour dough.  Don't forget a pinch of salt because it enhances any dough or home made bread.

The other key thing in our opinion is to mix cheeses--don't just use shredded mozzarella; be sure to at least add some shredded Parmesan, but you can test out goat cheese, Romano, etc.  The richness of the other cheese is what makes a good pizza stand out vs. something simple.

In this photo, we have a pizza with only a simple light spread of tomato paste, some sauteed button mushroom slices, and the aforementioned mozzarella/Parmesan blend.  Finally, be sure to sprinkle on some dried oregano, something I learned making pizza bread at a small family sub sandwich shop in high school! For my own part of the pizza, I will drizzle on olive oil and a dash of red pepper flakes.

These are just tips; for a full starter recipe I would recommend this one from Food Network's Giada De Laurentiis.  You'll get the hang of it and it becomes easier over time and is totally worth the effort!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: "Charred and Scruffed" by Adam Perry Lang

I recently read Adam Perry Lang's "Charred and Scruffed" and really enjoyed the techniques he presented.

His background is quite impressive with classical chef experience as well as much time spent in the traditional BBQ circuit.  However, in this book he blows up typical notions about grilling and I was excited to test some of his techniques.  You can read the book for more and visit his website, but what I did was to test out his "board dressing" concept, which seems intuitive but is rarely something you come across in recipes.  Yes, a good pan sauce is common and makes a ton of difference in the kitchen, but when it comes to grilling, most recipes just suggest to let your meat rest and soak in its own juices before slicing--and that's it.

Lang's concept is to have a bit of sauce to spread on the cutting board before you let the meat rest, and "layering" on more flavor.  Here's a simplified approach I took:

First, I grilled some skirt steak with minimal seasoning (salt & pepper).  For the board dressing, I mixed some teriyaki sauce with garlic salt and chili powder, and spread it across my cutting board:

I then placed the skirt steak on the board to rest for about 10 minutes as you would normally do with steak:

Finally, I sliced the skirt steak across the grain (essential basic for skirt steak, brisket, etc.--look this up if you aren't familiar) and tossed the slices a bit around the "dressing":

This seems like a simplistic technique and an obvious thing to do, but I never read recipes that suggest anything like this (not that I go by recipes that much anymore).  What Lang does with his book is present a series of steps like this that he uses in a multi-step process that opens up a whole new set of flavors--even seasoned grillers should learn something from it.  He finishes the book with slew of great little side dish recipes that complete the meals.

I recommend this book highly and look forward to more food experimentation using the techniques!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Great Meatloaf Recipe

Despite all my cooking experiments, I don't recall ever making meatloaf, but wanted to introduce my kids to this all-American comfort food!  I just didn't want to use my mom's or grandma's dried out versions (my mom is unlikely to Google this post and my grandma is long gone, RIP!). 

I adapted a recipe from one of my favorite Food Network authorities, Alton Brown, and did the following:

Here I mixed up a couple of pounds of a meat blend from Casey's Foods in Naperville, IL, (, which is 1/3 ground chuck, 1/3 veal, and 1/3 pork.  I added two eggs, a bit of salt, and about a TBSP of chopped cayenne pepper that I grew on my patio.  A cool tip from the original recipe is to use a half cup of ground BBQ potato chips chopped in a food processor instead of the usual bread crumbs to add flavor and texture.  I went the extra mile by mixing in a 1/4 cup of mirepoix (look it up) of finely chopped and sauteed onion, carrot, and garlic, but you can probably skip this by dashing in a bit of garlic salt instead. 

I formed the meat into two "logs" to fix my pan and lit the charcoal grill; see the photo to see how I grilled it indirectly, though I cooked it right over the coals for the first 20 minutes or so in the pan.  I also added some sliced jalapenos so my son and I could get some heat (my daughter won't go there!).  You'll need to use your own judgement about cooking on a grill or in an oven.  Overall it cooked about 20 minutes directly over the coals while in the pan, then another 15-20 indirectly away from the coals.  Flip it once.  Only once if possible.  Don't overwork your meat :)  Just throw it all in the oven for 40-50 minutes on maybe 350 if you don't want to bother with the grill. 

The baste is simply 3/4 cup ketchup and a bit of worcestershire sauce mixed in. It all went over really well, especially when with a little extra sauce around for topping the sandwiches we ended up making out of the meatloaf!  Definitely awesome on the grill! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Growing Cayenne Peppers

       Hi, this is Mike's daughter, Katie, and last year my dad, me and my brother Jack were planting some cherry tomatoes, basil, and some other herbs like we had done the past few years. This year, unlike the others, we decided to try something new: cayenne peppers. We planted them just the same as the others, but the growth was different. The cayenne peppers were visible earlier than the tomatoes. They started green, then over time turned red as they grew to a huge size. Almost as long as bell peppers, the cayenne peppers were, at the largest, 3 cm wide and turned purple after sitting out or staying on the plant for too long. We found that putting the peppers in a plastic bag and placing them in the freezer kept the cayenne peppers from getting too old and preserved the flavors. I recommend these peppers to people who like hot foods, but people who don't- maybe not.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Easy Weekday Tacos

      I am Mike's daughter, and I love to create unique recipes and dishes including bizarre ingredients and flavors. One night, my dad announced it taco night, and I was all over it.
      My ingredients consisted of one chopped nectarine, a chopped red pepper,  skirt steak, chihuahua cheese, lettuce, and taco sauce. I placed the steak and cheese on the flour tortilla and heated it up in a microwave. Next I placed the lettuce, chopped pepper and nectarine on it, and topped it all off with a splash of taco sauce.
      The flavor was amazing, and the crunchiness was delicious. This recipe will be sure to delight you and your family!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tips for Home Cooks--Rosting Chicken, Curing Salmon at Home, etc.

In the last few years I've been doing a lot of reading about cooking and have improved a lot of things in my home cooking.  I humbly present my first set of tips for home cooks who want some simple ways to boost what they can do, some of which I've already posted about (see the links highlighted):

  • Use leftover french bread that is getting a little stale by chopping it up and tossing it like crutons in a salad with vinegarette, or use the chunks to thicken a soup.  Even simply heating up chicken broth with some leftover bread will warm you up and be an easy snack.
  • Pat dry sea scallops for sauteeing, otherwise they won't sear and just poach lamely in all the water they release upon cooking. 
  • Saute onions!  Just slice white or yellow onions thinly and saute them in olive oil until the have a nice mix of carmelization and sweetness while retaining a bit of crunch.  Use medium to high heat but reduce before burning them.  With some experience this can become the number one topping for your burgers and chicken breast sandwiches. 
  • Cure your own salmon--buy a good, fresh piece and rub a mix of salt and brown sugar all over it, then rub in a splash of rum or whiskey.  Wrap it tight and in two days you'll have a delicious filet you can thinly slice into lox.  Place it atop a traditional bagel & cream cheese, or go for a BLA--bagel, lox, and avocado (mash avocado and lemon juice as a topping, and add slices of tomato and red onion to complete it)