Tuesday, January 29, 2008
When I owned the restaurant, we needed a way to cook many slices of bacon at a time - usually 50 slices. I remembered my parents' catering company and how my Mom would cook bacon in oven. Actually, I'm not really sure if she cooked bacon like this for the company for just for the family... there were 7 kids to feed afterall! Yes, 7 kids; my parents are saints, truly! Anyway, it really is quite simple and offers quick, easy clean up; considering how bacon grease stays on everything. First, cover a cookie sheet pan with tinfoil. One strip of tinfoil will cover the bottom with just enough the fold up the edges. You want the bacon grease to stay on the foil. Place as many slices of bacon on the foil as you need. Here is where you can get creative - add black pepper and brown sugar for a sweet peppery finish! Now place in a 400 degree oven until they reach desired doneness. I will cook it to varying levels depending on what I'm using the bacon for. After removing the bacon from the pan, pour off the grease into a heat proof tin can if you plan to use it, then simply fold up the grease remains and throw it away. For an absolutely fabulous simple bacon sandwich, look at my recipe for the fig bacon rolls! And as always, enjoy and be fat and happy!
Sunday, January 27, 2008
We had a busy day on Saturday. First we played volleyball at North Beach Bar for a few hours. A quick stop at the tailors on the way to pick up Dave's new blazer; it's a great blue and brown corduroy, the nice velvety corduroy, not the kind when we were kids that made the swishy noise when you walked. Clothing materials have come a long way, but there are still great basics out there. Very similar to cooking. It seems like every couple of years there is a much ado about an ingredient that, while it's been around for some time, it's just making it way into the American Culture. Look at Cilantro. it's still riding a wave of popularity. Personally I feel it is completely overrated, overused and overvalued. Don't really care for it either. So when every chef in every restaurant from Thai to Italian started throwing handfuls of the stuff on the plate, I nearly had to start eating at chain restaurants! But lets get back to the basics...bacon! It's one of those ingredients that never go out of style, and you can pair it with nearly everything. I just ran into another bacon lover (at the chili cookoff) who made bacon chocolate chip cookies. Yum!
So back to the original story. By the time we made it home it was 2:00 and we were famished. In classic Monique fashion, I quickly assessed what was available and started creating. I don't always know what the end product is going to be until I get there. I had a couple of slices of bacon, some leftover cooked turkey and a couple of fabulous ciabatta rolls from Costco. (I've mentioned before that Costco really does have some nice bread!). The results were eye-opening. Seriously. Dave was half asleep on the couch when I brought him one of the sandwiches. It just lay there as he was too tired to pick it up and eat it. I was moaning and raving about how good it was when he finally asked for a bite (a bite of mine, cuz he was too tired to pick his up!) After one bite he sat up and ate his entire sandwich before I even got a few more bites into mine. The recipe is below; but as always, please adjust according to your tastes. Use chicken if you don't have turkey...but do not substitute the bacon!
Place two ciabatta rolls in the oven to warm. Use 4 slices of bacon, medium diced into pieces. Begin sauteeing in a pan. When the bacon is about half way done, add 1/4 cup dice red onion and 1/4 diced celery, continue to sautee for about 4 minutes. (in the bacon grease, do not throw out.) Add 1 cup of diced cooked turkey. Add lots of fresh ground pepper, turn to low to simmer all the juices together. Take the rolls out of the oven and turn the oven to broil. Cut each in half. pick out the inside bread, tear into pieces and toss into the pan with the bacon and turkey. Pan toss all the ingredients together a few times. Now fill the scooped out bread roll side with the pan mixture. Top the bottom or flatter side of the roll with a fig jam, (don't skimp), then with Parmesan cheese and top the other 'filled' side with Chihuahua cheese (this is a crumbly Mexican cheese) or use any cheese you have available. Place under the broiler until the cheese is melted. Press the bread rolls together and smash them down a bit the spread all the filling throughout. You will love how the sweet fig jam plays off the bacon, once again proving that bacon is a classic that goes with everything! Enjoy and as always - be fat and happy!
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
While having drinks, Dave called me to find out what the dinner plan was. Not having a plan at this point, I quickly ran through the cupboards in my head...polenta, tomato and sausage. A couple friends overheard the polenta idea; one of them was excited about the idea and the other was quite disgusted with polenta (by the way, it was the girl who didn't like polenta, not the guy!) Here's my take on polenta: it's versatile and cheap and tastes great. Think about the base of Italian food, they use cheaper ingredient carbs as the base fillers, only topping these items with more expensive meats and cheeses. Plus, I love the idea of versatility -serving polenta as a thick, creamy grits-like substance or letting it set up and using it as an appetizer piece (topped with pesto, olives or whatever) or using it as a bread for a sandwich. Just grill it in the panini grill or on a barbecue grill - it gets those great lines and deepens the flavor - ah so good! Did I mention I love polenta? After finishing my free drink a nice patron bought me at Lago while hitting on so cute friend Lesley, I headed home to get cooking. Let me forewarn - if you are heading home after tossing a few back and you need food quickly, polenta probably should not be your first choice. Unless you have one of those 'tube polenta's', in which case I would still tell you to choose something else to eat.
Below is my basic recipe. Always keep in mind that I don't use recipes; I just make things up. But I'm working on changing that as well as trying take more pictures! Bare with me while I get used to these adjustments! So I will recreate this recipe again, and refine it; but the recipe below will get you close. Just remember, season to your liking and add or subtract the items you don't like!
7 cups of liquid per 1 cup of polenta (I use a combination of milk and water, feel free to use broth or all water, or all milk, or some cream). Start with a couple of cups in your pan; add the polenta slowly while whisking. This will help keep it from lumping! I the like to add the rest of the liquid as the polenta cooks, similar to risotto, if you've made that before. You will have to stir often so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. Expect this to take about an hour. When the polenta is creamy and completely melded together, take off the heat and add cheese. This particular night I added Parmesan as well as a soft french black pepper cheese. Wonderful!
In the meantime. cook one or two pieces of Italian sausage (I like spicy for this; use what you like. It's okay to use German sausage here. The Italian police are not going to come knocking on your door...probably not anyway. But use judgment on what neighborhood you live in!) Once the sausage is near done, add diced white or yellow onions. Sautee for a few minutes and add chopped garlic (adding the garlic earlier would yield a chance of burning it). Add in your dried spices at this point, basil or oregano and salt and pepper. Add in a can of chopped tomatoes and a few chopped black olives. Simmer until the polenta is ready.
To serve, place polenta in bottom of a wide bowl. Top with the sausage mixture and shredded Parmesan cheese (always use fresh!). Enjoy and be fat and happy!
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Admitting it is the first step. Admitting that you are a foodie, that is. Here is the problem I have with saying those three words (I'm a foodie), it's a little bit like admitting to being a yuppie. See, I have this fear that by admitting to being a foodie, I can no longer enjoy midwest casseroles, velveeta mac n cheese and Lipton onion soup mix. Don't get me wrong, I adore imported olive oils, truffles (the kind dogs sniff out of the dirt) and fig jams. But every once in while, don't you just get a craving for something down home, something warm, something classic? That doesn't mean you can't put your own creative twist on it, in fact, that was the base of my restaurant; classic food with an eclectic twist. So, sure I'm a foodie, but a classic eater type foodie and I'm not afraid to admit it!
Take 4 russet potatoes, wash and medium dice them. Place them into a deep oven pan. Now dice a yellow onion and 3 garlic cloves. Toss them with the potatoes, adding in olive oil (about 1/2 cup), 1 envelope of Lipton's Onion Soup mix, and pepper.
Place in the oven until the potatoes are fork tender. Stir every half hour. Serve as a side dish to brunch or add to my egg and potato burritos. Enjoy and don't forget to be fat and happy!
Sunday, January 20, 2008
When my computer tells me the outside temperature starts with a (-)negative, as in below zero, I see no reason reason to venture outside. It's also time to make something hearty and spicy! It's green chili time! Living in Colorado afforded me the opportunity to experience fabulous Mexican dishes, as a large percentage of the population is Mexican. Some of my favorite finds were at wonderful road side stands with homemade tortillas and I need to also pay homage to the classic street burrito, sold out of a cooler at closing time in the LoDo bar district. That one usually came back to haunt you, but it was so good at the time! One of the best dishes I was first introduced to was green chili. Growing up in the Midwest, my knowledge of chili was that it had beans in it, and it was definitely red! If a chili turned green, back away slowly and do not eat it!
Green chili, as it turns out, does not have any beans in it, is made from green chili's and can have varying degrees of green hue and heat. And yes, it's edible! Eat it as a big bowl of soup with a tortilla or smother a burrito in it; it is delicious! Below is my winter version of this fabulous dish in which I use canned peppers and tomatoes (it's hard to get fresh veggies when it's zero outside, go figure). When the season is right, I use fresh ingredients, roasting and peeling the tomatoes and chili's resulting in a deeper, richer flavor. Note that the following recipe makes quite a large batch, plan on freezing some and giving some to the neighbors who are also stuck in their houses and most likely don't have such a magnificent treat stewing. As always, please adjust according to your taste buds! If you're not a big fan of spicy foods, cut way back on the jalepenos, the chili will still have great flavor, just less heat.
3 yellow onions, medium diced
15 cloves of garlic, rough chopped
3 cans diced tomatoes (12 oz)
3 cans green chili's, diced (12 oz)
3 cans jalepeno peppers, diced (12 oz)
salt and pepper
In a large soup kettle, Sautee the onions and garlic in olive oil until they are caramelized. They will turn a deep brown color on the edges. Stir often, scraping all the good morsels which stick to the bottom as this will give the base great flavor. Chop any remaining ingredients if you need to (being careful when chopping the jalepeno's, do not touch your eyes and wear plastic gloves if you have them) then add them to the pot. Add salt and pepper. Add water to the pot until it is full. Now let everything stew on medium high heat. Stir often, scraping any bits that are sticking to the bottom. When the chili has cooked down to nearly half, add water to fill to the top again and remain stewing. I like to do this process three times before I thicken it. If you want chunkier pieces in your green chili, only boil down once or twice. This is a vegetarian optional dish. You can add raw pork in the first portion with the onions, or you can add left over cooked pork with the chili's and tomatoes. It really is quite wonderful without it as well.
Once you have reduced your green chili down the final time (your soup pot should be a little more than half full), it is time to thicken it. Use a simple flour and water paste: 1 cup of flour, whisk in water until a thick, pour-able paste forms. Be sure whisk until all the lumps are out! I find warmer water helps. Now, slowly pour this into the green chili, still simmering, stirring the entire time. Let this continue to simmer until your chili is thickened and the paste has melded the flavors. Add a little more salt and pepper if needed. To serve as a soup or meal, top with a dollop of sour cream and serve with a warm tortilla. If your smothering a burrito, scoop the chili on top of your burrito... literally smother it! Pair either of these with a margarita or Mexican beer like a Tecate or Dos Eques, add a lime for zesty flavor. Enjoy!
Saturday, January 19, 2008
With the weather forecast dipping below the single digits, what better way to pass the time stranded indoors than make a Chicago thin crust pizza!? Well, my version, anyway.
Getting the dough right is the base for any pizza. I created an absolutely fabulous recipe for a flat bread pizza, much thinner and crispier than a thin crust, (and its cooked on a grill), but that's not what we need here. Second, we need to make a spicy, slightly sweet sauce. From there, it's all a matter of personal preference for the topping. Below is the recipes for my thin crust as well as photos to show the steps.
Pizza Dough – thin crust
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cold water
1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus flour for kneading
3/4 teaspoon salt
Choose a mixing bowl that will ultimately hold all the ingredients. Stir the yeast into the lukewarm water. Let stand about 10 minutes. Stir in the olive oil and the cold water, and then whisk in 1/2 cup of the flour and the salt, stirring until smooth. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough comes together in a rough mass.
On a lightly floured work surface, knead the dough until smooth and velvety, 8-10 minutes. It will be soft. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let rest for 15 minutes. Divide into 2 equal portions, knead briefly, then roll each portion into a smooth, tight round ball. To use the dough immediately, sprinkle a little flour on the work surface and set the balls on it. Cover them with a kitchen towel and let rise for 1 hour, then stretch and top the dough as directed in each recipe. I froze half of the dough to use another time. Simply wrap tightly in syran wrap and then in a freezer bag. Use within a month.
Make the sauce while your dough is rising:
½ cup finely diced onion (yellow or white)
2 or 3 cloves of finely diced garlic
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried basil
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
Bay leaf (optional)
1 12 oz can tomato sauce
2 oz tomato paste or puree
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Sautee the onion in a little olive oil, adding the garlic and spices a few minutes later, until soft and translucent. Be careful here not the let the spices burn. You want these to just dissolve into the sauce! Add the remaining ingredients to the pan and simmer over medium heat about 10 minutes. I have found I prefer this sauce without the bay leaf, as it tends to taste a bit more spaghetti’ish when using it. I believe less cooking time keeps this from turning too thick as well. This recipe will yield enough for three or four pizza’s, so plan to freeze part of this as well.
Now spread out your dough, you may need to use a rolling pin here – or try to master the ‘toss and spin’ for the authentic experience! It is best to have cornmeal here for a layer on the pan to keep the bottom of the crust slightly crispier. Lay your dough on the pan and top with your ingredients. We did half pepperoni and half sausage with some caramelized onions and garlic, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese and black pepper as the final top.
Bake in a 400 degree oven until the cheese is melted and golden color. The true way to cut this pizza is in squares…which I didn’t, and Dave questioned my true respect to this dish. No matter how you slice it – you’re going to love this pizza! Enjoy!
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Picture this (or just look at the photo below), a large cherry green pepper that is mildly spicy, stuffed with prosciutto, salami, capocollo, provolone and kalamata olives. Sounds wonderful, huh? It is, it is wonderful. Considering we found these delectable delights at Costco, I was pleasantly surprised. Costco and Sam's club often amaze me for their selections. I frequented Sam's Club when I owned a restaurant, the savings on paper products alone were worth shopping there. Sam's is geared more for the business owner while Costco was geared more for the slightly higher end consumer. I often shunned these business as I didn't feel they had the right quality food product I was looking for. But the truth is, if you look hard enough, you will find great products and great deals.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
When we moved back to Chicago from Denver, one of the things Dave was most excited about was the free popcorn available in every bar you walked into. This is by no means a 'new' tactic. For centuries, bars have offered free salty snacks to hungry patrons. If you don't understand this concept, look at it this way. The more salty snacks one eats, the thirstier one gets, and the more one drinks. It's that simple. And if you're saying 'what about the food costs?" Well, nobody ever claimed these were expensive snacks by any means. These are typically the cheapest, oldest snacks available! But in true American form, we sit at that bar and eat and eat and eat the heck out them. I say Americans because the truth is, we overindulge. We don't know when to stop and we don't know how to monitor our eating habits. I saw this proven on a trip to Venice. In Venice, it is customary for Italian's to stop into a cafe/bar on their way home from work for a quick drink. During this time, I think it was from 5 to 7, these cafes would place out free small plates of olives, cheeses and the like. It's like Italian happy hour and I believe there was an actual name for this, but I can't remember; so if any knows it, please write to me (cicheti maybe?). One night in particular stands out. The cafe was busy with Italian and a handful of Americans. We would watch the Italians come in for one or two quick drinks, maybe take one olive, then leave. The Americans (myself included) stayed for many drinks (nothing wrong with that!) but would eat these free small plates like it was their dinner. Gorging themselves on these appetizers until the plates were empty, then asking for more. The Italians never sat either. Americans made camp!
In any case, this special treat of popcorn or snacks was not followed in Denver. It makes me wonder if this is now a regional thing? Or is this practice just going by the way side? Even now in Chicago, it's hard to find those bars that offer the free popcorn. Last night we were watching the Patriots edge out the Jaguars at Joe's on Weed. Joe's is a huge sports bar/club next to North Beach Bar, which is where we were playing indoor sand volleyball. North Beach didn't start serving beer for another hour, so we had to find a new place; after two hours of sand doubles, you really want a beer! The waitress got a kick out of how much popcorn we could eat. There is also this ritual we play (I have no idea where this came from) where we try to throw popcorn in everyone's beer. Silly, I know, but fun!
Another really outstanding free snack place in Chicago is Lawry's. They set out baskets of big homemade chips. It's important to note that they only do this at lunch, which I found out after bringing some friends there for a pre-dinner drink and snack...Doh!
Stop and Drink (great name by the way!) on Clark and Chicago offers not web site but big pretzel sticks. I have found them to be stale every time I've had them...but again, this doesn't seem to deter me or any one around me from eating them.
Let me know of the great free snack places you enjoy in your town and I'll share it with everyone. Look for a posting called The great lost free snacks coming soon!
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Start with squash, I had a nice yellow squash, but any will do. Remove the outside of the squash, cut in half and scoop out the insides. Now simply cut the squash into squares, toss with olive oil and black pepper and roast in the oven until tender. Clean the spouts by cutting off the bottom and soak in water for few minutes. Thread your brussel sprouts onto a metal skewer (if you are using wooden skewers, be sure to soak in water first to prevent burning), separate each sprout with a slice of sweet white onion. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a medium-heat grill, turn when the down side turns golden brown. Repeat on second side.
Because it's a new year and we are all 'watching what we eat' and trying to be healthier, I went with a boxed whole wheat rotini pasta. I enjoy the wheat pastas and they have great fiber! Cook according to the box; reserve a few tablespoons of the pasta water. Once pasta is compete, return the pasta to the pan, add the squash, brussel sprouts and onions, drizzle with a little olive and the pasta water and toss lightly. Season with salt and pepper and enjoy! This is a great filling dish that is high in nutrients and low in calories.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
We used to live by the creed – if there isn’t anyone in the restaurant, it must not be good. But that doesn’t automatically mean a full restaurant is good.
Recently we went to Devon Street, which is Little India in North Chicago, and after much deliberating, we choose a cute looking restaurant that was completely packed, just off the beaten path. We were completely disappointed. From the lack of water to lack of seasonings – which is hard to do with Indian food! But it was a local place, we gave it a shot and it won’t stop me from frequenting local places again.
I wonder if the full versus empty debate also translate to whether a really full party is better than one with fewer people? With fewer people, aren’t you able to get to know everyone just a bit better? We were at Martini Park, a hot new club in downtown Chicago, which was packed with the after 1am crowd. While it was good people watching, I couldn’t carry on a conversation with another person… the music was too loud and the setup wasn’t conducive to this. But everyone there seemed to be having a blast, so does that mean it was better? Better than what? Doesn’t it really just come down to what you’re looking for? There are times when a more intimate evening is preferred and there are times when we all want to get lost in a loud, crazy crowd. This still doesn’t answer the question whether a full place is better than a less full one.
Take a chain place like Bennigan’s, TGIF or even McDonalds; these places are always packed with standing room only. But does that make them good? I’m a firm believer in supporting the independent businesses, slighted by my own independent restaurant sure… but it’s diversity, the variety and the passion that set these places apart. Next time you're looking for a place to eat, do yourself a favor and choose the local place, even if it isn’t packed. You might just find a hidden gem where you become the most important guest there.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
My mom used to make this; I believe it was a relatively cost effective dinner and considering there were seven kids, price is always an issue. Dave had never heard of this however. So I decided to create my own version of the. Give it a try and let me know what you think; I'm quite happy with this recipe and will make it again. This was Dave friendly too!
Sautee ½ lb ground turkey. Rather than beef or chipped beef I went with the lighter turker, but I find ground turkey quite flavorless, so it requires a lot of seasoning! Continue to sautee with onions, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, seasoning salt, salt and pepper. (Now, here is an addition of my own - add in some left over rice if you have some around. Also adding some olives and celery gave this a nice flavor!
Add skim milk, butter, milk and cream, simmering until thick. Toast two pieces of hearty bread, I used a french bread, then place the toast on a plate. Cover with a good helping of the mixture. Top with a little fresh Parmesan cheese. Now you see why it's called Sh*t on a Shingle! Enjoy anyway!
Thursday, January 3, 2008
The idea came from those little ice cream bites, Dipps. While popping the last one in my mouth the other night (go ahead and try to not eat the entire container, it can't be done), I wondered how good would a little creamy frozen cheesecake taste? After licking the remnants of the melted chocolate off my fingers, I forged into the first of many recipe testings. I did look around to see what type of recipes are currently out there. Unfortunately most of what I found was for the the cool whip type of frozen pie; these are too light and airy to fill the creamy dense taste sensation that defines a cheesecake. There was one or two recipes featuring a gelatin base. This may be something to try as a comparison, but again, there is a fear of a more glopping or jelly product than creamy. A decision was made to simply start with my base and adjust accordingly.
There are a few things to learn from my first experiment. Rule number one is to work quickly, especially when you get to the melted chocolate step. Second, is have patience while they are in the freezer. If you keep 'testing' them in your mouth to see if they are frozen, you may end up making a second batch!
Here is the basic recipe I started with:
4oz cream cheese, 1/4 sugar, dash of almond flavoring and 2 Tbls sour cream. Mix with a hand held blender until sugar is dissolved. Using an ice cream scoop (use a very small size) form into balls and freeze on a parchment lined sheet pan. Once partially frozen, I rolled them into crushed chocolate cookie crumbs. Return to freezer. Melt chocolate and cream over a double broiler. Dip each ball into the chocolate, replace onto the parchment lined sheet pan and place back into freezer until ready to eat.
Overall I'm quite happy with the first test batch; as were my testers! But stay tuned for more updates on refining the process.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Our friends just left this morning, at 5 am. (Needless to say, they took a taxi to the airport.) But our last meal together was such fun it was like a cooking class. Aaron had never made pasta before and had always wanted too. So we made homemade pasta with three sauces. He rolled like a champ. First we created a thicker heartier shape for a mac-n-cheese pasta. This particular cheese sauce is a heavy coater, so you need the heartier pasta to stand up to it. Then we did a very thin light spaghetti which we tossed with a classic homemade basil pesto topped with toasted pine nuts. The final pasta was a linguine tossed with sauteed onions, garlic and bacon ('cuz I can't get enough bacon, ever) in a lemon olive oil. This lemon olive oil came from our last trip to Italy, in the Cinque Terra region. Truly one of the most picturesque regions in Italy. We stayed at this gorgeous little hotel which sat next to lemon groves. I can still remember the smell of the lemons as we would wake up in the morning and throw open the windows. The lemon grove sat just below the hill, in front of our rugged terraced view of the sea. It's is quite amazing how much farming is done on these hillsides. Quite a laborious task, but part of daily life to those who farm there. Our adorable inn keepers made their special limoncello from the fruits of the grove and only shared this with friends. We were touched to learn of the two shots they left for us on the staircase on our last night there.
There is truly nothing more enjoyable than friends, except maybe cooking with them!
Here's to another great year of friendships!