“I’ll bring my ______….”

Have you ever noticed that a great many people seem to have a signature dish? Green bean casserole, seven(or more) layer dip, pfeffernusse, marinated cucumbers, buffalo chicken dip and queso dip… These are just some examples of dishes I’ve seen repeatedly from family and friends over the years. Anyone who fancies themselves able to do more than boil water and spread peanut butter seems to have that one thing they’re so good at making they don’t need a recipe. It could be their consistent success with the dish, it could be the secret/special ingredient that makes theirs stand out, or it could just be the thing they want whenever possible, so they’ve learned to make it themselves.

Either way, it fascinates me how people become attached to a specific dish so strongly, that much of the success of the dish is driven not by it’s potential to impress others, but by the sentimental value we attach to it. The emotional attachment to a given dish becomes very apparent once the dish has been repeated annually at any holiday function, especially if the dish is not known to be traditional for that holiday. Many attach sentimentality to turkey and stuffing at thanksgiving, for example, but less common on the table might be a pea salad or barbeque-glazed corndogs.

Do I have a signature dish? Not yet. Over the years, I’ve become attached to so many signature dishes created by others, but I’ve not come up with my own. When I do, I’ll be sure to post the recipe here. In the meantime, of all the signature dishes I’ve come across over the years, and there have been many great ones, I’m still going to put deviled eggs at the top of the list. Current faves include a particularly creamy-yolked version from one friend, and a tarragon and truffle oil version from another. Man, I love those addictive little morsels! Enjoy!

“I call next for taste-tester!”


Cathy and I hosted Jamie and Lindsey Bougher tonight for dinner. She commented on a recent post that she wanted to be next to enjoy one of my efforts in the kitchen, and according to her and her husband, I did not disappoint.

I modified a recipe for Italian-style country ribs to give it more substance, by adding grilled bell peppers and onions, and we served it over corn/quinoa pasta, with a mixed green side salad tossed in pear-lime vinaigrette. Appetizers were gourmet cheeses and chips with homemade guacamole.

It was a bit time-consuming but rewarding to hand dice and chop everything. (I just need to learn how to dice jalapeño so that my finger tips don’t tingle for a couple hours afterwards.) I also did a better job of planning than usual, anticipating shared ingredients between appetizer, salad and dinner, to decrease the chance of waste later on. It was always challenging to cook for one when I was single. Now, I have the benefit of cooking for two, and that has made purchasing and using fresh ingredients more enjoyable and less wasteful than in the past.

Obviously, I still have plenty to learn. I’m getting better with each new endeavor, though, so I look forward to the next time I can host friends for dinner. So who’s next? Besides having more mouths to feed to rate my efforts, having guests over forces me to keep the apartment cleaner than normal. So drop me a line and give me a reason for one of my next “Kitchen Feats.” Enjoy!

In Memoriam

My Aunt Sue passed away on May 22nd, 2013. Of my dad’s three sisters, she was the oldest. She was the aunt who attended my wedding. She was probably the first of my dad’s siblings to relate to me as an adult, when I worked my first serving job with her at Cracker Barrel in 1995. For many years, she and her husband, Rob, hosted Thanksgiving at their house in Steger. I remember those meals fondly, the sights, smells, and flavors. The spread, though modest, always held a few surprises, like Rob’s homemade bread and pea salad. I’ll miss those dinners, not for the impressiveness of the dishes, but for the heart and passion that went into them. No matter the quality of the food, the best home meals almost always come about as a result of the love of the hosts for the guests.

Thank you, Aunt Sue, for the love over the years. Goodbye for now. Save a plate for me at heaven’s buffet table.

Enjoy life, enjoy love, enjoy family, while they are here to be enjoyed. Share a meal with family as often as you can and preserve the relationships. Enjoy!

I’m a cook?

Last night, I whipped up another stovetop dinner from scratch. While the wife and I were enjoying it, I asked her if she realized she’d married a cook. She countered by asking if I realized I was a cook. “Not a clue!” I replied, and it’s true. This whole blind cooking, successfully, really started to happen in just the last six months.

I could always use recipes before (though not always perfectly), and often still do. Yet I’m becoming very skilled at just whipping things up. Give me a protein, a starch, and a few odds and ends and I’m making tasty dinners for two, with a little leftover for Cathy’s lunch, consistently. Plus, they are getting better, simply by what I’m learning about flavor combinations from following other recipes. For example, I was making a dish last night, and knowing what I knew from a recent recipe, I added a proper amount of properly reduced tequila and butter to add that extra wow factor.

Tonight, I followed a recipe, with a few adjustments based on ingredients at hand, and made a killer shrimp and avocado salad, with pear lime vinaigrette. I didn’t have “sweet onions”, so I grilled the chopped onion a bit to make it sweeter. So very “yumptious”. That’s right, it was good enough for me to invent a new word.

I have no idea what doors this new ability will open up. I want to keep growing and trying new things. For now, I have a happy wife. Maybe soon, my friends will get to taste what I’m doing in the kitchen and be happy, too. Either way, I know I never ate this good at home when I let Hamburger Helper decide what went in the pot. I’m actually excited to get into the kitchen. I can’t wait to experience what I discover next. Enjoy!

The Oxymoron of Jumbo Shrimp…

… Or, Man, I’ve got to remember to take a picture!

In-laws came over for dinner today at our apartment. Cathy wanted to make Shrimp & Scallop Scampi, so I jumped at the chance to finally try making Mexican Drunken Shrimp at home. For those who don’t know the appetizer from Cooper’s Hawk, you’ve no idea what you are missing. (The only change I made to the recipe from their Celebration cookbook was leaving out the jalapeños in deference to sensitive stomachs.)

I now have a new found respect for our line cooks at the restaurant. Cooking time alone was easily 20 minutes, but they manage to churn this dish out in 10-12. Beyond that, my version was a big hit with everyone. Probably could have made a double batch and they would have still been gobbled up.

It was fun putting the elements together, successfully. The dish is a bit pricy to make at home more than occasionally, takes almost as long to prep as to cook, and makes a mess of a more than a fair amount of dishes. I can’t wait to make it again. This one actually called for a double reduction and i pulled it off. Maybe next time I’ll remember to take a picture.

On a side note, I helped Cathy with her prep since she helped me with mine. If you’ve never minced shallots before, be prepared for a new level of crying. Holy shallot, those things had me bawling! Enjoy!

Not-So-Secret Society

Ever since I met my future wife just over three years ago, I’ve become much more familiar with the world of “Gluten Free (GF)” and the Celiac Disease. She’s only gluten-intolerant, but the challenges are still there to find viable substitutes for the many wheat products we take for granted every day.

At the beginning, there seemed to be so few places offering options. For example, my favorite pizza place thought a crustless pizza was a perfectly acceptable GF option. Fast forward three years and new options seem to pop up every day. One of the vendors at this year’s Gluten Free Expo in Schaumburg told me that the event has doubled in size from last year and tripled from the year before. For many, it has become less of a necessity and more of a dietary choice, and many are the suppliers of all things edible who are lining up to be a part of it.

In the meantime, though, this still feels a little like a secret society. I work at a restaurant that has embraced GF enthusiastically, and this often grants me the opportunity to wait on guests who have come in specifically for that reason. In so doing, I always feel compelled to share the best options I’ve come across and hope they do the same. It’s all part of the process of getting the word out and ensuring, as the awareness grows, that the options will, too. This will continue to give my wife, and the many, many others out there who deal with gluten issues, the chance to enjoy food as much as I do. Enjoy!

Ode to an Unexpected Fave

McDonald’s Cuts Angus Burgers From Menu – ABC News.

I get it. McD’s is all about value now, so a premium burger like the Angus isn’t fitting in anymore. Honestly, I won’t miss the patty. It was more meat than I usually wanted and sometimes came out too salty.

That being said, what I will miss is the type of burgers that came with the patty. The deluxe was tasty and loaded with veggies. The bacon and cheese was good, but nothing to write home about. The version I’ll miss most is the Mushroom and Swiss. The combination of toppings was like nothing else on their menu. The only other burger that came close in recent memory was the short lived CBO (Cheddar Bacon Onion) Angus with white cheddar, grilled onions and a creamy mustard sauce.

So, I went to a local restaurant for a goodbye Mushroom and Swiss. The mayo was generous, the mushrooms tender and the swiss melty. They may still be available for a while yet locally, but this was the last one to savor and remember.

In the end, I don’t care about the patty, I just wish they still offered the topping combo, like maybe as a quarter pounder or something. Oh well, at least they still have the steak breakfast burrito in the morning… oh, wait…

Over the years, I’ve had my share of favorites that came and went. Arby’s best sandwich was the Southwest Melt. McDonald’s used to have an awesome McSkillet breakfast burrito and let’s not forget their Whopper-wannabe Big ‘N Tasty. Taco Bell had carnitas tacos on soft corn tortillas, and Wendy’s and Burger King constantly rotate their yummiest stuff “for a limited time”. It’s sad when the fast food chains get rid of their best offerings. It’s a lot like getting attached to a short lived high concept tv series. Sometimes there just aren’t enough of us out there with taste to keep them around. Enjoy!

Cozy? Maybe. Cheesy? Yup.


Finally talked the wife into Cozymel’s for dinner tonight. Overall, it was a really enjoyable experience. Here are the specifics.

Server needs more practice to read his guests better, but I loved the effort. Confident suggestive selling is a good start, yet instead of asking if a signature dish was satisfactory, he should have gone with a more confident adjective to maintain the feeling that he believed in the product.

The chips and salsa were par, but the tableside guacamole was great, especially because we were able to choose what went into the avocados as it was prepared, literally next to the table. Cathy had a good salad. My tacos combo had average rice and decent beans but three different awesome tacos, each better than the last.

First up was a guajillo chicken, sauced with a hint of jerk to it, and offset by a slice of creamy avocado. The second was a hearty brisket with a corn relish. The best was the carnitas topped with avocado relish, pico
de gallo, and cheese. My only complaint was that, in getting the combo, none of the tacos were accompanied by the described signature sauce in the menu. Not sure if that was an oversight on their part or intentional when ordering a combo, but I only became aware of it when reviewing the menu again for this post.

So overall, kitschy atmosphere, decent food, a fair price, it’s a place I’d go back and try again. Although, it’s rare for me to not give any place a full at bat, so if I’m going back it definitely didn’t completely suck. Enjoy!

The Dining Experience

I currently work for Cooper’s Hawk. It’s been a great job at a great restaurant. Many of the principles of what goes in to making a great restaurant can be found here. Delicious and diverse food, top-notch service, fun atmosphere and a distinctive concept. It all elevates the process of eating and turns it into a dining experience. This is the thing I seek out the most when I dine out.

I first explored this concept in depth back in 2001, when I went to work for Buca Di Beppo. Back then, it was the fastest growing restaurant chain for three years in a row. It was peaking and I was there to see why. The concept was unique among italian places, and stubbornly so. They only served family-size portions, based on specific recipes that emulated the southern italian immigrant experience. No single-serve portions, no parmesan or alfredo (those are northern italian) and plenty of quirky decor. The service dynamic was very team-based and the staff was well-managed by a great general manager (aka paisano partner) who shared leadership and success insights with his staff, so they could grow as he did.

He was the first person to talk to me about the dining experience, how eating out was about more than just the food on the plate. During training excursions to corporate, he and other GMs would venture out to the competition, to see how the brands were represented at the store level and look for ways to improve Buca’s own approach. At that time, Buca had a strong brand and vision and stuck to it. It was the key to their success. Over the years, I’ve applied the principles I learned there to both my own service efforts, as well as how I view dining, branding and dealing with the public.

I haven’t frequented Buca as much in the past few years. They lost sight of what made them work, introducing less than their best alfredo, single-size portions, and menus on the tables instead of on the walls. They got carried away the moment they let themselves be less than what they were by trying to be more to more people. In my opinion, they, and the many companies like them, should be content with a smaller pure brand than a larger diluted one. In late 2002, when I left, they had close to 80 locations. Today, they have about the same.

Oh, and my old GM? He brought much of what he learned to Cooper’s Hawk. He’s now a Senior VP, and much of what we both learned back then can be seen as part of the foundation for what makes the company successful today. In fact, I’m still convinced he’s the reason we have a Chicken Saltimbocca at the Hawk, because it was one of the best dishes Buca offered back in the day. Enjoy!