I baked a cake!

Today, we celebrated Tripp’s 3rd birthday. My wife has been out of town on business for weeks, so I put the whole thing together myself. Given my son’s current penchant for very selective eating habits, I decided to make a custom cake using some of his favorite foods.

So I baked. Which is kind of a big deal for me. I almost never bake goods, and even more rarely have I frosted and decorated said baked goods. My first intention was to try something very original. Tripp loves strawberries and bananas, so I had this idea for a banana bread iced with strawberry icing. The idea was shot down by a few experienced bakers/family members. I went with plan B.

I bought a yellow cake mix, ready-made strawberry frosting, fresh bananas, and strawberries. I prepared the mix as directed, which means I got to play with a hand mixer. Cathy suggested a cream cheese frosting, since we had some on hand. I checked a few recipes and decided a 1:1 ratio of the whole tub of frosting blended with a whole pack of cream cheese would work, but I tested a small portion first to be sure. My instincts, plus a fair share of cooking show viewings, told me icing the cake would be messy, so I laid out some wax paper and got to work. You can see the finished results below.

The cake was a big hit. I’m not 100% sure people were impressed with the cake in general, or simply that I was the baker, but either way, much was consumed. Most importantly, Tripp loved it. I don’t know how often I’ll bake in the future, or how ambitious I’ll ever try to get, but like many things I’ve tried in the kitchen, this was another effort that proved to be easier than I’d expected. Enjoy!

Up to Some Good

After I spotted some on a recent trip to the store, my most recent cooking caper involved cooking with capers. Inspired by a favorite chicken dish, I made a version of chicken saltimbocca.

Now, my history with this dish goes back to my days at Buca Di Beppo, where I first fell in love with their Chicken Saltimbocca. Fast forward a decade later, I went to work for Cooper’s Hawk, where my former Buca GM had become their VP of Operations. To this day I’m convinced Cooper’s offered a version of this dish at his request.

Recently, while shopping at Aldi’s, I came across jars of the little pea-sized, olive-like beads of concentrated flavor. I immediately thought of this dish and decided to attempt it at home. I knew the ingredients in general, but I had no experience with the recipe so I looked for one that fit the bill in my favorite app, Allrecipes.

What I found seemed to suggest the traditional version wasn’t quite the same as what I had experienced. None of the recipes I found called specifically for a lemon buerre blanc (a lemon, white wine, and butter sauce), which was a key part of the versions from both establishments.

One thing I’ve learned from the industry is quite often menus are crafted to maximize utilization of ingredients. Both restaurants offer a Chicken Piccata, which does traditionally use a lemon buerre blanc, which might explain the use of the same sauce on both dishes.

I decided to follow the Piccata recipe. I didn’t have prosciutto, so I just added a slice of deli ham and provolone to each breast after the flip. I did the rest as directed, the only other substitution being gluten-free flour for coating the chicken.

It ended up being darn near perfection. The citrus element was punched up by use of a Sauvignon Blanc for the sauce. The chicken was ridiculously tender and moist. I served it over instant garlic mashed potatoes with a side of seasoned steamed California veggie medley.

I’m already planning to do a straight up Piccata over spaghetti, since it was so good and I still have capers to use. I highly recommend this dish if you haven’t had it, and I highly recommend the app from Allrecipes.com if you haven’t been there. Enjoy!

Minus the Plus

OK, everyone. I’m going to give you a little inside information about the restaurant world.

There really is no such thing as “temp+”.

Asking for a medium rare plus is just going to get you a polite nod from the server. In the end the chef is going to cook a medium rare or medium, depending on the restaurant.

It’s like having someone ask you to pick a number between one and 10 and you go “6.5”. That’s not a thing.

There’s no magic wand in the kitchen that provides a precise temperature. There are just way too many factors to consider and control. The biggest of which is the meat itself.

So quit asking for “plus” when you order steak, and except the fact there’s going to be a little variance every single time. Enjoy!

For those of you who may not be aware of this, here’s a link to the popular thumb and finger method for cooking your steak to temp.

Is this thing on?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog since my last post, which was… Wow! January?!?

Okay, so a lot’s been going on. Without boring you with too many details, let’s just say the birth of my second kid has doubled the daily load on my time. The good thing about it is that I’ve been cooking a lot more. The bad thing is I barely spend any time on the computer and find it hard to sit down to post, much less anything else. (I swear my iMac sent me a sad emoji recently, followed by the words, “Miss you, boo.”

So here’s some tidbits from my cooking adventures:
1. I got a grill, a nice four-burner with side stovetop burner.
2. I roasted a whole chicken in this grill. I made some awesome chicken kabobs. I have made grilled potato chips and grilled, marinated eggplant.
3. I bought from a local butcher a 21oz bone-in ribeye and quite successfully grilled it to a nice medium, .
4. I hosted a cookout in August for my wife’s 40th birthday/open house at our new home that we bought in April.
5. We now own a reach-in freezer so I’m stocking up and working with a larger variety of meats and cuts.

There’s probably plenty more I could post, but that’s good enough for now. Hopefully, I’ll start posting more regularly again soon. Until then, hope everyone else is having a great grilling season. Enjoy!

Pairing Goes Beyond Wine

Learning about wine has changed my whole approach to food and beverage consumption. It’s changed how I taste anything new. The tasting method as taught by the Court of Master Sommeliers can be applied to anything. It’s no secret that presentation has become a big deal, recognizing the importance of sight. Aromatics is a big buzz word among top chefs, emphasizing the importance of how things smell, and how what happens “on the nose” impacts flavor. The principles of wine appreciation can extend far beyond the bottles that overflow supermarket shelves and wine lists.

One of my favorite principles of wine appreciation involves food pairing. Most are aware that the right pairing of a particular wine to a particular food item or dish can enhance or detract from both. There’s a reason certain wines are famously paired and the safest bets, but the adventurous consumers are welcome to explore unexpected pairings. The biggest concern is negative impact, and the most likely culprits are spicy food and wine. Such a pairing can overwhelm the senses as the spiciness of the food can intensify the wine to undesirable levels.

Pairing has already begun to spread to other beverage groups. I’ve seen discussions on beer and hot tea pairings, and given the diversity of these classes of drink, I fully appreciate the idea. As a result, I’ve taken it to a potentially absurd level. I began to consider an unexpected beverage group and here present my theories for your consideration.

Introducing… my general principles of soft drink pairings with food!

Colas – These dark sodas generally fit best with red meat-based dishes, but Coca-Cola is better suited to sweeter glazes, such as a mushroom sauce on a steak, or a Cincinnati Coney because of it’s more pronounced acidity. When spicier dishes like chilis or beef tacos are on the menu, Pepsi’s heightened sweetness is the better choice. RC can go either way, but leans a bit more toward Coke.

Lemon Lime Sodas – 7Up, Sprite, and Sierra Mist have a crispness ideally suited to sweeter pasta/pizza/barbecue sauces. Tangy drinks like this are also good complements to seafood. Most are too sour/tangy to handle spicy food, the exception being Mountain Dew, which is perfectly suited to pair with late night runs for spicy Mexican or Tex-Mex fare.

Non-alcoholic Beers – Root beer is fairly sweet, and pairs well with spicy dishes like tangy barbecue. Ginger beer, is much more tangy, and a good contrast to fatty burgers, but if the burger is dressed to spicier degrees, then switch to the sweeter ginger ale.

Other Fruits – Most fruit sodas are really sweet, such as Manzanita Sol or Orange Fanta. Spicy food is the obvious choice, but also consider complementing with salads that feature a fruit component such as apples or pears.

The Pepper (and the Bibb  – Like some kind of bridge between a cola and a root beer, Dr. Pepper’s complexity can be great for combination platters and stir fry, dishes with a lot of ingredients and flavors.

Of course, this is just the tip of the ice cube. There are plenty of other possibilities, such as lemonade, iced tea, smoothies, milk, etc. The important thing is that, once you start really thinking about how the flavors and textures of food interact with beverages, and you take a moment to slow down and give yourself time to process the nuances of each, you open up a whole new level of enjoyment when you eat. Enjoy!

The Burger Buildoff

McDonald’s is testing two new burgers in Chicagoland, the finalists of the burger building competition they ran this summer. Here are the descriptions I found online and my quick rundown.

“The Rio Crisp Burger features a 1/4 lb. 100% all-beef patty, natural Pepper Jack cheese, chili lime tortilla strips, leaf lettuce, sliced tomato, sliced red onions, guacamole, and creamy peppercorn sauce on a toasted artisan roll.  The ChiTown Classic features a 1/4 lb. 100% all-beef patty, natural white cheddar cheese, natural pepper jack cheese, Canadian bacon, thick cut applewood smoked bacon, baby spinach & baby kale blend, sliced tomato, sliced red onions and mayo on a toasted quarter pounder bun.”

This Rio Crisp has so much potential. The flavor profile is great, but this is not a good fit for fast food. This is the kind of burger you want sitting down at a table, not trying to keep together while driving. The ChiTown Classic is a better fit, basically another great version of the Quarter Pounder with lots of flavor and easy transport.

Apparently purchases are votes, so I’m voting for the ChiTown… a lot! In fact, I should be voting again today. Enjoy!

Do you love sushi?

Often I have an idea for a post that is short and sweet. Something that’s too big for a tweet, but too small to be a full post.

So I’m launching a new category today called “Mini Treats”!

Like sushi, tapas, and the growing popularity of small plate dining, these are short posts where I’ll touch briefly on the latest food-related moments in my life. So, sit back, grab your small fork or no fork at all, and dig in. Enjoy!

Wine Shop Tips

My wife forwarded this article to me, and I wanted to share it with others. My only complaint about the article is the title. I disagree with the blanket term “Everyone” in the headline, because I’m sure there are shoppers who avoid these mistakes. I think the word was used solely for the sake of sensationalism, something I very much try to avoid in my blogging. Either way, it’s good info here, so… Enjoy!

… as if…

I have become increasingly aware of my own career mortality of late. After four years as a server with the same restaurant, which is a new personal best length of time on a job, circumstances have me thinking about what’s next for me.

The need to move on is driven by several reasons, with my current employment in jeopardy due to a perplexing mix of circumstances, and my current employer unable to offer the experience I need to advance to the next level in the sommelier program. Yet the advantage I have right now, while still employed, is the ability to be selective and pursue several possible opportunities.

In the interim, I’ve adopted a new mentality that at first felt like a survival tactic, but has begun to turn into a teachable moment for others. The explanation usually goes something like this:

“I’ve been reminded recently of something I learned from Robert Kiyosaki’s book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. There is no such thing as job security in this day and age. Yet, I like what I do, and I don’t want to hate my job. So I’ve decided to treat every shift as if it were my last. Whether it’s the last one before vacation, or the last one before a new venture, I’m determined to make sure each shift is the best it can be. After all, if it is my last shift, I want to have fun with it. I want to work hard, stay focused, and go out on a high note. Since it’s my ‘last shift’, no matter what may go wrong, nothing can bother me, faze me, or break me. I’m just going to do my best and leave satisfied that I did.”

This new attitude is being noticed by coworkers and guests alike. It’s certainly improved my attitude and lifted my morale. It’s given me a better sense of priorities and made my efforts more determined and passionate. I respond with greater enthusiasm, I avoid distractions, I engage my coworkers more, and I strive to leave each night satisfied that if that was my last shift, it was as good as I could make it. Admittedly, this kind of push to leave on a high note whenever that final departure occurs can be a bit exhausting at times. Yet the pride I feel at a job well done, on my terms, giving the best I have to offer, is worth every drop of sweat.

So, consider this for yourselves. If you found yourself suddenly unemployed, what would your last day have been like? What would you want it to be like? It’s easy to enjoy your last day when you know it’s coming, but that’s not always a guarantee. Act as if you’re in control of when your last day will happen by making the most of every day you have.

Of course, if you’ve never had a good day at the job you currently do, keep looking. Even when you’re in your field of passion, you may not always be a good fit for a specific employer. Now’s the time to find a better fit, before you really are facing your last day. Enjoy!

Surprised and Humbled!

Level1_CMSWhen I first started working at Cooper’s Hawk, they had a training program that included an all day course conducted by Master Sommelier Ron Edwards. Ron is very passionate about service and wine and a great example of what the Master Sommelier program is all about. I took his course twice, the second time unpaid, and would have taken it again if the program hadn’t been discontinued.

Since then, I’ve been preparing for Level 1 of the MS program. It is a two day intensive overview course on the wine world and hands-on training in the Court’s Deductive Tasting Method (DTM). The class is conducted by the Americas division of the Court of Master Sommeliers. As a result the class  is offered throughout North and South America each year, with 1-2 chances to take it here in Chicago. This year, there was only 1 in February, and it filled up before I could register. So I finally settled on taking the course in Louisville, Kentucky on 9/27-28. (Free lodging at a friend’s house was the key factor for the road trip.)

The world of wine discussions were broad overviews of the world’s wine regions, which had been covered in greater depth in the book I’d read to prepare, Karen McNeill’s Wine Bible (An updated edition releases this month!) The part of class each day that really opened my eyes was the blind tastings with the DTM. Here’s where I was both surprised and humbled, surprised by what I did know, and humbled by what I didn’t. Cooper’s Hawk teaches the DTM to a degree, but the view of wine I’ve acquired there is incredibly narrow and logically focused on their product line.

So, after knowing about 50% of the test question answers, and successfully guessing enough to score at least 60% to pass (they don’t give out test results), I got my pin and certificate! The Court recommends taking at least a year to prepare for the next level, which would see me become a Certified Sommelier. For that to happen, I’d have to find ways to explore a lot of wine outside of my job, and I’d have to consider possibly finding a new job that would allow me a broader spectrum of wines to sell and serve, possibly a fine dining experience so I can learn and practice serving techniques necessary for the next level. I’ll also have to take advantage of my free 1-year membership to the Guild of Sommeliers website and all the resources available there.

My biggest takeaway was that Master Sommeliers are passionate about humility and service. The program is meant to be open and generous. I left the classroom feeling a strong sense of accomplishment and the drive to raise my own level of service at work. Whatever the future holds, I know I want to continue my studies. Whether or not I go for the Level 2:Certified Sommelier remains to be seen. Either way, I’m already a better student of wine than ever before. Enjoy!