My wife, Cathy, loves crab boils. For those who don’t know what that is, (and I was one of them up till two years ago,) a crab boil is crab or other seafood boiled and served in bags. Basically, load a pound of shellfish of choice in a big plastic bag, add a sauce of choice, and boil. Then open said bag at the table and dig in.

Two years ago, Cathy was in Northern California on a special work project. During my visit one weekend, she took me to a local crab boil joint near her apartment. I was not brave, so I ordered some rice dish and some sausage and let her make a mess of her meal. Fast forward to recently, when we visited a local place called, “Crab & Spice“. She had been craving it for quite a while and this date night seemed as good as any to go for it.

Now, let me clarify that I love seafood, but I hate the effort. I usually only tackle seafood that is already exhumed from its skeletal surroundings. Crab out of the shell, shrimp peeled, deveined and tailless, lobster, mussels, oysters (cooked, please), as long as someone’s already done the dirty work, I’m there. It’s a small part squeamishness and a large part I have no idea what’s edible.

So on this night, I was a bit nervous looking at the limited menu and seeing little in the way of safe bets. I didn’t trust myself to handle the stuff, but I did trust my wife, so I decided to just go for it. I knew she had the experience to teach me what I needed to know and I’m reaching that age where it’s getting easier and easier to suppress my reluctance and cut loose.

We went on a weeknight. The place is simple, with picnic-style tables, a chalkboard menu with the market prices listed to supplement the printed menus, and paper towel rolls standing by. One side of the menu is the limited options and the other is the drink list. Their offerings included shrimp, crab, mussels, crawfish, and lobster. We ordered the shellfish medley to share, springing for the peeled and deveined shrimp, mussels, and snow crab legs. Crab & Spice has a signature Ultimate sauce, which is just a blend of the their garlic butter, lemon pepper, and simply Cajun sauces. We went for the mild version of the Ultimate on recommendation of our server.

Being only slightly braver than usual, I added a side of kielbasa sausage in case I wasn’t up to all the stuff in the bag. We got a side of sweet potato fries, steamed rice, and I ordered a cup of lobster bisque. The bag came out big and steaming, with the bottom full of sauce. Cathy, bless her heart, grabbed the crackers and went to town on the crab legs, offering me bite-sized portions of deliciously tender crab as she extracted them from the shells. I found the shrimp easily consumed. The mussels were all in shell, but easier to extract than I’d expected. The sauce was complex without any one flavor overpowering, although the garlic may have stood out the most. The soup was good, and made a good dip for the fries. The restaurant offers a powdered sugar for the fries, but we passed. After we’d finished every last bit of seafood, we spooned some sauce over the rice. That combination was almost too rich, something we hadn’t noticed with the seafood.

All in all, it was well done and delicious. I left very satisfied, not only with the meal, but with my willingness to step out a bit from my comfort zone. Thankfully, I was rewarded for it. The bill came out to around $50 dollars, including the two soft drinks. It’s not something we’d do often, but I do look forward to doing it again soon, and for those who love a good crab boil, I highly recommend the place. Enjoy!

Abuelita’s Comfort Food

I’ve been meaning to post for a while. Life has been throwing some challenges at me for a months now, but lately I’ve been determined to get back to focusing on what matters most to me.

Recently, my first and primary culinary inspiration passed away. My mother’s cooking gave me many of my best childhood memories and inspired my passion for food. She had been unable to cook for many, many years, so I never got a chance to share my growing interest in the creative side of the kitchen in recent years with her.

Last fall, I took on a new job. Because it’s retail, I hadn’t had as much opportunities to get in the kitchen during the holidays, but the last few weeks have slowed down a bit and so I’m home more evenings for now. With winter winding down, I’ve been cooking up some very hearty meals.

Last week, I tried a new shepherd’s pie style recipe that baked up amazingly and tasted delicious. My wife loved it and begged me to make it again. (I say “style” because some may argue that the ground beef versions are actually cottage pies and not a true shepherd’s but we’re splitting wool hairs if you ask me.)

Tonight I broke out my 90 year old grandma’s simple classic – picadillo. The word is used a few ways in mexican cooking, but this take refers to a one pot meal of beef and potatoes. This recipe is legendary for having impressed my best friend, who pretty much never liked my early attempts at cooking otherwise, and I can’t really blame him.

This stuff is great spooned from a bowl or served as a taco filling, and like chili, even better when reheated. There are a number of recipes that can be found out there, but here’s my version of grandma’s. It’s pretty much her simple recipe, but embellished with more instructions for clarity, since she gave me hers with what I can only presume were exaggerated assumptions of my capability at that time.

Classic Picadillo by way of Mi Abuela, Jessie Valadez.

1lb ground beef
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
1 whole onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 large baking potatoes, diced
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Brown beef in a large skillet or pan. Drain and return to heat. Add potatoes, onions and peppers and sauté for about ten minutes until onions are translucent. Add sauce and 1 cup water. Simmer over medium heat until potatoes are soft. Add cumin and season to taste.

A few tips. I sprinkled a little salt on the meat while browning. Because it is leaner, if you use ground turkey, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the sauté step. I simmered for about 15 minutes uncovered and 15 minutes covered, stirring every 5 minutes. This allowed the liquid to reduce a bit and then helped soften the potatoes quickly. 

Traditionally, we’d stuff tortillas with the mixture and top with salsa, sour cream, and either shredded chihuahua cheese or grated parmesan.

This will make quite a bit, but I imagine if you have a big enough pot, you can double the recipe and feed a small army. This one’s a real crowd pleaser! 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 if you haven’t been there. 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!


My dad is half hispanic. That makes me a quarter hispanic. Totally not obvious to people around me, and that’s cool. However, when my dad was a little kid, my grandma remarried Desi Arnaz. (Okay, not really, but he reminded me a lot of Desi growing up.) I spent many Sundays with my grandparents, enjoying chorizo and eggs and refried beans for breakfast. Many a holiday included chicken molé next to the turkey or ham. I learned about rompope, gazpacho, fidello soup, and picadillo, a ground beef and potato dish.

Because of this, I’ve become a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to mexican food. Not completely, of course, since I still like cheese on my otherwise mexican-style tacos (usually just meat, cilantro, and onion, often with a squeeze of lime.) Yet the one thing I love the most, I usually love most traditionally… Quesadillas!

In my mind, the best quesadilla is a corn tortilla, filled with chihuahua cheese and flat grilled till it’s the right balance of crisp and chew and the cheese is nearly as stringy as mozzarella on a pizza. Forget flour tortillas, forget cheddar-jack blends, and no thank you to the endless parade of add-ons. Calling that a quesadilla is like calling instant pudding “mousse” or Spaghetti-O’s “pasta.”

To be fair, there are the occasional surprises. A few of the tex-mex inspired creations out that can be amazing. However, it’s still hard not to bristle at the notion of these fantastic creations being given the “quesadilla” label. I’d much rather see them called something like, “latin-style grilled flatwraps” or something like that. Case in point, the delicious grilled flatwaps I made two days ago, with flour tortillas and slices of smoked sweet swiss. They were amazing, but very non-traditional.

So, if anyone is paying attention, feel free to use “flatwraps” for a more accurate description of your creativity, and please leave the traditional quesadilla to the professionals at Los Burritos (insert appropriate name here). Enjoy!

Try it. You’ll like it.

Recently, a coworker said to me, “You always have the best break food.” She was noting my recent experiment with various items from the kitchen at work. My latest endeavor to change things up is to try different sauces and toppings on mashed potatoes. My current favorites are tomato basil relish on the regular mashed and the potsticker sauce on wasabi-buttered mashed.

Whenever guests ask me what I like, I always say the same thing. “I have tried everything on the menu, and I have favorites in every category.” When someone tells me to chose between two items I always ask if they’ve tried either and usually tell them to try the other one. If they want me to choose an all-time favorite, I rarely have one, and usually respond, “It depends on my mood.”

Why? Because I’ve got an explorer’s spirit when it comes to eating. I love to try new things. Sure, I have my go-to favorite flavors, like cilantro, chocolate, anything cheese. Yet, more often of late, I’m getting away from my old pattern of getting stuck on a dish and trying it wherever I go. Gone are my caesar salad phase, my obsession with reuben sandwiches, or my penchant for all things alfredo sauce. I’ve learned to appreciate brussel sprouts again, to cook without cheese, to put a fried egg on peanut buttered toast, just because a pinterest pin suggested it. I’m an open-minded eater always on the hunt for my next dining experience.

There are limits of course. I still won’t eat liver, I’ve never eaten bugs (as far as I know), and I prefer my seafood tailless and shell-less. Still, the pairing of cayenne pepper and dark chocolate, or peanut butter and jalapeños, are just some of the many unexpected treats I now seek out. I hope my adventurous spirit is something my son embraces as he learns about foot. I also hope I can continue to inspire others to embrace new food for the rest of my life. After all, there’s so much out there to be explored. You never know where your next great favorite meal is waiting to be consumed until you keep looking to find it. Enjoy!

Gluten… Free, but Not Yet Easy

When I met my wife, she’d been diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity for at least a couple years. Back in 2010, she ate a lot of popcorn, because options were few and far between. Some Asian and Latin cuisine was safe (she just had to watch out for soy sauce), but she hadn’t had a good pizza or burger for a while, at least not without cheating and paying for it later.

Fast forward to the present day and there has been an explosion of support for this affliction. Store shelves already starting to fill up with lots of health food company options are starting to get crowded with name brand support, such as Chex, Bisquick and King Arthur. Even Aldi’s offers some of the most reasonably priced products on the market. Most are even quite good. I emphasize reasonably priced because prices are still generally higher for replicators; products that fake the common uses for wheat.

There is still some room for improvement. Udi’s makes the best sandwich breads we’ve had so far, but the loaf size for their version of a white bread is smaller than a standard loaf. The whole grain loaves can be found in a more traditional size at Costco, so that’s what we usually have on hand, even though the cost is nearly 2.5x the comparable wheat price. Many pizza chains now offer gluten free crusts, but these are stocked frozen and made to order, and almost always only available as a thin crust. I even heard the Labriola Bakery moved their baking kitchen out of their cafe to a separate location so they could clean up and cater to the sensitive with new options and offerings.

However, there are still a few things missing from the alternatives. As long as it remains difficult to replicate the binding behavior of wheat gluten, certain classics remain elusive. Since I share so many of my meals with Cathy, I end up missing out as well. For both of us, I crave a good deep dish pizza, a good burrito, or a hearty italian beef. There are plenty of options out there. I just continue to hope for more, and for better.

Or a cure. That would work, too.

Until then, I’ll keep posting great gluten free finds when I discover them. Enjoy!

Not Chicken Anymore II: The Final Bow

Recently, I tackled my first whole chicken as described in this post. It was a smashing success, but a few days later, all that was left was the wings and a carcass. Cathy suggested I make stock from it. I’d never made stock before, but I figured all I needed was guidance from a recipe to get the job done.

Four hours later, I had a nice stock going. However, I still had to make dinner and I’d defrosted a chicken breast, so I got the idea to make a chicken noodle soup. Another recipe served me as a guide for cooking times and I went to work. I roasted some onions with the chicken breast until the chicken was pull-apart tender. I used the left over lemon and olive oil drippings from when I’d roasted the whole chicken for the roasting oil. I carefully pulled out as much edible meat form the remains of straining the stock and tossed that in. I didn’t have carrots or celery, but I did have some frozen pureed carrots we had been feeding the boy. A few tablespoons of that went in for flavor and nutrition. I used gluten free fusilli for the pasta.

Cathy and I downed two bowls each without blinking. I dished up four more helpings into storage containers for lunches this week. Another successful night in the kitchen, but so much of the process was unmeasured that I’ll never be able to truly repeat this again. To get the broth just right, I did something I hadn’t really done much in the past. I tasted as I went. That led me to toss in a little citron salt flakes we had on hand and a couple bouillon cubes to balance the broth. Tasting is an important part of the process that I need to trust more in the future. Like a great many other aspects of my growing kitchen skills, it’s the thing that will build my confidence and lead to future successes. Which I’m sure I’ll report on as soon as they happen. Enjoy!

Italio! Like Piada, only closer.

A couple years ago, I visited Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio on a business trip to help open a new Cooper’s Hawk. While there, one of the restaurants I visited was a place called, “Piada“. At the time, I commented in my Facebook check-in that it reminded me of what it would be like to walk into a Chipotle and think to myself, “Actually, what I really wanted was italian.” While their italian “burritos”, aka street wraps, were pretty good, the pasta bowl was the real winner.

So today, I got the chance to try a new local eatery called, “Italio“, In Orland Park, IL. It has nearly everything in common with Piada. There’s the option for a wrap, a pasta bowl, or a salad bowl. There are lots of choices for meats and fresh toppings, several tasty sauces and multiple cheese toppers. My dad and I shared a meatball sampler with the spicy diavolo sauce, and then we each selected our own pasta bowls. I ordered the diced steak for my protein choice, and blended their alfredo and marina sauces. Overall, it was a delightful experience.

In the end, Italio is so similar to Piada that I’m not entirely sure why they aren’t the same company. I’m thrilled to have a place like this within a reasonable distance, and I look forward to visiting Italio again soon. The only thing it didn’t have was Piada’s italian soda tap that offered multiple tasty flavors. Italio does carry little bottles of San Pellegrino’s sparkling blood orange soda, so it’s not a complete loss, but those don’t come with free refills. If you’re ever near a location for either company, stop in for a real treat. If you can make it twice, try the wrap at least once. Otherwise, take my advice and go for the pasta bowl. Vi piace!