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!

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!

Quesadillas!

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!

Bao! The highlight of my China Trip.

All the Chinese Dumplings You Never Knew Existed.

I’ve tried most of the dumplings listed, if not all, and they are consistently among my favorite chinese dishes.  A lot of sushi places offer shaomai, often spelled shu mai or shui mai, as an appetizer.

The best of the bunch is char siu bao, or simply bao. I first experienced these delightful steamed buns during my 2006 trip to China, and I’ve been singing their praises ever since. I was especially tickled to see them featured so prominently in Kung Fu Panda. 

A great place to get fresh bao in Chicago is “Wow Bao“, but they only have a few locations , and none convenient to me. However, many specialty asian grocers will have steamed buns in the freezer section to make at home. Try some soon and let me know what you think. Enjoy!

The Oft Overlooked Hero of the Sandwich World

In my opinion, at least 50% of the determining factor for the success or failure of a sub sandwich is the bread. Some, like my wife, prefer hard, crunchy, chewy breads. I’m more of a fan of soft and flaky. The same ingredients, prepared the same way, on two different breads, can mean a world of difference to the consumer.

With that in mind, what puts my favorite sub chain at the top is the bread. The first sub chain I ever experienced was Subway. It’s good in a pinch, with my favorite bread being the Italian Herb and Cheese. Later, I discovered Quizno’s. Toasting is great, but doesn’t always mean a better sandwich. I almost never toast at Subway, because it doesn’t seem to work with their bread for me. Potbelly’s and Jimmy John’s were pretty great, too, but still not quite what I was looking for. I almost found it when I had my first Jersey Mike’s Chipotle Philly. The bread is so close to my favorite, and topped so well with this sandwich, but there’s still one chain that currently trumps them all.

My favorite chain at the moment is Firehouse Subs. The bread is amazing! Light, flaky, with a soft inside, and great chew, this bread make the best foundation for a great sandwich, and do they have great sandwiches. With such a great foundation, they lay down steamed meats and quality cheeses, to create a crave-worthy experience with every bite. My personal favorite is the Smokehouse Beef Brisket and Cheddar. The meat is so tender and flavorful. So many of the other sandwiches taste great, too, and I give most of the credit to the bread.

Which reminds me of another observation I’ve made about sandwiches. I’ve been to a great many places that can make some great sandwiches. Yet, sometimes they have a standard that they don’t do very well, but include it because they seem to think they need to offer that standard to cover their bases. I say, if you can’t make a good tuna sandwich, don’t make a tuna sandwich.

Lastly, an honorable mention goes out to Jason’s Deli. Although I’m not that impressed with their regular bread selection, they do use Udi’s for their gluten free bread, which has meant being able to share picnics with Cathy. Honestly, most of their sandwiches just taste better on the Udi’s than on the originally intended bread.

So no matter how quality the toppings, or how tasty the sauces, I say the right bread foundation can make or break a sandwich, sub or otherwise. Enjoy!