Goodbye, Sullivan’s

Two posts in less than a month? What are the chances? (Seriously, any math nerds want to calculate that for me? LOL)

Maybe the 7-year itch is a real thing.

I put in my notice at Sullivan’s Steakhouse. I’ve been there nearly 2.5 years, but working only once a week for at least six months means this was inevitable. As of right now, Cathy is discouraging me from pursuing more restaurant work and she’s not wrong. I’ve earned a break. I need a break. The restaurant industry has done me more good than harm, yet it’s not getting easier to do the job with each passing year. I have to look to the future and figure out what’s best for my family and myself.

Sullivan’s taught me a lot about steak. Before working there I never knew the difference between T-bone and Porterhouse, dry aged and wet aged, or understood why certain cuts were more popular than others and the advantages of a bone-in cut. I learned a lot about cooking to certain temperatures, and the benefits of broiling over grilling. They also have one of the best vinaigrettes I’ve ever tasted.

Sullivan’s gave me a little more wine experience. I wish it had involved more opportunities to try wine, but I did get a better sense of the labels that are popular and tend to headline most lists, like Caymus, The Prisoner, and Duckhorn.

Sullivan’s also elevated my fine dining experience. As much as spending half an hour detailing a table at the end of my shift is annoying, it was also educational. If I do return to food service, I have more options for employment across the spectrum from casual diner to fancy supper club.

For now, I’m done waiting tables. I’ll miss the family meals, and the discounts, and the free leftovers that fed me well over the years. Thankfully, my own cooking skills have improved enough that I feel more confident about cooking a steak at home, or properly seasoning a meal.

So goodbye, Sullivan’s. I’ll miss the crew most of all. I hope to return with as much frequency as budgets allow, but until then, if you want a really great steak in the western suburbs, Sully’s is hard to beat. 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!

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!

Waste Not! Want? Not!

I just watched a special report on food waste in this country. This topic is very important to me, as I love food and I hate to see it go to waste. When so many people go hungry every day, and I have at one time or another in my life experienced this to a small degree, it’s depressing to think about some of the reasons preventing us from tackling this problem.

So here’s a few quick points I gleaned from this report that I wanted to share. (And yes, gleaning used to be a thing that helped hungry people find food. We should embrace this practice more.)

1. I learned this statistic that helps put things in perspective. We waste enough food each year to fill 730 average sized NFL football stadiums. I think it amounted to $16 billion annually. That’s insane, even if not surprising.

2. “Sell by”, “Use by”, and “Best by” dates are not regulated or mandated and are completely at the discretion of the manufacturer. Don’t let them scare you into wasting that milk that still smells and tastes perfectly good.

3. There is actually a law that protects food donations, so you cannot be sued if someone gets sick from donated food.

4. Much of the food we waste is wasted at the beginning, because we are food snobs who won’t buy odd shaped peaches.

5. Many stores overstock shelves for fear that the last bunch of kale or chard won’t be bought because everyone assumes there is something wrong with it.

6. Permanent tax breaks exist for big businesses who donate. Small businesses get tax breaks, but these are temporary and must be renewed every year, leaving many small businesses fearful to spend the resources. The House of Reps passed a bill to make these permanent, but the Senate hijacked it and changed it into something else. These tax breaks are critical to offset the costs of donation, which are greater than the costs of disposal.

That’s all I can remember from the report. I work very hard at home and when I’m out to avoid food waste. I’m not perfect, but I think I’ll be even better now. Please join with me to spread the word and please do your part to reduce food waste so we can all have more to 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!

A Not So Secret Menu Item

It’s no secret I currently work as a server at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. I’ve been with the company for nearly four years now. In that time, I’ve eaten my way through the entire menu, and experimented with my own concoctions during many of my meal breaks.

One of the most popular side dishes on the menu is Betty’s Potatoes, a cheesy, shredded hash brown casserole inspired by the founder’s mother-in-law. People order it all the time, and often substitute it for other side dishes. I don’t blame them. If you’ve tried them, you don’t either.

They are also prepared in small batches and finished in individual rarebit dishes. Often at the end of the night, there are anywhere from one to four leftover orders that cannot be reused. As is often my motto about perfectly good items due to be discarded, “If it’s me or the garbage…” I will grab a couple servings to bring home. I usually reheat them for breakfast, playing with various mix-ins, like diced pepperoni, bacon bits, scrambled eggs, and canned chili, just to name a few.

The challenge has always been reheating them, I tend to scrape off the excess bread crumbs before I pack them, because those can turn out weird in the microwave. Lately, though, I’ve taken to a very specific set of steps to prepare them for breakfast. Before, I would pack them in bulk in a large to-go container and cut or scoop chunks out for a meal. Now, I pack each serving into a soup bowl, which serves as a mold, to shape each order into a nice, round cake. I then drop them into a greased, preheated frying pan on medium heat, and cook them for about 2-3 minutes per side. They get a nice, crispy toast on each side, and each serving makes a great base to lay a fried egg on top. It’s my current morning obsession.

Obviously, if you don’t work there, you can’t get them as easily as I do. However, they are very reasonably priced. Just order a side to go the next time you’re in the store. Press them flat into your carryout container, or take them home and transfer them to something that will give them a nice round shape, and reheat them the next morning. Then experiment with your own toppings, and see if you don’t get obsessed with them as well. Enjoy!

An Apron by Any Color…

This week, we received a free shipment from Blue Apron, courtesy of one of my wife’s coworkers. For those not familiar, they essentially pack and ship two complete meals, with nearly all the ingredients you need (including meats, packed in ice for shipping), neatly bagged and labeled, along with a recipe for each. All I needed to do was a little slicing and dicing, and provide my own olive oil.

Tonight, I tackled the first recipe; Salisbury Steak with roasted potato wedges and asparagus. I pulled all the ingredients together and skimmed through the instructions. I needed to dice an onion, mince some garlic, slice some cremini mushrooms, wedge-cut the russet potatoes, and cut the “woody” ends off the asparagus stalks. Overall start to finish time was estimated at 35-45 minutes, but it took me a little over an hour from oven preheating to serving up the finished product. So, my first bit of advice is, unless you’re a wiz with a kitchen knife, add about a quarter longer to the overall time estimate.

The instructions were clear and left little to chance. The attached pictures were a bit helpful, but almost unnecessary. It was easy to work with most of the items, and the quality and freshness of the ingredients was noticeable. I did have to move to a bigger pan at one point, but that’s probably because I ignored my initial instinct. The only step I felt less than confident that I completed well was when I had to gently blend the sautéed “aromatics” with the ground beef and bread crumbs. The finished “steak” patties were more fragile than I had hoped.

When I was all done, the dish presented very well. The sauce for the steaks had a chunkiness I’d never seen before for this dish, but I think that’s because I’d only ever had Salisbury Steaks in cafeterias, or as a tv dinner. The dish wasn’t gluten free, but as long as the all-purpose flour substitute can successfully thicken the sauce, it should be easy enough to alter. The flavors of the steaks, potato wedges, and roasted asparagus paired very well. The asparagus may have been our favorite part of the meal.

Overall, from a culinary perspective, I think the Blue Apron is great. The food was quite good, and I felt confident preparing this meal. I’m not sure if I learned anything significant, but I think looking at the portioning would help me be more aware when I wing it in the kitchen in the future. As far as the value of the program, I think it would depend on one’s lifestyle. If you’re home cooking dinner several nights a week, this could potentially be a great fit. They do all the thinking for you, while letting you focus on the joy of cooking a home-cooked meal. Compared to eating out, it’s a good deal, but only if you eat out frequently. I also think this would appeal most to people who don’t mind making some time to enjoy the process from start to finish. If you’re on a time crunch, this may not be a good fit. So, if you’re passionate about learning to cook, you enjoy the process, and you haven’t mastered ingredient selection/shopping and meal planning, this could be a great way to make your own great food for a change. Enjoy!

A Great First Impression

I finally got a chance to try Seasons 52 in Oak Brook. Their gimmick is a new menu every week of the year, with locally-sourced, healthy, lower calorie dishes. Cathy and I came in for a late lunch, early dinner.

We started out by splitting a tasty watercress salad with pine nuts and aged balsamic drizzle. Great taste, but the watercress could have been a bit more chopped. She had red mole braised beef lettuce wraps, a nice gluten free option that packed tons of flavor. I had their signature burger. They blend beef with druxelle mushrooms. It had a nice char and was served with housemade sweet pickles. The standout surprise for me was the side of tamale tots, served with two different dips. Basically they were deep fried balls of cornmeal. So good! I enjoyed a handmade ginger agave soda that was perfectly refreshing. Dessert was a small bite tasty lemon custard with blueberries.

I asked the server to what degree the menu changes. From what he told me, they have about two-thirds changing four times a year and one third changing weekly. I imagine that keeps regulars coming back, while catering to the adventurous. I plan to come back as soon as I can and explore some more. If anyone has tried this place already, let me know what you thought. In the meantime, watch for my second impression, coming soon. 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!