Saturday, September 26, 2009

Saturday Night Indulgences

Some people see no harm in giving in to temptation and indulging once-in-a-while in unhealthy life pleasures. The best excess is eating dishes without counting the calories that go with them. What's your guilty secret when it comes to food?

Indulgence is defined as the act of rewarding desire and as thoughtless or meaningless behavior. There is a little of each when we spoil ourselves with food and for me – well, I do it once a week on Saturday night.

Food indulgence is a form of raw bliss. For a moment we break out of our required rules of eating to give in to our desire. Anything forbidden or restricted and considered unhealthy or too much of a good thing is an indulgence. Yep – and I am pretty sure that I have more than just a few. In fact, I have many!

My Food Indulgences in no particular order are:


I wrote an entire blog on chocolate September 15th. I will admit, like my mother, I am hooked. No getting around it, I would choose chocolate over almost anything else.

Key Lime Pie:

I love Key Lime Pie…so much that when I need a sweet fix, Key Lime Pie is my indulgence of choice. The recipe in this picture is about 500 calories and 26 G of fat…a far cry from the Weight Watcher’s version that I wrote about some weeks back. I just have to run a lot longer on the day I decide to eat the “real” Key Lime Pie recipe. Worth it – most definitely!

Smoked Gouda:

Like Julia Child, it’s all about the butter! I'm not a cheese expert but the best extra aged gouda I've ever had was definitely buttery. Extra Aged Gouda is one of the finest cheeses in the world and I can’t get enough of it when my indulgence screams cheese.

Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay:

As I mentioned, I like everything a little buttery in particular my Chardonnay. So this is what the Tasting Notes say on the KJ website:
"Elegant and tropical with hints of lemon oil essence, key lime and yellow grapefruit. Notes of ripe pineapple and mango can be found throughout this exquisitely balanced Chardonnay. Lushly layered and viscous with a firm acidity and enchanting creamy texture. The finish lingers on and on." I think that my next job in life is that of a wine taster.
Some of the awards they have won this year are:

Double Gold - 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
Four Star Gold - 2009 Orange County Wine Competition
Gold Medal - 2009 California State Fair

This has always been a celebrated indulgence with friends. Open a bottle of KJ and who knows what kind of other optional extras you will give in to when you decide to kick back and let it all pass for just one night.


Italians love Bruschetta and it's perfectly all right to dream up your own variations, as long as you do not invite an Italian purist to the table. Like Pizza, use lots of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and garlic. For bruschetta that tastes like the classic pizza Margherita, pile on tomatoes, cover with shredded mozzarella and bits of fresh basil, top with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and broil just long enough to melt the cheese.
Also, try spreading an olive tapenade over the bruschetta, add finely diced shallots, and finish with a dash of fresh oregano or marjoram. You can try any variation...heaps of mushrooms, zucchini, or other substantial foods and you've got a great lunch or dinner.

Before Dinner Drinks:

Cooking and drinking go together for me. When I'm at home in my own kitchen, bring it on. Unless it's something really complex, or something that I can't fake my way through I love a drink while I cook dinner. Last night I only had one glass of wine while making dinner and one with dinner. Incredible self-discipline if I must say so myself.

Fried Chicken:

Whoever has the best fried chicken recipe wins! If one thing can side track me faster from the blueprint of healthy eating, fried chicken is it! I loved Kentucky Fried Chicken before we even knew there were indulgences!

French Fries/Hash Browns/Potato Chips/ Baked Potatoes…loaded thank you!

I love potatoes. Give me a plate of hash browns, extra crispy French fries, baked potatoes loaded, or my mother’s pan or riced potatoes with gravy and I am a girl in food heaven. I now am in search of the perfect French fry recipe and will try a million using fresh cut potatoes until I find one. If you have one, send it to me. Stay tuned.

Bread Pudding:

Give me a bowl of New Orleans Bread Pudding and I know that fall just arrived. For the many who never got the familiarity of the late Austin Leslie’s expertise, he was one of the great, real Creole Chefs in the country and his bread pudding recipe happens to be one of my favorites. Look for other recipes this fall that will leave you in after-dinner ecstasy.

Jalapeño Cornbread Muffins:

I never liked living in the south but I LOVE Jalapeno Cornbread Muffins. Cannot think of anything I enjoy more on a cold day in the middle of winter with a big bowl of gumbo. More comfort food recipes to come including my homemade gumbo that I learned to make at the New Orleans Cooking School.


Man cannot live on bread alone but this woman can…need I say more? Some easy and homemade bread recipes from my favorite bread chef this fall.

Ice Cream:

This is the “I love Ice Cream” Facebook Page. Me? Long before Facebook, I use to eat it for breakfast.I grew up with Bridgeman’s Ice Cream so pardon me for sounding like an Ice Cream snob but I like GOOD ICE CREAM!

Did you know that 97% of Americans love Ice Cream? Over one-quarter (27%) say chocolate is their favorite flavor while 22% each say vanilla and cookie dough/cookies and cream is. These are some recent results from The Harris Poll® by Harris Interactive®.

Having an occasional treat once a week makes me happy. Tonight is Saturday and I am already planning my weekly indulgence.And since it was a pretty crazy week, I'm going to indulge in a few of them.

Bon Appetit!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's All About The Crust

I got in the mood to make homemade Pizza crust today. First off, I went to the Evanston Farmers Market yesterday and bought all of the fresh ingredients – Roma tomatoes that were absolutely at their peak, homemade Parmesan and fresh picked herbs - Basil, Oregano and Cilantro. The Cilantro was fantastic. The Cilantro I buy at the grocery store has a very profound, distinct smell. This Cilantro was not overpowering at all and was so fragrant that I could hardly wait to get home and use it. Using local, fresh ingredients is absolutely the best way to validate your homemade pizza crust.
I had forgotten how easy it is to make homemade crust. What I remembered as a lengthy process only took about a half hour…longer to pre-heat the oven. I hand mixed the dough just to remember what it was like without all of the modern gadgets that make cooking easy these days. It was fun…except for kneading the dough. In this exercise I learned two things: I will never be a masseuse and I cannot live without my food processor.

I stress the importance of using a liberal amount of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I like Filippo Berio. Because of its unique, full flavor, Extra Virgin Olive Oil is enormously popular for home "olive oil tastings," a social happening gaining recognition with food aficionados — nearly as trendy as wine tastings in many circles. I use a generous amount in and on the crust. Not only will your dough not dry out but the flavor of your crust is remarkable. I also oil the inside of the bowl and the screen I cook the pizza on.

My old friend, Katie Manion, gave me a short write up this past week on Serious Pie - an inspiration for a local Appleton restaurant, Wild Truffle (5120 West Michaels Drive, Appleton (920) 733-3330).

On the Serious Pie website (316 Virginia Seattle, WA 98121 (206) 838-7388), the photo of the pizza just out of the wood burning oven is amazing. I swear, pizza never looked so good ever. Applewood burning oven preserves? A 600 degree oven? Well, perhaps I need to turn my oven up 100 degrees and experiment!

My pizza cooks in a 500 degree oven preheated for an hour. I cook the pizza for about 8-10 minutes depending on what ingredients I have on it and it always turns out perfect.

More about Tom Douglas, owner of Serious Pie. First off, he looks like everybody’s little brother including mine. Tom was chosen as a competitor in Iron Chef America on the Food Network. He competed against Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, using the secret ingredient Alaskan salmon, and won, defeating Morimoto for only the second time in the shows history. Douglas’s version of the perfect pie is all about the exact amount of really fresh toppings, like home-made mozzarella, sausage, and pancetta, as well as foraged mushrooms, local clams, and farmers'-market produce. Give it to another chef who is totally in to fresh, local ingredients.

So this is what Katie sent over on Wild Truffle since their official website is under construction:

"Hi Sue,
We have a new restaurant in Appleton, the "Wild Truffle", which has by far the best pizza crust I have ever experienced. The owner was originally in the food research business and low and behold now finds himself the owner of this very popular new establishment. He ordered a wood burning stove for $50,000 and spent two years perfecting the crust recipe. His inspiration was a restaurant in Seattle called "Serious Pie", a restaurant which has received rave reviews on several of the food channels. Thought you might want to investigate this for your bank of pizza knowledge. Truly a palette pleaser. Katie Keegan"

For all of you thin crusters out there like me, Great Lake’s Pizza in Chicago is getting a lot of national buzz and has been named the number One Pizza Place in America by GQ Magazine. Nick Lessins, the Polish-Czech co-owner and pizzamaker, actually does makes some of the pies. It’s been said that he makes each as though it is his first, working the dough until it comes out perfect, placing toppings on one small piece after another. He is slow (what can you expect from a perfectionist?) but his cheese pie, prepared with mozzarella made in-house, grated Wisconsin sheep’s-and-cow’s-milk cheese, and aromatic fresh marjoram instead of basil, has been called a work of art. Innovative and local — Great Lake’s characterizes everything alluring about the new approach to American pizza-making. You can find Great Lake’s at 1477 W. Balmoral Ave (between Clark St & Glenwood Ave) in Chicago (773) 334-9270. Just a note that the long lines are worth the wait.

For anyone who loves the original Chicago deep dish, Lou Malnati's is the place. I am not a fan of deep dish but Lou Malnati's is the place to go when you decide to eat out rather than cook at home. One of the best sides to pizza is a good salad. The Malnati Salad is a impressive mix of Romaine lettuce, diced tomatoes, black olives, sliced mushrooms, crumbled salami and gorgonzola cheese topped with Lou's famous dressing with a touch of romano cheese. I love a cheese and at $5.50 for a 6”, Lou Malnati's is this week’s cheap eat Chicago restaurant.

Whatever your taste in Pizza – remember, it’s is all in the crust!

Me, I’ll probably always cook Pizza at home as long as I can get the fresh ingredients at Farmer’s markets and make a great crust in my own kitchen.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Simply put... everyone has a price, mine is chocolate!

You could almost hear women cheering in the streets when new studies associated compounds in chocolate to heart health.

Chocolate. Just the word brings on a passion.

I take in a good whiff every time I ride by the Bloomer Chocolate factory at 600 West Kinzie St. on my way home out of Chicago. The smell…well it all goes back to my mom and her addiction to Mars Bars.

History: Chocolate is produced from the seed of the tropical cacao tree. It has been produced for centuries with its earliest recognizable use around 1100 BC. Mesoamericans make chocolate beverages including the Aztecs and Mayans and is now served in the bean-to-cup chocolate operation at XOCO in Chicago. You can’t wait until the dead of winter to try it. All you chocolate lovers out there – be prepared to be instantly hooked…and oh, by the way, did anyone mention that you will never recover?

I could give up chocolate but I'm not a quitter.

White chocolate only contains cocoa butter, sugar and milk but no cocoa solids and thus does not qualify to be considered real chocolate. Drat! I love white chocolate! Some things I remember about white chocolate? Well, I close my eyes and can remember how my sister Krissy’s white chocolate chip cookies taste. To die for!

So what was so unique about a Mars Bar? Don’t really want to know the calories and fat grams…did not make an ounce a difference to someone like my mom who was addicted and could have cared less. It was almost a respect that could not be discussed but rather just enjoyed – in silence and savoring every flavor until the last bite. Yep – I can still taste that too. So, my addiction to chocolate comes from my mom. Thank goodness she was not addicted to any of my vices!

One of my favorite chocolates on the planet is DOVE. Been there with all the others and have compared but nothing else can weigh against the taste of DOVE chocolate. I don’t particularly care for their website – as a website designer to be- but I can attest to the fact that their chocolate is simply the best! I can pop a Promise in my mouth and be happy all day – why is that? Hate to admit it but chocolate just improves the attitude that I have with the rest of the world. If I am feeling a bit off, chocolate takes me right back on and makes me feel like everything is OK and can survive another day. Doesn’t it astonish you that a food can do that? It’s what I love about food. Sometimes it can carry you off to another place.

Yes, and I love Chocolate has its own Facebook page. Go to:

A million reasons to love Chocolate. What is yours? Write me and let me know.

Oh, and by the way, we have heard this theory that chocolate slows down the aging process. It may not be true, but do I dare take the chance?

Bon Appetit!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

In Search of the Perfect Pizza

If you are in search of the perfect pizza like I am, pay attention. Any great pizza chef will tell you it’s all in the crust!

I use to make pizza for my little sisters when they were young and they always considered it the greatest treat. I don’t know if they loved the pizza so much but they never asked for any other ingredients to be put on the pizza and I never offered. It was just the way our pizza was. Simple, fresh ingredients and really good!

I bought a cookbook (it’s all about another great cookbook) called Pizza by James McNair back in 1987. I have used this cookbook so much it is literally falling apart. James McNair is one of the most creative food writers with over 30 cookbooks to his credit. In the single-subject books that McNair has published since his first one, Cold Pasta, in 1984, Pizza has always been my favorite. The ingredients are fresh and the recipes are straightforward and easy to follow.

There are also samples in this cookbook. This is how I sample my cookbooks: When I lay a spoon down on a page that has olive oil on it and it makes an indelible stain, almost as if to validate the recipe as one you definitely need to make again.

After all of this time, I haven’t decided if I like my niece Jennifer’s cornmeal crust or if I like McNair’s Basic Pizza Dough. It’s still up in the air and I like switching off between the two. I must admit that I love them both. It’s all about the perfect crust. It really does make the pizza! I guarantee that you will never buy pizza again once you have made your first homemade crust.

So, the long time debate in Chicago is – thin or deep dish?

In June, 2009, GQ magazine named the thin-crust mozzarella pizza from Chicago's Great Lake Pizzeria to the top spot of its roundup of the nation's top 25 pizzas. No other Chicago pizza made the list, and no deep dish pizzas from anywhere made it. People say when they come to Chicago they know they are having deep dish - It's not the same anywhere else...or is it?

As with many higher end restaurants, the thin crust pizzerias make a point of using fresh and local ingredients. My pizza restaurants have its mozzarella delivered weekly from Italy. Great Lake makes its own.

Yes, there is a thin v deep dish on Facebook. Connect to it on:

Whatever is on your culinary wish list – thick or thin- pizza defines Chicago’s culinary scene and will be a part of the history that characterizes Chicago’s debate over thick or thin.

Me, I love a thin crust. The crust should never take away from the flavor of the ingredients. I also NEVER put sauce on my crust…only fresh tomatoes. I buy fresh mozzarella and parmesan from The Cheese People in Quincy, IL and also use basil, oregano and tomatoes grown in my neighbor’s garden.

I cook in a very hot, preheated oven – 500 degrees – and only cook on a pizza screen.

To achieve an incredibly great taste, I use a generous amount of olive oil on the crust when I am preparing it. Making the crust from scratch is absolutely worth the extra effort.

You can find a million homemade pizza recipes online including James McNair’s. If you happen to have one you think is really good, send it to me as I am always in search of the perfect pizza.

Bon Appétit!

Vietnamese Cooking - Part II

My friend Alma Ramirez introduced me to a colleague years ago and said that the two of us had one thing in common – we were both Mexican in our last life. I am certain that I was Mexican in my last life, but in my last “food life”, I was Vietnamese.

I bought my first Vietnamese cookbook almost 20 years ago - Foods of Vietnam by Nicole Routhier. I cooked her version of the spring roll, called Cha Gio. It’s made with shrimp and ground pork and is served with a dip made with Fish sauce called nuoc mam. When mixed with lime juices, chilies, sugar, garlic and vinegar, nuoc mam becomes Nuoc Cham. Nuoc Cham is to the Vietnamese what soy sauce is to the Chinese. One bite and I fell in love with Vietnamese cooking and have been hooked ever since. I often imagine my brother Mickey, who served in the Army in Vietnam, enjoying great eats and taking in the beauty of the countryside. I think some day, we have to travel there together.

I took a Vietnamese cooking class in the Argyle neighborhood of Chicago about 15 years ago before many people knew anything about Vietnamese food. Thanks to the internet and a huge interest in the culinary world as a whole, Vietnamese cooking is now known and loved by a lot of great home cooks.It was at this cooking class that I learned certain things like the only brand of Fish Sauce to buy is Squid based. It made a huge difference in the taste of my Nuoc Cham. What I love most about Vietnamese cooking is that the combination of complementary ingredients form new and unique flavors with contrasting textures. These are some of the things that cooking classes teach you that you can’t learn from studying a cookbook. I am a great believer of both culinary education and practical cooking. I have learned after many years of cooking to look at a recipe and determine if it is great or just OK. Like anything, it takes practice and it comes with time.

Vietnamese cuisine can be basically divided into three categories, each pertaining to a specific region. Northern Vietnam’s most notable dishes, such as pho and banh cuon, have their birthplace in the North but more notable in the South. The North’s cuisine is more traditional and less diverse in choosing spices and ingredients. The cuisine of South Vietnam has been influenced historically by the cuisines of southern Chinese immigrants and French colonists. Southerns prefer sweet flavors. As a region of more diversity, the South’s cuisine uses a wider variety of herbs. The cuisine of Central Vietnam is quite different, It’s cuisine is more spicy.

Not long after, I discovered Le Colonial, an up-scale French-Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago that recaptures colonial Southeast Asia from the 1920s and looks like it is straight from the movie The Lover. I was on an expense account back then and often took clients there or had lunch with friends on a Saturday afternoon in the winter. At 937 North Rush Street, it remains my all time #1 splurge restaurant in Chicago and the special place my 4 sisters took me to celebrate my birthday last year.

The restaurant offers a unique cooking class and at 10 students per class, you get a lot of one-on-one time with the Chefs. They go along to the Tai Nam Food Market on Argyle Street and take the students through the store, giving them tips on how to navigate their way through the market so they see and try everything so as not to be intimidated by it.

Last year, when I was working full time, I traveled on the L with a young girl whose family was from Vietnam. It was so much fun to talk with her about her experiences living in Chicago and her family’s great love of Vietnamese food. I loved the L. I had so many travel mates from different cultures – a Polish woman in her 80’s that survived the war and loved working at the airport to help foreigners who come to this country, two lovely women who I practiced my Spanish with every day, and of course the young woman from Vietnam. We only went 3 stops together so we had to talk fast. That was the fun of it. There is so much to be said for the art of traveling this way. So many people who do not venture from the comfort of their own car have no clue what they are missing.

The first of this year has me looking for Chicago Cheap Eats to share with others who want a good bargain or don’t have the cash but still want really great food.

My first cheap eats visit was to a Vietnamese bakery called Nhu-Lan at 2612 W Lawrence Ave. I am in search of a Bahn Mi, which is Ho Chi Minh City's favorite fast lunch food . This little storefront sits unassumingly on Lawrence Avenue. When I mentioned it to the guy the street at the antique store,he didn’t even realize it was there.

The Bahn Mi sandwiches without a doubt are the best I have ever had and I have sampled and made many.

First off. the Vietnamese dedication to excellent, fresh baguettes is what makes these sandwiches great. Using stale bread is the worst offense a banh mi maker can commit.

There is perhaps no simpler, quicker or cheaper ($3.50) a way to sample together the salty, sour, sweet and spicy flavors of Vietnamese food than with a banh mi sandwich. Almost all varieties are accessorized with carrots pickled in sweetened vinegar, cucumber and coriander (cilantro).

There are so many aficionados of this sandwich, the Banh Mi even has it’s own facebook page:

The Banh Mi was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the early 20th century. The first banh mi (pronounced BUN-mee) was made of just bread, butter and ham or duck or goose liver pâté. Over time, the Vietnamese adapted the banh mi and made it their own.

On Nhu-Lan’s website, they talk about their bread… “The homemade dough is proofed on site, then scored with a knife to give each loaf that trademark split down the middle. Each giant rack holds 450 small loaves and they are placed into giant custom ovens all at once, set onto a track across the top of the oven. Once inside, they bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, constantly spinning on the giant racks to aerate and bake each loaf evenly.” This summary reminded me of the reviews that many Mexican familys write on the history of brewing their tequila. Nhu-Lan sells their bread to many other Vietnamese restaurants in the city of Chicago.

A deal at buy 5 get one free, I tried the #4 Thit Nuong - Lemongrass Grilled Pork. The flavors were fantastic and #1 on my place of Vietnamese restaurants (besides Le Colonial) to return to and send all of my friends.

Lawrence Street Bonus Find:

Celebrating 30 years in 2005, Griffins and Gargoyles has been directly importing antique furniture & treasures from Europe since 1975. This unique store specializes in pine, including armoires, bookcases, tables and a new line of custom furniture & painted pieces. They are located in Lincoln Square in an old dairy building with a paved-brick parking lot situated behind a century-old iron fence.

“We offer excellent merchandise and excellent unusual pieces from all over Europe,'' says proprietor Ray Donovan. Specializing in unfinished and highly waxed and refurbished antique furniture, this two-floor warehouse is a delight to visit. Most of the furniture is from Western Europe and was created between 1880 and 1930, but there are usually some earlier pieces as well as some ironwork and antique toys.

Since I worked for Maggie Farley at Shops on Scranton in Lake Bluff for so long, I loved these guys and was also happy to tell them about Nhu-Lan Bakery just down the street. They didn't have a clue it was even in the neighborhood.

Both of them in the West Lawrence Avenue neighborhood and great finds for anyone looking for fantastic quality at affordable price.

Argyle Street

I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian!
Fish sauce, soy sauce, rice, fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables - how can food I love so much be this healthy? Lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, long coriander and basil leave... the herbs and the complexity of the ingredients are just a few of the reasons why I love Vietnamese cuisine.

A long time ago, I was gifted with a great Vietnamese cookbook and by the time I was on my 28th recipe, I decided that I must have been Vietnamese in my last food life.

Argyle Street, from Sheridan to Broadway, is one of my favorite Chicago neighborhoods. Authentic grocery stores make it the perfect place to shop if you are planning to cook up a great Asian meal at home. The last time I was there, I bought a large bag of groceries for just under $13.00. Argyle is just off the Red line north of Wrigley Field. The neighborhood, which has attracted Asian immigrants for the past several decades, is a popular tourist destination.

Today's Menu: Take it or Leave it!

My Vietnamese cookbook does not have any recipes for the back-alley food that my friend Bonnie refers to when she talks about Asian food. Exotic meat such as dog meat, snake, soft-shell turtle, deer and domestic goat are widely sold in street-side restaurants. Organs, including lungs, livers, hearts, intestines and bladders of pigs, cows and chickens are sold at an even higher price than their meat. Chicken testicles and undeveloped eggs are stir-fried with vegetables and served as an everyday dish. Bonnie, the ultimate animal lover, will probably not be sharing a good Vietnamese meal with me anytime soon after she reads this. For anyone who does not subscribe to the “When in Rome do as the Romans do” philosophy, close your eyes and take a huge leap of faith. Vietnamese food will amaze you. In Chicago, you have plenty of great options that are designed to please even the most inexperienced palate.

Pho and Bahn Mi

I read a post on Twitter the other day that said "I must have been Vietnamese in another life (hey- that was my line). Pho is like comfort food for me" -- Pho is pretty amazing stuff :) I headed down to Pho 777. The menu is huge with over 70 items to choose from. Items are listed with a number, the Vietnamese name, and a brief description to help anyone not familiar with the cuisine. Located at 1065 W Argyle Street, you be the judge. It was pretty bland but when I added a ton of Vietnamese chili sauce in oil, bean sprouts, lime, peppers and the fresh Vietnamese basil it was much more to my taste. It happened to be another cold day in August – our summer this year has been one of the coldest on record - so pho was definitely comfort food that day and a bargain at $5.95.

One of my favorite stops on Argyle Street is Ba Le Bakery at 5018 N Broadway. I just love the Bahn Mi and crave their BBQ pork on crunchy bread with fresh hot peppers and vegetables. The price: $3.25. Isn’t it amazing that you get cash back on a $5.00 bill? Now that’s a great lunch!

I know there is a lot of debate on which place is better - Ba Le or Nhu Lan. Honestly, I cannot choose. I love the flavor of the BBQ pork at Ba Le and the fact that the sandwich is overstuffed. Nhu Lan on the other hand bakes all of their own bread and the taste of the pickled vegetables makes the sandwich one of my all time favorites.

And yes, for those of you who asked, there is a facebook page for Vietnamese food. Become a fan on

On the Blue line to Wicker Park:

I had been out of the cooking mode since late last year and was starting to really crave Vietnamese food, in particular a well made banh mi. In early May, I saw an article in the Red Eye on banh mi. It featured a sandwich shop called Bon Bon at 2333 West North Avenue in Wicker Park. One Saturday after our long run, we took the Blue line up to check it out.

What started out as a tiny carryout-only counter had now dialed up to a restaurant with not only great atmosphere (we sat in the front window) but also really fantastic service. Bon Bon uses Nhu Lan’s bread and serves a variety of banh mi including char siu pork, gingered chicken and portobella for $3.95.They also make a highly addictive version which includes a salty pate and layers of head cheese and Vietnamese ham.

Hot or cold, whatever your taste is for Vietnamese food, these restaurants deliver a great Chicago cheap eat and a super healthy meal. Remember, I am all about healthy except when it comes to ice cream 

Vietnamese at Home:

One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes to cook at home is Bun, Vietnamese vermicelli-style noodles made from rice flour, water, and salt. I have to confess that I love Bun so much that I will go for a week eating it and just switching out the toppings and vegetables. You can also use the ingredients to make spring rolls.

One of the reasons Vietnamese food is so healthy is that the noodles and vegetables are always served in abundant amounts, while the meat is served in a much smaller, taste-sized portion.

Don’t confuse rice vermicelli with mung bean vermicelli, also called bean threads. Rice vermicelli does not need to be soaked and it cooks in just 3- 5 minutes. Do not undercook the noodles as they need to be fully cooked to absorb the flavors of the dish - but don’t overcook them either.

Slice the lettuce (make sure that it is the freshest and crispest lettuce you can find) and add a little shredded carrot, sliced Daikon radish or jicama. If you want to quick-pickle the veggies in rice vinegar and sugar, it gives them a little extra kick.

For fresh herbs, check out your local Asian market. You can substitute mint, cilantro and basil if you can’t find Vietnamese coriander and other fresh herbs like red perilla and lemon balm. What I love about my favorite Vietnamese market is that I can smell and then select the fresh herbs I want to put into this dish. I get different ones all the time, depending on what is fresh and available.

The toppings can vary from warm Lemongrass Shrimp to Beef, Pork or Stir-fried vegetables. I love Vietnamese grilled pork. The secret ingredient is the caramel sauce which is used in a marinate along with fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and vegetable oil. After the pork sits in this for 20 minutes, it is cooked on a very hot grill. Another good marinate is made of minced lemongrass, minced garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, lime juice, and oil.

Whatever recipe you select, make sure that you use the best cuts of meat and the freshest shellfish, herbs and vegetables. I love to make this dish in the summer when a wide variety of vegetables are available at my local farmers market here in Lake Bluff.

When you assemble a bowl of bun, you start with handfuls of vegetables, shredded lettuce and herbs and then add fresh noodles and the caramelized pork or other toppings. Finish off with some nuoc cham and chopped peanuts and turn the noodles over a few times and mix.

I have some fantastic recipes for both bun and banh mi so if you want to try them, send me an email.

And remember…The only trouble I have with living alone is that it's always my turn to do the dishes.


Mexican Food and Killer Margaritas - Recipe: Margaritas

My love affair with Mexico goes back 42 years.

Alma Ramirez, one of my former colleagues, introduced me to a friend and said “you two have something in common. You were both Mexican in your last life. I am certain that I was!
After doing business in Mexico most of my professional career and going to Mexico on some of the best vacations with my son Tommy, I have a connection to Mexico that goes back 42 years.

My love affair with Mexican food began when I was living in Guadalajara back in 1966. There was a small restaurant next to the University that made some of the best quesadillas ever. The huge pizza pan of melted cheese came with a basket of fresh baked flour tortillas and homemade green chili sauce. I ate those quesadillas every day and still crave them to this day!
In the Mercado Libertad at Javier Mina #52, there is an entire section on the west side of the second floor where they cook everything you can imagine and maybe don’t care to think of. My suggestion: taste first and ask later.
From street vendors, I bought potato chips with lime, tacos, tortas, garnachas, tostadas, picadas, quesadillas, guaraches, panuchos, sopes, gorditas, tamales, atole, and aguas frescas. I always looked for a stand that was full of locals and ate for under $5.00.
Some of my favorite street food was at the Thursday/Sunday market in Tonola. Located at Av. Tonaltecas north of Av. Tonalá, I have been going to this market for over 40 years and the only thing that has changed is that it is bigger and they sell music.

Living in Chicago, I am a huge fan of Rick Bayless.
In 1987, Rick Bayless opened his popular Frontera Grill at 445 North Clark Street. As I said in a previous blog, there are certain advantages to being loyal to your old standards. For over 20 years, Frontera Grill has never failed to deliver a really fantastic meal. Never a bad meal you say? No, absolutely never! Right next door, TOPOLOBAMPO is his upscale restaurant and if you are on an expense account or out for a special occasion, this is the place to go. I am excited about his new restaurant, XOCO, which will feature Mexico City street food. XOCO is due to open this week. Pronounced show-ko, it is a slang term that means “little sister”. Don’t miss the authentic hot chocolates, some improved with spirits, which will be made from imported cacao beans roasted on site. XOCO is one of just a few of the places in the U.S. with bean-to-bar, cocoa-making capabilities. Additionally, the drink menu will also feature locally crafted beers, prickly pear sangria and Topolovino wines, an Albariño and Syrah that sommelier Jill Gubesch created with Qupé vineyards to go together with the spicy food. For lunch, tortas , which are Mexican sandwiches, will be filled with braised suckling pig chorizo, lamb barbacoa, and jamón Ibérico - all on Labriola bread crisped in a wood-burning oven and topped with pickled onions and habaneros and cheddar. Watch also for the caldos. The broths for these meals-in-a-bowl dinners are simmered overnight, and then served with an array of toppings much like Vietnamese Pho. XOCO is rumored to be opening on September 8th so watch for a food review shortly.

MEXICO – One Plate at a Time, has given public television viewers a taste of the flavors and the celebrations of Mexico. I got my first Bayless cookbook, Authentic Mexican, in 1987 and it has become a classic. He has put out five other cookbooks since then and all of them are great and worth the investment.
Rick Bayless appeared as a guest judge in episode 3 of Season 4's Top Chef and later went on to become a competitor in Top Chef Masters, winning and moving on to the championship round where he won the title of Top Chef Master.
I also love Salpicon at 1252 N Wells St. Chef Priscilla Satkoff's passion for innovative flavors and fresh ingredients are evident in everything she creates. Grilled tenderloin and tequila halibut are house favorites.

If you want to go out and party and skip the food, a great place is Salud Tequila Lounge. At 1471 N Milwaukee Ave, Salud offers an extensive selection of over 75 premium 100% agave tequilas. I know a friend who has tried every one of their agave tequilas.
There are many other great Mexican restaurants in the Pilsen neighborhood which I intend to devote an entire blog to in the weeks to come.
In the mean time, email me your favorite Mexican places in the city. If you are a great at home chef, you can also send me your favorite Mexican recipe. So many people I know love great Mexican food and would love to share your story and recipes with them.
The killer Margaritas:
If I am famous for one thing, it is killer Margaritas. Years ago, my sister-in-law Liz was in search of a great Margarita recipe. Somewhere along the way, I was given one which we re-worked and now never fails to please everyone, even a small child who accidentally drank one on the 4th of July thinking it was lemonade. It has taken me though so many parties including birthdays and retirements, along with countless other people I have given the recipe to that have passed it along as well. It is now on a 2nd generation providing libation to the many people who enjoy my son Tommy’s annual Margaretville party in Tulsa.
The recipe is simple: Half a cup each of tequila, triple sec and Jose Cuervo Margarita mix and one fourth cup of Roses Lime juice. I like it on the rocks with a rim of salt. Don’t try and substitute anything and make sure you are braced for an amazing drink that can blow you off your feet at some point during the night if you have more than two.
If you are cooking at home, stop by the Guanajuato (1053 N. Ashland Ave.) and Casa del Pueblo (1810 S Blue Island Ave) markets.

On the grocery side, dried herbs are sometimes half the price of conventional markets and boxes of ripe fruit sell for about 75 cents each. Again, you can walk out of this store with a huge bag of groceries for under $20.00.
You haven’t eaten street food until you've had one of its carne asada tacos at Guanajuato market. Overloaded with charred meat, chopped onion, cilantro, a shot of crema and salsa.

I use to schedule our first committee meeting in Mexico City on Cinco de Mayo. You however, do not need an excuse or a Mexican holiday to bring out the immensely popular cuisine and tequilas of Mexico. Arriba, abajo, al centro y adentro! And yes, once again, this famous Mexican drinking toast has its own Facebook page.


Cajun, Creole and Louisiana French Cooking: It's All About the Roux

I can credit my ex-husband for an introduction to Cajun, Creole and Louisiana French cooking. Once again, it all came down to a great cookbook.

I got the cookbook, The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collin, in the early 80’s as a birthday gift from him. I never quite understood the passion for Cajun food until I started making it. 

Having mastered all 278 recipes in this book with the exception of Squirrel Sauce Piquante, I can attest to the fact that every recipe is FANTASTIC – not just good but fantastic. How often does it happen that every recipe in the cookbook is great? This was a first for me and it has not happened since.

Cajun cook and humorist Justin Wilson first appeared on local TV in 1971 and would soon become the face of Cajun cuisine with his cooking shows, late-night TV appearances, and cookbooks.

By 1982, I was watching Justin Wilson’s Louisiana Cooking show. Did any of you watch him? I think it was one-of-a-kind on television at the time. I can remember watching him add a "cup" of wine to his recipe and almost emptying half of the bottle. The series was taped at Wilson's camp in southern Louisiana on the banks of the Tickfaw River. The emphasis was on Cajun cuisine with such specialties as gizzard gumbo, deep fried turkey, and crawfish jambalaya demonstrated together with Wilson's hilarious tales in his Cajun lingo. He was part of the huge influence that made me an excellent Cajun cook. I still laugh whenever I think about him.

In Louisiana cooking, locally available ingredients predominate and preparation is easy. Creole food blends French, Spanish, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Deep Southern American, Indian, and African influences. Generally speaking, the French influence in Cajun cuisine is descended from French provincial cuisines of the peasantry, while Creole cuisine evolved in the homes of well-to-do aristocrats.

In Cajun and Creole cuisine, the roux has been raised to a new status never before qualified in other forms of cooking. Allowing for the variations in cooking time and fats or oils, the number of different roux possibilities are endless. The ratio is roughly 1:1, but I tend to use slightly more flour, more like 1-1/4 cups of flour to 1 cup of oil.

There are three basic types of roux: light ("blond"), medium ("peanut butter" colored), and dark. If you want to master great Louisiana cooking, you have to know how to make a roux. It’s what gives Louisiana food it’s really great flavor. I thought that I could take a shortcut but soon learned that there is no way of getting out of being strapped to the stove for an hour. Preparation of a roux is dependent on cooking time. A blond roux will take five minutes; a dark roux up to 20 or 25 minutes at high heat, or an hour at low heat.

Roux must be stirred constantly to avoid burning. Continuously means not stopping to answer your cell phone. If you see black specks in your roux, you've burned it; throw it out and start over. Peanut oil works best for cooking roux at high-heat.

Shrimp Creole and other fond memories…

I have a great affection for one recipe in my cookbook and that is Shrimp Creole. I cooked it for 75 people when I worked for William’s Companies in Tulsa. It was a retirement party for a co-worker. He was the barge traffic manager and one of the barge companies, who happened to be headquartered in New Orleans, offered to provide all of the shrimp. Having lived in Tulsa for a number of years, it had been awhile since I had seen really big shrimp. Little did I know that Louisiana Gulf shrimp, fresh from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, was absolutely the very best shrimp that you can buy.

The Shrimp Creole was a hit and also taught me that there was no difference between cooking for 6 people or cooking for 75…you just have to chop up more to throw into the pot... simple as that! Once it is in the pot, your work is done. Just put it on simmer and enjoy the time with your company.

Hurricane Katrina altered New Orleans forever but it did not change the soul or the culinary elements that makes New Orleans what it is – a leading city for culinary excellence. I have been to New Orleans both pre and post Katrina and it continues to remain a food mecca and it’s restaurants help catalyze New Orleans return.

Great New Orleans restaurants…

One of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans is Galatoire’s at 209 Bourbon Street. On its website, it says that it is a “fourth generation of family ownership and serves authentic French Creole cuisine at a level that raises consistency to an art form.
Even after 100 years, this ageless New Orleans favorite graces her menu just as they did back in 1905. I can confirm that it has simply some of the best cooking New Orleans has to offer. I find myself eating there many times when I am in the city.

Take a class at the New Orleans Cooking School, 524 St. Louis Street. Kevin Belton, after a long and checkered football career with the NFL, is the star chef.
This larger than life chef, with no formal training, taught us the finer points of Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, Gumbo, Bread Pudding (it is to die for) and pralines. It runs a half a day and includes lunch.

I thought I knew it all but soon learned that I was making my roux for gumbo way too light – peanut butter instead of dark.

Again, this is the benefit of a cooking class. It teaches you all the tricks and shortcuts.

New Orleans – Chicago Style…

One of my favorite Cajun restaurants in Chicago is Heaven on Seven.

Jimmy Bannos, a third-generation restaurateur, worked with famous New Orleans chefs, such as Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul’s, Frank Brigtsen and Emeril Lagasse…
other chefs who have inspired me to cook Cajun.  

Heaven on Seven restaurants have been one of the most popular destinations in Chicago for 29 years. Jimmy marries Latin, South American, Asian and Western European methods with New Orleans techniques and ingredients.

Although I never enjoyed living in the South, I have always craved Jalapeno Corn Bread Muffins and Heaven on Seven makes some of the best along with their gumbo. For under $10.00 you can get a good fix of both. They also have a location at 600 N. Michigan Ave. I prefer the ambiance of the original kitchen.

Another great Cajun place is the Dixie Kitchen Evanston at 825 Church Street. From a cup of Jambalaya, Eggs Sardou, or a Shrimp Po' Boy, the food remains some of the best Cajun food in Chicago.

I am sure there are more Cajun restaurants in Chicago but I am stuck on these two and when I don’t cook at home, they are the two I go to on a regular basis.

Cajun cooking at home:

My favorite dishes to cook at home are torn out of my cookbook and placed in the front flap. Not sure why I did that because I never have before. I think I saw someone do it in New Orleans and decided it must be the Cajun way.

The recipes that are at the front of my cookbook are Shrimp Sauce Piquante (Shrimp Creole), Navy (White) Bean Soup and Chicken and Sausage File Gumbo.
In addition, my recipes from the New Orleans Cooking School for Jambalaya and Bread Pudding also hold a place of honor at the front of my book.

In my Gumbo, I use Creole smoked sausage, ham and chicken. I cut the calories by not eating the skin on the chicken and often using turkey sausage. When I get sick of eating healthy all the time, I am all for the Andouille.

The vegetables in my gumbo include green pepper, scallions, parsley, garlic and onion. I put a lot of fresh spices in including pepper, cayenne, thyme, bay leave and file powder. I almost never vary from these ingredients because the gumbo always turns out incredible.

For great Shrimp Creole, I use the largest and freshest shrimp I can find. If you are going to go to the trouble of making this recipe, don’t skimp on the shrimp. The Italian tomatoes and a long list of fresh spices makes this recipe an all time favorite…not to mention the red wine and peanut butter color roux that flavors this dish. This remains my all time favorite recipe in this cookbook.

Onion, celery and green pepper are the holy trinity of Jambalaya. Someone at work made Jambalaya once and it tasted nothing like this recipe. The New Orleans Cooking School’s recipe is the  best recipe I’ve run across.

To me, there is nothing better than bread pudding to close out a great Cajun meal. With day old bread, milk, sugar, butter and eggs, you can put in a variation of extras and top a whiskey or Carmel sauce and have a magnificent dessert. I love it because it is easy. It is definitely my comfort food on a cold, winter night in Chicago.

Stay Warm and Bon Appetite!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lake Bluff Farmers Market

Every Friday, the sleepy, little community on the lake that we lovingly call “Mayberry” comes to life. Lake Bluff’s weekly Farmer’s Market is one of the best on the North Shore. Started in 1979, the market has been thriving for 16 years.

Much like the mercados all over Mexico, growers gather to sell their fruits and vegetables directly to the public in what is one of the oldest forms of direct marketing. The reward is that we get fresher and healthier produce and farmers get a much better price than they do selling to the local grocery chain.

Merchants sell everything from fresh cheese and bread to flowers and homemade granola. I love the wide variety of produce that is available at these markets and hardly ever have to go to the grocery store during the season anymore.

Several weeks ago, I did a side-by-side test for my neighbor who insisted that she could buy the same quality of green beans at the local supermarket. She could not believe the difference in taste. The beans at your local grocery have to go through the “distribution system”. The ones at your local farmers market were probably just picked fresh yesterday.

About a month ago, I was waiting to take the train downtown Chicago and was talking to a young girl who is now baking bread with her Aunt and selling it at the Farmer’s Market. She told me the short history of The Necessity Baking Company – they are getting ready to move into a new kitchen - and was so excited, in this economy, to have a new career. I visited with them last Friday and their breads were fantastic. Using fresh herbs, cheese and fruits to create products that not only looked great, they were also in high demand and this is the type of product you just can’t find in your local grocery store. I bought the Dolce Asiago and it was amazing. Bread is one of my favorite indulgence foods along with cheese.

I never had an ounce of respect for cheese until I took a taste of the Gouda and Mindoro Bleu offered by The Cheese People. My friend recently told me that she does not eat cheese because it is artery-clogging and bad for you. You would never know it by the number of people who are waiting at the cheese stall each week. Whatever the discussion, good or bad, I consume cheese responsibly. A little cheating once in awhile makes healthy eating not quite so boring.

The Lake Bluff Farmers Market is on the Village Green, at Sheridan Road and Scranton Avenue, June 12th through October 9th, from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Chicago Notes:

Perhaps no one appreciates the local growers more than Rick Bayless. He established The Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2003 out of concern for struggling farmers and the importance of local produce to influence Chicago’s cooking traditions. We are awaiting the opening of XOCO this week to enjoy some of the Mexican street food that will put a new twist on local ingredients. Stay tuned.

Chicago’s Green City Market is Chicago’s only market promoting local farmers, producers and chefs by linking them to the community through educational programs and special events.

The Chicago Green City Market outdoor season runs May 6 through October 31, 2009, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is located at the south end of Lincoln Park between Clark and Stockton Drive (approximately 1750 N. Clark).

The Chicago Green City Market indoor season runs from November 7, 2009, through April 2010, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is located in the south gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum at at 2430 N. Cannon Drive in Lincoln Park, just north of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Look for a blog this November inside the Green City Market and catch one of your local celebrity chefs putting on a demonstration showing how to make meals using local ingredients.