Crispy Chipotle Chicken Sandwich

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I try to avoid fast food if I can, but I think it’s impossible to do completely in our fast-paced world filled with corporate restaurant chains. When I find myself standing at the counter looking at the menu, I always seem to gravitate to the “limited time offer” items, which can be a bit of a gamble. The most famous of these is probably the legendary McRib from McDonald's featuring a pork patty molded to look like a rack of ribs. That’s scary to me. I think I’d rather eat lunch meat from a 99¢ store.

That said, I have to admit, I was impressed by a new temporary treat at Arby‘s called the Smokin’ Chipotle Chicken Sandwich with breaded chicken, pepper bacon, chipotle barbecue sauce and pickled jalapeños. It was the kind of sandwich that I would make on a Saturday afternoon, and for this recipe, that is exactly what I did – create my own version of the new Arby‘s sandwich. I breaded the chicken myself, but it can be made much quicker with store-bought breaded chicken from the freezer aisle.

I have been waiting for a long time to do a recipe like this. I just had to find the right inspiration. Like I said, I try to avoid fast-food, but it's nearly impossible. It's just to easy and convenient to avoid entirely. (unless you live in New York City, more on this in a future post) I was running around recently, taking care of business when I stopped to grab a quick bite to eat at Arby's. The Smokin' Chipotle Chicken Sandwich presented me with the opportunity I had been waiting for – A limited time offer from a fast food restaurant that I could create my own version of for the column. 
Fast food is part of American culture and for all the bad things they offer our diet, they do have some creative people trying to produce meals and items designed to make us want to try. If you haven't found yourself at one time or another salivating over a commercial for the latest concoction offered at the local chain restaurant, then frankly you don't like food or lost your sense of taste and smell.

The Smokin' Chipotle Sandwich has all the elements of my style of cooking. The chicken is breaded for texture, it contains a special sauce and the pickled jalapeños provide some kick. Most chain restaurants advertise "spicy" or "hot" and it's usually weak to me, but the sandwich actually has some punch. I love the combination of chipotle with bacon, the smoky tastes really compliment each other and I use this combination all the time. Needless to say, I was impressed. 

Arby's creation inspired this recipe, it's not the exact recipe found in stores. The sandwich I create is superior in taste and is better for you health-wise. After all, it is prepared by an experienced cook with knowledge of a few cooking techniques and armed with fresh ingredients. At Arby's, it will be made by an 18-year-old who heats meat in a special oven then tops it with stuff from a caulking gun. They are prepared to serve a million of these. I made four.

I can't wait to find another item like this. I'm not going to comb the fast food landscape for one though. I would rather be inspired by the seasons and the daily needs of real cooking, but when I am in immediate need of food and stop at a corporate-chain restaurant that is impossible to avoid – I will give credit where credit is do – and gladly create my own version.

Eat well, cook often ...

Peanut Butter Cookies with Bits of Toffee

Recenlty my aunt, who is also a good friend and mentor, was informed that she was in for a pretty tough fight, health-wise. This prompted those who know and care about her to organize a benefit to help with the cost of expensive medicines and treatments that she will need to prolong her life.
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Part of the benefit involved a bake sale. I really don’t have much experience with baking. Most of the dishes I make seem to be what one would typically eat while watching football. I took the bake sale as a challenge and decided to make cookies.

My favorite candy bar is a Heath Bar – made of chocolate covered toffee. My favorite cookie is peanut butter. For this recipe, I combine the two, and create a peanut butter cookie with chunks of toffee covered in milk chocolate. It took me a couple of tries to perfect, but in the end, I was able crank out a large quantity for the bake sale and every one of them sold. The benefit was a great success and it inspired me to create a yummy new cookie recipe.

Recently on this blog, I mentioned that I was back living in New York City. I had been there for almost a month with my girlfriend when my aunt got sick. I decided (with my girlfriend's blessing) that it was a good idea to be around my family to help out with the situation. I packed up my belongings and returned to Churubusco, Indiana.

My aunt was diagnosed with lung cancer and given 18 months to live.

It was a huge shock to our close-knit family.  Everyone is dealing with it well and my aunt has settled into her treatments and is doing great, given the circumstances. I've been spending Wednesday evenings with her. We hang out in the kitchen and I've used those nights to experiment with recipes.

This cookie recipe was created in her kitchen.

The first batch was a disaster, the second was good. The third try - well, this is the third try. These cookies are outrageously good and you get lots with this recipe. After all, it's designed for a bake sale. For a snack version at home, just use half of all the ingredients.

Life can throw a punch from time to time, so you always need to be prepared to remain upright once one lands. I'm grateful to be in a situation that allows me to spend time in New York and then, if I need to, back in Indiana with my family. I hope my aunt can defy the odds and make it through this disease, and I hope to make many more recipes with her.

Eat well, cook often ...

Spicy Chicken Stir Fry, Anytime!

It’s 5:10 p.m., I’m at the grocery store and looking for something to make for dinner. This scenario plays out ever day in America – What am I going to make for supper? Most of the time, I start by looking for meat and fresh vegetables that are on sale.

This time, I find a special on boneless chicken breast and decide to make a stir fry. I opt for a $2 bag of frozen vegetables to get a nice variety for a fraction of the cost of fresh ones. I then grab some fresh ginger on the way to the check-out. That is all I need at the store.

For this recipe, all other ingredients that will turn this into an Asian stir fry are at home in the pantry. At any time, I can turn meats and vegetables into a Mexican, Italian or Asian treat just by keeping a few items around in the fridge or cupboard. When I run out of a pantry item, I put it on the list just like bread or milk. All these items at once can be costly, but by planning and understanding the right ingredients to suit your taste, it is relatively easy to make a semi-gourmet meal like this whenever the urge hits.

I had made an entirely different recipe for this week's column when I was at the store getting the chicken, vegetables and ginger for the stir fry. On the way home it hit me – what I was doing at the moment – is what millions were doing at the same time. I love to make gourmet meals, but I don't cook like that every time I eat. Most of the time, I'm looking to make something quick, affordable, somewhat healthy and tasty.

I always have the pantry ingredients that are listed in this recipe. The hoisin sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce help make a yummy stir fry – and I make it a lot. I also use this combination of ingredients to make a barbecue sauce. (find recipe here)

Building a well stocked pantry is expensive initially. It becomes cost effective over time, because the hoisin and soy sauce go in the fridge, like ketchup, and the rice vinegar and sesame oil go in the cupboard. The next time you make stir fry, these ingredients are ready – and should last for a while. For me, The hoisin sauce runs out first, but a 9 ounce bottle should last for a few meals at least.

From time to time, I am going to do more of these "stock the pantry" recipes. It's more about practical cooking rather than the newest take on mango-wango fondu. (Which is fun to create also) With these simple ingredients you can make an endless amount of meals with a delicious Asian inspired flavor.

Eat well, cook often ...

Bite-Size Sausage Pizza Sliders

In 1921, the first White Castle was opened in Wichita, Kansas by Billy Ingram. It was the first fast food burger place in the U.S. The name White Caste was chosen for specific reasons. The "White" was for purity and the "Castle" for strength. It was marketed that way to an American public that was weary of ground beef because of Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary and inhumane conditions in the meatpacking industry. At the time, pork was the most popular household meat.

White Castle proved to be a resounding success and became famous for selling tiny little hamburgers known today as "sliders" – a name derived from the ease with which the sandwiches “slide” down the throat.

For this recipe, I make a pizza slider from pre-made sausage biscuits found at most grocery stores. Pepperoni, pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese are added to the little sausage biscuit, creating a mini-pizza sandwich that should “slide” down like a White Castle burger.

Simplicity. That is what I wanted to achieve with this recipe. I made this snack in a large quantity and it was as easy as cooking gets (beyond heating up frozen dinners). It's really meant to be a snack for Sunday's start of the NFL season. It's a true Man Bite – and a great snack to enjoy with a group of beer-drinking football fans as they settle in for a Sunday full of grid iron battles!

For the newspaper version of the column I didn't have the space to mention the real intention behind this bite. I'm ok with that because I thought the history of the slider is actually better journalism, and I will choose an Upton Sinclair reference over football parties any day - I'm crazy like that.

Eat well, cook often ...

Try This Recipe, You Must

In the greatest movie ever made, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is unpacking his belongings on the swamp planet of Degoba after crash landing his X-wing fighter. He had been instructed by the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi to go there to learn the ways of the Force. Skywalker sits down to enjoy a snack when he is startled by a little green creature that we soon learn is the great Jedi Yoda. Before this is revealed, the diminutive swamp dweller creates quite a commotion in the camp, during which he takes a bite of the snack that Skywalker left laying on a box.

For this recipe, I create my version of that snack had I been working for Star Wars creator George Lucas during the filming of this cinema classic. It’s a corn tortilla with bean dip and green chiles, wrapped around a cheese stick, crispy fried and served with salsa verde. It’s a tasty treat and hardy nourishment for anyone training to become a Jedi. May the Force be with you, always.

I am a Star Wars geek through and through. I remember seeing Star Wars at a drive-in movie theater when I was 4 years old. Every Christmas and birthday until I was 13 my wishlist was full of the latest Star Wars vehicles or action figures (I called the figures "Star Wars guys").

The original trilogy was more than just a collection of great movies, it was a fantasy world that I could explore over and over agian with the figures, playsets and vehicles. The creativity of George Lucas inspired my young imagination, not just through the movies but with the toys that I gleefully opened and played with every Christmas.

Computer work station in my office, surrounded by inspiring collectibles.

I collect vintage trilogy merchandise to this day. You could call it a passion. In my office, where I document and create the recipes for my food column and blog, Star Wars has a place. It's only a fraction of the collection I have amassed but it's a constant reminder to think outside the box.

I've earned a good living as an adult based on my creativity. That spark was planted and nurtured by the ideas of George Lucas. There are many other influences on my imagination, but Lucas and the Star Wars universe was a major contributor. I will always be a fan, geek or whatever you want to call a grown man with a Star Wars collection – and I am proud of it.

On September 16, the Star Wars film collection will be released on Blu-ray. If you have little ones in your life, maybe it's time to pick up the box set and introduce them to a galaxy far, far away.

Eat well, cook often ...

The scene that inspired the snack