Friday, July 27, 2012

The Meaty Italian Burger

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Recently I recreated an amazing toasted sub, or grinder, from Brevins restaurant in Churubusco, Indiana. After making the sandwich I had salami, pepperoni and ceaser dressing left over. I thought about getting more ham and french bread for another grinder but I did what any man would do - pile them on a cheeseburger!

I decided to add a layer of basil and the end result was what I call - The Meaty Italian Burger. It’s a bit heavy and not for the weak at heart (or people with cholesterol problems) but, to say the least, it’s an all-star man bite. I’m half tempted to call Carl Jr's. to see if they’ll try it as one of their six dollar man burgers. I would love to see a voluptuous super model chowing on this in something skimpy in one of their controversial commercials.

The ceasar dressing adds a ton of flavor and compliments the deli meats that adorn the thick burger patty. I could have went with pizza sauce and made this more of a meat lovers pizza burger but I’m glad I went the went this route, I'll try the pizza burger another day.

I made these in the afternoon and later in the day I had to watch my nephews. I made four burgers but I had only enough salami and pepperoni for two. I ate the first one and thought I would give the second to my nephews to split. Once they arrived the two played for a while and then it was time to warm the burgers so they could snack.

Like a stingy over-eater I grabbed the Meaty Italian burger for myself and left the plain burgers for the boys. I wasn’t really hungry, it's just that I had to have it. The burger was really tasty and I just couldn’t resist. I must have looked like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. I gobbled up the burger as if I hadn't eaten weeks. They didn’t care though. A burger is a burger is a chicken nugget to those guys.

Some kids may appreciate fine cooking by my nephews usually want the special sauce left off or anything else added to make the meal gourmet – typical kids I guess.

Eat well, cook often ...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Spicy, Sweet and Sour Chicken

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I have started a new culinary adventure.

Recently, I was introduced to John Maxwell, a New Orleans Chef who was forced to relocate to Fort Wayne after Hurricane Katrina. He currently cooks at the Shiloh reception hall and is in the process of starting a food truck called “The Ragin’ Cajun.” The truck will deliver the cuisine of New Orleans to Fort Wayne and the surrounding areas.

John was in need of help at the hall and with the truck. After meeting with him at the Shiloh, I was asked to come aboard to assist him with the cooking and to help create an on-line social network for the Ragin' Cajun.

For this recipe, I create my own version of sweet and sour chicken over rice – the first dish I helped John prepare for a reception a couple weeks ago. It was intended for 160 people, so it was created differently at the Shiloh. This is a version for four that contains some heat from sriracha hot sauce. It’s the first of hopefully many creations inspired by this new adventure.

A little over two years ago I left New York City and the world of journalism to create a business for myself. A once in a lifetime opportunity that at the very least would allow me to sit back when I’m an old man and say “This is what I did” instead of “This is what I could have done.”

This blog featuring over 100 original recipes, 20,000 words, 1,500 photographs and a print column that has ran every week for the last two years is what I have built. At the very least I have written a how-to cookbook with a stunning visual presentation of my food and the story behind it.

In Early June, my cousin approached me with a card and an application. He said the Chef at the Shiloh was looking for some help. He wasn’t sure what “help” meant but he gave me assurance that these were solid people and I should at least go talk to them because he felt like I could offer some good services to them.
The card he gave me said “Ragin’ Cajun Food Truck - John Maxwell - Chef/Owner.” I thought what the hell. Cool concept for Fort Wayne. I’ll at least give the guy a call.

The Shiloh Catering and Reception Hall
A few days later I called John, his Bayou accent was clear and authentic, and I agreed to come have a look at the Shiloh and his food truck. He didn’t have a job description, but told me if I would check the place out he could explain it better.

When I went to meet John at the Shiloh, he first showed me the set up inside. Great space for cooking, lots of equipment, very clean and in general, a nice place. He then showed me the truck, which hadn’t been painted yet, and he talked to me about his menu and plans. The truck was a dream kitchen on wheels. char broiler, griddle, fryer, stove ... It’s loaded.

John is a native of New Orleans, and a true character. It was evident right from the get go. He reminded me of my old buddies back in Whitestone, Queens in the borough of New York City. I liked him right away. *1

We went back to the office of the Shiloh and talked for a while, at that time Jeff Parrot, the owner joined us. He had been looking at this blog while me and John were inspecting the truck. The Shiloh is primarily a family run business, at a reception, you’ll find Jeff’s wife pitching in as well as the kids. Jeff is a genuine guy with an entrepreneurial spirit who seems open to new ideas.

Big John's Ragin' Cajun Food Truck
We sat and talked about the possibilities of the food truck and the Shiloh, I told them my story. We agreed that we might be able to help each other business-wise with the different resources we all bring to the table. Since then, I have worked a couple of reception helping John cook and started a website for the Ragin’ Cajun Food Truck. (Which now has an awesome paint job.)

We’ll see where it goes from here. As I said in the introduction, It's a new culinary adventure. Can’t wait to see where it takes me.

Eat well, cook often ...

The picture at right is (from left counter clockwise) my mom holding my sister, great grandma, grandpa, me and my great great grandma. Five generations. Taken in September of 1979 at the Shiloh, during my great grandparents 50th wedding anniversary party. I was 5.

*1 - NOTE
In the Big Apple, as I am sure is the case with New Orleans (The Big Easy), you have to be a character if you want to survive and have any kind of success. In smaller places, it’s much safer to fit in with the crowd rather than to stand out. Not the case in New York - You fit in BY standing out, which brings more of people’s true character to the table, but ironically, makes them appear to have a tougher exterior.

Big John, the Ragin' Cajun, is definitely a character.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Chipotle Sauce

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A while back I did a dried chili extravaganza here at Behind the Bites. As a result of having seen the post, Greg Patterson, of sent me some samples from his store to try out.

SpicesInc is an on-line spice store with an inventory of any spice imaginable. Not only do they sell spices, but there are recipes for how to use them and a some history of the individual products. I find that very helpful in using them to enhance recipes.

A package of dried chipotle chilies was in the mix of what Greg sent and I thought it was a good time to make chipotle sauce for some tacos.

Instead of using just water to reconstitute the chipotles I thought I could add a little depth of flavor with chicken broth instead. This sauce is very simple to make and it’s awesome on tacos and burritos, but could be used for a number of things like flavoring chili or salsa – or even mixing into a barbecue sauce.

Any dried chili works with this recipe, from the mild ancho chili to the mind blowing habanero, it’s all up to the cook. The chipotle gives this sauce a smoky, hot flavor.

Having a food column in the local paper of the town you live comes with some benefits. One I have experienced is people ask me to cater and cook for events which leads to some nice money on the side. The box of goodies that Greg from SpicesInc sent was my first real benefit of having a food blog on-line. It was very flattering and lots of fun opening the box and rifling through the goodies he sent. I love Mexican cooking, so it couldn’t have worked out better for me that SpicesInc sent a variety of dried chilies and Mexican spices.

Since I left my everyday job in the world of journalism to pursue a career in food I have had little victories that keep me pushing forward. The box of spices in the mail was one of them. It reminds me of when I first got into journalism and received a pay check for my job at the Ball State Daily News.

The check was for $56.

I was in aw, even though that was the pay for two weeks of full-time employment. I just couldn’t believe I was actually getting paid for something I really loved to do. Needless to say, I wasn’t doing it for the money.

I feel that way now and believe I have been doing the finest and most original work of my career. The pay isn’t where I want it and I have a long way to climb, but I believe in the work and have enjoyed doing it more than I think I ever have. It feels right and that is the instinct I have always followed and it never fails to lead me to the place that I should be.

Amazing what a small gift box of spices can do for the big picture.

Special thanks to Greg at SpicesInc!

Eat well, cook often ...

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Toasted Italian Sub, or Grinder

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I was half way through finishing lunch at Brevins Restaurant in Churubusco, Indiana and I was almost done dissecting my sandwich. I knew I could remake it – the mystery was the sauce. I thought it might be a special in-house recipe. To my surprise, I asked the waitress and she said it was ceaser dressing.

I should have known, it was a common, but not always utilized classic dressing.


For this recipe, I recreate the Brevin’s grinder, it may not be exact, but it’s pretty close. It has been on their menu for some time now, but as I ate there last week to escape the heat, I decided I had to try and make it. Here’s the catch. I made it a point to buy everything for this recipe at once. All together, it cost $22 to make this, and it will serve four. The same amount (2 orders) at Brevins will cost around $16 – and they make it, bring it to you and do the dishes!

The meat is the real expense here. A restaurant has the resources to buy in bulk and can make an item like this affordable to the public and still profit.

Since moving back to Indiana, I have eaten the grinder at Brevins a number of times. I have to say it is the king of toasted subs, which seem to be all the rage nowadays, with Jimmy Jones, Subway and all the other shops toasting up their samis.

I went to Brevins last week to get away from the scorching heat. The last few recipes have been influenced by the hot weather and this sandwich is a prime example. I wouldn't have stopped and ate Brevins for lunch had I not been craving an air conditioned seat at a place that would bring me food. Seriously, I am not inspired to cook in this weather. I still do it, but stopping at a sit-down restaurant was just the treat I needed. As I ate the yummy sandwich I knew what I wanted to get to work on for my next recipe ... recreating the lunch I was enjoying at the time!

What impresses me most about this sandwich is the ceasar dressing. I use a lot of ranch on things, sometimes Italian and blue cheese dressing, but I had never thought to use ceasar, generally because I don’t buy it. The dressing adds a creamy, savory flavor and it really compliments the salami and pepperoni here.

Since I made this, I have used ceasar on two other sandwiches I have made, one of which will be a post here in the near future. It’s my new secret sauce  – at least until the bottle runs out.

Eat well, cook often ...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Easy Philly Cheese Steaks

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I was recently at Walmart taking pictures in hopes of getting one published on, when I noticed Thin Sliced Beef in the freezer section. Since I was having no luck finding a human freak dressed like a hooker in the Bronx, I decided to buy a box and try it out.

The beef comes in thin patties that are shaped like ribeye steaks. They’re made to be cooked right out of the freezer, effectively steaming the meat as it thaws in the skillet. After cooking a couple of minutes on each side, all it takes is a spatula to separate the patties into the thinly slices pieces of beef.

I found that they need a bit of seasoning but all-in-all it’s a decent and quick lunch. I made this recipe using an entire box of Great Value (Walmart brand) thin sliced steak. Obviously, thin sliced ribeye from grass-fed organic beef would have made this sandwich superior, but for a tasty sandwich on a Friday night when budget is a factor, this stuff really does the trick.

I made this in the evening a few days ago. I had put off making it for 2 days because it was in the middle of the hottest four-day stretch in the recorded history of Fort Wayne’s weather. Four straight days over 100 degrees! When it is that hot, cooking is just not something I want to do – indoors or out.

My aspirations during that intense heat wave was to stay as cool and as motionless as possible. When the climate in northern Indiana feels like the inside of an Easy-bake oven, I’m prone to giving up all physical activity when the weather becomes that oppressive.

I can’t imagine what those poor souls digging ditches for $12 an hour were thinking.
If that were my job, I’m sure suicide would be part of what I’m contemplating at 2:30 p.m. when its 105°. Especially, if what I'm digging is an $8 million renovation for a well connected business owner who's perverse idea of "trickle-down" economics means you're digging a hole for chump change.

ANYWAY, I knew I had to get the recipe documented, so I declined an invite to eat with my Mom and Dad at an air conditioned restaurant and fired up the griddle out on the porch to cook it. It was all I could do to keep the sweat off the hot plate, but I got it done and enjoyed two of these samis in the cool air conditioning of my office as I reviewed the pictures from the shoot.

It might have been Walmart meat from a box - but it was tasty.

Eat well, cook often ...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Microwave Bake Potatoes - Loaded!

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My mom is a twelve degree black belt in cooking with radiation, or what I like to call a microwave ninja. She mastered the art of 30-minute meals long before anyone had heard of Rachael Ray and one of the main appliances she uses is the microwave – mostly for side dishes like pasta and vegetables.

In my opinion, the most impressive thing she makes in the microwave is potatoes – baked or mashed. Potatoes are really ideal. The microwave uses radiation to heat water molecules, effectively steaming things from the inside out, which is a great way to prepare a potato. Using ziploc microwave steaming bags, which are available at nearly every grocery store, a baked potato can be on the plate in 20 minutes, which is what I create for this recipe.

With the hottest part of the summer looming, this is a great dish to accompany steaks from the grill, just start the potatoes right before putting the steaks on and they should be finished just in time to slice into the meat.

I have been wanting to make this recipe for my column for nearly two years. I was staying at the family campground and I scribbled “My mom is a microwave ninja” in my notebook. That’s all it took to inspire an entire recipe – a crazy, miller-lite-fueled quote.

It is 100 percent the truth, and my Mom has a million tricks for putting dinner on the table.

She comes from a long line of great cooks that felt it was their duty to put dinner on the table every night. She has carried on that tradition even though she works full-time. My Dad cooks too, and can put dinner on the table as well, but Mom makes dinner HER burden. She really likes to provide for the family, and dinner has always been her way of doing that on a regular basis.

It's her daily family devotion.

My Mom and Dad’s generation, or the Baby Boomers, ushered in a great change with the American family. Unlike anything that planet Earth has ever experienced, the majority of women in America began to share the family financial burden. Which is the equivalent of defending the nest in a capitalistic society.

This created a new dynamic in the family life of men and women.

The catalysts for this change was World War II.  The feminist movement started long before the war, but it created the conditions for the movement to take hold.

When the Untied States entered World War II, the men went off to fight and the women worked to build the war machine – while still caring for the family. When the men returned, America women weren't completely willing to go back to the way things were. They proved that they were capable of more than just being mothers at home and started their own revolution. For the most part, that revolution was carried out by their daughters – The women of the Baby Boom.

The revolt continues for women, but in the last 60 years, American women have completely changed – and proven – that females on this planet are just as capable as any male.

Today, if one parent’s job is to stay home, raise the kids and make sure everyone is fed, then that family is truly blessed. Full-time home makers, whether it be a man or a woman, are harder and harder to find and a rare breed to say the least.

This recipe is an innovation that my Mom uses to make sure that she can put dinner on the counter each night after a day of work. (Mom and Dad eat in front of the TV, so it would be wrong to say table) Mom does this because she wants to, not because she is supposed to, or has to, but because of the satisfaction she gets from cooking for the people she loves the most.

She's an American woman – I think she's awesome.

Eat well, cook often ...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Grilled Chicken Fajitas

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Using the oven during hot summer days is about the same as running the furnace – it just adds to the inferno. Last week when we tied our hottest day ever at 106° I thought running the oven might not only feel like turning on the heat but would actually cause people to suffocate.

During the dog days of summer it’s always good to have a meal or two that can be made quickly and entirely outside on the grill. It still takes a tough cook to stand next to the fire in the scorching heat, but the payoff comes on the first step back into the air conditioned house when the cool air hits like a mist of ice water sprayed on the skin.

For this recipe, I make fajitas on the grill and all the cooking is done outside. It starts with a citrus based marinade for     chicken that is thin sliced for quicker cooking. Onion and bell peppers cook beside the chicken and are the vegetables for the meal. Wrap them in a tortilla with some favorite salsa and the result is a yummy meal without having to run the oven indoors.

The heat has been insane in 2012. An early summer arrived in the Midwest back in March and it has been unseasonably warm and dry ever since. I haven't minded the dry heat during the day, because the nights cool down 30 or 40 degrees. It's almost like living in the desert. Up until the middle of June, the weather was absolutely perfect to go camping.

All that changed with a ban on open fires because the dryness has turned to severe drought and the daily highs have been close to 100°. Thank goodness that it’s still ok to grill outside because, like I said in the introduction, it’s unthinkable to want to run the oven inside the house. It negates the air conditioning and you end up sweating while eating.

I’m really hoping that we get some good rain and a little break from the heat. First, because the plants and gardens are really suffering and second, so I can have me some camp fires at the family camp ground! It’s hard to go camping and not have a fire. It’s like going to the movies and they only show previews.

Eat well, cook often ...