It is with a huge relief that I say wedding planning is wrapping up! (PHEW!) But what a journey! It’s now been over a year since we got engaged and started to plan our future together, and this past weekend was no exception. Frankie got his ring in on Thursday (CHECK!), Saturday morning I had my first dress fitting (CHECK! CHECK!), and since I got my invitations 4 days early, those went out on Saturday afternoon (CHECK CHECK CHECK!!)! Now all that’s left—big ticket item wise—is getting the actual ceremony finalized (readings, vows, musical interludes during the ceremony depending on the structure of the ceremony, etc.), so I think we’re in a pretty good spot with only 87 days left to go! I still need to order place cards for the actual day, but I have to impatiently wait for all the RSVP’s to come in before I can do that…thankfully, I have my upcoming Bridal Shower(s) to look forward to in the meantime! But onto the food!
During my second visit to the Farmer’s Market, I always expect there to be at least one meat booth, and sure enough, there I came across Jake’s Country Meats, and I bought myself two very large chicken breasts (which I have yet to do anything with as of yet). But lo and behold, they were also selling Wild-Caught Great Lakes fish! So, I happened to snag myself a couple beautiful filets of trout, whitefish, and salmon! I was really excited about the trout because I don’t see it very often, and most of the time it’s farmed or ridiculously priced. If memory serves me right, I paid $30 for all the fish and chicken, and you never pass up a good deal when you see one!
In terms of finding a recipe for the fish, since I figured if I couldn’t find anything that looked interesting, I was going to stick with basic pan searing, I turned to Eddie, who has been fishing up a storm in Colorado on the weekends when he isn’t studying or doing homework. He put a recipe from Munchies on my radar for Trout and Green Bean Almondine, and if you remember a few months ago, I made their 3-hour Gumbo, which was DELICIOUS, so I went full speed ahead, and was not disappointed! Cooking the fish itself was exactly what my gut reaction said: keep it simple, a little butter (I used avocado oil, hello Whole30 and no smoke!) and a good solid sear on each side so that skin gets stupid crispy. And I can say without a doubt, that keeping things simple vs. elaborate almost always turns out for the better. I mean, I’m currently obsessively working my way through old episodes of Hell’s Kitchen, and the 5-ingredient 5-star dish challenge always proves that sometimes less really is more. You need to highlight a star ingredient? Highlight it, and don’t cover it with a bunch of unneeded excess. As I’ve said before, I don’t cook fish often, but this was so totally worth it, and it came out better than a lot of fish dishes I’ve eaten out at restaurants! Frankie found it smelled a little too fishy (he is trying different kinds of fish, which is more important than not trying any at all, especially since we’re trying to cook Whole30 at home 90-95% and fish is a great source of lean protein), but he still really enjoyed it!
I didn’t make the potatoes because I had a corn risotto craving like none other, and frankly, the risotto went really, really well with the fish and green beans! I will say I’m not going to include parmesan in the risotto next time. It was too strong and completely overpowered the corn…or I’ll only add a sprinkle, but not ¼ cup like they say, especially if I’m making this with FRESH corn! I want the corn to be the star, not the cheese, but these things you learn as you go, am I right? But if you’re wanting to try something a little bit more outside the box, this is the fish recipe to try! – Cooking Maggie
I was hoping there would be an opportunity for me to host some friends and cook with them, and thankfully, when my friend Melissa asked for help in making bachelorette goodies/crafts, I figured we’d go ahead and make dinner too! We decided that we would make lasagna! Mm mm yay!!! There was one recipe in particular that stood out to me, because, if we were going to do lasagna, that means we were going to make pretty much everything from scratch, except the noodles. That’s a little more time consuming than I was quite ready to take on, and I figured we were doing pretty much everything else by hand, so we can sneak in the premade pasta noodles for this one).
Lasagna for me is one of the main dishes that remind me of my late grandmother, following her ever famous Cake Box Cookies, which caused everyone to maneuver around the house by way of the kitchen and the Cookie Monster jar that contained all her baking efforts. Whenever my family would visit her and my grandfather in Colorado Springs, she always had a variety of family meals planned, including her infamous Tuna Casserole—one of the only things she ever made that no one really liked, and as a result, left us plenty of leftovers during our stay—and frozen Lasagna (Stoffer’s, always Stoffer’s). It fed the army that is my dad’s side of the family, and there were hardly ever any leftovers because that was the night were you supposed to eat more than your fill and remain seated at the dining table, cradling your food baby, as you caught up on current life news and reminisced about old stories you never really had to be there for to enjoy. Lasagna was also one of the harder things for my brothers to say when they were small, calling it “Bah-sagna,” their little faces contorted in effort as their little pink tongues tried to get the “L” sound just right, only to start giggling hysterically because the new word they made sounded so funny. We actually still call it Basagna in my family, and everyone still laughs at it. Basagna…it does sound a little funny when you say it out loud. Bah-Sahn-yaaaaaaa.
But I digress. Lasagna, I think, is one of the trickiest things to serve, let alone, the trickiest things to make where EVERYONE likes it…how many of you dear readers don’t like ricotta (Frankie & Melissa: ME ME ME!)? How many of you don’t like the “no-bake” noodles? (Me: ME ME ME!) How many just don’t like lasagna in general (No one? Phew, that’s a relief)? And I bet it’s not because lasagna isn’t a good dish overall, but rather—and I will attest to this—it’s how certain family members and favorite restaurants have interpreted and served the lasagna we have constantly been exposed to. That immediate, and further exposure, is what shapes the foods we like, the foods we don’t, and foods we can never eat again. But on the flipside, what one of us doesn’t like, another may love. For example, my Mamaw (my mom’s mom) LOVES her lasagna to have a lot of meat sauce and a ton of cheese, whereas my main problem with ordering lasagna out is when they SMOTHER it in cheese to the point where that’s all I can taste. And if there’s not enough meat sauce, Mamaw’s got a few words to say about that…but that only proves my point. Lasagna is a hard dish to really get universally right because tastes are so different.
That being said, since the majority of folks I was actually making this dish for did NOT like ricotta, I chose Bon Appetit’s Best Lasagna, which has a bechamel sauce with parmesan instead of ricotta, which makes this recipe even more of a win-win for those who were going to enjoy it! The one thing I will say is this: the sauce says it takes 3 hours to make, and it kind of does by their standard, HOWEVER, my main recommendation is go with your favorite bolognese and call it a day. Their sauce is good, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think I will ever spend three hours the night before to make it again, when I can spend 30-45 minutes making my own bolognese that I know everyone has enjoyed eating before.
I will say this: EVERYONE loved it. Honest. I had one serving of leftovers at the end of the night because the girls who ate with me wanted to take some home with them too! I honestly believe the bechamel was the main reason this lasagna worked out so well, but I also believe the bite of the noodles (which held up significantly to the weight of the sauce and the gooey-ness of the cheese so beautifully) and the equal balance between noodle, sauce, and cheese, was what made this a winning dish. If you’re also a lasagna skeptic, then give this recipe a try and see if it doesn’t change your mind. — Cooking Maggie
This week, I really wanted to dive into some veggie-forward recipes because, 1) buying veggies tends to be a heck of a lot cheaper than buying meat, and 2) with our upcoming CSA experience in a little less than a month from now, I need to start scoping out some potential recipes to make the most of the delicious veggies that will be coming our way! Plus, when I saw the yellow and orange tomatoes-on-the-vines, I was inspired!
NOTE: My coworker actually just showed me too this veggie delivery service called “Imperfect Produce: Ugly Produce. Delivered.” I had heard about them before, but never really investigated until we were talking about it during lunch one day, and as we dove into it, this company is actually doing something really great! Not only are they ensuring that the grocery store rejects aren’t wasted, but they’re also saving money too, and you can’t really beat a deal like that can you? I mean, for a small box of ugly, ORGANIC fruits and veggies (which serves 1-2 people, 7-9 pounds of produce), you can pay $15-17 per box every week, or every other week. Basically, it’s a CSA, but all year round! Other options include the Mixed Fruit & Veggie, all fruit box, and all veggie, all of which are $11-13 per box. So not only is it 100% comparable in price to most CSA’s anyway, I think the more interesting/less uniformed foods are rather beautiful and add a fantastic uniqueness to the plate. Oh, and did I mention it’s completely CUSTOMIZABLE! The CSA I’m doing this year is the ONLY ONE in Chicago that allows me to pick the veggies I want, which I think is a MUCH better idea than having farms choose for me so that no veggie goes to waste. So long story short, this is for something I plan to investigate, and most likely invest in, following the conclusion of my CSA because I’m curious and would love to see how much it can save me over time! AND that means I spend less time at the grocery store (major plus), and can go back to shopping exclusively at my local butcher for my meat and everything else, rather than making two trips to two stores, which I really don’t like doing…
The first thing I felt like making was something with zucchini, and I instantly thought, fritters. I LOVE zucchini fritters, but haven’t found a recipe to make at home that I really love, but I got REALLY close with this recipe from Bon Appetit. The only thing I didn’t do was include mint in the fritter itself—I like mint, but it was already in the yogurt dip and felt adding it in the fritter would be a little overkill—and I didn’t include grated onion—I had a leftover shallot that was starting to show its age, so I diced that up with the garlic and threw it in, waste not want not—and frankly, it still turned out really, really well! It was the perfect amount of savory, sweet, and was very filling! I will say, I need to work on my sizing skills because I am not a good judge of how big is too big, but after cooking them…these are too big…1/4 cup of the zucchini mixture is about as big as I should go in future, so I’ll be using a measuring cup and flattening those suckers out so they don’t take as long to cook and get crispier than these did. I did think the addition of a russet potato was GENIUS! It helped keep everything combined, didn’t overpower, and that’s where that delicious crispiness can be played up! Regardless, these were incredibly delicious, and I plan to stick to this recipe and build off it!
For our salad course, I seriously went overboard and did a caprese-less tomato salad, with a lemon vinaigrette and basil strips. The tomatoes I picked were a little bit more on the firmer side (I don’t like super mushy tomatoes), but their color was impeccable. So stunning, and I just went crazy, cubing them, slicing up some of the red ones, and sprinkled with coarse kosher salt and some ground black pepper. The vinegarette I thought was a nice way to bring in additional acidity (since these tomatoes were a little on the sweet side) and I didn’t miss the mozzarella cheese at all. It was the perfect amount of food, and the perfect salad to cool of the recent warm and muggy days we’ve been having in Chicago. And it was fun to just play around on the plate, sticking to a minimalist recipe that was still stunning to look at and delicious to eat. We didn’t even miss the meat that I think a lot of people feel they HAVE to have on the plate to make it a complete dish. Not true, not true at all. This meal was spot on in terms of filling us up and keeping us satiated for the remainder of the evening. Sometimes, keeping it simple is the best way to go and allows the approaching full swing of summer to really shine in your kitchen. — Cooking Maggie
Summer Tomato Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
Ingredients for the salad
1 yellow on-the-vine tomato, cubed/chopped
1 orange on-the-vine tomato, cubed/chopped
1 red on-the-vine tomato, cubed/chopped – some slices for the bottom
1/3 cup basil, chiffonade
for the vinaigrette
juice from 1 lemon
3/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
Vinaigrette: Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl or shake all ingredients up in a jar, set aside.
Arrange tomato pieces on your plate, drizzle with dressing, and top with basil.
Because I am not the best at making meatballs. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy knowing that there is something that I’m not really good at doing because it means it’s time for another experiment in methods to better my skills! But meatballs are just one of those things—specifically when trying to get a sear on them—that never seems to go my way. I have made meatballs successfully by baking them, cooking them in a crockpot, and straight up braising them in sauce, but when I try to sear them off and get that really wonderful caramelization, they just fall apart or stick to the pan, thus falling apart when I try, as gently as I can, to get them off…
So I’ve been asking myself all week, WHERE did I go wrong? Did I overmix or mix too hard? Was my attempt at using white bread (seriously drenched with water and wrung out) not as effective as breadcrumbs? Did I wring out the bread too much or not enough? I don’t think it was the meat mixture I used (all beef, 20% fat, with chopped pancetta), I had actual herbs in there, ricotta, two eggs (maybe one too many?), salt and pepper, and I used a little oil on my hands to make them into balls…so then my next questions lead to the actual making of the meatballs themselves. Were they too big? Not big enough? Was my pan too hot? Not hot enough? Did I use enough oil in the pan? Did I even use the right pan? You see my problem…but again, this is great, because now I’m in full experimentation mode!
So when I get back from Vegas (work trip for my day job all next week, which hopefully won’t impact the posting schedule too bad, but hey, IT’S VEGAS AND I’M SO EXCITED!) I plan to spend a weekend trying different cooking methods of meatballs! I remember making one my first year in Chicago that had a little nugget of mozzerlla cheese stuffed in the middle, with a tomato jam on top that was awesome! I think I made those for a Game of Thrones binging session with Frankie, if my memory serves me right! But you’ll be seeing more meatballs here soon, and I plan to find the perfect balance & cooking method for my skills/needs! If anyone has a favorite meatball recipe, please feel free to pass that along to me as I’m not sure I’ll be making this recipe again, though I may! I haven’t planned that far ahead yet, but all recommendations and ideas are welcome! – Cooking Maggie
I don’t know WHY I bothered trying three different grocery stores, but when it came to finding party sized samosas, spring rolls, and spanikopita, ONLY TONY’S HAD SOME! Seriously?! Ugh, and I think I may have posted about Tony’s when I was making Empanada’s and how Tony’s was the only place that sold the premade empanada wrappers…so I hereby solemnly promise, on my honor, that I will only go to Tony’s for all my International food needs. If this promise seems repetitive, my apologies, but sometimes a good reminder can go a long way. But Christmas is my favorite time of year because this is when Frankie and I throw our only party of the year, and it’s definitely a highlight! We also go ALL OUT! I mean, we’re taking catering from Spiro’s up in Waukegan, a special cocktail, a pony keg of Spotted Cow, appetizers made by yours truly, and some appetizers not made by yours truly because I have spent whole parties in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up, and sometimes, not making everything yourself is okay, especially if it means getting to spend more time with your guests, am I right?!
This year’s menu looked like this:
Drinks: Make-Your-Own Moscow Mule’s (using antique spirit pumps filled with Tito’s, the Dog Lover’s Vodka), Spotted Cow (purchased from Tenuta’s Deli in Kenosha; their price for the keg was exceptional, even though I think their deposit is a little steep, but you get that back as soon as you return the empty keg, so only a temporary hurt on the credit card), and access to other spirits that our guests may prefer if beer and Moscow Mule’s don’t sit well with them.
Appetizers: Baked Brie with Blackberry Jam & Apricot Jam (now, these are SUPER easy to make on your own at home, BUT I happened to find two of them premade from Jewel, for a little less than I would have paid to make it from scratch, so I thought, what the heck! And most grocery stores should sell the premade bakable brie in the special cheese area), my famous Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Poppers, standard cheese tray that included gruyere and white cheddar cheese with water crackers, and spanikopita (purchased frozen from Tony’s), chips & two kinds of salsa (pico & blended). I also had some frozen vegetarian spring rolls & Tostino’s Pizza Rolls for any 2am hunger crunches too, but ended up not needing them! And yes, I did say 2am. This year, most of our guests left at 2.30, and the final guests left at 3.30 I believe, so I guess everyone enjoyed themselves!
Dinner: Catering from Spiro’s: Make Your Own Italian Beef/Bomber’s complete with dipping au jus, bread, sweet peppers, and giardiniera; Cathy’s Baked Chicken (always a favorite and can be stripped from the bones to be made into a casserole or soup afterwards; Greek Salad; Mostaccioli (penne & red sauce). This is where we splurge the most, but it’s worth it to see everyone happy and full! And the key for us is to start saving for our party starting January 1st of every year. Also, no joke. We put a little bit away every month and whatever we have at the end, that’s our entire party budget!
Dessert: Funfetti Cupcakes (a normal addition) and Gingerbread Sheet Cake Bites with Stabilized Whipped Cream made by Ed (he had them cut into bars, but we thought bites would be better for a larger group, and then we topped the whipped cream with just a sprinkling of cinnamon), and this was an AWESOME addition that may become tradition after how well it went over with everyone! I even plan to take a crack at this myself over new years with my new Kitchen Aid Mixer, which was a fabulous Christmas present from my future in-laws, and I cannot WAIT to try that sucker out! (Recipes are linked.)
Decorations: Honest to goodness, almost EVERYTHING came from the Dollar Store. No joke because honestly, people don’t come to your parties to analyze your decorations or wonder if it’s Crate & Barrel or Pier 1. They are there to spend time with the people who matter in their lives and just be joyful! So I firmly believe that any home can look beautiful with a budget, and while I hesitated with revealing my secret, I actually am really proud of what I have put together in years past, which is why they keep appearing in years future, and why I decided I wanted to share! The potpourri, Dollar Store. The red candles on my wine glasses, and the wine glasses themselves, Dollar Store. The fake garland, which I think I will replace with something juuuuuust a little nicer next year, Dollar Store. Most of the bigger ornaments, Dollar Store. The small ornaments, Walgreens (yup, you read that right, Walgreens) and I add to them every year for about $20…each year the patterns change, and if they can be integrated with some of the setups I already have, done deal. And all the other decor we’ve accumulated over the years were from mine & Frankie’s family, and some are even Christmas gifts! My rule of thumb is that you should be able to use what you have to decorate your house without breaking the budget. I think the only things I splurged on where the gold & silver plates for the wine glasses, which I bought at Target for $12 each I think? But if you find something similar for less, do it!
The big kicker this year was that Frankie & I got our very first Christmas tree together, and it was a momentous occasion! Sure, it’s not enormous, but it was perfect for our apartment and the space we had to work with! And using all the ornaments we’ve received from friends & family over the years, including a large set of straw stars made in Haiti by Frankie’s mom, we were able to really deck the tree out! And on top, well, that’s Frankie special from our favorite Urban General Store, Enjoy. If you haven’t been, definitely go next time you’re in the Lincoln Square area! They are one in a million for all things interesting and unique, and I mean, you can’t find a more unique tree topper than this one!
And that’s it! Another Christmas party for the books, and a great anticipation for next year as it will be the first Christmas party that Frankie & I will throw as a married couple, which, can I just say I am SO excited about?! EEK!!! But if you’d like to share your own decorating hacks or favorite appetizers to serve! I’m always looking for new ways to keep our parties interesting and would love to hear what you do! Hoping you all had a Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year! — Cooking Maggie
Ragu seems like the easiest thing in the world to just throw into a pot and leave it alone right? Wrong. I have since learned that you should REALLY research any ragu recipe you find because some are going to say “simple and flavorful” and they’ll tasted like bland meat…gross. Well, as it does sometimes happen to even the best of us (or at least, I hope it does), I found a dud recipe…and I found it somewhere I wasn’t expecting, which is incredibly disappointing. True to my word, I’m not going to name or badmouth the blog I found this recipe at because that’s just not the kind of cook/blogger/person I am, BUT what I am going to do is share how I “Cooking Maggified” it.
Now, last I checked, Ragu is a meat based sauce…and when I was making the dish I had planned on, it seemed like I was making pulled beef over a beef sauce. There was crushed tomato, and beef broth (which in my opinion doesn’t add much in terms of flavor, which is why I prefer stocks over broths for almost anything that calls for it), but no tomato paste to thicken it, there was HARDLY any seasoning, I mean, what was the deal?! I went into it skeptically, and I came out of it with my prediction confirmed. It just wasn’t where I knew it could be, so, when in doubt, improvise. I threw it all in a pot over the stove, and started to build up the flavors I felt it lacked. Onions, more garlic, a lot of pepper (and just a pinch white pepper for an added punch), more salt, oregano, parsley, basil, marjoram. I basically took this sad sauce and treated it like a shredded meat Bolognese instead of my normal dual-ground meat mixture.
The results were FAR better than I could have hoped for, and the dish was saved and savored by all! Phew! I was for a moment worried I had just wasted 1 1/2 pounds of perfectly good flank steak! But I will say, at the end of the day, I still really prefer my Bolognese and me thinks I don’t plan to divert very far from it in the future. Why fix something that’s clearly not broke? (You don’t, silly woman!)
But for kicks, I’ve included rough estimates for the ragu—I was panicked and didn’t think to even write down my amounts, but I added about as much as I would normally add for my bolognese anyway—and have relinked my post on my Bolognese recipe! I hope you enjoy one (or both) of these and let me know which one you prefer! I’ll also happily take suggestions on bettering the ragu recipe as it currently stands right now (a different kind of beef cut perhaps? Rump or round roast maybe?). Perhaps even a little red wine to spice things up? Another experiment for another day! – Cooking Maggie
1 large handful of finely chopped basil (plus more for topping)
1 tsp marjoram
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried parsley
1 pinch of white pepper
Salt and Pepper (about 2 tsp salt, and 1 tablespoon pepper to add at the end, and extra for seasoning/rubbing the meat)
Pasta of choice (I used pappardelle)
Parmesan for topping
Pour in everything except the beef, salt, and pepper. Give it a good stir until all mixed together.
Season the beef with salt & pepper, rub it in and give your meat a little massage to prep it for the slow cooking process. Transfer to a 5 or 6 quart slow cooker and nestle it in the juice until covered (you can cut the beef up if you are having trouble fitting it in).
Cook for 8 to 10 hours on low or 6 hours on high. When done, discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs, and shred the beef in the pot. Add salt & pepper to pot, and stir, adding more to taste.
Cook the pasta of choice according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, take some of the meat sauce and add it to a pan, get it nice and hot. When pasta is done, add desired amount to the pan with the meat and stir for a good minute.**
Serve with fresh basil & parm and eat!
**If you want a looser sauce, add about ¼ cup of the pasta water to the pan (you can also save all the pasta water too if you want to add water to each reheating/serving.
AND WE’RE OFF!! I got this cookbook in THE DAY I finished writing up her Chicken & Dumplings recipe, and sure enough, I IMMEDIATELY picked a recipe (or two, or three) to try! First on the list, Brussels and Three Cheese Pasta Bake!
Now, this was a risk because a certain future husband of mine is not a fan of brussels sprouts—which I happen to LOVE raw, shaved, or roasted with a little olive oil & salt (get it really nice and crisp, with a translucent glow to it—and for his palate (because all tastes are different per person), Parmesan is really overpowering flavor that he doesn’t like. This dish had both of those questionable ingredients in it, but I chose not to say anything just to see if he would even notice, and I also took a liberty in adding a leek to it too because it was in my fridge and I didn’t want to waste a perfectly good lookin’ veggie.
Sure enough, he did notice, but not until after a few bites! Wanna know what else? HE HAD TWO HELPINGS OF IT! He even thought there was a little chicken in it, but nada, no meat whatsoever! He was astounded, if not a little shocked at my indiscretion about the ingredients I included, but if anything, this is a VICTORY! I finally found a dish that he’ll eat brussels and parm, and for me, that’s enough! Naturally, I won’t be subjecting him to brussels again any time soon, but it was a GREAT way to start off my adventure through the cookbook!
The next thing I tried was smitten’s favorite kale caesar salad (minus the eggs because, well, I’m that weird cook who just can’t eat cooked eggs…I’m still working on it, but it hasn’t been easy and I still have a long way to go), and I gotta say, the dressing is BALLER! I will NEVER buy Cesar dressing again when this recipe is SO easy to whip together! The kale though, it’s not my favorite, and I think it’s just too abrasive for my palate, so I think I’m going to turn back to my romaine/frisée/butter lettuce combo! But the toasted panko breadcrumbs with garlic and lemon zest was a genius way to reinvent the crouton! This dish is definitely one I will be returning to in the future (perhaps even pairing it with my own blackened chicken recipe for a blackened chicken caesar salad) and I think, if you like adding a little extra citrus or pop to your salads, throw in some diced heirloom tomatoes for a soft, buttery texture! Oh, and top with a little of my secret salt (obviously)! Sorry for the lack of photos, but stay tuned! This cooking Maggie has a Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad recipe that’ll really take your salad up to the next level! And stay tuned for more recipe obsessions from Smitten’s new book! — Cooking Maggie
Last weekend, Carly and I decided to venture downtown and take part in this year’s Mac & Cheese Fest, which, let’s be honest, sounded like the best thing in the world! I mean, WHO DOESN’T LOVE MAC N’ CHEESE?! So far, I have yet to meet that individual who doesn’t enjoy a dish of mac n’ cheese every so often, but that being said, the main point of discussion—or argument, depending on how heated said discussion gets—that I have found myself having with my friends and fellow partakers of mac n’ cheese is what the best KIND of mac n’ cheese is.
Let’s take Kraft Mac for example, an inherent staple in most childhoods. I liked (and still do like) my Kraft to be more on the buttery/soupy side, so I’ll add an extra tablespoon of butter, and a little more milk than others who like their mac to be on the thicker/chunkier side (like Frankie does). And then we can take this example and take it one step further with what we add to our Kraft when we are feeling lazy, like ground beef or hot sauce. Now, I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to my Kraft Mac, but if I’m doing Hamburger Helper (boxed or from scratch), absolutely, throw in the ground beef, but I’m not a hot sauce on my mac kind of chick, whereas Frankie loves to add Crystal Hot Sauce (or Tabasco when we have it, though Cholula has become our new favorite go-to hot sauce) and ground beef in most Macs (except my homemade “THE Mac n Cheese” because that’s just good as it).
But that’s what’s so beautiful about Mac! It’s such a blank canvas and can have a million different interpretations! And if you’re new to cooking, or looking to experiment a little more with what you already know, I highly recommend you take your favorite Mac recipe and toy around with the kinds of cheese, the amount of liquid, the kinds of pasta (shell v elbow v gemelli v fusilli v rotini v cavatappi etc.), and your fillers! That kind of spontaneity and fun is one of the main things I love about cooking! But I could talk about Mac all day long, but that’s not what this is about! This is about the fest and all the pasta Carly & I indulged in, and I ate SO MUCH Mac that night, like basically my weight in mac, BUT I HAVE NO REGRETS! So worth it for the price! With a discount code, the General entry ticket was $60 (not including taxes and whatnot, so about $70 when all said and done) and that included ALL YOU CAN EAT MAC SAMPLES from 26 local Chicago eateries, each with their own unique take on mac n’ cheese with the mission of winning the Golden Noodle! Oh, and did I mention you also got 5 drink tickets for your basic soft drink selection, or the evening’s signature cocktail of Apple Cider Vodka courtesy of Tito’s, or a glass of beer, or a glass of wine, or even a cider! Water, thankfully, was completely free as I think it should be at any and all events that involve food and drinking.
But then we got to the Mac n Cheese samples, and they weren’t all served in the same vessel or with the same utensils, WHICH I had some serious problems with, because if the spoon you give me only holds one shell in it, and very precariously at that, I’m going to be really annoyed eating it. I think it wouldn’t have been easier/better if all vessels and eating utensils were the same so that a) you could fit more on your plate at one time, which invariably would move lines along more smoothly in waves, and b) the vendors who gave you a ton more were basically taking advantage of your stomach, preventing you from trying all of them, which as an attendee is your own personal mission! How else would you know which Mac was the best?! Well, we understood the mission, and I’ll just say, we succeeded in trying ALL of the mac’s except for one, which I’ve included a photo of for reference of size, because, holy smokes was it enormous and in no way possible to eat so far into our task.
Please note, the following reviews are short, sweet, and very, VERY honest because, well, if I don’t like the mac, I don’t like it. What else can I be? The notes below are grouped in order of what we ate, and are written as follow: Restaurant (with link) | Chef/Team (if given) | Offering Name (if given, which a lot weren’t or were different that what was on the event website, so I added them in my actual comments below): My comments. ENJOY!
Whisk | Chef David Rodriguez | BBQ Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese: Meat was so good, sweet and tender, but not overpowering. Not very cheesy though.
Weber Grill Restaurant | Chef Erik M | Smoked Bacon & White Cheddar Mac N Cheese: Bacon was underwhelming, more like a garnish than an ingredient. Horrible spoon to eat with.
Son of a Butcher | Chef Rick Rodriguez | Cauliflower Mac n Cheese: could be cheesier, or more seasoned, but tender cauliflower! Yummy!!
Rack House Kitchen & Tavern | Chef Bryant Anderson | Rack Mac Attack: brisket SO good, tender, and the pickled jalapeño broke up the richness of the meat and perfectly tart, not too spicy, good kick, SUPER CHEESY!!! Would love the jalapeno to be diced and more of it. We got seconds!!!
World of Beer – Evanston | Chef Crystal Y | WOB Mac & Cheese: pepperjack m&c, not good, stupid spoon, dropped a shell in my beer and made it taste better. If you’re a beer place, I think it better have beer in it. Not cheesy and was cold. Cauliflower Mac was better.
Rockit Bar & Grill | Chef Michael Sheerin | Cheeseburger Mac: gross! Mac was mustardy and that meatball was bland…not appealing. Not the winner.
Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe | Chef Chuck Pine: Shrimp Mac daddy, shrimp and andouille sausage, with candied andouille on top. STILL HOT!! And yummy! Didn’t notice the shrimp, but candied andoullie was yummy! Wouldn’t get seconds, but didn’t hate it.
Bohemian House | Chef Andrew Kappa | Käsespätzle: alright, but just one note. Forgettable.
Bakin & Eggs | Chef Bob & Gina Hartwig | Jalapeno Bacon Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese: great kick, Cheese, perfectly cooked Mac. Heat does overpower a little, but only subtle. No complaints I’d eat it again. Good brunch spot too!
** Note the SECOND serving of Rack House’s Mac! SO GOOD!!!
ConeCepts | Chef Turn Cummings | Beer Braised Brisket Mac & Cheese: The plate is WAY too big! If it doesn’t fit on my plate, it’s a hinderance! Gross and watery. No brisket no beer. Bland!! Yuck!!!
Amazing Edibles Catering | Chef Matt Ryan | Amazing Portuguese Mac’ N Cheese – 2016 GOLDEN NOODLE WINNER & 2015 1st Runner-Up: goat cheese based, lighter, so pretty presentation wise, interesting for sure, but didn’t blow me away.
Famous Dave’s BBQ | Chef Shelly Marek | Dave’s Cheesy Jalapeno Mac & Cheese*: five cheeses, nope. Watery, no jalapeño flavor.
Round 5 & 6
720 Bar at The Hilton Chicago | Chef Mario Garcia & Chef Robert McKenzie: REALLY YUMMY!! The mostarda’s sweetness was unexpected but delightful, unique and different in the best way!! Buttery dry flavored pumpernickel was outstanding!!!!
Mastro’s | The Ultimate Chicago Style Mac & Cheese: cheesy pasta not Mac and cheese, but gardinera was a nice note.
Mago Grill & Cantina | Chef Ric Munoz & Chef Juan Gonzalez | Revolucion Mac & Cheese: interesting with the fried onions and chorizo! Not bad!!
FTW Chicago | Mammas Mac & Cheese: not for the win. It was cold and it tasted like velvetta…WHERE IS MY REAL CHEESE AT?!
Calzone & Macaroni Co. | Chef Nic Lindsey: actually pretty yummy! Tasted like a cannoli for sure and didnt notice the pasta all that much!
XO Marshmallow | S’More Some Sugar on Brie: Marshmallow was yummy but too sweet with the pasta.
**WE DID NOT TRY THE FOLLOWING**: Carlucci Restaurant | Chef Jonathan Harootunian | “Jonny Mac”: did not try this one only, it was bucatini and it was an enormous portion!
Best Booth Presentation: Mago’s
Most Creative Use of Ingredients: XO Marshmallow
2nd Runner Up Best Mac n Cheese: Mago’s
1st Runner Up Best Mac n Cheese: For The Win (FTW)
Golden Noodle (Best Mac n Cheese): Rack House
Rack House won SO deservedly, and boy OH BOY was their Mac ever delicious! I mean, we even went back for seconds I think that was the third mac we had tried!! But I will say that, since attending this deliciously filling fest, Carly & I have the correct approach down pat for anyone reading this who wants to attend next year! As Carly told me afterwards, while we were both nursing our full bellies in our respective beds where we immediately moved ourselves to afterwards, “sampling Mac and Cheese is like trying wine…you have to go in an order, like starting with the whites and moving to reds – sweet to dry – and with the mac we start with the heavy and end with the light.” Couldn’t agree more with that logic, and when you basically have about three hours to eat your heart out, why rush it? Take a sample lap, write down (BRING A PEN!) all the ones you think you should start, then have at it! We also believed that we should have shared all the samples from the start, so that we might enjoy our favorites solo later on, which we would have had more room for to enjoy this year’s winner! SERIOUSLY SO GOOD!!!
For more information on this year’s event, click here. I’ll try to post an update on next year’s event, which of course, I’ll now be attending annually if I’m around! YUM YUM YUM! — Cooking Maggie
I think that the key to the best bolognese sauce all starts with your meat. For real. And honestly, for any of my ground meat-centric meals, I try really hard to stay away from just one kind of meat. I like the way flavors just intensify when you combine meats: beef with a little pork, or a little veal if I can find it, or even a little lamb, which has that really strong earthiness to it! And especially for bolognese, the meat is pretty darn important! Well, that and the kind of tomatoes you use.
How many of you reading this right now have noticed that jarred tomato sauce gives you heart burn? *Cooking Maggie raises her hand* Yeah, it’s not pleasant, however easy it may be to just dump the whole jar in after browning that meat and calling it a day. As I’ve gotten older, I have gotten a little more sensitive to acidic levels, which has made eating one of my favorite things in the world an incredibly uncomfortable affair. Thus, I was left with the task of finding a way to make my sauce from scratch, rather than from a jar or a can (because certain canned tomatoes have a TON of acid in them still).
I’ve already written about my tomato sauce (courtesy of Katie Lee from Food Network), and I found a pomodoro sauce from Bon Appétit that I’m super stoked to try out (and get this, THERE’S BUTTER IN IT! *gasp & delighted giggle*), but with the tomato sauce, I simply used it as a base guideline for my recipe, but added a lot of those other essentials that really help build body to this sauce. And what bolognese would be complete without your mirepoix (meer – puwah), which is just a fancy French way of referring to the holy trinity of veggies: onion, celery, and carrots. This already is adding some bright notes of sweetness and acidity, but also adding a little more texture amid soft ground meat and mushy tomatoes (and yes, I said mushy, but in the best, most delicious “I might put my face into this pot” kind of way, though perhaps soft is a better word) soft tomatoes.
And speaking of tomatoes, here’s my main tip for you (courtesy of my wonderful friend Melissa, who has been my guinea pig for many a dish in my kitchen): BOXED tomatoes. You heard me right. BOXED. And here’s why: boxed tomatoes, specifically Pomi, which you can find in your pasta aisle by the tubed tomato paste (I’m a total convert of this as well, love it), are typically BPA Free, contain no additives (literally the only ingredient listed on the label is tomatoes), so in my opinion, that’s an automatic win for the boxed tomatoes! And they just taste better. Honestly, compare an instant spoon taste between the two and I promise you’ll notice the difference.
Oh, and finally, just because this is the pièce de résistance, definitely save some of that pasta water to loosen things up again after the sauce has reduced and developed a little more! It’s that last little *kisses fingertips* of salt that really takes a tomato based pasta sauce to that last level of mm mm goodness. If you haven’t been doing that, try it next time you make bolognese, pomodoro, puttanesca, or really just about any tomato based sauce, and I can almost promise you won’t be disappointed! Oh, and definitely feel free to top it all off with a little parm or mozz & some malden salt for that extra tangy pop of crunch! Now, excuse me while I go drool my way back to the stove to make some for myself. — Cooking Maggie
Cooking Maggie’s Bolognese Sauce
1 large carrot
1 celery stick
1 brown onion
2 garlic cloves
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork (or veal, or lamb)
2 tbsp tomato paste (from a tube, not a can, but if you do use a can, up the amount to 4 tbsp)
1 box of crushed tomatoes
1 large handful of finely chopped basil (plus more for topping)
1 tsp marjoram
2 bay leaves
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried parsley
Salt and Pepper
Finely chop carrot, celery, onion, and garlic in a food processor.
Cook this mixture in a large saucepan with olive oil over medium heat for about 10 minutes.
Add ground beef and cook until well-browned.
Add tomato paste, tomatoes, marjoram, basil, bay leaves, oregano, and parsley.
Cook over very low heat for about 1-2 hours.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with pasta, parm cheese, and fresh basil to top. Even top with some malden finishing salt for an added crunch and burst of tartness.
A while ago, I wanted to try something new from the mass of cookbooks I have accumulated, and the one I wanted to open and dig into (quite literally) was Colu Henry’s Back Pocket Pasta: Inspired Dinners to Cook on the Fly, and more specifically, I wanted to try a pasta dish that would be new and fun! Thus, I found myself intrigued and pulled by her Creamy Saffron Risotto-Style Fregola, so I thought I would give it a go! I mean, I even found some Fregola at Gene’s Sausage Shop when I happened to be in the neighborhood, so how great is that?!
But that’s when I looked in my fridge and saw the fresh ears of corn my grandfather had sent me home with after I had visited with them the weekend before, and thought, yes, that needs to go into this too, because, why not? It was fresh sweet corn, and that fresh pop of sweetness would be exactly what the doctor ordered amid the earthiness of the saffron and heaviness of the fregola. And then it hit me. Shrimp. Sure, this had crispy pancetta in it too, BUT shrimp & bacon go great together, so why not shrimp and pancetta? And shrimp has been used in all sorts of dishes with pasta and saffron, so why not here either? And lucky for me, I happened to have a pound of shrimp in the fridge that I wasn’t entirely sure what all to do with (funny how that sometimes works out, no?
But then this is where I found my next kitchen hack: shucking a corn cob by MICROWAVING IT FIRST! Say what?! Craziness! Though, it was craziness that actually worked, and I did test this out on two corn cobs, and by golly, it was easy & fast, and no silk threads in sight! AMAZING! The trick can be found on epicurious (linked here) and I’ve included some photos (AND A VIDEO!) below to show the process too! And for the two corn cobs, I did microwave it for 5 minutes because it was 4 minutes for one cob, so two meant I had to add a minute. (Also, I was filming the shaking with my other hand OTHERWISE you could use your free hand to kind of help guide it out of the husk.)
Now, I love me some grilled corn on the cob, oh for sure, but ever since I can remember, I have a strong fondness and love for corn cut off the cob, smothered in butter and salt. And when using corn in a pasta, naturally, you cut those suckers off the cob! My own kitchen hack for you all is to catch those kernels in a bowl as you cut. Its easier than trying to will the little nuggets not to bounce off your cutting board as you make your way down the cob. And this way, all you need to do is add them in right before the pasta reaches perfect tenderness!
Oh, and did I mention this is a one pot meal? Well…one pan if we want to get really technical, and while I love cooking with my cast iron skillet, it is in fact a super pain to clean, but is, I think, the best vessel for getting that stunning sear on meat and shrimp, which I was going to end up cooking anyway! So in went the pork till it got crispy, then in went the shrimp (setting aside that lovely, dark pancetta), then in went the shallots (my new favorite obsession & replacement for onions in some, but not all, recipes), the pasta, the saffron infused chicken stock, and the vermouth (because I didn’t have any white wine, and knew I wouldn’t finish the bottle, so waste not want not when vermouth will work JUST as well).
Stir, stir, stir, then finish with the pancetta (which you can absolutely substitute for bacon if you can’t find it) and corn! Top it off with some basil, that scrumptious looking shrimp, and VOILA! You have yourself a dish that even the dog wants to eat (as shown by the terrible begging Tuggs performed the minute I sat down on the couch). And I mean, if I was a dog and got to see at how pretty that corn looked tucked into the pasta, yeah, I’d start shamelessly begging too! But that is the wonderful part about Henry’s cookbook. Every recipe I perused were approachable (even the ones that seemed really foreign & outside of the box for me), nothing about the methodology seemed complicated or beyond my skills, and the recipes were simplistic in the most beautiful and flavorful way. I love it when a recipe allows room for personal preference without losing the integrity of the meal itself, and sometimes I think that’s a rare attribute to most of the cookbooks I’ve looked at. She even calls her cookbook a “loose guide,” and I think that’s just wonderfully mindful that not everyone’s palate or tastes are the same, but still able to entice her readers with her delicious photos and rich flavors. And she’s not overly wordy about how best to approach making pasta so it’s perfect every time, and what kinds of items you might want to always have stocked in your pantry for those nights after a long day when a comforting bowl of warm pasta is just what the doctor ordered. If your mouth is watering right now, I highly recommend checking out her cookbook! Happy Eating! — Cooking Maggie
I’m going to keep this short & sweet, but have I ever mentioned that I have an AMAZING Mac & Cheese (from scratch) recipe? Because I do. It’s rich, it’s decedent, it’s cheesey, and it’s gobsmackin’ delicious! And if you don’t believe me, then you should just try my very own “THE” Mac & Cheese for yourself! And you want to know the main secret to this dish? Obviously, it’s the cheese, but it’s a little more than that. It’s the ability to spice things up by combining different kinds of cheeses together to really highlight and enhance those cheesey flavors!
But if you’re a traditionalist, then stick with cheddar, but a great combination that you can try is cheddar and gruyere. Or Cheddar and Manchego, which I have done and is incredibly scrumptious! You could even forgo the cheddar completed and sub in some raclette (cow milk cheese that lends itself REALLY well to melting, and if you don’t believe me, just search raclette cheese on YouTube and watch for yourself) or Monterey Jack! Maybe even throw in a little mascarpone or goats cheese to add a little extra creaminess to it!
And while this recipe is pretty basic and doesn’t seem like it’s anything special, that’s where the personal touch of what kind of cheese you use—primarily influenced by the cheeses you like—comes into play! You get to really influence and transform this recipe in so many ways, like adding bell peppers, or adding truffle butter, or adding mushrooms (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I’m most certainly not, but some folks really love it), or better yet, BACON! Mac & Cheese is such a blank canvas, and it’s when you take that leap of faith into your own creative mode that you’re able to really tap into the potential of this very homey dish! So don’t be afraid to get gouda and crazy (I’m sorry, but I had to) with the cheeses! — Cooking Maggie
THE Mac & Cheese Serves 6-8 // Halve all ingredients to make servings for 2-4
1 lb. pasta
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
4 cups milk
6 cups total sharp or white Cheddar (or combo it with another cheese! Manchego and White cheddar was a really great pairing, but I’ve also done white cheddar & sharp chedd, gruyere & white chedd, but plan to try harvarti and cheddar too!)
2 tsp salt (add more for taste)
2 tsp pepper
(Optional) 2 tsp crushed red pepper (for those who like a kick)
2. T. butter
1/2 c. panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Grate cheese, and start to boil the water for pasta (add a little salt and olive oil to water)
While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat.
Sprinkle in flour and whisk together for 2-3 minutes.
Add salt and pepper. Then SLOWLY pour in milk, whisking as you go until smooth. Add in cheese and whisk until completely melted and integrated.
When pasta has been cooked, drain and place in baking pan.
Pour sauce over top of pasta and mix to ensure every piece is covered in sauce.
In a small pan, melt 2 tbsp of butter and add the panko bread crumbs, stirring constantly till golden brown. Then spread over the top of pasta.
I won’t lie to you, but there are definitely some days after work that I’m absolutely beat and I really don’t want to cook, but then those seem to also be the days that I don’t have anything in my fridge and I really don’t want to spend the money on take out (Chicago is pretty expensive after all). So, when stuck between a rock and an empty stomach, I turn to my quick and dirty take on the ever easy [and normally prepackaged] goodness of Hamburger Helper.
This dish always reminds me of one of my dearest friends, Molly, and all the nights I spent in her apartment during college, hanging out on her couch, watching anime or playing Wii with a beer or glass of wine on the side, and even on the rare occasion, some serious studying. And it is Molly that I always remember whenever I make this dish because this was what we usually had whenever we got hungry and she was awesome enough to share her food with me—that and spaghetti, which is one of her favorite meals ever. I still remember all our trips to Giant Eagle on grocery runs, and I can still see all the boxes of Hamburger Helper stacked in her pantry, in addition to the other crazy things we got up to, and the not so crazy. Once, this wonderful lady came with me to my great-aunt’s funeral (which also happened to be Easter weekend), and afterwards, I offered to get the ingredients for dinner that wouldn’t take forever to cook. So, we picked up some ham steaks, thinking that would suffice—mind you, these were cheap, prepacked ham steaks—and when we tried to cook it, it was one of the worst tasting things we had ever eaten, and I guess since I’m chuckling while I remember, perhaps it was still pretty good all things aside. I don’t know if she remembers that dinner, but I’ll have to bring it up next time I talk to her. No doubt she’ll laugh about it with me too.
Now, keep in mind, the last time I was lazy enough to make it out of the box was years ago, and since coming across & altering the original recipe I had found, I don’t plan on ever going back to the box. Not that it was bad out of the box (it was oh so good), but I just prefer to make things from scratch when I can because it’s healthier! No preservatives in this recipe I can tell you that! (And speaking of making things from scratch, I have a BOMB recipe for Copy Cat PF Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps that I actually prefer to what I’ve had at the restaurant. So keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks!) The key to figuring out this recipe is finding the large elbow macaroni’s to make it as close to the box as possible, but more often than not, when I can’t find them, I just use the mini macaronis. It’s just a few minutes less cooking time overall, or cellentani pasta if you want to stick to a larger pasta. Either will work! And besides, when I make it by scratch, I can tailor it to my tastes and it ends up being even better than the box anyway! Frankie likes it with a kick of heat, so I even add a little hot sauce to my recipe (and some diced tomatoes for a little Tex-Mex flair)! [Note: My photo shows flat leaf parsley, which I happened to have on hand, but curly parsley works better I think.]
Here’s to the memories we delight in recreating. —Cooking Maggie
Ingredients For Pasta
1 pound lean hamburger meat
1 envelope taco seasoning
1 (10 oz) can Rotel tomatoes and green chilies (or petite diced tomatoes)
2 cups beef broth (or water)
1 cup large elbow macaroni
Hot Sauce (after adding cheese sauce) to taste
Fresh parsley to top, finely chopped
For Cheese Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
¾ cup milk
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Brown and drain hamburger meat. Stir in taco seasoning, Rotel, beef broth, and macaroni. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and cover pan. Simmer 12-14 mins until macaroni is tender.
For the cheese sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking for 5 minutes until fragrant and light brown in color. Whisk in the milk and bring to a boil. Whisk until smooth and thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the shredded cheddar cheese until melted. Add the salt and pepper to the cheese sauce. Pour the cheese sauce over the hamburger mixture. Stir gently to combine.
Add hot sauce to taste and top with fresh parsley.