On Meatball Bolognese…

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!

 

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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

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Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs from bon appetit


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On Resolutions & Best Last Meal of 2017

FIRST POST OF THE NEW YEAR! AH!!! And this marks the second year of my blog! DOUBLE AH! And with that, I hope and wish that everyone reading this had an incredible Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy St. Lucia Day, Happy Kwanzaa, and a Happy New Year!

And as we enter into 2018, I have a few resolutions I want to share, two of which directly impact the blog itself, but not in a bad way! The first is to set a schedule, and by that, I mean a blogging schedule. This past year, I’ve been VERY sporadic with when I have posted my blogs, and this year, I would like there to be more consistency, so I am going to post something new every Thursday! These Thursday posts will either include a recipe or it’ll be a dining recommendation, but since I’m pretty darn strapped after the holidays, more likely than none it’ll be a recipe for the next couple of weeks! Bonus Posts (such as the new segment Cooking With Friends) will post either same-day or the day after. These segments will be much more video forward (Facebook Live?! How exciting and cool is that?!) than writing, but no doubt I’ll still take photos, and of course, recipe links will continue to be at the end of every post! But in having more of a schedule, it helps reduce the pressure of having to cook something new and interesting more than once a week, when sometimes old favorites are craved for last minute! And I feel that’s a schedule that’ll fit better with my day job & wedding planning, which will be picking back up pretty darn soon! T-Minus 10 more months!

Another resolution I have is to get healthy, and I mean it this time. As of yesterday, I’ll be doing Personal Training twice a week, and incorporating my own workouts two days a week as well! Which means, I am going to be really doing my research on upcoming recipes to find out ways I can substitute for healthy options without losing the overall balance and taste of the dish, as well as just looking for lighter meals in general! And to align myself with this resolution, I have even purchased a CSA share from Geneva Lakes Produce Farm! I chose them specifically because, unlike the majority of the CSA shares I researched, Geneva allows you to pick your own produce at the Farmers Market they set up at! HOW AWESOME IS THAT?! I will definitely be featuring my vegetables more often once I start getting my box, so that’ll be a new and exciting adventure! And it gives me more control over what I would like to cook with, at the same time as being a little adventurous too! And for a ½ bushel, it honestly wasn’t all that expensive, and even less so because I’m even going to be sharing the box with a friend (who will likely also appear in a Cooking with Friends segment) to ensure there is no wasting of the beautiful fresh veggies I will be seriously nomming on this summer!

The only other resolutions I had were to keep reading and spend less money, which is pretty typical for me every year. What did NOT align with the spending less money was the last meal I cooked for 2017, which I took a gander at on Bon Appetit. Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Garlic & Rosemary (and Thyme, because I like Thyme), with a side of green (AND PURPLE!) asparagus and roasted garlic whipped red potatoes! AND BOY WAS IT MM MM GOOD! Frankie said it was the best thing I made all year, and I mean, I made a lot this year! Over 87 posts, 31 new dining/drinking experiences, and 80 recipes!! I mean, THAT’S a lot, not to mention all the remakes of favorites in between all the new ones! I’ve included the links below, and for the record, while the recipe says to use kitchen twine, I found I didn’t need it, so feel free to skip that! Oh and don’t forget to add a little thyme if you happen to like that on your steak as well!

And I think that about does it for the first post of 2018, which I’m sure will hold just as many wonderful moments and adventures as 2017 did! I know this wasn’t much of a reflection, but as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I like to reflect a lot throughout the year, and I really want to focus on looking forward with open eyes and an open heart, so here’s to you 2018 and to the excitement you hold! I hope everyone had a safe and happy New Year, and I’ve already picked out a great first recipe picked out for next week! – Cooking Maggie


Roast Beef Tenderloin with Garlic & Rosemary from Bon Appetit** Add a tablespoon of chopped fresh thyme leaves too if you’d like!

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes from Cooking Classy

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On Christmas Parties & First Christmas Trees

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?!

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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

On Slow Cooker Beef Ragu

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.

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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.

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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!)

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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

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Bolognese [From Scratch]


Slow Cooker Flank Steak Ragu

Ingredients:

  • 6 garlic cloves, kept whole, but smashed
  • 1 ½ pounds flank steak
  • 1 28 oz can crushed san marzano tomatoes
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tbspo tomato paste
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 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

Instructions:

  1. Pour in everything except the beef, salt, and pepper. Give it a good stir until all mixed together.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.**
  5. 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.

On Sloppy Joes!

I know we all just got done stuffing our faces and bellies with delicious Thanksgiving food (#allthegravy), but I recently shared this recipe with a coworker, and she loved it, so I thought, okay, we’re already getting overly full, so what’s another filling recipe for those post-feast days, or for whenever something gooey and messy is needed at the end of a long work week (or work day as I’m sure we all have those every once in a while)!

A few notes though. 1) I LOVE Worcestershire sauce, so I am VERY heavy-handed with it in this recipe. I think its peppery tang helps cut the heaviness of the meat, BUT if you prefer the tomato-y flavor, just simply halve the amount that I’ve included. OR, if you’re like me and you can’t get enough Worcestershire, add the amount I’ve listed, taste, and then add more if you think it could be more pronounced, which I have also done. I do think the amount I’ve given is a good starting point for those who embrace the tang, but again, halve if it’s too abrasive a flavor for you, or add more if you want it to stand at the forefront!

2) Buns. Everyone is different in how they’ve eaten their Sloppy Joes, but I think it’s fun to try different buns to see what works best for your messy masterpiece. If you prefer more of a meaty mixture, then I think a hamburger bun is going to work in your favor, but if you’re more focused on developing the flavors of the sauce (which means a runnier/messier Slop), then I feel a hamburger bun is more likely to disintegrate before you finish your sammich! But others love that, so again, it’s totally up to you and your preference, but if you’d like to try something a little more substantial that can stand up to just about any kind of mess you can imagine, I really like pretzel buns OR Kaiser buns! In both instances, they are soft & salty enough to stand up to a runny sauce and a lot of meat!

And for all those who are Manwhich lovers, trust me, making the sauce from scratch really does make a difference, not to mention that this recipe is super easy to make, flavor-packed, and one of the most enjoyable meals where getting messy is required and napkins are completely useless. If you’re ready to get your hands (and face) dirty, then this sloppy concoction is right up your alley! — Cooking Maggie

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Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 lb ground beef
  • 1 bell pepper (red or green), diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 cups pureed tomatoes (or canned tomato sauce when in a pinch)
  • salt & additional ground pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • oil for the pan
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
  • 4 rolls (hamburger, Kaiser, or pretzel buns)
  • Optional Toppings: fresh tomatoes, dill pickles, sliced cheddar cheese, cole slaw

 

Instructions:

  1. Brown meat, add cracked black pepper.
  2. Add pepper and onion, until soft. Then add garlic till aromatic, about 30 seconds.
  3. Add tomato sauce, tomato paste, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar.
  4. Let simmer and thicken for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper.
  6. Serve with sliced pickles & cheddar cheese on your preferred bread roll, then enjoy the mess!!

Dining Recommendation: Tallboy Taco

Friday, August 18th, was my 28th birthday, and my usual necessities for having a stupendous birthday are two-fold: 1) Tacos, and 2) Headquarters Beercade in River North (or any other form of video game activity). The first because, obvi, THIS CHICK LOVES HER TACOS LIKE WOAH! Cool, and the second because this chick also loves her video games. Yup, you heard it right here. I’m a solid, 100% video game loving nerdette, and I play a pretty wide variety of platforms and game types, though I’ll also say it right here and right now, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (on N64, though I have the 3DS version and love it almost as much because it’s portable and has way better graphics) is my #1 favorite game. I even wrote an 8-part series about the game during the final years of my Masters program as a way to take a break from the creative nonfiction memoir heaviness I was immersed in already. (If this sort of thing interests you at all, you can find all eight parts here on my ENTROPY Author’s Page.) But at Headquarters, I get to relive some of my more cherished earlier memories, like playing Soul Edge AND Soul Caliber, which were my favorite arcade games growing up, on top of getting to fall in love with some other pretty wonderful games like Off Road, Tapper, Police Academy, and the various kinds of pinball machines they have available too! If you haven’t been, I will also recommend it as a fun weekend spot to check out when you find yourself with nothing to do…oh, and I should probably mention that all the games at Headquarters are FREE. Yup, F-R-E-E, so definitely go.

To start us off—because, it was my birthday, and why not?—we ordered the Beer Queso and that was super yummy! Kind of like nacho cheese, but without the gross coagulation factor once it loses its heat. Its the main reason we avoid ordering most queso fundidos because once it cools, it gets hard and stringy, rather than retaining that ooze factor, which is key for any queso. To break up the richness, we helped ourselves to the complimentary salsa bar, which was awesome! FREE SALSA BAR! I mean, sure, the helpings are individual servings vs. group shares, but the variations of salsa available more than make up for the portion sizes you can grab. Oh, and should you run out, you just go back and get some more! EASY! Super great idea too!

But back to the tacos. I will say the only one we didn’t order was the Crispy Veggie Avocado taco, mostly because that was the only one Frankie was not the biggest fan of. He likes his guac, but actual avocado pieces are a whole other matter entirely. And looking back on it, I really don’t think we ever would have room for it if we had tried. We even brought home taco fillings because we approached our tasting incorrectly…after five full facos, and five left to go, we switched to one bite of each, finishing the tones we preferred after the fact. So let’s get started! [Note: The following notes were taken while eating and are short, to the point for that purpose.]

  • Beer-Battered Crispy Fish: Great crunchy texture/breading, flaky fish, a little dry, but in the best sense because the sauce added the moisture back in. Good ratio!
  • Pulled Chicken Tinga: Great salsa marinade, tender meat, pickled onions were the perfect hit of salt. Awesome!
  • Grilled Shrimp Taco: Shrimp over powers, so the freshness of the toppings get lost.
  • Spicy Chicken: VERY spicy, but a good balance of heat and cooling, great taco!
  • Cowboy 12HR Smoked Brisket Taco: Meat is tender, moist, but needed salt or a stronger salsa to help stand out, or at least step up the BBQ note a little more.
  • Steak & Egg Taco: Egg was not highlighted enough and steak was a little chewy, but good flavors. Egg could have been more balanced.
  • Pancho Villa Steak Carne Asada: Honestly, not the best. Beef was overpowered by the seasoning and didn’t taste like carne asada, but rather like beef fajita. More orange/citrus would have helped balance things a little more.
  • Gunthorp Farms Carnitas: Another not my favorite. It tasted like turkey instead of pork and lacked seasoning and spices that I expected from carnitas.
  • Grilled Skirt Steak & Papas: Exactly what you expect in terms of flavor, seasoning was on point, steak was tender. Yummy!
  • Al pastor: BEST ONE BY FAR!! Pineapple is instant and the rest comes in to dance. Onion tops it off. All flavors in unison, best taco of the night!!
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Starting at lower left, going left to right up each row: Brisket Taco, Shrimp Taco, Steak & Papas Taco, Pork Al Pastor, Fish Taco, Spicy Chicken Tacos (the last two at the very back), and Chicken Tinga Tacos at the very back
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Carnitas (two in front), Steak Carne Asada (with the corn), another brisket taco by the limes (because when you order your tacos they all come out on one platter), and the Steak & Eggs taco at the back
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Chicken Tinga Tacos

And there you have it! Honest, on the spot review of every taco, though our waiter did say the avocado was one of the best ones on the menu too, so perhaps when we go back (and we for sure for the ones we liked the most, which were excellent) we’ll have to go ahead and try it out!

And perhaps because it was my birthday, or just because I’m inherently greedy when it comes to eating out, I also ordered  their special, which happened to be gazpacho, and I love gazpacho. My favorite is at my mom’s club, where they dollop this amazingly smooth whipped avocado creme on top! So yummy! And the gazpacho at Tallboy was also very good, and very refreshing! It wasn’t instantly spicy, but had a slow grow heat to it that was really lovely, and the veggies were fresh and crunchy (as they should be)!

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But overall, a fantastic meal, and one I plan to repeat, though perhaps with a little less food this time! The sangria’s are also spot on, so if cocktails are your jam, then definitely check this place out for some really delicious drinks! Mm Mm Good! —Cooking Maggie


Tallboy Taco: 325 W. Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60654

Headquarters Beercade – River North: 213 W. Institute Plaza, Chicago, IL 60610

On Empanadas!

So, let’s get real with food right now: Empanada. I can’t exactly pinpoint my desire to eat/make these yummy little pastry pockets of powerful flavor, but all I can say is, YES PLEASE!



Funny enough, I had my very first empanada in Chicago after helping one of my fellow MFA cohorts move, and it happened to be on the corner of Montrose & Wolcott from the food truck 5411. It was completely unassuming and frankly, I don’t think we would have stopped if the air simmering around the truck hadn’t been so heavy with spiced meat and golden crust, or if we hadn’t been as hungry as we were. The idea of food trucks at this point were still kind of new to me, and I had grown up leery of most street food stands in Hong Kong that were more likely to get you sick than to leave you satisfied. The only real food truck experience that I had was in college, ordering hamburgers and bratwursts with grilled onions, sauerkraut, and grilled melted mozzarella cheese, which always came free and layered elegantly on top like freshly washed sheets on a freshly made bed. Nothing better, but back to 5411 and their empanadas. We were so hungry, having done a lot of physical activity and the smell of meat and cheese was making our mouths water, not to mention the price of $2.75 an empanada was too good to pass up, so I tried a beef, just to get as close to authentic as I could for my first bite. The pastry was hot and steamy, the meat tender and juicy, earthy with a kick of heat. a dash of sweetness, and a quick salty tang of brine. It was simple, but it was delicious, and the fact it was hand friendly made the continuance of our cool down walk all the better.



I haven’t had the pleasure of encountering this truck since then, or venturing to their many locations around the city, but that’s when my MFA started to really kick in and food had to take a small backseat. But as I started to cook more this year, the memory has popped back on more than one occasion, especially when I have been looking at pictures of scones and making pies. The pastry connection was inevitable.




And just to be clear so I’m not overselling my current predicament of minimal kitchen, I did NOT make the dough. When I’m all moved and unpacked, I plan to make more empanadas, perhaps with chicken this time, and make the dough from scratch, but for now, I turned to the ever handy empanada wrappers, which I found at my nearest Tony’s Finer Foods, which specializes in ethnic foods more than our local Jewel or Mariano’s. Eucalyptus? They got it! Yuca? They got it! Empanada wrappers? Oh yeah, they DEFINITELY have that, whereas the 5 Jewels, 3 Mariano’s, and 2 Whole Foods that were within 10 miles of my home or office were like, “Empanada what now? What are those?” I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated trying to find ONE THING. In future, I now know exactly where to go when I need to look for my not-so-run-of-the-mill groceries. [Helpful Note: Definitely take stock of where your nearest specialty marts are for such occasions!]



And the filling is everything you would want in a comfort food. Meat, potatoes, olives (which I know most folks aren’t a fan of, but they’re chopped super small so you can’t really taste them as is, but they provide that perfect little pop of saltiness that meat and potatoes really crave, especially when they’re bunked together in the same dish), peppers for crunch and freshness, cumin for a little earthy sweetness, chili powder (and my favorite, chili flakes) for the heat to kick it all up a notch. Even in the heat of summer, these little pockets of spiced perfection are still a wonderful little bite of comfort and satisfaction! If you’re looking to spice up your summer, this is definitely one way to do it! Enjoy! — Cooking Maggie


Beef & Potato Empanadas from the candid appetite.

On Homemade Hamburger Helper

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.

So cheesy! SO GOOD!!!

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.]

It doesn’t look pretty, but really, it’s not meant to! YUM!

Here’s to the memories we delight in recreating. —Cooking Maggie


Cheeseburger Macaroni

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

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Add hot sauce to taste and top with fresh parsley.