Archive for the ‘Comfort Food’ Category

While I was growing up, like most of America at the time, my family embraced convenience foods.  I’ve enjoyed watching the escapades of Don Draper on the Mad Men televisions series.  I now understand how Madison Avenue seduced our generation with witty jingles, bright packaging and those evoked feelings of sexy newness every time we grabbed that box or jar off the shelf.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, throw out some word association phrases and see what images we conjure up:

“Macaroni and Cheese”  


“Chocolate Pudding”



“And of course… Pancakes”

The chubby dough boys on the pancake box were always around when we turned on the griddle at home.  But guess what?  I never really liked pancakes until I tasted my first batch of pancakes made from scratch instead of out of the box.  Ditto with the other convenience foods.  The box pancakes looked and smelled so good, but always disappointed once I popped a bite in my mouth.  No matter how much butter and syrup I poured on, they still tasted like cardboard.

Pancakes made from scratch are in a league of their own.  They rise until they are light and fluffy on the griddle, but still deliver some substance and depth when you take a bite.  The tangy bite of the buttermilk teases against the sweetness of the maple syrup and creaminess of the butter to create a satisfying wonderfulness in your mouth.  They taste like…..what I always imagined pancakes should taste like.  Once you make pancakes from scratch,  it will be hard to go back to anything else.

I believe I’ve revisited and cooked most of the boxed and jarred foods from my childhood, but this time making them from scratch.  I am never disappointed.  A lot of these experiences I’ve already featured on my blog.  I hope I can inspire you to try the same.

Pancakes from scratch are easy to make and foolproof….almost.  I had a little “made from scratch” pancake debacle in Italy this fall mostly related to “Italian to English” translation issues at the grocery store while buying baking soda.  But I’ll leave that story for another day.

In the meantime, let’s put our thumb on the end of our nose, wiggle our fingers at Don Draper and try these absolutely delicious buttermilk pancakes – made from scratch!

Buttermilk Pancakes Made From Scratch!

Adapted from “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman


Dry Ingredients

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

2 TBSP sugar

1 & 1/2 tsp baking soda

Wet Ingredients

2 cups buttermilk

2 eggs, separated

4 TBSP butter, melted and cooled

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract


Sift dry ingredients together and set aside.

Separate the eggs

Whisk the egg whites until stiff

Assemble the wet ingredients

Put the dry ingredients in a big bowl.  Put the wet ingredients including the egg yolks and egg whites in a separate bowl.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined.  Don’t over-beat.  The batter will be lumpy.  Once the dry ingredients hit the wet ingredients, the baking soda activates and should be used quickly if you want light, fluffy pancakes.

Pour 3/4 to 1 cup of batter on a piping hot griddle for each pancake.

Cook for a couple of minutes until batter starts to bubble and bottom is golden brown.  Flip pancake and finish cooking the other side.

Serve piping hot off the griddle with butter and syrup.  Enjoy!!


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I have four or five different chili recipes I routinely use.  Like the perfect pair of shoes, each recipe has just the right “chili attributes” for different occasions.  A reliable weeknight chili recipe that takes less than thirty minutes to prepare reminds me of my beloved J Crew flip-flops, always conveniently located and ready to slip on.  My cute collegiate loafers remind me of the five-way Cincinnati chili-mac recipe I use for tailgating at football games.  I have a rather sophisticated chili recipe made with braised prime rib and exotic spices which reminds me of my sleek kitten heel pumps.

Today’s chili reminds me of my broken in, all scuffed up, wear all day leather riding boots.  My boots make me feel all snugly and warm and are so comfortable I forget I have them on.  Like being home.  This chili is for crisp, fall harvest Saturdays.  The kind of day where you don’t mind investing a few extra minutes cooking, knowing the reward will be a dish with a nuanced and layered depth of flavor.

Once assembled, put the pot of chili on the back burner and let it gently bubble away while you are out at the kid’s football games, hiking in the woods or grabbing a pumpkin at the farmer’s market.  It will fill the house with the most enticing aromas while you are away.  It makes enough for a big crowd and tastes great served with a dollop of sour cream and crispy tortilla chips.

Big Bold Chili

(serves 8-10 but, may be chilled and reheated)

inspired from Sarah Leah Chase’s Cold Weather Cooking


1 can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained

1 can white navy beans, rinsed and drained

1 can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1 pound bacon, diced

3 medium white onions, diced

4-6 cloves fresh garlic, minced

3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced

3 TBSP ground cumin

3 TBSP paprika

3 TBSP really good chili powder

1/2 to 1 tsp red cayenne pepper (more cayenne = hotter spicy heat)

1 (or more) tsp dried crushed red pepper flakes (optional to increase the spicy heat factor)

3 TBSP dried oregano

2 28 oz cans tomato purée

2-3 cups beef broth

1 pound ground beef

1 pound hot Italian sausage

1 bottle dark, yeasty beer

salt to taste

Serving condiments such as shredded sharp cheddar cheese, sour cream, diced avocado, diced onion, fresh cilantro and warm tortilla chips.


Drain and rinse the cans of red kidney, black, white navy and garbanzo beans

Fry the diced bacon until crisp in a large dutch oven.  Remove the bacon and drain on paper towels, set aside. (Save the bacon fat)

Add the diced onion, jalapeno and garlic to the bacon fat.  Saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the onions are soft and translucent, about ten minutes.  Drain off the remaining bacon fat.

Toasting the dried spices helps unleash their maximum depth of flavor.  Place the cumin, paprika, chili powder and cayenne  in a dry skillet and toast over medium low heat for two minutes.  Be sure to swirl the pan continuously so the spices do not burn.  Add the fragrant toasted spices to the vegetable mixture.  Add the cans tomato purée, oregano and beef broth.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile in a separate pan sauté the beef and hot Italian sausage together, breaking it apart with the back of a wooden spoon.  Cook until crumbly and brown.  Drain off excess fat.  Pour the dark beer into the meat to de-glaze.  Add the meat mixture, rinsed beans and cooked bacon to the chili.  Simmer on extremely low heat for an hour or two.  If the mixture gets too thick, thin it by adding extra beer, beef stock or water.  Adjusted any seasoning to taste.  Spoon into crocks and serve piping hot with the condiments.  Enjoy!

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I’m sure you’ve played the game before …..if stranded on a desert island where you could only bring three foods with you…what would they be?  Hands down for me it would be a great aged cheddar cheese, warm, crusty french bread, crisp granny smith apples, lots of chocolate and of course a perfectly paired wine.  What?  A couple too many foods you say?  Come on now, you didn’t really expect me to stop at three, did you?

So let’s talk about this decadent macaroni and cheese.  Today’s recipe has three ingredients and this time I really mean just three.  A chuck of great aged cheddar, whipping cream and your pasta of choice.  Reminiscent of the rich mac-n-cheese served as a side dish at high end steak houses, this is the real deal.  I don’t eat carbs often so when I do, it better be worth it.  This is worth it.

The cheese sauce whips up while the pasta cooks and this dish is on the table in 10-15 minutes.  Can’t beat that.

I spent all last week gallivanting around Catalonia and the Costa Brava region in Spain on my bike with a great group of friends.  Do I eat so I can ride or ride so I can eat….that is the question.  Neither is the answer.  I love them both!  I am a bit snowed under though and trying to catch up, so my post today will be as simple as this recipe.  Enjoy!!

Absolutely Decadent Macaroni and Cheese


2 cups whipping cream

7 oz aged sharp cheddar cheese, hand grated

1 pound short pasta (macaroni or fusilli corkscrews work great).  Cook al dente, according to package directions.  Drain the pasta but do not rinse.


While the pasta is cooking pour the whipping cream into a large saute pan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for three minutes stirring occasionally , allowing the cream to reduce.

Add the grated cheddar cheese.  Pick a really good chunk of cheddar.  Hand grate the cheese.  Do not choose a package of pre-shredded cheese.  Besides tasting inferior, the pre-shredded cheese contains stabilizers that don’t work well with this technique.

Stir well over medium heat until the cheese melts into the cream and the sauce thickens, about another 1-2 more minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cooked pasta.  I drain but never rinse my pasta after it cooks.  The starch left on the pasta from the cooking water helps thicken the sauce, if you rinse the pasta you lose this.

Stir over medium heat until combined, about another minute.

Serve immediately and Enjoy!

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Second only to my love of Mediterranean flavors comes my love of Mexican flavors.   Many years ago I made tacos by browning ground beef, ripping open a yellow packet of Old El Paso taco seasoning and melting shredded Kraft Mexican blend cheese on a tortilla.  Luckily our very own Chicago chef Rick Bayless has written many cookbooks and opened my eyes to the world of exquisite Mexican cooking using fresh, authentic ingredients and flavors.  He has three restaurants in Chicago: Frontera Grill, Topolobambo and the new XOCO exploring Mexican cuisine.


Last spring we were lucky enough to attend a corporate event in the development kitchen above Frontera Grill.  Those are my friends Pete, Kerri and Tom listening to Rick Bayless explain how to make empanadas.

Rick Bayless also offers a wonderful line of grocery products under the Frontera moniker.  It can be found in the Mexican food aisle at the grocery store.   Rick Bayless’ website says this about his restaurants “If Topolobambo pampers and Frontera dances, then XOCO rocks. Though the word XOCO is Mexican slang for “little sister” there’s nothing little about XOCO’s big, bold Mexican marketplace flavors and contemporary expressions of Mexico’s most beloved street food and snacks “ Today in the spirit of XOCO I bring you a pulled chili pork street taco – using Frontera gourmet tomatillo salsa of course!  The pulled pork does not need a lot of prep time but it does cook for 3-4 hours.  I usually make the pork ahead of time and then it’s easy to assemble the condiments later to make for a quick and tasty taco.

Pulled Chili Pork Tacos with Tomatillo Slasa


4 pounds pork stew meat (pork shoulder, butt or country style ribs)

1/3 cup apple cider

4 cloves garlic, minced

3 TBSP fresh lime juice

1 TBSP ground cumin

1 TBSP oregano

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 tsp ground cloves

3 bay leaves

1-2 canned chipotle peppers

2-3 cups chicken broth

Condiments (as a suggestion – feel free to use your imagination!)

tortilla shells (corn or flour)

Frontera gourmet tomatillo salsa

pineapple salsa (Whole Foods has a great fresh pineapple salsa or you can make your own by dicing pineapple, jalapeño, red onion, red bell pepper  and tossing it with fresh cilantro and lime juice – salt to taste)

diced red onion

diced fresh avocado

crumbled authentic mexican cheese (Queso Fresco or Oaxaca)


We are going to braise the pork for the tacos so it is important to pick the right cut of meat.  Braising is perfect for tough, fattier, inexpensive cuts of meat which are laced with lots of collagen and connective tissue.  The long, gentle cooking time breaks down the meat and makes it incredibly tender, moist, delicious and full of flavor.  Once finished cooking it literally falls apart when pulled with a fork.  The best cuts for this dish are pork shoulder, butt or country style ribs.  (Costco sells a great pack of pork shoulder – boneless country ribs that I always use pictured above)

Cut the pork into large 2 inch chunks

The first important step is to sear the meat.  This caramelizes the outside and infuses lots of flavor into the dish.  Heat a large heavy bottom skillet over medium high heat.  Add a touch of oil.  Working in batches add a few pieces of pork to the pan. Don’t overcrowd the meat or it will steam instead of sear and won’t develop the outside crust.

At first the pan will “grab” the meat.  In this picture I am actually pulling as hard as I can on the meat and it is stuck to the pan.  Don’t worry the pan will “release” the meat once a beautiful caramelized crust is formed.

As promised the meat effortlessly pulls away from the pan once the crust is developed.  Turn pieces over with tongs and repeat the process on the other side.  Once completed transfer to a holding plate and start the next batch.

Once completed the pan will look like this.  Take the pan off the heat.  We don’t want to lose all that good flavor still in the pan so we will deglaze the pan with our braising liquid.

To make the braising liquid combine the apple cider vinegar, lime juice, cumin, oregano, cloves, salt, pepper and chicken stock.  Pour into pan to and stir to loosen the drippings.

Swirl it around until the bottom of the pan is clean and add the chopped chipotle pepper(s)  The chipotle peppers are very hot!  Use only one or two depending on how much heat you want.

One chipotle pepper from a can

Put the seared meat in a crockpot.  Pour the braising liquid over the meat.  Add the bay leaves and crushed garlic.  Put the lid on, turn the heat on low and cook for 3-4 hours.  If you don’t have a crock pot you can put the meat in a dutch oven, cover it and cook in the oven at 300 degrees for 3-4 hours.  It is really important that the meat cooks gently for a long time.  If you look in the crockpot and it is fiercely  boiling turn the heat down or lift the lid to release some heat.

When it is finished cooking the meat will literally fall apart when pulled with a fork.  If you have time I always let the meat sit in the braising liquid for about another hour off the heat once it is done cooking.  This allows the meat to rest and infuses the meat with the braising liquid making it extra tender and juicy.  Remove the chunks of meat from the liquid and pull apart by shredding it with a fork.  Discard any fatty parts once the meat is pulled.  You can use a little of the braising liquid to moisten the meat but then discard the rest.  The meat is now done and can be used right away or stored and reheated when you are ready for the tacos.

These are the condiments I use for the tacos.  The Frontera tomatillo salsa is perfect for the pulled chili pork because it is strong and acidic and compliments the flavor.  The same for the pineapple salsa.  I don’t like using red tomato based salsas for this taco because I feel it muddies the fresh flavor of the pulled pork.

This makes my mouth water!  Enjoy!!

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Could it be?  Yes….today is just a bolognese day.  Snuggled back home after a particularly grueling computraining session (thanks to Raouf : 856 calories burned…really?)  I had nothing else on the docket which would induce me to venture back out.  Except I forgot to stop at the grocery store.  I am not going.  It is fa-reezing out there in Chicago today.  Dinner is definitely out of the pantry tonight.

And this is why classic Bolognese Sauce is a beautiful thing.  I almost always have the ingredients to make it in the pantry.  The real deal takes 3 or 4 hours to cook but there is very little prep time involved.  You can put it on to simmer and be oh so productive while the sauce fills your house with the most amazing aroma.  You only need to stop by every so often and give it a little loving before you are back tackling the “to do” list.

The Silver Spoon has been the best-selling cookbook in Italy for over 50 years and is considered the bible of authentic Italian cooking.  It was first published in English in 2005 which was a very happy day for me.  It is a phenomenal resource but runs a little short on the directional side.  I imagine the Italian grandmas assumed the progeny already knew what to do with the ingredients and were not compelled to write overly fussy instructions.  If you ever get a chance watch Anne Burrell’s Bolognese episode on Food Network’s Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.  Anne studied in Italy and in her own words – she “rocks the sauce”.  The Italian grandmas would be proud.  So with a nod to Anne and The Silver Spoon – here we go:

Classic Bolognese Sauce

(adapted from The Silver Spoon and Anne Burrell)


2 small onions peeled and cut in large chunks

2 large carrots peeled and cut in large chunks

3 ribs celery washed, stems and leaves removed and cut in large chunks

4 whole cloves fresh peeled garlic

2-3 TBSPS olive oil

3 pounds ground beef, preferably chuck

3 small cans tomato paste

3 cups hearty Italian wine like a Chianti

3 bay leaves


1/2 cup of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese grated

1 box (1 pound) of spaghetti pasta.




In a food processor add

  • 2 small onions
  • 2 large carrots
  • 3 ribs celery
  • 4 whole cloves garlic

Pulse the food processor 8-10 times to purée the vegetables

Coat a large heavy skillet with about 2-3 TBSP olive oil.   Bring to medium high heat and add the purée.  Season generously with salt.  Cook the vegetable purée for about 15-20 minutes stirring frequently.  The water will evaporate from the purée and the bottom of the pan will caramelize and be nice and brown.  The brown on the bottom of the pan is what makes the sauce so delicious so make sure to let it  develop before you go to the next step.Add

  • three pounds ground beef, preferably chuck.

Season generously with salt.  Cook the ground beef for another 15-20 minutes until it gets really brown (just like the vegetables).  Remember the brown is what makes the sauce taste so good!

It will look like this when it is ready


  • 3 small cans tomato paste

Cook over medium heat until it browns – about 5 minutes


  • 3 cups hearty Italian red wine (I use a Chianti or Barolo)

The wine deglazes the bottom of the pan and all the nice brown flavors developed are now in the sauce.

Cook for another 5 minutes and reduce the wine.  This will intensify the flavor even more.


  • water to pan until it is 1 inch over the meat (about 4 cups)
  • 3 bay leaves

Season it again with salt.  Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally.

About every 45 minutes or so add

  • 2-3 additional cups of water

Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer , stirring occasionally.  When all the water evaporates again repeat adding water.  After 3-4 hours of repeating this process you will have a robust, hearty sauce with BIG flavor.  As the sauce is simmering and the water evaporating it permeates your house with the most amazing aroma.  Did I happen to tell you it smells really, really good?

Now here is a really fun secret I have withheld until this point!  We just made a double batch of Bolognese Sauce.  You can take half of the sauce and freeze it to enjoy later (or maybe share it with your neighbor).

It is almost time to eat!  Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and cook

  • 1 box (1 pound) of spaghetti pasta.


  • 1/2 cup of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

Add the drained, cooked spaghetti and cheese right into the skillet with the remaining sauce.  Add a little water if it is too thick.  Toss the pasta and coat it with the cheese and sauce.

Just pinch me…..it looks delish!

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