Sushi Roll Salad!  That’s what I have planned for this Furikake seasoning from Trader Joes! This nori blend is nori seaweed, black and white sesame seeds, salt, and kelp powder. It’s a pretty traditional recipe for furikake, but there is no added MSG. (Every time Trader Joe’s has a new product, I find a reason to build a recipe around it!)  I think it will be the perfect thing to use in a California Roll Salad. This sushi roll salad will be simple to make: white short grain rice; (some grocery stores carry sushi rice), rice vinegar, a little wasabi paste, some pink pickled ginger, toasted sesame seeds, and avocado.

Since I live in the midwest, good fresh crab is not exactly readily available, but in the past I have made do with good quality crabmeat, which it turns out, is very good! Costco carries a brand called Phillips, which is about $25.00 a pound. (You want lump crab meat for this recipe, not the less expensive claw meat.) And we are most definitely not talking about the canned crab meat that’s available in the tuna aisle. I don’t have any idea what that is for, and I don’t want to find out! If you would rather use shrimp in this recipe, that would work perfectly too!

The flavors of this refreshing summery salad are like a California roll, but in a bowl! This will be a fun light lunch for two  girlfriends who haven’t seen each other in months and are planning a lunch on the patio together. It’s been a long shelter-in-place, with everyone cooped up at home. These two are going to be practicing social distancing; they will be outside and wine will be involved! 

One of the ladies is a longtime client of mine, who I have worked as a personal chef in Burr Ridge for many years. She loves having friends over, and they are all very health-conscious. They work out, they like a light lunch after exercising or tennis. They do love to indulge in a little wine, and needless to say, chocolate for dessert! I have a feeling they will be on the patio long after this personal chef packs up and heads home! It’s been a long few weeks of staying at home! I’ll leave the chocolate mousse in the refrigator for them! They will be talking for a long, long time!

  

 

Pan Grilled Steaks! This is something that every good home cook should know how to do. These days, with the meat shortage during Covid-19, it is more important than ever to buy your meat from a responsible meat perveryor. As a personal chef, I am often asked for at-home cooking tips, which I love to share. These days, with so many people turning to meatless meals, when they do eat beef, they want a really good cut of the highest quality.

When you are going to make a steak, the best advice I can give is to start with really good meat. (If you’re lucky enough to have a wonderful meat market in your neighborhood like I do, buy your meat there instead of at the grocery store!) These were really good prime filet mignon steaks from Wheaton Meat Company, which is in my neighborhood. As a personal chef, I usually hit 2-3 stores on my way to cooking in my client’s homes. It is worth the extra stop to get the meat from a good meat market. See if there is a good neighborhood butcher near you. It makes a huge difference!)

I just learned that one of the big-box store actually puts their prime meat through a “blade tenderizing” process.  Good meat markets do not treat their prime beef that way!

Ok, onto the how-tos for cooking a steak at home: the first thing I do is let the steaks come to room temperature for 20 minutes or so. Season them liberally with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and rub them with a little extra virgin olive oil. Heat up the grill pan. When it is hot, add a neutral oil with a high smokepoint  (I use grapeseed oil)  to the pan and spread it around with a paper towels that you are holding with a pair of tongs. Put the steaks in the pan and leave them alone! Don’t start moving them around. That is a rookie mistake; people get nervous when cooking a steak at home, and start lifting it up. looking at the underside, fiddling around with it! Just leave it for 2 minutes and let the grillpan do it’s work!

After 2 minutes, rotate the steaks 90°. After two more minutes flip them over and repeat. If you don’t already own a meat thermometer, get one! You’re shooting for 120 degrees for rare. Don’t forget, the temperature will continue to rise a little, up to 5 degrees or so, after you remove them from a pan. (If you are serving them as a dinner party entree, and you have someone in your crowd who does not like rare meat, have your oven pre-heated, so that you can put theirs in the oven for a few minutes while you are plating the others. There’s one in every crowd. Don’t try to change their mind, just give them their almost well-done steak!) 

One more thing: don’t forget to let them rest a few minutes before serving. That’s it! It takes a little practice, but your confidence grows every time you do it!

Of course, not everyone wants to learn how to make a pan-grilled steak! They hire a personal chef to do it for them, luckily for me! I have a client who originally called me to ask about an in-home cooking service, because he was on a high-protein diet and needed LOTS of steak, cooked, sliced, and ready to eat on the run! I stacked up pyrex dishes full of sliced filet, which is what he ate during his weight training that he was tackling! We have a one-on-one cooking lesson coming up, where I plan to show him how to grill a steak on his new charcoal grill! 

Pan Grilled Steak and Charcoal Grilled Steak: two different ways to cook a good steak and both are delicious! 

  

 

Umami! It is known as “the fifth taste” in addition to salt, bitter, sweet and sour. There is no direct translation of this Japanese word; the  closest translation of the word umami, is “mmm”, or savory taste. Some foods that contain natural umami are parmesan cheese, cooked tomatoes, beef, anchovies and mushrooms.

As a personal chef, one of the best compliments I have ever received is “why does your food taste so good?” One of the “secrets” I try to share with my clients who want to become better home cooks, is that I try to  look for a spot in my cooking to add a little bit of umami. I have found a good cooking shortcut with one of my favorite Trader Joe’s products: Multi-Purpose Umami Seasnoning Blend. It is a mixture of kosher salt, dried onions, ground mustard seed, porcini mushroom powder, white button mushroom powder, crushed red pepper, black pepper and thyme.

I have used this Trader Joe’s product on roasted vegetables, in tomato sauces, and meat dishes, as a steak rub. It’s very similar to another product that is from a well-known Paleo brand. As it happens, I was cooking for one of my personal chef clients in Palos Hills who follows the Paleo diet. I loved it roasted asparagus with pine nuts. I also added to a Bolognese sauce, which added a lovely depth of flavor!

Adding Umami is a great trick for making your food more savory and delicious. Often I will add a parmesan rind to soup; I will cook tomato paste before I add the rest of the ingredients in a sauce; I will use fish sauce in an unexpected way that is detectable in the final dish. Understanding umami is an important step in becoming a really good home cook! I love sharing my cooking tips with people, and this is an easy one. Building a good spice collection is an important element of good home cooking!

 

 

 

 

Double Cut Panko Crusted Lamb Chops was a perfect easy Sunday dinner! Making this easy elegant entree reminded me: I have an upcoming one-on-one cooking lesson soon with one of my longtime personal chef clients. I have been cooking for her family for several years. Now that her children are older, she has more time to enjoy cooking again, and wanted some tried and true recipes in her repertoire. She asked me to help her learn how to cook some easy impressive dishes for when she and her husband have small dinner parties. I thought this dish would be perfect;  it really is is a no-recipe throw together. I know that as much as she wants to cook for herself and her family, as well as when she entertains, the last thing she wants to do is spend all day in the kitchen. (For some people, like me, that sounds like bliss. She wants to just incorporate cooking into her life, not have it take over!) For this easy impressive rack of lamb, the first thing I do, is season it with sea salt. Then I smear the lamb with a mixture of dijon mustard and a little chutney (or preserves of anykind. A tiny bit of maple syrup also works; anything that’s sticky and sweet will work just fine.) Mix some panko crumbs with fresh herbs like rosemary and/or thyme. a little freshly minced garlic, a pinch of sea salt, and enough olive oil to barely moisten it. Then pat the crumbs on the rack of lamb. That’s it! Put it in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or so, until it registers 120 degrees (for rare). A meat thermometer is a must here! (As a personal chef when my clients express an interest in learning how to cook, I always check to see if they have a good knife and a meat thermometer!). After you pull it out of the oven ,let it rest a few minutes, then cut in between the ribs. To me, something about double cut lamb chops always looks more elegant and festive than a single one! For side dishes, I am thinking simple roasted baby carrots with almond and chives, roasted fingerling potatoes with fresh parsley, maybe a nice mixed greens salad with goat cheese, pine nuts and a classic vinaigrette.  That is a perfect easy dinner! No recipes required. 
I think there’s nothing wrong with serving really good ice cream for dessert if you really don’t want to go to a lot of trouble. But I think I am going to suggest one of my go-to dinner party desserts: chocolate mousse. That is a great dessert recipe to have up your sleeve, especially if you entertain a lot. As a personal chef, who has cooked for dinner parties, that is one dessert I have made countless times. Everybody loves it. The rest of the dinner is so simple and easy, so why not! What’s nice about the mousse is, you can make it early in the day, or even the day before, so you’re nice and relaxed when your guests arrive! Easy elegant entertaining can be easy to pull off when you use no-recipe-required dishes, along with a great decadent dessert.  

 

I was just reading an article about canned tuna! Don’t laugh, what else should I be doing on a Saturday morning? I read that according to Reddit, there has been a 30% increase in the mentions of tuna melts on since the pandemic began. Canned tuna references were up 60%! This is what people are doing during the pandemic. Eating tuna, buying tuna, and posting about tuna! It’s a weird new world we’re in, that’s for sure!

I remembered that not too long ago, I had made a tuna noodle casserole upon request for one of my personal chef clients in Willowbrook. She has a houseful of pre-teens, teens, and college students in her big family who are staying home during Covid-19. When I cooked for them last time, I made two giant pans of tuna noodle casserole. I didn’t take a picture of it, and it left my mind, because I kind of thought, “This is a dish nobody wants to really hear about! I’m a personal chef, certainly people aren’t looking to me for dishes like tuna noodle casserole!”  Well. It really was good. I searched and searched for the perfect recipe to adapt. All I knew is I didn’t want any processed gross ingredients in it like canned soup. And to me, for a tuna noodle casserole, you have to have potato chips on the top. What would be the point of eating a tuna noodle casserole without potato chip crumbs? Talk about the perfect comfort food! 

This article also mentioned a new cookbook, which I can’t wait to get. It’s called The Tinned Fish Cookbook: Easy-to-Make Meals from Ocean to Plate by Bart van Olphen. Something about this feels so right for this time we are living in. A lot of my client’s have texted me for ideas on what to make with pantry ingredients, and tuna is high on my list! As are sardines! (Granted, you have to like that kind of thing! Sardines are one of those love it or hate it foods; tuna is more desirable somehow.)

I loved the text message that my personal chef client in Willowbrook sent me the night I made tuna casserole! It validated my feelings about this retro comfort food dish! 

Here is the recipe:

 

TUNA NOODLE CASSEROLE

 

  • 8 ounces small pasta (shells, macaroni, farfalle, whatever you like)
  • 4 Tablespoons butter , divided
  • 1 c. chopped celery
  • 1/4 chopped onion
  • 3/4 cup frozen organic peas (or Trader Joe’s English Peas!)
  • 2 fresh garlic cloves, minced or grated on the microplane.
  • 4 T. flour (Wondra flour, preferably)
  • 1 can broth, low sodium preferably (chicken or vegetable broth)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • pinch of sea salt
  • pinch of dried dill 
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh choped flatleaf parsley 
  • 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese , divided
  • 5 ounces good canned Italian tuna packed in oil, drained well.

 Topping:

  • 1/2 cup crushed potato chips
  • 1 Tablespoon butter , melted

Instructions:

  • Cook the pasta until slightly under al-dente.( You want the pasta underdone, since you’re going to bake the casserole.)
  • Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet.  Add onion,celery,and garlic and saute for a few minutes.  Add the peas, and remove vegetables from pan and set aside.
  • Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter to the pan; add the Wondra and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds or so.  Slowly whisk in the chicken broth and milk, stirring constantly until smooth.  Let it simmer for a few minutes.
  • Stir constantly until thickened and bubbly, 2-3 minutes.  Reduce heat to low and add salt, dill, lemon juice, parsley, and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.  
  • Remove from heat and stir in the pasta, vegetables and tuna.  Pour mixture into a 9×13’’ or similar size baking dish.  Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese.
  • Mix the potato chips/butter together and sprinkle it over the casserole.
  • Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes

Enjoy! You may never again eat a casserole like this with abandon! Why shouldn’t you? It’s the perfect thing to eat during a pandemic! Comfort in the form of good canned tuna and egg noodles! And of course, potato chips! 

 

 

 

 

I do love Trader Joe’s. Going there used to be just another errand, although I always enjoyed it. Now it has become one of the few bright spots of this awful Coronavirus pandemic time. Every time I go, the workers could not be nicer or friendlier. It’s such a highlight. The grocery store workers really are heroes. On one of my last trips, I picked up the new Watermelon Fruit Spread. At first taste, I thought it might be a tad too sweet, but I decided to incorporate it into some recipes. As it happens, I was cooking as a personal chef for one of my seniors the next day. She is in her 80s, has a sweet tooth, and loves watermelon, so I knew these would be right up her alley. Watermelon Thumprint Cookies. I don’t think I’ve ever made thumbprint cookies unless it was at Christmastime, but hey, why not? They were delicious. Buttery and crisp, with the watermelon jam plopped in the middle. I took these to her, along with a bunch of meals. I also brought coffee cake, some groceries, some books for her to read, and we got to chat and catch up in the yard from many feet away! It was the best part of my week. Cooking for seniors is one of the things I love best about being a personal chef. They always make my day. (As an added bonus, she called me when I was on the way home to tell me she had already dug into the cookies and that she loved them!)

 

Here is the recipe:

 

 Watermelon Thumbprint Cookies
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
2/3 cup sugar, (plus about 1/4 cup more for rolling the cookies in)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup Trader Joe’s Watermelon Fruit Spread
Preheat oven to 350 degrees . Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl.
In another bowl, beat the butter and the sugar with a hand-held mixer until fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla until just combined. Slowly beat in the dry ingredients in 2 additions. Don’t overmix.
Scoop the dough into 1-inch balls and roll in sugar. Place about 2-inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Press a thumbprint into the center of each ball, about 1/2-inch deep. Fill each indentation with about 3/4 teaspoon jam.
Bake cookies until the edges are golden, about 15 minutes. (Rotate pans halfway through.) 

 

One of the sides that I made for a Memorial Day weekend BBQ side was Trofie Caprese Salad. This family whom I work for as a personal chef in Wheaton, is all still staying at home and being safe. Their philosophy is to make their home a sanctuary, still celebrate and live well!  Fortunately for me, for them that does not mean spending hours in the kitchen. They thought they would do a casual family bbq this weekend, but they didn’t want the same old same old side dishes. But there was a caveat;  one of the kids loves pasta salads, but doesn’t like “weird” food! (If he had his way, he would eat noodles at every meal!)  I thought this caprese trofie pasta side dish fit the bill. It’s familiar, but a little different than usual.  Trofie pasta is one of my favorite shapes; it’s a short twisted pasta. Everyone has had pasta salads, some that are just godawful and oily from the grocery store. Those really leave a bad taste in your mouth, literally and figuratively. This trofie pasta makes this salad a little elevated and unexpected. It couldn’t have been easier to throw together. I boiled the trofie pasta in salted water (LOTS of sea salt. It should taste like the sea. This is your only chance to flavor the pasta so using plenty of sea salt in this step is crucial!) Drain, toss with extra virgin olive oil and a little sea salt. Throw in some grape or cherry  tomatoes and fresh mozzarella ciliegine. If you can find the little pearl fresh mozzarella balls, that’s even better.  Toss in some freshly torn basil at the end. This is great for lunch or as a side for a bbq. I made a giant batch, so they can pick on this in the refrigerator in the coming days! If your personal chef is going to make a pasta salad, it definitely needs to be a very good one! 

 

 

 

Mixed Berry Cobbler and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream! That’s what’s for dessert for Memorial Day weekend! As a personal chef, I am always trying to incorporate seasonal ingredients.  Especially now, during this pandemic, I feel it’s so important to recognize the changes in our seasons and produce, and to celebrate whenever and whatever we can!  Cherries are back in season! That was the highlight of my month! This weekend, I cooked for one of my longtime clients, a lovely couple who hired me as their personal chef in Riverside. I picked up some great ribeye steaks for him to grill, and I handled the sides. I made Elote Corn Salad, French Bread with Herbed Butter for him to grill, and a really delicious Mixed Berry Cobbler. I am a sucker for a cobbler, a buckle, a crisp, a dumpling, a slump… there are a million different ways to make a cooked fruit dessert with a baked topping. I have made some that are healthy and light, with tons of berries, very little sugar, and an oat topping. This one was more traditional, with a topping made of flour, butter, milk, sugar and baking powder. I brought some great vanilla bean ice cream for them to serve with it.  (I was tempted to put this in a foil baking pan, and leave it for him to grill. Grilled desserts are so fun and unexpected, but ultimately I decided he had enough to do! He loves to grill, but he likes to relax on his deck just as much, so I thought I’d better make the dessert and leave it for them to heat up at their convenience!)

I made an extra for the freezer, but I don’t think it’s going to make it that far! Summer is here. It hasn’t been canceled. Fruit desserts like cobblers, buckles and slumps will help us celebrate!

I have been a personal chef for a family in Oakbrook for several years. In the beginning of the pandemic a few weeks ago, they decided to take a break, and I was only cooking for my essential needs clients. (I was cooking for people with compromised immune systems, essential workers, people with serious illnesses, people on special medical diets, etc.) Recently, when I incorporated my no-contact service, she decided to resume! She said she had been cooking like crazy, which she enjoyed for the first few weeks, but was ready for some help! That’s why she hired a personal chef to begin with! And now she really needed the break! I love the way she thinks. She has gone above board to make her home a sanctuary, and a fun place for her kids during this “break”.  In the beginning, she called me for some advice on easy dinners that she could make, and it sounded like she was really having fun being in the kitchen for the first time in years.  Then she needed a break! She called because she and her kids were craving the pan-grilled filet mignon that I had made for them many times. She tried to make it, but it’s not turning out. (We are planning on a cooking day where I can show her how easy it is to pan-grill a steak! If worse comes to worse, we will do it over Zoom! )

As for procuring good meat, I have found that shopping at local meat markets is the way to go these days. Some grocery stores have limited the amount of meat each customer can buy. Luckily, I live right near Wheaton Meat Company which has locally sourced meat from local farms. Their quality cannot be beat. If I can’t make it to Wheaton Meat, then I am always happy with the meat at Pete’s Fresh Market. 

For my personal chef clients in Oakrbrook, I also made lots of fresh bright vegetables, and added a meatless meal as well! She and the kids are enjoying the occasional meatless meal, like Vegetarian Curry or Dal! I also made extra pan-grilled filet, and sliced it up so she could use it for a quick snack after her at-home workouts! This mom is juggling a lot, and having a personal chef when she needs one is helping her live her best life, as she likes to say! 

As a personal chef, I am used to pivoting, adapting, being flexible. My business looks much different than it did just a few weeks ago. One of the services that I was able to provide recently, was a pantry cooking lesson for one of my longest clients. She has always wanted to cook more, and never had the time. Well, now she has the time, but had limited ingredients, because, like all of us, she is trying to stay home as much as possible and not make unnecessary trips to the grocery store. The last time I was at her home, before the shelter-in-place order, I stocked her up with beans, pasta, dried herbs and spices, broths, coconut milk, rice, lentils, legumes, 

The first thing she made that I helped her with was a great recipe that is becoming a modern classic: Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric. This is an Alison Roman recipe from the New York Times, and it’s delicious. It’s meatless (you can add a protein like chicken, if you like). It has tons of flavor, and is very adaptable. (She happens to hate mint, so we left it out! It is good with cilantro, though!) She told me she is enjoying cooking for her family, they are ordering lots of take out from restaurants too, and having me fill in every couple of weeks with a no-contact delivery of homemade food! The best of all worlds to make things brighter during this time!