On a Summer Day in February

miss-scarlett

Sounds like a good title for an article about global warming, right? I assure you I have no such lofty ambition. But it was an unusually warm, sunny day here in Chicagoland today and with very little residual salt visible on the roads to deter me, I decided to take Miss Scarlett out for a run.

First I had to clean her up a bit, as I have yet to put my dust cover on the bike this winter. I use a product called Plexus on my windshield. It’s a very effective cleaner, leaves a protective coating behind, and does not have a yellowing effect on clear plastics.  For all the bodywork, my favorite product for years has been Original Bike Spirits Spray Cleaner and Polish. As waterless detailing goes, these two products have given me very satisfactory results.

After a quick check of my tires and air suspension pressure, I disconnected my smart charger and fired up the bike. Sweet music indeed! I suited up and took a shakedown cruise through the neighborhood—always a good idea after spending more than a few weeks off the bike—before heading southwest toward Starved Rock State Park, a major attraction in the state of Illinois.


Major attraction indeed! The large parking lot by the Visitor Center was packed, with cars illegally parked along the outer drive lane. Later on I discovered, on my way out of the park, that the overflow parking lots had gotten pretty full as well. Ah, but what would one expect on such a beautiful day?

sr-lotsr-grounds

I don’t consider myself a good “alone” person, but today, following a rather trying week at work, I was in serious need of this wind therapy and personal down time. As I rolled along Illinois 71, between Yorkville and Ottawa, I left all the stresses of the past week behind me. Once I had gotten to the state park and began my ascent to the top of Starved Rock, I had let go even more. By the time I’d reached the summit huffing and puffing, I’d forgotten  what I was so stressed out about.

 

 


I walked around the top of Starved Rock for a while and then walked to the end of the paved walking path before returning to my bike to head home. Under other circumstances, I might have been less than pleased about the number of attendees present. Instead, every time I passed a squirming rug rat or an errant dog,  I smiled from within, only too happy to have walked amongst all this humanity.

sr-sign

I’ve been coming to this park since I was five, maybe longer. It’s beautiful. If you live in the region and you want to see something cool, please check this place out.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Advertisements

Burnt Offerings of the Culinary Kind

burned-stuff

If you spend enough time cooking, sooner or later you’ll burn something. Trust me, I know. If you’re lucky, nobody will see you do it. But really, what are the odds of that happening?

Once when I was in college, sometime after the dinosaurs had died off, I was trying to cook a steak that had been given to me by a dear relative. And what a beautiful steak it was, nearly two inches thick and very well marbled. Problem is it was still frozen. Well, I reasoned, if I began cooking it, the steak would cook thoroughly on the outside and maintain some red in the center by the time it was finished. What can I say, I was young, foolish, and inexperienced. So I placed the steak in a pan, shoved it under the broiler and went to the living room to have a cocktail while my supper cooked.

Moments later, one of my housemates came through the front door and greeted me, “Hey, Mike.” He looked up the hallway, toward the kitchen, and then back at me. “Everything okay?”

“Hi, Rick,” I replied, “yeah, sure.” Rick shrugged and headed off in the other direction, to his room. Moments later, the smoke reached the living room, where I was still seated.  I leapt from my chair and ran to the hallway, peering through the light smoke only to see much heavier smoke billowing from the kitchen. My steak!

I ran to the kitchen, threw open the broiler door, and was greeted by blazing flames that appeared to be coming from a black, oily slab that had once been my steak. First I tossed some water on it… bad idea. The flaming and smoking only grew worse. Then I shut off the gas and slammed the broiler door shut, which seemed to do the trick. I opened the door again to find that the flames had gone out, but the billowing smoke had become ten times worse. I turned on every fan and opened every window in the house, before heading up the street to get a sub sandwich.

corn

Have you ever set corn on fire? I have.

Have you ever set pork ribs on fire? I have.

Have you ever almost set your wooden back porch on fire? I’m not telling!

Needless to say, I have more stories to tell regarding my culinary pyrotechnics. But you will have to wait until the book comes out before you can read about them. Ha! Thanks for hanging with me.

My Unfortunate Baking Misadventure

napoli-bread-fixed

As I continue compiling material for my first cookbook, I am reminded of the best and worst of my bread baking endeavors. I don’t bake bread often and what little I do, I learned from my mother, an Italian immigrant who make almost everything from scratch—and made it very well, I might add.

What I usually bake can best be described as a rustic Italian loaf. Long and somewhat oval in shape, it’s a somewhat hearty bread with a substantial crust, very well suited to dipping or eating with soups and salads. I tend to use unbleached and/or whole wheat flour, which makes for a more dense product than one would get by using bread-specific flour, which tends to contain more glutens. When it turns out right, my bread is a nice addition to the dinner table.

But alas, things do not always turn out as planned. Some years ago, when my parents were still alive, we were planning to have the family over to celebrate my young son’s birthday. In the tradition of my mother’s kitchen, where I learned so much about cooking, I had planned an abundant meal involving way more food than even this group of eleven people would ever be able to eat. I thought it might be nice to have a fresh-baked loaf of my homemade bread, but I would not have enough time to prepare and raise the dough. So I got this great idea to make up some dough, raise it once, then freeze it. On the day of our celebration, I would defrost the dough, let it rise one more time, and then bake it in time to serve fresh, warm bread for dinner.

To put it mildly, something went wrong. My guess would be that I hadn’t allowed nearly enough time for defrosting, so when I expected my loaf to be rising, some colder parts were still struggling just to reach room temperature. At some point, time had run out for rising because I needed to bake the loaf and let it cool a little prior to serving. My loaf looked okay on the outside, if a bit smaller than I’d hoped for. So into the oven it went.

I waited. I watched. The bread looked okay as far as the color and general appearance of the crust, but it was too small. That should have been my first clue. The second clue came when I picked up the loaf, wearing oven mitts, to place it on a cooling rack. Though slim, almost like a baguette, my bread loaf weighed as much as a loaf twice its size would weigh.

All the other foods we had prepared—grilled meats, pasta, veggies, salad, etc.—came off as planned. But when I set that loaf of bread down on the table, it looked and sounded like a wooden club landing. When my father first picked it up, he immediately looked over at me with his eyebrows raised, gently raising and lowering the loaf as if he were judging its weight. He cut off a hunk and set the loaf back down. Then it was my brother-in-law’s turn. He hoisted my loaf of bread, holding it at one end with both hands, and took a few practice swings, smiling at me as he did so, before slicing off another few pieces. I got the message.

Eventually, the bread came around to me. With only half a loaf remaining, the thing still felt heavy for its size. I turned the end cut toward me and examined the cross-section. Amidst the usual internals, I saw darker portions with none of the usual holes one expects to find in a slice of bread. Solids in my bread? Apparently so!

Some of the more dedicated eaters in my family took a few bites out of sheer courtesy. Others just passed. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But I learned a valuable lesson about cooking: No matter what your schedule says, every dish you prepare takes exactly as much time as it needs to be properly finished. If you need it sooner, begin sooner.

Nowadays I look back on these culinary setbacks and laugh, even though I assure you I wasn’t laughing at the time. You’ll learn more about these endeavors when this book becomes available. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.