Surf & Turf & Local History

Menu

It had been some time since I’d been to the Wilmot Stage Stop, an historic eating and drinking establishment—billed as Wisconsin’s oldest tap and dining room—located at the corner of highways C and W in Wilmot, Wisconsin. This establishment began as the Wilmot Hotel, an actual stagecoach stop, in 1848 and has been owned by the same family ever since.It was my wife’s family who introduced me to this place in 1984 or ’85, after Karen and I had become engaged. Known primarily for its charcoal-broiled steaks and lobster tails, the Wilmot Stage Stop had long been a favorite place for my in-laws to celebrate special occasions, entertain visitors, or simply enjoy a special meal.

There was a period during which I feared I would never enjoy eating at the Stage Stop, when the restaurant abruptly shut its doors last year—July 29, 2016 to be exact—but an article appearing in the Kenosha News last January, announcing that the popular steakhouse would be reopening that very month, put a big old smile on my face.

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The Wilmot Stage Stop is not a highbrow establishment, but a family-owned steakhouse with a tremendous history and no small amount of atmosphere. Area families have been dining there for generations. It’s a three story affair. The dining room and bar are on the ground floor. A central staircase leads up to what was once the hotel ballroom. The ballroom now houses a collection of artifacts in a museum-like setting. A much narrower and steeper staircase leads up to the third floor, where the original hotel rooms now serve as viewing areas for even more artifacts. The short beds, low ceilings, even the rooms themselves, are a reminder to us that people were generally shorter back then than they are now. And from all appearances, cross country travelers were not accustomed to having anywhere near the creature comforts that we so take for granted today.

Still, the real reason people go there is for the food, mostly steaks and lobster tails, both charcoal-broiled. A baked potato spiked with a huge slab of butter accompanies your selection, as do a salad and rolls. The bar has a nice variety of drink offerings, the servers are warm and friendly, and the seating, if a bit dense, can be arranged to accommodate quite a range of party sizes.

Our party arrived at 4:00 PM,  while there were seemingly many open tables. By the time we departed, less than 90 minutes later, the dining area and bar were both brimming with humanity. The Wilmot Stage Stop is a popular dining destination and reservations are probably a wise choice.

Thanks for hanging with me.

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She Likes Watching Birds

Leia Walking

Our family pooch is a German Shepherador Retriever mix named Leia, although I also refer to her as the black princess. She’s sort of a self-contradicting mixed breed, as Labrador Retrievers love the water and German Shepherds do not. Leia takes an interest in bodies of water, while firmly planted on dry ground, yet she despises going out in the rain and literally screams when being bathed.

Leia loves going for daily walks with me. When I come home from work, she bounces around the house, hooting, crying and vocalizing in general until I am ready to go and produce a leash. Once the leash is secured, we head off on a walk that usually takes us around four, six, or nine blocks. On long walks, we take the nine block route and add on a side trip to a local dog park, for a grand total of 2.75 miles, but during the cold months, when days are shorter, we have generally kept it down to circumnavigating six blocks.

While we are out walking, like any healthy dog, Leia loves to sniff where other dogs have recently been. As such, we religiously stop at area trees, mailbox posts, street lamps, and fire hydrants, for these are the social media of the dog world. Indeed, the way she keeps her nose to the ground as we peruse the parkways of southern Plainfield, one would think there is surely a bit of bloodhound in the mix. but it’s all good and truth be told, we both enjoy our walks, most days.

Doves

With the approach of spring, we began to see more and more animal life while we were out and about. Squirrels, rabbits, birds, and other people with dogs all became more prevalent and the days have grown longer. We have also encountered dogs without their people, but save the inconsiderate, careless, and sometimes just plain stupid members of our community as a topic for some other time. Now Leia has always shown an interest in the animals around us. I have occasionally had to correct her for trying to yank me right off my feet in her effort to give chase to a rabbit with me in tow. One time I watched her try to leap into a maple tree after a robin that had just flown up there. I must admit, I admired her enthusiasm, but she was tethered to me at the time and I really had no desire to follow my dog up into a maple tree that day.

Duck Duck Goose

Now lately, my young gal has taken an interest in larger birds, if only because they are substantial enough to distract her while she is tracking the urinary trail of a previous canine contributor to the social media content that lines the broad parkways of Feeney Drive. We pass several retention ponds and a culvert or two during our normal walks and lately, these small-scale wetlands have been frequented by ducks and geese. So far, the geese have been  Leia’s favorite, perhaps because they seem large enough to be potential playmates. They also don’t act terribly afraid. They sometimes hang out by the sidewalk above one of the retention ponds and simply walk down to the water, slowly, once we are within a quarter block of them.

Hawk

We have also seen numerous hawks and even a few crows—or perhaps ravens; I’m never sure. Now these are of little interest to Leia. They are never very close and if they are ever on the ground they are not there for long. In all candor, the only time I have ever seen a hawk on the ground, it was in the process of killing and eating a small mammal or another bird. Those few times I have witnessed that, Leia was not with me. maybe that’s for the best. I can only assume the crows hang around to clean up after the hawks.

DucksMore Ducks

Lately, the ducks—Mallards actually—have given us the most viewing pleasure. They are more active than the geese, at least when Leia is around. We have witnessed water landings as well as sudden take-offs, the latter of which really got Leia’s attention one evening.

 


I would be lying if I said I didn’t get something out of these excursions as well. The truth is I do so on several levels. Besides the obvious benefits of daily exercise, I also use these opportunities to bond with my dog. In addition, there is something to be said for communing with nature, wherever you happen to find it. I usually take these walks during my first hour after returning from work. You might say that this is just one more way for me to destress toward the end of the day. However one chooses to look at it, I do believe I benefit from my daily walks with Leia.

Thanks for hanging with me!

Fun with Leftovers: Philly Meatloaf Skillet

Writer

Whether via broadcast media, print media, or social media, everybody likes to showcase their best dishes. And in that regard, I suppose I’m not much different from anybody else. I’ve made no secret about a book I’ve been working on, which includes a fair amount of cooking, but few if any actual recipes. One evening I was discussing some aspect of my book with my friend (and fellow foodie) Ann when she pointed out that I seem to have a lot of fun with leftovers—not just reheating my dishes but in many cases, repurposing the stuff. “You may have an interesting theme there,” she suggested. Well, I thought about it a little bit and realized that, as usual, she was probably right. I really do try to have fun with my leftovers and odds are you won’t find another cookbook showcasing some of the things I’ve done on day two—or day three, for that matter—after the original dish has been prepared, served, and eaten.

Onions

For me, reheating leftovers is fine, but why not have a little fun with it and enjoy something just a little bit different than what you ate the night before? This is my premise for the whole “fun with leftovers” premise. All this requires is a sense of what ingredients go together, a little creativity, and a willingness to accept that not every experiment will end well—but that sometimes you will win. May I demonstrate?

Assume a meatloaf. It was a good meatloaf, prepared recently (no horror stories, please), and everybody has already had a meatloaf sandwich for lunch the following day. Now all you have left is this butt of a meatloaf, maybe enough for two modest slices, but you don’t want another meatloaf sandwich and if you make another one for somebody else, there’s gonna’ be trouble. So you scour the fridge and pantry, and you gather the following items, in addition to the foil-wrapped butt of meatloaf.

  •  at least half an onion
  • a good bell pepper of any (edible) color
  • one or more cloves of fresh garlic
  • two slices of sandwich cheese (American, Provolone, Swiss, etc.)
  • a little oil or butter (I prefer olive oil for this particular example)
  • salt and spices

Armed with nothing more than a cutting board, a sharp knife, a skillet, and a flipper of some sort, we are ready to begin. Heat up your skillet while you slice at least half an onion to the thickness of your choosing. When the skillet is warmed, add some oil and swirl it around. The oil will become thinner as it heats up. If it begins to smoke, quickly reduce the heat, unless you are into pyrotechnics and have a self-contained breathing apparatus handy. Otherwise, once ready, toss in those onions, season them to your liking, and toss/stir/flip them about  Then lower the heat so that the onions can clarify and caramelize a bit while you cut up your pepper and garlic.

PeppersMeatloaf

Toss in your sliced pepper and garlic, season a little more if necessary, and give it all a toss or stir. If the skillet loks a little dry, you can do one of two things—either add a little more oil/butter, or toss in a bit of water, wine or brandy, to loosen things up. Once loosened, toss and/or stir the contents of the skillet, then cover and set it aside. As the peppers cook a bit, you will need to toss and/or stir one more time. You will also need to cut up your meatloaf.

Ready for Cheese

At this point, everything in the skillet has already been cooked, so it largely becomes a matter of heating or browning the meatloaf pieces. This is also the time to introduce your cheese.

Cheese

What you add depends on what you like and/or what you have handy. As a rule, I use only cheese and not “processed cheese food,” but I should point out that the original Philly cheese steak was made with cheese whiz and not some genuine cheese. To melt the cheese, simply cover the skillet. if you are concerned that the contents are too dry, dribble a bit of water (or wine or brandy) into the skillet before covering. Then wait a bit.

Finis

The steam melts the cheese and gets everything warm and cozy. As the melted cheese hits the skillet, it begins to bubble and brown a bit, which changes the flavor and texture of the cheese. Once that happens, this baby is done—and it looks nothing like the original dish you served a day or two ago.

At this point, you can serve this skillet dish on a roll or bun, or you can serve it up on a plate and enjoy it as is. The flavor is such that it stands on its own.

Needless to say, you could pull this off with chicken, with sandwich steaks, leftover beef, or (big surprise here) leftover meatloaf. Just imagine the possibilities and let your imagination be your guide.

Thank you for hanging with me.

The Road Ahead

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Usually, in the dead of winter, I pass the time by looking ahead to the upcoming riding season.  We certainly haven’t had much of a winter here in Chicagoland, but my mind wanders forward just the same. Excellent memories of riding seasons past only serve to increase my yearning for the rides yet to come. And so some trips have already been booked, while others are still being planned. There are some of the usual trips, events, and fundraisers that I attend every year, but I always try to add at least one new thing each season.

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To be sure, last year will be hard to top. I put some good miles on Miss Scarlett, my full dresser touring bike, in 2016. One trip alone was 4,800 miles long—running from Chicagoland to Portland, Oregon and back—the stuff of dreams! My son was with me for half of that one. Nothing bad happened; he’s been going to school in Portland and wanted his bike out there with him. A mutual friend of ours, an experienced touring rider named Eddie, made the entire trip with me. My wife and sister also made the entire loop in a chase vehicle of sorts, also known as the family minivan.

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There were other great rides as well, some with my son, some with riding groups, some with my dear friend and riding companion, Ann, and a few alone. I don’t recall my total mileage for the season—I may not have even recorded it—but I’m pretty sure it was in excess of 10,000 miles. Nice.

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What will this season hold? What lays on the road ahead? I don’t know that I’ll be able to replicate that Portland run, though I am toying with the idea of doing a portion of that when my son rides his bike back to Illinois to work a theatrical production in the Quad Cities this summer. We’ll see. I do have one new thing planned, a trip that many of my biker friends have done several times over. Ann and I are going to join a small group of riding acquaintances on a four-day bike trip around Lake Michigan. I’ve been meaning to make that run for a few years now. Almost did it once, but my financial situation abruptly changed and the trip never happened.

Until now. This year, it’s gonna’ happen. Averaging only 330 miles per day, Ann and I will follow our highly seasoned riding buddy “Johnny B” up through Wisconsin, across some of the more picturesque parts of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, then across the Mighty Mac bridge into the Lower Penninsula, through the Tunnel of Trees, stopping at the most unusual Legs Inn for a bite and some atmosphere, before heading down into northern Indiana and back into Illinois. That’s not nearly as many miles as my epic journey to Oregon and back, but I believe this trip will be epic nonetheless. And you will be able to read all about it, right here.

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Just one final thought, about which I shall write more someday. There is this bittersweet moment that occurs, not at the end of each road trip, but on the last night before that trip concludes. It’s that one last night on the road that does it to me, every time. We’re still not back home, doing laundry and paying the bills. We’re still not back at work, earning the money to pay for these trips. Not at all. We’re still out having fun… but we can see the end from where we’re standing. The music is playing and there’s a cold drink in my hand as I look at Miss Scarlett shimmering in the moonlight—or perhaps that’s the glow of the sodium arc lamps in the hotel parking lot. And it feels so good to be free, but I can already hear Monday sharpening its claws in the distance. Therein lies the bittersweet part.

I can’t wait to show you some new places and things this year! Thanks for hanging with me.

The Pizza That Ann and Michael Built

ingredients

The culinary exercise I am about to describe will undoubtedly end up in my book, the working title of which is What Recipe.  It’s sort of a cookbook, but also a celebration of intuitive cooking, a collection of humorous anecdotes and more. I think you’ll like it, but right now I want to tell you about this pizza, if only because we received a lot of positive feedback when my friend Ann and I began sharing some of our photos on facebook last weekend. Neither Ann nor I had ever made pizza quite like this before, which made everything seem sort of tentative, but we laughed our way through this intuitive experiment, from start to finish and ended up with a couple of large, tasty pizzas.

risenmichael-w-doughdough

I have made many pizzas before, most of them in the tradition taught to me by my mother.This one, however, was a little bit unique. For openers, we made the crust from scratch, using a “Tipo 00” flour imported from Italy. I had never used this extra fine flour before but had read that it was excellent for making pizza crusts. This turned out to be quite true. Double zero is a grade of Italian-milled flour that is ground very fine and is also highly refined. I believe it is lower in protein, starch, and gluten than standard flour, although what’s left in there I have no idea. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, with eight locations in suburban Chicagoland, carries a few different brands of Tipo 00 flour. I selected their house brand, which is labeled as a pizza flour and it worked fabulously for us in that capacity.

We double-raised our dough before dividing and stretching it out into two pizza crusts. We didn’t use a thermometer, just a little warm water in which to proof the yeast, and a lot of room temperature water to make the dough. And salt. When I would ask how much salt I needed to use for making bread, my late mother used to tell me, “If you don’t put enough salt, your bread isn’t gonna’ taste of anything, but if you put too much, you’ll ruin it just the same.” It ultimately came down to trial and error, but a half palmful of kosher or sea salt mixed into a 2.2 lb bag of flour (roughly six cups) will put you in the ballpark.

fresh-slices

We used sliced fresh mozzarella, also from Caputo’s, instead of the low-moisture, part skim variety, which I usually buy pre-shredded. The cheese was so fresh, we had to dry the one-ounce slices with paper towels before using them. Otherwise, the bread crust would get wet and mushy from all the moisture. Fresh mozzarella has a creamier texture than does it’s dry counterpart, and also a very mild flavor. Ann and I had used fresh mozzarella on a Caprese-style garlic bread with stellar results, so we expected this to work okay on our pizza, too.

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The bulk mild Italian sausage that we used came from, you guessed it, Caputo’s. As good as their standard recipe is, I augmented it with some extra fennel seeds and a dash or two of red pepper flakes—not enough to make it hot, but just enough to impart some additional flavor. We formed little bite-size chunks and browned them up to add even more flavor while removing some of the fat. The result was magnificent!

tomatoes

fresco-sauce

Rather than use a canned product—some of which are just fine— or even my family’s homemade jarred sauce, Ann and I opted to make a fresco pizza sauce. I went shopping for the best tomatoes I could find in late February and brought them with me. Then Ann and I proceeded to peel, seed, and dice those babies just for this occasion.

The detailed guidelines for this sauce have already been written for the book, but in a nutshell, you need hot oil, the proper seasoning, and just enough time to lose the excess moisture, which just like the water in our fresh mozzarella, would have wrecked the heavenly crust we created.

ready-to-bake

We had been at this for a few hours. After all, double-raised homemade bread dough takes time. Let me be the first to admit, this was not fast food. A frozen pizza could have been heated up and ready to eat within 20 minutes. Ordering from a pizzeria normally yields results in 20 to 50 minutes, depending on the establishment and on what you order. Ann and I both buy frozen, from time to time, and we each have our favorite pizzerias in our respective markets, which happen to be over 100 miles apart. 

Now believe what I tell you next: What we created that day cannot be found in your grocer’s frozen food section, nor will you likely find it on the menu at your local pizzeria. What Ann and I set out to create was heads above all that. This hand-crafted pizza involved four different kinds of cheese, a fresco sauce, a sausage blend that cannot be found in any store, and a homemade crust made from triple-raised Italian milled flour. You can’t buy this! But you can make it yourself, with the right ingredients, a little time, and a bit of guidance, say from a book that describes all the ingredients and the various steps involved in bringing them all together.

cooked

 Yeah, that’s right. We took our sweet time, debated our choices, and cooked the best pizza pies we could possibly create together—two really big rectangular ones, in fact, way more than three people could ever have eaten. So much food that I was able to take an entire pie home with me.My apologies to Ann and her son for the overage, but I produced no more food than any good Italian would have brought forth. This I learned from my mother.

And you know what? I have no regrets. None. Ann and I laughed all day while working on this, ate our fill afterward, and it was epic.The flavors and textures all came together in a way that mere words cannot fully capture. To learn more about this culinary adventure and others like it, please keep an eye out for my book, which with any luck will be out before the end of this year.

Thanks for hanging with me!