Ups and Downs – Part 3 of 3

Wait

Continued from Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3

You may recall from reading my Rendezvous Run posts last June (Days One, Two, Three, and Four) that while the decline and fall of my day job as I knew it was unfolding—indeeed, weeks before I’d gone frolicking with my friends at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally in La Crosse—my son John had journeyed from his current home in Portland to the Quad Cities of Illinois in order to take his first professional theater gig with the newly formed Mississippi Bend Players in Rock Island. On Friday, July 21, which turned out to be our collective day of termination for my now-former colleagues and me, I was scheduled to lead a small group of friends on an overnight motorcycle ride to see my son’s professional debut at the premiere of Wait Until Dark. And that’s exactly what I did.

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By the close of business Thursday, July 20, I had dotted my i’s, crossed my t’s, bid my farewells, shed my tears, exchanged hugs, turned in my key, and walked away. Within hours, my friend Ann had come down from her Wisconsin home to prepare for the following day. On Friday morning, Ann and I packed up my bike and headed out to Yorkville, where we would rendezvous with two more friends, Eddie and Vern, who would be riding out with us on their respective Gold Wing touring bikes. My wife Karen, who does not ride, had gone to work that morning and would be meeting us in Moline later that day.

As long as it didn’t rain, our plan had been to meander, rather than travel via Interstate 80, the fastest, most direct route to our destination. It got plenty warm and humid, but it never rained during our ride, so we meandered. From Yorkville, we took Illinois 71 southwest through Ottawa, over the Illinois River and west along a brief but fun set of twisties past Starved Rock State Park. Just for fun, I took the group up Illinois 178 to North Utica, past the west entrance to Starved Rock, back over the river and east along Dee Bennett Road, along the north bank of the river, to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, overlooking the lock and dam directly across the river from Starved Rock. Everybody and their brother regularly goes to Satrved Rock, myself included. Far fewer check out the observation deck across the river. The Visitor Center provides some interesting information about the Illinois Waterway, past and present, and if you hang around long enough, you can observe commercial and recreational watercraft locking through.

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Our next stop was in Princeton for lunch and a visit to an historic covered bridge just outside of town. We decided to take a chance on Rodeo Tacos and did okay there. It wasn’t anything fancy or over-the-top, but the place was clean, the food was freshly prepared, and the lady who took care of us was pleasant, if a bit laid back. While walking there from where we had parked the bikes, we came upon Myrtle’s Pie, formerly Myrtle’s Cafe & Pie. We would have had lunch there, but there was a notice on the door proclaiming that Myrtle’s no longer serves lunch, “unless you are having pie for lunch.” While eating our Mexican food up the street, we all agreed to save room for pie. What an awesome decision that turned out to be! Eddie and Vern split a slice of banana cream while Ann and I split a slice of strawberry rhubarb, warmed and served with a scoop of ice cream. It was all I could do to not lick the plate clean. I raved about Myrtle’s for the rest of the weekend, even though Ann thought our pie had been a litttle too sweet for strawberry rhubarb.

The red covered bridge is just off Illinois 26 north of town. Originally built in 1863 and rehabbed in 1973, this bridge is still in use today. We pulled off the road to walk around and take a few pictures. Only two or three vehicles passed through while we were there, which made it easier for us to take our time and look at everything. Before we left, Eddie decided to take his Gold Wing across the bridge and back, just for grins. Being the shutterbug that she is, Ann immediately positioned herself to capture the crossing on video, so I captured her doing so. This was just one of several fun moments our little group had enjoyed throughout the day.

Stage Set - Teresa photo

The reminder of our journey was less than eventful. In fact, it was slightly miserable. By mid-afternoon, the temperature and humidity had both risen considerably. Because we were already north of Princeton, we opted to take Illinois 92 west to the Quad Cities. This turned out to be not the greatest idea I’d hatched that day. Highway 92 is extraordinarily straight, a characteristic that grows boring rather quickly when traveling by motorcycle. In effect I had condemned us to traveling on a road no more interesting than Interstate 80 would have been, only at a lower rate of speed with the hot sun beating down on us and our sweat glands working overtime. Under these conditions, it becomes all too easy to succumb to road hypnosis. We made it to the hotel alright, arriving almost immediatley after my wife had pulled in with her minivan, but we were all pretty beat and in dire need of freshening up.

Because foul weather had made its way into the forecast, we all opted to go over to the Brunner Theater Center together in the air conditioned comfort of Karen’s minivan. Once inside the center, we ran into Phil McKinley, the Broadway director and Augustana College graduate who played no small part in the founding of the Mississippi Bend Players (he was also a long-standing director the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). Karen and I knew Mr. McKinley because he has directed our son John in a magnificent-yet-disturbing produciton of a play called A Green River, first in 2012 at Augustana College in Rock Island and again in 2013 at the historic Pabst Theater for the for the 47th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region III in Milwaukee (see story here). We also got to reconnect with Jeff Coussens, who directed Wait Until Dark. A professor at Augustana, Mr Coussens also directed John in a number of collegiate theater performances.

What can I tell you about the experience of being able to witness my son’s first-ever professional theatrical performance? Everything else I’ve covered in this Ups and Downs sequence pales by comparison. That performance was the culmination of a process that had begun when the kid was in middle school. Then came the high school performances, followed by the college performances, each milestone dwarfing the last. A theater minor became a theater major—I could write a small book about that turning point alone. Then came his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory, over two thousand miles from home, a two-year program during which I was not able to see even one of his performances, each of which was surely heads above his already impresssive college performances. So there I sat, watching this thriller unfold with my son playing the nastiest villain in the story—and quite well, I might add. It was a proud moment.

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After the show, we ran up the street to Legends Corner, a nice little bar and restaurant, for a late-night meal and drinks. John rode his motorcycle over to join us and was the center of attention, fielding everyones questions and savoring the glow. The boy made my night, though, when he announced that he would be free for a period of hours the following day, if we wanted to get together for a ride. I was all smiles at the very suggestion.

The next morning, Eddie and Vern took off early for home. Karen, Ann and I had breakfast, checked out, and waited for John to ride over to our hotel. Once he did, we headed for the river, to a small park I used to enjoy visiting while John was a student at Augie. Whenever I had time to kill by myself, I would end up there. It was cool to see it again because I hadn’t expected to. From there we headed west on U.S. Highway 6 for Geneseo and had lunch at Raelyn’s Pub & Eatery. It seemed like a popular place, the staff was very friendly and helpful, and the food was good as well as abundant. I had their Voodoo Burger and was very satisfied. My best advice is to go there hungry.

After lunch we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. John hopped on his Honda and headed back to Rock Island; Karen pointed her van east and took I-80 home the fast way; Ann and I meandered back aboard Miss Scarlett and were the last to arrive at our destination. In hindsight, that wasn’t the brightest idea, as Ann still had a long drive ahead of her to get back to her own home. Still, it had been an awesome weekend, a true high point among all the ups and downs.

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So, I did it again the following weekend, only with a different group of motorcyclists. I didn’t even have to lead this time. My friend John took us south of the Illinois River and out to LaSalle for lunch at the Uptown Grill. It was a good pick for “polished casual American cuisine” with a somewhat upscale atmosphere, digital tablet menus, friendly (if a bit sparse) waitstaff, and nicely prepared food. On my recommendation, we saved room for dessert and took an indirect route to Princeton for—you guessed it—pie at Myrtle’s. This time I had the Dutch apple, served warm with a scoop of ice cream. I do not recall what everyone else had, but there was a lot of eating going on. I am reasonably sure that was not my last trip to Myrtle’s.

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So as not to repeat my mistake of the prior weekend, we took U.S. 6 from Princeton all the way to our hotel this time. Highway 6 is simply a more pleasant road than IL 92, but it also didn’t hurt that the temps were cooler and the air less humid, too. We arrived at the hotel with plenty of time to freshen up before heading over to the Augustana campus. This time we went to Legends before going to the theater. It was nice to kick back with friends and enjoy a couple of drinks together. Meanwhile, my wife Karen drove in from Kenosha, where she had gone that morning to take her mom to a funeral. My eldest sister also came in with our nephew and his ladyfriend. Another friend of the family, who had attended Augie with John, had also driven in for the show. We all met in the lobby before going in. Yes, John had a pretty decent group of fans in the audience that night.

The play was even better the second time around. I enjoyed it thouroughly. Some of us stuck around for the “show after the show,” an extra bit of fun held in the black box theater upstairs that night. John did a little song and dance there, quite a departure from the dark character he had played in Wait Until Dark.

The only downside of that second weekend was that I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with my son as I had the first time around. But life is that way. Ups and downs.

The story doesn’t end here—John still has more tech work to complete before his gig is over, my search for the next big thing is still gaining momentum, and this magical summer is far from over—but this is where I choose to to conclude my three-part perspective on the recent ups and downs of my life. As I look back on these recent events, I realize two things about these figurative hills and valleys. First, despite outward appearances, these circumstances that have come to pass are not really ups and downs in and of themselves. Life, death, taxes, heat, cold, and so on are in essence neutral. We attach certain values that make otherwise flat terrain seem to ride and fall beneath our feet. That’s how ups and downs come into being.

The other, perhaps more important thing is that these ups and downs are neither detours nor detractions from the journey that is life. Rather, these ups and downs are the journey that is life. What a shame it would be to realize this only after we have drawn near the end of that wonderous journey.

Here’s to the ups and downs. To life! Thanks for hanging with me.

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Woodstock Lunch Run

Rain

It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. There had been rain in the forecast for July 3 for most of the week leading up to that day, so I made no plans for any outdoor activities other than to hang close to home, maybe mow my weeds and do a little bit of grilling out if the weather permitted. But as of July 2, the rain chances predicted for the 3rd had diminished. So I reached out to my friend Ann and we began tossing around ideas for a short lunch run. As Ann and I sometimes do, we figured on meeting near the Illinois/Wisconsin border and then taking my bike out for a run to Woodstock, Illinois.

You can imagine my surprise when with no rain expected for the day, I noticed my motorcycle and I getting wet beneath a band of dark gray clouds somewhere between O’Hare International Airport and Kenosha. I made a mental note to thank my favorite meteorologist and pressed on, figuring that any rain I encountered would be short-lived. Even though Mother Nature continued to spit on me after I met up with Ann, a quick check of the updated local forecast revealed that dry conditions would prevail in less than half an hour. So we lingered a bit and then headed west.

Me n Ann

I am pleased to report that the revised forecast remained true. The gloomy, drippy, gray clouds dissipated as they moved on and gave way to brilliant blue skies and friendly, white, fluffy clouds. With my favorite pillion rider behind me, we motored down Green Bay Road to Illinois 173 and headed west, past the Chain O’Lakes area and into McHenry County. We turned south on Greenwood Road and picked up Illinois 120 into Woodstock. The pavement dried out as we rolled along, music pouring forth from the bike’s sound system. I couldn’t help but smile.

 

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Once in Woodstock we stopped for gas and then headed toward the town square. We enjoyed lunch at D.C. Cobb’s, a delightful restaurant and bar located right on the town square. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable and the food is good. Come hungry, though, as the portions are fairly large.

Until this day, my only exposure to the city of Woodstock had been while passing through on Illinois 47, to or from Wisconsin. Let me tell you, I had been missing out. The McHenry Couty Seat since 1843 (then called Centerville), Woodstock has a beautiful and historic downtown area featuring a classic town square and two registered landmarks. One is the majestic Woodstock Opera House, which is still used as an entertainment venue today. The other is the Old McHenry County Courthouse, which is now home to various commercial tenants.

Woodstock is also well-known as the location where the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, was filmed. I can’t tell you exactly how Woodstock, Illinois was chosen to play the part of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but I can tell you that Woodstock is still playing that up to this day (see http://www.woodstockgroundhog.org/).  Ann and I enjoyed visiting a few of the more memorable locations that were used in this movie.

By mid-afternoon, we were headed back to our original meeting point. By that time the day had grown more beautiful than ever and part of me had wished it didn’t have to end so soon. We said our goodbyes and then headed for our respective homes.

It had been an awesome day for something Ann and I threw together at the last minute. But I have come to realize that some of the most awesome rides I’ve taken started out exactly that way. Thanks for hanging with me.

My First Crack at Pineapple Grilled Pork Tenderloin

It had been a race against time since before I started. This two-plus-pound pork tenderloin had been calling to me from the fridge all day. I wanted to marinate and grill that beautiful thing, but the weather forecast had said it would begin raining sometime after 7:00 PM. I reasoned that if I began preparations as soon as I came through the door, I might be able to pull it off. Game on!

But how should I prepare the thing? That was the question. The pork tenderloin is a versatile cut of meat that lends itself to rubs, marinades, and other treatments. My personal favorite is a Mediterranean-style marinade that I learned from my mother. I’ve also done bacon-wrapped, Asian-style barbecue, bourbon-marinated, and more, but I wanted to try something different. I spent part of my lunch hour perusing recipes online. I seldom follow recipes, but I often get good ideas from them. In this particular case, I needed ideas that required little in the way of time or unusual ingredients.

I struck pay dirt with a Sweet Pineapple Soy Grilled Pork Tenderloin recipe from Slap Yo Daddy BBQ, a competitive barbecue team headed by TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters Head Cook Harry Soo. The recipe was simple enough, even though I would not be following it precisely, and I figured with a name like Slap Yo Daddy, it couldn’t miss.

The basic marinade combines brown sugar, soy sauce, pineapple juice, and Chinese five spice powder. I augmented this with a few drops of sesame oil, which seemed to work well. A word of caution to the uninitiated, sesame oil is an excellent seasoning but is also very strong mojo. Use it sparingly or you will swear you are still smelling it for weeks afterward. You mix up your marinade, pour it into a gallon freezer bag, and then after removing any silver skin, you toss the tenderloin in and let it marinate for an hour or two.

The recipe says to reserve some pineapple juice for basting, which I did. That’s fine, but I’d like to try reserving a portion of the full-on marinade next time and basting the meat with that instead.

After removing and discarding the excess marinade (never baste with marinade that has had raw meat sitting in it), the recipe says to sprinkle a light coat of Slap Yo Daddy Rub on the meat. I didn’t have any, so I used my current favorite rub, Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning,  which worked just fine. At this point I usually sear my tenderloin and then move to indirect heat and smoking. This recipe called for the reverse order, which I followed. I’m not sure which order I will follow next time; there are worthy arguments for either.

Once the pork came off, it was time to grill some fresh (as in not canned) pineapple slices. This was my first attempt at grilling a fruit, so I basically followed the recipe, brushing some oil onto the pineapple slices and then treating them with a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon before tossing them on the grill. As you may be able to tell from the photo above, I turned the slices a couple of times in order to achieve the classic criss-cross grill lines. I probably could have cooked them a little longer, but this being my first time, I was afraid of overcooking the fruit.

Mangia

At that point it was all over but the tasting—and let me tell you, it tasted good! My wife contributed some French-cut green beans to complement the sweetness of the pineapple and pork. This worked out very well. I will surely tweak things a little next time, but pineapple grilled pork tenderloin is definitely a dish I will be preparing again.

Rain

In case you are wondering, yes, I got everything done before the rain arrived. I had to let the grill cool a bit before covering it, so I enjoyed supper first. Then I went back outside and put everything away. Interestingly enough, the skies opened up within one minute of my going back inside after cleaning and covering the grill. Apparently somebody up there likes me.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

 

A Nice Little Burger Run

Miss Scarlett and Me

This burger run was nearly called on account of rain. It had been an on again, off again thing all week long, as the weather forecast flipped from partly sunny to a 30% chance of rain to a 70% chance of rain and then back to a 30% chance before settling on “mostly cloudy with rain toward evening” by the time today actually arrived. That was good enough for my friend Ann and me, who had been itching to go riding together since last November. As circumstances had it, Saturday had been the far better day, weather-wise, but Sunday was our only mutually available day for riding. It isn’t always easy when riding companions live over 100 miles apart, but then I’ve never been intimidated by distances. And so we watched the weather forecast evolve daily until today, when our story begins.

Kenosha, Wisconsin has proven to be roughly equidistant between Ann’s home and my own. When the days are shorter, as is the case in early spring and late fall, we sometimes arrange to meet and begin our riding from there. Today we met up at 11:00 AM in a large parking lot just off Interstate 94, beneath an endless canopy of steel gray clouds. The ambient temperature was 52 degrees and climbing. We would have felt much warmer at that temperature had the sun been shining, but as is the case with most things in life, one must play the hand that has been dealt. We had been dealt a cold start to our morning and the promise of rain before suppertime, so we planned a short run centered around lunch and a walk. Not being strangers to riding, Ann and I both arrived dressed in layers for warmth and adjustability. Within minutes, we were on the bike—my full dresser Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett—and headed for the unlikely destination of Burlington, Wisconsin, home of one Fred’s World’s Best Burgers, also known as Fred’s Parkview.

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I have to admit, having married a girl from Kenosha, I’ve been visiting and traveling this region for decades. Over the course of all those years, I’d always known where Burlington was, but never knew much about this community, nor had I ever felt compelled to go there. Until now. Boasting the “World’s Best Burgers,” this establishment known as Fred’s sits on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and North Pine Street in downtown Burlington. The founder and owner of Fred’s is a woodworker by the name of Fred Mabson, who used his craft to create a unique atmosphere in which to enjoy this family-friendly eating and drinking establishment. As soon as we stepped through the doors, Ann and I were surrounded by tastefully finished knotty pine and a lot of smiling faces. Their corner location is rather large on the inside, with a fair number of dining tables filling two rooms. We had arrived shortly after noon and, in addition to some seats at the bar, there was exactly one table open, which we immediately grabbed for our own.

As Ann and I approached from the outside, and having never been there before, I had assumed Fred’s was a corner bar that served a pretty good burger. But once inside, I saw a higher percentage of tables filled than of bar stools. I also saw families—you know, the kind with kids—as well as friends, all eating, drinking, talking, laughing and otherwise having themselves quite a time on an early Sunday afternoon. In short, Fred’s is the kind of place where one can feel good just by stepping inside. And then there’s the food.

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As you might expect, Fred’s menu focuses on their burgers, but looking beyond that for a moment, this little place has got a pretty extensive menu! We opted to keep it simple, with a couple of cheeseburgers. Ann got the quarter-pound version, while I opted for the half-pound burger. Our toppings differed, but our experiences were quite similar. What comes to the table is a fresh, hand-made burger, cooked to your liking, served on a fresh, buttered and grilled bun and topped with equally fresh ingredients. The homemade fries are curly cut; the homemade chips are ribbon cut. It’s all very tasty and it would take a number of visits in order for me to try everything that I’d like to try off of that menu. So you see, there’s an awful lot going on inside that corner establishment in downtown Burlington.

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As is usually the case, Ann and I wanted to take a walk after we had finished our lunch. In many instances, this has involved riding to another location, usually a park or state forest destination, where we could walk off our meal and enjoy the scenery. On this particular trip, all we had to do was cross the street a few times in order to visit three riverfront parks. First, we walked through Echo Veterans Memorial Park on Echo Lake. Then we crossed over to Riverside Park, which runs along the Fox River for quite a while. Before we had gone too far, we crossed a footbridge into Wehmhoff Jucker Park, on the opposite bank of the Fox, before heading back to the parking lot where we had left Miss Scarlett.

At that point, I began to notice that the cloud cover had gradually grown darker toward the west. That suppertime rain threat should still have been hours away, but something told me it was time to carry Ann back to her car, and quickly. After all, I had promised her a day free from rain or snow. Although it never rained on us as we sped back toward Kenosha, the sky did spit on us a few times. So once I had gotten Ann back to her car, we quickly said our goodbyes before she headed north and I high-tailed it back to Illinois.

It had been a glass-half-full kind of day. Sure, I could have moaned about how short our burger run had been, or about how Mother Nature had robbed Ann and me of another hour or two of walking/riding time. Nah. Given that it was only April 2, we were lucky to have gotten the bike out at al. Besides that, we had discovered a really neat lunch stop that I’m sure we will revisit someday. And so rather than moan or complain, Ann and I will enjoy the memories of another great little run, all while planning our next one.

Life is good. Thanks for hanging with me.

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.

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 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.

browning-sausage-ballsann-w-sausage

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!