Something Worth Doing

 

As I indicated I would do last week (see For the Love of Poopy’s), I met up with a couple of friends last Saturday morning and rode out to Poopy’s in Savanna,  This post is going to be short on pictures and videos because (a) the only pillion photographer who matters was not on board to take the road shots, which I only wish I could share with you and (b) it never strikes me to take advantage of some photo ops when they arise. But in lieu of excellent visuals, I will share my story, if only because it seems to be worth telling.

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The two gents I rode with are experienced riders whom I got to know from two different facets of my life on two wheels. “Johnny B” is a retired music teacher who lives in the next town over from mine but whom I met as a regular attendee of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, which is held hundreds of miles from our respective homes. Still, I’m glad we met. John has a knack for knowing which roads to take and where the good food is to be had. this is something that comes from experience. He may not be one to smile and pose for the camera but John is an asset to any riding group and has helped me out on more than one occasion.

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Mark and I go back, not only in terms of years but also in terms of our previous lives. He was a motorcycle mechanic — and a darned good one — at Fox Valley Cycles, the best Honda motorcycle dealership in west suburban Chicagoland and also the sponsor of the Illini Free Spirit Riders, of which I was once president. Mark and I have both moved on since then but have somehow managed to remain friends for the decade-plus that has since followed.

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We met up at a gas station, where I introduced my two friends to each other, and then headed out on US Highway 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, toward the Mississippi River and Savanna, home of Poopy’s Pub and Grub. Skies were sunny and the temperature was seventyish, with just the slightest cool breeze.

Folks, this was the first ride of any real distance I have taken this year. I could get into why but that would detract from the real story here. Just know that I went, that I needed to go, and that it was wonderful. There’s just something about being out on the road with friends. I can’t begin to tell you how quickly my day-to-day concerns faded away as I motored on, cool breeze in my face, iTunes blasting out on my sound system. As I am known to do, I greeted all the farm animals as I rode past..
“Hello, dairy cows!”
“Hi, horses!”
“Well hello there, beef cattle!”

There was this one point along US 30 where a group of turbines from an upcoming wind farm seemed to have been set up perfectly along our line of sight as we approached, the huge blades moving to some unheard symphony of flowing air mass. As much as I wish I could share photos or a video clip with you, I was equally glad nobody was there to hear me moments later when I’d caught my self singing along at the top of my lungs to whatever song had been blasting out on my stereo. I probably wasn’t singing in tune but what can I say, I’d been caught up in the moment.

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In what seemed like no time at all, we’d run the 115 miles or so to arrive at “Illinois’ Biggest Biker destination.” Interestingly enough, Poopy’s wasn’t all that crowded when we pulled in, right around the 11:00 hour, which made it easy for our merry trio to claim some prime seating along the main outdoor bar. Perched upon our padded toilet seat bar stools, we ate, drank, traded stories and people watched. It just felt so great to be alive!

 

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All the while, more and more bikes were pulling in, but the area never felt overcrowded, mainly because there is a lot of room outside (and even in) at Poopy’s. Nobody was wearing a mask but then again, nobody was in my face, either. I was okay with that.

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As we sat there chatting and admiring the young, beautiful bartenders who were working harder and harder to take care of everybody, I spotted Andy Pesek, who had organized the “Poopy’s COVID Relief” event, enjoying what looked like a fine cigar while seated at a card table that had been set up by one of the big garage doors, all of which had been opened on such a pleasant, sunny day. I walked over and introduced myself before dropping my donation envelope into the bucket on the table.

That’s pretty much it as far as the “event” goes. There was no big, formal parade, no raucus anti-tyranny rally, no political ranting of any kind that me and my half-deaf ears could pick up. What I did hear was plenty of laughter. I think most people understood why we were there — to enjoy the day and enjoy life while supporting a unique business that we had come to love and appreciate.

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One highpoint of my day occurred while I was walking across the premises and spotted a face that I had seen before, on the news as well as social media. He smiled as I look at him and so I felt compelled to ask, “Are you Poopy?”

His smile grew as he nodded at me, responding, “I’m Poopy.”

We chatted briefly and I thanked Mr. Promenschenkel for having shared my last blog post the week before. He seemed pleased to give me a moment of his time and came across as being quite genuine. Just as we were about to head our separate ways, I asked if we could get a quick photo. Poopy clapped an arm on my shoulder and exclaimed, “Sure, let’s do it!” The resulting selfie came out a little blurred but mere words can’t express how much I appreciated our chance meeting.

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All the while, more and more bikes rolled in. We departed well before mid-afternoon. Part of me wanted to stay and check out the live music, maybe see if the bikini pool bar next to the stage area would liven up, but a larger part of me wanted to ride home sober. And that’s what we did.

My only regret? I did not reapply sunblock before making the return trip. My face, neck, and especially my arms got a little burned but not so bad. I think John, Mark and I had a nice day together. Things being as they are, I’m just not sure what the rest of this riding season holds for me but if I can get even a few more rides in like this one, I will be so grateful.

Thanks for hanging with me.

For the Love of Poopy’s

Located on Illinois Route 84 near the southern edge of the city of Savanna, Poopy’s bills itself as “Illinois’ Biggest Biker Destination” and for good reason. The place is huge. The place is fun. And the place has earned its reputation as a worthy venue for motorcyclists to visit for food, beverages, and a wide variety of entertainment. Its owner, Kevin Promenschenkel, earned the nickname “Poopy” at a young age when a wayward bird let him have it, twice, during a Little League baseball game. The name stuck and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Well it seems history is being made again. Promenschenkel has been busy doing everything in his power to keep his business afloat during these trying times, including participating in a lawsuit against the state, asking his loyal customers to support him by ordering Poopy’s merchandise online, and most recently, opening the venue for Memorial Day weekend — a major weekend for his business, filled with events and entertainment. This was a violation of our governor’s current stay-at-home order, but with the support of county and local authorities, not to mention many loyal bikers who came from miles around, Poopy’s did indeed open. In addition to all this, a motorcycle fundraising run has been organized to provide direct relief to Poopy in this time of need.  I intend to participate in that fundraiser, assuming Mother Nature cooperates and I have people willing to ride out to Savanna with me. I am doing this not because I have excess cash to give away but because I have a great deal of respect for Kevin Promenschenkel, am sympathetic to his situation, and feel compelled to help him out in this small way.

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I’ve been stopping at Poopy’s since September of 2011. That’s the year my son went away to college in the Quad Cities area. A week or two after he left, I found myself missing the kid something awful and so decided to pay him a visit. My ride at the time was a silver metallic 2007 Honda ST1300, a sport touring rig that made short work of my 130-ish mile run out to the Mississippi River. After picking up my son, I asked if he had any interest in checking out this “Poopy’s” place that we’d heard others talk about. At the time, he wasn’t yet old enough to have anything stronger than a coke but the allure of visiting a real biker bar must have pressed his button that day. “Sure!” my son exclaimed and within minutes, he was onboard and we were headed north toward Savanna.

I should pause here and mention that Poopy’s is anything but a typical biker bar. Poopy’s is a destination, an experience unto itself. Sure, it has a bar — several, in fact — plus a restaurant featuring numerous namesake-themed items (e.g. “The Big Poop”), a gift shop, a parts counter, and more. They even had a tattoo parlor on the premises back when I first began going there. The outdoor portion of Poopy’s includes a sizable entertainment stage with overhead catwalk, a pool bar, even a campground. They host vehicle shows, combat sports events, and many, many concerts. As I said, Poopy’s is an experience unto itself and I have developed a deep sense of appreciation for this venue — and the man who built it — from the first time I set foot on the premises.

My son and I had ourselves a grand old time that day. Using my phone, our waitress took a great photo of us while we waited for our lunch. We walked the premises, admired the unique decor and ambiance, bought a few souvenirs, including my lucky Poopy’s bottle opener, and vowed to return.

And so we have returned a number of times. Not nearly often enough, because I don’t live nearby, but whenever the opportunity presents itself — and always with friends. I’ve made lunch stops, brunch stops, and “you just gotta’ come and check this place out” stops. And Poopy’s never disappoints.

My last trip there was a few years ago. My most favorite pillion companion in the world and I had ridden out to Iowa over Labor Day weekend to meet up with some friends from a few different states. During a wonderful all-day ride that we took, the group  had planned to visit Poopy’s for a mid-afternoon lunch. As we approached and entered the parking lot, my beloved friend rolled video, creating a very nice memento. We sat outside for quite some time, enjoying the live music, good food, and each other’s excellent company on that fine late-summer afternoon. Indeed, it’s been too long since I have enjoyed such a time at Poopy’s.

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And so on Saturday, June 6, 2020, I hope to join whatever companions I can assemble and ride west for the day. My motives have been questioned on several counts by different individuals. Without naming names, here are their questions and my answers.

  • Aren’t you afraid of getting sick… or worse?
    No. As the result of having worked in an essential service industry, I never stopped working during this pandemic. I have taken reasonable precautions, both at work and at home. And yes, I wear a bandanna face covering every time I go to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. I will not likely go indoors on this trip and if I do, I’ll just don my bandanna. Also, as an avid motorcyclist, I am accustomed to tolerating a certain amount of risk. Believe me, it’s not that I don’t care whether I die. It’s that I dread not living during whatever time I have left on this earth.
  • But Poopy is a blatant Trump fan! Are you one, too???
    Does it matter? This is a fundraiser event for Poopy’s, not a political rally. Okay, here’s the plain truth: As an admitted member of the exhausted majority, I despise both the Democrat and Republican parties with a passion and in all candor, my opinion of “45” is less than glowing right now. But I am a real Poopy’s fan and therefore a fan of the man who has put so much of himself into that institution. Although I have never met Poopy in person, I like him and I suspect that if we drank together long enough, we would depart as friends. In short, I respect Kevin Promenschenkel and given that I, too, would not have been prepared to go more than a few weeks without an income stream, I am inclined to help him.
  • You’re just a badass biker with no respect for authority. I hope you get sick!
    Good day to you, too, ma’am! Yes, I am a biker. No, I am not. Okay, it depends on whom you ask and how that person defines the term. I am an avid motorcyclist and I have ridden across the country. My current ride is a 2012 Victory Vision Tour, a big-inch “full dresser” American V-twin, and I am no more loyal to any one motorcycle brand than I am to any political party. So there we are. If you fault me for riding a motorcycle, for respecting other riders regardless of what they ride, or for advocating for motorcyclist rights in general, then I am guilty as charged and your opinion does not move me.

In the end, I think it would be a dirty shame if Poopy’s were to disappear as the result of this horrific pandemic event and the shut-down of our economy — indeed of our society as we know it. I’m sure many businesses will not return as the result, through no fault of the independent owners themselves. So if I can help out one of them, this one in particular, by riding with friends for a few hundred miles on a Saturday and dropping some money in the till, I will gladly do so.

Whether you agree with me or not, I respect you for having read this far. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.

More Culture Than Shock

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I’m not a good alone person. As a result, I am passionate about sharing my experiences, whether that be watching a good movie, eating a delicious meal, or traveling. These are things I enjoy doing with friends and loved ones. When I do such things alone, the experiences hold less meaning for me unless and until I can find a way to share them. This is in part why I have befriended social media and why I have embraced blogging for years.

I have had the good fortune to visit Baja California in Mexico a couple of times in the last two years. I was there on business both times but what I want to share with you here are some of the experiences I had while I wasn’t conducting business. I want to tell you about some of the cool places I visited and the wonderful people I encountered. Making these visits has changed the way I look at Mexico and sharing this with you makes it all more meaningful to me.

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My travel companions and I crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana and vice versa. Before taking the first of these trips, my only experience with Mexico had been a brief excursion into Tijuana in 1975. I was 14 years old at the time and a San Diego bus tour that I was on took us across the border for a couple of hours. The bus tour had been pretty awesome but I didn’t think much of Mexico based on what I had seen. At the time, unemployment in Mexico was around 30%. To put that into perspective, 10% has long been considered the threshold for an economic depression. So there I was, a sheltered, white bread, chicken shit, suburban boy witnessing real poverty for the first time. I saw small children as well as extremely old people begging in the streets — and largely being ignored by passers-by as if they didn’t even exist. That bothered me greatly in 1975. It still bothers me today.

We weren’t ever in Tijuana long but I did see more of the city than I had in 1974. Yes, I did encounter a few beggars but very few. In fact, I regularly see more widespread begging in Chicago than I saw there. Once out of the city, I was at once impressed by the vast surrounding terrain, which can best be described as rugged. Very hilly, almost mountainous, with lots of immense boulders everywhere. And since we were still near the border, there was the ever-present steel barrier, none of which looked new. In fact, everybody seemed oblivious to it. In the city, we drove right alongside it at times. Out in the country, I could see the barrier off in the distance from the highway we were on. Many people from both sides cross the border between Mexico and California daily, many of them commuting to and from work, from both sides. I saw nothing sensational about it.

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What I did find sensational, in Tijuana and elsewhere, was the fantastic food being served up by local street vendors. A few of my associates, those who visit Mexico with some regularity, seem to know which vendors offer the best fare. I was never disappointed. In fact, I was usually blown away by the fresh ingredients and awesome flavors these vendors serve up. One cannot overlook the value, either. We often ate like kings for the equivalent of relatively few American dollars.

One day I was riding along with the eldest of my company’s founders, the only one who was born in Mexico, and I learned a lot about him, the area we were traveling through, and the people who live there. “Today you are seeing real Mexico,” Ruben told me, “not what the tourists see.” He pointed to some people selling goods at one intersection and to others who were performing at another. At one point the company elder asked, “Do you see anybody begging?”

“No,” I replied. “I see people selling things. I see people performing on some corners.”

“People do what they can to make a little money. They don’t need much. They aren’t rich, but everybody seems happy.” I nodded in acknowledgment.

We talked about our respective heritages for a while. After a momentary hesitation, Ruben asked me a question that made me pause: “Do you… I don’t know… Do you mind working for Mexicans?”

I smiled at the question and gave the most honest answer I could. “No. Do you mind having an Italian working for your company?” We looked at each other and laughed out loud. It was genuine laughter and that made me feel good.

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Here is something else I hadn’t known before I started making these trips: Baja California is home to Mexico’s wine country. In all candor, I hadn’t even known Mexico has a wine country. Well, they do and some of their wines are quite excellent. If you’re interested in such things, google “Ruta del Vino, Baja California.” We drove part of Ruta del Vino, flanked on both sides by vineyards and olive groves, to visit a wonderful little winery called Cava Mora. I was positively enchanted from the moment I set foot on the property.

As I understand it, Señor Mora was born in Mexico but spent a great deal of his life living in California and for a while was a competitive surfer. The man speaks fluent Spanish but when he spoke to me, in perfect English, I could hear Southern California in his voice. His wines are exquisite red blends, quite full-bodied with a delightful nose and deep flavor. During our last visit, after tasting wine in the cave, we went to the sipping room up above and enjoyed a bottle of wine along with a plate of cheeses, bread, olives, and spreads. There was music playing in the background and the sun was shining outside. I’m telling you, a man could get used to a place like that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the people I’ve met and hung out with during our visits, some of whom originate from the same part of Mexico as the elder of whom I spoke earlier. They are a genuinely welcoming sort. Some speak perfect English, others speak it more like my Italian parents did. A few spoke little English at all, yet we communicated effortlessly. And at some point during each visit, there was a feast featuring way too much food, ample drink, music, laughter, and a certain closeness that mere words cannot quite capture.

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During such a feast, I was also introduced to a locally distilled spirit called mezcal. Like its distant cousin tequila, mezcal is made from agave but with far fewer geographic and botanical restrictions. My first taste of mezcal was poured from a recycled 2-liter soda bottle. That’s right, moonshine. The flavor was intense, to say nothing of the burn that followed. As I finished my double shot, one of the women uttered a remark from the kitchen that caused everybody to erupt in laughter. Turning to my mentor, I asked, “What did the woman say?”

“She said, ‘If you drink enough of this, you won’t need any blankets tonight.'” I looked at him and smiled as I finished my drink. He added, “By the way, you’re impressing the hell out of these people right now.”

In the end, there is always much hugging and well-wishing when the time comes to say goodbye and none of this is shallow courtesy. After only two visits, I get it. We are genuinely glad to see one another. We are genuinely sorry to say goodbye so soon. And we genuinely look forward to seeing each other again. To understand that dynamic is to get a glimpse of the organizational culture in which I work every day.

I am not a good alone person. That’s why if you have read all of this and looked at the photos and video clips along the way, I’m grateful. It all means more to me because you came along, at least for this little bit. Thanks for hanging with me.

Chili Tonight: My Influences and Options

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From the moment I began teasing my Facebook friends with photos about the pot of chili I was making, inquiries and recipe requests began flowing in. And while I do boast about having certain secret ingredients in my various dishes, truth be told, I’m not all that secretive. There was only one problem: I seldom do recipes and my signature chili is definitely no exception. But I did promise a few people that I would write this article — to give them my non-recipe if you will — and I am a man of my word. So here goes.

For openers, let’s talk about the main ingredient in most chili recipes: the meat. Most chilis I have eaten, some of them extremely good, were made with finely ground meat. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, my own mother used hamburger meat (usually ground round) to make her chili. I used to do likewise until I discovered alternative methods. Some years ago, I was in downtown Indianapolis for a conference. A handful of associates and I decided to visit a chili bar for supper one night. We were doing sampler trays and at some point, I realized that the chili I was eating had not been made from hamburger but from finely chopped solid meat. This epiphany forever changed the way I make my chili.

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My go-to meats are steak and lean pork, which I usually dice by hand. This takes time but the results are great. Now stop a moment and think about the sheer number of alternatives that can be found in that one sentence alone. Do I have to use beef and pork? Heck no. You can use any number of meats, alone or in combination. I have done many chilis using only beef. I have eaten very good chilis made using only chicken, only pork, and in one case, no meat at all. My friend Ann and I once made a phenomenal chili using lean pork and chicken thighs. I have friends who make venison chili and one who has even used squirrel meat. I’ve not tasted either, nor do I judge, but these variations further serve to illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of possibilities.

You don’t necessarily have to cut the meat by hand, either, although that method will give you the greatest amount of control over the size and shape of your cut pieces. Do you have a food processor? I have had good results using my ancient La Machine food processor to do my coarse chopping. You just have to be careful not to end up with puréed meat. A meat grinder with a coarse grind option will also work nicely. That’s what Ann and I used when we made our pork and chicken chili.

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At this point, I am ready to season and brown my meat. While preheating my pan, I will season my meat while it is still in a bowl or spread out on my cutting board. Here is where I apply kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, cayenne pepper (coarse or fine, your choice), and a favorite meat seasoning or rub — which in my case is Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning. No, I am not the Mike who developed this line of seasoning products, but I did meet him once.

If I have concerns about grease, I may opt to brown my meat in a skillet and then transfer it, sans all the extra grease, to my chili pot. I typically use lean cuts of meat, though, in which case I’ll prepare the whole gig in one pot. I start with a hot pan, add a little peanut oil (prized for its high smoking point), and brown the meat over high heat so as to burn off all the water that will come from the meat as it cooks.

As the last of that water cooks off, I’ll add some finely chopped peppers and a generous portion of minced garlic. My wife cannot tolerate heat, so I use red bell pepper plus a few serrano peppers — in proportions that add more flavor than heat. When the weather allows, I may opt to roast the peppers outside, even adding a little wood smoke for added flavor.

Just as the meat begins to fry, i.e. as the edges begin to turn dark brown, I’ll lower the heat and add liquid. Here also is where you’ll add the rest of your chili seasonings, namely chili powder, cumin, and oregano — Mexican oregano if you have it. The proper ratio of chili powder to cumin is three-to-one. The oregano is added to taste. If I add three tablespoons of chili powder and one of cumin, I might toss in a teaspoon, less than two, of the oregano. You can always adjust later on. Stir it up to coat all the meat evenly as you begin to lower the heat.

Here come some more variables, each of them worthy. Sometimes I’ll simmer the meat in beer. During a recent trip to Mexico, I discovered a wonderful brew. Bohemia Oscura is a Vienna style beer with excellent flavor that would work very well for this purpose. Not a fan of beer? During a trip to Colorado, I met a lady at a winery who talked about simmering her chili meat in that winery’s medium-dry sherry. And so now, as often as not, I’ll simmer my beef and pork in a generous pour of amontillado.

The rest of my liquid generally comes in the form of stock — beef stock if I’m using beef, chicken stock if I’m using poultry, and vegetable stock if I were to ever make a vegetarian chili. Not all chilis incorporate tomato; that’s a very regional thing. Being from southern Italy, my mother put tomatoes in everything. Even the broth in her chicken soup was red. Being my mother’s son, I follow suit and use diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, or both in my chili. It’s not the dominant ingredient but its presence cannot be ignored. All the while, my chili continues to simmer.

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Next, I add my beans and any other extras that are involved. Beans themselves are controversial, as some purists insist that they have no place in chili. Here again I defer to my chili influences, one being my mother and the other being a small chain of chili parlors in Milwaukee, where I went to college. My mom cooked the beans in her chili. The chili parlor, called Real Chili, served their chili over beans as an option. They also offered their chili over spaghetti and beans as another option, which I loved, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What kind of beans? What do you got? Pinto beans are common, as are kidney beans, both light and dark. I’ve used them all. How about a combination? Each contributes its own color, texture, and flavor to the dish. That chicken and pork chili that Ann and I made included a medley of organic beans and it proved to be wonderful. I often add corn to my steak and pork chili. For the pork and chicken chili I’ve mentioned, we added hominy. You don’t need to add anything unless you want to.

Whatever bean(s) and extras you use, let the chili simmer for a while. How long depends on who you ask, but this simmering time allows the flavors to meld and the broth to reduce and thicken. As this happens, you taste and adjust the seasonings as you see fit. Bear in mind, as the liquid reduces, the seasoning flavors will become more concentrated. Don’t rush to add more salt early on. Need more heat? Add cayenne pepper or hot sauce (I may toss in a pour of Valentina or Tabasco at this point, depending on my needs). At this point, it becomes largely a matter of personal preference.

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Once the chili reaches its desired state of doneness, as indicated by the thickness of the broth and satisfaction of the cook with its flavors, it’s time to put out the foundations, condiments, and sides. My mother never made chili mac, but influenced by the Real Chili parlors in Milwaukee, I have always served my chili on a bed of broken spaghetti. My condiments include shredded cheddar cheese, chopped fresh onion, oyster crackers, sour cream, and hot sauce. My favorite side is cornbread.

If you were expecting a more concise recipe, I hope you aren’t too disappointed. I have been making chili for a few decades now. Some have been better than others and in all candor, my results have become more consistent over time. I have reached a point now where even if I vary the base ingredients, i.e. the meat and bean choices, the end quality remains fairly consistent.

If you use any of the guidelines I’ve presented here, please let me know how your results turn out. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.

Ten Wines to Enjoy Without Going Broke

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Before we dive into this subject, I need to disclose that I am literally a lifelong wine drinker. My father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins — all Italian immigrants — all made their own wine. In our culture, vino (pronounced WEE-no) is more than a mere drink. To the Italians, wine is an integral part of the family table, a thing to be enjoyed daily with friends and family. In all likelihood, I probably tasted my first drop of wine (literally a drop of it) long before I spoke my first word. In America today, that may be considered a crime. In my time and place, it was not. Indeed, my ascent into manhood was measured by how much wine I was allowed to have with my supper. As soon as I was big enough, I was allowed to help my father make the wine and on one autumn day sometime during my teens, I was finally allowed to go into the city with “the men” to buy grapes. That was a big deal!

Once I reached legal age, it may seem only natural that I began to explore “other people’s wines” and expand my horizons. And that’s exactly what I did. Just understand that while I am no wine expert by any means, I do understand and appreciate wine. Over the years, I have tasted some exceptionally good wines and quite a few that were fair at best. Being a man of less than wealthy means, I have long focused my attention on good-but-affordable wines. Which brings us to my topic of the day. Alright? Let’s talk about ten of my favorite “everyday” wines worth drinking that will not break the bank.

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1. Sobon Estate — Old Vine Zinfandel
It seems only appropriate that I start with California Zinfandel, as my father made his wine primarily from Zinfandel grapes transported to Chicago from California. Why? Because when my dad first began making his own wine, after he had established himself in the US and bought a house of his own, the older paisani  (people from the same part of Italy as him) advised him that the Zinfandel grape was most similar to the grapes grown in their region of Italy. Sobon Estate is a fantastic find for under $15 a bottle. It has an exceptional fruit-forward palate and pretty smooth tannins for a dry red in this price range.

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2. Cline Family Cellars — Old Vine Zinfandel
Cline is a well-respected name in the California wine country. A cousin of mine used to live not far from their winery and has vouched for the quality of their wines. This is another good Zin for the money. More earthy than the Sobon Estate brand I just mentioned, this wine is also a bit heavier on the tannins. That’s not a bad thing by any means but we should talk about it. I do not hesitate to recommend this wine to those who typically enjoy dry reds.

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Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds, and stems. This is the stuff that causes the “dry” feeling in your mouth when you drink certain red wines. You don’t find the same qualities in white wines, even dry whites, because most white wines are fermented in the absence of skins, seeds, and stems. In some reds, the tannins can cause a harsh, astringent effect and this is not always a matter of how much the wine cost. One way to smooth out that effect is to let the wine “breathe.” Either open the bottle and set it aside or decant it into a secondary container and wait. Thirty minutes is long enough for some but two hours is not unheard of.

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3. Santa Christina — Toscana
As the name implies, this wine comes from the Tuscan region of Italy. I discovered this one quite by accident, while dining at a favorite Italian restaurant near my home. When I discovered just how affordable this stuff was, I began buying it regularly. The predominant grape in this wine is Sangiovese, the most widely planted grape variety in Italy and the base grape of many Italian varieties, including Chianti. Let this wine breathe a bit and you will appreciate its ripe nose, fruity/spicy notes, and smooth finish.

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4. Antale — Veneto Rosso
This wine, from the Veneto region of Italy, is just a bit different from anything else on this list. The color of this red wine borders on purple. The flavor is deep in fruit, yet quite dry. At 14% ABV, this is definitely a full-bodied wine. Let it breathe and you will be impressed with this unique yet affordable find. Not exactly a casual sipper, though I have used it as such.

5. Domaine Chantepierre — Tavel
Before we come stateside again, I need to point out this amazing rosé wine from Tavel, a region of France renowned for its relatively strong rosé wines. Clocking in at 14% alcohol by volume, Domaine Chantepierre Tavel is indeed a full-bodied rosé, which has no counterpart here in the states. The flavor profile is extraordinary, the texture silky smooth. If you can find this wine for $20 or less, buy it.

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6. The Guide — Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir, literally “black pine cone,” is a dark red grape variety that is grown (with difficulty) in various parts of the world, including the United States. Pinot Noir wines are typically light/medium-bodied, fruity, and delightful. This particular brand is very good and pairs well with a variety of foods, especially chicken and pork. My friend Ann and I enjoyed a bottle of The Guide, an Oregon Pinot Noir, with our first attempt at chicken marsala and were bowled over by both. Good stuff!

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7. Castle Rock — California Cuveé Pinot Noir
Here is a super-affordable Pinot Noir from California that offers a smooth, medium texture, pleasant fruit flavors, and light tannins… and can be found for less than $10! I found California Cuveé, one of several Castle Rock Pinot Noirs, on sale at my favorite local wine store and have been buying it ever since. Trust me, you could do a whole lot worse for under ten bucks.

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8. Wente — Morning Fog Chardonnay
The first of the whites on my list, this is also the only Chardonnay I’ll tell you about here. I include it for good reason. Morning Fog, one of several Chards offered by Wente, combines some interesting qualities that make it an absolute delight to drink. First, it’s an oaked Chardonnay, but not overly so. As I understand it, half of the wine is oaked and the other half is aged in stainless steel tanks. Then the two batches are combined. The result is complex, a lightly oaked wine with a delightful fruit-forward flavor profile.

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9. Ecco Domani — Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio translates to “gray pine cone,” a reference to the appearance of the grape clusters of this variety. Pinot Grigio wines (Pinot Gris in French, same grape) are typically bright, crisp, and fruity. These dry white wines are fantastic summer sippers, best served chilled. Ecco Domani is a mass-market brand that can be found in most supermarkets as well as broad-spectrum wine stores. Usually sold for $10 or less per bottle, you could do a lot worse for this Venetian delight.

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10. Grigio Luna — Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie
If you are fortunate enough to have a Trader Joe’s store within driving distance, go there and buy some of this wine. Grigio Luna has many characteristics of Italian Pinot Grigio wines costing at least twice as much. Priced at well below $10 per bottle, if you really like Pinot Grigio, you may want to buy this one by the case.

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And there you have it, my current top ten of everyday drinkers. I consider wine to be something special, something wonderful to be shared with family, friends, and loved ones. I like wine and hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. As always, thanks for hanging with me.

While I Was Away

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Good heavens, beloved readers, an entire riding season has passed since I last posted here! It was never my intention to be so quiet for so long. Time just got the better of me. I won’t let that happen a second time. Here is a recap of things that have transpired since I last wrote to you.

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The new job I started last fall with Diaz Group LLC has continued to expand and evolve. The people there, at all levels of the organization, are top shelf and having spent so many years in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I’m definitely in my element. Although my title has not yet changed, my role with the company has become increasingly strategic in scope. This has become a unique opportunity that almost makes me want to thank my last employer, whose name does not even deserve mention on my pages anymore, for having decided to part ways with me. Of course anything can happen, sometimes without warning, but for now I am exactly where I want to be.

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With my shoulder replacement completely healed, I was able to resume riding again. Getting the rust off my riding skills took me longer than I expected, in part because the layoff had been so long, but also because something that has changed between my ears. Even though my severe shoulder injury occurred while walking, not riding, just getting hurt so badly has made me aware of my vulnerability. That’s something on which I must continue to work because the wrong kind of fear can be dangerous when riding.

As I do every year, I kicked off the riding season at the beginning of May by attending Motorcycle Sunday in Aurora. This year’s event was made extra special when my son came in from the Quad Cities to attend with me, meeting up with another dear friend to hang out together, and then my daughter and her boyfriend, non-riders, came over to hang with the three of us for a while.

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From spring through fall, I did much grilling, both at home with family and with my dear friend Ann up in Wisconsin, who like my son shares my love for cooking and is a very skilled cook in her own right. I used my little smoker a few times as well. Some dishes were better than others but all were quite flavorful and there were no total failures.

The smoker is new for me and a welcome addition to my culinary arsenal. Smoking foods, however, is far from a foolproof endeavor. In short order, I have already learned a couple of fundamental lessons. First, that just like any other type of flavoring, woodsmoke can be overdone. The smoke flavor should complement all the other flavors in play. Overdo it and you may end up with an unwelcome bitterness that overpowers all the other flavors. The second lesson I learned in a hurry is that you can’t hurry. When you’re slow cooking with a smoker, time is your friend, your ally. For best results, don’t shortchange that friend.

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Last June, for the first time in years, my son joined me for the annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which benefits the Middle East Conflicts War Memorial. I was grateful to have my son along. I only wish the weather had been more favorable. Despite the Freedom Run being a rain-or-shine proposition, and with significant rain in the forecast, attendance for the 2019 event was a fraction of what I’ve witnessed in past years. Indeed, we were hampered by an extended torrential downpour at the starting point. Still, I would like to have seen a better turnout. This cause deserves a better turnout. That’s why I was there, as was my son. In fact, I have been trying to get Ann to come down for this event since we began riding together — about four years now — but she has always had a conflicting commitment during that weekend in June. As it turns out, this was one time I was glad she couldn’t come. Not because I didn’t want her along for the ride — I always want her along — but she would have been miserable in that rain and the turnout would not have impressed her at all. Maybe next year.

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July brought about two fantastic road trips. The first was a very long day trip with my wife Karen. The only thing that kept it from being an overnighter was that we couldn’t get anyone to take care of the pets. Ah, but it was a fantastic little road trip! We went to the Quad Cities to see Holiday Inn performed at a dinner theater called Circa 21, where our son John had been working as the theater’s Technical Director. As such, John was able to get us good seats, ate dinner with us and sat with us for the show, introduced us to the theater’s Operations Manager as well as some of the cast and crew, and then after the performance, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater. Karen and I returned home sometime during the overnight hours, tired but happy and more than a little bit proud, too.

As a venue, Circa 21 is a great theater. Actors come in from across town as well as across the United States to perform there. Dinner, served buffet style, is exceptionally well-prepared. We enjoyed a bottle of wine with our dinner and the bar also sells a variety of cocktails, including ice cream drinks. The show itself was excellent and was preceded by performances by the waitstaff. For the money, one would be hard-pressed to find any better theatrical entertainment value.

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After missing the Midwest Motorcycle Rally last July due to my broken shoulder and subsequent replacement surgery (see My Summer Interrupted, Part II if you haven’t read the shoulder saga), I picked up Ann on a sunny Wednesday morning and we headed to Winona, Minnesota for a few days. What an awesome time we had exploring the area, on our own as well as with other rallygoers on the guided tours for which the MMR has become famous.

This year’s trip was particularly enjoyable for several reasons, not the least of which was that this was my longest trip of any consequence since I’d had my surgery a year earlier. The recovery period for shoulder replacements is measured in months, not days or even weeks. Most people don’t know this but during the first two months of my recovery, during which my physical activity had been severely restricted, Ann would “take me with her” on her daily walks by sending me photographs from the nature trails, river walks, lake shore, marina, farmers market, and more. She did her darnedest to keep my spirits up during what were some pretty dark days for me.

Besides getting to visit the rally’s new venue in Winona, Ann and I had also gone Dutch on a pair of matching Bell helmets with Bluetooth® communication headsets. This allowed us to talk to each other in a near-normal tone of voice wherever we went on the bike. Fantastic! Our Bell helmets also cut down on the wind noise in our ears, reducing fatigue as well as possibly some hearing damage, which for a half-deaf gent like me is important.

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Labor Day weekend brought about one more road trip, which may seem like something but was still well below average for me. I picked up Ann on Friday morning and we headed for Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a stop in Rockford to see the Anderson Japanese Gardens. I had been there once before, years ago, and it made such a lasting impression on me that I felt compelled to share the experience with Ann. She loved it! From there we took Highway 2, a very pleasant motorcycle road, down to Dixon and then endured some endless road construction until we hit Interstate 80. Following a burger stop at Cerno’s Bar and Grill, a historic bar imported from Belgium and built by Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898, we continued on to Cedar Rapids, arriving at our hotel that evening. My son John departed from work later in the day and joined us at our hotel that same night.

Our Saturday was a full one. A delightful friend of John’s named Marjorie, who hails from elsewhere in Iowa, met us in the hotel parking lot for a day of two-up motorcycle touring. We began with a hearty family-style breakfast at the Ox Yoke Inn in historic Amana. After everyone had eaten their fill, we strolled through the town, visiting the shops, tasting wines, etc. before gearing up and riding northwest to Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum and J&P Cycles retail store. We then went into nearby Stone City for supper at the General Store Pub. In hindsight, I guess we went pretty high on history that day.

On Sunday morning John, Ann, and I saddled up and rode into Illinois, stopping for a few hours in historic Galena, where we met up with another old friend of ours for a few hours before heading home. At that point, John and our friend Vern headed toward Chicago while Ann and I meandered back to her home in Wisconsin before I turned south and headed back home myself. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.

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A week later, Karen and I were making our annual excursion to the Sandwich Fair, which is hands down the best county fair for miles around. We tried to get the now-grown kids to join us, as they used to do when they had no choice in the matter, but getting four or more adults to rendezvous at the same place at the same time can be challenging. Still, Karen and I had our usual fun time. Can’t wait ’til next year.

In September, my son John and I met up after work and went to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for a night of fantastic reggae/ska/club music. The opening act was Steel Pulse, a UK-based band that was the first non-Jamaican group to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. They were astounding, to say the least. I walked in not knowing who they were and walked out a fan.

The next performer was Shaggy, a Jamaican-born musician of whom both my son and I are great fans. Exactly how this artist has bridged the generation gap between John and I is not exactly clear, but we were beeboppin’ into the night.

The headliner was UB40, a group whom I have adored since the 1980’s. As Ann has also appreciated a number of their songs, I had hoped to entice her down to Chicago for this event, but as the show occurred on a Wednesday night and a late one at that, it was not to be. Hey, I never expected to see UB40 in person myself and my son John never thought he’d ever see Shaggy live and in person. I submit that the possibilities are indeed possible, so who is to say that Ann and I won’t see UB40 in concert sometime in the future?

For the sake of time and space, I have omitted several other highlights, but suffice it to say it’s been an awesome year so far. Soon the snow will be falling, but I may still get another ride or two in. Time will tell.

I know, it’s been a long post. If you’ve continued reading this far, as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Mediterranean Flavors

I had hinted about doing this back when I wrote about our last cooking endeavor (see Cajun-Midwestern Fusion). With spring being a little late to arrive, Ann and I figured we had one more cooking opportunity before riding season really gets underway. So we sorted through countless recipes, favoring Mediterranean influences this time, and selected three dishes to make for our supper (click on each to see the original recipes and ingredients):
Bacon, Avocado, & Brussels Sprout Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette
Chicken Spinach Feta Pie
Roman-Style Stuffed Artichokes

But before we got into that, Ann served up a light lunch that reminded me of the Cajun cooking day we had enjoyed last month. Apparently one of Ann’s local supermarkets had brought in a sizable shipment of frozen, pre-seasoned crawfish. I’d eaten breaded and fried crawfish tails a few times, but neither Ann nor I had never done the break-em-open-and-eat-the innards thing before. She steamed them up and served them with melted butter in addition to a batch of the same spicy remoulade recipe we had made last time. I’m glad Ann and I shared this new and interesting experience together but in all candor, I prefer nibbling the deep-fried tails.

Raw, shredded Brussels sprouts and baby spinach formed the foundation for this particular salad, which we selected because it didn’t share too many ingredients with our other dishes, but also because Ann and I seem to have developed a thing for Brussels sprouts over the past year. We were not disappointed. The combined ingredients deliver big on flavor and textures. In the future, we might depart from the recipe slightly. The avocado seemed to get run over by everything else and so could be considered expendable. And although the lemon vinaigrette was quite good, a poppyseed dressing may complement the flavors even better. To be determined.

What do you get when you combine ricotta, feta, and Parmesan cheeses with spinach, chicken and more, all baked in a phyllo crust? I regret that I didn’t start shooting photos until our chicken spinach feta pie had already been assembled and baked. The preparation is somewhat involved, yet kind of fun. On this one, however, we deviated from the recipe before I had even arrived. Rather than season and pan fry the chicken breasts, I marinated them a day in advance and then grilled them to perfection the night before I drove up to Ann’s place. By doing this, we turned up the volume on that chicken considerably, I think for the better.

Have you ever worked with phyllo dough? We hadn’t, not before this, and we learned something about it in the process. Once you take the sheets out of their packaging, you’ve got minutes to bathe them in butter or otherwise do something before they become as frail and brittle as dry leaves. But when handled properly, there is no substitute for the light, layered, buttery, flaky magic that results.

Given all the stuff that went inside that pie, we really weren’t sure what was going to happen when Ann released the spring-form pan after baking. Would it self-destruct, sticking to the pan and oozing cheese-infused spinach all over the place? Nope. After allowing the contents to cool and set, the entire pie came out intact and retained its shape, even when sliced. The flavor profile was awesome! Just one amendment going forward, the recipe calls for concentric circles of chopped tomatoes, onions, and olives just beneath the top crust. After eating our respective slices, Ann and I agreed that we would combine those three ingredients into a medley, such that the resulting layer delivered a consistent flavor explosion across the entire pie.

I am a fan of stuffed artichoke hearts. My middle sister Anna has made them for years and I have always enjoyed them. Interestingly enough, Ann and I replicated her recipe almost exactly one year prior to our most recent endeavor, with good results. This time around, we wanted to try using fresh, whole artichokes, a daring endeavor to be sure. The results? Whole artichokes make for a more formidable presentation over canned hearts—think large, stand-alone pieces versus a casserole—but what you gain in appearance, you more than lose in labor and waste. Truth be told, my sister’s casserole has better flavor and texture. But again, we wouldn’t know this had we not tried and as always, we had fun throughout the process. There is no substitute for a kitchen filled with love and laughter.

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A few final thoughts. First, given the characteristics of this meal, I wanted to select a light-bodied, dry wine to balance it off. We went with an inexpensive Pinot Grigio (Fossetta) from Venice, Italy. Crisp and fruity, yet dry, this wine seemed to serve our needs.

Second, I have presented these three dishes in the order in which Ann and I both enjoyed them most. That salad was our hands-down favorite. It was light and brimming with flavor and texture. Sure, we would change things up a little if and when we make it again, but as built, this first-course dish was just fine. The pie was our second favorite. Plenty of flavors there, even if we hadn’t used grilled chicken (but I’m glad we did). It’s a rich dish, though, and that one pie could have fed up to eight people. Luckily, the leftovers are at least as good as the first time around. The artichokes tasted fine, but in the end, we deemed them to be too labor-intensive for what we got out of them, especially when compared to the tried-and-true casserole version that we’d made before.

Finally, speaking of labor-intensive dishes, all three of these involved a fair amount of cutting, chopping, mincing, grating, etc. That’s not necessarily bad, especially if you enjoy being in the kitchen. But if you are looking for quick and easy meals, these are not the dishes you seek.

It may be a while before you see another “Ann and Michael cooking” post, as once the weather warms up, we tend to go riding when we get together—and I do so enjoy sharing those excursions here. On the other hand, Mother Nature has been a little unpredictable lately, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Until then, as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Cajun-Midwestern Fusion

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When it comes to our cooking endeavors, Ann and I frequently look for new things to try, within the context of our culinary preferences. We both enjoy bold, flavorful dishes. We both enjoy healthy food options—eh, more or less. And we both enjoy preparing new things together, with an eye for how we might improve upon the same endeavor in the future. This time around we chose to combine Cajun and Midwestern influences. The resulting fusion of flavors, colors, and textures was quite satisfying.

For daytime grazing, in addition to some Cajun seasoned mixed nuts and seasoned pretzels that Ann had made in advance, we prepared a platter of assorted sausage skewers. Ann had picked up some cheddar jack and bacon bratwurst and a chicken apple sausage. I brought along a smoked andouille sausage rope. After roasting the sausages a bit, we sliced them and browned the slices in a cast iron skillet. Emulating an appetizer that her mom used to make, Ann skewered individual pieces of her two non-spicy sausage varieties with a pineapple chunk and a maraschino cherry. The sweet and savory combination makes for an excellent hors d’oeuvre. I went in a different direction, skewering any of the three sausages with a chunk of peppery cheese, a grape tomato half, and a green olive half. I had purchased a goat cheese pepper jack and a Wisconsin-made chipotle cheddar expressly for this purpose. Both cheeses were flavorful but also quite different from each other in terms of taste and texture. The skewered sausage, cheese, and veggies produced an explosion of flavors.

Ann and I had selected three dishes to prepare for our supper: blackened shrimp, zucchini fritter waffles, and oven roasted okra. I believe we used black, white, and cayenne pepper along with paprika, crushed garlic, onion powder, basil, thyme and salt to create our own blackening spice blend. These spices along with melted butter are what give the characteristic blackening effect popularized by the late Chef Paul Prudhomme. When it comes to cooking shrimp, timing is everything. Undercooked shrimp is just gross, but if you let them go too long, you get something along the lines of cooked rubber. Whether by skill or luck, ours came off perfectly.

We had made zucchini fritters once before, discovering at that time that we got better results using Ann’s waffle iron than by frying them in a skillet. The waffle iron technique creates a greater surface area and thinner insides, which we both feel gives a better flavor and texture. Less greasy, too.

I had suggested a spicy remoulade as the ideal condiment for both the shrimp and the waffled fritters. That turned out to be a good choice and the remoulade we made was da’ bomb. There are too many ingredients to list here, but I’ll share this recipe that we used, more or less, from the Serious Eats website. Creamy, tangy, spicy… there are so many words I could use to describe the stuff. Quite good!

I can hear you now. Okra? Why okra? Well, mainly because when we were planning this meal, Ann mentioned that she had a taste for okra. Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. This preparation was super simple, just a bag of frozen, cut okra tossed with some salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and enough olive oil to make it all stick. Then roast at 450° F until done. We liked this simple side, but would probably add more spices the next time around.

Good rosé wines are said to pair well with spicy dishes as well as seafood. I tried several in the weeks leading up to our cooking date—call it a hobby of mine—and selected a 2016 Domaine Chantepierre Tavel from France. The term Tavel, I discovered, refers to a region in the southern Rhone Valley that specializes in dry rosé wines with a minimum alcohol content of 11%. This particular Tavel is 14% abv, enough to make one a bit more talkative after a couple of glasses. My late father, who made his own Zinfandel for many years, used to profess that drinking a good wine “loosens the tongue.” For the money, this one would be hard to beat. Very fruit-forward but still dry, especially on the finish.

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Compared to some of the meals Ann and I have prepared together, this one was pretty simple, but no less delicious. When you have a desire for good food and enjoy cooking, things have a way of falling into place.

“What are we going to make next time?”

“I dunno. Got any ideas?”

Truth be told, we had already begun pitching ideas back and forth for next time days earlier and have continued to do so since then. The possibilities seem to be leaning decidedly toward Mediterranean fare. Time will tell.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Little Cravings—Sopes!

It’s pretty simple, really. You make a stiff corn dough using masa harina, water, and salt. Then you divide that dough into equal portions, each about the size of a golf ball. Now keeping the dough moist by covering it with a wet paper towel, you take each of the golf balls and form it into a flat circle with raised and pinched edges, sort of like a cornmeal petri dish. Then you fry those babies in hot oil until the edges become crispy, but the insides are still soft. The resulting flat corn cakes are called sopes, a type of Mexican street food known as antojitos, which translates literally into “little cravings.” Well let me tell you about the little cravings Ann and I made last weekend, because they were really, really good.

You can put all manner of meats and/or vegetables, plus condiments, on sopes. The raised edges act like a little, non-offensive Mexican border wall that helps keep all the ingredients on top of the little cornmeal disc. Ann and I chose to make green chile pulled pork carnitas, using a pressure cooker. We used a beautiful three-pound pork butt, which we cut into eight pieces and browned, and then cooked under pressure, along with a bunch of tomatillos, green chiles, onions, garlic, herbs and spices.

Mind you, I had never used a pressure cooker before and everything I knew about them I learned from watching television sitcoms, so my biggest fear was not that the meal would turn out poorly, but that we would cause a messy explosion. Ann assured me that my fears were unfounded and all would turn out just fine, as long as we observed a few simple precautions. Of course she was right and everything went as planned, rather than as feared.

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What went into the pressure cooker filled the pressure cooker. What was left after the lid came off took up a lot less space. The eight portions of pork butt had become so tender, they were already falling apart before I attacked them with two forks. Having given up a lot of liquid under all the heat and pressure, our vegetables were but a collection of mushy solids. And there was indeed a lot of residual liquid in the cooking chamber. This transformation took place in just under an hour, not including cool-down and release. We probably spent more time prepping the ingredients than cooking them. And it was worth every minute. Once that lid came off, the aroma was delightful.

What Ann did next is really cool and ultimately produced the best part of our meal. After removing the chunks of pork for me to pull apart, she strained all the remaining solids from the greasy liquid, stirring and pressing as she filled the strainer. Next, she separated and removed the fat, pouring flavorful greenish liquid into a clean pot. Are you ready for the magic? Ann poured the strained solids into a blender, liquified them, and added the resulting slurry into our broth. Then she cooked the entire lot down into a mild-yet-flavorful salsa verde. This took some time, but again proved to be well worth the wait. A small bit of key lime juice added to the serving bowl was the final touch that made this salsa the best condiment we had.  And we had plenty: homemade guacamole and pico de gallo (“rooster’s beak,” a fresh tomato salsa), several store variety salsas, shredded lettuce, shredded chihuahua cheese, crumbled queso fresco, and crema, a mild-flavored Mexican style sour cream.

Once the salsa had been reduced, Ann fried the sopes on top of the stove while our shredded carnitas, freshly bathed in our salsa verde, were being broiled to browned perfection in the oven below.

It’s not always easy to have the various components of a meal come off in a timely fashion, but this time it did. The table had already been set and every condiment served before Ann began frying the sopes. We didn’t make too many because sopes are best served hot and fresh. The steaming broiled green chile pork carnitas came out of the oven when the sopes were ready to be filled.

And man, did we fill them. Little cravings? Ha! We ate our fill, delighted to agree that we liked our homemade salsa fresca, salsa verde, and guacamole far more than any of the store-bought condiments we had procured. Ann’s son Andy agreed that our endeavor had been successful and once I got home with my share of the leftovers, even my wife Karen, who does not tolerate much spiciness, agreed that our pork carnitas and salsa verde were mild enough, yet so flavorful.

You know what? As culinary efforts go, this was not a labor-intensive meal. As always, there was much animated conversation and laughter in the kitchen, which somehow made our efforts seem more effortless.

I can’t wait to see what we cook up next time. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.

Fun with Fajitas Well North of the Border

ChipsConsidering the magnitude of our last culinary endeavor (see Worth the Effort: Homemade Ravioli and More), Ann and I vowed to try something less labor-intensive this time around. No, I never suggested going to McDonald’s or ordering a pizza. After lobbing Pinterest links at each other for a few days, we decided to attempt fajitas with a few simple sides.

When I say simple, I mean simple. In advance of my arrival, Ann brought in chips and salsa from a local Chili’s. They made for a nice opener and as thin, fresh tortilla chips go, we could have done worse.

Sheet PansWe opted for two meats, chicken and steak, but prepared each differently. For the steak, as well as the peppers and onions, we prepared a variation of this sheet pan steak fajitas recipe. Our greatest variation was using skirt steak, which is the traditional go-to cut for fajitas, instead of flank steak. For the chicken, we applied a fantastic fajitas marinade recipe, which I would like to prepare again, once the next grilling season comes around.

As always, the glaring issue was portion control. When Ann and I engage in these kitchen collaborations, we typically plan to feed three and have enough leftovers for five. Inevitably we end up with enough for twice as many. I blame myself. Okay, between the steak and chicken, I managed to keep the total meat load to around three pounds prior to cooking. But what could I possibly have been thinking when I procured seven bell peppers of various colors and ample size for this meal?

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Amidst all of our slicing and chopping and mixing and rubbing, Ann quietly prepared some cilantro-lime rice and a topping of seasoned frijoles negros (black beans). This made for a fantastic side dish, more of Cuban origin than Mexican according to Ann. She also mixed up a batch of homemade guacamole that may very well be the best I’ve ever sampled, plus a bowl of fresh pico de gallo. Had I been paying attention, I might be able to tell you when went into these delicious sides and condiments, but then I may very well have sliced a few fingers along with all the peppers and onions I’d been preparing.

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And so our preparations went on. By supper time we had produced a table filled with delicious food. After a brief discussion on how to properly fold tortillas for fajitas, so that there is only one open end and no contents falling out the bottom, we dug in. Qué delicioso!

I’d like to tell you that no limes were harmed during the production of this meal, but that would be a lie. The fact is that from the time we began work on our first marinade through the opening of our last bottle of Corona, many limes were zested, cut, twisted, squeezed and/or pressed for our personal pleasure.

And you know what? We enjoyed it all. As always, thanks for hanging with me.