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.

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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.

Pass the Doubanjiang: Excursions into Asian Cooking

IMG_0022During those times when the weather is not conducive to recreational motorcycling, my friend Ann and I will sometimes get together and cook things instead. Even in the dead of winter, our kitchen antics have never caused pneumonia or frostbite. Besides, we always have fun cooking together, even on those rare occasions when we set off the smoke alarm. The dishes we prepare are seldom complicated, but we do try to keep things interesting.

Sometimes we prepare dishes that one of us already knows well enough to teach to the other. Ann once taught me how to make spaetzle from scratch, for example. On another occasion I showed her my version of homemade tomato sauce from scratch, along with my homemade Italian meatballs. Sometimes we try new things together, like chicken gyros or tacos al pastor. All in all, the two of us have had more successes than failures and so our cooking endeavors continue. We now keep an ever-growing list of dishes we’d like to try preparing together. That’s probably why we have seldom collaborated on the same foods twice.

As of late, Ann and I have been on an Asian kick. While brainstorming our menu, we came up with too many dishes to prepare for a single meal, but rather than omit any dishes, we arranged two Asian menus, each to be prepared roughly two weeks apart.

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Round one consisted of a cucumber edamame salad with a ginger-soy vinaigrette dressing, chicken potstickers with two dipping sauces, and twice-cooked pork. Ann found the salad recipe on a blog site called Noble Pig. This was relatively easy to make and we both enjoyed the combination of flavors and textures very much. In fact, I took a container of leftover salad home with me that evening and made a light lunch of it the following day.

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Of the three dishes we made, our potstickers were the most labor-intensive and time-consuming. They were delicious, mind you, but took a bit of time and effort to prepare. We used two different types of store-bought wrappers and filled them all with the chicken mixture. The potstickers we made were a variation on this recipe, but if you search for potsticker recipes on Pinterest, you should find enough results to keep you busy for a lifetime. We steamed one batch and fried and steamed another. Personally, I like the fry/steam combination method better. The dumpling wrappers develop crispy edges but remain soft and chewy farther in. We made two dipping sauces. The one we liked was fairly traditional and pretty easy to make. The other was basically greasy heat—crushed chilis and garlic cooked in oil. As much as Ann and I both enjoy spicy food, we will not be repeating that sauce.

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Twice-cooked pork is my favorite Chinese dish but very few restaurants, to which I’ve been, seem to offer it. Marinated pork butt is cooked once, then thinly sliced and stir-fried with cabbage before adding a sweet and spicy sauce. I first experienced twice-cooked pork at a place, now long gone, in Racine, Wisconsin that featured the dish as part of their buffet (this was years before Chinese buffets had become a thing). The next time I had it was on an epic motorcycle trip that took me through Lincoln, Nebraska. I am always enchanted by the combination of sweetness, heat, and crunch. So when Ann and I first began tossing around menu ideas, I kept suggesting twice-cooked pork.

We prepared this dish using a recipe by Chinese chef and author Martin Yan, of whom I am a longtime fan. For a first try, we did alright and there was very little in the way of leftovers. I would like to try making twice-cooked pork again sometime, increasing the sweetness, spiciness, and thickness of the sauce until I get it just so.

IMG_0016We had begun this cooking endeavor with a simple tray of rice crackers, wasabi peas and such. We ended it with fortune cookies. Oddly enough, Ann and I drew the same fortune. I no longer recall what it said, but the sheer coincidence had rendered our entire bag of fortune cookies suspect. We pressed Ann’s son, Andy, into service. She offered him a cookie. He left it there, unopened. We stared at the unopened morsel as the tension increased. When we could stand it no longer, Ann snatched up the cookie and crushed it between her fingers. I think I stopped breathing while her eyes scanned the strip of paper within for a brief eternity. At last she spoke.

“It’s not the same.”

So, just a coincidence. It was as though a large, heavy stone had been lifted off my chest.

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Our second round of Asian cooking, two weeks later, was quite delicious, but much simpler. Sort of. The flagship dish this time was Japanese ramen — not the budget-priced instant stuff that can be found in almost any retail store, but the genuine article. We made a traditional miso broth, boiled a package of organic ramen noodles, and prepared a host of traditional and near-traditional toppings to go with it.

One traditional topping for ramen is braised pork belly. We certainly could have gone that route, but I talked Ann into making an oven-broiled Chinese char siu style pork tenderloin instead. As we are sometimes inclined to do, we combined elements from two different recipes and produced an awesome Asian-influenced pork tenderloin that went well with our ramen soup and all the other toppings, namely fried tofu, baby spinach, seaweed salad, soft-boiled egg (for Ann only—I am not an egg eater), and this marvelous spicy bean sprout salad, which could be eaten on its own or as a topping. Now you might conclude that ramen prepared and served in this fashion is a meal in itself. And you would be correct, but neither Ann nor I could stop there. Oh, no, of course not.

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After all the time and effort we had put into making potstickers back in round one, Ann suggested that for round two, we bring in prepared dumplings and focus on our homemade dipping sauces. I liked that idea and so picked up two varieties of Jang Foods frozen dumplings at my local Tony’s Finer Foods location. From nearly half a dozen options, I chose chicken and cabbage dumplings and shrimp, pork and leek dumplings. Each package came with a small packet of prepared dipping sauce, which we promptly discarded. Instead of using that stuff, Ann and I repeated the traditional dipping sauce that we had enjoyed so much during round one, plus we prepared a soy-chili sauce that was just different enough to be worthwhile. The dumplings themselves were very good and the convenience factor cannot be denied.

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Rounding out our round two menu was a tray of sushi, California rolls I believe, that Ann had picked up at her local grocer. We utilized our dipping sauces for these, too and I found them quite tasty.

In the space of two weeks, Ann and I used more Asian spices than either of us had used before. Take sesame oil, for example. Sesame oil is not so much a cooking oil as it is a seasoning and a potent one at that. I have always been wary of using more than a few drops, but we went through tablespoons of the stuff during both cooking sessions. I still wouldn’t get reckless with the stuff, though. We went through many cloves of garlic and quite a bit of fresh ginger, too.

There were also things I’d never used before but will gladly use again. Doubanjiang is a fermented broad bean (aka fava bean) paste that is used in a variety of Asian cuisine. It’s salty, spicy, and flavorful. Sambal oelek (or ulek) is a fresh chili paste of Indonesian origin. Made with crushed hot chilis, vinegar and salt, it gave an interesting kick to one of our dipping sauces. Shichimi togarashi is also called Japanese seven-spice and should NOT be confused with Chinese five-spice seasoning. The seven spices are typically Sancho or Sichuan peppercorns, red chili flakes, dried orange or tangerine peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, ginger, and Nori (roasted seaweed) flakes, all of which are ground or pounded and then mixed together. Yes, it is spicy. We used it in our miso broth, but shichimi togarashi can also be used as a table spice as well as in marinades, coatings, and dressings. Miso, which was new to me but not to Ann, is a fermented paste made from soybeans and rice or barley. There are a number of varieties including white miso, which is not white at all, and red miso, which is darker because it has been fermented longer.

Ann and I could easily have developed a round three menu, but we ran out of time. What with the holidays and all, we don’t even try to get together during the month of December. When we do meet again, in January, we will be preparing a special Italian meal.

As always, thanks for hanging with me. Or perhaps I should say watashitoisshoni okoshi itadaki arigatōgozaimasu.

 

For the Benefit of Others

 

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It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were. Conditions were sunny, dry, and relatively warm as Ann and I rolled into the spacious lot at Fox River Harley-Davidson to register for the 31st Annual DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy & Food Run. This was Ann’s third consecutive year attending and my fifth. I attended for the first time in 2013, at which time I reconnected with one Wally Elliott, then the event’s coordinator, with whom I had done business back in the 1980’s and 90’s. One year later, I was a member of the DuKane Chapter of A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois and was actively promoting the Toy & Food Run.

The folks at Fox River Harley-Davidson do it right. Besides serving as a registration and donations collection point, this motorcycle dealership puts out a free breakfast for Toy & Food Run participants. I should point out that riders of all makes and models are welcome. I have never ridden a Harley, but was made to feel no less welcome for it. When Ann and I rolled out toward Elburn with all the others, we had no idea how many bikes were in our party. Still, it felt awesome to be a part of that.

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This annual event, billed as “Chicagoland’s oldest and largest suburban toy run,” is not a small one. From remote registration points, eight this year, participants fed into a parade staging area, and also a registration point, outside of Knuckleheads Tavern in Elburn, Illinois. From there a fully escorted parade wound its way to the Batavia VFW grounds for an afternoon of fun and festivities, with merchandise vendors, live bands, and food and beverage vendors on hand for the duration of the event. Local and state political figures and candidates also attended, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself an A.B.A.T.E. member and avid motorcyclist. Admission was once again only $10 per person, along with a new, unwrapped toy and a non-perishable food item.

The atmosphere at Elburn could only be described as festive. Bikes were being parked in several staging lots. As usual, a live band was playing their hearts out in the lot behind Knuckleheads. Bikes and bikers were everywhere. A large, dedicated group of volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion. Governor Rauner was there, as was Santa Claus. Some of us joked about who was the bigger celebrity.

At 12:30 PM, we rolled out of Elburn. As always, Ann was capturing everything she could with still shots and video. Countless Law Enforcement Officers and designated volunteers assisted with traffic control, ensuring a safe ride to our endpoint in Batavia.

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The festivities at the Batavia VFW are always extraordinary and this year was no exception. Multiple bands provided an afternoon of vibrant live music, courtesy of TOGA Talent Agency. The merchandise, food, and beverage vendors were all top-shelf. And still more volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion—no small feat for an event of this magnitude. The toys and food items collected that day (enough to fill two flatbed trailers, were distributed to many local charities, representatives of which were on site to tell their stories. The event itself also raises funds for our A.B.A.T.E. chapter.

For the record, A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois is a motorcycle safety and rights organization (read: lobby) that not only protects and fights for the rights of motorcyclists, but brings motorcycle safety and awareness to the community through speaking engagements, education at driver’s ed courses and visiting clubs and organizations. The DuKane Chapter represents the state organization in Northern DuPage and Kane Counties.

It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were, and it was awesome! As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

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The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

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The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

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Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.

Our Last Ride of Summer

36867579861_9a7ae99a3e_oWhen a motorcyclist and his pillion passenger of choice live over 100 miles apart in two different states, they tend not to take their outings for granted. Such is the case for my friend Ann and me. While we absolutely have gotten together on the spur of the moment, we usually put some thought into scheduling our rides based on mutual availability, weather outlook, etc. We had both been hoping to go riding together sometime over the 2017 Labor Day holiday weekend; we just weren’t sure which day it would be. After all, we went riding for three days during the 2016 Labor Day weekend. Surely we’d be able to get a simple day ride in this year, right? Well, it almost didn’t happen.

36737811802_a94173bea1_oMy current employment situation might have put any multi-day excursions on ice, had we planned any, but would not have stopped Ann and me from taking a day trip together. When my wife took an unplanned trip to the hospital the weekend prior, however, a visit that turned into an extended stay, everything else in my life became tentative—including my career search activities, scheduled meetings, and leisurely motorcycle excursions. Such has been my practice for decades, so no big surprise there. When I say family first, I mean family first.

Four days later, Karen was back at home with no physical restrictions, life was quickly returning to normal, and everything that had been put on hold was suddenly back in 21389322_10213547112773090_2064896616_oplay. The very next day, I resumed job search activities, had an awesome meeting with a former colleague of mine, and with a favorable weather forecast in place, I reached out to Ann and made firm plans to take her out riding.

The morning of Sunday, September 3 was a cool one in central Wisconsin. Foggy, too. Ann set out some breakfast goodies and two mugs of fresh, hot coffee. We took our sweet time sipping coffee, looking at potential routes on Ann’s map app, and watching out the window as the fog gave way to a beautiful sunny morning. Once that happened, Ann added her gear to mine on the bike and we set out together for what would surely become our last ride of the summer.

It may have been just a simple day trip, but wow, what a ride! We opted to run north and do a simple loop through the Northern Unit of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest. 21363237_10213547112653087_1549845227_oWe ran north on Wisconsin 67 and then took a few county roads—A to T to G, which rejoins 67 and then departs again—to make a loop within the Northern Unit.

We made three relatively quick stops while touring the Northern Unit that day. Our first stop was at the Ice Age Visitor Center, which we had visited last fall (Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs, October 26).  As we pulled into 36819817166_b9c3a7fa8a_othe parking area, Ann spotted a small bicycle rack positioned on the sidewalk leading to the Visitor Center. Leaning forward, she murmured into my left ear, “I dare you to pull Miss Scarlett up to that bike rack so I can get a picture of you there.” Naturally, I did what any other red-blooded Italian American man would have done after having received such a dare from a beautiful woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle. I sighed audibly, gunned the bike’s big V-twin engine for emphasis, and then rode in a sweeping circle around the parking lot and up to the bike rack, much to the delight of my conspiring passenger, who hopped off and took the photo as promised.

The purpose of this stop was not so much to reminisce as to finalize our route, set up Ann’s video equipment, and take advantage of the restrooms that we knew were available at the center. We did also venture onto the viewing deck out back and managed to take the selfie that appears at the very beginning of this article. While that photo does display the beautiful blue sky above, it really doesn’t do justice to the beautiful scenery that lay behind us, from the deck rail all the way out to the horizon. Such is the natural beauty of the Kettle Moraine.

16593983853_1dd7937408_oOur next stop was a quick memory maker on our way back down a portion of WI 67 near the shores of Long Lake. On our way up, I had pointed out a place to Ann where a few years earlier—June 1, 2014, to be exact—my son and I had stopped on our way home from a weekend of watching AMA Superbike races at Road America to grab a selfie with the lake behind us. On our way back, as Long Lake came into view, Ann suggested stopping in the same spot FFEE5F27-896C-4B0B-B9D2-3F0382AF329Dto grab a quick photo that I could send to my son, who is currently living in Portland, Oregon, having recently completed his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory. Having enjoyed Ann’s last suggestion so much, I pulled into the exact same spot and paused while she hopped off the bike, snapped her photos, and hopped back on. This is one of many things I love about my friend Ann. While I am astounded that more than three years later, I was able to stop in nearly the exact same spot that selfie was taken in 2014, I am equally astounded that Ann saw the value in doing so. Plus she set up that shot in seconds and quite frankly, but for the ugly gent in the saddle, I think she took an excellent photo.

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Our last stop was of sentimental value to me alone. There is this little State Forest Headquarters facility that I have stopped at from time to time on my way home from the bike races over the years. The first time was in 2005, traveling alone with my new 2005 Honda ST1300. I’m sure I stopped there with my silver 2007 ST1300 as well, but I have no photographic evidence. On more than one occasion, I have dragged my son to this nondescript place and he still wonders why I like to stop there. It’s hard to explain. There is nothing special about it, but this place is special to me. I wanted Ann to see it and while she understood John’s puzzlement about the place, she also understood how this rather nondescript parking lot in the middle of a state forest could hold meaning for me.

From there we stopped only once more. on our way back from the Northern Unit, we pulled up in front of the Don Ramon Mexican Restaurant in downtown Mayville. Ann had a build-your-own combination and I had tacos al pastor. Both were good and the service was not only warm and friendly, but also lightning fast.

From there we headed back to Ann’s place where, after an unscheduled (but apparently necessary) nap on her living room couch, I bid my dear friend and her son goodbye and headed home to Illinois. The holiday weekend traffic was understandably heavier than usual, especially south of the border, but it never really slowed down. Although I no longer had Ann sitting behind me, I had some terrific memories of our day together to keep me company during my journey home.

Our next trip will be the first of the autumn season. It may be another day trip or perhaps something more epic, depending on my employment situation, but wherever we end up going, I am pretty sure of two things: it will be awesome for us and you will likely be able to read about it here. Thanks for hanging with me.