My Shrinking Demographic: A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A message to the automobile manufacturers and motorcycle manufacturers of the world: I am not the man you are looking for. You know it—well, most of you do, anyway—and I know it. I came into this world toward the tail-end of a generation known as Baby Boomers. For decades, we were the only generation that mattered. We were huge! But like the Traditionalist generation before us, we’ve been dying off. Without going too deep into Generation X, the Millennials, or Generation Z—all of whom came after me—the thing of it is, my generation is no longer capable of sustaining, let alone expanding, the automobile and motorcycle industries. Mobility scooters are another story, but let’s not go there today.

I attended two consumer trade shows this month, the Chicago Auto Show and the Chicago Motorcycle Show, each considered major consumer shows in their own right. I have a longer, if less consistent, history with the auto show, but a much more recent history with the cycle show. Both have changed a great deal over the years. Let’s talk about the car show first.

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I began attending the auto show years before I obtained my first driver’s license. I was a bona fide car nut and an aunt of mine would humor my addiction by taking me to the auto show. This was way back when McCormick Place only had one building. Never mind that I was still in grade school at the time. I could identify nearly every automobile made at the time just by looking at its front grille or rear bumper. No exaggeration! I would go from manufacturer to manufacturer, sitting in cars, collecting literature, and dreaming my dreams. Sticker prices meant nothing because money was no object to me at the ripe old age of twelve. See, I already knew what I was going to be when I grew up—I was going to be rich—so in my young mind’s eye, I could eventually have any car I wanted. And believe me, I coveted some good ones.

Today the American car buyer/leaser is interested in big honkin’ trucks and SUV’s. Smaller segments are into sporty little cars, earth-friendly vehicles, and believe it or not, economical transportation choices. Me, I grew up to become a sedan man. Most of the cars I have owned in my adult life have been sedans. My current ride is large, exceptionally comfortable ’08 Chevrolet Impala with a nicely appointed interior, for its age, and a buttery-smooth ride. Nobody buys sedans anymore, so the genre doesn’t get a lot of attention from the manufacturers, neither in R&D nor marketing. At the auto show this year, the “bigger” sedans were not too plentiful. What is available was displayed, but not exactly showcased. Hey, I understood. And on the bright side, I never had to stand in a long line to sit inside one of them.

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So what did I look at? I glanced at the current iteration of my Chevy and walked past the Ford and Buick equivalents. Though I have never owned a foreign car—the closest thing being a 1985 Renault Alliance built in Kenosha, Wisconsin—most of my attention was captured by the Volkswagon Passat, the Subaru Legacy, and the Nissan Maxima, that last one being my current “if money were no object” choice. It just speaks to me.

So much has changed since the last time I attended the Chicago Auto Show a decade or two ago. There’s no denying it’s a smaller show. Numerous marques have gone out of existence since the last time I was there. When I was a kid, the aftermarket/accessory/travel/merchandise vendor booths took up nearly a floor of their own at what is now called the Lakeside Building at McCormick Place. That was a lot of square feet. This year they took up a small fraction of that. To be sure, the new show had some astounding features not found in 1974, such as in-show demo rides and outdoor test drives. But for me, the sheer grandeur of this show has shrunk back a bit.

Capture IMS 2019

To be sure, the Chicago stop of the International Motorcycle Shows (IMS) used to be physically larger, not because so many brands have gone out of existence since I began coming (a few have), but because fewer exhibitors are showing up.  More on that in a bit. But this has always been a very different show than it’s automobile counterpart. Motorcyclists are a smaller segment of the U.S. population at large and perhaps a bit more fragmented as well. I’ve been coming out every year since I became an active motorcyclist in 2003 (I was a late bloomer, but a fanatical one). I have seen a number of changes in the hobby, the industry behind it, and this show, which to a degree represents it.

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To its credit, the IMS really does try to have something for everyone, but it’s really up to the exhibitors to deliver. Let me explain. I can recall a period of years during which there seemed to be a bit of one-upmanship going on between the motorcycle manufacturers on at least three different fronts. The heavyweight cruiser class was wide open and several players were vying for the largest displacement engine—separate and apart from Boss Hoss, a specialty manufacturer of motorcycles powered by Chevy V8 engines. Despite a gentlemen’s agreement among the major manufacturers to limit the top speed of their really fast bikes to 300 kilometers per hours (about 186 MPH because more than that would be unsafe), the players in the sportbike class were still vying for fastest production motorcycle, which I assume would be the one to reach 300 KPH the soonest. And on yet another front, several of the major manufacturers were trying to unseat the Honda Gold Wing as the premier touring motorcycle by which all others would be judged.

It was the best of times to attend the IMS. The accessory / aftermarket / merchandise aisles were packed, too. Then the Great Recession hit. Motorcycle dealerships were closing left and right, as were some less-than-major manufacturers and a number of aftermarket companies, too. The terrain of the motorcycle dealership and merchandising networks was forever changed, the IMS scaled back accordingly, and if you ask my opinion, the industry has never been the same since then.

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But the show has gone on and people still attend. If anything, the crowd seems more heterogeneous than before. It may be me, but I seem to recall the “black leather and gray hair” bunch being more dominant ten to fifteen years ago. They’re still present, to be sure—I’m sort of on the fringe of that demographic myself—but they no longer dominate. I’m not sure anybody does. Which brings me to an issue similar to, but not quite the same, as I described while describing the auto show.

I’m a touring rider. I ride big-displacement bikes configured for comfort and overnight travel. These are not entry level bikes, nor are they cheap by any definition. Many people can’t afford them. In point of fact, I can’t afford them—never mind that I have owned three so far. The touring bike class has never been the dominant segment of the motorcycle industry, but it has been significant. I commented earlier that I am sort of on the fringe of the black leather biker demographic. That’s only because I currently ride an American-made, big-inch V-twin and as the result, I tend to dress more like a pirate and less like a spaceman. But only six years ago, I was riding a much faster Japanese sport-touring rig and back then, I dressed more like a spaceman. So you see, it’s all relative.

But no matter how you slice it, my demographic is in decline, along with several others. The generations that follow are for the most part decidedly not marching in line with us older types. Big-inch V-twins don’t excite the later generations. Neither do the full dresser touring rigs or their sport touring subset. Or racer replicas. Surely there will always be technical riders, sport riders, and hooligans, but these will not dominate the hobby.

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What will? In all candor, I don’t know. But neither do most of the major manufacturers, from all outward appearances. Enter the newcomers! The ultra-affordable low displacement, high-mileage bikes. The unconventional three-wheelers. The electrics. And whatever comes next. But here is where it gets tricky. Despite the fact that motorcyclists in total are a minority of vehicle owners and operators in the US, the various segments (fragments?) of the hobby haven’t historically been too tolerant of one another. For the sake of our hobby and the industry that both supports and depends upon it, this must change. Now.

During my visit to the 2019 IMS, I had the pleasure of listening to and speaking with my friend Gina Woods of Open Roan Radio, and a newer acquaintance of mine, Robert Pandya who helped bring the Discover the Ride experience to life at IMS events across the country. I can’t say enough about either of these individuals and the contributions each has made to our hobby and to the motorcycle industry at large. And while each will eagerly acknowledge the heritage of our hobby, they are equally eager to acknowledge and welcome that which is new and exciting. We need more people like this influencing the industry.

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And so here I sit, figuratively speaking, upon Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour (did I mention that Robert Pandya worked for Polaris when they brought the Vision to market?), looking forward to the upcoming riding season. I may no longer be the primary demographic target for either the automobile or motorcycle industry, but I still have my eye on certain products of theirs and amusingly enough, they still have their eyes on my spending dollars. Maybe it’s a love/hate thing.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

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Romancing the Blade

Mug Brush

My fascination with shaving has a lengthy history that began when I was a small boy and became aware of this ritual performed by grown-up men. For as long as I knew him, my grandfather shaved with a safety razor, a mug of shaving soap, and a brush. He also had an old straight razor in his basement bathroom and although I never saw him use it, I’m sure he had done so once upon a time. I rarely got to watch Grandpa shave, but the few memories I have of those times involved him coming out of his bathroom with one or two fragments of tissue stuck to his face. I would later learn firsthand that this was a tried-and-true method for catching and holding blood droplets from the seemingly inevitable razor nicks and cuts.

Norelco

My dad’s arsenal was a bit more modern. He was a Norelco man, having owned numerous corded and uncorded models over the decades. But he also had several safety razors, at least one in each bathroom, and he used them on occasions when he wanted a particularly close shave. Pop professed that he could go for two days between proper wet blade shaves, whereas his electric razor required daily use.

My dad was no stranger to the toilet paper trick, either, but he also kept a solid alum block, which he had purchased from a barber, I couldn’t tell you in what year.  After shaving, you simply run the alum block under cool water and then gently glide it over your freshly-shaven skin. Any nicks, cuts or abrasions will immediately be made known. The alum stings like mad when it finds any such wound, but it does help check the flow of blood. Styptic pencils, used for the same purpose, also contain powdered alum crystals. After my dad passed away, I kept that old alum block, mainly for sentimental reasons, though I have used it from time to time. I wish I’d kept all of the razors as well. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Alum Block

When the time came for me to begin shaving, sometime during my high school years, my dad introduced me to shaving by presenting me with one of his safety razors. This particular one had a “butterfly” mechanism for replacing the double-edged blade and was also adjustable. Twisting a dial built into in the handle would change the height/exposure of the blade, allowing for a milder or more aggressive shave, depending on the setting. This was a good choice for a newbie like me.

We went over the basic techniques—using hot water and the shaving brush to work up a good lather and apply it to my face, holding the razor properly, rinsing thoroughly, using the alum block if necessary, and applying aftershave. My young peachfuzz whiskers never stood a chance. Neither did my face when I began experimenting with more aggressive razor settings over time. But I learned and I did okay.

Before long I became curious about electric shavers and got one of my own. Using an electric razor was cool because I could mow down my whiskers relatively quickly without fear of cutting myself. But they were also bothersome because (a) applying pressure to get a closer shave often resulted in razor burn and (b) the darned things needed to be cleaned regularly. Over the decades that followed, I tried various electric models from Norelco, Remington, Braun, and Panasonic. Some I liked better than others—especially the self-cleaning models, although those tended to break down after the warranty period was up.

Fusion

I also went through all the iterations of disposable and multi-blade cartridge razors, beginning with the Gillette Trac II and culminating with the Gillette Fusion5™ ProGlide Power razor. In the end, I preferred wet shaving, though not necessarily the rising costs associated with using the latest innovations in cartridge shaving technology. Every time the folks at Gillette (now part of Proctor & Gamble) rolled out another iteration of the latest must-have razor, I knew I could count on the cost of replacement blade cartridges going up.

I’d been seeing and hearing a lot about the resurgence of safety razors over the past few years and I guess it was just a matter of time before I got swept up in the movement myself. The cost of blade replacement for my five-bladed (six if you count the trimmer blade on the backside), self-lubricated, vibrating, flexing, pivoting shaving system was between two and three dollars per replacement cartridge and as much as I liked the product, I was ready for a change, if only to save a few bucks. As a rule, I am seldom afraid to try something new. But was I ready to try something old?

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After a bit of research, I decided to buy The Chieftain safety razor by Vikings Blade. an outfit in Australia that seems to have fun with what they do while taking the art of shaving quite seriously. The product is well-rated and comes with a storage/carrying case as well as five starter blades, all for a price that wouldn’t break me (I was still employed full-time and hadn’t yet broken my shoulder when I bought this). When my new razor arrived, I was not disappointed. The weight and balance are excellent, to say nothing of the fit and finish. The Chieftain is a quality product. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

Hamburger

Unfortunately, despite having read and reread the directions and even watched a video or two about shaving with a safety razor, I had built up some bad habits from many years of having shaved with pivoting disposable cartridge razors. Despite the “mild” blade I had used,  my poor neck paid dearly for those bad habits. It was days before I attempted shaving with that razor again, but to be very clear, it wasn’t the razor’s fault. This was pure user error.

I recall one of my college marketing professors, years ago, explaining that The Gillette Company had developed the pivoting razor head after research revealed that a substantial portion of shavers did not hold their razor at the proper angle. The advertisements never said, “…with a new pivoting head, because some of you are too stupid to hold your razors properly,” but that was the gist of it. And remembering that helped me get the best shave of my life with a safety razor. That and an email.

I emailed “Grumpy old Robert” Vue, owner of Vikings Blade, who merely confirmed what I already knew. “Michael, neck shaving with a safety razor is very very different and I can totally guess why you had to use the alum bloc.” He proceeded to give me some sound advice about shaving with a safety razor, which I took to heart. And so, with a healed up neck and a head full of knowledge, I picked up my safety razor and began anew. I even learned a few new things along the way.

If you are looking to make the switch to a safety razor, here are some important tips to keep in mind.

  • Hydration matters. Your skin needs to be very wet, your whiskers softened by it. The result will be an easier shave and more optimal results.
  • Use a proper shaving cream/gel that works for you. I’ll get into my favorite in a bit.
  • A safety razor will not pivot to correct your shave angle, nor will it forgive your mistakes. You must control the blade angle throughout the shave. A 30° angle is considered optimal and you won’t need a protractor to find it. When the portion of the razor head above the blade and the safety bar/comb beneath the blade are both touching your skin, you’re pretty much there.
  • Do not apply pressure on your safety razor for a closer shave! Use the natural weight of the razor and let it glide, at the proper angle, to do its job. Major thanks to Grumpy old Robert for driving this point home for me.
  • Lift the razor off your skin before changing the direction of a stroke or moving the blade sideways.
  • Shaving “with the grain” (in the same direction as your whiskers grow) will yield the mildest shave. Sideways to the grain is more aggressive. Against the grain is most aggressive and will yield the closest shave, if you have the skill and your skin can handle it.
  • Understand your face. There are about three points on the contours of my neck that require additional attention in order to get a close shave without injury. The same goes for the area above my mustache and beneath my nose. Your mileage may vary.
  • Take your time and do it right. If you rush, you may regret it.
  • Sometimes it makes more sense to shave less aggressively, i.e. on a very hot and humid day.
  • No matter what, your last razor strokes should be downward. I was taught that this would train the whiskers to grow downward. True or not, I can’t shake that teaching.

Shaven

My results have been phenomenal. Never again have I suffered the same “hamburger neck” that I experienced with that first, careless shave. I have graduated to using a more aggressive blade—more on that in a moment—and my usual result is an unbelievably close, smooth shave. Any actual nicks have been few and far between, and are usually the result of my zeal to repeatedly achieve the closest possible shave.

Astra Blades.jpg

I place a lot of emphasis on technique when it comes to shaving with a safety razor, but I would be remiss not to mention two other factors, that being your choice of double-edge (DE) razor blade and shave cream—each of which can be a very personal thing. On that fateful first day, when I turned my neck into so much hamburger, I couldn’t see using anything sharper than the “starter” blades that had come with my razor. Several weeks later, I had changed my mind. The Astra Superior Platinum Double Edge Safety Razor Blade is reputed to be among the sharpest-yet-smoothest blades available. These stainless steel, platinum-coated blades are super thin and even after “dulled” by a week or more of shaving, they should be handled with respect. I can get a full two weeks out of one blade, but one week is optimal and at just under ten cents a blade, when bought in 100-count packages, I have little reason to push it. That’s right, I buy 100 premium quality DE razor blades for a fraction of what I used to pay for four disposable Fusion 5 Power replacement cartridges. Some people periodically flip the blade over in the razor head, claiming that doing so extends blade life. Me, I flip the blade after every shave. Even if doing so doesn’t help, it can’t hurt.

Cremo

Cremo Original Concentrated Shave Cream is my go-to shaving product. I’ve tried others and kept returning to this one. Again, this is a very personal choice, so I encourage shavers to draw their own conclusions. For me, a dime-size dollop plus hot water gets my face as slick as heck and pretty much keeps it that way throughout the shaving process, as long as I can keep it moving with one wet hand. A sufficient coating of Cremo is nearly transparent on my face, which allows me to see what I’m doing and shave with precision.

My son looked at the results I have achieved with a double-edged safety razor and decided to draw his own conclusions. Less than a week later, he opted to get his own Vikings Blade razor, opting for The Chieftain, Odin Edition. I have yet to hear a complaint.

In the end, one’s shaving equipment and accessories are a personal choice. For now, I am very pleased with the choices I’ve made.

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.

meal

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.

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.

 

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.