Surf & Turf & Local History

Menu

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for hanging with me.

The Pizza That Ann and Michael Built

ingredients

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

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

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

fresh-slices

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

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

tomatoes

fresco-sauce

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

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

ready-to-bake

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

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

cooked

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

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

Thanks for hanging with me!

My Unfortunate Baking Misadventure

napoli-bread-fixed

As I continue compiling material for my first cookbook, I am reminded of the best and worst of my bread baking endeavors. I don’t bake bread often and what little I do, I learned from my mother, an Italian immigrant who make almost everything from scratch—and made it very well, I might add.

What I usually bake can best be described as a rustic Italian loaf. Long and somewhat oval in shape, it’s a somewhat hearty bread with a substantial crust, very well suited to dipping or eating with soups and salads. I tend to use unbleached and/or whole wheat flour, which makes for a more dense product than one would get by using bread-specific flour, which tends to contain more glutens. When it turns out right, my bread is a nice addition to the dinner table.

But alas, things do not always turn out as planned. Some years ago, when my parents were still alive, we were planning to have the family over to celebrate my young son’s birthday. In the tradition of my mother’s kitchen, where I learned so much about cooking, I had planned an abundant meal involving way more food than even this group of eleven people would ever be able to eat. I thought it might be nice to have a fresh-baked loaf of my homemade bread, but I would not have enough time to prepare and raise the dough. So I got this great idea to make up some dough, raise it once, then freeze it. On the day of our celebration, I would defrost the dough, let it rise one more time, and then bake it in time to serve fresh, warm bread for dinner.

To put it mildly, something went wrong. My guess would be that I hadn’t allowed nearly enough time for defrosting, so when I expected my loaf to be rising, some colder parts were still struggling just to reach room temperature. At some point, time had run out for rising because I needed to bake the loaf and let it cool a little prior to serving. My loaf looked okay on the outside, if a bit smaller than I’d hoped for. So into the oven it went.

I waited. I watched. The bread looked okay as far as the color and general appearance of the crust, but it was too small. That should have been my first clue. The second clue came when I picked up the loaf, wearing oven mitts, to place it on a cooling rack. Though slim, almost like a baguette, my bread loaf weighed as much as a loaf twice its size would weigh.

All the other foods we had prepared—grilled meats, pasta, veggies, salad, etc.—came off as planned. But when I set that loaf of bread down on the table, it looked and sounded like a wooden club landing. When my father first picked it up, he immediately looked over at me with his eyebrows raised, gently raising and lowering the loaf as if he were judging its weight. He cut off a hunk and set the loaf back down. Then it was my brother-in-law’s turn. He hoisted my loaf of bread, holding it at one end with both hands, and took a few practice swings, smiling at me as he did so, before slicing off another few pieces. I got the message.

Eventually, the bread came around to me. With only half a loaf remaining, the thing still felt heavy for its size. I turned the end cut toward me and examined the cross-section. Amidst the usual internals, I saw darker portions with none of the usual holes one expects to find in a slice of bread. Solids in my bread? Apparently so!

Some of the more dedicated eaters in my family took a few bites out of sheer courtesy. Others just passed. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But I learned a valuable lesson about cooking: No matter what your schedule says, every dish you prepare takes exactly as much time as it needs to be properly finished. If you need it sooner, begin sooner.

Nowadays I look back on these culinary setbacks and laugh, even though I assure you I wasn’t laughing at the time. You’ll learn more about these endeavors when this book becomes available. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.

Likes to Play with Food

italian

I like to cook, but sometimes I can’t leave well enough alone. I like foods a certain way and seldom follow a recipe to the letter. Most of what I learned about cooking, putting certain foods together, etc., I learned by watching my mother. She seldom followed a recipe, either. I don’t go crazy yet ordinary often isn’t quite good enough. My arena, therefore, falls somewhere between the two.

shrimp_diavolo

About a year ago, I began toying with the idea for an unconventional cookbook that, despite having no conventional recipes per se, explores my approach to a variety of dishes, including creative uses for the leftovers. All of this would be interspersed with anecdotes relating to the food and the people who caused them to happen, whether directly or indirectly. The working title of this book continues to be What Recipe?

During most of 2016, What Recipe? remained essentially an idea and nothing more. I developed a preliminary outline and penned a chapter or two, but that was it… until last December. Since then, thanks to the constant encouragement (okay, pestering) of a close friend, this book is actually taking shape.

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I can’t say how soon What Recipe? will become available for order, but it’s a safe bet that my online followers will be among the first to hear about it. Wish me luck, and thanks for hanging with me.