- Reverse engineering food and life
Sometime in early May when the newspaper I used to work for informed me that at the end of June they would no longer carry my column I wasn’t sure what to think.
I mean there isn’t really much you can do when someone says they no longer want to run your column.
I wondered how I would feel, after almost 18 years of writing columns and 22 years total at the paper, when I finished my last column. I also wondered what I would do on my first weekend of “retirement”.
Would I mope? Would I worry? Would I feel sorry for myself?
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, sometimes I kill myself.
Here’s what my wife and I did on my first weekend of “retirement”. We got up early on Saturday morning and drove to the Webb City Farmers Market. On the way we decided we would let the Market determine our weekend meals.
That’s right. We reversed engineered our menus.
We strolled through the Market pavilion and bought whatever caught our eyes. Here are some of the things that caught our eyes: Plump, bright red tomatoes, large green cucumbers, purple and yellow onions, a breakfast pizza on a homemade crust, a crusty rye baguette, a spicy goat cheese spread, a jar of smoked cinnamon, six ears of sweet corn, a box of so-good-you-wanted-to-eat-them-right-out-of-the-box-blueberries and what I could only assume was a ripe, juicy watermelon.
Then we devised our meal plans.
My wife would use the onions and the cucumbers to make a-follow me here-onion and cucumber salad. I would use the tomatoes, some of the leftover onion, along with a few of my wife’s homegrown poblano peppers to make a grilled shrimp salsa.
The idea was to have the cucumber and onion salad for dinner on Sunday and have the shrimp salsa on Saturday along with the rye baguette, and spicy goat cheese.
Sadly they don’t sell shrimp at the Market but we happened to have a bag of some in our freezer.
When we got back to Carthage, we drove out to West Fairview Avenue and stopped at Cloud’s Meat Processing to pick up something to go with my wife’s onion and cucumber salad on Sunday.
I love Cloud’s. Sometimes I go to Cloud’s with a specific a purpose and sometimes I let Cloud’s find my specific purpose for me.
In keeping with our reversed engineered menus, I decided to let Cloud’s find my specific purpose. It turns out on this particular Saturday my specific purpose was a 3-pound pork loin roast.
When we got home, we put our purchases away and, because it was still early, thought about we should do next.
It took us about a second to decide that we should drive down to the Square for bloody mary’s and breakfast at the Woodshed.
To paraphrase the late Dan Jenkins, “It can’t be all work and worry. Sometimes people need to unwind.”
About an hour later, we returned home for a few hectic hours of lazing in our backyard. But before we lazed, I cut up some watermelon and my wife and I used it to make a pitcher of watermelon mojitos from a recipe we came across in a recent issue of “Southern Living”.
Have you ever had a fresh watermelon mojito on a warm summer Saturday afternoon?
You should. It’s good.
Then, I iced down a few bottles of Budweiser, and we commenced with our lazing.
After we lazed part of the afternoon away, I started a fire on one of our grills, then I went inside and started putting part of the shrimp salsa together. When the fire was ready, I grabbed one of my wife’s poblano peppers and grilled it until the skin was black and blistered. Then I put it in a large bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and let it cool. While the pepper cooled, I grilled a small mess o’ shrimp.
When the shrimp was done, I took it and the pepper inside, chopped them up, put them back in the bowl added the other salsa ingredients I prepared earlier, topped the whole thing off with plenty of fresh lime juice and put it in the refrigerator.
The whole process took about 40 minutes so, of course, when I was finished, I had to go back out and laze some more.
A few hours later, I took some fresh corn tortillas, cut then in the triangles and fried them in hot oil. Meanwhile my wife made a fresh watermelon salad topped with goat cheese and, just like that, dinner was ready.
Early Sunday afternoon, my wife made her famous cucumber and onion salad and then joined me in the backyard for some more lazing.
Later that evening, I prepared the pork roast. I really didn’t have a recipe for the roast. I just seasoned it with salt, pepper, some rosemary and thyme. Then I placed some fresh lemons on the top of the roast and placed in a roasting pan on a bed of sliced lemons and put it in the oven.
While the roast cooked, I started a fire on one of the grills and, when it was ready, tossed six ears of corn on the fire. When the corn was done, I sprinkled a spicy barbecue rub I found in the same Southern Living magazine on the corn, cook it a few minutes more, then we served it with the roast, my wife’s cucumber and onion salad and a couple of glasses of Chardonnay.
Hey, again to paraphrase Mr. Jenkins “Nobody said life wasn’t going to be semi-tough.”
So, no, I don’t think I’m going to spend much time moping. Instead, I’m going to continue the reverse-engineering of my life.
As promised, here are a few recipes.
This recipe is from the July 2019 issue of Southern Living. My wife only loves it.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
5 fresh mint sprigs, plus more for garnish
8 cups seedless watermelon cubes
3 cups (24 oz.) light rum chilled
1 (12-oz.) bottle ginger beer, chilled
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (from 4 limes)
Small watermelon wedges, for garnish
Bring 1/2 cup water and sugar to a simmer in a small saucepan over high. Simmer, stirring often, until sugar dissolves, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat; add mint and stir until submerged. Refrigerate until mixture is completely cool, 1 hour. Pour mint mixture through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a bowl; discard solids. Chill mint syrup until ready to use.
While syrup cools, place watermelon in a blender, and process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Pour through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup, pressing gently to squeeze out juice. Discard solids and refrigerate 15 minutes. Repeat straining procedure. (You should have about 4 cups juice.)
Stir together mint syrup, watermelon juice, rum, ginger beer, and lime juice in a large pitcher.
Pour evenly into 10 highball glasses filled with ice (or one really big glass); garnish each with a mint sprig and small watermelon wedge cut to sit on rim of glass.
Fiesta Shrimp Salsa
I found this recipe, a few years ago, in Weber’s New Real Grilling cookbook.
1 poblano pepper
24 large shrimp (21/30 count) peeled and deveined, tales removed
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and finely diced
1 small Fresno chili pepper, seeded and diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
¼ cup finely diced red onion
1 large glove of garlic, minced or pushed through a press
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Grill the poblano over direct heat with the lid closed, until blackened and blistered all over (the pepper, not you) 10 to 12 minutes, turning occasionally. Put the pepper in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to trap the steam. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel away and discard the charred skin (Again, from the pepper, not from you) cut off and discard the stem and seeds, and then cut the poblano in a ¼ inch dice. Put the poblano back in the bowl.
Lightly brush the shrimp on both sides with olive oil. Grill over direct heat, until they are firm to the touch and just turning opaque in the center 4 to 5 minutes. Cut shrimp into ¼ inch pieces.
Then, to the bowl with the diced poblano, add the shrimp, 1 tablespoon oil, the tomatoes, Fresno and jalapeno peppers, the onion, garlic, lime juice, salt, pepper; toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours. Just before serving, stir in the cilantro. Serve the salsa immediately with tortilla chips.
Note: If I can’t find a Fresno pepper, I add another jalapeno pepper. Also you can settle for tortilla chips from a bag but I prefer to fry my own. To steal part of a Steve Martin joke “My doctor says I’m not getting enough fat.”
Mike’s Pork Loin Roast
I took part of this recipe from a Giada De Laurentiis cooking show. I once saw Giada (I can call her that) roast a spatchcocked (not as dirty as it sounds) chicken on a bed of sliced lemons, so I figured it would also work with a pork loin roast. The lemons, not the spatchcocking.
1 pork loin roast, 2 to 3 pounds
Salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme. To taste. By the way, in recipe-speak “To taste” means “As much as you damn want”.
1 large lemon
Season the roast all over with the herbs and spices (Wasn’t there a music group in the 60’s called “Herbs and Spices?).
Slice the lemon into slices. Place half the slices in the bottom of the roasting pan and set the roast in the pan. Place the other half on the top of the roast and bake in a pre-heated 325-degree oven for about 1 to 2 hours or until the meat thermometer reaches 170 degrees.
Grilled Corn with Smokey Barbecue Rub
This recipe also came from the July 2019 issue of Southern Living.
Working with six ears of corn take one ear at a time, grab the silks at the top of the corn slowly peal back the silks and husks. Discard the silks; pull the husks together to form a pony-tail-handle. Tear off 1 small husk piece and use it to tie a knot around the husks.
I did this when I fixed this recipe but I think it’s mainly for show. If you wanted to you could just pull the husks all the way off.
Coat the corn with cooking spray and place on the grill. Grill, uncovered, turning occasionally until charred in spots. About 15 to 18 minutes and remove from grill, add the smoky barbecue rub to each ear and return to the grill, turning occasionally, until the sugar melts. About 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from grill and either serve immediately or wrap each ear in foil with a generous pat of butter and keep warm until ready to serve.
Smoky Barbecue Rub
Stir together 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar; 1 tablespoon smoked paprika; 1 teaspoon fresh lime zest; and ½ teaspoon each of ancho chili powder; kosher salt; black pepper; and garlic powder in a small bowl. Sprinkle mixture over the corn.
My Wife’s Cucumber and Onion Salad
Since this is my wife’s recipe, she wrote all of it for you. For the record, when I asked her to include her recipe she said “You shouldn’t need a (bad word) to make cucumber and onion salad” Read at your own risk.
This is the way I cook – Mike’s eye roll here)
Take two cucumbers. Wash and peel. Cut off ends, cut in half and then slice down the middle. Take a table teaspoon and rake to remove the seeds. Then slice the cucumbers into half moons.
Put them in a glass Anchor Hocking bowl. Add 1/2 of a preferably red onion, by cutting in half and then slicing so they are pretty little half moon shapes. Sprinkle lightly across the cucumbers. Sprinkle veggies with celery seed to your liking. You can add cracked black pepper, as well.
Cover the veggies with Nakano Rice Vinegar. (Sounds fancy, but you can find it in a big-box store with the other vinegars. You could use plain vinegar and add sugar, but if you can buy and use the Nakano Rice Vinegar, why not?)
Put the lid on and shake like hell so it’s mixed well. Best when chilled at least all day while drinking beer outside, or overnight.
Enjoy! “Mike’s Wife”
- Finding calm in chaos is easy with burgers and beer
The key in situations like this is to stay calm.
My dad served in three wars and raised seven kids. Now, if you had to guess, which of those two things that my dad did caused him the most stress?
That’s right — the part about raising seven kids. Look, if my dad had just had to raise me, I’m pretty sure he would have gone crazy. Imagine raising seven of me.
I’m not saying that my three brothers and three sisters are exactly like me — that, of course, would be weird, if not some sort of freak of nature. I’m just saying that raising seven kids would take a toll on anyone, even a veteran of three wars.
One of my favorite pictures of my dad was taken on a Christmas morning. In the picture, my dad is sitting in his recliner, surrounded by what looks like a New York City-sized landfill of Christmas wrapping boxes and the sort of debris you would expect to see early on Christmas morning in a house occupied by seven kids. But my dad seemed oblivious to the chaos that surrounded him. He was just calmly reading a book as if he were sitting under a tree on a sunny, warm spring day.
So I’m trying to remain calm even though, as I’m typing this, there are at least four people scurrying around me cleaning, installing pictures and hauling stuff in and out of the room in which I’m currently working.
My wife is decorating a place at the Lake of the Ozarks, and I volunteered to help her. Well, I volunteered in the sense that when my wife said, “You’re coming with me to the Lake of the Ozarks. I need your help,” I said, “I don’t want to,” and she said, “Tough.”
You know, in that sense.
Because my wife believes in a decorating system known as “buy way too much crap,” we had to haul the stuff to the lake in a semilarge U-Haul truck.
This may come as a shock to some of you, but I’m not a semilarge U-Haul truck sort of guy. I’m, at best, a medium-sized SUV kind of guy. So driving a semilarge U-Haul full of way too much stuff to the Lake of the Ozarks was sort of stressful for me.
Well, it would have been if I were capable of stress, but I’m not. Well, at least not like my wife. My wife is always telling me how “stressed” she is. I’m not sure why my wife is stressed, but then again, I didn’t even know until I met my wife that “stress” could be used as a verb.
But just because I’m not capable of stress doesn’t mean sometimes I can’t at least get on edge. And driving a semilarge U-Haul full of too much stuff put me a bit on edge — until we got to the lake and I had a chance to get on the outside of a big bacon cheeseburger and a couple of beers at a Jimmy Buffett-themed establishment.
Getting on the outside of a big bacon cheeseburger and a couple of beers at a Jimmy Buffett-themed establishment is the sort of thing that can back me off of the edge.
So now I’m trying to write this column on Friday morning while chaos swirls around me, and I’m remarkably calm. Sure, in a little while I’m going to have to load some of the “way too much crap” my wife brought to the lake along with a mountain of cardboard back into the semilarge U-Haul and drive it back to Carthage, but that’s in the future. Granted, it’s in the very near future, but I believe in living in the now, and now I choose to be calm.
Besides, if I find myself on the edge again, I can always turn to cheeseburgers, beer and Jimmy Buffett.
- Weather threatens, and so does wife’s chili
I should have been able to get ahead of her and stop her from doing what she did.
But I wasn’t. In retrospect, I suppose I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of items she brought into the house and just overlooked some of them.
Because had I noticed that hidden among all of the plastic bags she brought home from the large, 24-hour retail store in our town were ingredients for her chili, I would have headed her off at the culinary pass.
But I didn’t. So I didn’t.
It was Wednesday evening. Earlier, my wife had called me on her way home from work.
“I’m going to the large, 24-hour retail store in our town,” she said. “Do we need anything?”
“No,” I said, because — follow me here — we didn’t need anything.
Then I said, “So don’t buy a bunch of stuff just because we think we’re going to get snowed in.”
“I’m just going to get a few things,” my wife said.
“Sigh,” I said.
Any time my wife hears a weather report calling for as much as snow flurries, she acts as if we live on the frozen tundra in the Northwest Territories and buys enough supplies to last us until the spring thaw, which she somehow believes won’t come until late July.
I tried to tell my wife that the forecasted freezing rain was only supposed to last a little while, but she interrupted me.
“You never know,” is what she said.
I wanted to say: “You know what? I do know. I know that you always buy a bunch of stuff we don’t need, and then it sits in our pantry or our freezer until we have to throw it out to make room for all the stuff you buy the next time snow flurries are in the forecast.”
But I didn’t. Because whenever I’ve said that in the past, my wife hasn’t listened to me.
So about an hour and a half later, my wife walked into our kitchen carrying a bunch of plastic bags full of stuff we didn’t need and dropped them on the floor.
“I’ll be back,” she said and went back to her car and brought in more bags. She repeated this process about five more times.
To help out, I decided — while my wife was unloading her car — to make room in our refrigerator.
I took a beer out of the refrigerator.
As a veteran husband, I have developed a motto when it comes to my wife’s snow flurries shopping. Here is that motto: You bought it. You put it away.
It is, I think, a good motto.
The only problem with the motto is by not helping my wife put away the roughly six-month supply of food that she purchased, I didn’t notice her chili ingredients.
It’s important to note that there is a considerable difference between ingredients for my wife’s chili and ingredients for my chili.
Here is that considerable difference: I like my chili. I do not like my wife’s chili.
To be fair, my wife prefers her chili to mine. Although that hasn’t always been the case. For years, my wife said she loved my chili. Until she found the recipe for her chili. Then she dropped my chili like — well, like a bowl of hot chili.
Things like that happen in a marriage. At some point, a husband might — using a purely hypothetical example — announce that he can’t stand his wife’s roast beef. And the wife will not take it personally, understanding that her husband is merely reflecting the ebbs and flows of marriage.
So anyway, whenever one of us feels like chili, we say, “I’m going to make chili,” which means, “I’m going to make my chili, not yours,” turning the other person into a chili hostage.
All of this to explain why, Friday night, we had my wife’s chili for dinner.
Oh well. It could have been worse.
We could have had her roast beef.
- I Make A Big Ol’ Pot of Lucy Buffett’s Gumbo
I’m no gumbo expert.
I don’t have colorful tales of spending my youth in my grandmother’s kitchen while she whipped up a big ol’ pot of gumbo on her wood-burning stove, telling me stories of growing up on the bayou and singing Hank Williams songs.
That’s probably because both of my grandmothers were from Kansas where, to my knowledge, there is no bayou and neither of them seemed to care much for Hank Williams.
I need to stop here and let you know that when referring to a pot of gumbo the correct term is “big ol’”.
I mean, why would anyone make a small pot of gumbo?
It was the great Justin Wilson who introduced me to gumbo. I was in my 20s and was a big fan of Justin’s PBS show “Louisiana Cooking”. In one episode, Justin made a big ol’ pot of chicken gumbo. I was intrigued. And not just because Justin taught me how to pronounce “andouille”.
I don’t know why, but being able to pronounce andouille made me feel sophisticated.
You know, like being able to pronounce gyro or prosciutto.
Obviously, it doesn’t take much to make me feel sophisticated.
What intrigued me about Justin’s gumbo recipe was how much it reminded me of the comfort foods I was raised on. To me, Justin’s chicken gumbo seemed like a Louisiana version of my dad’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.
But, still, it wasn’t until several years later, when my wife gave me a copy of Paul Prudhomme’s “Louisiana Kitchen”, that I finally attempted to make a big ol’ pot of gumbo my own self.
I don’t make gumbo a lot. Probably a couple times a year which may sound like a lot but real gumbo people are more likely to make it a couple times a month.
Because I still consider myself a gumbo novice , whenever I make a big ol’ pot of gumbo I always turn to an expert.
This past weekend the expert I turned to was Lucy Buffett the younger sister of Jimmy Buffett. It’s important to note, however, that in gumbo circles it’s Jimmy who is known as Lucy’s older brother.
First Gumbo Person: Who’s that guy with the guitar and margarita?
Second Gumbo Person: Him? Oh, that’s just Lucy Buffett’s older brother.
First Gumbo Person: He’s so lucky.
Lucy owns and operates three restaurants-Lulu’s Gulf Shores, in Gulf Shore, Alabama, Lulu’s Destin in Destin, Florida and Lulu’s in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
For more information about Lucy you can dial up her website at www.lucybuffett.com.
And while you’re there you can do what I did and pull up Lucy’s winter gumbo recipe. I’m not including the recipe here because I want you to check out Lucy’s webpage. It’s neat is what it is.
I’ve never met a gumbo that I didn’t like but I really like Lucy’s winter gumbo recipe. First of all, it’s what you call your traditional gumbo recipe. A deep, dark roux, onion, celery and green pepper (The Holy Trinity) the aforementioned andouille, chicken, stock ,shrimp, oysters and a mess of spices.
Of course, the key to any gumbo recipe is the roux. Basically, a roux is a mix of hot oil and flour that you stir for-as Lucy aptly put it in her recipe-“25 to 35 minutes or until your arm feels like it is about to fall off”.
Did I mention Lucy knows a thing or two about gumbo?
Every time I make a roux, I’m amazed at how the oil and flour slowly changes from a pale white to a light caramel to a dark mahogany. To me it’s sort of like the way the leaves change in the fall. One day they’re green and the next thing you know they’re a mixture of red, yellow and orange.
Because I’m a gumbo novice I’m sort of a conservative with the heat when I cook my roux. Sure, I make sure the oil is hot enough when I add the flour, I just tend to cook it a lower temperature than I probably should because I don’t want to it to burn and have to start all over. Cooking at a lower temperature is fine, as long as it’s not too low, it just tends to take longer.
But, again, I’m lazy and would rather cook my roux a bit longer than have to start all over if I burn it.
I hope that’s not some sort of gumbo no-no.
Once the roux is done you carefully add the onions, cook them for a couple a minutes, then you add the celery and green pepper, the chicken and andouille, chicken stock and seasoning.
And then it’s time to let the gumbo simmer uncovered for-again as Lucy aptly puts it “approximately 1 hour or an entire day”.
The fact that Lucy endorses the idea of simmering her gumbo all day makes her a woman after my own heart.
Nothing makes me feel better on a Sunday afternoon than having a big o’ pot of gumbo, or chili, or spaghetti sauce or…well…anything simmering on the stove while I’m watching football, or basketball or baseball.
Last Sunday, I also made a loaf of Tuscan bread to go with the gumbo. That’s right. While I watched football Sunday afternoon, there was gumbo simmering on the stove and bread cooking in the oven.
I’ve had worse days.
A quick note. My wife told me I better give her credit for taking the photos. Well, actually, what she said was “You (Bad Word Used As both a Noun and a Verb) you better give me a photo credit.”
So here we go: Photos by my wife.
- Sometimes you just have to wing it
The menu has been expanded.
At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but then I figured it wasn’t my place to stand in the way of progress.
It doesn’t matter if I happen to think that the only thing Rick Walker needs on the menu at Bernie’s roadside tavern in Avilla is the double cheeseburger with bacon and jalapenos. What matters is that Rick and his customers are happy, and as far as I can tell, they are.
I know for a fact that the two customers who were with me last Saturday at Bernie’s were happy because they said they were. Here is how that conversation went.
Me: Are you happy?
Twenty-year-old daughter Emma: Leave me alone. I’m trying to eat my burger.
By the way, I’m proud to say that while my wife ordered the single
cheeseburger, Emma opted for the double. Although to be fair, Emma told me that I should have warned her how big the double was before she ordered it.
Oh well, live and learn.
For some reason my wife and I hadn’t made the short trek across Missouri Highway 96 to Avilla in some time, but now we’ve been twice in almost as many weeks.
I think that’s something.
Emma had never been to Bernie’s before last Saturday, and I wasn’t sure what she would think about the place. See, Emma runs in a sorority crowd at college, and, at least to me, Bernie’s doesn’t seem much like a sorority sort of place.
This may come as a shock to some of you, but when I was in college I didn’t hang around much with the sorority crowd.
I tended to hang out in places like Bernie’s. Last Saturday, I told Emma that much of my misspent youth had been spent in places like Bernie’s.
Emma gave me a look that said, “I don’t even know you anymore.”
But Emma also really liked Bernie’s. A lot.
I think that’s something.
I told Emma that years ago, when I was working in the oil fields around Pawhuska, Oklahoma, I took most of my meals in taverns like Bernie’s.
Emma only knows about Pawhuska because of that Pioneer Woman who cooks on the Food Channel. I told Emma that Pawhuska is a little different town now than it was when I worked there.
I don’t know, but there is just something about stopping in a roadside tavern after a long day on an oil rig and having an ice-cold beer followed by a burger and an order of fries.
I think some of my finest meals have been served up at roadside taverns.
Bernie’s has all the requirements that I look for in a roadside tavern. Beer, of course. The aforementioned excellent cheeseburgers. A great jukebox. A pool table, and friendly people.
A few weeks ago, when just my wife and I ate at Bernie’s, we sat at the bar while my wife played Keno. My wife said it was the best afternoon of her life, which I thought might have been an exaggeration.
But then again, she’s married to me.
So there is that.
Last Saturday, after we finished our burgers, Rick said he wanted me to try something new to his menu.
“We do wings now,” Rick said.
I have to admit I was uneasy with that news. “Why would a perfectly good burger tavern add wings to its menu?” is what I thought.
Sure, I love wings, but shouldn’t great cheeseburgers with bacon and jalapenos be enough?
Then I tried the wings.
And suddenly I was OK with adding wings to the menu. Rick served up a plate of stinging honey garlic wings and a plate of just really, really hot wings, and we finished them all.
After our cheeseburgers, fries and onion rings.
I guess sometimes progress is a good thing.
- Tomatoes, ribs, baseball make for good weekend
It was a fresh tomato-worthy weekend.
At our house, not every weekend is fresh tomato-worthy. In order for a weekend to be fresh tomato-worthy, it needs to be unencumbered. Now, an unencumbered weekend is not to be confused with an uncucumbered weekend. In fact, oftentimes a fresh tomato-worthy weekend is also a fresh cucumber-worthy weekend. Now I will leave it up to you to determine if “uncucumbered” is actually a word, but if it’s not, it should be.
Many times my wife will make a cucumber and tomato salad, which, as ol’ Ben Franklin may or may not have said about beer, “is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
This past weekend was one of those rare times when we didn’t have any plans — a weekend when we had nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Two years ago, when our now-20-year-old daughter, Emma, left for college, my wife and I figured that finally, after years of school, sports and dance activities, our weekends would be free.
Turns out we figured wrong.
Looking back on this summer, I’m not sure what we did with our weekends. I just know that most of them were definitely not unencumbered.
But this past weekend was unencumbered, which is why, on Saturday morning, I drove over to the Webb City Farmers Market and picked up some fresh tomatoes. I also bought some jalapenos, onions and a box of peaches. My wife loves peaches. I do not. But when you’re married and you see something you think your spouse might like, you buy it.
You never know when you might need bonus points.
I planned to use the tomatoes in a recipe for pico de gallo that I found in the new “Margaritaville” cookbook.
We have too many cookbooks, and there is a reason for that: We like cookbooks and can’t stop buying them.
After I made the pico de gallo, I covered it and put it in the refrigerator. Later, that evening, I sliced some corn tortillas and fried them up. Then my wife and I sat outside and dipped the still-warm corn tortilla chips in the pico de gallo.
Have you ever had warm corn tortilla chips dipped in pico de gallo made with fresh tomatoes, onions and jalapeno?
Still later that evening I took out two slabs of baby back ribs and covered them with a rub that I made earlier.
Whenever someone asks me for the secret to my rib rub, I always say, “Come closer,” and when they do, I yell, “THERE IS NO DAMN SECRET. JUST ABOUT ALL RIB RUBS ARE BASICALLY THE SAME, AND ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU DIFFERENT IS LYING.”
Fortunately, not a lot of people ask me that question.
Still later on Saturday evening, my wife and I cut up the remaining tomatoes, onions and jalapenos to go with a mess o’ tacos.
In case you’re wondering, “mess o’” is the correct term when referring to tacos. And chicken wings. For baby back ribs, I stick to the traditional term, “slabs.”
On Sunday afternoon, I grabbed the ribs out of the refrigerator, took them outside, put them on my Weber water smoker, closed the lid, opened a beer, sat on our patio and watched the St. Louis Cardinals.
Hey, somebody had to do the cooking.
Have you ever sat on your patio, sipping beer and watching baseball while two slabs of ribs slowly smoke next to you?
Occasionally, I would get up to check the temperature on my smoker. Then I would go inside and grab another beer.
It was a fine weekend.
It was tomato-worthy, is what it was.
Pico de Gallo
This recipe from Margaritaville: The Cookbook is easy and amazing. Of course, using fresh everything helps.
1 1/2 cups finely chopped tomatoes
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
Large handful of fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
I jalapeno, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more if needed. (We always need more. We like lime juice).
1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more if needed.
Place all ingredients together in a large bowl and gently stir together. Taste for seasoning, adding more lime and/or salt as needed. Serve immediately.
I like to serve this with freshly fried corn tortilla chips. “But Mike” some of you are asking. “Is that healthy?”. To some of you who are asking that I say “No. No, it’s not.”
Mike’s “THERE IS NO DAMN SECRET. JUST ABOUT ALL RIB RUBS ARE BASICALLY THE SAME, AND ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU DIFFERENT IS LYING” Secret rib rub.
This your basic rib rub recipe. It is so basic I don’t even remember where it came from but I like it so that’s all the matters.
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Mix the spices together then, after removing the membrane from the back side of the ribs, rub a generous amount of the mix onto the ribs. This, by the way, is why it’s called a rib rub. Bet you won’t get great culinary insight like that on the Food Channel. I guess you could also call it a rib pat because after you rub it onto the ribs you then pat it into the meat. But rib pat sounds sort of stupid. So never mind. Oh, I almost forgot: Cover the ribs and put them in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours but longer is always better. I shoot for 24 hours.
You can store the leftover rub (pat?) in a sealed container to use later. Or, you can do what I do and store it in a sealed container, put in the pantry and forget about it until you find it a year later and discover it’s as hard as whatever that thing on Trump’s head is.
You probably shouldn’t do that.
- Unpronounceable words mask simple, routine objects
Sometimes I hear from people who tell me that I have an easy job.
And when I say “sometimes,” I mean “almost daily,” and when I say “people,” I mean “my wife.”
But to those “people,” I will offer up proof that I do not, in fact, have an easy job.
Here is that proof: Today, while preparing to write this column, I had to look up the correct spelling of charcuterie.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to look up the correct spelling of a word like charcuterie?
I knew going into my search that charcuterie began with the letter “c,” but beyond that, I was sort of flying blind.
So, I did what I always do when looking up the correct spelling of a word that I don’t know how to spell. I typed in the first letter followed by a bunch of other random letters and hoped that good ol’ Mr. Google would help me out.
Sometimes this takes a while. But after a couple of minutes of random typing, good ol’ Mr. Google finally showed me the correct spelling of charcuterie. Good ol’ Mr. Google also demonstrated the correct pronunciation of charcuterie, which I thought was nice.
But when I tried to pronounce “charcuterie,” I had the same problem I have whenever I try to pronounce “croissant.” I couldn’t stop.
That’s what happens whenever I try to pronounce a French word.
Nice Baker Person: What would you like?
Me: May I please have a croissannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnttttttt …
So, a few minutes ago, when good ol’ Mr. Google demonstrated the correct pronunciation of charcuterie, and I tried to repeat it, this is what happened.
Good ol’ Mr. Google: Char-cut-erie.
Me: Charcuterrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiii …
If my wife hadn’t walked by and slapped me in the back, I would probably still be trying to pronounce it.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my wife didn’t slap me in the back to save me from pronouncing “charcuterie.” She just likes to slap me in the back.
Actually, the fact that I’m wrestling with how to spell and pronounce charcuterie in the first place is because of my wife.
Recently, my wife has become charcuterie-crazy. A few years ago, my wife had never even used the word “charcuterie” in a sentence, and now it’s all she talks about.
Me: What sounds good for —
Wife: I know, let’s make a charcuterie board.
I can’t remember when or where we first had a charcuterie board; all I know is that my wife has become obsessed with them.
The thing is, my wife and I have been making charcuterie boards for years. We just didn’t call them charcuterie boards. We called them snack plates.
Say it was a Friday evening and my wife and I didn’t feel like cooking a big meal. What we would do was fill a plate with some meats, cheeses, fruits and bread and then snack on it all.
But we can’t do that now. Now what we do is fill a plate with some meats, cheeses, fruits and bread and call it a charcuterie board and feel sophisticated.
I’m uncomfortable feeling sophisticated.
I suppose the reason I’m uncomfortable feeling sophisticated is because I’m pretty much the exact opposite of sophisticated. I’m not just unsophisticated, I’m ununununununununsophisticated.
But my wife is sophisticated. It was my wife, for example, who told me what an armoire was and why we needed one.
See, I thought an armoire was some sort of sophisticated female undergarment from France, so when my wife suggested we get one, I immediately agreed. Imagine my disappointment when we brought the armoire home.
So thanks to my sophisticated wife, I now know the meaning of the words “armoire” and “charcuterie.”
If only I didn’t have to have someone around to slap me in the back when I try to pronounce them.
- Vacation necessitates balance of column-writing, beer-drinking
I’m writing this column right next to a large copy of a Mike Royko newspaper column.
I would like to say that there is a certain amount of symmetry to me writing my column right next to a Mike Royko column, but I can’t.
For one thing, I’m not sure what symmetry means, and for another thing, if it means what I think it means, saying that there is a certain amount of symmetry that I’m writing a column next to a Mike Royko column would imply that I was somehow on Mike’s level — and I’m not.
I don’t mind the fact that I’m nowhere near Mike Royko’s level. Nobody was, is or will be.
If you don’t know, Mike was a legendary newspaper columnist. Although he lived and wrote in Chicago, Mike’s column was syndicated in newspapers all across the country, including the Parsons Sun in Kansas, which is where I first read it.
The reason there is a large blowup of a Mike Royko column next to me is because I’m typing this in a back table in the Billy Goat Tavern, a bar that Mike was known to frequent a time or two.
Well, more than a time or two. A lot more.
That’s right. It’s Friday, and I’m working from the Billy Goat Tavern. A few minutes ago, I finished my double cheeseburger, got another beer and decided to pull out my computer and get to work.
“But Mike,” some of you are saying. “Do you always drink beer when you write? If so, that would explain a lot.”
To some of you, I say, “Hahahaha!” I would also say no, I don’t normally drink beer when I write. But my wife and I are on a mini vacation, so I decided it would be OK to have a beer while I write this. Besides, if I didn’t, Sam, the owner of the Billy Goat and nephew of original owner William “Billy Goat” Sianis, would likely toss me out.
I mean, I just spoke to Sam, and he’s a nice guy and all, but business is business.
Actually, Sam is sitting at a table right next to me.
I think that’s something.
The place is about three-quarters full, and most people are munching on cheeseburgers. The ones not on vacation are drinking sodas. At the bar are several guys who appeared to have been on vacation a long time drinking beer.
As I type this, I can hear one of the guys behind the grill at the Billy Goat hollering “CHEESEBURGER CHEESEBURGER.” I can also hear another guy say to a customer, “You want double. Double is best.” And most of the time, the customer orders a double.
I should point out that the Billy Goat was also the model for the classic “Saturday Night Live” “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger” sketch.
There’s that symmetry again.
After my wife and I ordered our cheeseburgers (doubles, of course), a guy came in with his wife and ordered a single cheeseburger. When the guy behind the counter said, “No, double is best,” the guy who ordered the single said it would be bad for his cholesterol.
Man, it’s a good thing Sam didn’t hear that.
As I’ve been writing, an idea sort of popped in my head. The Billy Goat Tavern is one of my three favorite bars in the world. The other two are — in no particular order — Kelly’s Westport Inn in Kansas City and Captain Tony’s in Key West, Florida.
My idea: In the next couple of years, I’ll write columns while sitting in Kelly’s and in Captain Tony’s and sipping beer.
Sure, it will be hard work, but I’ve never been afraid of hard work. I’ve never done hard work, but I’m not afraid of it.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have a beer — I mean, a vacation — to finish.
- New recipe bridges chicken salad divide
It may not seem like it, what with the cool, wet weather, but we’re entering the summer cooking season.
Summer cooking, to me, is a mixture of the light and the heavy.
It is a time for sliced tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, fresh picked strawberries, blackberries and corn on the cob.
It also is a time for smoked ribs, briskets, steaks on the grill, thick pork chops and whole grilled chickens.
Summer also is a time for something in between, like the chicken salad that I’m going to whip up as soon as I finish this column.
When I was single, I made chicken salad all the time. But when I got married, I discovered that my wife and I came at chicken salad from two different directions. One of us was from Venus, and one of us was from Mars.
I like a hearty chicken salad with smoked chicken, lots of onions and spices. My wife likes a light chicken salad with tender chicken, little if any onion, and fruit.
“You don’t put fruit in chicken salad,” I told my wife.
“Yes, you do,” my wife said. “And you don’t need all of that onion.”
My wife and I agreed to disagree.
Awhile back, I came across a chicken salad that breaches our onion/fruit divide. It’s a recipe that offers the heartiness that I crave and the lightness my wife prefers.
The secret is bacon. Adding bacon to chicken salad is so smart I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about it before. To contrast the heartiness of the bacon, the recipe calls for grapes. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be a fan of grapes in chicken salad, but in my mind the bacon cancels the fruit out. I also added onion to the chicken salad, but I used green onions instead of yellow and I didn’t add as much as I usually do. The result was a chicken salad that both my wife and I agree on.
Tuesday morning, I drove over to the Webb City Farmers Market for supplies. No offense to the people who work at the stores where I buy my beer, but the Webb City Farmers Market is my favorite place to shop.
There is something reassuring knowing where the food you are buying comes from. At the Webb City Farmers Market, not only can you be sure that what you are buying is fresh and grown locally, but in most cases you can talk to the people who produced what you’re buying.
It was raining when I pulled into the farmers market, but the place was as busy as ever. I stopped at one booth and picked up some fresh green onions. At another booth, I picked up some purple onions and cucumbers. At yet another booth, I picked up a small box of tomatoes. The cucumbers and purple onions will go into a salad my wife will make later, and the tomatoes … well, sliced tomatoes go well with anything.
I don’t know about you, but I like my sliced tomatoes chilled and with a bit of salt and pepper.
While I was there, I also picked up a couple of cherry tarts for my wife and our 15-year-old daughter. After I paid for the pastries, I walked back to my car and drove home.
It was time to write, but more importantly, it was time for chicken salad.
Originally published in the Joplin Globe on Jun 4, 2013
- Comfort food: Kansas City-style steak soup has hundreds of variations
Originally published in the Jan 26, 2011 edition of The Joplin Globe.
Much like the old St. Louis Famous Barr French onion soup recipe, the Kansas City Plaza III steak soup recipe has found fame far beyond the community in which it was created.
Enter the words “Plaza III steak soup recipe” in an Internet search and some 10,000 listings will pop up. The hearty, thick soup has been a staple at the landmark Kansas City steakhouse almost since the day the restaurant opened in 1963.
Sometimes the term “comfort food” tends to get tossed around too casually, but when the term is applied to this steak soup, it is definitely appropriate. The combination of beef, vegetables, tomatoes and the soup’s deep, rich broth make it a perfect meal on a cold, blustery, winter evening. Add a glass of Cabernet and a loaf of crusty bread and you will almost forget that spring is still more than six weeks away.
Like many recipes, the Plaza III steak soup recipe has hundreds of variations. I happen to have a copy of the original recipe that was sent to me almost 20 years ago by my wife’s aunt and uncle who used to live on the Plaza in Kansas City. My older sister fixes a variation of the Plaza III recipe that she found in a cookbook called “A Cooking Affaire” by Jan Bertogilo and JoLe Hudson. The recipe that I use and have included, along with the Plaza III recipe, is a combination of both.
The main difference between the two recipes concerns the soup’s liquid base. The Plaza III recipe calls for a little more than a quart of water, while the recipe that I prefer calls for four cans of beef consommŽ. Either works, but I have found that the beef consommŽ gives the soup a stronger, beefier flavor.
In addition, the restaurant’s soup recipe calls for ground chuck while I use sirloin. I have prepared the soup both ways, and while ground chuck works well, I prefer the sirloin. My sister’s recipe calls for a combination of both ground chuck and sirloin.
The real strength of the recipe, I think, is that it lends itself to change. It’s the sort of recipe that allows you to add or subtract ingredients to suit your own tastes yet retains its same basic flavor.
The soup’s texture comes from the simple quick roux of butter and flour that serves as the base for the dish. Without the roux the soup would not have its slight thickness, nor would it have its distinctive color.
Fans of Louisiana cooking know that a traditional Cajun roux can take up to 30 minutes to prepare and must be done with the utmost care to avoid burning. While the Plaza III steak soup recipe’s roux takes much less time to prepare, it requires no less care.
To prepare the roux for the steak soup, melt a stick of butter over medium heat in a stock pot or Dutch over being careful not to let the butter brown. When the butter is melted, add the flour. Using a spoon or whisk, thoroughly mix the flour with the butter. When the flour and butter are mixed, continue cooking, stirring almost constantly for three minutes without allowing the mixture to brown. If you feel the roux is getting too hot, turn the heat down or simply lift the pan off the stove for a few seconds and then resume cooking.
Both recipes call for the soup to simmer for at least 30 minutes, but I have found that the longer it simmers the better the flavor. Besides the aroma of the simmer, steak soup makes me smile.
The soup can also be prepared a day ahead and then reheated, which tends to give the flavors more time to permeate through the soup. It also freezes well.
Plaza III steak soup
1 stick butter
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon Accent
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1 cup mixed vegetables
1 1/2 teaspoon Kitchen Bouquet
1 quart, plus 1 cup water
1/2 chopped celery
1 tablespoon beef base
1/2 chopped onions
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1/2 ground chuck sliced
Brown and drain ground chuck. Pan boil onions, celery, and carrots. Melt butter in a 2-quart pan and add flour. Mix well. Add water, stir until thickened. Add Accent, pepper, beef base and tomatoes. Cook one minute more, stirring constantly. Add Kitchen Bouquet, all other vegetables, and ground chuck. Cook over medium heat 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Makes 1 1/2 quarts.
Recipe: Plaza III Steak House, Kansas City, Mo.
Mike’s modified Plaza III steak soup
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 stick butter
1/2 cup flour
4 cans (10-ounce) beef consomme
1/2 cups diced fresh carrots
1/2 cups fresh celery
1/2 cups fresh onion
1 can (8-ounce) chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons Kitchen Bouquet
1/2 cup red wine
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic
1 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
1 package (16-ounce) frozen mixed vegetables
2 to 3 pounds sirloin sliced into small thin pieces
In a large skillet brown sirloin in oil, drain and set aside.
Melt butter in stock pot without browning. Add flour to butter and stir to form a paste. Cook over medium heat, without browning, for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add consomme to flour and butter mixture and stir until smooth and slightly thickened. Bring to full boil.
Add fresh vegetables, tomatoes, Kitchen Bouquet, wine, bouillon cubes and spices. Allow soup to come to a boil again and then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add frozen vegetables and sirloin. Bring to a boil once again and simmer 20 to 30 minutes.