Wednesday, March 31, 2010


(part two of my journey to Florida journal)

I’m pretty sure that, in a past life, my mother was either a caterer or the head lunch lady at an elementary school. Come to think of it, she is one of 14 kids, so she may have learned a few things about meal planning from her own mother. And she told me, on my recent visit to see my dad and her in Florida, that my grandfather was a cook on a Great Lakes Freighter in the 1930’s, a piece of family history I had never known before. Not only is my mother the master of planning and executing meals, she can plan a whole week’s worth with dizzying precision and accuracy.

Months before my sister and I ever arrived in Florida, my mother was busy consulting, planning, and finalizing our eight-day meal plan. It included such delicacies as shit-on-the-shingles, a breakfast consisting of white sauce and chipped beef over pieces of toast that she made nearly every Sunday when we were kids, grilled T-bone steaks and steamed Gulf shrimp, a traditional Fish Boil, and the most uniquely prepared turkey I think I’ve ever eaten.

I’ve watched my mom make roast turkey, bucket turkey, deep-fried turkey, and smoked turkey (smoked stuffing, by the way is the closest thing to tater tot casserole that I’ve ever come to) but never the kind she made for dinner on the first night of our visit. She found this particular recipe for roast turkey in one of her Woman’s World magazines. Apparently Trisha Yearwood submitted it on behalf of her grandmother, who she learned it from.

Here’s the gist of it. Put the turkey, 12-15 pounds, in a roasting pan, add two cups of boiling water, cover it and put it in a preheated, five hundred degree oven for one hour (don’t start timing until the oven gets back to five hundred degrees). After exactly one hour, shut the oven off and leave it for five hours. Do not open the oven under any circumstances.

When my mom pulled the well-browned bird out of the oven, the meat was so tender it fell right off the bone, and the white meat, which I generally don’t like because it’s so dry, was moist and flavorful. There were enough juices left in the bottom of the pan to make a really good gravy to go with it. The only thing you cannot do with this recipe is stuff the turkey. I’m guessing the stuffing would throw off the whole temperature/timing thing that makes this approach work so well. Fine with me. I’m adding this you-really-can’t-screw-it-up recipe to my own repertoire.

A few days after the turkey treat, my parents hosted a good old fashioned fish boil. They invited a few neighbors and my aunt and uncle, who manage a campground near my parent’s house. In my family, the fish boil is on par with a holiday feast. It takes its place with the Thanksgiving Turkey and the Easter Ham. It’s usually, a late summer tradition because that’s when the Salmon Run starts in Lake Michigan, and that’s when we catch ten to thirty pound lunkers that are perfect for the fish boil.

But since my parents catch ocean fish that they bring back to Michigan and fresh water fish that they transport to Florida (in their chest freezer, hooked up to a generator, in their horse trailer), a fish boil in Tallahassee in March somehow seems justified. Besides, it really doesn’t matter when you have a fish boil, as long as you invite a lot of people with really big appetites.

According to the 1957 pamphlet that came with my parent’s trout kettle (a twelve quart pot with a smaller strainer pot inside of it) the fish boil originated more than a hundred and fifty years ago in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The lumbermen of the 19th century, “finding white fish and lake trout plentiful, found it easy to prepare a meal by boiling the fish and potatoes together in a pot out-of-doors.”

The ingredients for a fish boil are quite simple: fish, potatoes, onions, salt, and lots of melted butter. The proper way to prepare the fish is to gut it first and then, starting behind the head cut two inch steaks down the length of the body. The idea is that when the fish is fully cooked, the meat will easily fall away from the bones and skin. My dad is finicky about eating fish, though, so our fish boils cut out the skin and bone step, leaving beautiful, fuss-free chunks of meat. While any meaty, hearty fish will work in a boil, the sturdy pink flesh of the salmon is far superior than any other species I’ve tried.

A thin skinned potato works best so the salt has an easier time penetrating the flesh, and the recipe suggests cutting a small piece off each end of the potato. They go into the water whole, as do the peeled onions. The per person portions, as articulated in the original 1957 pamphlet, are an interesting read: “Portions to use when figuring for groups are usually one pound of fish per person when only men are being served and one-half pound per person for mixed groups. Two medium sized potatoes for all male groups and one potato per person for mixed groups. One onion per person.”

Here’s a step-by-step approach to the fish boil that you can use to replicate it for yourself. While we do the boil outside (may dad rigged up a wagon, a gas burner, and a propane tank—he has one at home in Michigan too, but instead of using a little propane tank, he tapped into the house’s main gas line) it can be just as successful on top of the stove—indoors, if that’s where you keep your stove:

For 12 servings, use 15 medium potatoes, 2 cups of salt, 12 pounds of fresh fish, 12 onions, and two pounds of butter, melted (this will be poured over the food, so feel free to experiment by adding lemon, garlic, or other herbs and spices).

Step 1: Remove the inner basked and cook the potatoes in eight quarts of water. Keep the lid on and keep the vents open. Get the water to a good, hard boil, setting the heat as high as it will go.

Step 2: When the water begins to boil, add one cup of the salt (my parents cut the amount of salt by a third to a half, but I prefer the full amount that the recipe calls for). Start timing when the water boils, and let the potatoes cook for twenty minutes. You my need to regulate the heat to produce a steady rolling boil. After ten minutes, add the onions, and try to maintain a rolling boil.

Step 3: After twenty minutes has elapsed, place the fish into the strainer basket, mounding it in layers, if you can. Lower the basket into the pot so that it’s situated above the potatoes. Add the other cup of salt, cover the pot, and boil the whole thing for another twelve to fifteen minutes. Cooking time may vary slightly depending on the size of your potatoes and meat.

Step 4: Remove the pot from your heat source and remove the fish basket. Then drain the liquid from the potatoes and onions. Now, here’s where I really part company with my parents. They just pour the liquid out on the ground. Aside from the fact that all that salt isn’t very good for the soil, the liquid from the boil is not unlike the liquid from a Mongolian Hot Pot. You’ve got various flavors mingling around in the liquid, and while there’s no useful role for the liquid in the fish boil after you remove it from the heat, it could be used later as a base for a fish chowder. Granted, it may be overly salty, but you can temper that any number of ways and still have a good base for soup.

At any rate, once the liquid has been drained, arrange the potatoes, onions, and fish on a big platter and serve. I think the platter wants for a hint of color, and I would suggest adding cobs of fresh sweet corn to the boil. While you might need to cook it in a separate pot, the sweet flavor and the texture would be a nice contrast to that of the more savory ingredients. Corn or not, make sure to pour butter over the fish and potatoes because this is the crown jewel of the fish boil experience. The melted butter transforms the flavors and creates what I can only describe as a culinary out-of-body experience. Eating this delicacy with a bottle of cold beer only enhances the out-of-body-ness that is the Fish Boil.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cool City Jackpot Lunch

I’m dead-set against the idea of bringing casinos to the City of Flint. Whose screwball brainchild was this anyway? Don’t they know I have an addictive personality and an unhealthy love of gambling? Besides, the time for considering casinos in Flint has long past. If we were going to entertain such an idiotic idea, we should have parlayed it with the disaster that was AutoWorld. We could have had an automotive themed casino right on the banks of the Flint River.

We could have had slot machine Hummers or card tables shaped like Cameros. The potential for such a merger of stupidity was ripe at the time, but mercifully it never happened. Some things just aren’t worth gambling on.

But some things certainly are.

Like the Cool City Art Auction I went to last night in downtown Flint. What I saw was yet another example of the local art community’s commitment to reasserting a robust cultural identity in the downtown area. They gambled on this idea a few years ago, and it has paid off in spades. Hundreds and hundreds of people came out for the event last night, the downtown restaurants were packed, and the bars were hopping. It’s one of the busiest night’s I’ve seen on the Saginaw Street strip outside of the major summertime events. And since all of the art was for sale, I was able to scratch my gambling itch and actually have something to take home with me at the end of the night.

What made the night so perfect was the combination of art, food, drinks, and music. Each venue—Churchill’s (The Creative Alliance), Buckham Art Gallery, The Capital Theatre (Art at the Market & Flint Handmade), and The Greater Flint Arts Council Gallery—supplied complimentary food catered by local eateries, free wine, a wide variety of bottled beer, and some great beer on tap. Plus live music by local musicians. All of this entertainment, and the opportunity to bid yourself silly on art of almost every medium imaginable, cost twenty five bucks a person.

The event also gave the Flint art community a big financial shot in the arm because funding cuts to the arts and tough times for nonprofit organizations have sidelined some local galleries, while others are fighting for their lives. It was great to see such overwhelming support from so many local patrons. The gamble paid off for our art community, and this event will no doubt continue to grow even more successful in coming years.

As we were driving home from the Art Auction I thought about another gamble I took this week. I had lunch with Stephanie on Thursday.

Wait. That didn’t come out right. Stephanie’s a sure bet when it comes to good lunch partners. It was the lunch experience itself that left us a little frazzled and confused. We decided on a whim to go to El Rio Ondo in Davison. The problem was I didn’t have time to look up directions and it had been several months since my friends Susan and Cathy had told me about it.

Stephanie and I were feeling adventurous though, so we set out to find the place on our own. We hadn’t seen each other in two weeks, so Steph filled me ear with all the gossip I missed while I was away, as I tried my best to get us to El Rio Ondo. I tried Davison Road. I tried Irish Road. I tried little strip malls. I tried big shopping plazas. Nothing.

Finally I stopped in a parking lot and asked two guys who were sort of milling around aimlessly. Lucky for us they knew the area and pointed us to the quickest route. I’ll save you all the trouble of being overly adventurous by telling you El Rio Ondo is on the corner of Davison Road and Irish Road. It’s in a grubby little building in a grubby little plaza. Don’t let that scare you away, though. El Rio Ondo turned out to be the best Mexican restaurant we’ve eaten at all year. Better, even, than our golden child, El Potrero.

Serving authentic Mexican cuisine since 1979—that’s what it says on the front of the menu—El Rio Ondo is open seven days a week and even has free WiFi. As it turned out, we should have brought our laptops and taken advantage of the free service because our food service wasn’t available for the first fifteen minutes of our visit.

Apparently, somebody didn’t come to work when they were supposed to, and the one person who was there had to cook, wait tables, and deal with making, taking, and cashing out a steady stream of to-go orders. Two other groups came in right after us, and two or three people were waiting for their take-out orders, so we knew we were in for a wait.

Finally, somebody showed up to take over in the kitchen, and things began to progress a little more smoothly. After waiting another ten minutes for our drinks, we were treated to a fresh basket of chips—first basket free, second for a fee—and the best selection of salsas we’ve had yet. Four of them to be exact; two of them green and two of them red.

The red ones were mild but fresh and flavorful. One of them had little gobs of tomatoes and finely diced onion. The other was pureed and pretty runny, but it too was packed with flavor. I was really impressed with the green ones, the first a kind of a tart tomatillo salsa, pureed but with just enough body, and the other had the best smoky/earthy taste to it. All of them were good with the chips, but they were even better dumped liberally over our entrees. This quartet of yumminess is a definite nominee for the coveted Tater Tot Casserole Award. In fact, it’s gonna be almost impossible to beat this one.

The menu’s a bit of a mess organizationally, but once you orient yourself to it, the choices are plentiful. It starts, oddly enough, with the lunch specials listed first. This is followed by the Comida Para Los Ninos, or kids menu. What I love about this section is that of the five choices, there are no gringo options. :Most of the menu is taken up with the a la carte section, which I’m never a fan of. I don’t like piecing my meal together and then trying to figure out if it’s a better or worse deal than just ordering one of the entrees. My math skills suck.

I almost went with one of the twenty dinner selections, Beef Chimichanga Dinner, but I was really in a gambling mood so I ordered one of the daily specials, the Fish Taco Platter. And I hit the jackpot. These babies were off the chart. Three of them were situated on a platter with a good portion of beans and rice to go with them. The flour shells were perfectly cooked—not too crispy, not too pale—and the grease puddles under them a telltale sign of certain goodness. The fish, a finely chopped Tilapia, was generously stuffed into each shell and then topped with an absolutely to-die-for pico de gallo. El Rio Ondo earns a second nomination for the Tater Tot Casserole Award with this terrific house special.

Stephanie ordered off the lunch menu, which was also a great choice. At half the price of the dinner selection and with generous portions, the beef enchiladas, beans, and rice were rock solid. The enchilada sauce, not the bright blood red of some other versions, was a pale redish brownish but was packed with assertive pepper and tomato flavors.

The refried beans and rice had a lot of work to do to be worthy enough to sit on the same plate as our entrees, but they too impressed the hell out of us. The beans were smooth and creamy, but with pieces and chunks of some semi-smashed beans mixed in. The rice was even better. Not the lame tomato sauce-laden Spanish rice knock-off that too many Mexican restaurants serve, it was not too sloppy and not too dry, and it had a nice tomato flavor with an strong undercurrent of cumin. I could have made a meal of the beans and rice alone. El Rio Ondo’s beans are the third nominee of the TTC Award, and the Mexican Rice is the fourth nominee.

El Rio Ondo is a true Flint area gem, and if you haven’t been there yet, then put the remote down, get your shoes on, and get going. This is the real deal for authentic Mexican cuisine, and you’ll find yourself going back again and again and again. I know I will.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sticky Buns

Sticky Buns

(part one of my journey to Florida journal)

We stepped out of my dad’s truck at a gigantic Flea Market about an hour north of Tallahassee. The tables of junk went on for almost a mile. It was bone chilling cold for March, barely fifty degrees. My mom and my sisters got out first, planting their clean shoes in the dusty red clay. They were digging around for their jackets when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my dad, who’s seventy two, get out of the truck, pull a loaded 38 caliber pistol from under his seat, and jam it into the side of his pants. He pulled his shirt neatly over the top of it, and as quickly as it appeared, it was gone.

“What’s that for?” I ask trying not to sound more alarmed than I was.

“Ya never know,” he said. “Ya just never know.”

On the way back, he and my mom took turns telling us about each person in the recent past had been murdered, beaten, robbed, killed in a car wreck, or had taken their own life in the Tallahassee area. And it was gruesome. At one point I glanced into the back seat at my sister, who just closed her eyes and shook her head.

I wanted a cup of coffee to warm myself up and get us away from the seemingly endless string of death stories, so I asked my dad to stop at the gas station near their house. I thought I’d just run in while he and his gun waited in the truck, but he insisted on coming with.

“There’s something I wanna show ya,” he said matter-of-factly. Looking to the back seat he said to my mom and sister, “Wait here. We’ll be right back,”

My dad taught me how to hunt when I was young. He even got me a 20 gauge shotgun for Christmas one year. It was propped up against the wall on Christmas morning, towering over my other toys sprawled out around the tree. As he trained me to shoot a lethal weapon, he was always adamant, almost maniacal about teaching me gun safety. Now, walking into a seedy little party store with him, a concealed weapon strapped to his blue jeans, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had lost his mind and was about to show me how to stage a good old fashioned hold-up.

I grabbed my coffee as quick as I could, but on the way to the counter he stopped me and pointed to the ceiling.


I looked up and saw a video camera staring straight at us.

“It’s a camera”, I said, trying to sound unimpressed.

“No, the three bullet holes in the ceiling around it. Someone robbed the place last week and tried to shoot the video camera out. Not a very good shot, huh?” I paid for my drink as fast as I could and made a beeline for the truck. My mom thought I should have a sticky bun to go with my coffee and offered to go back inside and get me one.

“NO! I’m fine.” I tried not to sound any more freaked out than I was.

“Well why don’t we go home and make cinnamon rolls? I haven’t made them in years and it’ll give us something to do this afternoon.”

I didn’t want her going back into that gas station, so I quickly agreed to her idea just to keep her in the truck. The more I thought about it though, the more I liked the suggestion. When I was a kid, my mother made the best cinnamon rolls on the planet. On weekends, she transformed the kitchen into a mini bakery and by noon on Saturday, the whole house would fill with the kind of sweet, doughy smell that stayed with me long after I grabbed one of those warm glazed rolls and ran out the back door with it stuck to the palm of my hand.

By the time we got back to their house, the weather had gotten worse, and since we were going to be cooped up in the house for the rest of the day, I actually got excited about doing some cooking with my mom, so I asked her to spend some time showing my sister and me how to make her family-favorite sweet treat. Come to find out, it wasn’t even her recipe. It was passed down to her from her mother, who inherited from her mother. Apparently my family has been making this recipe since at least the late 1800s.

No longer on a quest to distract my mom from my own firearm paranoia, I was feeling much more relaxed and ready to embark on a mission to learn, document, and make this recipe so I could help carry on the tradition. My family doesn’t generally share a lot of traditions, and ritual isn’t something we collectively engage in either, so finding out that food is one of those rare generational ties is a big deal for me. The task was made a little more challenging because the recipe has never been written down. Until now, of course, because I have a memory about as long as a hummingbird with A.D.D., and if I don’t write it down, the tradition could very well be lost.

The plan was simple. We would make a double batch. My mom would make the first batch to show us the “right” way to do it, as she says. Then I would make the second batch, while my sister documented the demonstration with the camera. My dad, nestled into his recliner, watched the whole thing with the antsy anticipation I remember experiencing when I was a kid. Only he was packin’.

My mom doesn’t use measuring cups or measuring spoons, so I’ll have to make a few batches to get the portions right, but the ingredients list is pretty simple: bread dough, butter (lots of it), cinnamon, sugar, raisins, and milk. She didn’t have the time to fuss with making bread dough from scratch, so she used her favorite substitute: pre-made bread dough that she buys from Walmart.

After letting it rise for a good while, she rolled it out into a big oval until it was pretty flat and pretty long. Then she softened a stick of butter and rubbed most of it onto the dough. I was a little shocked at how thick a layer of butter she used, but she insisted this was the key to making them moist and soft. From there, she just poured a bunch of cinnamon over the buttery dough, poured a generous amount of sugar over that, and finished it off by covering the whole thing in a layer of raisins and sprinkling a little milk over the whole pile.

The trick, she showed me, was rolling up the whole mass so you have at least three layers and then cutting it into chunks about an inch and a half to two inches long so they looked like pinwheels. In the final stage she turned each chunk on its side and laid it in a well buttered glass baking dish.

She let me do the second batch while she stood over my shoulder giving me directions on how to make them just right. My batch filled out the baking dish, which we put in the oven 325 degrees and baked until the rolls were golden brown.

It took about twenty-five to thirty minutes, but by the time they were done the whole house was filled with doughy, cinamony smells that made me forget all about guns and robberies and death and violence. I’m feeling a little scarred though, because I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make my mom’s cinnamon rolls without thinking about my father’s silver sidearm. When I pass this family recipe on to my own child in ten or twenty years, though, this story will no doubt get passed along with it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Three-Hour Tour

Philip and I joined some friends at a dinner/auction fundraiser last night for one of our local schools. The event was well orchestrated, and even though we were bested on almost everything we bid on, we had a good time for a good cause. The only thing about the whole night that struck me as a little odd is that the dinner was catered by a most peculiar source: The White Horse Tavern.

I’ve ordered off the White Horse menu more times than I can remember, and I love the comfort of their food, but I never imagined a bar getting into the catering business. The two modes of food delivery demand very different skills, but in these not so happy economic times, places that traditionally stuck to the basics are turning to catering as a way to supplement their lost income.

The catering business in Flint, though waning from its heyday, is still a way of life for many local food entrepreneurs. If you’re ever in need of a catered meal, your choices range from the elegant to the practical, from the wildly expensive to the moderately affordable. Chowbaby’ lists twenty two caterers in the Flint metro area, but I’m certain there are more. Some predictable names on that list include Creative Catering, Fandangos, and for awhile Good Beans Café. But other names on the list surprised me: The White Horse, Tia Helitas, Italia Gardens, Angelo’s Coney Island. Really? Angelos? Can you imagine what that wedding dinner would look like?

My favorite web site for local catering, though, has to be Kickin’ Catering. They offer a number of services including ice cream socials, candy bar boutiques, and full catering menus. They also specialize in some Eastern European cuisines like Hungarian and Czech. I have to admit, though, that until I searched them out on the web I had never even heard of them.

My friend Ginny, who hired me as a cook in her diner in the mid-eighties, also ran a catering business and on days when I wasn’t flipping eggs, I was doing all the set up for her catering gigs. What makes this kind of work so unbearable to me is that it involves a seemingly endless amount of prep work. Depending on how big the event, prepping could take anywhere from three to five days. There were times when I was peeling potatoes or skinning chicken for a four hundred person wedding wishing I had chosen a more useful major in college than English.

But when my friend Ruth approached me a month ago and asked me if I’d help her do a dinner for 80 at the church, I jumped at the opportunity. Maybe I was feeling a little nostalgic for my days in the restaurant business. Maybe I was craving the thrill that a challenge like this poses. Or maybe I just wanted to be in the kitchen again, where I could try recapturing some of that old black magic that drew me to the business in the first place.

Whatever the reason, we had a big chore ahead of us because not only were we cooking a meal for 80, it was a gourmet meal, and it would be plated in the kitchen and served at the tables instead of the more usual buffet style. And the biggest challenge, which may be the real reason I agreed to help, is that we would do this project from start to finish in three hours. We wouldn’t be prepping a day ahead of time; we were meeting in the kitchen three hours before the meal, and that’s when we’d get started. It was like Dinner Impossible on crack done by a group of four amateur cooks who were making their plan as they went along.

The entrée was a marinated chicken breast on a mound of mashed sweet potatoes with apple cider and topped with sautéed apples and cherries. This would be accompanied by a colorful tossed salad and warm bread. Dessert was a trio of chocolate-coffee cake, blueberry crisp, and peach cobbler. Two of the three desserts were prepared ahead of time, so we only had to worry about the chocolate-coffee cake, which was topped with a coffee whipped cream and sprinkled with pieces of candy bar. Three hours? No problem.

The first two hours flew by, but we operated with such precision and synergy that we put ourselves ahead of schedule. Peeling, marinating, chopping, melting, and mashing were the easy parts. Making it all come together would be a whole other matter. Timing is the most critical component when serving an 80 person sit-down dinner in a manner that ensures everyone gets their food ( and that ensures everyone’s food is served hot). We had our work cut out for us and I could see Ruth’s stress level rise exponentially in the last hour. I pulled her aside and had her rehearse her plan. She had a schedule taped to the wall that timed everything out to the minute. This woman was prepared.

And so the casual, shoot the breeze and core the apples phase having long passed, the kitchen became a whirlwind of insane activity. Big trays of chicken breasts were slid into the ovens. The sweet potatoes and cider were smashed. Salad baths were ending and assembly was under way. And the nearly five gallons of sliced apples were ready to sauté.

The original plan was to saute them in butter in single layers so we could brown them nicely on each side. That plan lasted for about five minutes, when we realized we just didn’t have the luxury of the time for this approach. We pulled out four saute pans, several pounds of butter, and between the two of us, tossed hands-full of apples into the pans. Since I was trained to cook without a spatula whenever practical, this was a complete rush for me, standing over an industrial gas stove flipping four pans of fruit at once, using only my wrists and what little wits I had to get the job done.

Altering our approach to the apples sped up the process and allowed us to turn our stress to another area: the chicken. We were fifteen minutes away from serving dinner and the chicken was only half cooked. It was a ghastly white-grey color, and it was laying there in the marinade and its own juices. I was in charge of the chicken and now I was on the verge of ruining the whole meal. Ruth would never forgive me if I screwed this up. I’d be demoted to dishwasher for sure. But out of the sheer panic I was feeling, my training kicked in. I moved everything off the ten-burner gas industrial stove and turned every burn as high as it would go. I pulled the trays of chicken from the oven and placed them all over the intense heat of the burners. It was my only hope.

I thought about gathering my fellow cooks around the stove and leading some kind of desperate prayer, but then I remembered that we’re Unitarians and we don’t really pray, so I just mumbled some “Oh Dear God” phrase under my breath and pressed on. To my shock, the juices and marinade began to evaporate and form a nice brown coating on the chicken. In minutes it turned from dead-skin white to a nice caramel color that complemented the potatoes and sautéed apples perfeclty. All was not lost.

Several helpers assisted us in an assembly line and with lightning efficiency, we sent entrees out of the kitchen as fast as the servers could carry them. We did it! We served 80 people from start to finish in three hours. I never said a word beforehand to Ruth, but I had had my serious doubts that we could pull it off. But we did. And every dish looked as elegant as the next. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back into the food service business yet, but if my friend Ruth ever asks me to help her accomplish another near-impossible challenge like this one, I’ll be there in a New York minute.