Monday, September 29, 2014

Sunday. Super Sunday.

I have suffered only one breakdown/panic attack in the almost-week I've been in Iowa.  That one occurred on Friday when I felt compelled to tidy up the laundry room...and became completely and utterly overwhelmed by the amount of, pardon my French, shit my family and I have managed to accumulate over the years.  The piles of clutter were insurmountable and I felt like I would never be able to conquer them.  Ever.

So I hyperventilated.  I panicked.  I cried.  I freaked out on my husband.

It was a very sad Friday, indeed.  But, I managed to pull myself up by the shoestrings on my Asics and get on with it.  And I ended up having a great weekend.

Of course, it helps that it was, like, an unseasonably 82 degrees here in Iowa...which allowed me to do this:

Brent and I have decided to do our grocery shopping biweekly, as opposed to once a week.  Perhaps it seems like a waste of time, but we found we were dealing with more spoilage or menu items not being used, etc.  You know, from those little pesky life things that pop up every now and then to disrupt your routine?

Anyway, doing groceries on bike is a great way to make sure you stick to your list.  I got a lot of interesting looks from the other shoppers at Fareway, and frankly, I look forward to shopping there again and letting the bag boy take my groceries out to my "vehicle" for me.  Ha!

The majority of the rest of the weekend was spent watching kids' soccer games and getting sunburnt.  Until Sunday morning when I decided to try to recreate one of the meals I'd eaten on the island, thanks to the Jamaicans - Chicken Fricassee.  I did *not* have any jerk spice, but instead an amazing hodgepodge of Asian sauce bottles...all of them with just "a little bit" left in the bottom.

The word 'fricassee' is beauty to me because it's fun to say, not to mention most people don't really know what it is, so they're impressed.  And, as it turns out, it's fairly easy to do.

1. Procure bag of chicken pieces (Wings, thighs, drumsticks, etc). Do not remove bones.

2. Rinse.  Toss in a large bowl with salt, pepper, soy sauce, Korean BBQ sauce, sweet chili sauce, etc., whatever you have left that will expire soon.

3. Let sit for a few minutes.  Meanwhile, chop vegetables (carrots, celery, onions, green peppers, jalapenos for this recipe, wish I'd had some ginger on hand).

4. Heat oil in a large skillet.  Choose an oil with a high smoke point (I used corn, but peanut or soybean oil would work too).  Heat to high, look for the "shimmer" on the surface, and put chicken in carefully (and maybe even using the lid as a shield).  Turn down heat a little if the popping and splattering continue.  We only want color here, so turn pieces over after 3-4 minutes.


5. Transfer chicken to crockpot.

6. Drain all oil except for a couple of tablespoons.  Sauté cut vegetables for a few minutes until tender.  Add to crockpot.


7. Deglaze skillet with white wine, and lift up all the browny bits.  Add chicken broth, sauces from the marinade, herbs like thyme and parsley, other seasonings (onion and garlic powder here), more soy sauce, etc. etc., and let it reduce down until it's as thick as you want it.  If you're in a hurry, do the cornstarch-and-cold-water slurry to thicken it.

8. TASTE YOUR SAUCE AS IT COOKS DOWN.  Correct seasonings, add salt, etc.

9. Pour over chicken in crockpot.  Turn on low and let cook for six hours.  Meat will simply fall off bone.

10. Cook rice and red beans and serve the fricassee over it.

Yeah.  It's as easy as that!  I know, I know...I didn't include any measurements.  How much of this?  How much of that?  I did one onion, two carrots, three stalks of celery, one jalapeno, two green peppers...and I just threw in the dried parsley and thyme.  Frankly, I wish I'd done more jalapeno and herbs.  Tasting as you go is crucial.  If you're not in the habit of tasting your food as it's cooking (or even before it cooks), do it now.  It's really important.

Now.  Depending on what ingredients we happened to have on hand, this fricassee would taste different.  Sometimes there would be curry and coconut milk, sometimes just a plain brown sauce or demi-glace, or sometimes it would have the Asian flavor, like the one I created yesterday. 

I do love this technique...it's very open to creativity.  Go fricassee for yourself!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What I Came Home To

I'm sure that is the burning question on everyone's mind: What kind of culinary chaos did Heather come home to after five months?

Let me say...frankly...it wasn't so bad.  I was expecting worse.  I was expecting my shelves to be exploding with Hamburger Helper and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, etc. etc.  However, I appeared to have rubbed off on my husband somewhat - hurrah!

All of the pictures below need a context.  Here it is:  I have three children: one in high school, one in middle school, and one in elementary.  The high schooler and middle schooler are in cross country and soccer.  The elementary kid is soccer only.  Then, my boys are in Cub/Boy Scouts while my daughter (the middle schooler) is on Student Council.  Suffice it to say that fall is a very busy time for our family and there is a lot of taxiing that goes on...of which Brent has been shouldering the sole burden of since April.

So...can you really blame the guy for what you're about to see?  I think not either.


Like entrails spilling out of a sliced abdomen, bags of potato chips tumble out of an open bag.  Chips are quick, versatile, and a pile of salty deliciousness.  I get it.  Anytime I feel like eating a bag of air, potato chips are the first thing I go for.  There is a loaf of wheat bread on the counter and a package of Oscar Meyer bologna in the meat drawer...and I suspect these items, and these chips will be gone in three days.  Nothing goes with processed lunchmeat and enriched "wheat" bread like Lay's Classic bags of air.


You know, I can't really complain about this.  Yes, these quick micro dinners are saturated with fat and sodium and have the nutritional content of a cardboard pizza box...but, they also foster independence.  If the kid can work a microwave, that is.  And what?  There's four, maybe five, boxes here?  That's one meal, maybe two.  Gone in two days.


Far and away, this is the biggest disappointment.  Upon interrogation regarding the sundae syrup, my husband said "we had ice cream once or twice".  To which I wish I would have said, oh, you topped that ice cream with melted magenta crayons?  Yuk, yuk, and more yuk.  I don't trust packaging that is this unnatural color.  Also, HyVee?  Nice try at duplicity on your bottle of strawberry spread...a picture of some nice succulent REAL strawberries might just trick someone else into thinking your spread is made with *real* strawberries.

But you gotta get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on me.  Or...maybe I'm just that cynical.  Yeah, that's probably it.

Here's the awful thing...that syrup is so transmogrified that it has a shelf life of, like, twenty years.  We eat ice cream so infrequently, and subsequently, that syrup will last long enough to end up as a heirloom of the family.  Thus, I would not be surprised if this bottle ends up in the trash soon.

So, final report:  there is some damage control to be done here...but not a whole terrible lot.  I expect to be purged by the end of this weekend. Hurrah!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Without Meaningful Customer Service, You Ain't Got Dinky-Doo

And I don't care how great your product is.

But first, cue "Time To Say Goodbye" by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman.  Yesterday, bright and early, I took the first ferry boat off of Mackinac Island...thus bringing to an end my time in Michigan. 

In what may be construed only as an "adult educational field trip", Brent and I decided to drive home to Iowa by way of a few Michigan breweries.  We learned that in addition to liking the Weissbier/Hefeweizen style of beer, we also tried and liked Brown and Tripel Belgian-styles of ale, too.  So, hurrah for learning.

And here's something else.  I don't care how great your product is, if your customer service is shoddy, I won't buy it.  And I probably won't leave a great tip either.  And I'll probably leave a negative review on TripAdvisor while I'm at it.  Power of the small consumer here, people.

Anyway.  Michigan has this reputation for being one of the best beer states in the US.  I guess when the auto industry tanked, Michiganders felt they needed another good avenue for profit.  And that's good news for the rest of us because they are indeed setting the bar (harharharharhar) high.  Let's discuss craft beer of that state right now.  Along with customer service.  You'll begin to notice a pattern here soon.

Note: There are so many breweries in the state of Michigan, so we limited ourselves to the ones relatively close to the drive back to Iowa (by way of Chicago).  And even then, there were dozens...so, we kept to the city of Grand Rapids and Holland.  And even then, we barely scratched the surface of all there is available to drink in southwest Michigan.


The Mitten Brewing Company (www.mittenbrewing.com) was the first stop on the brew tour.  The theme is vintage baseball, which appealed to Brent straight away.  Also, funny note - he wore his beloved Kansas City Royals sweartshirt in Detroit Tiger country, a dangerous move considering the two are locked in a division race.  A gang beating of my husband seemed imminent, and my only hope was that I would have an empty beer bottle as a weapon nearby.

It was only noon-thirty, and not terribly busy.  There were only about six beers to choose from and a cider, so we did a tasting flight of all of them.  Fortunately, Brent and I were able to agree on liking the Triple Crown Brown and the Mitten Pale Ale...unfortunately, everything else on the list was a stout or an IPA, which ruled Brent out as a fan.  I enjoyed just about every beer, with the exception of the very hoppy Rye IPA...because frankly, I am just not there yet.

But, check this out.  Not only does this place do a BEER flight...they also do a pizza flight!  Most excellent.


Service: Excellent.  The bartender was attentive, but one of the waiters was even moreso when he found we were coming from Mackinac Island.  Then, he had all kinds of questions for me about the work.  He also fielded my beer questions rather well, and even introduced us to one of the beer makers. 

$$$ Spent: About $40.


Next up on the agenda was Brewery Vivant (www.breweryvivant.com).  A chapel-turned-brewery, the beer menu finds inspiration in its Belgian and French roots.  I already am a fan of the Belgian-style dark Undertaker Ale here (and then the Agent á Deux blew my mind), but Brent and I fell in love (together!) with the Tripel and Blandford Maple Amber (Belgian-inspired).  I really, really appreciated the unique, creative beers available here.

Service: Another plus.  Our bartender, TJ, was goofy, yet knowledgeable.  We felt welcome and like we were somewhere where a good time could be easily had.

$$$ Spent: $60 (on beer in cans and a t-shirt).


The last two stops were Founders Brewery (www.foundersbrewing.com) and New Holland Brewery (www.newhollandbrew.com), both quite well-known and distributed around the state of Michigan.  In some ways, both these places suffer from "too big for their britches" syndrome...they've become so popular and big, they can no longer see the trees in the forest. 

At Founders, things got off to a clever start as the bartender who greeted us informed us she "might not be able to serve us" because of my husband's Royals sweatshirt.  Then, we all laughed gaily.

We told her we were interested in a tasting flight, and the bartend gave us a list of available on tap.  Just a list of the names of the brews...and some were easy...I mean, All-Day IPA and Porter is pretty easy to discern.  But, Mosaic Promise?  Not so much.  So, my husband asks the bartender if she's got some kind of description (Style of beer?  Alcohol content? Anything?) and she says in a giggly kind of voice, "No, that's why you're supposed to ask me questions? Hee hee."  Hahaha indeed.  Shut up.

And when she wasn't entertaining our questions, she was tending to the men who stepped up to the bar ("Hi, guys, you want some beeers?"  Uh, what do you think?).  The bar itself was big, and there were near to seven or eight bartenders there, and most of them never gave us the time of day.  They always seemed to be preoccupied with helping someone else, or looking like they were helping someone else.  And I just detest that crap.

$$$ Spent: $12 on the tasting alone.  (Okay.  I did buy the Porter...only because I know I can't get that anywhere else.)

But, by far, New Holland was the most disappointing stop of the whole day.  The one beer I completely love here (the Oak-Aged Hatter) was unavailable, although the White Hatter (Belgian-style white pale ale) was quite a lovely surprise.  Brent also found a soulmate in the Amber Sundog.  Things were going rather well after our bartender served us our flight.  But, for some inexplicable reason, she stopped noticing and talking to us.  Oh, she was there, but she made no further inquiries about our beer preferences.  We actually ended up asking another guy some questions, and found him pretty personable.  The longer I watched, the more I noticed that our bartend (female) was quite interested in serving a group of young-thirty-something guy down the way from us.  And, then a friend of hers must have bellied up to the bar, because she then became very interested in discussing her lovelife with him.  I mean, how could we compete with that?  As old, farty, near 40somethings?  We have nothing on those guys.

$$$ Spent: $12 for the tasting alone.


You'll definitely notice that we spent more $$$ at places where we felt loved.  And the places, we didn't?  We paid the minimum and got the hell out of there.

Take note.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Hunt For Job October

So.  Four days left here on the island.  Hard to believe five months in this unbelievably crazy surreal world is about to come to an end.  A world of no cars, constant horse clippity-clopping, clear blue waters and an out-of-the-ordinary workplace...and I am soon to leave it.

And there is nothing like looking for a job to jolt you back to the painful world of real reality.

First of all, my internet connection is sketchy at best, but mostly possessed by Satan.  Hunting online for jobs is a slapdash, exhausting process.  Then, there's the filling out of an application and tracking down phone numbers and addresses of former employers and references.

And have I ever been convicted of a felony?  Am I legit to work in the US?

No and Yes.

And then it becomes a waiting game, right?  The game in which I try to read my potential company/employer's mind and then guess at Why...why in the hell won't they just call me?  Doesn't anybody want me?  Doesn't anybody love me or my resumé?

And then, in the greatest universal conspiracy best summed up in the old adage "When It Rains, It Pours", I get three calls within a week, which leads to two phone interviews and two face-to-face interviews when I return to Iowa.

Damn skippy.

And that's where I am.  I applied for a part-time Wine Clerk position in a town about an hour where I currently live.  Lots of downsides to that, I know, but it's a store I really love to shop at and would love to a part of.  I don't want to be a Wine Clerk there forever, but it might be a step towards a cooler position in the shop, like Sous Chef.

But.  Driving two hours each day.  For 18 hours a week.  And probably working mostly weekend shifts.  You feel where I'm leaning towards this?

At the other end of the job spectrum, I applied for a Cook I position with Sodexo, the foodservice company of the local university here in my hometown.  Full-time with benefits.  Opportunities for growth and different experiences.  Decent hourly wage.  Two days off a week.

But, it's institutional cooking...which is something I don't think I'm super-passionate about.  However, my foodservice experience is only two  years old, so...how do I really know if it floats my boat or not?

You see, these are the things that keep me up...especially when I've been awoken by the horse clippity-clopping outside my window at some insanely early time of the morning.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Over The River and Through The Woods...

Let the countdown begin.  I am just a shade under two weeks until my employment here on the Island is finished.  And then, I dunno, I gotta get, like, a real job and stuff.

So, my restaurant of choice this week is the Woods Restaurant.  This place is the shining gem of the Grand Hotel dining complex, and is tucked away (in the woods, natch) in the far northern corner of the island.  I suppose that's one of its draws - away from the craziness of the downtown area, peaceful, secluded, etc.


The description on the website states "opulent Tudor with Bavarian charm".  Indeed.  Feel like you're entering a funhouse a bit, yes?

I sat in a vaulted-ceiling, animal-head heavy dining room.  The walls were a vibrant red and the chairs were red-and-white checked gingham (sorry I didn't get a picture here, but click on the link, you'll get the idea).  It could have all been very cheesy and over the top, but somehow the restaurant manages to pull off 'elegant'.  Maybe it's the waitstaff in ties and tails or that men asked to remove ball caps, etc.

I managed to get a table by one of the fireplaces and a window.  Dress code was casual, which means, yes, the guy wearing the Michigan State Spartans polo fits right in with the guy wearing a suit coat and wingtips.

Nothing on the menu is under $20.  The choices range from duck to salmon to chicken to brisket, which is what I had. 


The brisket was so tender, it practically fell apart as I tried to lift it with my fork.  It was delicious, along with the sauerkraut (there on the left side) and the red cabbage (right side).  Here's my only problem with this plate.  There's a tiny smidge of green (the broccolini) on this plate, and it's tucked up under the mashed potatoes (right side).  I personally think the green should be placed in front, maybe atop the horseradish-apple compote.  Then, maybe, the compote would look like vomit.  It was a very delicious vomit, I will say, but nevertheless.

So, yeah, I've done it.  Eaten at one of the most elegant restaurants on the island.  The food was good, the ambiance was beautiful.  About what I expected.