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Dinner with Zak and Mac: an evening with Chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and Beau MacMillan

July 31, 2011

Dusting the Souffle

For the past ten years now, the Sanctuary Resort’s chef Beau MacMillan has been hosting “Lunch and Learn” at his Elements restaurant inside the resort in Paradise Valley, AZ.  If you have never stayed or at least visited the Sanctuary Resort, it is highly recommended.  It certainly doesn’t get the same notoriety as other mega-resorts in the valley, but I think they like it that way.  It is very private, secluded, and intimate in the sense of its scale.  Isea scallop sausage, sea urchin, and caviar saucef you want to go and be seen, maybe even check out the latest advances in plastic surgery – show up at the W hotel in Scottsdale.  However, if you want a retreat, to relax and recharge at – head to the Sanctuary.  Situated on the north side of Camelback Mountain Its styling is a cross between modern and contemporary architectural features.  Upon check in we were informed that they had overbooked their Mountain Casitas so they had to upgrade us to their private residence.  So instead of a $160 a night hotel room, we had a 3 bedroom, 4 bath, mansion complete with its own private pool, tennis courts, cedar lined sauna, and work out room.  It was kind of like winning the lottery as the place normally rents for upwards of $2,000 a night in the high season.

Getting back to “Lunch and Learn”… for starters the word lunch is sort of a misnomer as they offer a “Dinner” and learn on Friday evenings and a “Lunch” and learn on Saturdayswhite peach and nectarine caprese, burrata & basil seed vinaigrette   Dinner on Friday retails for $150 per person and the lunch on Saturday is $75 per person.  What do you get for plunking down all these rupees?  A fantastic dinner cooked by a world class chef followed afterwards by a one on one Q&A session.  In our case Geoffrey Zakarian: the proprietor and chef at the Lambs Club in NY; and Food Network personality (think the tough judge on “Chopped”).  Zakarian prepared a four course meal, and plied us with copious amounts of paired wines.

Due to Beau MacMillan’s growing respect and notoriety in the culinary world he has been enabled to attract more and more of his peers to fTable 12 at Elementsly out to Phoenix and participate in his Lunch and Learn program.  On the all star list for  this summer, in addition to Geoffrey Zakarian, is Robert Irvine (of “Dinner Impossible”), Marcus Samuelsson (of the Food Network, Harlem’s Red Rooster, and guest chef to the White House), the producers from “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”, and local acclaimed chefs Aaron May and Matt Carter.  The program is just as much a lesson for dinner guests as it is for MacMillan’s staff to learn, collaborate and share in techniques with their peers.

Now we have dined at Elements on several occasions, but this “Lunch and Learn” experience is totally different.  First of all the dining room and view at Elements is something else – million dollar views of Geoffrey Zakarianthe valley, and top notch service.  But for this event you dine at “Table 12”, a private 12 top dining room lined with wine bottles on one side, and sliding wall-to-wall glass doors looking on into the kitchen line on the other side.  So you are watching Zakarian prepare your meal as you are dining on his first course.  Its like sitting in the audience at an Iron Chef episode watching Zakarian, MacMillan and his team prepare your meal.

MacMillan makes his guests feel like a million bucks in every aspect of the experience from the: attentiveness of his front of the house staff; the caliber of the visiting chefs he invites; the quality of the food; to the one on one conversation – complete with his experiences working on shows for the Food Network, to all night benders in the Bronx.   Everyone who can afford it, especially those who live in the valley, should try and make at least a once a year experience at MacMillan’s “Lunch and Learn” at the Sanctuary.

In the below video Chefs Zakarian and MacMillan discuss the aspects of working in their restaurants versus TV, and the way Food Network has changed their business.

My Child’s Seoul

July 7, 2011

In the last week of April 2010 my wife and I traveled to South Korea to pick up our 13 month old daughter. She is our second child from Korea and this was our first trip there. Seoul is an amazing and varried metropolis – my hope is that we captured exactly that for memories of their previous home.  A close friend recently inspired me to try making a short film from the experience – below is my attempt at a trailer.

Salad Lyonaise

April 16, 2011
Salad Lyonaise, originally uploaded by Kyle Strickland.


Salad Lyonaise is a classic French salad with poached egg, and a dijon, red wine vinegar, bacon dressing.  You can find it on the menu of just about any French restaurant here in the states.  Thomas Keller’s Bouchon offers it at their three locations in Yountville, Vegas, and Beverly Hills.  Although he calls his Frisée aux Lardons et Oeuf Poché.  Keller disciple Matt Carter adds spinach to his version at the Zinc Bistro here in Phoenix.  I recently read about James Beard’s Rising Star Chef Sue Zemanick’s version in Southwest’s Spirit Magazine this past month – and figured I have to try this in the home test kitchen.  It’s basically eggs and bacon with some green stuff – what could be better?  The poached egg’s runny yolk is perfect when mixed with the bacon vinaigrette dressing.

I used rocket instead of the classic frisee and I added marcona almonds.  Poach an egg in simmering water with a dash a distilled vinegar for a minute and a half – set aside in a bowl of warm water.  Now crisp up 2 to 3 slices of chopped bacon – remove bacon, leave its oil.  Then saute a fine chopped shallot in the rendered bacon fat, add a spoonful of Dijon, a couple glugs of white wine vinegar, your set aside bacon, mix.  Now toss your bacon dressing in with your greens and marcona almonds.  Serve with the poached egg on top.  As you are eating break open the yolk and gently mix with the dressing in the rest of the salad.

Entering the Ring

April 15, 2011
Entering the Ring, originally uploaded by Kyle Strickland.

Looks like AMC is listening to the music and now offering a high end theatre going experience like Ipic is doing Scottsdale. The good news is you no longer have to travel to north stucco-dale to see a movie in style.  The AMC Esplanade at the Biltmore is remodeling – and they are bringing food and a liquor license to a neighborhood theatre near you.  All I can say is – its about time AMC!

Cuban at Kramer’s

April 9, 2011

Cuban at Kramer’s, originally uploaded by Kyle Strickland.

If you ever find yourself in Washington D.C., late at night, near Dupont Circle – you must stop in at Kramer’s Cafe (attached to their bookstore) and devour their Cuban Sandwich. Slow cooked smoked pork shoulder, gouda, pickled jalepenos. Awesome.

Tonkotsu Ramen

February 10, 2011

Tonkotsu Test 3

Noodles and broth right?  Its way more complicated than that. 

The best place to eat at the intersection of Camelback and 10th Street in Phoenix isn’t Oreganos.  Sorry it’s just not.  It’s the Cherry Blossom restaurant located in the strip mall next to it.  Cherry Blossom is an odd duck – half of their menu offers Italian food the other half Japanese.  What makes Cherry Blossom so good is that it offers the best ramen I have tasted outside of Daikokuya Ramen in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.  For Phoenix Arizona, that’s saying something. 

Daikouya RamenCherry Blossom offers their ramen Hakata style.   Which is to say its origins were popularized in the Hakata-ku ward of Fukuoka, a city in the Kyushu province of southern Japan.  But let us cut to the chase, at its root is Tonkotsu.  Tonkotsu, one of the four main ‘mother’ broths of ramen (think Carême’s four mother sauces of French cuisine), is essentially a stock made from simmered pork bones, and pork fat, which equals heaven in a bowl.  Trotters, ham hocks, pork belly, cast aside scrap and trim, are simmered for long hours, in some cases up to eight and beyond.  The low simmering heat applied over long periods essentially melds the marrow of the bones and the collagen of the meat into a colloid type of goodness with the broth’s water (technically a hydrocolloid).  This may not sound pretty but if you like bacon, and who doesn’t, you’ll love this.  When done properly, and it is definitely a learned art form, it should appear milky white in color, be rich and full of flavor, and able to stand on its own.     Noodles are thin and straight.  Toppings typically include green onion, ginger, shiitake, and māyu (a black oil made from charred garlic onion and sesame seeds).   Daikokuya Ramen, in Little Tokyo, adds bean sprouts, bamboo sprouts and a perfectly soft-boiled egg to their Tonkotsu Ramen which totally makes their dish.

While Daikokuya has the tastiest ramen I have had, Cherry Blossom’s Hakata ramen is definitely a must try when in the central phoenix area.  They serve their ramen with sliced Japanese style BBQ pork, green onions, and Kikurage (or “wood ear”) mushrooms.  The place does a bustling lunch business from a very low profile location.  I recommend grabbing one of the 4 seats available at the food bar, as it is right in front of the kitchen line, and it is fascinating to watch just 2 line cooks churn out all of the lunch covers.

So let’s say you are feeling a little crazy and decide you want to spend the weekend making this, here is what you will need:

For the broth:

Trotters and Hocks

  • 3 ham hocks (I used smoked)
  • 1/4 pound of sliced pork belly or salt pork
  • 1 gallon of water

In a large pot add the water and pig parts.  Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer and cover.  After about the first hour use a spoon to skim off the fat that has risen to the surface.  Simmer for at least 4 to 5 hours (or longer) until the meat falls off the bones.  At that point fish out the fallen off pork bones and skin, leaving in the rendered meat. 

For the Mayu:

  • 3 cloves of garlic, fine choppedGarlic Onion
  • tablespoon of chopped green onion
  • table spoon of crushed sesame (try a mortar and pestle)
  • 3 tablespoons of sesame oil

In a small saute pan over medium heat add sesame oil, once hot toss in the other ingredients.  Stir frequently to the point of charring the garlic and onion.  Just before the point of burning them pull from the heat and spoon into a ramekin.  Set aside for garnishing the finished ramen.

For the ramen:


  • 1 lb of straight chinese noodles
  • 4 oz of shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 green onions chopped (separate whites and greens)
  • 1 tablespoon of grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon of soy
  • 1 clove of chopped garlic
  • 3 soft-boiled eggs, halved
  • mayu, previously prepared

Get a pot of water boiling for your pasta.  Once the broth is cooked and the bones and skin removed, add the whites of the green onion, the shiitake, the garlic, and grated ginger.  Let simmer for a 1/2 hour.  Add your pasta to the now boiling water until cooked.  To plate spoon a couple ladles of broth into a bowl, drop in a twist of noodles, a soft-boiled egg half, a dash of soy, a sprinkle of green onion, and a bit of the mayu. 


Tonkotsu Test 1

The Best Thing I Ever Ate: In Cleveland

December 16, 2010

Gravy Frites Cleveland’s constantly shrinking population peaked by 1950; our river caught on fire due to pollution in the 1969; our sports teams are in shambles; everyone from John Elway, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James have kicked us in the nuts; and our politicians are all crooks.  For those steadfast brave citizens who have put up with all this and remained – Jonathon Sawyer and his Greenhouse Tavern are giving them some serious good eats to ease the pain. 

Being a Cleveland expat in Phoenix, my ears perk up every time I hear something about the city, or watch something about it on TV.   Unless of course it is a replay of “The Drive”, “The Fumble”, “The Catch“, “The Shot” or “The Decision”, I will tune in to watch.  Flipping through the channels one evening I landed on Michael Symon – him being one of Cleveland’s celebrity chefs I naturally stopped to watch.  It was the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program in which they interview all of their food celebrity personalities asking them to describe… well you know “the best thing they ever ate.”  Symon was testifying about his affection for The Greenhouse Tavern’s Gravy Frites.  The way Symon described the dish made your mouth water: crispy pommes frites fried in duck fat, smothered with melted mozzarella cheese and crumbled curd, then bathed in savory brown gravy.  I’m drooling just typing it.  So upon getting an invite from a close friend to attend an OSU Buckeyes game back in Ohio, I said we had to work in a stop to the Greenhouse Tavern to try these Gravy Frites.       

The Greenhouse Tavern The Greenhouse Tavern is located in the East 4th Street Entertainment District of Cleveland, near the ballpark, Playhouse Square, and the Arcade.  I guess all of that is called the “Gateway District” now?  It is about two doors down from Symon’s now famous Lola.  Owner and Chef Jonathon Sawyer’s modus operandi centers upon offering eco friendly, locally grown, sustainable food.  He has also created the state’s first LEED certified restaurant.  Gazing down the constantly changing menu, the French influence is obvious: steak and pommes frites, house made fromage blanc, foie gras steamed clams, coq au vin, etc.  It is hard to imagine, having grown up in Cleveland, that one could actually eat like this in the Rust Belt.  He also offers some unique and quite frankly awesome sounding dishes like Roasted Pig Heads with shrimp paste BBQ; Duck Pasta complete with duck livers, pecorino pepato, and duck skin cracklins; and Crispy Chicken Wings Confit – why not?

Unfortunately the Roasted Pigs Head wasn’t on the menu the night of our visit so we settled upon the Foie Gras Steamed Clams, the Fifth Quarter, the Pan Fried Pork Chop Saltimbocca and of course the Gravy Frites.  The Foie Gras Steamed Clams were tasty but if there was foie gras in the broth is was just waved in  front of the boiling pot, much like vermouth in front of a martini glass.  The mysterious Fifth Quarter is marked Market Price and Pan Fried Pork Chop Saltimboccasimply described “w/ tasty bits” – so I had to try it.  It essentially serves as the chef’s appetizer special.  As luck would have it tonight’s Fifth Quarter was buttermilk deep fried chicken necks, backs, and gizzards – by far one of the best tastes of the night.  I couldn’t agree with Chef Sawyer more – never throw out these tasty morsels.  The buttermilk breading was awesome and the tasty morsels of meat were tender and cooked perfectly… I wanted seconds.  The Pan Fried Pork Chop Saltimbocca was served with crispy fried sage, some fancy sounding mashed potatoes called pommes puree, herb salad, and a red eye gravy.  This dish too, was fantastic.  What made it was the side of county ham, essentially a slow cooked pork belly, that was so flavorful and “melt in your mouth” that you wish you had a whole plate full of it alone. 

When we got to the Gravy Frites, I can’t say that I necessarily agree with Michael Symon.  The fries on top had some nice flavor and were crisped on the outside, but once we got beyond those and entered knife and fork territory it was like eating a soggy mess of mashed potatoes, gravy, and overwhelming mozzarella.  To be fair I think I get where Michael Symon was coming from when describing his favorite dish: he was coming from his restaurant next door, after an endlessly long dinner rush, being weeded all night, exhausted and famished, quenching a beer and some sustenance late at night.  If those were the circumstances, then yes – this dish would in fact be amazing as it would serve as the perfect reward to hard nights work on the line.  I could also envision throwing down a plate of Gravy Frites, after hours, and one too many drinks – much like the Primanti Brothers tradition in Pittsburgh.   I then might believe that it was the “Best Thing I Ever Ate”.  However, I in fact was just there for dinner and wanted to sample the full range of the restaurant’s offerings.  All in all, the sum of the Greenhouse Tavern’s offerings, their mission, and their elevated tastes, definitely make me want to stop in every time I’m home in Cleveland.
Wine Wall

Coq au Vin

December 15, 2010

Coq au Vin
Last night I made my first ever attempt at Coq au Vin.  I researched quite a few recipes, all of which most likely had their roots in Julia Childs’ now famous recipe with small onions and button mushrooms.  She most likely borrowed and adapted as well since this is your prototypical peasant dish from the French countryside.  When it was time for the old rooster or an aging hen to meet their maker one would braise them in a red wine sauce.  The tannins and acidity in the wine (Vin) would help tenderize the chicken and mask some of the strong pungent flavors that would come from a male rooster (Coq).

The basics of the recipe are this: chicken browned in rendered bacon fat, braised in a red wine plus stock liquid, served with a thickened sauce almost like a Beurre Rouge (flour, butter, red wine).  I added some carrots to the below recipe for some extra vegetables.  With a foundation of bacon and butter this has to taste good – who could go wrong.  I also recommend getting to your roots by using a whole chicken and cutting it up yourself.  Do this for a few reasons; first it is cheaper, second you should really learn how to do it, and last but not least you get to fry up the giblets in the bacon fat, with a little salt and pepper they are butcher’s reward to munch on while you are braising the rest of the bird.    There are some instructions on cutting up a chicken if you need them… here

One mistake I made in preparing mine was not making enough roux for the sauce base – my sauce was too runny.  You want a sauce thick enough that it coats the back of a spoon.  I guess this is the pitfall of never following a recipe exactly. 

  • 1 whole chicken cut into 8ths
  • 1/3 lb of bacon, cut into ½ inch pieces
  • 2 cups of red wine
  • 2 cups of chicken stock
  • 1 cup of water
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 4 carrots, sliced
  • ½  red onion chopped
  • 1 bag of frozen pearl onions
  • 4 oz package of button mushrooms, halved
  • 5 tablespoons of butter
  • 3 tablespoons of flour
  • Handful of fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

In a large enamel coated Dutch oven over medium heat, render the bacon pieces.  Just before crisping remove bacon (set aside), leave the fat in the pan.  Salt and Pepper your chicken pieces and brown each side in the bacon fat. You may have to do it in shifts to avoid overcrowding.  Once you are finished browning the chicken, set aside to a plate and raise heat to medium high.  Saute your add your garlic, carrots, red onion until the onions sweat.  Pour in red wine and deglaze the bottom of your pot, scrape up the nice bits on the bottom.  Add your stock, water, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer and add your reserved bacon and chicken pieces.  Cover with a lid and simmer for 20 minutes or so until your chicken is done.

For the Pearl Onions and Mushrooms:  While your chicken is braising start your pearl onions.  In a large sauce pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of your butter, add the pearl onions and cook until slightly golden.  Toss in your mushrooms and stir around coating in the remaining butter – sauté for about a minute or two.  Now take 2 ladlefuls of the other pots braising liquid and pour over your onions and mushrooms.  Reduce heat to low and simmer until the mushrooms are nice and soft, about 7 minutes. 

For your sauce:  Your chicken should be done, remove it and as many of the carrots as you can and set aside in a warm oven.  Raise the heat on the braising liquid to a boil and reduce the liquid by about a half.  Meanwhile in a small sauce pan over medium low heat make your roux, melt your last 3 tablespoons of butter.  Stir in 3 tablespoons of flour.  Keep stirring until all of the flour gets toasted and turns golden.  Reduce your braising liquid to a simmer and whisk in your roux until it is incorporated and begins to thicken the red wine liquid.

To serve portion chicken, bacon and vegetable mixture on each plate with a ladle of the thickend sauce over the dish.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve it up with a warm baguette for soaking up the sauce and good bits.  Lastly if you have kids serve it over a bed of wide egg noodles – they’ll never know they were actually eating haughty French food.

Beer Butt Chicken

December 13, 2010

Say what you will about Jamie Oliver, parrot Anthony Bourdain and make fun of the guy if you must. He can cook, he cares about his food, and he cares what you eat too. Last Christmas Jen bought me Jamie Oliver’s America cookbook. I guess Jamie Oliver spent a few months touring the United States as inspiration for its writing. I’m sure it might have originally served as his research for trying to figure out where the fattest Americans were before setting his Food Revolution sites on West Virginia. It (the book) was actually a neat little endeavor of his as he went out of his way to try and get to know a variety of America’s cultural representations, and their preferred indigenous meals. From the Latino culture in Los Angeles, Native American peoples in Arizona, to the salt of the earth on the Louisiana Bayou, he covered a lot of ground. Beer Butt Chicken


For his trip to the South (Georgia), one of those meals was Beer Butt Chicken. This was a great looking dish. You basically stand up the chicken on the grill with a half drunk can of beer. I had to try it. Two things make this dish. First, and obviously, is the can of beer. As the chicken roasts on your grill the beer thoroughly steams the from the inside which makes the finished bird moist and amazingly tender. Second the rub, which consists of brown sugar, cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne, salt, pepper, and olive oil, makes for a tasty crispy and caramelized crust on the outside of the bird. Perfectly crisp on the outside and moist and tender in the middle… only if Thanksgiving turkey could be this way (of course I’m not speaking about yours mom).

Pick up a copy of his book this recipe makes it worth it!

The Rub         Grilled Beer Butt Chicken

Breakfast Carbonara

September 25, 2010

The 1996 Italian food film Big Night, peaked a decade too early.  Audiences today crave food truck wars, watching a man suffer through eating the world’s hottest-ghost-pepper-5lb-cheeseburger… in 20 minutes with no water, the next Top Chef, etc.  My son can watch a Pixar movie about a rat cooking haute cuisine.  So imagine the Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub film if it were released 14 years later in today’s food crazed world?  Remember that final scene in Big Night?  It is almost 5 minutes long, uncut, nearly wordless.  Probably one of the best endings to a movie in hollywood.  The two brothers have accepted the defeat of their faltering Italian restaurant in 1950’s New York and the next morning Stanley Tucci’s character cooks a breakfast frittata for his brother, whom he had just had a falling out with the previous night.  Imagine instead of a frittata, it was a carbonara cooked in that scene – it would have been perfect. 

There are hundreds of different variations to cooking carbonara.  Of course a food snob would tell you that the only way to make it is with egg yolk, pancetta, pepper, a spot of pecorino or parmesan, and served over linguine – with no cream!  The egg yolks added immediately after the pasta is pulled from the boiling water, cook ever so slightly and coat the pasta thickly.   This makes for a tasty dish – I love trying out restaurant’s different takes on carbonara.  You may find some that add cream, peas, mushrooms, or different herbs – none are sacrilege if you are cooking or enjoying great food.  I had a craving for some carbonara at 8:00 am this Saturday morning.  It has eggs, it has bacon.  So why can’t you add some pasta and call it breakfast?  I added a touch of cream and basil to mine.  I only had regular bacon, not pancetta, and the only pasta at hand was mostacolli.

This would serve about two people, and only takes about 10 minutes to make. 

  • 1/2 lb of mostacolli pasta
  • 4 egg yolks, whites discarded
  • 3 slices of bacon, or pancetta
  • 2 cloves of sliced garlic
  • 1/2 cup of parmesan
  • 3/4 cup of cream
  • 1 handful of torn basil   
  • salt and pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook your pasta, about 8 minutes.  While the pasta is cooking, place a small saute pan over medium heat, slice your bacon and garlic and saute for about 5 minutes.  In a mixing boil whisk your cream, egg yolks, parmesan and basil.  By this time your pasta should be just about finished.  Turn off heat, drain the pasta, and return to its hot cooking pot.  Pour the egg mixture over the pasta.  Add the bacon and garlic, and fold the ingredients together.  There should be just enough residual heat in the pot and pasta to lightly cook the eggs without making them too clumpy, you are aiming for a slightly viscous consistency.  Plate and season with salt and pepper, not too much salt as the parmesan already brings a degree of salty-ness with it.



















How I Met Your Mother

September 16, 2010
I’m having lunch with my parents and my 91 year old grandmother.  It is September 12th, 2010.  I had just flown in for the weekend to attend an Ohio State football game the day before with my old college, and high school buddy.  Having only flown in for the weekend, time was an issue but being that I live 3,000 miles away I would become the black sheep of the family if I hadn’t visited my parents… unless of course I never told them I was even in town, but I couldn’t have done that.  The best I could do was fit in some lunch before my return flight to Arizona. 

We had lunch at a great restaurant that my mother insisted we try, called the Wild Mango.  Granted it is attached to a shopping mall – but one, at least, doesn’t enter through the mall, nor is there any hokey pseudo outdoor seating on a faux patio within the hallway entrance to the mall.  So when you are in there, one feels that they are in a standalone contemporary pan-Asian-fusion style restaurant.  Those words “pan-Asian-fusion” sound cliché and tired these days.  However you must understand this; I’m eating with my parents, in their neck of the woods, I was wholly impressed they were brave enough to try Asian inspired food.  It wasn’t until I was 16, and had a driver’s license before I tried my first taste of Chinese food (pedestrian chicken fried rice) at the local mom and pop wok shop in the strip mall down the street.  So these are very big steps for the folks.  My hope is that Wild Mango is the perfect gateway drug to Vietnamese, Thai and Korean cuisine for them. 

Our meal at Wild Mango was terrific.  They started with a complimentary bowl of soup, a puree of peas and cream with diced diver scallops.  I ordered an appetizer of pan fried chicken pot stickers – equally delicious to the soup.  I think it was the first time in my grandmother’s life that she tried a pot sticker, perhaps my parents too – but they might not be happy with me saying that.  For a lunch entrée I had a roasted duck breast, with a hoisen sauce served over steamed bok choy, a bed of sticky rice, and some artfully stacked fried sweet potato “fries”.  It was great and the presentation of the food was top notch.  It’s really nice to see a place like this on the Westside of Cleveland. 

As we were eating I was quizzing my grandmother on her life’s experiences.  At 91 years of age I, sadly and obviously, feel my time with her is limited.  I still can’t get over typing ninety freaking one years old.  I, who feel am going to die an early death, would be amazed to live 91 years.  That would put my age at decay to 2066!  I struggle to imagine how the world will be changed in 2066 and how I will cope with new advances in technology and lifestyles.  During this meal my grandmother asked me to explain what an “email” is.  After struggling with and grasping for a way to explain this concept, she then asks what this “Face” thing is that everyone talks about.  I didn’t even know where to start. 

I have been blessed to have all four of my grandparents an influential part of my entire life, I presently still have the benefit of 3 of them while my wife is left with none.  I also certainly feel like I have taken this blessing for granted.  I feel selfish as a person sometimes, we grow up in our own little world and we never truly appreciate where we came from, how we got here, and what twists of fate made our existence.  I guess as I get older I grasp for these life histories.  I don’t want my grandmother to pass without her sharing her story.  Of course it is ridiculous for me to think that an hour long lunch can serve as the canvas to paint her life – but I feel compelled to start somewhere.

“How did you and Grandpa meet?” I ask my grandmother….  It was wonderful hearing the joy in her voice as she retold her abridged story of when they met back in eastside of Cleveland in the 1930’s.  My grandfather was student at Case Western Reserve University studying mechanical engineering.  My grandmother was attending Cleveland Heights High School.  Every morning they would both take the street car to their respective destinations down Euclid Avenue.  Grandma told me that this was the first time Grandpa saw her and he told his friend, at the time, that she is the one he was going to marry.  Then one day Grandma and her friend, Sandra, had to change their route from Euclid Avenue to Mayfield (I never asked why) and she never saw Grandpa again.  Until after graduating she took a position as a cashier at Woolworths (making $0.23 an hour) and grandfather ran into her at the store.  He had an acquaintance whose wife also worked at the store and had them arrange for a party where he and her could meet.  They started dating and a few years later married in 1942, just prior to America entering full scale into World War II.  After an amazing 62 year marriage, Grandfather passed away in 2004, on July 15th.  There are so many more details I would love to be privileged to hear – yet in all likelihood, never will, as my grandmother is an immensely private and formal person.   Incidentally my grandmother’s oldest son, my Uncle, met his wife for the first time on a bus.  I guess this public transit thing is running in the family.

All this talk of chance meetings and circumstantial acquaintances got me thinking – what will I pass on to my son or daughter?  I had always assumed that I would have that opportunity to tell them “how I met your mother” long before my faculties and gifts of recollection would elude me- but what if they don’t last, what if I go before my time?  My wife has long been working on a book, a memoir of sorts, which would certainly document the unlikely convergence of our singular lives much more in depth than this ever will.  Should the case happen that she never gets to that chapter I thought it would be important to, at the very least, gloss over the most unlikely of introduction between my wife and I…

It is June, 1995, one month before my 20th birthday and between my sophomore and junior year of college at Ohio State.  My life is simple, straightforward, and ordinary in contrast to Jennifer’s.  Someone I had never even met until this time.  A few months previous to this I had read a feature article about Dude Ranches in Colorado and Montana, in the travel section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  They profiled about 6 vacation ranches, listing amenities, pricing and contact information.  I, having had quite a bit of horseback riding experience (albeit in a riding ring, on an English saddle, and in the most controlled of conditions) thought to myself “to hell with a vacation to one of these places, I want to get paid to do this!”.  I wrote letters of interest to all 6 of the ranches latter that week, inquiring about summer employment as a “wrangler” or trail guide.  Only one of the ranches ever even contacted me, Latigo Ranch, just north and west of Kremmling Colorado. 

After a few phone interviews, reference checks and a Red Cross CPR class later, I shipped off to Colorado for the summer.  A Greyhound Bus, after a white knuckle ride through switchbacks of the Continental Divide, drops me off in front of the Kremmling “Dairy King”.  I wait there with my trunk of belongings, and misshapen cowboy hat, for the owner to pick me up.  

Three weeks into my tenure of the best job I have ever had, we had our usual Monday morning wrangler staff meeting to go over the coming week’s guests, their riding experience and horse pairings.  Our manager made special note to point out three guests from Boston that I would be taking out: a mother, her 22 year old daughter, and her daughter’s cousin were all here for a special occasion.  The 22 year old daughter had just been terminally diagnosed with liver cancer.  This was to be her “make a wish” vacation of sorts.  Something to cross off the bucket list if you know what I mean.  When I saw her that morning for the first time I was immediately and frankly just shocked, this beautiful young woman, with a limited life before her chose this place, this vacation, this experience, as one of the last things she wanted to do before moving on.  Thoughts immediately raced through my mind.  I loved this place in the mountains of Colorado; but why did they chose this ranch, how could someone so young, strong and beautiful be facing death like this?  How could I possibly make this a fulfilling experience for her?  I had been on the job only 3 weeks and I get loaded with making this one of her last memories for god’s sake, how the heck is some 19 year old boy supposed to do this? 

Her mother hadn’t ridden in quite some time so it was decided that she would do some light riding and instruction in the ring with another wrangler that morning.  I was charged with taking the daughter, Jennifer, her cousin, Carrie, and a few others on a short orientation ride that morning.  We rode up to Jumper Flats, a reasonably high overlook to the ranch and the Middle Park valley below.  I highly doubt it fulfilled their expectations but it is what time allowed.  As it turned out, Jen’s mother hadn’t been on a horse for a lot longer than we initially thought and fell off that morning, hurting her back.  She didn’t want to simply quit riding the remainder of the week, so she asked to go out on short “walk only” rides in the mornings and in the afternoons.  I, being the low guy on the totem pole, was assigned this mundane task.  When you are only walking while on a horse you can’t do much else but a lot of talking.  I did the best I could to with my tour guide spiel of the local geography, flora and fauna.  With that of course was time for small talk.  I learned a lot about her, her career as a College President, as well as her daughter those few days while riding with her mother.  About Wednesday or Thursday that week, Jennifer’s cousin Carrie lingered around the barn area a little longer than usual.  That evening I and a few staff were planning on heading down to town (about a 20 mile drive) to get away.  So I, having no nefarious plans, thoughts, delusions, or actions, of course other than thinking it would be a nice gesture, asked Carrie if her and her Cousin would like to go into town with us.  I think Carrie made her mind up on the spot by politely saying “she’d ask Jen but didn’t think it to be likely, thanks anyway.”  My assumption at the time was that she was really thinking “no thanks you dirty creep, what kind of girls do you think we are”, but I later came to find out that she did actually ask Jennifer, but it was late and she wasn’t feeling great.  At the end of that week Jennifer and her family returned to life in the “real world”. 

I had been told that at the end of Jennifer’s week long vacation and after repeated nights of telling the ranch owner’s how great of a place they had, that one of the owner’s offered Jennifer a job should she make it through to the next summer. No one expected her to make it.  In August of 1995, a softball sized tumor was resected from her liver.   Months of experimental chemotherapy later she finished her Master’s thesis and contacted the ranch to tell them she’d take them up on that offer of a summer job there. 

I hadn’t planned on returning that following summer, but the exodus of a staff member left them with an opening so the ranch contacted me to see if I could fill in.  I drove out a week later and met Jennifer for the second time, a week after my 21st birthday in July of 1996.  We immediately connected and began spending time together.  About 3 weeks later on the one year anniversary of her successful liver resection, a Saturday day off, I asked the owners if I could take Jen out on a trail ride to Windy Gap, my favorite place on the Ranch.  We rode there that morning and having never been there or seen it, she loved it.  Windy Gap is a peninsula like ridge line that thrusts itself out into the valley below.  Practical shear drops on all sides, there is one very step, and rocky cowpath that leads off down the eastern side into an aspen grove.  We cantered through the grove, jumping felled trees, simply trusting our horse’s better instincts to find the best path forward.  Later in the afternoon we drove out to and then hiked up to Hanging Lake, near Glenwood Springs.  An hour long hike uphill leads to a spectacular mountain side waterfall which feeds a beautiful turquoise colored, and crystal clear, lake.  Words don’t do the place justice – I don’t think a camera could do it either. 

I was happy to have had the opportunity to spend this very special and unique day with Jennifer.  I think it was that very evening that I was struck by how lucky, or perhaps how strong, she was to have survived such a ravaging experience to her body only a short year ago.  It was at this point that I knew how lucky I would be if I could spend the rest of my life her.

Italian Night

August 7, 2010

Italian Night, originally uploaded by Vesper Bistro.

Farfalle, sweet italian sausage, with oven roasted tomatoes and peppers, and basil.  Oh and a bechamel sauce.  Tomatoes and basil were about the only thing I didn’t manage to kill in the garden I planted in the backyard.  The idea of growing your own food sounds good in theory but isn’t easy to execute in the blazing Phoenix desert.

Raw Sand Crab

August 5, 2010

Raw Sand Crab, originally uploaded by Vesper Bistro.

So this was one of the many side dishes or banchan served with our meal at the traditional rice house restaurant in Ichon, South Korea. They were raw, fresh sand crabs, split and plated. Our host said they were very good – so I was obligated to try them and I’ll try anything. They were not bad, pretty sweet, a little gooey. They would have been a little easier to eat if they were caught between molts, as the shells were very hard and sharp. With the bounty of food before us, needless to saw we had a few crabs left over.

It’s Just Bacon… Right?

April 10, 2010

 Braised Pork Belly with Asian Pears
Dining out lately you may notice some kind of preparation of pork belly offered on the menu of your favorite restaurant.   More and more chefs are offering this item.  It is a rather inexpensive cut of meat and when cooked properly, can take on some great flavors.  It is a perfect mix of lean and succulent fat.    Matt Carter offers a Pork Belly Pibil style appetizer at The Mission.  Pork belly is always showing up on the menu at Cowboy Ciao where presently they are offering a grilled Pork Belly with Thai chili cucumber salad and sweet soy.  Chef Cullen Campbell briefly offered a tasty seared version at his newly opened Crudo.   I think even that Sam Fox guy is offering a pork belly dish to the masses on some of his chain restaurant menus.

Recently we were having about 6 guests come over for drinks and something to munch on before heading out to eat.  I firmly stated to myself that I was going to prepare some pork belly.  What I did not realize at the time what a treasure hunt it would become to find some uncured pork belly in this G. D. town.

I figured this stuff would be easy to come by.  I mean the fad that has become kobe beef has lead all of our local grocers to now offer these overpriced cuts of meat in the butcher case – why haven’t they caught on to pork belly?  Everywhere I went: “You mean bacon right?”.    “Well you can special order it”.  Special order it?  Come on we are talking about pig here – not sea urchins.  A.J.’s Fine Foods – nope.  Whole Foods – negative ghost rider.  Drats, it is Friday, the day before everyone shows up, and I am running low on faith.  I try the Oakville Grocery Co. in the new swanky Scottsdale Quarter near Kierland.  Oakville Grocery Co. started up in Napa Valley surly they can help?  The woman at the deli counter looked like she knew her stuff.  She was training some younger slicers, and meat grinders.  I was informed they didn’t stock pork belly either but I got a hot lead: Schreiner’s Fine Sausage on 7th Street.   How on earth did I not think of Shreiner’s?  They wholesale to every restaurant in Phoenix.  I drove by their tiny, family run facility, everyday on the way to work for 4 years.  Amazingly my quest did not end at the family run pork processing and smokehouse.  The nice lady at the counter directed me to Hobe Meats.  Eureaka!

Hard to imagine it took 5 years of living in Phoenix to discover Hobe Meats.  Located near the northwest corner of Bethany Home Rd and 16th St, opened back in 1962, this old school butcher shop should be in any carnivore’s address book.  Ownership changed hands around 2009 when, current owner, Bret Pont purchased the shop.  Pont has done a terrific job carrying on the Hobe tradition of offering the highest quality cuts of steak, as well as a great variety of hard to find products.  Frog Legs: check.  Elk and venison: check.  Pork and beef Shanks: check.  Most importantly – he stocks pork belly!  Every Saturday at lunch Hobe Meats has a $5.00 cookout – offering a selection of tasty burgers, tri-tip, smoked turkey legs, hot dogs, and ribs.     

I have had pork belly quite a few different ways, this is by far my favorite:

Pork Belly Braised in Honey, Citrus and Soy

This dish will serve about 6 appetizer sized servings

  • 1 lb pork belly (don’t forget to trim off skin, leaving fat on)
  • cracked black pepper
  • 1 thumb of fresh ginger (fine grated)
  • 3 cloves of garlic (chopped)
  • 1 & 1/2 cups of soy sauce
  • 1 & 1/2 cups of good honey
  • 1 cup of orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons of butter
  • 3 scallions (sliced diagonally – for garnish)
  • 6 mint leaves (for garnish)
  • 1 Asian or Bosc pear (sliced into match size sticks)

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Find the smallest sized stainless steel sauce pan you have that will fit the pork belly in it flat – without mushing the pieces together.  Place the pan over medium high heat.  Take your pork belly and cut it into 4 equal sized rectangular pieces.  Pepper both sides of the pork to your liking.  Place the belly pieces, fat side down, on the now hot sauce pan and let the fat render a bit.  About 5 minutes.  Some nice caramel color should show on the fat side.  Now spend a quick amount of time simply searing the other 5 sides of the pork.  Remove pork from the pan and set aside. 

Now add your mint leaves to the hot rendered pork fat in the sauce pan.  Make certain to not overcrowd them.  It will only take about 8 to 10 seconds to fry up the mint leaves.  Remove them to a paper towel.  Next add your grated ginger and garlic to the sauce pan and cook in the pork fat for about 3 minutes.  Next spoon in your honey, soy and orange juice.  Stir well and bring the mixture to a boil. 

As soon as the sauce begins to boil turn the heat off and add your pork belly pieces back to the pan – fat side up.  Now place the sauce pan in the oven for about 2 and 1/2 hours.  Check occasionally to make certain the sauce is not boiling (as everyone’s oven is different) – reduce heat if necessary.  While checking in on the sauce flip your belly pieces over as well. 

When finished cooking remove to a cutting board.  Place the pan with sauce on the range and simmer until the sauce is reduced by about a third.  Turn off the heat and stir your butter.  Serve the pork belly by slicing about three 1/4 inch slice per plate, stand them fat side up, stack your asian pear sticks to the side, spoon over a bit of the reduced soy honey glaze, garnish with the scallion and mint.
Pork Belly Spread

This is My Hot Dog Stand

April 2, 2010

Perhaps I just haven’t found it yet, perhaps it has tried and died here already, but Phoenix really needs a late night, after the bars close, walk up hot dog stand. No frills, cash only, greasy griddle fried in butter all beef franks with warm buns. Serve them with fries, and a soda.  I’m just a sucker for trotters and miscellaneous pig bits stuffed in a casing – a quick and dirty, one-handed meal.

New York has this in Gray’s Papaya. A simple menu, cheap for anywhere in America – let alone New York, open 24 / 7 and a New York institution. Los Angeles has Pink’s Hot Dogs. Located on the northwest corner of Melrose and La Brea, Pink’s has become an LA tradition. Open until 3:00 AM on weekends.  The line can be long, it sometimes takes 2 hours to get to the order counter. Pink’s has a lot of imaginative selections on their menu, many of which are named after the Hollywood and Food Network moguls that have walked up to their counter over the years. My one and only experience at Pink’s was in December of 2005. The funny thing about the below snapshot is the billboard above Pink’s. It is advertising Heather Graham’s new ABC television show “Emily’s Reasons Why Not”. The show had the honor of being a “one and done”, cancelled 48 hours after its pilot aired on January 14, 2006. I think I waited in line longer than that show was on television!

pink's hot dogs

pink's hot dogs by: absentmindedprof

So Phoenix’s hot dog stand needs to be open late. It needs to be cheap.  It needs to be a walk up joint.  It needs maybe a dozen creative twists on a traditional dog. Maybe a “Philly Dog” should be one of them. I could very easily picture it on the menu at Pink’s.

Look at the picture at the top of the post – and wing it!  Get some grilled onions, peppers, and grated swiss cheese.  Top it off with some mustard and chow down.