Back From The Depths


Tom's Home

I made it and I am better for it.  This holiday season has been one hell of a ride and one that I am sure to look back on with gratefulness.  Betty and I made the trek from sunny Tampa, Florida to the depths of hell, aka bone-chilling northern states, specifically New York (Buffalo), Michigan (Frankenmuth, Saginaw) and Ohio (Athens).

First up on the agenda was visiting Betty’s family and friends in Buffalo.  After a 22 hour drive, I made it to my first ever Bills game.  Right from the outset we met some great Canadians from Montreal who supplied us with some great conversation and equally good whiskey and rum.  At this moment I couldn’t feel my toes, but the beer, whiskey, and wings kept me warm.

My brother-in-law, Aaron, supplied some wings from Duff’s.  Though I was a bit preoccupied with consuming some lots of craft beer, which in turn, led me to the heated bathrooms, from what I remember the wings were quite tasty.  After a monstrous gust of Buffalo wind landed a tent on Aaron’s car hood we decided it was high time to get our asses inside the stadium.  After three quarters of freezing rain, very little offensive fireworks, and other shenanigans, we decided to call it a day.  It was great to meet up with family and friends and it also made me appreciate football games and tailgating in warm climate.  Back from the depths.

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We don’t have any Szechuan restaurants in Tampa, so it was a real delight to find out that Betty and I would be visiting with a couple of her college friends at a newish Szechuan restaurant in the area.  After getting the specials menu rundown from the manager, I relayed some of the specials to my table-mates and the chilled pigs ear dish was one that everyone wanted to try.  While it was not anyones favorite, it was interesting in texture and had really good flavor.  We ordered a ton of food, which is what usually happens in these instances because everyone wants to try everything.  In hindsight, it was a good thing that we ordered so much because it was a three hour lunch, which is also what happens when you get girls together when they haven’t seen each other in years.

The best dish of the bunch was the tea tree mushroom dry pot.  It came with smokey sliced pork belly, tea tree mushrooms, sautéed onions and peppers.  If I could eat this dish once a week I’d die a happy man.  Fiery goodness to help keep me warm.  Back from the depths.

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Following our six days in Buffalo, Betty and I made a slight detour on the way back to Florida.  We thought,”why not head on over to Frankenmuth, MI.  I hear it’s beautiful this time of year.”  While that is not really why we decided to head there, it was quite beautiful in its own right.  Frankenmuth is a small Bavarian town where a childhood friend of mine lives.  On short notice, Tom and his wife Jennifer were kind enough to let us stay three evenings at their residence and I have to admit that it was the highlight of my entire vacation.  There were many parts of this stay that just made me so happy.

Before heading out on our long journey, Tom let me know that he would be hosting a Festivus party where he would be breaking out some great bottles of beer and encourages others to do the same.  Needless to say, I tasted some of the best beer of my life that evening and I have a new-found fondness for Michigan craft beer scene.  Tampa is home to Cigar City Brewing, which is one of the finest microbreweries in the country and there are many other microbreweries trying to follow suit in the area.  It just doesn’t stack up to the likes of Michigan’s sheer numbers though.

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Some of the Michigan breweries I got to try were Founders (we get it in FL now, but not this variety), Short’s, Dark Horse, Odd Side, Tri-City, Greenbush, Arcadia, Jolly Pumpkin, and Right Brain.  I also had some great beer from Three Floyd’s which I had never had before because they basically don’t leave Indiana.  I did my part by bringing some beer with me as well such as Cigar City’s White Oak Jai Alai, a sour Guava Grove, Smoked English-Style Imperial Stout (which I later gave him to keep) and their Kalevipoeg At The Gates Of Hell Baltic Porter (which we didn’t get to).  I also brought an Alchemist Heady Topper to share with the boys and my lady.  All in all it was a great night to get reacquainted with some old friends and get acquainted with some new beers.

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In the following days, as we toured the town, the cold wind cut right through me and left me wondering how I ever dealt with this weather for the 14 years that I lived here.  It was fun ducking into all sorts of stores and shops, beer stores, bakeries, meat shops, distillery shops, bead shops, pizza joints and such just to avoid the freezing temperatures.  I know my nose appreciated it.  The whiskey, beer, and pizza helped to keep my body warm as well as my soul.

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That final evening, the four of us went out for an evening where we gorged on a monstrous mediterranean sampler platter for four that fed like a platter for six to eight.  There were more kabobs, wraps, stuffed things, sauces, dips, breads and spreads than I care to even count.  We were all full, but not stuffed because we all knew we had to save room in our bellies for there was one more stop to be had, The Michigan Tap Room in my hometown of Saginaw, MI.

This is a gem of a bar started by a young man who wanted to harvest some of Michigan’s best brews all in one tap list.  The kicker is that it is…in a bowling alley.  Yes, tap after tap of phenomenal beer in a bar in a bowling alley.  After numerous paddles of 4 oz samplers and some great conversation we called it a night.

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This portion of my trip made me realize a couple of things.  One, that it is never too late to stay in touch with friends.  Two, visiting up north is fine but just don’t live there.  In all seriousness, Tom and Jennifer were fabulous hosts and I look forward to their company in the near future whether it be in the comforts of my warm backyard sipping some great local beer and eating smoked pork sandwiches or from the comforts of Tom’s taproom eating sausage from Kern’s and drinking great local beer.  Back from the depths.

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For the final leg of our trip we made a short six-hour jaunt down to Athens, OH to celebrate the New Year with brother-in-law Aaron and his wife Shannon.  Being a die-hard Michigan Wolverine fan, it pains me to even drive through Buckeye country, so to my dismay I drove like a bat out of hell right through Columbus until we hit the small town of Athens.

I find NYE a very overblown event.  It has good intentions and depending on how you play it, a joyful evening can be had.  I find by staying in, there are fewer headaches and worries.  When you actually sit back and think about all the party-goers that are out on the road, it’ll make you cringe (this holds true for me for any major party-like holiday really).  Then when you add in the fact that you usually need to buy some sort of special ticket to get in somewhere or pay an admission and the evening can be a financial bust, especially if there is a blip on the radar and not everything goes as planned.

I was pleased to learn that Shannon would be cooking up a standing rib roast and some roasted potatoes while we enjoy the comforts of their home.  Their was a bit of celebrating with the giant blow up penguin out front while freezing my tookus off, but all is well when enjoying a great coconut porter.  While sipping said coconut porter, I could almost lean back in my chair, while all bundled up and close my eyes and pretend like I had been whisked back to warm and sunny Florida.  In due time, in due time.  Happy New Years!  Best wishes from sunny Florida, I’m Back from the depths.

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“Si” Is For Carnitas


flour tortilla topped with puréed pinto beans, carnitas, pepper jack, salsa, sour cream, pickled red cabbage slaw, avocado, cilantro oil

I don’t know if starting your first ever blog during this time of year is a brilliant idea or stupid as shit.  On one hand,  there are so many remarkable opportunities to whip things up with Thanksgiving feast (for some of you, multiple households to visit endure) house parties, work parties, Christmas parties, and cookie exchanges.  For those of us who love to cook, this time of year is like finding the Holy Grail.

On the other hand, it’s easy to get bogged down and over-whelmed while creating all the mouth-watering dishes.  When all is said and done, the last thing that is on your mind is blogging about your three straight days in the kitchen.  Even as I write this, I just came back to the laptop from whipping up a double batch of Puerto Rican egg nog, coquita, for an upcoming Christmas party.  No rest for the wicked.

It’s times like these that it is nice to not have to slave over the stove and create something truly remarkable with very little effort.  That dish I answer “Si” to in this situation is carnitas. There is something to be said about a juicy roast that become utterly crisp at the last-minute.  End result, juicy chunks of pork, searing in its own fat and getting all crisp and browned up.  Traditionally, carnitas is braised and then lowered into a vat of hot fat to crisp up the meat.  While it sounds great in theory, does anyone really like stinking up their whole damn house with fried meat.  It is much easier to let the pork do the work for you and provide its own deep-fried goodness from the rendered fat it yields.

If you have some basics in the fridge like salsa, cheese, and sour cream, good things can happen.  It seems like I always have some house-made pickled cabbage slaw in the fridge, so that is also another boost to this meal.  You can obviously use any type of veggie that your little heart desires.  I suggest one with a bit of bite and some crunch for texture.  Pickled red onions are another stand out choice.  Go buy yourself a ripe avocado, tortilla shells, and a boneless pork butt roast and you are all set.  This is a very hands free meal, so with all your extra time, now you can go hammer out some more Christmas cookies.  Happy Holidays!

Ingredients:

 ♥For the pork:

  • 1 pork butt, about 3 lbs, 1 inch cubes
  • 1 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1 tsp coriander, ground
  • 1 tsp chili powder, ground
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Great Accompaniments (get crazy, you deserve it!):

  • salsa
  • pickled onions or slaw
  • avocado
  • sour cream
  • cilantro
  • refried pinto or black beans

To make the carnitas

Cube the pork butt into large chunks, maybe a bit larger than an inch.  Put the pork in a dutch oven or some sort of wide vessel.  To braise the pork, add just enough water to cover the pork.  Add the spices.  Instead of using pre-ground spices, I like to toast my spices whole and then grind them in my spice grinder.  If you only have pre-ground, use them, just make sure they are fresh.  Turn your burner on med and let the meat cook until the water has all about evaporated.  This will vary based on how much water is being used, but it should take about a couple of hours.  Again this low maintenance, so just come back periodically and check on it.  You don’t need to stir it, just let it simmer.

Once all of the water has evaporated, the pork chunks should start frying up in its own rendered fat.  If not much fat was given off, feel free to drizzle a couple of tablespoons of oil in there.  Scrape up the pork with a flat edged spatula to move it around and introduce different parts of the pork to the hot fat.  Don’t freak out if some of the pork sticks to the bottom, just keep scraping it up the best you can.  You’ll know it’s done when most of the pork is a nice deep brown color.  That color=deliciousness.  Taste for seasoning.  Assemble your tacos or simply eat it by the spoon full.  In all seriousness, it is hard to keep your fingers from sneaking into the pot.  Enjoy.

flour tortilla topped with puréed pinto beans, carnitas, pepper jack, salsa, sour cream, pickled red cabbage slaw, avocado, cilantro oil