Thursday, September 26, 2013


First, let me be clear. This is not a post about zombies. Christina, I know you got all excited, but just calm yourself down. No zombies here. Except this guy:

Here in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana, we are fortunate to play host to the second-largest street festival in the country. What's the first? Mardi Gras, of course. Let that sink in just a little bit. This tiny river city (not a small town, but not a large city, either) in Indiana is home to a festival that is second only to MARDI GRAS. I still cannot for the life of me understand why the Food Network and Travel Channel are not beating down our door. Heaven knows I've email them enough times. But I digress...

In its 92nd year, the Fall Festival draws more than 200,000 people each year and features parades, carnival rides and midway, talent shows, live music, and - of course - FOOD. More than 126 individual food booths, in fact. Each booth is run by local not-for-profit groups, such as churches, schools, private clubs, scouts, and fraternities. And many make it their mission to try to have the most outlandish, grease-laden or bizarre food item for sale on the street.

My fascination with the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival began in middle school, when my dad's Shrine unit opened a booth at the festival, selling hamburgers, cheeseburgers, Polish sausage, curly fries, pizza, and soft drinks (or "sody pop", as my dad was so fond of putting on the menu board). I would tag along with my parents when they worked their volunteer shifts in the booth, and I usually got put out front selling soft drinks - a thankless job. Some chilly October evening go outside for a few hours and fish cold cans of soda out of barrels of ice or ice water a few hundred times. It sucks. But the people-watching from the sidewalk makes up for it in spades.

Now a member of a Masonic- and Shrine-affiliated body myself, I have a booth of my own to work each year. And we don't have a menu of typical fair food. We, too, have an outlandish, grease-laden, and bizarre treat for sale. In fact, it's the ONLY thing we sell: Brain Sandwiches. Read it again if you have to: Brain Sandwiches. Little brains from fat little piggies all battered up and fried like a delicious, organ-filled fritter, served on a white bun with pickles and onions. And people cannot get enough of them. Although the Big Guy didn't seem to sure about it when he tried his first one a couple of years back.

Anywho, it take a lot of work to get all those little piggy brains ready for cooking, and that's just what we did this week. Every member of my unit - plus some outsiders who were nice enough to volunteer to help us out - spent hours this week sitting around tables "cleaning" brains. I won't go into the particulars, but you know how it is when you prepare an animal or cut of meat - there is some trimming, picking, "cleaning-up" to be done before you can cook it. Same with brains. For someone like me, who had to be excused from Biology class in high school before I barfed all over my group when we started dissecting a frog, this is a chore I dread every year. But it's all for a good cause, and it's only once a year, so I take the Big Guy's advice and "suck it up, Buttercup!" and get the job done. I do enjoy the fellowship that takes place during the cleaning, though. Sitting with a group of ladies for hours at a stretch with nothing to do but talk makes for some interesting stories and a lot of laughter. 

Midweek this year, though, we experienced incredible sadness in the midst of our fun and fellowship, and our time in the Brain Booth at the Fall Festival will not be the same. One of the originators of our famous brain sandwiches was taken from us. In a previous post, I briefly mentioned Miss Wilda, who was one of Miss Mary's dearest friends. After a day of cleaning brains, Miss Wilda went home for the evening and quietly passed away. I will never forget her or the impact she had on my life. Our organization owes much to the leadership and passionate dedication of this elegant lady. Always dressed to the nines, Miss Wilda was the picture of class and dignity, and I am honored to have been her friend these past few years. 

Next week we will honor Miss Wilda with walk-throughs and a memorial service conducted by the officers of our order. And the week after that, we will work our tails off in the Brain Booth and remember these two incredible women who devoted their lives to Masonic service and to their fellow man. We will laugh at remembrances, and I'm sure we'll shed a tear or two as well. It's going to be a grueling week, but I can't wait for it to get started. Check back for a recap of the Fall Festival in a couple of weeks, complete with photos of - you guess it - brain sandwiches. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Pinterest to the rescue!

I love Pinterest. I guess you could say I'm slightly addicted. But I have good reason to be! I've found over this past year that, whenever I'm in a pinch, Pinterest is there to rescue me. For example, last night around 9 p.m. the Big Guy and I realized we had forgotten to run to the store to get a crucial ingredient for my crock pot Italian beef sandwiches, which were on tonight's dinner menu (yum!). How on Earth was I going to make Italian beef without the Italian dressing? And since it would be going in the crock pot around 6 a.m. before I left for work, there would be no picking it up the next day. I sat there in my yoga pants thinking, "Do I REALLY want to get dressed and go to the grocery at 9 p.m.?" And then I remember my dear friend Pinterest.

A paltry 10-second search turned up dozens of recipes for homemade Italian dressing. I quickly scanned them, and before I could've driven to Schnucks I was in the kitchen whipping up my very own batch of Homemade Zesty Italian Dressing! No getting dressed, no conversation with the furbabies about why they couldn't go with me, no $2.50 spent for processed crap - just some vinegar, olive oil, seasonings and dried herbage. Everything I needed was readily on hand in my cabinets.

That is what I love so much about Pinterest. I'll find myself scratching my head over what to make for dinner, or I'll freak out because I'm missing an ingredient, or I'll be cursing a home project that I just KNOW there has to be an easier way to tackle. And then I'll turn to my dear digital friend Pinterest, and soon all is right with the world. Seriously, if you aren't on Pinterest already, you should be. It's the cat's pajamas.

Now that we have all that out of the way, wanna hear more about those Italian beef sandwiches? They're not Chicago-style Italian beef; they're cheater Italian beef. But I still think they're the bomb-diggity. My favorite chef friend Mel taught me how to make these back in the early years of our marriage when I was just realizing how much I enjoyed cooking. I watched her every time she cooked or baked. I tried to pick up tips where I could, but since she didn't use a lot of recipes I almost always ended up failing spectacularly. I needed a RECIPE, dammit. Specific instructions to follow. I'm good at following instructions. So when she made these sandwiches and told me that even I couldn't screw them up, I knew I'd found a winner. Over the years, as I've come into my own as a cook, I've added my own little twists to her original two-ingredient, three-step process. Here's my version:

Crock Pot Italian Beef Sandwiches

1 beef chuck roast
16 oz bottle of Zesty Italian dressing (or make your own!)
Hoagie buns or Italian mini-loaves, cut in half
Sliced provolone cheese

Sear chuck roast in a couple tablespoons of butter and olive oil (this step can be skipped if you oversleep and are running late to work in the morning). Place in crock pot and pour dressing over top. Cook on low at least 8 hours. Remove roast from crock pot and shred meat, discarding fat and gristle. Return meat to crock pot while you prepare the bread.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice buns or loaves in half, lengthwise, and spread top half generously with mayo. Tear cheese slices in half and arrange on bottom half of bun so that the whole area is covered. I usually use two slices of cheese per sandwich - sometimes more. We like cheese in our house. Support your local dairy farmer! Using a slotted spoon, scoop shredded meat onto buns. Cover and loosely wrap in foil, leaving top of packet open so sandwiches can toast. Place wrapped sandwiches on baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bread is toasty.

Dip your sandwiches in the au jus from the crock pot, or eat them straight-up. Either way, you're gonna need a napkin. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Labor Day in the kitchen with the Big Guy

I have apologize for how late this post is in coming. I have so much to cover that it's going to Homer or some shit. The last two weeks have been a blur! But the Big Guy and I had a wonderful Labor Day weekend. We spent a large portion of it in the kitchen, whipping up new and tasty treats. I love it when my honey cooks or bakes with long as he doesn't talk to me when I'm measuring ingredients! (He screwed himself up this time by talking while he was measuring, and I had a good laugh at him.)

We started out by going on a shopping adventure that Saturday. I wish I had taken a picture of all the yummy goodness we purchased at our local processor, Dewig Meats. We picked up Cheese Beef Sticks (summer sausage), Cheese Polish Sausage (heaven!), German Bologna, "Not-So-Center-Cut" Ham (love that name), Smokey Links, Pastrami, Grippos BBQ Sauce, and a new, locally produced, bottled taco seasoning that the creators were sampling in the store. Instead of that nasty packet of dried spices and preservatives, this contains real ingredients like tomatoes, peppers, onions, etc., without the chemicals. And it's a hometown product! We also grabbed sandwiches in the store to eat while we browsed. I love that they just ask for a donation for these treats, which goes to a local charity. I had the best hot dog you could ask for and the Big Guy had bratwurst (gag). Both served on a slice of white bread folded over - nothing fancy!
Care for some meat "loaf"?
Meat in tube form. Porky goodness.
Where the magic happens.

The only thing we could not get at Dewig's that we wanted was chicken. They don't handle it. So, off to the Old Fashioned Butcher Shoppe! If you've never purchased a fresh whole chicken from a locally sourced butcher shop, go do it. You can tell just by looking at the skin and the size of the bird how differently its been raised than those large-scale commercially produced chicken. (Yes, Tyson, I'm looking at you.) And if you're intimidated by breaking down a whole chicken (like I am), the butcher will do that for you in a jiffy for free.

That evening we went to a friend's house for an experimental game of "Chopped" - Couples' Edition. J is a Pampered Chef consultant who I met several years ago and later became friends with while doing vendor events with Tupperware. She and her husband, C, and the Big Guy and I went head-to-head in a cooking competition using the same (not-so-secret) "mystery box" items. I think the boys had as much fun as we did, and I learned that I'm not the only one who's a little OCD about how my kitchen is organized. At least I haven't pulled out the label maker to mark which cabinet things go in (though maybe I should...hmmmm). C delighted in taking us all around the kitchen and pantry to show us where she's placed labels and which ones are outdated. We also had appletinis. J and I may have been a little buzzed. In short, a good time was had by all.

Sunday morning, we were terrible Methodists and skipped church to take a little road trip to meat mecca and Food Network/Travel Channel-featured Moonlite Bar-B-Q. They have the most AMAZING Sunday brunch buffet featuring stuff you don't find any other day of the week. Perfectly wet scrambled eggs, insanely salty cured bacon, savory smoked sausage, homemade donuts, fried chicken, and then - of course - bbq and all the fixins. Yes, 100 miles round trip is a long way to go for breakfast. But the drive with the Big Guy on such a beautiful sunny day made it all worth while.

Sunday afternoon we got busy in the kitchen.

Not like that. Dirty birds.

We dove in and tried something I've been talking about for a long time - and even blogged about recently - but never committed the time to: homemade bagels! The pictures below tell the story.
Little balls of dough resting on Day 1.

Fresh from the fridge on Day 2 and ready for their hot bath.

The Big Guy wanted to mark one as "his." At least, I hope that's what he's doing. Gross.

Bath time! That giant stockpot is Tupperware, by the way. Want one? I can hook you up. I know a lady.

Bagel toppings ready to go (sesame seeds, poppy seeds, coarse sea salt).

The Big Guy even took photos for me so I could move quickly from boil to topping.

Still warm from the oven...mmmmm.
Yes, making bagels is a two-day process. But when you stop and think about it, it's really not that bad. I spent about three to three and a half hours on Day 1 making the sponge, dough, and forming the bagels. But really it was only more like an hour because most of that time was just resting. Day 2 went very quickly. I think I was done in 30 minutes. I made average-sized bagels (more like Lenders, not giant like Panera Bread) and got 16 out of the batch. That's three weeks of workday breakfast which would've cost me around $14, plus gas, had I gotten them from a bakery every day. I'll try to figure out the food cost next time I make them, but I'm estimating it cost me about $3 to do this at home. That's a savings of almost $200 per year. Plus I get to take out any frustrations on the dough while I'm kneading! Win-win! I did learn something in the process. The original poster (Smitten Kitchen) said all her toppings fell off, so she would try an egg wash next time. I had the same problem but only with my sesame seeds. Lesson learned. Egg wash next time for sure!
Fatty McGee begged for a snack the whole time. Look at those sugar lips. Is he the cutest or what?
Short story I have to share. A couple of years ago the Big Guy had a second job driving a delivery truck for the local donut bakery in the mornings. Every day I begged him to bring me home a sesame seed bagel, and sometimes he obliged. One morning, as he was grabbing my warm, fresh bagel from the rack, he started talking to the owner of the bakery and asked him if they had ever tried making sea salt bagels (like the ones at Einstein Brothers that I loved so much when we lived in Florida). Owner had never heard of such a thing and thought it was a great idea. Said he would experiment with it and see how it turned out. Never heard of him trying it and Big Guy went on to a different second job. Now, here we are two years later and sea salt bagels have never shown up on the menu. But they have in my kitchen, and guess what, Donut Bank? I think we're breaking up. 

My homemade bagels were a huge success. They're pretty freakin' yummy - and chewy. Very authentically stiff and chewy, not doughy or soft and bread-y. And they freeze great as well. I put each bagel in a sandwich bag and then put as many as I could fit into a gallon freezer bag. Each morning at work I just pull one out and let it sit on my desk for a half hour to hour to thaw and then pop it in the toaster oven. Couldn't be happier. 

Before we got down with the bagels, Big Guy and I starting prepping the chicken for Monday's cooking adventure. We used this recipe for brine to keep the chicken moist while smoking it (using only herbs from our garden, thankyouverymuch). On Monday, the Big Guy pulled out the smoker and got to work.
Look at all that fresh chickeny goodness.
See those giant man-beast hands? I swear it's a perspective thing. We were not smoking tiny
chicken parts on a smoker the size of a dinner plate. My man just has giant man-beast hands.

Throughout the whole process, the skinny dog was Losing. His. Mind. He loves chicken more than almost anything in the world. This is his happy face:
It's a smile. I promise.
We were all smiles, too, when those beautiful pieces of fowl came off the smoker a few hours later. The Big Guy smelled like a campfire - a delicious, lickable campfire. This is some pretty tasty yard bird right here. Still have a bit left in the freezer that we'll be using to make homemade BBQ pizzas later. I'll post about that too. But right now, I'll just leave you with this...
Mouthwatering, isn't it?