Tuesday, September 25, 2012

You can dress me up, but you can't take me out.

     How we dress tells a lot about us, doesn't it?  Do you iron your clothes before you put them on, or are you fine with your "cleanest dirty shirt" pulled off from a pile on your bedroom floor?  Which are you more comfortable in, a perfectly fitted suit or dress or a worn out pair of jeans that are frayed at the cuffs? Read a little about my tastes in this week's blog.

Junior Prom circa 1981
     The answer may surprise you, but there is a dichotomy in the way I feel about dressing.  I don't like to be told that I have to wear a suit and tie somewhere, but I like some functions that are very formal and am happy to dress the part.  I'd give up cold hard cash not to have to cinch a tie around my neck each morning, and luckily, my current job has no such requirement.  I don't wear jeans to work, a guy could get fired for that (yes, that's an inside joke and future blog), but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't feel more comfortable in them.  If I had to guess, I think my suit aversion goes back to my brother, the Sergeant-Major's wedding where I spilled candle wax down the right leg of my new navy blue suit and had to sit the wedding out.  I may have, at that point, permanently associated suits with lack of fun, or maybe it's simpler than that, I just
Wearing a yellow knit tie, wonder if I still have it....
don't like to be told what to wear, and no one ever tells you that you have to wear faded jeans and a flannel shirt (well maybe at lumberjack school they do), but to summarize, I don't like to be told what to wear.

     The second time I remember dressing up was my junior prom.  I dug up the picture above of the me and my date and you can't tell me that I didn't rock that white tux.  I'm not sure if I had a mustache or if the picture just got folded there, but that tux was great.  It was well worth the hours of slinging chicken wings that I had to put in, to afford it.  An interesting side note is, that around that same time, I took that girl to my brother Ace's wedding (I rocked a burgundy tux then) and my future wife actually hemmed the dress for this girl and we hadn't even met yet.  No, I didn't say, "Hey who hemmed your dress? I'd really like to meet her....", but in my fantasy world, my future wife sat home hemming the dress
Another early wedding, must have been winter
picturing that exact circumstance where she would meet the stud in the burgundy tux, but I digress.  When I did marry Char I went back to a white tux.  There were a series of weddings around then and my job didn't require me to wear a suit, but I picked up a couple of nice ones anyway, with the size of my family and circle of friends, it just made more sense economically.  The next food job I got at the John Sexton Company did require me to wear a suit so I was ready when that one came along.  We were even told to wear our suits on days when we would sit at home to call our customers.  My boss then told me that it made you more productive, when you dress correctly for your job, "Superman wouldn't go out without his cape, would he?" he would ask.  "Then a Sexton Man doesn't go out without his suit".  My old boss George would be surprised to learn, that in my current job, that I've had for 7 years, my time in a cape actually outnumbers the time I've spent in a suit, go figure. 

    In keeping with the theme, I should talk about my behavior in suits.  It's no better than in street clothes,
Not sure where this was.....
truly, you can dress me up, but you take your chances on taking me out.  Most weddings that I have gone to have ended with my coat strewn over a chair, my tie loosely hanging on my neck, my shirt drenched in sweat, and sometimes with me on stage with a microphone in hand. Suits do not temper my behaviors.  In my defense, a lot of these affairs come with free alcohol and I am a sucker for that, and I was asked on stage at least 1/4 of those times. I think my old boss George had a good point about dressing up to sell, and I think earlier on, it helped give me confidence in my ability to do something that was foreign to me at first.  Over time, however, the confidence came from the inside and I didn't have to wear a suit to project it.  I did have an instance, about 12 years ago,
Got the job even with the mustache
though where I felt a suit helped me secure a job, when I changed professions.  I had interviewed for several manufacturers jobs and wasn't hired, but on the very next interview, after buying a slick Italian made suit, I was hired.  In that case, the suit had definitely either made an impact or helped me to make a better impact, and was worth the money.  I still have that one although it's had its share of being taken in and out to compensate for my expanding or contracting waistline.  That's one of the things that I don't like about suits, they need to be taken to professionals to be altered.  My jeans, on the other hand, stretch a little to accommodate a few pounds of weight gain, and if they don't it's easy to buy a pair off from the rack that fits you right (well at least for me it is).  I'll digress a little and probably be redundant to other blogs I've written too, but I'm OK with actually putting the true waist sizes on my clothes, you don't really need to try and flatter me telling me that I wear a smaller size.  I don't know who started that practice, but it makes buying my clothes a lot harder when I have to take 2 pair of each one into the dressing room with me to see how they fit. 

     I should finish this blog with a story of a dress up event that I still attend on an annual basis.  The local
In the parking lot of a Gala. before the event
hospital invites me to their Gala each year for my family's work on the golf tournament.  I pass along the tickets every other year or so, but I do like the event, so I rationalize keeping them a lot too.  When it started it was a black tie and tails event but it eventually went to a more casual dress.  I never minded renting the tux for this one, as I don't have a lot of occasions to wear one, and it was nice to be at a party where everyone was that formally dressed.  I think Char liked having an event each year to buy a new dress for too.  The Who's Who of the Canandaigua NY community turned out for this, and in a tux I felt more like I belonged among them, though clearly, I didn't (Think uniforms in Catholic Schools making the playing field more even between the different economic classes).  The food at this was fantastic and the band would soon start up, and the alcohol would start flowing and soon enough, I'd probably feel too comfortable at the event, although I haven't ended up on stage at this one, much.  The point is, that this event is one of the ritziest events that I attend and my behavior at this eventually matches my behaviors at every wedding at any local firehouse that I have attended.  I don't remember one that I left early and in fact have closed down most of them.  They still invite me back each year, but I'm sure that there is a discussion each time before they do, and I wouldn't be surprised if the title of this blog isn't uttered by the committee at least once.  Can you blame them?
The end of the evening

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Got the call to the Big Leagues this weekend......

     Any fan of the blog already knows of my love of cooking and BBQ'ing.  It's been the topic of countless blogs and I've even shared a couple of my recipes with you (Uncle Bill's Clam Chowder) and (Armadillo Eggs).  It is rare that I get to go to a party with fabulous food, and not contribute something, but that has been exactly the case for one party, for a few years, but it all changed this weekend.....

One view of a few tables at the Big Cook
     Have you ever gone to an event that was so awesome that you immediately block your calendar off for the following year, just in case you get invited back? That was my experience with my first Big Cook.  We got to know a couple, John and Stacey, through our children's participation in the Drama Club, and we received an invitation to the party.  "What can we bring?" we inquired, but the response was, "Nothing, all the food and beverages are provided for our guests".  When I pushed back a little and said, "I'm pretty handy in the kitchen, are you sure you don't want me to make something?", the answer I got back surprised me even more, "Oh"  they said "Then, You'll have to try out for the team next year".  Try Out?  What kind of party do you have to audition to cook for?  I was immediately reduced to my seventh grade self, standing in gym class, with the remaining 3 people not chosen yet to play dodgeball.  This time, however, I was bound and determined not to lose out to Chunky and Four Eyes.  I was going to the Big Cook to see what it was all about.

     The Big Cook was started by John's father to set one day aside to celebrate exceptional food with his family, and friends.  John and Stacey carried the tradition across the PA border with them and have hosted it up here for about 7 years.  It is a Cowboy Cookout of the finest order.  An array of cookers and grills are
John's custom built cooker/smoker
circled on a slate cooking area, full of meats that are roasted, and seared, and brushed and rubbed lovingly with sauces and marinades. The smell of woodsmoke and the clang of cast iron pots abound. A huge kettle swings on a cable and pulley system over an open fire pit and that's used just to provide the sweet corn for the party.  A tent is erected each year now to help hold the guests.  How many, you ask?  About 300, plus.  There are wine and beer tastings from local producers and the whole theme has evolved over the years to supporting the local farmers and producers.  The event is free to all guests, but the last couple of years, the dessert contest had a $5 entry fee to support NOFA-NY, (Northeast Organic Farming Association) and a small auction that benefits one of the most active FFA clubs, (Future Farmers of America) in the area from Penn Yan NY.   Don't mistake this for a fundraiser, this is a party, pure and simple, but now a party with a purpose.

     I hadn't auditioned to become one of the cooks on purpose, as I had mentioned before, it was nice to
Our custom built cooker with flames coming out
have a party where there was exceptional food that I didn't have to prepare.  This year, however, my brother Ace and I got the call up, to come and join the group, and our audition was waved.  I say waived, but I suspect that we earned it with our cooking and catering at countless graduation parties and events, that John and Stacey had attended.  One of the main cooks, Carl, who owns a fantastic custom meat and cheese market in Cuba NY, could not attend this year, so we stepped in to help out.  Incidentally, if you ever find yourself near Cuba NY, you owe yourself a visit to Mak's Meat and Cheese for some really unique items. We were happy to step in, but we had no hope of filling the shoes of a guy like Carl, who eats and breathes custom meats and has been cutting and cooking them for decades.  Although he couldn't make it, he contributed his Wild Leek and Sicilian Sausage again this year, that was just knock your socks off good.   It's
Nick loading the ribs
a little intimidating pulling into a BBQing circle with the likes of the talent that the Big Cook has, although it makes it a little easier when you pull in with a 13 foot custom made smoker and grill that used to hold missiles.  It's a toss up whether John or I have more grill envy of our respective cookers, but truth be told, they are both pretty sweet.  John's was built in North Carolina and opens on 2 sides and has a warmer box above the fire pit.  Ours has a 48" restaurant grill above the firebox that came off a local hotel's stove.  It has the flavor's imbued in it from 3 decades of cooking and makes everything that comes off it taste great.  We were in charge of the Pork Butts this year, which we rubbed 2 days before and slowly cooked for 14 hours with apple and assorted hardwoods.  Since we were up so early to monitor the pork, we threw some bacon, eggs, hash
browns, and home fries on the grill and got the crew's morning started right.  We'd like to make that an annual tradition, if we get called back, that is.  I think we fit right in with the cooking crew, which this year included John's nephew Nick, and his chef friend Cliff (they cooked all the baby back ribs), and Mark the neighbor who cooked Bison steaks.  John's son, Ben and my son Dan, got in on the action as well and put out some of the most delicious chicken that I'd ever had.  It was injected with Grandpa's family marinade, seared and then roasted, and it was delicious.  The meat selections were rounded off with some Greek style roasted lamb, some roasted
Mark, the Bison man.
Cabrito (small Goat), and some maple applesauce pork.  If I've given the impression that the feast is protein laden, it's only because I haven't yet talked about the rest of the table.

     The Big Cook wouldn't be complete without Stacey's golabki, the traditional Polish stuffed cabbage roll.
John the host with Gary the event coordinator
A family friend makes a killer corn bread which is a great accompaniment to all the smoked and roasted meats.  Huge kudos have to go to Jason, who shows up to a cowboy cook-off with a salad, but a salad that rocks, it's a Salcipon Salad made with flank steak and served with a chipotle dressing.  This year there were stuffed zucchini's, roasted root vegetables, baked polenta with heirloom tomato sauce, traditional baked beans, NY State mac and cheese and Ellie's mushroom dish, that went so fast, I never got to taste it.  A vegetarian could be well satisfied at the Big Cook, but I'm still glad I'm not one of those.  The hosts are so serious about the event, they even built a Cookhouse to help support it, with a full commercial kitchen with sub zero freezer,stainless steel refrigerator, a broiler, 2 ovens, a 6 burner range, and a pair of stainless steel prep tables.  The inside is done in Cowboy Chic with cast iron pots and farming implements adorning the walls and
Dan, me and our host Stacey at breakfast
heavy barn beams laid across the ceiling.  A slate counter bisects the interior and a patio with long bar completes the Cookhouse.  It's a great centerpiece of the party.  Speaking of centerpieces, the Big Cook is fortunate to have Gary, who organizes the seating, the buffet and takes care of all the small touches that make the Big Cook go so smoothly. He's a one-man Cowboy Cook-off pit crew.  To complete this blog and the event, I'll quickly describe the dessert contest.  It's open to anyone who attends and the the entries are judged by taste, appearance and the use of local ingredients.  I entered deep fried cheesecake last year and was passed over for any recognition, but my wife's carrot cake took a solid second this year, clearly showing who should stay in the kitchen and who should stay in the BBQ pit, in our family.  If you are not hungry after reading this blog, then clearly you have no love of food.   That's my story of our call to the Big Leagues, I think we pulled it off, but we'll know next Spring when we get the call or not, to come to the Big Cook. 

The Cookhouse kitchen with chef Cliff

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Idol" Time.

This blog is from my 2nd guest blogger.  The author is my oldest son, Daniel, who is 19 and in his 2nd year studying Psychology at the University of Buffalo.  Feel free to comment on the blog, even guest bloggers love feedback.  Dan's thoughts follow next....

     When I discovered that Bill (my dad) was looking for guest bloggers for Layers of the Ongion, I immediately let him know I was interested. In case you don’t already know, I’m not one to pass on an opportunity to show off, and I like to think I possess a little skill at writing, so it seemed like a great opportunity. Still, I can’t help but be a little apprehensive at the prospect of trying to match the level of quality this blog usually attains, so I apologize in advance if I fall short; good news is, your regularly scheduled programming will return next week. In the spirit of the usual post found here, I will strive to go off on several tangents and will do my best, whenever possible, to add unnecessary commas.

Picture this, but a lot nerdier.
     For my first ever guest blog, I will be discussing idols. Now I know what you’re thinking; no, it’s not the false kind you hear about in church. These idols are more like mentors or guides, in essence, they are heroes. Not every idol has to have superpowers; in fact, some of the best are just men and women doing the best they can with normal abilities. My idol is such a man, and he seems to have no need for superpowers once you see all that he accomplishes without them.  Even as young as I am, I sometimes find myself struggling to remember facts from my childhood. One memory that continually comes up time and time again however, no matter how many years pass, pertains to spending time with my dad in our living room after dinner. Now my dad was, and is, a busy man and frequently trips to other states or countries prevent him from making it to the dinner table. As such, the times we spent lounging after a meal were sacred in a way, and will always hold a special place in my heart, even if it seemed like all we were doing was watching a TV show.

Kirk with one of the many women he encountered
One of the shows my dad always seemed to be watching was Star Trek: The Original Series. Of course these were reruns from decades ago, but I didn’t know the difference and my dad didn’t seem to mind. I remember always wondering as I watched the show how on Earth the Enterprise and its crew always managed to get into so much trouble, but looking back, I suppose it was because they weren’t on Earth, they were “searching for new life, and new civilizations” and such. No matter what happened though, Captain Kirk kept a cool head, and eventually thought of a way to get out of the situation, whether it be his famous fight with the Gorn, or just a chess game where the loser dies. Kirk was all that you would ever need in an idol; he was resourceful, intelligent, always had a witty remark, and above all he was brave. True, Kirk was sometimes saved by McCoy or Spock when things became too big for even him to manage, but more often than not it was Kirk saving the day. I could always rely on Captain Kirk to bring the episode to a satisfying conclusion before bedtime.

Oh Captain, my Captain, Captain of the USS Armchair, Bill Yarger
Now that I am in college, and am no longer living at home, I have taken once more to old habits; after all, “old habits die hard”. I recently acquired all three seasons of the original series of Star Trek, and many a night after dinner, I find myself watching an episode of it or two, in a sense reliving my childhood. Now that I am an adult, I see some things in the show that I missed before, like the fact that Kirk also always gets the girl, only to leave her for the cold embrace of the captain’s chair once more.  I see something else though, and I think this is infinitely more meaningful. I know now why I idolized Captain Kirk as a child, and it’s not because he was cool, or because he was always out on interesting missions. I idolized Kirk because he was a lot like my real idol, my father. All of the features that defined Kirk as a man could also describe my dad; he was smart, ingenious, self-sacrificing and a little arrogant. Kirk and my dad alike enjoyed spirits and frivolity, (although I doubt Romulan Ale can compare to my dad’s drink of choice, a double tall Sapphire and Tonic) and like Kirk, my dad was a traveler; the fact that his ship was actually a car was unimportant. However, as great as Kirk was, the similarities end there, because unlike Kirk; my dad has a loving wife and 2 great kids. (The jury is still out on one of us)

I will leave you with one thought to ponder the next time you relax with your family or friends; Are you an idol to someone else? If you are, what are you doing to maintain your position? Remember, it takes a lot of work to be the captain of the Enterprise; being someone’s idol is no different. If you can manage to be even half the idol I had, you should congratulate yourself on a job well done. Thanks for reading, and have a good week!

James T. Kirk Jr.

Dan Yarger, today's guest blogger

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How to make Nolan and Bill's Armadillo Eggs

    My family likes to cook and I think we have a fair share of good cooks in both my immediate household and in the family I grew up with. If you invite us to a party, we likely won't be the ones bringing the bag of chips, or vegetable tray, not that these things aren't needed, they just won't come from us.  My brother's wife suggested last week that they bring cookies to a neighbor's shindig and a 2 day fight ensued.  We are serious about our food. They ended up bringing pulled pork shooters and they were delicious.  We found this dish about 7 years ago, but didn't like the way it was done at the party we were at, so we adapted it and made it a go-to dish for us to share with our friends.  

Our last batch of Armadillo Eggs in a round chafer
     Why does Nolan get top billing for these?  When we first made them, he had the ability to roll them smaller, so since that day, we always make them together. Char helps out a lot, but I'll always think of Nolan first when we make them.  The recipe is not hard, but it does take time, so be prepared.  The ingredients for making a batch of 60 or so are, 12 Hungarian Wax peppers, 3-4 eggs, 2-3 cups of bread crumbs, 3-8 oz bricks of cream cheese, and about 5lbs of mild-hot Italian sausage patties (or raw links).  You'll find other recipes where these are breaded on the outside and a couple where they are wrapped in bacon, but we like our variation better.  The breading doesn't add anything to the taste, and while bacon makes everything taste better, you don't really need it for this dish, they taste great already. 

     The first step in making the Armadillo Eggs is to wash and dry the Hungarian Peppers.  Once that is
Ingredients layed out, slicing the peppers
completed, you are ready to slice them.  I like to wear gloves for this part, as you might forget you were working with peppers later in the day, and lick your fingers or something worse and get a big surprise.  The slices should be uniform in size, about 1/3 of a inch wide, depending on the pepper.  We like to make these bite size, so we know the size pepper chunk that we have to start with.  Other recipes I've seen use jalapenos sliced lengthwise, and then using the stuffed halves, or capping the half with the top of the jalapeno and then breading it, but we like this size and taste best.  So, you slice the Hungarian Pepper in 1/3" slices using as much as the pepper as possible. When you get towards the end, you may want to split the slice to allow more cream cheese into the bite, that's a personal preference.  Do you remove the seeds?  That's no fun if you do, and as a matter of fact, we like to play a game called Armadillo Egg Roulette where we bring these to a
The starting of the stuffing process
party and watch the reactions of the people eating them, based on the hotness, largely based on the amount of seeds left in. I tend to use them all and in fact pick up the remaining seeds with the cream cheese filled peppers.  I have to offer a quick thank you to my friend Crystal who educated me about whether I used Banana Peppers or Hungarian Wax Peppers for this dish.  She runs a successful produce market near us and let me know Banana Peppers have virtually no heat, so they can be used for this dish, but they are not nearly as much fun.  The heat dissipates quickly though, so as hot as one as you might get, you can go back for another pretty quickly.  Another shout out to my sister, She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named for supplying some of the peppers for this last batch from her garden. 

     The next step is to fill the sliced peppers with cream cheese.  It's kind of self explanatory, but take non-
Nolan demonstrating the Roll
whipped cream cheese and completely stuff the pepper ring and lay it aside.  If you have leftover seeds, feel free to pick them up with the stuffed peppers as you go along.   We like to use a mixture of hot and mild sausage, so the heat really comes from the pepper.  Next, you need to make a sausage meatloaf of sorts.  Take your sausage patties (or remove the sausage from the hank), and add a few eggs.  Work the bread crumbs in with your hands until the mixture is tacky to the touch, but malleable.  We don't overuse the bread crumbs, so the other flavors can come through.  It's now time to enrobe the stuffed pepper.  My method is to take a few ounces in my palm and flatten it, then take the pepper and place it in the center and roll
the outside sausage in and around the pepper, and then roll it in your hands a few times to make it as ball shaped as possible.  Since they are called Eggs, it's okay if they come out oval.  The best technique puts as little sausage as possible around the pepper but keeps the cream cheese inside while they cook.  In order to make mine as small as Nolan and Char's, I always have to go back and pick sausage off and re-roll, but I can get there eventually.  Bite sized is the key, as these are hard to bite into, but easy to pop a whole one in your mouth.  As you roll them, place them in a baking dish that you have previously sprayed with Pam.  When you are done rolling, they are ready for the oven. 

     Preheat the oven to 350-375 and bake them for 25-30 minutes.   I like to roll them or turn them around in
I highly recommend using a pretty blonde assistant.
the pan to ensure a good look to all sides of the Armadillo Egg and if they don't look dark enough on the outside, feel free to broil them for a minute to get the desired color.  If you've made them correctly, they'll tell you when they are done, as the thinner ones will split slightly and start to ooze the cream cheese out.  One of those is a good one to test too, so let it cool for a minute, slice it with a sharp knife and if it's cooked throughout, pop it in your mouth and enjoy an Armadillo Egg.  If you bring these to a party, they are best enjoyed warm so keep them in a crock pot on low, or in a chafing dish or on a warming tray.   There are two other variations that I'd consider using, and the first is to cook these in a smoker.  That's not a bad flavor to add to these.  The 2nd is to coat the outside with a red BBQ sauce and to glaze them.  My wife is not a big fan of BBQ, so I generally don't do this, but I've got a cowboy cookout to go to in a few weeks and I thought I'd try them out there.  So that is the whole recipe, let us know if you try it out and feel free to give us credit, unless of course you play Armadillo Egg Roulette, then you are on your own. 

Finished product