Spring Has Sprung!

Week 5: April 5-11 2020

Sunday April 5th: Eye of Round

Look who's back!

Look who's coming back to dinner, pinkeye and COVID-19 free! Just like many of us who grew up during the 80's, Sandy eventually got over her encounter with Scott Baio. She is healthy, she is out of the supermax section of the quarantine prison, and she is back in general population and eating at the commissary with us.

By way of explanation, all of those Scott Baio pinkeye cracks I've been making come from a first season episode of South Park. I find it hard to believe that episode #7 of that show first aired in 1997, but its true. My up-to-date cultural references are almost 23 years old. Oh well. Those same references are gonna be slaying 'em in the old folks home thirty years from now, so its good to take them out and dust them off every so often.

About to be roasted.

To celebrate Sandy's return, we had an Eye of Round beef roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, asparagus, and red chard. I don't usually cook from a recipe, but dad really wanted me to try this one from Allrecipes.com for Tender Eye Of Round Roast. It was interesting because it called for roasting the meat in aluminium foil. Its nothing I would have ever thought to do to a roast, but I followed the recipe as written. I think we all agreed it wasn't bad, and that eye of round is a tough cut of meat pretty much no matter what.

I think my basic sautéed red chard recipe is awesome, and it's one of Sandy's favorites, so I made it for her triumphant return to the table. However, like the rest of this dinner, I didn't take any pictures of it. The red chard deserves more than just a picture, so I'm not going to write about it now. Next time I make it, I'll take pics and even write down the steps for a recipe.

Monday April 6th: Grilled Fajitas

Notice that the inside of the grill is very clean.

I miss the Cal-Mex food that we ate when we lived in California. Michi-Mex is just so different. I think a lot of it has to do with the availability of really fresh produce. In season, the Michigan sweet corn is unbeatable, and we do grow a pretty awesome cabbage here, and I'd say that Rika's garden tomatoes are just wonderful, but that's really about it from a produce standpoint.

California grows a little bit of everything, and when you live there, its all locally grown and fresh. Large parts of California have a year round growing season, and the state is number one for agricultural production in the United States, responsible for 13% of cash receipts for farm commodities. Michigan is #18, with 2%. So yeah, the produce tastes different in Michigan, 'cause most of it has to be shipped here, and that influences the local tastes for sure.

Of course, the difference between Cal-Mex and Michi-Mex food might also have something to do with California having been a part of Mexico until 1848. Michigan was French until 1763 then British until 1796, and neither of those countries have ever really been known for their excellent tacos and burritos.

Grilled fajita tacos are easy to make. I used a flank steak for this batch, but chicken works too. I seasoned the meat with Ancho chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, Mexican oregano, and salt, then grilled it to 140°F. The peppers and onions are just that- plain old bell peppers and onions with a little bit of olive oil on them, grilled along with the steak. Normally I'd grill those veggies whole right on the grate and them slice before serving, but I happened to have a foil grilling pan, so I used it to save some time.

Cal-Mex isn't the same without a big scoop of black beans on the side, and since it isn't immediately obvious how to make good ones, I'll lay out my recipe for them. Getting these beans right is all about the two-phase cooking technique.

Cal-Mex Black Beans

Chocolate Beans
  • Two cans of black beans (frijoles negro, low or no-salt preferred)
  • A splash of half and half
  • A cube of butter
  • A minced shallot
  • A bay leaf
  • A spoonful of cocoa powder
  • A pinch of dried Mexican oregano
  • A pinch of cinnamon powder
  • Salt to taste

First and foremost, always drain and rinse the beans before using them! You've got to wash the wind off of canned black beans, or they can give an unpleasant digestive effect later. Nobody wants that when they are under LOCKDOWN.

Reserve one can of rinsed beans for the second part of the recipe, and put everything else into a little pot. Add enough water to completely cover the beans, and bring the pot to a low simmer, stirring to mix everything together. Let it simmer for at least a half an hour, until the beans are very soft, and mash easily on the side of the pot.

Take the bay leaf out and discard it. Now stir the beans vigorously, breaking them up on the side of the pot. The goal is to make black bean paste. Once you've got the beans all mashed up, pour the reserved can of whole beans into the paste, and add enough water to make the mixture liquid again. Keep the pot on low heat until the unmashed beans are warmed all the way through.

Just before you serve the beans, you can stir a little more butter or water into them if they are looking dry. Sour cream tastes nice on top.

What, no avocado or cilantro? Oh yeah, we're in Michigan, and there is a plague going on.

I like serving steak fajitas on flour tortillas. The flour tortillas are fine at room temp, but I prefer warming them up directly on the grill. A little bit of lettuce and tomato goes well on the fajita tacos too. That little pool of green slime in the picture is Mrs Renfro's Green Salsa. Its a Tex-Mex style salsa, but its really pretty good, and fresh tomatillos are hard to find in Michigan. Plus, salsa is a lot like spaghetti sauce. You can certainly do better making it yourself, but... thank you, Mrs Renfro! Yours will do just fine tonight.

Tuesday April 7th: Dishwasher Disaster!

That's... Not good.

One of the deals that Rika and I have in our house is a division of labor. For kitchen chores, I'm in charge of cooking and shopping, and Rika sets the table and does the dishes. I hate doing dishes, and she has no love for shopping, so we both think its a fair situation- as long as there is a dishwasher. And last night, the dishwasher stopped draining itself.

I was a little torqued because I just bought and installed that washer myself last year. There's no way I should be having any problem with it at all in the first twelve months, and under normal circumstances, I'd probably have called up Lowe's or KitchenAid and had someone else come out to deal with it as a warranty repair, and as a matter of principal. This, however, is not "normal times". This is LOCKDOWN, and there ain't gonna be no lonely old Maytag Repair Man coming to my house anytime soon. Nope, if I wanted to avoid doing dishes by hand for the foreseeable future, I was going to have to see if I could fix the damned thing myself.

Why are your vanes all torn up, my little friend?

The first thing I did was to go to RepairClinic.com to get a look at the debugging steps. RepairClinic is physically located in Canton, MI, just a few miles from my house, so if it was a bad part of any kind, I might have a chance of picking it up curbside even with the lockdown in place. I checked all of the hoses were free of obstruction. I checked and cleaned all the internal filters. I power cycled the diswasher to try and reset it. I checked the door switches. Finally, it came down to removing and checking the drain pump itself, which I did. I tested it with a voltmeter as described, and it passed the test. But it didn't look right. It was kind of torn up.

What the hell is THAT?

As I was getting ready to put the pump back into the dishwasher, I decided to check the pump housing with a flashlight one more time, and I found this splintery little bugger in there. Its a 2" long shard of broken glass! I have no idea where it came from. Rika speculates that it might have been left over from a serving bowl that broke last thanksgiving. It must have landed in the washer and taken five months to bounce around in there and work its way past the filters. Amazing. I put the dishwasher back together sans-shard and everything worked as it should again!

The sweet taste of success!

To celebrate, I made some Dearborn Sausage Kielbasa with fennel and apple, butter fried frozen cheese and onion pirogi with chopped tomato, a green salad, and some Storm Cloud Zapper beet-ginger-cabbage saurkraut from The Brinery in Ann Arbor. Pretty much a heat-and-serve type dinner, but it sure looks nice, doesn't it?

Wednesday April 8th: Shopping, Salmon, Spring has Sprung!

We are in luck, there is still some Cream of Shrimp!

Wednesday was a beautiful day! Highs in the low 70°F, bright and sunny. What a great change of pace after what has seemed like a very long winter. But first... the shopping report.

I guess some people drink a lot of milk.

I didn't take too many pictures, because it was about the same as the last time I went. No paper products, no cleaning supplies. The canned soup isle was almost completely decimated, but you could still get: Fiesta Nacho Cheese, Cream of Bacon, Creamy Cauliflower, Sweet Potato, Manhattan Clam Chowder for $2.59, and Cream of Shrimp for $3.79. I was thinking of that poor Shipt Shopper from three weeks ago with glee. "Oh, you DID decided to place an order with us again? Well, there's still no Chicken Noodle, but I was able to get you this yummy substitution instead. Enjoy your Cream of Shrimp, ya jerk."

First outside dinner of 2020!

The dairy cooler still had a good supply of milk, but the store had posted a bunch of signs that read "ONLY 2 GALLONS OF MILK PER CUSTOMER". The signs also read, in small print at the bottom, "Purchase 2 white and 2 chocolate will be allowed". Well, that's something I guess. Truth told, chocolate milk would work out just fine in my black beans. I wonder how well it would sub into an au-gratin recipe? Or into a home-made Cream of Shrimp soup when the store finally runs out of the canned stuff?

There wasn't any ground beef to be had at the store, or chicken. There was, however, some really great looking Atlantic Salmon for sale. I took it home, covered it in a mixture of maple syrup, soy sauce, brown miso paste, minced ginger, sesame seeds, and white cane sugar, then grilled it outside over cedar planks. We had grilled bokchoi, and rice with carrots to go with it.

The weather was wonderful, and the lake was chock full of all kinds of people out boating, pontooning, and jet-skiing, even though the water is still darned cold. If you've got to be holed up and socially isolated, doing it on a boat seems like a good way to pass the time. Too bad pontoon launching isn't an essential service, our we could try to get the marina to launch Dad's boat. Oh well, at least we've got the Sea Ray to play around in.

All in all, its been a really great way to kick off spring here on the lake!

Grilled Cedar Planked Maple Miso Salmon

  • Fresh Salmon, 2.5lbs (a heavy 1/2lb per person) skin on preferred
  • Two Cedar grilling planks
  • Brown Miso Paste
  • Dark Soy Sauce
  • Maple Syrup
  • Seasoned Rice Wine Vinegar
  • Minced Fresh Ginger
  • Sesame Seeds
  • White cane sugar

Get some water boiling in the teapot, and put the planks into rimmed baking sheets. When the water is hot, pour it, boiling, over the cedar planks, and let them soak until the water is cool. This will get the planks wet enough to not burn through, but not so wet that they won't char and smoke on the bottom side.

While the planks are soaking, make up about a half a cup of marinade using two tablespoons of brown miso paste, an inch of minced fresh ginger, a scant 1/4cup of maple syrup, a scant 1/4cup soy sauce, and healthy splash of the rice wine vinegar. Pour the marinade into a glass dish large enough to hold the fish.

Rinse the fish, and cut it into 2" wide strips. Place the fish skin-side up, pink side down, into the marinade dish. Let the fish sit soak in the marinade for fifteen minutes or so, until the cedar planks are done soaking.

Take the planks out of the water, dry them lightly, and discard the cedar-tea you've made. Put the fish strips skin side down directly onto the planks, leaving at least 1.5" between the strips for the cedar smoke to circulate. Spoon any remaining marinade over the fish strips. It may mostly run off onto the plank but that's ok. Try and keep the ginger bits on the fish.

Shake the sesame seeds over the fish strips almost to cover, then shake about a teaspoon of white sugar per fish strip over the seeds.

Put the planks over direct heat, onto a very hot preheated grill. The goal is to get the bottom of the plank to char and release its smoke into the grill, and for the smoke to be hot enough to quick-caramelize all of that maple and sugar and toast the seeds, without overcooking the inside of the fish strips.

If it seems like there is a lot of smoke, don't panic. As long as it smells like cedar and not charring fish, you're good. If you are worried, you can open the grill and check, but try not to look at the fish too often, you'll kill the heat and the smoke every time you lift the lid.

The fish is cooked when the outside starts looking brown and crisp, and the inside of the thickest piece is up to 130°F. To plate, use a thin spatula to separate the fish from the skin, which will usually stay stuck to the board.

Date Night! Thursday April 9th: Kabob Garden

Spring has decided to Maintain a Social Distance.

Michigan has some funny weather. Yesterday, highs in the low 70°s. Today? Mid 30°s. And it snowed later in the evening. I won't lie, I'm kinda getting tired of winter.

For date night, Rika and I drove out to Kabob Garden in town for a big carry out order of Middle Eastern food. Getting out of the house for a short ten minute drive together is something to look forward to, even when it involves going out in weather like this.

Friday April 10th: Sphagetti and Meatballs

♫ On top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese / none of us want COVID, so cover your sneeze. ♫

A depressing thing to note today is that Governor Whitmer put a ban on all power boating. So now, even though I have the boat in the water, and the weather is supposed to get nice again, we won't be able to use it. Oh well. At least we can still go out canoeing if we want to. The power boat is there in case of a small boat emergency on the lake, and I feel a lot better knowing that.

With the weather and the boating ban, some easy comfort food was required. Spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs are made out of a 16oz tube of Italian sausage, cut with a 1/3 cup panade of bread crumbs and half-and-half. Roll them around in hot oil in a fry pan until the outside is browned, then add a yellow bell pepper cut into strips, a sweet onion cut into strips, a jar of bottled sauce, and a handful of sliced olives. Let it simmer for 20 minutes or so or until the inside of the meatballs are above 160°F.

The veg are just a frozen steam-in-the-microwavable-bag type. The breadsticks are Pillsbury crescent roll dough from a can, covered with Parmesan cheese and garlic powder, twisted into strips and baked. Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the oven', and nothing says bummer like a boating ban 'til summer.

Saturday April 11th: Ham and Pinapple

The big dock was put in during the 1930's.

In a fit of pique over the boating ban, I decided to paddle my way over to Dad's house to say hi. I'll be honest, it's a lot more exercise than turning the key and zooming across the lake. But hey, at least there isn't any more damned snow to contend with! Also, I feel that I should point out the canoe in that picture is about 70 years old. It is an original Grumman Aircraft Canoe, made in Bethpage NY, which means it was built sometime before 1952. Its still an awesome boat, and if I didn't tell you how old it was, you'd probably think it was just a few years old.

Almost Easter!

Friday was Good Friday, and its traditional to eat ham and asparagus that day. The weather was crummy, however, and I didn't feel like grilling outside in it. So, instead we did it today. Grilled ham, pineapple, and asparagus, with a side of cheesy mashed potatoes and a salad. The Potatoes came out kind of gummy, cause I rushed them.

I won't be rushing anything tomorrow, cause its Easter, and we are having prime rib! The holiday will be a little different this year, because we won't be hosting a large Easter Supper like we've been doing for years. I miss having everyone coming over, but I'm super happy that we'll still have Dad, Rika, and Sandy to enjoy it!

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