Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Corn Bread Pudding Debate

It was a pseudo face off. . . The Chi Chi's mix versus a new recipe.

Recipe Ingredients vs. the Mix

Christmas Dinner was the battleground.

 For years, Chi Chi's Sweet Corn Cake Mix has been a staple around here. Add a can of creamed style corn (to date I'm not sure what else you would use that for), some water, and melted butter, and you had a sweet treat that transported you back to simpler times when Chi Chi's was a destination of a Friday night and you could have seafood enchilada's that masqueraded as Mexican fare and fried ice cream for dessert. Those days are long gone but the sweet corn cake still lived on. Until recently. The last few times I have made it, it hasn't tasted quite right. I thought maybe I messed up, not following the directions to a "t", or the batch we had was stale. But last time, a couple of weeks back, I realized something has changed in this mix and it's just not right!

I did a little research, exploring recipes for homemade versions. I am hesitant to use the word "homemade" because there is still a mix involved but there was a list of possible ingredients. Of course, there were more sophisticated versions of this type of fare, ranging from Alton Brown's version with cubed bread, stone ground cornmeal, and shredded cheese and heavy cream, to a dessert like rendition with raisins and maple syrup.

I settled finally on this recipe for my foundation, staying true to the ingredients with the exception of adding a topping brown sugar, cayenne pepper, paprika and shredded Mexican cheese to spice it up a bit. The rest of the recipe I really did follow, mixing the first five ingredients (eggs, sour cream, two types of corn, and melted butter) together before adding the dry cornbread mix. 

After that I made a topping of the brown sugar (about 2 Tablespoons) with a 1/4 teaspoon of paprika and a dash of cayenne that I stirred with a fork in a bowl. I sprinkled that on the batter and then added a healthy dose of the shredded cheese before I put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees. The final result? It was as good as Chi Chi's and was a slightly more textured (crunchy) version and the added flavors did not overpower the final casserole. 

Before Baking

After Baking

The Corn Bread Pudding had good company with a list of other side dishes at our Christmas Dinner tonight. There was green bean casserole (the original Durkee French Fried Onion version), along with regular corn with butter, beer bread, mashed potatoes and fried brown sugared ham. Sometimes tradition outweighs culinary adventures.

This was our first Christmas in our new home and it was really special. Rather than eating  in front of the TV, we actually ate at the table, by candlelight no less. One of my resolutions for the coming year is to enjoy what I have rather than "saving" it. So the china that has been stored for the past fifteen years, but never used, came out today. Candles that we have had for I don't know how long actually were lit. It was a very nice meal, complete with Christmas music and laughter and love.

 Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy holiday season. 

Here's to a New Year full of laughter, love, happiness and of course, good food!

Book Review: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Another collection of short stories that got past me. . . but I'm glad it did.

8 short stories about eight different individuals that are somehow connected to a feudal landowner in Lahore, Pakistan. Each story is rich in nature and reveals the harsh realities of that world. There is no sugar coating the trials and challenges these people face as they are often without choices and do the best they can to survive.

An interesting book with rich characters and insight into a different world.

Book Review: Jamrach's Menagerie

Nineteenth Century London with Poverty, Adventure and Wild Animals

Jaffy Brown is a boy that lives in poverty and squalor without much to hope for to change his situation until a close encounter with a tiger on a crowded street in London. It turns out that a tiger escaped his cage and Jaffy pets it in wonder and survives to tell the tale. So begins a tale that has Jaffy meeting the famous Mr. Jamrach, an importer of exotic animals.

Jaffy ends up running errands and working for Mr. Jamrach which opens up a world of possibilities for him that change the course of his entire life. He learns to read and write, makes new friends and a circle of support, and eventually sets forth on an three year adventure at sea to find a dragon to bring back to England during a whaling expedition to the West Indies.

The story is so much more than adventure and exotic creatures and locations. While Jaffy learns about life beyond England he also is challenged with hard work as well as a struggle to survive. Friendships and love is tested throughout.

Highly recommend!

Book Review: Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

A Modern Day Story of a Family - Tragedy Included

In the beginning Mary Beth's life seems almost perfect, albeit a little boring. She is a suburban housewife with an ophthalmologist husband and a life that is set on a schedule. For a hobby, she has a job doing landscaping but for the most part it's all about keeping the family together. There are little problems and hiccups along the way. Mary Beth reflects on the bout of anorexia her daughter had but it seems to be in the past. One of the twin boys seems to be antisocial and needs to see a therapist.

There is a tension you feel even at the beginning of this book that made me feel like something very bad was going to happen as the tension built and it did. The second half of the book focuses on the survivors and how they go on when everything seems to be lost. A family is shattered and those that are left have to find a new definition of family.

This was a hard book to read but it was well written. I can't say I would have picked it if I knew going in what was going to happen but in the end it was a very good story.

Book Review: Island Beneath the Sea

A Historical Novel Set in Haiti

This novel provides in depth characters in a rich story set in the 1700's mostly in Haiti. Through this story of intertwined lives, I learned a lot about the history of this county and its ties to France that developed a unique culture and set forth a struggle for independence.

The story provides two distinct, yet intertwined, stories of individuals. There is Valmorain, who comes from France, to make a his own fortune from the plantation he has inherited from his father. He first must come to terms with how to make a life in this harsh land and how to work to have riches. He tries to bring France and the conventions of that past life with him but it is a struggle. The wife he sought out to make a family does not end up providing him with the comfort, solace and life he imagined and he ends up turning to a mullato slave in his own home for many of those things. The dependence and attraction that he finds for her distrubs him and he struggles with these feelings and what he thinks is acceptable in his society and class system.

The story also provides us much of the same history from Zarite's perspective. She comes to Valmorain's home as a house maid but becomes so much more, even bearing a child for the master that adds layers of complexity to their relationship. It becomes even harder to define as a revolution occcurs that take both Zarite and Valmorian to Cuba and then to Lousiana.

There are a host of other characters in this story that brings forth many more challenges and complex relationships as race is a central issue in this book. Love and it's various forms are often challenged as each person must find their own way and their own identity despite what each culture (Haiti, Cuba, and then the United States) creates its own social conventions.

Great Book!

Book Review: Don't Say a Word by Barbara Freethy

A Single Photograph Changes the Course of a Life

Julia DeMarco is touring the venue for her upcoming wedding as her fiancee pressures her to finally set a date to begin their future together. At this hall, she takes a break to escape and comes across a photography exhibition that sets the ball into motion. One of the photographs features a little girl in Soviet Russia, in front of an orphanage. Julia sees herself in that photo, and questions if it could really be her, as she has the same features, and is wearing the same necklace that Julia herself owns from her childhood.

For this girl to be her would potentially shatter everything that she knows and the family she loves. The photographer is dead but has a son that she reaches out to, in hopes to solve this mystery. Alex Manning is shocked to see the girl he saw so many years ago when he traveled to Russia with his father. So begins an adventure that takes Julia far from home and discovers that what is safe might not always be the best, and sometimes delaying a commitment may be for a reason.

This book features romance and mystery, as well as political intrigue.

Book Review: Juliet by Anne Fortier

What a Wild Ride through Italy and Romeo and Juliet!

Everything that Julie Jacobs knows about her life is about to be shaken. When Julie's Aunt passes away and she inherits a key to a safe deposit box in Sienna, Italy, she begins an adventure to discover who she truly is.

Julie finds out many things about her past through a plot that continues to alternate between her present day adventure and old transcripts and correspondence related to the real life characters of Romeo and Giulietta, a medieval pair of lovers from Sienna, who were the basis of Shakespeare's famous story. Turns out that Julie's obsession with everything Shakespeare goes well beyond a hobby or even a passion, as she finds out she is a descendant of this family and blood feud.

Julie must find out all there is to know and get past the many secrets that have been hidden from her for years. Who were her parents that she cannot remember? Why was she kept from her family in Italy for so long? What about the plague that has been passed down to both houses (both Romeo and Juliet) and can it be stopped? Is there a real life Romeo for her to discover?

The descriptions of modern day Sienna are romantic and lush, and a wonderful backdrop for a story with modern day bad guys and a mystery to solve. This is a fun book with lots of twists and turns, plus a little humor.


Book Review: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

A Coming of Age Tale Set in 1970's Brooklyn

Dylan Ebdus lives in downtown Brooklyn. At the start of this story, the backdrop is an indentified up and coming neighborhood that the artistic and affluent may eventually settle in but Dylan is the one white boy at the time. Dylan's mother soon leaves on her own adventure, abandoning him and his eccentric emotionally removed artist father.

Dylan must struggle to fit in everywhere he goes. He is often "yoked" (put into a headlock) and what little he has is taken from him. He tries to fit into this world but is often on the fringes but finds the tenacity to continue to strive for greatness and to set himself apart.

Much of this story focuses on the complex relationship he has with his neighbor Mingus, a slightly older boy who is the son of a grammy awarded singer and the grandson of a preacher. Mingus is someone who Dylan idolizes and also gives him a little of the street cred he needs to survive in school and on the streets. Dylan introduces him to comics, graffiti and drugs, and provides a tie to the neighborhood long after he grows and moves on.

The first half of the story is told from Dylan as a little boy. The second half takes us through Dylan's world as a young man. Both stories tell of a struggle for his own identity and happiness. What is surprising is the magical elements that do take place in this book that provide some more ties to a comic book/superhero world. To give away any more than that would ruin the book.

Take this ride. It's both sad and joyous. There is a lot of love, and a lot of pain, much like life in this book. You won't regret it.

Book Review: Jack Maggs A Novel by Peter Carey

What a fantastic read!

I have to say that if I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens it was in high school and a required reading so I probably did not pay any attention. Apparently this book is a retelling of that story in the perspective of the main character, Jack Maggs, who is based upon Abel Magwitch from the original tale. 

Jack Maggs is an Australian convict who returns to Victorian London to make things right, from his perspective. He is a bad, bad man. When we meet him we quickly learn about his rage and his murderous ways. He is back in London on a mission, to find a young boy that made an impact on him when he was on his way to the penal colony in Australia.

Jack ends up infiltrating a comfortable household while he makes his move, playing the part of a house servant as he waits to meet his ward face to face. Along the way, he comes in contact with a novelist who is less than moral, who is very interested in getting into Jack's subconscious to learn all his secrets and pain. Tobias Oates (a characterization of Charles Dickens?) continues to hypnotize Jack to peel back the layer of defenses in hopes to create a character for one of his books that he thinks will be a best seller and his ultimate means to be rich instead of just famous.

Through this story we learn more about Jack and the series of events that unfolded from his strange painful childhood and his career as a thief as well as the loves he lost that landed him in the unfortunate position to be shipped off to Australia. We end up learning that there is a lot more to this man in terms of sense of duty and loyalty. Victorian morality is not always as just or wonderful as it seems and Jack is really the hero.

Great read!

Book Review: Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

Another Quirky Gem by Palahniuk

Not sure who Palahniuk is? Think Fight Club and Invisible 

I should know by now that Palahniuk is going to throw me some curves. I was braced for the twists and turns his story would provide but like usual, he still managed to surprise me. What I love is that his main characters, as well as those in supporting roles, are often beyond flawed but somehow I still grow to love them and root for them in their struggles.

Choke features the (not sure how it is but) lovable character of Victor. Victor is a medical school dropout who is smart and in survivor mode. He is trying to support the expensive care of his mother, with who he has a very complex and strained relationship (understatement), at a long term facility. There is quite a history between Victor and his mother. Through flashbacks we learn that Victor grew up in many foster homes over the years and his mother was a radical outlaw and must have experienced symptoms of mental illness long before his current dementia.

He really can't afford her care through his job at a historical village as a indentured servant so he has come up with a con to choke at expensive restaurants to get both a free meal and also donations as those who "save" him feel a need to continue to support him. Twisted? Of course.

Did I mention that Victor is also in a twelve step program for sexual addiction? Well that is of course part of the roller coaster ride that a Palahniuk novel takes and it's always a fun ride. Highly recommend this book - it is twisted fun.

Book Review: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimito

The first of many book reviews to close out 2012

I'm far behind. That's the truth. I think I took a little hiatus from just about everything to devote to the long and painful process of moving. We bought a new house in the fall and that consumed us. While I thought it was the frugal thing to do, to move ourselves rather than hire professionals, really took a life of its own.

While I feel we are officially settled in as we celebrate the holidays, I do still have to find things as everything has a new "home" or is still in the garage to be sorted. I took a hiatus from blogging and even cooking these last few months but I did continue to read. So in the next couple of days there will be several reviews of books to close out this year.

I really try to avoid collections of short stories for the most part. I don't know why this is but I think that because I'm a quick reader I want to have some sort of long term relationship with the characters. However, a couple of collections got past me this reading batch and this was one of them. Kitchen had two short stories both focusing on loss.

The first, Kitchen, is a first person perspective told by Mikage who has recently lost her grandmother who was her only living relative. Mikage finds comfort in the kitchen and in cooking in this time of loss. During the funeral she meets Yuichi, the young man from the flower shop that knew her grandmother, who invites her to live with him and his mother while she heals.

Through a series of events, Mikage and Yuichi find commonality and navigate through the grief of losing a loved one. The story is told in what first seems like simple terms but really has layers of depth in both the plot and the persons. The narrative is often poetic.

A second story, Moonlight Shadow, also deals with loss, this time with a boyfriend who died in a car crash. Again, relationships are borne through the loss but this time the story also contains elements of the supernatural or magical.

This book was translated from Japanese into English and I wonder of some of it was lost in that transition. However, the book remains lyrical and has a good pace. I would recommend this one.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book Review: Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Interesting story about different cultures coming together.

At first I was unsure about this book. I was not really enthusiastic about the writing style. The author writes in present tense and while there is a lot of dialogue back and forth, there isn't any punctuation and sometimes I found it challenging to figure out who was saying what.

An example:

Fifteen pounds, three ounces, at her last doctor visit, Ziba told him.
Fifteen, he frowned.
And three ounces.
I guess she's going to be one of those petite little people he said.

The story was worth the challenging moments. After a while I found the cadence of the author and could look past it. Initially I thought this book was a story about adoption but learned it was so much more.

The story starts with two couples at the airport waiting anxiously for their baby girls to be delivered to them off the plan landing from Korea. The Donaldsons are a very American couple, with a lot of extended family and a video camera, waiting for their Jin-Ho to arrive. The Yazdans are of Iranian heritage and are standing to the side, more reserved, also waiting for their new daughter Sooki.

An unlikely friendship develops over the years as the two couple bond over the lives of their children but with marked differences in how they raise their families. The extended family members come along for the ride, uniting the shy and reserved Iranian family with the boisterous Americans.

The stories of the grandparents really becomes a larger theme in the book and the focus from the children does shift which makes this fascinating yet easy reading. How does a person who immigrated from Iran but does not feel she fits into the American world react to the society around her? I found this the most interesting part of the story and learned to love all of the characters.

An easy read (once you got past the dialogue) and very interesting.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Restaurant Review: The Wooden Spoon

A Gem in Brighton

Local flavors and interesting pairings.

With the end of summer looming near we took the last week in August off and stayed close for some local adventures. After a beach day at Kensington we decided to have an early dinner at the Wooden Spoon and it lived up the hype of the locals.

The restaurant has a really nice patio area to eat outside but the inside is very cute. Local artists are featured. While we were there, there was some amazing work by a fiber artist whose pieces looked like watercolor paintings of people and landscapes. The dining area also shares space with a market with fresh takeout foods and specialty groceries.

Coffee Coriander Charred Sirloin
Deciding what to order was the first challenge. For the kids, it was about all the different varieties of soda. We aren't talking about choosing between coke or cherry coke or perhaps an exotic Dr. Pepper. This menu boasted options from Towne Club and Stewarts to more unusual picks such as Bawls, Fentimans and Sprecher. We did taste the Sprecher Cream Soda and it was very good. And there was Coca Cola imported from Mexico with pure cane sugar and a glass bottle if you wanted the best of the usual.

We started with a bowl of mushroom and brie soup. Yes, brie. It was rich and full of minced mushrooms that gave it an earthy flavor with a little texture to the bisque.

The kids had macaroni and cheese and an order Chicken Tosca strips. I can tell you both were made from scratch, no frozen dishes or powdered cheese. The macaroni and cheese was more "adult" rather than creamy but as an adult, I enjoyed a sample. The chicken was a huge hit. Word on the street is that the grilled cheese is very very good - and that there are adult versions at lunchtime where you can build your own.

Now to the main events. Husband got the Coffee Coriander Charred Sirloin. He loved the sauce and the spicy overtones. The sides were what made it. It was paired with lobster mac and cheese (lots of lobster in it), blistered local beans, and charro sauce.

Seared Tuna and Crispy Veal Sweetbreads

I had the seared tuna (extra rare - I like it to be sushi) with fried veal sweetbreads and creamed collard greens. I cannot stop thinking about the collards. They were so delicious with a smoky flavor in the sauce that I am hoping to recreate. They were cooked but not overdone. The sweetbreads were something I have never tried before but after making tripe a staple in my Pho I was feeling adventurous and I'm glad I tried them. They were delicious. There was also a celery root puree that added a little more pizazz to the plate. This was an absolute delicious meal and I was fully stuffed with this offering!

Desserts were abundant at the restaurant as well with many cakes and pies to choose from, some of them from Zingerman's. While that was nice the main dishes were the stars.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham

This one was worth the investment.

This could have easily been another example of reading until the very end and ending up disappointed but this book was worth it. The story follows Costantine Stassos, a Greek immigrant that comes to America with nothing. While he might not explain to his family about his background and humble beginnings that make him the way he is, it's a legacy that carries through this entire story that traces through the next generation.

Constantine marries and has three children who each receive attention in this plot throughout their challenging lives. Each personality and intertwining story is full of detail and realism that I found that I really got to know everyone, complete with their flaws, dreams and achievements.

And again, the end was really worth it. Recommend! It truly is an American story.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Book Review: Double Fault by Lionel Shriver

Sometimes I get sucked in and I keep waiting for the story to turn around. Alas, it didn't. Don't read this one.

I have really enjoyed other books by this author but this one left me disappointed. Willy is what some would describe as a child prodigy when it comes to Tennis but she's starting on the downside as she is now in her twenties. She continues to climb the ranks in hope of reaching the highest echelons but it's starting to unravel even if she doesn't know it yet.

While she is still cocky she meets Eric and begins a relationship with the aspiring tennis pro who only recently has joined the game and the rankings.

I think this story is to describe the conflict of both athletic competition and personal relationships but it left me finding them all really vapid and boring. The ending did not help me at all and I ended up disliking all of the characters.

Book Review: Illywhacker by Peter Carey

I'm going to save you a lot of time. Don't read this.

I really tried. . . 480 out of 816 pages, and then I gave up. 

The book had so much potential in the beginning as Herbert starts to narrate his life from the unique perspective of being over 130 years old. He introduces himself as a con man and I thought that this would lead to a very interesting recollection of his life.

However, once he got into his life I didn't find it all that interesting and I kept waiting. Apparently he was not enough of a charlatan as I wanted. He seemed to me like a desperate man just trying to keep two kids stable in the Depression in Australia.

Book Review: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Let's start that this is by the author of Fight Club. 


While I haven't read it (yet) I did see the movie. This means I should have been prepared for the wild ride and all the twists right up to the end.


This book was very different in so many ways. Shannon was an attractive model with everything on the surface, much like a glossy fashion magazine. She had the looks and the perfect body, a career, a best friend and the faithful boy friend from vice.

But life isn't always that it seems if you peel back the layers. Fast forward (the book does this a lot by the way, it goes back and forth) to Shannon after the accident. She was shot while driving down the freeway and is disfigured. She lost half her face and can no longer communicate verbally.

So begins the wild ride (I know I keep saying that but it's true) as she travels across the county with a drag queen in the middle of her transformation to a woman and an accomplice behind her veils as she comes to terms of her new life.

That's all I'm going to say. I'm not going to ruin it for you! Recommend!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Michigan Central Station

A Beautiful Detroit Treasure

Ravaged by Time and Neglect but Solid

This has been a building that has remained standing although the wear of the years of abandonment and neglect are visible, even from the outside facade. The Michigan Central Station was built in the early 1900's and designed by the same architects of the celebrated, and still operational, Grand Central Station in New York. The Michigan Central Station is a monument to a different time, when trains were the primary mode of transportation and commerce.

One of the windows that flanks the main entrance, chains are attached to open them up for cooling the lobby.

Michigan Central Station Facade
I have always had an interest in this building that probably borders on obsession. In the mid 1990's I was going to school at Wayne State University, pursuing a degree in fine arts, and took some friends up on the offer to tour the building when we should have been attending our drawing class. Apparently it was a rite of passage, according to the professor when he asked us where we were the next day, to skip class and tour the train station. it was accepted and celebrated, as were playing hooky to go to the DIA or some other place to admire objects of beauty.

Michigan Central Station Lobby, facing Southwest.
In those days, it was easier to get into the train station as there wasn't any security and there wasn't a fence of barbed wire surrounding the structure. We simply walked in, not knowing or fully appreciating that in the future things would not be so easy. Even in those days, I wouldn't go as far as to say it was safe but it was an adventure and we were young and carefree. It was a hot day and the air inside the building was stuffy and overbearing. There were remanants of grander days still evident at that time. If you went up to the 7th floor or above, you could still see panels of thick marble lining the walls. Phones still stood in the bay of telephone booths in the lobby and the benches still stood as sentries. However, neglect and abandonment were apparent. Water had already damaged the plaster and tiles from the soaring ceilings, leaving piles of the materials on the floor among the puddles. Evidence of fires were found on many of the floors, from little fires folks had made to stay warm while they took shelter here. Lower levels were stripped of anything of value.

All that is left of the marble that used to line the halls,
intricately pieced together to form this shape.

Climbing up the roof was a long process with 18 flights of stairs and you couldn't help but feel winded once you reached the top. I remember we discovered a control room in the top of a tower and old train tickets. The stairs were rickety and I recall standing on the very edge, feeling more than slightly precariously balanced, and marveling at the city below my feet. Standing at that precipice was a celebration of the past and the future.

My friends returned to the Train Station often so I guess my obsession was not quite on par with some of my classmates. They explored the basement at all its levels and even slept on the roof one night to watch the fireworks on the Detroit River. Apparently I was not as adventurous. I had seen the building and loved it but did not have a need to return day after day as there were other things to explore and experience.

From inside the ticket booth, looking east.
In the mid 90's Raves were the late night parties of choice. Often held in abandoned buildings they Bankle Building on Woodward often, and other sites across Detroit, including one infamous night in a meat packing plant in Eastern Market. These events were promoted in an underground fashion, by word of mouth, and took place in the early hours of the morning. We would start out the evening in places like St. Andrews and the State Theater (now the Filmore) and then find out where the rave would be later that night. We used to go to the Then in 1993 a Rave was scheduled to happen in the actual train station and the news went viral . . . rumors flew, MTV would be there, it was expected to be a huge event, etc. etc. Sadly the Fire Marshall shut it down almost immediately and I never did get to visit the train station with the bright lights and strobes. that would have smoothed out the scars of the neglect and abuse.

Fast forward a few years. I went to grad school, got a real job, got married and started the pretenses of an adult life. It had been years since I was able to devote multiple hours to art and I wanted to return to it, in some form of media, if not metalsmithing which had been my passion (replace with "devotion") in college. I began exploring more digital forms of photography and took a course at the local community college and discovered a new means of expression. I traded in my old SLR camera for a new digital camera and learned Photoshop.

Of course, venues to photograph came up. The train station was mentioned but now it was a little more difficult to get in as a fence surrounded the property but it was not impossible. However, there were horror stories of camera being taken at gunpoint and I wasn't sure I could justify at that point in my life doing things like that even if I wanted to return.

The building itself seemed to have a renaissance if not a restoration. There remained interest in the building by many and every so often I would find an old print of the building or a book that spoke of its former grandeur. I was not the only one that thought of the building as a beautiful monolith as evidenced by those who became urban explorers who braved the challenges to take images of the ruins. It was celebrated when it became a backdrop for a chase scene in the Transformers movie. 

The building remained visible and prominent in both traveling by on the way to or back from other adventures, as well as in my mind. I wanted to go back but it was not possible. Until more recently. . .

Every year we drag our kids to some destination and take a bunch of photos for the annual Christmas card. Yes, I partake in that tradition and it started years ago when the kids were both small. Yes, I know there are a lot of people that do it and it's kind of lame but it's a once a year thing and is a milestone every year. We try very hard to make the photos a little different and pick a new place every year. There has been the local train station in our own hometown, a vintage truck, and the kids sitting on Santa's lap warped and superimposed on our own ornament hanging off our Christmas tree one year. One day I plan on taking all of the images and putting them together in a multi panel frame as it really marks a definitive passage of time and growth. For Christmas 2012, we went to Michigan Central Station and while you couldn't get in, the facade itself held promise. Tall grass had been planted across the street and made for a beautiful foreground while Christmas lights in the shape of snowflakes hung in the large windows.

Inside, looking out, main entrance.
I must have mentioned it in passing but I verbalized to my husband that I wanted to go inside. He had heard about the train station for years and my adventures but I think it might have been the first time that I said I was going to try and figure out how to get in there again. It wasn't totally out of left field, as photography had become an important hobby for me and we had traveled both near and far for images in the past few years, including many local jaunts to Detroit to capture shots that included neglect and abandonment. In any event, I say a lot of things and I can't recall exactly.

My husband apparently heard me and worked to make the my "dream come true". A photo from our Christmas card shoot was hanging framed in his office and one of the guys my husband does business with mentioned that he was working on the restoration of the building. Long story short, my husband coordinated with this individual to get me into the train station one day this summer. "Coordination" probably doesn't cut it as it really was a few people that worked together to make that happen. It was a spur of the moment thing after it was arranged and I met the contractors by the station and was allowed past the barbed wire.

Facing East, to the right is where you would catch the train.
I thought that I would only be permitted to view the lobby and was grateful for this opportunity whatever the limits and boundaries. I was given a hard hat and a reflective construction vest (what a sight to see - I'm glad there are no pictures for blackmail) and started snapping away. I think they must have wondered about me, laying on the floor for better angles, switching lenses and hauling that backpack. . . Then one of the gentleman I was with asked me if I would like to have a tour.

I did not anticipate that they would explore the whole building with me, all the way up the top level of the main part of the building (the office towers have stairs that are too rickety to travel at this point). It was a HOT day, and the air does not circulate in the building. By the time we made it to the top floor of the main part of the structure we were all soaking with sweat but it was worth it.

Signs of Work
To rebuild sometimes you have to destroy, or in this sense at least do some demolition. I recently read a book which mentioned the Indian deity of Shiva, who creates rebirth through tearing things down to rebuild in a purer form.  Everywhere there were signs of the work that was being accomplished. Shovels and cords, ladders and workmen. From what I understand they are clearing floor by floor, shoving debris down a chute that leads to the basement and then it is hauled away. In many ways the building looked to be less damaged that it had almost twenty years ago as the debris was cleared away and a bare structure was often visible with promise of things to come. Bright light streamed though the gaping holes that once held windows and the floors were often bare, devoid of the years of damage that once fell upon them. While the scars were clearly visible it looked cleaner than it had in the past and the foundation to rebuild was there. A blank canvas ready to be redecorated and repurposed. There was talk of restoration, an art gallery, restaurants and living spaces.
Evidence of Rebirth
I fully appreciated the views this time. I completely took in what I was given as a gift to see. While this might seem overly dramatic it's the truth. I savored every minute of my time there and took over 280 shots so I wouldn't miss anything. From these images I edited over 50 of them to mark this day and this time. My hope is one day Michigan Central Station will be completely restored and return to it's former glory, and my photos will serve as a reminder of how things can be saved. I am also hoping it will be a lesson that we must treasure our history and set a policy to care for things before they fall into ruin.

Window framing the Ambassador Bridge to Canada and St. Anne's, looking south.
There are so many interesting articles about Michigan Central Station that can provide you with more information and photos of how it used to look in its heyday.

For more of my photos of my day there please visit my Flckr page.

Restaurant Review: Local Kitchen and Bar

I should start with apologizing to myself for not trying this place sooner. . . 

I had heard about Local on many occasions and Hour Detroit Magazine gave them a wonderful review but somehow I never found time. Until last night. Apparently the stars were aligned. . . First we went to Eastern Market yesterday morning and I heard a group of people raving about it. Secondly, I had plans for a girl's night out with my friend and we knew that a drink should be involved. Third, there wasn't a long wait when we got there and we were seated about a half hour after we arrived, without reservations.

So the main objective was a drink. I got a wonderful cocktail that the hostess recommended called "Too Many Cukes" that is a signature drink at Local. It came with a cucumber ice cube and muddles cucumbers with a little simple syrup that was a refreshing balance of flavors. Their beer offerings were varied and included some different off the beaten path choices along with some real retro options (think Stroh's! - I don't want it but someone must!).

Roasted Garlic and Cauliflower Soup with Horseradish Puree and Too Many Cukes Cocktail (half gone!)
We started off with a soup off the specials menu. It was a thick roasted garlic and cauliflower concoction with a bit of horseradish puree and some flavored oil. Really smooth, but not quite a bisque, it was hearty but not overdone.

Baby Kale Salad
It was a light meal - we didn't want to eat too much as we anticipated dessert so we also split a baby kale salad. That name does not do it justice. While the photo is out of focus I thought it was worthy to mention. Crispy chickpeas, grilled fruit (nectarine on this day), and pistachios really round this out with a shallot vinaigrette.

Jar of the Day
While I was committed to a light meal, I decided I could not pass up the Daily Jar, which is an appetizer that apparently changes daily. The offering was a chilled seafood salad made up of calamari, shrimp, scallops and salmon with some peppers and other yummy items. I was a little worried about the salmon but everything was minced together and the flavors married well. It was a light but flavorful dish, served with warmed pita triangles.

Desserts. We had heard a lot about them and couldn't decide on just one so we settled for two. Blueberry Pie with a good whipped cream and a Banana Pudding. The blueberry pie had a dense pie crust that tasted homemade. The filling was balanced with a bit of tartness from lemon and cinnamon undertones. The banana pudding was some of the best I have had. . . thickly sliced bananas melded with a good creamy pudding and lots of wafers that seemed to be made of some sort of shortbread? Mmmm good stuff.

So I plan on going back to sample some more dishes here. I loved the atmosphere and the menu has lots of promise.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Review: I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

725 Pages on the Nook and I Enjoyed All of It!

This is a long extensive story but not the least bit boring. While the plot mostly is told from the perspective of Dominick Birdsey, there are many stories from past generations interwoven into this plot and it makes for a richer, more dynamic portrait of the man.

Dominick has a lot of issues. The story starts after his brother, Thomas, his identical twin, cuts off his own hand as a sacrifice to prevent the impending war as Sadaam and President Bush square off. Thomas has schizophrenia and thinks he has been chosen by G-d for a variety of tasks. Dominick is once again put into the role of savior, a position he has experienced throughout their lives as he tries to rescue Thomas from life inside an forensic state psychiatric hospital.

This is not the only challenge in Dominick's life. There is the ex wife he is still in love with and the girlfriend he does not love. There are also other matters that Dominick must attend to, including trying to find out who his true father is, tending to guilt, and trying to make a living.

The struggles that Dominick goes through make for an interesting story without any real melodrama. Dominick alternates between the present and the past, creating a backdrop that explains the path he has traveled and all the conflicting emotions about looking at his reflection and seeing himself in a different version. Dominick is the well one and his twin is the sick one.

Through this journey we learn that life is a balance and what we see on the outside is not always the whole story (really it never is). This book rings so true and while it tackles difficult subjects such as mental illness, abuse and other topics it never is patronizing or stereotypical.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. One of the best this year!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Braised Pork Belly with Cherry Cola and Hoisin BBQ Sauce

So I admit I seem to have a little obsession with Cherry Coke right now when it comes to cooking. 

I can tell you that there are a couple people who live in this house that think that's just fine because when I use it in a recipe and I buy a two liter there are leftovers and that means soda is readily available around here. No one is complaining!

This new line of inquiry began at Baconfest this year. Root featured some of the best pork belly I have ever had and when I asked what they did to it they mentioned braising in Coca Cola. My mind began weaving new ideas and this is the culmination of what I came up with for now. I thought that if Coke worked, Cherry Cola might be better. I thought that adding some Hoisin might add a little smokiness.

I wanted to get the braising right and found this technique that was cleverly delivered to me through an email from Food52. I was not really interested in the compote that they topped it with but I thought that the instructions to braise would be helpful. Here is what I came up with.

Pork Belly - Better than Bacon
I purchased about 1.75 lbs of Pork Belly at our local grocery store. They have a fine meat counter which is extra fine to me as it's the only local place that I know of where they have this cut of meat available for sale. Believe me I checked elsewhere. So shout out right here to Hollywood Market. I always feel a little devious when I walk up the meat counter and ask for some of the "pork belly in the back" but they always come through. Shhh don't tell. I don't want them to run out.

Scored Pork Belly with Seasonings
I placed the pork belly in a Pyrex dish and scored the fat side with a knife, probably an inch in depth, criss crossing the lines. I gave the pork belly a little bit of a belly rub in the form of some spices. . . Old Bay, sea salt, Herbs De Province, and some cracked rainbow peppercorns. I then mixed a small bottle of Carbarnet Savigon with some soy sauce and poured it into the Pyrex and covered the dish. I let it marinate for about 12 hours, flipping it once to make sure it all bathed in the juice..

Pork Belly on a bed of onions

The next day I sliced a large sweet onion and created a "bed" for the pork belly to rest on in the Pyrex so it wasn't just sitting in the liquid. I placed the pan, uncovered in a 250 degree oven for three hours. While the pork belly basked in the warmth of a low temperature oven, I began to make a BBQ sauce.

All Sauce Ingredients in a Pan Simmering
I used 1.5 cups of Cherry Coke and added a 1/3 cup of Hoisin sauce, stirring together in a heavy saucepan. I added 2 Tablespoons of Maple Syrup and 3 Tablespoons of Soy Sauce. No spices. I set this on the stove bringing just to about a boil and then reduced to a simmer and let it go while the pork belly braised.

Sauce Ingredients after Simmering for 3 plus hours on a very low temp
After three plus hours you can see the sauce really reduced and became sticky sweet goodness. It smelled delicious too.

3 Hours of Braising

After 3 hours the pork belly was ready for the next step. I tested it by using a fork and piercing the fat. It was pretty darn soft.

I transferred the meat to a new Pyrex dish that was smaller as the meat had shrunk and then covered it with the new BBQ sauce. I placed it back in the oven at 400 degrees and let it brown for about 20 minutes.

Now this might look burnt to you but I can tell you it's not. The fat was able to crackle and that is one of the things that makes pork belly so darn good. The meat inside was tender and almost buttery. Mmmmmmmm.

The true test is that my husband asked if there was any more the next day. He told me he had been looking forward to it. That really is a testament. He is not a foodie like me.

I would have liked this on arugula to balance it with some peppery bitterness but we didn't have any. I cut little wedges on top of brown rice the next day and it was good with the extra sauce.


Braised Pork Belly with Cherry Cola and Hoisin BBQ Sauce

1.75 - 2.00 lbs of Pork Belly

Seasonings to taste
1.5 cups red wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 large onion
1.5 cups Cherry Coke
1/3 cup of Hoisin sauce
2 Tablespoons Pure Maple Syrup (Grade B preferably)
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Score fat side of pork belly with criss crossed lines, about an inch deep. Rub spices on fat side, pushing into the scored lines.

Pour the red wine and soy sauce on top of the pork belly and let marinate, covered, for about 12 hours, flipping at least once.

Remove from fridge and add sliced onions to pan to create a bed for the meat to lay on. Place in a 250 degree oven for about 2.5 - 3 hours, checking for tenderness.

While braising, mix the ingredients for the sauce,  place in a heavy saucepan and bring to almost a boil, then down to simmer. Simmer until reduced significantly and sauce thickens.

Remove meat from oven, transfer to a new clean dish without liquid or onions. Smother in the sauce and return to 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes. The fat on top will crackle and turn brown.