Sunday, March 29, 2015

Restaurant Review: Ale Mary

Maybe it's Downtown Royal Oak thing. . . 

It was good, but not that good - we are going to call it "Pale Mary's"

Any time a new restaurant opens up in Downtown Royal Oak, I'm enthusiastic. After all it's a short walk from our home and I am always looking for a new destination that is local. We enjoy riding bikes and it's always better if there's a cocktail or snack at the end of the journey. We will try just about anything that is local and give it a chance. Honestly, in the summer, we will conduct a trade off giving up some expectations for the food to have the opportunity to walk or bike ride somewhere to have a meal sitting outside.

The reality is that a restaurant in our local area does not have to be all that wonderful because the reality is that if there is a restaurant they will be busy and overflowing without necessarily having the best caliber for food. This is going to be controversial to say but for years we have had mediocre Mexican and I would rather drive outside of our city limits to go get an enchilada or a Margareta. The same can be said for Thai food - since my favorite changed name and ownership, I am driving for carry out in the city proper, but not to the downtown area. If you visit downtown on any night the restaurants are crowded so there's really no need to kick it up a notch. There are of course a few restaurants that are just doing it right and that we enjoy but often we are left with mediocre meals.

Ale Mary's has been open for a short time and everyone that I know has been raving about it. I'm left trying to figure out if it's good because it's all relative downtown, or if I'm missing something. Now that being said, nothing was bad. Everything was okay. Maybe my expectations were just too high because of all the buzz. And there is a lot of buzz. The Detroit Free Press ranked them as one of the Top 10 New Restaurants for 2015. Is is just me?

The decor is really cool and funky. There is a wall tiled with beer bottle caps right when you walk in and there are light fixtures over the tables and benches made with vintage light bulbs and old beer tap handles. We got there at about 5 on a Saturday night, in hopes of beating any crowd, and had a 45 minute wait for two people. As we walked around and checked back in, that was fine but I saw folks with larger parties told it would be about an hour and half and we watched many people just turn around and leave. When that is the case, what does the food really matter?

I started with a  2 Wheeler, a witbier from the Original Gravity Brewing Company in Milan. It was good beer. There is no denying that if you like beer this is a place to come for drinking it. There is a wide variety of offerings that will please just about any beer palate. Because this is really an offshoot of Tom's Oyster Bar, I watched a woman with a two hour wait, go through a hallway to visit there as she wanted wine instead. If you don't drink beer, you still have options.

I should also note that the staff here is wonderful. They are friendly, fun and attentive. They are very educated on the beers on tap and are there to help a patron like myself make some sound decisions on what to drink. That counts for a lot.

We tried a few different small plates and appetizers to start. There was the "Best Cornbread Ever" with fresh corn and cinnamon butter, the Beer Glazed Pork Belly described as a confit of pork belly roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and the Gouda Ale Soup with smoked Gouda, beer cheese and bacon lardons.

The cornbread was a really mild cornbread with a hint of cinnamon that wasn't really bold. The texture was more like a cake than a hearty bread that I am used to but it was good. I would have liked a little more butter and a little more spice.

I had heard a lot about this soup. I was looking forward to this soup. After all, how do you go wrong with cheese and beer? The first bite was rather good with the creaminess of the soup and the cheese. . . but then you get a kick with the beer and it's not a spicy kick. It's bitter. The beer just overwhelms any of the other flavors so you are eating creamy beer flavored liquid. It's just too much. Yes, I know it's a beer hall and they feature beers but I don't think the beer should be the only flavor in a soup.

The pork belly. . . I should start with the claim that I love pork belly. I don't like it, I love it and I look for it wherever we go. If you want really super good pork belly I highly recommend One Eyed Betty's, a restaurant that also features a lot of beer but makes superb pork belly in a dish called "Bacon with a side of Bacon". I also like to make pork belly and have my own recipe for Braised Pork Belly with Cherry Cola and Hoisin BBQ Sauce. I really think pork belly is better than bacon, and meat candy.  So all that being said I had high hopes for this pork belly. Combining it with potatoes and Brussels is rather brilliant too. But the pork belly itself was just okay. The texture was good but the flavor was not. I ended up scraping off the gravy which I would describe as "congealed beer" rather than any other flavors. It needed something more. . .

For main dishes we chose an order of Four Seasons Fish and Chips and a Beer Cheese Burger. The Fish and Chips were good but not great. In talking it over we decided that they weren't any better than anywhere else locally and we could think of a couple of places where they are far superior, including Sweet Lorraine's. I do have to say that the coleslaw was quite good if we are going to go through every item.

The Beer Cheese Burger was a disappointment. I ordered it rare and it came on a brioche bun with applewood smoked bacon, Final Absolution beer cheese , spring mix, pickled red onions and roasted tomato. Again the beer flavor was overpowering and it quickly destroyed any chance of hold that bun as it disintegrated. Once I started to eat just the patty I found one without much flavor.

Now if there is one thing to come back there for in addition to beer, it's the fries. The fries are wonderful. They are fried in duck fat and they are really really good. The texture is beyond a regular fry as there is an extra crisp.

Summary? If you want to drink, yes this is the place to go. If you want to eat you may want to think twice unless beer flavor is what you are craving in everything you order. Beer to me is an accompaniment, not a flavor to use instead of complex offerings with spices and undertones. The food is not bad but it's not great and I want great food. We decided this place will be known as "Pale Mary's" in our house.

Will my review matter? No. People will go there in droves and say it's wonderful. Maybe it is me.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Edrich

Finally, A Good One Worth Recommending!

The Coming of Age of a Boy on a North Dakota Reservation 

As I have mentioned countless times, I often pick up a book without any idea of what it may be about and am sometimes pleasantly surprised by what I find. I had no idea what a Round House was when I began this book and wasn't sure how it would fit in to this story.

While this book is from the perspective of the young boy, Joe, it really is so much more. Joe's mother is sexually assaulted and is reticent when it comes to speaking about the attack. The details are very important, because depending on exactly where the crime took place will impact how to prosecute the perpetrator. Some of the land is on the reservation while other portions of the area are under the jurisdiction of the regular court system. If the attacker is a white man, or a Native American, will also have implications in the pursuit of justice.

The cast of characters in this book are varied, including Joe's friends and relatives, as well as other people around the reservation. Each person is portrayed in a realistic way, with all the faults that each of us have painted in the details, which makes them seem so much more human. The backstories are also very interesting. There is Joe's aunt, a former stripper who married Joe's Uncle, who takes Joe under her wing. There is Mooshum, Joe's grandfather who spins tales of Native American history in his sleep which are often metaphors for the world around them. There is Joe's father, who practices law on the reservation but is really helpless when it comes to avenging his wife's victimization. These are just a few of the people we get to know in this book.

The books moves at a steady pace, while Joe discovers more details about the crime, builds upon his desire to seek justice and protect his mother, and learns more about himself and what he can be capable of. There are glimpses of the man that Joe will also become and I found that I really came to cheer for him even when I knew his motives behind his actions.

This is a wonderfully told story and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book Review: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey

Let me start by saying that I have read other books by this author and now we are at a 1:3 on my recommendations to read them.

I keep trying Peter Carey books because I found Jack Maggs a fantastic novel that I would highly recommend but unfortunately that set the bar so high and the rest of my attempts have been very disappointing. I highly discourage you from reading Lillywhacker and His Illegal Self and now I'm going to say the same about this most recent attempt.

Tristan Smith is born into a theater troupe (knows as the Sirkus) by being the son of the leader/organizer/star of the group. Tristan is born with disabilities that lead the hospital staff to quietly infer to his mother that he should not be allowed to survive. She takes him home to her ramshackle theater and raises him with a cast of characters. While his disabilities are not fully explained we get glimpses to his visible differences (no lips, eyes that are completely white, undeveloped legs that he cannot walk on, etc.) and his keen and thoughtful mind as he narrates the story. Tristan wants to be a part of the group and perform in the worst way. While we aren't sure exactly who his father is (there are a few possibilities) we know that he is either a patron of the theater or an actor. 

What makes this story more difficult to follow is the made up lands that are constantly referred to throughout the book, with pseudo historical facts and terms provided throughout the narrative along with annotated footnotes at the end of each chapter. Apparently this is a metaphor or political statement about the relationship between the US and Canada but I found that it just made the story hard to follow.

I didn't finish this one. I gave up. The story rambled and went nowhere. I don't care about Voorstad and Elfica. Somehow the author thinks they are very important. I think it made this unnecessarily complicated. I won't be trying another Carey book for a while.


Book Review: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

Two Stories, One Present and One Past, Intertwined

Claire Aldridge is assigned to research a story about a spring blizzard (also known as a Blackberry Winter) that occurred in the 1930's after a similar storm hits Seattle in present time. For Claire, who has suffered a recent loss that has sent her reeling and impacted her both professionally and personally, this becomes an opportunity to focus on something with a passion she has not felt in a very long time when she learns about an unsolved mystery related to that storm.

So we begin learning about Vera Ray, a single woman in the depression era who struggles to feed and house herself as well as her three year old son. This includes leaving Daniel in her apartment alone while she works the midnight shift as a maid at a local hotel. She comes home one night, during the unseasonable storm, to discover Daniel missing, with his treasured teddy bear left behind in the alley, covered in snow.

Claire is determined to discover what happened to Daniel who was never located and finds that Vera did not receive much assistance in finding him despite her desperate pleas and the sacrifices she made to look for him. Being poor, no one really cared about her missing boy and assumptions were made about her as a single unwed mother. Additionally Claire soon learns that police corruption may also have been involved and there are attempts to thwart her coverage of the story.

Over time the present day story of Claire rediscovering her way in the world after tragedy collides with her research in vindicate Vera and discover what happened to Daniel. The story will hit closer to home than she could have thought.

This is a wonderfully written story and I felt that the characters were well developed. Claire is not always right in how she handles things, and that makes her story even more compelling as she seems "real" as she deals with her grief. The story of Vera was also very interesting as we learn about how she ended up where she was in life. I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: The Twelfth Iman by Joel C. Rosenberg

A Compelling Story with Iran in the Center of a Global Crisis

What might make this story as compelling as it is, is partially due to the premise that could entirely be plausible, with Iran building nuclear capabilities not just to power their country but to begin a weapons campaign. Given the recent speech by Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress, this seems rather significant. There are also several historical figures and backdrops that lead credence to this plot.

The story has many moving parts and characters including a central figure, undercover CIA agent David Shiraz, whose own family left Tehran during an escape in the late 1970's. He returns to infiltrate the government and find out how close Iran is to being able to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction. What he finds is that they are not only very close but that many in the government are planning on striking first, to fulfill a prophesy with the twelfth imam.

I made some assumptions when I began reading this story based on the author's name, basically assuming that this book would be pro-Israel automatically. . . I am admitting to my own preconceived notions. However, it turns out that Mr. Rosenberg is actually Christian and this definitely is apparent as I continued to read. This brings me to my next point which is about the parts of the book that are a little less plausible. Many of the characters in the book come in contact with either the Twelfth Imam, who is preaching an aggressive assault on Israel and the United States and promoting a radical Islamic nation. There is also a figure that is preaching Christianity who may be Jesus Christ? I'm not yet sure as this is the first book in the series.

This book was so very interesting and I was able to suspend my feelings about present day prophets from both Christianity and Islam appearing to many of the characters to focus on the rest of the story. I don't think that this book vilifies those who follow Islam as there is room to understand that not everyone wants to destroy the rest of the world of "non believers". I would say that that author is however really preaching Christianity but that didn't bother me either.

I'm looking forward to reading the next book in this trilogy. I have grown to care about these characters and want to see what happens.

Book Review: Seduced by a Pirate by Eloisa James

Quick and Fun Read


Because I often don't research a book beforehand and read them without any preconcieved notions, I'm often not sure what I'm going to get. In this case it was simple and fun quick read. Now let me be clear, this book isn't going to win any Pulitzer or Nobel Prizes. It is not going to change your life or give you a powerful message, it's simply going to be a quick little story with much of the standard ingredients for a romance book. 

Sir Griffin Barry is a pirate with noble blood. He left England the night of his wedding, a wedding he did not even consummate due to some extenuating circumstance, and began the life of a Pirate on the sea for 14 years. Now, it's time to return, to his past life and his wife. He must remember his wife somewhat fondly since he named his ship after her and has a tattoo under one eye but it's not clear if she will share his feelings. Apparently there is a companion Novella, The Ugly Duchess, that is about his partner in crime (his cousin) who also shared his pirate adventure with him. I may check that one out as well.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Restaurant Review: Vinsetta Garage

Honest Burgers, Dogs, and Extras

Good eats and a fun atmosphere

Last week I reviewed Fenton Fire Hall, another restaurant that is from the same group that also has the Union Woodshop, which is one of my favorite regular joints. I don't think I am exaggerating when I call it the "best BBQ in town" but that's just me. As you can see I did not feel quite as enthusiastic about the Fenton Fire Hall. I may have liked it more if I didn't have such high expectations. . . but with the drive factored in, and the cost, it just wasn't worth it.

Vinsetta Garage falls somewhere in the middle of these two in the pseudo spectrum I have in my mind. I have been to Vinsetta several times but have not reviewed it until now. On my first visit I really did like my burger but it was difficult as I continued to compare it to the Union. This is simply not the Union even if there is some crossover. Much like I described with Fenton, you will find some similar items but they won't be exactly the same. In the case of Vinsetta, there is the Vinsetta Sauce which is similar, but not exact, to the Memphis Mayo at Woodshop. It is a good sauce to dip your fries in (which are the same) but it's not as thick and the flavor is a little different. There is a Macon Bacon Burger at Vinsetta but it  doesn't feature a pork patty (Angus instead) and it's topped with bacon jam and pancetta with the maple bacon, rather than the spicy hot link at Union.

We revisited Vinsetta last night for a few reasons. First it was a very late start to our Friday night and Vinsetta is a much closer drive than the Union. The gamble of driving five minutes and encountering a long wait was much less risky at that time of night than driving 45 minutes to Clarkston to find out there was a two or three hour wait (which is really more than likely). Vinsetta is also open later, even if it is closer, with the kitchen closing at 11 versus 10. The second reason was chicken wings. We were celebrating my daughter's birthday and when asked where she would like to go she mentioned that she actually wanted to go back to the Fenton Fire Hall. Why? The chicken wings! She really did love the chicken wings there, which were smoked but also had a sauce actually cooked on them, rather than on the side. We knew that the Vinsetta wings would come naked, with sauce on the side, but they really area all smoked the Union Woodshop way. . . Third, I really wanted a burger. A good burger.

Over time, I have developed more of an affection for Vinsetta and will tell you it's quite good as long as you are not really looking for BBQ. If you want BBQ you are going to have to go to the Union. Now, hamburgers are offered in a few varieties here and they are really really good.Vinsetta has the cool decor that we do expect from each of these restaurants. This truly used to be a garage and many of the cooler remnants of those long ago days are present and celebrated. The original bay doors and the tracks are still there, along with a battery tester, cool old brick and actual receipts and work order for car repairs. The bathrooms sport a penny tiled floor with epoxy and there are all kinds of eye candy everywhere. I really like their lighting, with industrial fixtures and those vintage light bulbs.

Now I had to have a mandatory cocktail to start. I don't do it everywhere but this group of restaurants always has offerings that make me smile. The summer drink I prefer there was not features (cucumbers in a cocktail make me happy) but they had some new ones that also looked equally delicious. After a lot of debating with my self I settled for a (Bad) Chaperone. The description included ingredients such as "random red wine, Grand Marnier, Cognac, Cinnamon, Fresh Squeezed OJ, Fresh Pressed Lemon Juice, and Gosling's Ginger Beer Splash". I can't figure out how they create these concoctions but this one was delightful! It was warm and earthy and oh so good.

Of course, we ordered the chicken wings for an appetizer based on the premise that this was one of the major reasons we were at Vinsetta to begin with. The wings were very similar to the ones that are offered at Fenton but they are indeed naked, coming with a side of choula hot sauce, or a ghost pepper sauce for those that are braver. Our waiter also gave us a side of spicy blue cheese to try as well. These wings are good in terms of texture and smokiness but we did miss the Korean BBQ sauce that was cooked on to the ones at Fenton. We are not fans of hotsauce for the sake of it being hot. I like it in things for kick but not contributing to the entire flavor of the sauces so the choula didn't work for me. The blue cheese sauce was tasty and made the wings taste good in my opinion. My family disagreed and are holding out for the Fenton ones saying these are bland in comparison.

The appetizer called "Tikki Fries" instrigued me and we had to order those as well. Those hand cut fries are smothered in tender chicken with a tikki masala sauce, then topped with homemade paneer and chopped scallions. While this was an unusual pairing it was delicious. The Indian spices really shine with the potatoes and the sauce was really creamy and good. I did my best to find every chunk of paneer too. These were spicy but still had a lot of flavor without it being overpowering.

There are also some interesting takes on hot dogs that are worth trying. I am sad to report that my favorite hot dog offering is long gone and is no longer on the menu. Vinsetta, if you are listening PLEASE bring back the hot dog slathered with cream cheese and cherry preserves! Ok, back to the regular review. . . The hot dogs are Winters 901L brand which does not mean anything to me except that they are good so it is important to mention. I'm sure a Kowalski or Koegel would be just as good but if they are specifying a brand I figure it is worth noting. . .

One of my son's favorites are the Yeti Dog. Picture two of these hot dogs wrapped in bacon and then fried. I think the original dish offers pepper jack cheese and some vegetables such as chopped tomato and romaine but he customizes it. Instead he has them wrapped in cheddar and says "no veggies" please. The result is this dish right here, served on one of those metal trays with toasted hot dog buns that cradle these babies. There is a think layer of mayo underneath the dogs too. Fries can be an upgrade to this meal, instead of the homemade potato chips, with a side of the Vinsetta Sauce.

As I mentioned before there are many different burgers to choose from including a patty with duck as well as another one with lamb. I chose something a  little more traditional called the 3AM. It is supposed to come with Swiss, fried onion straws, maple bacon, a fried egg and siracha mayo. I customized as well, changing Swiss for American, and asking for Vinsetta Sauce instead of the Siracha. I switched out the fries (since we had the Tikki ones) for a side Caesar. The burger comes on a pretzel bun which is soft and a little more flavorful than a white bun. Super wicked good. That yolk streams out on the burger and it's a mess that you have to just love.

Did I mention desserts? We should have. After all it was a birthday. . . We chose three. Left to Right: First there was the fried apple pie that was a cross between a hot pocket and a pop tart, filled with fresh slices of apples and topped with a cinnamon sugar dusting, and bourbon sauce, along with pecans and some vanilla ice cream. Second, featured in the middle, was a pudding/whip with white chocolate and Jim Bean, with a bacon struesel. Last, a molten chocolate cake made to order with vanilla ice cream and crushed Captain Crunch. Really, all three were wonderful.

So the verdict. This is a damn good burger joint. If you want a burger and some fun extras this is the place to go. Dogs are pretty awesome too. This is a fun place and if you are willing to wait a little bit (or go shopping across the street to Trader Joe's while you are waiting) you are going to have a real treat. However, if I want BBQ I'm going to go the extra distance to Clarkston. If I want a real Macon Bacon I'm going to make that same trip.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Restaurant Review: Fenton Fire Hall

Brought to you by the fine restauranteurs that created the Union Woodshop


I don't get out near Fenton very often so when we had a to go on a road trip yesterday to get some firewood up north, I thought a detour for dinner on the way home would be an excellent opportunity to try the Fenton Fire Hall.

There were a lot of similarities to the Union Woodshop that made it feel very comfortable and not really a new place. The decor is that same funky, vintage reused assemble, but this time for a repurposed fire house. The floors in the downstairs bathrooms were tiles with nickels, similar to the bathrooms at Vinsetta Garage in Berkley, another restaurant in this same group.

There were also some similarities in the menus. While Woodshop really focuses on barbecue, there was brisket and pulled pork on this menu as well. Memphis mayo (my favorite thing to dip fries in hands down, and honestly I really don't like fries that much but this is a way to eat the mayo) is replaced with "Fire Hall Mayo" which is only slightly different. Three of the Woodshop BBQ sauces are also here, but there is also a new Korean one that was really very good. There are a few more salads to pick from and choices of hot links but only one burger on the menu. Their famous mac and cheese comes in many new varieties with toppings and mix ins.

If you are up for a libation, there is plenty to choose from. There are wines of course and a beer list that is pretty long as this was originally supposed to be a brewery and there are many taps that span the whole length of the bar. To keep the patron up to date, the beer list includes stamps for what has been "extinguished". Like the woodshop, there are a few choice cocktails to pick from including a margarita with orange juice, their own version of a bloody Mary and a new twist on a mojito. I chose a Manhattan that had hard cider in the list of ingredients. It was quite powerful and had a generous amount of whisky in it that packed a punch.

We started off with an appetizer of sticky wings, grilled chicken wings with the new Korean BBQ sauce. They were smoky and moist and while I'm not a really chicken fan, I have to say that they were quite good. My family does consider themselves connoisseurs of wings and they all gave them a thumbs up as well. The slaw that came on the side was really just for garnish and did not add anything to the dish but I supposed they didn't want to just dump the wings on a plate. Five wings came in the dish and were quickly polished off by the gang.

I ordered a Brussels salad that was interesting but I'm not sure I would order it again. Next time I think I will stick with the Caesar that I love at Woodshop, however they do not offer smoked shrimp on top at the Fire Hall. The Brussels salad is served warm and has sauteed red onions, goat cheese, dates and toasted walnuts, tossed with a warm mustard vinaigrette. Honestly I did not taste the dates and the cheese was in a clump in the middle so it was wasted. This really did not seem like a salad but more of a side dish of warm Brussels sprouts. As much as I love Brussels sprouts in this consistency, which was quite mushy, I wasn't that impressed.

For the mains we ordered three of The Hunter burgers. The menu offers them a burgers made of ground brisket, short rib and chuck, with smoked cheddar, grilled red onion and Fire Hall Mayo but our family ordered them with just burger and cheese, with bacon added. They were okay but not wonderful. It should be noted that the grill was down and these were made in the oven but they were missing something. I would much prefer a Macon Bacon at the Woodshop and like that there are other choices at that restaurant.

I ordered the brisket which came with fries and Fire Hall Mayo, along with a side of coleslaw and a scratch biscuit. The brisket was good, but not as good as Woodshop. The pieces seemed thicker and not as moist. A good helping of BBQ sauce to dip was helpful but the portion also did not seem as generous. The coleslaw as creamy and good, as far as coleslaw goes, but I would have preferred a choice of side dishes. I really missed the green bean casserole offered at Woodshop. The biscuit was very very good but did not come with any butter or honey?

Desserts were really good. The kids chose a favorite from Vinsetta visits, each picking Faygo Redpop ice cream with Pop Rocks. Both kids commented on the generous portion. We also ordered a Peanut Butter Ice Box Pie (after all it was Pie Day 3/14) which came in a mason jar with a chocolate cookie crust on the bottom, layered with peanut butter cream cheese filling, bitter chocolate, whipped cream and peanut brittle. We also ordered a Tres Leche with orange buttermilk cake, dulche des leche, pastry cream and orange cardamon creme alglais that was really superb.

So the verdict? I suppose if I went to this restaurant without ever having been at Union Woodshop, I might have been more impressed, but I could not help comparing. If we had driven just another 30 minutes south, we would have been in Clarkson and had eaten there instead. I just like the menu and offerings better at Woodshop and if you want BBQ instead of links or tacos, it make sense to visit the Union instead. I should also note that Vinsetta Garage is in walking distance from my home but I also choose to drive 45 minutes and wait three hours (strategically) to go to the Woodshop instead. The Woodshop is BBQ heaven, this just doesn't reach that level.

Spicy Blue Cheese Dip

Well, you don't have to make it quite as spicy. . .

Just creamy goodness sometimes likes a little spice!

Years ago I had a dinner party and made a salad with romaine lettuce hearts and a homemade blue cheese dressing that became the basis for this dip that we serve at parties, or for a snack, now. Honestly I guess it is still also a salad dressing but since we use it as a dip, identifying vehicles to use to eat such as pea pods and other vegetables, crackers, chips and chunks of bread. . . Well it's a dip now.

This is a super easy recipe. Start with putting equal amounts of sour cream and mayo together in a food processor. I used a 16 oz. container of sour cream so I added about 2 cups of mayo with it. I have a Ninja and it works very well for this, although it is probably a hybrid between a food processor and a blender. A word about sour cream and mayo. Don't skimp. I use the full fat kind and I am very particular about my sour cream, using one brand that we have locally over all others (Breakstone's). I'm sure you have a favorite as well so I would encourage you to use it. After all this is the basis of your whole dip (or salad dressing) so you want to have a good foundation to build upon. Off my soapbox now. Just don't use reduced fat please!!!! Process it for a minute or so to get the ingredients incorporated.

To this, I add about a tablespoon of lemon juice to the mixture and blend again. Now it's time to add the flavors. I build upon these slowly and taste often because you don't want to put too much heat or salt into this. . . An important ingredient in this is the Sriracha sauce and you just don't want to add more than you want. . . I drip some on top and then blend, and then taste, until I get it right. I also add dill weed, sea salt, fresh ground black pepper and a little cayenne for a bit more heat. Blend and taste, and then add more spices as you see fit. Depending on my mood, this can get real spicy, especially if I'm having an adventurous bunch over for a get together. In those situations this dip is often pink in color. For today's post, I was a little more cautious and make it tasty but not overall spicy. You may want to adjust to your taste when you read my recipe.

The final ingredient that we add once we have everything balanced the way we want it is blue cheese. Now I have bought expensive blue cheeses in the past but it's really not necessary for this dip as you have a lot going on here. I buy the regular run of the mill grocery store stuff, already crumbled. I typically add the whole container. When I mix it in, I pulse the processor and do this very slowly, not full power hog wild, because I want it to remain in chunks.

Once you have the blue cheese in, you really are done. Now it's wonderful freshly made but if you put it in the fridge it will set up and become a little thicker. The flavors also marry and there is a little more heat the next day. You won't regret letting it sit overnight.

Spicy Blue Cheese Dip (or salad dressing) Recipe

1 16oz container sour cream
2 cups mayo
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 Tablespoon Sriracha sauce
1/2 teaspoon dill weed
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 5oz container of crumbled blue cheese

Mix sour cream and mayo in food processor. Add lemon juice and mix again.

Add spices and hot sauce, mix and then taste, adjusting as necessary to suit your preferences.

Add blue cheese and pulse lightly.

Place in covered container in fridge overnight.

Serve with fresh vegetables, crackers or chips.

Awesome Chicken Salad

This chicken salad has many ingredients that make it tasty. 

How can you go wrong with green apples, capers, pecans and cranberries? 

I have been making this chicken salad for a few years now and have made adjustments throughout the years but it's always a hit. If I bring it for lunch to work, I have to bring a large bowl to share. It's often requested for potlucks as well.

The recipe originally started as a means to get rid of the chicken that was a byproduct of homemade chicken soup. I would have all of this chicken meat and it seemed to make sense to use it this way because boiled chicken on its own is not too appetizing. However, at some point, the roles were reversed. I started using a rotisserie chicken for the chicken soup and learned quickly that I could just take the good meat ahead of time and set it aside for the chicken salad, and then use the leftovers and carcass for the soup.

I buy a rotisserie chicken and carefully select the meat that I would like for the salad, pulling it apart by hand. The pieces that are not as "select" get placed in a freezer bag, along with the bones for another day when I plan on making soup. As you can see from this bowl of chicken, the majority of what I use is the breast meat but I do pick through the dark meat as well, looking for pieces without much fat or gristle.

I add about 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of mayo to start. You can always add more mayo later when you start mixing the other ingredients so I would rather begin with too little than too much. To this I add a little bit of lemon juice which adds some acidic balance to the dish but also helps to preserve the apples that I am going to add. After I have given it a quick mix with a fork, I add dried cranberries, a cut up Granny Smith apple, pecans, capers and spices. If there is celery in the house, I add that too, but since I only use one or two ribs, I don't buy celery just for this recipe. Between the green apples and pecans, you will have plenty of crunch.

Spices, you ask? Well now that's when the secret ingredients come into play. . . Salt and pepper are standard and probably not a huge surprise here. Cayenne pepper adds a little heat. . . But most importantly is Garam Masala. It's an Indian spice with cardamon, cinnamon and cumin and it just adds a little something to this dish that I have grown to love. I will put estimates for all of these ingredients in the recipe below but please know that this is to taste. you may like it a little hotter or a little tarter. It's entirely up to you.

Once I have mixed everything together and tasted it, I often choose to add a bit more of a spice or a little more mayo. Mayo in chicken salad is all about balance and it will depend on how dry the chicken is, and how the ingredients are coming together, for you to get it just the way you like it.

Awesome Chicken Salad Recipe

1 rotisserie chicken, meat shredded and picked over (save other remnants and bones for soup)
1/2 - 2/3 cup mayo
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 medium size Granny Smith apple, cut into chunks
1/4 cup pecan pieces
3 Tablespoons capers
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/8 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper (Red Pepper)
1/2 teaspoon Garam Masala
Salt and Pepper to taste

Add mayo to chicken in a large bowl and toss. Add lemon juice and mix again.

Add apples, pecans, capers, cranberries and spices. Toss ingredients together. At this point you may want to add more mayo or spices. Adjust to taste.

Serve with crackers or on toasted bread.