Sunday, May 22, 2011

Graduation, lima beans, twenty year old corn and deposit bottles for wine

  It's been real busy around here lately.  Josh's graduation is Wednesday. It's been a typical last minute affair getting announcements written and mailed out. For some reason the kid will absolutely NOT blow his own horn and had no clue why anyone would want to get one of his announcements. It was like pulling multiple teeth to get him to actually sit down and fill them all out. He's done very well at Red Rock, graduating near the top of his class, National Honor Society membership, lots of scholarships including a recent juicy one from the Herman and Katherine Peters foundation. Good thing too, it's still boggles my mind every time I think about the fact that it costs IN STATE students about 20K dollars per year to go to any of the three state universities. Tuition is within a few hundred bucks of 10K, add in books, room and board and you've got twice that. I thought the whole point of the state land grant college system was to make college available and affordable for local kids. Boy was I mistaken. I remember paying 320 bucks a year at ASU for a full load. Shoot, textbooks cost more than tuition. I think I left college with a total "educational" loan debt of around 3K bucks, and I'd used that money to buy cars!

  Grownup beverages continue to be interesting around here. There are at least two new wine-themed restaurants and tasting venues in Old Town Cottonwood. I plan to get over there and write about them when the diploma-dust settles and the garden is finally all planted. The tomatoes, squash, onions, shallots, red chard and herbs are all in and up and the strawberries are producing more than they ever have in the last couple of years, which means you can actually pick enough to bring into the house instead of just happily grazing on them in the garden. It's been fairly cool so far and they seem to like that and flower more. They'll shut down too soon though, soon as it gets really hot. We still have Hopi red lima beans to plant as well as Johnny M's New Mexico Red grinding corn. He grew out that corn along the banks of the Verde in 1991, and gave me a quart jar of seed tightly sealed. The jar got stashed in one of my seed boxes and lay forgotten in the pantry ever since. Josh and I found it this year and put 20 kernels in wet paper towels ala elementary science class, and 18 of them sprouted in less than a week. So in a few more days it'll all be in the ground and I can get out a bit to check out the beverage scene a bit more.

  Yesterday was an off day for me at Desert Market, but I stopped by because the folks from Kind Vines in Flagstaff were there sampling out their new products. This three person company has a really great idea and I have high hopes for them. Their concept is pretty simple. Go out and find two good, reasonably priced, highly drinkable California wines, and one good locally produced beer. Flag has a number of decent local breweries. Come up with a label that is baked-on enamel, not paper. Invent a really cool reusable silicon gasketed glass stopper instead of a cork. Price the bottled products reasonably, and give a 2 dollar discount on the next bottle when the it's returned with it's stopper. Sanitize and refill the bottles. Zero waste wine and beer! It's also a real deposit. In other words, you can take your bottle and stopper back in and get your two bucks back if you don't want another bottle, or you can get two bucks off a different purchase if you want.
  The problem is, in order for this idea to fly, you've got to have a product that people will come back for. They've done well choosing their initial offerings. The Cabernet is spicy, mellow, with even tannins and just enough fruit to make it interesting but not the kind of cab you have to think about real hard. Barbecue cab, steak cab, roasted potatoes, carrots and onions cab. Their Chardonnay is a standout. I say this as a person who doesn't like Chardonnay in it's normal California Oakey configuration. If you're looking for the typical greasy  "buttery" chard that's been aged in oak, forgeddaboutit. This is a crisp, grassy, herbal chard that's done in stainless steel. Very nice. Their beer selection was a smart start, but I won't be drinking any of it. It's an IPA brewed by Lumberyard in Flagstaff. I understand their reasoning. IPAs are all the rage now among micro-brew drinkers, who apparently think beers so heavily hopped that they make you pucker up and bark like a dog are good. Me, not so much, but they'll sell beer. The college crowd will be all over it.
  Local buyers will find their offerings in Basha's and they are expanding slowly but surely. Several local restaurants have them too. I really hope they can pull it off. The simplicity of their plan is breathtaking. They tell me they are trying to hit up the local winemakers for product too, and that can only be a good thing.
  I stopped by Desert Market again late this evening and it turns out that they sold ALL of the two cases the distributors brought with them. Normally, when I work, we sell 20 or more bottles of wine in a day. On off weekends, it's been running more like a dozen bottles. Not bragging, just saying. I can sell wine. People today were jumping all over the idea of returnable wine bottles, buying bottles of each kind. It looks like the idea may have legs.  Watch for Kind Vines and give it a try.

 Salud to everyone, I doubt I'll be posting again till after the last strains of Pomp and Circumstance have faded into the sunset and the corn and beans are in the ground.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fair Food

  The Verde Valley Fair has ended for another year.  We didn't show any goats this year, so our participation was minimal. For the last eight years, "fair week" has meant that we had to rearrange our schedules, take time off from work and school and be generally stretched real thin for 7 full days. Going to the fairgrounds every day, twice a day, to feed, water, clean pens, attend livestock shows and the auction and help the younger kids in the poultry and goat clubs. It was a real burn-out, but one we looked forward to. Josh's senior schedule and new job at Orion Bakery made him simply too busy to participate. He stayed in 4H, but did a photography project instead.

  Since Josh had photos entered, Katie decided at the last minute to enter one of her paintings in the art show too. It's an older one, sorry I don't have a pic of it, a watercolor of a little ruin that's in Chinle Wash, about a mile upstream from the wash's confluence with the San Juan River in Utah. A favorite place of ours for many years. She entered as an amateur because amateurs entry fees are only a dollar versus a ten dollar fee for "professionals". Somehow, in typical Verde Valley Fair fashion, she won best of show in Professional Class, and got a real spiffy ribbon and....drumroll.....a THIRTEEN DOLLAR premium!

  Josh's photos didn't win any ribbons or lucrative prize money, but he got lots of positive comments on them. Seeing the photo winners, it was pretty obvious that the judges were looking for "pictures that grandma would buy", as my friend Bobdog Brubaker says. You know, pretty closeups of flowers, or some old rusty car or wagon wheel. Josh's photos are gritty, require some thought. Here's one of my favorites, it's worth clicking on the image to see the larger version:

  As a result, we were able to actually attend the fair as regular fair-goers, gawking at all the carny type people and munching fair food. Fair food, in case you've not noticed, is a culinary genre with a huge following. It's also a category of food that's growing and changing all the time. It's truly amazing to see the novel ways that fair food chefs can transform the five food groups; sugar, salt, potatoes, grease and meat into gustatory delicacies designed to delight young and old.

  Skipping fair food while attending the fair out of some kind of silly nose-in-the-air culinary snobbery is to miss out on one of the main ingredients in the fair experience. You gotta at least get a funnel cake, and spill powdered sugar all over your shirt, or a big greasy barbecue sandwich, or a giant block of curly fries, or one of those enormous mutant-turkey legs. Roasted corn on a stick, all slathered with "butter" and lots of salt?  Come on. It's once a year, dive in head first.

  Katie has a particular fondness for the Grand Daddy of Fair Food Delicacies; The Corn Dog. A weenie on a stick, dipped in cornmeal batter and fried to golden deliciousness. Somehow, she missed getting one, so last night we endeavored to recreate them at home. Ours came out really well. Your author had never made a corn dog before, but I figured, how hard can it be? So I used blue corn flour to make the batter. It's simple really. Half a cup each of blue corn meal and white flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, an egg, half a cup of milk and a pinch each of salt and sugar. Get a big pot of oil going to about 360 degrees. You can test it by dropping some batter in; if it puffs up and turns brown, it's ready. I used Farmer John smoked sausages on bamboo skewers. Make sure the sausages are dry, dust them with flour, dip them in the batter and dunk them in the oil until they're all nice and puffed and brown. Mustard and Ketchup are the traditional condiments, but it occurred to me that since these were smoked sausages and not just your average weenie, I'd try some maple syrup as a dunk instead. A revelation, lemme tell ya. An ale from Prescott Brewing Company and some Flat Tire ale were the wash downs. The curly fries pictured are another story I'm just not going to tell.

  There's a disorganized slide show below of the arcane corndog cooking process if you're really bored. Meantime, it's May second and my tomatoes are crying to be planted.