Day 1: Novice Roadtrippers

I might have mentioned before that we’re not good at road tripping. Which is to say: we don’t enjoy driving. Long drives almost always mean traffic, construction, excessive junk food, and, if we’re visiting my family, terrible weather. Seriously, it storms almost every time we drive west. So when I suggested that instead of going to Portland – our proposed vacation destination – that we take a road trip somewhere, you need to realize that we were going out on a serious limb.

After some discussion, we settled on a plan: camping in Wisconsin, followed by a few days in Madison or Chicago or both. And instead of taking awful 94 through awful Chicago traffic, we’d go the long way ’round Lake Michigan – north to the tip of the Mitten, over into the UP, and then south along the Wisconsin side of the lake. We resolved to avoid the interstate whenever possible, and to stop wherever suited our fancy: historical markers, dive-y restaurants, intriguing attractions. I was in charge of researching accommodations, while Shane looked into places to eat, helpfully plotting them out by number of hours along that day’s drive.

And so we set off, heading due north on 75 on a beautiful day. First stop? The Cheesehouse – or, more properly, Pinconning Cheese Co.

The Cheesehouse

The Cheesehouse

We both love cheese, as you well know, but weren’t expecting much from this roadside attraction. Which is to say that we found lots of uninspiring cheese, a few tasty cheese spreads, and an impressive array of meat sticks that Shane snacked on for the next few days. Our total came in below the $5 credit card limit, so we also got a giant pickle that literally had to be held with two hands and made the car smell like dill and garlic.

Our first true road meal came at Spike’s Keg O Nails in Grayling, MI:

Spike's Keg O Nails

Spike’s has been operating in this location since the day after Prohibition was repealed. The menu explained the history of the bar, which has had five owners in its 78 year history. It’s exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find in a smallish town, and exactly the sort of ambiance you’d hope for on a Friday night: lots of townies eating fried fish and drinking cheap beer around small tables.

First Vacation Beers

Who were we to question a good thing? The fried fish was fantastic: crisp batter and flaky tender white fish accompanied by the typical Midwest sides: cole slaw, choice of potato (fries), and a dinner roll. We skipped the roll and split a salad, and were totally pleased with our $15 dinner.

Not wanting to jump right back into the car, we took a walk around downtown Grayling, where we tamed a ferocious beast, sat by the river, and generally started to ease into vacation mode.

Au Sable River


We still had a few hours left in our drive, however, so it was back in the car and due north for us, stopping only for a Whippy Dip detour:

Whippy Dip

First Vacation Ice Cream

and a scenic overlook:

If You Seek A Pleasant Peninsula

A Pleasant Peninsula indeed.


1022 Happy mouths, happy friends.

@ Jolly Pumpkin
Photo by ryanbmolloy

I’m really having a hard time figuring out the best part of tonight. Was it the red chile tofu sandwich at Jolly Pumpkin? The trio of dips split by a trio of friends? The fact that I successfully ate something other than oatmeal or soup? Perhaps it was Shane’s walleye, which he later said he wished he could just eat forever without stopping. If walleye become an endangered species, you can blame him.

Photo by surlygirl

Or was it Laurie’s first visit to Zingerman’s? We were plied with anchovies, cheese, and four or five kinds of ham, culminating with jamón ibérico. Jamón ibérico! $200 per pound! Cue the sounds of angelic delight. And then we went Next Door and tried chocolate studded with cacao nibs, and were told that we were basically making more chocolate in our mouths as we ate.

Chocolates at Zingerman's

Happy mouths, happy friends.

0813 Sidetrack

Photo by Michael Greenlee

We found ourselves in an embarrassing spot tonight. Not literally – there’s nothing embarrassing about Sidetrack except perhaps the size of their burgers – but then I suppose you already assumed that. What is, however, embarrassing is running into your neighbors when out to eat and having to face the fact that after a year, you still don’t know their names. And we couldn’t even blame the ludicrously large beers that Sidetrack has on offer.

25 ounce ciders at happy hour, Sidetrack Bar and Grill
Photo by John Kannenberg

See, people in Ann Arbor are friendly. And this is a good thing! But it also means that a couple of our neighbors introduced themselves within moments of us arriving in town last August. We were in the driveway, it was raining, we had frantic cats in the car, and we just wanted to get inside. Introductions were appreciated, but the timing ensured that we forgot their names almost immediately – and have felt too awkward to ask since.

Regardless, we said hello to MIKE and SHAWNA, whose names were revealed when we got home and Shane peeked at the label on their mailbox, and went about our dinner – fried zucchini, an excellent pair of grilled portabella mushrooms topped with gorgonzola, and some sort of delicious fish dish with red beans and rice.  I had a martini, which felt like the only possible drink that could be consumed while wearing a full-skirted and strappy sundress that belonged to my grandma.

We were reminded again why we kind of really want to move to Ypsi – no trouble getting a table at a restaurant with reasonably priced drinks, easy parking, and friendly people.  After dinner we wandered over to the Ypsi coop, which looked and smelled like coops should – a little earthy, a little like produce, and a little like patchouli.  I know I often say that things are just right, but this evening – the dress, the dinner, the coop – was just right.

0801 Roasted Cod, Corn on the Cob

“I don’t like fish, but I’m trying really hard.”

This statement should tell you everything you need to know about my relationship to seafood.  I love shellfish.  We’re addicted to fancy tinned tuna.  I hate salmon, even the remarkable smoked salmon from Tracklements that the fishmonger at Zingerman’s convinced me to try.  The rest of the sea remains relatively unexplored, aside from a few nice pieces of halibut or tilapia.  I posed this statement at the fish counter at Plum today, though, and came home with a small slab of cod – firm, great flavor, not too fishy – or so I was told.  I was also told that a pound would be just right for two of us, but that’s neither here nor there.

I had intended to bake the fish in a foil packet with lemon and garlic, but I was reminded of this recipe while flipping through cookbooks.  I sliced the fish into two filets, halved some cherry tomatoes, ripped up some basil from the garden, and drizzled olive oil over the top.  The recipe calls for mozzarella, but I didn’t feel like making another trip out on the moped, so I skipped that step and instead shredded a bunch of Parmiagiano-Reggiano over the tomatoes and filets.  While the fish got lovely and golden in the toaster oven, I boiled a couple of ears of sweet corn for about 7 minutes.

The fish was perfect – flaky, tender, and infused with delicate flavors from the basil and tomatoes – and the corn was impossibly sweet when rolled in butter, salt, and pepper.  The juices from the corn and fish mixed together on our plates, making everything even happier.  Especially my tastebuds.  Now to find more fish like this…

Roasted Cod with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, and Mozzarella from Happy Days with the Naked Chef

0417 Wedding Dinner OMG

So hey guys? We got married!  I’ll save the whole story for later, as I feel you need to see the photos to understand how damned cold it was, so for now, let’s focus on the food.

0417 Wedding Dinner!

After we very nearly froze our married asses off on the beach makin’ it legal, we shared a really excellent dinner at Mia + Grace with a selection of our nearest and dearest.  I owe a great big thank you to Jamie and her staff for getting us in early and plying us with bottomless cups of coffee, desperately needed to warm our icy little hands.  I wish I’d gotten more photos of dinner, but I didn’t, so I’ll do my best to give you a flavor:

First, we shared several plates of local cheeses, preserves, and crackers.  Slices of cumin-studded leyden, a black-pepper rolled ball of chevre, a wedge of brie, and a creamy Gouda-esque cheese whose name I’ve forgotten.  Cubes of berry (elderberry? blackberry? both?) geleé.  A smear of quince preserves.  Small bites of honeycomb in the center of the plate.  Peppery homemade crackers.

I had the flattened chicken (pictured above) for my entree – Shane enjoyed the pecan-crusted trout, and the vegetarians among us had handmade cavatelli.  My chicken was pounded flat, dredged and fried, and topped with a Gorgonzola cream sauce, candied lemon zest, and red onion jam, all of which arrived atop a flavorful mash of sweet potatoes and carrots.  I shared half of my chicken with my brother so that I could eat all of the veg – and the cake coming after.  A fantastic combination of savory, sweet, and tart.

The trout was served atop vegetables and black rice, and surrounded by a orange-rosemary butter sauce.  Shane’s uncle was disappointed that he couldn’t get lemon or tartar sauce, but that didn’t stop him – or anyone else – from digging in and thoroughly enjoying a moist and flavorful piece of fish.  We had pre-ordered, and my dad seemed to regret not getting the fish once he heard the full description.  I don’t blame him.

Neither of us had the pasta, so I can’t give you the full scoop – but when Shane had it two months ago, the sauce was warm and rich, and the pasta fresh and delicious.   Everything on the plate was made in-house, and the dish was entirely vegan, though not when served with the Italian sausage (as on the menu).

I really couldn’t believe that anyone had room for dessert, but we managed to put away slices of the most dense and wonderful carrot cake I’ve had in a very long time – the one thing I’d been firm about when we were picking our menu.  The cream cheese frosting was thick but not overwhelming, and the layers of cake were full of nuts, fruit, and chewy carrot.  I wish we’d split a slice so that we could’ve had more for later – but alas, we’ll just have to pay Mia + Grace another visit for more.

On the whole, a wonderful meal in good company, and one that proved that New American cuisine can make happy even the pickiest palate.

0317 Grilled Tilapia with Golden Rice

0317 Grilled Tilapia with Golden Rice

Dinner prep tonight made an awfully big mess for two relatively simple dishes.  Two tilapia fillets, grilled in the hot hot cast iron grill pan with just a little salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lime juice added at the table.  A savory rice dish from Moosewood that would’ve been boring on its own, but paired nicely with the buttery fish.  From those recipes, we had nearly every inch of counter space covered with following dishes: 3 pans, a bunch of food processor components, cutting board, zester, and at least one knife, plus our lunch dishes and a few things left from the night before.  This pile often feels insurmountable, and that is WITH a dishwasher.

I digress.

This dinner, while not especially quick, was especially easy.  I soaked the rice for ~10 minutes while sauteeing the onions and prepping the carrots.  We didn’t have any ground cardamom, so I substituted a bit of cumin and coriander for spice.  When everything went into the saucepan, I started heating the grill for the fish.  From start to finish, I think dinner took 45 minutes?  And then Shane was so hungry after his workout that he’d finished his entire dinner in the time it took me to take the photo.  On a related note, I’m not sure how I feel about this photo.  I’m trying to learn more about how our camera works, and tonight I tried something different.

Golden Rice from Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites

0119 Fishcakes with broccoli horseradish cole slaw

I had to make certain modifications to this recipe based on strongly held beliefs in our household.  For one, sweet relish is an abomination.  I honestly didn’t realize the stuff existed until I started dating my ex and grossed him out by putting DILL relish in my tuna salad.  He was unaware of the existence of anything but the sweet kind.  Second, Shane has a thing against dill.  Some dill is OK – like in relish – but dill in and of itself is offensive to him.

Those modifications aside, the two of us put dinner together in about 35 minutes, in the process dirtying the last of our plates and every work surface in the kitchen.  The horseradish in the cole slaw was a bit overwhelming on its own, but once paired with the fishcakes (we split the recipe into 7 instead of 4), the bite of the horseradish mellowed and proved to be a nice complement to the crispy, flaky, fried goodness of fish.  When we’d finished and were sitting at the table listening to records, Shane kept poking at the remaining cakes, as if daring one to jump onto his plate.  Fortunately for me, the savory little cakes made their way not into his belly but into our lunch bags, where we’ll enjoy them no less tomorrow than we did tonight.

0119 Fish cakes with broccoli horseradish cole slaw

Fish Cakes with Coleslaw and Horseradish-Dill Sauce from Bon Appetit

0111 Moroccan Halibut with Carrots

Tonight’s dinner redeemed the entire day. I wish I were exaggerating, but that should give you a sense for my degree of frustration prior to dinner, and the degree to which this recipe made my mouth water and my tastebuds sing.

I don’t like fish in general. I want to like fish, but let’s face it – I grew up in the middle of the prairie, lacking access to most fish other than the kind that comes from the Schwan’s man. Salmon is one of the few things I refuse to eat.  Like kale, though, I know that many fish are outrageously good for you, so I’m trying.

Tonight’s dish – Moroccan Halibut with Carrots, from the November 2009 Bon Appetit – was hopefully the first in a long line of game-changers where fish is concerned.  The halibut was flaky and buttery, with a firm but tender texture.  The cinnamon and cayenne gave the dish some heat, which was nicely balanced by the mint and our glasses of Viognier.  The lemon juice made the whole thing sing.  At less than 300 calories, I felt snackish about two hours later, but nothing Christmas mint brownies from the freezer couldn’t fix.

Moroccan Halibut with Carrots from Bon Appetit