Is This Heaven? No It’s Iowa

Late yesterday morning, Bill was out in the garage working on his car and I was reading a book. It occurred to me that it was a holiday – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Holidays used to be pretty meaningful to me back in the days when I worked hard for a living and got paid to write. When Court was little, a holiday meant a day off to spend hanging out with him. After he was grown and on his own, a holiday still meant that I got to get up when I felt like it and spend the day with Bill doing whatever I wanted.

If we’re in Colorado when a holiday occurs, my grandkids might stop by our house and we may watch a movie or or go geocaching or make some cookies. But when we are in AZ, I pretty much need to be reminded of a holiday as one day is kind of like the next, in a good way.

As it happened, however, I was unwilling to spend the entire day – holiday or not – sitting in my easy chair even though the latest Longmire novel is quite enjoyable and more important, due back soon to the library. So I asked Bill if he wanted to celebrate the amazing civil rights activist Martin Luther King by getting an Italian beef sandwich at Portillo’s.

Well, duh. Of course he did. How better to honor a great man than with a sloppy, juicy beef sandwich?

While driving to the Chicago-based eatery, we passed Sloan Park, home of the Chicago Cubs’ spring training. You might recall that many baseball clubs west of the Mississippi train in the Valley of the Sun in the spring, and play spring baseball games. It’s the only time that I pay much attention to baseball, I’m afraid.

Seeing Sloan Park made me start thinking about baseball. Which further led me to spend the afternoon watching a movie that I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years – Field of Dreams. I’ve only seen Field of Dreams one time, and that was at the movie theater, likely with Court, who would have been 9 years old when it was released. If you had asked me what it was about yesterday morning before I saw the movie, I would have said it was about baseball. That, of course, is true. But the movie is also about making peace with your past. It isn’t until literally the end of the movie that you realize that everything that happened led up to Ray Kinsella (played by a very young Kevin Costner) playing catch with his father, long dead. Ray’s biggest regret was that he had, in anger, said something hurtful to his father, and then never saw him again before his father died. Here was a chance to make peace for a past hurt.

Oh, if only this could happen to all of us, right?

But enough of that. Let’s talk about the beef sandwich. Oh, and don’t forget the onion rings.……

Italian beef sandwiches have had to grow on me. The first time I ever ate an Italian beef, I found it to be, well, ordinary. Haters, don’t hate. Because I came around. I learned to order hot peppers instead of sweet. I discovered the benefits of having my sandwich dipped instead of wet. Wet means they pour the juice over the sandwich; dipped means they fill up your sandwich and then, using a tong, dip the entire sandwich in the juice. This practice, of course, results in a drippy mess that requires a multitude of napkins and a willingness to sacrifice a clean shirt. There’s an art to eating a dipped Italian beef sandwich, my friends. After 25 years of marriage to a Chicagoan, I have learned the art.……

My late mother-in-law loved herself a Chicago hot dog. I never saw her eat an Italian beef sandwich, but up until her final couple of years, she was always eager to go to the Portillo’s near her house where she would order a hot dog and French fries. She saved her chocolate shake for Steak N Shake…..

Arizona is required by state law to post the calorie count for all restaurant foods. Party poopers. Each Italian beef sandwich was 530 calories. Of drippy goodness and, unlike Ray Kinsella, no regrets.

Thursday Thoughts

Rigatony's Tempe

Rigatony’s Restaurant

You Can’t Have Too Much Eye-Talian
Despite how it may seem, Bill and I rarely get to the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. And yet, two days in a row we have been there. As you will recall, the other day we went on a field trip to Portillo’s and did a couple of other errands. Yesterday we went to IKEA, the only one of which is in Tempe. A Facebook friend, taking note of our trip to Portillo’s, suggested we go to a restaurant called Rigatony’s if we are ever in the area where it is located. (The restaurant’s name, by the way, is correctly spelled, a clever take on the proprietor’s name, I assume.) I looked up the restaurant and lo, and behold, it was only a couple of miles from IKEA. We went and were extremely delighted that it was a wonderful family-style Italian restaurant with delicious food. We were very surprised, however, to see that it was also very busy, even at 12:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday. A half hour wait. Well worth it. I love nice surprises, especially when they have to do with food.

Schmorganborgan
The days tick by and it gets closer and closer to the time at which Jen moves to AZ for good (date yet unknown). Every so often, Bill and I begin to get nervous about where everything will go when the already-full house needs to absorb another person with her own stuff. While a trip to IKEA can’t entirely solve the problem, organization can’t hurt. So we bought a couple of different things yesterday that will hold some of our stuff, thereby making more room in the den and getting things off of our bedroom floor. I am the poster child for “if you have a free space, stuff will be put there,” but I am determined to go through our things, figure out what we really need, and then figure out where to store it. What we don’t really need will go to Goodwill. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, so they say. A walk through IKEA is good for my soul. It puts steps on my Fitbit, and I get a chance to see some of the Swedish names for their furniture. It makes me feel like the Swedish chef on The Muppets.

Make Yourself at Home
Speaking of Jen, she arrived yesterday afternoon to spend a few days with her grands – oh, and her daughter and siblings too. Bill loves to torture her by greeting her with something along the lines of “Hi Jen, welcome to Arizona. Make yourself at home.” Given that she pays half the mortgage, she is oh-so-amused by his greeting.

Aarf
I recorded, and then sat and watched, the 140th Westminster Dog Show, something I

Court poses with our Miniature Schnauzer (who wouldn't win a dog show) Fritz.

Court poses with our Miniature Schnauzer (who wouldn’t win a dog show) Fritz.

try to do each year if I can remember that it falls sometime around Valentine’s Day. I like to see all of the different dogs, though I root for my favorite – the Miniature Schnauzer. This year the little bearded Schnauzer actually made it as one of the runners up in the Terrier group. Recording the program is a must so that you can fast forward through all of the interviews (with the owners, not the dogs) and all of the stories about how the dogs are groomed (why, oh why, do they make some of the dogs look so ridiculous).  One of my favorite moments was when one of the dogs – I don’t remember which, though it was a larger dog – decided fame wasn’t quite as important as those goodies that were in his handler’s pocket and turned naughty and just kept jumping and biting the pocket instead of walking quietly next to the handler. As you might expect, he was not selected as Best in Show. Instead, it was the German Shorthaired Pointer, who beat out others who were more favored.

Ciao.

Sunny Day in Paradise

Bill and I woke up yesterday morning, happy that it was Tuesday which meant we didn’t have to go to the gym, and with no particular plans for the day.

“What do you have on your schedule today?” I ask him every single morning despite the fact that I know the answer is “nothing particular” seeings as we’re retired. Although I should recall that the answer could be, “I plan to make a four-tiered lemon-and-rosemary flavored wedding cake using homemade fondant accented by the fresh roses I have been growing in the greenhouse I secretly built in the back yard.” You never know with Bill McLain. As Lucy (of Peanuts fame) would say, of all the Bill McLains in the world, he’s the Bill McLainiest.

But he didn’t surprise me, and his answer was “nothing particular.”

“Why don’t we take a field trip to Tempe, drive by Sloan Park (spring home of the Cubbies), have lunch at Portillo’s, and stop by Jo-Ann’s Fabrics so I can buy some yarn?” I said, the final part said under my breath with the hope that he stopped listening after I said lunch at Portillo’s. He had.

It has been extraordinarily nice for the past couple of weeks. I know I can’t brag too much, because I think it has been quite nice in Colorado as well, and while everyone expects it to be in the 80s in Phoenix, high 50s/low 60s in Colorado is a special treat. Still, a day doesn’t go by that I’m not grateful for the warm sunshine and the beautiful flowers. Look, for example, at the bougainvillea bush in our backyard…..

bougainvillea

When we got here a month or so ago, the bush looked like it was on its last legs. It was spindly and it had few flowers. What a difference some warm weather makes.

Anyway, the nice weather called to us, and the day was fun. There were many, many folks at Sloan Park. I think maybe the Cubs pitchers and catchers are going to report any day now, and methinks a few might have been there already, judging from the number of people with their heads plastered against the fence looking into the practice fields. We also saw a number of kids with autograph books shoved into the front drivers’ side window of an SUV with tinted windows, and I don’t think the driver was a member of the maintenance crew!

296308_440399582701934_1842813705_nPortillo’s, of course, is a wonderful family restaurant based in Chicago. In the past few years, they opened a couple of them here in the East Valley – the one very near Sloan Park (no surprise there) and another in Scottsdale, just a stone’s throw from Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the spring home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies.

Portillo’s has All Things Chicago, but Bill and I go for the Italian beef sandwiches every time. Bill gets his wet (which means they pour the gravy on the sandwich) with sweet peppers; I get mine dipped (which means they literally dip the entire sandwich in the gravy) with hot peppers. There are advantages and disadvantages to getting the sandwich dipped, the biggest disadvantage being IT IS A SLOPPY MESS THAT MAKES YOU FEEL AS THOUGH YOU NEED TO GO HOME AND TAKE A SHOWER.  But yummy.

One of my goals for Lent was to eat simpler. One way I thought we could do that was to serve soup one night a week. I decided last night was a good night to do that since we’d had a sizable lunch. I’ve been meaning to make my mom’s vegetable beef soup for some time now, and I took the plunge last night.

beef shanks for soup

vegetable beef soup

Here is my mom’s recipe, verbatim from her recipe card…..

 Vegetable Beef Soupcourtesy Marg Gloor

Cook 2 beef shanks in approximately 6 cups water with 1 chopped onion, 1 stalk celery, 1 c. cabbage; add parsley, salt to taste, pinch of leaf oregano, leaf thyme, and a bay leaf, also a small can of Del Monte stewed tomatoes. Cook 1 hour, then add carrots and potatoes. About 15 min. before serving, add noodles.

Nana’s Notes: I modified the recipe a bit. I browned the beef shanks in a Dutch oven, then added 6 c. water to the beef. I also added 1 chopped onion; 1 stalk celery, chopped; and the same herbs. I let that cook for about 2-1/2 hours until the meat was very tender and fell off the bone. I removed the bones and returned the cut-up meat to the liquid. I added a can of diced tomatoes, one diced potato, a couple of chopped carrots, and a can of green beans (because that’s what I had on hand). I didn’t add cabbage because I’m not supposed to eat cabbage on my new low-fiber diet. I cooked the noodles separately and added them at the end. It was very good, and the first taste made me think of Mom.

Hey Vinnie, Where’s the Beef?

When I actually worked for a living, I had the opportunity to eat at a lot of really nice restaurants all around the United States. You know, the restaurants where you are served a tiny piece of Mozambique tilapia with stewed raspberries and capers drizzled with Sicilian olive oil on an oversized, square white plate, costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $50, salad not included. For the most part, those meals were delicious and I was able to try a lot of foods I wouldn’t have been able to try otherwise. I am grateful to have had that opportunity.

But for the most part, I am a simple eater. And thankfully, so is my husband. When I told Bill I would take him anywhere he would like for his birthday dinner, he chose a place famous for its fried chicken. And as I go through my recipe files – those on Pinterest and those in my recipe box – the fanciest recipe I have is Coq au Vin. And I haven’t made that for years.

Bill grew up in Chicago – the food capital of the United States in my opinion. If you go downtown, there are innumerable fancy restaurants, similar to those I enjoyed earlier in my life. But the restaurants that Bill enjoyed were not really restaurants at all. They were food joints on the South Side of Chicago. Hot dog stands. Gyros places. Pizza parlours. If he was feeling really fancy, he might go to a locally-owned steak house where they still have red leather booths and serve a relish tray before bringing your salad made out of crisp iceberg lettuce and carrots.

And when we go to Chicago to visit his mother, those are the places we dine. I have mentioned before that Bill’s favorite food is pizza, and his favorite pizza joint is Fox’s, a chain of four or five restaurants on the south side of Chicago. The pizza is thin crust, and he always orders pizza with sausage. Yum…..

Bill Fox pizza

We were thrilled a couple of years ago when one of Bill’s favorite Chicago joints opened up a restaurant in Mesa, right down the street from where the Chicago Cubs play spring baseball. Why not? The place is always busy when we are there, and we go quite often.

Portillo's MesaPortillo’s has all of your Chicago favorites – hot dogs, gyros, tamales, hamburgers. But his (and increasingly my) favorite is their Italian Beef sandwich. Italian beef is slow cooked roast beef sliced very thin, served on a roll that is drenched in the “gravy.” It is served with either sweet or hot peppers. Sweet peppers are simply roasted green peppers and hot peppers are similar to giardiniera – a mixture of spicy pickled vegetables. Again, yum.

Recently he was hankering for an Italian beef sandwich, and it wasn’t handy to make a quick trip to either Chicago or Arizona. So I tried my hand at it, and found a Portillo’s copycat recipe for Italian beef. I’m no expert on whether or not it rivaled Portillo’s but I will tell you it was good, and satisfied my sandwich loving husband. And best yet, it cooked in a crock pot!

Soon we will be eating the genuine article in Mesa. But here’s something to enjoy in the meantime….

Italian Beef

Portillo’s Italian Beef Sandwich, adapted from Food.com

Ingredients
1 t. salt
1 t. ground black pepper
a t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
1 t. onion salt
3 c. water
1 t. dried parsley
1 t. garlic powder
1 bay leaf
1 (2/3 OZ) package Italian salad dressing mix
5 lb. rump roast

Process
In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, combine the water, salt, pepper, oregano, basil, onion salt, parsley, garlic powder, bay leaf and salad dressing mix. Stir well and bring just to a boil.

Place roast in a slow cooker and pour mixture over the roast. Cover and cook on low setting for 10 to 12 hours OR high setting for 4 to 5 hours. Remove bay leaf and shred meat with a fork. Serve on hard rolls.

Nana’s Notes: Genuine Chicago Italian beef sandwiches are made on a certain kind of bread that’s not available here. I used French hard rolls and it was delicious. Also, the genuine article uses roast beef that is sliced VERY THIN. Since I don’t have a meat slicer, I shredded the meat and it worked great. Chicago, don’t hate me. Finally, the test of a true Italian beef sandwich is that it is so sloppy that you have to lean over your plate to eat it. It might be hard to tell from the photo, but this one definitely was.