Category: Recipes

Maine’s Lobster Roll, Authenticity, plus A Shack With A View


The overstuffed fresh lobster roll at Five Islands Lobster Co., Georgetown, Maine, on July 5, 2018.

I had first attempted to eat lobster in May of 1991 at a popular seafood restaurant on the east coast. I won’t say which restaurant, as it’s still open at the time of this writing and they’re still serving lobster as they always have to happy customers. But to say that I was sorely disappointed is an understatement. I had no idea how to open the thing as it didn’t come with instructions, and the meat was not only a bit tough but rather rubbery as well. The flavor seemed “off”, not being anything like any crab I had ever eaten of any variety, including Chesapeake Bay blue crab, Opelia, or King. I decided lobster is nothing more than an expensive way to eat melted butter.

I wasn’t about to give up though, and as time went on I attempted to enjoy lobster every chance I got. I rarely got back to the Atlantic shores very much so most of the lobster I tried was in the midwest. The classic preparation in the Michigan or Ohio is that of grilled lobster tails. They’re rarely fresh there, being processed and frozen raw on the coast before being shipped to frozen food distributors. At larger gatherings and restaurant buffets where they offer a “lobster bake” the lobsters arrive already boiled, packaged in individual nylon nets. They’re then thawed, the nets are removed, and the whole lobsters are boiled quickly for about another four minutes before serving.

Lobster cooking techniques and presentation in the midwest can also end up being rather far off the mark. In 2018 this was one area restaurant’s Lobster Roll:


The New England Roll Special with Tarragon on Brioche at a restaurant in the midwest, as seen on Facebook on July 6, 2018.

This isn’t a New England Lobster Roll, regardless of what the Chef says. What this does is disrepect the lobster as the main ingredient, elevates the roll itself to a bread New Englanders wouldn’t use, confuses people who know what a real New England Lobster Roll is, and presents an inaccurate version of the dish to patron who have yet to experience the authenticity of the New England Lobster Roll.

This kind of situation is why I hadn’t yet been able to enjoy the real article.

It wasn’t until we ended up in Maine for six months beginning in April of 2018 that I finally had the opportunity to try fresh local lobster that had been cooked in a kitchen specializing in northern Atlantic seafood. The first full day we were there we ended up at the Taste Of Maine restaurant in Woolwich, where our daughter proceeded to order two whole lobsters.


Our daughter’s two whole lobsters at the Taste Of Maine restaurant in Woolwich, Maine, on April 21, 2018.

With a lot of their patrons being from out-of-town or out-of-state the restaurant’s placemats give detailed instructions on how to break down a whole lobster. Once we followed the instructions, along with some good hints from our server, we all tried it.

The difference between any other lobster I’ve tried and the meat from those two animals from Maine waters that had also been cooked nearby in a Maine restaurant was rather eye-opening. The meat was sweet and moist, very tender, and had a rich flavor that I felt had been missing in all the other dishes I’d attempted to enjoy for almost thirty years.

The cuisinologist in me hadn’t given up on multiple preparations of this same or similar dishes, and my determination was firm in continuing the quiet mission of trying to find out what was wrong, why I hadn’t been able to enjoy such a popular meal. And it paid off, right here in Maine.


Five Islands Lobster Co., Georgetown, Maine.

  1. Try your best to avoid using frozen raw lobster.
  2. Get the freshest live lobster possible, less than about 72 hours after it was landed on the lobster boat. If you’re not near any lobstermen, your best bet is to have live lobster overnighted from the coast. If it’s been in a tank for a while, especially a tank that doesn’t contain real seawater, it’s not worth it. Check the color of the shell and make sure when you squeeze the sides there’s a little bit of “give”.
  3. If the live lobster has to sit at all before cooking, ensure that it’s in well-salted clean room-temperature water for as short a time as possible.
  4. Cook the live lobster quickly using the time-honored methods of lobstermen or people in those fishing areas. Here are the two simplest methods as published in a 1964 local cookbook:

    Do You Boil It Or Steam It?

    As far as I am concerned, “you takes [sic] your choice.” Either method is satisfactory, although I feel that steaming is preferable: there’s not as much water to drain out of the lobster when it comes out of the pot, and the meat texture seems firmer yet more tender … For boiling you need enough water (sea water if possible, otherwise well-salted water) for complete immersion. The water should be boiling briskly when you dunk the lobsters headfirst. When the water comes back to a boil let them cook for about 15 minutes. Take them out and put them on their backs to drain. Then serve them hot, with lots of melted butter … For steaming you need only an inch of water in the pot, and when you have a good head of steam drop them in and give them about 18 minutes of cooking. (A nice touch: put in ½ cup of sherry. The flavor and sweetness of the meat will be enhanced considerably.) Simple, isn’t it? And in my opinion, about as fine a way as there is to enjoy the full, true flavor and succulent meat of a Maine lobster. [Roux, William C. What’s Cooking Down In Maine. The Bond Wheelwright Co., 1964. p. 3 – 4.]

  5. Either enjoy it immediately, or pick the meat immediately and chill it for making lobster rolls.


A look into the kitchen at the lobster building at Five Islands Lobster Co. Note the bright unmuted color of the lobster’s shell, indicating the live animal’s freshness.

As the summer progressed I enjoyed lobster rolls in a number of restaurants and, more importantly, at roadside lobster shacks where things have generally been done a certain way for a very long time. The first lobster roll I had was at Red’s Eats in Wiscassett on May 2nd during the stand’s 80th anniversary year. Red’s has been popular in the area the entire time they’ve been open but have seen even more business since showing up on a food and travel show called “The Zimmern List”, on the Travel Channel in 2017. Many lobster rolls I had seen weren’t half as stuffed as the one I was served at Red’s. But the one at Red’s was considerably better than I had imagined such a thing could be. It came with sides of mayonnaise and melted butter, and I decided the butter was the way I wanted to go with it. That was definitely a good decision as the butter enhanced the flavor the way it should have on my first lobster thirty years before.

Topping such a great lobster roll is no mean feat, but a couple months (and a number of lobster rolls) later I found the one I believe to be the best. Five Islands Lobster Co. near Georgetown, Maine, isn’t too far from Red’s Eats and was also represented on the same episode of Zimmern’s show on the Travel Channel.


The setting of the Five Islands Lobster Co., showing one of the three outdoor dining areas. The open ocean is just beyond the islands.

Five Islands is probably the freshest lobster shack in the area while also likely being the most fun. Located on a picturesque man-made peninsula in the Sheepscot River, there’s parking for dozens of cars and picnic table seating for at least a hundred diners. Five Lobsters is made up of three buildings. The farthest is the lobster building, where lobsters from the surrounding waters, along with other shellfish such as steamers and mussels, are prepped from live to either direct sale to customers in to go containers or as baskets to eat on-site. The “Love Shack” grill building offers the sweet and overstuffed lobster roll shown in the fist photo above, as well as other seafood preparations, burgers and sandwiches, and many other items. And the ice cream building offers desserts made of local products. Wandering the rocky shoreline nearby is also allowed, it’s only the active boating docks that are private and off-limits. The overall view, past Malden Island, Hen Island and Mink Island to the open ocean, is simply breathtaking.

The difference between the lobster on the lobster roll at Red’s and at Five Islands is only a matter of what’s probably only a few hours in preparation, but there are enough differences in the characteristics of the lobster meat on the roll that the latter is the one I chose, even though I’ll also enjoy a lobster roll at Red’s Eats any chance I can get.

Authenticity matters. Recreating a dish like this with a personal flair to make it seem “high-end” so it fits a restaurant that’s not a lobster shack is disrespectful of the main ingredient, in this case the lobster, and does nothing to create an accurate representation of the named dish. Presenting such a dish the right way is the right thing to do. It’s what people who know the original dish expect, and it teaches accuracy to patrons who are unknowing of the original dish.

Authentic Maine/New England Lobster Roll

The classic recipe is quite simple: It’s two cups lobster meat, cooked, chunked and chilled, folded with two tablespoons mayonnaise, and if desired ¼ cup finely-chopped celery. Butter and grill four frankfurter rolls (what the rest of the country calls a New England roll, a split hot dog bun having flat sides), maybe add one leaf of lettuce, then stuff the roll with the lobster meat mixture and serve.

Dishing On Pork Belly, With Recipes


Oven-Roasted Pork Belly at our house. The recipe is below.

Back when I was a kid, when all the good radio stations were still on the AM band, dad would listen to the Farm Report. Well, he had it on in the mornings, and he may not have been listening to it while he was only waiting for the Polka Hour from Frankenmuth to start for the morning. But there it was nonetheless. Dad came from a family of German-Russian farmers, and had partly grown up on farms in the area surrounding Alpena, Michigan. The family farm, with its outhouse and old red barn, had been located in Hubbard Lake, a place I have fond memories of.

I understood the majority of the Farm Report when dad would have it on. We played an old card game called “Pit”, which had been originally released by Parker Brothers’ in 1904. The game basically duplicates what occurs at agricultural auctions, and you end up getting the “corners on” barley, oats, wheat, corn and the like. The game is now available again, and we do have a newer edition of it.

But the game doesn’t cover other types of markets. So the concept of “pork belly futures” didn’t make any sense to me for quite some time. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be interested in such a thing.

It wasn’t until I entered the restaurant industry in the spring of 1979 that I learned what many people who eat pork don’t understand themselves:

Pork belly is the cut of pork that streaky, side or slab bacon is made from, which is what most Americans who eat bacon enjoy. It’s also used to make salt pork, which is popular for many uses.

And yet, the inevitable occurs … Squeamish Americans will hear the term “pork belly” and immediately ask “How can you eat something that’s gross? Eating a fat pig’s belly?? Ew!!!” When asked if they eat bacon and they say yes, I give the explanation. “But eating just the belly … That’s nasty. I’d never do that.”

I end up shaking my head almost every time.

Throughout history, in many cultures, eating pork belly in its many preparations has been quite a normal occurrence. Nose-to-tail eating has been prevalent since the dawn of time, and it’s only been in about the past century or so that people in western cultures, particularly the U.S., have seen fit to be so elitist as to find it unappealing. So-called “adventurous eating” is now a “trend”, and people now search out “nose-to-tail”, “farm-to-table”, and other such establishments in an effort to follow that trend, to be part of that clique, to eat “organically” as part of that clique.

The truth is, that’s how people have always eaten. It’s not just a current “trend” to be part of. Pork Belly is a staple in many cultures outside the U.S, particularly eastern and Mediterranean cultures.


Pork Belly served as a respected ingredient in an unpretentious Starter in a restaurant setting, from Chef Aaron Lawson at Brim House, Toledo, Ohio, September 25, 2017.

Fortunately though, pork belly on its own is making a comeback as part of these “trends”. Pork belly as part of a ramen dish is astonishingly simple, while cured and slow-roasted variations are popping up on many menus. I first ran into this in about 2009 when I’d notice a half-pound pork belly sandwich on a local burger joint menu. The pork belly was given a rub, slow-roasted under extremely low heat, and then seared to order. To say it was a joy to eat this buttery gem is an understatement.

I saw it a few times afterward on other menus as well, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that I felt the time was right to experiment with it. I’d spotted it on my supplier’s ordering site at a cost of $2.49/lb for a case of three sections of approximately 8.5lb each, and as the Father’s Day buffet was approaching I felt we could have some fun without too much expense.


The Pork Belly & Beans at the Father’s Day Buffet it the Skyroom at the Indiana Beach Amusement Park in 2015. The recipe and other photos are below.

Chef James and I decided we’d go for a pseudo-artisanal Pork & Beans for one of the buffet dishes. The baked beans themselves would be Bush’s Original straight from the can, which most dad’s really enjoy. But the pork was where we’d get a little more creative.

I thawed down one of the belly sections and cut cross-hatched slits in the fatty side. I then made a simple brown sugar rub with salt, peppercorns, granulated garlic and a few other spices. Once rubbed, we let it sit in the cooler overnight. After searing all six sides on the flattop, we then got some cheap beer from the barkeep, mixed it 50/50 with chicken stock, and let it sit in a 350-degree oven for three-and-a-half hours. At one point someone checked the temp and told us it was done, but we’d understood leaving it the whole time was best. We only needed to replace any evaporated liquid with either chicken stock or beer, it didn’t matter which. We just made sure to keep it covered with liquid. We then pulled it from the oven and let it rest before cutting it into half-inch cubes to toss with the baked beans.

The result blew everyone away. We just stood there eating the stuff, tossing back the buttery, pillowy cubes of fatty goodness like they were pieces of popcorn at a movie. I had to make the staff stop eating them so we’d have enough for the Pork & Beans.


Chef Janelle in the Skyroom kitchen grilling up her Jamaican Jerk Pork Belly for sandwiches on the buffet in 2015.

We did another batch of Pork & Beans at a later date, the same way, and it was again a popular offering. A few weeks later Chef Jenelle, from Jamaica, asked me in her beautiful Jamaican accent if there was any pork belly left. There was one more chunk, and I gladly let her have it. She mixed up her grandmother’s Jamaican Jerk seasoning, rubbed the belly with it and let it marinate in the cooler overnight. The next day, she cut it in half lengthwise, then each half into ¼” chunks. She then grilled the pieces and put them on the buffet alongside hoagie rolls, tomato slices and shredded lettuce for sandwiches.

Jamaican Jerk Pork Belly sandwiches. An amazing concept that works really well.


One of my many hunks of raw pork belly from Stanley’s Market in Toledo, Ohio.

I’ve been able to play around with pork belly since. The most I’ve paid for it so far is $3.29/lb, the same day another butcher in Toledo was asking $5.29/lb for the same cut. It would seem that particular butcher was falling for the “trend” surrounding pork belly and nose-to-tail in general, and possibly escalated their price accordingly. The $3.19 price was at Stanley’s Market, a venerable Polish butcher shop and bakery that Mary’s parents shopped at while she was growing up. Stanley’s is the kind of place to seek out when looking for real food at reasonable prices.

(I do have to mention though that the same large cuts of pork belly we used at the Skyroom are generally available at Costco for reasonable prices as well. Just cut them down into portions and freeze the portions in batches to prep and cook later.)

Because of the size of the pork belly cut and variations between animals butchered for it, cuts can be rather inconsistent. But you can still cut portion sizes based on weight, not thickness. Most good pork belly preparations won’t be affected by thickness variations as they’re mostly low-and-slow processes. Still, the butchers at Stanley’s generally allow me to choose between three or four different slabs. I’m then able to get the one with the most consistent thickness from edge-to-edge even though it doesn’t much matter.

Using the Rubs

Score crosshatches into the fatty side of the pork belly. Using your hand (gloved if desired), fully combine the ingredients of the selected rub. Apply a generous amount of rub to all surfaces of the belly. Cover the belly in plastic wrap and store in a refrigerator for at least 24 hours.

Brown Sugar Rub

1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup Diamond Kosher salt
3 Tbsp whole peppercorns
3 Tbsp granulated garlic

Savory Rub

1/2 cup Diamond Kosher salt
1/4 cup whole peppercorns
1/4 cup granulated garlic
1 Tbsp Rosemary
1 Tbsp Marjoram

Braised Pork Belly

A general-purpose preparation, this is what we cut into cubes to add to baked beans for the Pork Belly & Beans dish for the Father’s Day buffet. But you can also cut this as chunks to serve on sandwiches, burgers, to top ramen with, or other dishes, searing the cut pieces if you’d like. Variations are endless.


Using one of the rubs described above (or using your own), generously rub all sides and edges of the pork belly. Refrigerate it overnight, but no longer than 24 hours.


Heat a skillet, griddle or cast iron pan to 425F. Remove the plastic wrap from the pork belly and sear all sides, using tongs to hold it while searing the edges. Set aside to cool.


Heat an oven to 250F. Combine 32 oz each of beer and chicken stock (not broth). Place a rack or oven trivet in the bottom of a 6-quart oven-safe pot or roaster. Place the pork belly on the rack and add the braising liquid. Ensure the braising liquid is above the pork belly by at least an inch … If it isn’t, add more liquid in the 50/50 ratio to achieve that extra inch. Cover the pan with plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, ensuring a tight seal around the edges of the pan. Cook in the 250F oven for 3-1/2 hours.*

Remove from the braising liquid. Finish and serve as desired.

* We’re not looking for a specific temperature for the pork belly here, it will reach safe temperature about halfway through this amount of time. We’re looking instead for a pillowy texture, so just let it go.

Oven-Roasted Pork Belly

Adapted from Momofuku, by David Chang and Peter Meehan, 2009

Using one of the rubs described above (or using your own), generously rub all sides and edges of the pork belly. Refrigerate it overnight, but no longer than 24 hours.

Heat an oven to 450F. Place the pork belly on a rack, then place the rack on a foil-lined sheet pan. Roast at 450F for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 250F, than roast another 60 minutes.*

Remove from the oven and serve as desired.

* Prop the oven door open slightly for the first ten minutes here so the heat inside will drop more quickly.

Recipe: Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf


An end piece of Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf, with the requisite greens.

Meatloaf is fun to make. Take some ground meat, throw in some bread or cracker crumbs, some chopped onions, and some other spices. You can then bake it as a loaf, grill it as burgers, or bake off individually-formed servings for buffets or catering. It’s simple, filling, and satisfying, and different versions go well with a large number of sides.

At Mary’s request I’ve recently been focused on variations on Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf. Her boss was going to have surgery and I, turning into my mother and doing what she would have done, offered to cook a few meals to get the boss and her family through about the first week. My selections were my Chicken Noodle Soup, a simple BBQ pulled pork from a slow-cooked shoulder (along with the necessary buns), and a good meatloaf. While I was putting the meatloaf together, that’s when Mary suggested wrapping it in bacon.

Because of the size of the family, that first meatloaf weighed just over six pounds. There were two lbs each of ground beef, sausage, and bacon, along with half a box of saltines, eight eggs, and the seasonings.

I’ve since settled on one lb each for the basic recipe, while ensuring the recipe itself is truly scalable for larger needs. But there are a huge number of possible variations.

Choice of meats can vary, but pork and veal seem to be one of the standard combinations. Groceries sometimes sell that combination on a foam tray, while others add beef as a third meat in the same package. Combining beef with lamb would give a good flavor, with the beef needing a higher fat content to give a good juiciness. Combining goat or other meats with beef would be interesting as well. Ground turkey or chicken? Sure, if you’re into that kind of thing.

The basic recipe presented here, outside of the bacon wrapping, is rather generalized. Change the meats, change the spices, use applewood or hardwood smoked bacon, wrap it in prosciutto if you’d like … Whatever. Be creative.

The trick, though, is to slow-cook the loaf, particularly if it gets rather large through scaling the recipe. At some point though, making multiple smaller loaves makes more sense.

Just have fun with it. I certainly do.


Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf
Ingredients
1 lb sliced bacon
1 lb ground beef, 80/20
1 lb sausage
4 eggs
1/4 lb (1 sleeve) saltine crackers
1 medium onion
3 Tbsp Worchestershire sauce
2 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp ground black pepper
2 Tbsp granulated garlic
2 Tbsp smoked paprika
1 Tbsp ground mustard

Add all but the bacon, onion, and crackers to a medium mixing bowl. Peel and coarse-chop the onion and add it to the bowl. Put the crackers into a gallon plastic food bag, and roll with a rolling pin till the crackers are fine crumbs. Add the cracker crumbs to the mixing bowl. Don’t mix what’s in the bowl yet, just set it aside.

Preheat an oven to 250F. Grease a small cooking rack and set it in a roasting pan, deep casserole, or enamel pot. Lay two slces of bacon next to each other in the middle of the rack.Lay the other slices perpendicular to the first two, five on each side, side-by-side, with the inside end at the far side of the first two slices. If you have more than these twelve slices of bacon, add four more slices, two on each end, to extend the length of original two slices.

Use your hands (with food-handling gloves if desired) to fully mix the meat mixture. Form it into a loaf, which will be about 7 inches long and just over 3 inches in diameter. Lay the loaf in the middle of the bacon over the first two slices. Then, pick up the rest of the bacon piece-by-piece and fully wrap the loaf.

Cover the meatloaf, and bake in the 250F oven for three hours or until a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads 160F. Then go ahead and bake it for one more hour to crisp the bacon.

Remove the loaf from the oven and allow it to rest before slicing with a serrated knife and serving.

Recipe: Authentic Florida Rum Runners


Our bartenders for this development: Bree, Kim, and Mary.

A habit we’ve started getting into the past couple years is vacationing on the east coast of Florida. As I write this, I’m sitting in a beautiful little duplex on the Indian River in Ft. Pierce. We had come here just over a year ago and fell in love with St. Lucie County and the surrounding area, along with really appreciating the people here, both the locals and those who are also habitual visitors. Arriving here from Michigan again last week, the duplex made us feel as though we had come home. Because of this feeling, we’re already making plans to come back next year as well.

The duplex is owned by our friends Kim and Bill. Kim and my wife Mary had gone to high school together, and Kim and Bill rent the duplex out to various people throughout the year while living in their own home up the river. Built in the 1950s or early 60s, this quaint little duplex is simple, with hurricane-resistant concrete block walls covered with stucco, and poured terrazo floors. But the couple has really warmed up the interior with just the right furnishings that give it that strong feeling of home.


On The Edge Bar & Grill, as seen from the Ft. Pierce Inlet, April 12, 2016.

On our first full day here last April Kim had driven us up the road a piece to the On The Edge Bar & Grill for lunch. Located on the north end of South Hutchinson Island along the Ft. Pierce Inlet that allows for boating and small ship access (Coast Guard cutters, heavy barges, small cruise liners, deep-sea fishing vessels, etc.) to the two-mile-wide Indian River, the restaurant is open-air with two levels.


My Hoisen-Glazed Yellowfin Tuna at On The Edge Bar & Grill on May 9, 2017: Sushi-grade Ahi Tuna seared rare, with hoisin glaze and wasabi mayo, topped with a seaweed salad and served with sides of wasabi mashed potatoes and grean beans.

The food at the restaurant is seriously good, especially the seafood. From their Facebook page:

“All of the fish served at On the Edge Bar & Grill is fresh, locally caught & never frozen. Our Mahi-Mahi, Swordfish, and Tuna, in particular, are caught in deep water, approximately 150 miles offshore to the northeast of Fort Pierce. These fishing boats consume about $6,000 in fuel for a round trip that can last up to 3 days.

If you don’t understand why fresh seafood can be expensive, read that again. But also understand the prices on the menu at On The Edge are extremely reasonable, and are actually comparable to those at better seafood restaurants in places like Toledo and Ann Arbor. The seafood at On The Edge is better though, and worth the trip.

It was at On The Edge during that lunch with Kim that Mary had her first-ever Rum Runner. Legend has it that the Rum Runner was first developed at a place called the Holiday Tiki Bar in Islamorada (“ah-lah-mor-ah-dah”) sometime in the 1950s when there was “an excess of rum and certain liqueurs that needed to be moved before the arrival of more inventory.” This makies sense, as a lot of dishes, from casseroles, to “Chef’s specials”, to Polish paczki for Fat Tuesday, were created this way and always will be.


Some of the Rum Runners from our trip here in April 2016.

Throughout our travels here over the past couple years, from here at the duplex through the 220 miles to Mile 0 at the southern end of US 1 in Key West 90 miles north of Cuba, Mary, Bree and I have tried quite a few Rum Runners at various establishments. There are apparently countless variations: One bar here in Ft. Pierce also has a package liquor store, and they specifically told me they use the Ron Corina 151 dark rum in their version, and sold me a bottle. This made for a Rum Runner that was far too strong, and not at all like Mary is used to.

In trying all those other Rum Runners though, the flavor profile we appreciate most goes right back to On The Edge. We ate there again yesterday evening with a friend of Bree’s from high school who lives down here now and came to visit. The Rum Runners were, to our taste buds of course, absolutely perfect.


Shish Kebab party! May 7, 2017, Ft. Pierce, Florida

A couple evenings ago we hosted a shish kebab party for Kim, Bill and their two sons. Bree and I prepped chicken thigh meat, 51/60 p&d shrimp, as well as fresh veggies from the renowned Ft. Pierce Farmer’s Market. People made up their own kebabs on bamboo skewers, which I then grilled for them, serving with chips and hummus. One of the neighbor families also showed up, which was a good thing as Bree and I had prepped a lot of food!

Between us we had also put together the rather expensive list of ingredients needed for Rum Runners, as laid out on the Florida Keys Guide web site. Restaurants and bars with larger liqueur inventories will certainly be able to have most of this on-hand for various beverages. It does get a bit unwieldly for two or three people, but if you regularly enjoy Rum Runners this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Bree, Kim and Mary put together the Rum Runners, and the flavor was extremely close to what On The Edge serves. Yup, it made for a fun evening!

The ingredient list below is fairly specific. This combination comes quite close to what On The Edge is doing, but we make no claim to it being exactly the same. Make substitutions as is necessary or as you see fit. Your own recipe may be completely different. Amd that’s alright.

Authentic Florida Rum Runners
Add one ounce of each of the following to a glass, or add multiples of one ounce each to a pitcher, and stir well:

Add one cup ice to each glass, and serve.
If the frozen slush version is desired, pour the completed drink with ice into a blender and run until the desired consistency is reached.

Taco Casserole: Reworking Americanized Mexican Recipes


A completed serving of Taco Casserole, without any of the optional toppings.

Two summers ago when I was Kitchen Manager at the Skyroom at Indiana Beach I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with a man we called Chuey. Jesus Valdes Dominguez lived outside Mexico City, but during that summer and the twenty preceding summers he traveled to the Skyroom to work in the kitchen for the entire season.


Chuey doing the prep to roast a couple 50 lb hogs in July of 2015. He cut them into halves so they’d fit into the tall but narrow roasting ovens.

I was hired on that summer solely as Kitchen Manager. I’ve become quite good at organizing professional kitchens, getting the ordering systems right, building spreadsheets for monthly inventories, making sure things at least make a little bit of sense. … All the technical reasons I was called out-of-the-blue by a former supervisor and brought on-board in the spring of 2015. But there were longtime cooks there who always called me “Chef”, and Chuey was one of those cooks. Of course, he’s one of the many excellent cooks I’ve known throught my life whom I’ve learned a lot from. But in his case, it’s his sense of humor that stands out as one of his best traits.

July 25, 2015, 4:00 a.m.: More than 2,000 to cater for today. Dragged my ass out of bed an hour ago, tried to focus my eyeballs to continue an online discussion on coneys, downed two cups of coffee before slowly lumbering to the restaurant 200 feet from my cottage … The sound of rapidly running feet behind me, I glanced back to see a figure flying toward me, I’m scared witless … 43-year-old Chuey goes flying by and races up the eighteen steps to the door … before he’s had his first cup of strong Mexican coffee. Laughing maniacally at the door he bellows “Chef, Chuey mucho loco!!!” Yup, he done be cray-cray …

Later in the summer, as my health started to take another tumble (I finally received a much-needed pacemaker on November 15, 2016) Chuey took it upon himself to make sure I was taken care of in regards to meals. Regardless of how busy he was, regardless of what I had going on, he would throw another serving of his own meals of authentic Mexican cuisine together, wrap the second serving in film, place it on my desk, and demand I take the time to eat.

Chuey: “Chef, you go eat!”
Me: “We’re behind, I gotta get this done!”
Chuey: “No Chef, you get sick later …” [points at me] “I tell your wife!!!”
Dammit …

I’m experienced enough in running professional kitchens to know when to let cooks thrive. If they’re under my supervision, and they want to do something unique, and it’s possible to let them go off-menu, I’m more than happy to let them go. Our first experiment with pork belly was to rub it with a mix of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, and a lot of herbs, let it sit for 24 hours, sear it on the flattop, then cook it for 3-1/2 hours in a 50/50 brine of chicken stock and Budweiser at 225F. It was like butter when it was done and had amazing flavor. That we cut it up for a high-end Pork & Beans for the Father’s Day buffet just made it more fun. Jenelle Solomon from Jamaica, a Chef in her own right without accepting the title, later took more of the pork belly, mixed together her own jerk seasoning rub for it, let it sit overnight again, then cut and grilled individual slabs for sandwiches for another buffet. Letting excellent cooks be creative helps everyone learn, and as none of us had attempted pork belly prior to this and that we all felt good about the results is what counts in recipe and menu item development.


Jenelle Solomon, grilling off slabs of Jamaican Jerk Pork Belly, July 5, 2015.

I learned more about what real Mexican food is about from Chuey than he probably realizes. There are specific packaged ingredients available here in the U.S. that Mexican families use on a regular basis. You just have to find them. Believe me, that’s not difficult to do. Many larger grocery stores carry the right products in a special “ethnic” section, but there are enough real Mexican groceries around that it’s even simpler to go to one and find what Mexican families are using in their own kitchens. You’ll likely pay less there for the same items, too. In Monticello, Indiana, that Mexican grocery is actually inside Esmeralda’s, an authentic Mexican restaurant Chuey himself ate at. That’s where he would pick up the ingredients for his own meals in the Skyroom, and would later share with me. (In nearby Monon, Indiana, the grocery was also attached to a Mexican restaurant next door, and had its own butcher shop and fishmonger as well.) So I learned rapidly what worked for him, and what he would turn his nose up at.


The Bronner’s staff cookbook and its Taco Lasagna, along with the write-up for the resulting Taco Casserole.

I’ve been an avid collector of cookbooks for quite some time now, and have more than 400. The past few years I’ve gotten rather picky about which cookbooks I’ll add to the collection. One category of cookbooks to be particularly picky about is that of the “fundraiser” cookbooks, generally published by local organizations by the ubiquitous Morris Press Cookbooks for the past umpteen yea … er, since 1933. The majority of these cookbooks have, unfortunately, become rehashes of one another. But at the same time, businesses use Morris Press to publish their own “staff” cookbooks. These collections are rather well curated, especially when the business wants to stay within a target audience or occasion. The two staff cookbooks from Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, “Bronner’s Flavorful Favorites“, one from 2005 and the other from 2008, are excellent examples of this. I added these two cookbooks to my collection about a month ago, and have really enjoyed browsing the holiday-specific recipes.

Quite a few of the recipes in the Bronner’s cookbooks are intended for family gatherings through the holidays. One in particular caught my eye, the Taco Lasagna in Book 2 as submitted by Bronner’s staffer Rebecca Fowler. Our family as a whole loves Mexican food, to the point where I keep the large foodservice container of taco seasoning in the pantry. The kids and grandkids come to visit us almost every weekend, and large recipes are necessary on a regular basis anymore. So the Taco Lasagna became something to seriously consider.

But as I looked at Ms. Fowler’s recipe my mind took the leap: How would my good man Chuey make this? What changes would I need to make to make it palatable for him if he were here? To raise the level of authenticity?

Hoping not to offend Ms. Fowler in what I’m certain is a seriously nice dish, I immediately knew calling it a “lasagna” wasn’t something Chuey would have agreed with. He made his own lasagna for the restaurant in a very specific manner, and had for years. He begged me to get him the right lasagna, an uncooked pasta sheet that had never been dried, which took me a good month to find. He then proceeded to make his own sauce and meat mixture from scratch, used all the right Italian cheeses, and par-baked the batches while finishing servings individually. His lasagna would put most others to shame. Pasta-maker Barilla, founded in 1877, agrees with him. In their now-out-of-print book “I Love Pasta: An Itallian Love Story in 100 Recipes” from their Academia Barilla, the Barilla family members wrote about how the pasta was mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman descriptions of cooking. The end the paragraph with “There is also an industrial version with curled edges”, referring specifically to what most westerners are used to seeing and cooking.

Chuey would have made this baked dish for a buffet, meaning we would call it a “casserole” on the menu.

Chuey never used ground beef spiced with taco seasoning in the dishes he made for him and I. He always used pork chorizo, generally the mild variety. The real thing is made with salivary glands, lymph nodes and cheek fat, and other cuts of pork. This follows the centuries-old Central American cultures always being nose-to-tail, and is authentic, whether or not squeamish Americans want to admit it. The seasoning is correct for what Americans call “taco seasoning”, so no additional spices are necessary.


The meat mixture after simmering.

The basics of Ms. Fowler’s recipe are good, but I think Chuey would have made at least a few changes. Knowing I’m making a double batch means I can replace one of the cans of black beans with a can of Chuey’s beloved whole kernel corn. “Mexican” tomatoes are merely tomatoes with green chillies added. By splitting out the chillies I can adjust the amount of heat, the hotter the better. And no Mexican dish is right without a good bunch of chopped fresh cilantro.

About those canned vegetables: The Mexican versions of these canned goods are indeed authentic. They’re less processed than their American counterparts, have considerably fewer ingredient, and in many instances are imported from Mexico or other regions of Central America. They also taste better than what’s made in the U.S. and are used in Mexican family kitchens every day.

Finally, we’ll tweak out the process just a bit, heating the refried beans until they’re smooth so they’re easier to spread, draining the tomatoes and chillies so the resulting casserole holds together and the tortillas don’t get soggy, adding the possibility of greasing the casserole dishes with lard, and adding optional toppings.

The end result had people going back for seconds and thirds. Really, it’s that good. And all kinds of variations are possible. Give this a shot. Your family will be glad you did.

Taco Casserole

Ingredients
2 lb El Mexicano raw Pork Chorizo, mild
1 cup Onion, chopped
1 can Herdez or La Preferida Black Beans, drained & rinsed
1 can Corn, whole kernel, drained
2 cans La Victoria Diced Green Chillies, drained
2 cans Petite Diced Tomatoes, drained
2 cans Herdez or La Preferida Refried Beans
2 cups Cilantro, fresh, chopped
6 cups Mexican Cheese Blend, finely shredded
12 8″ La Banderita Flour Tortillas
Sour Cream for topping (optional)
2 cups Mexican Cheese Blend, finely shredded, for topping (optional)
Herdez or La Preferida Salsa, for topping (optional)

In a high-wall skillet over medium heat, cook the chorizo and onion for about 15 minutes, until the meat has crumbled completely. (With good chorizo, it will not change color.) Place a stack of paper towel or a lint-free cloth on a plate. Transfer the cooked meat to the plate and allow the oil to drain. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer the meat back to the skillet. Add the black beans, corn, shillies and tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. (The corn should still have a nice crunch.) Remove from the heat.

Dump the two cans of refried beans into a sauce pan, stirring occasionally, and heat just until smooth. Remove from the heat. (This allows for the refried beans to be used more easily in the next step.)

Use lard or vegetable shortening (lard is preferable) to grease two 13″ x 9″ x 2″ glass casserole dishes. Lay two tortillas in each one. On the tortillas in each dish, spread one-quarter of the refried beans, followed by one-quarter of the meat mixture, one-quarter of the cilantro, and one cup of the shredded cheese. Top each with two more tortillas, and then build a second layer identical to the first. Top with the remaining tortillas and one more cup of cheese each. Cover each dish with aluminum foil, being sure to “tent” the foil upward in the midle so it isn’t contacting the top layer of cheese.

Bake at 350F for 30 minutes. Let set for 5 minutes before serving. Top each serving with sour cream, more shredded cheese, salsa, or other optional toppings.

Notes:

  • Play around with the ingredients. Increase or decrease the seasonings to taste, use hot chorizo if you’d like, or even top each serving with a fried egg. The possibilities are endless.
  • Replacing the chorizo with cubes of slow-cooked beef tongue seasoned with taco seasoning would make for another authentic version, as would using pulled pork or chunks of slow-cooked pork belly seasoned in the same manner.
  • This makes a lot of Taco Casserole. You can also do the assembly in the same size foil casserole pans, cover with foil, then freeze immediately to cook at a later date.
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