Radford Restaurants

On a recent trip to Easton, Maryland to visit Laura’s family we met up with her mother’s parents at Latitudes restaurant in Oxford. This place is amazing. I had perfectly cooked duck over seared potatoes and Laura had flat iron seared flank steak, which is her favorite steak when it is cooked properly, which it was. I’m so lucky to have her family in my life. They honestly and genuinely care for one another and take an active interest in our lives, which is touchingly refreshing.

Even so, I was a bit thrown when Papa Baldwin, who will forever be my hero (he designed solid state rocket fuel systems for NASA – his picture is in the Smithsonian, no lie), looked at me and asked me, “So, Ron, what is your schedule like?” Since my return to graduate school full time, I haven’t thought much about my schedule. I just do what is due. I thought for a minute. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, my day begins around 7:00 a.m. when I finish reading, studying, writing reading responses, work on my thesis, study for Praxis II, write scholarly responses and get ready for work. I am typically running late for work, search wildly for parking and work from 11-5. I then have class until nine, after which I commute the 45 minutes back home.

On Wednesday, I have meetings for other responsibilities, work on writing, study for Thursday’s class and try to cook for Laura. I try to take Friday off if Laura is off; otherwise it’s getting caught up with missed assignments and preparing for lectures. I also typically maintain this blog on Wednesday and Friday. Saturday, it’s off to the Farmers Market or on blog assignments if we’re not travelling. Sunday, it’s back to the keyboard for writing.

Am I complaining? No. NO! It’s exciting, I’m happy and enjoying myself for the first time in years. I’m doing something I love and am passionate about. I only have one complaint.

Why is it that Radford can’t have one, just one, decent restaurant? Just one? BT’s just sucks, which is disappointing for I have very fond, if not hazy, memories of that place from my former stint at Radford University.  Macado’s is well, what it is. Since Jack’s subs shut down, I’ve had nowhere to really go for a quick meal in the hour I have between work and class. I’ve been choking down Subway and finally threw in the towel and said, no more.

So, I was excited yesterday when a co-worker mentioned the River City Grill. After work, I dashed off downtown to find the place. I almost left immediately. The place was filthy. Grungy, dank, ripped carpet, trash on the floor, exposed construction – it wasn’t inviting. It didn’t help that a cook with a filthy apron was wandering around the front house. Before I could flee, a very attentive server seated me at a table that was too short for the chair, which caused an awkward hunch while I was waiting for my food.

Those of you that follow my blog know that I never write bad reviews about anything. If I don’t like it, I don’t go, and I don’t submit you to reading about it. So, it is with utter frustration that I write this.

The menu was dirty. My glass was dirty and plastic. My silverware was dirty. The table wasn’t cleaned. Did I mention trash on the floor? The service was outstanding. My waiter was prompt and courteous, professional even, as he brought out my French Dip, which was made in nine minutes flat. It apparently doesn’t take long to slop some microwaved meat on a roll three times the size of the ingredients that are on it, cut it in half and put it on a dirty plate. It was disgusting. It is rare that I can’t eat what is served me. Gordon Ramsey I am not. My fries were still frozen in the middle. My ketchup was warm. The sad slice of pickle accompanying the pitiful sandwich and raw fries was actually hot to the touch. I shoved things around the plate and made a show of eating it, paid my tab and fled.

The sad thing is, when I mentioned the place to my peers in class, they couldn’t believe it was so bad. Then I mentioned the fries. One of my classmates spoke up. “Oh, yeah…don’t get the fries. Or a sandwich. But the breakfast items are ok!” As a professor of mine said last semester, “It is very sad that, as a town, we were excited when Applebee’s opened.”

Anyone want to open a decent restaurant in Radford? I’ll be there.

Friendship and Turkey

In our age of digital everything, it’s easy to forget the little things that still matter in friendships. Remembering birthdays, hand written thank-you notes, quick phone calls just to say hello – all these things still matter in an era that is dominated by thousands of friends on facebook, texting and instant communication. In my opinion, I’d rather have a few friends that I could count on to pull me out of a ditch on a snowy night than 5,000 friends on facebook that I barely know.

Two such friends of mine are Mike and Bethany Matheson. I’ve known these guys for years, and while we don’t talk every day, or even every week, I know full well that both of them would be there for me no matter the situation, hour or dilemna that I found myself in. This week is a huge event for them – their first child is due any day! They are both former vegetarians who have tentatively re-introduced meat into their diet with their favorites being chicken, turkey and lamb. As a new mother, Bethany is going to need easy, nutritous and simple recipes that can be manipulated easily and provide leftover sandwiches for the new Dad!

This recipe is from my wonderful mother-in-law, Momma Sue. Unlike Southern women, women from the Eastern Shore share their recipes! What a concept. They pass them around on handy index cards, file them in alphabetical order in file boxes, scan them, email them, try them, talk about them – in short, they have a lot of fun with comparing recipes. So here you go:

What you will need:

Two cans of whole cranberries, half a diced onion, one packet of onion soup mix and a bone in turkey breast.

Where to get it:

It’s hard to find any of these ingredients except for onions local and organic, but the turkey can be had if it is really important to you and you are willing to pay a bit more by special order at Gourmet Pantry in Blacksburg or if you live near a large farmers market or Whole Foods, as do Mike and Bethany!

What to do with it:

This is so easy! Mix the ingredients together in a Crock Pot large enough to hold the turkey, but the turkey on top, put the heat on low and walk away. 5-6 hours later, it’s done! All the liquid and enclosed heating will keep it from dyring out, which turkey is notorious for, and you’ll have more than enough for two with leftovers.

An alternative is to place the ingredients just as you would in the crock pot into a cast iron skillet (about 12 inches in diameter), cover, and bake for about two hours @ 350 degrees. Uncover, crank the heat up to 400 degrees and brown from about 20 minutes.

Enjoy with mashed potatoes and pretend it’s Thanksgiving! Preliminary Congratulations, Mike and Bethany!

Here we go, again.

This weekend, we are headed to the eastern shore of Maryland for a quick visit. It is Laura’s Grandmother’s 90th birthday, and so the whole family is getting together to celebrate! 90 – wow. I’ll be happy if I make it to 60. Too many crashes, too many concussions, it’s a wonder my brain still works as well as it does. We’ll be stopping at some of our favorite restaurants and hopefully it won’t be too much of an adventure this time!

Food Trip!

Passion.  For some, the very word stirs up visions of perfume commercials, Victoria’s Secret ads and chocolate. For others, it conveys an image of a 1969 Camaro, your favorite football team or a sporting event. In short, it is what makes us human. Some of us are more passionate than others, and we are all passionate about different things. For us, meaning my wife and me and our small circle of friends, its food. We are truly passionate about what we eat. Ask me about our trip to Italy and I will fixate on some of the meals that we ate. Ask me about the touristy destinations and I will likely fix you with a blank stare. The only touristy destination we visited was Capri and I deduced that American tourists managed to ruin that beautiful place too. It took us nearly an hour to find a restaurant that was not Americanized. Don’t get me wrong, I love our country but when I leave it, I don’t want to be reminded of it. I want to experience the culture, hear foreign languages, eat different food and be amazed.

It’s passion that drives us to ridiculous lengths to obtain something we want. On this trip, our annual trip to West Chester, PA, our passion is cheesesteaks. We’ve been trying different spots on our trips – so far we’ve been to Geno’s, Pat’s and Ron’s (I had to go there!).  So far, our favorite is Geno’s. This year, we wanted to try Jim’s on South Street in Philadelphia. So, on a fine Friday morning, we loaded up my old Ford and aimed the headlights north on I-81, bound for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Anyone who has travelled on I-81 has my sympathy. That interstate is miserable. Trucks, left-lane riders, stop and go traffic, rubbernecking, cops everywhere – it’s not a happy experience. To ease our nerves, we pit-stopped at the Pink Cadillac in Lexington. It’s a cool joint, 1950s décor, diner style. I’ve been there several times and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the experience. They are well known for their cheeseburgers and rotisserie chicken. The last time we tried the chicken it was a bit dry, so we opted for cheeseburgers. They weren’t bad. Not great, but still a good American cheeseburger. Much better than anything you’ll ever find at a fast food joint!

Our shattered nerves soothed by a half-pound of ground sirloin, we get back in the truck and continue our journey. Something weird always happens on this trip to PA. Last year, my window stuck all the way down in a snowstorm and we drove 60 miles in freezing temperatures with the window down until we could find a dealership. This trip was sunny, delightful and relatively easy. We hit some traffic, but nothing major. I should have known something was up.

We arrived at our friend’s house, Nic Murphy, who is the President of BoDoc Records, which is a music production company that he started a few years ago. We met up with another foodie and traveler extraordinaire, Tanya Kang and went to Victory Brewery in West Chester, PA. Wow. The wait was nearly an hour so we mowed our way through the crowd to the bar and ordered a round of brewskies.  Excellent beer, I would highly suggest you try it. We tried to narrow down a favorite but it’s really hard to do.

We were seated and I ordered a house-made wild boar sausage grinder with slaw and apricots. Laura ordered rib sticks with root beer barbecue sauce and threatened to bite anyone who touched them. She was just kidding, we all did share. Our friends watched in silent amazement as Laura destroyed her bowl of ribs, part of my grinder, the rest of Nic’s pizza and part of Tanya’s Quesadilla. What can I say? The girl can eat. If you are in the West Chester area, I highly recommend this place.  Service is great, the food is top-shelf and the ambiance, if you can call it that, is all PA. Awesome.

The next morning we grabbed a cooler and some ice and headed out to an Italian market in downtown West Chester. Carlino’s. We love this place! We bought twelve-month house aged prosciutto, Italian cheeses, freshly ground sirloin, Italian sausages, anchovies, olives, freshly baked Italian style bread, fresh ricotta cheese, house roasted sliced pork and foe gras . The place is simply decadent. We drooled over their sandwich selection and decided to hold out for Jim’s Cheesesteak instead. Big mistake.

So often when travelling, it’s the unexpected that proves to be delightful while the planned turns into a bitter disappointment. Which is why, in part, I despise travel guides. I hate them. Tear the maps out of them and throw the guide away. All the guide does, with few exceptions, is take you where other Americans are. I’d rather be beaten with non-al-dente noodles than spend my precious vacation with other tourists. The phrase “When in Rome” has largely been lost on American travelers. But, for the sake of brevity, I digress.

We then journeyed over to Taste of Olive, our annual source for our olive oil. This place is amazing! They specialize in gourmet Italian dried foods, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and other assorted treats. I tasted olive oil until my taste buds were completely blown, and finally chose an unfiltered Italian oil from the Amalfi Coast. Maybe it was the fact that we have just been there, but I found it to be smooth and rich, with just the right notes of olive and a hint of rosemary. Is it expensive? Define your concept of cost versus rewards and I would say no. It is well worth the investment. So armed with a years’ worth of olive oil, truffle salt (if you haven’t tried truffle salt, you must! Oh, you must!) and dried pasta, we returned to BoDoc Records for a quick sandwich and the drive into Philly.

Most times, the drive from West Chester to Philadelphia takes about thirty minutes. This day, it took us nearly two hours. Traffic was miserable. After we finally arrived on South Street, it took us another thirty minutes to find a parking spot. Shout out to Nic for driving and patiently handling all of that! I was sleeping, which is preferable when I’m in traffic. Trust me, you don’t want me to be awake if we are stuck in traffic. I get mean.

We gleefully free ourselves from the car and enjoy South Street. This is one of the great places to people watch. Street vendors, skateboarders, runners, hookers, johns, homeless, wealthy, white, black, yellow – they are all here. The line to Jim’s stretched around the block and we waited nearly two hours to get a sandwich, but I have to say it was fun. We made it inside and to the front of the line to realize something crucial: They didn’t take credit cards! We huddled quickly and realized we had just enough cash for two sandwiches. Again, a shout out to Nic for his Mississippi roots: Never leave home without some cash!

After all that, honestly, they weren’t very good. Laura took one bite and announced hers needed mayonnaise. If Laura thinks something needs more fat on it, then something is wrong. It was just, well, bland. We tooled around South Street for a while and then were back in the car for another stop and go drive back to West Chester.

Laura is humming and looking through recipes during the drive back and finds one for Prosciutto meatballs. Perfect. We arrive back at BoDocs and Laura makes homemade Italian style meatballs with roasted red pepper pasta and we are all in heaven. We feast. Then, exhausted from the day, we sleep.

We wake, and I make omelets. We feast yet again, and then fix our grills south for I-81 and the only freaking snowstorm we get this winter. For 300 miles we slog along in four-wheel drive, passing stranded motorists and fellow travelers without so much as a blip on our conscience, passing mile after mile of snow covered forests and closed restaurants.

But, eventually, we made it home. Philly threw us yet another curve ball, but we still enjoyed ourselves. After all, it’s not the destination; it’s the journey, right? Something like that. For giggles, we ordered a cheesesteak at Sal’s, a local Italian restaurant across from our office here in Blacksburg. It was the best one yet. Hah! Should we have just stayed home? Oh hell no.

Snowstorms and Fords

So, here we are, back home from Philadelphia, exhausted, and, in my case, unable to sleep. We left at eleven, hoping to make it the kennel by five to pick up Axl, but there was this little thing like a blizzard that interrupted our travel plans. We had also planned to hit one more restaurant for our blog about our travels to PA…that didn’t happen.

I’m so glad I ignored my normal impulse to not eat what I cook when all things healthy are obliterated for taste. My omelets are not healthy. Not by anyones standards. Not even Paula Deen. (Dean? It’s late, and I’m tired.) This morning, it was sausage from a local (In West Chester) Italian supermarket, along with cheese, homemade Ricotta, sauteed onions, garlic and a marinara to die for. Yeah. We roll that way.

We all ate one, and they were awesome. I thought, “Man, I won’t be hungry enough to finish my blog!” Hah. We hit snow at exit 250 on I-81 and it was four wheel drive all the way. We would drive until an accident blocked traffic, ride the medium until the next exit, then take back roads to the next intersection with I-81. And so it went.

Increasingly irritable, we stopped for fuel somewhere, and all they had for food was nasty stuff, largely unidentifiable, under a heat lamp. Laura pulled our cooler out of the back of the truck and loaded saltines with proscuitto and ricotta cheese and made both of us happy. We four-wheeled down Route 11 to get away from the idiots on I-81 and sang winter wonderland songs.

We picked up our dog in the Catawba Valley from his kennel and, still in four wheel drive, made our way over the mountains in to Blacksburg, VA. We powerslid down a hill in four low and crawled through the snow, ever closer to home. To be stopped by a bamboo forest.

I’m not kidding. About a half mile from our house is an impressive stand of bamboo. Which was currently plastered to the road by the weight of the snow. I gauged the alternatives and nosed my way in.

We made it. Tired, exhausted, irritable and cold; we made it home. To a cold, dark house – the power was out. We didn’t care. We built a fire, lit some candles, ate some Foe Grais (Hey, it’s my cooler) and flopped into bed. At least, Laura did. Here I sit, writing this blog. As an ode to my Ford F-150 – Dude: You have brought me home once again. Through snow and storms, hurricanes and fog, sand and dust – you I can depend on. Now…I’m going to bed. After I stoke the fire. And feed the cat.

Off to Philadelphia!

It’s time for our annual trip to visit our friend in Philadelphia. Last year, our window stuck all the way down on the turnpike. It was 21 degrees and snowing. Laura and I absolutely froze, but a Ford dealership in West Chester saved the day. Last year, we visited Pat’s for a Cheesesteak – this year, we’re branching off into the lesser known parts of Philly for some more original treats. Wish us luck and I will talk to all of you in a few days!

Roast Peanut Chicken

Every cook has their signature recipe. It’s usually something fairly easy and packs a certain wow factor in for guests. It must be something that has a few mystery ingredients and provides an easy presentation. It’s not always necessarily something that can be whipped up in a hurry but it does need to be straightforward so that you aren’t digging for recipes.

For me, it’s whole roasted chicken on my Weber charcoal grill. Over the years I’ve developed different techniques for roasting it and it’s always delicious no matter what you do to it. But what I’m going to share with you today is decadent.

What you will need:

  • A whole chicken, feathers off.
  • A lemon, quartered.
  • A lime, also quartered.
  • A chunk of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped into one inch pieces
  • One sprig of rosemary.
  • Four tablespoons of peanut butter, creamy.
  • Two tablespoons of soy sauce.
  • One-half a tablespoon of molasses.
  • One green onion, finely chopped.
  • One tablespoon of duck fat, if available.

Where to get it:

Local organic chicken is available on occasion from Indigo Farms Seafood. You can also find it at the Blacksburg Farmers Market and Oasis on South Main Street. Be sure to contact them before you plan to cook to make sure it’s in stock! They are dependent on the local farms and so don’t always have it. You can get everything else from Oasis, including duck fat when is in stock. The duck fat isn’t pertinent to the recipe but adds a bit of subtle decadence.

What to do:

  • Wash your bird in cool water and pat dry. Place it on the counter at room temperature and for about a half hour before grilling. This helps with even cooking – a cold bird on a hot grill will burn on the outside and remain raw in the center. If you are panicky over food safety, don’t worry. I’ve been doing this for years.
  • Start your charcoal in a chimney starter. If you don’t have one, go get one. Do not use match light charcoal or starter fluid. The charcoal will not last long enough to cook the bird thoroughly and no one likes raw chicken. Except for Stubbs. But he’s a cat.
  • In the meantime, mix the last four ingredients (excluding the duck fat) in a small bowl until smooth. Stuff the cavity of the bird with the ginger, lemon, rosemary and lime.
  • Using your fingers, gently loosen the skin on the breast of the chicken, separating it from the underlying meat to form a pocket down the entire breast.
  • Stuff about half of your peanut butter mixture under the skin, massaging it around for even coverage. Rub the rest of it all over the bird.
  • Placed your chicken in a cast iron skillet – it will just fit in a w10-inch skillet.
  • After the charcoal is glowing white, dump the coals from the chimney onto one side of the grill. It’s best to wear a glove and shoes during this process. Do as I say, not as I do.
  • Place your chicken-in-a-skillet on the “cold” side of the grill, cover and walk away.
  • After about 45 minutes, rotate the skillet to help with even cooking. Don’t worry; the cast iron is doing most of this for you.
  • After an hour, baste the chicken in the duck fat and check its temperature with a meat thermometer. At this point it should be right around 140 degrees.
  • After an hour and a half, your thermometer should read 165 degrees at the thigh. Remove from the grill and allow it to rest for about 15 minutes.
  • Carve, plate, serve and enjoy!

We enjoy a grilled salad with baby bok choy and green Vidalia onions as a side for this dish. The benefit to placing the chicken in the cast iron is to avoid hot spots within the grill and help prevent flame-ups. The skillet also keeps the juices in contact with the bird while cooking and helps keep it from drying out. I hope you enjoy and happy grilling!