Friday, October 29, 2010

Dad


The call came. I'd felt prepared. Every time the phone rang, I expected it. So why is it that when it arrived, it still felt like the bottom dropped out of my world? I thought about waiting a few days before I wrote this so that the words would be more flowery and thought out. I decided, instead, to write it raw.

My father Rex passed away today. That tough old hoss fought against it with every breath and managed to confound us all with his sheer will to live throughout. In the end, his body finally gave out.

I've written a lot about my Dad this past year. In particular, I spoke of the kindness he had shown many times toward friends, neighbors and strangers by dropping off anonymous fresh garden vegetables on porches and patios. I've only scratched the surface of my father's generosity.

My Mom ran the clothing center and my father ran the food pantry at their church for many years. Anyone who's ever known what it's like to lose everything or simply not know where their next meal was coming from, knows that simply walking into that church basement might take all the courage one could muster. To then try to say the words, "I need help" often proves to be just too much to bear. My father wouldn't wait for them to say anything. He would simply place a hand on their shoulder, quite possibly share a tear with them and then wordlessly pack up a heaping box of food items for them and bid them farewell. My parents were masters at knowing how to help those in need. Why? Because they've been there.

Every Christmas, the Men's Fellowship at the church would make and deliver Christmas baskets filled with food to those in need. When I was younger, I accompanied my Dad on a few of those deliveries. One year, it was a brutal winter and we practically had to scale a steep frozen hillside to reach one of the homes. I wiped out more than once and let my overprivileged complaints be heard. My Dad, twice my age, wiped out too and nearly crawled up that hill on his hands and knees. At the top, he said, "No matter how rough you're feeling now, it's nothing compared to what these folks are going through." He was right as rain, of course....one of the many times he's humbled me.

I can only hope to be half the man Rex Haught was. It's hard to imagine the planet without him.

I love you, Dad. Now, you can finally rest easy once and for all. You've earned it.

Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul

One more fleeting glimpse into my skate down Memory Lane this week..

Glee did their tribute to the Crown Prince of all Midnight Movies this week: Rocky Horror Picture Show. The first time I experienced this wacky, interactive film, I was fresh out of high school. I attended with my high school buds Rick, Bill, Eric and Mark during a Halloween midnight showing. We were told what props to bring but didn't really know what to expect.

Walking into the theater lobby, I was gobsmacked by the crowd itself. Many were dressed up as the characters and seeing various and sundry Riff Raffs in person skeeved me out a bit and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. Once settled into our theater seats, the film began and so did the fun. Audience members shouted out lines in union with the dialogue. A rain scene brought out water pistols firing into the air and raised umbrellas. A call for a toast resulted in actual toast being thrown into the air. A wedding scene brought a rain of rice. By the time The Time Warp queued up, we were all happily running to the front of the theater to line dance and sing the lyrics at the top of our lungs. I wanted to do the Time Warp again and again. Rocky Horror was a revelatory experience in the end.

I've seen the flick a couple of times since but on DVD and something is lost without all of the audience participation. During the original midnight movie experience, I didn't quite absorb the delicious subversiveness of Rocky Horror. It's a fun, twisted musical for sure. I finally got to watch it as a stage production a few years back at the much-missed Late Night Theatre. Ron McGee, Late Night's brilliant impresario, directed it and Spencer Brown was fantastic as Riff Raff. Damn it, Janet, I really loved Late Night Theatre.

Now that I'm a whole lot older and arguably wiser, I still have great appreciation for the hella good time Rocky Horror provided. The "arguably wiser" portion of me regrets the food waste, but the entertainment value was and is undeniable. Long live Rocky Horror! If I insist on continuing to do the Time Warp these days, I may as well do it while singing and dancing.

Let this post serve as a segue from last weekend's comforting family weekend to our Halloween journey to spooky Eureka Springs, Arkansas for some haunted Halloween party scenes this weekend. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Number Nine

Sunday brought about the main event of the weekend: our girl Sierra turned the magic number nine in high style. Sierra's parents Kim and Dave attended the aforementioned Mizzou game in person and despite their exhaustion, hosted a great birthday party for their girl.

Dave cooked up a tasty breakfast for us of hash browns with peppers and onions, eggs and some delicious local sausage. Following breakfast, we decided to keep the kids entertained until the main event so Keith did something he vows to do every year and typically never ends up having time to do...he carved a pumpkin for Halloween. The kids each decorated a pumpkin as well....Tanner's was inventive and Sierra's was over-the-top blinged out.







Jill and her daughters Caitlyn and Lindsay joined us for the primary soiree. Sierra and Caitlyn entertained us with some songs on the piano. Sierra also selected the main dish for the party: Dave's famous fish tacos. Our newly nine-year-old has some burgeoning gourmet tastes; bless her. This was my kind of lunch...fish tacos made with tilapia, fresh avocado, salsa and shredded cheese. Dave also served some of the incredibly savory black bean soup he had made for the game the day before. Though he swore it was better then, I found it to be seriously delicious. Dessert brought us back to a true nine-year-old's tastes...a Hannah Montana ice cream cake.

As evidenced by my last two posts, it seemed I couldn't get through events this weekend without a boot kick down Memory Lane and this party was no different. My ninth birthday was one of my favorites. Mom and Dad invited my friends to join me at a picnic pavilion in the park for cake, ice cream and a cookout of burgers and hot dogs. I still remember getting my most awesome Hot Wheels set with the big yellow track that had the cool loop in the middle. I revisited those pics when I was taking care of my parents last winter. Just yesterday, Tanner brought out Keith's old Matchbox set of cars in their old carrying case. I got that case for my birthday as well and took it everywhere.

It was a great weekend of treasured memories while making new ones....hmmmm, I must be channeling vintage Hallmark sentiment. One day, I hope the kids will read these posts. When they read about this particular weekend, though, they may be asking....
Will he ever just write about us and stop talking about himself all the time? Yeah, kiddos, I will.
These days, though, I just find myself revisiting those days.....a lot.

Chili and Football Go Together Like Peas and Carrots...

...well, they may equally pair up well but that's where the comparison ends. Peas and carrots don't come close to eliciting the passion demonstrated by fans of chili and football. Now, those of you who know me are probably already sporting a smirk....I'm not what one would call a sports fan. I do however, have a long history with the pairing of homemade chili and football season and this past weekend became another chapter in that proud tradition.

My dad's chili represents my earliest memory of that heaping bowl of homemade heartiness. He frequently made a "safer" version for church functions and such, but at home when preparing to watch his beloved West Virginia Mountaineers or Pittsburgh Steelers, he would kick it up a notch. Sometimes, it seemed as if Dad's spice levels reflected the importance of the game: if the Steelers were in the Super Bowl, his chili would definitely warm you up....if the Steelers were playing the Dallas Cowboys, the chili would seem outright angry. This was the chili that gave me my love of heat and spice.

Chili and football would also co-star for local football events in my hometown as well. Every Friday night during high school football season, Kristy's mother Mary Alice would whip up a batch of homemade chili and serve it with everything from grilled cheese sandwiches, slivers of Amish Baby Swiss cheese and crackers and last, but certainly not least, her delicious homemade cheesecakes. Throughout our school years and lastly through my beloved band geek days, this was a cherished Friday night football season tradition.

My friend Kaki continues the chili and football tradition during WVU and Steelers games. She makes a fiery and filling version, topped with shredded cheese, sour cream and Fritos. I frequently leave not-so-subtle hints with Kak concerning my craving for her batch of spicy goodness.

Finally, this past Saturday night, we joined Keith's family for the latest version of Football Loves Chili. Anne and Randy hosted a get-together to watch the undefeated No. 11-ranked University of Missouri Tigers take on No. 1-ranked Oklahoma. I've been in Kansas City for nearly seven years and while not quite yet a Mizzou fan, I can certainly cheer them on against Oklahoma. My heart will always belong with WVU, but when in Rome...

Our generous hosts have a beautiful home and they put out quite the spread. Hot dogs, buffalo and barbecue wings, cornbread muffins and beer bread were among the featured items. Shelby baked an awesome and yummy cupcake tribute to Mizzou. I was also an instant fan of Anne and Randy's spicy zucchini relish and I'm not typically a relish fan. The centerpiece was the Vanloo's own deliciously spicy chili, served in bowls with condiments or over hot dogs. The only thing missing was the necessary chill in the air as the temps outside were unseasonably hot. Otherwise, it was a perfect setting for watching football and indeed the game was a thriller: the score was close throughout and in the end, Mizzou successfully unseated Oklahoma from their No. 1 position. Cheers echoed throughout the house and a good time was had by all. Even Sierra and Caitlyn found creative ways to enjoy the festivities(pictured at left)...

I may not be a sports fan by definition but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a good game...especially when it's accompanied by a fine bowl of spicy, homemade chili.

Monday, October 25, 2010

From A Blue Chevy Pickup To A Four-Wheeler

Our weekend began with a trip to Jefferson City for Sierra's ninth birthday. The weather continued to impress with temps that were almost too warm as they settled into the eighties. We picked up some homemade apple butter from some kind Amish folks displaying their wares beside of their black buggy. These folks remained kind as they scattered during my attempts to photograph their buggy....I'm guessing maybe the Amish are among the folks who believe that photography steals a portion of your soul. If that proves to be true, I'm going to have a lot of apologizing to do in the Hereafter.

We would arrive at Keith's parent's home just as his father, Ken and Keith's niece and nephew, Sierra and Tanner were preparing for a fishing excursion. Well, Ken was preparing; the kids were reveling in found empty cardboard boxes....these two have an abundance of toys, but sometimes a cardboard box is rife with possibilities at that age. We packed up supplies and fishing paraphernalia and took a couple of four-wheelers out to the lake on Ken's property. Once there at this truly idyllic setting, we cast a few lines. Well, Keith, Ken and Tanner did. I'd pretty much forgotten how to fish but I got a refresher course and cast a few out to no avail. Keith caught at least six fish and threw each one back immediately after. Tanner caught a few as well. Sierra was more interested in playing cards or playacting in the old rowboat. As I snapped photos, I realized once again that time with the kids had me reflecting on the cherished scenes of my childhood. My father's ailing health also contributed to the clarity of those memories. The few times I did stand at the edge of the lake, slowly reeling in the fishing line; I became acutely aware of one of the joys of fishing. Time seems to slow down a bit.....I noticed the light breeze, the warmth of the sun's rays, the autumn leaves floating to the ground. I thought of Dad and how much he loved to fish and I'm sure the solitude was part of the allure....to truly feel one with Nature.

My dad had an old sky-blue Chevy pickup. Before this was officially declared a safety risk, he'd allow us kids to pile up in the truck bed and then he would pack a cooler and the Hibachi grill and take us on an adventure: a bumpy, windy and dust-covered trip through the back roads. We'd laugh and yell with every big bump. We'd hold on tight for sharp turns, as if were on a twisty roller-coaster. In the early days of these trips, we'd spend some time near a sunlit creek and Dad and I would sometimes slap on waders and walk into the water and spend quiet afternoons with our fishing poles. I never really cared if I caught anything....it was just a kick being out there. Eventually, Dad realized the fishing was not the thing for me. It was quite literally the journey: the "truck ride", as we called it. To my Dad's everlasting credit, he just started taking me and my friends on these rides because we loved the actual trip and he started leaving his fishing pole at home. We would stop someplace out in the country and fire up the Hibachi. Dad would grill burgers and hot dogs for us and we'd sit on the tailgate and happily chow down while soaking up whatever setting we would happen to land on. To this day, I am regularly reminded by longtime friends of the joy of those simple experiences....the "truck rides".

Sierra and Tanner's memories will be filled with days like these. Today, they fish at the lake, they thrill to the four-wheeler rides and they cook over an open flame. We grilled hot dogs and my true favorite, S'mores. That combination of graham crackers and chocolate bars with slow-roasted marshmallows is hard to beat. As we packed up to head back to the house, my Dad dominated my thoughts. On this day, as an adult, I realized Dad quite often sacrificed the opportunity for some fishing and peace of mind in order to entertain me and my friends on another truck ride. Dad, thank you for all the fishing trips you gave up....you selflessly gifted me with some of my favorite memories.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Spicy Ethiopian Goodness at Blue Nile Cafe

If I were to be granted wishes concerning my blogging journey, I would wish for The Confounded Cook to one day evolve into a food and travel blog. Our traveling expense has been tied up in my frequent trips to my hometown to care for my parents. Travel, along with food, is one of my great passions. For now though, I try to make time for the next best thing....cultural exploration through food done locally. The latest excursion introduced myself and my friends Kara and Drew to Ethiopia and truly it was like nothing else.


The Blue Nile Cafe is tucked into the City Market area of KC. It's a small dining room adorned with Ethiopian art on the walls. I'd arrived a few minutes before my lunch cohorts and the scents wafting from Blue Nile were making my stomach growl. We were soon seated and learned there was a lunch buffet and thinking it was a great way to sample several specialties, we agreed to that. We couldn't figure out where the buffet was and soon realized it was similar to a lunch counter at the front. We first ordered a high-tech version of the cafe's Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony: a cocky and sleek-looking coffee siphon that brewed the Ethiopian coffee called buna right at our table. At the buffet, we were warmly welcomed by one of the owners who's name is Selam. She, as well as our server, graciously explained many of the dishes we were trying.

The Ethiopian delicacies won us over at first bite. We learned the proper way to graze was to employ the soft, spongy bread called injera. Injera is made with teff, a rye-like grain indigenous to Ethiopia. Once you have torn off a smallish piece of injera, you use it to pinch pieces of food off of your plate and then eat with your hands. After a bit, we all returned to using our flatware. However we ate it, we most certainly enjoyed it. Like any cuisine, there were some selections we liked better than others, but we agreed that all of it was very good. The plate begins on a bed of white rice. There was Gomen, fresh collard greens cooked and seasoned with onions, ginger and garlic. Atiklett is potatoes, carrots and cabbage cooked with yellow onion and flavored with ginger, garlic and turmeric. I am not typically a fan of mushrooms or particularly wowed by lentils but if I could have them both prepared the way they are at the Blue Nile, I would eat them every day. The Mushroom Shiro features sliced mushrooms with roasted and powdered chickpeas simmered in a spicy red sauce. My personal favorite was the Misir Watt: stew made with organic red lentils cooked with sauteed red onion and berbere (an Ethiopian hot pepper), then flavored with ginger, garlic and cardamom. I also had the Doro Watt, a skinless chicken breast marinated in lemon, sauteed in herbed butter and stewed in a red pepper sauce flavored with cardamom and nutmeg. The entire dish was quite the flavorful combination and made for a filling and satisfying meal. The buffet is all-you-can-eat and only costs $8.50. One platter was more than enough for each of us, so it's a great deal.

We finished off the meal with our hot Ethiopian coffee which had finished brewing at our table. Keep in mind that my coffee drinking is only on an occasional basis. I'd had Turkish coffee at a Portuguese restaurant in Pentagon City before and I had a notion of what to expect. Two demitasse cups of this strong, aromatic brew and I was lit up for the rest of the day. Great way to clear out the post-meal haze! All in all, Blue Nile Cafe was a delicious experience and we will definitely return. As a matter of fact, we were enlightened to the fact that Selam and Blue Nile will soon be expanding to a second location in Overland Park that will be more upscale and feature a more traditional Ethiopian dining experience. Check them out at http://www.bluenilekc.com/.

I can't let this post pass on without mentioning that today is my lunch partner Kara's birthday. I only met Kara a few months back and we've become fast friends. Our mutual love of food is only one reason I'm sure we'll remain friends for a long time to come. The happiest of birthdays to you, Darlin'!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stare At This Pumpkin Cheesecake and Quiver In It's Presence!

Once we'd soaked up the Ren Fest atmosphere, we moved on to more quality foodiness to finish out the weekend. We headed to nearby Legends for lunch and knowing that we had some beer connoisseurs in the group but also requiring some kid friendliness, we stopped at the Yard House. The Yard House is a chain that features over 100 beers on tap and the list is impressive and exhaustive. I went for a Belgian Strong Ale called Delirium Tremens (pictured) that I totally dug. Chris had the Chimay Triple and Anne and Randy went for the fruity Lindeman's Framboise. K and I had been here a couple of times before; the last time was with Tom and Sharon Fenton from Marietta. It had been awhile since we'd been here and on this day they were crazy busy due to an actual Beer Festival going on at Legends. While we were there, the Fest had run out of tickets and many who came to sample ended up just coming to Yard House to get their ales. The place was packed. The other notable difference is that The Yard House had clearly stepped up their menu...it was overflowing with delicious-sounding choices. Of course, that don't amount to a hill o' beans if the food ain't good. It was very good, actually...I had a seriously good Blue Crab Cake Hoagie with avocado, applewood smoked bacon and Cajun aioli on toasted Garlic Bread. Jill had a Chicken Enchilada Stack but her husband Chris had the plate presentation winner: the California Roll appetizer that featured a sizable sushi rice cake with cucumber, snow crab, tobiko, and avocado fan. The runner-up for presentation: the tomatillo garnish on Jill's plate....how did they do that? Even young Caitlyn was duly impressed..this articulate seven-year-old declared her grape and cherry soda combination "electrifying"! The whole gang was quite pleased....way to step it up, Yard House!









We returned to Excelsior Springs where the family was staying at the Elms and took them on a tour of the ever-growing downtown. We stopped at Broadway and Penn; they picked up some wine at Willow Spring and revisited the koi pond at English Garden. We headed back to the hotel and split a bottle of Pinot Noir and strolled the grounds. Eventually, we went to Ventana Gourmet Grill for dinner because, according to Keith, we weren't leaving ES until we'd had some of the titular pumpkin cheesecake. Did I tease it enough? Well, now you know how I felt....K had been talking it up all weekend. I've blogged Ventana's masterful housemade cheesecakes before and 'tis the season for pumpkin. We were seated at the Last Supper Table, complete with church pews. My evening brew marked the approaching All Hallow's Eve...an ice-cold Hobgoblin. We had dinner and it was as good as ever....I had the Zesty Basil Pasta made with broccoli, green onion, fresh basil, crushed red pepper and mushrooms in a light olive oil and garlic sauce. Caitlyn, now getting her first adult tooth, declared it her "noodle cutter". We were finally ready to try some of those wonderful cheesecakes and between us all we tried several....Snickers, the always terrific blackberry with walnut crust, caramel pecan and (cue the choir singing) pumpkin. I love pumpkin cheesecake and I've tried several but this was...The Best Pumpkin Cheesecake I've Ever Had. Creamy, a little spicy, filled with fresh pumpkin....Wow. It was completely worth the tease.

Utterly sated, we walked back to the hotel on a beautiful autumn night. We finished off the weekend on Sunday morning with breakfast at old fave Ginger Sue's, home of the fluffiest of biscuits and that bacon that brings us back every time. We finally found out the ingredients....sugar, pepper and rosemary. We also tried their amazing pancakes for the first time and they were as fluffy as the biscuits. So...it's back to raw vegetables and water for awhile, but oh, was it worth it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Huzzah! Our Return To The Renaissance Fest

This weekend has been the perfect antidote to the emotional days and sleepless nights of the past week. My Dad has had some scary, rough days recently and I nearly headed back to my hometown but in the last moment, he has seemed to rally once again. Dad seems to be stable for the time being. Some of Keith's family were coming to stay at the Elms for the weekend, so I was going to make a concerted effort to have a good time...and indeed we did.

Keith's cousin Randy and his wife Anne as well as his cousin Jill, her husband Chris and their two darling daughters Caitlyn and Lindsay arrived Friday night and the next day we met them at Bonner Springs, Kansas for that annual celebration of all things medieval, the Renaissance Festival. The Ren Fest is an experience that one should try at least once. Depending on your level of interest, the Fest can range from a unique people-watching sport to flat-out full immersion in the medieval environment. The Fest is set up in an elaborate re-creation of a village straight out of the Middle Ages...it winds through a forest-like setting and is filled with performance stages, shops and food outlets decked out in their finest Camelot chic. This particular visit was for the visiting family and in particular for young Caitlyn, herself dressed in pretty princess garb. I admit for K and I, having attended once prior, once was enough. We enjoyed it to be sure, but realized we probably would best enjoy it again accompanying others and that's what brought about this return visit. Like our Disney World Trip with Tanner and Sierra, revisiting and experiencing Ren Fest through the eyes of children brought about a whole new appreciation. Lindsay was a tad too young to truly absorb the spectacle, although she did rock her new pink, fuzzy tail. Caitlyn was properly entertained, though, and that was worth the trip, for sure.

I was once again fascinated by the depth of detail these folks attain when they create this Festival. The staff and performers work wonders in establishing an environment that allows the visitor to feel as if they are strolling through medieval times and they fully encourage guests to take part in the fun. That could involve something innocuous such as taking in a stage show or fully dressing in costume and truly getting into character. Upon entering festival grounds, you are welcomed by the King and Queen and then enter the village where characters roam the grounds greeting you and many are dressed in spectacular fashion. There was a scarier contingent to this crowd as this was also their Halloween celebration as well. Caitlyn was greeted by the Fairy Godmother first and from that moment on she was pretty much entranced throughout. A "leper" covered in boils made us all a little skittish but soon various comedic troupes of fops, wenches and jesters surrounded us with mirth and merriment. Caitlyn's adventures ranged from smoke-filled bubbles to wax hands to riding a majestic elephant.

Soon, as is my calling, we moved to the food and drink palaces for mead and sustenance. Here, we met up with Jeff, Ashley and Alex and their bud, Tracy. Yes, the Wonder Twins of Doom had returned and the evil Halloween spirit was complete. I and the family took a snack break (K and I split the cholesterol-cursing Philly Cheese Spuds-Philly Cheese toppings on waffle fries) and I then met up with Ashley and gang to catch the end of a juggler's show. Food and drink offerings were plentiful, including fare from the Wench's Wine Bar, Clare's Crepes, The Pirate's Pub and The King's Sausage. There was an overabundance of snickers between K and I over the location of the King's Sausage. Moi....miss a chance to way oversell a suggestive sausage joke? Not a chance. One of the most popular Ren Fest yummies is the massive Turkey Leg and Tracy made short work of hers. My favorite food moment came courtesy of the Garlic Festival booth. Selling garlic-laden dipping oils and mustards, they had me at hello...despite the garlic breath. I was, however, fully committed to a long-term relationship after my first taste of the Garlic Festival's pickled garlic with jalapenos.....I bought a jar and could have tackled them with a fork and been good and joyously garlicky for the rest of the day.

Our final Fest moment took place at the highlight-the Jousting Tournament. The King and Queen's parade leads all of the colorful characters into the Jousting Arena and then we are then introduced to our combatants. All encased in suits of shiny armor and divided into obvious reps of good and evil; they are mounted on horseback and wield a variety of armaments such as lances, shields and swords. The knights engage in several contests of strength and will and the victor is inevitable bit it's a kick getting there.

All in all, it was a good time revisiting the Renaissance Festival as well as old friends while seeing it anew through the wonder of Caitlyn's eyes. We had a ball and moved on to munch some more throughout the weekend. I'll pick that up in the next post...










For now, though, a hearty Huzzah to the Ren Fest!