Friday, July 26, 2013

Apéritif Friday - The Traeger

Last spring, Mr. Musky started in about some smoker he wanted for the cabin. I listened patiently, counting up the number of grills we currently own between our two homes.
  • Gas grill on the deck in Plainfield.
  • Green Egg on the patio in Plainfield.
  • Weber on the patio in Plainfield.
  • Portable gas grill for tailgating in Plainfield.
  • Cheap smoker in Plainfield that I bought him eons ago for a father's day gift, if it hasn't already been left on the driveway the night before garbage pick up for someone looking for a freebie.
  • Weber on the deck at the cabin.
  • Smoker on the patio at the cabin, that gets used twice per year, if that (our northwoods neighbor is now the proud owner of said smoker).
  • Fire Pit at the cabin that doubles as a grill.
  • Small, portable grill for the pontoon boat. (Hot dogs rock on that thing!)
That's nine grills. Obsessed much? No way was I agreeing to yet another grill for the cabin, despite his efforts at persuasion, which usually work on me when food is involved. Nope, not even if we could go boating all day, with the meat on the grill and an electric, automatic mechanism feeding more wood pellets into the smoker to maintain a constant temperature, presenting us with a perfectly cooked main course without so much as lifting a finger for hours.

Until one day in Costco in March, we ambled by the lady selling the Traeger, and I could tell it was all over. I'd lost. I made my way down to the wine section while he remained, entranced by the possibility of smoked everymeat.

Mr. Musky and his Traeger made the trip north in April "just to get everything set up." He texted me pictures of chicken wings on the smoker, and just when I started to think I'd lost him to a smoking meat machine, he returned home, praising the benefits of being able to cook while getting work and chores done all day. 

And now I have to eat crow. I LOVE THIS MACHINE! We've cooked ribs, pork shoulder, turkey legs and thighs, chicken, and most recently, turkey breast and brisket on the Traeger. It is so nifty - just turn it on, make sure there are plenty of wood pellets in the reservoir, set the temperature, and walk away, coming back to check on the meat periodically until it's done. 

Rather than buy lunchmeat all summer, we brined and smoked fresh turkey parts. They sell them all over the place up here, and it makes the juiciest, most delicious turkey salads, wraps and sandwiches ever, for a fraction of the cost one would spend on deli or pre-packaged meat (yuck). 

The last time he smoked meat, it was a beautiful Monday afternoon, and I snapped a few photos while he prepared the brisket and turkey breast before putting it on the grill.
Check out the pretty goods from the Eagle River Farmer's Market in the background! I found a farmer from Sugar Camp there, Ever Good Farms, and next summer I'm going to be the first in line for their summer CSA - Community Supported Agriculture - membership. See that broccoli? Best we've EVER had. And the sugar snap peas? Fuggetaboutit. Fantastic.

Right - back to the star of the night. Brisket, rubbed with cowboy steak rub.
And the turkey breast, rubbed with Treager poultry seasoning.
We tromped up to the garage,
and Mr. Musky placed them both on the Traeger at 250 degrees.
A couple of hours later, good, smoky, juicy things were happening up by the garage.
After three hours, Mr. Musky deemed the turkey complete, and the pop-up button helped confirm his suspicions. Trust me - this tastes as good as it looks. Better. Juicy, tender meat that is perfectly seasoned and rivals any bird on the Thanksgiving holiday. The smoker doesn't just "smoke" the meat; it acts as an oven, so the end result is a mildly smoky meat that is cooked evenly throughout.
At this point Mr. Musky also took the brisket off the grill and determined that it needed moist heat for the remainder of it's stay on the Traeger. He asked me if we had any beef stock. "Nope, but we have wine," I helpfully offered. Which ended up being even better, in my opinion, than beef stock. He placed the brisket in an aluminum pan, poured about 1.5 cups of Cabernet Sauvignon over the meat, sealed it tightly with aluminum foil and placed it back on the grill for another three hours.
My plan was to show all the steps until we plated the final product. I intended to cook a medley of those fabulous vegetables to accompany the brisket, fix a refreshing, summer apéritif, and relax on the deck while we ate our dinner. We took Miller out on the boat so he could swim and burn some energy at the nearby little beach while the brisket finished cooking. But on the way home I managed to get sick and pulled the old heave ho over the pontoon.

When we got home I went to bed for thirty hours. Needless to say, there were no vegetables that day, I enjoyed the brisket as a leftover several days later, and the thought of an apéritif of any kind made things in the nether regions revolt.

But - here's a summer favorite. Consumed on a different, today! Two ounces (or more, to your liking) of Ketel One Oranje (Absolut Mandarin works well too), a dash of Angostora Orange Bitters, two tablespoons of mint simple syrup (recipe found here), a squeeze of 1/3 of an orange, topped off with sudsy club soda and garnished with a slice of orange.
A delicious, refreshing summer cocktail to combat a chilly evening in the Northwoods, with temperatures rivaling the coldest night on record for July. Winter hats and bulky, unflattering sweatshirts are all the rage, man.
Even green tree froggies are searching for refuge.
This gent occupied my Friday apéritif chair. I had to relocate the little bugger to some warm leaves in the woods.
Enjoy some cool temperatures, throw open those windows and snuggle under a quilt tonight if you're in the upper Midwest! I LOVE THIS WEATHER!


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ten Tips for Writing a Letter to a Kid at Summer Camp

I am surprised at how many views my post "Letter to the Kids at Camp" is receiving via blogger stats. And in reflecting on this, I realize that many people may not know what to say in a letter to a kid at camp. I think this comes from a society where we are so text and email focused that we've forgotten the art of the hand written letter. I personally love writing letters to my kids at camp, but my husband would rather stab his eyeballs repeatedly with a fork than correspond longhand. In fact, the few letters he does write during the summer are typed and printed.

The kids could care less. They just want mail.

So keep that in mind when you sit down to write a child at overnight summer camp. They really don't care what you write. They just want that letter handed to them when the mail arrives, and are thrilled with anything that is enclosed. Receiving mail daily helps them to stay connected and alleviates homesickness.

However, I find that some letters garner more enthusiasm than others. Here are ten tips if you find that blank piece of paper staring you in the face and have no idea where to start.

1. Write about the mundane. Tell them what you did for the past day or two. I suspect that EVERY child has a twinge of homesickness while at camp, even if they'll never admit it (my son). They like to know what you are doing, who you've seen, what you ate for dinner. You know - the everyday nonsense of your life.

2. When you've got nothing, and you've already told them what you're up to in yesterday's note, go online. Look for news headlines. Tell them what's going on in the world around them, because they are oblivious. They are at camp, and are (hopefully!) unconnected. They have no idea that the Duke and Duchess just had a baby, it's a boy, and the odds were 8-1 that the child's name would be George. If your child is heavy into sports, send them some score updates. Whatever they are interested in. And don't be afraid to include your opinion on the news item. Letter writing is a great way for you to express your opinions and ideas on controversial news topics, giving your kids more insight into your belief system of which they otherwise might not be aware.

3. Tell them a funny story. Case in point: my story about the bat. I truly did write each of my kids a letter with nothing more than the details of that tale, albeit much shorter than the story as written on the blog.

4. Send some funny cards. You know the ones - the borderline inappropriate cards in the Hallmark section. Bathroom humor is always a good option. Cute cards telling you miss them are nice. But be sure to include a few lines of your own in there. Remember - they want to hear about YOU, and what's going on in your life.

5. Look up dumb jokes. Include five or ten in a letter. Ask them to share your letter with their cabin, and have their cabinmates vote on the best joke. This is a great way for the first-time camper to engage with their peers and expand some friendships. This also works well with Chuck Norris lines. My son's favorite? "When Chuck Norris is stabbed, the knife bleeds." Know your audience, and in the case of 13 year-old boys, an entire letter comprised of Chuck Norris jokes scores major points.

6. Check out celebrity headlines. Case in point: A certain celebrity couple who recently named their child North West. Tell your camper about that, then google crazy celebrity baby names and list them all. Tell them to share them with their cabinmates, vote on the worst one, and share the results with you. My 15 year-old daughter liked this one.

7. Draw them a picture. Mr. Musky finds himself in a constant state of bug warfare at our cabin, and his most recent weapon in the arsenal is an electrically charged racket he can zap the flies with. Instead of trying to explain this to the kids, I drew them a (very bad) picture. My daughter said it made her laugh hysterically. I'm not sure if she laughed at my lackluster artistry, or the image it garnered in her head of her father ridiculously trying to kill bugs with a tennis racket. Regardless, it amused her.

8. Look up crazy news headlines and include them in a letter for an amusing diversion. I don't know if this was more entertaining for me to write or for them to read. People are nutso out there. Example: "Man Allegedly Pooped in Holland Tunnel Booth." Again - bathroom humor always wins.

9. Send care packages to college students, not your camper. Seriously. I know a lot of camps have outlawed these completely due to the hyper-competitive parents who send ridiculous amounts of useless stuff. Your kids don't need a package of junk (because seriously, that's what it is) to know you love them. In the past seven years, I have sent only one care package to my child at camp - a box of July 4th paraphernalia she could share with her entire cabin. Don't send candy or food. They are living in the woods, and do not want critters in the cabins. If you absolutely must send your child a care package, be sure you know what the camp's policy is and adhere to it. Respect it. The rules are present for a reason. Include enough in the package for the entire cabin to share - imagine an 8 year old with a box of goodies and the jealousy the others might feel. And trust me - your child would rather receive a letter from you every day of the week versus one care package in that same week. Write to them instead.

10. Don't be afraid to share your feelings with them. I find that the older my kids get, the mushier some of my letters are. I mix these in with the lighthearted ones, telling them if I'm angry or frustrated or sad or just miss them to the point of madness. Be careful about doing this with younger campers, as their homesickness may be more acute than with an older, more experienced camper. Use good judgment, but my point is you don't need to be afraid to communicate some of the negative. I find that in doing this, my kids are honest in their letters back to me and tell me what's bugging them at camp, and how they are trying to cope with the issue.

At the end of the day, just write. Often. Both of my kids repeatedly thank me for writing so many letters, even if some of them are just three sentences because I'm pressed for time. Your child will be so grateful to see that envelope with the familiar scrawl and return address, regardless of the content inside.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dear Jake

Dear Jake -

When I think of you at camp, I smile. Because I know you are having a blast. You are outside playing ball, shooting guns and arrows, swinging a golf club, playing guitar, climbing a 75 foot wall, ziplining down, popping up on one ski, competing aggressively against rival camps, making friends, and creating memories. And dare I say? You are even having a few emotional moments. You are so in the moment of camp, and I know you let the tears spill over once in awhile, but we won't talk about that. Because we don't need to. You keep those special moments to yourself, and only share them when you want to, and with the right person or people. Like those new friends of yours on the last night of camp. Let 'er rip, buddy.

When we went to Confirmation Camp over visiting weekend, it was the best time I've spent with you since I used to rock you to sleep at two in the morning when you were a baby. See, over the years we both have grown up, but the long drawn out moments together are few and far between. So spending ten hours in the car with you over 36 hours was, I'll admit, a bit intimidating at first. What would we talk about? Would you ignore me over your phone, texting with your friends from home who you missed terribly over the past four weeks?

You asked me if you could play music. I agreed. I loved your song selections. They are just like you - laid back, all over the board, still searching for a niche. A little bit of everything. And we'll keep the fact that we both bopped along to country music a secret from your sister.

We rode in silence for quite some time. I actually thought it felt a bit awkward - what does the 41 year old mother say to her 13 year old son? We'd already caught up on all the specifics of camp, and you knew what had been going on with me since I write to you every day. So what's left?

Plenty. We talked about the upcoming changes we are going to make in our diet as a family. We talked about extended family members. You talked incessantly about the fun you had at the Dells with your camp friends and the insanity called Scorpion's Tail which I WILL NEVER RIDE! We talked about Kahley and Dad. We missed them together. But we also commented about every interesting thing we saw on our drive.

And you played more music. Great tunes that had us both singing at the top of our lungs to the classics and the current top hits. You played my requests, you introduced me to your current faves. We had fun.

When we got to Walcamp, for your final year of Confirmation Camp, you did not ditch me for your friends. On the contrary - very soon after we arrived, you came up to me and gave me a huge hug. In front of everyone. Just because.

Do you have any idea how that melts me?

Our ride home proved even more entertaining. Already relaxed and in the groove, we created a game plan whereby you would take a picture of anything interesting along the way. Yes, this was primarily my idea, but again, you softened my heart with your simple comment, about 2.5 hours into our drive:

"This is so much fun, Mom. Good idea."

Your simple, sweet way is what I love most about you. Keep that. Stay who your are.

I recently sent you a special letter at camp. You know the one. It has no greeting, and no closing. It simply contains the lyrics to Lynyrd Skynryd's Simple Man.

Be a simple kind of man.
Oh be something you'll love and understand.
Baby be a simple kind of man
Oh won't you do this, for me son, if you can?

...and don't forget son, there's someone up above.

And that is my lifelong, ultimate wish for you, Jake. All that I want for you, my son, is to be satisfied. 

Now onto your mad photography skills. Which, yes, you are right, are quite good considering we were traveling at speeds anywhere from 15 to 75 mph and you took the majority of these out of a bug-slathered window. Well done, my boy! There's no way I can post all 163 images, but here are some of my favorites.

One of the first pictures you snapped - we weren't even out of Illinois yet! Farmer Bill and Farmer Ted just shooting the breeze on a sunshiny Sunday morning.
The farm implement theme carried throughout the day, the machines getting more complex the further north we traveled, and the more hay fields we encountered.

I mentioned to you that I wanted some pictures of barns.
 We definitely had plenty to choose from on our drive.
Impressive! Especially considering I shouted: "I like the stone on that one!" as we were cruising by at over 65mph.
I don't even remember seeing a blue barn. Good eye, Jake. Kahley would love the weather vane on this one.
And the barn quilts. Which I just learned about a few weeks ago thanks to Kathie Mackin, our northwoods neighbor. She has one of these on her shed. Did you know that?
 Makes me want a barn so I can put a quilt on it.
And the final barn and shed we saw - which was so beautiful we had to stop so you could get a great photo. Love this!
Your pictures of the Central to Northern Wisconsin landscape accurately depicted how our drive morphed from fields of grains,
to fields of livestock,
to wooded narrow roads (getting closer to home!),
to the first of many lakes.
 Sometimes the mode of transportation fit the landscape perfectly.
and provided a welcome distraction and photo op.
Did you even know that your grandfather, my dad, drank PBR for at least thirty years of his life?
Clearly, the answer is yes, as you couldn't resist the ancient bar signs.
I love the names, too. Hitchin' Rail and Long Branch. Good, solid bar names.
And while flipping through your handiwork, I chuckled at this one. There are still cheap eats in this world. We could feed our entire family for $4 on Wednesday night at this place.
I loved stopping in some of the cute little towns with you. Time to debug!
And how could we not resist a picture by PARTYVILLE!, er Pardeeville? How sweet would it be to have that as name of your hometown?
There's just something quaint and interesting about small town sights:
Doggies running for home,
Guidance on where to drive snowmobiles,
 And a waterfall in the middle of town. How cool is that?
We stopped in a teeny town where you stood in the middle of the road because a vehicle doesn't amble by for half an hour.
But not during the Tater Toot Festival!
Can you believe that next weekend will find over 1000 people lining the streets of Almond, WI, enjoying a car show, parade, inflatables, fire station competitions, music, food, drinks and dancing? But for the life of me, I still can't figure out what the name Tater Toot means. So if any of you readers are from Almond, I'd love to know the history of the name of your annual festival and what exactly "Tater Toot" means.

I suspect this reminded you of a certain Bates Motel? No. We are not staying here. Ever.
Getting ever closer to home, I know you love this one. The shrine on the corner of the road, where we always threaten to leave you and your sister for the night if you are bad in the car.
I know, I know. It creeps you out. You're not alone.
And...the ingenious yet misleading name of this northern Wisconsin golf course and supper club.
Club X to C.
Ecstasy? As in, the drug? Adult Entertainment? Sheer, mindless bliss?

No. The intersection of Roads X and C. Of course.

I do like small town cemeteries. There's something so quaint and peaceful about them.
And something even more special about this church. I noticed it, but didn't even have to say the word. You saw it too, and captured this brilliant image. It might be my favorite of the day.
Nah. This one is.
My sweet boy. I love you more than you'll ever realize, I miss you terribly every day, and I look forward to two short weeks from now when you're back from camp.

Until then, keep having the time of your life!


Friday, July 12, 2013

Apéritif Friday - With a Special Couple

Last week my adorable sister-in-law and her sweet fiancé paid us a visit to celebrate Independence Day.
They stayed with us for five days, and it was such a treat to have no schedule, no pressure to be anywhere at anytime, and a chance to get to know and understand each other better. Of course I know Jen and Pat, but hanging out at holiday get-togethers doesn't a strong relationship make. I could easily make excuses for this, arguing that we are at different points in our lives, a decade apart in age which is nearly a generation, live 45 miles away, which given Chicagoland traffic, is further then it seems, and this would all be true. But the fact remains that we have some work to do in terms of being closer sisters-in-law, and I'm happy to report that we are well on our way.

So with the kids still at camp, it was such a blast to have just the four of us together for an extended period of time. And this may sound selfish, but I was glad to not have to share our time with them among other family members. We had them all to ourselves.

What did we do? Ate. Chatted. Drank. Boated. Laughed. Swam. Played games. Repeat.

Pat and I made fun of two siblings who can't pronounce the word "astronomer." They say it the same way - "astromoner!" with added verve every time they try. Hilarious. Equally funny was the mysterious gorilla that appeared at their window one night before bed - Jen nearly packed it up and left. The older brother prankster lives on.
On the last day Jen learned a new phrase on Urban Dictionary. Clearly, she is appalled, but Pat is happy. Hmmmmm...
Despite growing up in a household that had about ten dinners in the rotation repertoire, Jen's palate certainly morphed over the years into a sophisticated, broad range of tastes. Which is, as you might guess, right up my alley.

We made campfire filets with horseradish twice baked potatoes and proscuitto wrapped asparagus one night.
All so good, and even better while watching boaters gearing up for July 4th festivities on the lake.
We prepare the filets the same as rib eyes, but Mr. Musky puts an aluminum cover on them when they are cooking over the campfire to help keep the heat in. They get a great char that way, and also cook to medium-rare perfection. For the potatoes, I drizzled three potatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper and baked them at 375 degrees for about an hour. Once they cooled a bit, I cut them in half lengthwise, scooped out the flesh into a bowl, then added about 1/2 stick of butter, a splash of heavy cream, 1/2 cup cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup monterey jack pepper cheese. After adding 2T of horseradish, I sprinkled in some garlic powder, salt and pepper and mixed it all together. I spooned the mixture back into the potato shells and baked them under the broiler until golden brown on top.

Jen and Pat made these chicken skewers another night, with a zippy, flavorful zucchini salad to accompany it.
Watching them cook together could be a reality TV show. Jen is definitely in charge, Pat is the Sous Chef, and they go at it when Pat is not reading Jen's mind and cooking the food exactly as she doesn't communicate.
We sat back and giggled to ourselves the entire time. Their dinner had a great spice in the chicken balanced by a refreshing vinaigrette on the vegetable dish, and the toasted pine nuts in the salad gave a satisfying crunch for texture. Best of all? We didn't cook, kicked back on the deck, and relaxed with Miller. Who tried his darndest to win Jen over all week, but the jury's still out on that one.
I finally had to step in and help out while they were, cooking dinner. Because an empty glass of wine is simply not acceptable.
 So I made Jen an apéritif, to Pat's grateful thanks, to simmer her down.
I juiced an orange, added a splash of mint simple syrup, a couple of ounces of vodka and topped it off with some club soda. Garnished it with an orange slice and a couple of mint leaves - Viola! A cool, refreshing summer drink.

We also enjoyed a true Wisconsin meal the night they arrived - bratwurst boiled in beer then charred to perfection over the charcoal grill, along with some awesome veal sausage that we order from Paulina Market. Topping off the brats, as always, were some caramelized onions and peppers.

Their final night we smoked a lamb roast on the new electric smoker (more to come on that gem in a future post) with a plethora of sides:  tzatziki with naan bread, pea pods and tomatoes sautéed in EVOO,  Greek salad with tomato, cucumber and feta and creamed spinach. If greens are good for a body, then we overachieved.
We opened my birthday present on lamb night - Stepping Stone Syrah - that Jen tasted while working in Napa - and it paired perfectly with the lamb. It is so good, I might just have to order myself some more.
Clearly, their presence happily distracted me and I did not photograph the ingredients or steps as I normally do. But that, my friends, is called being in the moment. And I soaked it up like a sponge with these family members all week. We laughed until we cried, talked about the exciting upcoming events in their lives, and anxiously awaited the news of the birth of Jen's best friend's baby girl, who was born on Tuesday and is healthy and beautiful.

I look forward to continuing to live vicariously through Jen and Pat. I don't want to go back for a replay in my own life, but I'll pull up a chair in the front row to watch theirs unfold. Mr. Musky and I will cheer their successes and be there to help them through the rough patches.

And be the first Auntie and Uncle in line when the babies start coming. I'm ready.

Enjoy your family!