Burn baby burn

When I was in high school and college, it was a summertime Richmond tradition to cruise by the fire station on South A Street and wave to the cute firemen who hung out on the bench by the street.

I’m happy to report there’s a new place in town to ogle cute firemen, and eat some darn good food at the same time. Local firefighters Rick Bolen and Tom Broyles teamed up to open Firehouse BBQ and Blues in the Historic Depot District last January, a labor of love two years in the making.

inside Firehouse BBQ and Blues

This hopping new restaurant/live music venue is located in what was Richmond’s first fire station back in the 1800s, and Rick and Tom have kept much of the building’s original architecture intact; the dining room sits where horses were once stabled to pull fire “trucks” in days of old. Make sure to take a gander at the incredibly detailed murals while you’re here; the one on the exterior side of the building is so lifelike, you might actually think it’s on fire at first glance.

exterior murals

By the way, Rick and Tom recently made an appearance on Indy Style, where they prepared mouthwatering brisket and pulled pork that definitely whetted my appetite prior to my visit. These guys will crack. You. Up. (Watch them “smack the butt” around the 0:49 mark: http://www.wishtv.com/dpp/indy_style/kitchen/firehouse-bbq-and-blues)

Let me get back to the food – this is some tasty, down-home-style ‘cue. Definitely the best in Richmond. My friends and I got off to a good start with the BBQ Nachos, a messy and delicious plate of tortilla chips loaded up with pulled pork, barbecue sauce, baked beans (!), cheese, onions and jalapenos. You could make a meal of this dish on its own.

barbecued nachos

Dinners come with two sides and a jalapeno corn muffin and meat choices include all of barbecue’s greatest hits: Pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken, baby back ribs, and a somewhat intimidating concoction called “The Smokin’ Hog.” Take a smoked sausage, slice it and put it on a bun, pile on some pulled pork, cheese, onions and barbecue sauce. There you go. Diners with smaller appetites will be happy to hear you can get the “lunch special” all day long, a sandwich with one side.

the Smokin’ Hog with mac and cheese

Everything we tasted was good. If you twisted my arm, I’d have to name the beef brisket as my fave, although the pulled pork was pretty rockin’, too.

beef brisket with baked beans and cheesy potatoes

From the sides (all served in adorable short Mason jars), the cheesy potatoes came out the winner in my book, reminding me my aunt’s comfort food-classic hash brown casserole recipe. The baked beans were delish as well.

pulled pork with baked beans and cole slaw

Sadly, I had to take off around the time the live music was just tuning up for the evening. This place offers a whole calendar full of acts from throughout the region to rock the house every weekend. Kids are welcome here throughout the week and until 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, after that, the crowd is 21-and-older only.

If you like good barbecue in a really interesting atmosphere, get yourself down here pronto. I’m already looking forward to coming back again next time I’m in town. This place is hot. Dare I say, it’s on fire!

For more information:

Firehouse BBQ and Blues on Urbanspoon

Fried food is not your friend

We’ve been back from our jaunt to Daytona Beach for four days and I’m just now feeling well enough to tackle a recount of our food experiences there. To sum up the Daytona culinary scene in one word: Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. UGH.

Hubby had to manage his company’s booth at a private trade show in conjunction with Bike Week, hence the reason for the trip. And since hubby’s run up about a gazillion frequent flyer miles, the toddler and I were able to tag along for a mere service fee of $10. How could we say no to that?

We flew down last Friday morning through Atlanta and exited the Daytona Beach International Airport around noon to palm trees waving in the breeze and gloriously sunny skies. After the long winter we’ve had in Indiana, Florida was definitely a sight for sore eyes.

We arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Bike Week, an annual Daytona tradition now in its 69th year. To say the place was overrun is a huge understatement. Here a motorcycle, there a motorcycle, everywhere a motorcycle… seriously, the number of bikes we saw was absolutely overwhelming. I mean to check with the CVB to get some stats on just how many people attend this event each year from near and far (we even encountered more than a handful of Europeans who had flown over to be there).

The toddler nearly lost his mind pointing everywhere at once and making engine noises so enthusiastically, he drooled all over his shirt. The bikes came in all shapes and sizes, from the fattest three-wheelers and Goldwings that looked like couches on wheels to sleek, stripped down racing numbers and even the occasional Italian Ducati masterpiece.

I’m obviously not a biker, but still found the whole thing super interesting from a people-watching standpoint. Bikers are an intriguing crowd – many are older and uh, how to put this politely… weathered? Maybe seasoned is a better word… I suppose years on a bike in the sun, rain and wind will do that to a person. I was pleased to see quite a bit of diversity in the crowd, but disappointed to note only a very small percentage of women in the driver’s seat as opposed to hanging on the back.

Overall, they seemed a friendly bunch, too. The toddler tried to make friends with all of them, running right up to the biggest, scariest guys in the crowd, screaming “Hi! Hi! Hi!” The only questionable incident we had was actually with a driver who tried to execute a turn right across traffic in front of us and flipped us off for our hesitating to let him through.

If you’re a non-biker like me, here’s how to look like you fit in. Don a pair or jeans and something tight and black. Heavy eyeliner. Sunglasses. Perhaps a bandanna. If you’re feeling really saucy – chaps and a leather jacket. For the men – same rules apply, minus the eyeliner. If you don’t have the goods to pull off a ponytail, shave your head and make up for it by growing a nice ‘tache or goatee. There you go. Insta-biker chic.

Our hotel was a scrappy little number right on the beach, parking lots filled to overflowing with bikes gunning up their engines at all hours of the day and night. Sigh. The saving grace was that every room had a balcony that opened directly onto a beach view. When the bikes weren’t revving, we could open up the window and enjoy fresh sea air and the shushing sounds of the surf.

So, let’s get on to the food… hubby was suffering a minor tummy upset when we arrived, so after a safety lunch at Panera, our first dinner in town consisted of cheese toast and ginger ale via the in-room kitchen. The continental breakfast at the hotel entailed standard cereal, juice and coffee, plus a couple of college dorm-style waffle irons that took me right back to IU Forest Quad, circa 1988.

Daytona Beach is known for its beach and its speedway, not its food. Along the main International Speedway Boulevard drag is the requisite spate of franchised offerings – Chili’s, Carrabba’s, Hooter’s and the like. Other than that, the food choices closer to the beach are wings, ribs and burgers. There’s a small diner or ethnic eatery thrown in for good measure here and there, but the quality and cleanliness always seem sketchy. Not exactly reassuring to pull into a completely empty parking lot to wonder how good or bad the eatery inside might be.

There wasn’t anything tempting foodwise within walking distance of the hotel, but hubby somehow sniffed out a coffee/donut shop along one of the main thoroughfares that we hit each morning for the rest of our trip. We found a grocery store and stocked up on a few relatively healthy items – oranges, bananas, crackers, cheese, milk, etc. — that took us through the days and then we would venture out for dinner in search of the least innocuous option.

Saturday was the last night of Bike Week, and the motorcycles were out in such force that we got sucked into a traffic vortex that took us two hours to navigate. Well past the toddler’s appointed feeding time and flirting with more potential meltdown disaster each passing minute, we finally pulled into a Ruby Tuesday’s. We got seated right away, thank heaven for small favors. Dinner ended up being a slab of babyback ribs for hubby and a burger for me that I ended up having to send back when it arrived too pink for my taste. Both were served with fries, which the toddler used as vehicles to shovel a plateful of ketchup into his mouth.

Dinner, night 3: Bubba Gump’s Shrimp, rated the best restaurant in Daytona according to their billboard on the bridge. We’d never been to one before, and although the Forrest Gump décor was fun and kitschy, the food was mediocre. Not a seafood fan, land-loving hubby opted for a burger and fries. I got a plate of not-terribly-fresh (fried) coconut shrimp with a dipping sauce that tasted like orange marmalade with a little crushed pineapple stirred in for good measure. And fries.

It was day four that did me in. While hubby worked his trade show, the toddler and I drove an hour north to meet up with my mom’s cousin RuthAnn (a Jacksonville resident) for lunch in St. Augustine. We ate on a lovely little shaded patio at a small bistro. The surroundings were charming, but the food…uh… well… I ordered a tomato tart that sounded much more appealing on the menu than it looked on the plate. It was described as a pizza sort of thing, but when it arrived, I discovered it was actually quiche, and not a very good one. Kinda goopy texture with some slightly browned lettuce on the side in lieu of a salad. I ate it anyway. Probably not the smartest idea, but the rest of the afternoon seemed to go by smoothly, so I didn’t think too much about it.

For what was originally meant to be our last evening in town, we ended up at Hog Heaven Barbecue. The place was packed and smelled yummy when we walked in, both of which I took as good signs. We’d been carrying a few dinner standbys for the toddler and then getting drinks for him on site and letting him nibble off our plates. However, Hog Heaven didn’t carry milk or even juice, which I found odd as there seemed to be quite a few kids present with their families. Fortunately, the toddler settled for watered-down lemonade and was reasonably happy about it.

Hubby ate a combo plate that offered all sorts of barbecued meats – ribs, chicken and whatnot. I ordered my standby meal at barbecue joints – a pulled pork platter. Sick to death of fries, I asked if I could swap mac and cheese or something else, but beans and a baked potato were the only allowable substitutions. Ok. Baked potato it was, and a slice of stale-tasting garlic bread. A small ramekin of warmish cole slaw served as the only vegetable on the plate.

My meat arrived dry; each table in the restaurant housed three or four bottles of barbecue sauce flavors to choose from (and ketchup, of course, which I’ve determined appears to be considered a vegetable serving here in Daytona). I sampled the smoky, sweet and spicy sauce varieties – in retrospect, probably mistake #2. No idea how clean those squeeze bottles really were or how often they were refilled.

I started feeling oddly woozy a few hours later and went promptly to bed as soon as the toddler fell asleep that night. I slept restlessly, and by 1 a.m., my tummy was making noises to rival the Atlantic waves outside. I broke out in a sweat. The first lurch made me sit straight up in bed, and the second had me running for the bathroom. This pattern recurred every half hour or so until about 5 a.m., when I simply pulled a pillow and a blanket off the bed and camped out on the floor beside the toilet. Good times.

By the time morning rolled around, I was in no shape to move, much less manage two flights to get home. My wonderful hubby, bless him, got on the phone and made arrangements to extend our trip a day. He took charge of the toddler and I spent the next 24 hours barely moving. Funny how a simple (yet harrowing) act like puking can wear you out so much.

After a full day and night of nothing but water, Gatorade and Tylenol, I managed to haul myself up long enough to take a shower and get dressed. A banana stayed down – a minor but significant victory, and we were ready to attempt the trip home. Thunderstorms through Atlanta meant bumpy flights all the way back, but my empty stomach cooperated and we arrived safely in Indy that night without further incident.

By a fortunate stroke of luck, hubby and the toddler appear to have been spared my ailment (knock on wood), but whatever it was is taking its own sweet time in letting me out of its grip. I have managed a few fairly bland meals since we’ve been back, but I’m still not right. Even now, my stomach is rumbling again. If this lasts another day or two, I’ll be making an appointment with the doctor to see if I need an antibiotic. Yuck.

Overall, the trip was fun, but I definitely won’t be rushing back to Daytona anytime soon. I’m not writing off the Sunshine State completely, but there are plenty of other Florida cities I’d much prefer. Now could someone please pass me the Pepto?

Crocks rock

Have I ever mentioned how much I love my crockpot?

After years of being relegated to shelves and pantries, crockpots are coming out of the closets and seem to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with good reason. You put some meat and veg in there, pop the lid on, turn it to high and leave it alone. Several hours later, you open it up and voila. Dinner. It’s like magic!

My dad gave me my crockpot years and years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, I believe. I never used it. It sat alone and forlorn, gathering dust in a cupboard for ages. Oh, I may have used it once or twice for BBQ cocktail weenies at parties and such, but certainly not with any regularity. It wasn’t until after I got married that I decided to haul it out and do some experimenting. I could have kicked myself when I quickly realized what I’d been missing out on all that time.

Hubby and I were living in Sonoma at the time, where there is certainly no shortage of delicious meat and produce year-round. The first thing I recall making in the crockpot was a boneless leg of lamb for one of hubby’s work colleagues and his wife who were coming over for dinner that night. We had a huge rosemary bush growing just outside our back door, so I snipped a few sprigs to throw in, along with a few slivers of garlic tucked into the meat and a drizzle of olive oil. I turned the crockpot on and we went out to run errands.

When we got back to the house several hours later and opened the door, the aroma coming out of the kitchen was absolutely intoxicating. When I later went to lift the lamb out of the savory jus, it was so tender, it fell into chunks as I laid it ever so gently onto the serving platter. Needless to say, it was delicious. The meal even inspired our guests to unearth their own crockpot and rev it up.

Over the next few months, my crockpot saw a lot of action as I played around with various recipes. I even put it to use for Thanksgiving – Cornish game hens stuffed with orange wedges and more of that delicious rosemary.

Now, when the weather turns chilly and I’m trying to decide what to make for dinner, my thoughts immediately turn to my crockpot. It’s the perfect vessel for comfort food on a cold snowy night – pulled pork, turkey chili, beef stew and pot roast are all ideal crockpot meals. Most recently, I used it to turn out a yummy pepper steak/goulash recipe courtesy of hubby’s cousin Noreen in Canada.

Seriously, crockpot cooking couldn’t be easier, and it all but guarantees that any meat you use will come out meltingly tender and juicy. The secret for the best flavor is to brown your meat first before you put it in the pot. Take a tip from Julia Child – dry your meat very well with paper towels, then brown it quickly in a pan with a little nearly smoking-hot oil over high heat. Transfer it to your crockpot, then deglaze your pan with a little bit of wine, stock or even water. Make sure to scrape up all the browned bits stuck on the bottom of the pan; that’s the good stuff. Pour all that yumminess into the crockpot as well. Your stews and roasts will thank you, trust me.

If you’ve got a crockpot languishing away forgotten somewhere in the depths of a closet or on a basement shelf, I urge you to wash it up and get reacquainted. I’ll even get you started – here are a few of my fave crockpot recipes to try for yourself:
Pasta e Fagioli

3 or 4 slices of bacon or proscuitto
2 Italian sausages, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. dried basil and/or oregano
a few sprinkles of hot red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ medium onion, chopped
1  14.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup water
1 cup of your favorite small pasta (ditalini, orzo, mini-farfalle)
1 wedge of parmesan cheese for grating

In a skillet, brown the bacon or proscuitto and sausage slices in a little olive oil and then transfer to the crockpot. Add the beans, tomatoes, seasonings, onion, garlic, chicken stock and water. Grate the parmesan cheese, save the grated cheese for garnishing and add the rind to the pot for extra flavor. Cook on low for about 4 or 5 hours or high for 2 to 2 ½ hours. Add the
pasta, stir into the pot and cover for another 20 to 30 minutes on low. (Can add another cup of water here if it’s too thick.) When pasta is cooked, the soup is ready to serve. Remove bay leaves and parmesan rind before eating. Salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, top with grated cheese and serve with crusty bread for dipping.

Crockpot Roast Lamb

4 to 5 pound boneless leg of lamb, or whatever size will comfortably fit in your crock pot
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
about 5 cloves fresh garlic, cut into slivers
olive oil
salt and pepper

Open up the lamb and cut small slits throughout, stuffing with alternately garlic slivers and small pieces of rosemary. When lamb is sufficiently stuffed (use as much or as little garlic and rosemary as you like), rub lightly with olive oil and salt and pepper both sides.

Fold lamb up to fit into crock pot. Pour in about ½ c. of water. Cook on high for 3 to 4 hours or low for 6 to 7 hours. It will smell awesome and literally fall apart into tender chunks as you take it out of the crock pot.