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Friday, August 26, 2016

Bourbon Bells

It might be hard to remember a time when the Kentucky Bourbon Trail didn't meander through the Bluegrass connecting local distilleries through common ground or when there was no Kentucky Bourbon Festival celebrating all things bourbon. Right now, (along with horses and basketball) they're both part of our cultural heritage. Funny, long before the Bourbon Trail was established (1999) and distilleries  built multi-million dollar visitor centers with chef driven eateries to accommodate the exploding bourbon tourism industry or before the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (1992) cemented itself as the center of the bourbon universe during its run, I was helping bang out bourbon dinners at a restaurant in downtown Lexington. Back in the day, bourbon dinners were a novelty and not a thing.  At the time, our restaurant happened to have a very large bourbon selection and when we were approached about hosting a bourbon tasting/dinner, we jumped all over the opportunity. With little experience and unbounded naivete, we kept the dinners very simple until they gained popularity and the notion took hold. Nowadays, bourbon dinners are indeed a thing. The notion stuck. Over the years, with single barrel bourbons, small batch bourbons, blended barrels, and craft bourbons crashing the party, bourbon dinners (and bourbons) have gotten more complex and sophisticated. It's a good time to be a bourbon lover.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival started out in 1992 as a dinner with a bourbon tasting. Every year, it played on its popularity until it skyrocketed into a two week event that draws over 50,000 attendees a year to the beautiful town of Bardstown, Kentucky. Bourbon mania.

16 years after that inaugural dinner and bourbon tasting, I found myself teaching, cooking, and demonstrating a 5 course bourbon inspired meal for 250 bourbonites at  The Culinary Arts; Bourbon Style Cooking School at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Full circle.

I have a tender spot for my two year stint teaching the bourbon cooking school. Oh sure, planning, prepping, traveling, and cooking in an archaic  portable makeshift kitchen had its challenges, but it was always great fun. With the festival just around the corner, I can still feel how my nervous excitement swelled and calmed moments before service when the bell tower chimed My Old Kentucky Home through the serene shaded grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Cue the music and light the burners. Lucky Kentucky boy.

With smoky undertones from the charred barrels blending with subtle notes of vanilla, spice, caramel, honey, and oak, the inherent qualities of bourbon lend themselves readily to both sweet and savory preparations. While I've applied it to just about everything, bourbon's natural affinity with pork gets me every time.

Slow Roasted Bourbon Lacquered Pork.
With a few tweaks, I ventured back to the simplicity of my first bourbon dinner with an easy going preparation. Time. Little effort. Big payoff.

Brine.
To jump start the bourbon factor, I made a quick brine with 1 cup hot water, 2 cups cold water 4 tablespoons Maker's Mark bourbon, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 3 tablespoons salt, and 3 tablespoons brown sugar. After chilling it down with 1 cup crushed ice, I poured it over a 4 1/2 pound Rolling Rock Farm Boston Butt pork roast, massaged it into the meat, and slid it into the refrigerator to marinate/brine overnight.

Slather and rub.
The next day, I pulled the pork from the refrigerator, drained the brine, patted the pork dry, and slathered it 1 cup bitingly sharp Maille dijon mustard. While the pork roast came to room temperature, I mixed 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar with 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, 1/2 tablespoon ground cumin, 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme, 3 tablespoons Bourbon Barrel Smoked Bourbon Sea Salt, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper.

After massaging and packing the spiced brown sugar rub onto every inch of the pork roast, I scattered
sliced Casey County candy onions into a large roasting pan, nestled the pork roast over the onions, added 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, and 1/2 cup bourbon before sliding the roast (uncovered) into a preheated low 325 degree oven for 4 1/2 - 5 hours, basting the meat with the pan juices every 45 minutes and adding stock when needed.

As the fat melted into the meat, it swirled through pan juices, sticky candied spice rub, and bourbon
spiked stock. Think about it.  It was a basting dream. Even at a low oven temp (with that much sugar action) I kept a close eye on the pan drippings, adding more liquid/bourbon when needed. Baste. Wait. Baste.  Repeat.

When the internal temperature of the pork reached 190 degrees and it was beautifully smothered, covered, and lacquered, I pulled the roast from the oven, tented it foil, and let it rest for 25 minutes.

After 5 hours, the pan juices were highly concentrated. To loosen them up a bit, I slid the roasting pan over 2 stove top burners, turned the heat to medium, and added a scant 1 tablespoon flour. When the flour bubbled up, I soften the sauce with 1 cup chicken stock, 1/2 cup water, 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, and an extra  splash of bourbon to perk it up.

I ripped  thick shards of pork from the sticky burnished roast, nestled them into puddles of smoky sweet bourbon  pan sauce, and tucked buttered Wiesenberger Mills cornbread waffles to the side before finishing with fresh grassy parsley, slivered Casey County sweet red banana peppers, bright quick-pickled shallots, and pickled garlic cloves.

I'll drink to that.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Spin

Zucchini fatigue.
This time of year can get to people. I know some folks who absolutely hit the wall every summer when the zucchini goes wild and keeps rolling in. Year after year, without a shred of hindsight, my father planted rows and rows of zucchini in his enormous garden only to regret the eventual overload. When he let the late season zucchini grow into giant green footballs, we knew he'd found his wall. Even a few backyard plantings can test the bounds of patience for well meaning urban gardeners. With a few unsuccessful attempts under my belt trying to grow zucchini, my one little brush with zucchini fatigue occurred several years ago when a housemate of ours hammered Michael and me with a relentless summer long onslaught of zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, and zucchini everything. Although it took us a couple of years to recover from that unfortunate and wearisome zucchini-palooza, I never held it against the vegetable. In fact, I adore zucchini.  Luckily, for most of us, our local farmers tolerate the crazy to bring the overabundance to our farmers' markets until the bitter end. Grow it and I will come. For a different take on the seasonal powerhouse, I paired a recent haul with a few other summer favorites and took them all for a little spin. A literal spin.

Summer Vegetable Tart.

Crust.
To dough or not to dough?
In lieu of a lovely cheese-flecked savory shortbread crust, I opted to run with a very basic unstructured pastry dough.

I pulsed 1 1/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black black pepper in a food processor. When combined, I added 8 tablespoons ( cut into pieces) cold unsalted butter and processed the mixture until it resembles course crumbs. With the machine running, I drizzled ice cold water one tablespoons at a time (about 3, total ) until it formed a loose ball. After transferring the dough to a floured board, I flattened it into a disc, wrapped in in plastic wrap, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill for an hour.

After rolling out the dough on a floured board until it was 1/4" thick, I carefully placed it into an 8" buttered spring form pan and nudged the dough into the pan. Without being too fussy, I maneuvered the dough to form a rustic base, docked it with a fork, covered it with parchment paper, filled the shell with beans, blind-baked the shell for 15 minutes  in a preheated 350 degree, and pulled it from the oven to cool.

Ribbons.
I could have used a mondolin to achieve uniform shaved vegetable greatness,but I really didn't want
get all precious with the prep. Using a vegetable peeler, I shaved  2 Large carrots, 3 slender Boyle County Asian eggplants, 3 large Elmwood Stock Zucchini, and 3 large Elmwood yellow squash into feathery ribbons.

With most everything on deck, I whipped 8 ounces room temperature cream cheese, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, and cracked black pepper until blended before spreading the creamed cheese over the bottom of the cooled tart shell.

Spin.
There were multiple ways I could have wrapped the vegetables around each other to create the spiral. Basically, I twirled.  After forming a teeny rosette with a carrot ribbon, I  used the natural moisture from the vegetables to help them adhere  and simply twirled them them around each other, alternating the layers with zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, and carrot ribbons. When it became a little loosey-goosey, I placed the spiral onto a plate and continued twirling until it was large enough too fit into the par-baked cream cheese covered tart shell. I carefully slid the vegetable ribbon spiral into the shell, tucked it into place, and gently nestled the vegetables into the flavored creamed cheese. After drizzling the top with extra virgin olive oil, I slid the tart into a pre-heated 350 oven for 35 minutes.

Before the delicate edges of the vegetables over caramelized (charred), I pulled the tart from the oven, let it rest for 15 minutes, released it from the spring form pan, and slid it onto a wire rack to cool.

When cooled to room temperature, I kissed the vegetables with a splash of fresh lemon juice and a dusting of flaked sea salt,

Give it a spin.
No walls.





Spin

Zucchini fatigue.
This time of year can get to people. I know some folks who absolutely hit the wall every summer when the zucchini goes wild and keeps rolling in. Year after year, without a shred of hindsight, my father planted rows and rows of zucchini in his enormous garden only to regret the eventual overload. When he let the late season zucchini grow into giant green footballs, we knew he'd found his wall. Even a few backyard plantings can test the bounds of patience for well meaning urban gardeners. With a few unsuccessful attempts under my belt trying to grow zucchini, my one little brush with zucchini fatigue occurred several years ago when a housemate of ours hammered Michael and me with a relentless summer long onslaught of zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, and zucchini everything. Although it took us a couple of years to recover from that unfortunate and wearisome zucchini-palooza, I never held it against the vegetable. In fact, I adore zucchini.  Luckily, for most of us, our local farmers tolerate the crazy to bring the overabundance to our farmers' markets until the bitter end. Grow it and I will come. For a different take on the seasonal powerhouse, I paired a recent haul with a few other summer favorites and took them all for a little spin. A literal spin.

Summer Vegetable Tart.

Crust.
To dough or not to dough?
In lieu of a lovely cheese-flecked savory shortbread crust, I opted to run with a very basic unstructured pastry dough.

I pulsed 1 1/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black black peeper in a food processor. When combined, I added 8 tablespoons ( cut into pieces) cold unsalted butter and processed the mixture until it resembles course crumbs. With the machine running, I drizzled ice cold water one tablespoons at a time (about 3, total ) until it formed a loose ball. After transferring the dough to a floured board, I flattened it into a disc, wrapped in in plastic wrap, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill for an hour.

After rolling out the dough on a floured board until it was 1/4" thick, I carefully placed it into an 8" buttered spring form pan and nudged the dough into the pan. Without being too fussy, I maneuvered the dough to form a rustic base, docked it with a fork, covered it with parchment paper, filled the shell with beans, blind-baked the shell for 15 minutes  in a preheated 350 degree, and pulled it from the oven to cool.

Ribbons.
I could have used a mondolin to achieve uniform shaved vegetable greatness,but I really didn't want
get all precious with the prep. Using a vegetable peeler, I shaved  2 Large carrots, 3 slender Boyle County Asian eggplants, 3 large Elmwood Stock Zucchini, and 3 large Elmwood yellow squash into feathery ribbons.

With most everything on deck, I whipped 8 ounces room temperature cream cheese, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, and cracked black pepper until blended before spreading the creamed cheese over the bottom of the cooled tart shell.

Spin.
There were multiple ways I could have wrapped the vegetables around each other to create the spiral. Basically, I twirled.  After forming a teeny rosette with a carrot ribbon, I  used the natural moisture from the vegetables to help them adhere  and simply twirled them them around each other, alternating the layers with zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, and carrot ribbons. When it became a little loosey-goosey, I placed the spiral onto a plate and continued twirling until it was large enough too fit into the par-baked cream cheese covered tart shell. I carefully slid the vegetable ribbon spiral into the shell, tucked it into place, and gently nestled the vegetables into the flavored creamed cheese. After drizzling the top with extra virgin olive oil, I slid the tart into a pre-heated 350 oven for 35 minutes.

Before the delicate edges of the vegetables over caramelized (charred), I pulled the tart from the oven, let it rest for 15 minutes, released it from the spring form pan, and slid it onto a wire rack to cool.

When cooled to room temperature, I kissed the vegetables with a splash of fresh lemon juice and a dusting of flaked sea salt,

Give it a spin.
No walls.





Saturday, July 30, 2016

Char

Whether broiled, deep fried, baked, grilled, pan fried, simmered, or stewed, eggplant is a very versatile member of the nightshade family that takes a winning spin with almost any preparation. That said, nothing develops the earthy custard-like creamy meatiness of eggplant more than a down and dirty char.



Right now, tomatoes and eggplant are more than abundant at our local farmers' markets. Strewn across the farm tables with other gorgeous high-season produce, rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes line up side by side with baskets of eggplant varieties splashing the markets in sweeping vibrant colors. It's a bit overwhelming, humbling, and altogether beautiful.



Summer fun.
What grows together, goes together.

Charred Eggplant Salad with Roasted Tomato Vinaigrette.
Sure, a broiler or stove top open gas flame would have been dandy for a fine blistered skin with softened inner flesh. Sometimes, more is more. I went the full monty with a full out char.

After igniting charcoal in an outdoor grill, I let the coals crumble into glowing embers before cradling slender Pulaski County White Casper, striped Boyle County Fairy Tale, and bulbous Casey County Black Beauty eggplant varieties into the burning coals.  I poured a glass of wine, pulled up a chair, and used long handled tongs to turn the eggplant every 15 minutes or so until they started to blister, collapse, and blacken. More is more. I let them go another 15-20 minutes (turning them often) until they were ridiculously charred before carefully lifting them from the grill, placing them over a wire rack, gently slipping off their burned brittle skins, and setting the naked eggplant flesh aside.


While the eggplant cooled, I placed 1 1/2 pounds of on-the-vine Marion County tomatoes into a cast iron skillet, drizzled them with olive oil, seasoned them with a dusting of kosher salt along with a few grinds of cracked black pepper, and slid the tomatoes into a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes. Just before the tomatoes imploded, I pulled them from the oven and set them aside.

Fire and Nice.
When the roasted tomatoes were cool enough to handle, I removed them from the cast iron skillet, reserved a few whole tomatoes, and grated the remaining ones on a box grater fitted over a sturdy bowl (old school). After pressing the juicy pulp through a fine mesh strainer, I scraped the good stuff from the bottom of the strainer and stirred it into the tomato jus before adding 1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice, 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, and cracked black pepper to form a loosey-goosey broken vinaigrette ( roughly, 3/4 cup tomato jus, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2
tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper to taste).

With everything at room temperature, I nestled the creamy eggplant (halved or left whole, depending on size and variety) into puddles of the roasted tomato vinaigrette and rested the reserved whole roasted tomatoes to the side before finishing with fresh Green Tiger tomatoes, baby Sun Golds, extra virgin olive oil, flecked feta, and snipped garden chives.

Kissed with smoke, the char-steamed eggplant flesh melted into the tomato jus. With a mere whisper the whole roasted tomatoes split open, giving texture and body to the vinaigrette.  Brightened by the fresh lemon and rounded out with fruity olive oil, the broken vinaigrette masqueraded as a wonderful and refreshingly light tomato sauce. An accidental summer win. While the fresh baby heirlooms countered the warm depth of the roasted tomatoes, the chive/feta combo crashed the tomato-eggplant party with brash grassy sharp tang. Flavor bombs.

Charred eggplant with summer tomatoes.

Fresh from the ashes.

Fabulous.












Saturday, July 16, 2016

Brambles

Blackberry picking was a noble chore on our family farm in western Kentucky. During those blistering hot midsummer days, there were blackberries to be had and someone had to pick them. It was a rough and tumble business. You see, we didn't grow blackberries on our old Kentucky farm. They simply arrived.  Our blackberries grew in places my father's bush hog couldn't reach or mow. The tangled prickly brambles twisted through overgrown barbed wire fence rows, corner thickets, rugged ravines, crumbling abandoned farm buildings, and camouflaged critter camps. I was the fetcher of the blackberries. Ever mindful to leave the top berries for the birds while rustling up enough noise to ward off snakes, I was the hunter and gatherer of the summer field berries. Outfitted in long sleeved flannel shirts, heavy socks, and rolled up dungarees for protection, my pretend armor was a suffocating ruse. After every expedition, without fail, I hobbled home with ankle-high cockelburs, chiggers, deep scratches, bloody hands, and blackberries. A big win for an adventurous farm boy. During the weeks of blackberry season, the fruits of my labor brought on summer cobblers, pies, muffins, pancake syrups, and macerated ice cream sauces. For those few fleeting weeks, I felt like the noble prince of summer.

Nowadays, I leave the picking to our hard working farmers. See you later snakes, thorns, chiggers, and bloody heat. Hello, sweet plump summer blackberries. Ripe for the picking at our local farmers' markets.

Goat Cheese Cheesecake With Blackberry Basil Coulis
 Any fruit or berry would pair beautifully with goat cheese cheesecake. Right now, blackberries are having their moment in the sun.

Coulis
I tumbled 1 pint Pulaski County blackberries into a saucepan, added 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice, a pinch ground white pepper, and 3 whole fresh basil leaves. After cranking the heat to medium high to melt the sugar, I reduced the heat to a simmer  and let it rip until the berries collapsed from the heat. When the blackberries released their juices and disintegrated into the sauce, I pulled the coulis from the heat, strained it through a fine mesh strainer, discarded the basil-flecked  pulp, and set the coulis aside. to cool.

Crust.
To add a subtle savory bent, I crushed 3 tablespoons shelled pistachios in a food processor before tossing them with 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs and 3 tablespoons melted butter. After buttering 8 individual 4 ounce ramekins, I spooned the crumb mixture into each ramekin, tamped the buttered crumbs firmly into the edges, slid the ramekins into a 325 degree oven for 8 minutes, and pulled them from the oven to cool.

Filling.
A fun little ride on the wild side.
After bringing 11 ounces cream cheese and 4 ounces goat cheese to room temperature, I tossed the two cheeses into a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, I beat the cheeses together for 2 to 3 minutes before adding 2 Elmwood Stock Farm eggs (one at a time until incorporated), 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons sour cream, and a pinch of salt. To insure maximum creaminess, I beat the filling on medium speed for 10 full minutes before carefully filling each buttered cup. After placing the ramekins into a hot water bath, I carefully slid them into a preheated 300 degree oven for 24 minutes, pulled them from the oven, let the cheesecakes rest in the water bath for 10 minutes, and  transferred them to a wire rack to cool completely before sliding them into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

After bringing the cheesecakes to room temperature, I dipped the ramekins into hot water to loosen
the crusts, ran a sharp knife around the edges to release the fillings, and inverted them crust side up to serve on puddles of coulis with fresh blackberries and garden basil leaves.

Both bold and delicate, the salty sweet crunch of the pistachio crust countered the soft creamy tang of the goat cheese cheesecake. While the basil-infused berry coulis provided a tart bright punch, the plump fresh blackberries added warming sweet pops of summer.

Simple.
Fresh.
Unexpected.

Summer berries.
Savor the season.







Brambles

Blackberry picking was a noble chore on our family farm in western Kentucky. During those blistering hot midsummer days, there were blackberries to be had and someone had to pick them. It was a rough and tumble business. You see, we didn't grow blackberries on our old Kentucky farm. They simply arrived.  Our blackberries grew in places my father's bush hog couldn't reach or mow. The tangled prickly brambles twisted through overgrown barbed wire fence rows, corner thickets, rugged ravines, crumbling abandoned farm buildings, and camouflaged critter camps. I was the fetcher of the blackberries. Ever mindful to leave the top berries for the birds while rustling up enough noise to ward off snakes, I was the hunter and gatherer of the summer field berries. Outfitted in long sleeved flannel shirts, heavy socks, and rolled up dungarees for protection, my pretend armor was a suffocating ruse. After every expedition, without fail, I returned with ankle-high cockelburs, chiggers, scratches, bloody hands, and blackberries. A big win for an adventurous farm boy. During the weeks of blackberry season, the fruits of my labor brought on summer cobblers, pies, muffins, pancake syrups, and macerated ice cream sauces. For those few fleeting weeks, I felt like the noble prince of summer.

Nowadays, I leave the picking to our hard working farmers. See you later snakes, thorns, chiggers, and bloody heat. Hello, sweet plump summer blackberries. Ripe for the picking at our local farmers' markets.

Goat Cheese Cheesecake With Blackberry Basil Coulis
 Any fruit or berry would pair beautifully with goat cheese cheesecake. Right now, blackberries are having their moment in the sun.

Coulis
I tumbled 1 pint Pulaski County blackberries into a saucepan, added 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice, a pinch ground white pepper, and 3 whole fresh basil leaves. After cranking the heat to medium high to melt the sugar, I reduced the heat to a simmer  and let it rip until the berries collapsed from the heat. When the blackberries released their juices and disintegrated into the sauce, I pulled the coulis from the heat, strained it through a fine mesh strainer, discarded the basil-flecked  pulp, and set the coulis aside. to cool.

Crust.
To add a subtle savory bent, I crushed 3 tablespoons shelled pistachios in a food processor before tossing them with 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs and 3 tablespoons melted butter. After buttering 8 individual 4 ounce ramekins, I spooned the crumb mixture into each ramekin, tamped the buttered crumbs firmly into the edges, slid the ramekins into a 325 degree oven for 8 minutes, and pulled them from the oven to cool.

Filling.
A fun little ride on the wild side.
After bringing 11 ounces cream cheese and 4 ounces goat cheese to room temperature, I tossed the two cheeses into a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, I beat the cheeses together for 2 to 3 minutes before adding 2 Elmwood Stock Farm eggs (one at a time until incorporated), 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons sour cream, and a pinch of salt. To insure maximum creaminess, I beat the filling on medium speed for 10 full minutes before carefully filling each buttered cup. After placing the ramekins into a hot water bath, I carefully slid them into a preheated 300 degree oven for 24 minutes, pulled them from the oven, let the cheesecakes rest in the water bath for 10 minutes, and  transferred them to a wire rack to cool completely before sliding them into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

After bringing the cheesecakes to room temperature, I dipped the ramekins into hot water to loosen
the crusts, ran a sharp knife around the edges to release the fillings, and inverted them crust side up to serve on puddles of coulis with fresh blackberries and garden basil leaves.

Both bold and delicate, the salty sweet crunch of the pistachio crust countered the soft creamy tang of the goat cheese cheesecake. While the basil-infused berry coulis provided a tart bright punch, the plump fresh blackberries added warming sweet pops of summer.

Simple.
Fresh.
Unexpected.

Summer berries.
Savor the season.







Sunday, July 3, 2016

How Do You Measure A Year?

"In daylights, in sunsets,
 In midnights, in cups of coffee,
 In inches, in miles, in laughter, in
 strife." -Seasons Of Love.

During the 1980's, The AIDS epidemic  struck the core of Key West. Even through the difficult times, the small island community still knew how to party and celebrate life. We joined the party for a couple of weeks in the summer of '87 to celebrate our 3rd anniversary. Innocent times.

July 4th, 1987. Key West, Florida.

Hot days. Hot Havana nights.

After spending the week prior to the 4th drinking like locals, inhaling deep sunsets, dancing until dawn, devouring conch, fresh seafood,  Key Lime tarts, and Cuban fare, Michael and I found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the annual July 4th city-wide picnic benefiting the Key West Visiting Nurses Association And  Hospice. It was a grand affair that bonded the community together with heartfelt purposeful common goals.  As the somber and uplifting picnic wound down, the antsy crowd shuffled en masse to the White Street Pier for the real party. Bedecked from head to toe in matchy matchy beachwear, we joined the throngs of gays on the massive concrete slab.

The first section of the White Street Pier had been parlayed into an elaborate discotheque with a dance floor, sound system, lights, and multiple bars. Jutting several hundred yards out into the Atlantic Ocean, the heavy stark pier seemed to gently float above the water under the weight of throbbing smooth skinned boys dancing in the heat of the sun. Hot. Wild. Free.

When the sun crashed into the sea, pulsing multi-colored lights painted the wet bodies of our thumping tribe while submerged lights beneath the pier reflected undulating silhouettes of graceful stingrays silently gliding through the water like lost sunken kites. Mesmerizing and beautiful.

Poof.
Without warning, in the distance, wispy fireworks shot into the sky from an invisible barge anchored out in the ocean far from the pier. Flickering. Fluttering. Twinkling. Falling. As the fireworks grew louder and more intense, the fiery rain shattered the black sky with blazing thunderous light. After 30 minutes or so, silence swept over the pier before a deafening recording of Kate Smith's "God Bless America" ushered in the finale, blasted through the darkness, washed across the quiet black water, and spilled onto the boys of summer. It. Was. Glorious.

It took a few fun filled days to recover from Kate Smith, the stingrays, the sun, our anniversary, and the pier. On our final night in Key West, we bellied up to a walk-up food shack on Duval Street, ordered Cuban pork with yellow rice, dangled our legs off the dock of Mallory Square, and absorbed the sunset. Happy.

Cuban Pork.
Traditionally, Cuban mojo pork is made with well marbled  pork roast or shoulder. After marinating overnight in a highly seasoned sour orange marinade, the pork is roasted low and slow until the meat falls apart and the melted fat caramelizes into crackling pork candy. I kept the same flavor profile with a leaner, cleaner, and simpler approach.

Grilled Cuban Mojo Pork Skewers.
It's all about the marinade.

I peeled and smashed 7 cloves of garlic before adding them to sauce pan along with 1 cup olive oil. I brought the oil to a simmer over a medium flame, reduced the heat, let the garlic steep for 2 minutes, and pulled it from the heat to cool.

In lieu of sour oranges, I zested 2 limes, 2 lemons, and one orange. After tossing the zest into the cooled garlic infused olive oil, I added equal parts fresh squeezed lime juice, orange juice, lemon juice ( 1 cup total), 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 1/2 tablespoon ground coriander, 1 teaspoon oregano, salt, and  ground black pepper.

After reserving 1/2 cup of the marinade for basting , I sliced  1 pound Stone Cross Farm pork tenderloin into 1 1/2' cubes, tossed the meat into the remaining marinade, covered it with plastic wrap, and slid the pork into the refrigerator for 8 hours.

Fire works.
I fired up a charcoal grill, let the coals burn down,  threaded the marinated pork onto pre-soaked wooden skewers along with Marion County indigo rose cherry tomatoes, Casey County zucchini ribbons, and Boyle County candy onions. After pouring a glass of wine, I placed the skewers onto the grill and let them rip for about 3 minutes per side, turning them a quarter turn at a time until they cooked through.

When the pork reached an internal temperature of 140 degrees, I pulled the skewers from the grill and nestled them onto steamed annatto-stained long grain white rice before finishing with Stonehedge Farm julienned raw sugar snap peas, slivered red bell pepper, grilled lime halves, and fresh parsley.



Packed with garlicky citrus overtones, the tender pork played nice with the slight smokiness of the charred zucchini and onions. While the softened collapsed tomatoes added sweet wet acidity, the slivered sugar snap peas and peppers provided biting fresh crunch.


Hot days.
Hot Kentucky nights..