Just Sous Just Me

Musicians, inspired recipes, songs and food adventures.


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Queue-Ba

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No amount of research or advice from fellow travellers, not any of the multitude of documentaries or published texts available in any library can prepare you for Cuba. This is one country, and I have visited several in my existence where prior research to visitation is essential, but still does not prepare you for what lies ahead after your arrival. The best advice I was given was to ‘Go With It’, have no expectations and for want of a more inventive phrase to just ‘Live In The Moment’. This is the Cuban way. Make plans yes, as you do for any new adventure but in Cuba don’t expect them to unfold accordingly. Five minutes wait can turn into two hours and don’t ask how long something will take. If you find yourself in a long queue for example at a bank or a supermarket chances are the vendor/teller is having a nice chat oblivious to the line of people waiting patiently behind. This is the Cuban way and no one seems to mind! When you get your head around this, you will be fine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe are in Cuba for the music of course. Of the many facets to this country, the music has been our motivation to visit. Musicians who wish to perform in Cuba need an official invitation, one of which we were lucky to receive from the Havana International Jazz Festival. Without this, we were not officially recognised as performers there and was an essential document needed for customs next to health insurance certificates.

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Needless to say, the music is present everywhere you go. If it was on the streets, in the bars, in the theatres or restauraunts, it was there and always excellent.  I thought I had mastered maracas in Australia and couldn’t have been more wrong as was offered an impromptu lesson when one of these maraca masters witnessed my questionable technique. They can do it in their sleep and even before they are born at a guess.

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The food on the other hand, is not so. You would think that a Caribbean Country with Spanish, African and South American influences would have a somewhat exotic cuisine base. Theoretically this makes sense but realistically was not the case for us. Who ever heard of Cuba as a world food force the likes of Italy, France or even Sydney. When you spend time there, you realise why so. They eat and market seasonally which is a good thing in any foodies books. It’s just what is available and to whom which makes eating compared to what we are accustomed in Australia a daily challenge. As a chilli addict, was having major withdrawals discovering nothing of any heat was available. Anywhere. Including at the fresh produce markets I visited with my Casa girl who through a lost in translation episode as she no English and I no Spanish, purchased a bag of miniature capsicums disguised as ghost chillies. They looked promisingly hot. Alas they were not, with little flavour  to speak of.

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The Bananas are very good and very cheap in Cuba

At the beginning of the trip we decide upon the breakfast option at our Casa for an extra five CUC a head. (I decide later in the trip to prepare our own breakfast as we have access to their kitchen in order to save our diminishing cash supply – mostly everything must be paid for with cash in Cuba). This is always an omelette, slices of processed ham, cheese, papaya chunks, pineapple or guava juice, bread rolls and coffee. The coffee is very good. Coffee is one of Cubas main exports next to rum and tobacco, so mercifully they do know how to make a decent espresso. Out of the three separate Casas we stayed in there was virtually no variation in the breakfast presented to us, with the exception of bananas or pineapple instead of papaya. With the uncertainty of food options in the streets, the fruit was welcoming as it very well could be just rice and beans for the rest of the day. We ate many bananas.

Our first restaurant in Cuba, not knowing any better and dog tired from travel was a tourist trap. It was the closest in proximity to our Casa and Lobsters are ordered. We are in the Caribbean, right? Wrong. Anthony Bourdain in No Reservations has sung praises of the Cuban Lobsters. Perhaps he dined at one of the more affluent expensive tourist restaurants which do exist commonly in Cuba, but these are out of our reach finacially being a five piece band on a guitar-string budget. Tonight the taste is tantamount to fried rubber. Taking the iniative I enquire  as to the special of the day – In broken English the waiter recommends the squid ink rice with shrimp and octopus. It’s dark, almost pitch black however very tasty. A wiser choice than the lobster at this establishment. Advice for future travellers to Cuba – go for the specials. There is an element of freshness to these dishes as opposed to the menu options designed purely to cater for the Western World palate.

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The Cuban Salad

Our next dinner outing is at a Casa Particular around the corner from ours. This is a private home with a dining room set up in the front and always an affordable option so locals often dine in these homes too. Here we can expect a typical Cuban meal of which I am curious to try. The menu is entirely in Spanish (the tourist restaurants always have English translation) so our menu decoder in the back of the Spanish phrase book comes in handy. First course is a vegetable noodle soup and is very good, not needing any extra salt and served with lime wedges. So far so good. Second course is salad. Every salad you order in Cuba appears the same way – Thinly sliced tomatoes, cucumber, an avocado cube and a mountain of grated cabbage on the top. This one also had additional ingredients: One boiled broccoli floweret, finely diced boiled to within an inch of it’s life carrot and a few unidentified green leaves. There is no dressing. Unimaginative but healthy which is what I remind myself during consumption. The third and final course arrives. Picadillo is a traditional dish of ground beef, capsicum, raisins, ham, beans and rice. It is in a mound shape on the plate and next to some fried plaintains, also another Cuban delicacy. If any spices have been used here I am unable to detect them. Right about now I’d murder for chilli sauce or Himalayan Sea Salt! Still, a cheap and cheerful meal with a few bottles of quite good Chillean wine has cost us around thirty Australian dollars for the five of us so we are happy and content musicians.

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Festival Performance at Cafe Miramar

Back to the music. After a brief sojourn to Cienfuego and Trinidad across the country and back, we are slowly getting into the Cuban Swing. Of these two towns Trinidad was the most beautiful. Vibrant colours, cobblestoned streets, loudly coloured Chevrolets navigating the narrow streets, music music music and a long awaited dip in the Caribbean Sea via Anacon Beach. Our travel from and back to Havana to visit these places was also colourful. Hurtling down the ‘single-laned-suicide highway’ dodging horses and carts, tourist buses, potholes and other travelling vehicles of varying speeds left us fairly frazzled! My knuckle bones white from the trip and grip, no seatbelts, thirteen of us piled into an elongated Jeep and only half a seat for the 300km journey. I do pray we make it to Havana in one piece. Stan says, just don’t look. We stop to refuel at a farm rather than a service station off the road down a lumpy dirt track. The motor still runs while petrol is poured into a funnel into the tank and the driver smokes a cigar nearby. I don’t look.

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Riviera Hotel Pool, Havana

Finally, it’s the day of our first gig. By now we are used to being given very little information in relation to what we are doing till the final minute. The festival program, fresh off the press has just been handed to us. We have learned not to ask questions as usually is answered with a shoulder shrug. We get told what we need to know, when we need to know it and ‘hurry up and wait’ has taken on a brand new meaning in Cuba. Our soundcheck time is 1pm and they tell us we need to be there at 11am. OK. Except it’s now 1.30pm, we haven’t yet soundchecked and the program of four bands starts at 2pm. ‘Should we eat’ I suggest? Yes, says Mary but make sure you are back here for soundcheck. Whenever that will be. Then we are told that we will be on second, rather than first. So we sit out the first band, but are told half way through their performance that we will be on third now. Only to be informed next we will be last. This is Cuba afterall, things change at the last minute and we are beginning to realise this. Also, we are to perform for no longer than thirty minutes maximum. So when we finally get our spot, at 6pm after waiting around for hours, we give our thirty minute adrenalin fuelled performance everything we’ve got. My word, we do.

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Playa Anacon – Trinidad

As the week goes on we are making a few inroads into this country and just how they live and operate on a day to day basis. Staying in a Casa enables ground-level knowledge being right in touch with the locals, language barrier and all, an experience not to be had if a tourist hotel option is taken. This becomes most apparent when we decide to start cooking for ourselves and need to shop for ingredients. We have a stove-top and some very basic kitchen utensils so why not? Just what to exactly without any knowledge of produce available or where is our next challenge.

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Descarga de Bienvenida (The program lists this as the name of the band) translates into ‘Downloads Welcome’! Que? They are brilliant Cuban Musos

We’re pointed in the direction of a supermarket co-incidentally located next to the Jazz Club and situated opposite the famous Riviera Hotel (Frank Sinatra’s old haunt). There’s aisle after aisle of canned, boxed and plastic packaged items. Bag upon bags of rice, pasta and lentils and an extensive frozen food section, not much in the way of vegetables other than one lonely bag of frozen broccoli. No eggs in sight. Looks like dinner tonight will be pasta and a canned pasta sauce. There are no spices whatsoever other than one Maggi brand labelled Sazon and at a price of 1CUC, this will not break the band bank and is our only option. There’s one whole row of identical plastic oil bottles labelled ‘Soya’ telling me Olive Oil is out of the question. Blindingly flourescently lit, the power went off for about ten minutes while we were waiting in another long queue at the checkout. No one seems fazed, taking the opportunity to chat with each other rather than pull out their smartphones to stare at screens in order to pass the black-out time. Wifi and internet access exists but is not widely available or affordable yet in Cuba. A refreshing prospect. People talking to each other again. Who’d have thought.

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’57 Chevy

Back at the Casa and into the kitchen I go. Glenda our host is curious and watches on as to just what I will prepare there. I cook the pasta (in bottled water), heat up the canned sauce and serve to the band. She appears fascinated and all the while chuckles. I wish to ask her what is so funny, but she no English and I no Spanish so we laugh together at who knows what. It’s ridculous to me because I never cook this sort of thing up at home. And until I learn how to speak Spanish properly, I’ll never know what amused her so.

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On the Bourdain trail at Puerto de Sagua. Excellent Mojitos and Lobster

However, I must somehow communicate with her as I want to visit a fresh produce market and she would know. Even Bourdain says there is a great one and the translator book helps now more than ever. She comprehends my desire, and even better will drive me there herself in the morning in her carro. Turns out it is three blocks and two streets away from the house and is the exact same one Bourdain went to.

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Marketplace 19th and 3rd – Havana

We make the short journey to the marketplace in her Fiat Polski, a bright blue tiny two-door with no boot leaf-blower-engine sound-alike car. Luckily she knows all the vendors here and does my negotiating and paying for after I just point at stuff and open my wallet. Everything here is in season and every stall has all of the same things on display. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, cauliflower, pumpkin, capsicums, carrots, okra, cilantro, bananas, papaya, pineapples, limes, guava, avocados and mangoes.  I buy some of everything as it all looks wonderful. (I do find out later the mangoes are actually out of season. They were of stringy texture, but tasted pretty good and was a welcome alternative to the ever-present papaya). The avocado is enourmous and will take a few days to ripen. Took a week as it turned out and was a complete meal for all of us when it did. I calculate this abundant fresh fruit and vegetable supply has cost around $6.50 AUS, and will see us out for meals over the next week.

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British Ambassadors indoor pool

Then there was the meat section. Slabs of pork, different cuts and sections all displayed on an unrefrigerated bench top in the open with a couple of blowies hovering. Bourdain had gone there but I’m afraid I just couldn’t bring myself to do the same.  I know the boys of the band would have loved me to bring home the bacon but being a temporary vegetarian won’t hurt them. Plenty of opportunity to resume their carnivoric diets back in Australia Xmas day and beyond.

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Manouche performing at Sala Raquel Revuelta

I decide on a pumpkin soup first, as we’ve now a huge chunk of it plus carrots, onions and garlic galore. Normally I’d roast all of this drizzled in Olive Oil then wizz it up with stock and spices and re-heat on the stove-top. Roasting is not a possibility in Glendas kitchen as it turns out. I point to the oven she possesses and she hand gestures wildly while repeating ‘Non, Non, Non!’. I figure this translates as it’s on the blink. So it’s all in the one big pot on the stove, boiling furiously. Glenda has a blender thankfully so I can wizz it up in this. I must use my imagination when it comes to seasoning this soup with the absence of stock. I use the Maggi Sazon and wait for it…a generous dash of Havana Club. Amazingly, the end result is delicious. I ask the band to guess all the ingredients. One of them correctly guesses the rum. (My recipe for ‘Rumpkin Soup’ is at the end of this blog).

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Old Habana

Wonders never cease in this country. We’ve kindly been invited to the British Ambassadors palace for their Xmas party with lunch included in exchange for a private Manouche concert, a fair enough trade. The guests were a mix of Ambassadorial staff and representatives from other Embassies, around forty in total for this pleasant afternoon soiree in the grounds of the stunning building. Which, co-incidentally was located three blocks from our Casa, within easy strolling distance for carting accordion purposes. The catering for this was, as you’d imagine generously salubrious. Large platters filled to the brim of more of the same seasonal cuisine – rice and beans, cabbage salads, cucumber and tomato slices and lashings of avocados. And an endless supply of the omnipresent Mojito. There are barbequed pork steaks piled high as well as fat chicken breasts. (Our Embassy girl Alice mentions she has never seen such fat chicken breasts after a year of service in Cuba and where these would have been obtained she couldn’t comment). Of course, the band pile their plates to capacity then have seconds and thirds. Then we play for them. They don’t usually have live music at these do’s, so they are very appreciative of this. It goes both ways as we haven’t eaten like this yet either.

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The most interesting of facts the British Ambassador to Cuba informed us over lunch was that Mick Jagger had been for drinks there a few weeks before us. Turns out Mick is angling for the Rolling Stones to perform in Havana at some future point. He has been laying the groundwork for what will be, when and if they can pull it off, a concert of a lifetime. Because, the Rolling Stones are by a long shot Cubas most endeared band ever. And they have never performed there. This is a valid reason to return to Cuba I decide right there and then. The Ambassador will keep us in the loop with developments <insert smiley face here>.

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Local friendly butcher

Amidst the communication, banks and food challenges we are met with everyday and our subsequent overcoming of these, the Jazz Festival has been running alongside and we have been performing and also watching other fantastic and diverse bands from all over the world. To our delight, our music has been received very well by both Cubans and international visitors alike. It was a major undertaking getting our five piece band Feel The Manouche to Cuba. With the fully funded Pozible campaign generously supported by family, friends and fans our mission was successful. One of the venues the Cafe Miramar even invited us back for an unscheduled encore performance on the last night of the festival. Gestures such as this are uncommon and made us feel that all the effort was worthwhile. We made many new friends and contacts, both English speaking and non as communication through music the universal language, we’ve now seen first-hand absolutely applies in Cuba.

Cuban Rumpkin Soup

Ingredients:

2 Brown Onions, chopped

5 Garlic Cloves, chopped

1 Kilo Butternut Pumpkin, peeled and chopped

6 Carrots, peeled and chopped

4 Tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 Mashed Banana

Mango pulp (I used half a large one plus juices)

Handful of Coriander leaves

Juice from one lime plus the zest

I TBS Sazon (Or seasoning of your choice, sea salt good)

1/2 cup of Havana Club Dark Rum

Method:

  • Fry onions and garlic till soft and fragrant
  • Put all remaining ingredients into the pot and bring to the boil
  • Simmer for an hour
  • Let cool and transfer to blender in batches and return to pot reheat
  • Swirl through Rum
  • Serve garnished with coriander
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Rumpkin Soup

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Havana Central

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Ossi

 

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Cuban Jazz Adventures, Mojo and the Cubano

Disclaimer: The following blog does not contain anything related to the way Cavemen eat, is not Gluten-Free, Non-Dairy Vegetarian or Vegan. It’s not for the food-intolerants. The citrus pictured is here because is included in the Slow Roast Pork Shoulder Mojo Marinade and Mojito.

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Part 1:

I have always believed in music and food as the ultimate companions especially when both of them are of exceptional quality and experienced simultaneously. We really can’t expect anything less in todays hipster environment of the unending and continually evolving dining boom cutting us off at every pass.  If you are a constant travelling musician like me, food and coffee apps are invaluable and can point you in the right direction when you find yourself in a foreign land, if you haven’t had the time or inclination to do the research before you get there. Who does that anyhow? I do if I have the time but apps like Zomato, TripAdvisor and of course Bean Hunter have been saviours with an average of ninety-five percent success rate or win factor of approval and satisfaction.  Yes, some time is required scrolling your phone but in the pursuit of excellence and value for money, this is necessary. There was only one double espresso that was undrinkable, and three of outstanding quality after circumnavigating the country three times this year and consumption of around sixty-three of them.  Top 3 where Alice Springs, Toowoomba and Nowra. Regional areas, who’d have thought and quite serendipitous. Call me a coffee snob and I do realise a bad coffee purchase is a first world problem. But If I’m going to hand over four plus dollars for that miniature cup of single origin goodness with notes of caramel, chocolate and floral overtones that will put a smile on my face, I expect it to be palatable and delicous.

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And the travelling and food pursuit continues while I am fortunate enough to perform around the country and various destinations of the world for the duration of 2015. Two significant factors have occurred recently while I have been home for a spell, unpacking and reacquainting with the ragdoll who is yet to forgive my absence and rightly so. Firstly, a friend told me over dinner the other night in Croydon that I must watch the movie Chef, which I did the very next day. While watching this truly inspiring foodie movie, which also includes a mighty soundtrack of food and specific music pairing, I was also keeping an eye on a crowd funding campaign being run for my band Feel The Manouche to attend the Havana International Jazz Festival in Cuba, which was creeping towards the finish line of being fully funded. As of writing, this project has now been funded and we are going to Cuba in December. Bring on the Cigars and Mojitos I say.

Mint in my frontyard, essential ingredient in the Mojo and Mojito

Mint in my front yard, essential ingredient in the Mojo and Mojito

You will have to watch Chef to understand where I am going with this. If you have seen it you will most likely comprehend my obsession and possibly have developed your own for the Cubano.  The Cubano is the official name for the Cuban Sandwich, which originated in Florida early last century, introduced by the Cuban cigar builders who migrated to Miami. In Cuba, where it’s origins date back to the 1500’s, it is simply known as ‘Sandwich’.  The history of the Cubano, evolution and how it came to be a universally known is fascinating and can be read in more detail here or you could just get on with trying to get the pork shoulder slow roast part right which is what I believe must be the secret to the success of a party in your mouth, sensational Cubano.

The mustard, swiss cheese and dill pickle slices are layered on top of the mojo pork with smoked ham slices. These are all contained on what is referred to as Cuban bread (a french-style baguette will suffice) then smothered with softened butter and placed in the Plancha (sandwich press) and cooked till the cheese has melted and the bread has turned a beautiful caramelised golden colour. This is then cut on a diagonal bias, so they are in triangular shapes. For Cubano authenticity they must be in triangular form. Makes sense, easier to eat as there’s a lot of information on that sandwich. And easier to digest with Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack on while consuming.

I don’t own a Plancha (yet) or a sandwich press, but you can use a cast iron grill pan and place a brick wrapped in foil on the top of the sandwich to press down instead. I’ve got the pork shoulder marinating now overnight in a combination of spices, adapted and reformed from a few of the many recipes I found on-line for the traditional Cuban Mojo marinade. Most importantly, am using the garlic from our friends Organic Garlic farm in Kempsey of which have an enormous amount, and can’t think of a better way to use it, seeing as the marinade requires at least ten cloves. Some recipes suggest using twenty. Best not cook this up if you are flying anywhere the next day or two after.

Organic Australia Garlic From Kempsey

Organic Australia Garlic From Kempsey

Part 2:

So the shoulder has been marinated now for twenty-four hours. Cuban roast experts suggest forty-eight, but am keen to get this roast going today being overcast and semi-cold in Sydney, hanging onto Winter being of cryophilic persuasion. I’ve not roasted a pork before, it’s always lamb so want to get this right. In Chef, they roast the shoulder inside a kettle drum on hot coals. Not being near a Bunnings to obtain these appliances, into the oven it goes.  The Cubans also don’t cover the meat with foil, but let it get all browned up at a very high temperature 250C, then drop it down to 190C. So far the scored fat on the top has browned and crisped up a bit (a good sign) at the high temperature, so have lowered the heat now and covered loosely with foil just for good measure. The last thing we need is dried out meat, we want the juice factor on completion. Fingers crossed.

Have to say am fairly happy with the way it looks, but it’s really only about the taste, so it’s now having a good rest before I start carving it up and we’ll find out then if this roast has any Mojo. Mercifully, it does.

Now all that is left is to assemble the Cubano then grill. Have sliced the pickles, melted the Pepe Saya Butter, sliced the pork, cut open the bread rolls (which aren’t Cuban, but the closest softest ones could find) and finally covered the brick with foil, and of course made a Mojito to go with it.

Yes, that is a house brick wrapped in foil with a Mojito in the foreground

Yes, that is a house brick wrapped in foil with a Mojito in the foreground


Cubano filler - Swiss Cheese, triple-smoked ham and dill pickles

Cubano filler – Swiss Cheese, triple-smoked ham and dill pickles

Getting the Mojo Pork right is the first important step in the Cubano process, the next step is the assembly which is also vital, and don’t be too shy with the filling amount as it’s all going to get squashed down with the foil brick so the flavours all meld together in a nice little flat crunchy toastie.

Start with a good smearing of mustard on each side of the open bread roll, then a layer of cheese followed by the Pork, Ham, Pickles, then a final layer of Cheese. Liberally spread the melted butter on both outsides of the roll and it’s now ready for the grilling stage.

Pre-grilled Cubano

Pre-grilled Cubano

Next I heated up the grill pan, tossed in some more butter till it was sizzling but not burning, placed the sandwich in and put the brick on top. After a few minutes I removed the brick and checked the underside so as it wasn’t burning, then flipped it over and put the brick back on again. The cast-iron Chasseur grill pan can get extremely hot over the gas flame, so it was only a few minutes needed so as the outside was nicely browned and the cheese was melted…

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It’s taken two days to make this sandwich but the end result has been worth it, and pretty much looks like what it should as far as Google Imaged Cubanos go. Must say though, am looking forward to tasting the real deal when we are in Cuba later this year. In the mean time, Es hora de celebrar. El exito Cubano, trae en la Mojitos!


CUBAN ROAST PORK

Mojo Marinade

Ingredients:

1 Pork Shoulder (I used a 1.2Kilo)*

20 Cloves Garlic (Or ten giant Kempsey organic garlic ones)

2 Tsp Sea Salt

1 Tsp Black Peppercorns

1/2 Cup fresh squeezed Orange Juice

1 Tsp Orange Zest

1/2 Cup fresh squeezed Lime and Lemon Juice

1 Cup Onion, minced

2 Tsp Oregano (fresh if you’ve got it, otherwise dried is fine)

Handful Coriander leaves, chopped

Handful Mint leaves, chopped

2 Tsp Cummin

1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Method

  1. In a food processor, place garlic, onion, black peppercorns and salt. Whizz till a well combined paste
  2. Place garlic mixture in a bowl with all juices, zest, oregano, coriander, mint, cummin and mix together
  3. Heat Olive Oil in a saucepan over medium heat till is hot but not bubbling
  4. Remove from heat, add the garlic mix to the oil and whisk till well combined. Let cool
  5. Make slits around the Pork and score the fat layer with a very sharp knife (Stanley Knife works best) crisscrossed or however you can safely manage this process (Learned later the butcher will do this for you if you ask nicely, good idea for musos who’d like to retain their fingers)
  6. Roll your sleeves up and massage the marinade all over the Pork, basically smother it to bits
  7. Place in a plastic heavy-duty zip-lock bag, with the left-over orange and lime peels, air out and sealed. Refrigerate for a day or two

Oven

  1. Remove Pork from fridge, place in roasting tin and let come to room temperature.
  2. Preheat oven to 250C
  3. Place roast in oven and cook at this temp till the top is starting to go brown and crackly (the time for this depends on oven types and size of roast – just keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn)
  4. Turn oven down to 190C and baste every half hour with pan juices.
  5. Use a meat thermometer to check internal temperature – Ideally it should be at 170C for the trad Cuban sliceable texture. Mine was in the oven for about two hours. (There are variables with cooking times, left in for longer than this it will become pulled pork if the internal  temperature gets to 190C – either way it’s going to taste good)
  6. Remove from oven, cover with foil and rest, rest, rest!

CUBANO

Soft long bread rolls (Subway style 6-inch length)

Dijon Mustard (traditionally American Yellow Mustard is used)

Swiss Cheese slices

Smoked ham, thin slices

Dill Pickles, sliced thinly

Mojo Pork, sliced

Butter, melted

Method

  1. Cut bread rolls lengthways
  2. Spread mustard on each opened side
  3. Layer cheese, Ham, Pork, Pickles and finish with more cheese
  4. Heat grill pan (or sandwich press) and melt butter till sizzling
  5. Put sandwich in pan and place foil brick on top, grill a few minutes check not burning
  6. Turn sandwich over and place brick back on top, grill a few more minutes till browned and cheese has melted
  7. Make Mojito
  8. Cut sandwich in two long triangular shapes and serve

MOJITO

1/2 Lime, juiced

2 Tsp raw sugar

10 mint leaves

1 Cup crushed ice

1 decent nip of white  rum (Havana Club or Bundaberg White)

Soda water

Lime wedge

Method

  1. Place lime juice and sugar in a tall glass and stir till sugar is dissolved
  2. Add mint leaves and gently muddle to release oils but leaves aren’t crushed
  3. Add crushed ice, Rum and dash of soda and stir till combined
  4. Serve with a garnish of mint and lime


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Tamworth and the Mid-Festival Meltdown Salad Fix

Ruth's Festival Fuelling Fruit Salad

Ruth’s Festival Fuelling Fruit Salad

Hitting the New-England Highway each year as I drive away from Tamworth back to Sydney, my mind is undoubtedly swimming with many vast and varied wonderful musical moments and memories.  Mixed feelings of relief and exhaustion follow due to having survived it all once again because if there is one time of the year when musicians must be well nourished, match-fit both physically and mentally, the Tamworth Country Music Festival is it. Preparation and fore-thought is vital to endure this festival and to emerge on the other side of it intact rather than a dishevelled wreck which can occur after grabbing food on the run, sleep-deprivation, navigating roundabouts and the ever escalating build-up of traffic adding stress to reaching sound-checks on time only then having to locate a car-park after loading our equipment on to the stage – all of this madness carried out under searing degrees of 39 Celsius plus.  It’s a case of every musician for themselves in these conditions, not to mention the punters who follow a similar regime trying to get around and see as many favourites performing as possible over the ten days.  It’s a conundrum how this is achieved on the smell of an oily bucket of chips laced with chicken salt 🙂

During previous festivals, musician friends and I used to have competitions to see who could do the most gigs over ten days. In 1998 I did thirty-nine gigs, ten of which were in the attractive time-slot of midnight till 3am at the West Tamworth Leagues Club Legends Bar, followed by a few 8am Bluegrass Breakfast gigs and various shows throughout the day, then back to the midnight slot. In those days my body could handle it but now am a bit more selective and wiser (I hope). With that kind of carry-on, coupled with salubrious accommodation (such as squash court floor one particular year) there would always be what I label the inevitable ‘Mid-Festival Meltdown’, something I try to intercept from occurring these days.

Starmaker Grand Final View From The Stage

Starmaker Grand Final View From The Stage

While not hurtling around town from venue to venue navigating roundabouts, camels and cowboy hats, alternatively am required to be on a stage reading charts for more than ten hours backing Starmaker hopefuls, previous winners and students of the Academy of Country Music. Sustaining the level of concentration required for this (including executing fiddle solos in feel-good keys of C# and F#) can only be fuelled by sensible food options. In the words of Ian Lees – Musician of the Year 2014, “There’s nothing worse than staring at a chart and all you can see is a burger”.  Mercifully, the Starmaker organisers supply us with a beautiful fruit platter and some healthy vegetarian wraps on the busiest day which is a very welcoming sight indeed as catering for the musicians is usually a rare or substandard occurrence. (One day, we were presented morning tea in the form of a tray lined with hot-pink iced cupcakes and a plate of chocolate chip biscuits next to a crate full of Coke – not really my idea of musician nourishment however it’s the thought that counts). During these situations, I am grateful to have the hand-bag almonds on hand, never leaving home without them.

The Atrium in Ruth's House

The Atrium in Ruth’s House

It only took thirteen festivals to find her, but serendipitously my angelic Tamworth host Ruth Blakely now opens her home and her highly nutritional kitchen to me every year. Ruth’s home is quite simply Nirvana and an essential link to my survival of this festival. Every morning, she prepares an incredible fresh fruit salad of mangoes, strawberries, paw-paw, rockmelon, blueberries and what ever else of what seems to be endless supplies of fruit on-hand. After this, if she isn’t rushing off to work herself, she will offer to cook up a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes. Then, she will fill up jars with almonds, cashews and macadamia nuts for us to take away. Being a host to musicians for several years, she has surely observed the plight  we face every day and understands the value of a good breakfast in order to face the daily marathon, because when we leave her home each day we are often at the mercy of the un-known, food-wise. Sometimes all we will have time for later in the day in between shows, is a quick and easy no-queue-waiting soggy white bread salad sandwich in a plastic container. Or, if there is more than five minutes to spare, perhaps extravagance in the form of a roast dinner for $26.

Performing with The Bushwackers at the Longyard Hotel

Performing with The Bushwackers at the Longyard Hotel

A night off is not something I get to experience much during the festival, however do manage to squeeze one in this time. As all of my time not involved with performing has been writing charts and learning songs and repertoires, there’s been no time to go to any local restaurants or even do any research on where is best to eat out. Plus my ears need a rest from all of the music as some on-stage volume levels have been monumentally decibelic. A quiet, cleansing salad is in order so I rummage through the well-stocked fridge full of love and nourishment, with the addition of some of Ruth’s own home-grown produce to create this one.

Mid-Festival Meltdown Salad Fix

Mid-Festival Meltdown Salad Fix

As for any salad, you can add any ingredients you like but being absolutely fresh is the key. Even better if you are lucky enough to pick the produce straight from the garden. Realising my schedule for the next few days would be nothing short of monolithic, this was a definite pick-me-up :-).

Mid-Festival-Meltdown Salad

1 Bunch of English Spinach Leaves

1 Bunch of Rocket Lettuce

1 Zucchini, thinly sliced with a mandolin

1 Cucumber, sliced

Vine Ripened Cherry Tomatoes, cut in half

Basil Leaves, torn

Juice from freshly squeezed lemon

1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Sea Salt and Cracked Black Pepper

Dried Chilli Flakes

Method:

Place all ingredients in a bowl, add the lemon juice and olive oil and gently toss. Consume immediately. Goes nicely with a cup of organic green-tea

* You can also add sliced boiled eggs, or for the non-vegetarians some sliced grilled chicken breast.


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The Loveless Cafe, Music City Roots and the Missing Biscuit Recipe

MCR

There’s only one way to describe the final Bushwackers show in Nashville and that is simply Going Out With A Bang (and a broken Lagerphone). Staged live at the Loveless Barn behind the famous Loveless Cafe we performed a set of tunes on the weekly two-hour Music City Roots radio show hosted by Jim Lauderdale. English ex-pat, founder of the band Traffic and rhythm guitarist on Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ plus composer of ‘Feelin’ Alright’ Dave Mason opened the night followed by a special showcase of Australian acts including Mustered Courage, Melody Pool, Catherine Britt and Bill Chambers as The Hillbilly Killers and the indisputable Aussie music legend Paul Kelly. This performing vehicle, via simultaneous radio and web-cast enabled the voice of the Bushwackers to be well and truly heard by the packed-to-the-rafter audience and music fans world-wide, a tremendous and unforgettable experience.

BootsThis is our second last day in Nashville and we are certainly trying to pack in as much as possible in between our finale performances. We’ve sound-checked early afternoon at the Loveless and have a few hours before show-time so shopping is now on the agenda. We head to Oprymills, a massive retail-outlet shopping mall of steroidal proportion – Tennessee’s largest. Architecturally designed in a giant circle spanning two kilometres, satellite navigation is needed to find your way around this building and it’s almost impossible figuring out where it starts and ends. An entire day is needed here to shop leisurely and find exactly what you want but we only have one hour to spare?  I hit the ground running and manage to buy all the necessary items ordered by family back home within this time-frame, and am even shown by one shop assistant a short-cut, staff-only passage down endless lonely grey corridors through the bowels of the building in order to get to the other side of the mall in half the time. Miraculously, it worked as had no idea when or if I would make it out alive and emerge directly in front of a Cowboy Boot Warehouse.  With five minutes to spare, I snatch up a very nice pair of Dan Post, hand-crafted Mexican-made boots, the real deal. The shop assistant clinched the sale by telling me I simply can not leave Nashville without them. (She’s right. I have worn them nearly every day since returning to Sydney, they are fabulously comfortable and blister-proof too).

Halloween is on the horizon

Halloween is on the horizon

The credit-card action and lightning-speed of the shopping has made us all ravenous. Lucky for us the Loveless Cafe is catering for the evening before the show, and what a delectable spread is presented of pure heart and soul, traditional Southern cooking at it’s best. The food is assuredly made with love even though the cafe name suggests otherwise. Mashed potato, the most silky smooth, buttery (no lumps whatsoever) I have ever tasted with luscious red-eye gravy to match; Melt in your mouth, tenderly cooked fried chicken, delicate but with just enough special Loveless spices making it a bit ‘too’ moorish; sautéed green beans and then last but most certainly not least, the biscuits – ceremoniously piled high in a large bowl that kept getting refilled again and again. With accompanying preservative-free made on the premises peach, blackberry and strawberry preserves, these biscuits are what the Loveless Cafe, besides being a go-to restaurant by both struggling and famous country musicians in search of relief-from-the-road comfort food for decades,  is most famous for. Yes, it’s all about the biscuits here.

Loveless Cafe Famous Biscuits

Loveless Cafe Famous Biscuits

Whilst boot-scooting around Oprymills earlier in the afternoon, the same shop assistant who sent me into the unknown, after informing her we were performing at the Loveless just about fell over herself with excitement and flapped on about these biscuits and that I MUST try them, along with the preserves as they are the best. They look like scones, and pretty much taste like scones and are decidedly yummy especially with the creamy butter swirls and fruity preserves loaded on top. We are a happy band and ready to take to the stage at this point, and we do just this to a resounding, standing ovation – The Broken lagerphone representing testimonial of the triumph.

Loveless CafeIt occurs to me a nice gesture would be to try to recreate this magnificent Loveless Cafe meal upon returning to Sydney as a sort of ‘Nashville Reunion’ and synopsis of the trip with the band members who have all shared this unique experience.  I buy the Loveless Cafe Cook Book which am told includes all the famous recipes for everything we were served tonight. Listed in the index are recipes for the fried chicken, the red-eye gravy, mashed potatoes and even the blackberry and strawberry preserves. Nothing under ‘B’ for biscuits. Nothing at all. Further research uncovers that this recipe is under wraps and was sold by the original cafe owners to the current owners along with the cafe and never to be revealed!

Guess will just have to cook up a batch of Margaret Fulton Scones instead 🙂

* The web-cast recording of the entire Music City Roots concert can be viewed here


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Peanuts in Coke Bottles and The Time Jumpers

Knoxville Carpark Mural

Knoxville Carpark Mural

To say that Nashville has opened my eyes, ears and taste buds to new heights is an understatement. The level of musicianship is sky-scraperingly good. The food options vary from organic, wholesome, tasty goodness to off the Richter-Scale sugar and cholesterol levels. And sights like the monstrous Opryland atrium spanning nine acres of lush indoor gardens including a river with a gondola, or the fifteen semi-trailers surrounding Broadway worth of Taylor Swift’s touring machinery must be seen to be believed. My violin has been lovingly repaired, restored and polished by talented Luthier Jennifer at the Fiddle House and the mighty Bushwackers have had a run of well-received shows at venues all over town during our involvement with the Americana Festival and Sounds Australia.

A Musicians Dream Sign

A Musicians Dream Sign

Musicians are taken care of by signs such as this on bustling Broadway. I so wanted to dismantle one and pack into my suitcase in order to temporarily place outside the front of certain performing venues in Sydney where No-Stopping signs are often conveniently situated. No wonder the musicians in Nashville are so approachable and happy in spite of only being remunerated by tips. Even when not touring with Paul Simon, his Drummer Jim Oblon performs regularly at the FooBar with a slick, four piece band as a blisteringly-good guitarist smashing out the blues and blues-inspired country standards for tips alone. He plays for the love of it and we all buy CD’s from him after seeing him walk around in the break with a tip bucket :-).

With Rick Price and Sam Hawksley at the Rutledge

With Rick Price and Sam Hawksley at the Rutledge

Which brings me to the Time Jumpers.  Any band with the likes of twenty-time Grammy award winner Vince Gill as a member, would not be playing for tips. I think not. They are playing for the love of it as this ten piece exquisite band are all individually in high demand outside of being a Time Jumper and this doesn’t stop any one of them showing up every single Monday Night at Third and Lindsley (with the exception of a coinciding world tour of course). Where to start with trying to describe the magnificent Time Jumper experience? A good place is probably with the fiddles. I have played in bands with more than one fiddle in my time but never have I heard anything as finely tuned, sweet sounding with killer intonation to match as that of the triple-fiddle tones of Larry Franklin, Kenny Sears and Joe Spivey. (I’d like to use every adjective for ‘Sublime’ found in the thesaurus to describe their sound but will settle for ‘Superlative’ for the moment). It’s jaw dropping to say the least and not once do any of them try to out-play or out-clever each other during their solo moments – their personalities are identified through their own playing each having something different to say, and then coming back together for their three-part distinguished sound.  Can it get any better?

Union Station Hotel Foyer

Union Station Hotel Foyer

Well yes it can because enter stage-left pedal-steel extraordinaire Paul Franklin, Nashville’s top session steel player for two decades. ‘All Aboard’ is an instrumental written by Paul and was one of my favourites of the night. Tuning into the associated train whistle noises created by all instruments on a bed of descending diminished chord-cluster made you feel as if you were actually on board the train. Eat your heart out ‘Orange Blossom Special’. Likewise, the reed work of Accordionist Jeff Taylor cuts through accurately and spell-bindingly – pure genius. Next,  additional Grammy Award winner veteran  ‘Ranger Doug’ Green arises from his seat behind the band and Yodels us all to Nirvana in a most chivalrous manner. If your eyes were closed, you’d be forgiven for thinking the lead guitar work subtly emanating from Andy Reiss would be Charlie Christian or Wes Montgomery. Every phrase tantamount to excellence. Drummer Billy Thomas (Robert Plant) and Bassist Dennis Crouch provide the back-bone with absolute first-class sensitivity and feel.

Dawn Sears, positioned regally at the front of the stage is now the second singer who has made me cry, Bonnie Raitt being the first and only till hearing Dawn. (I never attend a Bonnie concert without a box of Kleenex, and didn’t think to bring any to the Time Jumpers so know to do so next time. ) The delivery of her own composition ‘So Far Apart’ tears my heart apart it’s so hauntingly beautiful and the entire room is gob-smacked and mesmerised by her vocal propensity. We meet Joe Spivey at the bar during the break and he is very friendly and happy to give us his time and a picture with him. He tells us the Time Jumpers have literally just stepped off a plane from Switzerland where they had been performing at a country music festival, so please forgive us if we seem a bit faded due to travelling. You would never have picked that from these high level musicians (except for maybe Vince Gill donning a pair of shorts and a track-suit top).

What is the culinary element to this story you maybe wondering? Here it is. We obviously haven’t come here for the food tonight but at least there is salad with the option of Ranch dressing on the side at Third and Lindsley. Of more interest than an iceberg lettuce (which seemed to be the main ingredient in my mediterranean selection) was what I learned at the merchandise table where Jean, widow of original Time Jumper pedal steel player John Hughey who died in 2007, is seated. Jean still collects admission fees on the door and rarely misses a TJ performance and has many stories and happy to share them. I mention the fact I like to write about food and music adventures so she offers me this tasty morsel: “John and I spent many years on the road together, travelling to shows, criss-crossing all over the USA and we hated flying so we always drove, no matter how far the miles we weren’t ever getting on a plane if you paid us to! It’s a Southern tradition to put salted peanuts in the coke bottles and shake them up as the concoction enables you to stay awake for hours on end, and was the method we and other musicians used as a fatigue deterrent for driving such monumental distances”.

Peanuts in Coke? I laugh at the bizarreness and am perplexed but not at all surprised at this invention originating from the land also responsible for the creation of Peanut Butter and Chocolate together. Might take Jean’s advice and try Peanuts in Coke next time I drive to Tamworth 🙂


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There’s No Salad Here Darlin’, This Is A Honky-Tonk !

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If you happen to be a deep fried food fanatic and like all of your meals to contain large components of melted cheese laden with potato chips, a Honky-Tonk is the restaurant most accommodating.  Alternatively if you are a calorie-counter, satisfaction will not come in the form of food but from listening to the bands play some of the greatest Country Music you will ever hear on the planet. I have already been transported to heaven listening to fiddler Aubrey Haynie on my first night out in Nashville and wonder if any more music I hear during my stay will match his level of excellence. And of course, it does just this at the World Famous Nashville Palace. The go-to venue for a complete dose of fine Western Swing and true tradition, performed by musicians well-trained and often descended from a long line of Hillbilly and Appalachian Ancestry.

Nashville PalaceToday we are watching the Spaghetti Westerneers who are performing a four-hour set with only one short break and the place is packed. Song after song of sweet, slick, well executed tradition by the masters. Twin Fiddles, Accordion, Bass, Guitar and a lead singer who has similar pipes to Roy Orbison (and an un-canny resemblance to Elvis, he surely must be an impersonator outside of working with the Westerneers).  The walls are lined with row upon row of cowboy boots and flourescent neon beer signs. This is Honky-Tonk Heaven at it’s best and in the words of Neil Young, ‘Are you ready for the country?’ We most certainly are.

Nashville Palace Menu

Nashville Palace Menu

The twin-fiddle action is making me hungry so consult the menu. Unlike other Nashville eateries, there is no mention of anything remotely like a salad. It’s all burgers, fried everything and more plus white bread sandwiches and I’ve forgotten the hand-bag almonds so will have to order something. I ask the very friendly waitress (as they all are in Nashville) the possibility of just a salad? Oh no this is not possible she replies, Honky-Tonks do not serve salad. As am still trying to avoid bread and cheese at all costs, I try to order the Turkey and Swiss Sandwich, but please hold the bread, the cheese and the chips so all that’s left will be the lettuce and tomato. Both the waitress and I have a laugh at how ridiculous this is and she says ‘Sorry Honey, nice try’.  I go in hard. A salad is out of the question and am curious to how they taste so settle for Fried Pickle Spears with Ranch Dressing instead. Washed down with a glass of Chardonnay, they were actually OK but I conclude those delicious American Dill Pickles are quite fine just as they are. Why fry them?

Stainless Steel Silver Bird Sculpture at Shelby Park, Nashville

Stainless Steel Silver Bird Sculpture at Shelby Park, Nashville

As the week evolves I discover almost anything fried will appear on a menu in America, even Coca-Cola.  Healthy restaurants certainly do exist but research is essential to find them before venturing out for a meal – the Urbanspoon App was useful for this task. Besides the almonds, I had better start carrying around an iceberg lettuce as well. In the mean time the music we are being exposed to is enough soul nourishment and I am yet to see the world-famous Time-Jumpers at Third and Lindsley. To be continued 🙂


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Hot Pickin’ and Even Hotter Chicken

photoI was given a great tip-off for a gig tonight in Nashville. There was to be a house concert staged at The Violin Shop where none other than fiddler extraordinaire Aubrey Haynie would be appearing accompanied by a band of Bluegrass elite starring Sam Bush, Dennis Crouch, Alan O’Bryant and Brian Sutton. This gig was unadvertised and not promoted so felt very privileged to have been in the know thanks to Nashville based English no-slouch himself fiddler Eamon McLoughlin who let us in on the secret.

We were told only that the venue was on 8th Ave Nashville, no street number and Google Maps couldn’t find it either so made a special trip in the afternoon along the twenty kilometre long street eyes peeled when our driver and Musician friend Tom spotted it so knew where to return in the evening. In the car-park there was a BBQ oven in the shape of a steam-engine smoking away, in which was housed a side of pork being prepared for the evening’s festivities.

The Magnificent Violin Shop

The Magnificent Violin Shop

Later after satellite navigation confusion and a slight logistical drama trying to again locate the venue, we arrive back luckily just in time for the concert to commence. Champagne, Lobster and Caviar would most certainly be on the menu if I was hosting a House Concert back in Sydney with musicians of this calibre however we are in the deep south of America, so the steam-engine cooked pulled-pork rolls presented on sweet, doughy rolls are suitable for this occasion. Complimentary Chardonnay and Shiraz flowed civilly along with the omnipresent basket full of Hershey Chocolate bars.  I am listening to one of my most favourite  fiddle players of all time so the food here is of little importance as it is the music that really matters tonight. And it is, impeccable of course and I even got to Meet Aubrey afterwards, he is a most agreeable chap indeed.

Prince's Hot Chicken Shack

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

Our first night in Nashville is far from being over yet and Tom decides for us where our next destination will be. I have mentioned that I like to write about food and music adventures so he ponders this for a moment then has an idea for our next food experience. We jump in the car and drive around the spaghetti-western freeways to the other,  not so well-cowboy-heeled side of town and arrive at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. As the name suggests, this is exactly what they serve – Chicken and in varying degrees of heat starting from Mild through to Extra Hot and is a local specialty of Nashville. Portions of breast, thighs and wings are drenched in buttermilk, breadcrumbed then marinated in a heavily guarded secret blend of spices of which Cayenne Pepper is most abundant. They are then deep-fried and served up on slices of thick white bread which soaks up all of the oil, no salad leaf in sight. Presented in a grease-proof papered basket with ubiquitous potato chips adjacent, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is a cholesterol-lovers paradise and the restaurant is full at 11.30pm.

Being a chilli addict and not afraid I place an order through the small window in the fluorescent-lit shop for a quarter chicken ‘Hot’. With a quizzical stare the girl promptly retorts with, ‘Oh no you won’t, it’s too hot for you. You need mild or medium.’ How can she know what I need, I ask? She continues, ‘Not even my mother (who cooks in the Shack kitchen) eats the ‘Hot’ because the last time she did while pregnant twenty-four years ago, it sent her into early labour and I was born. So you want the Medium, and if it’s not hot enough bring it back and we’ll make sure it is but I don’t expect you’ll be back with this request.’ When I enquire about what’s in the spices she says ‘If I tell you, they will kill me.’

Musical Horses

Musical Horses

While waiting for the order, I take a few pictures of the Chicken and Jesus art displayed on the walls. The security guard approaches, who judging by his size and physique looks like he consumes nothing BUT Prince’s Hot Chicken everyday.  He tells me the pictures are FOR SALE, not for taking pictures of. He’s got a .45 Caliber Handgun strapped to his wide girth so I quickly delete them all.

The chicken arrives, the girl wasn’t wrong about the heat-factor and I do have to admit tasted great. Fat drenched white-bread and all, I will just drink green tea for the next four days to combat the digestion havoc that will undoubtedly result from this culinary experience.

Finger Pickin’ Good indeed 🙂