Friday, September 30, 2016

Couldn't Make Taste of Tucson or You Wanna Relive All of the Fun? We Got You Covered...

We didn't go to last year's Taste of Tucson because, if memory serves us, it was raining pretty hard. Sure that hasn't kept us from eating (almost) free vittles in the past, but that particular day was like sheets of heavy late summer drops falling in droves. Taste of Tucson is an open air event and we didn't want our sliders and samples of pizza and pasta to get soggy so we skipped out, found a dark bar and waited for the weather to get sunny.

It didn't.


You couldn't ask for a more beautiful day

This year though? Oh man, the day was like out of a tourist brochure for visiting Tucson. Hardly any clouds, temps in the low '80s, a light breeze, people waving to their neighbors, the beer flowed like wine, dogs and cats living together...wait. But, yes, it was nice out. Really nice.

Because of the near perfect weather out our stomachs began to giggle with glee, so we lit out to Reid Park to get a taste of what this fine azz city has to offer up.

Well, at least a dozen or so restaurants at least.

Armed with a bushel of food tickets, we made our way down the line of food vendors and sampled til we couldn't food sample no more.

Check it out...

If you haven't been to the Dakota Cafe, need to.

Really fresh food, delightful appetizers that wont sink your gut and all of the fare is priced to invite everyone to try their wares. What we love is their Beer Garten. Always inventive and daring, their rotation of beers on tap never cease to amaze and their take on the Sonoran hot dog, as a bar bite, is really good. In fact, everything at Dakota is good.

For the Taste of Tucson event, they were serving up a rich and cheesy enchilada casserole that was jam packed with layers of Tucson inspired flavor. For our first bite this one really kicked things off for us. In fact, it almost made us full.


But we were happy to see the nice folks at Dakota Cafe out and dishing out the goods, but it was time to move on to the delectable delight.

Delicious, savory and a bit decadent

Mama Louisa's Italian Restaurant has been a Tucson tradition since 1956 and, you know what?, we have never been.

Nope. Sorry. Kind of out of the way for us, being out on Craycroft and all, and our home base is definitely midtown, but after eating their divine ham and slaw sliders, we will definitely make our way out there someday for a heaping plate of their homemade pastas, sauces and Italian inspired food. Plus we heard that their cocktail lounge hasn't changed much since the early days of being in business and we like old creaky saloons that serve up an honest drink.

So just FYI Mama Louisa's, the Tucson Homeskillet is gearing up to make the trek out to you and eat and drink ourselves into a spaghetti and meatballs haze. Hope you're ready for us.

Because we are.

Man those sliders were good.

Okay...we're on our way.

Our first slider of the day

Not being a huge fan of regional French cuisine, the only reason we went to Le Rendez Vous is because it is literally next door to our favorite bar. It was lunch so we had their croque monsieur and their steak frites and were happy to discover that we actually dug their food. At least their lunch items anyway.

That being said we told ourselves we would go back for dinner some night but have yet to. Our turn of trying out new food trucks, tiny taquerias and bizarre food challenges seems to take over but, yeah, we'll give that spot another go ahead.

On this day though, our second foray into the world of sliders consisted of duck confit with an apple dijonnaise and pickled onions. These guys were rad. Unctuous with a brightness from the onions and a bite from the creamy spread. So far this was our favorite nibble.

But there were so many more food tents to travel to!

Moving on...

So rich and so tasty

"You work for the event?", asked one of the ladies from Lotus Garden. I guess she saw our "fancy" camera and us taking photos of all of the food and assumed that we were with Tucson Originals or volunteers for the event.

"Um, no...not really."

Not sure if that was an answer to satisfy them enough but they loaded us up with a plate that nearly toppled with Asian curried noodle goodness.

"Is that enough chicken? You want some more?"


They smiled bright as they continued to pile on the glistening yellow, succulent bites. We thanked them then headed off to a shady spot to enjoy and actual "plate" of food rather than a modest sampling.

Well thank you nice ladies of Lotus Garden! The noodles were awesome, the chicken was juicy and the mild curry you bathed it all in just made our mouths happily sloppy with Szechuan delight.

After this load we were starting to hit the food wall. But we were only halfway through our rounds.

With a brave heart and belly, we pressed on...

Asian curry noodles...yes, yes and yes

We drove by Eclectic Cafe once on our way to some party and we were all "Oh, there's that place! We need to go there someday."

Like most other promises to ourselves, that one just kind of fell to the whims of our full time jobs, other endeavors and getting pulled this way and that with various food adventures. So when we arrived at their tent we admitted to them that we had always meant to visit their restaurant on Tanque Verde but had yet to.

They seemed okay with it.

Thing is, we tend to stay away from "gluten free" eateries just because, well...just because. But after trying their take on Swedish meatballs we might have to make the journey to Eclectic seeing as their food is, well, eclectic and isn't just focused on being "gluten free", although they do have that option for a lot of their dishes.

For that we salute eateries that can accommodate those few that actually suffer from celiac, while other insist that gluten makes their tummy "all gurgly", but the nice folks at Eclectic made us change our minds about buzz word, bandwagon restaurants. Not that we are cataloging Eclectic Cafe into that genre, far from it. It's know what we mean, right?

Anyway, the meatballs were good.

IKEA has nothing on these guys

Now this is a place we can get down with, mainly because it is just a few blocks from our compound.

Pastiche is a go-to for us, and has been for a while, mainly because their three cheese mac-n-cheese dish with spinach and bacon is totally addicting. Sure they have a multitude of amazing menu items, but if you've ever had their take on the kid friendly macaroni favorite, you know what we are talking about here.

No luck with getting a taste of their mac-n-cheese, rather for this occasion, they served up ( guessed it) sliders!

These though, just like the others, were really delicious and extremely different from the last few we tried. They were slow cooked and pulled chicken in a sweet and spicy chipotle mango BBQ sauce and finished with a creamy and crunchy southwest slaw. All of the elements worked brilliantly but when we asked why they didn't make a ton of their mac-n-cheese they just gave us a "really?" look and told us how labor intensive that dish was.

A labor of love though. Lots of love goes into their mac-n-cheese.

We loved these sliders too.

Spicy slider goodness

Our final slider came courtesy of Mama's Hawaiian Bar-B-Cue and we were happy to move on from the mini sandwich bite item.

Luckily for us Mama's did us right with a good n' sticky pulled pork offering on a sweet King's bun. Really yummy. But what grabbed us was the tang and zazz that came from the side item, their macaroni salad. Was it because we were craving mac-n-cheese that made this accessory so good or was it, well...good?

It was good. Velvety and on point without deviating from what grandma might make for the church picnic. We wanted more but seeing as the event was drawing to a close and they were running low with more folks waiting in line to try it, we had to move on with our greedy shoulders hanging a bit low.

Good thing the macaroni salad is on their regular menu because next time we are in there you better bet we are getting that noise as a side item.

Macaroni salad. Who woulda thought?

The macaroni salad was surprisingly amazing

Now we've had Gourmet Girls before, just never at Gourmet Girls.

Again, its that gluten free dealy.

Thing is they make some of the most decadent and delicious confections and desserts ever and we can't wrap our meat and booze addled minds around how they do it doing what they do. But they do! And they do it well.

We treated our next to last stop as a well earned palate cleanser; a sweet bite before heading off into the pre-dusk glory of a most delightful day. Mini carrot cake and chocolate muffins kissed our slider ridden tongues and nipped our well sodden bellies with a sugary tickle. How they concoct such loveliness skirting certain necessary routes to achieve blissful cupcakery, we don't know. Honestly, we don't want to know. And just like our preconceived bias of other gluten free establishments, we plan on dining at Gourmet Girls in the near future.

They serve fish and chips there? For real? Oh. Oh we going... is this gluten free?

It was really cool to end a fun food day on a familiar note.

Many cheesy days and beer soaked nights are in thanks to the good people at Fresco Pizza. Just the fact that you can walk in and order a "Major Meaty" has always been a high point in our eating career. We ate their truffle oil and rosemary linguine cold in the morning on day. And you know what? It was scrumptious. Scrumptious we say!

Sluggish and ready for a well deserved liquid digestive, we grinned like a stuffed Cheshire Cat when we eyed their ample supply of garlic knots. Long gone were the pizzas, and we were okay with that. We were full. But the knots. Oh the knots! Charged with an ample amount of fresh chopped garlic, these little nuggets of puffed out devilry only made us collide even further into a near hallucinatory state of food buggery.

"You sure you didn't bring any beer from your place," we asked owner Britnee Cable. "Because you have Dragoon IPA on tap and that would be amazing right now."

She smiled and assured us no. No she did not bring any beer. But rather she apologized for running out of pizza.

"That's okay. It's time for a food nap. Thanks anyway."

With that we headed out, back to the car, sitting there in a near food catatonic state only to just fall asleep and wake up to a nice little girl asking us if we wanted some lemonade.

Great way to end the event, by getting seriously garlic faced

We would love some lemonade, we said to the smiling girl. And you know what?

The lemonade was delicious.

Thank you Tucson Originals! And thank you to all participating restaurants in this year's Taste of Tucson.

See you in 2017!



Camera, Typing and all of the Eating
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
A Beautiful Early Autumn Sunday, 2016

Metal Influence: 

Friday, September 23, 2016

You've Had The Food at the Annual Greek Fest, Now Learn How To Make Them! (And Something About Ouzo)

This blog post is being written under much duress.

When we started working on this post, several, shall we say..."obstacles" began heading our way.

First off, the car died. Like flat out just wont start. And when our trusted mechanic of several years is just staring into the maw of our engine, scratching his bald head and going, "Yeah...this one is a mystery to me", you know we are doomed. So that prevented us from getting anywhere to do a piece with a bit more meat attached to it. All the images you see on this post are uploads from the internet. Not our usual way of going about things. Sucks.

Next up was a complete blackout in our neighborhood. Literally, the few blocks surrounding us, and no one else, was dark for most of Wednesday September 21st. We lost a bit of work and had to wait till the lights came back on (later that night) to save what could be saved, so this post isn't as awesome as we thought it would be. Sorry about that.

Not to mention a blackout in 100 degree heat just kept us quiet and drinking cool water as the central air was off and slowly, as the day progressed, it became a bit swampy in the Tucson Homeskillet compound. Not fun. And without a car, we were stuck there.

But...whatever. We press on! Let's do this.

It's autumn which can only mean one thing: Pumpkin spiced 40oz of malt liquor!

(Wow...that would be weird wouldn't it?)

No. Actually the autumnal equinox means that the annual Greek Festival at St. Demitrios Church on Ft. Lowell begins. It's a four day bacchanalia celebrating not just Greek culture, but, and this is most important, Greek food and drink. We attend every year and for us the Greek Fest means that the good weather is about to start here in Tucson, the holiday season is upon us and the next day, after much Greek hedonistic mirth, a slight headache from the tall cans of Keo beer and many shots of Ouzo is to be had. Hey....tradition!

Last year we were lucky to be privy to the backstage area of the cooking tent, getting deep with those assembling gyro sandwiches, doling out dolmas and making the flames rise high as saganaki gets drenched in clear booze on a hot skillet.

So to attempt something new, we thought maybe this year we'd try out some recipes inspired by some of the cuisine you might partake of at the Greek Festival. At least some of our favorites. We got as close as we could to what they create during the annual event and we hope you enjoy the following dishes (and drinks!) as much as we do.

And speaking of flaming cheese, the saganaki is the first item up for your cooking consideration.


Upon entering the Greek Festival, outside of the lines of crafts, jewelry and dancing going on, you are usually met with someone yelling "Opa!" as flashes of fire extend from a searing hot pan. That means that saganaki, or "flaming cheese", is being made. It's one of our favorites and is always a great way to start off the festivities. 

The cheese is gooey with a light crust from the frying and alcohol char with a quick splash of lemon to round it all off, giving it a well deserved citrus note. 

Saganaki is crazy delicious and fairly simple to prepare. You just have to be a little brave is all because cooking with face high fire might have you cry "AHH!" instead of "OPA!"

Check it out and good luck:

1 slab of Greek cheese, such as Halloumi or Kasseri, about 1/2 inch thick and trimmed of any rind
1 heaping Tbsp. of olive oil
All-purpose flour for dredging
1/2 shot glass of Ouzo (we'll get to that later...)
Wedge of lemon

Pre-heat a heavy-bottomed skillet (a cast-iron pan works very well) to a medium-high heat. Place your slab of cheese under running tap water then dredge in all-purpose flour. Shake off any excess flour.
Add your olive oil to the skillet. Add a sprinkle of flour into the pan to test if the oil is hot enough. As soon as it sizzles, add your cheese to the skillet and sear for a couple of minutes. Carefully flip the cheese with a spatula and allow to sear for a couple of minutes on the other side.
Turn off your heat source and carefully carry your cheese saganaki to your table and pour the brandy ( or Ouzo) over the cheese and ignite with a lighter. Move your head back, shout “OPA!” and squeeze the wedge of lemon over the cheese.
Serve immediately with crusty bread, some Ouzo and a can of Keo beer.


Look, just like Indian cuisine, we leave the complicated food prep to the professionals. Trying to recreate the flavors of gyro spit meat cannot be duplicated in a small kitchen such as ours. But we can get down with a mean tzaziki.

Tzatziki is great on its own with just some bread but we also like it with shwarma and, of course, a meaty gyro sandwich or gyro plate. It adds a bit of texture, cools down the heat a bit and makes the girth of bread and beef go down a little smoother.

Lemony, dilly and....cucumbery(?), a good tzatziki can make any Greek dish brighter and more yogurty(?). Nevermind.

Anyway, here is what we came up with:

2 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 cups diced cucumber (or shredded)
½ cup fresh dill - minced
¼ cup lemon juice
2 garlic cloves - grated
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl check for seasoning. Add more dill, lemon, garlic or salt/pepper to your taste.
Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.


Now here is where things get serious.

At its essence, pastitsio is Greek lasagna. And...its amazing.

Just layers of seasoned meat sauce, baked pasta and, of course, lots of cheese. The best part about real authentic pastitsio is the addition of a bechamel sauce. It really adds a whole level of flavor but, unfortunately, can make this recipe a bit time consuming and tricky. In the end though, it is very worth it.

This year you can find pastitsio in the fancier dining area as the Greek Fest people have separated the food stations into "street" and "dinner service". It makes sense because years past you just find yourself winding through an endless line that reminds you of a busy day at Disneyland, except at the end you get incredible Greek food rather than a ten second ride with R2-D2s and Buzz Lightyears and stuff bleeping and blooping you into near psychedelic hysteria.

Forget that....let's get cooking!

The Meat Sauce

1 ½ lbs. ground veal (or beef, though minced lamb can also be used)
1 large or 2 medium-sized yellow onion(s), finely diced
2 bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic, grated
1 ½ cups fresh strained tomato juice (or ¼ cup tomato paste diluted in 1½ cups of water.)
¼ cup white wine
¼ cup - ⅓ cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

The Pasta

1 lb. of Greek pasta (or Bucatini, or Ziti)
2 tbsp. Greek extra virgin olive oil
3 egg whites, beaten (the yolks will be used in the béchamel sauce)
¼ cup grated Kefalotyri (or Parmesan cheese if you try but cannot find the Greek cheese)

The Béchamel Sauce

4 cups of scalded milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup grated Kefalotyri cheese (or, you know, Parm) 
½ cup of salted butter
3 egg yolks, well beaten
½ - 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the diced onions over a medium heat until soft. Add the ground veal to the pan and break it up thoroughly. Keep stirring constantly over a medium high heat for 5 minutes or so to brown all of the meat and mingle it completely with the onion.
Once the meat is completely browned, add the rosemary, garlic, wine, and the fresh tomato juice (or tomato paste diluted in water) to the pan along with salt and pepper to taste, and mix well. Bring to a boil, add the bay leaves and make sure to immerse them in the sauce, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pan with its lid leaving it only slightly uncovered to allow the excess water to evaporate as steam. Simmer for about 30 minutes or so. Stir the sauce occasionally. When ready, the meat will have absorbed the liquid in the pan. Remove the bay leaves and set aside when done.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, add the pasta to the water and parboil it until soft but not fully cooked (about 3/4 of the suggested cooking time on the package).
While the pasta is cooking, make the béchamel sauce. Start by melting the butter in a deep saucepan over a medium heat, then, using a whisk or immersion blender with a whisk attachment, slowly incorporate the flour by adding it to the melted butter in stages while stirring continually to avoid the formation of lumps. Once the flour has been fully incorporated, slowly add the hot milk while continuing to constantly stir the butter and flour paste to ensure a smooth consistency. Once the milk has been added, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the grated cheese, nutmeg, pepper and egg yolks in that order while continuing to rapidly stir the mixture. Set aside when smooth and well-mixed. However, do not let it stand for too long without a good stirring as you do not want the top to start congealing. By this point your pasta should be ready.
Drain the water completely from the pasta pot and return pot with pasta to the heat, add the two tablespoons of olive oil to the pasta and mix well to ensure a thorough coating of oil as we do not want the pasta to get sticky. Remove the pot from the heat, let stand for a few minutes to cool and then add the egg whites to the pasta, along with the ¼ cup of grated Kefalotyri cheese and mix well, then set aside momentarily.
Rub a little olive into the sides and bottom of your baking dish, and then add about two-thirds of the pasta to the dish to form a bottom layer. Make sure to spread the pasta evenly in order to completely cover the bottom of the dish, make sure not to leave any empty spaces.
Spread the meat sauce over top of the bottom pasta layer, ensuring to distribute it evenly and right to the edges of the casserole. The meat layer must be of uniform thickness and must not have any gaps.
Add the remaining pasta over top of the meat layer, distributing it evenly.
Pour the béchamel sauce over of the final pasta layer, make sure to cover the entire surface area of the dish.
Place the casserole uncovered in an oven pre-heated to 350°F (180°C) and bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the béchamel sauce is golden brown.
Remove casserole from oven and set aside to cool before serving. As already mentioned above, this dish is best served on the following day after its baking. However, if you must eat it on the same day, make sure it has a chance to cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting it into pieces. Do not make the mistake of cutting it before it has had a chance to cool, you will end up with messy servings. Cut it only when it has cooled, (ideally overnight in the refrigerator) and warm the pieces before serving.


Luckily there are vittles at the Greek Festival that wont damage your waistline or wallet. If you're just looking for a sweet treat, look no further than the honey speckled, deep fried goodness of loukoumades.

If donut holes went Mediterranean, loukoumades would be it. There are variations on this snack; some top it with chocolate sauce, sometimes honey, others sprinkle powdered sugar on do what you want because any way you embellish them these lil' dough bites are tasty. But the recipe that follows is pretty straight forward Greek style and the walnuts add a well intended crunch.

Very unlike the pastitsio, these guys are fairly straight forward and simple but just be careful when you toss 'em in the hot oil.

If you had enough Metaxa, such as we did, you get a little heavy handed and throw them in like slammer Pogs and, trust us here, hot fryer oil kinda hurts. Buzzing heavily or not.

Lets go...

4½ cups + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon instant dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
2¼ cups warm water, divided
Vegetable oil, for frying
1-2 cups honey, for drizzling
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling
Coarsely ground walnuts, for sprinkling

In a large bowl, mix 4½ cups flour and the salt. Dissolve the yeast in ½ cups warm water, together with 1 tablespoon honey and 1 tablespoon flour.
Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the yeast mixture. Add the remaining 1¾ cups water. Mix using a spatula, until you get a sticky, loose batter. If the texture of the batter isn't like this, add more water to achieve the right consistency. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let raise for 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Fill half of the pot with oil and heat to 375°F.
Now you need to shape your loukoumades. There are two ways to do that:
1) Oil your hands, take a handful of the batter and clench your fist around it. Squeeze out a knob of the batter between your fingers, scoop it up with an oiled tablespoon and drop into the hot oil.
2) Oil two tablespoons. Lift a little bit of the batter on one and push it off into the hot oil using another one.
The puffs are ready when they rise to the top and are light golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and dry on paper towels.
Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon and walnuts.


Yeah, we're not going to give you a recipe for Ouzo...because, no. Again, leave the complicated items to the seasoned pros. Making your own Ouzo is essentially doing moonshine because this stuff is for real Greek airline fuel.

If you grew up drinking Ouzo then the hint of anise and the fact that just a few sips in you're breaking plates wont bother you. For most of us in western society, Ouzo is a curiosity and a "once in a while" liquid delicacy. As is the Greek Festival. It's literally the only time we drink it. But maybe you're different. Maybe you down the clear distilled hooch like cheap beer. And that's how we like to enjoy it, with a tall can of Mythos or Keo...again, only consumed at the Greek Fest.

What's fun about Ouzo is that if you put ice in it the liquor goes a milky color. Kind of like absinthe, the oil in the anise causes emulsion and if your friends are good n' drunk, lot and lots of rude names come to mind when you chill Ouzo with ice. But we usually drink it straight. Just get it over with.

Here's the tricky part: Sort of like tequila, Ouzo sneaks up on you. If you do a shot or three you wont notice an immediate intoxicating effect. That...comes later. After a few is when your pals Greg and Dakota are on the stage trying to do the traditional Tsamiko dance, totally wrecking it and embarrassing themselves but afterwards they roll up to you, warbling and slurring, and proclaim:

"Did you see us up there? Killed it!"

Just drink responsible kids. The cops are out in mega force during Greek Fest, so be sure to eat enough souvlaki and baklava to soak up the booze before you hit the road home to cook up these delicious dishes.

Above all though...just have fun! We always do.  If you like what you ate at the Greek Fest then give these recipes a shot. Most are pretty easy, one takes a bit of time but all in all if you can't get to the festival this year, at least you can eat, and drink, like you did.

Ya sou!

Typing, Taste Testing and Uploads
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Getting Ready for the Greek Festival, 2016

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