Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When is a Fish Taco really a Cherry Balsamic Duck & Spinach Salad ?

During this past Super Bowl, one of the dishes I made was described as a Cherry Balsamic Duck with Spinach & Goat Cheese Panini. It was far & away my favorite dish out of the many that I made that day. The dish actually walked away with the coveted MVP Award and it did get to go to where it was honored with a parade. I placed the recipe in my hall of fame never to be deleted file and then proceeded to obsess about it all last week. It got so bad that I had this conversation yesterday with my wife.

One Track Mind Me: “So since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and I won’t get home in time to cook you dinner, what can I make you for dinner tonight ? You name it, I’ll make it.”

My Extremely Better Half: “Really ? You are going to cook dinner for me tonight ? You would do that ?”

Feeling Pretty Good About Myself Me: “Of course I will cook dinner. I always cook a Valentine’s dinner for you. Last year it was either Lobsters or Stuffed Turkey Burgers, I can’t remember. So what can I make for you this year?”

The Woman of My Dreams: “Oh thank you honey. I would love your fish tacos.”

Not Hearing The Answer I Wanted To Hear Me: “Fish Tacos ? Really ? What about the Duck Paninis from last weekend ?”

The Love of My Life Who Didn’t Catch My Hint: “Ooo – those would be good too but we haven’t had your fish tacos in a while and I LOVE your fish tacos.”

Hearing Nothing But Those Would Be Good Too Me: “I will check to see if ShopRite has any duck breasts and then you can decide what I should make. Do we still have any of the dried cherries ?”

(As you can see, communication is key to a successful relationship)

So with my shopping list in hand (with both Duck & Fish Tacos ingredients on it) I headed for the store. I bypassed the produce & seafood departments like they were yesterday’s news as I made a beeline straight for the duck. Last week I had been thwarted by a sale on duck breasts and had to settle for duck legs. This time however, the culinary gods were smiling on me and there were 5 duck breasts just sitting there waiting to jump into my basket. I circled back to the front of the store, once again completely avoiding the seafood counter for fear that I might see a great sale on mahi mahi or snapper or grouper & get sucked back into the fish taco vortex, and grabbed a box of organic baby spinach leaves, a Vidalia onion, a bag of dried cherries, a big slab of goat cheese and a bag of Portuguese Rolls because nothing flattens in a Panini press better than those rolls. I also grabbed a Red Velvet Cake to be used as a shiny distraction for when I got home with bags of groceries that obviously did not include the fixings for some Pre-Valentine’s Day requested By My Wife Fish Tacos.

(As a complete off topic aside, did you know that February 13 is also known as “Mistress Day” since Valentine’s Day belongs to the wife ? I didn’t know that little fun fact until I was sitting on the couch with my beautiful bride while we were watching the Grammy Awards and let me just say, that it is also one of those bits of information it is always good to know AFTER the fact.)

As I did work around the house the rest of the day, I started to feel a little guilty (not really but my lovely wife might be reading) for ignoring the request that was made by my adoring wife for fish tacos. I also got to thinking that maybe Paninis really weren’t “classy” enough for a Valentine’s Dinner so, even though I had a bag of those great Portuguese rolls, I would sacrifice them for a more elegant plated dinner that played off the Panini ingredients. I also decided that we should have sweet potato fries because the orange color would look great on the plate and I also knew that we had a bag of Ore Ida Sweet Potato Fries in the freezer (another thing I learned from the Super Bowl – quit trying to make them myself). My vision was now clear, a Cherry Balsamic Duck & Spinach Salad for my wife and Cherry Balsamic Duck with wilted spinach & sweet potato fries for the kids.

The fist thing I tackled was the sauce that I would eventually cook the duck in as well as use as a dressing for the salad. The ingredients were as follows:

½ large Vidalia onion sliced thin & chopped

½ cup dried cherries – chopped

2 TBS olive oil

¼ cup cherry balsamic vinegar

½ cup white wine

1 cup chicken stock

Salt & Pepper to taste

While this was cooking & reducing, I set the oven to 400 degrees (mainly for the sweet potato fries) for the finishing touch. I also fired up my grill pan while sprinkling some red Hawaiian sea salt (I always go to the crutch ingredients I can’t live without) & cracked black pepper on the scored duck breasts. When the grill pan was hot enough, I laid the duck breasts skin side down and listened to them sizzle. After a few minutes I turned them over so the breast side would also start to cook. Another few minutes and it was a quick transfer to the sauce pan. Turn & Turn to coat both sides and then it was straight into the oven, skin side up, to finish.

While those were in the oven getting a little color & some crispiness on the skin, I quickly rinsed the on sale organic spinach and set it aside. I also got the plates out. Small plates for the non-salad eaters and low flat pasta bowls for the salad eaters. I also got some crushed pecans out of the cabinet because I would hate to have one of the pompous judges from CHOPPED condemn my salad because there wasn’t a “crunch” to offset the “texture of the meal”.

When the skin was golden brown and the duck looked ready, I pulled it from the 400 degree oven and let the breasts rest on a nearby cutting board. I threw a couple of handfuls of spinach into the pan with the sauce and stirred it all together until the spinach was well cooked and then placed it onto the non-salad plates with some of the cherries & onions from the pan. In the other bowls, I just put the raw uncooked spinach into the bowls in anticipation of the sliced duck breasts. Then I thin sliced the duck breasts and tried to fan them out as artistically as possible on the plates & beds of spinach. A crumble of goat cheese, evenly distributed atop the duck slices in the salad bowls, was followed by spoonfuls of the hot cherry balsamic sauce drizzled over the top. The sauce slowly started to melt the goat cheese. A sprinkle of pecans for garnish & crunch and Voila ! - the forgotten fish tacos were a thing of the past.

Ridiculously simple. Ridiculously elegant. No leftovers. Not even a duck scrap. My lovely easy to please no high maintenance wife afterward commented that this could be a dish that we could serve at a dinner party. I think I scored.

Now if you did want to make Paninis instead, the only real change comes in the plating. Last Sunday all I did was take the duck, spinach, goat cheese & sauce and stick it all between halves of a Portuguese roll and then press it flat. In this case, you get to eat the serving plate instead of washing it.

Come back next time when we talk about something else entirely different. I think.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

My Birthday Dinner

I wish I had pictures to share with you of the dinner my most awesome wife put together for my birthday last night but by the time we even thought of a camera, we had attacked the table like the Fantastic Mr. Fox and his family.

As is the custom in our house, the one celebrating their birthday gets to decide on the menu for dinner that night. As always, I chose my wife's Crab Cakes. I also requested a yellow cake with chocolate icing. As for the sides and or anything else, I left that up to my wife to surprise me.

When we first got married my wife pored over cookbooks (still does) looking for new things & ways to cook. She had been brought up in a very traditional italian family so her frame of food reference had been somewhat one dimensional. I was brought up on casseroles, baked chicken and hamburger every way you could. It wasn't until I moved west that I started to think outside of the box and experiment with different flavors & styles. One of the first dishes my wife started to make & perfect was crabcakes. I have always loved crabcakes and I would order them almost every time I saw them on a menu. Now back when we first got married, the budget was bit tighter than it is even now and the crab began with a K instead of a C but they were still good. They were labor intensive but they were a labor of love and I think that alone made them taste better than any Krab with a K should ever taste. as the years went by, they got easier to make and the recipe got tweaked. The biggest change was our shift to the front of the alphabet back to Crab with a C. Well last night my wife nailed them again. She made me crabcakes that were soft, light & melt in your mouth. This time she even served them with a warm & spicy mango vinaigrette that raised them to yet another level. I was in heaven and so were my kids as the crabcakes disappeared quite quickly from the plate in the center of the table.

As one side my wife made an excellent corn & black bean salad from this website (http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Black-Bean-And-Corn-Salad-I/Detail.aspx< ) that we have made over & over again over the years. I like to warm it up after mixing it all together and then letting it cool before serving. It kind of let's the flavors meld together in a real nice way. I think the balsamic vinegar & the cumin help to give it a layer of complexity that you don't really expect in a salad. It looks great on a plate and it is a great dish to take to any potluck picnic you mat attend this summer. The other side was more of an appetizer but also a favorite of mine and a standard dish for every Super Bowl. She made my Deviled Eggs with Cheddar Cheese & Bacon. The kids absolutely love these. Throw some leftover pasta on the table along with some Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips & Salsa and we were more than good to go.

There was one more addition to the menu that was strictly for me. For as long as I can remember my wife has been making me a cold Mango Cream Soup. It's silky smooth and goes down like melted ice cream. Sometimes she throws in berries or peaches to change it up a little and I almost always throw in some Sriracha Sauce or some Tabasco Chipotle to, as Emeril says, kick it up a notch. Last night my wife had found two absolutely perfect mangoes for the soup and it was the best I can remember. I can't wait to get home tonight so I can grab the leftover container and wolf it down while watching Modern Family.

As for the cake, I am traditional. I like a yellow cake with chocolate icing. My mother always threw a box of pudding mix into the cake mix to help make the cake moister and so does my wife. She must have also whipped that batter on high for more than the 2 minutes on the box because my cake was sporting a pouf that would have made Snooki jealous. My kids released their inner Jackson Pollack's and decorated the cake in a kaleidoscope of colors & designs. The french vanilla ice cream was the perfect compliment to the cake and if I am not mistaken, the cake & ice cream combo is being requested for an encore performance tonight.

And that's the view for now from Swampy's Kitchen. Stop by again when we talk about how many leftovers you can throw into a tortilla before the kids notice and start to complain



Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The SwampGarden v20.10

Five days a week my existence on this earth pretty much boils down to concrete, metal, glass and an uncomfortable chair behind an old desk. I answer emails, ignore phone calls and push a lot of paper. If I strain my neck when I press my face up against my office window, I can almost see the sky. On Friday afternoons, if I look down, I can see the Mitzvah Tank. When it rains, I ride the E Train. It’s about as far from a bucolic & serene setting as you can get. That’s why this is such a great time of the year. On my other two days, I can escape into my garden. 


I never did have much of a green thumb growing up. In college and for a few years after, the only kind of plant that I could consistently keep alive was a cactus and I think the cactus I had in Denver was just too nasty to die because nothing should have been able to live in that apartment. I’m surprised that I did. Though there are some questions as to whether I was actually living in the mid-80’s. I think I may have been in a slideways sort of existence myself but that is really here nor there and not anywhere near the point I am trying to make. That being said, it wasn’t until I got married that I started to think about growing a garden of my own. We started with flowers & herbs in pots on our townhouse deck. We moved onto to bigger pots of flowers & herbs when we bought our first house but the groundhogs figured out how to climb up on the deck so that ended that experiment. I hacked a garden out of the woods at our next house and despite the fact that we were deep in the woods and the sun rarely made it through, I still got a couple of tomatoes and a handful of peppers each year. Finally we moved to the house I will call “The Final Resting Place” because my next move is six feet under and that is as far as I am going. Here we had a huge backyard with a ton of sun and I knew it was time for me to embrace the notion of becoming a “Gentleman Farmer”. 


I didn’t just stick my toe in this time with a couple of pots & a small plot. I had a fence 7 feet high built out in my yard around a 50X30 patch of grass. I tore that grass up and worked that dirt. I added topsoil. I added mulch. I did it all by hand. I decided to go all natural too and just do battle with Mother Nature & her host of creepy crawlies in any and every which way I could as long as it didn’t involve chemicals. Most of all, I overplanted. I bought & planted every kind of tomato my local nursery carried no matter what it looked like. I did pretty much the same with the hot & sweet peppers and I planted more beans & squash than I could keep track of or even use. I figured I could grow them all and I would have basket upon basket of fresh produce all summer. To a certain extent, I did.


You see what I forgot about was that my wife & kids were going to be away almost the whole summer because of the kitchen construction and with the house ripped up & no one home, it meant I was gone a lot too. The plants took their cue and ran away with it. I had plants stretching & growing everywhere. It was a vast web of shoots, leaves & branches. What was missing was any semblance of order or decorum. Plants went wherever they wanted to go and much like my life in Denver in the 80's, I was their chief enabler. I didn't know how to say no to a plant and I never cut any of them off or short. What I wound up with was a respectable haul that could have been oh so much more. I planned on being more judicious the following year as I hauled away the dead plants & vines on cleanup day.


I wish I had remembered my end of season vows when the spring approached. I overbought all the same culprits and I was so excited that I planted them all 2 weeks earlier than I should have. Mother Nature took notice of my eagerness and proceeded to whack me with a heavy very unseasonable two day frost followed by torrential downpours. I tried to rescue what I could and backfilled with late starters. That turned into a mistake as a great number of the frost damaged plants started coming back slowly. Of course I had saved them and then compounded my errors by trying to shoehorn them in wherever I could. Which led to even more overcrowding especially when rogue plants from seeds gone by started sprouting up. Throw in surgery on my arm (no heavy work for what should have been two weeks but turned into four), enough rain to float Noah's rowboat and my garden was once again an underperforming overgrown mess. I was depressed all winter.


So this year I decided on the less is more approach toward the SwampGarden. I planned out my strategy with my wife, who this year has vowed to help, and we began our attack. We were going to take a cue from the wild grape tomato that had sprung up in the middle of the Cayenne & Cherry  Peppers last year and completely took over that section of the garden. We were going to give the plants room to grow & flourish. As soon as the ground began to thaw I began to turn the dirt and my wife & children began to rake & pull weeds. We did it again a few weeks later and just like clockwork, the late season freeze came & went but this time there was nothing in the ground but worms. So this past Sunday we went to eat breakfast at the Big Red Barn and then it was off to the local garden store to pick up some plants.


The choices, while not as varied as in years past, still were more than this impulse buyer needed to be confronted with at that time. I agonized as I restrained myself from buying two of everything and one of things I knew hadn’t grown in the past just to prove to myself and the dumb plant that I could make them grow. When all was said & done, I walked out with my smallest start of the year purchase and my plan still intact. The list of plants in the ground this year so far is as follows:


4 – Supersonic Tomatoes

4 – Beefsteak Tomatoes

4 – Sweet Cherry 100 Tomatoes

4 – Roma Tomatoes

2 – Yellow Pear Tomatoes

1 – Grape Tomato

1 – Better Boy Tomato

1 – Early Girl Tomato

1 – Purple Cherokee Heirloom Tomato

1 – Old German Heirloom Tomato


8 – Habanero Peppers

8 – Jalapeno Peppers

4 – Cubanelle Peppers

4 – Sweet Banana Peppers

3 – Italian Roasting Peppers

3 – Red Bell Peppers

3 – Yellow Bell Peppers


6 – Red Sails Lettuce

3 – Iceberg Lettuce

3 – Gourmet Head Lettuce


We also planted seeds for Italian Green Beans, Bush Snap Green Beans, Patty Pan Squash & Italian Style Zucchini. I also have seedlings working inside the house for Tabasco Peppers & Ancho Peppers but those got a late start and probably won’t come through.


When all the raking, hoeing, weeding & planting was finally done on Sunday afternoon, we looked around the garden and we were all pleased. The plants all had room to go forth & multiply. They had room to spread & grow. They had room to be bountiful. And in the back of my mind, I was already plotting & planning on how & where to backfill in the places that I didn’t think there was enough. I am going to need all my strength and a good dose of NO to not give in to those urges.


Get ready for the updates. Get ready for pictures. Get ready to live & die my many victories & defeats as I go toe to toe once again with Mother Nature and her many & varied elements meant to destroy my happiness.


That is the view for from Behind The Shades…..swampy is gardening….



Thursday, April 29, 2010

Chapter 1 of a longtime work in progress

There was an electricity in the air that even a jaded New Yorker like myself could feel as I stood there on the corner of 36th Street & 7th Avenue. The passing crowd almost crackled with anticipation. I was just about jumping out of my skin myself. I looked down at my watch for the thousandth time since I had arrived on the corner and the hands were moving both as slowly as a DMV employee on a Friday afternoon and as fast as a sprinter hopped up on steroids. I mean come on, this was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals we were about to go see and Amy was late. Again.

Amy is my fiancĂ© and is going to be late for her own funeral. It doesn’t matter what time you tell her, she will always be 5 minutes late. Normally I found it to be one of those endearing traits in your soul mate that you overlook but this was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals for God’s sake. Can’t she be on time just this once ???

As I fidgeted on the corner like I had five too many triple espressos, I finally caught a glimpse of Amy coming down the sidewalk on the other side of 7th Ave. She hadn’t seen me yet and I could tell that she was happy in her own world. She had a bounce in her step and her honey brown hair shimmered in the early evening lights. As I watched her walk, my heart skipped the extra beat that it did every time I saw her and I forgot about the game for a moment. She finally seemed to sense my presence as she looked over to the corner where we first met and her eyes locked with mine. The smile on her face lit up her eyes like two twinkling stars and she waved to me as she stepped off the corner where she was about to die.

What ? Wait a minute ? Die ? Where did that thought come from ?

And just then I saw the cab shoot out from behind the truck that had stopped for the yellow light rather than gunning through it. The driver was looking into the back seat as the cab lurched forward right at Amy as she stepped out from in front of the truck. I tried to scream but nothing came out. I tried to run but my legs were both stuck and moving at the same time. I began to sink into the pavement as the scene in front of me slowed to a crawl. My hands hit the pavement as I sunk deeper into the street. Amy didn’t seem to notice. She kept waving as she stepped out into the street. I looked down to see why I couldn’t move my legs & arms and found that I now couldn’t lift my head. It was like someone was holding it down. Not letting me lift it to witness the scene I knew was playing out just feet from my helplessness. I heard the engine gun. I heard the crowd scream. I heard the thud. I fell face first to the ground unable to move. A red high heel came to a stop on it’s side just inches from my face. I could hear sirens in the background approaching fast. They sounded like a mockingbird.

A mockingbird ? Since when do ambulances sound like mockingbirds ? Why am I now on my back ? Why can’t I hear the sounds of the city ? Where was Amy ? The mockingbird was getting louder ?

I opened my eyes and saw the bird outside my window. I was drenched in sweat. My legs were hopelessly tangled in my sheets. My throat was dry. My frenzied heart felt like it was about to explode out of my chest. I couldn’t move but I knew it would pass.

Finally, after a minute, I was able to turn my head to the side and see that it was just a little past 5am. I had had the dream again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Notes From My Week Up In The Air

(For some reason this didn’t post on Friday – just fixed it now)


This week marks a milestone for me, I think. I have been sitting here on the airplane (what a surprise) thinking (another surprise) and I am pretty sure that this is the first time that I have flown every single day of the work week. By the time I step off the plane on Friday afternoon back in Newark it will have been eight flights through five airports. I will have been in & out of (in order) Newark, Orlando, Houston, Las Vegas, Newark, Houston, Lafayette, Houston and finally back to Newark. I don’t even think the Pilots or Flight Attendants Unions allow their people to fly as much or as often as I have this week. Too much time in the air always gives me too much time to think. As we all know, that is never a good proposition.


Now it could have been worse. Last year I flew so much that I qualified for Platinum Elite status. That means that this year, more often than not, I have been upgraded from Coach to First. This week was no different. Just as I had predicted, at 10am I received my sixth & final upgrade for the week. (Two of my flights are on commuter jets so I couldn’t get the upgrade but I did get the exit row seat) The seats in First are wider & more comfortable, the drinks are free (for those that do imbibe) and they do serve something more than peanuts, a bland mini-muffin or a little football sized sandwich. Just yesterday I was even given a warm white chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk just before landing. But the fact of the matter is, up front or in the back, flying as much as I have this week stinks.


You know what else stinks ? The size of carry-on luggage and the dude in 1E. Excessive cologne or perfume on a plane is just wrong and inconsiderate. So is not bathing before you get on a plane so I guess in his case it might be a little of both but that is for another discussion at another time when we also discuss the need to keep your shoes on when you are on the plane but now I need to get back to the carry-on conundrum. Spirit Airlines recently announced that they would start to charge for, at an outrageous rate, overhead space on their planes. The rationale behind this thinking was that people would rather pay less to check their bags and that it would help speed up the boarding process thus cutting back on the number of delays caused by people trying to jam everything but the kitchen sink into the overhead. I don’t disagree completely but I do think that there is a simpler solution to this problem and it is already in place. Probably the least utilized piece of equipment in any airport is the carry-on sizing box. There once was a time when airlines actually made people check the size of their carry-on before they were let on the plane. I even remember a few airports having a sizing plate on the x-ray machine so if your bag was too big, it couldn’t get scanned and you had to check it. On my flight from Houston to Las Vegas the other morning I had two self entitled little old people push in front of me with their luggage. They each had two bags that when combined were bigger than they were. When I mentioned it to my gate agent as I checked in, her response was “They are in First.” SO WHAT ! So was I and you didn’t see me taking up a whole overhead compartment. A rule is a rule and should be applied to ALL passengers. When the self entitled little old man proceeded to recline his seat as far as it could go, I made sure to kick it every time I crossed my legs. I am proud to say that for a good 30 minutes I was a poster child for Restless Leg Syndrome and the seat was finally brought up a little . I also made sure that I gave his seat a hip check worthy of any NHL defensemen when I got up to use the bathroom.


I also got to watch a lot of movies & television while I was flying this past week. I got to see The Blind Side, 2012, What About The Morgans, Everybody’s Fine and The Princess & The Frog. The last movie was shown on the morning flight out of Las Vegas which I thought was quite humorous since we had all just spent time in Sin City. With the exception of The Blind Side, all of these movies were greatly improved by the fact that I didn’t listen to any of them. They were nothing more to me than the visual equivalent of white noise. I would go to asleep watching one of them and wake up watching another one. The one flight I had with Direct TV wasn’t much better in that it was a morning flight and Daytime TV is seriously lacking. I did learn that Andrea Mitchell is fine in a short segment but horrible as a one hour host of a rehashed news show and that the hostess of Food Wars on The Travel Channel is even worse. She was so bad that I am going to have to write about her once I remember her name.


So with that promise (or was it a threat) to write more in the near future floating out there up in the air, I will bring this latest cranky missive to an end. Now please return your seats & tray tables back to their upright & locked position. Fasten your seatbelts and get ready to land so we can get off this blog in an orderly fashion and not like cattle at a slaughterhouse.


That’s the view for now from Behind The Shades…..thanks for stopping by….swampy abides


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Best Vacation

I have had the good fortune during my lifetime to have traveled to quite a few spots across the globe for both business and pleasure. ( Australia & the Far East are still in my sights for the future) I have skied the Alps & the Rockies. I have played in the sun & sand on the French Riviera, the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Jersey Shore. I have hiked in all 4 time zones in the US and across glaciers in Switzerland. I have played golf at some of the great courses in the US. I have explored Cathedrals from top to bottom all across Europe. I even visited the Mouse before he discovered Florida. But never have I had as great a vacation as I had for 10 days this past March with my wife & three children in Maui.

I grew up basically spending my vacations in the mountains. I was either hiking or going to camp during the summer in upstate New York or I was skiing in Vermont or Colorado. Visits to the beach were few & far between for me. And Hawaii ? Well that was where Steve McGarrett wore a cheesy Hawaiian shirt and we all chugged when he said "Book'em Dano. Murder One." I never even thought about flying all the way across the Pacific to wear ugly shirts & munch on pineapple. My wife talked about her trips to Waikiki with her girlfriend and that made me want to go even less. Of course I had also made a promise to my wife when we got married (since it was on the 13th of the month) that any time our anniversary fell on a Friday the 13th that she could either have a party or we could go on a trip. As fate would have it our 5th anniversary fell on Friday 13th so we traded in our frequent flier miles, very reluctantly left our barely 1 year old daughter with our respective Mother's (they agreed to split time) and headed for Maui.

We chose Maui after doing "exhaustive research" on the islands. I called my Dad and asked him where we should go since I refused to go to a city (Honolulu) and I already worked in one every day. He told me to go to Maui and to stay down toward Wailea since he knew that my wife & I preferred quiet to crowds and low key to resort style. We lucked into a deal at a hotel in Makena and it was love at first sight for both of us. We relaxed on the quiet beach. We explored when & where we wanted to away from the crowds. When it was time to leave, we hoped to be able to come back some day with our children. I say "children" because despite the fact we only had one child at the time, we were actively trying for our second.

Five years later with now two children in tow, we headed back to Maui & the same hotel. The hotel was as before, perhaps a little more rundown but the vacation was still great because we were able to watch the joy, wonder & amazement in our daughters' eyes and smiles as we shared with them the same things that had made us fall in love with Maui during our first visit. We all agreed that someday we would again come back but with each passing day that prospect started to fade much like memories do.

Life has a funny way of getting you from Point A to Point B at times. We had a 3rd child. I changed jobs and stopped traveling. We moved just as the housing market began it's downward spiral. The financial world imploded in upon itself. Stress became more & more a major factor in our lives. Vacations became fewer & further between but in the back of mind Maui continued to smolder like Mount Haleakala whenever a Hawaiian reggae song came up on my iPod during my daily 4+ hours of commuting or when the darkness started to close in on me. I just knew we had to get back to Maui, I just didn't know how. Then my job shifted again from a desk based position back to time on the road and the miles started to add up. My children were growing up and my youngest had started to show signs that he would be able to make the flights. I knew it was time so I pulled the trigger. It had taken six years but I was able to get us five first class tickets to Maui with my frequent flier miles. Our old hotel had changed owners and they were looking for new clients (especially families) with packages that couldn't be beat.

So off we went. I can't even begin to put into words the relief I felt the first morning we woke up in Maui after our 11 hours of travel the day before. I could feel the stress flow out of my body like someone had poked a hole in a dike when my wife made me lock my blackberry in our in-room safe. I noticed the colors around me. I heard the waves crashing on the shore & the birds singing in the trees. I felt the breeze that rustled through the palm trees. Most of all I saw the smiles on the faces of my children & my wife and I saw the same love in my wife's eyes that I knew she saw in mine. Much like we had in our 2 previous visits, we played, ate, shopped, explored & experienced at our own pace. We were a family like we had always been and like we had never been. It was exciting. It was rewarding. It was unforgettable but most of all it was magical. The ten days flew by & crawled at the same time. We lost track of time and even missed the clocks springing ahead back on the mainland. It was a real vacation. Even the travel nightmare that befell us on the return flight home couldn't dampen our spirits. So what if it took 24 hours, two different airlines and a ton of unexpected expense to get home. We still had our ten days in Maui to keep us sheltered from reality.

It's been a month since we got back from our trip. I can still taste the fish tacos at Alexander's. I can still hear the Humpback Whales slapping their tails on the water off the beach in Kihei. I can still see the sun setting from the sidewalks of Lahaina. I can still feel the happiness, joy & laughter that enveloped our little family. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about this trip and what it meant to me and what it meant to my family. We are all stronger & happier for it. I don't know if you can really catch lightning in a bottle twice or see the same rainbow more than once but we are going to try again next year. Mahalo Maui.

And that is the view for now from Behind The Shades….swampy abides…

Friday, April 09, 2010

My Trip to The Masters 2008 Re-visited

I have to admit that I have sat here a while trying to figure out a way to best describe the events of the past few days and truly I am at a loss for words. As a sports fan, there are events that you participate in and there are events that you attend and then there are there are those events that you can only truly really experience….

And then there is The Masters.

Lets get one thing out of the way first before we even begin to get to the rest of the awesomeness that is Augusta. Everyone I have ever spoken to about attending the Masters and every article I have ever read about attending the Masters have all said the same thing. You must have one of the fabled Pimento Cheese Sandwiches. They are spoken of in reverential fashion and they have been granted an almost godlike status. So when we got to the hallowed grounds of the Augusta Country Club, one of the first things we did after hitting the golf shop (more on that later), watching Tiger Woods putt on the practice green (and based on his performance he needed to spend more time here) and touching the fairway grass (well, that was just me but again more on that later) was to go and find a concession stand so that we too could partake of the glorious goodness of the Pimento Cheese Sandwich. I paid my $1.50 and ripped through the opaque green wrapping and took a huge bite…….

Let me now also be the one to tell you that the legendary Pimento Cheese Sandwich is obviously a cruel practical joke perpetuated on an unknowing & gullible golfing public by the green jacket clad members of the Augusta Country Club and all those who have fallen victim in the past. Though I have never tried it myself, I am now convinced that a tub of spackle has the same consistency and probably tastes better than this yellow hued mess that was globbed & spread between two pieces of Wonder Bread. You take that first big bite with relish & gusto and truly expect to see God or at least Bobby Jones. Your tastebuds immediately begin to tell you that this is a mistake of truly epic proportions but your mind rejects this information and tells you that it really can’t be this bad and that surely the next bite will be better but it’s not. In fact, with each ensuing bite it only gets worse but you continue to eat it because all of your life you have heard about how you have to have to experience the glorious goodness of the Pimento Cheese Sandwich at The Masters. As you finally force that final bite into your mouth you begin to realize that not only have you been truly suckered but that you have also just joined a fraternity of countless thousands that have also fallen victim to this cruel & insidious inside joke. As you forcibly swallow that last bite you make a silent vow that somehow, some way, someone will pay for this……

But I digress…….now I have been to more than a few golf tournaments over the years. I have seen the PGA championship, I have been to a regular tour event, I have been to see the women and I have been to see the Senior’s Tour and none of these events can even come close to the (hold on let me put on the mantle of hyperbole given to all sportscasters working for CBS & ESPN) majesty that is Augusta. It is a course and club that is truly built for one reason and one reason only. To put on the best golf tournament of the year. From the minute you set foot on the hallowed grounds you are enveloped in the history and spectacle that are The Masters. You can also catch a whiff of Disney in the proceedings when you pass the Golf Shop with it’s 20+ cash registers and UPS shipping depot right next door. But enough of that, let’s get to real reason a golf fanatic like me is really there. It’s because any other week of the year I have a better chance of finding Osama Bin Laden in an Afghani cave than I do setting foot on the course. Come June 1 this course will be shut & locked down tighter than my daughter’s bedroom door on prom night. So when I got the call from Goose letting me know that a spot had opened in a corporate boondoggle junket and it was mine for the taking, well I just about ran all the way to Georgia. The weekend is still pretty much a blur so I will do my best to remember some of the highlights.

We flew into Columbia, SC and I couldn’t help but notice the big highway sign for Maurice’s BBQ on the road to Augusta. (edit: old reference)

Went to Wild Wings our first night. Apparently just about every hooker in the greater Atlanta area had the same idea. And who can blame them ? It was a target rich environment filled with drunken businessmen with corporate expense accounts. It was such a target rich environment that even wingchicks had their choices. And I am sorry to say but the wings were hardly wild…..

The first thing you notice about Augusta is the grass. You could putt from just about anywhere on the course. The second thing you notice is the hill that you need to climb to get to the Clubhouse, 1st Tee and practice green. The next thing I noticed was Tiger Woods 10 feet in front of me walking to the practice green. The guy is cut like a free safety in the NFL and he has serious game face. He started out putting one handed with tees stuck in the green the length of his putter apart. He hit 20 in a row that way. He should have kept putting that way the rest of the weekend because despite the best efforts of Jim Nantz & CBS, Tiger was NEVER in it. I couldn’t help but watch as all the other players on the green took glances and long looks at Tiger’s ritual & warm up. Trevor Immelman was already out on the course so I don’t think that he was intimidated.

As we walked down the 10th fairway towards “Amen Corner” I got down on my hands & knees and rubbed the grass. It wouldn’t be the last time I would do it over the weekend either. As I began to look around I was surprised at how hilly the course was. One local writer described walking the course as a long trip on a stairmaster. As we came down the 11th fairway the legendary “Amen Corner” came into view and I was brought back to my one time playing Tour 18 in Houston where I was long on my approach to # 11 and wound up in the water at Sawgrass. Not quite the same here. We scored great seats in the front row of the stands and got to watch the approach shots into # 11 – the tee shots on the Par 3 # 12 – and the tee shots on # 13. Just a prime viewing location. We later discovered thanks to achance meeting with 2 Time Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw that the 12th green is built on an old cemetery and the players all believe that the spirits have a lot to do with balls either winding up in Rae’s Creek or somehow miraculously staying up at the lip of the water. Many a tourney has been both won & lost here and Tom Weiskopf will forever be remembered for his 12 on the 12th – which is most likely what I would shoot since the winds are fickle and the putting surface is like warped glass. We waited for Tiger to come through and the masses that follow him before we ventured further.

It’s interesting to note the spectators at the Masters. Everyone is wearing a golf shirt & hat either right from the pro shop or from their various clubs around the country. A great many women are also there and some of them – no a great many of them – obviously had no idea where they were going or what they were doing because they were wearing heels on a golf course. My feet were hurting in my Nikes so I can’t imagine how they were feeling. You could also tell which guys were strictly there for the drinking and partying – though that aspect is much more subdued at Augusta than any other tourney I have ever been to. This is no Phoenix Open. It was fun spotting the women who were there guy watching and which ones were golf groupies. A special tip of the hat goes to the chick in the red cocktail dress on the 9th hole on Friday – no bra, half dollar sized erect nipples and a tiny red thong that kept getting exposed for all to see whenever a gust of wind came up. More than one player smiled back at her as they walked off the 8th green and then again off the 9th tee – 2 shows for the price of 1…..but I digress……

On both Thursday & Friday I wound up watching the action around the 16th hole because from the hillside to the left of the hole you could see the 15th green and the 6th green not to mention the turtles climbing on the banks on the 16th green. This was also the hole that Ian Poulter aced on Thursday and birdied on Friday to put himself in 3rd place going into the weekend. It should also be noted that after I spotted the 4 young women making a late night beeline to Ian at the hospitality house party on Friday that it was no surprise at all that Ian faded from the top of the leaderboard on Saturday. Again I want to praise the Augusta fans for the tradition of setting out your chair at a hole and being able to come back hours later to find the chair & your bag still there and untouched. Everyone is watching out for everyone else and I really believe that some people are just so in awe of the place and actually being there that they forget to be dirtbags and steal stuff.

As we left the course on Friday night I once again got down on my hands and knees and rubbed the grass on the 7th & 1st fairways and stood at yard maker 119 yards out and thought to myself, “I could miss that shot”…..I don’t know if I will ever get back to Augusta and to play the course would be an 18 hole wet dream but I felt a connection & spirituality to the place that was like no other. I have played many of golf’s great courses and walked several more but it is quite clear to me that there is only one Augusta Country Club and there is only one Masters. Congratulations to Trevor Immelman. You held on and mastered the monster for your own green jacket. Tiger may have come in 2nd but he was a pussycat compared to the South African this week……

And that is the view for now from Behind The Shades….swampy abides…