Skull Valley Depot Picture of the Week

I’m not considered a sociable person, so you may be surprised that I joined a car club back when I was a younger man—more than half my life ago (oh jeez, where has it all gone). This club’s existence was based on owning a particular brand—which one isn’t important for my story—but the club member’s general attitude was that no one should drive one of these cars because the mileage brought down their value. Insane, I know. Despite that, the club put on well-attended events like parties, tours, meetings, and track days.

The club event that drew the most participation was their annual progressive dinner. If you’ve never heard of that, it’s a three to seven-course dinner served at the volunteers’ houses who prepared each course. So we’d meet at the appetizer house, have a glass of wine, and when the food was all gone, we’d jump in our cars and drive to the next course. The club paid for the food and a couple of jugs of Carlo Rossi wines, and members paid a flat per-head attendance fee. The club made a lot of money. Things were different then. Phoenix had few roads north of Northern Avenue, and traffic was nil on Saturday nights, so by the end of the evening, the drive between houses turned into a Targa Florio race. Half the club would wind up in the slammer on DUI charges these days, and the insurance companies would cancel their policy.

Now hold that thought in the back of your head while I talk about the other part of another one of my grandiose ideas. I’ve written before about the trains that pass our house. They run less than a half-dozen times each day (and night), so the tracks are empty most of the time. The route runs from Phoenix to the northern town of Ash Fork, and it has so many twists and turns that it was dubbed The Peavine Line when it opened a century ago. The tracks run through the heart of Arizona’s historic gold mining country.

Historically our little train used to carry passengers with depots in Phoenix, Wickenburg, Congress, Kirkland, Skull Valley, Prescott (now bypassed), and Ash Fork. Most of the town’s stations are still there in one form or another. And—unlike the routes between Phoenix to Tucson and Phoenix to Yuma—there is some interesting backcountry scenery and at least two climate zones along the journey.

Skull Valley Depot - The townspeople of Skull Valley have put their abandoned depot to good use as a local museum.
Skull Valley Depot – The townspeople of Skull Valley have put their abandoned depot to good use as a local museum.

So, after my photo outing where I shot this week’s featured image in Skull Valley, I began to fantasize about having a progressive dinner—on a train. The trip would start in Wickenburg (or maybe Sun City West), then make scheduled stops where the old stations are. At each stop, you could peruse the local museum, enjoy the designated course, spend money on useless trinkets in the gift shop, pee, and get back on the train. Between stations, the guests could taste wine samples (from Arizona vineyards?) and purchase bottles that they would pick up at the evening’s end. At the end of the line, the train would make a leisurely two-hour trip back to the station. The night will have fallen by that time, and guests would enjoy non-alcoholic beverages to sober them up.

I only know of two train excursions in Arizona; the Verde River Line and the trip from Williams to the Grand Canyon. There once was the White Mountain steam train, but that closed a long time ago, and Durango bought the engine (which fell off the trailer along US 89—however that’s another story). I think there’s plenty of market for another train ride in our state, and the dinner would make it a unique experience. Think of it as a dinner cruise on rails.

If this lame-brain idea sounds good to you, then it’s yours. On the other hand, if you feel it’s a stupid idea, I never said anything. My brain hurts too much to work on stuff right now. I’m too old and penniless. Besides, it’s time for my nap.

You can see a larger version of Skull Valley Depot—the picture that set my brain on fire this week—on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week when we continue with another Skull Valley artifact.

Until next time — jw

Embarrassment Pie 2018 Utah Photo Shoot

On the road, you’re forced to try new restaurants. Some of them are good, a few are poor, but most of them are blah. Most restaurant owners don’t have an interest in food and they have little imagination. They are just trying to make a buck and so the profit and loss statement dictates the menu. I mean, my mom used to put more lunch meat on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when she packed our school lunches than they serve at roadside dives. That’s why, when I find a place that has great food, I like to tell you about it.

Happy Couple
Happy Couple – On the grounds of the Burr Trail Grill are a pair of gas pumps as yard-art. They’re of little use for anything else now because the largest price is 99 cents.

There are eight little communities along Utah’s State Route 12. Most of them barely have a post office much less a coffee shop. Boulder is one of those small towns. It’s wedged between the—terrifying to drive over—petrified sand dunes and Boulder Mountain. If you’re not going to see the ruins at the Anasazi State Park or to drive the Burr Trail, there’s no good reason to visit Boulder … other than they—inexplicably—have two outstanding restaurants, the Hell’s Backbone Grill and—our favorite—the Burr Trail Grill. Truthfully, we don’t know about Hell’s Backbone because we stopped at Burr Trail first and keep returning each time we pass this way.

Burr Trail Grill
Burr Trail Grill – Located at the intersection of SR 12 and Burr Trail the grill is only open during the season but the food is good.

The grill is on SR 12, right at the Burr Trail—an interesting side trip that we’ll talk about another time. It’s a small wooden shack-like building that has more seating outside than in, which is good because the parking lot is usually full at lunch. It is only open during the summer—May to October—after which, the staff return to their day jobs at the ski resorts near Salt Lake City. The menu features burgers and sandwiches which doesn’t sound exotic, but I’ve had the Thai Burger and their Ruben. Each of my choices favorably impressed me. The food at the Burr Grill is good, but we dream of their pies.

Mixed-Berry-Ginger Pie
Mixed-Berry-Ginger Pie – Warm from the oven with a scoop of home-made ice cream and fresh whipped cream is guaranteed to make you forget about decorum.

This pie will embarrass you. It has the kind of crust that explodes all over the table when you put a fork to it, just like Aunt Clara made. After your first taste, you scoop up the table-crumbs and eat them. Pies are baked fresh each day and served with home-made vanilla ice cream and fresh whipped cream. There’s a changing variety each day. Anne loved the chocolate-bourbon and she had to settle for peach on our second visit.  When you order a slice, it takes a minute because they warm it in the oven. I ordered a slice of cherry-cayenne, which sounds weird, but was tangy and not hot—like a sour cherry. On our second visit, I went for the mixed-berry-ginger and that made my taste buds explode. It was the taste of berry tartness at the beginning followed by a bright splash of ginger. As you dig in, the warm pie melts the ice cream resulting in a pool of fruit-cream on the saucer. As I devoured mine, I looked across the table and saw Anne’s eyes peering over her plate while she licked it. “What!” was all she had to say for herself—queen indeed. I told you it was embarrassing pie.

When you come to explore SR 12, be sure to plan a stop in Boulder for at least a slice of pie. You may come away embarrassed, but you’ll be better off for it—recommended.

Until next time — jw

Eggs Benedict Done Right Nichols West Restaurant A Congress Brightspot

My favorite thing for breakfast is Eggs Benedict. It’s an indulgence that I refuse to give up even though I know that plate full of calories and cholesterol is trying to kill me. By no means am I a traditionalist. I like all the varietals. I’ve tried the Californian with turkey and avocado, the Florentine with spinach, a crab cake version, and one made with salmon. The most exotic and memorable Benedict I’ve ever had was when Jeff and I stopped in Santa Cruz on the homeward bound leg of our infamous San Francisco trip. I believe it was in the Walnut Avenue Café that I ordered Blackened Ahi Tuna Benedict. I don’t know why I’ve never been back. The peppery tuna and lemon creaminess of the sauce was one of the best things I have ever eaten.

I have a version that I make when I’m in the mood to struggle with egg poaching. I substitute a nice thick ham slice instead of the usual Canadian bacon and I replace the Hollandaise with Béarnaise because I enjoy the tarragon and vinegar sauce even more. I call my version Eggs Better-dict.

Eggs Benedict at Nichols West
Craft paper replaces white tablecloths at Nichols West and they make the best Eggs Benedict.

One of the best things about living in Congress is that we have a local restaurant that really doesn’t belong here. A couple blocks west of US 89 on State Route 71 is a small café named Nichols West. It would be in the heart of downtown if Congress had a downtown. The cream-colored building with its star jasmine-covered façade houses a bar and restaurant that seats—at best—fifty people. Simon ­­­Smith—a British transplant—is the proprietor of this American Restaurant and over the last decade, he has built up a large and very loyal clientage here by having a varied menu, serving fresh ingredients, and being open year round. That’s an important part of being able to keep good staff.

As expected from a diner like this, the prices—although reasonable—prevent us—as retieries—from having dinner there every night. However, they’re open for breakfast every morning at eight, and one of the best deals on the breakfast menu is the Eggs Benedict, starting at under $10.00. I say starting because they have a half-dozen versions including a Country Benedict (biscuits and gravy in place of the good stuff). The sauce is the key to making this meal great. Anyone can slap egg yolks and lemons together, but here it’s bright without being too lemony. I don’t recall having a better Hollandaise, and so I’ll put it up against the best in Arizona.

Nichols West In Congress Arizona
Nichols West is a small restaurant that has unexpectedly good food for such a small town.

Out here in Podunk-Ville, we live without a lot of amenities, like sidewalks, stop lights, bike lanes, and indoor toilets. But a great restaurant isn’t one of the missing. That’s why on trash days when Queen Anne and I are heading home from the dump, we’ll most likely be stopping off at Nichols West for breakfast.

Until next time – jw

Chicken S.O.S. – A He-Man’s Breakfast for Sissies Gourmet Photographer

With this recent cold spell passing through, it’s nice to have a change from the cold cereal that Queen Anne ‘cooks’ every morning.  I know that she tries to be creative, but sliced bananas and raisins only go so far. On days like these, I like something warm and hearty that sticks to the ribs. Since my brain isn’t up to speed at the crack of dawn, it needs to be simple to make. I came up with this concoction last year when our pantry was depleted and I liked it enough to keep it in my repertoire.

Campbells Cream of Chicken Soup
Cream of Chicken Soup – it makes a hearty breakfast too.

Back in my short military conscription days (yes kids, there was a time when they would come drag you from your home), breakfast was the meal that had the best choices of food. But between the steam pans of rubber scrambled eggs and fried hockey pucks, there was always a pot of gray gooey glop with bits of brown chunks in it. Its formal name was Chipped Beef on Toast, but it’s better known as S.O.S. (look it up). My dad liked it and even made it once. My sisters and I refused to eat it. We didn’t even taste it. Years later, my curiosity got the better of me when I saw some in a Stouffer’s box so I bought and tried it. Guess what! It was bad. I don’t know why because I like red-eye gravy on chicken fried steak and I’ll occasionally gag down an order of biscuits and gravy. It had to be the mystery-meat that was in it. So, in my recipe, I replaced it with known chicken parts and a better tasting gravy.

Ingredients

  • A 10 ½ ounce can of Cream of Chicken soup—like Campbell’s
  • ¼ cup of dry white wine—Vermouth, Sherry, Chardonnay it doesn’t matter.
  • ¼ cup of chicken broth
  • 8 ounces (about) of Costco Rotisserie Chicken meat (They sell yesterday’s leftovers in the deli which Anne freezes in 8-ounce portions).
  • A pinch of Poultry Seasoning or your own combination of celery flakes, sage, and thyme.
  • An English muffin for each serving.

Instructions

The consistency is important. You don’t want to make soup, but you don’t want the kindergarten paste that comes out of the can either. The mixture should sit on the muffin and ooze off slowly. I find that thinning the base with a half can of liquid works best. The wine provides an acidic brightness that I like, but a half can is too much. You can blend the wine and chicken stock to get the taste that you like. I use a 1:1 ratio, but you can use all wine, all chicken stock, or all water if that’s all you have. It doesn’t matter; you’re not supposed to have to think about math in the morning. Combine all the liquids into a pot and heat on medium-high.

As the sauce begins to heat, split and toast your muffins. Chop the chicken meat into smaller chunks and add that to the sauce. Season the mixture with herbs. There’s enough salt in the soup and chicken that you don’t need more, but you can add your favorite pepper if you like some spice. When the sauce starts to boil, cover and simmer on a low heat for five to fifteen minutes—stirring occasionally—allowing the seasonings to blend. Arrange the split English muffins on a plate and glop the gravy on top, then you can garnish with more herbs and maybe a pinch of cayenne or paprika for color. There is enough sauce for two servings so you can share with your sweetie or—better yet—you can have seconds if they turn their nose up.

Calories

  • Can of soup has 300
  • 8 oz of chicken breast is 300
  • Herbs add nothing
  • Wine is less than 30
  • Chicken stock is 10
  • English Muffin is 130

The entire pot and a muffin add up to 770 calories and a serving is about half (or less), so each serving is 385 calories. That’s less than two Krispy Crème doughnuts. It’s a warm hearty breakfast that tastes good if not downright decadent. Give it a try sometime and let me know what you think.

Till next time—jw

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