Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer Food and Fun in Northern Michigan . . .

Last week, when my family was in Northern Michigan on vacation, I found copious opportunities to take pictures. Folks, Michigan is chock full of interesting things to photograph. Many of them edible.

Before we get to the food, please let me get on my tiny soapbox for just a moment, okay? I will come clean right here, right now, and confess to you that I love it here. Besides being the most adorably shaped state in the U.S. (let's face it--no other state comes close in this regard; I mean, we're shaped like a big, cozy, rounded mitten for heaven's sake), it's abundant in lakes and forest. We experience four dramatically different seasons in the most classic way imaginable. Personally, I think the bio-rhythms of longtime Michiganders are based, somehow, on the distinct character of each of our seasons--no kidding. And did you know that there are still areas of Michigan that are like something out of a storybook? It's quite true. Never been here? Well, you might want to consider a jaunt "up north" sometime to check us out. The state's gotten such a horrible rap in the media this past year or two, I feel compelled to say that the American tragedy-loving news machine doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the good stuff that comprises Michigan.

Okay. I'm done. Stepping off the soapbox now.

Among the many pleasures of even a short, relatively local vacation are some of the foods enjoyed, don't you think? I wanted to share a few photos I took on that trip, along with a non-baking related "semi-recipe" that comes care of my husband (he grills, oh yeah). Some of the pics are of delicious things to eat. Others are just simple, fun, or placid images (hey, placid is good) that drew me in, camera in hand.

You know how some of the most legendary local places, that have existed seemingly for centuries, manage to survive even well off the beaten track? Well, pictured below is Iva's Chicken Dinners, in a town called Sterling. Iva's, open since the 1930s, is just like that. Since I've been married (it'll be 18 years on July 20th), I've heard my in-laws and husband repeatedly mention this "old restaurant in a house, that serves these great chicken dinners." Finally, on July 3rd, I got to see for myself. About time.

We stopped there on the way to Torch Lake, our destination, to eat dinner. I'm glad we did. A kitschy time capsule, in the most genuine and honest way, Iva's looks as if it was placed in a deep freezer in, say, 1957, and they defrosted it just last week. The interior is vintage from top to bottom (sadly, my few photos of the interior were badly out of focus, thus not included here). The furniture alone would sell like hotcakes on ebay, and probably show up in an article in Martha Stewart Living the next month! They serve you coffee in those little old glass containers with the black collar and cap; brings back memories of my high school job as a waitress--we used those for serving tea water. The food at Iva's can be aptly described as homey, bland, comforting, and satisfying in a safe sort of way. (One thing they didn't put in the deep freeze was the pricing--that's strictly up to date, unfortunately.) Utterly comfortable in its own skin, Iva's Chicken Dinners is worth a visit for the retro decor alone--even if fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green peas, and fresh biscuits isn't necessarily your idea of a dining experience.

Michigan is . . . uh . . . one of the chubbiest states in the country--one of our less glorious claims to fame. So, it comes as no surprise that the entire lower peninsula is virtually peppered with ice cream stands and frozen custard shops. The one you see below is buried in the back of Higgins Store, a small market in a tiny town called Alden, near my husband's family's Torch Lake cottage.

It's curiously sequestered behind everything else that Higgins sells, in a separate and, well, rather dark room. I guess ice cream addicts appreciate the privacy. Though Michiganders will willingly come out in the light of day to do an ice cream deal--we're that hardcore--we appreciate the discretion showed by Higgins. My younger son who, as you may know, enjoys concealing his identity, is one such customer. "Mint chocolate chip, please. Single dip, in a large sugar cone. No sprinkles."

Also in Alden is the Muffin Tin, a tiny joint specializing in--you guessed it. Below is a nice cherry pecan muffin I tried. Not bad at all. Little groups of ladies meet there to knit or to conduct civic business while they indulge, as do happily solitary males who sit nearby, peering intently at their laptop screens as they contentedly munch on the crusty, oat-topped muffins. (Not all of Northern Michigan is wired yet. Folks with more modern inclinations have to make do wherever they can, you know. The Muffin Tin is a charming place to "make do.")

The little number you see below, dished up on Dixie's finest, was produced compliments of my husband, who we'll call Andy (because that's his name). He's the griller for our little brood, and he's damn good at it too. The stuffed pork tenderloin was a rip roaring success. Here's the "semi-recipe" I mentioned above. I have no exact proportions listed, so just wing it if you give this one a whirl. It was delicious. I loved it.

Stuffed Grilled Pork Tenderloin a la Andy

One pork tenderloin, decent sized
A few sweet baby peppers, yellow and red
Kalamata olives, plenty of them, pitted and chopped
sun dried tomatoes, can be cut into pieces (not too many; the taste is pretty strong)
garlic, lots of it, minced
fresh dill, lots of it, coarsely chopped
fresh mozarella, an amount about the size of a tennis ball is more than enough, sliced
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
olive oil

Butterfly the pork tenderloin. Pound the meat thinner than it is. (How thin? Just not too thin.)
Spread the meat out, and cover it with a few slices of the prosciutto, in a single layer. Layer on top of that pieces of the sliced sweet peppers, then the slices of the mozarella, then the sun-dried tomatoes, then the chopped olives. Sprinkle on most of the garlic and dill. Using butcher's string (or any kind of cotton string you can safely put on food that is going to be put on a grill), and probably with someone helping you to hold the whole kit 'n' kaboodle together (or, if you like spewing a lot of profanity you can try doing it by yourself), tie the meat up into a secure tight bundle. You may need to place at least five knotted pieces of string on it to keep it all secure. Rub olive oil on the outside of the bundle. Stuff the remaining garlic and dill into the openings, and rub it on the outside of the bundle. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and pepper.

Put that baby on a heated grill and turn it carefully now and then. Grill it until the internal temperature is about 160. Remove the string before serving it.

Brace yourself for rave reviews.

* * * *
Okay, so now it's dusk and somebody (Uncle Ben or Uncle Keith?) made a nice fire outside on the beach. Is it time yet to make the S'mores? Oh good. Because you have to have them when you're up north. Wouldn't be a vacation without them. Try to get fresh graham crackers and marshmallows. They're going to be high quality S'mores if you're not using stale goods. And don't forget those thin milk chocolate Hershey bars. Make sure your marshmallows get pretty toasty on the outside and melty on the inside before you embark on the assembly. Critical to have completely heated marshmallows, agree? Apply your chocolate pieces to your crackers, slip the 'mallows on there, and squish it all together gently. Mmmmmmm . . . it's really summer now.

Plenty of nice flora around. Nice fauna too, but the fauna tends to move too fast for my current photographic skills.

Last word: Michigan is worth loving. And as for Detroit, well, Detroit is hard to love but it really just needs love. My mom used to say, "It's when a child is acting the least lovable that she/he needs the most love." I figure Detroit's like that.


Anonymous said...

I like all of your posts, but i especially love this one! (I can say, "I was there!") You are doing a great job. I am at the central Lake Library with my laptop.
Aunt Barb

Jane said...

Thanks so much, Aunt Barb. So nice to know you liked this post, and the blog! :)


Anonymous said...

I loves me some s'mores!

MrsY said...

Just stumbled on your blog today and my eye got drawn in by the mention of Northern Michigan. I had to smile when I saw that you went to Iva's. My grandparents lived in Mio and used to go down to Iva's when they wanted to have a nice, celebratory dinner out. I've been there a few times with them. Now I think I need to take my husband there. It's probably still just like I remember it from when I was a kid. :-)

Jane said...

Hi MrsY,

How nice that someone who knows about Iva's commented on this post! My blog was not very old (well, it's still not very old) when I posted that and I always wondered if anyone besides a few relatives read it! We were charmed by Iva's, and the food was still very good. Let's hope it endures for many more decades!