“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”— Robert Burns
Two weeks ago, while looking for a non-traditional location for the St. John family Spring break of 2013, I came up with Austin, TX. It was a brilliant idea. Unfortunately the vacation gods had other plans.
Austin’s South By Southwest music, film, and interactive festival is a weeklong event I have wanted to attend for years. The timing has never worked out. This year the timing was perfect. It was being held during Spring break week. Unfortunately, by the time I decided where the four of us— my wife, daughter, son, and I— would spend our Spring break, the state capitol of Texas was fully booked.
So our intended Spring break fell apart. My daughter headed to the beach with friends. My son hung around the house for a few days. For my wife and me, it was business as usual.
Trips usually need foresight and planning. This was certainly the case with Austin the week of March 8th – 16th. A year ago I spent six months travelling. It took two years to plan that journey. In college my friends and I would take a spur-of-the-minute road trip without any planning. But those were days where if hotel rooms were booked, we would sleep in the car or on the beach.
Today I am too old to sleep in the car unless it is absolutely necessary. I was pondering this and wondering if I was also too old to rekindle the spontaneous spirit of my youth. Have I gotten so old and set in my ways that everything has to be planned months in advance? If one wants a room in Austin, TX during South By Southwest, the answer is, yes.
The six-months abroad last year was the trip of a lifetime. Though certainly in my top five, was a father-son ski trip I booked a few years ago. It was during a short Winter break from school, and was really the first time he and I had been away— just the two of us— for any length of time.
So last week I was feeling too old, too settled, and miles away from impulsive. I was worried that my son was going to have a crappy Spring break. I got on the phone, and within a matter of minutes found a ski-package deal to Park City, Utah. I booked it.
I don’t have many regrets over the course of my life. I am a firm believer in “it takes what it takes” to get one through life. Though there are things that were never done. I would have loved to have had a father-son trip with my father. Unfortunately he passed away when I was six-years old. That would have been a nice memory for me, as a son. But what I know now, it would have been a great memory for him as a dad. Quality time with a son is a dad’s best medicine.
We have had a blast in Utah. I write this early on our last morning here. As I look back over the past four days, I can’t imagine any trip being better. We aren’t staying in a fancy hotel on the slopes. We aren’t eating at fine-dining restaurants, and we aren’t even tearing up the slopes. What we are doing is spending time with each other— away from televisions, away from video games, and away from the time-suck of school routines and work schedules. We have had a blast.
This one-bedroom apartment is a wreck. There are delivery pizza boxes on the counter, half-eaten Chinese delivery in the refrigerator, and dirty clothes piled up all across the floor. Towels are on the bathroom floor and the toilet seat is up. Male bonding is messy. We are in heaven.
When we have dined out, the two meals have been enjoyable. One of my favorite sushi restaurants in the country is Flying Sumo in Park City. We hit that on the second night and the Tokyo Nacho appetizer— spicy tuna, wasabi mayo, cilantro, and flying fish eggs on a fried gyoza chip with a side of guacamole— is still as good as I remember.
A men’s outing wouldn’t be complete without a grilled steak, and so we did that, and the boy devoured a char-grilled slab of beef that would put a lumberjack in a coma.
As usual, my favorite meals have been breakfasts. The two of us, with the entire day ahead, spend time talking of what we will do that day. We also talk about the future and the past.
The best-tasting meals have been at lunch. There is something about being active outdoors that makes the simplest of foods taste better. It’s true, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich eaten on a fishing boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico at high noon after a morning of fishing can sometimes taste like a $100.00 fine-dining meal. A bowl of chili on top of a snow-covered mountain after a morning of snow skiing can taste as good as the best mushroom bisque in the finest bistro in Lyon— especially if it’s eaten on a father-son outing.
Sometimes the “best laid plans” work out for the best.
Duck Confit Nachos
2 tablespoons Clarified Butter
1/2 cup yellow onion, minced
1/4 cup red peppers, finely diced
1/4 cup green peppers, finely diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
2 teaspoons Creole Seasoning
1 cup duck confit, small dice
1 1/2 cups pepper jack cheese, finely grated
1 large sweet potato, thinly sliced into potato-chip style slices
cottonseed oil for frying
1/4 cup fresh chives, chopped
In a medium skillet, heat the clarified butter over medium heat. Add onions and peppers and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and Creole Seasoning. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Remove skillet from the heat. Transfer mix into mixing bowl and refrigerate until cool. Once the mixture is cool, add the duck confit and cheese and mix it thoroughly. This step may be done a day in advance.
Peel sweet potato and slice into very thin slices (like potato chips). Heat 3/4-inch cottonseed oil to 340 degrees in a heavy skillet. Drop several chips at a time and fry until crispy and bright orange. Don’t fry too many at a time; you will need to be able to pull them out quickly. This step may be done 30 minutes to an hour ahead of serving time. Drain chips on paper towels to remove excess oil.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and arrange chips on a baking sheet. Top with one heaping tablespoon of the duck mixture and place in the oven. Bake until cheese is melted and mixture is warm. Garnish with fresh chopped chives.
1/2 pound duck leg meat, cut into medium to large strips
1 1/2 cup bacon fat
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, smashed
Place a cooling rack on baking sheet. Generously season the duck with the salt and black pepper. Place the duck on the cooling rack and refrigerate for 4–6 hours. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. In a small ovenproof baking dish, melt the bacon fat. Place the duck meat in the warm, but not hot, bacon fat, making sure it is completely submerged. Add the thyme, bay leaf, and garlic and cover. Place in the 225 degree oven. Cook for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and allow the meat to cool down for 20 minutes while still in bacon fat. Remove from bacon fat and it is now ready for the duck confit nacho recipe. This step be done in advance. Hold the cooked duck (refrigerated) in the bacon fat. It must be completely covered in the fat to hold. If it is not held in the fat, this step may be done 3–4 days in advance.
Yield: 6–8 servings as a passed appetizer