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Le Plug: The Snowbound Edition

Let the media binge-ing begin! Snowed in on a Saturday, Jim Hill begins plowing through all of the books, DVDs, CDs, games and magazines that people have sent him over the past few weeks to review.

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9:30 a.m. EST … Welcome to the Winter that will NOT end.

Here we are, supposedly weeks away from the start of Spring. And yet — up here in the woods of New Hampshire — we’re about to get plastered with yet another snowstorm. The third this week. The second in 12 hours!

Photo by Nancy Stadler

And — given that this one is supposed to drop 9-14 inches on us — I guess that pretty much derails any plans that Nancy and I may have had for this Saturday. Which originally involved driving down to Massachusetts and doing a birthday brunch with my parents. And then continuing on down to Connecticut to catch a screening of “Robots” with Jeff & Flo Lange.

That sounds like a fun Saturday, don’t you think? Well, that ain’t gonna happen now. Which sort of sucks.

But — on the other hand — given that I’m almost certain to be snowed in today … I guess that this finally gives me the incentive that I needed to get started on plowing through that huge pile of books, DVDs and CDs that people have sent me to review. So I guess I’ll go park my carcass on the couch and have myself a good old fashioned media binge.

“And what — pray tell — is a media binge?,” you ask. Well … Have you ever found yourself watching something on television. But the show that you’re watching isn’t all that involving. So — as you’re watching the tube — you pick up a magazine and begin paging through it.

Then the phone rings. So you mute the television, get up off the couch and — magazine in hand — walk over to the phone. This incoming call turns out to be from a friend of yours who knows no short stories. So — as they’re yacking away — you sit down at your computer and fire that up. Just so you can check your e-mail while you’re talking with your pal.

Let’s pause here for a moment so that you can get a real sense of what’s actually going on here. You’re talking on the phone at the same time as you’re firing up your computer. But — because that’s going to take a moment or two — you turn around in your chair to see if something interesting is happening on the muted television. But nothing is. So you glance back down at your magazine.

Do you see what’s actually going on here, folks? You’re media multi-tasking. You’re piling stimuli on top of stimuli on top of stimuli on top of stimuli. Because — as they say down in Texas — “Too much ain’t enough.” In short, you’re media binging.

Of course, there are other ways to media binge. Like — say, for example — watching all three of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films (and we’re talking the extended DVD versions here) in one sitting. Or arriving at a Disney theme park just as it opens for the day and not leaving the place until you’ve experienced every single ride, show, parade and attraction. Sometimes twice.

We’re talking about extreme stimulation of the pleasure / information-processing centers of your brain. The sort of thing that my old friend, Eric Craven, and I would experience ‘way back in the late 1980s when we’d go to our local multiplex and not leave until we’d seen every single new release.

I know, I know. That sort of thing might sound kind of crazy to some of you people. But — me personally — I find it kind of exhilarating to suddenly have a lot of new information thrust at me. To struggle to take it all in, make sure that I don’t miss a thing … But — at the same time — just enjoy the simple pleasure of experiencing something new.

That’s a media binge, my friend. Something I hope you experience sometimes while you’re here at JHM. Reading a story that suddenly gives you a whole new insight into one of your favorite films and/or Disney theme park attraction …

Speaking of binge-ing … If I’m really gonna get started on cranking out all of these reviews, I guess I’d best get started collecting up all of my loose media …

Give me a couple of minutes, okay? I promise that I’ll be right back …

11 a.m. EST — Okay. Slight pause there while I made Nancy some breakfast. The snow is really beginning to pile up out there. I think we’ve already got 4 or 5 inches out on the deck. And the storm isn’t due to wind down for another 4 or 5 hours yet. *Sigh* …

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Anyway … Let’s get back to those reviews, shall we? I thought that I might start by throwing a new CD stereo which (hopefully) would feature some motivated-to-get-writing music. Unfortunately, my first choice — Ari Hest’s “Someone to Tell” — wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

Don’t get me wrong. Singer / songwriter Hest does a fine job with this, his third album. Ari has a nice voice — which shifts almost effortlessly from this low, raspy baritone to a free-floating falsetto. And there are a couple of really great songs on this CD. With “When Everything Seems Wrong,” “Strangers Again” and “A Fond Farewell” coming across as particularly strong cuts.

But you have to understand that I’m already trapped inside a house on a snowy Saturday. If I listen to too much heartfelt material right now, I’ll probably just wind up in a depressed funk on the couch. Wondering why I lost touch with various old girl friends.

And I really can’t afford that right now. I’m a fat guy from the suburbs who’s already in a happy, committed relationship. So I don’t need to be listening to any music that could help kick start a mid-life crisis.

So let’s see what else we have in the pile here … Ah … The soundtrack to “Be Cool.” This John Travolta film actually did okay last weekend at the multiplexes, coming in second to Disney’s “The Pacifier” in the box office derby. It’s a sequel to the 1995 film, “Get Shorty.” And — based on the cast (I.E. Travolta, Uma Thurman, James Woods, Danny Devito, Cedric the Entertainer, Vince Vaughn & Harvey Keitel) as well as the fact that this film is based on an Elmore Leonard novel — “Be Cool” looks like it might be fun to go check out.

But as for the film’s soundtrack … Ai-yi-yi … Again, there are a couple of cuts here that are legitimately entertaining. Like Christina Milian’s performances of “Believer” and “Ain’t No Reason.” And — while I don’t know if the word “entertaining” actually applies here — The Rock singing that old Loretta Lynn classic “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” certainly is memorable.

By my problem with the “Be Cool” soundtrack is that there’s music from the 1970s on this CD. Songs like Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy,” “Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” and Sonny & Cher’s “A Cowboy’s Work is Never Done.” And — having actually lived through the 1970s — I have absolutely no desire to ever go back there again.

Mind you, I’m not one of those people who insists that the 1970s were the cultural low point in U.S. history. After all, the first “Star Wars” film came out in that decade. As did both of the “Godfather” films. And “The Rescuers.” So it wasn’t like that entire 10 year span was a waste of time.

I mean, there were even a few fun things to watch on TV back then. Like the “NBC Sunday Night Mystery” movie whenever a new “Columbo” came on.

I don’t know about you, but I just loved watching Peter Falk go through his paces in those old TV movies. The rumpled raincoat, the cigar, that old beat-up car and the bassett hound. And — of course — the old “Oh, just one more thing.” That seemingly innocuous question that Columbo would always ask that would eventually come around and bite the villain square in the butt.

That’s why I was so pleased to see that Universal Home Entertainment has finally begun releasing these old “Columbo” TV movies on DVD. Season One went on sale back in September of last year. And Season Two became available for purchase earlier this week. So maybe that’s how I’ll spend the rest of this snowy afternoon. Watching Peter Falk outwit Ray Milland, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp and/or John Cassavetes.

Or — better yet — I could watch Volume Three of “SCTV.” Arguably the best late night comedy to ever air on television, “SCTV” had a killer cast — the late, great John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin. Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, Martin Short and Harold Ramis — as well as some of the cleverest writing that was ever done for the tube.

By that I mean: I defy someone to sit down and watch SCTV’s parody of “The Godfather,” which substitutes Flaherty’s Guy Cabalerro for Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, and not laugh. This epic length sketch goes beat-by-beat through the Francis Ford Coppola movie, wittily sending up each & every aspect of this film masterpiece.

Now — while the third “SCTV DVD set (which just became available for purchase last week) doesn’t include anything quite as impressive as that “Godfather” parody — it’s still awfully entertaining. It features such wonderful episodes as “Battle of the PBS Stars” as well as Martin Short’s first appearances on the program.

This DVD’s extra features aren’t all that shabby either. They include a John Candy profile as well as the cast’s 1997 reunion at the Museum of Television and Radio. Plus some interesting commentary tracks by Flaherty, Short as well as SCTV staff writers Paul Flaherty, Mike Short and *** Blassuci. Which offer some real insight as to how this ground-breaking late night comedy ultimately came together.

Ah, decisions, decisions. Do I go with “Columbo” or “SCTV”? Give me a moment here …

1:30 P.M. EST — Okay. It’s official. It’s really getting bad out here. The snow’s coming down so thick and so fast that we actually lost our satellite feed for a while there. I had to mush on out into the yard & scrape all the snow out of the dish before our signal finally came back up.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

So now Nancy’s on the couch, watching “Smuckers Stars on Ice.” And — since she’s currently got dibs on the TV — I thought that I might try reading a book. But which one …

Mind you, I guess I could re-read James B. Stewart’s “DisneyWar.” But — to be honest — I didn’t enjoy it all that much the first time I read it.

Why for? Because — to put it bluntly — it’s kind of a mess. It’s like Stewart couldn’t decide which sort of book he really wanted to write (I.E. A first person volume that takes you behind-the-scenes at the Magic Kingdom, an omniscient boardroom expose and/or a blow-by-blow account of the “Save Disney” battle & the Mike Ovitz trial), so he wrote all three.

So what James ultimately ended up with was a book that lurches all over the place,  that radically shifts in style and tone depending on which chapter you’re reading. More importantly, because this story isn’t over yet, “DisneyWar” doesn’t really have an ending.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some interesting tidbits scattered among its 572 pages. Like how Disney CEO Michael Eisner hoped to convince John Lasetter and the rest of the crew at Pixar to continue on with the Mouse by offering that studio its very own Disney princess movie to produce, “The Snow Queen.” Or Johnny Depp’s battles with Disney Studio execs about how Capt. Jack Sparrow should be portrayed in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

But — beyond that — “DisneyWar” ‘s pickings are pretty slim. Given all the hoopla surrounding the release of this Simon & Shuster volume (I.E. How the publishers pushed up the book’s release date by three weeks) as well as the fact that Stewart won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the stock market back in 1988, I was honestly expecting a lot more here.

You wanna read a really good book about the inner workings of the Walt Disney Company? Then go pick up a copy of Edward Jay Epstein’s “The Big Picture.” This Random House release blows the lid off of the way the Mouse makes movies.

By that I mean: I don’t know how Epstein ever got access to some of the numbers that he uses in this book. But — for the first time ever (That I can recall, anyway) — we actually get a real accounting of how the money flows in Hollywood. How much goes to the stars, how much is spent on publicity & marketing, how much the studios actually use overseas.

For Disney fans, what’s particularly fascinating about “The Big Picture” is that — as its main example of Tinseltown’s skewed version of book-keeping — it uses Touchstone Pictures’ June 2000 release, “Gone in 60 Seconds.” Which — while this Nicholas Cage film was touted in that year’s annual report as being a financial success — the truth of the matter is that this movie (which grossed over $242 million worldwide) was on Disney’s books as having actually  lost over $160 million.

Epstein walks you through all of the numbers associated with the production of “Gone in 60 Seconds.” Its $103.3 million negative cost (I.E. The money the Mouse actually spent to make this movie), the $13 million spent on duping prints of the picture, the $67.4 million that was blown on advertising the film  … Which finally gives one a real sense of what costs what out west.

For those of you who love well-researched Hollywood histories, books that actually deliver on what they promise … Well, my advice is to skip “DisneyWar” (Or — at the very least — wait ’til the thing comes out in paperback) and pick up a copy of “The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood.” Epstein’s book will really open your eyes.

Whereas Stewart’s book? I have to admit that I found my eyelids drooping while I read the first 150 pages or so of “DisneyWar.” I mean, was it really necessary to recap how Walt & Roy founded the company and/or how Eisner came to power? Particularly when these very same subjects have already been so exhaustively covered in Bob Thomas’ “Walt Disney: An American Original,” John Taylor’s “Storming the Magic Kingdom,” Ron Grover’s “The Disney Touch” and Kim Masters’ “The Keys to the Kingdom.”

Sorry if I’m coming across as kind of cranky here. But I really wanted “DisneyWar” to be a good read. And — to be honest — it just didn’t deliver the goods. At least for me.

Now, if you’re looking for something that really takes you behind-the-scenes at the Mouse House, a publication that tells you how that Disney magic is actually made … Then I suggest that you pick up a copy of the March 2005 issue of “Genii: The Conjuror’s Magazine.” This month’s issue of this snazzy publication has an article by Brian Sibley entitled “A Spoonful of Magic.” Which details how Jim Steinmeyer came up with a number of the illusions featured in the stage version of “Mary Poppins.”

Plus — if you’re someone like me who enjoys learning about the craft of performing — then you probably should put “Genii” to your “Must Read” list. For this monthly regularly features a fascinating array of articles. Everything from magic history as well as what’s going on in the industry today. All in all, “Genii” is definitely worth a look-see.

Speaking of look-see … Let me take a peek outside and see what’s going on with the storm … 

3:30 P.M. EST — Man, it’s still coming down out there. The weatherman said that it would be winding down by 3 o’clock. But — to be honest — this storm isn’t showing any sign of stopping.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Okay. Nancy’s finally finished watching her ice skating show. Which means that I can once again take command of the media center. So what should I throw into the DVD player?

“The Incredibles” is awfully tempting. Not only is that Brad Bird film supremely entertaining, but Buena Vista Home Entertainment has really outdone itself with all the extras that it crammed onto this 2-disc set.

I mean — all by itself — the alternate opening for “The Incredibles” is worth the entire price of the DVD. Even though this sequence is still in storyboard form, it’s still ridiculously entertaining. Hell, I’ve seen finished full-length films that weren’t as much as much fun as this 20-minute deleted scene is.

Then there are “The Incredibles” commentary tracks. The one with Brad and the film’s producer, John Walker, is particularly illuminating. It was actually recorded weeks before “The Incredibles” was released to great acclaim. Which is why it’s kind of funny to hear Bird’s snide aside to Walker: “Yeah, we’re going to be the ones that break Pixar’s winning streak.”

But then Frank & Ollie’s cameo comes on screen. And then you learn that — the night before Brad & John recorded their commentary track — that Frank Thomas had just passed away at the age of 92. And it’s actually kind of touching to hear Bird struggle to find just the right words to try & pay tribute to this Disney legend. His friend & mentor.

Yeah, “The Incredibles” is one fascinating flick. A CG tour de force … Would that I could say the same about the other item that I have beside my DVD player: The “Special Collector’s Edition” of “Scourge of Worlds.”

To be fair, this “Dungeons & Dragons” product isn’t a movie in the truest sense of the word. But — rather — an interactive DVD adventure that promises “.. six possible endings! Over 1100 possible story paths.”

Well, I just spent an hour or so clicking my way through “Scourge of Worlds.” And — to be honest — it was kind of enjoyable.

Mind you, I’m no whiz when it comes to game playing. It seemed like — no matter what choice I made — Regdar, the human warrior; Lidda, the halfling; and Mialee, the elven wizard — wound up dying. But the game/movie moved along at a good clip. And I liked the fact that the people who put together this DVD understood that “D & D” games have a somewhat campy quality. So they played this up in the characters’ dialogue.

I mean, when was the last time you heard dialogue like this in a swords & sorcery-filled environment: “Screw those guys. We don’t need them,” “You want some cheese with that whine?” or “I’ll wear your ass as a hat.”

Obviously, “Scourge of Worlds” is not intended for younger viewers. Speaking of viewing: The 2-disc edition of this “Dungeons & Dragons” interactive features a linear version of the movie that you can watch as well as galleries full of character concept art.

If you’re an old “D & D” fan who wants to relive what it was like to bash some orcs without actually breaking out your dice … Well, it seems to me that “Scourge of Worlds” might be just what you’re looking for.

Man, it’s getting dark out there. What I wouldn’t give to have a little ray of sun to break on through all that gloom …

Ray! That’s it. That’s what will break the blue mood in the house right now. A little Ray Charles. 

Thankfully, I have copies of both of the “Ray” CDs  (I.E. The original motion picture soundtrack as well as the “More Music from ‘Ray’ recording) on hand. So I’ll just throw those disks in,  hit “Random” and then …

Ahhhh … Now I really don’t care how much snow falls outside. Not when I can sit & bask in the glory that is Ray Charles. The original soundtrack album features 17 absolutely killer tracks like “Georgia on My Mind,” “Hit the Road, Jack” and “You Don’t Know Me.” While the “More Music from ‘Ray'” features some more specialized items like “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside …”

And speaking of it being cold outside … Maybe I should take a look at how the storm is doing …

Photo by Nancy Stadler

5:00 P.M. EST — Well, it finally appears to be winding down. By that I mean: Instead of a lot of big flakes, we’re now getting just a bunch of little flakes. (Which sort of reminds me of the last Hill family reunion I attended. But I digress …)

Speaking of flakey, I just got an e-mail from a JHM reader who asked me to help promote his petition. Which calls for Cartoon Network to stop airing its newest “Adult Swim” show, “Robot Chicken.”

“And why does this weenie wanna shut down ‘Robot Chicken’?,” you ask. Because back on March 1st, this 15-minute long stop-action sketch comedy presented a skit which featured Walt Disney. Or should I say Walt’s severed head. Which was then kept alive by grafting it onto the body of a crab-like robot. Which then could only stay alive if it consumed the flesh of young Cuban children.

Now I can understand how a premise like that might offend hardcore Disney fans. But here’s my problem. I actually saw the show that this guy was complaining about. And that “Robo-Disney” sketch that he was talking about? Yes, it was offensive. But it was also really, really funny.

You see, that’s the beauty of “Robot Chicken.” It’s an equal opportunity offender. One moment, it might be making fun of Walt Disney. The next, it’s showing what happened when the unicorns, dragons & cyclops all showed up too late to get on Noah’s ark. Then — after that — it’s using the Transformers to demonstrate what can happen if you don’t get your prostate regularly checked.

Yes, the show’s jokes is sometimes crude. The guys who put together “Robot Chicken” clearly love knee-to-the-crotch humor. But — that said — there’s no denying that it’s also a real kick to see action figures (some of which are likenesses of well-known celebrities) acting in very unexpected ways.

Speaking of celebrities … “Robot Chicken” ‘s vocal cast is pretty impressive as well. Just last week, Burt Reynolds, Dom Deluise and the entire cast of “That 70’s Show” lent their voices to several skits on the show. So — if only for the increasingly bizarre cameos — “Robot Chicken” is well worth checking out.

So — if you’re approached by some Disney dweebs asking you to sign a petition to shut down this Cartoon Network show (All because of one skit that showed a Walt-cyborg lusting after the flesh of Elian Gonzalez) — don’t sign. At least not until you’ve checked out the show first. Then you’ll see that — yes — “Robot Chicken” is offensive. But it is also really, really funny.

Okay. If non-stop stop-action crotch jokes aren’t really your style but you’d still like something fun to watch on Sunday night … Well, I’ve been hearing some fairly nice things about “Jake in Progress.”

I know, I know. ABC has been pushing this new John Stamos sitcom very hard. Those “Jake in Progress” promos seem like they’re airing every hour on the hour. And — over the next five days — the show will air four times (twice on Sunday at 9 & 9:30 p.m. and twice on Thursday at 8 & 8:30 p.m.).

But the good news is … The first couple of episodes of “Jake” are actually supposed to be pretty funny. More to the point, given that Stamos is backed up one of the better supporting cast on television today (I.E. Wendie Malick, Ian Gomez and Rick Hoffman), this show has a better than average chance of developing into something  special.

So — if you deliberately want to ignore “Jake” during its first week on the air because of all the hype — that’s okay. Just remember that “Jake in Progress” settles into its regular Thursday-nights-at-8-p.m. slot starting next week. You can check the show out then.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

6:30 p.m. EST — Speaking of checking things out: I’ve just taken another look outside. It appears that the snow has almost stopped. 

Which is why the cats seem so eager to get outside and eat … er … “meet” their little forest friends. Until — of course (As you can see by the photo above) — they step off the deck and immediately disappear into a snowdrift.

So I guess that’s my cue to pull the plug on “Le Plug” for tonight and head outside to start shoveling.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this semi-live experiment here at JHM. Where I tried to clear through a pile of promotional material without being too obnoxious about it.

By that I mean: I wasn’t too obnoxious … Was I? If so, let me know, okay?

That’s it for now. I’ll see you folks again on Monday, alright?

jrh

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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