Holiday Road Trip and Day Trips To Boot–All Made for a Great Winter Break

Wind turbines of the Smoky Hills Wind Farm line the wintery horizon in pastures along the Lincoln and Ellsworth county line, not far from Wilson Resevoir.

A wet, grey afternoon with some unexpected early hours off from work make it a good time to try out one of my Christmas gifts.  I received a set of silicon baking pans, so the square one is being used for brownies–mix-type–with a lot of goodies added.  We’ll see if I pack them up to share at work.

I can hardly remember a better Christmas since I was a kid back in the Santa Claus days.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, maybe mostly because I was prepared and things went as planned.  I even enjoyed the shopping and wrapping gifts, which sometimes I find tedious.

With the car all loaded the night before, Annie hopped onto her place on the passenger seat, and we headed out the morning of the 23rd for Kansas.  Even at the more than 11 hours (mostly stops for gas and a dog walk here and there), the drive wasn’t that bad.  The weather was mild and putting the car on cruise for long stretches of the interstate made the drive almost easier than my two hours each week day of commuting to work.

Needless to say, it was one of those Christmases of too many presents and too much food, what with a table-filled buffet spread at my sister’s and her kids and families.  Then the next day we headed off to my brother’s, the second year in a row that I was together with my two brothers and sister for Christmas dinner.  Until last year, there were a good many years in between that for one reason or another we all hadn’t gotten together for the holiday.  I think we all realize that we are a pretty lucky group that have our health (yeah, we all have a prescription for high blood pressure, but, hey!) and get along well to boot.

I headed back to Houston on the first day of the new year, but before that I spent some relaxing day drives with my sister as part of what I would say was one of the best vacations for a long time.  One of my goals during the trip was to load a cooler with some Kansas cured meat.  I like to go back to the very store that I went to with my dad when I was a kid and pick up smoked sausage.  Back in my tag-along days, it was called Klema IGA; now it’s Wilson Family Foods, in Wilson, Kansas.  The store hasn’t changed all that much, but it’s still a good store for a small town.  I wish I could have broad back some of the fresh meat from the cooler because there’s no comparing  it to plastic, no-taste stuff I find in the big name super markets out here in the suburbs.

Another place we like to go is Brant’s Meat Market in Lucas, Kansas, about a 20-mile drive that passes by Wilson Resevoir, which is much more impressive to me these days than it was when I passed by it back when I was a college kid going to and from a summer job.

Locally, it's called Ralph's Ruts (Rice County, Kansas). This is one of the few places where you can still see the Santa Fe Trail, which was dug out by the thousands of teams of wagons that passed through in the 1800s.

Geese feeding in a field near Odin, Kansas. These are part of the large numbers of ducks and geese that stop annually at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area not far away.

The parking lot at Meridy's Restaurant in Russell, Kansas. The buffet is loaded with mounds of fried chicken, homemade mashed potatoes, and gravy that rival Mom's. It's basically a "have-to" on every Kansas trip. (It's right off I-70 if you're making a trip through western Kansas.)

Over the several day trips, we didn’t go but a county or two away from my sister’s house in Lyons, Kansas, but each outing held a new discovery or re-discovery in the central part of the state where I grew up.  My car brought back with it some dried Kansas mud from some of the few dirt roads that had not but a few days before been plowed clear of snow.  I can say that even though I’ved lived a good long time outside of Kansas, I’ve still got some of that same dirt in my blood.  (I’ve got other photos that I wanted to include, but WordPress is kicking my butt right now as I try to insert them.)

This old limestone schoolhouse has been empty and looked the same since I was a kid riding by on the school bus. This is one of the landmarks I was looking for on a day trip filled with memories. This was also the road that kicked up all the mud onto the sides of my car.

The train still passes by the local wheat elevator in my hometown of Dorrance, Kansas, pretty much the way it has for many years.

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Homemade Gravy Right in the Skillet–Really Good, Quick and Just the Thing To Go with Fried Meat

I’ve received so many views of my Hamburger Gravy post that I thought I’d add a post with the gravy recipe that I learned from my mom out on our farm near Dorrance, Kansas. We made gravy after frying almost any kind of meat. We always had gravy from frying our home-grown chicken and steak. Of course, we made it with pork chops too. You can even make gravy with fried liver!

I think using a cast-iron skillet for frying the meat, and in particular, for making the gravy afterward, works best. Non-stick type frying pans just don’t work as well for getting the meat nice and browned and producing all those little leftover bits and goodies that make gravy really delicious. (Do remember: cast-iron skillets will rust, so hand wash and dry them.  Don’t put them in the dishwasher.)

For really good gravy, the meat needs to be well-seasoned and well-floured before being put into the greased skillet. This leaves a great coating on any meat, some of which will fall off and be left behind in the skillet. Also having the skillet and the oil nearly sizzling to start with helps the flour and meat to brown well, which also adds flavor and more tasty tidbits for the gravy. After the outside of the meat is browned, the heat can be turned down so that the meat can continue to cook and become tender and juicy.

After the meat is cooked, take it out and set it aside to rest. Drain (or spoon out) most of the excess grease from the skillet, carefully saving the crunchy fried tidbits of flour and meat. (Be careful when pouring hot grease out of a heavy skillet in order not to get burned, from either the pan or from splashing hot liquid.) There should be only about a tablespoon or two of grease left, enough so that the bottom of the skillet looks well coated and the morsels have a sheen to them. The heat under the skillet at this time should be hot but not high heat. Add 2-3 tablespoons of flour to the skillet, and with a dinner fork, start mixing and combining the flour with the remaining grease and morsels so that everything is combined well. At this same time, the flour mixture will be cooking and getting a light brown cast to it. This does not take long, around a minute or so. Don’t let it burn.

Be ready with the liquid–usually milk, but you could use cream or half and half to make a very rich gravy. In hard times, even water was used. Start by adding about a half cup of the liquid into the hot skillet, working it quickly into the flour mixture. This combination should become thick and bubbly, almost like a mini-geyser. Now is a good time to salt and pepper well. Gravy needs to be seasoned or it will taste very bland. Let that cook for just a short time–15-30 seconds, so that the flour is really cooked. Start stirring in more of the liquid. Of course, the more gravy you want, the more liquid you will need to add, but the more liquid that you add the more diluted the flavor of the gravy will be, so be sure to adjust the seasonings. For a regular meal for 3 or four people, probably no more than a couple of cups of liquid is needed. And remember, you can add some water if you have already used some milk. However, you need to continue stirring the gravy, the entire time you are cooking it.

Turn off the heat under the skillet a bit before the gravy completely reaches the consistency that you want because it will continue to cook on its own in the hot skillet. If it gets thicker than you want, immediately add some more liquid while it’s still cooking. If the flour in the gravy has too many lumps or has become too thick, a hand-held blender can help you get the consistency that you want.

Making the gravy should be the very last thing that you do before serving the food. That way it will be hot and not start to get “gloppy”.  It is really isn’t difficult to make good gravy to go along with your favorite meats.  If your results the first time are not perfect, don’t give up; a couple more tries and you’ll get the knack of it.

Usually there is not enough gravy left to save for leftovers. Likewise, it is not one of those foods which works great as a leftover because generally it congeals in the refrigerator, and just reheating it doesn’t work well. However, it can be reheated in the microwave and brought back to somewhat of its original consistency with the hand-held blender, or by reheating the gravy on the stove in a saucepan, adding some more milk and using the hand-held blender, you can make it “stretch” for another meal.

Actually, I’ve only made gravy after frying hamburgers one or two times because gravy isn’t generally something that we have with hamburgers, but it can be done. As I wrote before, I had no luck making gravy from hamburgers and using all of the grease that fried out. If you want to make gravy after frying hamburgers, most of the grease (just like when frying other meats) needs to be drained off. Even though there probably are those who can make hamburger gravy without draining off the grease, that much meat fat (and, hence, the cholesterol) cannot be good for you.