July 04, 2014
From coast-to-coast, this Fourth of July holiday weekend observance across America marks the star-spangled celebration of all things red, white and blue. After all, Uncle Sam is throwing a nationwide party as he celebrates his 238th birthday.
And that birthday bash includes the cooking of some of our country's greatest cuisine, even if it's a little bit on the wild side at times.
The wild side like a couple of favored holiday meals from Bassmaster Elite Series and Major League Fishing pros Randy Howell and Michael Simonton.
The Champ's Pork Chops
First up is Howell, the Springville, Ala., resident who won the Bassmaster Classic earlier this year on Lake Guntersville in stirring come-from-behind fashion.
"A Fourth of July recipe?," said Howell in response to my query about his favorite holiday recipe. "Well, how about my Carolina-style barbecue pork chops?"
Sounds good to me, Champ.
Even if Howell admits there isn't much of a family heirloom recipe that he can share on just how he actually prepares these pork chops. Instead, it's been a process of gradually learning the right way to prepare this Independence Day meal. It has been a process that has included the use of "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" kitchen philosophy that many American backyard cooks employ across the nation.
In Howell's case, his favorite meal off the grill draws its inspiration from his boyhood roots back in the Carolinas.
"Since I'm from North Carolina originally, I grew up eating barbecue with a vinegar and red flake pepper based sauce," said the Classic champ. "After coming to Alabama, I couldn't find that here, so I learned how to make my own."
How so? Howell says he has no special recipe that calls for specific amounts of specific things. Instead, he has learned over time how to get the flavor that he wants.
"I like to take thin cut, bone-in chops and marinate them for an hour in a vinegar and red pepper flake sauce that has a little sugar added," said Howell. "This gets that flavor into the meat before grilling."
Once marinated, then it's time to put them on a hot grill.
But Howell warns that thin pork chops will cook very fast. That means that the key to this recipe is marinating the chops for a good while to get that "Carolina flavor" infused into them.
That will be true if you use Howell's method on domestic pork chops. And it will be even more true if you use his method on wild hog pork chops that come with even less marbling and fat.
Once on the grill, cook each side of the pork chops for a few minutes, being careful not to overcook this lean meat. One way to help keep them moist is to slather some sauce on them.
"After grilling the chops for a few minutes, I then baste them with a sweet Carolina barbeque sauce," said Howell.
Got a recipe for that Champ?
"Not really," laughs Howell. "It's a sauce that I mix myself from several of my favorite brands and it's different every time. I guess it's kind of simple, but it's good."
Which is exactly what Fremont, Ohio, bass pro Michael Simonton says about one of his favorite holiday meals, the “Simonton Lake Erie Perch Sandwich.”
Simonton's Perch Sandwich
"Hey, I'm not like Terry Scroggins, the master of cooking," laughed Simonton when I queried him about his favorite Fourth of July recipe.
"But I do have a favorite food for the Fourth," he added. "It's a fried perch sandwich, which is kind of a specialty up here in Ohio near Lake Erie. But we kind of put it together as we go so it's not grandpa's secret recipe or anything like that."
Fair enough. But does Simonton have a general means of preparing this regional cuisine? You bet, he says.
The first step in making Simonton's perch sandwich is to get the right ingredient, which is a good selection of yellow perch fillets.
Since perch are in short supply down south, Simonton says to use whatever regional fish you like to eat most: crappie, white bass, striped bass, channel catfish or bluegills come to mind here in Texas where I live.
"Up here in the Great Lakes area of Michigan and Ohio, perch are one of the dominant species," said Simonton. "That's what most everybody fishes for up here and what most everybody likes to eat up here. That and walleye, of course."
Simonton says that he loves to eat walleye, especially walleye that is tossed onto the grill wrapped in tin-foil along with some lemon and butter.
But it's fried perch sandwiches - like the Po' Boy sandwiches of the Deep South - that he really enjoys eating on holidays like Independence Day. To prepare this meal, Simonton starts off with a mess of yellow perch, often caught near his home from Lake Erie.
"There are a lot of Great Lakes residents that believe that the perch that come from Lake Erie taste the best," he said. "A lot of area restaurants even advertise that they serve Lake Erie perch. And I can't argue with that because they do taste pretty good when they are from Erie."
Wherever the perch actually come from, Simonton says that after they are caught, there is a special trick to get the taste that he wants.
"Typically what we do is we drop them off at a fillet shop," he said. "They will give you a little ticket, send them through on a conveyor belt, and fillet them with the skin still on.
"That's what gives them a real good, crispy taste in my opinion, is the skin left on. They are not the healthiest things for you to eat by any means when they are prepared like that, but they taste great."
With a bag of perch fillets in hand, Simonton and his buddies will get a deep-fryer going and start the work of dredging the fillets through a bath of milk-egg wash and Andy's Fish Breading batter.
"I oscillate between the regular flavor and the Cajun flavor," said Simonton. "But whichever one we use, I like to double-it up and make the batter extra thick on the perch fillets."
After getting the perch fillets battered up, Simonton and his pals start frying up the main ingredient for their sandwiches.
"While the perch is frying, we get everything else ready like the French fries, the buns, and the tartar sauce," said Simonton.
"I really think the tartar sauce is a big key, although again, I don't have any secret recipe or anything. Some people up here – and some of the restaurants that specialize in perch – they have their own special recipes for tartar sauce," he added.
"But in my house, it's just basically mayonnaise and relish although I'll experiment each time with some various seasonings to see if I can come up with a better taste."
When the perch fillets are finished in the deep-fryer, Simonton drains them on a plate with paper towels. Then he assembles his sandwich, puts some last minute pepper or Frank's Hot Sauce on everything, and enjoys a meal that he looks forward to all year long.
"One of the cool things about this meal is that in the fall, perch fishing gets really good," said Simonton. "So we'll go out and target them, put the fillets in baggies and freeze them, and then have a stockpile of perch fillets ready to go for this kind of cooking.
"Then on days like the Fourth of July, we just pull a bag or two of fillets out of the freezer and start getting things ready."
Ready for an Independence Day celebration and meal that comes complete with good times and plenty of laughs, even if that meal comes without a treasured family recipe or specialty preparation techniques straight off a television cooking show.
"Me and my buddies, we're just normal everyday people who like to get together and have some fun," said Simonton.
"Even though we're not too serious about our perch sandwiches with secret recipes or anything like that, nobody ever argues about how bad they taste."
Because on Uncle Sam's birthday, living in the greatest land in the world with plenty of good food on the table to share with family and friends, how could anyone complain?