The New Topless II

It used to be the only place you could go topless without getting arrested was on a secluded beach, or up on the funnel deck of a Carnival cruise ship. The funnel deck topless sunbathing is a thing of the past, but there is a new topless coming soon and you won’t have to travel to a secluded beach to do it. All you’ll have to do is travel. Somewhere. Anywhere. The new topless coming soon is…no face mask!

OK that was a stretch. The mandate requiring us to wear masks on public transportation conveyances like airplanes, trains, and buses, and in public transportation hubs like airports and train stations, expires on April 18th. It has been renewed on a regular basis since it was originally enacted, but this time things are shaping up to be different. This time it looks like the government may finally allow us to travel topless…as in without face masks.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not opposed to masks. Quite the contrary. A high quality mask like an N95, worn properly, works. Before COVID, anytime Janet and I traveled one or both of us invariably came home sick. Since we started masking up when we travel, we haven’t. That’s pretty compelling.

Cruise ships have already ditched the mask mandates as have some European airlines, the former because vaccines are required for most cruisers, the latter because they just don’t see the point. Why bother trying to enforce a regulation for the good of all when a persistent few who oppose the rules insist on engaging in passive aggressive defiance behaviors? Wearing masks as a chin diaper, pulling it up whenever a member of the flight crew approaches only to yank it back down once they’ve walked past defeats the purpose. Such behavior has made enforcement impossible, so some European airlines are no longer bothering to try. They aren’t going back either, not unless we face another wave of a highly contagious new COVID variant that is more deadly than what is currently out there.

Momentum is building for the U.S. Government to move away from mandating masks on public transportation, and this may be the month they take action. The lobbying from throughout the travel industry has been heavy and relentless…mask mandates are costing them business…and the public, like Europe, is just tired. Tired of COVID. Tired of wearing masks. Tired of the drama.

Though no official announcement has been made, all signaling from the administration points to the mask mandate for public transportation shifting from masks “required” to masks “highly recommended but optional,” and an announcement could come any time as April 18th approaches.

It might make you feel better about traveling whenever the government does eliminate the masking requirement for public transportation, but it certainly won’t make traveling any safer. It just puts the onus on you to decide whether to wear a face mask based on your personal risk tolerance rather than a government mandate.

It would be nice if we lived in a world when a common sense measure like wearing a face mask, which is demonstrably effective at limiting the spread not just of COVID but a whole range of upper respiratory diseases, would be universally accepted. We don’t live in that world. So…I’ll keep my supply of N95 masks handy whenever I travel, and when it makes sense to mask up, I will.

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Mask On…Mask Off

In February, not long after the Omicron wave ebbed throughout Europe, the UK Government terminated their requirement for airline passengers to wear face masks as a protective measure against contracting COVID-19. In the past week several major international airlines have announced that they are dropping their requirement for passengers to wear masks as a protection against COVID-19. The airlines include Dutch KLM, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. Other airlines across Europe are expected to follow suit, but if you have plans to fly on one of those carriers to or from the U.S. don’t toss your facemask just yet. Until the CDC eliminates the U.S. requirement for masking on commercial modes of transportation, which includes planes, you’ll still have to mask up.

The CDC extended the current requirement for masking on planes last week, pushing the expiration of the rule forward to April 18th. Earlier this week executives from most of the major commercial airlines in this country sent a letter urging the administration to eliminate the mask mandate for planes. Travel advocacy groups have been lobbying for elimination of the mask requirement since the Omicron wave ebbed, and it appears the move may be gaining traction. With European nations and airlines doing away with their version of airplane mask rules, it seems likely the CDC will follow suit. The recent mini-surge in COVID cases in Europe as a result of the newest Omicron variant may give the CDC pause, but even that won’t likely make a difference. I suspect that by this time next month, masks on airplanes will be a thing of the past.

Whether you support mandatory mask mandates on commercial transportation or not, the end of masking on planes and in airports is coming, and it’s coming soon. If you fly and find yourself worried by that, get vaccinated and boosted, and invest in a high-quality mask like an N95 or better…higher rated masks are readily available if you must fly and are immune-compromised or otherwise at high risk from COVID. Removal of the mask mandate in commercial transportation is yet another step toward accepting COVID as an endemic virus, for better or worse, and it is coming.

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The New Topless…

Going around on a cruise ship without a face mask is the new topless for cruising. Not to bury the lead, but you can now cruise without masks. You still need to get vaccinated, and boosters are highly recommended, but as of the end of February face masks are optional on all major cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters. That’s a really big deal and has come about as a result of a significant reduction in COVID risk now that the Omicron wave is behind us.

A few days ago the CDC implemented a new “voluntary” policy that all major cruise lines have already opted into, their second major “voluntary” COVID policy for cruise lines in as many months. These policies have been voluntary in name only, and they contain a good bit of burdensome and pointless bureaucracy for the cruise lines to object to. And object they did. However…they have found some good in the latest CDC policy, and that’s good news for us. Let me break it down.

Masks. All major cruise lines will be following a mask optional policy for passengers beginning the end of February. This is a big step toward a return to pre-pandemic cruising, and it is a change I know many cruisers will welcome. Masks are still required for all crew members, and passengers will still need to bring a mask as they continue to be required for commercial transportation and in the cruise terminal throughout the check-in process. There could also be some onboard activities or venues where masking is periodically required, and you should be prepared to bring your mask with you on all shore excursions. We recommend using N95/KN95 masks, or at a minimum a disposable surgical type mask, as those are more widely accepted by other countries. And even though masks will no longer be required on most cruise ships, if you are more comfortable wearing your mask you can feel free to do so. Janet and I cruised on several adults only, fully vaccinated cruises after cruising resumed in June where masks were optional. Even though the majority of cruisers left their masks in the cabin, there were still plenty of cruisers wearing masks.

Masking requirements for the kids vary by age. Masks are not required for children under the age of  two. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 won’t be vaccinated and therefore are expected to wear masks in public indoor spaces. All children participating in any of the cruise lines’ kids programs will also be required to mask up when indoors in any of the areas designated for kids since the onboard programs will be a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated kids.

Vaccinations. As a practical matter, adults and kids over the age of 12 must be vaccinated in order to cruise on any major cruise ship operating in U.S. waters. That’s not because of any CDC requirement…it is because the ports cruise ships visit throughout the Caribbean require it.

The cruise lines are trying to spin the latest CDC guidance as though there is something new in it. If there is, I haven’t found it, and I have almost 40 years of experience reading government bureaucratese. The CDC allows cruise ships to operate in U.S. waters provided at least 95% of all passengers on each sailing are fully vaccinated. They give the cruise lines discretion in how to apply the allowance of unvaccinated cruisers, and cruise lines continue to limit it to children under 12 years old. The reason, as I’ve noted before, is that some of the most visited Caribbean islands don’t allow unvaccinated cruise ship passengers over the age of 12. Now that COVID vaccinations have been approved for kids down to the age of five years old, if any of the Caribbean Islands drop their vaccination requirement below the age of 12 you can expect cruise lines to adjust their vaccination policies accordingly.

Boosters. For the time being the definition of being fully vaccinated does not include getting a third or booster shot. As of now, the CDC policy states that boosters are highly recommended, and that’s how the cruise lines are selling it to passengers…boosters are highly recommended but not required. Cruise lines have already stated their intent to comply if the CDC changes the definition of full vaccination to include boosters, but so far boosters are only required by some of the smaller luxury cruise lines that cater to an older age demographic.

If you have been holding off booking your next cruise for a return to normal, the time to book is now. This is about as normal as it is going to get in this era of endemic COVID-19, and for me and many others who love to cruise, it is close enough. Expect cruise bookings to explode with this latest news from the cruise lines. It’s not too late to get in on some bargains but don’t wait. Give us a call now!

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Boosters and Masking and Tests…Oh My!

Boosters. If you want to travel to Europe this spring and summer, you’re probably gonna need to get a COVID booster shot. As with all things European, the rules are confusing and a mish mash of bureauractese depending on what specific country or countries you plan to visit, and what you want to do once you get there.

Most European nations have adopted the requirement to get a booster shot if your COVID vaccination is more than nine months old as a condition for entry. A few countries, Greece and Croatia being the most popular, will still permit tourists to enter without being vaccinated against COVID, and without requiring them to quarantine. However, all EU member nations to include Greece and Croatia are using the EU digital COVID passport, the so called Green Pass, to control entry into public indoor venues like museums, restaurants, and bars. As of February, the EU Green Pass expires nine months after the last COVID vaccination shot and to renew it requires a booster. There are a few exceptions that apply to Europeans, but I won’t get into those here. For American tourists, count on needing to get a booster if your last COVID shot was nine months ago or longer by the time you’ll be traveling to Europe. And when you get a booster shot, be sure it gets entered on your original CDC COVID vaccination card.

Note: As of now boosters are not widely required for cruises. That is changing, but I’ll update cruise requirements in a separate post. Requirements for geographic areas outside of Europe are also dynamic, so best to check and know before you go.

Masks. The second trend we are seeing has to do with masking. At the same time that EU member nations are adding the requirement for boosters, they are beginning to soften their masking requirements. This trend is being driven by the individual EU member nations’ internal impatience with national and local COVID restrictions, not all that different from what we are seeing in this country. If your travel plans take you to Europe this spring and summer, you’ll still want to pack your masks and make them disposable surgical or N95 type masks to be on the safe side. Many European nations are no longer accepting cloth masks. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that the masks can stay in your luggage or in your pocket once you get into the country and go out and about, as long as you show proof of up to date vaccination and booster shots, but it is best to have one handy just in case the venue you want to visit has a higher standard for masking.

Tests. As it looks increasingly like the Omicron wave is over, European countries are beginning to eliminate requirements for COVID testing as a condition for entry for vaccinated and boosted travelers. Check the requirements for the countries you plan to visit before you go. For most European destinations it is probably still a bit soon to eliminate getting a COVID test from your predeparture to do list, but with France having just eliminated the requirement you can expect others will soon follow. Unfortunately, you’ll still need to plan for a COVID test prior to your return to the U.S. The travel industry recently lobbied the White House hard to eliminate the return COVID test requirement, but the CDC is holding firm, and for now the White House is going along with it. I suspect that as we gain more distance from the recent Omicron wave, and as we get closer to the peak summer travel season with no new COVID outbreaks or variants popping up, you may see the re-entry test requirement go away as well, but so far it remains in effect.

Maybe someday COVID travel restrictions will be a thing of the past, but for now it is something you’ll continue to have to deal with if you want to travel. For me, it is a small price to pay for the ability to go where I want. For others, it is a deal breaker. The most important thing is to be an informed traveler so you don’t face unpleasant surprises regardless of your individual COVID risk tolerance.

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Don’t Be a Sourpuss

kitten-g45661d27c_1920 2I put sauerbraten on the menu a few weeks ago. It’s not my favorite dish, but it is one of Janet’s, so I try to make it for her at least once each winter. If you’ve ever made sauerbraten you know two things. First, it takes at least three days to marinate. I learned that lesson the hard way. Second, it calls for the cheapest cut of beef you can find…I use chuck roast. It took three weeks of searching through half a dozen grocery stores before I found something under $6 per pound. I would have settled for a sirloin or round roast, but they too were crazy expensive.

It shouldn’t be so hard to find a cheap roast. I refuse to blame COVID related supply chain shortages. The supply chain between the national meat packing plants in the Midwest and the grocery wholesalers here on the East Coast hasn’t had any trouble getting truckloads of that double digit dollar per pound USDA Prime Certified Angus stuff to the grocery stores. In fact it’s all you can find some days. USDA Prime represents just 3% of all beef sold in this country, most of which…supposedly…goes to the restaurant industry. With restaurants having been closed for the better part of two years guess whose getting it now?

Enough whining and sounding like my parents. After three weeks of searching I finally found a chuck roast at Food Lion for $5.49 per pound so I put sauerbraten back on the menu. And I made it. And it was good.

In the weeks I spent searching for a cheap roast, I became curious how other people cook their family’s version of sauerbraten. I put the question to my Facebook friends, asking especially for family recipes with a German connection. I got about half a dozen responses, some with really touching backstories to go along with them. That’s the thing I like most about food and cooking…the smells and the flavors they result in evoke the best memories.

I went in search of the history of sauerbraten as a dish and in the process found a great online source for traditional German recipes. The website presents two recipes for sauerbraten, the “classic” Bavarian style sauerbraten (their words not mine) which they describe as a traditional Swabian dish, and a Rhenish recipe from the Rhineland. When I looked at the recipes my friends sent me, indeed they were one of those two styles.

Sauerbraten is meant for whatever kind of meat you have available that is tough by nature, or that you pulled out of your freezer after it sat there for who knows how long. The dish supposedly originated from the Romans, when Julius Caesar moved in to conquer Europe. As the war and work animals his troops used for the conquest died along the way, particularly horses, soldiers would butcher the meat and preserve it in crocks of salt, pickling solution and wine…whatever they had on hand at the time. The long marinade time kept the meat from spoiling, tenderized it to make it edible, but left a decidedly sour flavor to it. Sauerbraten remained popular in Germany where horse meat continued to be the favored source of protein. By the time the dish caught on in this country it was most often made with some of the tougher cuts of beef like the chuck roast I use. You can even use pork if you prefer it to beef.

I did a side by side comparison of recipes for both the Swabian and the Rhenish versions of sauerbraten that I found on the traditional German cooking website and they are almost identical. The ingredients for the marinade are the same for both recipes, but the Swabian version has you add the meat to the cold marinade without boiling it up. The Rhenish version has you boil the marinade before adding the meat, to unlock to flavors from the root veggies and the pickling spices. I suppose at a molecular level there is some difference in the flavors that get into the broth from boiling as opposed to the acid extraction caused by bathing for a week in vinegar. But can you taste it?

The other difference between the two sauerbraten styles is that after marinating the meat, the Bavarians add six tabespoons of honey to the marinating liquid before cooking the meat in it, while the Rhinelanders only add four. Wars have been fought over smaller differences. Rhinelanders also add 3-4 ounces of crumbled pumpernickel bread to their marinade just before cooking it up which the Bavarians don’t add, or at least don’t admit to adding. Again…can you taste the difference in the finished dish? Maybe a Michelin star palate could tease it out, but not mine. Of course the raisins the Rhinelanders add to their gravy that the Bavarians don’t would give it away. Both styles are in agreement on one point…you thicken the gravy with a roux. Gingersnaps have no place in a traditional sauerbraten.

Like the Rhinelanders, I boil my marinade before adding the meat to unlock the flavors of the veggies and spices, but unlike either of the traditional styles I also brown my meat first, before I put it in the marinade. I figure if it makes sense to boil the marinade up front to unlock flavors from the veggies, then it makes sense to brown the meat too and incorporate the fond in the marinade. Once I have it browned on all sides I set it aside and then saute the veggies in the same pan, which I then de-glaze with the marinade liquids and scrape up the fond from when I browned the roast. I bring the whole thing to a boil, stir it up a few times, then drop the heat down to low and let it simmer for about 15 minutes before taking it off the stove to cool. Once it is cooled I add the meat back in, cover it, and stick it in the fridge for three to five days, turning it and sloshing the liquid about once or twice each day.

The other differences between my recipe and the traditional recipes come when I use the marinade to make the gravy.  I don’t add any pumpernickel crumbles to the marinade before I cook the roast up, but I do add sugar. The nutritional value of the amount of sugar I add is roughly on par with the 4 tablespoons of honey added to the Rhenish style of sauerbraten gravy. What sets my recipe apart from the traditionalists is that I use gingersnaps to thicken my gravy rather than a roux. I like the flavor and texture I get out of it. OK I’m not going to lie…I also like snacking on the left over gingersnaps. I usually add raisins to the gravy just before I serve it but I didn’t have any in the pantry this time, so I substituted what I did have…some dried cranberrries. It worked.

Sauerbraten is one of those dishes where you can’t mess with tradition. Except…I do. I do it with just about everything I cook because I like exploring flavors and textures. You can’t do that by cooking the same thing the same way every time. My recipe, as it turns out, didn’t come from one of Janet’s family cook books. I took it from Alton Brown, which is really just an Americanized version of the Rhenish recipe that uses gingersnaps in lieu of pumpernickel and the roux. I’ve made a few changes over the decade and a half since I’ve been making it, but not many. This year I made a few more changes, thanks mainly to some ideas I took away from my friends’ recipes, and I have a few more things to try the next time I make sauerbraten. I’m through with it for this year, but we’ll see what next year brings!

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No, No, Bavette!

As eager as I am to learn about food, when it comes to beef there are times when I am ready to shout ENOUGH! I only eat beef once every week to ten days and I have no shortage of preferred cuts. The last thing I need is another obscure cut of beef that tastes just like all the other obscure cuts of beef I enjoy. But then I get interested in specifically why it is different, and before I know it, I find myself falling back down the rabbit hole in search of knowledge.

It happened to me again last week, after I ran across a social media post from Roseda Farms. The post highlighted a cut of beef called the Bavette steak, which it described as “an excellent choice for fajitas.” It came with a picture that looked like my hanger steak. And my skirt steak. And for that matter, my flank steak. Initially I ignored it, but the more I tried not to think about it, the more it kept taunting me: what’s the difference? Roseda’s social media post included a hook that said, “Have you tried our Bavette yet?” Well no, I haven’t. I didn’t even know what a bavette was. And then there I was…back down the rabbit hole.

The bavette is a French term for a cut that we call the flap steak. I know what a flap steak is, and where it comes from on the cow. So how does it different from the other “excellent choice for fajitas” cuts of beef? Not much. All four of these fajita cuts…the flap, the flank, the hanger, and the skirt…are long fiber muscle cuts. They are different to be sure, but not in ways that most people will be able to detect as long as you take special attention to prepare, cook, and carve them.

The flap steak, which is what sent me down the rabbit hole this time, is located at the bottom of the loin primal sitting above the back end of the cow’s belly just in front of the hind legs. The flank steak comes from the adjacent flank primal. Both cuts tend to the tough side as both are high-use muscles. The main difference is that the flank steak has a higher blood flow, giving it more of a sharp or even harsh beefy flavor, and the flap steak being located at the bottom of the loin, has more fat marbled through the muscle giving it a softer, buttery beef flavor as the fat renders out into the muscle tissue.

The other two cuts popular with fajita makers, the skirt and hanger steaks, are cut from the plate primal which is situated in front of the flank primal. The skirt steak is part of the cow’s diaphragm and is in constant use. The hanger is not a high use muscle. It just hangs out, doing its job as a supporting muscle for the skirt. Of these four cuts, the hanger is naturally the most tender because it does the least amount of work. Still, because it is a long fiber muscle you can’t just slap it on the grill and expect good results.

Let’s get one thing straight…you’ll pay as much or more for any of these four cuts of beef than you will for a USDA Choice rib eye or NY strip steak. That’s because while each cow gives up 48 premium steaks, you’ll only get maybe 4 flap steaks, 4 skirt steaks (2 inside and 2 outside), 2 flank steaks, and one hanger steak. I think I got that right. If you are going to go to the trouble of getting one of these high demand cuts you should know how to get the most out of them. The best way to treat them is marinate them, preferably overnight. According to Kenji at the Serious Eats website, you should use a marinade that contains an oil, an acid, and a salt to get the most tenderization. I discovered my marinade recipe, and perfected it, before I found the Serious Eats website. I use components that add pleasant flavors as they tenderize the meat…olive oil, soy sauce, and lemon juice. I also add some honey because it clings to the surface of the beef and enhances the Maillard reaction I get when I sear the meat on my grill. You can toss in some aromatics if you wish…I use onion and garlic.

Why soy sauce and not just kosher salt? Soy sauce brings an extra tenderizing process to the marinade. It is full of proteases that come from an edible mold used to make it, and soy sauce is also rich in the flavoring agent glutamate. The proteases work enzymatically to break down the muscle fibers in a manner complimentary to the salt it also contains, and the glutamate adds an umami component that enhances the beef flavors.

This trip down the rabbit hole wasn’t as bad as others. Mainly because as it turns out I already had half the answer. I just needed someone to translate the question for me. Once I climbed out of the rabbit hole, I headed straight to Roseda Farms, picked up a bavette steak, and cooked it up for dinner. I’m a fan, and now I have another cut in my arsenal of beef dishes that work well for fajitas. When it comes to flap, flank, hanger, and skirt steaks I would pick any one of them…cooked properly they’ll each come out with a similar flavor profile and texture. Go with what you can get, and what’s cheapest.

So to answer the question Roseda Farms posed in their social media post…Yes, yes, Bavette!

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A Travel Post That’s Not About Cruising

Travel is getting back to normal. Or at least as normal as we can hope for two years out from the most devastating pandemic in over a hundred years. The return to normalcy has been a chaotic, uneven path that is as ugly as the weeds in my flower beds in August after I’ve once again surrendered to the inevitability that I can’t keep up with them. Where are the deer when I need them? Oh yeah…mowing down my Black Eyed Susans and hydrangeas…grumble.

This post is not going to get into whether it is safe to travel…for most people it is. Nor am I going to address whether you should travel…only you can make that decision. This post is about what it will be like if you choose to travel during this spring and summer’s peak tourism season. I hope to follow-up in a bit with another post describing what you can expect if you test positive for COVID while abroad. Fear of a positive COVID test shouldn’t keep you from traveling to most destinations, as long as you are prepared for it. Also…important disclaimer… I am not passing judgement on the efficacy of any of the requirements I lay out in this post. They are not necessarily what I would do to protect myself from COVID, but whether I agree with them or not, they are the necessary cost to travel. Accept them or stay home, that’s your decision and it’s another decision I can’t make for you. As for me…I’m not staying home folks!

Common Expectations
In addition to a passport, most nations require proof of full vaccination against COVID-19, they require some form of a negative COVID test report prior to arrival, and they require masks in public indoor spaces. I know COVID vaccination and masking are hot topics in this country, though for some reason  having to get a stick shoved so far up your nose it touches your brain hasn’t been so controversial. When you travel abroad you have to go by the rules of the places you visit, and unless you want to endure a lengthy quarantine or repeat COVID testing that interrupts your vacation time, you’ll have to be vaccinated.

The definition of “fully vaccinated” does not yet include getting a booster shot for most countries. That is changing and our recommendation to avoid any uncertainty if you want to travel abroad is to get boosted before your trip if you are eligible, and make sure it gets entered on your CDC COVID card. As far as masking goes, increasingly countries are expecting travelers to wear the disposable surgical or N95 masks. They are now readily available, and there are a number of studies showing them to be far superior to reusable cloth masks. Some international airlines already required them, and I expect more to follow.

Until very recently the testing requirement could be quite burdensome…some destinations only accepted a PCR test, and it had to have been taken within 24 hours of your arrival. That was a challenge at a time when it was taking most test centers in this country two or three times that long to get the results back. Now you can get a rapid antigen or PCR test at most large international airports and get the results back within 15-30 minutes. In this part of the country, BWI, Philadelphia, and Dulles airports all offer 3rd party COVID testing that will satisfy most international entry requirements. Some take appointments and medical insurance but not all do, and clinic hours vary so check it out in advance and plan your arrival time accordingly.

Europe
Nowhere do travel restrictions reflect the most and least restrictive human efforts to control COVID than in Europe. While some nations are beginning to remove COVID-related travel restrictions entirely (Denmark, UK) others like Austria are doubling down on theirs. Even the W.H.O. has said enough…their International Health Regulations Emergency Committee recently called for all COVID related travel bans to be eliminated. Not because they think they’ve won, but because they surrender. It is an admission that the well-intended travel restrictions levied at the start of the pandemic have been ineffective at controlling the spread of COVID, as demonstrated by the incredibly fast global spread of the Omicron variants.

Regardless of the reason, nations are taking note and taking heed. Even though travel restrictions are being removed, you’ll still need to comply with each E.U. member nation’s entry restrictions. When the European Union announced it was recommending member nations remove travel restrictions, they went on to note they were recommending nations rely on the E.U. digital COVID-19 certificate for entry (the CDC COVID certificate is accepted as an equivalent). There are exceptions. Unvaccinated travelers can still go to some countries in Europe, Greece being one, but they’ll have to run a gauntlet of testing and in some cases endure a short period of isolation before being permitted unrestricted entry.

Vaccination is still the coin of the realm for being allowed to enter most European nations without having to quarantine, but once there it can also be the key to the city. The most popular indoor tourist attractions throughout Europe require proof of vaccination for entry, and you can’t count on being able to hop on line and get in. Entrance to many of Europe’s prime attractions is now timed to enable social distancing to the extent that can happen in a place like the Louvre. It means a bit of advanced planning on your part to register with the attraction and schedule an arrival time. Don’t think that will get you out of having to wait. Even with assigned time slots, social distancing only makes things worse and those skip the line tours will be even more effective at getting you in ahead of the socially distanced crowds.

As we head into this next peak travel season for Europe, projections are that tourist travel will substantially recover, reaching about 90% of the rate prior to COVID. That doesn’t mean traveling to and throughout Europe is “back to normal.” It isn’t, and may never be what it was before the pandemic. Even though it will be easier to get into most European nations this summer than it was last year, you’ll still need to carry proof of vaccination, and in most indoor areas you’ll need to mask up with a disposable surgical or N95 type mask.

Asia and Down Under
As uneven as travel restrictions have been in the western world, they have been and remain brutally consistent throughout much of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It remains very difficult for a tourist to travel to most areas in that part of the world, and where you can it often requires a lengthy period of quarantine. That’s on top of requirements to be vaccinated and show a negative COVID test result. Janet and I are closely watching the state of play for tourists in Japan as we plan to be on one of the first planes we can book after restrictions are lifted to visit our kids and grandkids. For now, it looks like that won’t happen before summer.

South America
Travel restrictions are hit and miss for South American nations, but for the most part if you are vaccinated, you’ll be allowed in. Some South American countries still require pre-admission negative COVID testing while others are relaxing that requirement. Best to check before you book anything and make sure you work any COVID test requirements into your travel plans.

North America
The U.S. and Canada are the among the most difficult countries to enter in this part of the world. Foreign travelers need to be vaccinated and show proof of a negative COVID test result, taken within 24 hours for entry into the U.S. and within 72 hours for entry into Canada. The testing requirement for entry into the U.S. also applies to reentry for US citizens, but that requirement can be satisfied with a monitored rapid antigen test kit like the monitored test kits available over the internet and in many retail stores like Walmart, Target, and at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens. Just be sure you get the monitored test kit, like eMed’s BinaxNOW. Unmonitored self-administered BinaxNow COVID test kits don’t generate the result report you’ll have to show at the immigration checkpoint.

As difficult as it is to get into the U.S. and Canada, there are no COVID-specific restrictions for entry into Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Neither country requires COVID vaccinations or COVID testing, all you need is a passport…bienvenido a México i Dominica! U.S. citizens will still need to have a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of their reentry into the U.S.

The Caribbean is every bit as chaotic as Europe in terms of their COVID entry requirements. Some, like Trinidad, still don’t allow tourist travel. Others are more open but most require vaccination and some form of negative COVID test, and of course as noted the DR doesn’t require anything. The island of Barbados has one of the strictest COVID test requirements. In order for a tourist to be allowed to enter the country, in addition to showing proof of vaccination you must show proof of a negative COVID test from a PCR test with the sample taken within 24 hours of arrival, it can’t be self-administered, and it must be of the nasopharangeal (ie brain tickling) type and not the more common mid-turbinate (bottom part of the nasal passages) swab. Barbados has only recently begun accepting rapid PCR tests, which is virtually the only way to meet their timeliness requirements. Other nations such as The Bahamas will let vaccinated travelers in with a negative rapid antigen test and they don’t care if it is self-administered or how far up the nose the swab goes. If you are in a transit status (staying for less than 48 hours) you won’t even need that. As long as you are vaccinated.

I don’t know what the path of recovery from COVID will mean for the world. What I do know is that if you want to travel and are comfortable with the risks, which vary depending on how and where you travel, things are getting easier. If you’ve been putting off traveling because of COVID this is probably a good time to start thinking about planning again. Find your CDC COVID vaccination card, dust off your passport and check that expiration date…the State Department passport office is still taking 12 weeks to process renewals and new applications alike. Check with your doctor if you have any medical concerns to make sure the local conditions where you want to visit are appropriate for your individual risk situation, then give us a call. We’ll get you back on the road, in the air, or on the seas again.

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“I’m Taking a Cruise” … Are you Crazy?!?

 

“Passengers stuck at sea after Norwegian cancels Caribbean cruise mid voyage due to COVID-19” – NBC News

“Woman describes ‘cruise from hell’ after operator cancels sailings for ‘COVID-19 related circumstances’ and holds passengers at sea for days” – Business Insider

“’Not the cruise I signed up for’: 30-fold increase in COVID cases upends industry” – The Guardian

“CDC warns travelers to avoid cruise ships, ‘regardless of vaccination status,’ amid COVID outbreaks” – ABC7News

Those aren’t headlines from March of 2020, back at the beginning of the pandemic. They’re headlines from earlier this month…January of 2022. Wow. Cruise ships have only been back to sailing since June. They aren’t even yet back to sailing at full capacity and already this. How can the CDC let cruise ships continue to sail with headlines like that? And who would want to sail on one? Well, to answer the last question, me! And plenty of others like me who love to cruise and have the ability to apply critical thinking skills to those headlines. Because when you view them critically, you find the headlines are just click bait.

The CDC is finally getting a clue as well. Earlier this month they allowed the mandatory regulations and restrictions they levied on the cruise industry to expire. The regulations that were in place before the CDC rules expired didn’t actually go away…the CDC just made compliance voluntary. To their credit, the major cruise lines quickly opted in, so effectively nothing has changed there.

Can you contract COVID-19 on a cruise ship? Yes, and the cruise industry has always accepted that as a risk they needed to manage. When headlines were splashing across the internet about cruise ship cases of COVID with the coming of the Omicron variant, you didn’t hear anything about how the national positivity rate was skyrocketing at a much greater rate. No state was immune, and the reality is a cruise ship was statistically one of the safest places you could be.

Cruise lines require three things of crew and guests to comply with the CDC’s regulations and to reduce their risk of contracting COVID while on the cruise ship: vaccines, testing, and masks. All crew members are required to be fully vaccinated, and a requirement for boosters is being phased in. When onboard, all crew members are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces. And lastly, all crew members must be tested weekly. If a crew member tests positive, and most that do have been asymptomatic to date, their positive test gets reported to the CDC and the crew member is put in isolation.  Increasingly cruise lines are transferring COVID positive crew members off ships until they test negative, and they aren’t permitted back onboard until they test negative.

The requirements for guests are similar. All guests eligible to be vaccinated must be fully vaccinated, and some lines are beginning to phase in a requirement for booster shots. Four cruise lines, Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, and Royal Caribbean, permit a small number of unvaccinated children under age 12 to cruise with their families, with the specific details varying by cruise line. The total number of unvaccinated children allowed on any given cruise is limited by the CDC to under 5% of the total number of guests on that cruise. So if you have kids and you want to cruise, you can. If you prefer cruising on a ship with only vaccinated people aboard, you can. We’ll help you sort through your options based on your individual risk tolerance and cruising preferences.

Cruise lines have adjusted their testing requirements for guests since the Omicron variant appeared. Testing, either antigen or PCR, is still required…the changes involve minor adjustments to when you have to get tested before cruising. Masking requirements have also been dynamic. When you cruise you should be prepared, and willing, to wear an approved mask anytime you are indoors in public spaces except when you are actively eating and drinking. If the local conditions on your cruise ship are more relaxed you can still opt to wear your mask while in public spaces if you feel more comfortable doing so…plenty of people do and at all times all crew members are masked indoors.

If you test positive for COVID while on a cruise the line will take care of you, whether you require medical attention or are asymptomatic. There has been some pretty lousy reporting on this topic in the media lately similar to the headlines I opened this post with. Let me just say a guest testing positive on a cruise continues to be the rare exception, but when it happens the cruise lines bend over backwards to accommodate guests while maintaining CDC required isolation and quarantine protocols.

So how effective have the cruise lines’ measures been at protecting passengers from COVID? In a post from November, I mentioned Royal Caribbean had reported just 150 people tested positive for COVID on their cruise ships since cruising resumed worldwide, with only a handful being symptomatic and no deaths. That was out of over 600,000 guests that cruised during the timeframe. That’s pretty impressive. Well I think it is anyway. But what about now with the additional risks posed by the Omicron variant?

Breakthrough COVID cases on cruise ships have increased since the beginning of the Omicron wave, but they remain disproportionately lower as compared with land-based locations. From the end of December through the first two weeks in January, at a time when the Omicron variant drove positivity rates around the country up to 25-30%, cruise ships were reporting positivity rates under 1%. The worse cases were a few ships that reported positivity rates between 1-3%. Most of the COVID positive cases involved crew members, and most were asymptomatic. In terms of specific numbers, Royal Caribbean has been the most transparent at sharing their COVID stats with the public. A representative recently reported 1,745 guests tested positive for COVID since they resumed sailing operations in June. That’s out of over 1.1 million guests who sailed during that time, which is a positivity rate of 0.162%.

Travel comes with some measure of risk as do all things in life worth pursuing. COVID presents additional risk, and as travel agents we appreciate that not all of our clients are ready to accept those risks. My hope with this post is to counter some of the alarmist headlines I’ve seen lately with facts. So here are some facts. Since cruising resumed in June, no cruise sailing with passengers has been cancelled because of COVID. Absolutely no cruise passengers have been “stuck at sea” because of COVID. What about the woman who described her experience as being the “cruise from hell?” She was unhappy because she couldn’t spend the last two days of her cruise sunbathing by the pool. The reason for that? She cruised out of New York City…in January! Passengers on that same cruise described it as “an absolutely amazing cruise.” There’s always someone on every cruise that probably should have thought twice before booking.

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My New Old Grocery Store

Today I made the first weekly shopping trip in over ten years to a grocery store that wasn’t Wegmans. I’ve popped into other stores from time to time to pick up odds and ends, but not to do my weekly grocery shopping. I go to Wegmans for that. I used to go to Wegmans for that. Now I’ve gone back to doing my weekly grocery shopping at Kleins/Shoprite, what I call my new old grocery store. I call it that because I just started shopping there this week (the new part), but I used to shop there for many years before Wegmans opened back in 2011 (the old part).

I wish I could say on my first trip back to my new old grocery store the clouds parted and angelic choirs sang “Welcome back old friend” as I arrived, but it wasn’t like that. The store is no better than Wegmans and in some respects it is worse. It’s not like I’m saving money…prices are about the same. So why do I go there now? Because it is one mile from my house and Wegmans is three miles. I’m very lucky to have a choice. It sounds like such a small thing, two miles, yet that pretty much sums up the difference between the two stores. Well, that and the fact that as old and dingy as my new old grocery store is, I’ve never encountered piles of dog shit up and down the aisles as I did on my last trip to Wegmans. Which is why that was my last trip to Wegmans.

Divorcing your grocery store is a difficult thing to do, no matter the reason. I loved shopping at Wegmans. There were things about Wegmans that I didn’t care for from the outset, but that I tolerated just the same because I loved it. I did not love the layout of the store…it seemed as though someone sat down and plotted out the least logical way to organize things from a shopper’s perspective. I got used to it, even organized my grocery list around it. Every six months they would move things around, put the rice in aisle 17 instead of 18, just to make things difficult. Still I tolerated it because I loved the store.

One thing I never got used to about Wegmans was how people treated it as more of a social outing than the serious business of grocery shopping. They would clog up the aisles as they formed their in-store coffee klatches, reaching for their Starbucks lattes from the cup holder Wegmans conveniently built into their shopping carts. I used the cup holder for flowers, or bug spray. I’d find a way around the klatchers only to encounter yet another group in the next aisle. And so it went. I won’t miss that. They’ve been replaced since COVID by the Instant Cart shoppers, who in their own ways are just as bad. I didn’t encounter any during my first trip to my new old grocery store but I’m sure I will.

Maybe I’m the problem. I’m too intolerant, I’ll certainly admit to that. I take my food too seriously for shopping to be a social event. Maybe I should do my grocery shopping on the internet…I’m halfway there already. I order all of my seafood online and have it shipped to my house from Alaska, I get my beef from Roseda Farms which I can order online if I don’t feel like making the 17 mile drive to the farm, I order my cats’ food from Chewy, I get my fresh produce from the local CSA eight months out of the year, and I order specialty food items from Amazon.com whenever Wegmans doesn’t have it for more than two weeks in a row. I never thought Old Bay would be one of those items, but for too long of a stretch last year it was. Months. It’s not like you can’t get Old Bay in other Maryland grocery stores…just not at Wegmans apparently. I ordered it from Amazon and got two large cans the next day.

That was the kind of thing that began happening too often, and it wasn’t limited to Old Bay…it seemed like every trip I made something on my grocery list was out of stock. It had me wondering why I still shopped there. People are quick blame it on “supply chain” problems and I can accept that some of the time. For the longest time…months…none of the grocery stores in the area had caffeine free diet Pepsi. Not my drink of choice…Janet’s. I’m fortunate to have half a dozen or so grocery stores within 15 miles of my house, and when they are all out of the same item, then I can accept the supply chain excuse. But when I can go to any other grocery store in the area and find that they have what Wegmans doesn’t, the supply chain argument doesn’t wash. It just means their supply chain failed. Wegmans is particularly vulnerable to that because they own their distribution system, unlike most other grocery stores that use a third party distributor. Of course as I discovered this week, there are still items my new old grocery store doesn’t have. At least they have Old Bay.

I would say I’ll miss the fresh produce, seafood, and meat. Those were the things I liked most when I first started shopping at Wegmans, but if I’m being honest I won’t miss them at all. The products aren’t as fresh as they used to be, they don’t source as much locally as they did, and they no longer staff the departments with people that know a thing or two. The produce department no longer has the equivalent of a green grocer, the fish mongers left the seafood department years ago not to be replaced, and the butcher is barely hanging on since Wegmans started getting most of their meat pre-cut and pre-packaged from the fourth largest meat packing plant in the country. The fresh food departments are now staffed with shelf-stockers. They aren’t as knowledgeable as the people that came before them, nor are they as transparent. They’ve told me things recently about the products in their respective departments that I know to be wrong…what I don’t know is whether they know them to be wrong. Either way, it’s not a good situation for someone as serious about food as I am. Which is why I now get my fresh food products directly from the source as much as I can.

Aside from the bright and shiny new-store feel Wegmans offers, even still at 10 years old, it has little else to offer me these days, and plenty of reasons for me not to shop there. I’ll get used my new old grocery store again, but it will take time. My first return trip there for weekly shopping reminded me of all the things I didn’t like about it before I started going to Wegmans. The fact is I would find something to dislike in any grocery store, so I need to suck it up, go through my list, fill my cart, and then get my ass out of there. That internet grocery shopping is looking better all the time!

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It Was the Stove’s Fault!

What a difference a year can make! I found a source for my beef that I trust…a farm just 17 miles from my house that raises a herd of beef so tasty and tender it practically cooks itself. If my takeaway from last year’s prime rib was to place more importance on the quality of the roast I start with, my takeaway this year is that once I get that quality piece of beef, how I cook it matters a great deal.

Not to brag, but if I’m being honest my holiday dinner skills have progressed considerably over the past few years. Let’s see… I didn’t end up in the ER needing stitches, the fire department didn’t show up although I did set off the smoke alarm…again…and I didn’t have to break out a chain saw to carve the roast. I’ve made great progress!

The Set-up

This year’s holiday prime rib was a thing of beauty. It was a 3-rib roast from Roseda Farms that was everything I could ever want in a prime rib. I took pictures of it when I got it home, that’s how beautiful it was. It was richly marbled, and it looked to me like it came from the chuck end of the rib primal. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t…it would be unusual for a 3-rib roast to be cut from the chuck end, but if I am being honest the chuck end is what I prefer. It is more tasty, and this prime rib was nearly 10 pounds of bovine perfection in a vacuum sealed package.

Anytime I tackle a major cooking project I develop a plan, and this year my plan was simple…follow the Ridiculously Simple Recipe for cooking the prefect prime rib as I described in my last post. I was confident that this year my holiday meal would be a success. I had a quality piece of beef and a proven plan. What could possibly go wrong?

The Tools

I consider my stove to be the equivalent of a blunt instrument. I have so many tools in my kitchen that allow me to cook with more precision than I could ever get out of the stove, I rarely use it for anything beyond boiling water. I thought about using my sous vide cooker to do the heavy lifting and using the grill to sear it off at the end, but I was concerned my sous vide cooker wouldn’t be big enough. It’s one thing to cook a couple of steaks that way, it works beautifully by the way, and quite another to use it for a 10-pound roast. I went with the oven.

Though I consider my stove to be a blunt instrument, it is the consumer version of a high-tech professional commercial model. To say I’m not on altogether the best of terms with my stove would be an understatement. My stove has a back mounted control unit, an electronic brain as the salesman described it. What he didn’t tell me is that the brain they gave my stove, the oven in particular, was the electronic equivalent of a petulant, adolescent teenager’s brain. In other words, my oven has moods. The salesman called them modes but I know better. It’s supposed to be a model that you set and forget, but no. Like a teenager, it doesn’t always do what it is told to do.

I have a couple of high-tech precision temperature monitoring gadgets from ThermoWorks to help me maintain control over my oven. I used a ThermaPen MK IV instant read thermometer, and a ChefAlarm oven safe temperature probe and display unit. Both performed admirably and helped keep the oven part of my stove from throwing a tantrum.

The Plan

My plan for this year’s prime rib was quite simple. Start with the best quality roast I could both find and afford, and then follow the Serious Eats’ reverse sear cooking guide with a few added tweaks of my own. I did both, and the results were incredible. The roast came out juicy, flavorful, and with the perfect balance of toothful tenderness. Which is to say the tenderness of a filet but the flavor of a ribeye.

I read a food science journal article recently…because I’m a food nerd…that presented an analysis of the effect of heat on the breakdown and reconstitution of fat and muscle tissue at the molecular level of post-mortem beef. In other words, why does a dead cow taste so good after you cook it? Those guys must be fun to have over for a BBQ. The article listed 27 different chemical compounds perceived as desirable by human taste buds that are formed as fat and muscle tissue break down when heated and then come together in different ways to form new compounds. It’s like the molecular equivalent of a swingers party. I think I was able to taste 25 of them, that’s how good this roast came out. Just don’t ask me to name any of them…they have multisyllabic names with numbers and symbols, and I darned near flunked high school chemistry. Might have had something to do with that cherry bomb incident in class #itwasntme…I wasn’t exactly the best-behaved kid at that point in my life.

I seasoned my roast with kosher salt and white pepper powder two full days prior to cooking it, and left it in the fridge uncovered to absorb the salt and tenderize. I pulled it out of the fridge on Christmas Eve morning, sprinkled some fresh cracked black pepper all around and popped it directly into the preheated 200-degree oven. We planned to eat at 4 PM and I counted on an 8–10-hour cook time, so I started cooking it at 5:30 AM. I was going for a finish on the upper end of medium rare and estimated I’d get an additional 10 degrees of carryover cooking, so I set my ChefAlarm for 125 degrees. When the alarm went off I took the roast out of the oven and made spot checks all around the roast with my ThermaPen MK IV. It confirmed a consistent 125 degrees with no cool spots. My roast was ready to rest.

As the roast rested I prepared for the finishing sear by resetting the oven to 500 degrees, and gave it an hour to get there. It only took half an hour to heat up but that was after the half hour it took me to realize I hadn’t turned the oven back on, so it took an hour. Once the oven let me know it was at 500 deg, I put the roast back in for six minutes to sear off the surface and form a nicely textured crust.

I pulled the roast out of the oven again, this time setting off the smoke alarm in the process because smoke happens when you take a well-marbled hunk of beef out of a 500 degree oven with an attitude. I reset the alarm system so the fire department wouldn’t show up, because that tends to happen when I cook. I checked the internal temp of my roast and it was 141 degrees…bit more done than I was aiming for but close enough for my oven. Honestly with a roast this tender it’s a crap shoot whether it is better cooked to medium rare or medium.

I checked the clock to see the time…10:20 AM. Oops. We didn’t need to leave for Chris and Kelly’s for hours! How did that happen? Well…I forgot to account for the fact that when I use my oven’s convection mood things cook much faster. In this case MUCH faster. Could be the oven snuck a Red Bull while I wasn’t looking, I don’t know. Teenagers…what can you do? Not to worry…I had an over/under plan.

I carved the roast into individual portions, vacuum sealed the portions in sous vide bags, and tossed them in the fridge until it was time to go to Chris and Kelly’s place. They live just 15 minutes away so I brought along my sous vide cooker and once in their kitchen, used it to gently reheat the prime rib portions. I set the water temperature to 135 degrees to warm the meat without cooking it any further, then put the baggies in for an hour.

We sat down for a nice family Christmas Eve dinner and I plated up my extra juicy perfectly cooked medium prime rib portions, which were now an ugly shade of brown…over done, and dry. What in the hell happened? The beef was still tasty, but it had lost much of the tenderness and almost all of the juice it had when I bagged the portions up.

As with last year there weren’t many leftovers so it couldn’t have been that horrible, but I knew. I knew how much better it could have been…how much better it was when I tasted it straight from the oven.

What I Did Wrong This Year

I didn’t worry too much about what went wrong while we were at Chris and Kelly’s, but I did think about it the next day, when I got up at 5AM on Christmas morning. It didn’t take me long to figure it all out. I had carved the roast into individual serving sized portions straight out of the oven. It didn’t need to rest since it was already rested and I hadn’t heated it enough to draw moisture back out of the muscle tissue. But the roast still had significant residual heat coming out of a 500 degree oven. By carving it right away and then sealing the individual portions in sous vide bags I trapped all that residual heat and steam in the bag. With the meat. By the time the fridge cooled the meat enough to stop the cooking it was too late. My perfectly cooked prime rib slices were well done, bone dry, and an ugly shade of dark brown.

Right about now all of my Texas friends are cringing mightily and shouting at their computers, “FTC!” Mea Culpa. One even posted the suggestion to me on social media, before I went the sous vide route. I should have paid attention. FTC, for those who don’t know, is the way BBQers have been keeping large cuts of beef warm for generations. Or at least for as long as Reynolds has been making aluminum foil and Coleman has been making coolers. Foil, Towel, Cooler. You wrap the whole hunk of meat in foil, then wrap that in some beach towels, then pack it in a cooler stuffed with even more beach towels stuffed all around it…bottom, top, and sides. FTC. It keeps meat warm for hours without cooking it further. This is one time I should have believed what I read on Facebook! I should have listened to the pros.

What I Did Right This Year

Even though this was yet another holiday meal that didn’t turn out as perfect as I wanted, it was good enough, which is a testament to just how good the beef was before I nearly ruined it. And my antics were once again entertaining for the whole family. The effort validated all of my objectives with using the Ridiculously Simple Recipe to cook a prime rib in the oven, and since I sampled it as I carved it, I know how good it was straight out of the oven. Those were the best few bites of prime rib I’ve ever tasted. I now know what I did wrong, but what did I do right? What worked?

Choosing a reliable source for my prime rib and selecting a quality roast worked. I learned my lesson last year. Roseda Farms has been my go to source for beef since spring, and this year’s prime rib is yet another reason I keep going back.

Using a dry brine approach to seasoning worked. Just as I will forever brine my Thanksgiving turkey, I will now be using a dry brine on all of my Christmas prime rib roasts. While Serious Eats said to let the salt set on the roast for up to four days, I gave it two and I’ll probably dial that back to just one day or maybe a day and a half the next time I cook prime rib. As long as I am dealing with beef of the quality I get from Roseda Farms, one day of tenderizing is enough and I’m hoping it leaves the meat tasting a tad less salty.

Skipping the “let the roast come to room temperature before cooking” bit worked.  The internal temperature of my roast when I took it out of the fridge was 31 degrees. An hour later my roast had warmed just six degrees, to 37 degrees. That wasn’t after sitting at room temperature, it was after an hour in a 200 degree oven because I skipped the sitting out bit. Looking at the results I got it would have been an utter waste of time to let my roast sit out on the counter for an hour or two, or even three. Is it too late to return that Wolfgang Puck guide to the perfect prime rib? Going straight from the fridge to the oven had no negative impact on how it turned out. It was tender, juicy, and flavorful.

The reverse sear method worked. I had a nice tasty crust on the outside of the roast, and below that the meat was tender, juicy, and tasty. I did not get a perfect edge-to-edge finish but I didn’t expect to. There wasn’t enough of a fat cap to insulate the cap muscle and balance out the insulation the ribs gave to the bottom of the roast. No matter…it was all juicy, tender, and delicious. And then I ruined it.

As NASA described the Apollo 13 mission, this year’s holiday rib roast was a successful failure. Now all I need to do is stick the landing. I’ve got 359 days to figure it out.

Happy New Year to all!

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