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Verses from my Kitchen: June 2011

June 28, 2011

The Pickle: The Bloody Caesar Reinvented

Behind the wood. Saturday night. There's a stillness in the air that rushes over the bar and finds a home within me. Briefly. You can feel the wave of tension weaving its way towards the men in black-matching uniforms, warning us of something to come. The calm before the storm is at its breaking point. Three.. Two.. the doors open to a chorus of noise and commotion. The next six hours are a blur of activity with barely a second to catch your breath. Welcome to life behind the bar. 

This was my old life before my new life. I spent years working in the restaurant industry and years behind the bar. It became my home for the better part of ten years and in that time I probably mixed over a million drinks. A million different times listening to someone step up and ask for something to take their pain away or celebrate an occasion with. I saw it all and I heard even more.  

Aside from beer, the Bloody Caesar was probably the most popular cocktail around. Particularly in the summer. Especially in this country. I probably rimmed, poured and garnished tens of thousands of this cocktail in my old career and every single time it took my breath away.

Back in 1969 the bloody Caesar got it's start and was invented in Calgary by Walter Chell. It was created to celebrate the grand opening of an Italian eatery in the city. It was made up of vodka, Clamato juice, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and is typically served in a celery salt-rimmed glass with celery and lime.

The mystifying thing is how immensely popular this cocktail is in our country yet relatively unknown outside of our borders. They claim that over 350 million Caesars are consumed in Canada every single year. Really. And that's with 30 plus million residents. You do the math. We're not just a country of beer drinkers after all.

Mixologists today are often an extension of the kitchen. Long gone are the days of standard classics being made exactly how they were decades previously. There will always be an exception to that rule, but it's not unusual to see fresh herbs and infused-alcohol making its way into a cocktail at your local bar and restaurant these days. That's the case with the Bloody Caesar as well. At least that was the case when I made it. 

The standard variety is still being served at many places but more and more people are taking liberties with the original recipe and putting their spin on the classic. That's what I've done here. Sometimes you assume a drink or dish is perfect the way it is and then realize just how amazing it can be if you tweak it to fit your palette and preference.

A little while ago I was contacted by Mott's Clamato and asked if I would create my own version of this iconic cocktail for their site. I agreed immediately because it was a fit for me. I've made this drink so many times before that I was already experimenting with some of my own ideas and concepts, this just gave me a push into finalizing my favourite version. Hopefully you'll give this recipe a shot and fall in love with the bloody Caesar all over again.

Also, Mott's is kind enough to be offering a giveaway to one of my Canadian-based readers. One full Caesar's kit so you too can create you own version over the upcoming Canada Day long weekend.
Picture it, you and a tall glass of heaven as you let the sun wash over you with no plans on the horizon. Sounds good, no?

To be eligible to win is rather simple. Just leave a comment below and I'll pick a winner randomly by 5pm on Wednesday June 29th. I know the deadline is so close but I want to get this out to you as quickly as possible.

"The Pickle" aka My Bloody Caesar

The Goods:
  • pickled carrots and green beans, about 4 each
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 4 cups Clamato juice
  • 2 tbsp. pickle brine
  • 2 tbsp. fresh grated horseradish
  • 2 tsp. A1 steak sauce
  • sea salt and cracked pepper
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon thyme, plus 8 sprigs for garnish
  • 1 pickle, cut into 4 wedges
  • 2 cups vodka
  • ice
  • 1/2 lemon for rim
  • 2 tsp. each of celery salt/ground black pepper/chili powder
  1. Squeeze lemon halves into a large pitcher. Add pickle brine, A1 sauce, salt & pepper, horseradish, thyme, cayenne pepper and smoked paprika. Stir until combined. Add in ice, vodka and Clamato juice and stir to mix.
  2. Rub cut lemon half around outside edges of cocktail glasses. Mix celery salt,ground black pepper and chili powder on a plate and roll outside of glass around the mixture for the rim. (The rim mixture is not supposed to be in your cocktail, just on the outside of the rim)
  3. Fill the glasses with ice and pour the drink over top. Garnish with a pickle wedge, pickled vegetables and a couple sprigs of fresh thyme.
  4. Serves 4.

** Mott's Canada generously covered the cost of the alcohol and Mott's Clamato juice for this post but my story and views are strictly my own. I roll the way I roll.

** The giveaway is for the Caesar Kit, as seen below, but does not include alcohol. Simply leave a comment below for an entry into the giveaway. Receive a second entry by following me on twitter @MikeVFMK.

June 25, 2011

My Friend Greg and a Pear & Watercress Soup

His name is Greg. His closest friends call him Gerge. I do. He stepped into my life back in 92' when we met at an Italian Gelato shop and he wouldn't shut the fuck up. I love that about him. He has a voice and he was the first person, man or woman, that talked more than I did. I sat there, glued to my seat and mouth taped shut, partially unnerved at his ability to steer and control the conversation but mainly in awe. Mostly in awe. This guy was me. Only better.

I moved to Kingston from Toronto to attend University. I didn't know a soul in that small beautiful city by the lake with memories engraved on every corner. I had an old friend tell me to look for a man who coached the college tennis team. It was on those hard courts painted red and green with stripes of white that I first met Peter. It was through Peter that I first met Greg.

Those were scary days back then and on my own and I was looking for a place to rent and Peter had told me about both David and Greg. I called Greg up and talked on the phone and we met for gelato where we got to know each other. It was like a date, only it wasn't. We found a place that a friend of a friend was renovating and renting and it was perfect. We moved in together and now have life long stories from those times.  Late nights, even later nights, study sessions and spontaneous trips together just to get away.

We shared accommodations for a few years and our friendship grew during those times. He was like the brother I never had. The first Mother's Day as housemates we decided to invite our three moms over and I made the food. Greg always liked my food so it was as much his suggestions as it was mine. I can still see the six of us tightly roped around that small square table we called our dining room table. The first of an album full of times like that.
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June 22, 2011

Summer Soup: Watermelon, Cucumber & Mint

I often remember back in some small hope that I never forget. I'll pick up old pictures or newspaper clippings and lose myself in a moment that happened decades ago. Some of those times come back to me like an 8mm film played against the backdrop of my old white brick basement wall. There are moments that rip open an emotion within me and others that cause a numbing reaction.

When I was a kid I played away the hot summer days with my neighbourhood friends. They were the first real friends I ever had. I can remember the scene like it happened yesterday. Our moving truck pulled up alongside our new-to-us brick house and I stood out back watching the movers bring our worldly contents in one by one. I was told to stay out of the way and so I did. And I watched.

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June 19, 2011

My Meaning of Family

I'm a people watcher. I watch people. I think I inherited this sore habit when I was younger and afraid of being alone. I would watch others instead, feeling connected by space and time. It's a habit I gained from the few years living with my father as a kid. Sometimes, usually late at night, I lay awake and hear the echoes of a young boy in my past who needed someone so he wouldn't be scared. That young boy was me. I want to help him.

This is not your typical father's day story.

My parent's went through a messy divorce when I was around eight. The divorce itself wasn't messy, the marriage was. The last years were bitter and loud and angry. Mostly my dad. Almost always my dad. Screams like gunshots ricocheted through my head late at night. I used to clutch my blankets as tight as possible and fall asleep with dried-up tears etched on my cheeks. 

When the day came that my mom moved out and my single family unit was broken and dead, I celebrated a little inside. No happiness or outward smile, just thankfulness. Appreciation that my mom didn't have to endure it any longer. Happy that the noise inside would stop. Hopeful of things to come.

I lived with my dad for a few years after the divorce. He was great to me. Mostly. He took care of me and looked after me and watched over me. That was until the night fell and blanketed the sky with darkness and fear. The moment silence crept over the house and area around us, he would tuck me in. And then he would leave.

I hated those nights. I would slip out of bed and run down the hall to his bedroom, the one overlooking the main street outside where he parked his car. I'd stand up on my toes and watch him get inside and drive away. I would head back to bed, but not to sleep. I would hear a noise that frightened me and my mind took me places I didn't want to go. Scenarios popped in and I couldn't shove them out fast enough.

That's when I first became afraid of the dark. Afraid of being alone. I couldn't fall asleep, instead choosing to wait it out for his return. Every noise or shut door outside would have me running back down the hall to see if my dad had returned. And most of the time, he hadn't. And the fear, momentarily gone, had slipped back again. Restless moments locked in my house crying myself to sleep.

He was a good father, except when I needed him most. The real hallmarks of a great father disappeared when his father died much too young. Way too young. He didn't have that role model or person or path to follow. He didn't know any better. That's what I told myself all through my teenage years when my mom and step-dad went away for a weekend. The fear always seemed to know when they were heading away; his timing was impeccable. I often wondered aloud how long it would take until I could go to bed alone at night and be comfortable by myself.

During the years after I moved in with my mom and her new husband,  I lost track of my dad. Actually, I think he lost track of me. Phone calls and time spent together grew longer and deeper between them. Eventually, a call from him was met with curiosity and disbelief. His freedom must have kept him busy. 

We had grown apart, even if only for a few years until I moved back in with him. Those were his sick years. He was still my father so I still had feelings but eventually those too would come to pass. He found a new family, with a wife and three newer kids to worry about. That's when calls disappeared altogether.

I'm not bitter. I'm thankful for many things now. My step-dad is great. Although he has never shown that emotion that comes with being a father, he has filled that role amicably. No, wonderfully. Unlike moments in my now distant past, he was there when I needed him most. He has taught me many things, mostly by being a good man and role model. He supported me. He guided me and contributed to my growth as a person. He even stood up for me at my wedding. 

This is not a sad day. I can't be sad about a man I don't know anymore. It's been decades since I last heard the phone ring and his voice on the other side. I have heard that he's alone again, left absent by his last wife. I never wonder what he's doing because I know he doesn't wonder about me. He has his life's actions to keep him company now. 

I've long since overcome the fear that kept me awake at night. I can sleep alone now, although I'd rather have my wife beside me. I don't worry about the noises outside anymore and I don't worry about when he's coming back. He's not. 

All of this helps explain why I love the morning so much and my deep affection for spring and her longer hours of light. Every new spring I rejoice with her bounty and smile and celebrate a little inside. I share recipes like this with the people that matter most, like my step-dad. My new dad.

To my step-dad John

Thank you. Thank you for being the man my dad wasn't capable of being. Thank you for stepping into a ready-made family and taking on the responsibility of fatherhood. Thank you for all your wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Thanks for taking on a second job so I could continue the activities a kid likes to do.
Your guidance and support has helped mold the man I have become.

Thank you for letting me be me. But, most of all, thank you for being you. On this day I'm thankful for you.

**p.S. There is no recipe today. It wasn't about that. If you want it I'd be happy to share it.

June 17, 2011

Summer Memories: Stacked Apple Salad and Blueberry Limeade

I can remember back to a time from my youth when the end of the school year was a cause for celebration, and for more reasons than the one first one that comes to mind. As soon as the bell rang to signal the end of classes, I would jump through the doors and run out to the school yard, laughing with my friends and talking about all the things we were going to do that summer. Together. As friends.

As soon as I left the yard for my short walk home, I would start daydreaming of all the other things I was going to do with my time off, besides the stuff that happens with your closest friends. I thought about summer camp and then, without pause, my annual trip outside the city to my grandparent's. That was the part of my vacation I loved the most and it was also the hardest part; waiting out the days on the calendar until it was time for my mom to drive me there was like pulling teeth.

My grandparent's grew up in a different era, with different circumstances. My grandma C never worked and never learned to drive. She relied on my grandfather for almost everything, except happiness. She was always happy and didn't need any encouragement or help in that department. They were different, but they made it work. At times they didn't seem compatible, yet the two of them always seemed happy.

My mom would pack my bags and load me in the front seat when the day finally arrived. We'd begin the drive and I would inevitably fall asleep ten minutes from our house. It was like clockwork. I always managed to wake up right when she pulled up the long driveway on the right side of the small brick house. My grapa would be outside on the swing, half asleep, and my grandma would be standing at the door with a smile that said welcome home. I loved that smile. And that woman.

The first night would be spent chatting her ear off and being spoiled. She made it seem like I was the most important person in the world, and during my vists it was exactly how I felt. I'd convince her at the end of the night to sleep on the ground with me by the screen door and I'd fall alseep in a blink with the crickets outside reminding me of my surroundings.

I would wake up that first morning and every morning of my stay with the aroma of french toast or eggs as my wake up call. My grandma would be at work doing what she loved best, making her family happy. The day was usually spent with her outside and the night was spent at the ball park with my grampa. It was the perfect balance really. She let me win at everything we did and let me believe my magic tricks really fooled her.

My grandpa volunteered at the ball park for over 25 years and I would always accompany him and chase balls throughout the night. Everyone knew him by name and because of that they knew me by name. Even as a kid. Even though I only visited for two weeks every year. We'd leave right after the game and when we'd pull up the driveway the headlights would shine a light on my grandma's face in her favourite chair by the front window. She looked happy to have us back again. From that chair she'd wave and welcome us back. And then she'd jump in the car and make my grampa take me to get something to eat.

She was a remarkably patient woman. She always let him do whatever he wanted but in return she had a few things she liked to do. Small things, but important things. She would have him drop us off at a nature trail on a weekend during the day so she could do one of the things she loved doing. She would also have him drop us at farmer's field nearby where we'd pick fresh berries and grab a small barrel of apples. I will always remember her kneeling down even though she was too old and in too much pain to do so. She did it for me. She did most things for me.

I remember walking down the long fields and finding a spot that looked just right. She always found the best spot, although looking back I think she stopped when she couldn't walk any farther. We'd grab the blueberries and try not to make a mess. I'm sure I squeezed them too hard and had the navy blue ink jump on my shirt. And I know I didn't care. I had a day out with my favourite person!

We would get back late in the afternoon and she would make me a batch of blueberry lemonade or limeade and we'd sit on the back deck and revel in the moments handed to us. She was the world's greatest cook because she made whatever we asked for. I always ended up with a navy blue line painted above my upper lip as proof of my day out with her.

I can't think of the last time I've gone berry picking. It's been much too  long. I rely on my memories with my grandparent's and those wonderful summers spent together. I would do anything to have her back to take me one more time. One more day. And I'd love to see the look on my grampa's face sitting behind the steering wheel wondering where we went off to and when he got to go home again.

Blueberry Limeade

The Goods:
  • 1 pint (2 1/2 cups) of fresh blueberries
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 8 large limes
  • 1 lime, zest
  • 1/8 cup vodka
  1. Keep aside 1/2 cups of blueberries for later.
  2. Lightly muddle the remaining berries and add to a small saucepan. Add sugar and water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Remove pan from the heat and strain through a fine sieve, discarding solids. Cover and refrigerate the syrup until later.
  4. When ready for a drink, completely fill with ice cubes in a tall rock glass. Add a few reserved berries. Mix juice from 1 lime with a pinch of zest and 1/4 cups of the blueberry syrup. Add an ounce of vodka, if you prefer, and pour over the ice. Stir.
  5. Add a lime wedge and serve. Serves 8 tall glasses.

June 14, 2011

Cottage Weekend: Good Food and Good Friends

It started out as the week that would never end. Alarm snaps, get dressed, work, eat and sleep. Repeat. Each day bled into the one ahead of it and there was never really a chance to breathe or regroup. The dominoes fell one by one and I couldn't stop the negative momentum. It was move or get run over.

I had been wishing the last days of the week away. They couldn't come quick enough. We were invited to a cottage for the weekend and the gruelling pace of long work hours and late nights had been catching up to me. I needed this, deserved it even. So when I drove up the street and parked my car for the weekend, I sat inside for a moment and exhaled.

The stress usually peels off of me when I walk into my house and my wife puts away my work shoes for another weekend. This was just a little bit different. A little bit better. I walked through the door to see all the bags packed by the entrance and my dog bouncing around with extra enthusiasm. I was a drive away from the kind of weekend people live and wish for. It was now in my reach.

Our gracious hosts
The drive for a weekend away always seems quicker than it actually is. It's an amazing thing, really. My wife and I packed the car up and entered the address in the GPS. That little dot on the map was about to symbolize freedom. We drove with the windows down, the breeze swirling inside and keeping us company. We were finally on our way.

B having fun at the cottage
I remember when we pulled into the quaint town that housed the cottages where dreams come to live. Our hosts were outside working in the yard and I saw happiness painted on their face. I could read it from my seat in the car and I wanted that same feeling. I could touch it.

I grabbed the bags and walked with my wife through the front door. It felt like home away from home when we picked up the aroma of fresh wood and the barbecue. We dropped our things in our room and joined our hosts on the front porch. We weren't there two minutes when we had a drink in our hand and he had the burgers on the grill. This was the start of things to come.

Their dog C chasing the seagulls away
I have memories, a lifetime filled with memories, of cottages past. They are filed away and I reach for them every time I need a shot of happiness and I feel sentimental. The time I jumped into the lake a month too soon, staying up until the sun started to rise a beautiful shade of burnt orange while celebrating with friends, and laughs, miles and miles of laughs. Cottages bring dreams to life. This felt just like the others.

We shared a good meal and cocktails and stayed up late on that first night. The sky slowly turned a soft shade of black as the sun disappeared on the horizon while we all stared in amazement. Hour after hour we watched as it stretched out and changed from one deep shade of black to another. We lit a bonfire in the front yard and roasted marshmallows and shared a moment in time. Together.

My wife and I woke up shortly after eight in the morning when the rest of the neighbouring cottages slept away the previous night's activity. We revelled in the calmness before the morning storm and listened to the birds outside sing us a wake up call. We tiptoed down the hallway and started the coffee and I went to the market to grab food for my meals.

When I came back my wife had done the dishes and J had begun breakfast. He's been talking about these breakfast burritos for as long as I can remember so it was fitting that it took a trip to the cottage to enjoy his morning work. I put the groceries away and grabbed my coffee and waited. And it was worth the wait.

Saturday was spent walking the beach with their dog and writing love notes in the sand. We spent a good amount of time enjoying the sunshine and company before we made our way back. It's peaceful walking around in an area like this. Each person passing waves hello and welcomes you. Each neighbouring home invites you over like a long-lost friend.

You could see tents littered across the yards and people laughing and reminiscing. It was like a reunion of people at every turn and the walk back was familiar and reminded me of my old friends reunting for last weekend at the cottage.

My wife walking along the beach
We spent that night sharing more stories, soon-to-be new memories and some more good food and drinks. We ate out back of the cottage where J had set the table and we enjoyed nature in it's truest form. It was hard not to be overwhelmed at the beauty before our eyes and the aroma of fresh air and clean water.

Sunday came too fast. It always does. You wake up and feel yourself slipping from her grasp. You hold on for your life and she always slips away. Two days feels rushed, even though it wasn't. There's never enough time. We have breakfast and Sunday morning cocktails and sit outside with the warmth of the sun on us. And we wished the time would stand still.

When it was time to go we both took a final look at the cottage that housed our newest memories. We thanked our wonderful hosts for the chance to experience a beautiful weekend and we drove off before the sun set.

It's times like these that make every thing else worthwhile. The chance to get connected and establish yourself again. It gives you an opportunity to deepen friendships and strengthen your love.

June 9, 2011

Thai Mango Salad with Grilled Shrimp

I feel it when I first wake up. I don't need to hear the local weatherman announce it on the radio, and there's no need for the meteorologist on the television to throw magnetic images of the sun up on the weather board. It's immediately obvious when I leave my bedroom and feel the power of her rays rush through the window and press up against my skin. My eyes squint to foil her advances.

I step into the kitchen and watch the early morning haze jump off the ground outside. It`s going to be hot. No wait, it already is. Welcome to spring, disguised as summer. It's the new seasonal norm. And this is only the beginning.  

The air conditioner in our house fools me into believing that it's cooler outside than it actually is. It lends me a false sense of security and sets me up for failure. I walk out through the front door to face the world dressed in pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and I immediately roll up my sleeves before the light cotton fabric sticks to me like glue. It's early June and I'm ready for the hottest summer in a hundred years.

I sit in my car and roll down the windows, momentarily forgetful of how hot it is outside. I turn my A.C. to max and and pray that it works quicker than it ever has before. The entire time I`m melting at the thought of an entire day spent outdoors and dreaming of something light and refreshing when I get home. Sadly, I haven`t even left my driveway.

These are the days I was warned about. Growing up in a country with long and sometimes harsh winters, I should be happy when it`s hot outside and the heat alerts come fast and often. I should be, but I`m not. Every first step outside feels like a warm slap in the face. The hot air seems to grab on tight and cling. It's like suffocation by the hands of the weather gods.

I think back to some hot days when I was younger and trips to the local Thai restaurant up the street from where I lived. We`d walk in and be greeted by the chef/owner working away in the open kitchen up the stairs from the entrance. The topic of the heat wave would come up and she would immediately recommend her prawn & mango salad. With that first bite it felt like I was jumping off a cottage dock and straight into a lake full of water.

It was the combination of the juicy, sweet mangoes and cilantro citrus vinaigrette that first cooled me down. The flavours make an immediate impact and work to wash over you from the inside out. The best part of all, the salad was really good. Memorable enough to recreate it all these years later.

On days like we've been experiencing lately, I pull back into the driveway at the end of the day and sit inside my car with the cool air reminding me where my safe spot is. I stare at the door afraid of the steps that stand between me and my house. And I make my move.

I come through the front door of my home with the weather outside now behind me. I thought. My wife asks if I want to eat outside at the table in the yard. We're limited to a few really good months so it's hard to say no. At least I can make this mango & prawn salad  and remember the affect it had on me during those hot summer nights years ago. 

From my kitchen to yours, happy eating! 

Thai Mango Salad with Grilled Shrimp

The Goods:
  • 12 large tiger prawns
  • 4 rosemary sprigs for skewers
  • 1 tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • 1 lime, zested
  • 3 tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • drizzle of olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 green chilli,deseeded and finely sliced
  • 2 ripe mango, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 large cucumber, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 large orange pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 small shallots, thinly sliced
  • small handful of fresh cilantro
  • pinch of sea salt
  1. Remove three-quarters of the rosemary leaves and slide 3 shrimp on each sprig.
  2. Add the next 9 ingredients to a bowl and mix. Reserve half for the dressing and use the rest for the shrimp on the bbq. Grill the shrimp over medium high heat for 3 minutes per side, or until browned with grill marks. Brush the sauce over top of each side.
  3. Take the slices of mango and pour over the reserved liquid. Add in the cucumber, orange pepper, shallots, green chilli and a handful of chopped cilantro, mix and season.
  4. Plate the mango salad and add in the grilled shrimp over top.
  5. Serves 2.

June 5, 2011

Rhubarb & Vanilla Compote with Coconut and Syrup

Today is one of my favourite moments since I started this food blog. I get the absolute pleasure to direct you to one of my favourite blogs, A Thought For Food , which is authored by the very talented Brian Samuels, equally gifted with words and beautiful photography.  Brian is one of my favourite people from this community and with one browse through his site you'll no doubt be as enamoured as I am. Be ready for something special.

The moment Brian asked me if I would do a guest post for his site I almost immediately knew what I wanted to do. At first I was shocked, because I had never been asked before, and then I was genuinely flattered. I'm inspired whenever I visit his site and leave happier than when I arrived. So I'm beyond words that he wanted me to contribute.

Now please go and check out my guest post and recipe for this wonderful rhubarb dessert and take your time visiting when you're there. I promise you'll be happy you did!

June 3, 2011

Mussels with Coconut Curry Lime Sauce and Cilantro

Yesterday was the first day of spring. Not according to the calender though, that day came weeks ago. In a country where people jokingly refer to our seasons as winter and summer, it was beginning to feel that way. I, for one, need the different seasons to feel balanced and, in a way, reborn. So yesterday was a welcome arrival.

Winter was long and steady and, at times, forceful. It carried on for months and months and then suddenly ended. It was abrupt, as if someone pulled back the curtain that ended act one. One day here the next vanished. On that first day of spring we were greeted with blistering hot temperatures and record early weather warnings. We skipped spring. Bounced right over it. Moved on like nothing even happened.
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