Monday, October 29, 2007

True Confessions of Two Chefs

David Leibovitz reviews Alice Water's new cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, and begins with a classic reminiscence.

During my interview at Chez Panisse, as I sat across the table from Alice Waters in the main dining room at the restaurant, she asked me, "What do you eat at home?"

Since I'm not exactly convincing when lying, I told her.

"I eat popcorn, mostly." And continued, "I'm a restaurant cook. I don't have time to eat at home."

(Although I did conveniently omit the fact that it was microwave popcorn...)

In spite of that, or because of my chutzpah, I got hired and worked at Chez Panisse for a long time. What nailed it for me and endeared me to Alice, years later, wasn't her politics or her philosophy on cooking. It was when I told her, "I really like to drink coffee leftover from the morning, with milk in it, that's been sitting on the counter all day."

And she said, "Me too."
Go read the review and take a look at that Gingersnaps recipe he excerpts. Mmmm, those look fantastic.

Cross-posted at Happy Catholic.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fine Art Friday

The Bucket by Edward B. Gordon

Can this guy do a painting I don't like? Nope.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How to Judge a Tex-Mex Restaurant

Here are a few guidelines: 1. It has to be family-owned. 2. A ramshackle space with added-on rooms is a positive. The most successful Tex-Mex restaurants started small and expanded due to popular demand. 3. It’s best if the patrons in the dining room look like the face of democracy. You want a mix of gringos and Hispanic customers; professionals and laborers.

Joe Gonzalez who, with his wife, Alma, opened El Jardin in 1975, offers a fourth tip: take careful measure of the chips and salsa.

“It’s the first thing that hits the table,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “Are the chips and salsa homemade, or does it taste like they’re from a bag and a jar? Right there you know if you’re in for the real thing, or they’re trying to save money.”
Indeed, this is exactly how I begin judging a new Tex-Mex place. Much, much more about Tex-Mex, that "native regional food," from this NY Times article, A Celebration of Tex-Mex, Without Apology. It's got plenty of input from Robb Walsh whose seminal Texas cookbooks I reviewed here. Thanks to Don for sending me the link to this enjoyable article!

Read about The Saga of Texas Chili and Terlingua.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Deep in the Heart of Texas: Robb Walsh

Whenever I see an unlicensed shade-tree barbecue stand along the side of a Texas farm-to-market road, I think of history's first barbecue salesmen -- those famous outlaws, the buccaneers.

In the French West Indies, the word for a barbecue grill is boucan (from Tupi, a Brizilian language). Boucanee means smoked meat. Hence, "buccaneer" is derived from the French word for "barbecuer." The buccaneers were a ragtag crew consisting mainly of French and English outlaws and escaped slaves. They hid from the Spanish on the island of Tortuga off the northern coast of Hispaniola in the mid-1600s. Although they would later be known for their seafaring exploits, their original business was smoke-cured meat.

The buccaneers hunted the wild cows and pigs left behind the failed Spanish settlements on the island of Hispaniola. They smoke-cured the meat and sold it to the passing ships. Hunted themselves by the Spanish, the buccaneeers banded together for their own protection. Eventually they gave up on the meat business and went to sea. soon they discovered that capturing Spanish vessels by surprise attack was a lot more lucrative than chasing wild pigs. Before long, the buccaneers came to be known more as fearless seamen than as barbecue purveyors. But many would argue that it was in their first occupation that they made their most significant contribution to humanity.

Like the buccaneers, Texas barbecue joints are forever at odds with the authorities. Barbecue is, by definition, a primitive cooking process. The health laws in many Texas counties do not allow restaurants to cook outdoors. Many barbecue joints build tin roofs, screened porches, and other elaborate facades to bring the outdoor cooking indoors (at least technically). In outlaw tradition, the best barbecue generally comes from the joint that is in the most trouble with the health department.
If you are interested in the history of American cooking, then Robb Walsh is a must read.

If you are interested in the history of Texas cooking, then Robb Walsh is a must read.

If you are interested in Texas cooking now as well as recipes on doing this yourself ... well you get the point.

Must read!

Yes, I'm a fan.

He has covered barbecue, Tex-Mex, and cowboy cooking with historical information, oral tradition, restaurant information, and current day cooking and tastes. He does his own research, takes his own photos when those he can find won't do, and makes it all so easy to read that you don't feel as if you are absorbing history.

Excerpts tend to speak better for his cookbooks than I can do.
The Tex-Mex Railway
"Tex-Mex" first entered the language as a nickname for the Texas and Mexican Railway which was chartered in 1875. Newspaper railroad schedules used the abbrreviation "Tex. Mex." for the rail line which ran from Laredo to Corpus Christi.

The Oxford English Dictionary has cited a 1941 Time magazine quote as the first use in print, but several earlier citations appear in small-town newspapers. An earlier use of the hyphenated form is found in this May 23, 1922, citation from the Mexia Evening News (Mexia, Texas): "... the new town of Marindo City on the Tex-Mex Railway, where oil is loaded ..."

The term came to be used across the U.S. to describe people of Mexican ancestry in Texas as in this item from The Gastonia Daily Gazette (Gastonia, North Carolina) May 29, 1926: "One year the offering went to the Tex-Mex school, the School for Mexicans on the Texas side." On September 19, 1928, the Newark Advocate (Newark, Ohio) published this definition: "Q. What are Tex-Mex? A. Texas-born Mexicans."
But what about the recipes I can hear you saying. What about cooking from these books?

Good question and, sadly, all my appreciation comes from reading the books as I have been doing basic subsistence cooking lately. However, I feel myself shaking that mood off and plan to make this recipe soon. For more concrete appreciation, check out Homesick Texan who not only cooks from these books but has actually spent time cooking with Robb Walsh!

Sweet Potatoes Baked in Cane Syrup

How long you bake it depends on how wet the potatoes are, Mama Sugar Sanders cautions. If the sweet potatoes give off a lot of water, increase the baking time until the liquid is reduced.

Serves 8

2 tablespoons butter
3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 cup cane syrup
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a medium baking dish.

Layer the sweet potato slices in the prepared baking dish. Pour the cane syrup over the top and dot with the remaining butter. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the baking dish from the oven and tun with a spatula so the top slices are on the bottom and the bottom slices are on top. Sprinkle with the sugar and return to the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes more, until the juices have thickened into a syrup. Remove the pan from the oven and press down on the potato slices with a spatula so they are submerged in the juices. Allow to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Now Serving Hot Links

3 Easy Pieces
Spaghetti with Breadcrumbs, Quesadillas, and Shrimp. That's what three Dallas chefs cook at home for their families on their day off. Good looking and simple recipes ... I'd forgotten about Quesadillas as a potential meal so this was a nice reminder of a really quick, delicious save for busy days. This is the feature story of the food section at the Dallas Morning News and free registration may be required.

The King of Casseroles?
We Texans, like most Americans, love our casseroles. Though what usually sets a Texan casserole apart from its neighbors is the spices used. Not shy with the peppers, most Texan casseroles have a bit of a kick. And one of the most popular casseroles we make is King Ranch Chicken Casserole, a soft, slightly spicy, cheesy mixture of tomatoes, corn tortillas, chicken, cream and peppers. It goes down easy and is the ultimate comfort food.
Yep. I love a good King Ranch Casserole which I'd never heard of until I moved to Texas. Homesick Texan has not only a recipe but her always-fun-to-read commentary as well.

Mooncakes and the Mid-Autumn Festival
Growing up, our group of girl cousins were told that the Moon Goddess Chang E would powder her face so as to be at her most beautiful on that night. Being a deity, the powder that falls from her puff would bless young maidens with beauty. Hence, we should sit demurely with our faces upturned toward the moon and think "pure thoughts." ...

Also, I could not wrap my mind around why the aunts did not have to participate in the same vapid moon-gazing; at that tender age, I did not know of anyone in greater need of Chang E's magic powder than Second Aunt.
Memories of the Mooncake Festival ... a good read.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
As I anticipated, there is a heckuva a lot of agenda in the book. However, I find most of the agenda congenial. Because I've grown increasingly suspicious of anything that represents itself as "non-fiction" there are some facts I would like to check out--particularly things like whether a patent on a genotype gives you the right to shut down nearby farming operations into which your patented genes have dispersed by air. If so, we all have a lot to be concerned about with the control of the eight basic crops in the hands of only four companies.

But I've also grown used to the fact that a specific wildly idiotic example is held up as the universal practice. I'm also suspicious of unquoted sources and innuendo.
Steven Riddle is reading the latest trendy food-ethics book (the label is my own) and has reactions similar to the ones I have felt from simply reading enthralled foodies' reviews. Being Steven, of course, he is eminently fair and so also shares an overview, a bit of Ms. Kingsolvers' humor, and a danger that never would have occurred to him without the book. Certainly I never would have thought to consider this book alongside Dante's warnings about gluttons, even though I am currently working my way (very slowly) thorough that classic. Check it out.

Good Blogs Alert!
A lot of people probably have already discovered these blogs but just in case ...
  • Tigers & Strawberries
    Barbara Fisher has intelligent and interesting food writing as well as a passion for Asian foods to make at home. Take a look through her archives and you will find accessible recipes for a gaggle of noodle dishes as well as the more commonly thought of stir-fries ... many of them inspired by the sort of restaurant cooking she used to do. As well she has thoughtful writing on food subjects of the moment when they arise ... such as the media terror over fewer bees and the trendiness of cupcakes. (Which is to say that I agree with, right? Right.)

  • CHOW Tour: Mongol Rally
    From London to Mongolia, fish and chips to fermented horse milk, all in a month. Writer Joshua M. Bernstein and his crew are eating their way across 8,000 miles in the Mongol Rally... Which leads to such seminal moments as ...
    What interests me more are pinkie-size bricks that appear to be made out of the stuff that’s inside malted milk balls. I walk up to a woman wearing a vibrant purple dress and a green headband. Her front four teeth are fake, which she demonstrates by disconcertingly sliding them around her mouth while talking.

    She tries to sell me a bowl of milky liquid, which looks suspiciously like the sour goat milk I despise. But I do buy several bricks for five soms (less than a penny).

    “Moo?” I ask. Thankfully, animal sounds are universal. I’m guessing it’s milk curds.

    The woman nods. “Aaruul.”

    Mims and I take a bite of one brick. It’s as dry as chalk and tastes like sour Parmesan.

    “All the moisture has been sucked from my mouth,” Mims says.
    Good stuff.