Friday, September 29, 2006

Here's the beef

Ah, summer love--so intense, so exciting, and yet, so fleeting. Perhaps that’s part of the thrill. But now that it’s autumn, I have to say good-bye to my summertime fling, the Shake Shack Double Shack Burger. I enjoyed those late-night rendezvous when it was just the Double Shack and me, no huge crowds of people also vying for its deliciousness. Yes, the long lines for Shake Shack are legion, but its popularity is well deserved: how can you not love thick and juicy well-seasoned meat, fresh green lettuce, bright flavorful tomatoes, oozing American cheese, all sandwiched between a perfectly proportioned potato bun. Shake Shack had me at first bite.

But as good as the Double Shack may be, I think the real reason I fell so hard was because it reminded me of a taste of home. There was something in the peppery meat and perfect balance that made me swoon. And even though the two are completely different feasts, something about the Double Shack reminded me of my first burger love—Whatburger.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Homesick Texan Q&A: Liz Smith

I had an idea that it would be fun to do a series of quick Q&A’s with fellow Homesick Texans on their favorite Texan foods. My goal? To learn what others miss the most, and how we satisfy our needs outside the state. Today begins the first in what I hope will be a long and enjoyable series. But first, a bit of background.

In my job, not only is it important to read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, but it’s key that we keep abreast of all the gossip columnists as well. I have been reading fellow ex-pat Texan Liz Smith in The New York Post for longer than I can remember. And, yes, she dishes as good as the rest. But the one thing about her column that always struck me was the inclusion of Texas—if there’s something to say about The Lone Star State, without fail, it’ll be said. And it always makes me long for home.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

What does soap taste like?

I love cilantro. I love it so much I put it in just about everything I can, within reason, of course. It’s the definitive flavor in so many Tex-Mex dishes, that its absence is sorely felt if omitted by one who doesn’t quite feel the same as I. Yes, that’s correct: not everyone loves cilantro. Matter of fact, almost 40% of the population believes cilantro tastes like soap. It’s true; I’ve seen some hard data on this phenomenon, and while I can’t understand it, I just have to accept it.

I grew up with cilantro—it was probably one of the first leafy, green things I’d eat without any argument. Everyone in my family grows it, and my uncle in Austin has taken to spreading the seeds all over the city in hopes they will take root and cilantro plants will flourish all over--like bluebonnets or Indian paintbrush. We call him Johnny Cilantroseed. So when you have a naive worldview like myself, if I like something, then everyone else must like it, right? Wrong.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Salt bagels and jalapeno cream cheese

Growing up in the Bible Belt, Judaism was under my radar, I'm ashamed to say. Yom Kippur wasn’t a school holiday, and hamentashen was just a buttery fruit-filled cookie. But even though I didn’t have a name for it, I was fascinated with Jewish culture as a kid. When my father’s friend's daughter had her bat mitzvah, I was eager to attend as Devo had played at Muffy Tepperman’s bat mitzvah on the TV show Square Pegs, therefore making the religious ceremony very cool. And in Woody Allen movies, I kept hearing about this mysterious sounding food combination called bagels and lox, so the first time I saw it on a menu in a Houston restaurant, I ordered it and fell in love.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Hill Country Diet

Don’t read this web site, it’s bad for your health. That’s right, I’m a Homesick Texan who waxes nostalgic for Texan foods. And yet, it turns out that those foods are nonnutritious. I can’t believe that a huge slab of chicken fried steak drowning in gravy or a No. 3 Tex-Mex dinner oozing cheese juice and bacon grease isn’t part of a heart-healthy diet. I could have sworn I heard that Dr. Andrew Weil was going to narrate a Hill Country Diet documentary for PBS. I guess I confused Texas with Okinawa.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

When Love comes to town

A block away from my apartment, Texan chef Tim Love is opening an outpost of his Fort Worth restaurant Lonsemone Dove Western Bistro. He's the kind of guy who prefers a cowboy hat to a toque and has done trail rides from Fort Worth to both coasts, cooking with ingredients from local markets along the way. Colorful guy. And by looking at the menu, it appears to be one of those high-concept cowboy places, the type where they combine fois gras with chiles and serve a kangaroo carpaccio. I'm curious. And this week, New York Magazine has provided a guide to his menu, asking Tim to define some of his more exotic culinary terms, such as "prairie butter," "fois gras shooter" and the ever-perplexing, "state fair sauce." Who knew...state fair sauce is exotic! He's also featured in Food & Wine this month if you want to check out some of his recipes. (He clearly has a well-oiled PR machine).

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Lunch ladies and fried okra

School lunches are a hot topic du jour as the school year has recently begun. Everyone from The New York Times to the New Yorker seems to be weighing in. Most of these articles focus on changing the traditional school lunch from its government sanctioned mediocrity into something that has nutritional value. But of course, lots of kids have a well-formed junk-food palate, and are averse to foods that aren’t deep fried or loaded with sugar. One student in Burkhard Bilger’s New Yorker profile of crusading Berkeley, CA school chef Ann Cooper, laments Cooper’s new vegetable-heavy menus: “…She missed all the meat from last year. She picked at her pink coleslaw. ‘I’m moving to Texas,’ she said.” While it is not explained if she’s really moving to Texas or just wants to move to Texas because she believes there will be more meat served with her school lunch, the comment made me laugh. I don’t remember Texan lunch ladies serving up huge portions of meat, but there sure was a lot of fried okra.

In hindsight, I reckon I was fortunate because my mother made my lunch for me everyday and I rarely ate the stuff served by the cafeteria ladies. But as a kid, when everyone around you has a tray and you’re schlepping a Pigs in Space lunch kit filled with a peanut-butter and banana sandwich on homemade, whole-wheat bread; a piece of fruit; a bag of what she called “miscellaneous” but what I’d now call trail mix—raisins, nuts, and dried coconut; and a thermos filled with milk—well, you’re just not cool. Even the other kids who did bring their lunches got to eat processed meat with American cheese on Mrs. Baird’s white bread, a bag of Fritos, and Zingers. I hated having health-food nuts for parents, it just made me appear weird to me fellow young Texans.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

A balance of powder

Homemade chile powder, so rich, red and flavorful, is an ingredient I cannot live without. I use it with so many things, including my salsa, my eggs, my beans, my steaks, my tacos, my enchilada sauce and, of course, my chili. I've said this before, homemade chile powder is far superior to any store-bought brand, and it's not that difficult to make. I reckon the biggest challenge to making homemade chile powder is finding the right kind of chiles. But even if your usual market doesn't have these, I bet there is a Latino population somewhere in your area where you can find a Mexican grocer. Or you could order online from places such as MexGrocer, Penzeys or Kitchen Market.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ann Richards: 1933-2006

Good night, Governor. Thanks for all your wit, wisdom, courage and leadership. You were a true Texas treasure. You will be missed.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Grandmotherhood and pecan pie

pecan pie Texas
My grandmother makes the best pies. Of course, everyone’s grandmother makes the best pies, but I’m not kidding when I say my grandmother’s pies are divine. Everyone in my family has their favorite: some like the peach, some like the sweet potato, some like the chocolate. But from my grandmother’s pie-making repertoire, there is one pie that we all agree is top notch: her pecan pie.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of her pies is how fresh they are. She and my grandpa live on a farm, where small groves of pecan and peach trees grow and where there is always an ample crop of sweet potatoes. So her pies are made with the fruit of the land, making them very, very tasty. My grandparents are pragmatic people, and as they're getting older, they always ask what we want willed to us. In yet another testament to her pies, the one thing we all fight over is my grandmother's rolling pin that she was given in the 1940s and has used ever since. Forget the land, the houses or the antiques--we all want that magical tool that has rolled out so many delicious crusts.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What the butcher knows

This week, New York Magazine has a wonderful feature on butchers and their thoughts on preparing meat--which you can find in both the print and online editions. Molly Friedman and Helen Yun talked to eight NYC butchers (and one chef), about cuts, quality and cooking tips, with some personal histories sprinkled around for color and flavor. Accompanying the quotes are the fantasticly rich and real photographs by Hans Ginssinger who is probably my favorite raw-meat photographer. No one else can make bones and raw flesh look so beautiful.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

9.11.01: Finding hope at the greenmarket

Today marks the five-year anniversary of 9-11. I have no story of valor, courage or heroics, nor do I have a story of loss. Save for my friends who decided to leave New York City after the disaster, I didn’t lose anyone. My story is only one of witness—I was here that day and observed unimaginable events. I did not see the towers on fire except on TV screens, which I’m thankful for considering how shook up I was by just the aftermath alone. But I did see other things: I saw the huge black cloud filled with debris hover over downtown for several days, its presence filling the skyline where the towers once dominated; I saw the missing posters multiply by the thousands until almost every outdoor surface was shrouded with people’s desperate pleas; I saw while walking home from work that day, crowds of people somberly shuffling uptown, covered in dust, their faces shadowed in dazed disbelief at what they had escaped; I saw hundreds of gurneys and medics waiting outside of St. Vincent’s Hospital for the victims who never arrived; I saw strangers huddling in silent groups, trying to make sense of what was happening; I saw an armed-service population immediately sprout all over the city, waiting with huge guns for the next big disaster; and I saw a city forever changed, no longer living in naive bliss.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

NYC Potluck

Danielle over at Habeas Brulee is organzing a NYC food bloggers potluck for
Saturday, September 30, whenever the majority can attend. If you're interested in eating some good food and meeting the faces behind the blogs, check out the details here.

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A bit of soul on the Upper West Side

A couple of years ago, I was on real soul-food kick, and would spend the weekends eating at every place I could find in Harlem: diners, hole-in-the-walls, high-end establishments and even church dinners. Most of the food was passable, but one place was truly worth the return trip: Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen. It’s a small place with an all-you-can-eat buffet, and boy is it good. He’s got oxtails, deviled eggs, potato salad, collard greens, mac and cheese, cole slaw and some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. And he fries it up the right way: in an iron skillet with lard. You can taste how finely it’s been prepared—the crust is crispy and flaky with just the right amount of spice and the chicken is juicy and tender—even the white meat, which is no mean feat. A couple of months ago, Charles opened a place further downtown on Broadway and 109th Street, Rack & Soul, which he collaborated on with pitmaster John Wheeler. I was curious to see how his fried chicken would transfer 40 blocks down, and I was also eager to try this new bbq chef’s smoked meat. The place did not disappoint.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

When life gives you tomatoes...

A few years ago, salsa became the number-one selling condiment in the U.S., knocking out ketchup. And for good reason: salsa is spicy, light and fun whereas ketchup is plodding and heavy. Growing up, I could never understand people who doused ketchup over everything. But, to be fair, they probably thought it was weird that I dumped hot sauce over everything. I've mentioned before that while I love Tex-Mex, I'm all Tex with (alas) no Mex. But in Texas, it doesn't matter what your roots are, every family has at least one homemade salsa recipe and here's my family's. It’s fresh, fast and easy, and if you like the flavors of lime, tomato and cilantro, you might like it, too. You can use either canned or fresh tomatoes, depending on the season, but make sure everything else is fresh—especially the garlic, peppers, lime juice and cilantro--or it won’t taste bright and lively. And the recipe also calls for chile powder. If you don’t make your own chile powder (recommended, but not necessary) be sure and choose the darkest chile powder you can find. Whole Foods’ Valle Del Sol chile powder has a pretty complex flavor and it has no funky fillers. Now for a full disclosure: I don’t use measurements. Only when I bake do I follow a recipe exactly (because baking is chemistry and you just can’t mess with that). But when doing savory stuff I usually make it up as I go along and this recipe is no different; I watched my uncle make it one day and that’s how I learned. But, I just made a batch and wrote down what I did, so this is what follows. Also, feel free to adjust the peppers and garlic to your spice preference—-I like things hot and garlicy, but not everyone is inclined that way.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Brisket and a book

Want to read some amazing writing--writing so good it convinced the chairman of Reader's Digest to break bread with its creator? Here's your chance.But first, a bit of history.When I walked into the office this morning, Ken Wheaton handed me a takeout container filled with bbq brisket, ribs and pork from The Cookhouse, where Ken and his girlfriend were dinner guests of Cookhouse owner (and Reader's Digest Chairman Tom Ryder). How did Ken manage to score such a cool invitation? By his very fine writing, of course. As I've mentioned before, Ryder went on a bbq tour of the Hill Country, and posted an in-depth interactive travelogue on the Reader's Digest site. Ken writes a magazine column, and being no bbq slouch himself he decided to comment on it. And Ryder loved Ken's words so much, he invited him to Connecticut.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A state of fairs

Do you go to your state fair? As a kid, not an autumn rolled around without a trip to Fair Park in Big D to attend the Texas State Fair. And oh boy, is it fun. There's the 52-foot tall Big Tex, who belts out announcements and salutations throughout the day. There's the butter statue, a work of agricultural art crafted from tons of butter (kept in a refridgerated room, of course). There's the food cook-offs, where you can watch the ladies feverishly stir their pots in hopes of making the best jelly or pie. There's a vertigo-inducing Ferris wheel and plenty of contests and games so you can win an overstuffed animal for your sweetheart. And let's not forget the photography exhibit of winners from its annual contest, which always included at least a couple of ribbon-adorned photos by my grandfather. Yes, the annual trip to the Fair was marvelous, but probably one of the best things about it was the chance to eat some homegrown, Texas-style junk food.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Save your bacon

My grandparents grew up in the Depression. And like many people who came of age during that time, they are extremely frugal and reuse everything. Foil, Ziplock bags, plastic containers, glass jars, clothes, and anything else they can figure out a way to make last longer than its expected lifetime. If you’re riding in the car and you get thirsty, Grandpa will hand you an old syrup bottle filled with water. If Grandma sends me a pecan pie, it’s sealed in a Ziplock bag that has also held vegetables, meat and cheese in its long life. You get the idea. And I am not mocking them, I think these are fine traits and in respect to my elders, I also reuse everything at least once. I have a cupboard filled with Chinese-takeout containers that I use to store leftovers--I haven’t had the urge to attend a Tupperware party in years. And even though as a kid I was always embarrassed that the foil wrapped around my soda on field-trip day was wrinkled from many uses (the other kids always had smooth, shiny foil wrapped around their cans), as a frugal grown-up I reuse foil until it has holes in it, which can take a long time, it being metal and all.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Music to my ears

I’m often asked the question: “Where is the best place to get Mexican in the city?” To which I reply: “La cocina de Homesick Texan.” OK, I admit, I’m of French and English descent, and when I’m cooking Mexican what I’m really cooking is Tex-Mex. And while Diana Kennedy would probably disparage most of my dishes, if you’re looking for true Tex-Mex flavor I’ve got a lot of it covered. But the key to any Tex-Mex meal at my place is this: A CD called “15 Early Tejano Classics.”

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