Thursday, November 30, 2006

Let's make tamales: part 1

Back in September, the delightful Wednesday Chef cooked a Regina Schrambling recipe for tamales. She was not impressed. No disrespect to Ms. Schrambling, but the recipe was a mess from the get go. It was supposed to make tamale-making simple by substituting grits for masa, but there is no easy way to the culinary bliss that is a tamale.

Ever since I read that post, the blogging side of my brain has been begging to write something on the subject. And now that December is upon us, there’s no better way to present a post (or two or three) on tamales than to wrap it up in holiday garb.

Why do I write about tamales now? Easy answer—tamales are a traditional holiday food in Texas and the Southwest. And while you can buy them just about anywhere in that part of the country, they are traditionally made at home. And one of the best hallmarks of the season is having a tamalada or tamale party.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Homesick Texan Q&A: Julie Powell

Today’s Homesick Texan Q&A is with Julie Powell. Julie’s year-long, online account of how a disenchanted temp found salvation by working her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, made her one of the first bonafide blog stars. She let it all hang out—chronicling her mistakes, her frustrations, her successes and her joys. And when I found out she was a Texan, I was not a bit surprised as her voice was chockfull of sass and spirit. While she no longer posts to Julie/Julia, it’s still up if you want to read it. Or you can check out her book based on the blog, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, which has just come out in paperback. She’s a busy woman—you can also see her byline in places such as The New York Times, and Bon Appetit, and I hear she’s training to be a butcher (for a future book) with the evidence of her education on full display on YouTube. Here’s what Julie misses:

Where are you from? Do you still have family there? My husband and I are both from Austin, and both of our families are still there.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Seasoned oyster crackers

Well, I’ve been to Texas. And while I thought most of my homesickness was rooted in missing Tex-Mex and barbecue, after spending two days at my grandparents’ farm, I realized what I truly pine for is the closeness of family. Save for one excursion into town to eat at San Miguel’s, a wonderful Tex-Mex restaurant where we all had our fill of enchiladas, tacos, burritos, chile rellenos, refried beans, rice, chips, salsa, guacamole, sopapillas and pralines, I spent my trip in the country, enjoying the company of my fun, intelligent, loving family while we shared meals based on the fruit of the land.

My grandparents are getting older, and to save time for the big meal they ordered a smoked turkey from Greenberg’s of Tyler, Texas—hailed by many the aristocrat of turkeys. This is a tender, smoky and succulent bird, so exquisite and renowned that even Oprah lists it as one of her favorite things. I highly recommend it and I could gnaw on the chewy, smoky skin for days. But even though we ordered out for the bird, everything else was homemade—with many of the ingredients sourced from my grandparents’ and other family members’ gardens: the jalapeno corn bread stuffing, the green beans with bacon and almonds, the cranberry sauces, the creamy rice casserole, several salads made with greens and fruit, sweet potatoes, chips and salsa, pecan pie, apple pie and sweet potato pie, and, well, the list goes on and on.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006


I've gone to Texas! I'll only be there for 48 hours but that should be enough time to visit with most of my family and fill my belly with some good grub.

May you and your family have a very happy Thanksgiving.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Poblano cranberry salsa

Cranberry sauce for many means this: a tubular, red, gelatinous substance that slithers out of a can, shiny ridges included free of charge. You’d think with so many people interested in fresh, local foods that it would be a relic from the past, a candidate for the museum of regrettable edibles. But I know it’s still a popular holiday item because this time of year you see stacks of this canned product on prominent display at grocery stores, Whole Foods included. Why? Why? Why?

I grew up thinking this was the only way to prepare cranberries and it scared me (much like marshmallows on sweet potatoes). I always said, “No thanks,” and loaded up on more stuffing instead. Which is a shame, because nothing complements turkey and cornbread stuffing better than the tang of cranberries—it’s the trinity of Thanksgiving flavor.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Food for thought: "Our Daily Bread"

If you aren’t subscribing to Very Short List, you should. It’s a pithy, smart and cutting-edge daily dose of culture brought to you by Simon Dumenco and Kurt Andersen. Usually they introduce me to something new—be it a book, DVD, movie or whatever other media tidbit their touting. But even if I am already familiar with what they list, it’s an insightful blast to read their take on it. Plus, if you don’t have time to read, they provide you with handy Venn diagrams showing just where their pick falls in the cultural scheme of things.

Today VSL short lists the new film, “Our Daily Bread,” hot on the heels of Richard Linklater’s (by way of Eric Schlosser)"Fast Food Nation," Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference and outbreaks of E. coli in spinach. This film, which comes out in NY and Chicago November 24, continues the ongoing discussion of where food comes from, a constant and colossal topic of late. From what I can gather about “Our Daily Bread,” it appears apolitical, letting you make up your own mind on the subject. There’s no narration and the soundtrack is comprised only of the whirs, buzzes and cha-chings of the machines behind industrial food. That said, after witnessing images such as these I challenge anyone to not give serious thought to the origins of what you put in your mouth.

Check out the trailers—there’s even a crop dusting one that (almost) tops Hitchcock. And sign up for Very Short List. You won’t be disappointed. Even if you don’t sample all the media items they list, at least you’ll appear au courant to your friends and family.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Bobby Flay's Texas Red throwdown

Did anybody see Bobby Flay’s Throwdown last night with two-time chili cook-off world champion Cindy Reed Wilkins? Wow!

Her story is actually pretty inspirational—she's the Lance Armstrong of the chili cook-off world. Back in 1992 she won her first Terlingua International Chili Championship Cook-off. Then two months after her win she had a stroke. But after rehabilitation she returned the next year to Terlingua and won again—a miliestone on a couple of fronts as she was not only the first person to win it twice but she was the first to win it back to back. Over her 20-year career she’s won over 300 cook-offs in all, pretty impressive. So who does New Yorker Bobby Flay think he is challenging this woman to a cook-off?

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Frozen but not chosen

I’m a busy person. And while I’d like to cook everyday, it’s just not possible. Now I make a mean batch of cheese enchiladas and soon I’ll share my recipe. But as I don’t always have the time to make these when I have a craving, and since there’s no local Tex-Mex joint in my neighborhood that serves decent enchiladas, I decided I’d check out what my options were in the frozen-food section. I figured Whole Foods’ frozen cheese enchiladas were worth a try, it being a Texas company and all. I also grabbed Trader Jose’s cheese enchiladas and Amy’s Enchilada Cheese (her ridiculous name, not mine).

Out of the box, there were some noticeable differences. TJ’s ($4.29) is huge, comes in a family-sized pan and is dotted with tons of cheese and green things. It’s made to serve 4, but there’s only six enchiladas (220 calories each). I guess each person will get one and a half. Amy’s ($3.49) looks Spartan, two enchiladas covered in red sauce with just a slight dusting of cheese. She says her box will serve two. Eh? One enchilada per person? Who’s the under-eater writing Amy’s box copy? Or is it one of those nutrition-label tricks were you see the calories (240) and think it’s for both enchiladas when it’s really just for one—I hate it when labels pull that scam. Whole Foods’ ($2.39) entry looks pretty good. You can see two nicely griddled corn tortillas covered in sauce, cheese and what I thought were jalapeno peppers. But, on the ingredients list, there are no peppers listed. Odd. What is that green stuff? Oh, I see, it’s chives. Pretty sneaky—I think they want you to believe they’re jalapenos. Who the heck sprinkles chives on their cheese enchiladas? Maybe in Boise, Idaho where they have buckets of chopped chives left over from their endless diet of baked potatoes, but not in Texas and never in my kitchen. Sigh. Whole Foods has broken my heart. At least they don’t try to trick you with their nutrition facts: serving per package is one, and the number of calories is 330.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

You bet your boots

I've written before of my love of cowboy boots. And while this article in today's Times by Alex Kuczynski has little to nothing to with food (though margaritas are mentioned) it's a fun look at what happens when a New Yorker goes to Austin and decides to buy cowboy boots. In the words of the writer, cowboy boots are "as comfortable as sneakers but as glamorous as stilettos." Heck, yeah, sister--that's why I've been wearing them for years. She also mentiones there is a dispute between Kansas and Texas over who invented the cowboy boot. Who knew? But since we all know where you can find the better bbq, if they want to lay claim to inventing cowboy boots I think we can give them that small crumb. That said, I've never heard anyone wax poetic about making a pilgrimage to Kansas to buy boots. I'm just saying....

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Homesick Texan Q&A: Matt Armendariz

Most readers of this blog are probably already familiar with today’s Homesick Texan, Matt Armendariz. But if you have never visited his gorgeous, entertaining and informative blog Matt Bites, stop reading this and go there now! From his amazing photography to his great sense of graphic design, his blog looks delicious. But beyond just being a pretty face, Matt’s writing is also brilliant—be it side-splitting humorous or head-nodding insightful, he always has a point of view. As for his photography, where to begin? He’s a master of composition and light, but beyond that he always creates a sense of place; his photos reveal a world I’m always thrilled to visit. And yes, I’d still be a fan if he wasn’t a Texan but since he is, here’s what Matt misses.

Where are you from? Do you still have family there? I was born in Galveston, Texas and raised in Austin. My grandparents are from Chihuahua, Mexico. With the exception of a sister in Ipswich, Masschusetts, all of my family is still in Austin.

When and why did you leave Texas? I left Texas in 1992 and moved to Chicago. I was working for Whole Foods Market and was part of the team that opened the midwest region. It was only supposed to be temporary–I've been gone ever since.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Sweet potatoes, hold the marshmallows

Growing up, not a holiday dinner or church potluck supper was complete without a casserole dish filled with baked sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. If you’ve never seen this dish, let me tell you—it looks disgusting. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like marshmallows (I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. To wit: when we’d go to Luby’s, while my family dug into slices of chess pie for dessert, I’d be eating jalapeno cornbread) and seeing this large baking dish filled with a brown and orange oozing substance covered with white dots just never seemed appealing. It looked like really bad 1970’s interior design. It wasn’t dessert, either--it was considered a savory side. So I grew up thinking that sweet potatoes had to be served with marshmallows, and I never tried them.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

A big idea in a tiny package

Not everything in Texas is big. The burger above? Your typical fast-food burger, probably measures about 5 inches across. But check this out. Texan photographer Nadia Caffesse created the world’s smallest burger (it measures one inch across) complete with an extra-small side order of fries and Coke. She even made a tray and paper liner to complete the fast-food experience. Check out her photos of the project, it’s very cool.

She mentions on her site that she did this for a Craftster project, but I asked her if there were any other considerations, say a statement on fast food or the American diet. This is what she replied: "I think the implications of the project as far as super-sizing versus mini-sizing are pretty interesting. Why did we choose fast food? Probably because it is the most easly recogizable and self-contained meal to miniaturize. Everything comes with its own specific packaging on a brand-specific place setting. All of it designed to be attractive and to give you a feeling of familiarity.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

My cheating heart

I never thought I’d fall so hard for another cuisine. I’ve eaten in a lot of places that offered untold surprises such as fresh tuna sliced for me by a fish monger at the Tsujiki Market, or a big steaming pot of homemade feijoada with farofa sprinkled on top in Sao Paolo. But they were just delicious memories—nothing that made me crazy.

Enter the Piedmonte. I’ve been back in the United States for less than a day and I can’t stop thinking about all the foods I ate last week in Turin and at the Salone Del Gusto. Now granted, I’m still a bit jet lagged so I may be addled in my thought processes. But if I concentrate, I can still smell an earthy whiff of fresh white truffles, feel the delicate texture of homemade agnolotti or taste the raw juicyness of vitello tonatto. I won’t be eating any of these things in NY any time soon—they’re sensory memories forever locked in a certain place (which means I’ll have to return!)

I also discovered an amazing thing at the chocolate shop, a treat I did not know existed in Italian cuisine: chocolate with red chiles. And unlike a truffle, this is something I could bring home with me without dealing with nosy customs inspectors. So I now have in my possession pounds of Turin chocolate all playing variations on this theme: dark bites of chocolate flecked with white truffles and piquant chiles, big bars of chocolate spiced with red chiles and jars of crema cacao al peperoncino (think Nutella—which hails from the Piedmonte region—with spicy chiles).

The women at the shop didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian, but the picture they showed me makes me think the chiles used are cayenne, but I’ll have to research this. But now that I think about it, I reckon my heart hasn’t strayed too far if I fell in love with chocolate and chiles, a very common combination found in Mexico and the Southwest. So perhaps I’m smitten because the taste is so familiar. No matter, the chocolate makes me swoon and I’ll have a hard time being generous with these sweet and piquant bites, even though they were purchased with the gift-giving season in mind. Perhaps my friends and family will settle for anchovy paste instead. (Hey, don’t give me that look…don’t knock anchovy paste until you try it!) But yes, while I want to be selfish, these chocolates are just too wonderful to hoard. And since there’s now a security inspector in Brussels enjoying my bottles of Barolo (sorry, Dad—I was misinformed about carry-on liquids) with his pot of mussles, these chocolates can be my way of acting as culinary ambassador to an outstanding food region—the Piedmonte.

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