Monday, February 26, 2007

Cream gravy recipe, the cream of the gravy crop

Cream gravy | Homesick TexanOK, class. Before we begin today’s lesson in Texan cooking, we’re going to take a little pop quiz:

1. In Texas, what is the correct topping for mashed potatoes?
2. In Texas, what is the correct topping for biscuits, besides butter, honey or jam?
3. In Texas, what is the correct topping for chicken fried steak?
4. In Texas, what is the correct topping for any other piece of meat, fish or sausage and/or any other vegetable?
5. What did my great-grandmother Blanche feed her dog, Rover?

Did you answer “cream gravy” for all five questions? Fantastic, here’s a gold star! Otherwise, let me explain.

While chili gravy is the essence of Tex-Mex, one of the hallmarks of Tex-Tex is cream gravy. This thick, peppery and creamy sauce is poured over everything, as you can see by the above questions. It’s a simple concoction, made with pan drippings, flour, milk and cracked black pepper. But while it may appear plain, it’s infinitely delicious. Sometimes it goes by the name country gravy or white gravy, but in Texas we always call it cream gravy. Or better yet—just gravy because in Texas there really is no other kind.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Gingerbread pancakes for Shrove Tuesday

Can someone explain to me what happened with the Anglican Communion? In 1534, Henry the Eighth split the Church of England from the Catholic Church so he could divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn. And from then on, Anglicans have basically been lax Catholics. Our priests can marry, we don’t have one-on-one confessions, we have female priests and we can divorce and remarry to our hearts’ content. So in those days before lent, when Catholic countries are filled with people wearing beads, tossing doubloons, donning festive masks, dancing in the streets and eating king cake, why do those radical and rebellious Anglicans mark the night before Lent by staidly eating a pile of pancakes?

OK, I admit, I do know that there is a historical (if not liturgical) reason why pancakes are consumed on this day. Many centuries ago, fatty foods including dairy were forbidden during the 40 days of Lent. So in order to use up their supply of these ingredients, the Anglicans added flour and voila—a feast of pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday. And don’t get me wrong. I love pancakes. Next to pizza and burgers, I’d say it’s one of those foods that’s never bad, there are just varying degrees of quality. But growing up in an Episcopalian family, and watching all my Catholic friends head with their families to Galveston or New Orleans to revel in those last few days before Lent, I always felt a little sheepish walking into my church’s annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. No beads, no floats, no dancing, just stack upon stack of pancakes. And yes, it was a bit gluttonous, but compared to Mardi Gras, it was bit tame, too.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Glorious garlic and four other things

I'm very lazy. And so faced with the choice of writing about refried beans or writing about myself, (but wait, you may be saying, isn't every one of your posts about yourself?) I've decided to tell you five things you may not know about me. When I was tagged by the sassy and smart Vanessa over at What Geeks Eat, at first I balked. I hate being told what to do and being tagged for a meme certainly falls in that category. But in the spirit of community and keeping the peace, I've decided to play along. And hey, how often do I get the chance to write about stuff that has little to nothing to do with food?

I admit, coming up with five things has been a challenge. There are countless things you don't know about me, everything from I didn't own a TV for 12 years to I listen to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos every single morning (it's the only way I can wake up completely). But that's silly stuff—I'm sure you want dirt, real gossip not found anywhere else. So if you're still reading, (drum roll please!) here are five things you don't know about me, the Homesick Texan.

1. I can drive a tractor. Before I turned 16 (the legal age for driving in Texas), all I wanted to do was move. I'd ride my bike very long distances all over my part of Houston, and while good fun and good exercise, I yearned for the power of an auto. Visiting my grandparents' farm one summer when I was in my early teens, I asked my grandpa if I could drive his car. He declined, but offered to teach me how to drive his tractor instead. And even though it only moved along at about 20 miles an hour (if that much), I was in heaven. Looking back, I think my tractor-driving lesson was probably just a ploy to get me to mow the vast pasture. But I had a blast and when I took it out by myself on those gravel-coated country roads, I had my first taste of freedom.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Looking for Love Dip

love dipIt's true: while I may be, shall we say, in between boyfriends at the moment, there is no shortage of love in my life, thanks to a beautiful bounty of fantastic friends and family. But despite all that, one thing I am without is my beloved Central Market, hence I'm looking for Love Dip.

I’ve long held a huge passion for supermarkets. Yes, those fluorescent-lit, big-box stores catering to the masses. While there’s more authenticity and artistry in an outdoor street market or large covered market, such as Rue Poncelet in Paris or La Boqueria in Barcelona, no matter where I travel in the world, one of the must-visit places for me is the local supermarket.

In supermarkets, you can get an instant view of the culture: what people eat, how marketers view them (and consequently, perhaps how the population views itself), what food costs, the culture’s aesthetics and what the people value. For instance, if you go to the Monoprix in Paris, you’ll find a long cheese counter positioned in between the wine and the bread. Or in Tokyo, at the supermarket you’ll not only find rice displayed at the end of every aisle, but both the meat and the produce packaged with a care and delicacy usually reserved for gifts.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Get-well-quickly tomato soup

I left work early the other day, which is something I never do. But after several colleagues came up to me and said, “Why are you so flushed?” and then, a few minutes later, “Why are you so pale?” I realized something wasn’t right. Not to mention, I was wearing my wooly hat with earflaps in the office. My boss said, “Why are you wearing your hat?” I didn’t have a good answer—it just felt cozy on my cold head. So I decided that the magazine could live without me (a tough and rare choice for me to make).

On the way home, I stopped into Whole Foods to pick up some soup. Growing up, my two favorite “I don’t feel well” soups were the canned variety: Campbell’s Chicken Noodle and Campbell’s Tomato, both best served with so many saltines crunched in the bowl that it turned into a sort of cracker-and-soup paste. Whole Foods doesn’t sell Campbell’s, and I don’t know if I’d eat the stuff anyway—too much MSG and other weird ingredients. So while perusing the soups, I realized that I craved a creamy, tomato bisque, loaded with garlic. This was not on offer, so I decided I’d have to make it myself.

Now you may be saying, “She’s sick, why would she make herself soup?” And to this I reply, because when I have an idea in my head of what I want, I know that nothing will stop me from getting it, not even a burgeoning illness. I remembered I already had all the ingredients for the soup I imagined, so I grabbed a loaf of sourdough bread and walked the short block home.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pressing matters: making corn tortillas

I forgot I had a tortilla press. When I was recently riffling through my cabinet on the hunt for an errant springform pan, I came across it buried under a pile of Chinese delivery menus and a rolling mat. There it sat—dusty, rusty and unloved. I felt so unappreciative, especially as my tortilla press had been a gift from my mother.

When I lived in Iowa in the early '90s, the only flour tortillas I could find were at the health-food co-op, and they were the color and texture of cardboard, heavy with grains and just way too nutritious for me. I wanted fluffy, thick white-flour tortillas that came spotted with brown specks from the comal, still warm in the bag they were so fresh. But that wasn't happening, so I realized I needed to take matters in my own hands and learn how to make flour tortillas at home.

After doing much research, I settled on a recipe from Diana Kennedy. I don’t know if it was my inadequacies or her directions, but something wasn't right. Working with the dough was like pulling elastic—I'd roll it out and just when I thought I’d formed a perfect tortilla, it would snap back to where I had started.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Classic pimento cheese recipe

"I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults."—Molly Ivins

We’re all consenting adults here. And while I dearly love Texas, I’m not a big fan of football and will probably forgo celebrating the big event this weekend known as Super Bowl Sunday. I know, I know, all Texans are supposed to love football but somehow I was born without the game-loving gene. Sure, when I lived in Texas, I never missed a Super Bowl party. These would be an all-day affair, filled with lots of food and good cheer. You'd show up around noon and stay until the final touchdown. There'd usually be a TV in every room (bathroom included) and some people even hooked up sets outside in the yard. Of course, there were huge amounts of food, and, well, it never really mattered who was in the game, what was really important was just how many good eats you could consume. (Though if the Cowboys were playing the mood was a lot more tense as the game actually mattered.)

After Thanksgiving, I reckon that Super Bowl Sunday is the top day on a Texan's food calendar. On the the table, you'll find queso, chili, seven-layer dip, sausage, brisket, Texas caviar, and my favorite, pimento cheese. Technically, pimento cheese should be called pimiento cheese, since it's made with pimiento peppers. But somewhere along the way, Texans, known for malapropisms and creative spellings, (heck, the name of the state is even a refashioning of a Caddoan word, Tejas, which means friends) took out the extra "i" and decided to call it pimento. It certainly rolls off the tongue a lot easier that way. And if you're not familiar with the dish, it's a spread made up of shredded cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, pimiento peppers and spices. You can spread it on sandwiches, use it for a chip dip and best of all, stuff it in celery sticks.

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