Monday, March 26, 2007

Refried beans recipe: a life pursuit

I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and it was filled with a heaping serving of refried beans. OK, the spoon may not have been exactly silver, but ever since I can remember, refried beans have been my favorite food. When my parents were young and still in college, we often ate at Pancho’s because kids got free rice and beans. And since I was too young to take umbrage at eating what was essentially poor-people food, I fell in love with the refried beans—the texture, the flavor, the way they filled my mouth and belly with a luscious, toothsome bite of beany goodness. I craved them all the time. Even today, while I enjoy the food that sits in between the rice and beans on your typical Tex-Mex plate, I still eat the beans first and regard everything else as secondary. I’ve even been known to order an extra plate of refried beans just to satisfy my desire.

Some of my favorite refried beans on the planet are served at Las Manitas in downtown Austin, TX. This café is known for its breakfasts, but I could care less about anything but the beans. I recommended the restaurant to my buddy Christine when she made a recent trip to Austin, emphasizing she must try the beans. And as she noted, they did not disappoint. I always suspected they make their dreamy beans by using bacon grease, and after a quick call to the restaurant my hunch was confirmed. The lovely woman I spoke with did not give me a recipe per se. But she did share with me her technique, which is very simple. Just fry up some bacon, remove the cooked meat, throw your beans in the pot and mash away. This is how I've long made mine, and I was pleased that I had been doing it correctly all along. And while many others may use lard for making their refried beans, which also makes them soft and smooth, I prefer to use bacon grease because it has that added smoky flavor.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Flour tortillas: an end to my quest

flour tortillas recipeWhite bread was forbidden in my household as a child. We only ate whole-grain bread, the coarser, tougher and browner the better. I hated it. Especially since all the other kids brought their sandwiches to school on Mrs. Baird’s lily-white bread, so soft it practically melted in your mouth. I felt like such an oddball. But my mother told me that eating white bread was like eating poison, and that half the diseases in the world could be prevented from not eating refined grains. Yes, I realize she was acting out of concern for my health, but it still didn’t make me like whole-wheat bread any better.

There was, however, an exception to the no-white-flour rule: flour tortillas. Unlike today where you can find whole-wheat flour tortillas at the store, when I was young there was only one kind: the thick, tender and chewy flour tortilla made out of white flour. And as Tex-Mex is unthinkable without flour tortillas, there was always an ample supply on hand.

I should prefer corn tortillas over flour—they have more depth of flavor and are a better complement to most Tex-Mex ingredients. But because I once viewed them as something decadent and a chance to partake in something forbidden, I still always opt for flour over corn. Many people say flour tortillas are strictly gringo, but that’s not true. You can find them in Northern Mexico, especially the state of Sonora. But the varieties eaten there are different from the ones I prefer. While the Mexican version is thin, smooth and flat, Texan flour tortillas are thick, soft, puffy and chewy.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

No better fish to fry

One of the best things about traveling around the United States is the chance to chow on a region’s seafood specialty. For instance, in Maine, you’ll find lobster rolls. In Massachusetts, fried clams. In Louisiana, a hearty bowl of gumbo. And in Texas you’ll find fried catfish.

After barbecue, fried catfish is the dish of choice when a group of Texans gather to celebrate. Family reunions, wedding receptions, birthdays, Juneteenth and Fridays (especially during Lent if you’re Catholic) are all best served with endless supplies of delectable deep-fried, cornmeal-coated catfish.

Statistics say that more than 50% of the nation’s catfish consumption occurs in Texas. That’s no surprise since in countless small towns across the state it’s more ubiquitous than either Tex-Mex or barbecue—chance are, in most places if there is only one restaurant it’s a catfish joint. That’s certainly the case for my grandparents. A stone’s throw up the road from their farm (which is in the no-light town of Chambersville) is the one-light town of Weston. It has a gas station, a post office and a cafe called Grady’s that specializes in, you guessed it—catfish.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Kolaches: A sweet escape

kolachesThis past weekend we had two days of spring-like weather. There were warm breezes, sunny skies and no need to wear more than a jacket and a light scarf. Unfortunately, it was just a tease and we’ve since returned to below-zero, bone-chilling temperatures. But still that taste, that amuse bouche of future pleasant days gave me a mild case of spring fever.

Spring is one of my favorite times of year: the trees in bloom, the packing away of heavy coats, the longer days, and the arrival of strawberries and asparagus are all cause for celebration. And when I was in school, the season also meant a break—a perfect excuse to hit the road. There was no shortage of places to explore in Texas, but one of our favorite journeys was the annual trek to the Hill Country so we could witness the bluebonnets in full bloom. But as glorious as Texas’ state flower may be, I'd say one of the best parts of the trip was a pit stop made in the tiny town of West.

West, which is situated almost halfway between Austin and Dallas, is a hamlet for the descendants of Czech immigrants—it’s the “Czech Heritage Capital of Texas.” And what you’ll find there is one of the tastiest pastries ever made—the kolache. This sweet, soft, yeasty roll filled with either apricots, prunes, cheese, poppy seeds or sausage is always an excellent excuse to stop the car, stretch your legs and chow down. Everyone in the state loves kolaches, and while you can sometimes find them in the big cities, for some reason they just taste better in West. Perhaps it’s the water, or perhaps it’s the history, or perhaps it’s the competition between all those Czech bakeries serving their interpretation of the same treat, but most will agree that if you want the best kolaches, you must travel to West.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Independence and chicken-fried steak

chicken-fried steak"Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas without eating a chicken-fried steak." —Larry McMurtry

It's been said there are three food groups in Texas: Tex-Mex, barbecue and chicken-fried steak. And as chicken-fried steak is also known as the (unofficial) state dish of Texas, I can't think of anything more appropriate to serve on March 2, Texas Independence Day. (In case you're wondering, this day marks our freedom from Mexico in 1836, which was the beginning of Texas' nine-year stint as a sovereign nation before it became part of the United States of America.)

While many foods hold sway over my heart, none (except for my beloved refried beans) reigns supreme more than chicken-fried steak, which is neither chicken nor steak (at least in the dry-aged, marbled-slab of prime beef sense of the word). This Texan delicacy is a cutlet of tenderized top-round beef, battered and fried in a skillet (much like fried chicken, hence the name), and served with cream gravy. In other parts of the country, you may see it labeled country fried steak, but a Texan would never call it that—it's always chicken fried to us. While the first time the term appeared in print is said to have been in the early 1950's, I have it on good authority that people were eating it long before then.

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