Monday, September 03, 2007

Trip to Texas part 1: so many salsas!

Howdy! I’m back—how I missed y'all! I don’t think in recent years I’ve spent this much time off-line, and while I’m a bit behind with so many interweb-machine activities—such as e-mail, blog reading, or catching up on the latest trashy celeb news—it was still very relaxing hanging out with friends and family in the warm and welcoming Lone Star State.

My first stop in Texas was in Austin. I was only there for less than 24 hours, but I got my fair share of solid food and an array of salsas. I stayed with my friends Monica and John, and as Monica's baby girl is due any day now, instead of grubbing at a BBQ joint or grabbing a chicken-fried steak, we opted to have a multi-course meal at a fancy restaurant that she’d be less inclined to bring her soon-to-be newborn to in the near future. (And while we're on the subject of newborns, be sure and stop by Good American Wife and say hello to Anne's first child, Walter—he's super sweet and cute!)

Monica chose Wink, a place I’d never heard of but I was delighted with how fresh and delicious our food was. Granted, when I travel to Texas my focus is pretty singular—only foods from the Texan Trinity of bbq, Tex-Mex or home cooking will do. But I've been closed minded, and this restaurant had an exquisitely creative menu with most of the meats (save for the Hudson Valley fois gras), seafood, cheeses, fruits and vegetables sourced from local farms and fishermen. One of my courses featured Gulf shrimp, and it had been so long since I’d had the real thing I’d forgotten the sweet, mineral flavor these contain, especially when right off the boat. For dessert we shared a goat-cheese plate with the cheeses coming from Pure Luck Organic Farm in nearby Dripping Springs. If you have access to their cheeses, you must try them—these were some of the creamiest, most flavorful (without being too earthy) goat cheeses I’d ever had the pleasure of eating. They paired equally well with fruit or honey, but were also a joy to eat straight off the knife.

I awoke early the next day to tackle my reason for being in town: eating lots of hot sauce. As mentioned, I was a preliminary judge at the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, and quite honestly, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. The judging began in the morning, and when I walked into Serrano’s, a local restaurant where we were housed to do the deed, there were heaping steam trays filled with migas, refried beans and homemade flour tortillas—I wish I could start every day with such a terrific Tex-Mex spread. And on the long table where we sat, there were numerous baskets of crisp salty tortilla chips—the perfect vehicle for the onslaught of salsas.

There were about 30 of us gathered around the table, and as there were over 1,000 salsas for us to work our way through, we didn’t try each one. Instead, each little group seated in the immediate vicinity (I was fortunate to have longtime judge and also Homesick Texan reader Frank Mancuso sitting across from me) would go through a stack of salsas with three votes of yes meaning the sauce moved on to the next round to be judged by local food celebrities, and three votes of no meaning that salsa was out of competition.

At first the salsas arrived slowly, giving each judge time to ponder its worthiness. Such educated palates surrounded me, the conversations were lively and spirited when discussing the flavors. Most of the first few rounds were of the red variety (the categories were red, green, pico de gallo and special), and while I find red probably one of the easiest salsas to make, it was surprising how many just didn’t get it quite right (especially with tomatoes in season). Some people had added too much chili powder, while some added too much fruit juice or vinegar. Not to mention there was a string of salsas that tasted like a whole canister of salt had been dumped into the batch. But beyond the low spots, there were also some outstanding salsas that made my mouth sing. Some were so wonderful you wanted to take them home with you or at least find out how they had been made.

As the morning wore on, the salsas started arriving more frequently, and at that point there was less time to savor and share and instead the judging turned into a marathon eating session. Not that I minded, especially because at this point Serrano’s had removed the migas tray and replaced them with cheese enchiladas and queso.

Soon the green salsas began to arrive. My trick for fresh tomatillo salsa is to cook it in peanut oil after blending it with the other ingredients—this takes away some of the tartness and helps the flavors meld. I was surprised that many did not do this crucial step. Whereas before some of the salsas had too much salt, many of these lacked any sort of seasoning let alone good flavor. But again, there were some standouts—a creamy tomatillo and avocado blend comes to mind—that you couldn’t stop eating.

I’m not a big fan of pico de gallo by itself or on chips—I prefer it in tacos or sprinkled over enchiladas—so judging this category was not that fun for me. Sure, I had a full plate of cheese enchiladas, but I knew if I made them the prime vehicle for salsas I’d get too full. As these salsas started to arrive, the one thing we noticed was that many of them had not had time to rest, which is the key to a great pico de gallo. Sometimes you’d just get a mouthful of onions, and then there were the entries that got creative by adding coconut or pineapple—inspired perhaps, but not really what I like. There were, however, a couple of pico de gallo fanatics around me, and they guided me towards appreciating the salsas they found to taste the best.

Following the pico de gallos was the special category. This was a series of free-styling salsas that ranged from deep, rich moles to nutty chile pestos. While these weren’t necessarily made for dipping with chips, there were some outstanding entrants in this category. One chile pesto in particular was such a hit, there almost wasn’t enough left in the container for the next round of judges. But then again, there were the odd entrants as well. One salsa made with a base of pickle juice was quite memorable. I was kind of repulsed, though there was one judge who loves pickle juice and she found it delicious. Don’t get me wrong, I love pickle juice as well, I just couldn’t apply that love to this hot sauce. Another salsa garnered the comment, “This salsa is bi-polar. It doesn’t know if wants to be a barbecue sauce or a hot sauce.”

One of the preliminary judges’ traditions is to send on to the next round some truly awful-tasting salsas so the celebs can feel our pain. We did our part by sending along one of the super-salty salsas, as well as the pickle juice salsa. That gave us a giggle as we imagined the celeb judges' faces as they were forced to eat these questionable entrants.

Also in the special category were the habanero salsas. Up until that point, most of the salsas had avoided searing my tongue and numbing my mouth, but some of these salsas made me scream and sweat. Thank goodness I had queso and cool beverages to put out the fire.

After a couple of hours of non-stop eating, Robb Walsh—the festival’s founder and head judge—made an announcement: the end was near. Placed before us were the last few salsas of the day. Eating these was bittersweet. I had enjoyed spending the past couple of hours with my fellow judges, and while my jaw was starting to ache from all the chip chomping, I was sad to see the judging conclude. But hopefully I can do this again—the preliminary judges are an excellent bunch of people to hang out with and I made some new friends. I’m going to be back in Austin for a wedding in November, so I hope to see y’all again real soon!

I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll talk about my trip to the farm next time. But for now, I’ll leave you with my recipe for tomatillo salsa. It’s a standard preparation that I've adapted from Stephan Pyles and Diana Kennedy, and it's great with tortilla chips or drenched over enchiladas, chicken, fish or pork. When judging the green salsas, we tasted one that reminded me of this and one of my fellow judges said, "I know this salsa! It's the best!" I admitted that mine tasted similar and that I'd share the recipe. Enjoy!

Tomatillo Salsa
Ingredients:
1 pound tomatillos (about 12-16), husked and cut in half
2 cloves of garlic
1 or 2 serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped
1/4 medium yellow onion
1/4 cup of chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon of lard or canola oil
Salt to taste

Method:
Add the tomatillos, garlic, serrano chiles, onion, cilantro and cumin into a blender. Blend until it has a smooth consistency.

In a saucepot on medium-low heat, heat up the lard or oil. Pour the blended salsa into the pan and cook while occasionally stirring for 10 minutes. Taste the salsa and add salt and adjust the seasonings. Can serve hot or cold.

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39 comments:

Natalie said...

Welcome Home! I started checking the page yesterday for your return.

I didn't know there were any Serrano's left in Austin, the last time I went back the one(s) I'd been to before were defunct. I was crushed, having not had nearly enough margartia or shrimp stuffed poblano with cream sauce.
My next trip into town will include a search for Serrano's and a custard from Sandy's.

Lydia said...

Even though my tongue is getting numb just reading about all of the salsas you tasted (in one day!), I'd still find it lots of fun to be a judge and hang out with other salsa fans. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

christine (myplateoryours) said...

1000 salsas! I guess that's the difference between Austin and Bloomington (25 salsas.) :(

Sounds like a blast. Thanks for sharing! And welcome back.

Tavo said...

Welcome back. Thanks for the de-tarting tip for tomatillo salsa. That's key stuff. I look forward to hearing more about your trip.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back - sounds like you had a good time. I just made a tomatillo salsa last night - will have to try yours. I sort of cook mine first - stuff is roasted in the oven before blending. Will let you know the comparison

Vladimir said...

your cookery is glorious and you should marry me
<3

Texana said...

Thanks for the wonderful account of your trip to Austin. We miss after- work happy hours at Serrano's--and Saturday morning breakfast at Trudy's--and sunset at the Oasis. We didn't know what we had till we moved away. Your recipes are always an inspiration. Appreciate your sharing.

Anonymous said...

I left Austin two years ago, and I still desperately miss the fresh goat cheese from Pure Luck. It was the best I've ever had, I'd buy it at Wheatsville Co-op and eat it plain, just spread on bread for lunch.

jeffrey said...

I am showing my age , but I still get nostalgic and hungry for the legendary Green Sauce from the Original Ninfas in Houston back in the the 80s. I thought it was original , until I found it at nearly every taco stand in Mexico and being served at Mexican BBqs.
Since it uses Avocados ,it has to be made fresh but boy is it good. You can Google Ninfa's green sauce and find a recipe that comes close .

Tommy said...

Please don't marry Vladimir, marry me. Besides, I am a better chef than he is.

Amber said...

Welcome Back! I look forward to hearing more about your trip back to Texas! I am also a huge fan of salsa so I was a bit jealous of the fact that you got to judge all of that salsa! Glad that you had a good time!

Amber

C said...

I love Wink! My boyfriend and I went there for one of our anneversaries, and I'm taking my mom there for her birthday.

They are one of the top ten rated Austin restaurants - the owners/chefs also manage a restaurant called Zoot that I've heard many good things about.

Also, just so you know - Wink packages some of their cheeses and sells them at Whole Foods on 6th and Lamar. Not sure if it's the ones you had - but still. (We personally had the Wink Trio for dessert - that was also amazing.)

So glad you got to experience Wink!!

WhiteTrashBBQ said...

Welcome Back. Sounds like you had a great time.

Um, not to be crude, and this is a bit embarrassing, but you've told a wonderful story about consuming all those salsas. I'm wondering about the expulsion.

Some of the best hot sauces give coming and going. I can't imagine what it was like the next day.

Or are you Texan's just tougher then us Brooklynites?

Homesick Texan said...

Natalie--I don't know how many Serrano's are left, but the original on Red River is still open.

Lydia--You'd love it! Such a great bunch of people to hang out with for a few hours!

Christine--Ha! That is a big difference!

Tavo--You're welcome...and I should have some farm stories in the next couple of days.

Anon--Roasting is another terrific way to get a great flavor from a tomatillo salsa. I love the flavor it gives.

Vladimir--Aw shucks, you're making me blush!

Texana--I miss breakfast at Trudy's as well...Austin is such a wonderful place to live!

Anon--Their cheese is addictive--I can't wait to try some more next time I'm there. I might even try to go visit their farm.

Jeffrey--I hear you about Ninfa's green sauce--it's a longtime fave! I wrote about it here.

Tommy--Aw shucks, you're making me blush as well. I think some sort of Iron Chef competition may be in order!

Amber--Thanks! It was a blast!

C--I remember Zoot, though when I lived in Austin in the early 90's it was a bit out of my price range. I can't wait to return to Wink, however, such delicious and creative food!

WhiteTrashBBQ--Ha! Actuallly, the next day my jaw ached more than other parts of my body--but I know what you mean, and that was a topic of discussion--how salsa can be, er, a bit unpleasant the second time around.

Making my way in PA said...

I have only come to your blog recently and I love it! Really, I love homecooked food. I have moved to central PA and the tex-mex, hispanic, anything of the sort food sucks here.

You posted a green salsa recipe, but what about a basic red? My sad mouth would be so happy with a fresh salsa.

Cynthia said...

Welcome home! I would have loved to be at that festival.

Chris said...

Oh how I envy you. One thousand salsas plus?! I really hope that there are mega salsa contests in heaven. Every day. In fact, I will be expecting it.

I am also intrigued by your tomatillo salsa method. When I make salsa verde, I roast the tomatillos (and typically the onions and peppers, too) in the oven. This produces a smooth but rather oily (for lack of a better term) salsa. Sounds like what your recipe produces is something a bit chunkier. I know peanut oil is quite neutral, but should I expect a loss of texture with your method? Well, either way, I'm going to pick up some tomatillos next chance I get and follow your directions. Will report back in due time.

ann said...

Pickle juice *salsa*?? wow, that might even be too much for me!

I bet I'd make a great salsa judge. If anyone asks, can you nominate me next year? (just kidding! far too gringa) What a great trip, but I'm glad you're back! I'm just catching up on my interweb activities too, good thing we crossed paths this way!

tigerfish said...

So much salsa! I don't know salsa much, all I know is I like it (but don't have it often).

Thanks for visiting my blog :)

Tommy said...

I would be very interested if you could do a feature on Texas Gulf shrimp, fresh off the boat.

Up here in Toronto, we get so much frozen shrimp, and even if it is "Primo" frozen quality, nothing can compare to the stuff they haul in that day.
I imagine now the FDA has banned all shrimp from China (and some fish species) that real Gulf shrimp might be given a chance to be showcased.

On a side note,a buddy of mine was thrown out of restaurant in Vancouver after he asked the waiter( the owner)if the shrimp were leaded or unleaded. Touchy topic uh ?

Olivia said...

Oh my gosh, how did your insides not turn to mush?

Having said that, I love red salsa, pico de gallo, green salsa, and the tomatillo avocado stuff.

I will be in NYC the last two weeks of September. Any good Mex/Tex-Mex restaurants out there? I am desperate for the stuff!

Mercedes said...

Wow, I just learned so much about salsas! They sound wonderful, and I love how each one can have it's own personality.

Garrett said...

Welcome back darlin' also glad that you shared the salsa recipe. Always nice to have another one on hand!

s'kat said...

egads, I can't imagine ever having to judge something like that... my tastebuds would get overwhelmed an hour into it!

That said, I really enjoyed your take on all the different salsas, and have tucked away your tomatilla recipe for future use.

Shel Franz said...

Welcome back! Loved the virtual salsa sampler, and can't wait to try your tomatillo salsa recipe. Way up here in Northern Illinois, tex-mex is scarcer than hen's teeth, so making my own is my only alternative. Can't wait to read about your stay on the farm!

Licia said...

Hello Homesick Texan, thanks for your comment about my salad picture. I had the chance to look through your blog and I really like it! I don't know very much about Texan food but you surely made me want to cook some of your fantastic recipes as they are full of intriguing flavours and spices. I will let you know how I get on!

Scribbit said...

Peppers (and therefore salsas) are about the prettiest food there is. I wish I had a better tolerance for heat though, I'm really a whimp. Even my boys give me a hard time when I'm using the "mild" sauce.

Jodie in Plano TX said...

Sounds like you had your fill of "the good, the bad and the ugly" salsas! I'm not one for much above Medium salsa... a woose for a native Texan, I know! My new fav place in Austin is a very old one.. El Ranchito. We ate there on our last visit in July... to attend a family reunion in Boerne. I love family reunions for good BBQ and lots of homemade sides & desserts. Looking forward to reading about the farm visit. I usually don't make salsa from scratch (my Dad used to long ago)... but I might have to try yours and make Chicken Enchiladas with Green Sauce... my Tex-Mex favorite.

homesickhoustonian said...

i actually hate tomatillo sauce roasted, i like the bright tartness tomatillos add. I usually boil my tomatillos and a serrano first. Your method of cooking it afterwards seems like it'd keep the tartness but give it that cooked mellowness, just like the difference between raw tomato salsa and cooked tomato salsa. Each have their own merits, but i usually prefer it cooked.

I thought you might like to know that whole foods has Gulf Shrimp now. I think the price was something like $12.99/lb I was so happy to see those shrimp, they've got the big plump ones too.

I'm so jealous, how does one get the oppurtunity to judge a salsa contest?

Homesick Texan said...

Making my way in PA--Glad you're enjoying the blog. I have posted my family's red hot sauce recipe before, here is the link. Enjoy!

Cynthia--You would have loved it!

Chris--My salsa is only as chunky as I want it to be--if I leave it in the blender long enough it can get pretty smooth.

Ann--Heh! It was definitely an acquired taste. Though if it had been made with your firecrackers perhaps it would have tasted better.

Tigerfish--What's not to like? Thanks for stopping by!

Tommy--I would love to do a post about Gulf shrimp fresh off the boat--I have fond memories of my dad and his buddies going down to Galveston to pick some up and the huge shrimp eating parties that followed. And I agree, it's nuts that US stores would sell Asian shrimp when we have such a wonderful product so close by.

Olivia--I guess I have a strong constitution! As for your trip to NYC, nothing here is like Texas and the Mexican is better than the Tex-Mex, but...if you have time you should go to Jackson Heights in Queens or Sunset Park in Brooklyn where there are a host of good Mexican restaurants. Plus you could check out the Red Hook Ball Fields, which is a feast of Latin American street foods in one place. El Maguey y La Tuna on the Lower East Side is good as are Taco Taco on the Upper East Side and Rocking Horse in Chelsea. Sue Torres, who has a decent place called Suenos in Chelsea, just opened a new place in the Meatpacking District called Los Dados, but I haven't been there yet. In Brooklyn, there's Lobo, which is classic Tex-Mex and in Manhattan, there's El Rio Grande, whose owner ripped off Ninfa's menu (they even have green sauce!). You should also go to Hill Country, which is Texas ex-pat central--order the moist brisket.

Mercedes--I know! The possibilities with salsas are endless.

Garrett--Why thank you! You can never have too many salsas.

S'Kat--I thought the same thing, but as I love chips and salsa it was like a dream come true.

Shel Franz--I hear you! The only reason I learned to cook these dishes is because the pickings are slim here in NYC as well.

Licia--Have fun! Texas food is indeed filled with exciting flavors!

Scribbit--Aren't they pretty? Any time I see one I can't help but take a photo. It's not hard to build your tolerance for heat, but sometimes the best salsas are low on heat but high on flavor.

Jodie--I have fond memories of El Ranchito--sooo good! And yes! Chicken enchiladas with green sauce is my favorite, too!

Homesick Houstonian--Sounds like you make your tomatillo salas sorta my way, but in reverse order. And thanks for the heads up on WF now stocking Gulf shrimp--yes! It's about time! As for the contest, I know the head judge and he asked me, simple as that--I hope I get asked to do it again as it was such a blast!

Kevin said...

Tasting all of those salsa sounds like it was really fun. It sounds like there were some interesting salsas.

kkhuong said...

I used to get all my salsa from this little tex-mex shack in houston called soliz. Now that i live in nyc, i really haven't been able to find anything like it. For those of us short on time (ok fine, lazy), are there any brands that you would recommend that could be picked up at, say, whole foods?

Kay said...

Hi Homesick Texan! Love your blog, just found it today. Wink is one of my fav restaurants in town. I also love their wine bar and often find myself ordering both great wine and delicious food while relaxing through happy hour(s). Austin is one of the best places on earth.

And for Natalie, there are 5 Serrano's in the area. The Red River location, Lakeline, Arboretum, South Mopac and Round Rock. If Natalie loves Serrano's she'd love Maudie's as well. I pretty much love any great Tex Mex place whether it's breakfast at La Reyna on S. 1st or Juan in a Million on Cesar Chavez to tacos & music at Guero's on S. Congress and enchiladas and ritas at Enchiladas y Mas on Anderson Lane.

The BBQ Guy said...

Congratulations on a great blog. I've been planning a trip to Texas for years and your blog is giving me a roadmap of things to do and see. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Salsa is such a personal thing though! Some of the salsas you didn't seem to like -- really sour/tart ones or really spicy ones are my favorites!

carriesn said...

OMG your blog rocks. When I was visiting Austin and the great Central Market, I ate their Fifth Anniversary Salsa and have been craving it ever since. Any ideas on how to replicate this salsa??

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Carriesn--Next time I'm home, I'll get some so I can recreate it.

Paul said...

Hi Lisa, may be a silly question but if you are using canned tomatillos is it necessary to cook out the salsa? I find when i cook them out it ruins the bright green colour and makes it quite dull but then i can never get it quite as good as some of the burrito places i go too. what am i doing wrong?

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Paul--If you're using canned, you don't need to cook the salsa.

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