Monday, January 29, 2007

Sopapillas with a side of honey

Sopapillas are total decadence for me. You’d think after concluding a stomach-swelling multi-course meal of chips and salsa, queso, guacamole, tamales, rice, beans and enchiladas that it would be impossible to find room for just one more dish. But I can never refuse a warm, steamy basket of this sweet, fried bread, dusted with cinnamon sugar and drowning in honey.

When I was little, sopapillas meant special occasions. Because my mom always had amazing cakes and cookies at home, we seldom ordered dessert when dining in restaurants. But if it was my birthday, I would insist on having sopapillas. It was always a huge presentation, with the waiter wielding a sopapilla stuffed with a lit candle while the restaurant’s mariachis sang “Feliz Cumpleanos" at the top of their lungs. Never mind the chocolate cake waiting for me at home, this was the way to celebrate!

This last Thanksgiving, my whole, extended family left the farm and went into town to eat an excellent Tex-Mex meal at San Miguel’s in McKinney, TX. It had been a long time since I’d eaten sopapillas, especially as they aren’t on menus here in New York City. With a farmhouse filled with pies, however, I just sadly assumed sopapillas were not an option on this outing. But as a waiter is inclined to suggestively sell, it was little surprise when ours asked if we'd like to order this delectable treat. After his query, the table was silent. As I’ve said, my family just doesn't order desserts. It killed me to not shout out, "Yes, yes, I need a sopapilla!" but I kept my mouth shut as I didn't want to appear disrespectful towards my grandmother’s baking bounty. Thankfully, my uncle was not so shy and he saved me from my delicious dilemma by saying, “Of course! We’d love some sopapillas!” So my family shared a small order, and after that first sticky bite into the soft, honey-drenched dough, we all agreed: sopapillas are sweet heaven indeed.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cheese enchiladas: the essence of Tex-Mex

Tex-Mex is not Mexican food. That's right, even though most of the restaurants you see all over Texas say that they're Mexican, they're not. But that's OK. When Diana Kennedy bellyached that the food Texans were cooking was an abomination of her beloved la cocina Mexicana, Texans replied, "You're right. Tex-Mex is a cuisine of its own!"

As much respect I have for Kennedy's work, she was rather draconian in her assessment on what was happening north of the border. I won't begin to outline the differences between Tex-Mex and Mexican food because quite frankly, there are more similarities than differences. And as Tex-Mex is practically a youngster in the grand scheme of world cuisines (it’s only been around for about 150 years), it's still evolving.

Many traditional Mexican ingredients, such as epazote, huitlacoche, prickly pear, jicama and yes, even cilantro were absent on your classic Tex-Mex menu—which was a brown feast of tamales, tacos, enchiladas and queso, sandwiched between mountains of rice and beans. But today, many restaurants are going beyond the basics and including more of these authentic Mexican flavors. Squash blossom quesadillas? Of course! Chicken in mole verde de pepita? Why not?

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Monday, January 22, 2007

SHF: Chocolate Frito pie

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I seldom order desserts when dining out, and when as kids we'd ride our bikes to 7-11, while the others would spend their allowances on confections, I’d always opt for a bag of Fritos.

I love Fritos. This humble little Texan chip is snack perfection for me. Its delicate curve, its strong yet light crunch, its toasted, sweet corn flavor brought out by its salty coating—all glorious! I’ve been known to just pop a Frito in my mouth and suck on it like candy, drawing out all of its corn goodness until the chip finally dissolves into a pile of mush. OK, that probably sounds odd, but trust me, it’s fun! And when you eat Fritos, you can pretend they’re good for you, as the ingredients are just corn, oil and salt—nothing artificial about these babies, they’re practically a whole food.

One of the best Frito dishes is something called Frito pie. It’s a bag of Fritos topped with chili, cheese and diced onions found at county fairs and football games all over Texas. But we’ll discuss that another day. Right now, I’m here to talk about a crazy concoction I created for Sugar High Friday hosted this month by David Lebovitz.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Iron pan, perfect cornbread

texas cornbread

Classic things bring me joy. Perhaps it’s part of my frugal nature, but give me something that is destined to last for years over something trendy or disposable any day. One of my oldest treasures is my cast iron skillet. It’s my favorite tool in the kitchen and if I’ve cooked a meal, chances are at least one dish was touched by my iron skillet’s surface, seasoned by almost a hundred year’s worth of food memories. If I think about it enough, it almost gives me chills to think of all that history gracing each meal.

I wish my iron skillet was an old family heirloom because that would make for a better story. As much as I’d like to embellish, however, I have to admit I bought my iron skillet in an antique shop. (Hey, at least it’s old!) I found it in Iowa City many years ago, and the shop owner told me it was cast in the early 1900s. There’s no date or brand on it, so unless I carbon dated it there’s no real way of knowing its true age. It’s said, however, that a flat bottom means the cookware is older than one with ridges; mine is flat. It’s also blacker than midnight and heavier than a house. (Making it ideal for both toning my arms and shooing away door-to-door salesman.) And working with it is a dream as it heats evenly, is nonstick and transfers brilliantly from the stove top to the oven. It’s a true one-pan wonder.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Who cares where the burger was born?

There’s been a whole lot of hooey lately about where the burger was born. On one side, you have Louis' Lunch of New Haven, who’s gone so far as to get the Library of Congress to validate its burger boast. On the other side, you have State Rep. Betty Brown of Texas arguing that the first burger was served in Athens, TX. She’s even proposed a state bill to codify this claim.

Well, who cares? To me, it’s all pure nonsense made in the name of pride. The real question is where would you rather eat a burger today? Texas or Connecticut? I’m not saying that there aren’t good burgers in Connecticut, but check out this old New York Times article by William Grimes. In it, he says that burgers are to Texas as croissants are to France. “It's a symbol, a necessity and a triumph, a part of the cultural patrimony so tightly woven into the fabric of Texas life that Texans themselves do not even remark on it until they are presented with the gray-tinged, underfurnished, suspiciously geometric hamburger that the rest of America lives with.”

Connecticut can have its provenance, but let Texas have its “cultural patrimony.” Face it, no one is ever really going to know the exact moment and place the burger was invented. So let’s just think about where we’d want to eat a good burger today. I know where I'm going, and it's not New Haven.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

On mole and matrimony

My dear, food-loving friend Monica recently announced that she and her fiancé John eloped to Oaxaca, Mexico. How appropriate, I thought, as Oaxaca is the land of seven moles.

Mole (pronounced moh-LAY) is a rich, complex blend of seemingly disparate ingredients: chocolate, chiles, cinnamon, nuts, chicken broth and raisins being just a few. And the making of the sauce takes preparation, patience, passion, dedication and time. But the rewards far outweigh the travails: after one bite, you can taste all that you’ve put into the mole and that joy makes it all worthwhile. Much like marriage.

Monica and I go back almost 20 years. We met when we were teenagers and we bonded by tooling around North Texas in her silver Jeep Cherokee, singing at the top of our lungs, debating the meaning of life and stirring up all sorts of mischief. We weren’t much into food back then as Whataburger and Taco Bueno made up the bulk of our diet. But we had a taste for life and as we walked into a new, grown-up world with wobbly legs, those college-era friendships provided the necessary support to transform us from unruly kids into productive, responsible and caring adults.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Texas toast points

Sometimes I fail at being a Homesick Texan. Yes, yes, I know it may be hard to believe, but there are some challenges just too impossible to overcome.

But first, let’s get something straight. That product called Texas toast you find in the freezer section of the grocery store? It may be toast, but it’s not Texas toast—it’s garlic bread. I don’t mean to disparage the stuff, which has lots of fans and I understand is quite tasty. But it’s so far from the real deal, I just felt it time to stand up, stomp my feet and say something.

I’ve ranted on this before and I will rant on this again: Texas is not an adjective to be used lightly, yet people love to throw it around, usually when trying to conjure a sense of great size. Last time I checked, Alaska was the biggest state in terms of land mass and California in terms of population. So why not Alaskan toast? Or Californian toast? OK, perhaps the lack of alliteration makes those names less snappy. And yes, perhaps we should be flattered, but there is a real food out there called Texas toast and it upsets me to see people eating something mislabeled.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Salsa salvation: Ninfa's green sauce

When I was a small kid in Dallas, my parents and I often ate Mexican at Herrara’s, a charming hole in the wall where you had to walk through the kitchen to get to your coveted table, which was one of about 8—hence the long, long lines of hungry people streaming out the door. I always ordered the same thing: a child's tamale plate with rice and beans. No experimentation for me, I ate this every visit. This was the perfect Mexican meal for me and I was satisfied.

When I was nine, we moved to Houston. The first time we went to a Mexican restaurant, I was in for a big shock: where were the tamales? Instead, Houston Mexican menus featured dishes I'd never heard of such as enchiladas verdes. Also, being close to the Gulf, fish tacos were popular, as were tacos al carbon and a sizzling skillet of fajitas. And besides the usual bowl of red salsa on the table there was also a bowl of green. I was upset I couldn't order my usual meal, but after I had my first taste of green sauce—a creamy and tangy mix of avocados, cilantro, tomatillos, jalapenos and sour cream—I no longer missed tamales. Mexican food had taken on a whole new meaning. (Likewise, it was my first lesson in learning that Tex-Mex, like all great cuisines, has regional variations.)

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

I walk the line: Luby's

I grew up in a frugal household. After witnessing Houston's boom and bust in the 70's, my parents were classic penny pinchers—they clipped coupons, insisted I bring my lunch to school, chose the library over a bookstore for fresh books, flew Southwest Airlines, championed the benefits of a free education and encouraged me to earn and save my own money. And no fancy restaurants for my family—instead you’d find us every Wednesday walking the line at Luby’s. Why? Because on Wednesdays, kids could eat for free.

While Luby’s was never cool, I actually enjoyed my weekly meal there. The possibilities were endless, a 30-foot long buffet of whatever you wanted. You’d start with the Jello, lettuce and fruit salads, then slide your tray along the rails to the meats (where there was always a whole nicely browned turkey and juicy hunk of prime rib just waiting for carving), then the vegetables (yes, macaroni and cheese is a vegetable), the breads (clover rolls, cornbread and Texas toast), the desserts (cream pies, cobblers and more Jello) and the drinks (Coke, milk and iced tea). I’m stuck in my ways, so I always ordered the same thing, a Lu Ann Platter with fried fish, mashed potatoes, green beans and a roll. When I became a rebellious teenager, however, I switched from fish to liver and onions and added fruit salad and corn bread to my meal. But it didn’t matter what I ordered, it was always lip-smacking good.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Me on Midtown Lunch

If you are stuck working in Midtown, Midtown Lunch is a must-read. The intrepid Zach navigates through Midtown's steel canyons on a constant quest to find the best in lunchtime options. You have to admire his dedication and even if you don't try every place he reviews, his blog inspires a sense of exploration and a determination to go beyond the deli salad bar.

Every Tuesday, he does a Q&A with a fellow Midtown luncher and today that Midtown luncher is yours truly. If you've ever asked yourself, "What's Homesick Texan's favorite Midtown burger?" or wondered how old I am, check it out.

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