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.

If you’ve never had one, sopapillas are a big puff of light, crispy and slightly chewy fried dough, perfect for catching pools of honey. I’d never tried making them before, but after I found a recipe, I realized it was within my range. You make a sweet, yeast dough, let it rise, and then roll it, cut it into triangles and fry them for a couple of minutes. When I threw the first one into the pot, it was like magic watching it puff up and quickly transform from flat dough into an airy, golden delight.

I don’t think I’ll be making these every day, but I’m thrilled I discovered how easy it is. The dough was very pliable and yielding. And I was hesitant about frying them in a big pot of sizzling oil, but they cooked fast with nary a hiss or a splatter. The recipe yields about 18, depending on how large you cut the triangles. And they are a real crowd pleaser, sure to impress anyone with your deep-frying prowess. If you don’t like sweets, you could serve them savory like they do in New Mexico, stuffed with beans and green chili. But I won’t have anything to do with that—I prefer my sopapillas topped with cinnamon, sugar and honey. For me, they’re total Tex-Mex dessert decadence. And I’m just pleased that I no longer have to go to Texas to taste this sticky, soft, sugary treat.

1 package active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon of butter, melted
1 tablespoon of sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
vegetable oil

Mix the yeast with the warm water and let it sit for five minutes.
Combine the flour and salt.
Add the butter and sugar to the yeast/water mixture and then slowly add to the flour and salt.
Knead for two minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic.
Rise in a covered, greased bowl for one hour or until dough is doubled in size.
After dough has risen, punch it down, and on a floured surface, roll it out into a 1/4-inch thick rectangle.
Using a knife or pizza cutter, cut out 3 inch squares, and then cut squares on the diagonal into triangles.
Heat up three inches of oil in a big pot to 375 degrees.
Fry two triangles of dough at a time in the oil for one minute on each side. The dough should puff when it hits the oil.
Drain, and then sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.
Serve hot with honey.
Makes about 18 sopapillas.

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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?

Yet despite the growing sophistication of the cuisine, there will always be room in my heart for that Tex-Mex classic: cheese enchiladas. And no, I'm not talking about black bean and goat cheese enchiladas. And no, I'm not talking about radish, rajas and queso anejo enchiladas. I'm talking about a plate of rolled corn tortillas stuffed with orange, oozing cheese, floating in puddles of brown-chili gravy. Yes, that kind of cheese enchilada. The Tex-Mex kind.

What makes these enchiladas so special? It's the chili gravy, a Tex-Mex classic and said by Robb Walsh, the expert on all things Tex-Mex, to be the essence of the cuisine itself. (And if you don't have Walsh's definitive tome on the subject, The Tex Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos, buy it now—it's a must-have for all homesick Texans or fans of Texan cooking.)

Chili gravy is a mash-up between flour-based gravy and Mexican chile sauce. It’s a smooth and silky substance, redolent with earthy cumin, smoky chiles and pungent garlic. It's not fiery, as it was originally created by Anglos, but it does have flavor. And there's no meat in chili gravy—it's just fat, flour, chicken broth and spices.

If you eat Tex-Mex outside of the state, the lack of this chili gravy is what makes the food taste wrong. It took me a long time to crack the Tex-Mex code, but when I found this recipe and made it for the first time, it was an epiphany: this was the flavor I’d been searching for.

On these cold, bitter days, sometimes you just want to eat comfortable food, something to make you feel warm and cozy. And if macaroni and cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches are you usual comforts of choice, why not give these a try? They're cheesy, not too spicy and taste of Texas. Sure, you may have had cheese enchiladas, but unless you had them in Texas, they probably didn’t taste like these.

Chili Gravy (from Robb Walsh)
1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons chili power
2 cups beef broth, chicken broth or water

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the flour and continue stirring for 3 to 4 minutes, or until it makes a light brown roux.

Add the black pepper, salt, powdered garlic, ground cumin, dried oregano and chili powder and continue to cook for 1 minute, constantly stirring and blending ingredients. Add broth or water, mixing and stirring until the sauce thickens. Turn heat to low and let sauce simmer for 15 minutes. Add water to adjust the thickness.

Yield: 2 cups

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cheese Enchiladas
1/2 cup vegetable oil
8 corn tortillas
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese (can make it with Velveeta for extra melting oomph and good ol' Tex-Mex authenticity)
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups chili gravy

Preheat the oven to 450 and grease a large baking dish.

Pour the oil in a small skillet, and heat the tortillas one at a time. Keep them wrapped in a cloth until all 8 are heated.

Pour the oil in a small skillet, and heat the tortillas one at a time. Keep them wrapped in a cloth until all 8 are heated. Pour 1/2 cup of chili gravy in a baking pan.

Take a tortilla, put 1/4 cup of cheese and 1 tablespoon of onion in the center and roll it. Place rolled tortilla in baking dish, seam side down.
Continue with remaining tortillas.

Take remaining chili gravy, and pour it over the rolled tortillas. Sprinkle remaining cheese and onions on top. Bake for 10 minutes or until sauce is bubbly and cheese is melted.

Yield: 4 servings

Preparation time: 20 minutes

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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.

I’ve been doing lots of cooking with Mexican chocolate lately, and I have in my possession a large inventory of Chocolate Mayordomo, an unsweetened mix of cacao beans and almonds made in Oaxaca. It’s Mexican baking chocolate and not only have I used it for hot, frothy beverages but I've also used it in my chili and my mole. While I'm not prone to making sweets, after reading about a fancy-pants Manhattan chocolatier selling chocolate-covered tortilla chips for $20, I said to myself, I can do that! So with a bag of Fritos and a block of Mexican chocolate on hand, I decided to come up with a recipe for chocolate-dipped Fritos.

I melted the Mexican chocolate in a double boiler and added some sugar, some ancho powder, some cinnamon, some vanilla and a big handful of Whole Foods chocolate chips. After it melted, I tried to coat a Frito with the sauce, but it wouldn’t stay—it just clumped. Now I’m not a baker, and it was probably foolish of me to try and go about this sans recipe. But, the chocolate sauce tasted so delicious I just couldn’t bear to let it go to waste. So I threw the bag of Fritos in the pot of chocolate, stirred it up and voila—chocolate Frito pie!

Now I don’t know if everyone would like this dessert, but I found the first couple of bites tasty. The interplay between the chocolate, Fritos and ancho powder was balanced: not too sweet, not too salty and not too spicy. And the Fritos provided a sturdy, crunchy backdrop to the fudgy, nutty chocolate. If you’ve ever enjoyed chocolate tamales or chocolate-covered corn nuts, you know how well these flavors play together.

So I won't leave you with a recipe, because I'm not sure what exactly I did. But if you have any ideas on how to make chocolate-dipped corn chips, let me know!

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Iron pan, perfect cornbread

alt+="Cornbread recipe Texas cast-iron skillet"

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.

Even though I haven't inherited any of my family's iron cookware, my grandmother, my mother and my uncles all use cast iron that has been passed down through the generations. Yes, they have the pleasure of cooking with iron pots and pans that were also used by my great-grandmothers. There were no blacksmiths in my family, so my great-grandmothers bought their cast iron back in the early 1900s, but that doesn't make them any less amazing; it's thrilling to cook with something that has served people for a hundred years. One skillet my mom has is tiny, probably six inches in diameter. When I was young, I considered it my own personal pan because it was perfect for frying one egg, the first thing I learned to cook. So, I reckon my love for iron cookware was set at a young age.

You can find old iron skillets at garage sales, flea markets or antique stores. If you wish to purchase one new, Lodge out of Tennessee is the only company still manufacturing them in America today (though Wagner, another classic brand, is supposed to resume production this year). Until recently, new iron cookware only came raw and in order to make it usable you had to season it yourself. But apparently some consumers want instant gratification, so Lodge introduced a pre-seasoned line under the Lodge Logic label. I find it sort of illogical, but I guess you have to give the people what they want. (There have been rumors that Lodge is phasing out its unseasoned iron ware, but I haven’t seen anything to validate this.) If you buy your cast iron new, I highly recommend getting it unseasoned. Seasoning is not only fun, but it's a way of bonding with your new cast iron friend.

Once you buy your cast iron piece, seasoning it for the first time is an easy process. First rinse with hot water and dry completely. (Do not use soap!) Coat the entire piece of cookware (both inside and out) with either vegetable oil, lard or bacon grease. Cook it in an oven set at 450-500 degrees until it quits smoking (about 15 minutes). Take it out, pour out any oil and put it upside down back in the oven at 250 degrees for two hours (you might want to put some foil under it to catch the excess fat). After you've let it cool, do the touch test. If it's smooth, it's ready to go, but if it's sticky it didn't get hot enough. Scrub off the gummy bits and start over.

After it’s seasoned, you don’t want to wash it with soap because that will ruin the finish. To clean it, just stick it in water and scrub (if you need more grit than a sponge or steel wool use salt). To dry it, put it on a stove and heat it until all the water is burned off, otherwise the cookware will rust. If, after using it for a while, you start to see rust, rub it with steel wool and re-season the cookware. It may seem like a lot of work, but trust me, if you take care of your cast iron, it should provide you with a long, happy cooking relationship.

I can do a lot with my cast iron skillet: scramble eggs, fry fish, broil beef, bake biscuits, sautee vegetables and roast chiles. I suppose I could use other cookware for these jobs, but I don’t like to fuss with lots of pots and pans—using the same skillet works for me. But there’s one dish that nothing but a cast iron skillet will do: cornbread. Why? If you bake it in anything else cornbread will not achieve the desired crispy crust. Now, I don’t want to start a debate about cornbread—but it is a fact that there are differences between Northern and Texan cornbread: Northerners like it sweet while Texans like it salty. We are also known to jazz it up with jalapenos, green chiles or cheese. But the one thing a Texan will never, ever put into their cornbread is sugar. That said, my mom—who has a legendary sweet tooth—admits to putting honey in hers (so I have to question her Texan creditentials), but never mind that. Cornbread is for dinner, not dessert.

Here’s a classic Texan cornbread recipe, baked in a cast iron skillet, of course. Be sure and get the cast iron good and hot, as that’s what sears the batter and makes for a crispy, crunchy crust.


4 tablespoons bacon drippings or vegetable oil
2 cups of cornmeal (yellow or white)
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Put the drippings or oil in a large (10-inch) cast-iron skillet and place in the oven as it preheats.

In a large bowl, stir together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together the egg and buttermilk then stir into the dry ingredients.

Take the skillet out of oven, and pour the hot oil into the batter and stir until well combined.

Pour the batter into the skillet and bake for 20 minutes. Cornbread should be brown on top and pulling away from the sides of the skillet.

Serves 8

Lisa Fain


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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.

We lost touch after school. Monica became a Dallas lawyer and I was in New York City pursuing all sorts of nonsense. In 2000, however, she made the decision to quit law, move to New York City and follow her lifelong dream of filmmaking. We had a blast scouring the streets on an endless hunt for New York’s culinary bounty. My friendship with Monica had always been a long series of firsts, so it’s no surprise that I had my first dosa, my first Peter Luger porterhouse steak, my first Wylie Dufresne meal and my first taste of Epoisses with Monica sitting across the table. We ate very well that year.

Sadly, she returned to Texas a few months after 9-11 and I was upset to see her leave. It’s important to be surrounded by people who’ve seen all the good and the bad, and despite what they know, still choose to be your friend. I don’t have any close relatives here, and while after 11 years I now have good friends I also consider old friends, her presence was special because she knew me from a time when I was still figuring out who I was.

In the years since, I didn't see Monica often, but when we did get together the focus was food: stopping for roadside barbacoa in central Mexico; taking me directly from the Austin airport to Kreuz Market so I could consume a pile of welcome-home bbq brisket; and gorging on a late-night meal of big-as-your-head cinnamon buns served alongside green chili sopapillas at The Frontier in Albuquerque.

When a group of us made a trip to Brazil, where she was shooting footage for her documentary, I had the good fortune to meet her future husband. Over long meals of steamy, hearty feijoada washed down with cool, fruity Guarana Antarctica, I got to know John and found him to be a perfect partner for her. Where she was thoughtful, he was playful. Where she was a debater, he was an entertainer. And yet, the merging of their respective strengths formed a complex yet balanced union of seemingly disparate parts. Much like mole.

So while I may not have a recipe for a successful marriage, I can give you this: a recipe for mole. Each require much love, passion, time, patience and work to succeed, but if you give yourself fully to the effort, the rewards are beyond belief.

Monica and John, I raise my bowl to you and say: may your marriage made in the land of seven moles be as complex, rich, sweet, savory and fulfilling as the sauce itself. Felicidades!

Mole Poblano (adapted from a Stephan Pyles recipe)
I cup chicken stock
1 large ripe tomato, blanched, peeled, seeded and quartered
2 tomatillos, husked, rinsked, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup minced onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup sliced blanched almonds
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 pasilla chiles
2 ancho chiles
1 ounce Mexican chocolate, chopped

Roast chiles in a dry skillet until blackened. Seed, stem chiles and mix in a blender with a few tablespoons of water until a puree forms. Set aside.
Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a saucepan, reduce heat and add tomato, tomatillos, onions and garlic. Simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to blender, puree and set aside.
In a dry skillet, toast sesame, coriander and pumpkin seeds with the almonds.
Combine the raisins, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, chile puree and chocolate in a saucepan, Add toasted seeds, nuts, chile and tomato purees. Cook over low heat until chocolate melts.
Tranfer mixture to a blender and puree.

Makes 3 cups.
Can be used as an enchilada sauce, with tamales or served over turkey and chicken.

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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.

So what exactly is Texas toast? It’s an inch-thick square slab of white bread—yes, the bad-for-you square slice that comes from a long, skinny loaf wrapped in plastic, labeled with a brand such as Mrs. Baird’s. It’s slathered in butter and broiled on both sides. No garlic, maybe some salt, and never, ever cheese. Take a bite and you’ll be in heaven—if heaven for you is a thick, buttery, crispy bite that leads to a soft and airy center.

Clearly, this isn’t cowboy chow or even something your great-great-grandmother cooked, such as chili or cornbread; it’s a by-product of commercial food—a fairly recent invention. The story goes that in 1941, Royce Hailey, owner of the Pig Stand chain, wanted a thicker slice of bread for his customers to mop up their gravy. His bread purveyor, Rainbo, complied, but since it was too thick for a conventional toaster, his cooks broiled it in the oven, heavily buttered on both sides. Royce dubbed it Texas toast and a new taste tradition was born.

You’ll find Texas toast all over the state, usually accompanying chicken fried steak or some other dish doused in cream gravy. In some parts of the state you’ll also get it with bbq, and not only is it available at the cafeteria but Whataburger has it, too. And if you want to make it at home in Texas, no problem, you can grab a Texas-toast-style loaf of bread at any grocery store. But you cannot find it outside of the South, I sadly discovered a few years ago. It’s not in restaurants and the special bread cannot be purchased anywhere. Yes, in case you’re wondering, Texas toast was my impossible dream.

A couple of years ago, a friend was making ribs for his Super Bowl party. I asked what I could contribute and he replied, “You’re a Texan, why not bring Texas toast?” I had never tried to make it in NYC but figured it shouldn’t be too difficult. Just pick up a loaf at the grocery, grab some butter and I’d be done. Right? Wrong! I searched countless grocery stores from the Bronx to the Battery and discovered that nobody sold it. Nobody! Instead, I was always directed to the freezer section and shown that mislabeled garlic bread. After pulling out my hair and crying, “Why, why, why?” I just gave up. You can’t make Texas toast with homemade bread, it just wouldn’t be the same; you need that thickly sliced commercial junk bread to get the right airy texture. So without a loaf, I was foiled. And I learned a sad lesson: if I want Texas toast, I have to go to Texas (or some other nearby state that sells the fixins for it).

Yes, I admit, Texas toast is about as classy as queso, but who cares? It’s tasty. And if you’ve never had the real deal, I highly recommend you try it next time you visit Texas or the South. I wish I had better news, but until they market Texas-toast-style loaves in far-flung places, Texas toast won’t be traveling too far from its home.

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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.)

Ninfa Laurenzo, the late proprietor of the Houston chain Ninfa’s is credited with inventing green sauce. But it’s the rare Mexican restaurant in Houston that doesn’t also offer the salsa—it's ubiquitous all over town. The one Houston restaurant that famously didn't serve it was Pappasito's, so I always refused to dine there—why bother? Without green sauce a Houston Tex-Mex meal was incomplete. (Though I have been informed that Pappasito’s has recently added green sauce so perhaps I’ll go there next time I’m in town).

I love all things Tex-Mex, but my passion for green sauce falls in a category of its own. On a visit to a Houston restaurant I can go through several bowls before my meal arrives. And whenever I visit my mom, she always keeps a quart on hand so I can indulge myself whenever I like. (Yes, long after everyone's gone to bed, you'll find me bathed in the refrigerator's light, guzzling green sauce.) I’ve even found a place in New York City that has it, El Rio Grande. The manager told me the original owner basically ripped Ninfa’s whole menu and while it’s not quite the same, it’ll do in a pinch.

But I wasn’t always so fortunate to have a local joint serving the stuff. In the early ‘90s, I lived in Iowa City, Iowa for a couple of years. While I could find decent steaks, just about everything else that reminded me of Texas was unavailable to me in the Midwest, including my beloved green sauce. I had tried recreating the salsa on my own, but with little success. My mom would send me clippings from the Houston Chronicle of favorite recipes (these were the dark, pre-Internet days), all appreciated, but not quite what I was missing. Every week I’d ask her, “Did they run a recipe for green sauce yet?” And every week she gave me the same answer: “No.” But finally, after caving to much demand, the Chronicle finally printed it, noting it was the paper's most-requested recipe. She called me with the good news, saying, “At last, I have your recipe. Are you sure you want it? It calls for imitation sour cream! Yuck!” Well, that’s an easy substitution (I can’t even begin to imagine what imitation sour cream actually is)—salsa salvation, at last!

Finding all the ingredients was a tall order in Iowa (tomatillos weren’t a common Midwestern grocery staple at the time), but once I’d finally sourced everything needed, the rest was easy. It was one of the first times I realized that I could recreate a taste of home no matter where I happened to be.

So I present to you today the recipe that brought me much joy. For those of you who aren't cilantro fans, you can make the salsa without, but I can't guarantee it'll taste as divine. While the creamy avocados and sour cream complement the tang of the tomatillos, it’s the cilantro that gives this salsa its distinct flavor. It’s not too spicy, though you can add more jalapenos if you crave more heat. And while I’m content to eat the salsa with tortilla chips or yes, even just a spoon, it also goes well with enchiladas, fish, carnitas and chicken. It doesn’t keep long (the avocados will make it turn brown in a day or so) but it’s so splendid I doubt you'll have any left over.

I have no idea why this salsa is found only in Houston. But since I now have the recipe, it doesn't matter to me—thanks to Mom, the Chronicle and Ninfa, I can make it any place I find myself in the world.

Ninfa’s Green Sauce

3 medium-sized green tomatoes, coarsely chopped (you can substitute yellow if you can’t find green ones, but never use red)
4 tomatillos, cleaned and chopped
1 to 2 jalapenos, stemmed and coarsely chopped
3 small garlic cloves
3 medium-sized ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced
4 sprigs cilantro
1 tsp. of salt
1 1/2 cups of sour cream

Combine chopped tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapenos and garlic in a saucepan. Bring to a boil (tomatoes provide the liquid), reduce heat and simmer 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Place tomato mixture with the avocados, cilantro and salt in food processor or blender and blend until smooth.
Pour into a bowl and stir in sour cream.

Makes 4 to 5 cups

Are you a green sauce fan? And did you ever quest for a much-loved but hard-to-find recipe?

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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.

Luby’s recently celebrated its 60th anniversary and there are a couple of new books to hallmark the occasion. First there’s Luby’s Recipes and Memories Cookbook, which has all of its recipes, from lime congeal to the very popular fried fish. There’s also a new book from the University of Texas Press called House of Plenty: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Luby's Cafeterias. This fascinating look at Luby’s is one-part business primer, one-part Texana, one-part food history with a little bit of true crime to keep it spicy. It’s scintillating reading even if you’ve never been to a cafeteria. Not only do you learn how to treat your staff, you’re also made privy to Luby’s recipes (reprinted as they were originally typed) and discover why Texas allows concealed weapons.

Of course, all this reading doesn’t beat the real deal—making a trip to the local Luby’s—but it satisfied my yearning just enough until the next trip home.

I leave you with Luby’s recipe for liver and onions, my old badge of youthful insurgency. You may be asking, “Why not the fried fish? Everyone loves those perfect rectangles of crunchy, moist, flaky fish!” to which I reply: when was the last time you saw a recipe for fried liver on a blog?

Luby's liver and onions
2 1/4 lbs beef liver, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 large onion, sliced 1/4 inch slices
1/2 teaspoon seasoning salt
1 cup milk
2 extra-large eggs
3 cups fine dry breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Soak liver in cold salted water for 15 to 20 minutes.
In 10-inch skillet, melt butter over medium heat.
Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned.
Sprinkle with salt.
Keep warm.
In a shallow bowl, whisk together milk and eggs until well blended.
Place bread crumbs in separate shallow bowl.
Rinse liver under cool running water.
Pat dry with paper towels.
Dip into milk mixture, then into bread crumbs, coating evenly.
Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat.
Add liver and cook 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until cooked through.
Top with onions.

Serves six.

What are your favorite dishes at Luby's? Do you have any Luby's memories to share?

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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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