Wednesday, June 25, 2008

With beans comes rice

Beans and rice. Do any two foods go better together? OK, maybe, peanut butter and jelly, but if you give me a serving of beans, I will definitely want a serving of rice right beside it.

When my parents were young and poor, we’d eat out once a month at Pancho’s. They liked it for two reasons: one, it was all you can eat and two, kids got a free plate of beans and rice. Of course, there wasn’t anything special about beans and rice—we ate that at home all the time as well. But I didn’t mind because I love it so much; the two are not only a perfect protein, but in my view, they also make up a marvelous meal.

Many cultures have a version of beans and rice, but naturally, my favorite version comes from Mexico: pork-laced refried beans served with a pile of rice rich with garlic, cumin and tomato. When I first started cooking for myself, figuring out how to make refried beans taste as they should wasn’t all that tricky—as long as you’re adding bacon grease or lard, refried beans will be smooth and satisfying. But Mexican rice? That was a far more difficult challenge.

For some reason, I had been taught that Mexican rice was made by cooking it in Pace Picante Sauce. It was good, but it wasn’t right. I wanted Mexican rice that was more golden than red, more dry than wet and more heavy with spice than bright with acidity. I tried a few recipes I came across, but none of them satisfied me.

When I was younger, I worked at a fantastic Austin bookstore called Toad Hall (sadly, it’s no longer open). If you have ever worked retail, you know the drill: when there aren’t any customers and you’ve straightened the merchandise as much as you can, then it’s time to gab with your coworkers.

At Toad Hall, one of my colleagues was a first generation Mexican American who was an excellent cook. She and I had a fine time talking about food. We'd discuss topics such as the best way to peel garlic, the best way to wrap tamales and the best way to make cornbread. Each conversation was a joy. But because I can be a bit dense, it took me almost a year to realize that she might hold the solution to my problem: she just might know how to make proper Mexican rice.

“It’s very simple,” she replied when I asked her the secret. I then grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper and wrote down her method for making Mexican rice, one she had learned from her mother, who had learned it from her mother, and so on. She didn’t speak in exact measurements—instead she gave me a broad set of guidelines. That’s how I cook as well, so I understood her language, though sometimes when you’re preparing a recipe for the first time you want more specific instruction. I was a bit nervous.

I went home that night and made a pot of rice, cooked in chicken broth. When the rice was done, I sautéed some diced onion, added some minced garlic, cumin, and tomato paste, and when all was well combined I stirred in the cooked rice. It certainly looked right—golden brown. And it certainly smelled right—fragrant with cumin and garlic. I took a bite, and it was a revelation—this was the Mexican rice I had been searching for!

One thing that was different about her recipe from others I’d seen is that the rice was cooked separately from the spices, tomatoes and aromatics. At first I was concerned about this, but actually, that’s why this one succeeds, at least for me. I’m not the best rice maker in the world and I like adding the spices after the rice is done instead of cooking it all at the same time. This gives me the freedom to improvise with the flavor. Plus, whenever I would make it the other way, the rice came out too mushy and the onions were a strange, wet texture.

I thanked my friend, and proceeded to tap her for more of her family’s recipes, but before she could share I moved to New York City and lost touch with her. Since then, I’ve managed to learn a few things about Mexican cuisine, though I would still love to spend time in someone’s kitchen learning some of their secrets. Perhaps I will someday. In the meantime, however, I’m enjoying the adventure of trying to figure out the recipes I crave the most on my own.

Mexican Rice
1 cup of rice
2 cups of chicken broth
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup of tomato paste
1 tablespoon of lime juice
1/2 cup of cilantro
1 tablespoon of cumin (You can use less if you prefer, I just like the flavor.)
Salt to taste

1. Add rice, chicken broth and butter into a pot.
2. Bring to a boil on high, stir once and cover.
3. Simmer on low for 20 minutes, then remove from heat and keep covered for 5 to 10 minutes longer.
4. Meanwhile, in a skillet, cook onions in oil for 10 minutes or until just about to brown.
5. Add garlic to pan and cook for one minute. Stir in tomato paste and cumin and cook for one minute.
6. Mix in cooked rice, lime juice and cilantro, and season to taste.
Serves 4-6
Notes: Can add fresh peas, diced carrots and/or chopped Serrano or jalapeno chiles.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Does food need a story?

Does food need a story to be delicious? I don’t know, but it sure does help.

Take the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party that occurred in Madison Square Park two weeks ago. This event, which attracts some of the nation’s most laurelled pitmasters from across the nation, is an incredible way for New Yorkers to go on a barbecue tour of America without ever leaving Manhattan.

I hate to say it’s a popularity contest, but some of the pitmasters do garner longer lines than others. Why? Because these pitmasters have a legend, a face, a story behind what they’re serving. And because of that, people are curious about their food.

We had our first heat wave of the season that weekend, and even though there are trees and lawns in Madison Square Park, it’s a fight between concrete and chlorophyll for comfort, and the concrete always wins. Fortunately there was plenty of water, lemonade and cokes on hand, but I still chose to spend most of my time in the comfort of the (slightly) cooler seminar tents.

One of the fine discussions I had the pleasure of attending was a conversation between Ed Levine and John T. Edge, in which they pondered the nature and authenticity of city vs. country barbecue. They ruminated and digressed in a very leisurely and agreeable manner; listening to the two of them was like a long cool sip of iced tea—very refreshing. One of the points John T. brought up was the barbecue restaurant as a “concept.” How can barbecue be defined by a business plan? His conclusion—it can’t and therefore it’s probably not the real deal.

That’s not to say that people that open barbecue places can’t have the business in mind—to not think about making money while serving your customers would be folly. But if you open a restaurant announcing that it’s a barbecue concept, well, that should give a true barbecue lover pause. There’s not much soul or a story in a concept, now is there?

Fortunately, at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, I heard many stories about the food I enjoyed. There was Ed Mitchell and his whole-hog pulled pork, a craft he fell into when he decided to feed his mourning mother after his father died. Then there was the McLemore/Lilly family from Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama—the birthplace of Alabama’s famous white sauce. And there was Mike Mills, aka The Legend, so named because of his numerous barbecue competition wins over the years.

Mike and his daughter Amy, who I had the honor of meeting at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, agree that there are some great stories in the barbecue world. And the two of them have collaborated on an excellent narrative cookbook called Peace, Love and Barbecue. This is a book that once you start reading, you can’t put down—that is unless you’re headed into the kitchen to whip up a recipe or you’re off to the airport to catch the next plane down south to taste some of this food firsthand.

Mike is renown for his baby back ribs and they were indeed succulent and smoky with the right amount of pull in each bite. And the pit beans he served alongside were the perfect complement—porky, tender and sweet, with five different kinds of beans. I asked Amy if I could share the recipe with my readers, and she said, “Of course!” She also noted that it makes a ton and will feed a lot of people or freeze well (if you’re so inclined).

I forgot to ask if these beans had a story, though she did mention that she no longer makes them with honey since the decline in the honey bee population (another story for another day). But what do you think? Do you believe that food served with a side of stories tastes better than food served without?

17th Street’s Tangy Pit Beans (From Peace, Love and Barbecue by Mike Mills and Amy Tunnicliffe Mills)
2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
3 cups ketchup
1 cup diced onion
1 green or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sorghum or honey
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons Magic Dust (recipe below)
1 large can (28 ounces) pork and beans
1 can (19 ounces) large red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 1/2 ounces) chili beans
1 can (15 1/2 ounces) large butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 1/2 ounces) of a fifth bean
4 or 5 slices bacon or a few cooked ribs or some barbecued pulled pork

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix the mustard, ketchup, onion, bell pepper, brown sugar, sorghum or honey, and Magic Dust together in a large bowl. Be sure to work out all the lumps of brown sugar.
3. Add the beans stirring gently with clean hands or a big spoon, just enough to evenly distribute the mixture. Over mixing will cause the skins of the beans to burst and the consistency will become mushy, more like refried beans, which you don’t want.
4. Pour into 13x9-inch baking dish. Lay the bacon strips, ribs or pork across the top.
5. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes.
6. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until bubbly.
Serves 10 to 15

Magic Dust (From Peace, Love and Barbecue by Mike Mills and Amy Tunnicliffe Mills)
1/2 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt, finely ground
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons of mustard powder
1/4 cup chili powder
1/4 cup ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1/4 cup granulated garlic
2 tablespoons cayenne

Mix all ingredients and store in a tightly covered container.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dr Pepper and peanuts

A friend brought up an interesting point the other day. She said, “Why do Texans refer to all soft drinks as Coke?” And while it’s true, I don’t have an answer for that. (Do you?) But what’s even more puzzling is that Coke isn’t even a Texan product—it’s from Georgia. Our local soda is Dr Pepper, born in Waco in 1885 one year before Coca-Cola was conceived.

Dr Pepper turns 117 years old this week, and the town of Dublin, Texas is having a weeklong celebration. If you’re not familiar with Dublin, here’s a bit of background. The bottling plant in Dublin is the oldest Dr Pepper bottler in the world. But what makes it even more special is that it’s one of the few plants that still bottle Dr Pepper with cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. And yes, it tastes much, much better. In certain circles, drinking a Dublin Dr Pepper is akin to sipping a magical elixir.

Like all precious things, Dublin Dr Pepper is not widely available. In New York City, you’ll have more luck finding Big Red than Dublin Dr Pepper (though you can order it online). For many years, there were legal restrictions that prevented the Dublin plant from distributing beyond a 44-mile radius of the small town. Those have been lifted now, but it’s still difficult to find the drink. This stuff is sensational, so demand far outstrips supply. Enter bootleggers and a black market. Robb Walsh recently wrote a brilliant article about Dublin Dr Pepper and the people who go to extreme lengths to satisfy their thirst.

In his article, Walsh also talks about cooking with Dublin Dr Pepper, namely his Dr Pepper-marinated tenderloin recipe. Cooking with soft drinks is nothing new to Southerners as recipes for Coca-Cola cake, 7Up punch and Dr Pepper barbecue sauce abound. Heck, on the Cadbury Schweppes web site there’s a book called, naturally, Cooking With Dr Pepper and 7Up. Most of the recipes are for cakes, sauces and marinades, but one jumped out at me: Dr Pepper peanut brittle.

Texans have a long tradition of putting peanuts in their Dr Pepper. This phenomena, however, is not exclusive to Texas as others in the South are known to put peanuts in their Cokes. To wit, Barbara Mandell sings in her early ’80’s hit “When Country Wasn’t Cool:”
“I remember circlin’ the drive-in/
pullin’ up and turnin’ down George Jones/
I remember when no one was lookin’/
I was puttin’ peanuts in my Coke/
I took a lot of kiddin’, ‘cause I never did fit in/
now look at everybody tryin’ to be what I was then/
I was country, when country wasn’t cool”
That said, Barbara Mandrell is a Texan, so while she used the word “Coke,” she could have very well been singing about putting peanuts in her Dr Pepper. No matter, placing peanuts in your Dr Pepper (or Coke) is done for two reasons. One, the peanuts make your Dr Pepper fizz. And two, it tastes good. The salt from the peanuts cuts the sweetness of the soda, plus it’s entertaining to have a bit of crunch in your mouth as you sip.

So when I saw the recipe for peanut brittle made with Dr Pepper, I had to try it. The flavor did not disappoint, as it was a pleasing combination of sweet and salty with each bite crunchy with peanuts. Instead of being glassy and sharp, however, the texture is creamy—a bit like a praline. But that just means it’s easier on your teeth. As for the Dr Pepper, like most recipes that use it what you’re really getting is the sugar, not too much of the flavor. But this brittle is still a hit and the batch I shared with my colleagues was gone in five minutes.

I’ve recently found a reliable source of Mexican Coke (to the uninitiated, this is Coke made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup) in my neighborhood. I don’t know what the distribution policy is for Mexican Coke, but the Korean deli where I buy it has it hidden away in the back of the store so part of the fun is the feeling I’ve discovered a hidden treasure. But it also tastes better—cleaner and brighter—as sodas made with cane sugar do.

There is talk that with rising corn prices bottlers will return to using cane sugar—a welcome development. In the meantime, if I want Dr Pepper made with cane sugar, I can order it online. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, however, that an enterprising New Yorker will decide to one day bootleg Dublin Dr Pepper here—I know that it would do very, very well. And while we Texans may refer to all sodas as Coke, what we really want is Dr Pepper. Or at least this Texan does.

Dr Pepper Peanut Brittle (adapted from Cooking With Dr Pepper and 7Up)
1 1/4 cups of sugar
3/4 cups of butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne
1/4 cup of Dr Pepper
2 cups roasted and salted peanuts, shelled
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Combine all the ingredients except for the baking soda in a pot, cook on medium heat and bring to a boil stirring often.
3. When the temperature reaches 290 degrees, remove from heat and stir in soda. Mixture will foam up and double in size.
4. Spread mixture thin on baking sheet using a silicone spatula.
5. When mixture cools and hardens (about half an hour), break into pieces and serve.
Makes 1 1/2 pounds or enough to feed you and a couple of other people.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Long days, strawberry shortcake nights

During the strawberry’s brief yet vibrant season, I try to eat them every day. I eat them with balsamic vinegar. I eat them in pies. I eat them in salads. I eat them with granola. I eat them with yogurt. I eat them with cream. And, of course, I eat them by themselves. But my favorite way to eat strawberries is in that classic concoction: strawberry shortcake.

Strawberry shortcake is a simple dish—a sliced biscuit, lightly sweetened strawberries and fluffy, whipped cream are its only requirements. I grew up eating this as my mom loves to make strawberry shortcake and hers is the best. And I’m not alone in my opinion, as I’ve seen others sigh when their shortcake bowls have been spooned clean.

The sad thing, however, is that when I was a kid I didn’t realize I was eating proper strawberry shortcake. Randall’s Supermarket sold round yellow sponge-cake cups and called them shortcakes. (They were only a about an inch high, so they were, indeed, short). And because I was gullible, I was mislead into believing that they were the real deal and what my mom was serving me was incorrect. Not that it mattered, because I still preferred her shortcake. The packaged sponge-cake kind never satisfied as the juice and cream turned the cakes into a soggy mush; you need the heft of a biscuit to carry the weight.

As longtime readers are well aware, I love to make biscuits. But my mom has always been more of a scone maker than a biscuit maker and so I was curious what recipe she used for her shortcakes. She surprised me when she said that it had probably come from The Complete American-Jewish Cookbook by Anne London and Bertha Kahn Bishov. It turns out that this is one of her most cherished cookbooks, the source of many of her favorite recipes. Who knew that an Episcopal priest could be such a fan of kosher cooking?

Now if you're an avid plant person like myself (my thumb's not completely green yet, but I keep trying!), you probably have mint and basil overtaking your windowsills, fire escapes or gardens. Fortunately, they both complement the sweetness of the berries, so I’ve enjoyed adding them to my whipped cream; ginger also gives a spicy kick. I’ve also been known to use sweetened Greek-style yogurt instead of whipped cream with my shortcake. Its thick texture and tart flavor make it a terrific vehicle for the berries’ juice.

So yes, this is a simple recipe and a simple dish without much of a story. But it never fails to please me and since it’s my birthday, I thought I’d share some of it with you.

How do you like to eat your strawberries?

Strawberry shortcake
2 pints of strawberries, rinsed, hulled and quartered
1/4 cup of sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla
2 tablespoons of honey
8 biscuits

1. Toss the strawberries with the sugar in a bowl, and leave out at room temperature for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.
2. Pour the cream into a chilled bowl, and whip with either a whisk, eggbeater or mixer until thickened (be careful to not whip it too much or you’ll turn it into butter!). Gently stir in the honey and vanilla. Cover and chill until ready to use (though if it sits too long it will revert back to its liquid state and will need to be whipped again).
3. Cut each biscuit in half, and on the bottom half place some strawberries and whipped cream. Put the top half on and add some more berries and cream.

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