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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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