Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tex-Mex squash casserole

Tex-Mex squash casserole
I took a wrong exit on my way to the Birmingham Airport. I don’t usually mind getting lost because this can often lead to discovery. But after meandering endlessly down tree-lined country roads I realized that my journey, while beautiful, needed to have a focus or I would miss my flight back to New York. I pulled into the first parking lot I saw. It was for a restaurant—Joel’s Restaurant of Trussville, Alabama. The lot was packed with cars, which is always a good sign. But that’s not why I decided to stay and eat lunch. Nope, I decided to sit a spell because they had on the buffet squash casserole. And I adore squash casserole.

I’ve always thought it strange that I love squash casserole so much considering how little I enjoy eating squash any other way. Steamed, grilled, sautéed—no matter how it’s prepared I often pick at it and push it to the side of a plate. I’m just not a fan of its soft texture and abundance of flat, slimy seeds. But serve me squash in a casserole and I’ll eat seconds or even thirds.

OK, perhaps it’s not that odd that I love squash casserole since it’s a creamy, crunchy mass that’s closer to the fattening family than the vegetable family. But this doesn’t make it even less delicious. And I always rationalize eating it by telling myself that certainly some of the squash’s vitamins would have leached into the swirls of dairy that hold the squash in suspension.

squash casserole

This squash casserole on offer at Joel’s that day was the same kind that my mom and my grandma make: yellow summer squash cut into rounds, baked with a mix of cream of mushroom soup, cream of chicken soup and a package of corn bread stuffing. Yes, it qualifies as semi-homemade but it sure is good. That said, when I picked up a few pounds of yellow squash and zucchini at the farmers market recently, I didn’t have any of these squash casserole ingredients on hand. So I knew if this squash was going to be eaten I’d just have to improvise.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to make cow head barbacoa

“What do you want with a cow head?” asked the farmer selling beef at the Union Square Greenmarket. “We don’t sell cow heads here in New York—they’re illegal.”

Not to be deterred, I got on the phone and called my local butchers. It was the same conversation each time. First, they’d express shock and disgust at my query. And then they would curtly inform me that they could not ever, no way, no how get me a cow head as indeed, they’re illegal to sell in New York by order of the USDA. Something to do with eating cow brains having a connection to possibly getting mad cow’s disease.

So what’s a barbacoa-craving Texan in New York to do? I've made lamb barbacoa, but I wanted beef barbacoa. If I were at home, I could pop over to my local Fiesta grocery store and pick up a cow’s head in the meat section, nestled between the ground beef and slabs of brisket. But here my options were more limited, though I was advised that if I became friends with a farmer I’d probably have no problem getting a cow head.

I became friends with Elizabeth Karmel instead.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Banana pudding ice cream

I have a confession. I’ve never had the pleasure of eating Blue Bell’s Banana Pudding ice cream. I’m not sure why. After all, I love banana pudding and I love ice cream.

As you probably know, Blue Bell doesn’t sell its ice cream north of the Mason-Dixon line (though you can find a few flavors at Hill Country here in New York), and when I go home I get caught up on eating my old favorites—Cookies ‘N Cream and Buttered Pecan, which leaves me little time to experiment. That or whenever I’m home it’s not around as it’s only in stores for three months out the year.

That said, I’ve been craving it as there’s something very appealing about a banana pudding ice cream.

Whenever I hear about the release of their seasonal flavors, I get a little sad that I won’t get to try them. And since their banana pudding ice cream is now available, I decided that even if I couldn’t buy it at the store, I could at least try to make a batch at home.

I usually make my ice cream with just cream and half and half, and don’t bother making a custard with eggs. (After all, it’s called ice cream not ice custard.) But I wanted this ice cream to be yellow and the best way I knew how to do that naturally was to make it with bright yellow egg yolks.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

How to season a molcajete

At the delightful bed and breakfast, known as the Red Tree House, that I stayed at on a recent trip to Mexico City, every morning I would see the owner’s aunt use a molcajete to make salsa. I have eaten many salsas through the years and let me just say that this was some of the best salsa I’d ever tasted in my life. I know that much love and passion went into this cooking and that’s the main reason why it was so compelling. But I also figured that using a molcajete didn’t hurt. And so at the moment, I decided must have my own molcajete.

If you’re not familiar with a molcajete, it is a Mexican mortar and pestle. The term molcajete actually refers to the three-legged round bowl, which has been carved out of basalt. The pestle, which is known as the tejolote, has also been carved out of the same volcanic rock. In the thousands of years that this ancient tool has been used, there haven’t been any changes to the core shape—it’s a timeless design. Though because it’s a squatty vessel with legs, molcajetes are sometimes carved into animal shapes such as a bull or a pig.

A molcajete is an extremely durable piece of cookware, so durable, in fact, that in Mexico people pass down their well-loved molcajetes to the next generation, just as Southerners pass down cast-iron cookware to their children and grandchildren. And this is the key: a molcajete only gets better with use, as it absorbs flavors and reflects these back into whatever you’re currently making. A well-seasoned molcajete also is smooth and is no longer in danger of shedding lava-rock grit into your food.

Being more Tex than Mex, I realized that I didn’t have anyone to bequeath me a well-seasoned molcajete—if I wanted one I would have to buy it new. And yes, it would need to be seasoned. After going through the act, I decided that no one should ever have to suffer through my mistakes. So if you’re interested in acquiring a molcajete, here are my tips on making the best out of the seasoning process. And if you follow these instructions, you’ll soon discover that a molcajete is quite simple to use and enjoy.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Texas potato salad, what is it?

Is there such a thing as Texas potato salad? And if so, what is it exactly?

When I asked my family how they make their potato salad, they all provided recipes that called for similar ingredients: chunky, unpeeled potatoes (either red new, brown russet or Yukon gold potatoes), green onions, celery, hard-boiled eggs, sweet pickles, mustard and mayonnaise. And if you’re on my dad’s side of the family, you stir in some Durkee’s as well.

This is the potato salad that always graced the table at our family barbecues—a thick mouthful that was soft and crunchy, tangy and sweet. But as I asked friends that hail from other regions of the country how they make their potato salads, their recipes sounded shockingly similar.

My family assured me, “Yes, this is how we do it.”

But is it particularly Texan?

People say it’s the mustard that makes a potato salad a Texas potato salad, but doesn’t everyone use mustard? Perhaps we just use more.

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