Friday, September 25, 2015

Root veg kaleidoscope.

Steamed carrot slaw with roasted beets. © Ryan Schierling
The challenge: Create an unforgettable side dish from random items in your refrigerator before time runs out. Who will rise to the occasion, and who will be… CHOPPED.


I'm fairly certain I would be a terrible contestant on one of those competition-based cooking shows. You know the ones where contestants have to execute something spectacular in under 20 minutes with a limited number of disparate ingredients? Not a minute to spare rethinking or redoing anything? I’d probably knock it out of the park about one in three rounds, and full-on crash and burn the rest. Pressure cooker situations are just not for a planner like me. However, that’s not to say I don't enjoy rising to a challenge when the opportunity presents itself.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Texas wildfire salad.

Texas wildfire salad. Arugula and seared zucchini with habanero herb dressing. © Ryan Schierling
We've been running a bit of a hot spell here in Central Texas, and the pepper plants are about the only thing in our garden that are tolerating the heat. Our patch consists mainly of jalapeños and habaneros this year. The jalapeños we use with frequency, but the habaneros are a little tricky because we either need a fresh harvest large enough to make hot sauce, or we have to find ways to use what ripens in a steady trickle. If you're familiar with habaneros, you know that this little orange pepper packs a wallop of heat. While it may not rank at the top of the Scoville scale, it is up there high enough to warrant wearing gloves when cutting them and taking measures to avoid any juices that may aerosolize in the chopping process.

So, I decided to make a habanero salad dressing out of a couple of them. Of course, right? For continuity of color, I chose to include orange bell pepper – well, in addition to the fact that there is nothing meaty about habanero peppers and I wanted to add some substance and body. There is a reason for the popularity of habaneros and it's not all about its spicy reputation. Habs have a wonderfully distinct, almost fruity, flavor that transcends the heat. With the addition of garlic and some fresh Texas tarragon (Mexican mint marigold) leaves from our garden, the resulting dressing is creamy in texture without being heavy and has a boldness that is both tangy and mildly herbacious.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The horseshoe sandwich.

Springfield, Illinois meets Austin, Texas. Horseshoe sandwich, FGHD style. © Ryan Schierling
I'm sure there are wealthy suburbs of Springfield, Illinois that have more cardiologists per capita than any other city in the United States. I imagine when filling out new patient paperwork, there is a check-box for "Do you eat horseshoe sandwiches? If yes, how many per year?" That information is disclosed to insurance companies, you are deemed "high-risk" and your policy is put under review.

In the summer of 2007, I ate a horseshoe at storied purveyor D'arcy's Pint in Springfield. I was determined to finish it, and after 45 minutes, I did. Moments later, I felt the first tinges of angina. I was told by locals that to thin the blood I needed more alcohol. I ordered a pitcher of Old Style and a cold, wet bar towel for my forehead, and that seemed to do the trick.

Years later, I kept telling Julie I was going to recreate this Illinois staple, and it was going to be glorious. The Texas toast, the hamburger patties, the crinkle-cut fries and that incredible blanket of luxurious, velvety cheese sauce.

She took my braggadocio with a lot of grains of salt, reminding me that the heart never forgets. And yet, I got a crinkle-cutter in my stocking the following Christmas. This week, I finally tied on my apron and took that Springfield regular to Austin-level serious. Honestly, why hasn't Texas adopted this plate? It's right up there with Frito chili pie, chicken-fried steak and eggs with hash browns, and enchiladas Dan Jenkins. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

It's time to make the doña.

Dos brujas – red and green doña sauces (and one frightened mollete). © Ryan Schierling
This recipe is nothing new, especially to Austinites. It certainly didn't originate here, but doña sauce is a bonafide Austin staple, and it has been long-studied, dissected, perfected and repeated by others well before Julie and I ever thought to make it ourselves last year. It is a puréed, pale green, fire-breathing dragon of a jalapeño sauce that was introduced by Veracruz-native Bertha Gonzales to local restaurant Tacodeli 13 years ago. She won an employee salsa contest with it, and it is as important to Austin’s culinary history as Matt’s Bob Armstrong dip, Dirty Martin’s burgers and Franklin’s brisket.

There are varied versions of it in squeeze bottles at taquerias all over town, but Tacodeli made it a locally, fervidly-famous comestible.

The food blogger and bulletin board arguments over ingredients are legend, because the original recipe is closely-guarded. Are the peppers roasted or boiled? Some say there’s avocado, or crema, or raw egg, mayonnaise or even mustard in the sauce. Others swear there’s only a touch of oil, and mostly water so the sauce doesn’t gelatinize in the fridge. Everyone’s got an opinion and a recipe.

I was a little baffled though, at why I’d never seen a rojo version of it using red jalapeños. Doña sauce is always green.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A simple, tiny taco tome.

(L) Our beautiful flea-market machacadora. (R) Pinto beans. © Ryan Schierling
This is a story about a humble taco. It’s a bit of a love story, where homemade corn tortillas are concerned, and where my love for anything made of masa harina was born. These tacos reach back deep into the earliest grasp of my childhood food memories.

My mom grew up in southern California, but as it would happen, the craft of making homemade tortillas was learned as a young working mother in the Pacific Northwest from our neighborhood bread baker and all-around food-geek, Mrs. Cooper (who, impressively, milled her own flour at home!) Using masa harina, water and a sturdy cast-iron tortilla press, we made these delectable little homemade tortillas on a pretty regular basis when I was a kid. It was great fun to roll the masa dough into little balls and then smash it between the waxed paper or plastic on the press. Then there was the trick of peeling it off the plastic (usually a deconstructed large zip-bag) without it breaking into pieces in my young hands, and onto the cast-iron griddle they went. 
It was a team effort and family activity all its own, with a delicious payoff.

The toppings were always just this simple – refried beans, shredded cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce and (if you felt like it) a little bit of old-school grocery-store taco sauce. Simple and honest. For me, the flavor of beans and cheese on fresh corn tortillas is about as comfort food as it gets. The lettuce adds a cool contrast and a bit of crunch.

There’s plenty of fancy to go around these days. Always a new take to be found on an old recipe or the temptation to take two perfectly good food items and wrangle them into a mind-bending knot and call it "fusion cuisine." But every time I feel like I might be over-complicating my food experience, I think of these tacos. They don’t need “more” to be better. In fact, what makes them so delightful are the plain and clear flavors. A little crema or drizzle of a favorite sauce would be delicious, too, but these tacos truly do not require any of those things to be wonderful.
 In a world of "bolder, spicier, more complex!" these are gentle, simple and straight-forward.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dessert gold – with almonds.

Blondies amandine à la mode. © Ryan Schierling
Brown sugar is magical. This is something I need to remember more often. Brown sugar is caramel, butterscotch, toffee. It is dessert gold.

When it comes to "bars" I've been rather singular in my affection for brownies – the darker the chocolate, the better. Nearly any other bar seems to fall swiftly off my radar. 

This year I decided to live a little and give blondies a try. Blondies are, at their essence, a brownie without the cocoa. (Why...? When the alternative is, ahem... chocolate? But, I digress.) Not everyone will agree with me on this, but every "blondie" I've encountered has had a bagged chip it in... chocolate chips, artificially-flavored butterscotch chips, wood chips... seriously, I'd rather just bake cookies.

Perhaps I should blame the hot sun and five-plus years of living East of the Rockies, but I started giving some thought to the potential that a warm, chewy, caramelized sugar bar might offer. A slew of sliced almonds was the final inspiration needed to put me over the edge. Almonds have a wonderfully delicate flavor when toasted that is divinely complemented by the sweet flavors of caramel, honey and coconut.

One could quite easily throw the kitchen sink at these bars, but I opted to maintain a focus and simplicity that honors the almonds and the chewy lightness they could offer.

My strategy was pretty simple: treat these strictly as brownies without chocolate – not like a separate bar – and adapt the old family recipe as necessary.

In fact, I even went back to the old cookbook containing our family's brownie recipe, curious if there was a blonde equivalent there. Sure enough... but it is called butterscotch brownies. Interestingly, it contains exactly zero butterscotch chips. It relies on the butter and brown sugar for flavor, but the ingredients/proportions are slightly different from the brownies. So, yep – I'd call them blondies.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Shrimp, grits, gravy and greens.

Fried grit cakes with boudin gravy, dandelion greens and shrimp. © Ryan Schierling
Every Southern cook worth their heritage cast iron pot-and-pan collection has a shrimp and grits recipe that's the best. Of course, it's a recipe that was bestowed to them in hushed tones by their mama, from their mama's mama, and so on and so forth, down a long line of mamas. My mother doesn't have a shrimp and grits recipe and I'm not a southern cook. I rock the cast iron, but there is no lineage that would tie me to a historically time-honored shrimp and grits recipe.

I'm not looking to give you one more traditional (or non-traditional) reinterpretation of what started as a Low Country breakfast dish. It's been done.

While I have a deep and abiding respect for the classics, I wanted a fussy, sassy, gussied-up little Southern belle that was more a complete plate than just shrimp and grits. Call me a Yankee all you want – but when you taste these fried grit cakes and boudin cream gravy, the little pickled green tomatoes, the robust, biting dandelion greens and that rich New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp – you will slap your mama.

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