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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Go away, come home.

Seattle band Spanish For 100 at S&S Cafe – Emporia, Kansas. © Ryan Schierling
"It was somewhere near The Crazy Mountains in Montana – day 17 – when I began to lose my mind. The air conditioner had just given up the ghost after 14 straight hours driving out of Denver and the early July temperatures were climbing. I was moist, sticking to my clothes and my clothes were attached to a red fold-out bench seat. I had dim memories of seeing the sun coming up, but that could have been one of at least five other sleepless nights on this summer tour. 

Polaroid pictures secured to an overhead rail with strips of duct tape swung back and forth beneath the blue and brown headliner. A pink stuffed ape wearing a mortarboard sat across from me in the captain’s chair, the butt of a yellow flashlight unceremoniously shoved into a break in the stitching in it's ass. Where was the Uriah Heep that had kept us going for so long? Everyone was silent, a little lost and glassy-eyed, moving in slow motion. The energy drinks for shift-driving were gone. The ice was melted.

I tried in vain to think of some type of candy that has a crunchy exterior and a chewy center. That’s what Horchata, the Spanish For 100 bus, had become – crusty on the outside and moist and tender in the middle. We were bad nougat that was quickly heading south, churning west over mountain passes at 47 miles per hour. I couldn’t think of the damn candy."

In 2007 and 2008, I documented two consecutive summer tours for the Seattle band Spanish For 100. 

I stopped shooting live music in Seattle, for all intents and purposes, in 2005.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Chuck, Charlie®, Charles.

Tuna croquette with plum salsa and jalapeño honey mustard. © Ryan Schierling
In food circles I will never run in, there are Chihuly-blown glass jars of Japanese-auction-sold, million-dollar Pacific bluefin tuna scraps, packed in the oil of olives so extra-virgin they’ve been immaculately conceived and harvested by eunuchs. This tuna detritus – the least of the leftovers of the left-overs from the best of the biggest of the big-bucks maguro – will find their way to children of the nouveau riche for tuna salad sandwiches with the crusts cut off by a butler, or governess or au pair. These children will still turn up their noses. Or so I imagine.

I grew up with tinned tuna that on the good days might have been StarKist® spokes-fish Charlie®. On bad days, it might have been down-on-his-luck Chuck – generic label, definitely not dolphin-safe, extra-mercury-packed, probably not even actual tuna canned tuna. My beloved childhood tuna salad sandwiches always tasted predictably perfect – smashed, flaked fish, heavily-laden with mayonnaise and sweet pickle relish, served on Roman Meal wheat bread (crusts on) by mom.

You can buy whatever tuna you want for this recipe. Maybe you went sporting in the Sea of Japan and got big, fresh and lucky. Perhaps some spendy Italian tonno in oil or just cheap chunky albacore in spring water? Maybe some of that new-fangled tuna in packets. Don't care. We do this recipe fast and cheap, so use whatever you want or feel morally, socially or financially inclined to.

What you will get is a surprisingly bright, nuanced plate. The jalapeño honey mustard is an anti-tartar sauce – sweet, spicy and with a tang that when paired with the plum salsa is a left-right combination punch. The tuna never knew what was coming. We've made this dish so many times with just the mustard sauce, and it's still wonderful. Visually, the now in-season plums suggest a pretty tuna crudo preparation, and paired with Texas sweet onion, jalapeño, cilantro and lemon juice, they'll take you from Chuck to Charles in no time.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Pesto. Do it with collards.

Collard green pesto flatbreads with boudin, peppers and tomato. © Ryan Schierling
Before I become a victim to my own verbosity, let me to cut to the chase – please try this pesto. It’s delicious. It’s nutritious. It’s economical. And, if not more versatile than traditional basil pesto, it certainly is more accessible

We’re comfortable with greens, but those most used in our repertoire have traditionally been spinach, kale, mustard and beet. Collards are more regional to our home here in Texas and until now we have been unremarkably straightforward in our use of them. You know… chopped, cooked greens with some onion, a splash of lemon or vinegar and seasoning.

Compared to other greens, collards have a thick and sturdy, almost leathery leaf on a hearty stalk. They take longer to cook than other greens and have a robust flavor to match. Quite frankly, they have been a bit of trick to incorporate into our menu plans. We’ve struggled awkwardly with new regional produce in the past. Last Fall we finally realized the delicious miracle that is roasted okra, and a vegetable I have had a disastrous relationship with previously is now one I’m looking forward to coming back into season. Breakthroughs such as these are defining moments in our personal food story, and this Spring we had that surprising moment with collard greens.

It started with a Saturday morning perusal of my Instagram feed. An artful image of large collard leaves and some thick-sliced ham scrolled onto my screen. Not exactly my thing, so far, but the maker of that image was Maggie Perkins and I always enjoy the “in-progress” photos of her impromptu creations as a farmer’s market demonstration chef each weekend. The caption that day is what caught my eye, “Good morning from the market! I’m whipping up a collard green pesto to top flatbread pizzas…”

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Baking a pot of beans.

Baked beans. © Ryan Schierling
Family recipes were the hook that reeled us in to blogging about food. We are nostalgic ones at heart, and were just looking for a way to give all those tenuously-preserved, barely-written-down mealtime staples a place to live on with some degree of veracity.

The funny thing I've learned along the way is that the recipes from my family share several things in common: they are typically minimal in ingredients, the recipes are virtually never deviated from, and even in light of these first two facts, they are universally the most nebulously documented recipes I've ever encountered. The sauces are “to taste." The quantities are sometimes not even estimated because the cook is presumed to “just know." These are the kind of recipes where, if you haven't had the privilege of standing at the cook's side carefully observing the nuances, and tasting along the way when a dish has been prepared, you have to call upon a family member who has been in that place a time or two and taken very good notes.

My family's recipe for baked beans is exactly this kind of recipe. It is a five-ingredient wonder that came by way of my great-great-grandmother (my father's mother's father's mother) who immigrated from England via Canada. I have no way of knowing how much it has, in fact, evolved over the years. Judging by my family's dogged recipe loyalty – not a single iota. But, judging by the inclusion of molasses – there was, almost certainly, a touch of New England (Boston-style) influence somewhere along the way.

Best I can tell, it's been a recipe more akin to an oral tradition than a secret formula. I have been given this recipe three ways, all with the same ingredients. One simply described verbally in the tradition of a “to taste” formula, and two which vary mostly on the amounts of sugar (noting that one didn't even offer the quantities for the beans or tomato juice). So, I've stitched the pieces together and offer this detailed recipe which I present only as a benevolent guideline for successfully making my great-great-grandma Scott's baked beans.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Ice, de-ice, baby.

(L) Arapahoe Basin, Colorado. (R) Denver International Airport. © Ryan Schierling
We haven’t been on a proper vacation in eight years, which is longer than this Foie Gras Hot Dog thing has existed and longer than we’ve been in Austin. The last time we hopped on a plane for some adventuring was 2006 when we took a week away in Hawaii – sunning, snorkeling, and sampling plate lunch and proper poke every chance we got. It’s been far too long since we travelled for play, with a side of relaxing, dining and drinking.

Back in November, we thought it might be nice to see some snow and planned ahead for a Colorado trip. I’ve got history there, and though it’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve set foot on and strapped in at Arapahoe Basin, mountain topography does not change. They’ve added a lift on the back bowl that I used to hike, there are a few new beers on tap and lift ticket prices are about $70 (!!!) more than what I remember, but The Legend is, and will always be, my absolute favorite place to ride. 

I spent the better part of the early 1990s faithfully snowboarding A-Basin two or three times a week. What is now called the “Early Riser Lot” was church at 7 a.m. Bad Religion at volume, changing into snow gear and finishing off a travel mug of black coffee before nodding at ski patrol and catching first chair behind them. From mid-mountain, it was just a hard left down to the Lenawee lift and 13,000 feet was minutes away. From there, it was a cruise to the right and a drop off Cornice Run, or left and as far as you could get traversing the East Wall before turning in and churning through powder in Land of the Giants. I rode a Burton Craig Kelly Extreme and that board, on that prominence, made a mountain man of me. Twenty years is too long to have been away.

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