Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sweet, hot, pickled, beer-battered bliss.

(L) Sweet, habanero pickled onions. (R) Fried, sweet, habanero pickled onions. © Ryan Schierling
Ultimately, this all started on a clearance table at our local grocer with a Texas brand of hot, sweet, pickled onions being blown out at 50-cents a jar. Regularly $5.99 each, we bought four, and were surprised at the simplicity of the sweet, spicy, clean and crisp flavors. They worked on all kinds of sandwiches, were divine in deviled eggs, great grilled, fabulous on top of steak, and they shined in salads. We were a bit distressed that this product wasn't popular enough for the store to keep around and we were afraid we'd never see it again. It's not the first time this has happened with something we really liked (but found out about a little late), so we figured we'd better reverse-imagineer it. 

There were six ingredients – onions, vinegar, sugar, habanero peppers, salt and citric acid. Based on percentages of sodium, carbohydrates, sugar and vitamin C on the label, we were able to approximate salt, sugar and citric acid components per serving, and per jar. Taste-testing got us pretty spot on with the pickling liquid, though we weren't sure if the onions were originally white, yellow or sweet, so we went with white based on what we had on hand. Of course we didn't hold back on the habanero, because we roll caliente, and they were goooood

We tried them quick-pickled, then left those in the fridge for a two-week pickle to see how to texture and flavors would change. Later, we did them properly canned in a hot water bath for longer-term storage. The longer the jars sit, the more the flavors and the heat intensify.

But I couldn't leave well enough alone. I kept thinking about deep-fried pickled things, and how these onions might taste if we beer-battered them using a spicy pilsner and took them to the hot oil-filled cast iron. The result was surprising, but sort of expected – they were ridiculously good. 

Sauceless, these are amazing onion rings. They are crispy, tangy, spicy, sweet and salty without ever seeing a swipe of Ranch or buttermilk dressing, or ketchup/catsup, honey mustard or whatever other crazy things you dip your onion rings in. We made a two-pepper ketchup just in case, and it paired perfectly with the hot little ringlets.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Calamari Provencal.

There's a steak in there. © Ryan Schierling
There are a lot of things I don't understand about the ways of food wording. When a cow is grazing, wandering, giving milk, it's a cow. When it's butchered, it's beef. Baby cow... calf. Unless you're eating it, then it's veal. A pig is a pig until it's pork, a moniker issued upon its demise. Chicken, well, that's just... chicken. A squid out of the water and on its way to your plate is calamari, unless you're Italian. In that case, in whatever state, it's still calamari.

Most people are familiar with the breaded and deep-fried rings of calamari, oft-dipped in marinara or aioli. This chain-restaurant appetizer staple endured somewhat of a scandal a while back. Given the shape, color and texture of calamari rings, some insidious folks had been passing off "imitation" calamari as the real thing, and you don't want to know what the faux calamari was made of. Or maybe you do. Let's just leave it at the fact that "seafood fraud" is apparently a common occurrence in the food industry, and you may have been enjoying a delicious plate of sliced, deep-fried hog rectum. Prepared in a similar fashion, pork bung has a texture that is frighteningly close to calamari rings. Fried and dipped in a sauce that masks most flavor, not many would be able to tell the difference. Hell, after a few glasses of wine, most people would mistake supple Italian shoe-leather for milanese if you breaded, deep-fried and seasoned it nicely.

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.

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