Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tomatoes rock.

Tomato carpet at the now defunct Emo's on Red River - Austin, Texas. © Ryan Schierling
My mother always describes eating fresh tomatoes out of a childhood, long-ago family garden – plucked ripe from the vine, warm from the sun, juices dripping down her chin on the first bite. I imagine it is what tomatoes were always supposed to taste like... killer.

Grocery store tomatoes are a sad affair, no matter how organic or fresh. Compared to home-grown, they are typically a little mealy, a little dry, lackluster and lacking in fresh-picked, sun-ripened flavor. When we buy tomatoes outside of our Central Texas growing season – which is to say, November through March – they're usually used for making salsa or tomato jam. The little actual tomato flavor they've got is augmented by other, bolder ingredients. But when it's summertime in Austin – which is to say, April through October – we have two garden plots that are a cage-match tomato free-for-all.

The larger varieties don't usually fare so well. They split before they're ripe, they are susceptible to leaf-footed bugs, and we've found that crafty mockingbirds abscond with bits and pieces of them as soon as they're soft enough to poke a beak in. Sweet little cherry and grape tomatoes are prolific and quick to grow, the medium-sized orange ones do well, and small heirloom varietals have been very successful. We stick with the tried-and-trues, and use them to their tomato-ey fullest while we've got them.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Cookies. With or without sticks.

Two kinds of chocolate and a wee bit of peanut butter. Pretzels optional. © Ryan Schierling
In my now "vintage" 1970s recipe box there is a faded card that is spattered from decades of use, and the careful lines of my early teenage script are a barely-legible watercolor of blue ink. This is the mother recipe for innumerable batches of cookies I've baked in my lifetime. We all have a recipe or two like this tucked away somewhere – one from which a thousand improvisations are sprung. 

I was a lucky kid to help in the kitchen from a very early age, but somewhere around the age of eleven, baking cookies became a legitimate activity to stave off summer boredom. After hours of riding our ten-speeds on dirt roads through the middle of barley fields or walking the railroad tracks to the little general store with its weathered board and batten siding and shake porch that looked like something straight out of a spaghetti western, my friend Tammy and I would often choose to pass an afternoon baking cookies.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Hangover breakfast, part two.

Caramelized fennel and onion hash. © Ryan Schierling
Sometimes, there’s not a definitive narrative to the things we make.

Sometimes we mumble. 

Sometimes there’s just an overflowing refrigerator and a short-order cook aesthetic – throw some stuff together and put an egg on it. The treatments will vary depending on what we’ve been cooking lately (have you ever eaten taco salad variants five nights in a row?) and what happens to be in the pantry, but shaking things up sometimes requires a reset and breakfast is always where I begin again.

We had pounds of potatoes, tons of onions and two generous fronds of fennel. How am I supposed to be fabulous with fennel?

I don’t enjoy anise-flavored things in the least – Jagermeister and NyQuil (which may as well be the same disgusting thing when you have a cold), absinthe (love the old-world concept and execution, hate the liquor), Black Jack chewing gum (what the…?), star anise (pretty, but pretty repulsive) uhm… black licorice (sue me, it's foul). Some spell it “liquorice” and that would seem to imply I’d love it, seeing that it’s a compound word containing “liquor” and “ice.” Not so. Definitely... not so

But fennel that is slow-cooked down with onions until it’s brown and supremely sweet isn’t something we’ve ever done before. The fennel flavor changes from a bracing, bright anise hit to a far more complex, mellow mouthful that’s so very nice with potatoes. A squeeze of lemon juice and a couple of garden-fresh tomato slices add some acidity, and the egg on top is required whether this is for breakfast or not. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sweet flan? Don't carrot all.

Savory carrot flan with carrot-top walnut pesto and feta. © Ryan Schierling
My forays into flan have been few and far between. I don't care for the caramel-sweet Spanish dessert custard and the crusty English open-pie version isn't my cup of tea. I'd rather have a small, savory custard as an appetizer course, and if blue cheese flan happens to grace a menu, I'll take it as dessert with one last glass of red wine, thank you very much

We've finally gotten with the CSA program, and our bi-weekly delivery of the Austin-area's finest farm veg is a welcome challenge to eat more locally-grown produce, and who doesn't like getting a super-secret-surprise box delivered to their doorstep every once in while? 

Grocery stores offer every fruit and vegetable you can think of – even if it's not in season – when you think you want it... which is always right now. With our CSA box, we're delighted (forced) to use what's currently ready to be harvested, and sometimes it's very nice to be filled with wonder (dread) at how we're going to use our very-perishable bounty. Kidding, kidding. The quantities are small enough that we haven't had too many issues with things getting lost in the crisper (rotter). 

There were some beautiful little carrots in our last delivery, with the most delicate, lacy, bright-green tops I've seen in a while. The easy way out is salad. Boring, big ol' salad. A better option (fate) would be Julie's crowd-pleasing carrots on the side, and this would have been entirely appropriate but I wanted something a little different and a little fancier than the last recipe I offered up, which was Krab enchiladas. Oh, I may occasionally put Slim Jims and gas-station cheese inside a jalapeño and deep fry it, but I know what the hell a bain Marie is. This is penance, perhaps redemption, and I'm using the carrots nose-to-tail. Errr, root to leaf

It's a simple, savory custard, full of right-out-of-the-earth carrots, topped with a pleasantly-grassy (and very complimentary) carrot-top and walnut pesto and some sheep's-milk feta. First course, last course, it doesn't matter. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bonus Enchiladas – Green Chicka Green Green

Green chile enchiladas redux. © Ryan Schierling
This one is inspired by that perennial layered "green chile enchilada" casserole recipe that many of us grew up with. Tasty as it may be, it's probably more heart-attack inducing than the Velveeta in enchiladas Dan Jenkins – what with all the cheese and that obligatory can of Cream of Something soup involved.

Our family recipe (included below in all its quantity unspecific glory, and strictly for educational purposes, of course), was made with Cream of Mushroom soup. But I understand that the non-vegetarians among us would quite often add chicken to this dish and even use Cream of Chicken soup on occasion. So, perhaps a little more protein there, but still not a dish that's going to get any healthy-living bonus points. You see, while there was something of an attempt to eat a "nutritious" meatless diet, our family was also a product of its time – a time when we all fell victim in some form or other to the put-a-can of Campbell's-in-it school of cooking that was all the suburban cultural rage.

These days we like to think we're a little more sophisticated in our preparation of food and sourcing of ingredients. What I remember loving best about this layered casserole was the saltiness of the olives (I've always loved olives) with the flavor of the green chiles. Plus, there was something distinctive about the copious addition of cheddar cheese that also went into that baking dish. Contemplating this childhood favorite in light of our recent "5 days, 5 ways" foray into enchiladas started me thinking about how I might be able to enjoy that flavorful goodness in a lighter, more traditional enchilada form.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Enchiladas Dan Jenkins.

Eat these with an over-easy egg and say your prayers. © Ryan Schierling
When I was a kid, the whole seatbelt thing was something folks were just warming up to. I don't know the reason the moment stands out in my memory so, but one day as we piled in to the back of our family station wagon, I was a little slow to put my seatbelt on. My younger brother took it upon himself to harass me about my lack of safety precautions. Finally, in exasperation, he exclaimed, "Do you want to die?!" 

The feeling I had when he said that is kinda the same one I have when I eat these enchiladas. They are stupid to eat, but there's a liberation in the ridiculousness of it all. Between the gooey, salty, Velveeta, the bright tang of onions on the tooth, and that river of enchilada sauce – it seems like the food equivalent of what the free-lovin' 60's must have been like. Drape an over easy egg over the top and you just did it on acid, man....

Our first introduction to this hard-core Tex-Mex standard was at Dart Bowl in Austin. This recipe is from Texas culinary historian-curator-troublemaker Robb Walsh's Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook. There are two sauce options in the book – chili con carne sauce or original chili gravy – one with meat and one without. I rather prefer the smoother, meatless style (looking at you vegetarians who care not a hoot about your arteries this week), but there's a fairly narrow margin of difference between the two.

You'll be all set for a stiff drink and a nap when you're done. And, you know, we kinda had to make up for all those light enchilada recipes we've posted this week some way or another... but you'll only get lame apologies for that until you've tried these.

Recipe not included below because it's not our recipe to offer, and we make it exactly as it was written with no adaptations. Go buy a copy of Texas Eats, turn to pages 112-113 and fold the pages back until the book's spine breaks. It will now always open to this dish. It's worth it. 

Well, at least once a year, or until your cardiologist finds out.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Enchiladas de la tierra.

Sweet potato, potato, back bean and roasted corn enchiladas. © Ryan Schierling
Once upon a time, I came across a taco joint in a northwestern town that served a veggie burrito which included sweet potato. It's a rare item to see featured as a vegetable in most Mexican restaurants, and I thought it was downright delightful. The filling for this enchilada recipe was born from that inspiration and my love for simple black bean and corn enchiladas. Nothing fried here, just a hearty mix of colorful goodness with a tasty homemade red chile enchilada sauce.

Can we just have a word here about red enchilada sauces? Somehow I got hung up on this topic at an early age. My mother was raised in Southern California and somewhere along the line developed some very strong opinions about a certain few ingredients. She always insisted that "Las Palmas" brand red enchilada sauce was the real deal – the gold standard in a can. A little label reading in later years proved her point. Most commercial red enchilada sauces are made with a pureed tomato base. Apparently, as far as Mom is concerned, authentic enchilada sauce is made with only red chiles, not tomatoes. As it can still be a little tricky to find the chile-only variety in the average supermarket, I completely understand her brand loyalty. There is definitely an important difference in both flavor and texture, and if you choose to go the canned-sauce route for these enchiladas, I implore you to do a little label reading of your own before making that purchase.

Homemade enchilada sauce is an easy thing to make if you have a good blender and can source the dried chiles. I like the flavor of the New Mexico or California chiles with the Pasilla chiles, as the combination has more of the "enchilada sauce" flavor profile I grew up with. The Arbol chiles give it a friendly touch of heat. However, you can substitute some of the dried chiles to suit your taste. Many traditional recipes recommend using a combination of  guajillo and ancho chiles – which happen to be two of my favorites in other contexts for their particular richness and depth of flavor.

Forgive me, but the proportion of filling to sauce between these recipes are not very well aligned. The enchilada sauce recipe will be just about right (maybe a tad bit extra) for a 7x11 pan of 8 enchiladas. The filling you will definitely find yourself with plenty extra. I suggest either making a double batch of enchilada sauce, or plan on using the extra filling for tacos or burritos in the next couple of days.

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