Foodie Tuesday: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s eat.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Does this Seem Corny to You?

photoMy big sister hates corn. Things made with cornflour or cornmeal are acceptable, but sweet corn in all of its forms disgusts her delicate palate. While I, too, in my sisterly fashion may have disgusted her delicate sensibilities from time to time, I do not blame it on my admiration for corn in nearly all of its edible forms. (Surely my two younger sisters have had equally ample opportunity to be mortified by me over the years, despite their sharing my appreciation for corn.) But I do love corn. Perhaps I am just a corny person.

photoIt’s a little surprising that I find the texture appealing, given that among the very few foods I don’t enjoy are berries or fruits that have an arguably similar texture, with tight skins that burst open to soft insides, but there it is, I’ve never claimed to be logical. It could also be argued that corn has little flavor, being fairly bland if sometimes quite sweet, but this is of course one of its attributes that I particularly like. After all, I am very fond of foods that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways and many sorts of dishes or meals. Corn is exceedingly versatile in this sense, able to be incorporated in both sweet and savory dishes without competing with other ingredients, and capable of being processed in a huge range of ways to create yet more uses for it. You can dry it, soak it, pound it, puree it, pop it, use it as a whole kernel or even a whole cob, roast or fry or boil or steam it. It’s hard to think of many ways you can’t use corn.

Still, I’ll admit that my favorite treatments for it are usually the simplest. A garden-plucked ear of sweet corn is so delicious that I will not only eschew my normal craving for twenty pounds of butter per meal and eat it plain when it’s so fresh, I will happily gnaw it uncooked from the cob in that state. I’ve probably mentioned here before that when I was young and Gramps had his garden in its grand proliferation, there was that harvest time of year when the greatest treat was to have a meal of nothing but corn straight from the patch.

photoI also love kernel corn, hot and buttered, and newly baked cornbread. Mom used to make corn cakes on the griddle for an occasional breakfast, and despite my preference for my pancakes to be thin and moist, I happily made exception for those corn cakes’ thicker and cakier character because their toasted cornmeal flavor and sweetness made them much more like slim slices of cornbread or even a piece of celebratory cake than like any typical pancakes. Come to think of it, they would be a perfect dessert cake if made larger in circumference and stacked with some fabulous penuche or chocolate or cream cheese frosting between. Uh-oh. Dessert alarm is going off noisily in my head (stomach).

Corn clearly makes a wonderful and uncomplicated addition to all sorts of casseroles, soups and hot dishes as well in its cut-kernel form. It’s good to remember, though, that corn is also lovely cold. Added to salads, whether as a part of a mixed, dressed kind of salad or simply added to any combination of mixed greens that make up your favorite tossed salad, corn is a wonderful jot of sweetness and light color in the blend. I’m particularly a fan of corn added to salads of ingredients common to hot-weather climes: avocado, black beans, tomatoes, olives or capiscum pieces; citrus, mangoes or peaches can add a dash of brightness; dry, salty cheeses grated in, cilantro or mint or basil snipped on, and sweet or savory spices sprinkled over the dishes can all help to customize the dish, and corn is friendly with all of them.photoAnd me, I’m pretty friendly with nearly anything that has corn in, on or with it.