There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.
Mediterranean-style foods bring with their ingredients and flavors a joyful dose of the sun that nurtured them into being. Eating Mediterranean-inflected foods almost makes me feel I’m giving my insides a solar power retrofit. I rather wish that this meant I would become the human equivalent of a ray of sunshine, but at least I hope there’s a noticeable mood enhancement in the short term when I indulge in such deliciousness.
A characteristic I’ve seen in the foods of sunny climes is that many of their indigenous cuisines have built-in traditions of hors-d’oeuvre style dining. Given warm temperatures, lighter meals of smaller portions can often be a grand way to ward off feeling overcooked as an eater. Many of these same food cultures are characterized by wonderfully intense flavors, and somehow the right combination of heightened spicy, zingy, smoky or, say, tomato-y tastes tends to make foods seem slightly more-ish to an extent that the nibbles make a perfectly fulfilling and lovely whole meal.
The treats of this occasion light up with some of that bright, vivid deliciousness and make for a nice nibble or snack, or when combined with a few more of their kind, a pleasant summery version of complete dining. No matter what the season or the weather.
A good sunshiny plate-full:
Stuffed grape leaves (homemade would undoubtedly be grand, but I’m not above choosing ready-made ones as I did here), marinated artichoke hearts, pimiento-stuffed green olives, sun-dried tomatoes rehydrated in red wine, and soft boiled egg, with a dip made of whole-milk yogurt seasoned with lemon pepper, dill and salt to taste.Sparked-up Three Bean Salad:
Three bean salad is a longtime favorite of American picnickers and lunchers, and there is a fairly classic style of making it: green and wax beans and kidney beans combined in a lightly sweet vinaigrette, sometimes with minced onion and even, occasionally, with added chickpeas–and often, using all canned beans for convenience and the traditional texture. There’s no law, however, that this already delicious old recipe can’t have a few surprises added. My latest combination was the simple three-bean version with only two small additions, canned (not marinated) baby corn, and for a contrasting splash of sweetness, some more of that minced sun-dried and red wine rehydrated tomato. The sun is inherent in the salad, but if I’m going to tweak it anyway, I couldn’t resist garnishing it with the first tender dandelion sunbeams that came my way.Even adding any of these individual items to a menu can heighten the flavors of the other foods in the meal and bring some of the same cheering pizzazz to the occasion. Think of serving the pickled-tasting salad alongside a deeply roasted leg of lamb, or trimming a magnificent platter of rosemary-scented pork roast with the plate-full at the top of the post, and adding a few fat-roasted potatoes; methinks there might be a whole number of diners that would feel sunlight pervading their innards and their spirits when presented with such taste treats. I know I wouldn’t mind even just repeating this part of the menu, and you never know when the rest might follow.
. . . eat like a Texan.
That’s simply to say that, since we’re on the road with Mom and Dad S and dining out much of the time, the logical thing to do is to eat classic local and regional foods, as well prepared as possible. If you don’t already know the area fully, just ask who’s the nearby iconic source of said goodies, and any folk in town will surely share their opinions and recommendations. We all like to let others in on what’s good, as long as they promise to eventually leave town again for their homes and don’t take up our spaces at the table!
This trip, such practices mean that we’re enjoying lots of beef, fried foods, Mexican and Tex-Mex delicacies, and pecans. The ‘World’s Largest Pecan’ (a–to my eye–humorously humble sculpture we saw on the courthouse lawn in Seguin) notwithstanding, there are an almost infinite number of exquisite food specialties featuring the nut of the Texas state tree, ranging from the simple and unadorned to mouthwatering pralines and brittle and crunchy chocolates and spiced nuts and intensely rich pecan pies. Pretty much anything one can imagine putting in one’s mouth to eat is considered prime material for putting into the deep fryer first, in this state, so it would be wrong not to feast on chicken fried steak or, yes, chicken fried chicken. The latter, not to be confused with that other magnificent delight fried chicken, is made like its steak cousin: a nice chicken breast pounded into a thin cutlet, coated with a nice breading (usually a thin, seasoned batter), and deep fried until its fragile shell is as daintily crackling-crisp as the sugar crust of a crème brûlée, and then of course devoured with large quantities of fried potatoes or biscuits or bacon-cooked green beans or buttered sweet corn or coleslaw.
I could, as you know, go on and on, rhapsodizing endlessly on the variety and virtues of Texas cuisine, but it would leave me fewer subjects for future Tuesday posts. More importantly, it might eclipse what was one of our goals in visiting this part of central Texas, which was to eat some fine Texas barbecue. Beef-centric in the main and not so much defined by sauces as are some other regions’ BBQ specialties, Texas BBQ is more characteristically recognized as being wood-smoked meats, brisket being probably the star of the show followed by various sorts of ribs, pit-smoked turkey and ham and pork roasts, pulled meats and, not least of all, sausages. Like many other regional signature foods, in Texas there are as many signature styles and flavors of sausage as there are barbecue masters and smoker chefs.
Our aim, specifically, was to visit what is pretty widely acknowledged as the BBQ capital of Texas, the town of Lockhart. It’s kind of a pity that Lockhart became so renowned for BBQ and so defined by it, because (apparently unbeknownst to all of the guidebooks and programs I’ve ever seen about Lockhart, since it’s never been mentioned in my hearing) it’s really a pretty town, with a gorgeous Victorian courthouse in its center surrounded by a charming square full of shops and restored vintage buildings, neighborhoods full of a grand mixture of old-fashioned architectural styles ranging from tin shack to Southern mansion, and groves of beautiful old oaks, soapberry trees and pines undergirded by fine clumps of prickly pear and wild grasses.
But barbecue is, for better or worse, Lockhart’s middle name, and since we’ve been staying less than an hour from there it seemed it would be a sacrilege not to test its validity. Though there are in fact additional reputable places in town for eating good barbecue (we have it on local authority), Lockhart is famed primarily for three eateries that are all longtime institutions in town and known each for its own unique style of both food and atmosphere. We had only the one chance to visit on this our first trip to the area, and one day on which we could sensibly do so, so we decided to check two of the three big-name places for the sake of comparison. Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market both sprang from the same joint’s origins, so we opted to go with the completely unrelated Black’s for our first stop, shared a two-plate assortment of foods there between the four of us, and then wandered over to Smitty’s (something of a coin-toss decision winner between the two ‘cousin’ places) to sample a little of the competition.
I will simply say that this first brief encounter made me a believer in Lockhart rather than a fixed advocate for one or the other place. Each had its marvels and was an emporium of fine BBQ dining in its own way. Both had delicious, moist brisket. Smitty’s prides itself on letting the meat star in the show to the extent that not only would a visitor insisting on sauce be shown the door, there are few other adornments even available. A very short list of drinks, some saltine crackers or plain squashy white bread, plastic knives and spoons and butcher paper wrappings for carrying the meat to table, and if you aren’t feeling quite well fed enough you’ve clearly just ordered too little meat. Both eateries offered delicious house-made sausages, Smitty’s being more peppery than the plain variety we had at Black’s, but both succulent and flavorful. Black’s seems almost dressy by comparison when it comes to dining room atmosphere–Smitty’s is a long, plain, barn-like series of rooms painted floor to ceiling with layers of dense pit smoke that gives it a superb patina of authenticity, but Black’s is classic Texas kitsch, checkered cloth-covered picnic tables lined up cheek by jowl between walls plastered with longhorn and deer-antler trophies, taxidermy and celebrity-visitor portraits.
I could tell you about the starch and vegetable sides at Black’s, but ‘that ain’t barbecue’ after all, and I could tell you about the desserts there, which looked perfectly dandy, but we didn’t touch those since we still had a stop to make at Smitty’s. I could admit to you that even after we ate small meals at both Black’s and Smitty’s we still had the room and the gumption to stop at a shop on the square and have a scoop each of ice cream, but that might be giving away too much information and setting a bad example at the same time. I will tell you that the drive out and back was through the picturesque central Texas landscape and in the company of loved ones and therefore a very pleasant way to pass a slightly drizzly afternoon at the tail end of the year. And yes, that it’s well worth your while to drive along out to Lockhart, Texas, no matter what the weather when you’re in the mood for some barbecue. I’ll get back to you when I’ve been able to test the other places’ competence in that realm, but after all, it’s worthwhile enough just to know that two of the touted sources of BBQ goodness are all they’re cracked up to be, because when you need some barbecue, well, it’d better be good.
Now, eat up, y’all. There’s a whole new year of good food ahead of you!