Foodie Tuesday: Keep Us Company

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Rice and wheat crackers with cheddar dip and salsa; carrots, jicama, olives, watermelon and lime wedges, to zip up any of it that’s in need.

Shared companions at their best help to strengthen individual relationships.

This is true of people, any great net of friends and acquaintances woven, knit and spun together making the two people at their center-most intersection better through their support. It’s true, too, of meals, where the cast of side dishes and sauces, condiments and accompaniments all work together to make the main dish better and more interesting than it would be on its own, and make a standard entrée a standout, distinctive and more memorable for the occasion.

Now, when these two instances of the supporting cast making the show coincide, things can be tons of fun. As on our latest anniversary, for example. We enjoy our twosome time immensely, and are glad to celebrate at any excuse, but we’re not sticklers for specific dates or rigorous traditions. So when our anniversary lined up with a rare opportunity to gather with a houseful of students, we merged our various celebratory plots into one plan.

Dinner for any more than four people is inevitably served buffet style when I’m in charge; besides my preference for informality, I like people to be able to sit at tables for ease of dining, and while I can make that happen for up to a couple dozen in our contiguous living, dining and kitchen spaces, it doesn’t leave much spare room for elbows, let alone heaps of serving dishes, on said tables. So it’s easier to concoct big-batch comestibles in big-batch pots and pans and let the guests scoop up platefuls of their own design at will.

This time, the centerpiece of the meal was my lazy version of carnitas, one of my pet make-ahead foods for carnivores, surrounded by a range of things that could keep the vegetarians, the allergic and the whatever-averse all reasonably well filled.

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The center of attention. Get those edges crispy!

Carnitas de Señora Loca

Take one big, fat-marbled haunch of a pork roast, cut it if/as needed to fit in the slow cooker, and tuck it in for a nice long soak, at least overnight and longer if possible. Its bath should be comfortably Tex-Mex in character: cumin, powdered garlic, chipotle powder or a canned chipotle en adobo, and, if you’re in the mood, some stick cinnamon, all to your taste; equal parts of Mexican [cane sugar] Coke–in my slow cooker, the measure is one individual bottle, orange juice, beer [I generally use either a Mexican beer like Modelo or Corona, or a Texan one like Shiner or Lone Star. I probably should give Armadillo Ale a try, since it’s a new brew produced right here in town. If I want to go wheat-free, I’ll use hard apple cider]. And one more ingredient in equal quantity: lard. Don’t be squeamish; if you’re eating pork, bathe it in the fat with which it was originally designed to be flavored and enriched, preferably great quality leaf lard, expertly prepared. There are plenty of good cooks around who are willing to go to the fuss of rendering their own batches of top-quality lard, but since I have access to grass-fed goodness of that sort I can’t imagine why I should.
A while before serving time, strain the falling-apart pork out of the liquid into a large baking dish, shred it, and put it in a hot enough oven to crisp the top layer, removing it for a toss and redistribution a couple of times so that there are plenty of nice crispy bits throughout but keeping watch to keep the meat generally very moist. Skim most of the fat from the reserved liquids and cook them down to reduce for a sauce while the meat is crisping.
Then pile a bunch of carnitas on your plate and surround it with loads of other food. Eat.

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Carnitas and all the fixings.

Don’t forget some coleslaw when there’s shredded meat, whether BBQ style or otherwise; the two are simply good friends for a good reason. The version of the day had sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds, and a light lemon vinaigrette with a dash of honey. See, addicted as we are, I can sometimes vary slightly from my standard sushi ginger flavored creamy coleslaw. The creamy dressing, whether made with mayonnaise or yogurt or sour cream in its dressing, would’ve added elements not all vegetarians like, so I wanted to keep an option or two open. Cheese dip for the vegetable crudites was not going to allow such a thing, including not only the grated sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses but also an equal mix of mayo and sour cream, along with a pinch of cayenne and a dash of bacon-flavored salt), and I had asked ahead and was pretty sure I didn’t have any true vegetarians, let alone vegans, coming that day, only lighter meat eaters.

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Slaw, of course. Always a good choice, but wait–how to choose its style remains…

Since the non-meatatarians in the crowd might otherwise have been stuck with just salad and fruit, vegetable, cracker sorts of foods, I did make up a big batch of rice without my typical inclusion of homemade bone broth, substituting homemade vegetable broth for the occasion. I credit myself with making a pretty dandy broth, no matter what the kind, so no one was shortchanged in the equation, I hope.

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Corn salad. What, you need more?

The last side dish leaned back toward the savory and did include a little mayonnaise: corn salad made with fresh kernels of sweet corn, diced tomatoes and avocados, and for those who wished, crisp bacon pieces to sprinkle on top. You know me: if a passel of pork is a good thing as the main dish, why not more pork alongside it?

Besides, it seemed in keeping with the whole theme of the event, that of the constellation surrounding the centerpiece enhancing the latter’s goodness, that our friends enhanced our day, and therefore our happiness, by sharing the time and the meal with us.

Foodie Tuesday: When in Texas . . .

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A menu from the LBJ (US President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s) ranch, from the 1960s.

. . . eat like a Texan.

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Well-made biscuits go perfectly with everything, of course.

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!

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Pull up a chair at Black’s.

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.

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Brisket and ribs and *some* of the fixin’s at Black’s.

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.

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All fired up at Smitty’s.

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.

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A whole mess o’ Texas-style libations.

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.

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The fabled Pink Ring of smoked brisket looks mighty purty alongside some peppery house-made sausage, don’t it.

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.

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Ice cream is good medicine even when you’ve overeaten during the main meal.

Now, eat up, y’all. There’s a whole new year of good food ahead of you!

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Lady Bird Johnson (President Johnson’s First Lady) served up some good Texas food on her campaign-support train trip, introducing more of America to the deliciousness that is Texas cuisine. (Choose the chili, if you want to be like Mr. President.)

 

Foodie Tuesday: When in Doubt, Bring Leftovers Out

Non-chef that I am, I’m not really all that often full of impressive inspiration when headed into the kitchen. Lack of super-skills aside, my more impressive store of laziness usually wins the day, and if there’s nothing spectacular lurking in fridge or pantry that simply cries out to be doctored up and consumed, what’s much more likely to occur is that I’m faced with a modest selection of bits, bites and bobs that require a small amount of creative re-combination or even disguise to avoid boring us all to starvation.

And there are those items best made in large quantities anyway, or at least larger amounts than needed for a single meal for our household-of-two. You’ll never catch me making chili or lasagna or any other labor-intensive concoction in a two-serving batch when most of them taste better with the passing days for their fridge lifespan and the rest can be frozen in smaller packets for time beyond that.photo

So the pulled pork lying in wait in the refrigerator might dress up as crispy-edged carnitas redolent with cumin one day, to be served with an array of good Mexican side dishes, and then appear as a chopped topping with cheese and vegetables and hard boiled eggs for a big chef’s salad, and finally, become glistening barbecue pork, sauced with a sweet and spicy Memphis-style stickiness and served up with buttery roasted sweet potatoes and creamy coleslaw. Yesterday’s leftover fried chicken gets broken down into chopped meat and chopped crispy skin; the meat gets tossed together with an equal amount of leftover rice and stirred up with salsa and cream, topped with shredded cheese and then the skin ‘cracklings’, and it all gets baked up into a simple Tex-Mex fried chicken casserole that’s hearty and heartwarming enough nobody even complains that it’s YMCA (my Oz compatriot John’s loving title for leftovers as Yesterday’s Muck Cooked Again).photoAnd of course, roasts and chops and steaks are easy as, well, Steak-and-Guinness Pie to deal with any old time. Besides the infinite variations on a casserole possible, there are the omelets, quiches and frittatas, the sandwiches and salads, and the curries and stir-fries. So many ways to spell deliciousness without excessive slavery over the hot cooker. As witness, a quick variant of teriyaki beef that goes neatly atop a cold sesame noodle salad, steaming fried rice, or on a marvelous glossy heap of citrusy wok-fried snow peas, yellow capiscum, celery, carrot flowers–when you cut 5 or 6 v-shaped grooves lengthwise down the sides of whole peeled carrots and then slice them across, you get nice little folk-arty orange flowers to throw in the pan–and finely julienned fresh ginger.photoJust hot up the sliced leftover steak in a hot skillet or wok with a mixture of appropriate Asian flavors that suits your mood and the occasion and blends the sweet, the sour, the spicy and the salty to your taste, and there you have it. The solution to your empty-stomach problem in the blink of an eye. The steak here was glazed with a mixture of soy sauce, raw honey, ginger juice, lime juice, and a couple of drops of toasted sesame oil for mellowness, and finished with sesame seeds for a little delicate crunch. A little hot oil or hot sauce at the table for those who like a hit of zing on top. No fuss. Lots of flavor. If you ask me, the only thing to add is your chopsticks, then your teeth.photo