Foodie Tuesday: Smoke & Miracles

Y’all, I know I don’t have to tell you that since moving to Texas I have become nigh unto obsessed with, if not possessed by, a certain kind of Texas BBQ—central TX style beef. Smoked beef of certain cuts, to be more specific, and those cuts, prepared by the Kreuz and Lockhart family of pits, to be precise. Brisket, burnt ends, and beef belly, Oh MY! If you’re not a carnivore, I will simply tell you that the umami jammed into beef by means of the proprietary rub-and-smoke ingredients and processes of these meat-mystics is akin to combining all of the known vegan or vegetarian Fifth Taste elements (not to be confused with The Fifth Element, though that has its admittedly tasty moments as well) and letting a flock of angels swim around in it for a while before serving. All told, it makes good sense to me to post a paean to this fabulous stuff on a day dedicated to love.

Photo: Lockhart's Best

Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em: Texas BBQ has a good foothold in heaven.

Kreuz/Lockhart beef is so good that I can add nothing meaningful by making “recipes” for food with it, and once in my greedy hands it would never last long enough to get from its brown paper wrapper all the way to my kitchen anyhow (see note‡ below)

Here’s my Lockhart take on an Old Fashioned. Hope you like it; Lockhart’s spectacular smoked meats deserve all of the signature taste treats they can get for further exposure and dining/drinking pleasure. Bacon’s dandy, but it’s no substitute for Lockhart goodies. Not that I’m prejudiced or anything.

Miss Kitty’s Smokin’ Lockhart Old-Fashioned (Miss Kitty’s SLO, for short)
2 tsp Miss Kitty’s Smokin’ Lockhart Simple Syrup (recipe below)*
1 tsp liquid from Texas Candy-Krisp Jalapeños
2 or more dashes orange bitters, optional
1 jigger (1.5 fl oz) Herman Marshall Texas Bourbon Whiskey
Stir these ingredients together and add ice.

Twist a good hunk of orange zest over the top of the drink.
Garnish with an orange slice and a Texas Candy-Krisp Jalapeño.
I hope I don’t have to tell y’all it’s time to drink the potion!

Photo: Smokin' Syrup

I don’t think any of us really need Martha Stewart’s help to understand that syrups, simple or not, are a Good Thing.

* Miss Kitty’s Smokin’ Lockhart Simple Syrup
(My invention, and danged tasty if I do say so myself. And, naturally, I do.)

Put “leftover” ‡Note: (HA!—more likely, better get some ‘specially for this recipe, or you’ll eat it all before you can do anything else with it, like I usually do) Lockhart beef belly, burnt ends, and/or brisket in a pot or—better yet—a slow cooker, and cover with water. Simmer for at least three hours, adding water as needed to keep the meat all covered and get maximum broth from it. When it’s concentrated enough to smell like you crawled into the Lockhart smoker for a nap, strain the meat and fat out of the liquid, put the liquid into a suitable stovetop pot (nonstick is handy for syrups), add an equal amount of granulated sugar, and cook it together over medium to medium-high heat until the sugar’s all melted and it begins to bubble, but don’t scorch it. You’ve got enough built-in smoke from the meat not to want to spoil that smoky goodness.

If it’s too thick when done, blend in a little more water, and if it’s not thick enough, melt in a bit more sugar. When it’s cooled, you’ll probably need to skim off the fat that stayed on the meat-strained liquid. Not an exact science here, but a fine art. This stuff is so freaking delicious, I use it like honey on toast or cornbread, syrup on waffles, and whatever else comes into my tiny head before I just lick the spoon.

Photo: Beef Belly, Baby!

Yeah, you heard me, Beef Belly, Baby!

And just in case you’ve never seen this classic moment of Old Fashioned comedic history:
(Jim Backus & co. in a delightful little scene from It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.)

Cheers from here!

Hard-Edged Impressionism

Digital illo from a photo: Doing My Impression of a LonghornThe steadily clear, cloudless skies of a still very warm October day in north Texas lend themselves mostly to seeing the world as a series of crisp cutouts, light and shadow unmitigated by much subtlety. But after spending the last six years living here, I have found an interesting fine-textured, mellow character that offers much of the softening effect the light might seem to steal from the scenery. It comes in those rare times, like yesterday afternoon, when my spousal-person and I have the time and leisure to wander slowly and savor those things that are uniquely alluring about this still somewhat alien terrain.

Instead of the flat and unchanging brown I had somehow come to expect from Texas when I was still a foreigner to it all, sitting up in the very northwest corner of the country and imagining I was moving to dry, unmitigated plains, this part of the state is actually a softly rolling zone, a puffy quilt as opposed to a hospital-corners flat sheet. There are little ravines and arroyos tucked into it, sliding slopes of no great height but enough curvaceous amplitude to give a sense of motion and variation. There are no natural lakes around here, but a good number of created ones, and Ray Roberts Lake is a massive reservoir with thousands of acres of state park land along its shores. The farther inland oak-and-pine forested walking paths are currently closed because of flooding, an exceedingly rare thing in this region but brought on by last winter and spring’s astonishing rain performance. So even if it weren’t for the possibility that there’d be more mosquitos in the shady walk (thanks a bunch, West Nile virus), sticking to the breezier open areas of the lakeside was more promising.

As we drove out toward the lake, I was reminded of how the tall native grasses’ and wildflowers’ color and texture, height, and movement hide the sharp edges of the landscape; how the rolling terrain lulls me; how vast stretches of these, stands of trees between ranchland pastures and open plains, and the broad blue dome of the sky all become blurs of comfortable sameness. All things gain or lose specificity of detail with our relative nearness or distance, whether physical or mental.

As we’d drive nearer to a change in the topography or flora, or a lasso of vultures would tighten in the sky overhead, the edges and distinctions becoming more defined again, our eyes and minds would shift back to notice details. As we passed through these, we would relax once more into that easeful somnolence of a Sunday afternoon’s outing and see only large patches of color, texture, movement. A leafy copse at the edge of one of the area’s sweeping ranches first looks like a dark and fuzzy blend of earthy greens and browns, then gradually coalesces into trees and grasses, then proves to be shading a small group of magnificent longhorns who graze steadily, undisturbed by the larger or smaller picture.

I am reminded once more of how small a part of any picture I am, yet how free to be a moving, changing, unique point of interest within it if and as I choose. All of us are both at once: concrete and distinct, yet subsumed in the greater whole as mere specks, little dots of disappearing solidarity within the hazy afternoon of history. I am content.

Sorry, Texas!

I’ve enjoyed these six years of living in north Texas, and I expect to enjoy the next whatever-number of years here, too. But after just returning from a roots tour of sorts in the Pacific Northwest, visiting family and familiar territory where I grew up, I am reminded that the riches of one’s birthplace can have no insuperable competition elsewhere in the universe if one has been as blessed with hometown wealth as I have been. I won’t say much more, because yes, I am happy wherever I find love and landscape enough to keep me contented, but I will leave you with a couple of photos as food for thought on the subject just the same. I suspect you know whereof I speak, no matter where your roots lie.

Photo: Mt. Rainier through the Lupines

Texas Hill Country has its magnificent bluebonnets in proliferation in a good spring season, to be sure, but are they any more exquisite than the carpeting of blue lupines on the flanks of Mt. Rainier in *her* glory?

Photo: Raingardens, Seattle

There aren’t *that* many cities where a mere parking strip is as likely as not to be a fully fledged Raingarden, loaded with a mass of flowers, vegetables and fruit, and xeric plants all exploding with texture and color.

Photo: Seattle Skyline from Puget Sound

A soaring modern skyline, the deep, cold waters of the Sound, and the beach life of leisure scented with fresh-caught fish and chips. Don’t tell me that isn’t pretty fine stuff!

I Can’t Help It When I’m Speechless with Happiness

Other than my general adherence to food posts on Tuesday—for no particular reason on my part other than my constant love of eating—I don’t often go with the popular day of the week trends or memes or whatever they are. But what makes me happy can render even the loquacious-unto-verbose me speechless, so what better to do than shut up and hand it over with no further fuss. My gift to you, therefore: a [nearly] Wordless Wednesday. The roadside view on Saturday was simply too fabulous not to be shared.Photo montage: Longhorn Beauty Pageant

Cowboy Comforts

Time for another dose of Texas-inspired meditation. Because  I live in Texas. And I got to meditatin’. And I have been known to think—as American Thanksgiving Day approached, for example, but pretty much whenever it comes to me too—that one of the things I am perpetually impressed by and immensely grateful for is the soulful dedication of those people who do all of the difficult and endless and mainly unsung tasks, at often invisible jobs, to make life bearable and beautiful for the rest of us.Photo + text: Cowboy Poetry

Photo + text: Enough

It would be an exaggeration to claim that My Heroes have Always been Cowboys, but I do indeed respect the role they play in this pantheon of working-class wonders whose gifts are so much-needed and so often unheralded by the rest of us. I thank you sincerely, all of you independent gas station owners, ditch diggers, restaurant servers, car wash detailers, dry cleaning operators, factory workers, day laborers, and all of your committed fellow-men and women who carry us all on your backs.

Foodie Tuesday: Mashed for a Mashup

Beans can be fun. Yes, they can be slightly dangerous in their propensity for aftershocks, if you will, but with reasonably careful preparation they offer a great deal of variety in flavors and textures, a filling and hearty sense of substance, and a decent nutritional punch, all in a bunch of mighty little packages. Fond as I am of rather wide-ranging cuisines, I am also bound, then, to enjoy good leguminous dishes. But I’m not endlessly open-minded about them. I don’t get much pleasure from things that are mealy, mushy, and morose, and when beans are handled too cavalierly by cooks, they can be reduced to such states rather easily. Why eat anything too bland, too woody from undercooking, too dull and lifeless from overdoing, or otherwise characterless, when in fact beans are such a fine medium for carrying a host of vivid flavors and come in such a rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes?

All of this being said, I’m also a fan of one of the less stylish preparations known to bean-eating humankind, the ubiquitous mash of frijoles refritos or refried beans. This may be, as you’d guess if you’d read no other posts of mine than a single recent Tuesday one, due to the oft-practiced method of making refritos taste best by jamming as much lard into the pot of them as is physically possible, along with the musky goodness of cumin and other Mexican or Tex-Mex seasonings. But it’s also a pleasing kind of mash, having both the thick porridge character of many so-called comfort foods (nursery food texture is clearly a consistent preference among these) and the occasional happy surprise of the un-mashed, unabashed little pearls of un-crushed beans here and there.

Another pleasurable bean dish that’s full of rustic old-school goodness is the American classic of Boston baked beans, the virtual equivalent of candied beans, which also hold an unsurprising attraction for a devoted sweet tooth like mine. Traditionally, the well-loved Boston version of them contains salt pork and molasses, and I happily went with a similar theme when preparing yesterday’s side dish, but then I got to ruminating upon the aforementioned treat and wondered if the two recipes mightn’t make a nice partnership, as well. Turns out that there’s a Boston in Texas, too, in case that excuses me. So off I went, concocting my bean dish of the day…and enough extra for another two meals or so.

I’d par-cooked a batch of mixed beans recently, for starters. I combined equal parts dried kidney, pinto, and black beans, soaking them in several batches of water (each one successively cold, brought to a boil, cooled, rinsed, and replaced) over a stretch of hours before the final simmer to near-doneness. One portion of the beans went directly into a big batch of beef chili my spouse and I had prepared together that day; a large portion of the legumes went into the freezer for future uses; the last quantity was saved in the refrigerator in its own unseasoned juices for today’s preparation. And the latter was pretty easy to fix, with those beans already lying in half-cooked wait for the occasion.Photo: Boston, Texas Beans

Boston, Texas, Beans

Before the beans came into the picture, there was the salty-sweet sauciness to get under construction. I chopped about a generous half-pound of bacon into pieces and cooked them over medium-low heat with a big handful of brown sugar (my molasses source), a small sprinkle of smoked salt, and a couple Tablespoons of butter. Yes, extra salt and extra fat. Beans to come, cooked without any seasoning or fat, you know. Me: fat, salt, sugar. Yes. Deglazing, as the bacon began to crisp, with about 1/2 cup of good Texas bourbon. Once that all got good and syrupy and semi-crisped, I added the beans and their liquor, (about three cups) stirred everything to mix, and got in there with the potato masher, leaving some beans more or less intact. Let the whole pan sit, covered, at a low simmer until dinnertime about a half hour later. Served hot, it satisfied nicely after a busy afternoon for both of us diners.

In the event, it was a bit on the dry side for my ideal, but not too dry to be enjoyed with some plain smoked sausages cooked in white wine, dipped in a touch of mustard, and served with a side of juicy sweet Clementines. Given the slight dryness, however, I added a big dose-si-do of sweet BBQ sauce and a splash of water before sealing the remaining two meals’ worth in a zipper bag for refrigeration, and I’m sure I’ll get this little handshake-across-state-lines dish on speaking terms with further entrees in the days to come. Cooperation is a good thing, and the ever-flexible ingredient beans are nothing if not good citizens in the kitchen.

Foodie Tuesday: Butter and Bread

Photo montage: Peasant BreadYou have noticed, I am sure, that the phrase in English is virtually always given as “Bread and Butter,” but if you’ve been here even once before on a Tuesday, you know quite well that for me, butter—not bread—is the sine qua non of this duo, and indeed, in a multitude of other pairings and combinations. Bread, no matter how delicious, is first and foremost a vehicle for a quantity of excellent butter. I will, like other people, eat bread without butter if it’s superb bread or there is no butter to be had, but if you think I won’t eat butter without bread you are very much mistaken.

Butter is delicious.

It is also emerging, in latter years, from under the cloud of privation-inspired (wartime rationing, the Great Depression, and so on back through the ages) inhibitions that resulted in the invention and embrace of all kinds of butter substitutes and, subsequently, the pedantically reinforced attitude that fat in general, and butter, specifically, represented the earthly form of Pure Evil. Turns out that the less dramatic and more practicable truth is that fats, butter among them, are no more dangerous when eaten by non-allergic people and in reasonable quantities proportionate to their other food intake and not processed in ways that remove it too far from its natural state—fat is digestible, useful, and even healthful. Well, butter my biscuits!

Yes, bread is delicious, too.

The list of breads I love is astoundingly long, beginning with the simplest unleavened kinds and wending its way through worlds of batter-based, raised, kneaded, savory or sweet, dark or light, dense and moistly heavy (say, a chocolate-y black pumpernickel) or ethereally feather-fluffy and flaky (perhaps a vanilla-scented brioche or a just-baked croissant) to the filled, sculpted, decorated concoctions of the most masterful bakers. While I was never a baking genius, I was a dedicated maker of a variety of rather delicious breads during grad school, using the kneading time as my meditation and the choices of style and flavors as my medication, both necessary for the survival classes like Ed-Psych and Statistical Data Analysis for Pedagogical Applications.

My favorites to make tended toward the frivolous dessert-tinged breads, upon which a slathering of butter served, in essence, as icing on the cake. I used that classic baking bible, Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads, for many of my inspirations, though as I always do, I roamed far and wide in making substitutions to suit my pantry and my mood as I baked. But probably the two recipes I used as my foundational go-to favorites most often were from Mom, for Limpa (light, sweet Swedish-style rye) and Julekake (cardamom scented sweet bread traditionally made with dried and candied fruits and peels). I’ve made Limpa plain, once or twice, to be sure, but I can guarantee I never made Julekake exactly according to recipe, since every single version I’ve seen or eaten elsewhere contains raisins and often, candied cherries, neither of which I like texturally in baked goods. Just not my thing. So I’d either delete some add-ins or make all the measures of fruity/candied ingredients in the recipe be strictly candied peel and citron, which will undoubtedly make lots of people laugh, since very few folk I know dislike raisins, or even those neon red-and-green candied cherries, but citron is notoriously a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient and I gather, is less often admired than reviled.

Go figure.

Much of the time, when I’ve baked from recipes that called for candied peel and fruits, dried fruit pieces, nuts, and that sort of thing, I like most of all to substitute that sort of thing with my preferred varieties of them, whether it’s in breads, cakes, cookies, steamed puddings, or anything else. So you’re more likely to find me making a facsimile of Julekake that contains a combination of citron, juicy candied orange peel and ginger, diced dried apricots, and coarsely chopped dark chocolate. That’s the way I roll knead to do it.

And still. Even though it may be full of candy, I’m going to slather some fresh, cool, lightly salted butter all over that bread before I eat it, if I get the slightest chance. Makes it slide down mighty nicely, if I do say so!

PS—All of that being said, I do greatly enjoy bread’s natural suitability as a superb support and vehicle for lovely fats. Being in Texas, I am glad to indulge my admiration for fine BBQ (and whether it’s meat or not, it ought to be good and greasy) as often as possible, and sometimes even the squishy, soulless processed bread traditionally served with BBQ is perfect with it, a plate you can eat when the rest of the meal is gone. Incredible burnt ends. A hunk of bread to sop up the fat, outside and in. No dishes to wash. Bonus points.Photo: BBQ Fat Happiness