Monthly Archives: October 2018

Tex-Mex and Tortas

(This post tells of the beginning and the ending of last year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Appropriate, as the 2018 Symposium begins the day this posts to end this series of throwback thoughts.)

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my half a century.  Perhaps I’ve mentioned it once or thrice.  And it should be a surprise to no-one that as we travel, we find food traditions that are different than our own.  You don’t even have to go out of the country to see it.  Take barbecue for instance.  Eastern vs Western North Carolina styles.  Mustard sauce in South Carolina, white sauce in northern Alabama.  Beef brisket in Texas, mutton in Kentucky.  I could go on and on.  But if you take a minute to see past these differences, you might just see the common thread: people everywhere like barbecue of some sort.  Each style, flavor, meat and source of fire has its own team of loyal advocates, but ultimately they are champions of cooking proteins low and slow.

On the first night of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, we were treated to a dinner that crossed some of those style boundaries.  There is Mexican food, and there is Tex-Mex.  Though there is certainly some overlap between the two, Tex-Mex is a cuisine all it’s own.  Miguel and Modesty Vidal were our guest chefs, from Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas.  Already another boundary crossed: not just Tex Mex, but Tex Mex BBQ.  These are some of my favorite food groups; I was feeling pretty good about this meal already.  

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We began with a ceviche that featured shrimp, fish and avocado.  If I’m not mistaken, it was at another SFA Symposium that I had my first experience with ceviche, and it was a good introduction.  This one was also a good introduction to the evening.    

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The sides came out family style, in large bowls that encouraged seconds.  First was a cole slaw made from purple cabbage.  Following closely behind was a bowl of smoked corn, reminiscent of Mexican street corn but freed from the cob.  Finally, we were brought a bowl of charro beans, creamy and peppery.  My favorite way to eat these was to get a little bit of each in one bite – crunchy slaw, smoky corn, and savory beans, all in one delicious mouthful.  I kept going back to that, even with the dishes that came next.  

The carnitas tacos were classic, no-frills street tacos – the best kind.  Tortillas, shredded pork, cilantro, and onions caramelized to the ultimate sweetness.  No other accoutrements needed.  Then came the smoked brisket.  It had a dark bark and was served with a bit of tangy sauce on the side.  Our table had one empty place as I recall, which meant there was more brisket and tacos for the rest of us, and that was a very good thing.   

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I was happy enough, but dessert was still to come: smoked bread pudding.  Fascinating.  It was typical in many ways in its construction, not too far off the traditional bread pudding path.  But the hint of smoke was unmistakable, just enough to let you know it was there.  

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The final evening meal of the weekend also represented a universal food.  In Starkville alone we have oodles of places to get a sandwich.  You can hardly throw a rock here and not hit a sandwich.  I have wondered sometimes if it was just us, but if I take a moment to stop and think, it’s actually a worldwide phenomenon.  Even in our house we regularly cross sandwich borders.  One of our favorite meals is a sandwich made simply with boiled eggs and feta cheese, best served on a crusty baguette.  We learned this one in our corner of the Middle East, the same region where I had a bean sandwich for the first time.  Last week we made paninis with our seriously under-used George Foreman grill and some Hawaiian chicken.  (That may be a stretch for a cross-cultural sandwich example, but it’s a start.)

In Mexico, the sandwich is called a torta.  Sounds like a tortilla, yes, but there’s no illa.  According to one source, the bread for a torta is usually round, and may have originated from French influence when France occupied Mexico back in the 1860’s.  That’s a border-crossing influence I never would have guessed.  

Our SFA meal was a Tale of Three Tortas, or as the menu said, Lodge Cast Iron Tortas del Munda (sandwiches of the world).  All had Latin influence, but each had its own flag planted firmly in the bread.  (Seriously.  There were little flags staked in the bread.) 

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Alex Raij is a New York City chef with Argentinian roots, serving foods from the Basque region of Spain in her restaurants.  Her sandwich featured bondiola (thin sliced pork shoulder, Argentinian style), charred eggplant mayo, and tximitxurri (also known as chimichurri), with shaved red cabbage slaw.  Another way to eat shoulder – score!

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Rodolfo Montero of El Molino in Charlotte made a Torta de Chorizo Espanol, with a side of black pealla (very black) with shrimp and cuttlefish. Sources say a similar Montero-made sandwich in it’s natural habitat (inside Sav/Way Foods) is magic.  Thank goodness Younger Brother lives in Charlotte.  I think it’s about time for a visit.  

Jonathan Magallanes, from Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana in Memphis, did his part with a Gulf Shrimp Torta, and more of that corn I love: Elotes (street corn) with Cotija (the Mexican version of Parmesan cheese) and Chile Pequin (a hot pepper).  Also from Memphis, La Michoacana (a Mexican ice cream parlor that seems to have much more than desserts) sent down some paletas (aka ice pops.)  I think it’s safe to say that ice pops span the world in one form or another as well, so these final bites certainly fit the theme.  Though we were sad that the Symposium was ending, it was a terrific taste on which to end.

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Lunch with Hugo Ortega

(Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 Symposium is almost here!  The lunches are coming, the lunches are coming… Meanwhile, a look back at one of 2017’s noontime culinary artistry, courtesy of Tabasco and Chef Hugo Ortega of Houston.)

Houston, Texas.  City of my birth.  City of NASA, which is the reason it was the city of my birth.  Not in any way due to an early-entry astronaut program (though I’m sure I would have qualified); rather, because my father was a mathematician for the Apollo Program.  Despite only having lived there the first five or so weeks of my life, I claimed to be a Texan for many moons.  

Houston has had a rough go of in recent years, particularly with all that Hurricane Harvey threw at it.  But there are many good things happening in Houston, too, and one of those is Chef Hugo Ortega.  

June 20, 2017, was Hugo Ortega Day in Houston.  That’s right, the mayor of Houston, Texas, made a declaration.  And if you read the list of Ortega’s accolades, this day was a long time coming.  He was also awarded Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation.  That’s kind of a big deal on its own, not to mention he was also the first Mexican-born chef to win a James Beard award. 

Given the national attention he, his restaurants, and his cookbooks have earned in the last couple of decades, would it surprise you to learn that his culinary career began as a dishwasher in one of the restaurants he now co-owns?  Chef Ortega immigrated to the US (Houston, in particular) in 1984, and after taking on a few other jobs, landed a position as a dishwasher at Backstreet Cafe.  Fast forward through a few promotions and completion of the culinary arts program at Houston Community College, he and his wife now co-own at least four celebrated restaurants in the Houston area, including Backstreet.  

At the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium earlier this month (2017), he won something else: the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award.  Here is how the SFA describes this award: “The SFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award goes to an individual whom all thinking eaters should know, the sort of person who has made an indelible mark upon our cuisine and our culture, the sort of person who has set regional standards and catalyzed national dialogues.”  I’ve only told you the highlights of Ortega’s remarkable career as a chef; add everything up, and this honor makes perfect sense.  

Every year the honoree receives a commissioned art piece by Oxford artist Blair Hobbs, and a short film is made about his/her life.  But it’s not every year that the attendees of the Symposium get to eat the honoree’s food.  This year we had the privilege of experiencing the reasons he is a perennial winner.  

As I have mentioned once or thrice, lunch at the SFA Symposium is so big that it requires a sponsor (this time, Tabasco) and has lately been served in multiple courses.  The treats that awaited us at the table that day may surprise the average local reader-eater, but are apparently quite common in Puebla, and Oaxaca, Mexico.  Bugs.  Oh, there was some queso del rancho, some chicharrones, and some huaxmole rojo.  But it was hard to overlook the bugs.  Chicatanas (flying ants) – “rich and beefy”, per our menu.  Chapulines (grasshoppers) – “taste acidic”.  And gusanos de maguey (agave worms) – “soft and milky”.  At first I just wasn’t sure.  But after The Wife tried one, I couldn’t let her outdo me.  Now I have been there and I have done that.  

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The next course was a tamal de elote (corn tamale) with queso fresco, crema and tomatillo criollo.  I have racked my second brain (aka the internet) trying to find a good definition of a criollo, to no avail.  But in this case, I think it was essentially a tomatillo salsa verde topping this tasty tamale.  

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Next we were presented with a plate of Chiles en Nogada.  This was a wild one, though again, it appears to be a classic dish in certain parts of Mexico.  Poblano chiles were stuffed with a picadillo, a mixture of shredded chicken, fruits, almonds and spices, then topped with a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds.  Anybody had that at your local Mexican restaurant lately?  Yeah, I thought not.  And that may be because it’s not exactly easy to make, even if you are a James Beard award-winning chef.  We were told that Chef Ortega and his crew “began cleaning walnuts for the Chiles en Nogada this May.”  Wow.  Fascinating and beautiful.   

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The plate that followed was also a new entry into my Mexican lexicon: Tabasco Pepper Mash Mixiote de Res in Agave Skin.  Translated?  A Bag of Delicious.  Okay, so I took French in high school, not Spanish.  But surely that is close – at the very least, it is accruately descriptive.  Upon opening the little bag, I found tender beef chunks (de res) and cactus paddles, seasoned with avocado leaves and the aforementioned Tabasco pepper mash.  Traditionally this is cooked by burying in a pit, though it can be done in an oven.  I was getting a little full by this point in the meal (gusanos de maguey are surprisingly filling), but of course I didn’t let that stop me. 

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Nor did I let a little fullness keep me from dessert: Flan de elote (corn) with guava-tequila gelee, and brioche croutons.  Creamy and rich does not begin to describe this dish, of which I unashamedly ate at least two.  (It pays to linger at the table after these lunches.  Just sayin’.)  We even got a chance to try a little glass of Tejate, “a nonalcoholic, pre-Hispanic beverage made with maize and cacao.”  

Houston will recover, and you will want to visit – if not to calculate flight paths for the next space flight, at least to eat.    While there, celebrate with Chef Hugo Ortega.  Bugs optional.    

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Giving Lunch Its Due

(The 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is just days away.  Lunch is a big deal there, and the one described below was perfectly suited to last year’s El Sur Latino focus.)

I think lunch in the good ol’ USA gets a bum rap.  In some countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day.  There, if you’re going to get invited to a meal, it’s usually lunch.  There are courses sometimes.  And maybe tea afterwards.  And the best places are the ones that encourage naps after all that, as the good Lord intended.  (Otherwise why would we be sleepy after lunch?)

Meanwhile, in the 8 to 5-ish workweek here in America, if you get an hour to eat lunch (never mind the time it takes you to get to a restaurant and back) you’re pretty lucky.  Some get a half hour, and many eat at their desks or standing up while continuing to work.  Sunday lunch is about as close as many of us get to a leisurely noonday meal, save perhaps the occasional holiday feast.  

That’s one of the reasons I so enjoy the lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  There, lunch is celebrated.  The skills of the chef are extolled.  The tables are decorated to the nth degree.  The servers are given standing o’s.  And the eaters partake of multiple dishes that yesterday we didn’t know we loved.  These lunches are so big they require a sponsor.  

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Just an average lunch setup at the SFA…

Our first lunch of the weekend, brought to us by Springer Mountain Farms, featured Chef Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria Del Sol.  I was first introduced to this group of restaurants a few years ago in the Atlanta metro area – they have since expanded into Nashville.  Chef Eddie has developed a menu there that blends the flavors and traditions of his home, Monterrey, Mexico, and the American South.  I think I can say with 97% certainty that it was in one of his restaurants that I enjoyed my first barbecue taco, which he calls The Memphis: chopped smoked pork with a spicy jalapeño coleslaw and tequila BBQ sauce.  Since then I have had many, but Chef Eddie’s was my gateway barbecue taco.  

This SFA lunch was also given a name.  (Do you name your lunches?  No?  See what I mean?  No respect.)  He called it, “Five Stops on a Journey from Monterrey.”  The first stop on the journey was waiting for us on the tables: Cajun boiled peanuts with chile de arbol, a blend of flavors from Georgia, Louisiana and Mexico.  Boiled peanuts are a snack that I didn’t appreciate till I’d been overseas a few years and someone sent a pack to a friend of mine.  All of a sudden I became the expert in the room.

Next we were served a red chile pork tamale, inspired by his travels through Texas as a musician, where he learned, “just about everything goes with tamales.”  Apparently, even armadillo.  We were not served armadillo that day.  But I was intrigued by the story he told of the crawfish tamale with the etouffee sauce.  Tamales are another food I didn’t appreciate until adulthood – perhaps because as a youngster, I’d never seen one that didn’t emerge from a can.  Now that I’ve made them myself, it’s a whole new world of masa and more.  

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The next plate to come out was refried pinto bean tostadas with Doe’s Salad.  I haven’t been to Doe’s yet (I know, I know…it’s time to change that), so I haven’t had the salad.  But apparently their style of salad is similar to what is served in the ports of western Mexico, dressed with lemon and oil.  I was stunned at the brightness of flavor this salad brought to a refried bean tostada.  And somehow, some way, they also tasted buttery – it must have been the beans.  This was one of my favorite bites of the weekend, and from an informal poll (so informal you could call it eavesdropping, I guess) many others agreed with me.  

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Another favorite bite was his Chicken Pot Pie with a side of turnip greens. How many times have you heard about a taqueria with amazing turnip greens? These turnip greens are served at Taqueria del Sol and were featured in Garden and Gun magazine as one of 100 Southern Foods You Absolutely Must Eat Before You Die.  (I carry that list when I travle.  Now make that 14 down, 86 to go.)  TDS greens have onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, chicken stock (no pork in these), and more chile de arbol.  Side note: my uber-powerful search engine tells me this pepper is also known as a bird’s beak chile or rat-tail chile, but I bet those names won’t be on the placard at the grocery.  

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Okay, back to the pot pie.  I grew up with chicken pot pie – the kind that started as a frozen block which could be used as a weapon, then after an interminable wait (those were the days before microwaves) were delivered with lava-hot insides to unsuspecting children.  This one was very, very different.  The secret, says Chef Eddie, was in roasting the chicken before putting it in the sauce.  And that sauce; it was so rich it almost had a sweet taste – I couldn’t get enough.  But what set this pot pie apart from any and all others I have ever enjoyed was the “crust”.  All this deliciousness came in a bowl made from a tortilla.  It was not crispy like a taco salad shell, but just hard enough to hold the filling.  Now I’m spoiled forever.  

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Dessert was one more blend of Mexico and the South: chocolate chimichanga with tequila-Grand Marnier cream sauce.  The dark chocolate filling and that drizzle of cream were made for each other, a want-to-lick-the-plate kind of experience.  (I settled for a serious plate-scraping with my fork.  There were lots of cameras around.)

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If you find yourself in Atlanta (and who doesn’t, eventually?), I suggest you find yourself at a Taqueria del Sol.  

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All Hail the Huevos

(The 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is coming in less than 2 weeks.  I thought about exercising in preparation for the event, but instead I am warming up my tastebuds by reminiscing about last year’s meals.)

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Consider the phrase “typical breakfast”. What does that mean to you? As a wee lad, we ate a lot of cereal in my house, and I still love a good bowl at any and all mealtimes, and just about anytime in between. But cereal wasn’t on the menu every day. I have fond memories of pancakes, waffles, biscuits and donuts. Bacon, sausage, and eggs. Grits and Cream of Wheat. Cheese toast, cinnamon toast, and buttered toast (with a clear pattern of the spots where each pat of butter was placed.) Gravy occasionally came with the biscuits, Blackburn’s syrup came with the pancakes and waffles. Chocolate milk was the drink of choice with donuts, Cran-Apple juice with everything else.  And when bacon “bits” came around (the authentic ones, made from soy) – well, they went in everything.

Even with all that variety, I suspect most of us would identify these foods as typical breakfast fare. But most of us reading this are American, and Americans in or from the South at that. “Typical” changes when the culture changes. We learned that firsthand when we moved across the big pond. Our Middle Eastern neighbors had eggs, but that’s where the similarities ended. There was bread, but it wasn’t biscuits. (Biscuits were cookies.) Instead we ate pita or little baguettes, and we used that bread as our utensil. Instead of eggs we might have bites of liver cooked with peppers, onions and tomatoes – or there might be beans mixed in with the eggs, or beans with the aforementioned onions, peppers, and tomatoes. There was no bacon at all unless we brought it in our suitcases.  Meanwhile, in another house down the street, Dutch friends were putting chocolate sprinkles on their toast. Australian visitors opened up a can of baked beans to go with their eggs. We learned a lot about “typical”, and we also figured out what kind of beans we liked best in the morning.  (Sorry, mates, but it wasn’t canned baked beans.)

At the 2017 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, the theme was El Sur Latino, or The Latin South.  Without leaving the comfy confines of Oxford, Mississippi, our taste buds travelled all over Latin America.  Breakfast, as is the custom at this meeting, was typically atypical.  Yet there were certainly recognizable elements.

The first morning of the weekend was brought to us by the country of Ecuador, courtesy of Chef Carla Cabrera-Tomasko of Bacchanalia restaurant in Atlanta.  But before I tell you what we really ate, let me ask this: does a plate of eggs, cheese, grits and bacon sound like a normal breakfast?  Maybe with a glass of fruit juice on the side?  Sure it does.  And that’s exactly what we had, in a slightly different iteration.  Scrambled eggs?  Check.  Cheese?  A blend of queso fresco and feta.  I asked about this, since I associated feta with Greek food.  She told me that the queso in Ecuador was a little saltier than what she was able to get here, so a little feta was added to the mix.  Grits?  Grits come from hominy, so let’s say we had “deconstructed” grits, as in whole hominy mixed in the eggs. (Or would that be “reconstructed”?)  Bacon?  How about crouton-sized bits of chicharrones?  The best kind, with layers of fat and meat still under the skin.  Plus a little touch of cilantro.  The dish was called Mote Pillo, and Chef Carla learned it from her father, who learned it from his mother, who turned 103 years old this weekend.  Hominy for breakfast must be good for you.  

The side of fruit juice deserves a discussion of it’s own.  A first for me, the drink was a smoothie drink made from the guyabano (aka soursop) fruit.  I had to look this one up.  It is a horny green fruit found in Central America, and is described as having a flavor similar to strawberry and pineapple, with sour citrus notes, and a creamy texture like banana or coconut (thank you, Wikipedia.)  Thankfully, the coco-note was not too loud, and I was wowed by the guyabano.  

Of course, our friends from Royal Cup Coffee Company out of Birmingham were there to keep us caffeinated.  They had all kinds of options, including two varieties of cold brew for those of us who like our coffee cool and smooth on warm days.  

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My Royal Cups Runneth Over

The following morning the first meal of the day hailed from Mexico, but I’m not sure it was a typical Mexican breakfast, either.  The placard by the serving table declared the dish to be Chipotle-Poached Huevos and Biscuits, dreamed up by Chef Paco Garcia of Con Huevos in Louisville, Kentucky.  I’m all about the huevos.  Often when we dine at Mexican restaurants, my eyes gravitate toward the huevos section of the menu. (Cereal isn’t the only breakfast food I can eat any time of day.)  But this was different.  

Remember that we are thinking along the lines of what is “typical”.  Eggs Benedict is a famous breakfast dish.  It may not be typical in the sense that many of us have it every day – even every week – but it’s familiar.  The classic dish is an English muffin topped by ham (or the like), a poached egg, and Hollandaise sauce.  Chef Paco did his own reconstruction using a biscuit, chipotle gravy, chorizo sausage, and a garnish of fresh avocado and avocado crema.  The bridge to “typical” was the simple poached egg.  I usually exercise control and only covet The Wife’s leftovers (she fills up faster than I do).  This year, after finishing hers, I stalked the table to make sure everyone had a fair shot at this container full of silky deliciousness, then snagged another.  

It was going to be another four hours till lunch.  And I didn’t want to dry up and blow away.  

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