Posts Tagged With: barbecue

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.  

IMG_4455

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.    

IMG_4456

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.   

IMG_4463IMG_4462

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.  

IMG_4464

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.) 

IMG_4522

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!

IMG_4525

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.

IMG_4526

 

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Taste of Magnolia

I do my level best to go to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every fall for a plethora of reasons.  The post-symposium tales I tell usually involve detailed descriptions of the food, which never fails to be stupendous.  But in between meals there are speakers, one of whom was author and chef Eddie Huang.  His topic was barbecue, but what I remember most from the talk was his spice story.
I think it is fair to say that knowledge of spices is essential to a chef worth his or her…salt.  Salt and pepper may be the Mama and Papa of the seasoning world, but they are really just the tip of the spice-berg.  Chef Eddie’s method of study was simple: he tasted them.  One by one.  By themselves. The picture in my mind’s eye is of him sitting at a table with a row of spice jars lined up from left to right – a “flight” of spices, if you will – tasting them individually in order to understand the true flavor of each.
Since that talk I’ve been fascinated by this idea.  And though I haven’t yet dragged out my entire seasoning collection for a full-on tasting (it is even more vast than my collection of barbecue sauces), I have certainly taken multiple opportunities to pour little bits into my palm for a lick.  (Clean hands, of course.)  Daughter likes to eat plain salt; I prefer blends.
About a year ago I had to buy a bigger spice rack.  A gentleman I had never met before stopped by my office and told me a story about his company – Magnolia Seasoning. It’s a hop and a skip from my house – not even a jump – practically under my nose.  And just like that, I was fascinated by spices again.
If you followed Mississippi food news in the last decade or so, you’ll know about Bryan Foods in West Point.  You may also know that somewhere along the way, Bryan was purchased by Sara Lee.  In the mix at Sara Lee was a division that created many of the seasoning blends used by the company for its food products.  Then, when Sara Lee closed its operations in West Point, Mr. Z (the aforementioned gentleman, who oversaw that division) opened Magnolia Seasoning.
Today, Magnolia Seasoning is still growing after almost ten years in the spice business.  In fact, they are the only company in the South who will make custom spice blends.  Primarily, they sell in bulk to restaurants and grocery stores, but if you look hard enough, you might just find some of their offerings in your own neighborhood grocery.

img_3489
Recently I had the rare opportunity to tour the Magnolia Seasoning operation.  I saw a giant mixer where Mr. K was blending up what appeared to be a fresh batch of lemon pepper.  Other mixers were so big I could have laid down inside them.  (I didn’t.)  Elsewhere on the production floor, bottles were being filled with a barbecue blend of some sort.  And somewhere in the building is a computer that guides the measurement of each individual ingredient, maintaining consistency from batch to batch.
One of my biggest questions had to do with recipe development.  How did they decide something tastes like it’s supposed to?  As it turns out, they have a taster: Mr. G.  In his own little laboratory, he develops each formula using a scale and what must be an exceptionally sensitive set of taste buds.  For example, if a chef wants a certain blend similar to an expensive national brand, but a little hotter, a little more salty, or a little less garlicky, Mr. G can match it.
I had been playing at home with Magnolia Seasoning blends for a while, but some of the things I learned on this visit inspired me to take greater steps towards my spice education.  For example, one of the best ways to taste spices is to put them on foods that have little flavor of their own, like chicken or cottage cheese.  I haven’t tried the cottage cheese test yet (though I bought some for that purpose), but I did have some fun with chicken.
I had a dozen wings that I planned to cook using my wing rack on the grill, so I picked six different blends and got to shaking: 3 Gunslinger’s Old West Steak Dust, Kickin’ Chicken, Redneck Bob’s BBQ, Orange You Glad, My Smokey Butt, and Lemon Pepper.  The Wife got the first bite when they came off the grill, and she was sold – lock, stock and gun barrel – on the Old West Steak Dust.  (I know it wasn’t a steak, but this blend was so tasty in my palm that I figured it was worth a try.)  My favorite was the Lemon Pepper, which Mr. Z told me had never lost a blind taste test versus lemon peppers from other companies.

img_3488
Over Labor Day Weekend I used the same method, but with riblets.  For these I used Gunpowder (which gets its name from the color), Steak & Rib, Smoky Steak & Rib, Barbeque, Memphis Baby Back BBQ, Whiskey Creek Bourbon BBQ, Hickory Smoked BBQ, and Buttery Mesquite BBQ .  Have you noticed the names?  Sometimes the name begets the mix, and sometimes the mix begets the name.  Some blends require certain names, while others end up with something wild.  Either way, they are having fun.  And if there is an unofficial motto of Magnolia Seasonings, it’s this: “If it’s not fun, why mess with it?”
My tastebuds are also having fun with the Greens and Vegetable seasoning that I picked up at Vowell’s (a locally owned market) a few months back.  Most recently I have sprinkled it on oven-roasted vegetables, as well as grilled mushrooms with a dash of Gunpowder to boot. (Son just about wiped out the shrooms before I could try them).  Mr. Z suggests sprinkling it on eggs – pizza, too! This bottle has earned a prominent spot on my rack.
Tailgate time is here, and the holidays are coming.  You need seasoning.  And you know it’s better to eat local.  Magnolia Seasoning covers it all.  Taste and see.

(Disclosure: As mentioned above, Mr. Z did bring me some sample seasonings to try.  However, I later discovered that I had experienced – and enjoyed – some of their products sold under a local store label.  So I think it’s safe to say that my opinions, though broadened by the generosity of Mr. Z, are my own. JR.)

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taco Tuesday

Taco Tuesday. It just has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? According to Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA, How Mexican Food Conquered America, a number of restaurants claim the original idea – one even copyrighted the term. No matter who thought of it first, I think it’s a great idea. And not long ago I had an inadvertent (but delicious) Taco Tuesday I won’t soon forget.

IMG_2597

A book you should read

The scene was Jackson, the capital of our fine state. For the purposes of my day job, which is medical in nature, I found myself spending the day at the Medical Mall. Until 24 hours before my trip, I didn’t even know there was a Medical Mall. For others unfamiliar, it’s an old shopping mall, retrofitted with clinics, pharmacies, health education and the like. Not necessarily the sort of place you’d think would harbor a great lunch spot. But pharmacists gotta’ eat, right?
When lunchtime came, my colleague gave me a quick tour of what served as an extended food court: Subway of course, because the next closest Subway must have been at least a half mile away. (I’m convinced they have the same expansion plan as Dollar General.) Chick-Fil-A in miniature (not a full-size restaurant – more like a stall with sack lunches.) And Picadilly Cafeteria, an apparent holdover from mall days, I’m betting. There were a few other places scattered about, but the one that caught my attention was a little kiosk halfway between Subway and Picadilly.
The sign said, “Sameerah’s Healthy Kiosk.” A bigger sign listed five or six varieties of grits: grits with bacon, grits with ham, grits with sausage, etc. The idea of grits for lunch brought me back, but when I looked at the menu – abbreviated but intriguing – it was a taco that sealed the deal.
It’s always tough to make a decision when:
1)I’m at a new place,
2)so many things look good,
3)I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to go back.
The struggle is real. Thankfully, there was another customer waiting for his order that was happy to help. I didn’t get his name, but I did get that he worked in the building. I also got that he had eaten with Ms. Sameerah every day, Monday through Friday, since something like January. He also revealed that she made everything fresh daily – if she ran out, she ran out. She even cut her veggies right there in front of us. I watched her shave slices of carrot right into our wraps. In the end, though, he wasn’t as much help as I had hoped: he had tried everything on the menu, and it was all good. I was right back where I started.
I finally settled on the black bean taco – it was a healthy kiosk, after all. She cut the veggies fresh, after all. Plus it was after 2 o’clock and I knew I’d be eating dinner in a few hours, so something lighter seemed the right thing to do. She started with one of her homemade wraps. I didn’t get details on how she made it, but I could see that it was special – chances are it was a secret, anyway. The next layer was something she called Sameerah Sauce – no secrets divulged on that one, either. Next she added black beans heated on the electric griddle, then fresh-cut carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and more. Another squirt of Sameerah Sauce and it was done. Simple and delicious. On the side were grilled veggies unlike any I’ve ever had. Thin-sliced cabbage, green pepper, tomato, onion, and zucchini – heated up on the griddle with a blend of herbs that I assumed she wouldn’t share. (And she wouldn’t share.) I’ll just have to experiment and figure it out, because those veggies were ten times better than any side of fries. And healthy to boot.

Sameerah's Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Sameerah’s Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Lunch was a lucky surprise, but dinner had already been decided. I left the Mall after work and went a few minutes down the road to Fondren for my first visit to the Pig & Pint. As I approached the entrance, I was enthusiastically welcomed by one of the P&P servers. I told him I’d never been there before and requested his recommendation. Ribs were his first thought – apparently they’d won an award for being the best in Jackson. Next on his list was the taco sampler. Now he had my attention.
I think it’s ironic that a dish most old-school pit masters would never have offered in a roadside barbecue joint is now de rigueur in the newer places. And despite the purist streak in me, I dig ‘em. But I did take the time to peruse the menu. I had already heard about the pork belly corn dog. I was intrigued by the pimento cheese served with house made pork rinds. Boudin burger? Ordinarily I would have gone for it (I’m odd like that) or at least persuaded someone with me to order something different. That allows me to pretend to be a real food critic and try as many dishes as possible. But alas, I was alone and not quite starving, so I went with my gut and got the tacos.

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

The trio included one each with pulled chicken, pulled pork, and brisket. All had pico de gallo and mango jicama slaw, the slaw another rendition you are unlikely to find at a typical joint – yet it fit right in at the Pig and Pint. I think the brisket was my fave, but I didn’t leave a crumb from any of them. And despite my state of satiation, I geared up for the ride home with a decadent chunk of Parker House Bread Pudding, infused with cranberry jelly and covered in white chocolate sauce.

Decadence in a paper tray

Decadence in a paper tray

A long workday transformed into an unforeseen Taco Tuesday. That’s the kind of day I like.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.