Posts Tagged With: el sur latino

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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Fish are Friends..and Food

(Once again, I am back to the blog in anticipation of the 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, coming in just a couple of weeks.  Over those weeks I’ll be re-living the meals and mood of last year’s Symposium, El Sur Latino, by way of these written reflections.)

From toddler days through college years, much of the time I spent at my maternal grandparents’ house was on the golf course at the Redmont Country Club (in Red Bay, Alabama).  My grandfather, Pappy, was a pretty decent golfer; when it came to long drives, however, I was more interested in the cart than the club.  But my golf course memories actually have very little to do with golf, because most of that time we were fishing.  There’s no telling how many hours my brother and I spent out there with Pappy and Ma-Manie, our great-grandmother, who absolutely loved to fish.  In the early days we fished on the lakes for bream, maybe some bass. Later, they built another lake, and it was there that I first came across the catfish.  

Generally, Pappy did all the hands-on work once Younger Brother and I reeled them in – he didn’t want us to get cut by the fins, and that was perfectly fine by us.  Once they were cleaned (again, Pappy), Granny took over and handled the frying: usually whole fish coated in cornmeal and scored into finger-sized segments.  Oh, and she cooked it in the same oil every time.  (Fun fact: Granny passed away in 2013, and she had probably not fried fish since sometime shortly after Y2K.  Not long ago, after much wondering aloud about where it may have ended up, we found her cast iron pot in a corner of her outside kitchen…still full of grease.  We opted not to fry in it.)

Of course this was long before aquaculture (a fancy word for catfish farming) became one of Mississippi’s top five agricultural products (netstate.com).  And long before I was introduced to Taylor Grocery and some of the fine folks from Simmons Catfish.  Over the past few years, thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, those introductions have turned into friendships.  

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Okay, I don’t know if you can have a friendship with a catfish joint, but I do like spending time with it.  Or in it, as the case may be.  Son even had some of his senior pictures made there.  In all the years I’ve gone to the SFA Symposium, we’ve been bussed out to Taylor for the Friday evening meal.  At first it was just a big plate of fresh-fried catfish with all the trimmings, and that was enough.  For folks like me who attended the Ole Alma Mater, it is a nostalgic trip (made even more so by the school bus style of carpooling.)  For those coming from out of town, out of state, and outside of the South, it provides a true taste of an Oxford institution.  In the past few years, however, the organizers have upped the ante, adding a couple of appetizer stations outside the restaurant.  

I’m not talking about fried cheese and wings here, people.  Not that kind of appetizer.  These are special.  The chefs who are invited to make these have essentially one guideline: they have to use the Simmons Catfish Delacata cut.  I’ve talked about this cut before, but let’s review.  The Delacata is a deep-skinned filet cut from the center, thickest part of the fish.  It’s skinless, boneless, hand-trimmed, and mild in flavor – sort of the filet mignon of the catfish.

Lis Hernandez, Chef-Owner of Arepa Mia in Atlanta, was manning the first station we came to.  Again, a quick review.  An arepa is a sandwich made from a corn cake that is split and stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness.  Chef Lis is originally from Venezuela, where she learned to make arepas from her mom.  A few years ago she served us breakfast arepas at the symposium, and I fell in love.  Just this year I was able to make it to one of her two Arepa Mia restaurants in Atlanta.  I’m a big fan.  On this night she made Delacata arepas, with a piece of the fried fish, jalapeno pico, cilantro sauce, lettuce and tomato.  Ours came right off the grill, piping hot and could have almost served as a small meal of its own.  That didn’t stop me, of course, and I didn’t leave a single crumb. 

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Arepa Mia Delacata

Up on the porch, Chef Jesus Carmona from Tacos Mariachi in Dallas, was dishing out Delacata tostadas.  I haven’t been to Dallas in a few years, but after taking a look at his menu, I think a trip may be in order.  He offers all the normal fillings like chicken, pork, steak, and tongue.  For the more daring, there are also tacos with grilled marinated octopus and huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle, aka corn smut).  I also noted mole fries and pork chicharron-crusted cod.  I already know my order.  For Symposium attendees he grilled the Delacata and dressed it with avocado crema, a dab of pico-like relish, and a generous portion of cilantro.  It was crunchy, creamy, and salty all in one great bite. 

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I call this, “Delaca-ta-co with Halo.”

 

For those who travel, particularly those who eat while you travel – or like me, those who travel to eat – consider this column a travel guide.  East to Atlanta for arepas, West to Dallas for all manner of tacos, north to Oxford for catfish and the trimmings, and south of the border to see where El Sur Latino was born.  And please save a seat for me.  

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