Posts Tagged With: Symposium

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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County Corn Expert

[The 20th Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance is coming soon.  To prepare for that auspicious weekend, I’m sharing my throwback recollections from last year’s Symposium, the theme of which was “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Syrupy Problem.”  Before I got into the details of the meeting, I was compelled to establish my authority…]

I am now my county’s foremost expert on corn. I know what you may be thinking: “I thought he was a Pharmacist, not a Farm…Assist.” Perhaps if you are in my immediate family or a close friend, you are recalling something I said that might have been “corny”- but hilarious nonetheless. (See play on words in previous sentence.) Perhaps you are a county extension agent whose specialty is corn, and you might be wondering if I have a degree in Zea Mays farming methods that I’ve never mentioned before. As it happens, I do not have such a degree, but I have recently been in four days of meetings about corn, and in between discussions have eaten ten corn-based meals. I think that ought to do it, don’t you? You do realize how many people on the world-wide interweb claim to be experts with much less experience than that? They are legion.
But before I ruminate aloud on all that new knowledge, I’m going to offer a prelude, with some of my favorite corn memories that have prepared me for this season of life.
My most vivid memory is the summer that I worked in the research cornfields of Mississippi State University’s North Farm. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked as hard as I did that summer. And I’m certain I was in the best physical shape of my life by the time it was over. We hoed corn. We sprayed stuff on corn. We hoed corn again. We cross-pollinated corn. And … that’s where my corn career ended. Apparently I was allergic to corn pollen. And when you start shaking the stalks to facilitate the separation of the pollen from the thingamawhich that produces the pollen (remember I wasn’t an expert then), it will rain down on your head and turn someone like me into a giant, sneezing, itchy, red minefield of whelps. But it was fun while it lasted, and I had a rockin’ tan.
Growing up, Mama made two kinds of cornbread: regular and Kentucky. Both were baked in a cast iron skillet, as the good Lord intended, but the recipes were different. Regular cornbread was pretty much made of corn meal, and I preferred that version for the times I slathered it with butter prior to covering it with Blackburn’s syrup for dessert. Kentucky cornbread had a can of actual corn mixed in it, and it was my favorite for eating alongside beans and greens and such. In college I moved into an apartment and found a new recipe for Kentucky cornbread left in a drawer by a former resident. This one had chopped onions and sour cream added to it, and was kind of an antithesis to “regular cornbread” – in other words, it was very moist. It’s still my favorite one to make, so shout-out to that mystery former apartment dweller.

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How can I bake thee, cornbread? Let me count the ways.

A thesis on corn in my family wouldn’t be complete without another shout-out to Dawn, Hair Stylist to the Stars, who introduced us to her Corn Casserole. You might call it corn pudding, the staple dish of church potlucks, and that’s okay – they are at least close cousins. Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, butter, sour cream, whole kernel corn and cream corn. Mix and bake. It’s easy, and it’s delicious. I have tried add-ons like cheese and Tony Chachere’s, but they don’t improve it. I’m not even sure bacon would make it better, and that’s near blasphemy.
Corn salad, the picnic dish made properly with white shoepeg corn, is also a family favorite, though I was probably a grown-up before I really began to crave it. We don’t have an heirloom recipe for this one, however – we just get it from The Little Dooey. Why mess up a good thing?
Here’s another question. Why don’t we see more corn in Mexican restaurants? That is, besides the ground up version that morphs into tortillas, tamales, or baskets of chips. I seriously dig what is often simply described as Mexican street corn. I don’t know how authentic the term is, as the only Mexican street I’ve ever walked down was in Cozumel on a cruise excursion, and I don’t think that counts. But I know it’s awesome. Grilled corn, slathered in a mix of mayo and sour cream, rolled in crumbled Cotija cheese, and sprinkled with chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime. Delicioso. Let’s encourage our local restaurateur amigos to andale and arriba that onto their menus, okay? (My apologies to actual Spanish speakers. I’m a corn expert, not a linguist. My Spanish tutor was Speedy Gonzales.)
Long time readers may remember the corn-centric birthday I had a few years ago. I decided to make my own birthday cake and ice cream, and both were corn-flavored. The cake was sweet, but had a high percentage of corn meal in the recipe, giving it a texture somewhere between cornbread and standard cake. What made this particular cake even more unique was it’s color. I had a little bit of blue cornmeal in the pantry at the time, which I mixed in with the yellow cornmeal the recipe called for. You know what blue and yellow make, right? Yes, they make a green cake. Mold green, to be precise. Tasted great. Looked spoiled. Lesson learned. And the corn ice cream – well, it was certainly successful in the sense that it tasted like corn ice cream. I worked hard making that custard, and it was a smooth, rich result. But a couple of bowls and my curiosity was satisfied.

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Can I get you another bowl of corn?

A man corn cob walks into a hipster coffee shop, sits next to a lady corn cob and says, “Come ear often?”
Yep, I’m an expert.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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Symposium Weekend Begins

Its fall, so says the calendar – that season of the year when almost all my senses are awakened in ways I look forward to for the rest of the year.  Despite what seems to be our third or fourth Indian summer in Mississippi, there have been some refreshing moments outdoors when my skin felt cool once again.  Visually, those summer rewinds may be slowing down the autumn colors on the trees in my neighborhood, but I can imagine how the reds and golds must be transforming the Blue Ridge Parkway near our second home (in spirit, not in bricks) in Asheville, North Carolina.  You know I love hearing roaring crowds and ensuing fight songs under Friday night lights and north to Vaught-Hemingway.  The crisp, cool air is somehow a purer carrier of the perfumed clouds wafting from grills and smokers which are slowly transforming the other white meat to tender perfection.  And every fall brings the Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a sensation of taste like no other that cleverly teases the other four senses as well.  It will take me weeks to tell about it, so sit back, loosen up the top button on your pants, and enjoy the meal.

Though the Symposium officially kicked off on Friday morning, there were several Thursday evening activities available for early-arrivers.  Once again, we began with a special food-themed edition of the Thacker Mountain Radio show, taped at the historic Lyric Theater.   In keeping with the theme of this year’s symposium, “Women at Work”, author Charlotte Druckman read excerpts from her book, Skirt Steak, about the experiences of women chefs.   Film-maker Joe York interviewed fashion designer Natalie Chanin from Florence, Alabama, who told about her experiences making Southern-style biscuits for the inhabitants of an island off the coast of South America.  Chef John Currence celebrated the release of his new cookbook, Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey by telling the tale of “Punishment Soup”, which involved his mother (who was sitting on the front row).  The Yalobushwhackers, the house band, sang about cornbread and butterbeans, jambalaya and crawfish pie, featuring Starkville native Jeff Callaway on trombone.  It’s always fun to know somebody in the band.  And let’s not forget the Gee’s Bend Singers.  As the show closed, volunteers brought around little cups of yakamein, a noodle soup (this one with smoked pork) topped with bits of boiled egg, commonly found in New Orleans.  Simple but tasty, it was a nice start to the eating part of the weekend.

After the show, several local restaurants offered unique menus especially for symposium attendees.  We joined J.J. and John Carney of Eat Drink Mississippi magazine for dinner at Ravine Restaurant.  Several miles south of the square in Oxford, Ravine is in a log chalet and just far enough off the beaten path to offer something of a secluded experience.  Chef Joel Miller called the menu “Hand Me Downs” and aimed to celebrate the women (including his mother and wife) who had inspired him in the kitchen.

As we studied our course selections, we enjoyed what he called “Breads from my Youth” – little biscuits with sweetened butter and something akin to Parker House rolls.  The amuse bouche was a spoonful of beets with goat cheese.  I have yet to be converted to beet-lover, but it was a worthy attempt.  The Wife’s appetizer was a riff on Oysters Rockefeller.  I’m about as much an oyster guy as I am a beet guy, but I had never tried one of these and was terribly curious.  These were not on the half-shell as I am told they are normally served, but nevertheless ranked pretty high on my “oyster dishes I might actually order” list, which is a pretty short one.  My dish was a carefully layered arrangement of Jamaican jerk chicken, tostones and arepa.  I had to look that last one up.  Tostones I have had before and have ordered elsewhere – plantain slices, twice fried.  Arepas are essentially corn pancakes common to Venezuela or Colombia – these were new to me, but more in name than concept.

For the entrée, The Wife took a trip back to our Middle Eastern days with a mezze plate, which included a unique version of falafel (deep fried fritter of chick peas or fava beans) that I really liked.  Since the Caribbean Voodoo shellfish stew was cooked in tomato coconut broth, I was left with the slow braised lamb shank, stewed white beans and gremolata.  Lamb is not usually my favorite meat, but that may be because I have never had lamb this good.  And I had to get the dictionary out again for gremolata, a chopped herb garnish made of lemon zest, parsley and garlic.

The Wife’s dessert was pineapple cake with coconut sorbet.  I abstained from trying a bite due to the proximity of the coconut, but it looked great and she came close to licking the plate.  I was quite happy with my Chocolate Almond Napoleon, thank you very much.  Napoleons come in all shapes and sizes – they are not all short but confident French leaders.   Not to be confused with Neapolitan, the tri-flavored ice cream I favored as a youngster, this is a layered dessert made from puff pastry and cream.  Ours had a little scoop of vanilla bean ice cream as a bonus.

The Symposium is over for this year (insert sad face here), but Thacker Mountain radio is still broadcasting and Ravine will keep serving great food – you can even spend the night in the guest cabin.  Not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening in Oxford, and it was a great way to start the weekend.

 

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