Thursday, January 23, 2014

Austin: Taco More

What do you need after being stuck at the car rental palace outside the Dallas airport for two hours trying to keep from getting gouged? 

You need a taco, and, as luck would have it, we came to the right place.  Located in a strip mall off East Riverside in Austin, Taco More will heal your shattered nerves.  This single, spacious room is filled with people: families, young couples, flirting teenagers.  The music is comfortably loud. The dark decor is warmed by good lighting and the staff is super nice.

And the tacos are great.  We tried the tacos cabrito, stuffed with tender shreds of tangy goat, tacos cabeza, a fat-slicked hash of beef head with a faint cinnamon tinge, and the tacos chicharron, gelatinous folds of melty pork skin.  The tacos come with chopped onion and cilantro and there is a salsa bar where you can load up on radish, lime and four or five wonderful sauces.  My favorite was a zippy whipped guacamole.  We washed them down with ice cold cans of Modelo and were restored.

We returned the following morning for breakfast and the chorizo y huevos and papa y huevos tacos were just as good as the meatier offerings.

It's enough to make one want to move to Austin.

Thai Curry With Gravel

What better way to honor friends you haven't seen in ages than by cooking them a meal?  Well, I suppose you could give them something they'd rather have like money or a plane ticket to Hawaii, but that would be kind of weird.  

Such an occasion calls for something special that is not easily obtainable, something that gets one's attention and that requires some effort. 

Nothing says ''Love you" like a Thai curry with freshly milked coconut cream and hand pounded paste.  Especially during a mid-January thaw, when one worries that February, with its bland monologues, has decided to show up to the party early.  If ever we needed the gastronomic equivalent to a thermite grenade, now is the time.

I don't consider myself well-versed in Thai cooking, and neither will you once you hear my tale.  Nonetheless, the few cracks I've made at the old coconut have yielded pleasing results.  

Milking the coconut is the fun part:  Standing before the small mound of  fruits at the store, shaking each, selecting the heaviest, juiciest one.  Then roasting it in the oven to separate the flesh from the shell, cracking it open and shredding it in the food processor.  Adding warm water to the fragrant pulp and massaging it 89 times in accordance with tradition all the while downing a glass of coconut water you poured out of the fruit's ''eyes.''      

When pounding out a fresh curry paste in the past I've borrowed a molcajete, one of those Mexican monster-mortars made of porous lavastone.  The wimpy grocery store mortar and pestles tend only to have volume enough for crushing three cumin seeds at a time and won't cut it for making curry.  You need plenty of room to churn your chiles, garlic, lemongrass, galangal and shallots.  The borrowed molcajete was a well-seasoned one, having ground enough seeds and spices to fill a Texas megachurch.  It worked great.

Impressed with the molcajete, I bought one about a year ago and it has seen minimal use.  I seasoned it by grinding a handful of rice to powder.  This is supposed to shear all of the loose bits off the surface of the mortar.

For those who have not tried their hands at curry pounding, I can attest that it is hard work.  I was sweating like a pig by the time I'd ground the chiles, only the third ingredient I'd tossed in the mortar.  I had eight more to go.

I knew things were going badly when I mixed a cup of the paste with my boiling coconut cream in the wok.  A terrible scratchy feeling traveled up the handle of my spatula as I mixed the concoction.

I warned my friends that the meal might be a bit fibrous as we dished up the food.  It tasted good, but the  unpleasant crunch led to a rather unenthusiastic response.  It was as though a teaspoon and a half of sand had been added to the wok.  What a nightmare.  We should have called it quits and ordered a pizza.  Instead, we ate up and hopefully managed not to strip too much enamel from our teeth.

I can only imagine that the acids and liquids in the curry paste combined with the pounding required to pulverize the ingredients were too much for the basalt.  Next time I make curry, it will be in a proper Thai granite mortar or the food processor.

I can't see the sand.  Can you?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Christmas With Royalty, The Neighbor Series: Part 1

Scavengers need farmers and friendly neighbors to get by.  The convergence of these mighty forces left this scavenger feeling like Tiny Tim with Mrs. Crachit's plum pudding on Christmas Eve. 

Let's face it, each of us would be lost without the sunscreen slathered souls who pick rocks out of tilled soil and place seeds there instead.  Ah, the sunbeaten kind, with their soil parched lips, the squash scrapes on their arms, creaky knees in the dirt, or those with dull miles of prairie to harvest to the tune of a lowback throb and Kenny Chesney, Korn or Lil Wayne on the satellite radio: we're nothing without our farmers.  Disclosure:  I'm lucky enough to live with one.  Thanks to Bee, Duchess of the Black Garbanzo,  the keystone of our Christmas table was Marina Di Chioggia.  

Warty pumpkin of the sea, your surface belies the sweetness hidden beneath your skin.  What is it with Chioggia and the tendency of folks to append the town's name to various superlative fruits and vegetables?  This pumpkin, the famous, candy-striped beets as well as the globular variety of radicchio most familiar to Americans- all are associated with this salt-glazed island-town in the Venetian Lagoon.  Looking at photos of the modern island, it's tough to see how any food could be grown in a space so packed with tile-roofed buildings.  But the Veneto, the Italian region that cradles the Gulf of Venice and surrounds Chioggia, is known for its agricultural products.

The Marina Di C. was an experiment when ordering seeds this year and we were excited about its possibilities- particularly in the realm of stuffed pasta.  Winter squash addicts might happily roast and eat the Marina any which way, (drizzled with melted butter or pureed into soup) but it is almost as if the pumpkin was destined to become filling.  Or so we read.  

Mild apprehension set in when we consulted our recipe for Cappellacci, squash-stuffed ravioli.  Marcella Hazan unequivocally states in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, that the right squash for the job is the one and only zucca barucca.  Any other squash would be an abomination.  Usually, Marcella reluctantly provides some alternative for pathetic Americans who can't find the proper Italian ingredients, but, in this case, she says that sweet potatoes make an excellent substitute.  However, with squash in our pantry, we weren't going down that road. 

It is characteristic of our relationship with Hazan (who skewered Mario Batali for using the wrong pan to cook risotto on his cooking show) that even as we are cowed by her admonitions, we are tempted to rebel against them.  We could well imagine Marcella rolling over in her fresh-mounded grave when we decided to forge on with the Marina Di Chioggia.

We had a feeling that things were going to be all right when we pulled her steaming out of the oven and tasted the candy sweet, caramelized pulp.  I mixed the pulp with grated parmigiano-reggiano, chopped prosciutto, an egg, a couple of pulverized biscotti (Marcella calls for amaretti cookies), parsley, salt and a scant grating of nutmeg.  

This delectable mixture would have been a lost cause without the able hands of Upstairs Z, our Flour Queen.  Married with her highness' careful pasta touches, the squash paste was lifted to silky perfection, trapped in tender parcels until released by a fork in small, deep-orange floods.   


For the sauce, I heated 6 tablespoons of butter, threw in 8-10 fresh sage leaves and let it bubble.  We placed three ravioli in each bowl, doused them with the butter and the heated sage leaves and sprinkled a generous pinch of parm-regg overtop.  


Obviously, we were all impressed by Marina Di Chioggia's performance.  Convinced that Marcella must have overlooked the sea pumpkin when testing alternate squashes for Cappellacci, I looked into the matter a bit further.  Imagine my astonished gladness when discovering that the Marina Di Chioggia and zucca barruca are ONE AND THE SAME.  Zucca Barucca is a Venetian colloquialism - zucca meaning pumpkin and barucca being a clever amalgam of verruca (Italian for warty) and the Hebrew baruch, meaning blessed.  The blessed squash, Blistered Pumpkin of the Gods!
But I've gotten ahead of myself.  To kick off the evening's gustatory procession, we devoured a tender rack prepared by Upstairs Bubba, the King of the Tuscan Ribs.  I did not manage to get a good photo as I was transfixed by eating them.  And they went fast.  Slow-roasted and succulent, encrusted with whole fennel seeds, ground New Mexico chili and various other secret substances- these were the kind of ribs that leave you speechless and fill a famished soul.  

Without intending it, we continued in the Chioggia vein by pan frying radicchio quarters wrapped in pancetta and prosciutto ala Batali.  Upstairs Bubba made a bowl of quick pickles out of a sliced red onion.  The quarters were hell to keep together in the skillet and they didn't look super pretty when plated- kind of like ragged hearts on a bed of onions- but they were extremely tasty.

Somewhere, perhaps between the ribs and the radicchio, we freshened things up with a simple arugula and shredded carrot salad.  And our distant neighbor Dids, Princess of E. MO., brought a bottle of bubbly and a jar of cranberry simple syrup.  Spoonfuls of the thick syrup sank to the bottoms of the tall glasses like tiny placentas through which bubbles struggled.

The evening ended with strong coffee and wedges of Upstairs Z's rosemary-olive oil cake.

The portioning was perfect and I didn't feel too full or too drunk .  I'm already looking forward to next year.
Who needs Santa Claus when you've got good neighbors?