Monday, June 29, 2015

Off To The Fair

 The second fair of summer fair season around here and I missed the jellies and preserves drop off date. . . so I had to make a big splash on the baking and confections day. This morning I delivered a very floral rose geranium angel food cake with rose water glaze.
I had to get up at 3 this morning to make sure this whole wheat lot had time to rise but the crust was still crisp when I arrived at the fair. Not quite seasonal, the small boat of white chocolate peppermint fudge (my old reliable by Christmas dessert/ party treat) topped with broken Hammond's candy canes was this years foray into confections. Last year I did pretty well with macadamia nut brittle so I am hopeful.
I don't think this is the kind of gingerbread the judges are expecting. In the fair handbook gingerbread is classified with quick breads and muffins but mine is really a cake -- James' favorite Christmas cake as a matter of fact. Specially for the fair I topped the moist spicy cake with dark chocolate ginger glaze and candied ginger. That might be risky, but it is delicious.
And then my old stand by, Portuguese (or Hawaiian) sweet bread. A soft light bread perfect for breakfast with jam, french toast or sandwiches. I don't know why I decided to enter sweet bread. I haven't made it in years since I started make more rustic, crisp crust breads like the wheat one I made early this morning. But something felt right and I've already taken home a blue ribbon from the season's first fair for this delicately sweet, moist bread.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Pecan Lodge Dallas, TX

I am a barbecue bigot.
When I go looking for barbecue I somehow feel cheated if I don't land at a roadside trailer, dodgey neighborhood or woodyard shack. I search out the picture book "authentic," roadfood unrefined and well, gritty outposts as some sort of personal test merit badge of procurement.
Pecan Lodge is exactly the kind of place I generally avoid. Its new purpose built, well designed restaurant in the hipster filled Deep Ellum area of downtown Dallas is the domain of owner and pit master Justin Fourton (and his crew). Not the product of family generations of wood smoke bathed grizzled, sleepless meat cooks but a refugee from corporate America who started a catering company out of the Dallas Farmers Market that quickly grew to a sensation.
Staring down at Pecan Lodge's massive beef rib I think about my stereotyped view, perhaps more rooted in the past than the art of barbecue itself. Barbecue -- as I have always felt -- should be about the food and only the food. The smoke, the flavor, the piles of juicy meat. Not the atmosphere. So why do I so often object to pleasantries and assume a brick and mortar restaurant can't offer the true flavor of the pit?
Like all the best places you can smell the wood smoke from Pecan Lodge well before you can see the line, usually out the door. Following the lunch only tradition (though PL is open for dinner Friday and Saturday), they sell their long cooked meats by the pound until they run out. You order at the counter and pick up your tray before finding a seat. Get there early to get your first choice.
I think of Austin's Franklin Barbecue, the undisputed, world renowned king of Texas Barbecue and it's clean modern building and young James Beard award winning pit master chef.
Old stereotypes die hard in my heart but with the first bite of Pecan Lodge's meltingly tender, fatty, smoke filled brisket my romanticized visions of glorious Texas beef barbecue start to grow dim. The ribs are good but Pecan Lodge for me is all about the brisket. The sides are okay. I always try the sides but remember Anthony Bourdain's sage advice in barbecue to save room for the meat and meat alone. Pecan's macaroni and cheese is good -- very, very good. The cole slaw and okra are no better than the versions I make at home. The pickles are from a jar and the not plentiful (one of the online complaints about PL -- along with the prices) rolls (not thick slices of white bread here) are appropriately doughy and slightly sweet but nothing too special. But oh that brisket. Some the best ever and doused, if you choose from squirt bottles at the table, with the very untraditional (in Texas at least) Carolina style vinegar based sauce (I like it better than PL's more regionally familiar Texas style sauce) it's slightly spicy, puckery sweet perfection. The noise of the raucous dining hall fades away in between bites.
And yet brisket is not the Fourton's only triumph. In general I would never think to order anything but smoked meat in a barbecue place but so many online reviews raved about Pecan Lodge's fried chicken I had to take a bite. The pit master's wife, Diane, offers up her "Mamaw's" recipe. It is juicy and flavorful and better than mine. This is chicken that could capture area diners' attention if not for the tremendous brisket and barbecue theme of the Dallas restaurant.
To think I might have missed it all. I'll strive to be more open minded. It's so much easier to be open minded when your mouth is full.
After all, it's all about the food.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Stampede 66

If you spend any time at all searching the internet you will find several sites (or nearly every one) that list Stampede 66's fried chicken as some of the best in Dallas, certainly in the top 5. It's not the kind of place I usually like to go. I generally search out a mom and pop, locals only shack but with so many stellar reviews and walking distance from the hotel, Stampede 66 became hard to resist.
Walking in, the dining room is some sort of Texas stereotype Disneyland covered in barnwood, branded panels, massive steer horns and a glowing rattlesnake that crowns the row of tables closest to the bar. It is, as D Magazine described, " A yeehaw assault on the senses."
I was seated at a "rusty" metal table, oddly oval making it uncomfortably far from the banquette no matter where I sat. Patrick, my ebullient server, immediately greeted me with such charm I soon forgot about the table shape and turned to fried chicken. The reason for my journey.
As Patrick described the mission of the restaurant by local celeb and 5th generation Texan chef Stephan Pyles is to honor the traditional home cooking of the Lone Star State with modern cooking techniques. If press releases are to be believed the chicken recipe came from Pyles' grandmother which the chef improved by injecting the meat with Texas wildflower honey before coating in seasoned flour and buttermilk.
At dinner the chicken comes out with homemade tatter tots and buttermilk biscuits which I probably would like better. At lunch propped in a cute little galvanized bucket the "seasoned fries" were limp -- I assume they had waited for the chicken to finish cooking -- and heavy with I think cumin that had a slightly earthy, even muddy flavor. If Patrick had a flaw as a server it's that he didn't ask why I hadn't touched the fries. Even during a busy lunch service he should notice and let the kitchen know how guests are reacting the food.
The chicken was fine. Not the best I've ever had but certainly better quality meat than generally served at the mom and pop joints I love. The breast was big and meaty and though it seems the batter was a tiny bit over cooked (I think the oil was too hot so the crust shattered and separated from the meat as soon as I bit in) the meat was moist and tender and cooked all the way through -- no small feat when frying a piece that large. Very impressive frying.
The flavor again carried that hint of cumin that seems just a touch muddy (even the little jar of pickles, my favorite part of the meal had that same spice). Fine but not great. I didn't eat it all.
Overall I don't think Stampede 66 would be on my 10 best list -- especially if the fried chicken is, as reported, their best dish. Fine but not stellar.

Monday, May 25, 2015

In My Trusty Iron Skillet

In my fantasy cooking life I am the kind of hardscrabble Southern cook who makes pie crust without checking the recipe, confidently bakes biscuits lighter than air, and handily serves pans of cornbread as a staple at nearly every meal. Neighbors rave about my pies. I store bacon grease in a jar (okay that I actually do). The kitchen shelves are stocked with jars of jelly and pickles and fruits that I home can and my hungry family devours around our ever expanding farm table. James comes in hungry every night after a hard day's work and dips wedges of our fluffy house specialty cornbread into creamy gravy.
I love cornbread -- slathered with butter, pan fried with eggs or doused in milk for the quintessential Southern midnight snack. James tolerates the occasional slice but he doesn't crave it or look wantonly at barbecue or beans when there isn't a skillet of bright yellow bread nearby.
And so, I curb my baser, cornier tendencies and these days I only make cornbread when the feeling is so Americana the day can't progress without a crispy crusted wedge of yellow goodness.
Memorial Day while I was serving sticky pork ribs, is one of those kind of days. Though I find it romantic I don't soak my cornmeal overnight in buttermilk the way old time cooks might. I never add sugar. As they say below the Mason Dixon line that clearly was some sort of Yankee invention. And, I never use flour -- just rough, crumbly cornmeal.

Preheat the oven to 450ยบ
Cook 3-4 slices of bacon in a 9" iron frying pan until crisp. Set the bacon on a paper towel to drain and reserve 4 TB of the bacon fat, leaving the rest (at least 1 TB) in the pan).
Put iron frying pan withe the remaining bacon grease in eh oven to heat.
In a medium bowl combine 2 cups yellow cornmeal (I like coarse or medium grind), 1 tsp salt,  1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp baking powder, and the cooled bacon chopped.
In a separate bowl beat together 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, 4 TB bacon fat reserved from the skillet, and one egg.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just combined.
Pour the batter into the heated iron frying pan and bake fro 20 minutes.
Serve piping hot from the skillet.

A taste of America for an American holiday.




Friday, May 22, 2015

Pineapple Guava

Not a lot of flowers.  Back behind a couple beds I've tucked away Feijoa sellowiana (officially called Acca sellowiana now but none uses it), pineapple guava, a tropical tasting fruit for colder winters.
Native to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay where it is common in the mountains Feijoa is a slow growing evergreen that can be trained to a massive hedge or wind break in sun or partial shade. Mine are small and though I imagined mixing up guava jellies and pastries when I planted them, so far just two lonely flowers.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Visitor In The Garden

The garden was overgrown. Embarassingly overgrown.
I finally got after it. I have to get tomatoes in or there will be no sauce in jars this summer.
Pulling down a giant mustard green plant -- more than a foot over my head -- I found this sweet little nest built from the dried stalks of last summer's beans )there's a reason not to clean up) and little bits of garden twine.
At least someone enjoyed the garden while I was away.