Monthly Archives: June 2013

SUPER MOON IN SANTA FE

Last evening we decided to walk across the arroyo in our back yard up to a hill where we could get a good view of “Super Moon” rising above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Unfortunately, we got a great view of the plume of smoke from a forest fire that has been burning uncontrolled in the Pecos Wilderness for two weeks. No houses are threatened, but the Pecos is a beautiful and wild place that will undoubtedly be forever changed – at least for my lifetime – by this devastating fire. Our severe drought conditions make it likely that we will experience more forest fires this season.

The sunset over the Jemez Mountains was spectacular, so it was hard to figure how great the moon view would be. We took cameras, binoculars, ground cloth, tripod, and – thanks to my wife’s forethought – two glasses of port to toast the evening. We also had headlamps for the return walk across the arroyo.

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CAJUN CRAWFISH BOIL – IN SILICON VALLEY??

Our children grew up in Louisiana, and now they all live in California.They still love authentic Creole and Cajun cooking, but it is definitely hard to come by in the Golden State. For the last several years, my son and his wife have tried to change that. Every spring – crawfish season – they have a backyard crawfish boil for their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and their families. As is usual with crawfish boils, it has become a bigger and bigger production each year.

As an aside, there is a strict Louisiana terminology for the crustaceans: crayfish are what you dissect in high school biology classes; crawdads are what you catch for fishing expeditions; crawfish are what you eat. Often the experience of the boil participants becomes evident depending upon what they call the main dish. In Louisiana, mudbug is a perfectly acceptable alternative term, but in other places, the name causes a bit of squeamishness.

In preparation for the party, my son has consulted  one of friends from Louisiana known for his crawfish cooking skills. Peter has read lots of recipes in cookbooks and online. Most importantly, he has identified a reputable and reliable source for authentic Louisiana mudbugs. Then, there is the ordering process to make certain that the crawfish are shipped at the right time and arrive as scheduled so that they are still lively. Crawfish season starts during the winter months. Then, the critters are small but with soft shells. By now, almost the end of the season, the crawfish are much bigger, but their shells are often hard enough that novice eaters have problems getting to the succulent tail meat.

When the date of the party is set, my son places his order with Louisiana Crawfish Company in Natchitoches, LA.  The crawfish cost from $3.50 to $6.00 a pound depending upon size and quality and how many you order.  (Crawfish cost 89 cents a pound for our first crawfish boil 40 years ago.)  At this point, the key question is always how many should you order? For a novice crowd, allow 1 pound per person. For crawfish fans, allow 2 pounds per person. For aficionados (just about everyone in Louisiana) allow 5 pounds per person. Remember, if there are leftovers – unlikely – you can harvest the tail meat and freeze it for crawfish étoufée at some later time.  Of course, there are overnight shipment expenses, so the cost for crawfish for an average-sized party will run to close to $300.

The next step is to plan the rest of the menu. There are some absolutely necessary items: ice-cold beer, corn on the cob, new potatoes, onions, ice-cold beer, and ice-cold beer. Then there are optionals: something to eat while you wait for the crawfish to cook, bread or corn bread, coleslaw, watermelon, and desserts. Guests usually volunteer to bring a dessert. By all means, take them up on their offer.

There are certain equipment requirements for  a successful boil. You will need a large plastic or galvanized tub to purge the crawfish before you cook them. A high temperature propane burner will get the water boiling as quickly as possible. You also need to have a very sturdy stand that will hold a very heavy pot of water. The largest cooking pot and lid that you can find – 50 gallons is common – will let you cook a good-sized batch at one time. Find a canoe paddle for stirring the pot. You will need a large strainer with handle in order to scoop out the crawfish and vegetables when they are cooked.  A table covered with newspapers  will hold a batch of food for guests to get to. With a genteel group, paper plates should be in abundance. For serious crawfish eaters, cardboard flats of the sort you get with cases of beer work better.

 

STARTING THE BOIL

Remember, it takes a lot of heat and a long time to bring 30-40 gallons of water to the boil, so start this step several hours before you plan on eating. If the water boils too soon, you can always turn the temperature down for a time. Light the fire on the burner and adjust it to a hot flame. Be sure to have enough propane. There is nothing worse than running out of propane in the midst of a boil.  Fill the cooking pot with water from your garden hose. You will probably need two people to lift the pot; one gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds. Season the water with enough salt to taste briny – a cup or two should be enough. Add two lemons cut in half. Drop in two bags of Zatarain’s Crawfish and Crab Boil. If you can’t find the bags, a bottle of the liquid variety should be enough. If you want, you can add some paprika and chile powder.  With most orders, Louisiana Crawfish Company will include a container of their Creole seasoning. It is really not necessary to add any more seasoning to the water, because you’ll be sprinkling on the cooked crawfish.

PURGING THE CRAWFISH

The crawfish will arrive in large sacks with lots of ice packed around them. Since they are cold-blooded, the crawfish will be alive but not very lively. You need to wake them up in a tub of water to which you have added a goodly amount of salt – half a box should be enough. The salt will cause the crawfish to empty their alimentary tract, so the water will become very dirty looking. You can drain the water and do a second treatment until the water clears, but be sure to drain the water as the crawfish will die if left in the water. Pick out any crawfish that float to the surface of the water, as they have most likely died in transit. Alton Brown declares that there are better ways to accomplish this step, but hey, he’s from Georgia and not a real Cajun.

PREPARING VEGETABLES

While the water is heating and crawfish are purging, prepare the vegetables that will cook with the crawfish. Remove the husks  and silks of fresh ears of corn. Break each ear in half. Allow 1 to 2 ears per guest. If necessary, scrub baseball-sized red potatoes. If you can only find larger potatoes, cut them in half. Allow 1 to 3 potatoes for each guest. Remove the outer husk from golf ball to baseball sized onions.  Allow 1 to 2 onions for each guest.

COOKING

The water must be at a full boil when you are ready to cook. Add the onions and potatoes first, as they will take the longest to cook. After about 15 minutes, add crawfish and corn. Add enough that the guests already in line can get several. From time to time, stir the pot with your paddle. When you think the crawfish are done, around 15 minutes (just to be sure, the cook usually samples from time to time), snag one and test for doneness. When everything is cooked, use your strainer to retrieve everything and dup  it out on the newspaper-covered table. Sprinkle with chile powder or Creole seasoning. Then encourage folks to help themselves while you get ready for your next batch. If you want, you can increase the spiciness of subsequent batches by adding  chile powder or Creole seasoning as you start each batch. This is often a good idea if not everyone likes spicy crawfish, so by this technique, the first batches are not as spicy, and they get spicier as time goes on, to go with the ice-cold beer.

HOW TO EAT A CRAWFISH

Eating your first crawfish is a little intimidating, especially if you have never had instruction. It’s actually very easy: just pull the crawfish apart at the joint between the body and the tail; then pry open the first ring of the tail shell with your thumbnail, squeeze  the tail fan firmly between the thumb and index finger of your other hand; and the tail meat will slide into your waiting mouth. The process is not always that easy and smooth, but with a little practice you will be eating crawfish as fast as you can pull them apart,

More advanced eaters relish the little morsel of fat that stays in the thorax shell and will “suck the head” to extract the tasty treat.

CLEANING UP

In preparing a crawfish boil, you will wind up using a lot of heavily salted water. Never empty the leftover water on the lawn or in your flower beds or you will wind up with a yellow spot in the grass or dead peonies.

As to the shells, it is a good idea to station plastic-lined garbage cans around the yard.  Then, when the party is over, you can just tie up the bags and dispose of them. Be aware that there is nothing that smells as bad as day-old crawfish bodies, so dispose of them as quickly as you can. They do not make good compost.

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CHIPOTLE CULTIVATE SAN FRANCISCO

We just returned from a week in the San Francisco Bay area. Our trip was primarily a baby-sitting junket, but we wound up experiencing a non-stop rush of food events. The main reason for our trip was so that our daughter and son-in-law could go to New York City to cook in a charity event in Rockefeller Center for CityMeals on Wheels, but we wound up baby-sitting while they cooked at their restaurant, Rich Table, for visiting chefs attending the Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Golden Gate Park. Then there was the NYC event itself, and while the offspring were out of town, we helped my son and his family with their annual crawfish boil in Silicon Valley, and then cooked a birthday dinner for my son.  In between all of this we had a spectacular all-holds-barred dinner at Rich Table and a late lunch at the Presidio Social Club, a lovely little place on the Presidio grounds. Finally we attended the awards ceremony for San Francisco’s Rising Star Chefs held in the Giants’ AT&T Park. Sarah and Evan cooked again, and the reception was a real food blowout.

Now we have to work on losing the weight we gained during this food extravaganza.

My first report from the week is about the Chipotle Cultivate Festival, sponsored by the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain. This started out as an event in Chicago’s Lincoln Park three years ago, spread to Denver’s City Park last year, and now this year moved to include San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The event was held in Hellman Hollow with nearby Lloyd Lake. The festival was free with lots of live music, so there were big crowds. Chipotle had food stands around the grounds with some of their specialties for sale. There were lots of other food vendors, but one of the highlights was a series of cooking demonstrations by well-known chefs. Amanda Freitag, perhaps best known as one of the judges on the Food Network’s Chopped, travelled from New York City. So did Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff, co-owners of Big Gay Ice Cream Trucks, wildly popular in NYC. Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook, and Vinny Dotolo came up from Los Angeles. Michael Charello of Bottega in Napa Valley, Richard Blais from Atlanta, corporate chefs from Chipotle, and San Francisco chefs Minh Tsai, Evan Bloom, Led Beckerman, and Sarah and Evan rounded out the list of chefs who did cooking demonstrations throughout the day.

Sarah and Evan chose to prepare Sarah’s popular dessert, caramelized olive oil cake with fresh strawberry sauce and cream cheese ice cream. Oil cakes have been around for years, but recipes in cookbooks are often hard to find. Oil is used as a substitute for butter or shortening. Its liquid state at room temperature makes a moist cake, but that also means it will not support cake loft as much as solid fats. For that reason, the cake is more dependent upon incorporated air in other ingredients so it is important to beat those ingredients enough to give the cake lightness. Olive oil has only recently become a popular ingredient. The 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking has three recipes for oil cakes but also strong advice to avoid olive oil because of its strong flavor. These days, that strong flavor has made olive oil cakes popular.

An additional step that makes Sarah’s cake special is caramelization. As she says, you can caramelize the top, the top and bottom,or all sides, depending how much time you want to spend. One way to caramelize the cake is to sprinkle it with sugar and use a salamander or torch as you might for a crême brulée, but that may be too tricky, so you can accomplish the same thing in a very hot skillet or griddle. The caramelization step can only be done when you are ready to serve the cake.

The second part of the demonstration dish was a strawberry sauce made from fresh strawberries. California strawberries fresh from the farm are totally unlike the flavorless, cardboardy kinds you get in the supermarket. The farm varieties are red, juicy, sweet, tender, and filled with the strawberry flavor of long ago. Adriana Silva, the owner of   Tomatero Farms near Watsonville and the strawberry purveyor, also participated in the demonstration. She has gone from 2 to 200 acres under cultivation in just a few years, and she raises six different varieties of strawberries which come in at different times during the season. The variety used for the demonstration was “Seascape”, a red, sweet beauty.

The final part of the dish for the demonstration was a generous topping of cream cheese ice cream, churned at Rich Table that morning. It is like eating a bite of cold New York cheesecake except that it melts in your mouth.

RECIPE

Olive Oil Cake

Ingredients

  • 8 large eggs
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ lemons, zested
  • 1 1/8 cups whole milk
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 1 1/3 cups almond flour
  • ¼ cup baking powder
  • 1½ cups extra virgin olive oil + more to grease the cake pan
  • granulated sugar to caramelize the top

Method

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixture, combine the eggs and sugar. With the mixer set on medium speed, cream the eggs and sugar together for at least five minutes to incorporate as much air into the mixture as possible. It should form a smooth, shining ribbon.
  2. Turn the mixer to low and add the salt and lemon zest
  3. Slowly drizzle in the mil with the mixer still running.
  4. While the eggs and sugar are mixing, sift together the flours and baking powder.
  5. Add the sifted flours to the mixture, continuing to beat on low.
  6. Drizzle in the olive oil very slowly as you would making mayonnaise.
  7. Prepare a half sheet cake pan ( 16 x 12 x 3 inches) by oiling liberally with the extra olive oil
  8. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Use a spatula to make sure the batter fills the corners of the pan.
  9. Bake in the middle of an oven pre-heated to 325°F for 25 minutes or until the cake springs back to the touch and/or tests clean with a toothpick
  10. Remove from the oven. Cool on a baking rack for five minutes. Then invert onto a flat surface. Gently transfer the cake. You may need to use your fingers or a thin spatula get the cake out in one piece.
  11. When ready to serve, cut the cake into serving-size pieces, sprinkle with sugar, and place sugared-side down on a clean hot griddle or skillet. When the sugar is caramelized (2-3 minutes) serve caramelized side up with sauce, whipped cream, or ice cream.

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GOODBYE TEXAS – EAST TEXAS CASSEROLE

We recently had a wonderful family gathering with our children (their spouses didn’t attend) and some of our grandchildren. My wife’s family has had a beautiful farm in East Texas for over fifty years. Our children had spent many times during their growing-up years there, enjoying swimming, fishing, hiking. horse riding, and just generally having a good time. Now, because we all lived so far away and because travel to the fairly remote place was difficult and expensive, we decided to sell the farm. After we had accepted an offer on the farm, we needed to make one last visit to load up personal items and to enjoy the place for one last time.

It turned into a great family gathering when all of the kids found a few days to spare in their busy schedules. For nearly a week, people came and went, fished and hiked, laughed, sat in front of a camp fire, and ate some good food.

Our family has been lucky to have excellent cooks in many generations, so one of the best memories for all of us is the good food we have enjoyed on the farm: festive Thanksgiving dinners, fried catfish, fresh vegetables from the once-one-acre garden, and wild blackberries from the surrounding fields and woods. One meal that we all remember was a huge buffet that ladies of the church had prepared for a family gathering many years ago at a time of family sadness. The spread was lovingly prepared, but the most noteworthy dish was made by one of my late mother-in-law’s closest friends. I call it East Texas Casserole, but if you look for the recipe on the internet, you will find it called Redneck Casserole. I have changed the name because I would never call any of the gracious ladies of the church society rednecks. The dish is easy to prepare – one of those open the can and dump creations – and it gets uniformly good reviews on the web. You can prepare it in 30 minutes or so.

Most internet recipes call for grated Cheddar cheese, but to me that is not really authentic. For the real thing you will need to use Velveeta cheese food. I grew up on the stuff, and so did most other kids of that era, including my wife. The product has an interesting history which you can read about in great detail in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink edited by Andrew F. Smith (Oxford University Press, New York, 2007)

The short story is that two American cheese companies were looking for ways to prevent cheese from spoiling so rapidly and to store it at room temperature. A process was patented by Joseph L. Kraft in 1916. Tinned cheese was distributed to the troops in World War I (Remember Spam in World War II?) Eventually the two cheese companies agreed to share the patent and Velveeta made its brand-name appearance in 1928. Velveeta must contain at least 51% cheese (that’s why it is called cheese food) and will keep almost for eternity on a shelf at room temperature. These amazing properties are due to sodium citrate and, later, sodium phosphate among other preservatives. Subsequently Kraft brought out boxed macaroni and cheese in 1937, using a dehydrated version of Velveeta. Millions of boxes are sold each day, and it is discouraging to many mothers when their offspring prefer Kraft’s macaroni and cheese dinner to their carefully made from-scratch version.

RECIPE

EAST TEXAS CASSEROLE

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 can (22 ounces) Bush’s barbecued beans
  • 1 package (8) hot dogs, sliced into ½inch rounds
  • 1 pound (about 2 cups) frozen tater tots
  • 8 ounces Velveeta cheese food, grated (chill the Velveeta in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to make it easier to grate)

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Heat a 2 quart cast iron skillet over medium heat.Add the diced onions and oil, stirring until the onions are translucent, but not browned, about 55 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  3. Stir in the canned beans and hot dog slices.
  4. Arrange the frozen tater tots on top of the mixture.
  5. Bake on the middle rack of the preheated oven until the tater tots are golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.
  6. Remove the skillet from the oven, sprinkle the top with the grated Velveeta, and return to the oven for about 5 minutes. Then turn the heat off in the oven and continue to bake for a few minutes until the Velveeta is well melted. Serve immediately.

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