Seasonal Fare: Girl Scout Cookies

Saturday, January 31, 2009

They appear suddenly on a card table in front of Harris Teeter in late winter. One person can easily gobble up a whole box in an afternoon. You can't make them at home. There are no artisanal Dosie-Dos. I astound my staff by eating little sandwiches made from Thin Mints, unsalted butter and coarse sea salt one after another. I try to eat a bunch of these really fast before anybody can see what's going on so I don't have to share. You should see me with a bag of circus peanuts.

Despite the endless bad economic news, people continue to go out to eat. Sweetbreads have been very popular, so we decided to serve them for a while longer. I really enjoy the fact that people who like them really like them and that when they find out that they can get a whole plateful they throw all dietary caution aside and mop up the last of the sauce with the last of their bread, buttered, I trust. Some people come in once a week while they are on the menu. There is an added benefit. After they are poached, sweetbreads have to be peeled. About twenty percent would be lost as you peel away unappetising membranes and connective tissue. Unless, of course you are making brown sauce, which you always are in a restaurant kitchen. All the scraps can be tossed into the stock pot making it particularly exquisite. Although right this second we are serving Cajun rib eyes as we lead up to Mardi Gras, the Bourbon brown sauce will return soon and will be the best of the year. The nasty mess in the picture beside this paragraph is the scrap from my last case of sweetbreads.

I am an honorary grandfather, or abuelo. My friends Israel and Rosibel Martinez Cruz had a little girl, Dolores, on New Years' Eve. When I went to visit recently we had a supper of chicken posole topped with sliced radishes with a side of popcorn and a PBR.
It's the little things.

posted by Bill Smith at 3:25 PM 0 comments

Stuff I Forgot

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'm really lucky. People are always bringing me stuff. Great stuff. Elizabeth Karmel's mother Lynn sent me one of this year's persimmon fruit cakes. I've almost devoured the whole thing, but I did force myself to save a quarter for soaking. Like I said this fall about Japan, the cake is as beautiful as it is delicious. Then there is Frances Mayes. She and her husband Ed have begun producing olive oil on their property in Tuscany and they brought me a bottle. It is delicious. Believe it or not, I first tasted it on cornbread.

The magic of leftovers. A slower time of year tends to yield more leftovers and odds and ends and the time to make use of them. For instance, yesterday in my kitchen I had a half a gallon of whey, left from clarifying butter, a bucket of egg whites because we need lots of yolks to make ice cream, a few cartons of blueberries left over from brunch, a bunch of almonds from the last time we had catfish amandine and a half a case of pink grapefruits from our last duck entree.
I realise that nobody has this much whey at home but in the restaurant kitchen, we produce it routinely. I used this batch in sweet potato soup, but the very best use I've found for it is as the liquid in risotto. The almonds became a torte. The blueberries I stewed down into a runny compote that I used to soak the layers of this torte. The grapefruits became the prettiest pale pink sorbet.

I have a small piece in the February issue of Our State Magazine. Every once and a while the editor Vicky Jarrett asks me for a contribution and I am always flattered. This issue is entitled Why We Love North Carolina. I talk about how the marshes down east smell like home.

Finally, one of my Oaxacan friends received a package from home this week. It contained letters and pictures and unfortunately bread (because it took more than two months to get here). Although intact, it was no longer edible. But it was holiday bread from a tiny puebla way up in the mountains so I took this picture. I once attended a wedding in this village, Santa Maria de Ipalapa, which was no mean feat, so I appreciate the bread's journey.

posted by Bill Smith at 4:09 PM 0 comments

Post Inauguration, Post Mexico, Ex Post Facto

I realized last week, that I have been in a sort of limbo from the norm, probably since our primary here in North Carolina last May. Now it's almost like I have a political hangover. I'm trying to settle into our normal winter routine in the context of our abnormal economy. But I count my blessings. We always have basketball. I'm going to start this posting with something that has nothing to do with either food or politics. At left, is a photograph of the very elegant urinal that is in the pool house at my hotel in Celaya. I hesitated posting this at all because I didn't want to imply anything about other stuff in this entry, but this is just too good to be true.

Ok, now forget about plumbing. A lot of mid-winter favorites have appeared on our menu. Sweetbreads with Wild Turkey liqueur have returned, enriched this season with little dice of crispy sidemeat folded into the sauce at the last minute. Sweetbreads are something I save for colder weather as a rule. They seem too heavy for August. Green Tabasco Chicken is back, by popular demand I might add. Roast chicken is good any time really. I'm always going on about it, but it seems particularly appetising in cold gloomy weather. Butterscotch pudding has replaced persimmon pudding. This also has a following. I've posted this recipe this morning. Hit "The Recipes" link on the homepage.

Duck has gone as a main course, but turns up in onion soup and in our wilted salad. This fall we built up a good supply of salt cured legs for these dishes. Last season the salad proved especially popular, which surprised me because in previous years no one seemed to notice it much. Winter greens and the confit duck are dressed with a hot vinaigrette made from red wine vinegar that has had dried sour cherries steeping in it. Pecans are added for good measure

The salad above, is pictured on a tray with, among other things, a bowl of gumbo. That means Louisiana and Mardi Gras. This year it falls on February 24 and we will begin rolling out all that delicious food a few weeks before that. As if to prefigure the celebration, Beverly Dixon showed up for dinner the other night with an armful of fresh bay. She had pruned her bay tree in anticipation of the hard freeze that we had. I love the way it smells and it makes me think of New Orleans. You can always find it in the French Market there.

posted by Bill Smith at 8:50 AM 0 comments

Dip's Fried Chicken and an American Prayer

Monday, January 19, 2009

As you've all heard me say before, I love the crust on fried foods as much as I love whatever is beneath it. When I fry chicken I deliberately use self rising flour to ensure lots of it. But I like other kinds too. At Dip's Country Kitchen around the corner on Rosemary St., Mrs. Council prepares hers with a thin crispy crust. It is very much like Mrs. Seaton's at Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans. I eat every speck. As the waitress ties to clear my plate I am usually still pecking among the bones for fallen crumbs. As this rather poor picture shows, I added corn pudding, pinto beans, and cornbread to this meal.
I was at lunch there today because earlier I had been at the First Baptist Church across the street. High time you might say given the way you were carrying on last week in Mexico. But I wasn't there to repent. I was attending the annual convocation honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. I don't often go to church, but this morning it was easy to join the congregation in "Amen" and "Praise the Lord". Given the momentous events of this week, it seems sort of silly to go on about fried chicken, so this entry will be brief. I can't tell you how many people I have run into today who can't wait until twelve noon tomorrow. Me too. So instead of rhapsodising on rutabegas, please join me in An American Prayer. I'm an old lefty. I still believe all this stuff.

posted by Bill Smith at 11:25 AM 0 comments

San Martin Caballero

Sunday, January 11, 2009

So you're turning sixty. Do you choose snowy, elegant Quebec City with hot toddies in front of the fire at the Chateau Frontenac, a dinner of rognons de veau au Porto, and Edith Piaff for a sound track? Or, do you opt for Celaya in central Mexico, face down drunk in a bar that turns out to be a hangout for transvestite prostitutes who wear Spandex tube tops that are too small? Three guesses. How do you find such a place, you might ask. Simple. Just wander around really drunk in a really, really bad neighborhood. I didn't puke and I didn't get robbed, I wasn't even the worst one off. Alls well that ends well, I guess. Happily no food was involved in this escapade, so I'll move on. I only mention it at all because people always ask.

Except for one expedition, when we took some of the kids to a sort of supperclub surrounded a giant playground, I've done most of my eating either on the streets, in the markets or in homes. I quiz the cooks, usually, to see what I can learn. For instance, I've never understood how the chicharrones or pork rinds here turn out like they do. I've always seen great pots of them simmering, but they always seem too crowed to crisp up. My friend Pancho now works in a chicharroneria, if there is such word. It turns out that after the first two hours or so of cooking they are allowed to drain dry and to cool for a while before being given a second short frying. This explains how they become so toasty, yet fluffy. Luis' mother, Conchita, cooked me a surprise birthday dinner last night. She made pork milanesas, an elaborate salad of mostly cold poached vegetables and a wonderful dish of macoroni that was dressed with a sauce of fresh poblano peppers, pureed and simmered in heavy cream. Mysteriously, everyone called this sopa, or soup.

As I prepare to return home, I reflect on my weekend. I fit in awfully well here and I feel very lucky to have made all these friends. The economy is not as bad as I was expecting and people who have to do without anyway have better skills for hard times. The predicted crush of returnees from the United States has not materialized as of yet. This is partially due to the savage drug wars that now plague Mexico. People are uneasy about their safety, because there is a lot of "collateral damage". People in this neighborhood, called Delicias, were startled by a gun battle that errupted in their streets the day before I arrived between the police and a band of "narcos" Three people were killed. But I'd like to close this Mexican post on a happier note. Here is a picture of Elena at her gordita press. She made my lunch yesterday on the street in Delicias.

I almost forgot. San Martin Caballero is how St. Martin of Tours is known in Mexico. His image is everywhere. An extremely popular saint among pilgrims in the Middle Ages, he was a soldier, known among other things for his generosity to the poor. He was also the patron saint of drunks.

posted by Bill Smith at 11:02 AM 3 comments

Carnitas in Depth

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The weather in Guanajuato is glorious this week. It always feels like a perfect day at the beach. As foretold, I have returned to the city of Celaya to celebrate my birthday with guys who used to work for me in Chapel Hill. We always have a good time here and besides I didn't want to find myself the object of an overly dramatic birthday party at home. I'll do that when I'm eighty. True to form, Luis y co. have been more than perfect hosts. I admit that I am easy to please. All I really want to do anyway is sit in his carneceria and talk with the clientel as I sip beer all afternoon. Occasionally, I'll pick through the carnita pot for chunks of kidney to snack on.

I got a more complete view of the carnita process this visit. All I had seen last time was a petroleum-like oil that everything is boiled in. This time I was present for the whole recipe. Luis does indeed start off with a caldron of black oil. But then as it begins to boil, in goes a whole bottle of Coca Cola, a quart of beer, a quart of milk, instant coffee crystals, cinnamon bark, a quartered orange and several chunked up onions. Oh, and about a quart of hot salt water. It is truely a mystery that something so nasty looking can be so dedlicious. It also turns out that pork rinds can be cooked along side the carnitas in the same pot although they, it turns out, get a second cooking after they are drained and cooled once.

Yesterday afternoon, I went with Luis to a huge wholesale food market on the west side of the city. I hadn't known that this neighborhood existed. I had only been to the traditional general market downtown, which has acres of food stalls itself. He shopped for ingredients for salsas while I explored. This market has livestock as well as produce, and storesful of spices, mysterious seasonings, adobos and flavorings. I saw for the first time bundles of peppergrass for sale. We used to pick this when I was little, to chew on and Mrs. Chase puts it in her gumbo z'herbe at Dooky Chase. I've never seen it anywhere except along the railroad tracks.

As in Japan in November, I've been going as often as not to lots of ordinary eateries. This has become my preference if I have a choice. The little restaurant in my hotel is a case in point. This hotel is a great find- I'll talk about it in particular another time, but it never has a lot of guests. It isn't fancy enough for the very wealthy, and the upper middle class, for whom it is perfect, is a very thin band in Mexico's economic graph. Its restaurant puts out a buffet for breakfast every morning. The offerings vary a little from day to day and you can get a few things cooked to order. As is common in Mexico, there is always a platter of perfectly peeled and sliced fresh fruit. I've had tripe one morning, mole another and an absolutely huge platter of fried beef liver on another. There is always a legion of condiments. The room is pretty and uses lots of traditional decorative arts. It seems way overstaffed. It's not showy, but always good.

posted by Bill Smith at 1:35 PM 0 comments

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