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Getting a Taste of Hawaiian Barbecue

Getting a Taste of Hawaiian Barbecue

To understand Hawaiian barbecue, it’s necessary to discuss the lunch plate first. This is a traditional meal presentation, served throughout the day, consisting of two scoops of sticky rice and a scoop of simple macaroni salad before the serving container is finished off with a generous portion of protein. You’ll find this setup whether you get a barbecue lunch plate from a roadside stand or from one of the open-air restaurants that draws you in because of its fabulous aromas.

Never miss a roadside barbecue stand.

Never miss a roadside barbecue stand.

Your choice, then, is what meat you want to order. It could be ribs, cut across the bone, or perhaps marinated chicken straight from the grill. My favorite turned out to be Kalua pig roasted in an imu, an underground pit dug perhaps in someone’s backyard or even on the beach.

Sure, we’re a far cry from Texas-style barbecue with its mouthwatering array of smoked meats. It’s far closer to Chinese barbecue, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the Asian influence on island cuisine. But take another bite of that Kalua pig and revel in how the smoke subtly complements the refreshing flavor of fresh pork. It’s that special, whether you eat it by itself, cooked with cabbage or served on a bun with mayo, onion and lettuce.

It’s also simply prepared, which may be why I like it best. There’s no marinade, just roast pork with some salt and the flavor of the ti leaf, which is the green part of the plant that produces the taro root. If you can’t find one of those, then a banana leaf will do.

A Kalua pig sandwich

A Kalua pig sandwich

That’s far cry from the sweet, sticky barbecue sauce used on chicken and beef ribs alike, which you can get a taste of in San Antonio at L+L Hawaiian Grill, 1302 Austin Hwy. Most recipes for this style start with shoyu, a dark soy sauce that has undergone fermentation, before adding sugar, garlic, ginger and onion. You then let the marinade and the meat rest until you’re ready to grill. Throw some buttered pineapple on the grill for a side dish that’s irresistible.

On a recent trip to Maui, I found that barbecue holds fast to tradition, but there are the occasional attempts to broaden it.

At Fat Daddy’s on South Kikei Road, burnt ends and brisket were both on the menu, a tough choice when you’re from Texas. I was expecting something more like what we’d get back home, so I ordered the burnt ends. I certainly got what I ordered, fatty bits of meat with tender strands under a well-done exterior, but I also discovered that the meat had been covered in sauce, which is more of an East Texas style than I was expecting. They were served with truffled mac and cheese and blue cheese coleslaw on the side, both of which are from a barbecue tradition I have yet to discover, though the slaw was excellent.

Burnt ends from Fat Daddy's in Kihei.

Burnt ends from Fat Daddy’s in Kihei.

On the road to Hana, we our driver zipped past a roadside barbecue stand that I would have loved to have visited. He stopped instead a little further down the road at another roadside stand, one that promised Aunty Sandy’s handmade banana bread, which was truly exceptional and featured, no doubt, bananas grown on the nearby plants. But it was the Kalua pig, advertised a little lower on the sign (below “hot dog” even) that caught my attention. One bite of my sandwich was enough to convince my traveling companions to get their own. We were all taken in by the fresh pork flavor with a touch of smoke well balanced by the mayo. It quickly became one of my favorite flavors of the entire trip.

I wanted that flavor again when I stopped by King’s BBQ and Chinese Restaurant, again on South Kihei Road, a couple of days later. It was not to be. Instead, I ordered up a combination of luau pork wrapped in ti leaves and Kalua pig sauteed with cabbage. Both boasted fine flavors; I especially like anything sauteed with cabbage.  But it missed the clean, straightforward beauty of that simple pork sandwich from a roadside stand.

Kalua pig joy

Kalua pig joy

It made me remember another lesson from the global barbecue trail: No matter the style of ‘cue you’re talking about, don’t pass up those roadside stands; you’ll never know what culinary treasures you could be missing out on.

John Griffin and Bonnie Walker are authors of “Barbecue Lover’s Texas” (Globe Pequot Press).

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Sandy Oaks Olive Leaves — Try Tea From the Bountiful Olive Tree

Sandy Oaks Olive Leaves — Try Tea From the Bountiful Olive Tree

By Saundra Winokur
Owner, Sandy Oak Olive Orchard
Founded 1998

ELMENDORF –For centuries, olive trees have been valued for the medicinal properties of not only the fruit and oil, but also the leaves.

When I started my orchard in 1998, I read every article I could find about the virtues of olive oil.  In the process, I learned that the ancients brewed a medicinal drink from the leaves, using it to treat various ailments and fevers.

Sandy Oaks Olive Leaf Tea

Olive leaf tea tastes good, and has health benefits, too.

That piece of information piqued my curiosity so I brewed a cup for myself, only to discover that the healthful tea is also quite tasty.  I served some to my crew at Sandy Oaks, and from that point forward, we drink it hot every winter and iced every summer.  During the exceptionally cold winter of 2015, my staff and I consumed buckets of hot tea to help alleviate the aches and discomfort that accompany colds, allergies and sinus infections.

Sandy Oaks Olive Leaf Jelly a popular item at Sandy Oaks' store.

Sandy Oaks Olive Leaf Jelly a popular item at Sandy Oaks’ store.

In 2002, I used leaves to make a unique olive leaf jelly.  The recipe is obviously a closely guarded secret.  When you taste it, you are definitely in for a treat. We use it in a number of ways in our restaurant, The Kitchen, which we opened in 2009.

It was so good, we began serving the olive leaf tea to our customers.  We also serve it for special events and offer a sample in our gift shop and at the Farmer’s Market. Not surprisingly, our customers prefer olive leaf iced-tea to the traditional iced-tea that we also offer.

Sandy Oaks leaves are used in several of our products because olive leaves contain twice the antioxidants found in green tea and 400 percent more vitamin C then other sources of that vitamin.

All of our skin care products are made using the leaves in one form or another.  Our creams are made with extra virgin olive oil, infused with olive leaves.  Our soaps are made with olive leaf tea as the liquid in the manufacturing process, and some of them also contain the ground up leaves in the bar.

So, celebrate the leaf with us!  Buy fresh leaves from us at our booth at the Pearl Farmers Market, in our store at the orchard, or from our on-line store.  Better yet, come dine in our restaurant at Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard or stop by our booth at Pearl Farmers Market to taste our freshly brewed olive leaf tea.

Editor’s note: Check out Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard’s website here for a thorough preview of the property just a 25-minute drive from downtown San Antonio at 25195 Mathis Road. If you love the olive leaf tea — you can buy it by the bagful at the store or grow your own — from a tree at the olive tree nursery, also carefully managed at Sandy Oaks.








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Hot Wells Springs to Life with a Bounteous Harvest Feast

Hot Wells Springs to Life with a Bounteous Harvest Feast

Chris Jara offers a winning cake made with fruit from the Hot Wells property.

Chris Jara offers a winning cake made with fruit from the Hot Wells property.

Brandon McKelvey of Say.She.Ate made a fresh salad packed with fresh herbs and graced with slices of beets. Josh Cross of El Toro Taco roasted a whole goat for cabrito tacos topped with a zippy salsa. Stefan Bowers of Feast dished up mulberry soup with chicharrones and hot peppers.

Guests could walk into a part of the former spa.

Guests could walk into a part of the former spa.

Those were three of the many dishes served up Wednesday at the Hot Wells Harvest Feast in which an array of chefs from across the city showcased the finest fruits, vegetables and herbs from the gardens on the grounds of the former hotel and spa.

Planners had expected about 500 to show up for Jason Dady’s Connecticut oysters with a blackberry vinegar, Tim the Girl Mcdarmid’s felafel granola or John Fahle’s smoked salmon with dill. But organizer Robbie Nowlin, executive chef of the Hotel Valencia, said the final total was “792.”

A postcard of the former hotel and spa.

A postcard of the former hotel and spa.

That’s a good amount of money for the Hot Wells Conservancy, which is trying to keep the historic property a vital part of the community. The original resort has suffered from two fires and the sulfur springs have been blocked,  but the ruins provided a perfect setting for the evening.

The array of foods served showed off the riches grown on the property, including several dozen varieties of heirloom tomatoes, tongue-tingling hot peppers, fennel, hoja santa, Swiss chard, peaches and more. Halston Conella of Cirtus brought his own wood-burning oven and made pizzas that included many of the ingredients as toppings. PJ Edwards of Gardner in Austin used several varieties of tomatoes to top a cheese-rich tart. Brooke Smith of Esquire Tavern served up a lamb paté, and Jeret Peña of the Brooklynite and the Last Word used herbs to create his own “Chartreuse” for use in one of the cocktails he and his brother, Jorel, were mixing up.

As more than one guest satisfied said, it was all good. The mosquitoes seemed to be enjoying themselves, too.

Visitors stroll the grounds of Hot Wells before sunset.

Visitors stroll the grounds of Hot Wells before sunset.

In the end, the crowd had to narrow down their choices to name the two top tastes of the evening. Chris Jara of the St. Anthony Hotel was the top vote getter for a gorgeous layered cake that incorporated fruit from the gardens. In second place was Jeff Wayne White of Boiler House Texas Grill, who was last year’s big winner; he made a Vietnamese banh mi featuring corned brisket and a spicy slaw that used some serranos from the garden.

The sun eventually disappeared behind what’s left of the pool house and the stars began to dance above as the chefs and the last few visitors let the party stretch into the night.  Leaving the party full and happy prompted one question: What’s happening next at Hot Wells?

Tim the Girl's team

Tim the Girl’s team

Jeff Wayne White tastes his own Vietnamese banh mi.

Jeff Wayne White tastes his own Vietnamese banh mi.

Josh Cross serves up cabrito tacos.

Josh Cross serves up cabrito tacos.

Ernie Estrada with Rockin' Rabbit and Piggy Rillette.

Ernie Estrada with Rockin’ Rabbit and Piggy Rillette.

Visitors check out the gardens.

Visitors check out the gardens.



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Getting Wicked for a Good Cause

Getting Wicked for a Good Cause

Have you ever wondered what chefs do in their off time?

PJ Edwards and Robbie Nowlin (right) address the Wicked Nights at Wickes crowd.

PJ Edwards and Robbie Nowlin (right) address the Wicked Nights at Wickes crowd.

Robbie Nowlin of Citrus in the Hotel Valencia likes to get together with other chefs and cook up some fun.

That’s why he has started up a monthly dinner party at his Southtown home. He’s called it Wicked Night at Wickes, or #WickedNightsAtWickes, as it has come to be more commonly known, thanks to its social media hashtag. Its main purpose is to raise awareness of Haven for Hope, the center that helps the city’s homeless and less fortunate. In lieu of a set dinner price, guests are asked to donate H-E-B gift cards, which Nowlin and his friend, artist Justin Parr, use to buy ingredients so they can make breakfast for folks who use the center.

“I’m super stoked about the dinner series,” he says. “For me, doing a supper club where we didn’t charge was the real point. We encourage people to bring H-E-B gift cards to help Justin Parr and me purchase ingredients to make tacos for Haven for Hope or to just give haven the cards to do what they will with them.”

Spring peas with yogurt, garlic and flowers

Spring peas with yogurt, garlic and flowers

Each month, Nowlin asks a different chef to set the menu for the evening. Though the series of dinners dates back only to December, the lineup so far has included old friends from some phase of his career in the restaurant business, and each has obliged by devising a multi-course menu that showcased the best of what’s in season. Chefs featured so far have included Jeff Wiley, who works with Nowlin at Citrus, and Rebecca Masson of Houston’s Fluff Bake Bar.

In March, the invited guest star was PJ Edwards, sous chef of Gardner in Austin. Nowlin and Edwards both worked for Jason Dady, but their history together goes back much further to the start of their careers. They were both on the line at one of San Antonio’s Olive Garden, where, because of the lack of creativity involved in the job, they focused on honing their chopping skills and other fundamentals, often racing each other to see, for example, who could cut their way through carrots the fastest.

Instead of feasting on the elaborate meal with the other 30 or so guests, I asked Nowlin if I could help out wherever necessary behind the scenes to see what preparation was involved in staging each of the dinners.

Before the first guest arrived, I found myself alongside several other volunteers foraging the yard for an edible garnish possibly to use later in the evening. I also found myself having to taste test a cocktail from Jeret and Jorel Peña of the Brooklynite and the Last Word that would be served with the appetizers. (Hey, it had gin in it, so somebody had to volunteer.)

Shucking the oysters

Shucking the oysters

The evening began with oysters on the half shell with a strawberry mignonette as well as pea meringue with fermented mushroom.

Once the guests took their seats at the horseshoe-shaped dining table in Nowlin’s backyard, the pace picked up. I found myself helping assemble plates or serving them to the guests as soon as possible, so that they could get their fill of the likes of spring peas with yogurt and garlic garnished with a colorful array of edible flowers or grilled turnip with serrano ham and preserved persimmon.

Live music filled the background, as did a scattered squawk from Nowlin’s hens and the satisfied sounds of people enjoying their meals and each other’s company. Bottles of wine went from full to empty as the evening wore on, and I soon joined in the train of servers, who whisked away plates after the diners had finished with pork loin crowned with artichoke and guanciale or crawfish served with green garbanzo, leeks and nasturtium.

The crew that it took to keep the action going was large. Other chefs, cooks, servers and friends willingly gave up a free night to do what they do for the rest of the week, all for a good cause and all to keep the evening running as smoothly as possible. Nowlin has also managed to get a number of sponsors for Wicked Nights at Wickes, including the RK Group, which provides the setup for the evening, including the tables, chairs, china, silverware and glassware.

Robbie Nowlin's hens

Robbie Nowlin’s hens

Nowlin came up with the idea for the dinner series after he landed his job at Citrus. He felt the need to do something for the community, but he also wanted to have some fun on a night off.

“It’s really about getting the community excited about coming together to eat a meal from an awesome chef and be able to meet new interesting people,” he says. And it’s about getting the chefs to try to outdo each other from one month to the next, of course.

So, where did the name come from?

It’s a tribute, Nowlin says, to the Wickes Street home’s previous tenant, the late Craig Pennel, who hosted outrageous parties that he called Wicked Nights. The chef felt he wanted to continue the tradition in his own way.

Getting a seat at the table for one of the dinners isn’t easy. You can’t just call someone and make a reservation for the next Wicked Night at Wickes. First, you have to like the event’s Facebook page and wait for an announcement of the next dinner. Then post a comment that you’d like to join, and your name will be entered into a lottery for the seats. The dinners are usually the last Sunday of the month, though the April/May dinner has been set for May 3 with Stefan Bowers of Feast as the guest chef. There’s also talk of a future dinner featuring one of Nowlin’s associates from his days at the French Laundry, but you’ll have to keep an eye open for future announcements.

Next time, I’m hoping to snag a seat at the table. I’ve got my H-E-B cards ready.

It's time for Wicked Nights at Wickes.

It’s time for Wicked Nights at Wickes.



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Griffin to Go: When It’s Time to Bake, It’s Always Mother’s Day

Griffin to Go: When It’s Time to Bake, It’s Always Mother’s Day

I won’t be in Louisville Sunday for Mother’s Day. My visit will follow a few days later, so I can be there when my parents celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

But every time I step into the kitchen to bake something, it’s a form of Mother’s Day.

Mom's CookbookThat’s because Mom taught me the basics of what to do when making a cake or how to use a cookie press, how long to let butter and sugar cream in the mixer or how to make sure you never burn a cake. (Turn off the oven five minutes before the cake’s finished and let it cook further in its still-warm cocoon.)

I didn’t start out watching her while she worked as a baker out of our home. I spent my childhood pursuing more worthwhile interests at the time, such as watching TV for hours on end. But I was there whenever she happened to break a cookie or had a little icing left after finishing a cake.

Yet when I started to write about food, I realized that I had learned a little more than I thought. But I hadn’t learned all I could.

So, when Mom decided she wanted to put together a cookbook of her recipes, I readily agreed to help. Little did I know how long the project would take. Or how much I’d learn.

For eight years, I worked off and on, trying to get her recipes together in a way that even people who don’t spend any time in the kitchen could be able to follow. It wasn’t always easy.

When you’re baking bread, you don’t just go from mixing yeast and water to having a dough that you can knead, though that’s what her notes said. Even I knew that, and I rarely make bread. So, trying to figure out the missing steps took work, even with Mom available by phone.

There were some short tempers, some big laughs and some blanks that needed to be filled in. For example, Mom hadn’t made Pork Cake in more than 50 years, and all she wrote down in her notes was a list of ingredients. But what a wonderful sounding and wholly forgotten creation.

There were other treasures. Her award-winning Tennessee Jam Cake, her beloved Rum Tarts, and some regional dishes, including Bean Pie from Eastern Kentucky and cookies from her German childhood. The recipes show an evolution in American tastes, from the dense cakes filled with dried fruit, once so popular in winter, to the once-trendy Better Than Sex Cake and on to modern classics, including her take on Key Lime Pie.

Tennessee Jam Cake

Tennessee Jam Cake

Time passed, and Mom honestly thought the book would never be finished. I had my doubts, too, especially when I decided to get my master’s degree at the same time I was working on two books of my own. But then my sisters got involved. They took what Mom and I worked on, dealt with a publisher and finished what is now known as “Cookies and Cakes You’ll Love: Annaliese W. Griffin’s Recipes.” Dad’s always been a willing guinea pig when it comes to tasting.

Late last year, 27 cases of books arrived at the Griffin home. Since then Mom’s been busy selling as many copies as she can, and she’s proved to be quite the saleswoman, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows her. After only six months, she only has about four cases left, and I’m planning to bring one of those back with me.

In the meantime, I’ll be cracking open my copy to make a treat for a luncheon I’ve been invited to. What will it be? Cinnamon Bars? Rocky Road Brownies? Mocha Rum Bars? I like the sounds of Congo Squares, not just because of the ingredients, but because the directions say, “They’re also easy to make.” That always is appealing when you don’t have much time.

Thank your own mother by getting her recipes down in print or on video. She may not use measuring cups, but you can tape her in action using your phone and you’ll always have her family recipes with you.

Congo Squares

2/3 cup (10 tablespoons) margarine or butter, at room temperature
1 pound brown sugar
3 eggs
2 3/4 cups flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
6 ounces chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream margarine and brown sugar until well incorporated, about 5 minutes in a stand mixer. Add eggs one at a time. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt together, then slowly add to the margarine mixture. Stir in pecans and chocolate chips. Spread in a greased 15-by-10-by-1-inch pan and bake for about 25 minutes until brown.

Makes 5 dozen (2-inch) squares.

From Annaliese Griffin/”Cookies and Cakes You’ll Love: Annaliese W. Griffin’s Recipes.”

Here are a few other recipes from Mom:

Whiskey Nut Cake

Whiskey Nut Cake

Christmas cookies

Whiskey Nut Cake

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

Melting Moments

Best-Ever Lemon Pie

Tennessee Jam Cake

Raspberry Vanilla Cake

Chocolate Almond Cookies

If you’d like a copy of “Cookies and Cakes You’ll Love: Annaliese W. Griffin’s Recipes,” please send an email to Copies are $12 apiece, plus shipping and handling. They are available on a first-come basis.



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The Kentucky Derby’s Coming. Are You Ready to Party?

The Kentucky Derby’s Coming. Are You Ready to Party?

“The most exciting two minutes in sports,” aka the Kentucky Derby, is coming up Saturday!

Are your ready to have some fun?

Here are some local parties celebrating the 141st Run for the Roses as well as some tips and recipes to get you into the spirit. I just wish I had some tips on which horse to bet on.

(Courtesy Bending Branch Winery)

(Courtesy Bending Branch Winery)

Derby at the vineyard

Bending Branch Winery, 142 Lindner Branch Trail, Comfort, has become known for its lavish derby day party, which runs from 1 to 7 p.m. Saturday.

There will be a hat parade competition, live music from Phil Grota and Friends as well as single-barrel blanc mint juleps and food.

Limited seating is available, so people are advised to bring their own chairs.

Advance tickets through April 30 are $40 apiece or $60 a couple, while VIP tables for 10 are $1,000 apiece and VIP tables for 10 with a case of wine and bottle service are $5,000. Tickets at the gate will be $50 apiece.

Ladies, get out your hats

Watch the derby live and in style at Sustenio Lounge in the Eilan Hotel & Spa, 18603 La Cantera Terrace.

Pre-show festivities begin at 3 p.m. During the event, you can:

–Enjoy Sustenio’s own Lavender Mint Julep and other drink specialties.

–Participate in the Best Hat Contest — and possibly win a dinner for 2 at Sustenio.

All women with hats will be treated to free appetizers.

For more information, call (210) 598-2950.
The Brooklynite steps up to the line, too

At 4 p.m. Saturday, check out The Brooklynite’s $5 bourbon cocktail specials and raffle prizes, sponsored by Maker’s Mark and Old Grandad.

Also, three guest bartenders, including: Houston Eaves of The Esquire Tavern, Stephan Mendez of The Last Word, and David Naylor of Park Social will be put through their paces as well.

Derby attire (hats and bowties) is recommended, especially pretty hats.

Address: 516 Brooklyn Ave.

Reservations: 210-444-0707
Give your julep a twist

Kentucky Derby, of course, means mint juleps, which are truly refreshing sippers this time of year.

Marie Zahn, one of Louisville’s leading mixologists, has provided her own twist on this classic in a recipe that uses Basil Hayden’s Bourbon and mint with some apricot preserves instead of sugar or simple syrup.

BH_High Stakes JulepBasil Hayden’s High Stakes Julep

10 mint leaves
2 parts Basil Hayden’s Bourbon
1 bar spoon Apricot Jelly or Preserves

Add 8 mint leaves to a glass and lightly press with the back of a bar spoon.

Add bourbon, apricot jelly and crushed ice into the glass.

Swizzle briefly and add more crushed ice until it is mounding over the top of the glass.

Add a straw and garnish with additional sprigs of mint.

Makes 1 julep.

From Marie Zahn/Basil Hayden’s Bourbon

If you want a recipe for a classic julep, click here.

julep cupThe right cup for juleps

A mint julep is traditionally served in a silver cup presented to you on a silver tray. The cup gets so cold that servers opt for the tradition of wearing gloves. (OK, we Kentucky folks love our tradition, no matter the reason, so the gloves will be worn regardless.)

If you want to get into the derby spirit, you can get silver julep cups at Twin Liquors. I saw these beauties at the one on U.S. 281 near Bitters Road. Call whichever store you’re closest to if you want to see if they’re in stock before making a trip.

They sell for $19.79 apiece. And, yes, they are silver.



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A Hot Dog and a Four-Legged Lobster Join the Pooch Parade

A Hot Dog and a Four-Legged Lobster Join the Pooch Parade


Hooray for the red, white and blue!

Fiesta 2015 is one for the memory books now, but not before a trio of parades made their way through town on Saturday. The King William Fair and the Fiesta Flambeau both have their ardent admirers, but for my money, the Pooch Parade through Alamo Heights is the most enjoyable.

Along for the ride.

Along for the ride.

Perhaps it’s the low-key nature of the event, which raises funds for Therapy Animals of San Antonio. You can actually drive up to the parade route and drive out afterward in a matter of minutes without having to wait for leagues of traffic to disperse before you can move.

Maybe it’s the congeniality of the crowd, which wanders about from one side of the street to the other, chatting with each other and the paraders, munching on snacks from family parties or from elegant sidewalk tables they’ve set up. The elbow room is a blessed relief after the sardine-like fun of A Night in Old San Antonio.

Nah, it’s the dogs that do it. The pooches, many of whom are decked out in costumes ranging from Tony Parker’s jersey to Uncle Sam, are just a delight as they lead their owners on a three-mile trek. Some actually have trained their owners enough to let them laze in wagons and carts that are pulled along for the amusement of the crowds.

As always there were a few foodie dogs, dressed as everything from a carrot to a bunch of grapes. One sported a lobster shell, another was a tomato. And a real hot dog was accompanied by a walking bottle of ketchup. And the dogs were, by and large, on their best behavior, posing for photos or sniffing out all the aromas to be enjoyed along the walk.

It was a fun way to bid Fiesta farewell.

Let's go sailing.

Let’s go sailing.

It's luau time.

It’s luau time.

Now that's a hot dog!

Now that’s a hot dog!

It's Captain America!

It’s Captain America!

With or without drawn butter?

With or without drawn butter?

Fruits and vegetables and an insect, oh my!

Fruits and vegetables and an insect, oh my!

Just another lazy day.

Just another lazy day.

Here's one owner whose dog trained him well.

Here’s one owner whose dog trained him well.


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Hats Off to the Brightest and Biggest NIOSA Hats

Hats Off to the Brightest and Biggest NIOSA Hats

fried pinata hat

Is that a pinata on your head or are you just happy to see us?

A Night in Old San Antonio is a time to eat, drink and enjoy life while raising money for the city’s Conservation Society. It’s also a time when people let their imaginations run wild by wearing hats both great and small. Think of biting into an order of fried green tomatoes or a juicy brisket biscuit as you look through this array of hats as worn by guests and volunteers alike. And go enjoy NIOSA before it slips into memory.

fried gang

At the fried green tomato booth, Roland (left) and Sara Garza with Ryszard Debski display their best hats.

fried wreath

A traditional Fiesta and a traditional gimme cap.

fried egg

Did that hat lay an egg?

niosa gail

Spurs hats and the Chapel at La Villita. (Photo courtesy Gail Harwood)

fried niosa parade

A touch of history in hatwear.

fried hat1

Margarita? Mariachi? Beer? Sure, it’s NIOSA.

fried hat

A Tyrolean mountain climber’s hat complete with wine.

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A Night for Fried Green Tomatoes

A Night for Fried Green Tomatoes

A Night in Old San Antonio has returned. Are you ready to party?

Time to fry the green tomatoes.

Time to fry the green tomatoes.

Several thousand San Antonians certainly were as Tuesday night’s opener attracted large crowds of people hungry for anticuchos, Bongo K-Bobs, shrimp fingers or some other treat they only encounter once a year. And they wanted to wash it down with a cold beer or a cup of chilled Barefoot Bay wine. In other words, it was business as usual, which is the way San Antonio likes it.

After the parade that launches the four-day fundraiser for the San Antonio Conservation Society, the bands began to play, and soon lines were forming at various food booths throughout the various areas inside La Villita.

For the past 16 years, I have worked at a different food booth each year, helping make everything from calf fries and escargots to Shypoke Eggs and bean tacos. Most of those have been fairly large booths, with a dozen or so workers in assembly lines making sure every step of, say, preparing the fried mushrooms is followed before each basket of golden brown treats is re served to a waiting customer.

A customer at the fried green tomato booth.

A customer at the fried green tomato booth.

This year, however, I found myself at the fried green tomato booth deep in the heart of the Main Street U.S.A. section. This is a Southern specialty reintroduced to the dining public at large in the 1991 movie of the same name and the Fannie Flagg novel on which it was based, which had the longer title of “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.”

But no matter where you heard of the treat, there is no movie or book that can take the place of sampling one in real life. That said, only four or five of us were needed to keep turning out orders, even when demand was stready, which was true of most of the first half of the evening.

The booth is overseen by Roland and Sara Garza, who have made fried green tomatoes for the past 10 or 12 years. The exact amount of time they’ve volunteered isn’t important to them. The Garzas were more focused on making sure that everything was running smoothly and that there was little or no waiting on the part of the customers.

To do that, you start by slicing the tomatoes, which was made easy by an industrial slicer that provided cuts of equal width.

In the meantime, Roland would whisk up the thick batter with some water and pour it over the tomato slices.

Roland Garza (left) shows Jason Ornelas how to fry the tomatoes.

Roland Garza (left) shows Jason Ornelas how to fry the tomatoes.

For about 90 minutes or so, I then took the breaded slices and tossed them into a fryer that had been heated to 400 degree. It was then a matter of watching the slices sizzle and occasionally release some steam on their way to a beautiful golden brown. Occasionally, a slice would stick to the fry basket, but a good shake would release it, and all would eventually float to the surface while I monitored their progress.

Once they had drained, the slices of fried tomatoes were arranged in orders by Ryszard Debski, who handed them over to either Herlinda Arnold or Sara, who were serving the customers and collecting three tickets for each order.

Fairly simple, right?

Yes and no. You do have to keep tabs on how the orders were selling, so you could gauge how many fry baskets of tomatoes you needed in operation. That’s because the customers arrived in waves, and you didn’t want the tomatoes so hot that people would burn their fingers. You also didn’t want any leftovers that would be cold by the time they were sold. So, I would go back and forth between having two and four baskets frying at the same time.

The final product.

The final product.

And you don’t want to burn your fingers from hot oil splashing all over the place.

The booth’s best nights are Tuesday and Thursday. The opening evening always draws those customers who have waited all year for an order of fried green tomatoes, and one bite would convince you that there are a great many people who feel this way. The almost-too-hot-to-touch slices are crunchy on the outside, yet have a tangy center that the unripe tomato slice gives off. Heating it also releases a little sweetness. Of course, slathering some ranch dressing and sprinkling a little salt on top never hurt anything, either.

The grease is what draws people on Thursday nights, Roland says. That night is usually full of college students consuming copious amounts of beer. They need a little grease and carbohydrates to absorb some of the alcohol, he says, so they seek out the fried green tomatoes for a little relief.

Green tomato slices..

Green tomato slices..

On both of those nights, the booth will go through two or more cases of green tomatoes. After 90 minutes Tuesday, Roland had to fetch another case. The clear, breezy night weather was made for this uniquely American treat, and the ticket bucket was filling up.

By then the second shift of Jacqueline Treviño, a three-year veteran of the booth, and her fiance, newcomer Jason Ornelas, had shown up, and Roland had to teach another newcomer the fine art of frying up green tomato slices.

I moved to the front of the line then and was able to talk to quite a few customers, many of whom shared their fried green love stories. There were even some repeat customers in line.

“I just have to have these,” one lady said. “It’s not NIOSA without them.”

After my own basket of these beauties, I have to agree. I’ll be back.

NIOSA continues through Friday. For more information on the event, click here.

Sara and Roland Garza (left and center) catch up withAnn Mercer, former booth chairman and soon to be chair of the whole Main Street U.S.A. section of NIOSA.

Sara and Roland Garza (left and center) catch up withAnn Mercer, former booth chairman and soon to be chair of the whole Main Street U.S.A. section of NIOSA.





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Alton Brown Has Them Eating Out of His Hands

Alton Brown Has Them Eating Out of His Hands

“Don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

In four simple words, Alton Brown laid out his approach to parenting when it comes to picky eaters. It’s not the terrorists – er, children – who get to decide what to eat, the celebrity chef told a sold-out crowd at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts recently.

But even Brown, the host of such Food Network shows as “Good Eats” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” knows that pint-sized willpower can be formidable. So, when faced with a request like serving chicken fingers at his daughter’s slumber party, it’s best to remember one basic fact:

“Chickens don’t have fingers.”

Ask any ornithologist. You’ll hear the same thing. Chicken and fingers are not part of the same equation, Brown said, to the great amusement of an audience made up of plenty of parents and more than a few kids.

Alton Brown

Alton Brown (Photo: David Allen)

Brown’s way of dealing with the chicken finger request was to give his daughter the closest approximation he could come up with: He fried up some chicken feet, which he served to her gaggle of girlfriends, much to their shrieking horror.

It was a classic Alton Brown story, filled with the trademark humor and storytelling skills that he has displayed for the past 15 years on his TV shows. But the surprise for some of us was that Brown so easily transcended the limitations imposed by the formats of his various shows and shaped an evening of more than two hours that was consistently engaging, even when he was rapping or singing about the dire consequences of eating a bad shrimp in an airport restaurant.

The evening started with a list of culinary truths that Brown has been able to discern in his career. They included the grotesque: “Trout don’t belong in ice cream” And they covered the sensible: “Don’t leave out the NaCl (salt).” Each was accompanied by a story from some point in the chef’s life and career.

The salt story stemmed from the time that Brown left the salt out of a batch of bread he was making for a restaurant where he worked. Bread without salt? “Two words,” he said. “Communion wafers. … Nobody asks for seconds.”

That would be too short to be the whole story, of course. So, Brown went on to tell of how his salt-less dough, which he tried to hide in a dumpster, soon became a blob that kept expanding and “burping and farting” as it grew, he said.

“It’s alive!” he screamed, echoing Dr. Frankenstein.

An Alton Brown show wouldn’t be complete without some of the chef’s outlandish gadgetry, which appeared complete with audience participation and a cameraman who followed close on his trail. One was an ice cream maker that produced frozen chocolate fun in a matter of seconds. The second was Brown’s adult response to the Easy Bake oven that he had as a child and melted when he swapped out the 100-watt light bulb for a 150-watt beauty. Brown’s Mega Bake was so bright it could reach a brilliance level of more than 1 million lumens. It was so bright, it could be “seen from outer space,” he boasted.

Brown took the Mega Bake and showed how you could cook pizza in 3.5 minutes. But first he and audience member Millie demonstrated how to toss pizza dough while enjoying margaritas. The chef also decided the two would use salsa instead of pizza sauce as a base, which gave the final product a great kick and proved to be the best time-saving cooking tip of the evening.

Brown closed out his show with some questions from the audience.

What is the chef’s single most important kitchen tool? Spring-loaded tongs.

What was his favorite “Good Eats” episode? The garlic show from season five.

What is his favorite guilty pleasure? “Bourbon,” he quipped, before explaining that he loved Fritos dipped in caramel sauce. “Freaking awesome,” he cried. That discovery came about when he was once again trying to make something for his daughter and her friends.

What would his Final 4 of pastries be? Brown started with two savory choices: buttermilk biscuits and croissants. Then he chose two sweets: strawberry-rhubarb pie and glazed doughnuts. After settling on biscuits and doughnuts as the finalists, he crowned doughnuts the winner.

The real winner was the audience, though, for Alton Brown confirmed why he and his shows have remained popular in a cutthroat industry and attention-deficit market. He even throws in a few devastating comments about or impersonations of fellow hosts like Sandra Lee and, of course, his “Food Network Star” co-star Giada De Laurentiis at no extra charge.

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