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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 griffin@savorsa.com. 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

pooch2

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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The Hambone’s Connected to the Easter Menu

The Hambone’s Connected to the Easter Menu

To many, Easter dinner is the perfect time for ham. But where did this tradition begin? If you check the Internet, you’ll find a host of possibilities, ranging from Christians co-opting pagan rituals to American soil being more suited to pigs than lambs. (Comparing the price of the two meats is a strong argument for the latter.)

Use fresh ham, not cured or smoked, in this recipe.A more common sense explanation can be found on the Christian blog, Liturgical Time: “Throughout most of the centuries of Christianity, (and still for Eastern Orthodox Christians, whose stick-to-itiveness is to be highly commended), no meat was eaten during Lent.  Since livestock was slaughtered in the Fall, and there was no refrigeration, any meat left over on Ash Wednesday, (at the beginning of Lent), had to be cured if it was to be preserved.  Hence, on Easter Day, when the long 55 days of Lent were finally over and meat could be eaten, a lovely cured ham was the natural choice.”

Does it really matter why people eat ham on Easter or the rest of the year? It’s delicious. It’s not too expensive. And it’s plentiful.

Texans love their ham, but the writers of a great many Texas cookbooks are more interested in offering recipes for what to do with leftovers. Perhaps they were all trying to prove the great Dorothy Parker wrong when she quipped, “Eternity is a ham and two people.”

But here are a few suggestions from Texas cookbooks to make your holiday dinner centerpiece even more enjoyable this year.

First are some glaze ideas from the “Houston Junior League Cookbook”:

Ham Glazes:

  • Mix equal parts of jelly and prepared mustard.
  • Combine 2 cups cranberry sauce and ½ cup brown sugar.
  • Mix ½ cup honey with 1 cup brown sugar and ½ cup orange juice.
  • Mix 1 cup honey with ½ cup orange marmalade.
  • Combine 1 cup brown sugar and ½ cup syrup from canned spiced crab apples. Garnish with heated crab apples.

And here’s a basting sauce you can use for more than ham, as it appears in “The Wide, Wide World of Texas Cooking”:

Basting Sauce for Meat Loaf, Ham, Pork

½ cup brown sugar
½ cup water
1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Vinegar, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and boil until sugar has melted. Keep warm until needed. Store leftover sauce, covered, in refrigerator.

Makes 1 ¼ cups.

From “The Wide, Wide World of Texas Cooking” by Morton G. Clark

Finally, here’s a recipe for a stuffed ham that appears in the “Celebrate San Antonio Cookbook”:

Bourbon Cashew Studded Ham

Ham:

1 (5- to 6-pound) cooked ham
1 cup bourbon
1 cup packed brown sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
15 to 20 whole cashews

Stuffing

1 ½ cups herb stuffing mix (Pepperidge Farm preferred)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
3 tablespoons prepared mustard
3 eggs
¾ cup parsley, minced

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a saucepan, combine bourbon, sugar and cloves. Simmer mixture for 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, mix stuffing ingredients together. Make holes in top of ham with apple corer at 2-inch intervals. Save ham pieces for another use. Stuff holes in ham with one cashew then stuffing mix and one cashew on top. Spread rest of stuffing on top of ham. In a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish, place ham and pour bourbon sauce on top. Bake uncovered for 1 ½ hours until crust is golden brown. Baste with bourbon sauce while ham is cooking.

Makes 20 to 25 servings.

From “Celebrate San Antonio Cookbook” by the San Antonio Junior Forum

 

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Embracing Bitters

Embracing Bitters

Our fascination with classic cocktails has grown in recent years, and with it has come a return to the way drinks were made back when people took the time to craft something by hand. We’ve seen a return to the use of egg whites, for example, to give a frothy head to drinks such as whiskey sours and pisco sours.

Dale DeGroff appears behind the bar at Soho Wine and Martini Bar

Dale DeGroff appears behind the bar at Soho Wine and Martini Bar

In the past four or five years, the interest in bitters has skyrocketed. Go into just about any liquor store and you’ll find bottle after bottle of bitters boasting flavors of celery (made for a bloody Mary), cherry (for Manhattans or old-fashioneds), grapefruit (for salty dogs) and mint (for a more righteous julep). Sure, the old standby aromatic bitters, Angostura and Peychauds, are on the shelf, and they still sell for anywhere from $5 to $10 a bottle, but mainy places are starting to stock more exotic mixtures with price tags in the $20 or range or more.

But what are these mysterious elixirs in their bottles, which are occasionally covered in paper wrapping? They are often alcoholic liquids flavored with a host of concentrated botanicals and aromatic herbs, most of which are predominantly bitter. Ingredients could include gentian root, orange peel, cinchona bark, cardamom, eucalyptus, coffee, you name it. Their purpose in the cocktail world is to provide balance to a drink so that it isn’t cloyingly sweet. Think about the indefinable touch in a Sazerac that keeps the licorice flavor of the absinthe in check or the trace of orange bitters that enlivens a real martini.

The seminar at Soho (Photo: James Goulden)

The seminar at Soho (Photo: James Goulden)

Brad Thomas Parsons has written the exhaustive “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas” for those who must know every last detail about bitters in cocktail history and want to try making their own at home. Bonnie Walker and I lassoed a recipe for barbecue bitters from Bohanan’s Heather Nañez to include in our own “Barbecue Lover’s Texas.”

Dale DeGroff, known as “King Cocktail” and the author of “The Essential Cocktail,” offered a dash or two of his perspective on bitters recently during a Manhattans seminar presented at the Soho Wine and Martini Bar on Crockett Street. The cocktail chronicler produces his own version of these aromatic gems, Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters. And it was one of five that participants got to taste in a series of Manhattans that had been made with George Dickel Rye.

Manhattans all in a row

Manhattans all in a row

While leading the tasting, DeGroff also offered a little history on the subject. Bitters were part of the first printed definition of a cocktail, he said. It dates back to a newspaper article from 1806. That’s when someone told the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, N.Y., that a cocktail was a stimulating mixture of “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”

But they date back further than that. Actually, they’ve been around since the late 17th century, he said. Stoughton’s Bitters were first produced in England in 1690 and were that country’s second patented medicine in 1712. The original recipe from Jerry Thomas and Pierre Lacour included 8 pounds of gentian root, 1/2 ounce red saunders wood or cochineal, 6 pounds of orange peel, 1 1/2 pounds of Virginia snake root and 1/2 ounce American saffron, among other ingredients. Ten gallons of distilled spirits were added to the mix before it aged. Now, that’s medicine.

"King Cocktail" Dale DeGroff

“King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff

Bitters returned after Prohibition ended. Cole Porter mentioned them in the 1940 torch song, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please”:

     Leave out the cherry,
     Leave out the bitters,
     Leave out the orange.
     Just make it a straight rye.

But a funny thing happened to American tastes. Somewhere in the last 50 years or so, we surrendered our taste buds to syrupy sodas and other sugary confections. In doing so, we lost our appreciation for all things bitter. Or, as DeGroff said, “We have in our DNA an aversion to bitter things.”

So, for far too long, that bottle of bitters, which never goes bad if it has an alcohol base, was relegated to the back of the bar. Bartenders even took to joking: “What’s going to last longer, my bottle of bitters or my marriage?”

The Manhattan

The Manhattan (Photo: James Goulden)

No two bitters are alike, and each will influence the final flavor of your cocktail in a unique way, just as the profile of your whiskey, bourbon or rye will affect your Manhattan. So, do you prefer a bitter and fruity blend, such as the one attributed to Jerry Thomas that has been revived for modern cocktail drinkers? Or the classic, herbal profile of Angostura Bitters? You’ll have to conduct your own taste test. First, sniff and taste a tiny amount of the bitters by itself. What do you taste? Clove? Ginger? Cinnamon? Cola? All of the above? Then shake a drop or two into your drink and notice the changes that result.

Some people, DrGroff said, are so taken with the flavors of their favorite bitters that they’ll pour an ounce or so into an ice-filled glass and finish it off with mineral water or club soda. The end result is a digestif along the lines of a Campari, a bitter liqueur from Italy that’s often served with soda.

By the way, the name Angostura comes from a city in Venezuela, where the formula was developed in 1824. The distinctive bottle with its oversized label is perfect in such classic cocktails as the Horse’s Neck, Rob Roy, Singapore Sling or the Esmeralda, a winning blend of tequila, lime juice, honey and bitters that deserves to be resurrected. So versatile is Angostura bitters that one satisfied Amazon customer claimed they’re an effective mosquito repellant.

Luis Villegas with his winning Manhattan.

Luis Villegas with his winning Manhattan. (Photo: James Goulden)

You can take your bitters out of the bar and into the kitchen. In his book, Parsons suggests using them in everything from chicken wings to a topping for broiled grapefruit. I have used a dash or two in cherry and rhubarb pies to add a kick to the flavor. Just remember to start off slowly. The flavors are intense, so one dash may be all you need in the beginning. Your bottle will not go empty anytime soon. Or as DeGroff joked, if he ever goes into business again, it’ll be to produce something that people consume in quantities greater than a dash or two at a time.

After the seminar, three bartenders presented their own Manhattans to DeGroff and a representative of George Dickel Rye in a competition to see who could put the best spin on the classic. In the end, Luis Villegas of Houston, who consults at Costa Pacifica on Loop 1604, took the top prize for his variation, which he named “Come and Taste It!” Here’s his recipe:

Luis Villegas’ “Come and Taste It!” Manhattan

3/4 ounce George Dickel Rye
1/4 ounce Carpano Antica
1/4 ounce
Margerum Amaro
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Blood orange extra-virgin olive oil
George Dickel-infused Cherry

Stir rye, Carpano Antica, amaro, bitters and oil in an ice-filled glass. Strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with George Dickel-infused cherry.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From Luis Villegas

 

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Griffin to Go: Pancake Day Is a Tradition Worth Biting Into

Griffin to Go: Pancake Day Is a Tradition Worth Biting Into

This coming Tuesday, the final day before the Lenten season, has a bunch of different names. Mardi Gras is probably the most famous, or Fat Tuesday, as we translate it. But it’s also known as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day.

Pancakes made to order can be yours. I  wasn’t familiar with either of the latter two names until in the last few years and had no idea where the names came from. I came across a reference recently in Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Vicar of Wakefield,” a picaresque novel from 1766. In the course of narrating his life story, the Vicar recalls how his parishioners “religiously ate pancakes at Shrovetide.” That phrase made no impression on me when I first read the novel back in high school, but it stopped me in my tracks when I re-read it a few weeks ago.

It made me think: How long have people celebrated the last day before Lent by eating pancakes?

A few answers could be found in Robert Chambers’ 1869 volume, “The Book of Days”:  “Shrove Tuesday derives its name from the ancient practice, in the church of Rome, of confessing sins, and being shrived or shrove, i.e. obtaining absolution, on this day.

“When Shrove Tuesday dawned, the bells were set a ringing, and everyone abandoned himself to amusement and good humour. All through the day, there was a preparing and devouring of pancakes, as if some profoundly important religious principle were involved in it. The pancake and Shrove Tuesday are inextricably associated in the popular mind and in old literature. Before being eaten, there was always a great deal of contention among the eaters to see which could most adroitly toss them in the pan.”

Chambers goes on to cite Shakespeare’s reference to the tradition in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” when one of the characters talks about how he’s “as fit as a pancake for Shrove Tuesday.”

But the author never settles on an exact history. Perhaps the initial date someone ate a pancake on the last day before Lent will never be unknown, but Ellen Castelow offers the earliest date I could find in an article on Historic-UK.com. She traces the pancake’s appearances in cookbooks back to 1439. Scarcely a few years later, flapjacks and the last day of merriment before Lenten’s time of abstinence were already linked in the form of a pancake race, a decidedly British tradition that has not crossed the ocean.

pancake“The most famous pancake race takes place at Olney in Buckinghamshire,” Castelow writes. “According to tradition, in 1445 a woman of Olney heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to the church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan. The Olney pancake race is now world famous. Competitors have to be local housewives and they must wear an apron and a hat or scarf.”

We Texans would rather race to a stack of pancakes than run with them, as the lines outside both Magnolia Pancake Haus locations prove. And we have modified the treat in various ways to suit our tastes. Looking through dozens of Lone Star cookbooks turned up a great many variations beyond the traditional blend of eggs, flour, salt and milk. Corn cakes are a given in a state where corn tortillas rule, but there were also pancake recipes that called for rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, you name it.

Here are four variations that show the range of flavors you can get from. Donnie’s Corn Pancakes comes from the San Antonio Symphony League’s “San Antonio Cookbook II” from 1976, while the Sour Dough Pancakes recipe can be found in the 1992 update of the “Houston Junior League Cookbook.” Sunday Night Pancakes, dressed to the nines with vanilla and cinnamon, appears in the 1973 “Fiesta: Favorite Recipes of South Texas” from the Junior League of Corpus Christi. Gingerbread Pancakes can be found in Terry Thompson-Anderson’s compilation, “Lone Star Eats.”

The best thing is that you don’t have to wait for Shrove Tuesday to try these treats. They’re good all year long.

Sour Dough Pancakes

1 package dry yeast
1 cup water
1 3/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs

Put yeast in a moderately large, dry bowl; add water and stir. Add flour to make very stiff mixture. Cover with wet cloth and let stand, overnight, in warm place. The next morning, before making pancakes, remove and refrigerate about 3 tablespoons yeast mixture. (This will be a “starter” to keep on hand in refrigerator.)

To make the pancakes, add to remaining yeast mixture the baking soda, salt, sugar and eggs; batter will be very thin. Brush griddle with bacon grease and cook pancakes. When bubbles rise and burst, turn cakes over. Cook only once on each side.

Makes 12 (5-inch) pancakes.

Any night before pancakes are desired, add 1 cup water and 1 3/4 cups flour to refrigerated “starter.” Cover with wet cloth and let stand, overnight, in warm place. Next day, reserve another “starter,” then proceed as before to make pancakes. Process may be repeated indefinitely.

From Mrs. H.E. Hunt (Elinor Pierce)/”Houston Junior League Cookbook”

pancake1Donnie’s Corn Pancakes

1/2 cup flour
1 cup corn meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
1 heaping teaspoon sugar
1 egg

Combine flour, corn meal, baking powder, salt, milk, sugar and egg, and beat well. Cook on a lightly oiled hot griddle or skillet.

Makes 12 to 15 pancakes.

From Mrs. Dorothy C. Pickett/”San Antonio Cookbook II” collected by the San Antonio Symphony League

Sunday Night Pancakes

2 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Beat eggs; add sugar, milk and water and beat well. Add salt, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and baking powder. Beat until fluffy. Drop by spoonfuls on lightly greased griddle. Batter will be thin. Turn pancakes when they begin to bubble. They are delicious served with apricot syrup.

Makes 4 servings.

From Mrs. Robert Dunn (Ann Furman)/”Fiesta: Favorite Recipes of South Texas”

Gingerbread Pancakes

2 eggs
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup prepared decaf coffee
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups flour
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda

Mix eggs, sugar, buttermilk, coffee, water, spices and flour. Add butter. Mix just until blended. Add baking powder and baking soda. Mix just until blended. Cook as you would ordinary pancakes.

Makes 4 large pancakes.

From Kerbey Lane Cafes, Austin, “Remember the Flavors of Austin”/”Lone Star Eats: A Gathering of Recipes from Great Texas Cookbooks,” edited by Terry Thompson-Anderson

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