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Griffin to Go: Judging a Margarita Competition Is Fun, Especially When the Drinks Are Good

Griffin to Go: Judging a Margarita Competition Is Fun, Especially When the Drinks Are Good

The booths get ready for the KISS Margarita Pour-Off.

The booths get ready for the KISS Margarita Pour-Off.

The 32nd KISS Margarita Pour-Off is a thing of the past, but the winner has a whole year to bask in the glory of serving up the best margarita.

Cucumber lime margaritas.

Cucumber lime margaritas.

You may not have heard of this year’s winner, 210 Kapone’s, a new nightspot at 1223 E. Houston St. So, the word is out, and it’s time to head there for a taste the next time you’re downtown. 210 Kapone’s also took the top prize for best decor.

In second place was last year’s winner, Matamoros Restaurant, 12844 I-10.

I had the honor and fun of judging for the third straight year. For the last two years, I judged the finals. This year, I got to taste all 17 entries in the semi-final round.

That may seem like a dream job, but it really is work, especially when you consider that,  of the 17 entries that we judged, I found only five that earned a score of 5 or above on a scale of 1 to 10 from me. In other words, less than one third of the entries made it to an average grade.

What went wrong?

Well, it all depends on what you think a margarita should taste like.

To me, freshness is a key factor. And there were far too many entries that tasted of cans, chemicals or artificial flavors.

Descriptors like “antifreeze” and “tin can” could be heard across the room as the judges sipped entry. Someone said a particularly awful margarita was reminiscent of “bong water,” someone said; I can’t corroborate that statement, but it was so bad that I’ll have to take their word for it.

Be careful of what you add to a margarita. Gummi worms don’t belong, no matter how cute you think they are.

Who made these beauties? The judges don't know.

Who made these beauties? The judges don’t know.

Watermelon was a big flavor this year, and that was not necessarily a good thing. Especially when the watermelon didn’t taste natural or look good. One drink had a chunk of watermelon floating in it that looked as if someone had already been eating it. Yikes.

Then again, I’m a purist. I don’t believe that sugar has a place in a margarita. I’ve never seen it listed as an ingredient in any form in any recipe that dates back more than 20 years. That’s right: No simple syrup, no agave nectar, no sweet-and-sour mix, no Sprite, no sugar on the rim.

Give me the taste of tequila, lime and orange, and I’m all set.

Here’s a version from one of my favorite mystery writers, Randy Wayne White, who writes the Doc Ford mysteries. He has also written a fun cookbook of Florida favorites, “Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook: With Memories and Photos of Sanibel Island” (Globe Pequot Press, $19.95) and that includes a refreshing margarita.

Randy Wayne White’s Margarita

“I like to serve a variety of drinks in canning jars with lids,” White writes. “It is not just delicious, but it’s also really good exercise.”

1 1/2 ounces tequila
1 ounce triple sec
Juice from 2 fresh limes
Sea salt
Lime slice or mint to garnish

Place tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a canning jar with ice. Tighten the lid and shake vigorously. Serve with lime or mint garnish.

Makes 1 serving.

Adapted from “Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook: With Memories and Photos of Sanibel Island”


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Griffin to Go: On the Trail of Slang Jang

Griffin to Go: On the Trail of Slang Jang

When Bonnie Walker and I were driving across the state to research our new book, “Barbecue Lover’s Texas” (Globe Pequot Press, $21.95), we learned about Texas culinary treats that went far beyond brisket and the pit. One was a dish that bore the odd name of slang jang.

Slang Jang made with fresh ingredients.

Slang Jang made with fresh ingredients.

I never encountered it at a barbecue joint. I came across it, instead, in the “Eats: A Folk History of Texas Foods,” by Ernestine Sewell Linck and Joyce Gibson Roach. It was in a chapter on Central Texas foods, and the authors included a recipe but little context, except to say it was part of a proper Sunday dinner and was served over peas. Not green peas, mind you, but cream peas or black-eyed peas.

The recipe looked good, really good. It was a mix of items fresh from the garden, including tomato, green pepper, celery and onion dressed in vinegar and a little hot pepper.

I wanted to learn more, so I turned to the Internet. That’s when things started to get weird.

Mary Anne Thurman, in a post on the northeastern town of Honey Grove, Texas, said the dish originated with a bunch of men in a grocery store who just started mixing things together. Their recipe didn’t include too many fresh ingredients, as her recipe illustrates:

Mix undrained canned tomatoes with chopped dill pickles and chopped onion to taste.  Add a can of oysters, chopped.  Add Tabasco, salt and pepper to taste.  Add ice cubes to chill.  Serve with saltine crackers.

Many people vary this recipe.  Some add canned salmon or Vienna sausage in place of the oysters, or in addition to the oysters.

Thurman goes on to offer a vegetarian version that included crumbled saltines to thicken the mix.

Really? No, really?

No answers were forthcoming in September 2006 article in the Dallas Morning News, in which Angie Rhodes of another northeastern town, Malakoff, talks about the dish. But she did add a hyphen to the name:

“My dad grew up in a small town in northeast Texas in the ‘30s. During warm months, families in the community would come together on Saturday nights to visit and play dominoes. Each would bring an ingredient that would be mixed in a giant washtub for dinner. It was a sort of cold stew called ‘slang-jang.’ The ingredients were canned salmon, oysters, green onions, dill pickles, Vienna sausages and canned tomatoes.”

The recipes began to vary wildly, too, such as the Oxmoor House version, which calls for three tins of oysters mixed with three heads of cabbage, apples and hard-boiled eggs. Recipe Binder‘s version calls for tequila, Dijon mustard and barbecue sauce in addition to the tomatoes, onions and peppers, and you can use it on “burgers, dogs and sausages.”

The articles on slang jang go back to the Lawrence Journal-World of 1922, which describes the dish as “neither liquid salad nor chop suey, but a combination with a Mexican piquancy and a sufficient relish to satisfy a healthy appetite.” It goes on to quote a newspaper publisher’s wife, Mrs. J.R. Ransone Jr. of the Dallas area town of Cleburne, as being “a square meal, which will put so much pep in a person that he will feel he has supped from the fountain of youth, for what one ingredient fails to give, another furnishes fully.”

Ransone’s recipe includes a host of canned and preserved items, including oysters, tomatoes, sweet pickle and Tabasco as well as saltines.

The article does make a veiled reference to another legend about the recipe’s origin, which is that those men in that grocery store Thurman referred to were actually a bunch of guys who tied one on and wanted something to ease their hangover. That would explain the mix of ready-to-eat foods easily grabbed off shelves, from oysters to tomatoes, and the welcome touch of something spicy, which can help take the edge off.

So, is slang jang something made with canned goods or fresh foods? Of course, it’s made however you want to make it. No two recipes are alike. It is what you want to make it.

But that didn’t stop my research. In fact, it made me want to find other variations. So, I turned to my collection of community cookbooks from across Texas. No mentions of slang jang were found in any of cookbooks from towns west of the Piney Woods, but it was fairly common in those from East Texas. That sent me to the Deep South to see what I could find. Sure enough, there’s a version in the hefty “The Cotton Country Collection” from the Junior Charity League of Monroe, Louisiana.

Not all of these community cookbooks were easy to search. Not all have an index at the back, so I found myself leafing leaf through volume after volume to see if a slang jang recipe might be tucked in among appetizers (usually the version with smoked oysters) or grouped with relishes, pickles, condiments or accompaniments, which means it you might find it categorized with recipes for spicy broiled grapefruit, cherry sauce for ham, mustard pickled relish and even barbecue sauce.

But several of these recipes did feature another odd ingredient, Accent, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Do you really want that in your food? That’s up to you.

Part of the fun of such research is experimentation, so I tried several of the recipes, including the oyster combination. It may sound bad and it lacked visual appeal, but it worked as a snack and the flavors blended together surprisingly well. I wouldn’t eat a lot of it, but I also wouldn’t try it with salmon and most definitely not Vienna sausages. I preferred the fresh version, such as the one in the recipe below. It is great by itself on a saltine or over black-eyed peas. That’s slang jang to me.

Mama Perkin’s Slang Jang

If you have a dish that needs a little zip, slang jang will do it. It’s traditionally served over freshly cooked purple-hull or black-eyed peas or butter beans.

2 fresh tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2 medium bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
2-3 hot peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1 to 1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

Combine vegetables in a medium bowl. Add vinegar, salt and pepper, and mix well. Refrigerate.

Makes about 3 cups.

From “More Tastes & Tales From Texas With Love” by Peg Hein


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Griffin to Go: Get Your Pink On

Griffin to Go: Get Your Pink On

This coming Saturday is one of my favorite days of the year.


Think pink on Saturday.

That’s when Culinaria presents Rambling Rosé at Becker Vineyards, 464 Becker Farms Road, Stonewall.

During the two panels, set for 1 and 3 p.m., a roomful of wine lovers get together to discuss one of the most maligned yet resilient wines produced.

When the event began more than 10 years ago, rosé was not taken seriously by too many American wine writers, at least the pompous overgrown boys who drink only Cabernet no matter what the temperature is outside. Back then, pink wine was also thought to be white Zinfandel, that cloyingly sweet concoction that tastes more like soda than wine.

We would ask the audience how many people drank rosé, which is dry, not sweet, and very few outside of the panelists answered yes.

But something funny happened on the way to the winery. Year after year, the number of people who drank rosé began to grow. The number of wineries in America making serious pink wine took off. Wine shops began devoting more shelf space to these beauties, and sales increased steadily.

Rosé comes in many shades of pink.

Rosé comes in many shades of pink.

Most importantly, people began to realize how enjoyable a dry rosé can be. It’s the perfect summer wine, fresh and refreshing, youthful and vibrant. It’s great with a whole array of foods or just by itself. And that may be why it’s now my go-to style of wine for the 10 months of the year when the thermometer shows a bit of red.

Plus, they’re often affordable, though Chateau d’Esclans from Provence makes a rosé that sells for more than $100 a bottle.

So, come join us to learn more about all of the styles, flavors and colors that can be considered a rosé. Winery owner Richard Becker, sommelier Steven Kreuger, Bonnie Walker and I will all be part of the panel, which has also included winemakers, wine educators and rosé aficionados. We’ll taste a number of pink wines from around the world along with food from chef John Brand of the upcoming Hotel Emma at the Pearl.

The price is $25, which includes the wines, the food and some summer fun at Becker Vineyards. For tickets, click here.

Posted in Drinks, Griffin to Go1 Comment

Griffin to Go: Are Too Many Diners Expecting the Moon These Days?

Griffin to Go: Are Too Many Diners Expecting the Moon These Days?

Diners, beware. Open season has been declared on those of you who eat out. And the complaints aren’t just coming from wait staff.

Do you see this person as friend or foe?

Do you see this person as friend or foe?

Chefs, managers, critics and even some actors are getting into the mix.

Oh, sure, there are still a few people who go out to eat, politely order their food, eat and enjoy themselves, tip their server between 15 and 20 percent, maybe thank the chef and then leave. But if you’re one of those people, you need to realize that you’re part a dying breed.

Today’s diners are far less gracious. Don’t think that I’m merely talking about the hipster crowd or Millennials, because the rampant bad behavior seems to belong to no single age group. There are grumblers, old and young, who are never satisfied with what they’re served and make no bones that anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

Take tables, for example. Anywhere they’re seated is not good enough. Too close to the kitchen. Too far from the bar. Too noisy. Too close to another table. Too lacking in feng shui. After playing Goldilocks with the chairs a half-dozen times, they still haven’t found a place that’s “just right,” and they blame the restaurant for it.

Or maybe the table is filled with diners who spend 20 minutes taking pictures of their food and then complain that the meal is not hot enough. Really, folks? How long does it take to take a picture? I have often joked that food photography has become the 21st century’s way of saying grace, because, in a way, it’s a form of being grateful for the food that has been set before you. But if it takes longer to get your picture than it does to say the common table prayer, then you have no right to complain about the temperature of your food — or much of any else.

And let’s not get started on the issue of tipping.

Sure, service needs to evolve to meet the new standards, demands and eccentricities of today’s entitled diners. But where is the line drawn between reasonable and ridiculous? The gripes and sniping have gained in volume, as if some people think they’ll get a free meal if they scream loud enough; their puerile behavior leaves the rest of us wondering what we did wrong because we were enjoying our meal. Some of the restauranteurs who failed to cave in to these diners’ demands have later discovered online reviews from those same upset people who have lashed out in their outrage. These reports pile grievance on top of grievance until it seems as if their dinner had been served in a prison instead of a neighborhood bistro.

Too often, though, these posts come across as outrageous and unintentionally funny, and they have led to the hysterical Real Actors Read Yelp series on YouTube. There are more than 20 of these short videos, and each one is sadder and more laughable than the one that came before it. For a particularly apt example, click here. At the end, you can choose any of the others until you’ve had your fill.

In recent weeks, various stories have appeared about a supposed report that a New York restaurant has done comparing its service from 10 years ago to its service today. Why are so many more complaints are generated nowadays about the service? Videos from both years show that, of course, the diners are the problem and not the restaurant. That is why I say “supposed,” because the restaurant’s identity has not been revealed, so there have been claims that it’s a hoax.

Whether it’s false or true, you may want to read one account of the story (click here) because it offers a lot to chew on, in San Antonio as well as New York. Pay attention to the comments at the end of the piece, too. The vitriol from the readers, who come from all backgrounds and not just the restaurant business, equals the petulance of some diners.

This standoff is likely to get worse before it gets better. But all you prickly, picky diners who expect support from food critics, think again. Your behavior is turning off those who eat out for a living. In a recent online chat, Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post had this to say after being asked what a restaurant was supposed to do after a person slipped and fell in the dining room: “More than any other business I know, people expect restaurants to be and do everything. Can you imagine asking your hair dresser to give you a free trim because it was your birthday? Or expecting half-off on a root canal if your dentist kept you waiting more than 15 minutes?”

So, the next time you go out, leave your attitude at home. You’ll find yourself enjoying the experience more. So will the people around you. If you can’t do that, then kindly limit yourselves to restaurant drive-thru windows. You may not realize it now, but it never pays to bite the hand that feeds you.

Posted in Griffin to Go, Restaurants3 Comments

Griffin to Go: Can’t Say No to the Price. Or the Flavor.

Griffin to Go: Can’t Say No to the Price. Or the Flavor.


A double order of the dark meat at Popeyes.

I don’t really care for standing in a long line to order food to go. Even waiting in the car behind a dozen or so cars isn’t my idea of fun.

popeyesBut there’s always an exception to every rule, and mine is Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

I have long loved the fried chicken here, largely because the spicy version packs a mouthful of flavor in each bit. The skin is largely crisp, and the meat, when it’s hot, is moist and tender. Even when served cold, any leftovers are still a treat. What other fast-food place can you say the same for?

And where else at a drive-thru window can you get Cajun rice — or dirty rice, as most of us call it — as well as meaty green beans, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, coleslaw and, of course, those buttery biscuits that are simultaneously flaky at the center yet substantial overall.

Tuesday nights brings us Popeyes lovers out of the woodwork. That’s because they charge only 99 cents for two pieces of dark meat, a thigh and a drumstick, two pieces that pack the most flavor. Or you can get those same two pieces with a 22-ounce soda, a biscuit and a side dish for $3.99. (The regular price for two pieces of dark meat is $3.55, though that order usually comes with a biscuit.)

The word has gotten out about this special. The Popeyes near my house has great lines both inside and out on Tuesdays, and the staff in back seem to be getting that chicken ready as fast as they can. And nobody seems to be in a bad mood if they have to wait a few minutes for their meal, either. They’re just as happy to get a great bargain as well as Popeyes’ irresistible fried chicken.

I’ve had this special at several Popeyes in town, but I don’t know how many stores are participating. You may want to check on the one nearest you before you, too, join the line.

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Author Leon’s ‘Brunetti’s Cookbook’ a Mystery Lover’s Find

Author Leon’s ‘Brunetti’s Cookbook’ a Mystery Lover’s Find

Those who are passionate about serious detective fiction (the kind without cats as main characters) know the name Donna Leon as one of the best writers around. Set in Venice, Italy, her books are literate and witty. Her main character, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is very smart, a crack investigator with a quiet, inexorable approach to taking down killers.

Brunetti's Cookbook coverBrunetti also has some endearing traits — and the one that endears him to foodies is that he (and his family) savors the simple but deftly created meals that come from his wife Paola’s kitchen. Literal-minded, intellectual and outspoken, Paola is also a university professor — and suffers no fools gladly.

Leon was born in the United States, but has lived in Venice for decades. So, her award-winning Brunetti series is grounded in her direct experience of the fascinating city. Yes, it is known for its history, architecture, winding canals and boats and corner shops offering the best of Italian pastries and espresso, seasonal food and a strong culinary culture.

She also mixes in the blemishes that tourist brochures avoid: the garbage that floats in the canals, the mobs of unruly tourists and the tacky shops that cater to them. But most of all, crime.

The mobsters, murderers, serial killers and others who make up the bad guys in this vividly and intelligently written series would seem to be so rampant as to require a small army to keep them at bay. And Guido Brunetti, a sort of one-man army against this lot in Venice, can’t fight on an empty stomach.

Brunetti's Cookbook illusNevertheless, says Leon in the first of six essays included in the book, she never intended to write a cookbook — her characters ate the way Italians eat, with an expectation that the food would be excellent and meals luxurious.

“Though many Italians have read the books and remarked on them to me over the years, none has ever mentioned the presence of food: For them, as for me, Brunetti’s meals are simply a part of the received culture. How would people be expected to eat?” she says.

“Brunetti’s Cookbook,” (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.95) is the second printing of the book, which originally was published in Great Britain in 2010 as “A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti.”

So, while the book is not a new release, the recipes, the stories and charming color illustrations by Tatajana Hauptmann are timeless. The recipes are accompanied by text from Leon’s novels and the recipes were created by Roberta Pianaro.

I didn’t know this book existed until I had read many of the books in Leon’s Brunetti series. The recipes sounded simple and every book had me convinced I’d soon be making such wonders as Paola’s Seafood Antipasto, or Monkfish Cutlets with Peppers or Risotto with Squash Blossoms and Ginger.

One day, while reading, it occurred to me that of course, someone must have thought to present a cookbook project to the author. And if not, I’d be the one to do it. I went to Amazon and there it was: A cookbook embracing all of that beautiful food and also quite wonderful — excerpts from the books to accompany them, to provide context for many of the dishes and to display samples of Leon’s writing prowess.

It was hard to choose just a few recipes to share, too. But I chose them based on what I’d found most enticing. And yes, I still plan to cook them.

If you wish to enter into Brunnetti’s world, I’d suggest finding the book list for Leon’s series, start with No. 1 and make your way through the two dozen or so books. Another suggestion: Don’t chomp your way through these carefully crafted police procedurals, take your time — there is much to savor!


Chicken Breasts with Artichokes (Petto di pollo al carciofi)

Swordfish with Savoury Breadcrumbs (Pesce spada al pangrattato saporito)

Risotto with Squash Blossoms and Ginger (Risotto di fiori di zucca e zenzero)


Posted in Cookbooks, WalkerSpeak2 Comments

‘Chef’ a Feel-Good Film for Foodies

‘Chef’ a Feel-Good Film for Foodies

Jon Favreau and Emjay Anthony in "Chef."

Jon Favreau and Emjay Anthony in “Chef.”

Jon Favreau’s latest movie, “Chef,” is opening today in San Antonio, offering some fine cinematic fare food-lovers should enjoy.

It’s not without its flaws — some characters are cliched and the storyline is often predictable. This doesn’t mean “Chef” isn’t enjoyable. The kitchen scenes, replete with bandaged burns and cut fingers, lots of bro horseplay and language, do show the realities of preparing food — even bad restaurant food — for crowds. The film also gives us a stereotypical overbearing owner (Dustin Hoffman) to hate and a wonderful performance by Emjay Anthony as Casper’s 11-year-old son, Percy. It is Percy who introduces Casper to the perils of Twitter and handy aspects of other social media — some of funniest parts of the movie — while his obvious yearning for connection with his dad tugs at the heart.

Chef Jon Favreau pic 1The story: Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) loudly quits his restaurant job in Los Angeles for not wanting to make French onion soup and molten lava cake, etc., for a food blogger/critic; chef throws self-indulgent tantrum in the dining room telling food critic how much criticism hurts; chef buys a food truck in Miami with help from his ex’s rich and eccentric first husband, a hilarious cameo by Robert Downey Jr.; and finally, Casper reconnects with son, himself and maybe even his sultry (and kind) ex, the lovely Sofia Vergara.

Kitchen scenes are pretty realistic –  women aren’t  included. Female roles in this movie are relegated to cheerleaders and moral (and financial) supporters. Also, we’d mention that no self-respecting food critic announces to a chef when they are planning a serious review visit. Seriously.

The film also offers fabulous shots of food, notably the spread the Casper prepares in his (dumpy) apartment after he quits; the creation of his food truck Cuban sandwiches. Watching Casper’s face as he slices off bits of a lovely roast pork with faithful co-cook and friend, played by John Leguizamo, makes you want to reach out and get a slice.

You’ll appreciate that an actor took the time to learn to slice with a chef’s knife real fast. And, enjoy all of the stops the El Jefe Cubanos food truck makes on its way back to LA from Miami, including one at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. The music is great, too.

“Chef” has some good scenes, food scenes and laughs, as well as an interesting twist at the end, which we certainly won’t divulge here.

 “Chef” is playing at the Bijou, Alamo Drafthouse Park North and more. Check listings for times and places.



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Savor the Jet Set Era, Courtesy of PanAm’s Classic Cookbook

Savor the Jet Set Era, Courtesy of PanAm’s Classic Cookbook

The jet set era is the setting for "Catch Me If You Can" at the Woodlawn Theatre.

The jet set era is the setting for “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre.

It’s time to remember the era of the jet set, when martinis were made with gin and clam dip filled the center of the swankiest party tables.

We’re reminded of those swinging days of yesteryear thanks to the latest season of “Mad Men” on AMC and the arrival of “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre. You may remember that title from the Tom Hanks-Leonardo di Caprio film, but the story has been turned into a full-throttle musical filled with plenty of globe trotting and chorus lines of long-legged stewardesses (that’s right, they were not flight attendants back then) and nurses ready to fulfill any handsome doctor’s orders.

PanAm CookbookPart of the fun of jet-setting was being able to try foods from around the world alongside the deviled eggs, the chicken liver pâté and egg rolls. One place where recipes could be found was Myra Waldo’s “The Complete Round-the-World Cookbook,” a PanAm-inspired series of recipes from more than 80 countries.

Waldo’s goal was global education through food. “The world of travel, the observation of the life and ways of others, the spirit of inquiry, the willingness to eat what others eat, and fundamentally and primarily the maintaining of an open mind on all subjects is the surest way for us to learn something about the rest of the world,” she writes.

Leafing through a copy shows that the author knew a thing or two about creating bold flavors from countries and regions as far-flung as Egypt, the Balkans, Burma, New Zealand and the Greater Antilles. Her recipes seem fairly easy to put together, whether you want to make German Paprika Fish, Turkish Fruit Salad, Canadian Pork Pie or Trinidad Rum Punch.

Waldo’s book is out of print now, but you can find copies for reasonable (and unreasonable) prices at

Noodles with Walnuts

Noodles with Walnuts

In the meantime, you can taste a few of these international treats in these recipes:

You can see “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road, through May 11. Call (210) 267-8388 for tickets.


Brian Hodges (center) stars in "Catch Me If You Can" at the Woodlawn Theatre.

Brian Hodges (center) stars in “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre. (Production photos: Siggi Ragnar)

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Nothing Beats Handmade, Even at NIOSA

Nothing Beats Handmade, Even at NIOSA

Whipping the beans with an immersion blender.

Whipping the beans with an immersion blender.

When Steve Guerrero started running NIOSA’s bean taco booth about six years ago, the product just wasn’t up to his standards.

Steve Guerrero is the chairman of the bean taco booth.

Steve Guerrero is the chairman of the bean taco booth.

The corn tortillas were store-bought and the beans were out of a can. So, he set out to convince the organizers of A Night in Old San Antonio that his team could do much better.

A bean taco, NIOSA-style.

A bean taco, NIOSA-style.

So, they started soaking their own beans and whipping them into a fine mash, and they rolled out their own balls of masa, which were then flattened into tortillas and cooked on comals over burning charcoal.

The result was a hit with more than the committee. Guerrero’s Tacos de Frijoles booth has developed a local following that grows a little bigger each year.

I had the chance to work with Guerrero, his wife, Cynthia and a host of family and friends on Tuesday, NIOSA’s opening night. Most every year for the past 15 years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working in a series of different NIOSA booths, where I’ve helped make items such as Shypoke Eggs, Horseshoe Sausage, Fried Mushrooms and Bongo K-bobs. This year, it was time to try my hand at bean tacos, and it was a case of love at first bite.

Gene Arevalos gets some coals burning.

Gene Arevalos gets some coals burning.

For the ones who do the prep work before the gates open, the beans need to start cooking at around 2:30 p.m. In the large pots, which hold about 8 pounds of beans, go plenty of bacon grease, fresh onion and a heap of spices, all of which need time to cook together. When the beans are ready, one of the volunteers will take out that immersion blender and go to work, punching it up and down in the mixture until the texture is the consistency of peanut butter, says Victor Gutierrez, who has been volunteering with Guerrero somewhere on the NIOSA grounds for about 26 years.

Together with Gene Arevalos, they have worked tamales, wine, ice cream, enchiladas, quesadillas, you name it. They’re like family. They may only see each other once a year, for NIOSA, but it’s always a reunion that they look forward to, even if they work all four nights of the event, Gutierrez says.

Whenever a task needs to be done, you’ll likely find someone putting on a pair of gloves in order to go to work. It could be preparing the masa, which requires someone to add some of that beloved bacon grease as well as water to the corn mixture and then work it all together so that it is pliable enough. The corn dough is then rolled into balls before being pressed out to the right thickness. Each tortilla is then slapped on the hot griddle and left to cook until golden and perfectly hot to the fingertips.

Teresa Gonzales Ramon displays her Fiesta hat.

Teresa Gonzales Ramon displays her Fiesta hat.

My first assignment was to help with rolling out the masa balls. We finished off a batch of masa, which resulted in several hundred balls, which were refrigerated until needed. Then Guerrero, Gutierrez and others led me through the paces of pressing them using a metal press. To keep the masa from sticking to the press, each ball of dough was placed between two sheets of plastic that had been slicked down with a little, you guessed it, bacon grease. Gutierrez mentioned how his mother used to use waxed paper for that, which would make sense because the tortilla wouldn’t stick to that.

Once the hot tortillas were fully cooked, they were then wrapped in a towel inside a basket in order to stay warm until one of the women in the front line needed to fill an order. At that point, a steaming hot corn tortilla was placed on a plate, then smeared with plenty of beans before being crowned with shredded lettuce, tomato and cheese. Salsa and salt are available if you want to dress your taco up.

There were few questions asked, though a couple wanted their tacos without beans but extra cheese. Cynthia Guerrero, Steve’s wife, and her team in front were happy to oblige.

Cynthia Guerrero samples a bean taco.

Cynthia Guerrero samples a bean taco.

Of course, a taco or two had to be sampled, for purposes of quality control, you understand. And the answer is a resounding yes. I’m glad I hadn’t tasted these six years ago when everything was processed and prepared in advance. The creamy smooth beans with their cumin, garlic powder, onion and bacon grease was made even better by the addition of the hot tortilla as well as the cheese that just melted into everything else. Tomatoes, lettuce and salsa just made it all the more wonderful.

Tacos de Frijoles is on the way to anticucho booth. Make sure you stop for a taco to give you strength and patience while you’re standing in the long line there. You’ll really be glad you did.

Frijoles NIOSA-Style

Steve Guerrero shared the outline for his family’s recipe for beans, which are made each night of NIOSA at the Tacos de Frijoles booth. You can make them using canned beans, but they’re better if you soak your own pintos overnight and then start.

Assembling the bean tacos.

Assembling the bean tacos.

1 pound pinto beans, soaked overnight or canned
1 onion, finely chopped
½ cup bacon grease
Salt, to taste
Garlic powder, to taste
Cumin, to taste
Black pepper, to taste

In a large stock pan, add the beans and onion with the bacon grease and the seasonings. Bring to a boil, then let simmer covered for at least 2 ½ hours or until the beans are soft. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Using an immersion blender, blend everything in the pot until it resembles creamy peanut butter in sight and texture.

Spread the beans on a hot corn tortilla. Top with cheese, tomato and lettuce, if desired. Serve with salsa.

Makes 10-12 servings.

Adapted from Steve Guerrero

Corn tortillas on the comal.

Corn tortillas on the comal.

Go, Spurs, Go!

Go, Spurs, Go!

Victor Gutierrez spots a friend in the NIOSA crowd.

Victor Gutierrez spots a friend in the NIOSA crowd.


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Tagine: Morocco’s Sumptuous, Spicy Dish

Tagine: Morocco’s Sumptuous, Spicy Dish

How many exotic ingredients can go into a Moroccan stew called tagine? As many as you might want — tagine recipes probably number in the thousands, especially counting those not written down.

A couple of Sundays ago we set up shop in Saundra Winokur’s kitchen for a day-into-evening cooking party. Scents of saffron and cinnamon, braised beef, preserved lemon, fresh ginger, coriander and cumin mingled with the sound of wine glasses clinking — and plenty of chatter.

Tagines and other Moroccan cooking implements from Saundra Winokur.

Tagines and other Moroccan cooking implements from Saundra Winokur.

Tagine also refers to the earthenware (clay or terracotta) cooking implement that funnels the steam through a hole at the tip of the conical top while the food slow-cooks to tenderness in the bottom of the dish.

My own glossy black tagine was new, a Christmas gift from fellow foodie and SavorSA partner John Griffin. He found this one (see photo at bottom) from Ten Thousand Villages at the Pearl. Up to this point, it held down a place of honor atop the fireplace mantel, where it looked quite exotic, full of promise yet unfulfilled. Now was the time to put it to use.

While I’d made Moroccan-style stews before, this was the first time using an actual tagine — and yes, there was a learning curve! First, it had to seasoned or cured. Fortunately, I’d read about this with enough time to spare that I was able to do the soaking, seasoning, heating, cooling and so for that was required for using the glossy dark pot.  (The information that came with my pot was not as detailed as this information on curing the tagine that is on

Tagine Recipes:

What I also learned — it takes more time to do a stew in this clay pot when it’s done in the oven as the pot can only handle up to about 350 degrees, according to the information that came with it. Fortunately, I was making chicken, not lamb or beef, which would have taken longer to cook to tenderness. The bright side of long cooking, too, is that the incredible aromas have that much more time to perfume the whole house.

Beef tagine with finishing touches.

Beef tagine with finishing touches.

While I made Chicken with Cracked Green Olives and Preserved Lemon, John assembled a savory stew of Beef Short Ribs with Cauliflower. My husband, David, prepared couscous with help from guests Linda Perez and Kathleen Kelly. Two cats and a dog sniffed around for treats, but we’re pretty sure the powerful spice aromas didn’t appeal as much to them as they did to us.

Sandy, who owns Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, had put together her tagine the day before. That dish of beef with pumpkin (or in this case squash) had had time to rest overnight. “The flavors really were so much better the next day,” Sandy said.

She had also added honey, white raisins (which she prefers for the most flavor) and currants to add a touch of sweetness. Since this was party among friends, not a tagine cook-off, we didn’t need to decide whose was best. And in fact, we all agreed later that it was pretty much a draw — and each dish was enjoyed on its own merits.

Chicken with Cracked Green Olives and Preserved Lemon Tagine

Chicken with Cracked Green Olives and Preserved Lemon Tagine

The flavors of the beef and pumpkin were spicy, but really offered a comforting umami from well-blended flavors and tender beef. The chicken and green olives was a bit more spiky than sweet, with the preserved lemon and salty olives (though they were soaked in water for awhile which toned down the salt).

The tagine pot imparted a mild, earthy flavor all its own, which is an expected part of the flavor profile.

Beef short ribs are always delicious — add chopped fresh tomato and warm toasted cauliflower, along with the chopped fresh herbs and you have one great stew. John mentions that Paula Wolfert’s “The Foods of Morocco” offers several dozen recipes for tagine, including one that is demanding to be made next — Lamb Tagine with Pears and Green Apple. A look around the Internet brought some interesting options, too. One, Camel Tagine, we doubt we’ll make any time soon.

Couscous, the tiny, grainlike semolina pasta, is good with this dish as is rice. Sandy also mentions that cauliflower, too, can be processed and steamed to make a couscous-like side dish. Take your time with tagine. Whether you get the pot with the same name, or use a Dutch oven, the reward will be one of the most delicious stews you’ve ever made.

Brown the beef in turmeric, spices and herbs.

Beef browning in turmeric, spices and herbs.


Beef with Pumpkin Tagine

We don’t have a recipe as such for Sandy’s dish, as she put the dish together after combing through a number of recipes. It could be easily duplicated, she says.

Braise 3 pounds of beef, cut into chunks; brown/sauté chopped onion, garlic and three peeled and cut up carrots with a blend of Moroccan spices (ground cumin, cinnamon and ginger). Add to the ingredients a peeled and seeded 1-2 cups of diced squash, honey (perhaps a tablespoonful) as well as a handful of white raisins and currants. Add beef stock to cover and simmer until the beef is tender.

Tagine my pot cropped


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