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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!

Recipes:

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)

 

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‘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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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 about.com.)

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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Turn-N-Burn: BBQ Action Heats up in Pleasanton

Turn-N-Burn: BBQ Action Heats up in Pleasanton

Pleasanton bbq cookoff smoker

PJ’s Smokehouse one of the big rigs — and top cookers, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLEASANTON — A lot more goes into winning a barbecue competition than luck, though luck plays a part when it comes to having good weather and a road-worthy barbecue rig. That’s because these men and women head to competitions around the state, as they did on Saturday, 150-strong. We headed south to get a taste of judging a really big competition. No, ours wasn’t the tough part of the work done on Saturday, but it was certainly a front-row seat with a lot of great-tasting ( and some not so great) barbecue.

Pleasanton bbq cookoff ribsMost exciting moment: With fewer than 10 seconds left to get his product to the judging table, one cooker raced through the entrance to the Atascosa Show Barn, his entry of barbecued ribs clutched in his hand, listening to a crowd chant a countdown. He made it with milliseconds to spare — and earned a hearty round of applause.

The Turn-N-Burn Cook-Off (actually its full name is 4th annual Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce and Western Premium BBQ Products (W3) Turn-N-Burn Barbeque Cook-off) was third in a series and sanctioned by the International Barbecue Cookers Association. Previous events in this year’s series were in Gruene and Helotes.

Why do so many compete? First, there’s the fun of it all, the thrill of competition. Then, there’s the money. The series grand champion will get a prize of $5,000, with prizes of $1,000 going to the winners of the pork ribs, brisket and chicken categories.

The total payout, however, was to be much higher. At the Pleasanton Turn-n-Burn competition alone was a payout of $35,000, plus the winners of the series finale and a custom barbeque pit trailer by One Man Pits (valued at $9,600) would place the event payout at just over $50,000, according to an article in the Pleasanton Express. pleasanton bbq cookoff rushing around

John Griffin and I sat through two preliminary rounds of judging (chicken first, then ribs). There were a few shouted instructions, then numbered boxes were set before each of us at a table for five. It was cut off a piece, taste, pass the box to the next judge, repeat — and there was no fooling around about it. And, no using your fork to take a taste, then use it again on the next entry — the barbecue judges’ brand of double-dipping. We used plenty of plastic forks, paper napkins and sliced dill pickles for palate cleansers — a perfect touch.

Judging an event like this isn’t necessarily a task to be done if you’re hungry. No, the monitor told us — we each didn’t get to pick up a whole rib and dig in. We got to cut off a slice and that was it. And it was enough when you were judging 14-15 entries at your table alone.

Naturally, some barbecue got lower marks than others. Others, we found it tough to pass along a few of those boxes. A  certain lush, somewhat mustardy sweet-tangy sauce on the first pork rib entry we tasted was the one we still remembered lovingly at the end of the (preliminary) judging. We wouldn’t find out whether this was the winner — but for us, it was. Sauce on pork ribs, some of it generously slathered, did seem to be far more a popular treatment than dry rub.

A contestant brushes sauce on his pork ribs entry at the Turn-N-Burn competition.

A contestant brushes sauce on his pork ribs entry at the Turn-N-Burn competition.

By mid-afternoon it was time for the brisket prelims and we considered it. That is, until we saw the long line of prospective judges waiting for what apparently was the main event. Not sure that we’d make it back to the judging table, even if we stood and waited in line an hour, we ducked out.

It was not just a beautiful day for cooking outside, but fine weather for the cowboys, horses and long-suffering calves racing around for the roping event. That morning, as we wandered in the general direction of the show barn to judge, one of those horses got away from its rider and romped past us, kicking up plenty of dirt and enjoying a few moments of freedom.

At the end of the day, it had been a real taste of South Texas for us — even if we didn’t stay for the dancing. (Or the results. This hard-won battle will probably be posted on the Turn-n-Burn website Sunday or Monday. )

ropin2Photographs by John Griffin and Bonnie Walker

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Brunch, Burgers Please Palates at Arcade Midtown Kitchen

Brunch, Burgers Please Palates at Arcade Midtown Kitchen

Back in the 1980s, when I wrote my first restaurant review for a daily newspaper in Flagstaff, Ariz., finding worthy restaurants to review was nothing like our current dining scene in San Antonio.

Burgers and steaks were the general fare along with pizza parlors that didn’t range far from the basics — sausage and pepperoni. We had massive hotel Sunday brunches, all the rage at the time, and various mom-and-pop places that could turn out good ethnic meals.

Arcade Midtown Kitchen's Chicken and Waffles

Arcade Midtown Kitchen’s Chicken and Waffles

For more complex fare, we’d head to Sedona, a scenic 30-minute drive away. Restaurants in this now-raging tourist mecca stretched their culinary wings not so much to gratify Flagstaff diners but to lure in well-heeled snowbirds, down for the winter to soak up the beautiful scenery and climate.

The real high-rollers would fly into the tiny local airport at the top of a red-rock mesa from cities as far-flung as New York and Chicago. They would stay a few days for sight-seeing, seeking out “gourmet” meals. (This was pre-harmonic-convergence Sedona, before the crystal wearers came to town and the word “Sedona” turned into a hot branding term used to sell anything from socks to SUVs.)

I thought about these, my younger days, as I sat with at a table with a couple of dozen other dedicated foodies Saturday morning at chef/owner Jesse Perez’s Arcade Midtown Kitchen. Some were staff writers, others freelancers, bloggers, magazine owners as well as the indefatigable social media foodies taking the city by storm. Many of them were in their 20s and 30s and they are in a new world where chefs take on the fame of rock stars and diners had better know their stuff when it comes to profiling the complex flavors in a dish.

These folks ably deconstructed the dishes and weren’t shy about mentioning their personal likes and dislikes. They also seemed able to put those aside to make a reasonable and serious judgment of dishes on their own merits.

Happy Daddy, Arcade's approach to Huevos Rancheros -- with petite filet of beef.

Happy Daddy, Arcade’s approach to Huevos Rancheros — with petite filet of beef.

Perez had invited us in to sample brunch as he looks toward adding Saturday brunch in the near future. Sunday brunch is already a standby at the restaurant that opened earlier this year.

We shared dishes ranging from the traditional eggs Benedict with a couple of custom touches to Happy Daddy, a petite beef filet rubbed with chile along with potato hash and chorizo coins for a spicy take on huevos rancheros.  (The dish got its name as a particular favorite on Father’s Day.)

The Arcade burger, which is rapidly becoming one of the city’s favorites, was also brought out, inspiring as much comment as did Perez’s take on Chicken and Waffles (boned chicken, pounded out ‘Milanesa’ style and then breaded) or the luscious, multilayered red velvet cake.

Burgers are beloved. That was true long before I began my food-writing career.

While we don’t want burgers for every meal, we’re still excited to find one that is exceptional and inspires questions ranging from what is the meat used in the grind, fat-to-lean ratio, and of course, what’s in the ‘secret sauce.’

But our demands have changed over the years. Secret sauce better have some pretty good secrets in there – and in Perez’s burger, the only secret he would divulge was the dash of blood orange vinegar. His sauce also has a bite – Sriracha? He wouldn’t tell.

Arcade's burger is getting a reputation -- and it's a good one.

Arcade’s burger is getting a reputation — and it’s a good one.

In the old days, I don’t recall that we discussed the provenance of the beef, or what cuts were used in the grind other than the occasional reference to a “sirloin burger” on a menu.  Perez uses ground chuck and brisket, a combination that I’ve found to be one of the tastiest – and he uses a lean-to-fat ratio of about 70-to-30. Generous on the flavor, but not greasy.

The cheese is American – and I’d guess that is a nod to the country’s tradition, but a good natural cheese such as cheddar would make me happier. But the browned “soft” onions, as the menu describes them, seem to melt right into the beef and they just about cancel out the sticky cheese.

So, as things change, things remain the same. That cliché does apply to our appetite for burgers — as well as for Saturday and Sunday brunches, for finding food with the best flavor and always looking for an element of discovery.  And, may it always be so.

Arcade Midtown Kitchen
303 Pearl Pkwy.
(210) 369-9664
arcadesatx.com

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Cava, Truffles and Brunch: Just Because It’s Summer

Cava, Truffles and Brunch: Just Because It’s Summer

brunch table3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When summer gives you a holiday weekend and a friend has a beautiful, fresh black truffle, brunch is in order.

Brunch truffle and eggs

Eggs packed into a gallon jar with black truffle, covered and refrigerated, are infused with truffle flavor.

On Saturday we did just that, with the centerpiece being soft-scrambled eggs, infused in their shells with the powerful, heady scent of truffle.

This fancy fungus is in season now, and chefs around town have been featuring them in menus over the past couple of weeks.

Our friend and SavorSA colleague John Griffin had kept eggs packed with truffles in a sealed jar for several days, and had pronounced them ready to eat. He also baked and brought a fresh Ginger-Pear Quick Bread, a Rebecca Rather recipe that promised and delivered on the tempting flavors of the fresh fruit and fresh ginger. It isn’t cake, but the sweetness and rich, buttery texture served nicely as both a breakfast bread and light dessert.

David and I contributed a lively cava, Poema, chilled down and full of sparkle, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a brown-and-serve baguette. We pressed fresh minced rosemary, thyme and sage into the tops of breakfast sausage patties before grilling them in the oven, and put together a fruit salad of  sliced strawberries and cantaloupe, garnished with mint and doused with a few ounces of Triple Sec.

With the table set, a fan blowing fresh air into the dining room from the shady back yard, we celebrated the Saturday-after- the-Fourth of July. Here’s the menu, with a link to the Fresh Ginger-Pear Quick Bread, should you want to make it. Make up your own easy brunch, fancy it up a little and enjoy –  there are quite a few Saturdays or Sundays left in this summer!

Menu:

  • brunch bread1Fresh-squeezed orange juice
  • Poema, a white cava (sparkling wine from Spain, which we found at Twin Liquors)
  • Sliced strawberries and cantaloupe in triple sec
  • Oven-grilled sausages with fresh herbs
  • Truffled soft-scrambled egg
  • Baguette and butter
  • Fresh Ginger-Pear Quick Bread
Brunch truffle plate vertical

Truffle-scented eggs, herbed sausage patties, Fresh Ginger-Pear Quick Bread and a cantaloupe and strawberry fruit salad.

 

 

 

Brunch Fruit Salad

Strawberries and cantaloupe with triple sec

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos by John Griffin

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Pickle Addiction: It Doesn’t Have to Threaten Your Marriage

Pickle Addiction: It Doesn’t Have to Threaten Your Marriage

Pickles are good; pickled almost anything is good, especially freshly made and marinated overnight in the refrigerator, perfect for piling up on a chalupa or nibbling with smoky barbecue or eating out of the jar while standing in front of the refrigerator.

pickle jar drawingMine is a sane approach to pickles. Were I to live alone, pickles would take up part of a shelf in the fridge, maybe one door shelf. One.

But I live with a pickleaholic. David eats pickles like popcorn. He likes pickles alone or with anything. Be it raw oyster kimchee and hot mango pickle, jalapeño escabeche, pickled eggs, onions, cauliflower, cabbage, he loves it.

At Christmas, he and John Griffin (pickle fanatic No. 2) present each other with gift baskets loaded with pickles. They are equally as excited to paw through their gifts to see what treasures the one found that the other did not.

What could be wrong with such a harmless addiction?

Pickle storage. When one person has a mania for pickles, it can take over more space than it deserves in the communal refrigerator and cupboard shelves. My jar or two of kosher or half-sour dills, a tub of mixed, expensive olives and maybe a jar of roasted red peppers or pickled baby tomatillos stand inoffensively at one side of the top shelf. His jars and cans and tubs and plastic snack bags take up the rest of the room, then elbow their way down to the next shelf and migrate over to the shelves on the door.

The cupboards are open territory for cans of pickles from Ali Baba International Market and other prime pickle pushers.  When I pull out a rolling shelf of canned goods, often a heavy jar or can of parched pickled melons or pickled baby eggplants will fall on my toe.

Ali baba picklesWhile not a marriage buster, this collection could be annoying in that minor but nagging way.  One day, a solution presented itself. He needed his own pickle fridge. Some men build additions onto their house so that they can put in a pool table and bar or a media room. Dedicated pickle storage: why not?

I didn’t have to look far, as a cube-sized fridge that formerly resided in his office was stacked away in the garage. I could move this into the house and offload jars of salted cassia flower and giant capers from main fridge to pickle fridge.

I formulated my plan. One day, when the coast was clear I found and dragged the small (but heavy) fridge out of the garage. I planned to put it in the dining room, but doing this meant going up three steps and over three door jambs and through two rooms. Our dolly had a broken wheel, which meant the appliance had to be muscled along the journey by sheer brute force — and I knew just the brute to do it.

The fridge had been stored for some time, so I took it through the kitchen first and gave it a good scrubbing. Then it resumed its journey across another floor, over another door jamb, to the dining room. A couple of whole-bottle wine cubes that were unused made a sturdy stand when pushed together.

Then — and I don’t recommend anyone over the age of 45 do this — in one mighty swoop I hove the thing up off the floor and placed it on top of the stand.

Done.

And there it stood, a white elephant in the dining room. As out-of-place looking as a blender in the bathtub. Snuggled up next to my late mother-in-law’s antique writing desk-turned-china cabinet, it deeply lacked in aesthetic appeal. The mahogany desk looked embarrassed.

“Well, too bad,” I thought. “I’ll disguise it and be done with it.”

Pickle FridgeThe final product was, I’m afraid, not much better than just a plain, unadorned white fridge would be (see photo).

Pressing on with the project, and before my husband got home I went out and fetched a few jars of exotic pickles and a nice smelly cheese. I added a couple of micro-brews to place invitingly in the cube.

And then … it was time for the presentation of the fridge. Which was anticlimactic. David came home, he wandered around awhile, he looked at his mail. He changed his clothes. He refused to notice it. (How could he not?!) When I finally couldn’t wait another minute and introduced to him his very own pickle fridge he seemed dubious. But more or less accepting. That is, not exactly rolling around on the floor in throes of gratitude. But, he was sympathetic a few days later when my back gave out.

My reward is — he uses it. Going into the dining room just now, I made a list of what is in that fridge: a tub of mixed grocery store pickled vegetables and two of olives; a wedge of Spanish cheese, a can of pickled baby eggplant, another of baby melons, some Sriracha sauce, capers, an unopened can of pickled cassia flowers and a beer or two.

It’s all delicious stuff, and even more agreeable now that it has a home of its own.

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For National Burger Month, Check Your BQ

For National Burger Month, Check Your BQ

Big Bob 50-50 burger 400

This is the 50-50 burger at Big Bob’s Burgers, 447 Hildebrand Ave. Half beef, half bacon. All good.

I don’t remember my first taste of a hamburger. Considering its lofty post on the national foodie consciousness these days, this moment would seem to have seared some imprint on my brain that this, this was what food was all about.

The fact is, burgers weren’t even close to claiming the defining moment of my nascent foodiehood. What I do remember is eating ice cream at the kitchen table in my parents’ first apartment, finishing off the one scoop, then asking my mom for another, specifying that it should be served in a clean bowl.

Burgers did enter the scene a few years after this. It was during the long, fierce blast of an icy winter in Missoula, Mont., while my parents were finishing master’s degrees.  We were, undeniably, poor. The only burgers we ate for months were venison burgers. And venison meatloaf, roasts and casseroles. For Christmas, it was a big, greasy goose. My mother also received a beautiful buckskin jacket that Christmas from the hunter — my grandfather. I recognize now that this food was his gift of love and great care for us, and one of the only ways he could help with our support. Nevertheless, offer me a venison burger now and I’ll probably say no, thanks.

Smashburger-Potranco 4

Smashburger’s Mushroom and Cheese

Somewhere between those days and now, the burger rose from staple to superstar, from a bagful of sliders to monstrous concoctions garnished with gold foil and selling for more than $1,000. We’ve endured seemingly endless television, print and digital discussions of the perfect mix of fat to beef, the perfect grind, the perfect cut to grind, the best cheese. We’ve debated the ultimate toppings, from guacamole and fried eggs to wild mushrooms and bacon jam; we’ve argued about the must-haves when it comes to buns — and possibly even ate (God help us) a burger on a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

Considering all of that, it’s not surprising that I breathe a little sigh of relief just to be served a freshly made burger, half-wrapped in white paper, on a decent buttered and grilled bun with a slab of cheddar cheese, good dills, sliced (unsweet) onion. A great mustard is called for, but in a pinch, plain old yellow American ballpark will do. Ketchup? It’s for the fries.

We don’t go into which we consider the “best” burgers in San Antonio here. We all have our favorites. Here are a few questions, though, to tantalize your burger quotient — and may you enjoy burger month any way you like it.

Neon Burger1. Who said, “When people pile seven things onto one burger, it drives me nuts!”

a) Giada De Laurentiis
b) Alton Brown
c) Bobby Flay
d) Martha Stewart

2. Who said, and where did he say it, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!”

3. For best results when cooking burgers on a grill, you should only flip them once, and not press down on the meat with the spatula because that squeezes out the juice.

a.  true
b. false
c. false and true

McDonalds Fries4. In what year and what city did Richard and Maurice McDonald open up the first McDonald’s?

a) 1921 in San Francisco
b) 1953 in Kansas City, Mo.
c) 1940 in San Bernardino, Calif.
d) 1948 in Philadelphia

5. A Tex-Mex-style burger was born in San Antonio in the 1960s, called the bean burger — a burger embellished with Cheez Whiz, refried beans and Fritos out of the bag. What was the name of the restaurant where it was introduced?

a) Chris Madrid’s
b) Tink-a-Tako
c) The Malt House
d) Sills Snack Shack

6. Which burger below most qualifies as trendy?

a) Pub burgers
b) Bacon- and cheese-stuffed burgers
c) Kale burgers
d) Burgers sous-vide

7. The English love their fish and chips as Americans love their burgers. But, according to research in Britain, the average English pub sells 160 burgers a week, compared with 90 servings of fish & chips.

a) true
b) false

Answers:
1. c
2. Wimpy, a character in the Popeye cartoon, a glutton for burgers who rarely had the money to pay for them.
3. c. Flip the burgers over a couple-three times if you want, but don’t press them with the spatula.
4. c
5. d
6. a
7. a, true (according to burgerbusiness.com)

(Burger on the cover of SavorSA today is from Feast, on South Alamo Street.)

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Easiest and Best? High-Heat Roast Chicken Gets Our Vote

Easiest and Best? High-Heat Roast Chicken Gets Our Vote

This information has been in the wind for the past few years: The best way to roast a chicken is to cook it at high heat, 10 minutes per pound, let it sit for 10 minutes after the roasting. Carve and serve.

The high heat method of roasting chicken gives you golden skin, moist and tender meat.

The high-heat method of roasting chicken gives you golden skin, moist and tender meat.

Could something this easy be the “best” way to roast the bird?

If I’d listened, roasted and learned instead of continuing to baste, roll the bird over on its breast, brine, truss, stuff — and anything else one can do to roast a bird, I’d have saved myself some time. As it is, we tried the high-heat method this week and it was a success.

That golden, crackling skin, blistered here and there, the tender, cooked-just-right breast meat … even the pan juices seemed to be superior in this method, as they sizzled and reduced to a thick, sticky mass in the bottom of the pan, begging to be used for gravy.

I used what was described as an “all natural” chicken, with no antibiotics or hormones added. I seasoned simply with black truffle salt and pepper. I didn’t do a full truss on the chicken, but I did tie together the feet. I don’t think I’ll do that next time.  As you can see in the photo, the wing tips got burnt — no big deal to us.

I’ve seen this method, along with similar recipes calling for a few more ingredients, such as garlic cloves stuffed under skin, or lemons and onions pushed into the cavity — so look around the Internet if you want something a little fancier.

Barbara Kafka is often credited with teaching us this method. Chowhound has a recipe and accompanying article that is a little more complex.

However, this is the easiest way I’ve found to go about making this Sunday dinner classic — and the results were gratifying.

Link to Barbara Kafka’s recipe

High-Heat Roast Chicken

A little vegetable oil
1 4-5 pound roasting chicken
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
A few peeled garlic cloves to tuck here and there, optional

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Rub a little oil at the bottom of the roasting pan. (I sometimes use a roasting rack, but not with this recipe). Let the chicken sit out to bring to room temperature. Put the chicken in the pan. There’s no need to truss. (I tied the feet together, but won’t even do that next time – I think the leg and thigh skin would get more gold and crackly if just exposed to the heat.)

If using some garlic, you can put a clove or two in the cavity, or tuck some under between the leg and the body of the chicken.

Put the chicken in the 500-degree oven for 10 minutes per pound. (Barbara Kafka’s recipe specifies putting the chicken into the oven feet first.) If you don’t want burnt wing tips, wrap them in a little aluminum foil.

When the time comes to take it out, set the chicken in a warm place on the stove and let it rest for 10-15 minutes. Carve and serve.

Makes 5-6 servings.

 

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Burger Brawl: Grills on Wheels, Chillin and Grillin Are Tops

Burger Brawl: Grills on Wheels, Chillin and Grillin Are Tops

San Antonio loves its burgers, as the turnout at the Point Park and Eats Burger Brawl proves.

Saturday was a fine day for a burger or three — or even five. And it was a great day for a competition that any food truck devotee would love: A burger brawl, complete with cold beer on tap, families and kids, a dog or two and live music.

Burgers. Any questions?

But the burgers reigned supreme, as far as the judges were concerned. The Point Park & Eats Burger Brawl pitted five trucks and their best efforts against one another — and only one of these five delicious burgers, judged on a surprisingly long list of attributes, would win.

John Griffin and I were among the lucky judges who had the onerous task of tasting each of the burgers, which we did over a period of an hour or so in the early afternoon. With us on the panel were Lauren Madrid, restaurant writer for The Current; Jason Ard, owner Branchline Brewery; and Shawn Gordon, well known to Yelpers, food truck and Twitter followers as the Food Truck Stalker.

If you haven’t been to the Point Park, it is set in a good-sized lot off Boerne Stage Road, west of I-10. It has a comfortable sprawl, plenty of picnic table seating under the trees, a mass of sail-type canopies stretched high above the ordering area, a comfortably sized deck with chairs and tables, an order-up bar and a bit of indoor seating as well.

Jason Ard, whose new brewery will be offering its first commercial release in January, showed off a couple Branchline’s brews. An Eggnog Stout, hinting at sweet spices and even notion of rum, charmed us all and made us wish we could take some home for the holidays. The Rye IPA, heavier-bodied than usual, had a viscous mouth feel, a deep, long-lived head and left just a bite of bitterness at the back of the tongue. These were great burger beers — something we’ll be looking forward to after the holidays are over.

The winning truck, at least with the judges, is Grills on Wheels.

What do judges look for when choosing a great burger from one that’s just really good? The same thing all burger-lovers do — at least those who want to sit back and ponder, taste, talk and consider some more.  We discussed the heat, the aroma, the appearance of the bun, its toastiness or lack thereof, the quality of the meat, its thickness, texture and flavor; the right cheese in the right amount — the list does go on.

Everyone admitted to a few prejudices, likes or dislikes. (But as seasoned burger tasters, we set these aside to judge each sandwich on its own merits.)

Gordon admitted one standard burger ingredient left him cold. “I don’t like pickles,” he said, offering no apologies. “I don’t know why, I just never have liked them.” He also had a general complaint about burger makers these days. “Why don’t they season the meat?” That very good point came into play during the judging. Burger makers, listen up; even just salt and pepper make a difference.

Madrid made threats about tossing sub-par burgers on the floor and stomping on them (this did not happen). John said the make-or-break quality to look for in a burger was inside the bun. “For me, it’s the quality of the patty and how it’s made,” he said.

A Christmas touch at Gourmet on the Fly.

After tasting and re-tasting, and much discussion, we made our choice. It all came down to the top burger, which was from Grills on Wheels, a relatively new truck on the scene.

The Burger Brawl draws crowds.

How it won: The burger (Angus beef) was thick and well-seasoned — as in, salt and pepper, a hint of garlic. Its two slices of Texas toast were buttered and toasted gold. The bacon was smoky and crisp, and the ketchup was spiked with just the right amount of hot-peppery sriracha sauce. All of it, flavors, texture, taste of the meat, finger-warming temperature of the burger itself and that lingering burn made it a winner.

Later on, the people had their chance to choose, and the People’s Choice was a burger that the judges had all liked as well. It came from Chillin and Grillin. Other trucks in the competition included Skinny Cat, MARS Mobile Kitchen and Gourmet on the Fly.

After the morning’s judging, we checked in with Denise Aguirre, who said that the Burger Brawl wasn’t a cinch to pull together. “It was a lot of work,” she said.

Her effort appeared to be worth it. The park was filled with people early in the afternoon and the event was scheduled to last late in the evening.

The promo material for the event billed the Point Park & Eats’ Burger Brawl as the “first annual.” So, if you missed it this year, put it down on your calender for next year.

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