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WalkerSpeak: Company’s Coming, Dining Dilemmas Ahead


A full bar is a requirement for some.

I come from a family of foodies with a lineage going back two or three generations. My grandmother was a caterer. My mother is an excellent cook and tries to feed the world, despite the fact that, at 83, she is a busy music teacher and director of a light opera company.

My brother is an executive chef in Phoenix, and I take no small measure of pride remembering how he (used to) rely on me for guidance, since I began cooking professionally before he did.

When he began his cooking career at the age of 17, I would get phone calls at 2 a.m., waking me from a sound slumber. I would then be asked to recite recipes for anything from blue cheese dressing to green chile stew.

Once, he blew through my former hometown of Tucson, Ariz., with two friends while I was away. My roommate kindly let the three of them stay at the house overnight. When I returned, after they’d gone, I found they’d demolished a full pot of cazuela, a wonderful Mexican soup based on chiles, tomatoes and shredded dried beef, that I’d left in the refrigerator. Soup I was looking forward to eating. What I found was the empty pot and a note asking for the recipe.

My brother has long since passed me by. He’s finishing up an MBA and runs his own catering business. Now, I call him.

So, when these folks come for a visit, where do I take them out to eat?

If you think this should be easy for me, think about your own family. What do you do when each one is going to be critical of where you go for his or her own personal reasons? How do you deal with various allergies, political statements, current fad diets and so forth? Or, the fact that if you take them to an excellent high-end restaurant, they’ll complain about prices, but if you take them to a reasonably priced restaurant, they’ll ask, “Don’t you have any good restaurants in San Antonio?”

With my mother, it’s been a requirement that the restaurant have a full bar. Problem is, many good restaurants serve beer and wine only. So, we have handled this: I keep a bottle of Grey Goose vodka in my freezer so it will be here when she visits, and she can have her martini before we go to dinner.

Other than this one peccadillo, my mom is critical, but can set it aside to enjoy a meal out.  So can my brother, as long as someone doesn’t try to pull a fast one on him, like serve chicken Parmesan disguised as the advertised veal Parmesan or endure a condescending or too-familiar waiter, the chef’s natural enemy.

Puffy tacos have their charms.

Earlier this week, my information was that they were both going to be here at the same time for a few days. Visions of food issues loomed. Should I try to take them to a fine-dining place with no hard liquor or just sit them down to some good Texas barbecue? Should we go to Rosario’s or my favorite unassuming neighborhood Tex-Mex place? Or, should I take them to Ray’s Drive-Inn and hope they recognize the amazing qualities of a perfectly made puffy taco? Should we go to a high-end restaurant? Or should we save money and collaborate on an ambitious meal at home?

While I was thinking about these things, my brother called to say there had been a change of plans — he would be going to Idaho to accompany his wife on a business meeting.

My mother, in the meantime, will be delighted with something simple, as long as we drive out to see wildflowers and get some shopping in. She’s also be happy sitting on the back porch with a sandwich and a glass of iced tea, talking. And, she’ll love the puffy tacos.

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WalkerSpeak: Del Grande’s Skewered Scallops with Fresh Corn Mayo


DelGrandeScallops3

Robert Del Grande

I’ve only attended two or three classes presented by Robert Del Grande, one of Texas’s top chef/restaurateurs. He is perhaps most famous as the longtime proprietor of Houston’s (now closed) Cafe Annie.

He is personable and amusing. More important, though, he can teach as well as cook.

As I awaited Del Grande’s presentation at the Culinary Institute of America’s recent conference here, I remembered a lesson from him I learned years go, and never forgot. It was a discussion about the deceptively simple art of roasting vegetables, such as a tomato or an onion to use in a salsa or a mole, or as a garnish for tacos.   You can lightly roast something or you can nearly burn it. In between these two extremes are the series of in-between stages — and all of them will yield a specific flavor.  Master these and you’ve learned an important lesson about making Mexican food taste right.

At the Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference, Del Grande taught us another dish that will go into my repertoire:  Sea Scallops Roasted in Green Corn Husks with Fresh Corn Mayonnaise.

While it sounds fancy, and maybe a little complex, it was actually simple. Wrap a big, juicy scallop in a strip of fresh corn husk, jab a skewer through it and sear it in butter until the bottom is nicely browned. Flip it and do the same to the other side. Dress it with the fresh corn mayo, top it with some sprinkles of red chile and serve with a wedge of lime.

DelGrandeScallops1If one wishes to serve these scallops as finger food (and this presentation was about Latin street foods) the skewers make them easy to pick up. If you’re serving it on plates, it’s best to take out the skewers but leave the husk on. They come off easily.

The best part about the dish, as far as I was concerned, was the Fresh Corn Mayonnaise. It was perfect for the scallop, but looked as though it would adapt widely to many other uses — as a dip or a spread as well as a topping.

The basic technique is to pull of the husks and silk on fresh ears of corn, then grate the raw corn on a grater over a bowl.  The result will be a wet, starchy purée of corn. Heat up butter in a skillet, add the corn and cook it, stirring. As Del Grande pointed out, it looks just like scrambled eggs as you cook it.

The corn is mixed with mayonnaise, olive oil, lime juice and salt then used to top the scallops.

Other beautiful dishes were prepared that day, and we’ll run more of the recipes in the near future. But, for me, this dish was a great excuse to drive out to Costco for a pound of fresh scallops.

Click below for Del Grande’s recipe:

DelGrandeScallops2

Sea Scallops Roasted in Green Corn Husks with Fresh Corn Mayonnaise

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WalkerSpeak: Hey, Barista, Bring That Latte Over Here


coffeeMany of us have found ourselves  in the waiting room of a doctor’s or dentist’s office, forced to listen to daytime television at its loudest. Be it the History Channel or Fox News Channel, it’s just something we have to endure from time to time.

It was because I was entrapped, though, that I heard something that really surprised me. I was trying not to listen to the three celebrities chattering on a morning talk show, when I heard one use the term “barista”, causing the other two women at the table to stare blankly at her.

“What’s a barista?” said one of her co-stars, an actress and comedienne of no small reputation. Another, a longtime national news personality, chimed in that she, too, had no idea what that word meant.

I was amazed. I thought that word would certainly have entered the vernacular by the time Starbucks put up store No. 10,000 in the United States.

For those of you who don’t want to be caught out on a nationally broadcast morning talk show, “barista” is the word we in the U.S. use for the person who brews up your half-and-half skinny latte at the espresso shop. In some cases, the word might be used for someone with special skills at making espresso or cappuccino, as a sommelier’s skills and duties extend beyond those of a wine server.

This word is borrowed from the Italian language, Wikipedia tells us (though we may have already guessed).  It generally refers to someone who works behind a counter serving hot and cold drinks, such as a bartender. In Italian, the word isn’t used specifically for someone who makes and serves coffee. Also, while the word as used in English ends in an “a” it is correct for both for males and females.

Also, remember that a “barrister” has nothing to do with coffee, unless she’s telling her assistant to bring her some. Barrister is another word for attorney.

Starbucks, some numbers

Since we brought up Starbucks, you might wonder if the company has, in fact, 10,000 stores in the U.S.  It has more than 11,000 stores, according to the company website.

From the factsheet at www.starbucks.com, here are some numbers:

  • Starbucks has stores in 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.
  • 7,087 of these stores are operated by the company.
  • 4,081 stores are licensed.
  • 43 countries outside the United States have Starbucks stores.

During 2006, the store had:

  • Provided 4.9 million hours of training for store partners.
  • Donated $36.1 million in cash and products.
  • Volunteered 383,000 hours in communities through a Starbucks volunteer program, Make Your Mark.

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WalkerSpeak: History Outshines Schnitzel in Old Vienna


wienerschnitzelIf I thought the flavor of Wiener Schnitzel in Vienna restaurants would be a revelation, I was wrong.  It was ambience in that historic Austrian city that gave us our money’s worth.

Wiener Schnitzel is a simple dish, made of thinly pounded veal scallops, breaded, fried and served with wedges of lemon. In Vienna, it was much like what I’ve had in the United States, and something like what I’ve made at home— only bigger,  much bigger.  It filled the plate and draped itself over the sides.  I’ve seen  chicken-fried steaks in Texas that would look puny in comparison.

But where the dish fell short of our expectations, the atmosphere took over.  On our first night in Old Vienna, my sister, Marcia, and I claimed a table outside on the sidewalk area at Café Leopuldo. Under a big, striped awning, we had glasses of cold Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s famous, crisp white wine and watched the stylish Viennese hurrying home from work, or out to play. Having both come from the drought-parched Western United States we lingered as long as was decent, soaking up the coolness of the evening and enjoying a light rain that came and went.

Cafe Leopuldo’s Wiener Schnitzel was dramatic in size but flat in taste. Lots of lemon juice and some salt made it more palatable.

The following evening, after a concert and a long walk through narrow streets, we came to  Zwölf Apostekeller, a restaurant in an old house at Number 3 Sonnenfelsgasse.  Once again the meal would consist of Wiener Schnitzel, this time accompanied by big plates of German potato salad. The folks who had planned our concert tour of several Central European cities had chosen this venue. Wiener Schnitzel was served to us all; once again, it was a plain, straightforward dish that I’d guess ranks among that country’s comfort foods rather than its haute cuisine.

But the place where we dined was remarkable.  After dozens of us crowded into the structure, we were led down several flights of stairs. We came to the cellar, then kept going. Finally, in a sub cellar, we found our seats for the late meal. Tables lined narrow aisles that ran the length of the space. Strings of twinkly lights cast a glow in the subterranean gloom.  Above us was the awe-inspiring sight of a brick vaulted ceiling, said to be part of a rebuild of this cellar in 1561. The house itself dated back to 1100.  Wrapped up in that kind of history we really weren’t overly concerned with food.

Later, describing Austria’s famous dish to friends, I mentioned that the breading was bland. I’d have added some salt.  Of course, Americans are famous for their salty food, which Europeans visiting here sometimes have trouble with.  So, it probably was just a matter of taste.

And let’s face it, where in the U.S. can we sit down to dinner in a house built more than 900 years ago?

Wiener Schnitzel

1 1/2 pounds sliced veal scallops, pounded thin (see note)
1 1/2 cups flour
1-2 teaspoons salt
Pinch of white pepper
4 eggs
1 1/2  sleeves Saltine crackers, crushed, or 3 cups cracker meal
1 teaspoon salt, if desired
Canola oil, for frying
2 lemons, cut in wedges, for garnish

Note:  I like to order a piece of veal and slice it at home, then pound it thin. I think this makes a more tender cut than the ultra-thin slices of veal scallopine you find already cut at the store. If you don’t want to slice your own, just ask the person at the meat market for slices between 1/4-and-1/2-inch thick.  Flatten with a mallet and put slices on a plate.  Veal is expensive. If you want to spend less, you can substitute pork for veal.

Put the flour in a large, flat bowl or plate; add salt and pepper and blend in well.  Scramble eggs in a large, flat bowl.  Put crushed Saltines or cracker meal on a large plate and blend salt, if using, in well.

Pour oil to the depth of about an inch-and-a-half in a good-sized skillet. (Preheat oven, too, to 150 degrees. This is so that if you are doing the schnitzel in batches, you can put the fried pieces on a large plate or baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Don’t stack pieces on top of each other and don’t cover them; they’ll get soggy.)

To bread the veal pieces, press each piece in the flour, turning to flour both sides. Shake off excess. Dip each piece in the beaten egg, to thoroughly coat.  Then, press each slice into the cracker meal, turning to coat all sides.

When the oil is hot, but not smoking, gently slide the bread pieces into the oil. It should sizzle energetically, but not foam up or threaten to fry over the side of the skillet.  Fry one side of each piece to a deep golden color, but not to dark brown.  Turn, and fry the other side until it is gold. Each side will take a minute or more.  Take out of the oil and blot lightly on paper towel.  Sometimes, if the oil gets too thick with crumbs that have fallen off, I pour the oil off, clean out the crumbs with a wadded up paper towel, and then reheat the oil. If you leave crumbs in the pan they will get brown and bitter, and stick to your veal cutlets.

When all the pieces are fried, put on plates, garnish with lemon wedges and serve.

Serves 4.

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WalkerSpeak: Truth in the Basics


Cracking an egg in a bowlTeaching a former colleague how to cook has (as any good teacher knows) been teaching me a few things, too.

Like digging your hands into garden soil, pruning a rose bush or pulling weeds, the actions themselves quietly inform other parts of your life. Are there areas of my existence, habits that need pruning, or soil that needs enriching? Is there a noxious “weed” from my past that still festers, and how do I yank it out?

Gardeners know this. So do musicians, cooks and teachers — in fact anyone who does creative work has this experience. It’s how our brains are made.

Cooking is no different. As a creative activity, it calls us to creative action. Sure, we’ll follow a recipe, but a good cook, with experience, will often start adding, subtracting, substituting ingredients — and maybe tossing aside the cookbook altogether.

However, at some point along the way to being good cooks, they had to learn the basics.

My mother, for instance, has been teaching children and adults to play the piano for 60 years and is still going strong at 82. She began her own musical training at the age of 5, and knew even then that this was going to be her life. But she had to learn the basics — picking out the black keys from the white, playing octaves, learning what half steps and whole steps looked like on the keyboard. I was convinced, after a lifetime of hearing hundreds of students stumble through lessons, that playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” was some kind of rite of passage. Everyone had to play it. I can still pick up a telephone to talk to my mom and some kid will be painfully pounding it out in the background.

The woman I am instructing now knew she needed to learn to cook for all the right reasons. It would save money, be more healthful, she’d enjoy the creative activity and it was something she could eventually share with friends. As we began, she seemed almost embarrassed to admit that when it came to cooking she was a blank slate.

This was all the better for the teacher, who was happy to put into print basic instructions, and teach those basic skills so long taken for granted.

I’m also, as it turns out, improving my own skills. I’ve become very casual about cooking, and am especially non-compulsive when it comes to boiling eggs. I only do this when I want to make deviled eggs, generally, and I’ve pretty much learned to buy the eggs a week or so early, so they’ll peel more easily and to not let them cook too long.

But when teaching someone to hard-cook eggs, a task that is in no way as simple as it seems, the teacher had to nail down the basics. Put the eggs in cold water, not hot. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cook them for the amount of time needed based on how you want the egg, soft- or hard-cooked, and based on the size of the egg. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let the eggs stand in the hot water. With the (fresh) jumbo brown eggs we were using, this was 10 minutes at a simmer, then turning off the heat, covering the pan and leaving them in the water as it cooled. This worked, with nary a hint of the undesirable gray-green color around the yolk. (This is a harmless chemical change, by the way, and the eggs can be eaten if it happens.)

The eggs also peeled easily, despite their newness. So, the teacher added this bit of information to her store of hard-boiled knowledge.

Because this student is a very smart, observant young woman, she has made me think about my oh-so casual approach to cooking at home. For instance, I started the water heating on the stove, absentmindedly, before putting the eggs in to cook. Fine for a long-time cook who knows they can compensate down the road, but I was called on it (since my printed instructions told her the right way to do it).

That was a good thing: I was able to tell her I’d goofed up, tell her the right way it should have been done, and make a note to myself: tighten up on the cooking foundations, certainly when teaching them.

Just as exercising an ankle to build strength will better support the entire body, so brushing up on cooking basics will pay forward for the teacher, making her a better cook.

By the same token, I just might ask Mom to play “Fur Elise,” from memory, the next time I see her.

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WalkerSpeak: Chocolate granita puts on the chill


Chocolate granita is an easy freeze.

Chocolate granita is an easy freeze.

A friend is a friend indeed when he talks you back from a late-night chocolate frenzy.

Reading a mystery book isn’t generally the place to beware of lip-smacking good descriptions of something chocolate. But there it was on the page: One of the characters had prepared a pan of deep, dark brownies, thickly frosted with marshmallow crème, then put the pan under the broiler until the topping browned and bubbled; just like a marshmallow toasting over a campfire. Yikes.

An alternative to running to the kitchen to make brownies was simple. Eat chocolate, it’s good for you. If you have some of the dark chocolate buttons they sell in bulk at Central Market, one or two usually ease the craving. I didn’t have any.

So, my friend suggested I make chocolate granita, an icy concoction, easy to make and requiring no special equipment. Granita does have calories from sugar, but it is also less likely to tempt one to sit on the couch and finish off a pint or so of chocolate ice cream. This may be because the icy crystals aren’t quite as smoothly seductive as ice cream. But in my experience, the granita handled the chocolate attack successfully.

Granita, sometimes called granita sicilliana, hails from Sicily in Italy and is in a category that includes sorbets and ices. A granita with very fine ice crystals can be made in a gelato machine. The flavors range from lemon and coffee to almond and mint. Chocolate granita is less common. Jeffrey Steingarten, who wrote “The Man Who Ate Everything,” says the Italian city of Catania is the only place in Sicily one finds chocolate-flavored granita.

Granita is easy to make at home. First, put 4 cups of water into a pan on the stove and stir in 1 cup of really good cocoa powder (I had Ghirardelli on hand), two-thirds a cup of sugar, a stingy pinch of salt and a few drops of vanilla, if you wish. Put it on the stove, whisk as the mixture comes to a simmer (watch so it doesn’t overflow the pan). Let it simmer for a minute. Then, pour it into a wide, shallow pan that will fit on a level spot in the freezer.

Bring the pan out from the freezer every 15 minutes or so and scrape the ice crystals from the sides of the pan, into the middle. When it’s not solid, but pretty firm, it’s time to have some — in a bowl or a glass.

For a slightly exotic touch, I drizzled in some rose syrup, and the combination was delicious. Other options might be instant coffee or espresso granules added to the mix of ingredients, cinnamon or canela for a Mexican chocolate flavor, or a few drops of almond extract.

I can’t kid myself — I’ll probably make the marshmallow-topped brownies. But., I’ll wait for cooler weather and when there are more people around to help me eat them. Watch for the recipe here in SavorSA. As the temperatures climb, though, I’ll be thinking granita for a chilly, easy-to-make afternoon treat.

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WalkerSpeak: Exercise Your Senses


Ripe StrawberriesWhen I was young, we lived in a barrio neighborhood in an Arizona border town. My 4-year-old brother hung out with a pretty 3-year-old named Rosalinda, who lived across the street. My sister often hung out inside with a book. But I prowled the neighborhood. My mild Montana-by-way-of-Iowa upbringing had not prepared me for such things as scorpions, tarantulas and centipedes. These were scary. But the subdued, complex beauty of the Sonora Desert always drew me outside.

Late in the afternoons in summers we were introduced to another element in our new home. Rain-blue thunderclouds would gather overhead and the ferocious storms we referred to as “monsoons” would turn the unpaved street in front of our house into a torrent of light brown mud. As suddenly as they began, these rambunctious storms would stop. The sun would come out. Soon, a warm, powerful scent would rise up from the desert floor, filling not just our nostrils but our imaginations. Later, I would learn that wet creosote and acacia bushes imparted much of the scent. But damp earth and all that it harbored, was part of the romance, too. For it was a romantic scent. It brought tears to my eyes when, after a long time away, I’d catch the first whiff of desert as the door to my arriving airplane was flung open on a summer’s evening. Visiting, I would yearn as much for this scent as I did for glimpses of home.

But what does this have to do with food?

I’ll answer my own question by saying that all of the senses are involved when a place in time, or a place in the desert or a place in the wilderness becomes iconic in our memories. When it comes to taste, we don’t just remember a flavor, but we add a backdrop: sitting in our grandmother’s kitchen, sitting in the sun on her wooden chair. Focusing in more closely on day to day things, think of picking up the most perfect strawberry in the basket. We look at it and appreciate the pure crimsonness of it. We handle it, feel the grainy roughness of the seeds, catch the aroma, then take in a bite anticipating that exquisite red berry taste. All of the senses are engaged.

Sensory pleasure is the great equalizer. It is as available to simple folk as it is to rock stars or rocket scientists. Money is not required to develop a good palate or to appreciate a well-made meal or anticipate a taste that only summer can bring. Or, even to summer at a particular location — say, beneath a sprawling tree on an Iowa farm, gathering fresh morels. Or, your uncle’s backyard grill in San Antonio, with billowing savory meat-scented smoke right at your nose.

During the year we lived on the unpaved street in Nogales my senses were on full alert to the new sounds, scents and flavors. Yes, I had to learn to shake my shoes in the morning to be sure no critters had crawled inside during the night. But I also could, on certain evenings, stand in a neighborhood friend’s backyard while his mom cooked tortillas on a comal set over a fire in an old oil drum. Nothing had ever been quite like this – the black spots where the tortilla would burn a little, its pliable softness, and its incomparable taste when drizzled with honey.

In a few years my explorations would take me across the border to Nogales, Sonora. I sought out backstreet places selling hot, fragrant corn tortillas in tall stacks, wrapped up tight in white paper; I looked for the small shops that carried homemade, stretchy cheese to go on those tortillas. I’d stop into a shabby hotel and make my way back to the kitchen, run by a Chinese family, where I could order the absolute best chicken tacos in the city. I learned the difference between mayonnaise and Mexican crema (barely even related, except in appearance).

Our senses awaken to that which is new. They are dulled by the steady thump of the ordinary. We forget that they are given us as a birthright, as tools for our explorations. Even those missing one or another of the senses, sight or hearing, often are compensated by having another one sharpen. We are the ones who ultimately decide whether we’re going to use and appreciate them, or misuse and lose them.

In the realm of taste, it doesn’t mean seeking out more and more extraordinary flavors or more expensive items off restaurant menus, or more exotic locales in which to dine. A few evenings ago, as we watched a movie, my husband left the room, returning minutes later with freshly popped popcorn in a steel bowl. I might have had microwave popcorn at work sometime over the past year or stunningly overpriced, lukewarm popcorn at a movie theater. But this was really good popcorn. As I put my face down toward the bowl to inhale the buttery scent, the warmth of it came up at me like breath. A simple thing, but oh, so good.

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