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Griffin to Go: Foodie Phone Calls


griffintogo2The phone call arrived just in time for my hunger pangs to kick in.

OK, those of you who know me even slightly know that if I’m conscious, I’m generally hungry.

Still, the call came in at around 6 p.m. I’d been at the keyboard most of the day, and I was trying hard not to think of having to get up to fix dinner.

“You’ll never guess what I just had for dinner,” she cooed into the receiver.

Yes, it was like phone sex in the way that you can have food porn, words and images of food that just, well, arouse something within you. To paraphrase Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, I may not know how to describe it, but I know it when I see/hear it.

My friend Carol from upstate New York was gushing on about how she had  baked the perfect sweet potato and topped it with a showering of fresh peas from her garden. Fresh peas are something we rarely see in this hot-as-Hades climate, so already my mouth was watering.

“Then I had a salad that I created out of thin air,” she continued, describing the three types of lettuces she had also picked from her garden. She tossed in some fresh dill, slivers of cucumber, chopped walnuts (not from her garden), just-picked blueberries and crumbles of goat cheese (also not from the garden). A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar finished off the dish.

griffintogo1“It was scrumptious,” she said. She even sent photos of the greens to prove how gorgeous it must have been.

That’s what foodie friends do. They love to talk about the meals they just had, the fresh items they just gathered from their gardens, the dishes they just had in (fill in name of foreign city) on their latest trip, the wine they drank while watching the sun set.

I got even with Carol by describing the half-dozen figs I harvested today, sending her off into daydreams of stuffing them with goat cheese and drizzling honey on top.

Somehow, this turned the conversation to wine, a trip we had taken to Napa Valley a few years back, restaurants we had eaten at, favorite flavors we missed.

By the time, the call was over, I had my dinner menu planned and ready to go. I, too, was going to have steamed peas (frozen ones, I’ll grant you, but vastly superior to canned). My touch would be to add butter and some mint from my garden.

I have often made a meal out of just that, but I went a few steps further tonight. I sliced some leftover rib-eye and heated the pieces only slightly. I then topped them with a pico de gallo made of minced red onions from the farmers market tossed with diced tomatoes, banana pepper and a fiery jalapeño from the backyard. Instead of salad, I opted for a few Kalamata olives, and the whole meal was ready in less than 10 minutes, including harvest time.

A glass of rosé on the side gave everything an added glow.

For dessert? Two of those figs. No goat cheese. No honey. Something that perfect doesn’t need to be dressed up.

Half a country away, we managed to share meals that nourished both body and friendship. Thanks, Carol.

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Griffin to Go: Any Locapours Out There?


Three Texas WinesLast year, when I visited Chile, every wine list was filled entirely with Chilean wines, except for a stray French sparkler or two. A couple of months ago, I visited South Africa where the wine lists were all local, again with the exception of one or two Champagnes. In Portugal, Spain, Germany, Cyprus, and Greece, it was the same way.

Yet in Texas, the few Texas-only wine lists I know of are at brewpubs. Why are we so different from the rest of the world?

Gretchen Neuman of Vino Verve has taken up the issue in her blog (click here). She calls herself a “locapour,” the wine version of the locavore who tries to eat only locally grown food.

As she writes: “Unknown to most people in America, there is a licensed winery in every state in the union. Yet, even the Governor of Kansas in 2007 was unaware that there were 15 wineries in her state. Among those that are aware of the presence of these wineries, many have dismissed them out of hand as producing low quality products. Are they all producing outstanding products? Maybe not. But then again, neither are the wineries in the rest of the country, or indeed the world. Yet local wineries do not seem to enjoy the same kind of encouragement that local breweries have enjoyed for the last 20 years.”

I have enjoyed a number of Texas wines in recent months that are perfect for our climate and our cuisine. McPherson Cellars’ crisp, clean viognier is the perfect antidote to the sweltering heat we have been experiencing. Becker Vineyards Provençal Rosé is made for an afternoon picnic or barbecue. And Llano Estacado’s Signature Mélange, a Rhone-style blend, is a light-bodied yet full-flavored red that won’t seem too heavy this summer.

But I haven’t seen these wines on too many wine lists, even though the viognier copped a gold medal in this year’s San Antonio Wine Festival, and the retail price on the Llano Estacado is a steal at a scant $10 a bottle.

What do you think of this situation? Do you want to see more Texas-only wine lists? Or do you prefer something more diversified? What Texas wines have you enjoyed lately? Post your answers here.

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Griffin to Go: A Morning at the Farmers Market


Cucumbers at the Pearl Farmers' MarketMuch has been written about the new farmers market at the Pearl Brewery, including quite a few words by myself.

Since its opening last month, there has been some honest criticism about the shortage of vegetable vendors and the lengthy lines to purchase fresh produce from some of those who are there.

Yet Saturday morning, I may have stood for 40 minutes in line to purchase corn, leeks and pickling cucumbers from the Oak Hill Farms people, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed meeting my neighbors in line and discussing what we were going to do with all those treats once we were served.

A few mentioned grilling corn, a true summertime favorite . Others were hankering for the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes, bursting with a flavor and an acidity that you just don’t get from those in the store.

I brought up a recipe I tried several weeks ago in which you baked leeks in a mint-flavored cream (check our recipe file).

Cooking DemonstrationSquash, so prevalent at many of the booths, would be perfect in anything from salads to sautés.  And their blossoms can be eaten, too, as Zocca chef Chip McMullin demonstrated at the cooking booth. He removed the hairs from the outside and the stem from inside before filling it with a seasoned goat cheese mixture.

Johnny Hernandez of the chef’s table, MesaLegre, and the catering company, True Flavors, spoke of his new restaurant, set for a spot near the River Walk extension. It will be called La Gloria and will offer his take on Mexican street foods, which we can’t find too often in San Antonio. He hopes to have it open before the end of the year.

This was my third visit to the market, and I have been surprised to see how it has grown from its first preview.

Organizers have said they want the weekly market to be about more than luscious freestone peaches that dripped juice down your chin or bunches of beets with fresh greens still attached. It should be about more than the natural meat vendors, the honey farmer, the bread bakers and the seasoned nut sellers.

It’s meant to be a community center, a place where people congregate on a Saturday morning to celebrate what the San Antonio area has to offer, whether it be bunches of fresh dill, live music or the gorgeous new extension of the River Walk.

Many of the people there Saturday seemed to get that. They had dropped by after their morning run or they were taking their dogs for a walk. For some it was merely a place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a breakfast taco.

I heard a number of comparisons, good and bad, to farmers markets in places like San Francisco and Santa Fe. The difference, we should remember, is that those markets have been open for years, whereas the Pearl’s has been open for four weeks. Yet it also shows that the people of San Antonio are not the food hicks the national media would have use believe. We have standards, and we long for the day when our farmers market reaches that level.

Riverwalk expansionThe thermometer started climbing early and showed no signs of going in the opposite direction, so tables in the shade were at a premium. That’s where my colleague Nick Mistry and I encountered 2-year-old Isabella Gilliam and her brother, Tristan, 4, enjoying cheese danishes with blueberries in the filling.

A even cooler spot is the walkway of the Full Goods building that leads to the market. Giant fans — Big Ass Fans, actually, if you want the maker’s name — kept the air moving. It was there, we met Tessa Bodnar, who was visiting the market for the first time. She had with her two granddaughters, Sydnie Bodnar, 11, and Amelia Meissner, 7, with their dog, Murphy. All three enjoyed themselves.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it,” Tessa Bodnar said.

Short trips to Melissa Guerra’s culinary shop and a slammed Texas Farm to Table, with great music outside and air conditioning at a high crank inside, rounded out a full and flavorful morning.

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Griffin to Go: Feasting at Folklife Festival


img_9760The kids dancing with glasses on their heads were cute. The booths with handmade baskets and Polish pottery caught our eye more than once. And the air-conditioned inside exhibits were blessed relief from the sweltering temperatures.

But let’s face it, the Texas Folklife Festival is about eating. At least to me, it is.

Several hours after leaving the UTSA HemisFair Campus, I’m still full. But I’m glad I ate every bite.

img_9709My camera-toting colleague and live-blogger, Nicholas Mistry, and I also enjoyed talking with most everyone we met at the various booths, including Susie Tolman with her painted eggs at the Czech booth; Chip Liu, who wrote out SavorSA in Chinese caligraphy for us; or Robin Pate at the Chuckwagon Gang’s booth, where coal-topped Dutch ovens were filled with steaming hot gingerbread. (On Saturday, the latter group promises free tastes of apple pie.)

img_9747James and Marieta Baer were full of ways to modify the recipe for their Wendish group’s celebrated noodles. The traditional method is to serve the noodles in a chicken stock with parsley on top. But if you prefer beef, use beef stock. Add a touch of onion or celery, even some fajita seasoning, if you like it spicy. (For the basic noodle recipe, check our recipe file.)

Now that’s a true melding of cultures, which is what Folklife celebrates each year.

I just wish some of the booths had had all of their food ready when we passed. We missed trying a few dishes  because they simply weren’t there.

But we did enjoy the finely diced chicken with chiles and coconut that makes up the Guamanian kelaguen as well as that booth’s grilled chicken skewers with a healthy dose of fresh ginger in the seasoning.

A poppy seed kolache and a Pilsner Urquell at the Czech booth was most welcome, as was the shaded table offered to some weary wanderers.

We also heard people rave about the anticuchos at the Peruvian booth, the pupusas at the Salvadorian booth and the spice-sprinkled Luling watermelon from the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club, among others.

img_9813I cannot sing the praises high enough of the men who tend the grills at the various booths offering meat on a stick. This extends from Baldemar Garza grilling perfectly seasoned, tender fajitas for San Alphonsus Catholic Church to Richard Gonzales preparing shish kebabs for St. George Maronite Church’s Lebanese booth. (And, no, I did not see a woman working the grills. I think they’re too smart for that.)

Recipe hunters should be on the lookout, because a few groups were more than willing to share their recipes, from bread to wine. One was Theda Sueltenfuss, who offered her recipe for homemade sauerkraut, which Nick dubbed “German kimchee,” as well as free samples. (Check our recipe file for the recipe).

The heat, though, must be acknowledged. Though a few booths handed out paper fans, all they did was stir up more hot air. So, drink plenty of water — or the Lebanese booth’s cooling mint tea — and stay out of the sun as much as you can. At least one booth benefited from the heat in an unexpected way: at the East Texas Yamboree, the warm yam pie tasted as if it had just been removed from the oven. It was so good, my inner Homer Simpson was calling for a second slice.

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Griffin to Go: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?


dsc02193It seems fitting somehow that my copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” is remaindered, the publishing world’s term for overstock, which is usually marked by a black slash across the bottom page edges to alert those who care about such things that I didn’t pay full price.

I didn’t pay attention to what the book was about when I bought it. I picked it up because Fisher is one of the all-time great food writers and anything of hers is likely to be pure pleasure to read.

Yet I seemed to be waiting for the right time to read it. So, it lingered for the past two years on my too-tall to-read stack.

It was only after I was laid off in March that I picked it up and discovered my timing could not have been more perfect.

That’s because the wolf she refers to is the one that howls outside the door of those in need.

In her case, she was writing about the world of rations and shortages that accompanied the second world war. The same attitude of living frugally, though, applies to many of us today in pinched circumstances.

Fisher didn’t let the war stop her. As she wrote, “All men are hungry. They always have been. They must eat, and when they deny themselves the pleasures of carrying out that need, they are cutting off part of their possible fullness,  their natural realization of life, whether they are poor or rich.”

She devised a series of recipes that stretches the food budget to the point of snapping. Knowing how to boil water leads to the creation of soup. From there you can build to eggs and dishes beyond your tastiest dreams. She even offers some recipes for homemade liquor, because  many would not want to go without that completely, either.

Sprinkled liberally throughout the book are tidbits of the opinionated cooking advice that Fisher is known for. Some of suggestions I wouldn’t follow, yet I enjoyed savoring her every word:

  • “One thing to remember about cooking any fowl, whether wild or domesticated, is that a good scrub with a cut lemon, never water, will make it tenderer and will seal in its flavors.”
  • “Of course, the best gravy is one quite innocent of flour, in spite of what your grandmother would say. It is made by swirling a little boiling stock or water into the rich odorous pan as soon as the roast is removed. It is boiled for a scant five minutes, skimmed slightly, thickened with a little fresh butter, and strained into a hot sauceboat.”
  • “A rolled roast seems more economical at first sight, because you do not buy the rib bones. But you must remember that bones are conductors of heat and make meat cook about six minutes faster to the pound, thus cutting down on the fuel bill …”
  • “Probably the wisest way to treat an egg is not to cook it at all. An accomplished barfly will prove to you that a Prairie Oyster is one of the quickest pickups known to man, and whether you are hungover or merely tired, a raw egg beaten with a little milk or sherry can you feel much more able to cope with yourself, and shortly too. ” (I guess salmonella scares were not so common in 1942.)

Her conclusion was a tonic for her times — and ours: “Now and then it cannot harm you … to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly bleed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time.”

To do that, I have shaved many items off my must-have list — in addition to reading books I already own, that is. I don’t pour the expensive extra-virgin olive oil quite so lavishly any more. I share bulk packages with fellow unemployed friends, which means less food will go to waste. Potlucks are certainly less expensive than having people over for dinner — and you still get to share their company, which is what entertaining is all about.

I’ve started focusing on foods in season, which really are much cheaper and taste much better.

Most of all, I pay more attention to the foods I grow in my own backyard, from herbs to tomatoes to figs, because they taste far fresher and, consequently, far better than anything I could get even at a farmers market. Try a tomato and basil salad with your own homegrown ingredients, and you’ll see. You don’t even need olive oil with it. Only a dash of salt and some freshly ground black pepper.

An anchovy on the side would certainly be a nice complement. They’re still affordable and a great way to thumb your nose at wolves or whoever else may be at your door.

Need any more lessons from Fisher? “How to Cook a Wolf” is still in print.

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Griffin to Go: A Nut for Lychees


Lychee

Lychee

Despite common usage, the lychee is not a nut. It is a fruit that grows well in warm, tropical climates.

It is also an addiction for those of us with a sweet tooth. For the lychee — or litchi, as it is often spelled — is truly sweet.

You wouldn’t think it to look at. In the market or on the tree, the rough, knobby exterior looks more like a hard strawberry. According to research on the subject, lychees are often referred to as alligator strawberries in some cultures — the deep South or India, depending on whom you believe — though it’s a term I’ve never heard. The skin feels like an alligator’s or a file you’d use to sand a 2-by-4.

Until I moved to Florida, I was only familiar with the canned variety of lychee, sometimes served as a dessert in Asian restaurants along with its cousins, rambutan and longan. But the evergreen trees thrive in the eternal sun and the humidity, far better than some of the humans. When a colleague brought a box of the red fruit with the milky white center into work, I had to be shown how to peel them, how to pick the best ones and how to determine which ones to avoid.

Now that they are in season and you can find them in neighborhood groceries (I found them in a box in the produce section of my nearby H-E-B; they were even on sale), I thought I’d share a couple of tips I learned:

  • Pick lychees that are firm yet have a little give at the top. These are likely to be the juiciest.
  • If the fruit is too firm, it may not be ripe. If it is hard and looks more shrunken than the others, it may have dried out.
  • Lychees bruise relatively easily, despite the tough skin. So, look for blemishes or discoloration around a soft spot.
  • To peel, pull the stem off or dig a fingernail into the skin near the top until it breaks. You can use a knife, if you’re one of those who doesn’t like to touch his or her food.
  • A membrane lines the skin. Peel it back, should it stick with the meat of the fruit.
  • At the center of the lychee is a large nut-like seed that you discard.

The rest is all about enjoying the highly sweet fruit and its juices. I’m getting a sugar rush typing this.

I generally eat just one or two straight from the skin. But there are numerous ways to incorporate lychees into your cooking, whether you are using fresh or canned.

One is the Watermelon Salad you’ll find in another post on this site (click here). Toss them in salads, especially fruit salads. Add to your sweet-and-sour stir-fries; their limpid texture is a nice contrast to the crunch of water chestnuts. Or you can place halves on a ham instead of pineapple.

If you are looking to add more sparkle to a brut Champagne, place half a lychee at the bottom of your flute.

The following recipe is adapted from a Web site devoted to lychees:

Tropical Fruit Salsa and Cinnamon Chips

2 kiwis, peeled and diced
1/2 pineapple, cored and diced
1 mango, pitted and diced
1 pound strawberries, stemmed and cut into bite sizes
1 cup lychees
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons lychee jam or apricot jam
10 (10-inch) flour tortillas
Butter-flavored cooking spray
2 cups cinnamon sugar (see Note)
In a large bowl, thoroughly mix kiwis, pineapple, mango, strawberries, lychees, white sugar, brown sugar and jam. Cover and chill in the refrigerator at least 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Coat one side of each flour tortilla with butter-flavored cooking spray. Cut into wedges and arrange in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle wedges with desired amount of cinnamon sugar. Spray again with cooking spray.

Bake in the preheated oven 8 to 10 minutes. Repeat with any remaining tortilla wedges. Allow to cool approximately 15 minutes. Serve with chilled fruit and spice mixture.

Note: To make cinnamon sugar, mix sugar and cinnamon in the desired proportion, which generally ranges from 3-1 to 12-1, according to Wikipedia.

Recipe adapted from lycheesonline.com.

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Griffin to Go: Grilling vegetables


Grilled zucchini picked fresh from the garden.

Grilled zucchini picked fresh from the garden.

I’m a dedicated meat-eater. I think pork is one of the four basic food groups (butter and heavy cream make up a second).

So it may seem odd that when I finally broke down and got a gas grill, the first thing I cooked on it was a batch of fresh pattypan squash from the farmers market.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any meat on hand, mind you. I had just gotten the vegetables that day from the market, though, and they were so fresh and firm that they were practically crying out to be quartered, marinated and grilled.

You don’t need a fancy dressing with sugar and/or a host of spices. All I did was coated them well with some olive oil, salt and pepper for a few minutes before putting them on the grill.

I didn’t need anything else that meal, except a glass of rosé, as good a drink with grilled foods as a cold beer.

Those squashes remain among of the best dishes to come off my grill, and not just because they were first. I continue to grill them exactly the same way, which is quite frequent now that squashes are in season.

But don’t limit yourself to squashes or peppers. You can grill most any vegetable, including eggplant, if you approach it right.

Tom Perini, owner of Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, near Abilene, offers a great chart for grilled vegetables in his book, “Texas Cowboy Cooking,” which came out in 2000 and is still in print.

He doesn’t add anything to his Fire-Roasted Vegetables until they are finished cooking. All he does is cut some up and remove the seeds if needs be.

Yellow summer squash.

Yellow summer squash on the grill.

“This is a technique you can use with just about any vegetable,” he writes. “Grilling vegetables over a live fire awakens the sugars and brings the flavor of the vegetables to the surface, a flavor you don’t get in an oven. The color you get by grilling vegetables is spectacular: They look great with a little bit of char around the edges and there’s nothing prettier than grilled vegetables with your steak. Be careful not to cook them to much, they need to have a little firmness.”

That last sentence cannot be emphasized enough: Don’t let your attention stray from the vegetables. They cook quickly. Too much heat and you’ve got burnt mush.

Here are Tom’s suggestions for handling the vegetables and his time-table for cooking them to just the right doneness. He prefers coal, which does offer great added flavor, but I have found that gas works almost as well if you’re in a hurry or cooking for one:

Fire-Roasted Vegetables

Wash the vegetables. Use the chart below to determine proportions and cooking times. See that coals are red-hot and about 6 inches below the grill before starting to cook.

Peppers: bell, Anaheim, poblano, 8-10 minutes. Cut in half lengthwise and seed.
Peppers: jalapeños, 10 minutes. Leave whole.
Mushrooms, 8-10 minutes. Use whole caps with stems removed or trimmed.
Onions, sweet Texas, green and purple, 10-15 minutes. Slice crosswise into 1/2-inch slices.
Sweet potatoes, 8-10 minutes. Slice crosswise or diagonally into 1/2-inch slices.
Eggplant, 10 minutes. Slice crosswise or diagonally into 1/2-inch slices.

Dressing:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Combine the dressing ingredients thoroughly. Toss the grilled vegetables in the dressing. This can be served at room temperature or chilled. Sliced beef may also be added.

From “Texas Cowboy Cooking” by Tom Perini

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Griffin to Go: Kitchen Sink Chicken Salad


Chicken SaladMany of the Chinese restaurants I frequented when I was growing up offered something called kitchen sink soup.

No, it wasn’t made of whatever was dumped down the drain, but it featured a little bit of everything, as if not a single leftover morsel were going to waste.

Each bite would be different because you never knew what you were going to find, a shrimp or a strip of pork, a lone pea pod, a few strands of bok choy or water chestnuts all in a clear broth.

I use that approach whenever I make chicken salad, which is fairly regularly, given my fondness for roast chicken. I always use what I have on hand that seems complementary to the chicken and the mayonnaise.

It could be fairly standard, such as celery, onion and pickle. Or it could be exotic: hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, slivered radish (both red and daikon).

Nothing wrong with a touch of bell pepper (your choice of color), fresh hot pepper if you want your tongue to tingle, hard-cooked egg, chunks of apple or your choice of nuts. Dried cherries or dried cranberries add a sweet-tart touch.

Just don’t let the dish get too busy.

For a dressing, I prefer a nice mix of sour cream and mayonnaise (Duke’s, preferably). But that doesn’t always work out either. Whenever I don’t have sour cream on hand, I merely added a touch of heavy cream or buttermilk to the mix.

Make sure you add the mayonnaise and sour cream in small amounts. You’d be surprised as how little mayo is needed to cover a relatively large bowl of chicken. Plus, you can always add more to taste.

Salt and pepper, either black or red, are the only seasoning needed unless you want to get fancy, which is the antithesis of chicken salad to me.

Then comes the hard part: Let it set for awhile for those flavors to mingle and coalesce into whole. Go off and do something for 20 minutes, at least. That’s the real reason for this blog entry. I just needed to bide my time until lunch was ready. Enjoy.

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