Friday, September 28, 2012

Collard Greens (and Cornbread)

Collards grow like a weed in these parts in the fall, through the winter, and well into the spring; when it gets hot they typically bolt and go to seed, making the leaves bitter. They descended from wild cabbages that once grew in Europe. They are a continuous crop, meaning that you can harvest the outer leaves while the center continues to grow. Collards can be seeded, or planted as starts – Chris at It’s About Thyme Nursery will have several varieties of starts in the fall, including the standard “Vates” (crumpled dark green leaves, winter hardy, the local standard variety),   and an improved variety, “Georgia Southern”(bigger, thick blue-green leaves, non-bitter, heat tolerant, frost hardy). Collards prefer full to half sun, rich fertile soil high in nitrogen, regular water, good drainage, and organic mulch. Plant them 1-foot apart, and expect them to yield for 6 months or so if they are regularly harvested; increase the mulch when it warms in the spring to insulate the roots and deter blooming. If you get any insect pests, expect small beetles or caterpillars.


a pic of "Georgia Southern" from the sowtrueseed's website......

A pot of collard greens is always referred to in the South as a “mess of greens”, and the vitamin-rich, bacon-seasoned savory broth in the bottom of the pot is called potlikker. Traditionally the white plantation owners of the South consumed the cooked and drained collard greens while the slave cooks, who understood the high nutrient value of potlikker, saved the broth to supplement their family’s diets.

Nothing is better for soaking up the potlikker than a hot piece of crusty cornbread that’s been split down the middle and slathered with sweet butter. The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate in February and March of 1931 pitted Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, against Huey “The Kingfish” Long, the backwoods populist governor and soon to be U.S. senator-elect from Louisiana. The traditionalist Harris contended that Southerners must crumble cornpone into potlikker, criticizing Long as an unrefined rube, who contended that the cornpone should instead be dunked. What started as a lighthearted fluff piece in the local paper turned into a 23-day long news event that captivated the South (and much of the rest of the nation, once it spread on the wires), and ended up dealing with all sorts of cultural affairs, including race relations, gender, social class, elitism, and regional chauvinism. For what it’s worth, we prefer eating our potlikker-soaked chunk of buttered cornbread with a spoon, so as not to lose any of that precious elixir.

Collards swimming in a lake of potlikker, flavored with bacon, Balsamic, chicken stock, dried red chiles, and a pinch or two of sugar

Mick’s Collard Greens

2 bunches of collard greens, washed well, central ribs removed, chopped coarsely

¾ pound thick-sliced bacon, sliced thinly
1 large onion, halved and sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups rich chicken stock
3 to 4 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar, to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons white sugar, to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
Cornbread to soak up the potlikker

In a large stock pot with a lid, sauté the bacon over medium low heat until the fat is rendered and the bacon golden brown. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 30 seconds. Add the collards and stir well, briefly sautéing the greens in the bacon fat. Add the chicken stock, stir well, and place the lid on the pot. Allow the greens to cook down for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and add 3 tablespoons of the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and 1 teaspoon of the black pepper. Stir well for a minute and taste for seasonings. The broth should be rich from the bacon and stock, there should be underlying saltiness from the bacon, and the vinegar and sugar should add a subtle sweet-tart flavor. Cook for another 5 minutes and taste again, adding more vinegar, sugar, and pepper if desired. Do a final tasting for salt just before service.

Serve in a bowl with plenty of the pottliker. A piece of crusty hot buttered cornbread makes an excellent accompaniment.

Cornbread cooked in the cast iron Dutch the center, it's probably 4" tall

Mick’s Mile High Cornbread:

Cornbread should always be made from scratch, and never from a mix; using a mix is just plain wrong. Cornbread should always be cooked in a pre-heated cast iron skillet or Dutch oven that has been well-seasoned. When you pour in the batter, you hear the batter sizzle in the fat, and it comes out with a perfect, deep golden-brown crust; the cast iron also keeps it warm through the meal. I have two iron skillets (one an antique that was found in an old ramshackle garage and rehabilitated), and nothing but cornbread ever gets cooked in them; they get washed with only hot water.

This recipe originated with my pal Chef Ray Tatum, but I’ve morphed it through the decades, making it my own. There are many additions you can make to this recipe. You can add fresh or frozen corn, grilled corn or cream-style corn, roasted and peeled chiles or minced fresh chiles, roasted cloves of garlic, or pork or bacon that has been browned and diced. I usually top it with shredded cheese about 5 to 7 minutes before it’s done, so the cheese melts onto and into the top. It should always get split and slathered with sweet cream butter before it’s eaten. The old folks used to love leftover cornbread like this crumbled into a glass, topped with buttermilk, and eaten with a spoon. Me, I never have any leftovers.

You can use all-white or all-yellow cornmeal if you like.

If you don’t have any buttermilk, you can fake it by these methods:
• Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice into enough whole milk to equal 1 cup. Allow this mixture to sit for 10 minutes to give it time to thicken before adding it to the ingredients.
• Or mix plain yogurt with whole milk. To make 1 cup buttermilk, mix 3/4 cup yogurt with 1/4 cup whole milk.

1 cup white cornmeal
1 cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
3 jumbo eggs, lightly beaten
3 cloves minced garlic (or ½ teaspoon garlic powder)
3 large jalapeños, minced (seeds and membranes removed for less heat if needed)
2/3 C frozen white corn, thawed
3 to 4 green onions, minced
1 C Monterrey jack or pepper jack cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 425°F and place a cast iron skillet inside. In a large mixing bowl combine all of the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the oil, buttermilk, and eggs and incorporate, mixing just enough to blend the ingredients. Fold in the jalapeños, corn, and scallions. Remove the skillet and lubricate liberally with lard, bacon fat, butter, or vegetable oil (lard will give the best flavor and a crispier crust). Scrape the contents of the bowl into the skillet and lightly smooth the top. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes; if the optional ingredients have not been used it will take about 30 minutes; if they have been used, expect 40 minutes. The top should be golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle will come out clean. If using, the cheese should be added just before the top of the cornbread reaches the light-golden stage.

Mick Vann: cookbook author, food writer, chef, restaurant consultant, horticulturist



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

China Dynasty Dominates Down South

After prepping some Indian grub for a dinner in HTX later this week, we needed grub ourownselves. China Dynasty is just around the corner from Art’s, so we blasted over for a food fix. For South Austin Chinese fare, CD is hard to beat. They realize the value of rich stocks, where many Chinese restaurants these days try to mimic the hours-long feat of reducing bones to make stocks by trying to use soy sauce; it’s an abomination, and you can taste it with the first bite when they deceive the diner.

Hot and Sour, with chile oil pools

Won Ton soup

The hot and sour soup at CD is based on a rich, complex pork stock, and (this is a real shocker), it actually has shreds of tender pork meat inside. Most places these days omit the pork to save money. It’s loaded with tofu, bamboo shoots, and all sorts of tidbits that should be in there. There is a perfect balance of sourness, and enough heat for most folks (I amp it up with their excellent chile oil). It’s thickened perfectly, and not overly gloppy like it so often is. Art’s a sucker for their won ton, which is based on a rich, aromatic chicken stock, with think-skinned hand-folded won tons packed with tasty pork. The eggrolls are always crispy and hot; usually too hot to eat without a cooling period. Lots of places these days make them en masse and store them in a steam table.

Eggroll, adorned with duck sauce, hot mustard, and chile oil

Their potstickers are superb, made from thin, handmade dough wrappers, and plumply stuffed with tasty minced seasoned pork. They get a nice browning on the bottom, and the tops are perfectly steamed. The dipping sauce is an ideal balance of salty, sour, and sweet, and loaded with ginger, garlic, and minced scallion. Delicious.

Potstickers with dipping sauce 

We were hankering for the chicken with black bean sauce, and one minor downfall is that they don’t keep fresh green chiles on hand; you have to bring your own. We did, and the resulting dish was fantastic: rich and balanced, with tender juicy chicken, and just the right spice level once the jalapeños are thrown in. We also went for the pan fried noodles “Dynasty”, meaning a mixed meat mélange of pork, beef, chicken, and shrimp with the full gamut of vegetables added, all bathed in a rich brown sauce. We asked for “spicy” and “extra garlic” and the top (as you can see from the picture) was covered with bit of golden brown garlic, which perfumed the air of the dining room, and made us very happy.

Chicken with Black Bean Sauce

Pan Fried Noodles with Mixed Meats "Dynasty" with extra garlic!

Service is outstanding; our regular server always knows exactly what we like and adds just the proper amount of conversation with her excellent and unobtrusive delivery of the goods. A great meal in the hood, and just what the doctor ordered after an early evening of Indian cooking (see below).

....chunks of lamb marinating for Boti Kebab

...masala-spiced chana daal (or China dolls, as we call them, after the David Bowie song)

....curry-spiced tamarind aioli

...the beginnings of mustard-flecked tomato chutney

Mick Vann © 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Salad and Shoots at Sap's 9.23.2012

On the way back from visiting mom at the nursing home on Sunday a fierce hunger came over me as I neared the turnoff from Mopac to 360; Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine was close and I needed a Thai food fix. I could almost smell it, and some Homer-like drool was starting to drip. It was hot that afternoon, and a crisp, cool, tingly, spicy salad sounded great to me, so I opted for Sap’s Num Tok Gai , S-S3.


Thought to be an offshoot of the ancient
Isaan salad called laab, num tok (nahm dtok) literally means “water fall” a reference to the beads of internal moisture that form on the edges of the single piece of meat as it cooks over a live fire, which serve as the visual clue for the cook to turn the piece of meat. Another version of the name refers to the fact that traditionally, some blood was always mixed with the meat to embellish the dressing and boost the flavor of the dish. It originated in Isaan, was adopted with relish in the North, and has now spread throughout Thailand. The dressing is pungently spicy, sour, and salty, with just a pinch of sugar to soften the bite. It is generally cooked with beef, although pork, venison, or chicken can be substituted. The meat is cooked to medium rare, and sliced thinly against the grain, and then minced. Once minced, the meat is tossed with sliced shallot, cilantro, mint, sawtooth herb (if available), spicy-limey dressing, and roasted and finely-ground roasted rice (khao nao) which adds texture and helps the dressing cling to the other ingredients. Mint is the predominant herb used and it pairs well with the sour flavors of the lime. Normally in the homeland, a wedge of green cabbage is served alongside as an edible scoop. Num tok is popular as a dish eaten with drinks, as a salad, or as a side dish. Sap’s version is tart, spicy, minty, and especially refreshing; light, yet filling in the summertime. It is served with leaf lettuce and red onion rings, and I love eating it, no matter what the weather is doing.

I also went for another old standby, S-P32, Pad Ped Nor Mai, which is the same sauce as S-P28 and S-P31, what the menu calls “Amazing” sauce. I get S-P32 with ground pork, which pairs well with the sauce and with the bamboo shoots that are the dominating ingredient of the dish. The sauce is a heady and spicy mix of garlic, shallots, fish sauce, Thai chiles, a touch of lime and sugar; sounds kinda plain but the flavor is incredibly complex. The dish is accented by chunks of jalapeño chile and lots of sweet basil; the aroma coming off the bowl blows you away. The taste is over the top, especially when paired with some nutty fragrant jasmine rice.


On the way out I always try to check out the rose bloom bowl by the front door, where rose flowers float on the surface of a bowl, something you see frequently in Thailand as a decoration. Sunday was a good day for the blooms, and the food; as usual.

......bowl of blooms floating in water, Hua Hin, Thailand.

...bowl of plumeria blossoms on the beach, Hua Hin, Thailand

Mick Vann ©

Burgers and Booze at Spec's South

Tequila and Burger Run at Spec’s

Last Saturday we had to run over to Spec’s at 71 and Brodie and grab a bottle of "well" tequila for some cocktails at an upcoming dinner in HTX, and thought we’d grab one of their deli’s superlative burgers while there. In case you haven’t tried the Spec’s deli yet, they produce excellent food, using high quality ingredients, for very reasonable prices, and (and this is the clencher for me) they have TATER TOTS! Dunno about all their ATX-area locations, but the deli at 71 and Brodie is bigger than the one at Mopac and 360, and is usually less crowded.

"Reuben to Die For"

Art decided to go for their amazingly good “Reuben to Die For” at $7.99 (their moniker, not mine). 
It’s amply filled with 1/3 pound Angus corned beef, a nice nutty Swiss cheese, a really good kraut, and Russian dressing, all held between a high quality rye that’s toasted to griddled goodness on the flat top. I couldn’t resist my old standby, the Blue Cheese Bacon Burger ($5.99), a 1/3 pound Angus patty that’s fire-grilled and topped with a rich, tangy blue cheese, and a couple of slabs of thick apple wood-smoked bacon, with ripe tomatoes, red onions rings, crisp leaf lettuce, and a schmear of mayo. They have a wide selection of condiments on the table to choose from, including a natural ketchup, good yellow mustard, and several different elitist hot sauces; for me, and this freaks some folks out, nothing is better on tots or fries than yellow mustard. It’s a holdover from the elementary school days at UT’s Memorial Stadium back in the Knothole Section days, when the Longhorn football game food of choice was a corny dog and fries, slathered with mustard. Austin’s elementary school kids used to be able to buy really cheap tickets to the UT football games, so they could fill the end zones with bodies; we were seated in what they called the “Knothole Section” in the north end zone, and a small herd of us went for every home game.

Blue Cheese and Bacon Burger

The cool thing about Spec’s is that for only a dollar more, you can add tots, fries, onion rings, or curly fries to any burger or sandwich, and you get a mountain of whichever you choose. I have a preternatural love of tater tots, and order them whenever I can, which isn’t that often. Read my previous Tater Tot post here:  
I also got one of their fantastic hot dogs, which is garlicky, peppery, and has a nice juicy snap with every bite; I’d say it’s at least a 4 to 1 (4 oz), although it could be a 3 to 1. It comes with your choice of condiments, on a nice fluffy bun for a measly $1.99. It’s a really good grilled dog. Another advantage of Spec’s is that you have their massive soda selection to choose from (note: we’ve heard rumors of imported Mexican Dr. Pepper, made using real cane sugar, a la Dublin DP). Another advantage is that mere steps away in the cheese section is an assortment of free fancypants cheese samples, which provide a varied, high level amuse-bouche.

...waiting for some mustard slathering.

Alteño Reposado, 100% agave, $12, a steal for the price.....

As for the tequila, we opted for the Alteño Reposado, a 100% agave tequila with assertive agave flavor and a nice finish. For $12 bucks a quart, it’s really hard to beat. Right next to it for the same price is Agavales Reposado, another great but cheap 100% agave tequila. Both are smooth enough to sip, but assertive enough to make an excellent cocktail with true agave taste; they remind me of when I used to be able to get Tesoro for a song. The Alteño will be superb in the tamarind margaritas we’ll be serving before the Indian feast. 
Burgers and booze, Spec’s is the place.

Mick Vann ©