Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Day Good Luck Foods Manifesto (with recipes!)

New Year’s Day: The Good Luck Food Manifesto (with recipes!)

A fantastic and cheap Cava for New Year's Eve and Day: Ana de Cordiníu Brut Rosé

In the Deep South three dishes are requisite fare on New Year’s Day, and all three are based not only on culinary superstition and food symbolism, but the fact that they are abundant and cheap. Cornbread is colored gold, symbolic of riches and fortune. It also rises as it cooks and increases volume, which signifies increasing wealth. Collard greens are, of course, green, suggestive of folding money. Green is also the symbolic color of hope, and a color associated with natural growth: the new buds of a tree or new shoots in a rice field, for example. Black eyed peas, AKA “cow peas”, were grown in the rest of the country to feed cattle, but in the South they are a drought-resistant food staple that thrives in the hottest part of the summer. In the South we love our black eyed peas, and the good luck symbolism is apparent. Their shape loosely resembles a coin (okay, admittedly that one’s a bit of a stretch), but more importantly, they swell up when they cook, greatly increasing their volume, much as you want wealth to expand during the coming year. Some believe you're supposed to eat one pea for each day of the coming year.

In the South, we cook black-eyed peas with smoked ham hock, salted hog jowl, bacon, or pork sausage. Nothing expresses prosperity in non-Jewish and non-Muslim cultures like the pig. Pigs root and feed going forward, symbolizing progress without dwelling on the past. Pigs can feast on scraps, bear many young, and yield lots of meat, much of which can be preserved for later consumption; fatty meat equals a fat wallet.

One popular New Year's Day Southern American dish is “Hoppin’ John”, triple-blessed since it includes black-eyed peas, rice (the many grains signify abundance, and it swells as it cooks), and ham hock. A shiny dime is often thrown into the Hoppin’ John cooking pot, and the person getting the dime in their bowl is due an extra portion of good luck. On the day after New Year's Day, leftover Hoppin’ John becomes “Skippin’ Jenny”, and eating it demonstrates powerful frugality, bringing one even better chances of prosperity. Lots of Southerners believe that you’re supposed to put a face-up coin under the bowl of peas, or throw a coin into the black eyed pea cooking pot, the person finding the coin receiving extra luck.

Call it food for cows and farm animals if you want, but the triumvirate of peas, greens, and cornbread is not only a triple threat luck-wise, but absolutely freakin’ delicious when it hits the table. As for bringing good luck, who can say? All I know is that it can't hurt!

Collard Greens with Bacon and Balsamic Vinegar
Serves 4

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 nutritive 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 Great 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 paper turned into a 23-day long news event that captivated the South (and the nation), and ended up dealing with all manner of cultural affairs, including race, gender, class, and regional chauvinism. For what it’s worth, we prefer eating our cornbread potlikker-soaked, from a solid block of cornbread, eaten with a spoon.

2 bunches of collard greens, washed well, central ribs removed, chopped coarsely (or kale)
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.

Mick’s Mile-High Cornbread
Serves 4 to 8

This recipe originated with my pal Chef Ray Tatum of Austin’s Three Little Pigs trailer, but over the years I've modified it considerably. You can use all-white or all-yellow cornmeal if you like, or mix them in any proportion, half and half. If you make this cornbread in a preheated deep cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, it will develop a deep golden crust, and you want a deep golden crust, trust me.

2 cups white cornmeal
1 cup AP flour
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
3 jumbo eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tablespoon finely minced garlic
3 large jalapeños, minced (seeds and membranes removed for less heat if desired)
2/3 cup fresh or frozen bicolor corn kernels, thawed
3 to 4 green onions, minced
1 1/2 cups 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, scallions, and cheese. 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, and 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.

Note: If you don’t have any buttermilk, you can fake it by these methods:
• Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice into enough regular 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.
• Mix plain yogurt with whole milk. To make 1 cup buttermilk, mix 3/4 cup yogurt with 1/4 cup whole milk.

Southern-Soulfood Black Eyed Peas
Serves 8

These black eyed peas are made using a smoked ham hock, but a leftover meaty bone from the holiday ham also works real nicely. In a pinch you can use smoked sausage, a quarter pound of some good, thick sliced smoked bacon, or even a rinsed slab of sliced salt pork. Fresh black eyed peas are always best, but finding them this time of the year is nigh impossible, so frozen is preferred over canned. Generally the “fresh” peas you find in the produce section of your supermarket around New Year’s are just dried peas that have been soaked and reconstituted You can do that much more economically on your own.

Add cooked rice to these black eyed peas and the dish becomes Hoppin’ John, a dish popularized with the slave laborers in the Old South. Slaves were imported from rice producing West Africa to work the rice fields in the Low Country and Deep South, and black eyed peas and field peas were grown to provide a cheap, plentiful crop to feed the slaves and the cattle. The slaves stewed the peas and rice together as they had in their native Africa, and the dish became popular in the period between Christmas and the new spring planting, when the fields were fallow and the laborers were given some much needed time to rest. Many speculate on the origin of the name of the dish, but no solid historical evidence has surfaced.

2 pounds frozen or fresh black eyed peas
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 pound smoked ham hock
5 cloves garlic, minced or mashed into a paste
1 large onion, chopped coarsely
2 celery ribs, sliced thinly
2 carrots, diced
2 to 4 jalapeno peppers, minced (seeds and ribs removed for less heat if desired)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

Place the black eyed peas in a stock pot and add the chicken stock, 2 cups of water, ham hock, garlic, onions, celery, carrots, jalapenos, salt and pepper to the black eyed peas and bring to a boil. Let boil gently for about 10 minutes and skim any froth that rises to the surface. Reduce heat to a low simmer, add the bay leaf and thyme, and cook while stirring occasionally, covered, for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until black eyed peas are tender. Remove the ham hock, let it cool enough to handle, and remove any good meat from the bone, shredding it and adding it back into the peas.

To reconstitute black eyed peas, pick through for debris, and cover with twice the volume of water, cover, refrigerate, and soak overnight. Rinse and drain and proceed with the recipe.

Here’s a link to a 2008 article I wrote for The Austin Chronicle that covers the New Year good luck food superstitions around the globe. Read it and you’ll see some definite trends emerge, regardless of the cuisine or culture:

Mick Vann ©

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hot Chocolate Barcelona-style

© The Sunday Times

When you’re in Barcelona during the cooler seasons, a popular treat for breakfast or post-drunk very early morning is a fried churro doughnut dusted with sugar and a cup of steaming, thick hot chocolate. Barcelonians take their chocolate very seriously, and some of the world’s best chocolatiers call the city home, so the chocolate they use is often of a very high quality and a high percentage of cacao. There is a chocolatería there called Cacao Sampaka where the hot chocolate is so thick that a spoon inserted vertically in the middle of the cup will stay upright. It’s more like a rich, decadent molten mousse than what we think of as a cup of hot chocolate (which sadly, is often made with a packet of Swiss Miss mix). Make the effort and whip up a steaming mug of this recipe, and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.

Chocolate a la Taza 
                           with whipped cream: “Suissos”
Serves 5 to 6

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (64-70%), nibs, or in small pieces
¾ cup boiling water
2 Tablespoons high-quality cocoa powder
4 to 6 Tablespoons sugar, to taste
3 to 4 Tablespoons arrowroot, dissolved in ¼ cup warm water
2 cups whole milk
2 cups half and half
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Garnish (optional):
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar
A few drops vanilla extract
Shaved or grated milk chocolate

In a cold mixing bowl, whip the cream until slightly thickened; add the sugar and vanilla and continue whipping until peaks form. Reserve chilled.

Place the chocolate in a 3-quart saucepan and top with the boiling water. Stir together and turn the heat on medium-low. Stir in the cocoa powder and sugar,  and then whisk in the arrowroot, milk, half and half, and vanilla. Continue to stir while the mixture heats up, using a wooden spoon at the corners and bottom, to prevent scorching. Continue heating until the mixture is hot and thickened, with little bubbles starting to form at the edges (do not simmer).

Pour 5 ounces or so into pre-warmed mugs. Top with whipped cream, and garnish with chocolate shavings (optional).


If you’re lazy yet still want a decent cup of rich, thick hot chocolate, here is my recipe for making your own instant mix, with good ingredients. It makes a decadently rich and fast mug of hot chocolate that is far FAR superior to Swiss Miss or any of those others.

Mick’s Instant Hot Cocoa Mix
Makes about 13 cups, or ~ 40 servings

4 cups powdered sugar
2½ cups Dutch-process cocoa powder (Droste or similar)
5 cups powdered milk
1½ cups heavy cream powder (or powdered non-dairy creamer)
4 tablespoons arrowroot
2 teaspoon salt
Dash cayenne pepper
Hot water
Mini marshmallows, or whipped cream, plus shaved chocolate for garnish (optional)

Sift all ingredients together into a large mixing bowl and distribute evenly. Portion into resealable bags and shake to re-distribute before measuring-out (in case it has settled); keeps indefinitely in the pantry. Fill a mug half full (about 1/3 of a cup) with the mixture and pour in hot water. Want it thicker and stronger, stir in a little more. Stir to combine. Top with mini marshmallows, or whipped cream, and shaved chocolate.

PS: it’s also good with some Kahlúa or Tia Maria, Bailey’s, Amaretto, Luxardo Espresso Liqueur, Frangelico or Nocello, or Godiva added to the cup!

Mick Vann ©  


Friday, December 13, 2013

¡Hamburgesa Gargantua y Qualidad!

CSC, Cuban Sandwich Café, has moved to much spacier digs, surrounded by other food options, instead of the playground at Harris Elementary School. The old location was in a tiny 50’s strip center on Briarcliff, just off Berkman (my old stomping grounds way back when). Now they are in the strip center on the NW corner of Rutland and N. Lamar, where the sadly departed le Soliel Vietnamese used to hold court, directly opposite Voss Seafood and Grill, across Lamar.

 Enrique’s new spot ensures that you get a roomy, comfortable table and the girls give excellent service. The bakery counters are facing you when you enter, loaded to the brim with éclairs, flan, tarts, and all manner of other goodies. But los dos homies were there for the magnificent, towering Cubanito Burger  ($7.75). Diego showed up a little later and wussed-out, ordering the Cuban. Shane had heard my praises about the Cubanito, but was shocked when it arrived.

Cubanito, with the lid lifted up a little......

On a wonderful fresh house-baked bun sits a vertical column of meats: there are several thin layers of ham, topped with Mr. Reyes’ amazingly moist lechon roast pork, lots of lechon. A hand-formed burger patty sits atop the pork, draped with several slices of bacon. It gets cheddar and swiss cheeses, pickles, mayo, lettuce and tomato, and comes with a side of crispy fries. It’s a work of art, and the juices will flow down your forearms as you eat.

Patata relleno and Yuca con mojo....

Interior view of the Cuban....

We foolishly ordered it with two massive orders of yuca con mojo (tender stewed chunks of yucca swimming in a tart sauce of vinegar and lots of garlic). Shane got a couple orders of patata relleno, a huge golden-fried potato croquette filled with a savory picadillo ground beef stuffing. Both side orders are delicious, but the burger stole the show.  Diego’s Cuban looked fantastic: a long homemade loaf filled with ham and lechon roast pork, pickles, swiss, mayo, and mustard.  We left there very full and very happy. I will definitely be back for the ropa vieja, oxtails, palomilla, and I’m just guessing here, but Enrique’s pollo frito fried chicken is probably gonna be a true delight. This place rocks, and should have lines out the door.

Enrique Reyes hissownself....nice guy, great baker and chef..

Cuban Sandwich Café
9616 N. Lamar, (512) 669-5242

My previous review of Cuban Sandwich Café in the Austin Chronicle:

 Mick Vann ©

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rancho Guajalote 2013

Once again the annual Turkey Day gathering commenced at Rancho Winslow, with fairly decent weather and an abundance of spirits. The usual suspects were present, with a couple of exceptions. Everyone’s favorite retired veterinarian/bon vivant and Rancho Winslow regular Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham was MIA, reportedly somewhere in the hollers of NorCalina. But as an unexpected bonus, and no slouch in the appetite department hisownself, Jeffrey Barnes, the saxophone virtuoso of nuclear polka Grammy-band Brave Combo, and his charming better half Gina, were dropping in. Aviline, CBoy’s mom, who had just celebrated birthday number 95, came with her compadre and fellow mom, Nancy Barnes, mother of Princess Di. Daughter Havalah showed up with number one daughter spawn, and Christian, her charming ex. R popped out a little later with her son Ross, making his first RW appearance. It was a small but solid crew, dedicated to giving some thanks, celebrating, and chowing down.

Princess Di, the Martha Stewart of Manchaca, and I had been cogitating about the menu, and made some grandiose plans, but as the day approached, we came to our senses. The turkey was originally going to be brined, spatchcocked, and grilled, but our head griller, CBoy, insisted on non-grilling. It didn’t get butterflied and brined because it wasn’t thawed in time, so instead, it got its cavity stuffed with celery, carrots, onions, garlic, thyme, sage, and parsley, and then settled down to a long, warm golden-brown slumber at 350°F, with a frequent basting of butter and turkey schmaltz. The ham got crisscrossed-slashed and baked, and then got a finishing glaze of habanero-pineapple jam, apricot jam, German mustard, brown sugar, and roasted garlic.

I fought my way into the SuperHEB in Kyle and procured the last few packages of fresh turkey thighs, and
a package of chicken necks. They would join the turkey neck in the pot with celery, carrot, garlic, onion butts, and herbs, for some rich, slow-simmered turkey stock. I used it to make the dressing, this year made with sausage, onions, roasted garlic, celery, sage, thyme, parsley, walnuts, dried cherries (plumped in the turkey stock), day-old French bread cubes, a couple of bright gold-yolked RW yard eggs, and that turkey stock. CBoy declared it the best dressing he had ever eaten, which speaks volumes, considering his advanced age.

There was a dish of baked sliced red sweet potatoes and apples, topped with toasted pecans and a spiced topping of butter, honey, brown sugar, and dark rum; a nice little combo. Di made her famous slaw of cabbages and broccoli stems, sweet onion, and a ginger-lime dressing, garnished with toasted sesame seeds. I blanched some beautiful green beans for 6 minutes, and then sautéed them with butter, turkey fat, thick-sliced mushrooms, and then finished them with roasted garlic and touch of turkey stock. There was huge platter of fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, pineapple, and red grapes).  Nancy made some of her wonderful cranberry relish, to go with the canned cranberry jelly that Havie insists on (not bad on a PB and J by the way). While all that stuff was cooking, Nancy had thrown together a nosh of her famous slow-cooker chile con queso, scooped up with Frito’s.

There was plenty of Old Forester, an inexpensive ($18 per fifth) and very highly-rated bourbon, which I heartily endorse and recommend. Di and Gina had a big bottle of Monoplowa Vodka and the makings for cosmos. Monoplowa was originally made in Poland (the name means “State Monopoly”) but has migrated to Austria. It’s made from spuds and is a bargain at the low price ($12.50 for a fifth), if you happen to be a vodka drinker, which I am not. Vodka is watered-down Everclear and LOTS of overblown advertising.

I had brought some Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, one of the finest India pale ales, to go with CBoy’s Shiner White Wing (which is pretty damn good in its own right).  I brought a box of Big House White, a bottle of Borsao Garnacha (an old standby Spanish red at a great price), and two of Silver Range Malbec (excellent, considering the $8.50 price tag). I wanted some white, just in case there were white drinkers, and Spec’s NEVER has the better box wines (I went there looking for Jack Tone White, Silver Birch NZ Sauv Blanc, or R. Müeller Riesling; Big House Great Escape Chard was the fallback, and they didn’t even have that, not that Big House White is horrible). Di had grabbed a bottle of Apothic and a Beaujolais, so we were set.

There were store-bought rolls to pop in the oven and some soft butter for schmearing, and Nancy brought one of her famous pineapple upside-down cakes, to go with one of HEB bakery’s finest pumpkin pies (and some Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla). Sorry, no dessert pics; I was in a tryptophan, Dogfish Head, Old Forester, and Malbec haze by then.

The turkey came out very moist and tasty; ditto for the ham. The meat from the turkey stock turkey thighs was saved for some turkey mole enchiladas further down the calendar a bit. The dressing was superb (as declared by CBoy), and the accompanying gravy rich and luscious. All of the side dishes soared above expectations; same for the accompaniments. We put a serious dent in the spirits supply, and the crowd was especially jolly. UT even beat Tech. Many thanks were given, and old friends reconnected, and epoxied together with new friends. Nobody hit deer or got hit by deer on their way out. All things considered, Turkey Day at Rancho Winslow was a huge, delicious success.

Stuffing with Dried Cherries, Sausage, and Walnuts:           
serves 6 to 8

1 medium onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup celery, minced
2 tablespoons butter
8 cups bread, cubed, let air-dry
1½ cups rich turkey or chicken broth (homemade, highly preferred)
¾ cup dried cherries, plumped 30 min in hot turkey stock, drained
1¼ cups cup cooked sausage, chopped coarsely
1 cup dry-toasted walnuts, chopped
¼ cup parsley, chopped
3 eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon sage
½ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon salt (or a little more, to taste)
½ teaspoon pepper

Cook sausage in skillet until browned, breaking it up as it cooks. Sauté onions, garlic, and celery in butter until soft. Transfer to large bowl. Moisten bread with broth and add to sautéed vegetables. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. If the mixture seems a little dry, add a bit more broth. Transfer to buttered casserole and bake 35 minutes at 350°F.

Sausage can be ground breakfast sausage, Italian sausage, or any type of cooked link sausage. To make it extra special, use the amazingly good smoked turkey sausage from Billy Inman, of Inman’s Ranch House BBQ in Marble Falls.

Mick Vann ©