Sunday, November 28, 2010

REVOLT! A Pox on Chicken Breasts!

There’s just no accounting for people’s tastes. That’s the only explanation I can come up with regarding the majority of ignorant diner’s obsession with breast meat when it comes to chicken consumption. It doesn’t matter if it’s broiled, grilled, roasted, stir-fried, or smoked; whatever form it takes is second-rate. All of the fried chicken joints charge extra for white meat; they are used to the demands of the dullard finger lickers. Most chefs and restaurant operators are afraid to use anything but chicken breast, because that’s what the customers crave. On top of that, these less than informed consumers want a skinless chicken breast. It’s not their fault, they just don’t know any better.

Here’s the problem with this scenario. Today’s processor-raised chicken breasts have absolutely no taste whatsoever, especially when the skin (which contains the precious schmaltz, or fat) is removed. As with all meats, fat equals flavor. These breasts also have a tendency towards toughness and stringiness, and they are prone to being overcooked. Most of the time, that skinless, portioned-controlled, nitrate-injected chicken breast arrived at the back door of your favorite restaurant as a chunk of frozen breast packed into a round indention on a plastic tray, a dozen to the tray, four trays to the case. To the casual observer they look like a pinkish-tan cylinder, an inch and a half tall, and three and a half inches across. Chefs call them hockey pucks, which is a good indicator of what they taste like.

With the typical Sysco/Tyson/Perdue/etc. puck, all of the tenderloin has been removed, along with part of the breast, to become chicken tenders for the fried chicken and fast food joints. The uneven edges of the breast are removed to be minced into oblivion, and reformed into pre-breaded fake chicken “tenders”, a misnomer, since they are actually breaded patties given quasi-natural tenderloin-like shapes. The tenders can be shaped and molded to resemble a portion of an actual chicken tender, or formed into patties which may or may not resemble anything that once clucked or had feathers. These are the frozen units that today’s youth are so addicted to; the easily microwaveable chicken-like unit that is every busy mom’s best friend. The fat content gets all jacked up with empty breading calories, and it’s pumped full of salt to give it some taste.

For a substantially cheaper price, the chef could instead order a boneless chicken thigh, preferably skin-on, but they could also order skinless. The big advantage to using boneless thighs, even skinless chicken thighs, is that they actually taste like chicken. They have residual fat content in the meat, which means they have rich flavor. Of course, a skin-on boneless thigh is blessed with even more fat, therefore even more flavor. Add the thigh bone, and it gets better still. A boneless thigh is tender and never stringy. It is much more forgiving when overcooked by some moronic fast food teen gastroworker. Since it comes with its own built-in flavor, it requires little salt to taste good, so it is healthier.

The only chicken breast that should ever be eaten is a bone-in, skin-on breast, hopefully from a bird that was raised frolicking in a verdant field full of bugs, worms, grains, and weeds. Barring frozen, “mechanically-pulled” white meat chicken, the hockey puck breast is the lowest form of chickendom, and frankly, we deserve better. Rise up chicken eaters! Demand flavor, tenderness, taste, and lower prices! Shake off the cloak of public shame and insist on eating chicken thighs. The next time you’re gnawing your way through a stringy, tough, tasteless hockey puck, imagine how good it could be if it were a rich, tender, flavorful chicken thigh with chickeny goodness that would make a Jewish grandmother proud. We deserve better.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Insults from the Golden Age of Language

Back before twitter and cuss words, folks had the ability to decimate their opponents with a few carefully chosen words. Borrowed from the Net. Witness:

The exchange between Churchill & Lady Astor: She said, "If you were my husband I'd give you poison." and he said, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it."

A member of Parliament to Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease."......
"That depends, Sir," said Disraeli, "whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

"He had delusions of adequacy." Walter Kerr.

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
Winston Churchill

"A modest little person, with much to be modest about." Winston Churchill

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure." Clarence Darrow

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)......

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." Moses Hadas

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." Abraham Lincoln

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." Mark Twain

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." Oscar Wilde

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one." George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill......

"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second¦ if there is one." Winston Churchill, in response.

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here."
Stephen Bishop

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator." John Bright

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial." Irvin S. Cobb

"He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others."
Samuel Johnson

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up." Paul Keating

"There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure." Jack E. Leonard

"He has the attention span of a lightning bolt." Robert Redford

"They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge." Thomas Brackett Reed

"In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily."
Charles, Count Talleyrand

"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him." Forrest Tucker

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?" Mark Twain

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork." Mae West

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." Oscar Wilde

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts¦ for support rather than illumination." Andrew Lang

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Roads and Deer (Not Venison-Related)

Back in decades past, the University of Georgia did a lot of research on the hearing of deer. Don’t ask me why they did this, but trust me that they did. I found this out when I was calling around talking to assorted deer experts in connection with an idea I had for a product that was going to keep those pesky deer out of folk’s gardens. It was all about sonic deer deterrence. The sad result of this research was that deer basically hear the same frequencies that humans hear, although they hear those frequencies in a much more sensitive manner, since they can not only swivel their ears, but their ears are cupped and huge.

If deer hear what we hear, then those deer whistler doo dads that people attach to their front bumpers are completely ineffective. Do you hear any racket coming out of your deer whistlers as you motor down the road? Of course you don’t, and neither do the deer. There’s no telling how many millions of dollars have been wasted on worthless deer whistler sales over the decades, yet they are still being made and sold.

Deer and auto collisions are a very big deal, especially in deer country like Texas. During breeding season, known as “the rut”, sex-crazed bucks are the most likely to run right in front of (or into) your vehicle while they are chasing a doe, or battling it out with another buck for the right to chase some doe. In Texas the rut occurs in November and December, and if there’s any doubt about when it starts or ends, just check with your local auto body shop. You can also look at how fat and sassy the buzzards are that time of the year. In the U.S. every year there are 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions, costing an estimated $1 billion dollars. Of these, about 6% cause human injuries, and some even cause death. My insurance agent has told me horror stories about people from my own area getting killed by deer hurtling through their windshields, or fatalities caused by people swerving off the road to avoid deer and running into trees. I have a friend that sliced completely through the midsection of a deer on his very fast motorcycle one night; the deer died instantly, my friend spent three months in the hospital and almost died.

In these parts, collisions with feral hogs can also be a problem, and the rules for driving with deer apply to them as well. Deer are most active along the roads at dusk and dawn and very late at night when some drivers are seeing double or are tired and nodding-off. Deer especially like to cross roads near the crests of hills, and will often travel in groups, so if you see one cross the road, expect more to be following. During the rut, bucks are just plain nuts, so expect deer to come flying out of anywhere during November and December. Deer will often feed right along the edge of the road, especially during droughts, so watch for their eyes to illuminate in your headlights and be ready to stop if necessary. If they are focused on feeding they will probably ignore you as you drive past. Whenever you see a deer crossing sign, trust that it knows what it’s warning you about; they get placed based on patrol incident reports and feedback from the crews that pickup animal carcasses, as well as the blood spatter stains on the surface of the road.

If you see deer along the roadway slow down if at all possible and let them do their thing. Don’t honk your horn unless you absolutely have to, as this startles the deer, including the ones that you don’t see just off of the road. Whatever you do, never leave the roadway to avoid a deer collision; hitting a deer will mess up your vehicle, but a deer moves when it’s hit, and lots of trees, culverts, big rocks, etc. do not. If you successfully pass deer along the road and want to warn an oncoming vehicle of the deer’s presence, hit your warning lights. Some experts tell you to hit your high beams, but that can send mixed signals (cops ahead, dim your lights asshole, etc). When a driver sees you hit your warning lights, you can take it to be a legitimate warning.

Out where I live, on the edge of the Texas Hillcountry, deer collisions are a real concern. Maybe they aren’t that big a deal where you live, but at some point you’ll have to drive on a rural road (or even on Mopac) during the deer witching hours, and this bit of practical advice might just come in handy. You’re welcome, Mick

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pigs in America: A History

The pig dates back 40 million years to fossils which indicate that wild porcine animals roamed forests and swamps in Europe and Asia. Remains of the earliest known North American peccary, Perchoerus, are from late Eocene sediments dating from 37 million years ago in North America. But it's the domesticated pig that holds our interest. Pigs were domesticated in China around 4900BC (although some experts claim 7000 to 6000BC in Western Asia) and were being raised in Europe by 1500BC. The Romans improved pig breeding and spread pork production throughout their empire. Two main types were developed: one breed was large, with floppy ears, and produced copious amounts of lard, while the other was of a smaller frame, with erect ears, used primarily for meat.

Jewish religious law banned the eating of pork before 1000BC, based on a belief that pigs were unclean since they ate waste, and there was the fear of disease (no doubt associated with contracting trichinosis from eating improperly cooked pork or the belief that pork meat didn't last long before "going off"); don't forget that nomadic cultures are not as suited to pigs as they are to cattle, sheep, or camels. Early Christians also shunned pork, but by around AD50 those restrictions were relaxed. Muhammad also banned the consumption of pork, resulting in a severe decline in the pig population of the Middle East and Western Asia. Europe, being principally Christian, embraced the pig: Swine ate anything, reproduced prodigiously, and their meat was easily preserved. By the 1500's in Europe, the Celtic people in the north were breeding large-bodied, well-muscled pigs, while in Southern Europe, the Iberians had developed smaller-framed, lard-type pigs. All of the pigs of this time period were dark-colored.

At Queen Isabella's insistence, Christopher Columbus took eight pigs on his voyage to Cuba in 1493. They were tough and could survive the voyage with minimal care, they supplied an emergency food source if needed, and those that escaped provided meat for hunting on return trips. But Hernando de Soto was the true "father of the American pork industry." He brought America's first 13 pigs to Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1539. As the herds grew, explorers used the pigs not only for eating as fresh meat but for salt pork and preserved pork. American Indians were reportedly so fond of the taste of pork that attacks to acquire it resulted in some of the worst assaults on the expedition. By the time de Soto died three years later, his original herd of 13 pigs had grown to 700 – a very conservative estimate. This number doesn't include the pigs eaten by his troops, those that escaped and became wild pigs (the ancestors of today's feral pigs), and those given to the American Indians to keep the peace. The pork industry in America had begun.

As an interesting tidbit, the feared buccaneers of the Caribbean derived their name from the Arawak Indian word buccan, referring to a wooden frame used for smoking meats. The French changed this to boucan and called the French hunters who used these frames to cook and preserve feral cattle and the offspring of Columbus' pigs on the island of Hispaniola boucanier. English colonists anglicized the word to buccaneers.

Pig production spread rapidly through the new colonies. Cortés introduced hogs to New Mexico in 1600 while Sir Walter Raleigh brought sows to Jamestown colony in 1607. Semi-wild pigs ravaged New York colonists' grain fields to the extent that every pig of 14 inches or more in height that was owned by a colonist was required to have a ring in its nose to make it easier to control. On Manhattan Island, a long solid wall to exclude rampaging pigs was constructed on the northern edge of the colony; it created the name for the area now known as Wall Street. By 1660 the pig population of Pennsyl­vania Colony numbered in the thousands. By the end of the 1600s, the typical farmer owned four or five pigs, supplying salt pork, ham, and bacon for his table; any surplus was sold as "barreled pork" (pork meat preserved in salted brine, contained in wooden barrels). Finishing pigs before slaughter on American Indian corn became popular in Pennsylvania, setting the new standard for fattening before the late fall pork harvest.

At the end of the 1700s, pioneers started heading west, taking their utilitarian pigs with them. Wooden crates filled with young pigs often hung from the axles of prairie schooner wagons. As western herds increased, processing and packing facilities began to spring up in major cities. Pigs were first commercially slaughtered in Cincinnati, which became known as "Porkopolis"; by the mid 1800s Cincinnati led the nation in pig processing. Getting the pigs to market in the 1850s was no small task. Drovers herded their pigs along trails, with the aid of drivers who handled up to 100 pigs each. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 pigs were driven from Ohio to eastern markets in any given year. A herd could travel 5-8 miles a day and covered total distances up to 700 miles.

In 1887 Swift & Co. introduced the refrigerated railroad car, chilled by a solution of ice and salt (mechanical refrigeration wouldn't appear until 1947). It created a revolution in pig farming: Slaughterhouses could be centralized near production centers since processed pork meat could be shipped instead of live hogs. Large terminal markets developed in Chicago; Kansas City, Mo; St. Joseph, Mo.; and Sioux City, Iowa. Centralized packing plants were located adjacent to the stockyards. The natural progression was for the pork industry to relocate to the Upper Midwest, where the majority of the grain was raised; Corn Belt morphed into Hog Belt. Today Iowa is still the top pork producer in the States.

The trend was for developing herds that produced higher numbers of offspring and pigs that were leaner (resulting in better feed efficiency). Husbandry methods emphasized control of diseases caused by huge factory pig-raising techniques, introducing the use of prophylactic antibiotics. Pork had become "the Other White Meat", and although production was more efficient and cost-effective, the taste was steadily being bred away.

Now the trend is toward a return to the older, fattier, tastier heritage breeds such as the Berkshire, the Red Wattle, the Tamworth, the Large Black, the Mule Foot, the Old Spot, and the Ossabaw (a direct descendant of the original Iberico black-footed hogs imported by the Spaniards to Savannah, Ga., some 400 years ago). Their meat has superior taste and texture, with marbling that retains the moisture of the meat. There is also a greatly increased demand for small farm, pasture-raised, organically grown pigs, and rejection of methods such as water-injection for finished pork. A happier pig is a tastier pig!

Mick Vann © originally published in the Austin Chronicle

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Shaking Beef

It's not about frightened cows or rockabilly bovines, but a famous dish from Vietnam that is one of my all-time faves. It is often included in the Vietnamese classic Bo Bay Mon, or Beef Cooked Seven Ways (Seven Courses of Beef), and you can get it in Austin at both Sunflower and Soleil (which also offers the full Beef 7 Ways), and it is excellent at both places. The version I had a Soleil last week was especially rich and tender. Sometimes you might find it listed as "Vietnamese Beef" on some of the more Americanized menus, if you can find it at all. Following is a great recipe for the dish taken from the cookbook I wrote with Art Meyer: The Appetizer Atlas. It cooks in a couple of minutes and is a fantastic summer dish, or a cool season salad.

Sautéed Beef on Watercress
"Shaking Beef"
Bo Luc Lac

Serves 8 as an appetizer (3 ounces of beef per person), or 3 to 4 as an entree

This warm beef salad gets its colorful name from the action of the beef cubes as they dance in the sizzling oil in the skillet. It is a dish seldom found on Vietnamese restaurants menus in the U.S., and illustrates the French influence on the cuisine of Vietnam by the use of olive oil. In Vietnam this dish is most often served at home as an evening appetizer to accompany drinks, with a small dish of mixed salt and pepper accompanying, to which lemon or lime juice has been added, for dipping the beef cubes.

1 pound lean rib eye or sirloin steak, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 stalk (bottom half) lemongrass, sliced very thin, chopped very finely in an electric spice grinder
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon chile paste, e.g. sambal oelek, or similar
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

For the Salad:
1 large sweet onion, halved, paper-thin slices (1015Y onions, or similar, are preferred)
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 garlic cloves, minced finely
Sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups watercress, rinsed, drained, heavy stems removed

Advance Preparation
1, Combine the lemon grass, soy sauce, chile paste, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and 2 teaspoons of the vegetable oil. Mix well.
2. Place the beef cubes in a resealable plastic bag and pour the marinade over the beef cubes, toss well, and allow to marinate for 1 hour.
3. Marinate the onions in the vinegar, sugar, garlic, black pepper and olive oil. Allow the onions to marinate for 1 hour.

Cooking Method
4. Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium high heat, Add the remaining 2 cloves of garlic and sauté seconds.
5. Add the beef cubes with their marinade. Sauté quickly, searing the outside. Cook medium rare.

6. Toss the watercress with the onion mixture. Pour the hot beef with the pan juices over the watercress salad and serve immediately. Accompany with a small side dish of equal amounts of finely ground sea salt and black pepper to which a small amount of fresh lime or lemon juice has been added.

Chef Notes- Be careful not to burn the garlic when cooking the beef. Add the hot beef immediately before service to prevent the watercress from wilting. Beef or lamb tenderloin may be substituted for the beef ribeye, if seared only to the point of rare. Pork tenderloin may be substituted for the beef if cooked to the point of medium.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some Philosophy from Kenny Shopsin, Kitchen God:

For those unfamiliar with Kenny Shopsin, I would encourage you to buy/find/borrow a copy of his cookbook- Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin. And while you're at it, track down the DVD "I Like Killing Flies", a documentary that focuses on Shopsin's, a very unique cafe with a 900-item menu that used to be in Greenwich Village. This guy is my hero, and his philosophy should be glorified by cooks and chefs worldwide.

" In most cases the reason I don't do special requests has to do with the customer's reason for making it. Most of the time when a customer makes a special request, it's not about the food but about his own desire to be in control and to establish his own specialness. Making people feel special through this kind of ass kissing is one of the services that a restaurant can provide to people who need it, but it's not a service that I want to provide. I have been cooking for thirty years and I've got a thousand things on the menu and you're going to take one thing and make it different? Uh-uh. Try it my way for once."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Brisketology for the BBQ-Challenged:

Beef brisket can be one of the most difficult cuts of meat to cook properly, especially on a barbecue pit. Do it right, and it’s like heaven…do it wrong, and it’s like eating your shoes. Everyone has their secrets on the best way, and brisket secrets are held near and dear, especially by those who excel.

Briskets came into popularity after the decline of the local meat markets, when beef was shipped off to feedlots in boxcars to be fattened, slaughtered, and processed into primal cuts, only to be boxed up, and shipped back. The old time markets were often teamed up with local beef ranchers, as a way for the rancher to market his product, and many of the Texas BBQ joints were started by butchers who were bankrolled (either directly or indirectly) by the ranchers. If you were raising cattle, it only made sense to sell them locally if possible. Back then all anyone wanted to eat were the best cuts: ribeyes and rib roasts, sirloins and strips, porterhouses, and round steaks. Nobody used hamburger yet, so all the leftovers and trimmings were made into sausages, usually smoked sausages, because they had a long shelf life and few folks had refrigeration.

Once the markets changed, beef BBQ was no longer limited to the cuts that nobody wanted: the forequarters and shoulders. There were other cuts to explore. Edgar Black Jr. of Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas was one of the first to decide that the brisket was a nicely marbled and inexpensive cut to barbecue, and others soon followed in his step. There are still holdouts that stayed with the shoulder clod, but today most of the clod smokers also barbecue briskets. Think of the shoulder clod as the bovine equivalent of the pork shoulder (AKA Boston Butt, shoulder roast). In West Texas they still favor the sirloin, but there’s brisket out west as well. If you’re a clod fanatic, you can skip the 20-pound chunk that is the clod and get a more manageable shoulder roast instead.

If you look at a cow, the brisket is the chest area, between the front legs and up a tad. It gets a lot of exercise from walking, so it’s tough meat. It’s also fatty and loaded with collagen (fibrous connective tissue), which turns gelatinous if you cook it right: low and slow. A brisket is divided into two separate parts or muscles, the “flat” and the “point”, with a layer of fat in the middle that doesn’t render. For barbecue brisket you will want it whole and undivided, and you want a “Packer’s Cut”, meaning it’s untrimmed, with a 1” layer of fat on the top called the fat cap. This fat cap self-bastes the meat while it cooks, helping to keep it moist.

When picking out the brisket that’s right for you, remember that the bigger the brisket, the bigger (and tougher) the cow it came from. A good size is in the 8 to 10-pound range. You want a brisket that is flexible, which simply means it droops down on both sides when you hold it in the middle. Look for the most marbling you can find running through the meat, fat that’s white in color, and deep red meat. It’s going to lose around 35 to 40% of its weight in the cooking process (one reason cooked BBQ brisket isn’t cheap to buy). Trimming of the fat cap ranges from ¼” to 1”. Judge the fat content of the meat to determine how much fat cap you should trim off. Take off too much and the meat will be dry. A lot of folks just leave the whole thing on, and trim it after cooking, but then the area trimmed will have little smoke ring, and no spice crust. You might also want to remove some of the middle fat layer, again, depending on how well-marbled your brisket is.

Most folks cook briskets indirectly at 225 to 250º, and figure about 1½ to 2 hours per pound of starting weight. Make sure that the meat is at room temperature or close to it when you begin. The cut is big and dense, and you should start it out so the center isn’t cold. Brisket marinades tend to be on the acid side, the theory being that the acid will break down connective tissues and help get some flavor inside. Briskets will absorb a lot of smoke as they cook, so be sure to avoid over-smoking syndrome by using burned-down coals only, and never any green wood with briskets. Always cook the brisket fat cap up, so it bastes the meat below as the fat melts.

Always allow the meat to rest at least 15 to 20 minutes after you remove it from the fire, even a little longer is better. Always slice brisket against the grain, in slices that aren’t too thick. If you cooked it right, it’ll be smoky, moist, and flavorful. If you blew it, you have no one but yourself to blame for your cretinous ways.

Mick ©

Friday, June 4, 2010

American Cattle and the Longhorn: A Snapshot

No history of the cattle industry in America can be told without mentioning the major influences of Texas, and the Texas Longhorn. Back in the days before the arrival of the white man, America’s cow was the buffalo (American bison). Texas was the home of the birth of the American beef industry, and the Longhorn was the original genetic melting pot for all of the great American cattle herds.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought a small herd of long-horned Spanish cattle to Santa Domingo in the Caribbean. These were cattle of Moorish-Andalusian ancestry, originally from North Africa, and adopted by Spain; they were tough cattle that could handle the ocean passage. These Andalusians (AKA “black cattle”) were occasionally able to escape captivity and go feral, and once in the wild they thrived, growing big-boned, long-legged, lean, and swift, with immense horns providing ominous offensive weapons and defensive protection. They also acquired a reputation as being particularly ornery and clever.

In 1521 Gregorio Villabos imported cows from Santa Domingo into Mexico, and in 1565 Menendez de Aviles brought some of them into Florida. The English, while colonizing North America, brought their native cattle in 1623, and as they moved west and south so did their cattle, pulling wagons and plows and providing milk. Some maintain the big horns, speckled colors, and body types were derived from the Longhorn Herefords of England. Others believe the blue and roan speckled stock reflected early Durham (shorthorn) British influence. The Spanish breeds were represented by drab, earth tone colors.

In 1690, the first herd of about 200 head of cattle was driven northeast from Mexico to a Spanish mission near the Sabine River, in what would later become Texas. The cattle were much better survivors than the priests and the vaquero ranchers who accompanied them, and the cattle escaped domestication, went feral, rapidly multiplied, and became an adapted native species.

In 1821, cattle brought into Texas from North Carolina began to intermingle with the Spanish and English cattle; American Indians had developed their own hybrid cattle from the Spanish and English strains. Many of the first settlers of Texas came from the South to raise cotton, and they brought with them a few cows, mostly of British or hybrid breeds. These cows mixed with the Spanish breeds already in Texas and soon grew into considerable herds. Although “Mexican” cattle of the long-horned variety, known as “Criollo”, provided the basic strain, historian J. Frank Dobie estimated the Texas Longhorns evolved from 80% Spanish influence and 20% mongrel (British hybrid) influence.

These Texas cattle had long legs, lanky bodies, with big, tough feet built for speed. It took a fast horse with a skilled rider to outrun a Texas Longhorn and live to tell about it. They could withstand blizzards, blazing heat, droughts, hail and dust storms, and attacks by predators and Indians. They lost little weight on long trail drives, and could forge fast-flowing rivers. Longhorns weren’t prone to stampede, and were easier to control when they did. They didn’t need large amounts of water to survive and could forage nicely on the native growth. They were prolific breeders, and a strong sense of smell made it easy for the cow to find her calf, which she would ferociously defend.

There was probably no meaner creature in Texas than an upset Longhorn bull. His ancestors were the fighting bulls of Spain, and the slightest provocation would turn him into an aggressive, dangerous, and uncontrollable enemy. His razor sharp horns could measure over eight feet long from tip to tip and could rip open a challenger with ease. They possessed incredible strength, and when two bulls met, a fight to the death often ensued. Only a crafty and well-armed cowboy on a smart mount stood a chance against a Longhorn bull.

As the population of cattle (and people) increased in Texas, small acreage ranchers ranged their cattle primarily on vacant public lands. Truth be told, some ranchers with thousands of head of cattle didn’t own a single acre of land. Some opportunists who moved to Texas invested all their money in cattle and depended on the open range for pasture. If you had no money you could get your start by branding calves “on share” for other ranchers. For every four they branded for the rancher, they got one freebie for their own herd.

J. Frank Dobie, noted Texan humorist, writer, and historian, author of The Longhorn:
“There is a widespread idea, even among people who should know better, that trail driving originated after the Civil War, when a lone Texas herd headed for some vague point 'north of 36.' As a matter of fact, on the very day the Texans whipped the Mexicans at San Jacinto, in 1836, a herd of Texas longhorns from Taylor White's ranch west of the Neches River was trailing for New Orleans. Cattle had been trailed out of Texas before that. Through the 'forties they were trailed north into Missouri and also to Louisiana markets. There is a record of one herd's trailing to New York, about 1850, and through the ‘fifties thousands of steers were driven across the continent to California. The trailing business attained volume and became well organized when in 1867 Abilene, Kansas, opened as a market.”

At the end of the Civil War there were an estimated 5 million cattle in Texas, and many were unclaimed mavericks, just waiting to be branded and claimed by returning soldiers. There were so many cattle in the state that the market was seriously depressed, but up north and back east, cattle were getting top dollar. Cattle started flowing north on the Chisholm, Loving-Goodnight, Shawnee, Abilene, and the Dodge City trails until the market was saturated and the ranges up there were fully stocked with herds. The drives established the cowboy as a folk hero of mammoth proportions, while the big money to be made, general lawlessness, and the lack of brands created his nemesis: the cattle rustler. Between 1866 and 1890, some 10 million cattle were driven on the trails out of Texas. The period between 1870 and 1880 was known as the “Beef Bonanza”.

1873 was an ominous year for the Longhorn…the first patent for barbed wire was issued. By 1885 few of the pure-blooded Longhorns remained in Texas because so many had been sent up the trail, and the residual Longhorns were being crossbred with newer breeds like the Durham and the Hereford from Europe. Around the same time the great trail drives started petering-out due to deeded and fenced property, rail transport, farms and field crops, and rapidly developing towns cluttering the trails. In 1890 the USDA estimated the nation's cattle population at 60 million head, with most of them containing a majority percentage of Texas Longhorn blood.

By 1900 even more European breeds, like the Shorthorn and the Angus, came to the US, and because of the Longhorn’s desirable and excellent mothering ability, the new strains were bred-up to purebreds in this country from a native Longhorn base. Pure Longhorn blood was rapidly being bred out of existence. Tallow, the main ingredient in candles (still the main source of light for most back then) came from rendering animal fat. Soaps, lubricants and cooking also required tallow. Early beef processing plants were called “Hide and Tallow” companies, and meat was merely an economic by-product. All of this cattle migration and mayhem was to produce tallow and leather, not meat. The lean Longhorns rendered 80% less than the other breeds…another reason for the breed’s demise. There were more buffalo in the US than Longhorns at the turn of the century.

By 1930, most of the open range was fenced, highways were going in, fields were plowed, and cattle barons selected their favorite breeds for fatter cattle. Six unique strains of Longhorns had been isolated and bred by individual ranchers who realized their value and feared their loss. In 1927 the U. S. government recognized how close the Longhorns were to extinction, and established a seventh strain (using genetics from the remaining six strains) at wildlife refuges in Oklahoma and Nebraska. In 1931 Sid Richardson, J. Frank Dobie, and Graves Peeler selected and established a herd for the State of Texas. By 1960 there were only 1500 head of pure Longhorns in existence, and 500 of them were in national parks and zoos, the rest were in private herds.

Today Longhorns have bounced back from the brink of extinction. Drive down any rural road in Central Texas and you’ll see small herds of the breed frolicking in pastures and contentedly chewing their cud. Butchers are once more offering Longhorn steaks at specialty gourmet and farmer’s markets. The noble breed from the Lone Star State built the US cattle industry into what it is today, and the nation’s beef eaters and barbecuers, at least in Texas anyway, would be completely lost without it.

Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Tappan Goes Atomic!

Bill Tappan started his company, the Ohio Valley Foundry Co., in 1881 by selling cast iron stoves door-to-door from a horse-drawn wagon. Known for high quality and craftsmanship, Tappan Stove Company has had several firsts in the history of cooking ranges. In the 1920’s they produced the first enamel-covered stoves (available in several pastel colors), and in the 1960’s Tappan came out with the first electric-ignition burners. The igniters used a principle discovered by brothers Pierre and Jacques Curie in 1880, whereby electricity is generated by compressing quartz crystals. Pierre was hubby to the much more famous Madame Marie Curie, she of the atomic glowing, and discoverer of radioactivity (not to mention the first person to win two Nobel prizes). In 1965, Tappan came out with a deluxe cooking center that was 30-inches wide, the first to combine a conventional range and a microwave together in a single unit. The new age had arrived.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ribology 101

Pork spareribs come from the chest of the pig, and are attached to the sternum (breastplate) before removal. They are the meatiest of the ribs, and have the most flavor. Back ribs, or “baby” back ribs (AKA loin ribs) come from the central section of the pig, beginning where the sparerib ends, almost connecting to the backbone. They are much less meaty, smaller, less flavorful, more expensive, more tender (but much more likely to be overcooked and dried-out since they have less self-basting fat), and more likely to be glazed with some kind of gloppy sauce. Baby backs are the rib fodder butchered for your neighborhood national chain restaurant menu, and they have nothing to do with the age of the pig. Ribologists avoid these types of restaurants, and their puny rib offerings.

“Country style ribs” aren’t technically really ribs, but are cut from the blade end of the pork loin They do have sections of the blade bone running through them, and come from an area right next to and above the head end of the spareribs. They are good and meaty, if a little lean, and grill much better than they barbecue, but they are not ribs (even though the supermarket says so).

A whole rack (AKA “slab”) of spareribs has the breast bone and cartilage intact, and any meat cooked with bone and costal (rib) cartilage equals more flavor. If the breast bone and cartilage have been trimmed off, the rack is called a St. Louis rack. Apparently in St. Louis they don’t like flavor. If they take off the skirt of meat that lies on the back side of a St. Louis rib rack, it’s then called a Kansas City rack (AKA, KC Cut, Colorado Cut, South Side Cut). This whittles a perfectly good rack of spareribs down to almost the size of a puny baby back slab. People in Kansas City apparently love bulimic racks of ribs, and like flavor even less than residents of St. Louis. Some boneheads argue that the definitions of St. Louis and Kansas City are reversed. True ribologists avoid pointless arguments. Both types are suckacious manglings of the regal sparerib.

Spareribs are sold wholesale by weight, and have their own size terminology: “3½ and down” is a rack that weighs less than 3 and a half pounds, meaning it came from a younger and more tender pig. A “3 to 4” or a “3 to 5” is a slab that weighs between 3 and 4 pounds or 3 and 5 pounds. The bigger the slab, the older the animal, and the lower and slower it should be cooked to maintain tenderness. A full rack of spareribs should have between 11 and 14 ribs, and should feed between 2 and 4 eaters, depending on their rib-storing capacity. Figure on losing about 25% of your total rack weight when you cook a slab of ribs.

Fresh is always better than frozen. All-natural or organic is always better than water-injected, antibiotic and/or hormone-laced pork. Reject “enhanced” slabs…packed with water, sodium phosphate, flavorings, and tenderizers…you want real meat. Heritage breeds such as Berkshire, Mangalitsa, Tamworth, Red Wattle, Duroc, Old Spot, Yorkshire, or Large Black will taste a lot better than one of these new hybrid disco breeds. Avoid “shiners”: ribs that have been trimmed so close by the meat processors that the bones show through; these will have little actual meat to consume. Look for slabs that have good meat coverage and nicely-trimmed fat shells.

Regardless of how you plan on cooking the ribs, or what you might be flavoring them with, the membrane on the back side of the ribs should be removed before seasoning. The sheath-like membrane covers the back side of the slab. Once removed it allows the seasonings and smoke to penetrate the meat easily, and makes the rack more tender. To remove, use a blunt-edged knife and pry up one corner of the membrane. Using a thin towel or a paper towel, firmly grasp the corner of the membrane and pull it off. One removed, the rack is called a “skinned” slab. Some folks prefer instead to make a series of shallow cuts with a sharp knife through the membrane. We like them skinned.

Slow and low smoking is preferred with ribs. Some folks steam them first, to break down connective tissue and remove some of the fat. Do this only if you are in a big hurry, and if you do it, save the de-fatted liquid from the bottom of the steamer. It makes a killer base for Chinese hot and sour soup, or for some székely goulash.. Some folks do it bass-ackwards: they smoke the ribs, and then wrap them in foil to finish them. This is, in effect, steaming the ribs, except that you ruin the nice smoky bark you have going on the outside. If you're going to ruin them with a glaze or a gloppy sauce, no loss, since you'll be destroying the bark anyway. There ought to be a quarter of an inch of bone showing on the end when they are done. The bone should not slip out of it's meat wrapper...if it does, the meat is probably overdone and mushy.

So, stick to a real sparerib for maximum flavor, and slow smoke them over some oak with a little wet fruit wood added to the edge of the coals. If you must have sauce with your ribs, add it when you eat it. Anything else violates all the rules of nature.

Mick ©

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! The Origins of the Term “BBQ”:

There are several popular theories of the origin of the term “barbecue”. One centers on a wealthy Texas rancher accustomed to throwing huge shindigs for his pals, cooking whole sheep, hogs, and cattle over open pits. Depending on whom you believe, his name was either Bernard Quayle or Barnaby Quinn, but with either, his ranch branding iron had the letters BQ, with a line underneath, reading “Bar-BQ”.

Another has the English word barbecue deriving from the Spanish word barbacoa, which wordsmiths say came from babracot, a word referring to the greenwood (probably allspice) sticks used to form a cooking grill in the Haitian Taino dialect of the Arawak-Carib language. This is the version favored by etymologists. Texans prefer the branding iron version.

A popular cooking magazine insists that the word came from an extinct tribe of cannibalistic Indians in Guyana thought to barbecue their enemies. Others maintain it came from the French term “barbe a queue”, meaning “from whiskers to the tail” …a direct reference to barbecuing whole pigs or cows they say. Last but not least, a source in North Carolina claims it came from a 19th century advertisement for a joint that served many purposes: whiskey bar, beer hall, pool cue hall, serving roast pig. It was known, so says the story, as the Bar-Beer-Cue-Pig. Texans completely disregard versions referring to cannibals, the French, or North Carolina as transparent hogwash.

However the name evolved, it reflects a method of cooking and a taste that is dear to all Texans, ingrained and cherished from birth.
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Frowns in the Land of Smiles:

Thaksin Shinawatra was the old Prime Minister from 2001-2006. He got thrown out on Sept 19th, 2006 by a military junta after prolonged pressure from protesters known as the “yellow shirts”, composed of intellectuals, yuppies, artists, progressives, etc. Yellow, incidentally, is the color of the King. Thaksin, the richest man in Thailand, had a slush fund of several billion dollars that he had accumulated in offshore banks (he was the one that bought the Manchester City soccer team while he was in exile in England). He set up most of his accounts in his children’s names; one was actually a dummy corporation entitled “Ample Rich”. They eventually got rid of Thaksin for tax evasion, after he funneled billions of dollars of profit from the sale of a telecom company (which was made wealthy by use of public lands) into offshore dummy corporations.

Thaksin was originally from Chiang Mai in the north, and when he was PM he made a lot of concessions to the poor peasants, especially in the north, which were partially effective in reducing their poverty. The poor love Thaksin, as he was really the first politician that ever gave them the time of day. He actually could care less about them or their problems; they are but a political tool to him. The progressive agricultural programs of the King and Queen have been much more effective in helping the plight of the poor farmer: converting Hilltribe farmers from growing opium to high value conventional crops, establishment of agricultural research stations country-wide, pushing for organic agriculture and limiting the use of pesticides and genetically-modified crops and seeds, development of alternative crops (coffee, cut flowers, fruits such as peaches, apples, pears, etc, wine grapes and vineyards, etc.).

So Thaksin is gone, disgraced, and in exile all over the world: first England, Japan for a while, Dubai, and now Cambodia. All the while he has been scheming to get back into power. Cut to 2008 when PM Samak Sundaravej is fired by the Courts for illegally taking a salary from a cooking show while in the seat of PM (he was a popular chef, but not supposed to be making money that way). On Dec 2, 2008 Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother in law, gets elected but is quickly kicked out and all three government parties are banned for election fraud, setting the stage for Abhisit to take office as PM.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the current PM (elected Dec 2008), is Eton and Oxford-educated, and from a wealthy, powerful Thai family. The UDD (United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship) poor came into Bangkok from the hinterlands, especially from Isaan and the north, to demand the resignation of Abhisit, while supporting the return of Thaksin. They all donned red shirts, in the same manner as the yellow shirts previously. This had been building up for several years; you may remember when protesters took over and occupied both airports in Bangkok for weeks, virtually shutting down tourism. It all came to a head in early April when entrenched protestors and the army started having armed conflicts, with accusations flying back and forth about use of weaponry, grenades, etc.

Abhisit eventually conceded to hold new elections in November, but the protesters didn't agree to leave Bangkok after the concession as they had promised, so Abhisit reneged on that offer. Thaksin, from outside the country, is reputed to be funding mercenaries that are fighting with and for the red shirts, using grenades and other explosives, killing police, etc. The Thai general that had joined the red shirts as their ‘military adviser’, Seh Daeng, was shot in the head by snipers (assumedly, pro-government) last week and killed, setting off violent protest for two days.

The King and Royal family have been, for the most, part strangely silent. All they have to do is say the word, and the protesters would kowtow to their demands, but the Royal Family tries to stay out of political situations whenever possible. Many Thai friends thought that the government should go in and forcibly remove the red shirts, using violence if necessary. The protests by the UDD were destroying the Thai economy, and most Thais hate Thaksin with a passion, except the red shirts, of course.

The last time I was there we had heard about a bombing that happened just a few minutes after we had passed through an intersection near Pak Kret, in north-central Bangkok. We were eating later that night at this seafood restaurant famous for its crab in crab egg sauce (delicious!) and one of the guests in our party, a Thai air force general, got a cell phone call and then announced to the group that we should leave, because the military was getting ready to set up road blocks to counteract the precursors of this current red shirt movement. On my tuk tuk ride back to my hotel, you could see armored personnel carriers setting up in key intersections downtown. While we were down south in Krabi the next few days, there were a bunch more bombings in BKK, and we saw some of that aftermath. The difference then was that life went on as usual...this time not.

After weeks of hundreds getting seriously injured and 70+ deaths, the red shirts disbanded yesterday and slipped into the shadows as the Thai army went in to rout them out. Later that day, the red shirts started over 30 major fires all over the city, burning Bangkok’s biggest shopping mall, Central World, as well as numerous banks, hotels, stores, and shopping centers, even the stock exchange.

Who knows where this will all end. My guess is that we haven’t seen the last of the red shirts, or the last of Thaksin. There have been some 18 coups since 1932, there is still great disparity between rich and poor, and corruption remains a big problem. All that aside, Thailand is one of the best places on earth, with the friendliest folks. It is “The Land of Smiles”.
Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sausage Rant!

As time goes by, sausage makers and sausages are getting dumber and worserer. By that, I mean more finely ground, leaner, and blander. Not to mention the fact that synthetic casings are even becoming more widespread. Take the classic Czech-German Central Texas style of sausage, the “hot gut” that you used to find everywhere, especially at local barbecue joints. Back in the day, any respectable BBQ joint made and smoked their own sausages. It was a way to use up meat trimmings and trimmed fat, and make a product that could add to the bottom line, that anyone could afford. Now, most joints purchase pre-made sausages. Takes too long to make them, they complain; can’t afford the man hours, they moan; I can buy sausage as good as I can make, they unjustly justify.

The meat itself has become homogeneous, culled from these blasted modern breeds that have had all of the flavor (and much of the flavorful fat) bred right out of them. Wake up people! There wouldn’t be a big movement to bring back the old heritage breeds if they didn’t taste better. This was all the result of greedy meat moguls getting a bunch of soul less egghead animal scientists to invent pigs and cows that took less time to mature while eating less food. This path gone wrong is all about money, not taste. You might as well be eating Soylent Green!

What we get now, even from the two esteemed sausage makers in Elgin, is a pale shadow of what you used to be able to buy. With sausages everywhere, the grind of the meat has gotten finer. When you have a coarsely-ground sausage, the meat usually tends to be from better cuts; it’s easier to camouflage lesser quality cuts of meat when it’s more finely ground. Line up three smoked sausages, and my money is on people choosing the one with the coarsest grind as their favorite. Every time.

The fat content of today’s sausage has definitely gone way down, with sausage makers snubbing their nose at the old adage: “fat means flavor”. They are trying to get politically correct with something as sacred as sausage, figuring that going lean is somehow healthier and that it will boost sales. Here’s a clue to the misinformed: someone eating a sausage isn’t worried about their health…they want good flavor, above all else. Eating a sausage is, or should be, a religious experience, not a protein source meant only to curb hunger. Lastly, today’s sausages have gotten too freakin’ bland. Reduced, subtracted, and downright gone is the garlic, the black pepper, and the cayenne that used to grace our precious Centex “hot gut” smoked sausage.

Hopefully, if enough people start bitching about it, we can revert back to the old ways, and sausage, real sausage, can be saved. We need to start by making sausage from good heritage breed meat. We need to get rid of all of the grinding plates with the smallest holes. We need to add more fat, and more spice, and smoke them longer. And we need to insist on getting what we deserve.
Mick Vann ©

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Food's Original Mr. Freeze

Naturalist and fur trader Clarence Birdseye noticed that foods frozen by the Inuit (aka "Eskimos") during the intensely bitter cold of Canada’s winter tasted better when thawed than those foods frozen during the milder spring and fall temperatures. It all had to do with the fact that quicker freezing created smaller ice crystals, which did less cell damage to foods. In 1925 Brooklynite Birdseye developed his “Quick Freeze Machine”, a method of flash freezing foods. In 1934 he entered into a joint venture to manufacture freezer cases for grocery stores, since he realized that they were essential to the success of his frozen food product line. National distribution of frozen foods didn’t begin until 1944, when Birdseye began leasing freezer railroad cars to the railroad lines to transport his frozen foods. His innovations helped lead to the birth of the General Foods Co. Incidentally, the family name Birdseye reportedly came from an ancestor who saved the life of an English Queen by shooting an attacking hawk squarely through its eye. (For what it's worth, I don’t think a human could be killed by a hawk, even a large and really pissed-off hawk, but why screw around with great family stories…not to mention the fact that variations of the Birdseye family name date back to the year 1086.)
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Halal/Haram Pig Stick!

Based on pregnancy pee indicator technology and some molecular gas chromatographic jackball scientifical wheelings and dealings, Kazakhstan scientists have invented a consumer test stick that will instantly detect the presence of pork. Why would one need that you might ask, unless it was to determine why something tastes so damn good?

Unlike in the majority of Muslim countries, in Kazakhstan pork is cheap and widely available. According to local news sources (and Reuters), unscrupulous Kazak chefs often augment more expensive chopped or minced beef with much less expensive and forbidden pork, even if the Qur'an takes a very dim view of the practice. This surreptitious deceit is apparently widespread, and the Mullahs don't like it.

The way the pork stick tester works is the diner breaks off a small chunk of mystery meat and drops it into their glass of water. Stir with gusto to distribute the porkossity, and then dip the test stick into the water. If pork is present, the color of the indicator on the stick changes in a minute or so, and the diner is safely alerted. No word on whether or not a fatwah is issued, or the chef is then dragged outside for a good ole public stoning.
Mick Vann ©


Monday, May 3, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Over-Stuffing the Pie Hole

Mauritania, in Northwestern Saharan Africa, is the only place on earth where women are force-fed (it's called gavage there, the same term used in France for producing foie gras by force-feeding geese). Females of all ages, especially children, are pumped full of sweetened milk and millet porridge every two hours because their men appreciate hefty gals as a sign of health and fertility in an otherwise underfed nomadic desert country. Voluptuous women are a sign of a man's wealth, while thin women indicate poverty and hardship. The government outlawed the practice in recent years, but it is still practiced on the sly and out in the boonies. In 2000 the government launched a big radio and TV campaign against the practice but “illiteracy has made progress slow”, according to officials. Since government resistance to the age-old practice, Mauritanian women have resorted to taking animal steroids from Pakistan and Chinese rheumatism tablets in order to gain weight quickly.
MIck Vann ©

Friday, April 30, 2010

Deep-Frying Basics for the Know-It-All

Some food items just have to be deep fried, and when you decide to do the deed, you can ensure a perfect result without a whole lot of trouble. You want to use a vessel that will hold an adequate amount of hot fat, made of a material that will not cool off easily. The goal is for the temperature of the fat to remain as constant as possible during the cooking process, with few fluctuations when uncooked items are added. A cast iron Dutch oven is ideal, as is a thick-sided saucepan, wok, or stockpot. Whatever you are frying, the level of the grease should never come close to the top rim of the vessel, so make sure it is large enough for the task.

You’ll need a thermometer, of the laser instant-read, candy, or deep-fat variety (lesser thermometers can’t read temps high enough). You want the food item you are frying to be as dry on its surface as possible: 1. so the breading will stick to it, and 2. so you’re not dumping a liquid into a vat of very hot oil. The thinner or smaller the food item is, the colder it should be when it goes into the breading station. You want smaller or thinner things to cook slower internally, so the interior does not overcook while waiting for the exterior to get golden brown. Something larger or clunkier should be closer to room temp, so that the interior has time to cook before the exterior gets too dark. Try to have all of the items being cooked cut to a similar size and thickness, so they will all cook at the same rate. Add items into the hot oil at a rate that doesn’t cause the oil to cool down too quickly. Adding sequential items to different areas of the surface of the oil can help prevent a rapid cool-down as well.

You’re gonna need some lube to heat up. I highly recommend rice bran oil as the healthiest, the longest-lasting, the tastiest, with one of the highest smoke points, and it’s reasonably priced. Use what you have to, but you can get rice bran oil online, at most Japanese food markets, and at Whole Foods (see my previous blog on rice bran oil). We always prefer a frying temperature between 355º and 365º, 360º is perfect. Have the temp too low, and foods will have a very greasy outer coating. Have the oil too hot, and the batter cooks too quickly, the inside can be uncooked, and the cooking oil quickly takes on a burnt taste.

Your batter station needs attention. You need to go flour, liquid, flour, so three bowls or containers will work nicely (you can use re-sealable plastic bags in a pinch). For the first flour, use a finely textured blend, such as half rice flour and half all-purpose flour or cake flour; adding some corn starch to the ratio will make the texture even finer. The liquid is usually some dairy (milk, cream, or buttermilk) with a little beaten egg added. The final flour station can be half a.p. flour and half rice flour (for a fine textured crust), plain flour (a little more texture), crushed crackers or panko crumbs (more texture still), or some variation of a cornmeal-based crust (hard textured). You can substitute all kinds of things for the coating mixture, such as crushed cereals, seeds, semolina flour, crushed nuts or nut flours, etc. The last coating is usually where the seasonings are added, and again, let creativity be your muse. A variant to the dry-liquid-dry method is to use tempura or beer batter for the liquid, which will preclude the final dry-dipping.

A key tool at the batter station is a sieve. After repeated use, the second flour mixture will get all kinds of chunky bits formed from liquid and flour. These work against getting a smooth exterior finish on your final coating, so they should periodically be sieved-out and discarded. It goes without saying to keep your hands as batter-free as possible; methods include using only one hand for touching any flour, disposable gloves, tongs, etc, or a combination. Use a spider, slotted spoon, or tongs to keep items away from each other when you first place them into the oil; they will stick like glue to each other without a little nudging on your part.

Some items can be very explosive due to high levels of internal moisture; soft shell crabs are a perfect example. We always lived in fear when Mr. Fish would show up with a batch of writhing, live soft shell crabs, knowing that the coming night would guarantee frequent eruptions of molten oil, and getting burnt was unavoidable. Items such as this should be drained thoroughly, carefully slipped into the oil, and handled as little as possible until cooked, with you standing an arm’s-length away.

When something is cooked, it will usually be floating near the surface, there will be little sound coming from the oil (little to no bubbling), and the fried item will be a light golden brown in color. Remove it from the oil and drain it well before placing it on a layer of absorbent paper towels. Since you will be frying in batches, keep the cooked items warm in an oven set as low as possible. Do not forget to turn off the heat under your fryer set-up when you are finished frying, and let the oil cool completely before you attempt to move it. Always filter your cooking oil through grease filter cones (available at your local restaurant supply house or online) if you plan on re-using it. Obviously oil used for seafood will not last as long as oil used to cook vegetables. Cooking oil dump barrels behind restaurants are ideal places to dispose of old cooking oil. Never pour it down your drain.

Enjoy, mick vann ©

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Great Knives Don't Have to Cost a Bundle

Through the years as a chef I, like most chefs, accumulated a nice little collection of exotic cutlery, with many of them being quite expensive. Those last years in the kitchen found me using a certain brand of knife much, much more than all the rest combined. I was inextricably drawn to a couple of knives from Kiwi, one wider and thicker than the other, both with kind of a santoku shape. Great all-purpose knives, perfect for scooping up what you just sliced, cheap if you ever did something stupid and harmed them, or if they got lifted or "borrowed".

They are made in Thailand, and I buy them from the local Asian market. My detail blade is the 6.5" steel-pointed stainless blade, thin and flexible enough to fillet a fish if need be, but a dandy dicer and slick little all-purpose knife. Its big brother is the 7" chef's stainless blade, which is also thicker and slightly less flexible: perfect for slicing stuff like spuds, onions, cabbage, meat, cheese, etc. When I first started buying them, you could get them for $4.59 and $5.49 each, respectively. Now they cost a bit more, but are still VERY affordable, and they make fantastic gifts for friends and family.

In Austin, you can find them at MT Market in Chinatown Shopping Center, left side, almost to the back by strange animal parts land, lining the shelves in knifeworld. Online you can find a fine assortment of Kiwi cutlery at: I highly recommend the newer ones with plastic handles, but the brass-riveted wood handles are still available (plastic is easier to sanitize than wood). You can get a great assorted set of three with plastic handles for only $22.50.

I started writing about Kiwi knives years ago, and always praised them to every chef I knew. They keep a sharp edge, and need just a few licks with the steel every now and then to regain sharpness. They don't stain, they last forever, cost very little, and perform their tasks with aplomb. Pretty much the only knives you will ever need.
Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts!: Aunt Jemima

In 1889 Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood bought the Pearl Milling Co. in St. Joseph, Missouri and developed the world’s first self-rising pancake mix. That fall Rutt attended a vaudeville show where a performer in blackface performed the popular tune “Old Aunt Jemima”, which he adopted as the name of his new product. The next year the pair went broke, and sold the product to the R. T. Davis Milling Co. Davis went looking for a living trademark for the mythical Aunt Jemima, and discovered 59 year-old Nancy Green, a cook for a Chicago judge.

In 1893 Davis built the world’s biggest flour barrel for the World Exposition in Chicago, and had Green, in character as Aunt Jemima, cooking thousands of pancakes for the crowd, while she entertained the attendees with verbal banter. Green was so popular that it resulted in 50,000 orders for the pancake mix, and she was signed to a lifetime contract, touring the country promoting the mix. By 1910 the name Aunt Jemima was known nationwide, causing flour sales to go from what had been a largely seasonal, winter-only product, to a product with a year-round demand. Green continued as Aunt Jemima until she was tragically hit by a car in Chicago and killed in 1923. Quaker Oats bought the rights to the mix and the label in 1925; Nancy Green lives on to this day on the packaging of Aunt Jemima products.
Mick Vann ©

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rice Bran Oil – The Healthiest Cooking Oil:

On one of my trips to Thailand, a friend of Mam’s had arranged a tour of a rice processing factory for me. The friend, Yong, was a rice exporter by day and owned a language university by night. We headed north of Bangkok, past Bang Pa-In and Ayutthaya, and met at his office building, set amid electric green rice fields near Ang Thong. A 10-minute ride away was the processing facility: a huge concrete pad covered with mountains of just-harvested rice, adjacent to a large rambling building reverberating with the sounds of rice processing machinery.

We went inside to find a maze of conveyor belts hauling a steady stream of rice from station to station, until it ended up at one end of the huge complex, perfectly polished and gleaming white. The most intriguing stage was the one where the bran is removed from the kernel. I asked Yong what became of the leftover bran, and he ran down a list of uses, one of which was pressing the bran coating to extract rice bran oil. I had never heard of rice bran oil, and asked what it was used for, and then the whole car erupted with a litany of applications for the oil. Yong and Mam proceeded to tell me about how Thais use the oil for cooking, explaining that it was very healthy. I decided to make a quest of finding the oil upon my return to the States.

Not long after my return I was at a cooking event with Hiroko Shimbo, a well-known Japanese cooking expert, teacher, author, and culinary tour guide, and mentioned that I was interested in rice bran oil. She explained that it has many uses in Japan, and that she was a consultant for a Japanese importing company that had a brand of rice bran oil. A week or so later, and a bottle arrived at my door for review.

Rice bran oil has a light, clean flavor profile, and feels less oily on the tongue than most cooking oils. It has a slight buttery taste component, and a mild, nutty flavor. It can be used for any application that any other culinary oil can be used in: grilling, sautéing, stir-frying, baking, dressings and emulsified dressings, etc. It is especially effective in deep-frying (it might cost a little more than vegetable oils in bulk packaging, but lasts longer in use). The Japanese have always used it for frying tempura, as it gives a nice crisp finish and color to the food being fried. The smoking point is 490-500º, which is beaten only by safflower oil (510º) and refined avocado oil (520º); almond oil is rated at 495º and grape seed oil is 485º. Many Asian food manufacturers fry in rice bran oil because the products have a much longer shelf life without degradation of taste or spoilage in the package, due to the extremely high levels of anti-oxidants found in the oil. These same levels cause the oil to last longer in the deep fryers before it has to be replaced. Many top flight US restaurateurs are now using rice bran oil for their deep fryers for these very reasons.

For a long time, there has been a tradition in Japan that women rub rice bran in or put rice bran oil on their face to keep their skin smooth. These women, having smooth and shiny skin, are called “Nuka-Bijin” (“Bran Beauty” in English). People there don't know the reason why rice bran or rice bran oil is effective in keeping skin smooth but they know it works. The same is true in Thailand: women use it in their hair to keep it soft and lustrous.

High levels of oryzanol, a component of rice bran oil, decrease bad cholesterol while raising good cholesterol. Tocotrienol, another component, is highlighted as the most powerful vitamin E existing in nature, and research shows it to have an anti-cancer effect. As a vitamin E source, rice bran oil has the highest amount of tocotrienol in liquid form vegetable oils. Phytosterols are nutrients with many health benefits and are abundant in rice bran oil. Scientific research suggests that phytosterols reduce cholesterol, provide anti-inflammatory effects and promote healing, inhibit the growth of cancer cells, improve the immune system, and have other health benefits. There are 27 different phytosterols in rice bran oil. Research in India showed that tocotrienol reacts with liver enzymes in animals in such a way that it clears toxic substances from the organ, and reduces or stabilizes liver tumors. Researchers in Europe concluded that long-term use of tocotrienol could reduce overall cancer risk. Not too shabby for a cooking oil.

There have been some pretty high profile articles lately on healthy cooking oils, and not one of them has mentioned rice bran oil, which just goes to show what the big time food writers know. And even if you don’t believe a bunch of egghead scientists’ research claims, or hundreds of years of tradition in Asia, at least believe me when I tell you that it tastes great. You can find rice bran oil at Whole Foods and at any Japanese food market, and you can order both organic and all-natural versions online, in a number of different sizes, through Restaurant-sized containers are available for food brokers or restaurant buyers through, among other sources. This is great stuff!
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Future Food!

In 1930 Italian Futurist Filippo Tommasso Marinetti released his Manifesto of Futurist Cookery, declaring pasta obsolete in modern society (including Italy!). He claimed that pasta induced lethargy, pessimism, nostalgia, and neutralism; everything that the Futurist Movement stood against. Manifesto dishes were concocted to produce the most sensual event possible, including flowers, exotic fruits, coffee, raw eggs, and fancy spices. To heighten the dining experience warmed perfumes were misted through the air, and diners were given textural materials like velvet and sandpaper to stroke with their left hand while dining. Sweet, savory, bitter, and sour were combined in startling combinations: pineapple and sardines, mortadella with nougat, roasted salami with coffee and cologne.

He believed that in the future “modern science would allow us to replace food with free, state-sponsored pills composed of albumins, synthetic fats, and vitamins that would lower prices for the consumer and lessen the toll of labor on the worker. Ultraviolet lamps could be used to electrify and thus dynamize food staples.” Marinetti’s culinary concepts never caught on with the Italian populace; after all, they do love their pasta. Some of his Futurist dining elements seem more in line with precepts of today’s molecular gastronomy, while Marinetti’s miracle food pills seem more reminiscent of Soylent Green.
Mick Vann ©

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bright Lights – Dim Wits: The Loss of Civility on our Roadways

This morning when I was driving in to work, some cretin was right behind me for approximately nine miles with their bright lights on. It wasn’t that this person of subhuman social abilities failed to realize that their brights were on…they would dim them for each car approaching from the opposite direction, and then immediately brighten them again as the car passed us. It was okay to blind me, but not the approaching cars.

I’ve noticed this more and more frequently of late: a total disregard for the other drivers on the road when it comes to civility and common courtesy. It’s pure selfishness; an attitude that “I am much more important than you”. So they feel justified to pull out right in front of you, usually when they could have waited 3 or 4 seconds and you would have been passed them, with a clear roadway behind you. Turn signal use has plummeted; it’s as if they have forgotten what that little stick on the left side of their steering wheel is for. You wait for a car to pass, only to find out after-the-fact that it is turning off just before you. You get out of your car and some mutant has dumped the festering remains of their mocha latte on the parking lot for you to wade through and track inside the store or onto your car’s carpets. They block the lane in front of you so that they can make an illegal turn into a parking lot, or hold up a huge line of cars and make everyone miss the light so they can turn left at a no-left turn intersection.

What’s the answer? I would hope it’s not road rage, although I have to admit to secretly coveting a pair of 50-caliber rotor guns on my front bumper, or being able to call in an air support attack by an A-10 Warthog. Nothing would please me more than to see these morons disintegrate in a hail of subsonic lead, but we should take the middle path, the higher road. Instead, let’s all believe in reincarnation, and pray that each and every one of these uncaring, obnoxious dolts comes back as the slow, lumbering June bug that just splattered on your windshield.

PS: To the a-holes with the blue plasma, Xenon, and H.I.D. headlights out there who argue that it’s safer to use these bulbs “because you can see the road better”: remember that you are blinding that driver hurtling towards you at 70 mph. Something to think about.
Mick Vann ©

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mark's Annual Fireworks Fest

Mark’s 2010 Fireworks Extravaganza:

Had to pass on Tom Lewis' festive birthday bash (didn't trust myself driving back from Shiner in the wee hours), and instead attended the 2010 edition of Mark Larkin's renowned fireworks show at his spread twixt Taylorsville and McMahan...basically due-east of Lockhart 18 miles or so, as the crow flies. Mark has been a serious fireworks freak for decades, and it's one of his guilty pleasures. Thankfully for his friends, and anyone within view of the show, he shares that pleasure.

Mark has been my mechanic and buddy for decades, and owns a shop off of South Congress, known as The Honest Mechanic. I credit Mark for singlehandedly keeping my old 1983 Nissan pickup roadworthy until its odometer reached a respectable 563,000 miles. I sold it for 600 dollars to a couple of guys from Guatemala that saw it in my driveway one day. They patched a leak in the gas line with some duct tape, popped a freshly-charged battery into it, threw all of their stuff in the back, and it cranked up the first time after sitting for a year and a half. They headed off to Guatemala, saying they were going to turn it into a pickup taxi. It’s probably still running today. Mark is automotive genius personified.

I went with my pal Art and his "Crazy" Cousin Dennis, who was visiting from Philly. Dennis has three daughters that sing and play like folksy nightingales; they are right on the cusp of breaking it big time. On the way out we got to catch a magnificent postcard sunset over a never-ending horizon, dosed with some glowing cloud banks: one of those huge shimmering golden-orange orbs that silently slips over the edge of the earth. It was a good portent of the visuals to come that night. Philly boys don't get to see sunsets like that very often.

It was dark when we finally made it to Mark's spread, which could have been 20 acres, or 100, or a 1000 for all we knew. City folks don't relate to acreage as well as country folks. Regardless, it is a big ranchette or ranch, with a very long driveway leading to his manse on the top of the hill. The caliche drive was impeccably smooth and well-maintained...not something to be taken lightly in Central Texas soil, and a sign of a rancher that takes pride in his spread. Had we been there earlier, we would have seen a huge pasture solidly covered in bluebonnets (or so we were told).

A handicapped parking space had been saved for us, right next to the curved rows on the lawn of friends and neighbors chillaxing in assorted lawn chairs. I tracked Mark down in his big detached shed-like workshop/inner sanctum, passing around a bottle of Scotch, introducing friends from different circles, and psyching himself up for the coming show.
He opined that we were in for a solid 45 minutes of continuous fireworks, and that the show was almost about to begin.

The sky was perfect: completely cloudless and almost black, under a blanket of crystalline stars, devoid of obnoxious light pollution. Austin was a dim glow over the northwestern horizon, Lockhart much, much dimmer to the west. A steady breeze from the south would keep the fireworks smoke blowing away from us. A perfect viewing setup.

Mark got up to give a brief intro and made some negative comments about some of the product he had gotten from his “fuse supplier”. We figured it must be a rarified group that can discuss problems with their fuse supplier. I didn’t know there were fuse suppliers.

The show was fantastic. Once it started, from the light given off by the sparks of ignition, you could see how the fireworks were physically laid out, and once that end fuse was lit, the show went uninterrupted for almost 25 minutes. Thirty seconds down-time to light the back row, and it went for another 20 minutes; 45 minutes of solid fireworks in all. Mark had set it up so that it ebbed and flowed perfectly, building to crescendos and then swooping back down, only to climb again. There were things in the show that we had never seen before, and it was auditory as well as visual, with those cool screaming high altitude spinners, and the thumping percussive blast of the big mortars. Cousin Dennis likened some of the blasts to looking “just like tracers”, but no ‘Nam flashbacks occurred, and a splendid time was had by all. I’ve never seen a private fireworks show as professional as Markk’s; damn glad I was invited.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, April 9, 2010

Blasphemous Roux Shortcut

Don't get me wrong...I love Cajun/Creole food as much as the next guy, maybe more. But with so many of the dishes relying on the inclusion of a good, rich, soul-satisfying roux, and proper roux taking so long to make, it means that not as much Cajun food gets eaten as should be eaten. Back in my chef days, I was frustrated that it took so long to make a roux, since we only had a 6-burner to make it on. Our menu changed daily, meaning there was always a lot of activity on that 6-burner, and using one burner for several hours of slow stirring presented a couple of problems: 1. you're down one burner for a couple of hours, and 2. you're stirring a big pan of roux instead of the 3 dozen other things that need doing. Most regular kitchens have a herd of task monkeys running around doing whatever needs to be done...our kitchen was tiny and the labor costs had to be kept low, so herds of helpers were out of the question. In our world, roux making had to be done by the chef...there was no other way around it.

The epiphany happened one day when some flour from a breaded pork steak fell on the hot stove top, and as the busy night progressed, I watched that little bit of flour take on a chestnut brown color. I had a flash! The flour in a roux is basically "roasting" in oil on the stovetop....why couldn't you dry-roast the flour in the oven before you combined it with the oil? I had stumbled on to a way to greatly reduce the amount of time a roux takes to make, but it needed testing.

I took a baking pan and filled it halfway with plain flour, set the oven to 325º and let it go. Periodically I would check it out, and the flour very slowly started to turn a light tan. I would stir it periodically, and in doing so, noticed that the flour was starting to clump-up as it roasted. After 45 minutes or an hour or so, the flour started to get a nice nutty aroma and it acquired a tan about the color of a manila paper towel. I pulled it out and let it cool enough to handle. I ran it all through a fine sieve to break up any clumps (and it does get clumpified). The main part of the test was now ready to run.

I got a large skillet hot, threw in some clarified duck fat, bacon grease, and oil, and whisked in my roasted flour. I instantly had a roux that was about the color it is when you really have to start watching it closely...when it starts getting dark quickly, and it's almost done. A few more minutes, and I added my Holy Trinity of diced green bell pepper, celery, onion (and garlic). Literally 10 minutes later I was stirring a thick, dark roux that was the color of a dark mahogany. The aroma was rich and nutty, and when added to a Pontchartrain sauce, duck and andouille gumbo, shrimp and crawfish jambalaya, or anything else we came up with, the flavor was magnificent.

It freezes well, and keeps a long time in the fridge when it's sealed with a layer of fat and tightly covered. Pre-roasting the flour, as far as I can tell, has no ill effects on the flavor or texture of the roux, but eliminates about 85 to 90% of the drudgery and time. It also lessens the chance that it will scorch, since the whole procedure gets compressed into a 15 minute span, and you're able to focus on the task at hand. It's the only way I make roux now: pre-roast the flour, crank out a big batch of roux, portion it into freezer bags, and have enough to last for many different dishes, with very little effort. Laissez les bon ton (and good food) rouler!
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Microwaves!

The inventor of the microwave in 1946 was a Raytheon Co. radar scientist who happened to observe that during the testing of a magnetron, the peanut candy bar in his shirt pocket melted (magnetrons are vacuum tubes used to generate the microwave signals used in radar systems). The first microwave oven that they produced weighed 750 pounds, and was called the Radar Range. The military and very limited restaurants were the only buyers, so Raytheon sold the rights to Tappan Stove Co., who created the first home-use model in 1955. It was a much smaller, 220-volt, 24-inch unit which sold for $1295.00. Sales have increased dramatically through the years.
Mick Vann ©