Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kocurek Charcuterie Documentary

Huge kudos to local filmmaker Christian Remde, who just posted his excellent documentary on Larry and Lee Ann Kocurek, as part of his 12 Films Project. I wrote about Kocurek Family Charcuterie earlier in the Austin Chronicle. Here is the web address to Christian's film:

...and here is the text of my previous review of their charcuterie:

Kocurek Family Charcuterie
The Fresh and the Cured

Larry Kocurek comes from a long line of Tex-Czech sausagemakers, with two generations of Bohemian relatives before him hunting deer and making sausages around Gon­zal­es, Texas. He met his wife, Lee Ann, in culinary school. "I used to tell him he was going to turn into a sausage. That's all he ever wanted to eat," she says. Over the ensuing years, she earned pastry and sommelier degrees, he graduated with cooking school honors, and they moved around for years learning and polishing their crafts in fine-dining restaurants, eventually ending up in Austin.

Lee Ann made gorgeous pastries as an assistant to David Bull at the Driskill, and then went to the Austin Wine Merchant to consult and manage. Larry was executive chef at Roy's for years before becoming Whole Foods' senior culinary instructor. For the past seven years, he's been researching and perfecting his sausage and charcuterie recipes, refining his butchering skills, and connecting with local sources. The Kocureks personally know who produces their ingredients. All the meats are local, free-range, all-natural, and heritage breeds when possible, and all of the fresh produce is seasonal, organic, and local. "I started getting into real food when I was at Roy's, and they had a wine cellar that was perfect for curing meats," says Kocurek. "The wine guys hated it, but the temperature and humidity were ideal."

Larry and Lee Ann have been making charcuterie professionally for a year and a half, and their business continues to expand. "We decided that we wanted to have fun making a living, doing what we liked to do," says Lee Ann. They currently sell their products at the six major Austin farmers markets, and they hope to soon add the extremely popular Pearl Farmers Market in San Antonio to that list. They also present two cooking classes a month and put on a quarterly supper club. The hands-on cooking classes range from venison, pig, and duck butchering (which also cover some elements of charcuterie) to classic French sauce classes. Each class ends with a buffet centered on what's been taught that day, and they all sell out in advance. The supper club is held at Swoop House, the inviting 1924 Craftsman-era location of 2 Dine 4 Fine Catering's commissary kitchen in East Austin. "They're five- to eight-course themed dinners that can be from any region of the world," says Lee Ann. "Everything is all organic and local. Starched linens, formal wine service, interesting folks sitting at communal tables, and always some element of our charcuterie involved ... it's a lot of work, but a lot of fun as well."

In March, the Kocureks will be expanding their commercial kitchen space, gaining a large walk-in cooler. "Once we have that cooler, we can start doing cured products and concentrate a lot more on wholesale to local restaurants," says Larry. "Now we make primarily fresh products, but we constantly do small test batches of cured product so that we're ready when the time comes." Another future plan is to host three- and four-day camping and hunting excursions to game ranches around the state. "This will be the real deal, Old World style," says Lee Ann. "Sleeping in tents, incredible food around the campfire, tracking and hunting, dressing and butchering the kill. You'll be out in nature, not staying in some hotel. We're real excited about getting these trips going."

I was lucky enough to attend a weekly tasting, held for the staff so they can personally describe the offerings to the market customers each week. Larry laid out a spread of many products, and we began to taste and critique. The fresh venison sausage is superlative: coarse-textured, vibrantly spiced, moist, and not the least bit gamey. The game boudin of venison and pork with Louisiana rice has a spicy cayenne kick. The cured venison sausage is dark, deeply rich, and tangy, and absolutely wonderful when accented by the grainy mustard that's made with beer yeast.

Their Czech-style bacon is smoky and exuberantly piggy. The lean smoked-duck bacon made from the breast magically blends the worlds of duck and pork belly. The "Christmas" or "Charles Dickens" chicken sausage made with cream and brandy is moist and rich, and it's even better when combined with their amazing apple-caramelized-onion marmalade. The chicken sausage turned out to be the best I've ever had: medium-textured, spiced with balance, and surprisingly moist, accented by a dab of the Love Creek apple butter. Pork rillettes schmeared on crusty bread literally melt in your mouth. A spoonful of the velvety chicken-and-duck-liver pâté de maison on a cracker makes me instantly forget how much I hate liver. There are two flaky English-style tarts: one with silky slices of braised tongue and chard, the other made with duck, venison, and greens. We demolished the tasting board, with the group reduced to primal grunts and groans of pleasure.

"The selection changes with the seasons and our whims," says Larry. "One week it might be Southeast Asia and France, the next week, Poland and Spain. We just try to have fun and make our customers very happy." Like Larry, I have a deep culinary fondness for sausages, and after sampling a wide variety, I can honestly say the Kocureks are highly skilled in the art of making delicious charcuterie and producing bold and balanced flavors. Go to the farmers' market; you really need to try this stuff.MV - 12/24/2010

Remde also did a fabulous film on Bryce Gilmore's Odd Duck Farm to Trailer:

...which I also reviewed for the Austin Chronicle (text here):

Odd Duck Farm to Trailer
1219 S. Lamar, 695-6922
Tuesday-Saturday, 5pm until sold out

Bryce Gilmore's Odd Duck is on the east side of South Lamar at Treadwell Street, a block or so north of the big Genie Car Wash, in a culinary trailer park teamed with Austin Brevità and Gourdough's (see "Gourdough's," Jan. 15). The three food operations share a central pea-graveled dining area, with assorted chairs and tables (some with umbrellas), strings of fairy lights, and a small outbuilding for the restrooms.

Odd Duck occupies an older, wooden, burnt-orange-and-white trailer (Bryce and Jack are huge UT sports fans) with a wood-burning grill inside, along with all of the cooking amenities you'd expect in a small restaurant kitchen. You order at the window, and a charming waitress delivers your food on a cafeteria tray, artfully arranged and presented in cardboard boats and paper plates. It's BYO beer and wine, tax is included in the price, and credit cards are accepted.

Portions are small yet sharable and amazingly affordable for the quality of the ingredients, all of which are sourced from local producers and farmers' markets. The philosophy of Odd Duck is fresh, seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, use of the whole animal, and a market-based menu that changes daily. The flavors are rich, assertive, and balanced, the technique creative.

A pal and I (both of us decidedly on the husky side and blessed with big appetites) decided to order the entire menu and see if we were sated after we finished. We started with a nice, crunchy bruschetta topped with big chunks of sweet beet and a nicely balancing, tart goat's milk feta, crowned with a peppery arugula salad ($4). Next, we split a rich dish of poached duck egg topped with tiny spears of sweet asparagus, slivers of scallion and mushroom, and goat's milk ricotta ($6). It was delicious and needed only a light sprinkling of salt.

The drop-dead dish of the meal was a combination of tiny grilled brussels sprouts, capers, and lardoons of marinated, rabbit belly, all garnished with a shredded, nutty-tasting cheese ($4). Sounds simple, but it was a brilliant combination of tastes. We tried the grits, which were mixed with small kernels of sweet corn and cheddar cheese, topped with a poached farm egg, braised mushrooms, and steamed greens ($6). This was the one dish that we felt could have used an element to punch it up a bit, but it was still quite good.

A large grilled crouton accompanied cubes of slow-roasted pork leg topped with an exquisite sweet onion and kale slaw ($6). It could only be improved by shredding the pork, to mix better with the slaw. A mouthwatering, semiboneless, marinated, and grilled quail arrived next atop red potato cubes, bits of salumi, and a rich, garlicky aioli ($6). The crowning touch was the pork belly slider. Several thick slices of savory, succulent, and meaty pork belly sit between a grilled brioche bun, dressed with pickled onion and carrot ($6). It's a masterpiece rivaled only by the brussels sprouts.

We think the Odd Duck concept is a huge success, with Gilmore and crew turning out gorgeous and delicious kaiseki-like small plates bursting with flavor and freshness. We both were full and very satisfied, we felt the price point was fair, and food doesn't get any fresher. Now the brussels sprouts and the pork belly slider both compete for dish of the year on our list. MV - 5/14/2010

Also check out Remde's doc on Bryce's new operation, Barley Swine:

Bryce Gilmore's Barley Swine

...and lastly, visit Remde's website here:

Great ATX food, and great ATX films re: same!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fun!, Food!, Facts!, Tater Tots, the Tubular Spuds!

Tater tots are one of the world’s most perfect foods. They are frozen and come in big, pillow-sized bags at just about any food market, for relatively little money. They are delicious and satisfying; that is undeniable. Cylindrical, crunchy, and golden brown on the outside, with that steaming yummy grated spuddy center, they aren’t served nearly as often as they should be, either in restaurants, or by friends that invite me over to dine. After being sprinkled with salt, pepper, and a little garlic powder, they are the perfect complement to some French’s Yellow Mustard, garlicky aioli, chipotle ketchup, oniony tartar sauce, or spicy queso. And, as Napoleon Dynamite so ably demonstrates, they are durable enough to be secreted away in a pants pocket for later consumption when the urge strikes.

Its roots are firmly connected to the Jewish latke, the Irish boxty, the Belarus draniki, or the Polish placki, and in some areas of the Northeast they are called “juliennes” or “potato puffs.” In Australia, they are called “potato gems” or “potato pom-poms” (also their Kiwi name). In Britain they were called “oven crunchies”. In Canada, proprietary brands of tater tots manufactured there are “Tasti Taters” and “Spud Puppies” (the best product name of all time!). But on the border of Oregon and Idaho where they originated, the name Tater Tot was selected. Tater is slang for potato (origin: 1750–60, America; by the phonetic process of aphresis (the loss of one or more sounds from the beginning of a word, especially the loss of an unstressed vowel): tato, with a substitution of -er for the final -o, making it tater). “Tots” may have developed from the small size of the product, or because kids are so crazy about them (assuming they were tested on children). In some regions, the word “Tater” is informally dropped, and the product is simply called “Tots”. This slang was credited to the popularity of the film Napoleon Dynamite, where the term “Tots” is commonly used, but the use of the shortened term “Tots” for Tater Tots long predated the release of the film.
Tater Tots were first created in 1953 when Ore-Ida (so named because it sits on the border between Oregon and Idaho) founders/brothers F. Nephi “Neef” and Golden Grigg were trying to figure out what to do with surplus slivers of cut-up potatoes after French fries had been processed in their plant. These leftover slivers were being gathered and used as cattle feed locally, but Neef felt like there had to be a better use for them. They came up with the idea of chopping and shredding the leftover slivers, adding some flour and seasonings to them, and then extruding them through holes to form long cylinders that could be cut into small lengths and then fried. The first extrusion prototype was made from plywood. The first test marketing of the product consisted of an Ore-Ida executive traveling across the country, playing the ukulele to attract a crowd (remember, this was in the early 50’s), and then passing out samples to the music lovers.

Tater Tot’s coming-out party was held at the then recently opened Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, at the National Potato Convention in 1954. The Fountainbleu was a fitting venue, since it was a stylish post-modern structure, symbolic of America’s post-War II fascination with new forms, modern convenience, and luxury; a site that perfectly matched the modern, now, a-go-go tater tot. At one breakfast Neef had smuggled in a satchel of 15 pounds of Tater Tots and then bribed the head chef to prepare them. Once they were cooked, Neef had them placed on small saucers, and distributed on all of the breakfast tables for sample treats. “They were gobbled up," Grigg wrote, "faster than a dead cat could wag its tail.” Maybe this is an Oregon or Idaho folk saying, and even though it makes no sense at all (since a dead cat cannot “wag” or twitch its tail), we think we get the meaning; reports had the breakfast diners loving them, and wanting to know where they could get more.
They first became available in grocery stores later in 1954. Ironically, the original price point was too low; people wouldn’t buy them because there wasn’t any perceived value. Once OreIda raised the price, they suddenly had merit, and people started buying them. Today, Americans consume over 70 million pounds, or about 3.6 billion individual Tots, per year. What began as a solution to make use of leftover scraps has become an American food icon. That status was reinforced by the product placement of Tater Tots in Napoleon Dynamite.
In the high school lunchroom:
Napoleon: Are you going to eat your tots?
Pedro: No.
Napoleon: Can I have ‘em? (At which point Napoleon takes the pile and puts them in the side cargo pocket of his pants.) Later that day, in class, while reading, Napoleon takes a Tot out of his pocket and bites it in half….
Jock: Napoleon, give me some of your tots.
Napoleon: No, go find your own.
Jock: Come on, give me some of your tots.
Napoleon: No, I’m freakin’ starved. I didn’t get to eat anything today.

That mention in the film’s dialog, and the fact that it was shot in Idaho, caused the Idaho Legislature to pass a resolution in 2005 commending the “Napoleon Dynamite” filmmakers, reading, in part: “…tater tots (sic) feature prominently in this film thus promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” We assume that they meant potatoes, but perhaps Tater Tots are Idaho’s most famous export. They are famous enough to earn their own National Tater Tots Day, every February 2nd.

OreIda was eventually purchased by H. J.Heinz, and now the Tater Tots line has expanded, with Onion Tater Tots, ABC Tater Tots (alphabet-shaped Tots!), Crispy Crowns (crispier Tots), and Mini Tater Tots. You can make your own Tots at home and season them with anything you like.

Basic Tots makes about 50 tots
Russets are a high starch spud, and the starch is what holds the tots together when they are cooking.
4 large Russet baking potatoes, peeled
1 heaping teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dehydrated granulated onion
½ teaspoon black pepper
Cornstarch or potato starch (if necessary)
Vegetable or rice bran oil for frying

Using a food processor, shred the potatoes. Take the shredded potato and pulse it in the food processor bowl to cut the shreds into small pieces. Steam the potato shred pieces for only about 3 minutes, just enough to get them to express their starch. Spread them out on a sheet pan and sprinkle them with the salt, onion, and pepper and mix well. At this point you should be able to take a clump of the mixture and squeeze it, and it should retain the shape. If it tries to fall apart, you can sprinkle some cornstarch or potato starch over the mixture and mix it in well.
Lay down a sheet of plastic film about 12 to 14 inches long. Spoon the potato mixture in a line about ¾-inch wide and ¾-inch tall, running almost the length of the piece of film. Tightly roll up the film from the side, like you might roll a cigarette, forming a tight log, twisting the ends in opposite directions to seal. Repeat with the remainder of the potato mixture. Put the logs in the freezer for about 30 minutes or so to firm-up.

Preheat oil for frying to about 355°. Take a log, remove the plastic film, and slice it into sections about 1 to 1¼ -inch long, forming the tots. Fry the tots in batches until golden brown; if they try to stick on the bottom, let them brown and gently remove with a spatula about ¾ the way through the cooking process. Remove and drain on paper towels. At this point they can be frozen. They can be cooked to finish in a hot oven (~400°) on a sheet pan or cookie sheet until crispy and heated through, or they can be deep fried in oil (365°) until crispy and heated through.

They are good served with mustard, ketchup, aioli, tartar sauce, green onion-sour cream dip, chile con queso, or just about anything else you can dream up.
You can add dried powdered chiles (jalapeño, ancho, chipotle, etc) or cayenne to spice them up a little, you can use some granulated garlic in place of the onions, or add minced bacon bits or dried scallions. If you hand-form the tots, you can place a chilled ½ teaspoon-sized portion of cheese (goat, pepper jack, mozzarella, cheddar, blue, manchego, etc.) in the middle of a tot and mold the potato mixture around the outside, cooking them until the cheese inside is melted.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Three Little Pigs Opens Softly

Chef Ray Tatum, one of Austin's best long-time chefs, has opened his own pork-centric trailer. It's a gleaming white kitchen-on-wheels tucked right behind the stately Victorian house that is the home of East End Wines, at the triangular intersection of E. 11th and Rosewood, a few blocks east of IH 35. There is a warming chiminea set up next to the BBQ pit, and a few cafeteria tables with chairs for sit-down diners. East End will be setting up a more formal dining (and drinking) area once their on-premise permit goes through, so in the near future, you'll be able to choose from their amazing selection of beers and wines to enjoy with Ray's wonderful chow. East End already has a few tables set up on their back deck, and the planned sitting area will be on the sun-drenched south side of the house, with a nice view of the north end of the park-like Texas State Cemetery across the street.

The neighborhood is a pleasing and comfortable mix of new urban hipsters and old East Austin, with hopping venues like Blue Dahlia Bistro, the new Franklin's BBQ, 11th St Station, Zandunga, Victory Grill, East Side Pies, Sam's BBQ, and Nubian Queen Lola's all within a stone's throw. Fedora wearing bike riders coexist nicely with low riders and little old ladies. This area is on the cusp of breaking big time, and for those class conscious paranoids among us, there is nothing to fear. If you're missing out on the new East Austin, you are a moron, plain and simple.

We attended the soft opening yesterday and frankly speaking, we were blown away. We started with a posole, pork, and green chile stew topped with a small dollop of crema fresca ($4). Ray has always been a master of soups and sauces, and this bowl was no exception: richly complex, subtly spicy, and multi-layered in flavors, it takes you back to those early days in Santa Fe.

Next was a pork belly slider ($6), on a soft yeasty bun: two thick, unctuous slices of browned pork belly hanging outside the edges, with a crisp slice of tart green apple, caramelized scallions, and a soy-maple glaze. A perfect combination of flavors in a handy package.

If there were a signature dish, it might have to be the pork meatloaf with cracklins ($6). Ray makes a bacon-wrapped pork meatloaf that has little porky nuggets of craklins embedded in the mixture. A thick slice of the loaf sits atop a pool of rich, garlicky cheese grits, and the griddle-browned slice is topped off by a small pile of soul-style collard greens. A taste explosion that harkens back to Ray's southern roots with a new-age twist.

We then sampled a nice braised pork in green curry on rice noodles ($6). Ray's Thai-style pork melts in your mouth, drenched in a rich, spicy coconut milk-green curry sauce with makroot leaves, baby corn, and bamboo shoots, all sitting on a base of slippery rice noodles. Ray's Asian influence and culinary expertise shines through with every bite.

The big ending came with a serving of sweet chile fried chicken ($6). Imagine Korean-style fried chicken with a crispy crust and a moist steaming interior, coated with a sweet and spicy chile sauce. If fried chicken and chile candy ever had a hybrid love child, this would be it. Addictively good and coaxing moans from the crowd.

Ray is still playing around with his set-up and fine-tuning the equipment, so be patient in the first week or so, but Three Little Pigs is going to quickly shoot up to the top of Austin's trailer food scene. Food this good is sought out with enthusiasm, whether it's inside a brick and mortar, or served from a humble trailer. Three Little Pigs and East End Wines are shaping up to be a symbiotic culinary juggernaut.

Three Little Pigs
1209 Rosewood (@ E. 11th)
4pm - food runs out or 10ish, whichever comes first
Major credit cards and cash accepted