Friday, December 28, 2012

Good Luck Eats for New Year’s Day

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

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

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

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

Mick’s Mile-High Cornbread
Yield: 1 skillet of cornbread

This recipe originated with my pal Chef Ray Tatum of Austin’s excellent Three Little Pigs trailer, but over the years it’s been modified considerably. You can use all-white or all-yellow cornmeal if you like, or mix them in any proportion.

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

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

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

Southern Collard Greens with Bacon and Balsamic Vinegar
Serves 4

A pot of collard greens is always referred to in the South as a “mess of greens”, and the vitamin-rich, bacon-seasoned savory broth in the bottom of the pot is called potlikker. Traditionally the white plantation owners of the South consumed the cooked and drained collard greens while the slave cooks, who understood the high nutritive value of potlikker, saved the broth to supplement their family’s diets. Nothing is better for soaking up the potlikker than a hot piece of crusty cornbread that’s been split down the middle and slathered with sweet butter.

The Great Potlikker and Cornpone Debate in February and March of 1931 pitted Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, against Huey “The Kingfish” Long, the backwoods populist governor and soon to be U.S. senator-elect from Louisiana. The traditionalist Harris contended that Southerners must crumble cornpone into potlikker, criticizing Long as an unrefined rube, who contended that the corpone should instead be dunked. What started as a lighthearted fluff piece in the paper turned into a 23-day long news event that captivated the South (and the nation), and ended up dealing with all manner of cultural affairs, including race, gender, class, and regional chauvinism. For what it’s worth, we prefer eating our potlikker-soaked, from a solid block of cornbread, eaten with a spoon.

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

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

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

Southern-Soulfood Black Eyed Peas              
Serves 8

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

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

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

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

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

Mick Vann ©          

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 La Cena de Für Elise Navidad, at Rancho Winslow

We convened at Rancho Winslow for the annual Xmas dinner, again this year adopting the theme of the prime rib. There was a Nolan Ryan President’s Cut 6-bone that had been seasoned the night before, and brought out of the fridge several hours early before it sacrificed itself to an 8-hour excursion in a 220° F oven. That’s how we used to cook the herds of prime ribs that we served at Pelican’s Wharf, way back in the day. Low and slow. Low and slow.
I have to criticize Nolan’s meat cutters: they left bits of the chine bone on the meat, which presented some challenges carving the roasted slab. A 109A prime rib back in the days of good meat would never have any chine left on. Other than negotiating those chine bones, carving was a breeze using Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham’s family heirloom razor-sharp carbon steel antique carving set. Also attending besides Roberto and I were Sarah and Elan (sic…sorry if it’s spelled wrong), Princess Di and C-Boy, Jules, Jeffrey “Brainiac” Barnes (the rock star sax genius of Brave Combo and Diane’s brother) and the lovely and petite Gina, and Grandma Nancy. Hershey once again proved she was the best of the Rancho perros; far superior to Toby and Raleigh.

On the side was a groaning board of a three layer Italian cheese terrine, a wheel of brie, assorted Xmas cookies, amaretto Jordan almonds, chocolate covered dried cranberries, mega-sized kettle corn (never seen popcorn that big), three types of crackers, yogurt pretzels, assorted nuts, spicy walnuts with rosemary, wasabi peas, etc., etc.; all designed to ruin an appetite.

There was a fruit plate, of juicy seedless grapes, sweet, aromatic pineapple, and ripe strawberries to munch on.

Di whipped up her famous twice baked stuffed potatoes: huge Idaho’s baked, scooped, mixed with cheddar, scallion, sour cream, and bacon, then stuffed back in, and topped with paprika. Here’s a shot of them before their second baking.


I missed a shot of the roasted asparagus, but you’ll have to trust me. I made a sauce of roasted beef bone beef stock, some brandy, with crimini mushrooms, shitake mushrooms, and roasted garlic. Due to the excitement I forgot to mount the sauce with butter before service, but it was plenty rich on it’s own and didn’t need it.


I cooked a huge wad of sautéed mushrooms, with shallots and butter.

Jules constructed a nice romaine salad with ripe garden tomatoes, cucumber, shredded carrots, and red onion, and there was an assortment of dressings (chunky blue cheese seemed to be the winner).


The roast was gorgeous, tender, juicy, and tender; damn near perfect with the mushroom gravy draped over the top. There was a trio of dinner rolls to sop up the delicious juices with, white, wheat, and dark whole grain.

Jeffrey made a crowd favorite chocolate-cherry drop cake and Gina made a rich chocolate fondue for dipping gingerbread marshmallows into. There was also fresh gingerbread and some leftover pobre caballero. We ate like kings, until we couldn’t eat any more.  Robert brought an assortment of wines (whose names escape me), but there was a superlative Rhiengau, a Rousson (nice once it breathed a bit), and a great Spanish garnacha. There was Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale, and 1554 Black Ale from New Belgium Brewers. We drank well. It was Xmas at Rancho Winslow and it was good…very, very good. Outside the cold wind howled, inside the fireplace crackled and we grunted with satisfaction and glee.


Mick Vann ©    

Monday, December 24, 2012

Rancho Winslow 1st Annual Fin del Mundo Fiesta/Slumber Party

Miss Loretta getting her La Paloma on....

With either the Mayan-predicted end of the world, or the beginning of a new age of enlightenment, whichever you want to believe fast approaching, a day of furious cooking led to the (almost) completion of the planned menu; the Pobre Caballero didn’t get made until the next morning, as a brunch item. Attending our little soirée at Rancho Winslow were El Lotto Bionico (me), Chris (AKA “CBoy”), Princess Di, Winslow spawn Sarah (who jetted in from Ft. Lauderdale), Jules, Rob “Empty Leg” Abraham, Phillip and Miss Loretta, Wally and Debbie, and Dr. Phil and the charming Cookie; a frisky and exuberant
group ready for a 13th B’ak’tun Bacchanalia.

The bar was stocked with Bohemia, Noche Buena, and Indio (all excellent Mexican beers) and all the fixins to make batches of a mixology-oriented La Paloma cocktail, made with Herradura Blanco, a grapefruit-infused agave simple syrup, Bitterman’s Grapefruit Bitters, tart Key lime juice, Ruby Red grapefruit juice, and Topo Chico Agua Mineral con Gas (the bubbliest of all seltzers). Dr. Phil showed up with a bottle of Herradura Añejo, which we tapped late into the night, for a sip-and-chat session. Rob served ably as group bartender, and everyone got reasonably snockered.

For appetizer I had made a big bowl of Sikil P'aak, an ancient Mayan dip of roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and fire-charred tomatoes, tomatillos, serranos, garlic, and onion, all blended with sour orange juice and chicken stock. I backed off the chicken stock called-for because I was worried it would thin it out too much and subbed some Caldo de Pollo bouillon powder by Knorr. This dip was the ancient precursor of the pumpkin and squash seed-based pepian mole sauces to follow. I had never made it before and didn’t really know what to expect, but when I tasted it, it seemed like a really delicious Mayan hummus. We ate it with the tostados (actually known as totopos in Mexico) that we got from Tortilleria Rio Grande II on Wm. Cannon, just east of South 1st.  They are the best totopos in ATX, and Cookie, who grew up in Laredo and should know these things, agreed. The entire large bowl vanished. Everybody loved this dip and it will be made many more times.

Sikil P'aak pumpkin seed dip with TRG II totopos

When CBoy and I picked up the totopos, corn tortillas (also excellent), and flour tortillas that morning I convinced him to try TRG II’s gorditas, which are the best in ATX. We each got a queso y raja (gooey melted asadero Mexican white cheese and copious strips of roasted poblano chile), and their puerco y papa con nopalito en salsa roja (tender chunks of pork braised in a red chile sauce with potato and cactus pad strips). Chris freaked out over how good the gorditas were, and the tortillas we got were freshly made and still warm.

Gordita with pork, left, gooey cheese and raja under; roasted jalapeno salsa, tomatillo salsa, and chile de árbol salsa in mini-units behind (yeah, lousy shot I know)

The delectable Sopa de Lima con Pavo soup was made using the frame of the leftover Thanksgiving turkey and I simmered the rich stock for three hours. One tiny habanero heated up the huge pot, but it was rich, loaded with vegetables (including chayote), and tart from the Mexican lime juice. I had planned on making a batch of chilmole - AKA recado negro, otherwise known as “burnt” chile paste - but the soup was already near the limits of what most of the diners could handle spice-wise.

Along with the fresh tortillas from TRG II, there were three condiments and two salads.  I made a batch of the obligatory cebollas encurtados, Yucatecan pickled red onions with sour orange juice, garlic, allspice, clove, Mexican oregano, pepper, and vinegar; essential in balancing the richness of cochinita pibil. I also made a batch of xnipec (aka “Dog's Nose” Salsa), a fresh salsa of homegrown tomato, red onion, garlic, güero and habanero chiles, sour orange juice, cilantro, a splash of vinegar, pinch of sugar, and salt. This stuff is great on anything. I bought a bottle of El Yucateco’s K'uut Bi Ik Salsa, made from pounded dried habanero and ancho chiles, charred onion and garlic, water, salt, and a pinch of sugar; very spicy and fantastic. The salads were  ensalada zek, with Mandarin orange segments and diced jicama, cucumber, sour orange juice, olive oil, and garlic, and we had a bottle of Tajin Classico seasoning to sprinkle over it, made from pequin chile powder, dehydrated lime peel and salt. Very tasty and surprisingly, several of the folks had never eaten jicama, that tuber with the crispness of raw potato and a slight apple flavor. Zic de carne is a Mayan salad of braised, shredded skirt steak braised in an aromatic broth with scallion, garlic, chiles, green olives, radish, and cilantro, dressed with sour orange juice; it’s called a salpicón in Mexico, and can be eaten as a salad, a taco, or a snack. Mayans eat really good food.

Cebollas encurtidos left, dog's nose salsa top, jicama and orange salad right, and salpicón bottom

The pork shoulder for the cochinita pibil was marinated in achiote paste (made from annatto seeds), sour orange juice, cumin, oregano, cinnamon, allspice, pepper, güero and habanero chiles and wrapped in fresh banana leaves that had been softened over the fire. It was all wrapped up and baked until tender, and then Wally did the honor of shredding the tasty meat for the tacos.

Raw pork ready to seal and bake...


...pork cooked and unwrapped....

...cooked pork ready to shred.

On the side was a big pot of lentejas Yucatecas, lentils made with vegetables, chicken stock, bacon, and pork (and a little chile, of course), and arroz verde, rice which gets sautéed before it gets steamed with fire-roasted poblanos and garlic, scallions, cilantro, parsley, lime zest, and chicken stock. Two yummy sides appropriate for the feast.


Arroz verde.....

The buffet was set and the feeding frenzy commenced, and I got quite a few hurrahs from the crowd. We stayed up until 2am waiting for the end of the world, nipping straight añejo tequila and brandy (not mixed together), and after witnessing neither a new awakening nor an apocalypse, we went off to slumber with bellies full of Mayan fare and spirit.

We still had the pobre caballero to do, and Di decided after the dinner that she would make it the next morning for brunch. The recipe calls for slices of baguette to be soaked like French bread, dipped in beaten egg white, like a chile relleno, and then fried. This produces the best French bread ever, and it’s a technique that should be adopted by all.

Frenched toast, ready to layer....

Once it is fried, the slices get layered into a casserole and then drizzled with syrup made from piloncillo (Mexican cane sugar), spices, brandy, and pecans. The syrup seemed like twice too much the required volume, so we only used half of it (recipe has been edited to reduce the volume). It bakes and then gets drizzled with a brandy butter sauce, which we decided we didn’t need for breakfast. I expected heavy, syrup-laden soggy bread, but we loved this dessert, finding it not too sweet, and much lighter than we expected. Highly recommended. 

Pobre caballero....

All in all, it was a really fun party and I’m fairly certain that everyone loved the food and drink. I was pretty sure that the world wasn’t going to end, and that proved to be correct, but hopefully the other prediction will come true: the birth of a new age of enlightenment as we plunge into the beginning of the 14th
B’ak’tun of the Mayan calendar.

For all of the recipes used, see my previous link here:

part 1:
part 2:      
part 3:

Mick Vann ©

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mi Ranchito II, 12.13.2012

Last night after a book meeting Art and I decided to hit up Mi Ranchito II, at the end of Manchaca Rd, where it runs into FM 1626; he had a hankering for a good bowl of soup and I was jonesing for a burger. Disparate demands, for sure, but met perfectly by Ranchito Dos.


They have a fantastic salsa bar, and the array pictured here is, as labeled at the bar, from L to R: "Hot Tomatillo", "Hot Green" (emulsified with avocado, with serrano and poblano), number three top is "Medium Red", and bottom is "Hot Red" (which has an exuberant zippiness but an ever better smoky quality), and of course, a chile-laden pico de gallo. Not show is "Mild Green" which is an avocado-emulsified poblano sauce, and Mild Red, which is a fresh casera style. All of the salsas are excellent.


Art opted for an order of their guacamole, which we had never gotten before. It comes out in a big cup, loaded with chunks of fresh avocado, diced green chiles, onion, a little tomato, and lime juice,  topped with some shredded cheese. The unit in the middle sits on a  huge platter, surrounded with nice crispy, thin totopos. We will definitely order this again.


I started with one of their tamales, this one stuffed with Mexican white cheese and jalapeño chiles. The masa in their tamales is light-as-air, but rich in flavor, an indication of succulent lard that has been whipped into the masa dough prior to slathering onto the corn husks . I love their tamales, and if you need a fix for the holidays, and are too lazy to host your own tamalada, or don't have a secret source, this is the place to go. Flavors include: pork, beef, chicken, cheese and jalapeño, bean and cheese, pineapple, and one other fruit version whose species eludes me at the moment.

Art went for threir boat-sized bowl of caldo de res, beef soup with onions, garlic, carrot, squash, green beans, cabbage, and potato, all in a very rich beef broth with meltingly tender meat. It comes with a stack of hot tortillas (not house-made, but very high quality) and a cup of their excellent rice. He went for a side taco of carnitas, shredded rich pork cooked in pork fat; top notch here at Ranchito Dos. 


I  swooned when my Mexican Burger arrived, a nice hefty patty smoky from the grill, that has been topped with Mexican white cheese, griddled and browned chorizo, and a griddled slice of ham. They lay on the normal fixins, but I opted for a schmear of refried beans on the bottom bun; I had to explain what a "schmear" was to the fellow working the counter. It comes with a big side of crispy fries (probably frozen, but high quality and done well), perfect when dipped into a mixture of the smoky hot salsa blended with a little ketchup. I had a little bun breakage to deal with, but it had a lot to contain. The burgers here are first-rate.

Once again Mi Ranchito II was presented with a difficult task: satisfy a demand for a great bowl of soup and a high class burger, both at reasonable prices, and once again, they came through like the champions that they are.

Mi Ranchito II
1105 FM 1626, Manchaca, 512/292-8107

Mick Vann ©