Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Dishwasher's Revenge! Turkey Day at Rancho Winslow 2015

The Dishwasher Did NOT Abide!

This recent Thanksgiving I was fortunate enough to have been invited as a guest and prep cook for the annual Rancho Winslow Turkey Day feast. Diane had concocted an adventurous menu, and truth be told, most of the hardest work was done by the time I got there. Joolz was onboard and had been helping Di. The hardest part of my task was getting up way too early on a day off, in order to get to the HEB in Kyle right when they opened at 6am. As the appointed chef du gravy, I had to be certain I could get turkey parts for the gravy, and I had stupidly decided to do that on Thanksgiving morning. It was a pretty serious crowd for 6am on a holiday. Big bags under focused but bleary eyes, with tightly clutched shopping lists and absolutely no sense of humor. These were determined folks on a mission, and there were surprisingly more of them than I had thought there would have been. As I had hoped, HEB still had turkey wings and necks on hand, so I loaded up on those, along with the appropriate veggies for stock (celery, carrots, onion, and garlic), and made my getaway. 

Perky Turkey!

I had done my wine shopping the day before, using the online feature at Total Wine. It’s a godsend. Select everything online, pay for it then, and when you go to pick it up, you go to the customer service counter right inside the front door, give them your name, and they present you with a box of what you selected. No roaming endlessly up and down aisles, trying to read small print with antique eyes. It’s much easier to read ratings and descriptions on my computer screen, while sitting on my ass. Plus, you can also easily get there via the back way, from Westgate, and avoid the horrible traffic on Brodie Lane. 

Here’s what I selected, all of which received great reviews online, was all quite reasonably priced (in the neighborhood of $10 a bottle), and garnered hip hurrahs from the tipplers at Rancho Winslow.
Yalumba “Y” Viognier, 2014
Borsao  Campo de Borja 2014 (my cheap red of choice, a steal at $6 a bottle)
Klinker Brick Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel, 2012
Gascón Malbec, 2014
Mascota Vineyards La Mascota Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013
Anna Codorníu Brut Rose Cava
Poema Brut Cava

I also grabbed CBoy a six pack of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale to amend his copious assortment of beers on ice. 

Our pal Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham brought a 2014 Meridian Chardonnay, which is his go-to white. Rob feels like Chardonnay has gotten the stinky end of the stick lately, passed over by the Sauv Blanc and Pinot Grigio crowd, so he feels obligated to represent. Havie and Raheem brought a 2013 No Curfew red, a 2013 Legend of the Vine Cabernet, and a 2014 Carson Ridge Paso Robles Cab. All of the wine was enjoyed by all. Not a stinker in the bunch.
There was a crew of 16 in attendance, anchored by C’Bpy and Princess Di, along with me, Joolz (AKA, the Master Baster), Robert (retired veterinarian and forensic turkey vivisectionist), Havie and her posse (spawn Violet, Conner, and Scarlet, along with Raheem, Nabil, Jamaal, Marie, and Lauren), and the walking wounded, Grover and Jill. You may remember G and J from previous posts. They live across the back fence from Rancho Winslow, and own Austin’s best little butcher shop, Johnny G’s Butcher Block. The medical mention referred to the fact that Grover had his left arm in an elaborate sling contraption encircling his whole body, to prevent him from moving his arm for the next three months. Somehow he managed to tear his bicep muscle from his chest wall while reaching for something on the floor, all while sitting in a chair! Jill was hobbled by a foot cast that rose to just below her knee. The poor dear managed to break her ankle while putting on a shoe. It’s sad when our elderly begin to crumble before our very eyes, especially during deer processing season (a critical and harrowing time for butchers).

I have to say, Di outdid herself this year, and every single thing I tasted (and I tasted it all), was mind-numbingly delicious. For noshes, there was a tray of vegetable crudité, accompanied by chipotle raspberry dip, smoked Gouda dip, and spinach-artichoke dip. The crunchy red bell peppers from the nursery’s garden were as sweet as candy. Lauren brought two wonderful trays of composed fruit salad. The guest of honor at this groaning board was an 18 pound female turkey with herbs and lemon inserted under the skin, and a cavity stuffed with carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and herbs. Her breast adornments were not only fetching, but quite perky! The resulting meat was meltingly tender and very moist.  She was accompanied by a glazed ham, served with horseradish sauce. 

Princess Di and Perky Turkey

Cooked Perky

The Death Spiral of Ham!

I took a big pot full of turkey necks and wings, flavored with carrot, celery, onion, garlic, and herbs, and reduced it down for hours. I was going to thicken it with some roux made from duck fat and flour, but Havie and Raheem sounded the gluten panic alarm, so I was forced to use a slurry of cornstarch instead. Still, it was excellent gravy, even without the duck fat roux. That same reduced turkey broth moistened the dressing, made with bread cubes, celery, carrot, onion, garlic, sage, and mushrooms. We could have used another pan, or even two. I could have eaten another whole pan all by myself. It was that good. Di made her mom Nancy’s fresh cranberry relish with orange zest, and we also had the ubiquitous cranberry jelly which slowly and noisily slurps out of the can.




Relish World

Havie brought a casserole of Japanese sweet potatoes and yams with coconut milk, which was a huge hit. Di marinated some Brussels sprouts in olive oil and orange Balsamic vinaigrette and roasted those. She also did fresh-blanched green beans tossed with butter and roasted red onion sections, garnished with blue cheese. There was cinnamon and cardamom infused apple sauce, and a lovely spinach and pear salad with purple onions, toasted walnuts, and a cranberry-ginger vinaigrette. We had Sister Schubert’s yummy whole grain yeast rolls hot from the oven slathered with whipped butter. There was strong brewed iced tea and an urn of lemonade, and the aforementioned shitloads of good wine and beer. We’re talking seriously good food here, folks.

Spinach Salad

Brussels Sprouts

Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Green Beans with Roasted Onions and Blue Cheese


The crew all waddled in later for pies which were baked by Marie (with Havie’s help?). Scrumptious pumpkin, apple, pecan, and lemon meringue. Nabil cranked out a big bowl of fresh whipped cream for the punkin pies. I was in pie heaven. As if that wasn’t enough, Nancy had sent over a pan of smores bars, which folks couldn’t stop eating. 

We all went into food comas and watched UT get the snot beat out of them by Texas Tech, while Lauren and Jamaal gracefully rode herd on the dirties, loading up the dishwasher and hand-washing the bigger pots and pans. Unfortunately, the dishwasher decided to commit suicide in protest, forcing C’Boy and Di to get up at the buttcrack of dawn the next day, to go off in search of a new dishwasher amongst the frenzied herds of ravaging Black Friday shoppers.

I wish I could provide a happy ending, but the next day, the brand new dishwasher’s water pump didn’t work, which caused the dirty dishes to get enameled with baked-on food particles. Joolz didn’t know that the under sink plumbing was discombobulated from C’Boy trying to figure out why the water didn’t come on in the new dishwasher, so she dumped the residue from the turkey stock bones into the sink, which immediately ran through and coated the bottom shelf under the sink, before running out all over the kitchen floor. And, with the kitchen sink water and drain disconnected, Joolz, Di, and C’Boy ended up having to hand wash all of the food-enameled dishes by hand, using the little bar sink on the kitchen island. A Herculean task that lasted hours. Hopefully the new dishwasher has been installed by now; they were hoping it would be finished by Tuesday (today).

Post-dinner Sisyphean maladies aside, it was a spectacular feast, held among dear friends. There were no divisive political arguments, and nobody got too drunk or made as ass out of themselves. There was plenty of food (except for the dressing, dagnabbit) and every single nibble was delicious. We are all truly

No glue guns died in the course of this post.....

Mick Vann ©    

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sap's (Not so) Sweet and Sour 9.08.2015

I had to do some banking last week, which almost always means a stop by Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine on Westgate, since my credit union is cater-corner from Sap’s, in the shopping center from hell, right across Ben White Boulevard to the northeast. While perusing the menu I was waiting for gustatory inspiration, and it came from the vegetables that accompany the sweet and sour dish (S-P28): green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, crunchy cloud ear fungus, and fresh chunks of pineapple. I ordered the dish with ground pork, which matches well with the sauce, but I also love it with shrimp and squid. 

Most Americans immediately associate the term “sweet and sour” with that gloopy, overly sweet stalwart that coats chunks of battered and deep fried chicken or pork in the typical Americanized-Chinese restaurant. The neon-orange sauce that’s adorned with water chestnuts, vapid canned baby corn, and onion, and tastes more like ketchup than anything else. Although the Thai version originated in China, it tastes nothing at all like the American-Chinese version (nor does the original Chinese version for that matter).

Sap's Sweet and Sour with Ground Pork

The taste profile of the Thai (and the original Chinese) version is savory, with a hint of sweetness from the pineapple, balanced nicely with vinegar. Umami arrives courtesy of the fish sauce in the Thai version, and soy sauce in the Chinese version. And rather than coating greasy, battered chunks of meat, the Thai version is a quick stir fry of whatever protein you’ve chosen, matched with the still crunchy vegetables and that complex sauce. If you glaze over looking at a large menu, the dish is a culinary revelation and easy to find; just ask for S-P28. It is even more delicious when consumed with the rich, nutty flavor of Sap’s brown jasmine rice.

The ideal tabletop match would be a platter of pad sea-ew noodles (S-F3; AKA phat si-io, phat see yiew, pad see ewe, pad si ewe, pad see-iw, etc.).  You need to think ahead on this one, because you have to choose not only the protein, but the type of noodle. I went with chicken and sen yai, or wide, flat rice noodles (sen yai means “big strip” in Thai). Like the previous dish, pad sea-ew originated in China, but was morphed by Thai cooks to create a uniquely Thai flavor profile. The name of the dish translates to “fried with soy sauce” (referring to stir frying in a wok and not deep frying).  The soy sauce referred to is not Kikkoman, but a thick, slightly sweetened, sauce called Sea-Ew Dum in Thai (or Kecap Manis in Malaysia).  The dish is popular as a street food dish, and is common on restaurant menus. Think of it as a “dry” (meaning broth-less), version of lard nah (AKA rad nah), a dish with the same ingredients, but accompanied with a thickened, rich stock that’s seasoned with ground white pepper.

Pad Sea Ew with Chicken (with sen yai noodles)

The key to a good pad sea-ew is cooking the noodles in a very hot wok, so that they get slightly charred; often referred to as “the dragon’s kiss”.  It’s a tricky process, since the noodles would love to stick to the surface of the wok. The typical protein is pork, chicken, or shrimp, mixed with some fluffy scrambled egg, and the only vegetable is Chinese broccoli, which is thinner and slightly more bitter in flavor (some even accuse it of having a slight metallic taste). The sauce is composed of a mixture of thick soy sauce, light soy sauce, a touch of sugar and vinegar, and lots of garlic. Some vendors and cooks will add a little oyster sauce as well. When it gets to the table, I add a little fish sauce and lots of Thai roasted chile paste to adjust the flavor to my desired taste settings. It’s a fantastic noodle stir fry that never fails to impress.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine is my favorite Thai restaurant in town. They have the most authentic flavors, and very reasonable rates with big portions. I highly recommend the sweet and sour dish. It’s a different flavor from what you probably expect. Over the years I’ve eaten every single item on the entire menu, and each dish at each visit has been excellent. Sap’s is my go-to dining spot, and that’s with all cuisines and all of Austin’s restaurants considered. Very highly recommended.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine
· 4514 West Gate Blvd, (512) 899-8525
· 5800 Burnet Rd, (512) 419-7244

mick vann ©

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sap's on Burnet...A Walk on the Mild Side of Thai

Thai yellow or golden chiles (photo from eBay)

On Sunday, April the 12th, R and I went by Sap’s on Burnet Road. I needed to drop off some Thai chile seedlings I was growing for him: yellow-fruited, and orange-fruited. I had found the seeds from a rare seed dealer and couldn't resist ordering some, figuring that if I spread the plants around, folks could harvest dried seeds from mature fruit, and we’d all have plenty of seeds for the foreseeable future. The orange gets a little larger than the yellow, and both of them are excellent in Thai cooking, and are especially delectable when made into Thai sriracha sauce (vastly superior to that crass, unrefined Rooster brand crap). Aside from the seed delivery, I had a hankering to stuff myself on some authentic Thai food, and Sap’s is my favorite spot for that.

Thai orange chiles (photo from etsy)

R is a bit of a wuss when it comes to eating really hot food, so when we dine together, I tend to moderate my chile intake somewhat, spicing my plate to taste. She knew she wanted “that green bean dish”, which could have been the green bean salad I love so much, but more likely, S-P31, Amazing Green Beans, which I like to get with ground pork. It is essentially a hybrid Thai-Chinese stir fry, with garlic and shallot, chunky pieces of jalapeño chile, crunchy green beans (or long beans in Thailand), and a protein of choice. The sauce gets some chicken stock and fish sauce, and is anchored by fermented bean paste, which gives it an umami boost. The mixture gets some Thai basil right towards the end to add some herbal punch. It’s one of my favorite dishes at Sap’s.

Amazing green beans with ground pork

The main attraction of the meal was S-P50, or Sap’s Special Massaman Curry with Beef. Depending on who you believe, massaman (or mussaman) curry originated in the 1600s in the court of Ayutthaya, with the original curry developing from a Thai adaptation of a dish introduced by Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi. Another theory has the dish being introduced into Southern Thailand from Malaysia, by way of India, and that its name derives from the Malay word masam, which means “sour” (although the dish in its present manifestation is not a sour curry by any stretch of the imagination). There is little doubt that the dish was Muslim in origin, and the ingredients that form the curry paste are not typical Thai curry spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, clove, star anise, cumin, bay, nutmeg, and mace. These combinations of flavors were brought to the Malay Peninsula by Muslim traders from the Middle East, India, and the Indonesian archipelago. Later on, Dutch, Portuguese, and French East Indian traders imported the spices. As it slipped across the southern Thai-Malaysian border heading north, the Thais combined that spice profile with dried chile peppers, white peppercorns, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, and sometimes turmeric to develop the flavors of the curry paste. This paste gets fried with the separated oil from coconut cream until fragrant, and then the meat is added. Thais typically cook the dish with beef, since pork is forbidden (haram) for Muslims. It can also be made with chicken, duck, mutton, or goat. Once the meat has braised with the paste to develop flavor, potatoes, onions, fish sauce, tamarind, palm sugar, coconut milk, and peanuts (or cashews) are added. It is a dish eaten with rice or with roti (a crepe-like South Asian flatbread made from wheat flour), and a bowl of massaman tastes best eaten the next day, once the potatoes have absorbed the flavors of the curry.

Sap's Special Massaman with beef

Sap's Special Massaman Curry is made with slowly braised chuck steak that's so tender that it melts in your mouth (I cut mine with my spoon), and instead of using white potatoes, he substitutes Yukon Gold potatoes. The overall flavor is sweet and tangy, with many complex layers of spice and an assertively piquant background, and whole roasted peanuts providing a pleasant crunchy texture and nutty taste. Sap's Special massaman has deeper flavor than most of the typical versions, and is flat-out delicious. A highly recommended menu item.

REAL sweet and sour, with shrimp and tofu

When most folks think of sweet and sour sauce, they instantly get a mental image of a psychedelic orange, ketchup-based, gloppy, thick, sauce that’s way more sweet than sour. It’s the classic Americanized Chinese restaurant menu mainstay, and the safe thing to order for your kids, especially if it comes on fried chicken nuggets. True, the dish did originate in China, but as with all Chinese dish imports into Thailand, the Thai version adopts that special Thai culinary finesse, and avoids the pitfalls of Americanization. We ordered S-P28 with shrimp, and added tofu, and it came out aromatic and steaming, with green beans, Asian eggplant, onion, garlic, fresh pineapple, tomato, and cloud ear mushrooms. The sauce has a mildly spicy edge, and is savory and sour, with just a hint of sweetness from palm sugar. This is the sweet and sour stir fry that you always hoped you would get at a Chinese restaurant, but made so much better here, Thai-style.

Stir fried bean sprouts

Another mild dish at Sap’s is one that slips under the menu radar for most non-natives, S-P34. It is simple and light, but packed with flavor from fish sauce, garlic, scallion, barely stir- fried, nutty tasting mung bean sprouts, and whatever protein you selected (we went for chicken). This is a classic homestyle Thai dish, that’s more subtle than the typical Thai flavor profile, but just as delicious. We ordered Thai brown jasmine rice to go with the entrees, and it is so much better tasting (and healthier) than the average polished white jasmine rice. If you’ve never had it, you’re missing out.

Once again, we had a really delicious meal at Sap’s, and one that even R could handle spice-wise. It’s proof that not all Thai dishes are spicy, and you don’t need to fry your taste buds to enjoy a fantastic Thai meal.

Mick Vann ©

for some background on Sriracha sauce, see here:

Naam jiim Siracha: Siracha (Sriracha) sauce is a bottled table condiment originally made in Si Racha, a coastal town just north of Pattaya (down the coast, south of Bangkok). It's a reddish-orange sauce made from pureed and aged-fermented ripe chiles, salt, vinegar, garlic, and sugar, which is used especially with egg and noodle dishes. Thai brands are preferred, since they have the true Thai taste, which balances sweet and sour with the heat (and there are some Thai brands that also offer a mild version if you prefer less heat). "Vietnamese" brands, such as the common Huy Fong (‘Rooster Brand') are spicier, with more garlic, vinegar, and little sugar. Huy Fong, by the way, is made in Los Angeles, from ripe jalapeños and garlic powder. ‘Sriracha Factory Brand', ‘Grand Mountain', 'Shark Brand', and ‘Golden Mountain' (Sriraja Panich) are all good Thai labels of a proper Thai Siracha sauce.

Originally Siracha (Sriracha, Sriraja, Siraja) sauce was made with Thai yellow chiles (prik daeng), which many feel results in a richer, deeper-flavored sauce. ‘Golden Mountain' brand still produces a version made with these yellow chiles (which can range in color from bright yellow to medium orange), although it is hard to find. Impossible to find in the States. You'll recognize the lighter color of the sauce inside the bottle, and if you ever find any on the shelf in your local market, you'd be wise to stock-up. Siracha sauce is used especially for omelets (kai jaew), for general-purpose spiciness with noodles, and grilled and deep-fried items, and, only in the East, with lard na.

A scene from a sauce factory near Chonburi, not too far north of Si Racha. These cases hold oyster sauce. They wouldn't let me take pictures of the sriracha sauce being made. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

China Dynasty and Dynamic Hot and Sour, 4.14.2015

After a grueling, ritualistic laying down of the numbers on my 1040 form last Tuesday afternoon, Art and I bounced around the corner from his house for some Chinese food at China Dynasty. It’s in the shopping center anchored by the HEB, on the northwest corner of Manchaca and Slaughter Lane. Here’s what makes the place so special: it’s an Americanized menu Chinese joint, but they know and respect the value of basing their sauces on a rich, well-prepared stock. Most lesser Chinese restaurants these days take the huge, flavorless shortcut of using their own version of the ubiquitous “brown sauce” as a soup base. It is basically watered-down soy sauce with some aromatics thrown in. Saltiness, sure. Depth and richness, definitely not. By contrast, Dynasty slow simmers big batches of chicken and pork stock until they are loaded with rich flavor, and those stocks are the base of every sauce and soup.

Hot and Sour....the real deal

The meal began with soup, with me getting a larger than normal portion of their hot and sour. Let me divert a bit from the script and yammer on about hot and sour soup in general. It hails from Sichuan province and is typically served as a mid-meal dish in a multi-course dinner, rather than as a starter, like it is in the West. Hot and sour soup in America has been in a serious quality decline for decades, and finding a good one these days is as rare as hen’s teeth. Back in the day, before hot and sour was added to the list of free soups given away with the daily lunch or dinner schedule, it was a separate menu item, almost always served in a big bowl meant to be shared between two or more. That meant that it was cooked-to-order by the chef, and not dipped out of a five gallon batch being held for hours on the steam table.

The beauty of hot and sour soup back then was that most Americans had no idea what it was. They were content with cups of pedestrian egg drop and won ton. If they were feeling frisky, they might opt for the sizzling rice soup, but that was usually more about seeking attention for themselves in a crowded dining room than a craving for the flavor of the dish. Hot and sour soup was sitting safely on a pedestal, immune from the plebiscites, and a safe bet for the flavor junkies that knew what it was.

But as Chinese food became more mainstream in the American diet, more and more of the chow mein, sweet and sour, and moo goo gai pan crowd figured out what they thought hot and sour soup was, and they thought they wanted it. In typical fashion, most American Chinese restaurants decided to give their diners what the diners wanted, which was a flavorless, meatless, soulless version of a loose approximation of what hot and sour should be. And over the years, it’s gotten dumbed-down and dumbed-down so much that it’s unrecognizable from the real deal. Its trendiness became its death knell, yielding a dull, gloppy sludge with softened vegetables, based on soy sauce and not pork bones, with nary a hint of heat or sourness.

My bowl of hot and sour at China Dynasty was so rich and aromatic you could taste the pork bones simmering for days. The brightness of the vinegar joined forces with the heat from black pepper and Sichuan chile paste, and the crisp vegetables were joined by just-cooked slivers of actual pork meat and meltingly soft tofu. This was a bowl of old school hot and sour, a rarity these days, and so refreshing and satisfying when you find one. It was reinforced by a batch of freshly ground, brilliantly scarlet chile paste that tasted overwhelmingly of fresh, ripe chile peppers. Another rarity.

Egg roll and pan fried dumplings

We moved on with some of Dynasty’s porky, crispy, flaky egg rolls and split an order of their excellent pan fried dumplings. The egg rolls were fresh and plump with ground pork and vegetables. The dumplings were nicely browned on the bottom, and juicy from the pork filling within. Dynasty even makes a great soy-ginger dipping sauce with just the right touch of sugar and vinegar, perfect when bumped up with some of the chile paste.

Chicken with fresh mushrooms, lunch menu

The General, lunch menu

I opted for the chicken with mushrooms while homeboy selected the General Tso’s chicken. My dish was loaded with fresh mushrooms and tender chicken that had been kissed by the sear of the wok, and the brown sauce was chicken stock based and very rich. Their version of General Tso is the authentic brown sauce version (a lot of places seem to confuse General Tso’s chicken with orange or tangerine peel chicken, with a few fried red chiles thrown in). What I really like about Dynasty, is that for their fried chicken dishes, such as General Tso, they use boneless chicken thigh, which has much better flavor than breast meat.

Pork Egg Foo Young!

For some reason, we also ordered a pork egg foo young, which is a dish that’s hard to find these days. Chinese chefs tell me it takes too long for some kitchens to mess with, so they just eliminated it from the menu. Out of sight, and outta mind, so, after not seeing it anymore, it slithered out of diner’s minds. Trust me. You want a good egg foo young? Moist inside, and loaded with slivered pork and crunchy vegetables, all swimming in a rich garlicky-gingery brown sauce? Go to Dynasty.

We also had the luxury of bumping into our favorite waitress, who is the niece of Johann, who used to own Java Noodles on Oltorf. The servers at Dynasty always manage to provide excellent service without being obtrusive. LOVE the Dynasty, and it’s only a couple of blocks from Art’s house.

China Dynasty
Tanglewood Village Shopping Center
2110 W Slaughter Ln, Austin
(512) 280-7153

If you want to make a great bowl of old school hot and sour soup in your own kitchen, here’s my recipe:

Hot and Sour Soup with Pickled Mustard Greens and Pork Shank
Serves 8                                 

Traditionally a thickened soup like this is served as a starter in the West, or as a mid-meal banquet course in China. In Sichuan this soup is spiced using an inordinate amount of black pepper, but I combine the pepper with fermented chile paste to create the piquancy. The flavor of the soup is complex and layered, with the base of rich pork stock, the bright contrast of the vinegar to balance that richness, the spiciness of the pepper and chiles, and the contrasting textures of the ingredients.

Pickled mustard greens (suan cai) have a sour, salty flavor that balances the richness of the meat while blending well with the seasoned broth, and adding umami from the fermentation. You can find the greens at Asian markets in jars or plastic packets. Long braised and unctuous beef shank adds not only rich, tender meat to the mix, but creates intense gelatinous stock, all in keeping with the traditional role of hot and sour soup as a Chinese banquet dish.

This dish involves cooking the shank the day before, but it is a simple procedure that doesn't require much attention at all. Once you taste the unctuous meat and the broth you'll realize the process was well worth the minimal effort.

Advanced Praparation
Braised pork shank:
4 to 5 pounds pork shanks, rinsed and trimmed of excess fat
¼ cup light soy sauce
¼ cup shaoxing rice wine (medium-dry sherry or sake can be used if necessary)
3 cups water
4 scallions, each tied in knot
4 slices ginger
6 cloves garlic, crushed
12 Sichuan peppercorns

Shank Method:
1. Combine all ingredients in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Cover and turn the fire as low as possible, simmering gently for one hour. Flip the shanks over, add additional water if necessary, and simmer an additional hour, or until meat is tender. Let shanks cool and refrigerate in the sauce overnight. Remove shanks from the gelatin and cut against the grain into thin slices. Reserve pork and gelatin for soup.

1 Tablespoon duck fat or lard, or peanut or vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced very thinly
1-inch section of ginger, peeled and matchstick cut
Reserved shank cooking liquid, heated, strained, combined with enough pork or chicken stock to yield 1½ quarts 
1 Tablespoon shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 block medium tofu, 7 to 8 ounces, ½ inch dice
⅓ cup Sichuan preserved mustard greens or cabbage, drained and thinly sliced
5 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked 30 minutes to soften in hot water, stems removed, thinly sliced
¼ cup cloud ears, soaked 30 minutes to soften in hot water, thinly sliced
½ cup fresh bamboo shoots, matchstick cut
¼ cup dried lily buds ("golden needles"), soaked 15 minutes to soften in water
½  to 1 teaspoon Sichuan fermented chile paste
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Half of the reserved sliced pork shank meat
4 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed into a smooth slurry with 6 Tablespoons chicken stock
1 large egg, beaten
3 to 4 Tablespoons black Chinese vinegar
3 scallions, green part only, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Soup Method:
2. In a large wok or saucepan, heat the oil over high heat and sauté the garlic and ginger for 30 seconds. Add the stock and bring to a boil, skimming away any foam the forms on the surface. Add the rice wine, soy sauces, tofu, preserved greens, mushrooms and cloud ears, bamboo shoots and lily buds, and the fermented chile paste. Reduce the heat to medium and maintain a low rolling simmer. Cook the soup for 5 minutes to allow the flavors to develop and then taste for salt, pepper, and chile paste. It should taste assertively spicy, savory, and rich.

3. Stir in the reserved shank meat, allow the soup to come back up to a low boil, and add the re-stirred cornstarch slurry in batches, adding a little at a time while stirring, allowing 15 seconds between additions to allow the slurry to thicken the broth. Not all of the slurry may be necessary. The finished texture should be glossy and thickened to a sauce-like consistency, but not gloppy. Stir in the vinegar to taste; it should have a mellow background sourness and just a blast of a vinegary tang.

4. Turn off the heat and slowly add the beaten egg while stirring very slowly; the egg should form thin strands, or what the Chinese call "egg flower".

5. Evenly divide the scallion and sesame oil in the bottom of 8 bowls and mix to combine. Ladle the hot soup over the garnish in the bowls and serve immediately, accompanied by chile oil, or by additional Sichuan chile paste.

One half pound of matchstick-cut lean pork, marinated for 30 minutes in ½ teaspoon shaoxing wine and 1 teaspoon light soy sauce may be substituted for the shank meat. Substitute pork stock for the shank broth. Add the pork to the boiling stock 1 minute before thickening with the cornstarch slurry.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, April 3, 2015

Renteria's Smoke Causes Tears….for Austin's ‘Cue Lovers

Last night Sabino “Pio” Renteria pursued his manic obsession against Austin’s barbecue restaurants and grilling food trailers, and the amazing thing to me is that he succeeded in getting his proposal to the next level. From listening to him yammer on, it’s apparent that the whole thing stems from the gentrification of East Austin. I hate Californians zooming in and snatching up the eastern side of our city as much as the next guy, offering cash for the asking price on the same day that a property hits the market. It displaces all of the old timers that can no longer afford to live there, and the increase in taxes is forcing old eateries out of the area. If you think the McMansionism of the ’09 zip code was bad a couple of decades back, I would urge you to hop in your lowrider and do an extended cruise around the eastside today. elected him, District 3. Happy now?

But what Renteria fails to understand, is that most of the barbecue venues are leasing their spots, and with the meteoric increase in real estate values (and therefore, taxes) in the area, the rents that the landlords will have to charge will eventually price the barbecue folks out of the area, along with all of the locals. Not to mention the fact that the profit margin on barbecue is abysmally small, and these restaurants cannot afford to buy scrubbers, even if they wanted to. The hipsterification of East Austin will be complete, and only those rich enough to live there will be rich enough to pay the Dallas prices the remaining restaurants in the area will be forced to charge.

When Renteria suggests that instead of wood as a fuel, the restaurants should instead use natural gas, or that smoke scrubbers should be installed on every pit smokestack, he shows what a moron he is when it comes to understanding the dynamics of the meat smoking art. It is a delicate and carefully choreographed dance between wood, fire, and air, and you start jacking around with that tango and you lose the flavor. Even raising the height of the smokestack changes the dynamics. A stack scrubber would be catastrophic.

Most of the hubbub seems to center around Terry Black’s on Barton Springs, and la Barbecue in east Austin. Read this from KXAN’s report on March 30:  “Last year, Terry Black’s Barbecue on Barton Springs Road received two TCEQ complaints alleging smoke nuisance. When TCEQ staff checked the restaurant, the smoke observed was not considered a nuisance and no violations were cited….La Barbecue has seen visits from TCEQ as well. In 2014, there were two complaints regarding smoke and in both instances TCEQ staff determined there was no violation.”

Holiday House WAAAY back in the day.....

It’s really unfortunate that Terry Black’s is one of the featured violators, because I've eaten their barbecue, and it is sub par at best. But the fact remains that the location has been a restaurant since at least the very early ‘60s, cooking flame-kissed burgers over charcoal (Holiday House started in Austin a long time ago). The time to bitch about the possibility that a barbecue restaurant might make some smoke, and that you lived right behind it, on the edge of a limestone cliff that would prevent the dispersal of said smoke, would have been during the months leading up to the opening, when there was near constant news coverage of the joint starting up. Or the public disclosure or posting of their impending alcohol permit, for that matter. Complaining a half a year later, after they've spent a butt load of money, just doesn't work.

This whole situation reminds me of the folks that raised hell about airplane noise when Bergstrom AFB became ABIA. Airplanes make noise, and believe me, B 52 bombers and KC 135 tankers make a HELL of a lot more noise than a puny airliner; we used to live under the approach to the north end of the Bergstrom runway when I was a kid, and it would shake the entire house to its foundation when one flew over (which was frequently). Unless you lived out there before Bergstrom was established, keep your mouth shut. You don’t move next to an airport and bitch about noise. Just like you don’t move close to a barbecue joint, and bitch about smoke.

John Lewis is talking about relocating his pits a little to help disperse the smoke more efficiently. A magnanimous gesture if you ask me. He was granted a certificate of occupancy for that new location, and went through all of the required steps from the City and the Health Department. I also saw some news footage from some guy bitching about the smoke from a smaller mobile food trailer. There are existing zoning provisions which cover that situation: “Neighborhood Planning Contact Team or a Neighborhood Association can adopt additional regulations that regulate the distance and hours of operation of mobile food trailers near residential areas…” No new rules need to be imposed.

Here’s the bottom line, back in the day, getting really excellent barbecue usually required a 30 minute (or more) drive out of Austin, and today we are blessed with a ridiculous bounty of great barbecue within our city limits. Pitmasters like Aaron Franklin, John Lewis, John Mueller, Tom Micklethwait, Lance Kirkpatrick, Bill Kerlin, Evan Leroy, Daniel Brown, Tom Spalding, and the rest have helped Austin’s national reputation as one of the best food cities in the country, as well as one of the nation’s focal points for excellent barbecue. That brings in tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of publicity to Austin, which benefits us all, whether you like barbecue or not. In considering the effects of Renteria’s proposal, I can’t think of a more wrongheaded, discombobulated move for Austin’s City Council to make. If you agree with me, I would encourage you to let him, and the rest of the Council, know about it. Next thing you know, they could be dictating what YOU grill or smoke in your own backyard.

Sabino “Pio” Renteria
Austin City Council, District 3

Mick Vann ©


Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Rabbit Rant


Belgian Giant breed of rabbit....THESE are the rabbits that we should be eating!

In today’s Austin Chronicle Food section, Anna Toon wrote an article concerning rabbits as food, and how several Austex restaurants are putting rabbit back on the menu. That article of course enraged the bunnypet bunch, who all started bitching about her article. They assert that rabbits were meant to be loving pets and should never be eaten, and wonder out loud, where normal people like me can hear them, what kind of a monster would even suggest such a thing. Those folks kinda got my dander up a little bit. I like eating rabbit, and don't really care what those people think.

Rabbit has been eaten by man ever since he was able to outthink the rabbit, which is no great feat. Rabbits have speed and camouflage going for them, but they are not blessed with superior intellect, their hide is easily peeled from their carcass, and they come in convenient, dinner-sized packages. Rabbits are a favorite foodstuff of pretty much anything that can catch a rabbit, from birds of prey, to any mammal fast or clever enough to subdue the wily beast.


We used to cook rabbit at the Clarksville Café back in the day, and every time we did, the customers would rave about it. It is a very healthy meat, high in protein, and low in fat. It tastes incredibly delicious when marinated and then braised, but if you don’t cook it correctly, it can end up a little on the tough side. My only complaint at the time was that rabbit cost too much for me to make much money on it, unless I charged what I thought was an excessive price. You were paying for a lot of bone weight, and you could get two good servings out of a carcass. The other thing is that rabbits can be kind of a pain to prep, because of the bones. The price per pound was high because there were very few folks raising rabbits back then for the restaurant trade.

Rabbits in Aussieland

Rabbits are eaten by pretty much every civilization worldwide, and have been for thousands and thousands of years. Rabbits are really easy to raise domestically, and they breed like, well, like rabbits. They don’t take up a lot of room, and their manure is ideal for gardening. They can make a disturbing scream when they are dispatched, but that is why the rabbit punch was developed, to rapidly kill the rabbit before he knows what’s coming. As a plus, rabbit fur makes a dandy hat or a pair of gloves.

Rabbit hunter in Australia

Let a few rabbits escape in an area where they have no predators, and they will take over. Back in the day, the old Austin airport runways were overrun with rabbits. Ask the average Australian how he feels about rabbits, and you certainly won’t hear any sympathy for the bunnies taking over that continent. Introduced in 1859, they grew to such numbers that they caused the extinction of native plant and animal species, and led to erosion and siltation of waterways. They out-competed 
 with livestock for graze, and just generally became such a pain in the ass that they built the world's longest fence to try to contain the little peckerwoods. Rabbits still cost the Australian government $600 million annually, even today. 

So the bunnypet bunch can bitch all they want to about restaurants serving rabbit, and food writers writing about restaurants serving rabbit, but we all know that if we don’t eat those tricky bunny bastards they will overpopulate and leave us in an ecological wasteland. You don’t want to eat rabbit? Fine, don’t eat any. You start telling me what I can eat, then we got a problem. Personally, I loves me a plateful of bunny. Loves it.

Mick Vann ©


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Prickly Pear Cactus Points

The resplendent winter coloration of Ranta Rita Opuntia (O. gosseliniana var. santa-rita)
sold in the nursery trade as an ornamental

Photo from

Researchers tell us that the prickly pear cactus was one of the earliest food crops, with Mesoamericans cultivating Opuntia ficus-indica more than 9,000 years ago. Today in South Africa, the Maghreb, Sicily, and South, Central, and North America the cactus is being grown as a food stuff, as cattle feed, and for the intensely colored, flavorful fruit, known in Mexico as tuna. The Mexican word for the prickly pear cactus, nopales, is based on the ancient Nahuatl nohpalli.

Prickly pear cactus are farmed around the world
Photo by

Nopales are strips or cubes cut from the pads of prickly pear cactus; 114 different species grow in Mexico. They are sold as spineless, peeled pads in Hispanic markets, and can be used raw or blanched (too much cooking and they get mucilaginous, like slimy okra). Bottled or canned versions packed in brine are available in Hispanic markets and some groceries. These should be rinsed in warm and then cold water, and drained before use.

Nopales, ready to blanch, at the mercado
Photo from

For fresh nopales, obtain tender young pads about 4 inches long and ⅛ inch thick. Larger ones will be tough and have a papery skin that must be removed before using. Remove all of the small spines on the pads with the blade of a knife. It is easiest to hold the pads with folded-over newspaper or tongs to prevent getting stuck by the thorns while processing. Cook briefly in boiling, salted water until just starting to get tender but not slimy (see cooking method, below). To prepare the fruit, lay a prickly pear on a cutting board and cut almost in half lengthwise. Using a knife with a flexible blade, “filet” the flesh from the skin as you rotate the blade around the interior surface of the skin, much like you would a kiwi fruit.

Prickly pear fruit, or tuna
Photo from

Ripe tuna
Photo from

You can easily grow prickly pear cactus in your yard, and many ranchers in Texas consider the plant an invasive pest, but they provide a valuable habitat for many critters (including snakes, so use caution when harvesting). In times of extreme drought, ranchers burn the thorns off with propane torches as graze for their livestock. To grow your own, they require only good drainage and adequate sun. Nurseries sell desirable spineless and ornamental varieties, and varieties will soon hit the market that have been bred for larger, sweeter fruit. To grow the common local species you can just cut off a pad from a plant, let the cut surface scab over for a few days, and insert it into the ground. It will grow with a vengeance.

Different types of Opuntia fruit
Photo from

Typical ripe fruit interior
Photo from

The flesh of the pads is used in salads, in pico de gallo and salsas, with scrambled eggs, in tacos, with meats, and in other dishes. The fruit has a texture similar to watermelon, kiwi, or dragonfruit, and the sweet, tart flesh can be used in a similar fashion, or juiced and added to drinks (local soda company Maine Root makes a prickly pear fruit soda called “Pink Drink”). Prickly pear fruit also makes a spectacular sorbet. Health freaks will appreciate very high levels of Vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber, and studies suggest nopales could help with diabetes and hangovers.

Huevos Revueltos con Nopales · Scrambled Eggs with Cactus Strips

Serves 1

The Northern states of Mexico are especially fond of nopales. The blanched or grilled pads are fantastic mixed with scrambled eggs, and then eaten as a breakfast platter, with beans, chile-dusted and browned diced potato, and tortillas, or you can just place the filling inside a hot flour tortilla for a classic Austex breakfast taco.

1 Tablespoon lard, bacon fat, duck or chicken fat, or butter
1 large or 2 small scallions, trimmed and sliced
1 large serrano chile, stemmed and julienned (seeds and ribs removed for less heat)
⅔ cup prepared nopales (see preparation method, below)
2 large eggs, scrambled
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
3 Tablespoons grated Chihuahua or Monterey jack cheese, for garnish
Salsa of your choice, as a topping

In a seasoned or nonstick skillet over medium heat, add the lard. When shimmering, add the scallion and chile and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the nopales and sauté 2 minutes. Add the eggs, salt, and pepper, and using a heat resistant rubber spatula, scrape the eggs from the outside-in, just until the eggs are fluffy and set, but still moist. Place on a plate and garnish with the grated cheese, and top with your favorite salsa.

Ensalada de Nopales · Cactus Paddle Salad

Serves 4

Nopales make an excellent salad ingredient, and fresh shrimp, poached lightly in a chile-garlic broth, are excellent added to this salad.

1 ¼ pounds of blanched nopal strips
3 plum tomatoes, stemmed and diced
½ cup diced red onion
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 to 3 serrano chiles, stemmed and finely minced (seeds and ribs can be removed for less heat)
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
¼ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped
1 ½ Tablespoons lime juice
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 avocado, pitted and diced, for garnish
½ cup grated cotija or romano cheese, for garnish
Totopos (tostadas), for service

In a large mixing bowl combine the cactus strips, tomato, onion, garlic, chiles, oregano, cilantro, lime juice, olive oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and mix well. Taste for seasonings for salt and pepper and add to taste. Evenly divide the salad among 4 salad bowls, garnish with diced avocado and grated cheese, and serve immediately with fresh totopos. 

To prepare nopales: You can buy them brined in jars (which need to be thoroughly rinsed), but they are much better fresh. Look for prepped (thorns removed), firm paddles in the produce section of gourmet, specialty, or Hispanic markets. If you harvest and prepare them yourself, using tongs or gloves, take a paring knife and excise each group of thorns by slicing just under the surface. When both sides are cleaned of thorns, remove the outside edge, and cut into ¼ inch strips.
To blanch nopales:
1 ½ Tablespoons salt
Pinch of baking soda
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 ¼ pounds of nopal strips
In 4 quarts of boiling water over high heat, add the salt, baking soda, and garlic, stir well, and then add the cactus strips. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and cook until just starting to get tender, but not limp (about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on freshness). Pour into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop the cooking process and rinse off any slime. Drain well and reserve.

Alternatively, prepare the pads as before and grill both sides over a burner or coals until the pad starts charring, turning yellowish, and starts to get tender. 
Cooked this way, they are called nopales asadosIn case you weren’t paying attention and got pierced with tiny thorns, take a piece of duct tape and lightly drag it across the skin, or put a dab of Elmer’s Glue on the thorns. When the glue dries, peel it and the thorns from your skin.

Mick Vann ©