Thursday, April 28, 2011
I’m always amazed at how it often takes a tourist to get a native to see the sights of his or her own city/state/country. I lived in Manhattan for 10 years and NJ for another 30 before I went to the top of the Empire State Building. The impetus? My 11-year-old nephew arrived from Houston for a visit.
Similarly, I never visited the celebrated Jockey Hollow area outside Morristown, NJ, where George Washington’s army spent a miserable winter in 1780. Never, at least, until friends from Seattle showed up.
So when our New Jersey friends who now live near us in Austin suggested a trip to West Texas and Big Bend National Park, I jumped at it. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Texas and never got west of the tiny town of Bracketville, where the film The Alamo was shot, about halfway to the Big Bend area.
The park is at the bottom of that triangle of West Texas formed when the Rio Grande veers suddenly north from its otherwise smooth slide to the Gulf of Mexico. So it’s a good 6 ½ hours from Austin just to get to the outskirts. The land is exactly what you’ve seen in countless cowboy movies – hot, dry, flat, and empty (mostly) of any signs of life. (In fact, the movie “Giant” was filmed in the nearby town of Marfa.) Huge, flat-topped mesas punctuate the vastness, and the roads run straight as cactus needles into the distant mountains. If it doesn’t sound like a typical vacation spot, I should add that it’s incredibly relaxing: the dry heat draws out whatever tension you might have brought with you, and the people are as open and friendly as they could be. And, in truth, we found dramatic beauty in the harsh, rugged land.
On our way home, we stopped for brunch in Marfa (population 2,400), at a tiny place you can miss if you blink. But if you’re in West Texas, and anywhere near Marfa, you must make time for a meal at Cochineal (107 ½ West San Antonio Street, Marfa, TX, 432/729-3300).
The sophistication became less surprising when I learned that the owners, Tom Rapp and Toshi Sakihara, escaped to West Texas from their former lives as restauranteurs on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The brunch menu is small but well thought out, with an interesting range of egg dishes – including baked eggs in cream that will make your forget all your troubles – as well as pancakes and French toast. Bacon to die for, and good, fresh coffee. And I have to go back, as I understand the dinner menu contains a date pudding for dessert that’s worth the 7-hour drive.
A biscuit came with my breakfast, and as I bit into it, I had one of those madeleine moments as I remembered the biscuits at my Louisiana grandmother’s table. Yes, that good. Only Rapp and Sakihara are much better cooks than she was, so their biscuits were even better. The same wonderful homemade flavor, but so light and moist I would say they are swoonable. I met Rapp and Sakihara on our way out the door, and they were kind enough to give me the recipe.
Cochineal Drop Biscuits
[Kitchen Goddess note: According to the restaurant owners, the real secret to these biscuits is in mixing as little as possible. In fact, they reportedly do not even use a spoon – all mixing (what little there is), is done with either a pastry cutter or a fork.]
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
12 Tbl cold butter, cut into small chunks (1/2-inch dice) and re-refrigerated
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 425º. Stir together the dry ingredients in a bowl. Using a pastry cutter – or your fingertips or even a food processor (see note below) – cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In a separate bowl, combine the sour cream and the buttermilk, then add that mixture all at once to the butter-and-flour. Stir only until the batter is evenly moistened. Scoop out ¼-cup mounds onto a greased baking sheet (or ungreased baker’s parchment, which is soooo much easier); the recipe makes about a dozen. You’ll have to form the biscuits with your fingers – again, one reason these are so light is that the dough isn’t rolled and cut – so my biscuits are not nearly as pretty as the ones at Cochineal, but they were nevertheless divine. I brushed a tiny bit of skim milk on the tops of the biscuits, to improve the browning. Bake 15 mins or until they reach a nice brown. Serve with jam (no need for butter on these!)
[Kitchen Goddess note on mixing biscuits: I actually used my food processor, which is so fast at combining the butter and flour that the butter stays fairly solid, which is ideal. I tossed the cold cubed butter into the flour mixture, then threw the whole mess into the bowl of the food processor and pulsed it some 10-15 times at 1-2 seconds per pulse. The idea is that you want little tiny bits of butter surrounded by flour in the biscuits. If the butter gets warm while you’re still mixing, it starts developing the gluten in the flour, and your biscuits will not be as light.]
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Last week’s New York Times Magazine contained a piece by Mark Bittman with three yummy-sounding recipes for leg of lamb.
As I read them, I thought, I should try one of these. And then I remembered why I probably won’t: I have my own concoction that lifts lamb to a height I should probably call Amazing Taste. So flavorful that my friend Ellen – who says she doesn’t really like lamb – will dig into it with gusto.
The key is the spice rub, which I discovered in my early single days in Manhattan. It comes from Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, the original edition (1961), and the first grown-up cookbook I ever owned. It appears in the book to be almost an afterthought, but I fell in love with the list of ingredients that at the time encompassed almost every condiment I had in my larder.
Amazing Roast Leg of Lamb
6-7 lb bone-in leg of lamb, trimmed of excess fat (also works fine with boneless leg, which is easier to carve and may take less time, but is not quite as flavorful)
2-3 cloves garlic
2 tsp salt
2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tsp powdered ginger
2 bay leaves, crushed
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried marjoram
2 Tbl soy sauce
2 Tbl salad oil
Mix well the ingredients to the rub. Make small slits all over the lamb, and massage the rub into the meat. Let sit 30 minutes to an hour. (You can let it sit more; if so, refrigerate the lamb while it sits).
Preheat the oven to 450º. Set the lamb on a rack in a roasting pan, and roast 30 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350º, and continue cooking for another 30 minutes. After that, using an instant meat thermometer, check the temperature of the meat every 10 minutes, until it reaches 145º in the thickest part. It should not need to cook more than 1½ hours. Let it sit for 5 minutes before carving.
[Kitchen Goddess note: You can test for doneness by pressing the meat with your fingers – it will be slightly resistant at rare/medium rare, and more resistant for medium. Also, if you prick the meat with a fork, the juice that comes out will be rosy for medium-rare, almost clear for medium.]
Friday, April 22, 2011
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
One of the great things about Austin is the variety of slightly bizarre and clearly funky happenings that seem to occur on a daily basis. Last weekend, I put on my bravest face and joined the crowd at The 3rd (Usually) Annual Austin Regional Grilled Cheese Invitational. I kid you not.
The day featured rock music directed by a DJ, lots of beer, a Queen (seen in the photo above) and King, and even the requisite couple of dudes selling T-shirts. I was not the oldest nor the youngest (that would be an unusual group), but definitely a generation beyond a majority of the celebrants. And I clearly didn’t have enough tatts or flowers in my hair. But as with many things Austin-like, all ages were welcomed with an openness and a general sense of joy and good will that reminded me of a 60s-style love-in – as long as what you love is grilled cheese.
Apparently, these competitions are spreading faster than the mint in my garden. The mother of all grilled cheese competitions, which started in 2003, takes place in Los Angeles, and first prize at the various regional competitions is usually a trip to LA for the showdown. The Austin invitational pulled 31 competitors, in three categories: Missionary (cheese only), Kama Sutra (anything goes, but it must be at least 60% cheese), and Honey Pot (dessert).
The overall winner went by the unlikely name of Charlie Sheen Duh, which I didn’t get exactly – does Charlie Sheen like grilled cheese? While I couldn’t quite understand all the ingredients – and the chef was particularly cryptic in his description – the sandwich came on King’s Hawaiian rolls, and featured mozzarella and honey with some sort of cream sauce.
For me, the day was an eye-opener: I’d never imagined there could be so many ways to tweak a grilled cheese sandwich. But I am now intrigued, and may put forth some effort toward next year’s competition.
So what’s in your favorite grilled cheese?