Monday, November 22, 2010

One Day Closer to Death

Back when we had just opened, one of our Pub Team members—who I will refer to as The Guns of Brixton—showed his daring colors by asking simply for 'cool-ass-shit' on his burger without a bun. What he got was a thing of beauty.

Two pieces of lettuce to make it healthful.

A burger, beer-battered, cooked rare, with beer-battered lettuce, tomato and avocado, and, naturally, to avoid excess carbs and stay on the safe side—no bun. With mac and cheese. We called it the Jared. It was awe-inspiring and one of those moments where we started to find a niche in our kitchen.

He ordered another one the other night, and still wanted some cool-ass-shit on it. No bun, of course. I got to make this one, and it was fun to hammer a nail in my homey's coffin. Deep-fried burger, avocado, bacon, tomato, onion, topped with a fried egg and glazed with melted bacon toffee. Side salad to round it out.

Oh, me-oh my-oh, I'm in love with you.

Oh, The Guns of Brixton, we salute you and your glory. May your arteries stay unclogged and your days be long and filled with deep-fried sensual delights.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to Get A Head in Business

The name isn't very appealing, nor is the process—but the end result is delicious. It doesn't necessarily look that great to the lay folk out there, as most people are probably turned off to a loaf of meat suspended in it's own jelly, but head cheese is really fucking good. For real, and you can run tell that, homeboy.

We've made a few batches at work recently and there is a highly visceral reaction every time we get the heads out. After they've cooked for a few hours they tend to look like a prop from a Sam Raimi movie, or maybe early Peter Jackson. Sometimes the snout falls off.

Face off.

You can pick your friends. . .

The last batch we made was by far the most beautiful to date. There was a bit more love and care taken in reducing and clarifying the pot liquor, as our previous batches had a darker, greenish aspic, but this batch has a nice, clear aspic. The process of refinement requires more discipline than simply boiling the shit out of the pot liquor until it is reduced. You must skim and skim and skim the scum.

Meat Jupiter.

Head cheese is one of those food items that doesn't call to you if you are the normal restaurant goer. I think you have to know, and be just adventurous enough to go for it and taste its deliciousness. To me, it resembles dark meat turkey and giblet gravy, only with a beautiful meat jelly holding it all together. Like dark matter, or the Force.

Last weekend the Butcher—who also recently made a significant career move—attended a European-style seam butchery class. He was enamored with the new techniques he learned as well as with the kind Austrian folks that put it on. Naturally, part of the class on breaking down whole hogs centered around making delicious things out of the oft discarded parts of our friend Babe. I was so lucky as to get to taste these Austrian-style headcheeses, both a red, and the straight-up, as well as a meat spread (this resembled whipped pate du campagne or a highly aromatic potted meat). We had a beer and ate our little charcuterie plate and caught up on the state of our respective career shifts and life was good.

More like moistard.

There were noticeable differences in the schools of head cheese here. The one we've been making is of British lineage, and you could see a difference in its Austrian cousin. I won't be so presumptuous as to say that one was better than the other, but they were different. For starters, the Austrians used a fresh pot liquor to make the aspic that the head meat is set in. The logic here is that when you use the original pot liquor you have all the "stuff" from the head in there: cranial fluid, mucus, potential hair, etc. Now, sure, this sounds gross to most people, but lets not forget the refinement process of skimming mentioned above and the temperatures at which this is prepared. Most of this "stuff" is going to be be removed and through straining you should get any unwanted hairs out of there. Using fresh aspic seems like a waste, since the original pot liquor is so heavily saturated with collagen and flavor from the head.

Secondly, they set fresh herbs in the aspic, which is something to look into for the finished product. Since it is eaten cold (it is a luncheon loaf after all), flavors are subdued and therefore a little extra greenery may be beneficial. Time will tell. Also, there were pieces of meat that were not of head origin in there, which is great when you have a whole hog to deal with, but we've had no need to use extra meat since these Richardson Family Farm hog heads are enormous and have the cheeks of John Goodman.

The red head cheese was something of dreams. Face meat and blood sausage! Yes, please. I love blood sausage, and this combination made for a rich snack full of ferrous goodness. I left the rest at work, otherwise I would have eaten it with a fried egg. Very good. I don't know about making it at work, as those who freak out watching us fillet a fish would not do so well watching me slowly cook a pot of pigs blood until it thickens into deliciousness. I'll have to save it for the prom.

Bloody hell.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Return to the Life and Times

Don't be duped.

It seems that we often are waiting for the dust to settle—I'm starting to think that it is wiser to live as if you are the settling dust. Besides, isn't that the sparkly shit that is always suspended in some living room dissecting sunbeam? That's stuff's alright, so why not?

I'm out of the grocery biz and back in the Life. Only this go round I'm on the other side of the window, putting up the food instead of taking it away. Fruition. I'm having a good time back there, learning a lot, and generally taking it all in. Making a career switch near thirty seems risky, but if there was ever a time to do so, it is now.

After nearly five years of hard work from an entire community, we have opened the world's first cooperatively-owned and worker self-managed brew pub. I am on the kitchen team, and work with an awesome group of people with ranging experience and a common dedication to making Black Star successful. Our food is pretty damned good, and our beers are coming soon.

We are currently in our soft opening phase, as we are waiting for our house beers to be available before having a grand opening. I don't think it is technically possible to have a brew pub grand opening without the brew pub's beer. This phase been prolonged due to some minor construction issues, yet this extra time has been a good period of refinement for our kitchen team as we work out a few kinks on the menu.

Since we are a worker self-managed organization, we are completely lateral. There are no positions and the only titles are that of Brewer, and leads for each of our four teams: kitchen (back of the house), pub (front of the house), business (administration), and beer (beer production and selection). It's safe to say that no one has been in this type of work environment (partly because the combo didn't exist, and because working for the Man is the far more dominant paradigm), so we have been working with our established protocols as a base for making it up as we go along. It seems to be working fairly well thus far, and will continue as long as we make communication one of our primary focuses.

So far the hours have been long and the business good. We've done no advertising, yet still have a packed house on the weekends and steady service on the weeknights. We've been working towards presenting our first Irrational Menu (locally sourced, seasonal fare - specials from around here) and have a few special tasting/pairing meals in the works for Austin's First Annual Beer Week (this week).

Local, seasonal produce and proteins aren't only on Irrational Menu, they have a dominating presence on our Rational Menu as well. Other than stock items (potatoes, onions, celery, etc.), all of our produce is local and is rotating. We're right on the cusp of seasons, so we still have some summer hold outs like zucchini and yellow squash and cucumbers around, but are also seeing the slow creep of fall crops like yams, butternut squash, radishes and greens.

The only meat proteins (I say this because we have tofu) on the menu that aren't sourced from Texas are the Niman Ranch beef and bacon, which are of superior quality, and therefore exceptions were made. All of our uncured pork comes from Richardson Family Farms in Rockdale, and it is amazing. We source sustainable farm-raised redfish from Lone Star Aquafarms in Palacios and our shrimp are from the gulf. The chickens and the eggs are from Gonzales. We also occasionally mix in beef from Windy Bar Ranch for our burger blend and chili (broke down a chuck roll yesterday). Also featured are the delectable cured meats from Ben Runkle at Salt and Time. Yum.

Using products of this quality and sourcing is crucial to both our mission and my own peace of mind.

The ship has finally left the port and is on a course straight into the heart of the uncharted waters of cooperation. I'm feeling pretty good about it all. People are excited, and this is, after all, for the people. I've been delinquent in my blogging, yet wasn't inspired nor had the time to put any serious efforts into this. I still don't have the time, but the inspiration is there and I'll have to make the time. Thank you for your patience, as I hope I can produce something that will bring you, at best, moderate levels of entertainment.

Stay tuned.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Tale Of Two Chilies

It's the official state dish of Texas. It does not contain beans. There are no tomatoes in it. It is best friends with ice cold beer, preferably Lone Star. Texas chili. Red. The best.

Growing up in Texas, chili was a staple. My father would make really spicy venison chili. One time, he entered a chili cook-off at the local bar. His chili was dubbed "John Wayne's Nuclear Chili" and it was hot. After they announced what the prizes would be, he tried to change the name to "Third Place Chili" due to the prize for third place. It was some gift certificate to somewhere, maybe the hardware or auto parts store. He won second place which awarded him the prize of a gift set of boating equipment—life preservers, some ropes and a few of those rubber bumpers you throw over side when you tie-up in a boat slip. We didn't even own a boat.

Unfortunately, I must have not paid much attention when Pops was making that chili. My first go at chili many years ago was a complete failure. Epic, epic fail. For some reason, I thought that chili was water based. I had browned the meat, and cooked the onions and garlic and peppers (which were jalapeños, serranos and habeneros—no dried chilies or anything like that) and added the chili powder. Then I filled up the pot with water. The end result was like a thin, hot-as-shit broth that, after some minor excavation, would yield a piece of meat or maybe an onion. I tried to thicken it with flour to no avail, but we still ate it because there were four of us in a two bedroom apartment, we were all in college, and were pretty damn broke.

Years later, a co-worker of mine from the Land of Enchantment opened my eyes to two ways to make chili, both of which have merit and yield a similar result, yet one is far superior in flavor. One way is to take red chile powder—not chili powder—and toast it. Then you make a little roux, combine with the toasted chile powder and then add beer and stock and your own secret goodies until the consistency is to your liking. The other involves a variety of dried chiles, reconstituted in water or stock (save that shizz) that you then puree in a blender. This is the chile base for your chili. I prefer this method.

A few weeks ago, Co-Chef and I were going to prepare a lunch for the workers of the Black Star Co-op. Frito pie was our choice dish. We discussed chili methods and he made the batch that was to be served that day. It was delicious. It contained beef and pork, and had some really beautiful subtle notes of clove and cinnamon. He used ancho and chipotle chiles and some serranos and jalapeños for some heat. There was an excellent underlying smokey quality to this chili. I can't recall the beer he used. Near the time of service, he added a little masa to thicken it up. These made great frito pies enjoyed with a Stone 2006 Vertical Epic.

Fuckin' A right!

When he was making the chili, he reserved a bit of the base that was used to make a vegetarian version with chayote squash, portobello mushrooms and golden beets. This vegetarian chili had some balls. It was really substantial. The sweetness of the chayote and the golden beets played really well with the earthiness of the mushroom and the smokiness of the chiles. Total win.

Last week, I wanted to make some chili. To be honest, I wanted to make some clear-the-freezer-out-chili. There was ground lamb, feral hog sausage, and some pork stew meat that needed to be used up. For the base of the chili I used guajillo, ancho and de arbol dried chiles and fresh serranos and jalapeños. Samual Adams Boston Lager for the beer and beef stock were used as well. For some reason I feel lager needs to be used in chili, not a big stout or something dark or roasty—I want that roasty, smokey flavor from the chiles to stand out.

The resulting color was a glorious red. I like to use some coffee grounds in my chili, as well as some cinnamon and a bit of clove in addition to coriander and cumin. The spices really give the chili a warm, welcoming aroma as it approaches your feed-hole. Some acid at the end sets the whole thing off. Oh, and buttermilk-serrano cornbread. Ice-cold Lone Star was invited to join in the fun.

featuring Way Back When butter.

The subjective nature of chili recipes leads me to believe that there really isn't a wrong way to make it. That is, so long as it doesn't contain tomatoes. Beans, when I want them, are on the side and can be added as an extra. They are not necessary for the flavor profile or the thickness or anything, really. Just farts. My girlfriend frowns on farts, therefore, I frown on beans. Plus, there are no beans in Texas chili and I'm from Texas. You can still be hanged in Texas for things like that, so there's some powerful incentive to do right. Chili recipes are more than likely cultivated over a lifetime much like a writing style, kendo, or calf-ropin'. For now, I'll keep tweaking this recipe and see where the road takes me. As long as there's cornbread and ice-cold beer involved, I hope the road goes on forever and the party never ends.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Excess in the Crescent City

We went there to party.
Of all the places in the world you can say that about, New Orleans is at the top of the list of most likely to succeed. If you find yourself in a daiquiri bar at three a.m. taking photos of WHO DAT? flavored daiquiri, you will know a feeling of success and satisfaction rivaling that of winning an election or getting the girl.

New Orleans.

I could never live there. I'd be dead in three weeks. They say that when you live there, you don't eat and drink to excess every night like you do when you visit. Then why live there?

We were only there for three days and as many nights. It may have been one night too many. I hadn't been since I was nine, and was naive about what to expect. We arrived on a Thursday afternoon. After a meandering shuttle ride, we made it to the Hotel Saint Marie Antoinette on Conti St. (kahnt-eye). Black Berry Shortcake, the Birthday Girl, and I were all famished. We went to a little dive one door down from the hotel that was known for it's crab cakes. More like crap cakes. The French bread my po'boy was on was soft and whole wheat, the blood marys were more like cocktail sauce than a beverage and there were shell bits in the dried out looking oysters. What. The. Fuck? This was all wrong. The crab cakes, as terrible as they were, were the only redeeming aspect of the place. A sad turn of events for our first outing for bloodies, po'boys and oysters.

The Birthday Girl had plans for us go out for barbecue shrimp. I didn't understand what the fuss was about, I mean, I've had barbecue shrimp, big deal? We met her parents at the revolving bar of the Monteleone hotel. Before the meal, her father was persistently talking about the sauce that the shrimp came in, and instructed us how to sop it up properly, which is to say to his liking. He was persistent about everything.

I'd never heard of Pascal Manale's, or this famed bbq shrimp. Upon seeing it, I was confused. These are not barbecued!? These are not shrimp! The sauce was all butter and white wine. The shrimp were the size of small lobsters and the french bread was as perfect as the pattern created by the buttery sauce on my bib.

It was serious business and getting through the entire portion was hard labor. Papa Birthday was insisting I drink rum like he was, so I did. Despite our previous road bump, this meal seemed like an appropriate start to a weekend of excess and over-indulgence.

After a late night, Blackberry Shortcake and I awoke and went to Cafe Du Monde for café au lait and beignets. Unsure of the procedures, we wound up in the to-go line, taking our fried doughballs and chicory coffee off premises to enjoy. Watching people eat these beignets was hilarious, a mound of powdered sugar collecting on and between their feet. We soon became those people.

That night, after more drinks at the revolving bar in the Monteleone Hotel, we went to Jacques-Imo's. Their chicken livers were phenomenal. My panned rabbit wasn't nearly as delicious as Blackberry's cajun bouillabaisse. Overall, I enjoyed my meal. The tasso cream sauce and pasta that supported the rabbit left tasty bits to enjoy all night. After a concert across Lake Pontchartrain, I found myself in a beer bar on Bourbon Street with the Birthday Girl and a man named Mayo, Donovan Mayo.

He looked like part of the chorus in Guys and Dolls and was in from Baton Rouge for a wedding. Sometime around five a.m. a man walked into the bar that sold gumbo from his truck. The staff suggested I buy some of his seafood gumbo, as it was the "best in the city."

The late night gumbo peddler brought me a stryofoam cup filled with goodies, inside half of a soft shell crab bobbed in the thinnish, dark broth. It may have been the best in the city. I don't know. At the time, it seemed like salvation in a non-biodegradable grail. It was five a.m. and our beers were eight dollars.

The next morning came too soon, in fact it was already there. Saturday. The big day. I was going to Cochon's Butcher. I had been wanting to eat there for some time, ever since my own Butcher had made the pilgrimage to this palace of meat. They specialize in house-made charcuterie and offer their art by the pound, to go. They also had a small menu of items you could enjoy while sipping fine French wine and selected beer and spirits.

Ordering the charcuterie plate was obligatory, as was the cheese. Blackberry Shortcake had the Cubano sandwich, the Birthday Girl got the house-made hot dog, and I had the meatloaf sandwich. We shared an order of in-house boudin with homemade mustard. Everything was amazing. The charcuterie that day featured pork rillettes, two salamis and something resembling proscuitto. Almost everything came with spicy bread and butter pickles that were unbelievable.

After a few more drinks we were off to meet Birthday Girl's parents and some fresh-blooded friends for more food and booze.

Gout fest!


An oozing, meaty loaf. . .

We walked around the Quarter, confused, looking for Birthday Girl's sister. Krewe de Vieux was that evening and we were set to see some of the action. Unfortunately some damned fool fouled up the party with conflicting plans. As we waited for the parade, we stepped into what must have been a trap laid by Disney or Ted Turner: Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. Never go there. Never order a bloody mary there. You may as well drink your own urine.

After that mishap, it was off to Lüke for more meat and booze. By now my body was getting accustomed to consuming at least nine thousand calories of food and alcohol per day. At least we were walking to most places. Lüke was a success. Like round two of an epic prize fight between my liver and the world. Winner take all.

They served duck and rabbit paté in hermetically sealed jars, the texture was elegant; the rosy insides were meant to be inviting. More charcuterie was ordered: headcheese, paté du campagne, stuffed trotters, more rillettes and paté and salami. Then came the order of choucroüte garnie that had been halved f0r me and my new friend, Pappas Chef. For some reason, we added extra portions of duck confit and cochon du lait. The half portions were massive, yet, undaunted, we dove in.

Do you see the confit?

After this ridiculous feast, we went uptown to Tipitina's (after more confusion and jackassery) to watch the Radiators. Much jager was consumed. There was rum and dancing. Old men raged on old instruments. Afterwards, we went to a dive called the Apple Barrel, where we listened to a little band and suffered from bad service. After a few more bars and many more drinks we were asleep.


A brass band rattled me out of bed. I was hoping they would keep walking, but they didn't. They just kept playing. We went for more coffee and beignets. There was a stage set up below our window. Men were wearing dresses. We decided we needed breakfast first and ducked into a convenient eatery for gumbo and jambalaya. Afterwards, we had some coffee and beignets at Cafe Beignet, which in some ways was better than Cafe du Monde.

The sickness hit at the airport and I was down for the count. I wallered on the floor like the pig I was. Over two hundred pounds of filth and debauchery. I consumed an inordinate amount of fluids and felt somewhat better by the time we made it back to Houston.

New Orleans is the Mos Eisley of Earth: you'll never find a more wretched hive of scum, and villainy. Even the music is similar. I'll go back, and I'll know what to expect next time. I know which bar that gumbo-truck-guy was in, how to get to the Faulker House bookstore, where the best guts and bloody mary's are, that the bar is actually moving, and that hats are definitely a must.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Black to the Future

Sometimes keeping things close to the chest is much more difficult than expected. Of course, there are deviations from this (Kennedy? Roswell? Both Bush elections...), and I should feel proud that we're getting our names out there. If you don't know, now you know. Welcome to the future, where are my shades?

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Darkness of Future Past

I tend to spend the first few days of a new year thinking back on the last—a practice I that developed over time as a tool for being a better person—and the experience leads the mind down many paths towards some ultimate goal that I may not have codified yet. I spend a little bit of time examining my successes and accomplishments, yet go to great lengths to really look into my failures, mistakes and poor decisions—it is this practice of introspective reflection that is the cornerstone of my personal growth.

Sometimes I get down on myself in the process, yet it is mostly a positive experience with each failure or mistake being an opportunity for potential growth or self actualization. I just can't feel badly about learning a lesson, even when I was really, really in the wrong.

In the kitchen in 2009 there were many successes, even a few accomplishments, yet there were failures both epic and minuscule in abundance. This is inevitable when you are taking risks and trying new techniques and combinations of flavors. Each food fail has pushed me forward to this point, an event horizon from which there is no turning back, and 2010 will usher in a new era of my culinary awakening. Consciousness and deliberate action must be the foundation for what will be achieved this year. Are we ready?

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