Friday, June 27, 2008

Gone To Texas (Part I)

The first installment of a three-part personal Texas travel log

GTT was the message left scratched upon many a cabin door in Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and other states as the early settlers moved to Texas. Off they went with their families, possessions, hopes for a new life and in some cases dreams of empire. The phrase went through my mind over and over as my wife and I winged our way through the clouds recently on a long over due trip to the Lone Star State.

My personal dreams were of family, friends, Bar-B-Que, Mexican food, Texas Chili and beautiful springtime weather more than of empire. Lady Bird Johnson called April in Texas, “the queen of seasons.” not only because of the nice weather but because of the mass blooming of the State Flower of Texas, the lovely Bluebonnet. It is a sight indeed to see acres of the Lupines growing across the Texas landscape.

As I have family in several parts of Texas, we had the perfect excuse to visit a number of cities and geographic areas on our journey. Visitors to Texas are often surprised to discover just how different one part of the state may be in comparison to another part, and as we all know it is a big place. The different cities in Texas have very different personalities and there are a great many cultural influences in certain areas resulting from influxes of immigrants from various countries.

An easy flight with no problems delivered us to the new Austin airport, followed by a disorienting cruise through the downtown which left us with no doubt that the capitol of Texas has CHANGED! Certainly seeing anything through the eyes of youth is a limited vision, but the old Austin with its colorful and tolerant mixture of students, academics, artists, beatniks, hippies, musicians and politicians is no longer a quaint little town. We did enjoy seeing the occasional bumper sticker proclaiming “Keep Austin weird!”

As a refuge from modern downtown, my sister Pam Thomas, my wife Gail and I headed straight to one of my old haunts, The Texas Chili Parlor. An Austin institution since 1976, the restaurant is located just a short distance from the state capitol and the University of Texas campus. It is still a haven of funky atmosphere and local color. Their menu offers three levels of heat in their chili- X, XX and XXX. There was a time in which the XX was just right but I have to admit it was a bit fiery for our taste now, although quite delicious with big chunks of meat and a very authentic flavor. I don’t think we could have handled the triple X at all… better to just admit the truth. Here is a proper bowl of chili, made with beef, tomatoes and seasoning. Crackers, chopped onion and jalapenos on the side and of course, no beans in the chili made it the perfect intro to Texas chow. How could we go wrong in a place whose rules include “No talking to imaginary people?”

I love Bar-B-Que; I grew up eating it at restaurants (mostly take-out, actually) and watching my Dad prepare it. One of the facts that I have learned is that different regions of the country have completely different cooking methods and sauce recipes. All Bar-B-Que fans have their favorites and are usually very passionate about their preferences and that includes me too! With a limited schedule, we had to choose a couple of restaurants out of dozens. Our first choice located just west of Austin in the little community of Driftwood was The Salt Lick Restaurant. In a rustic building constructed of locally quarried stones, you can find some of the best BBQ in Texas. These are ranch recipes handed down by the Thurman Roberts family from the time of the civil war. My extended family took three vehicles to transport all of us to this culinary Mecca. Upon entering we were welcomed by the sight of a huge, round, open pit full of savory meats.

Simple picnic tables and benches furnish the dining room and the setting lends itself to family style although the menu does feature individual plates and sandwiches, as well. Platters of succulent beef brisket, pork ribs and Elgin sausages are accompanied by the expected side dishes. The feast continues as long as the diners can eat and homemade peach cobbler and pecan pie are available if you dare. The meats are also available by the pound and they have an extensive mail order service. This restaurant has won plenty of awards and has been recommended by many reviews and critics.

A few days later we dined again on excellent Bar-B-Que in a casual downtown Austin setting, The Iron Works. Situated in a building that originally housed the Weigel Iron Works founded by Bavarian immigrants, it is recognized as a registered Texas Historical Site. Examples of their iron art can be seen in the Texas State Capitol, museums and historic homes throughout the state. The Texas State Capitol Building should be a priority for sightseeing visitors, anyway. The restaurant enjoys a national reputation with many celebrities of the entertainment and political worlds. But, it was the promise of the Iron Works Beef ribs that had me inspired. Pork ribs are also available as are sliced and chopped beef. The menu also features smoked pork loin, chicken ham, hot sausage and turkey. Sandwiches, chili and meats by the pound can be ordered as well, but it is those monster beef ribs enjoyed with an icy Lone Star Beer that stand out in my memory!

“Contemporary Texas Cuisine” was what lured us to Jeffrey’s Restaurant, a 30-plus year Austin tradition. This comfortable neighborhood eatery still sets the standard for Austin bistro cuisine. My wife and I were joined by Austin chef Donald Wertz as a threesome for fine cuisine and service. Chef Alma Thomas excelled preparing our meal while impeccable service was offered by veteran server Johnny Guffey, who has been voted Austin’s best waiter.

My companions started with delicious soups – Lobster and Roasted Pepper Bisque and a Vichyssoise with Crispy Prosciutto. However, I thought my selection of Crispy Oysters on Yucca Root Chips with Habanera Honey Aioli was the standout. Entrees included Halibut, Ahi Tuna and a particularly savory Glazed Duck and Shrimp with Black Beluga Lentils. Girard Sauvignon Blanc ’06 worked fine with the numerous diverse flavors and out of curiosity (as opposed to hunger), we enjoyed a Vanilla Cream Brule, Lemon Mousse and a lavish Italian Cream Cake Parfait.

If there is one restaurant in Austin that best represents Texas elegance and southern hospitality it is the stately Green Pastures. Called the “Grande Dame of Austin Restaurants” the establishment was founded over 60 years ago by cooking personality Mary Faulk Koock and her husband, Chester. This Texas legend is situated in a fine old Victorian home dating from the 1890’s. The restaurant sets in the midst of ancient oak trees and beautiful lawns complete with roaming peacocks. The ghosts of Presidents, Governors and other celebrities still walk the halls of this beautiful, old south Austin home. Although, Chef Charles Bloemsma fills his lunch and dinner menus with many contemporary touches, it is the Sunday buffet that we think best represents the character of the storied restaurant..

A glass of milk punch laced with spirits begins the feast- a recipe so well known that it appears in one of the Jack Daniels’ cookbooks. Then, it is on to what has to be the very definition of the Sunday buffet. The menu does change somewhat due to the seasons and the whims of the chef, but there are still many favorites that have appeared for years. A sample menu appears on their website, but you can always expect to find many delicious choices. The Eggs Benedict, although served in a chaffing dish was both fresh and delicious. There is no lack of side dishes with their signature Cotillion rolls and other savory offerings arranged on the sumptuous buffet. Expect a spread of “house made” desserts including the famous bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Sunday Buffet at Green Pastures is a delicious reminder of gracious times gone by.

Our visit to Austin wasn’t only about visits to restaurants but became a working vacation by helping my brother, Catering chef David Lowery. He is often assisted by our sister, Pam and so the kitchen staff became a family affair and marked the first time the three of us had worked together. David’s client was a former Lt. Governor of Texas and his elegant wife. The occasion was a fundraising affair held in a dining area of the couple’s spacious wine cellar, decorated by the occasion by noted floral stylist, Alejandro Granados.

Passed appetizers included Pastry Cups filled with Pecan Wood Smoked Salmon topped with a delicately fragrant Fennel Salsa. Guests were also served Prosciutto wrapped Pan-Roasted Asparagus. The first course featured Tri-colored Pepper Crab Cakes on a bed of field greens drizzled with Remoulade Sauce. Our entrée of Smoked Tenderloin was excellent served with a sauce of Shitake Demi-Glace. The plate was rounded out by sautéed baby vegetables and Mashed Potatoes laced with Tartuflanghe White Truffle Salt. A cheese plate came next with fresh strawberries dressed with Balsamic Vinegar. The dessert was a rich slice of Queen of the Smokies chocolate cake with fresh raspberries, Raspberries Coulis and Madagascar chocolate sauce. The host provided a parade of exquisite vintage wines to match the menu.

David Lowery also managed a cookout the next day for family and old friends to be able to visit with me and my wife. The man is talented and hard working and his efforts were deeply appreciated. We were so pleased at the cookout to see and spend some time with another notable chef, Pamela Nevarez. Pamela is very successful in her own personal chef business, Eat Street Personal Chef Service, and a dear friend. Pamela has allowed me to print her recipes in the past and hopefully will again. We were sad to leave such good times in Austin behind, but off we went toward San Antonio and more culinary adventures.
Next: Romantic San Antonio

Many thanks to Matt Kreider of Austin, Texas for the amazing picture of the "UT Clock Tower" ~hook'em!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


A Simple Springtime delight

Allow me to begin with an admission; I do love grand cuisine at fine restaurants as well as certain dishes that require long cooking times and tending. Dishes such as braised meats, stew, certain sauces, and stocks as well as Creole etouffees and yes, Texas Chili all comes to mind. Now having acknowledged that fact let me share one of the great joys we anticipate on our property every spring. In early April each year we begin to scout out the forest floor under a stand of Tulip Poplars for the elusive (and delicious) Morchella esculenta.

Commonly known as the Morel mushrooms, they are also known locally as “dry land fish” and can occur throughout North America. The old-timers were well aware of them and prepared them usually by rolling them in cornmeal and frying them in hot fat. The black morels, Morchella elata seem to be the most available, although we are blessed to be able to find the yellow or white morel, sometimes called the “Honeycomb Morel.” These little gems can grow to be much larger than black morels and are astoundingly succulent.

They can be cooked a la crème, in sauces, flans, ragouts, omelets and as garnishes in a good many European classics. Available dried or canned, it is in their freshest state, prepared simply that we enjoy them the most. We prize this springtime ritual so much, that although choice fresh morels can fetch around $25 a pound we would not even think of parting with them except to be shared with really special friends.

Some years produce a generous morel harvest while others do not- it all depends on the amount of rain, when it rains, early spring temperatures and probably other subtle conditions of which I’m not even aware. I can however, report on how much fun it is to hunt for them and how very delicious they can be. Last year’s harvest was a bit scarce but this year (’08) is a good season.

I have mentioned our “mushroom patch” to Doug Slocum, founder of Avanti Savoia and someone that qualifies for “really good friend” status. Doug has eaten black morels before and had not been all that impressed. So, I was excited to share some nice specimens with him when they first appeared this spring. I explained the cleaning process and suggested that he grill his mushrooms much like a piece of meat.
Doug appeared the next day smiling and excited. “The mushrooms were delicious and incredibly easy to prepare, they tasted like steak and were the best damn mushrooms that I’ve ever eaten,” he said. This is just what I had hoped to hear from someone with such a developed palate.

Now, we must insert a word of caution before we share a few easy recipes. I have been hunting selected wild mushrooms for over 35 years. I have received instruction from botany teachers from two different universities and field experience with a number of knowledgeable amateurs. I particularly remember the opening words from a retired University of Washington Professor. “Hunting wild mushrooms is a one hundred percent activity. You must be 100% sure of identification, a 99% guess can kill you,” he solemnly warned. Take this to heart! You must be very sure of your harvest! Do not attempt to identify wild mushrooms from a guide book. “Hands on” training is required. That having been said, here are some ideas for preparing fresh morels.

Cut off the “foot” of the mushroom just above the dirt line. Slice the mushroom lengthwise, lightly rinse and soak them in a solution of salt water for about 1 hour. This should remove any bits of sand or soil and dislodge any little critters. Make sure that after removing from the salt water that the morels are well dried before cooking.

This is as easy as it gets and fabulous with a nice steak. Again, carefully dry the split morels and brush with one of Avanti Savoia’s extra virgin olive oils that have been seasoned with a little minced garlic, salt and pepper. Of course you can jazz it up with herbs, lemon juice, etc., etc., but do not cover up the marvelous fresh mushroom flavor.
Place the seasoned morels over hot coals and cook until they are just lightly marked. Do not overcook these babies and eat ‘em while their hot!

Beer Batter Fried:
Here is a basic recipe for Misto Fritto, classic Italian mixed fried vegetables. It also works great with any kind of mushroom. Also, if you are lucky enough to have fresh squash or pumpkin blossoms from a summer garden, this is the way to cook them.

Ingredients for batter:
4 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup beer
2 cups all-purpose flour

About 3 cups oil* #19999 Avanti Savoia All-Purpose Cooking Oil for frying
Sel de Mer* #35021 (fine sea salt) to taste

1. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and beer.
2. Place the flour in a large bowl right next to the eggs/beer.
3. Heat the oil in a large frying pan until very hot.
4. Flour the morel pieces, shake off any excess, and dip into the egg mixture.
5. Shake off excess egg and begin frying a few at a time turning as needed to lightly brown. Remove with a pair of tongs or a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all of the mushrooms are cooked. Sprinkle with the salt and enjoy.

Sautéed Morel Sandwiches:
Clean morels as for other recipes. Sauté in hot oil or butter, turning until tender. Place on a paper towel to drain and make a sandwich using toasted whole wheat bread, mustard flavored mayonnaise, fried bacon, and slices of fresh tomato. Think of it as a BTM- Bacon, Tomato and Morel sandwich. The old BLT will never be the same!

NOTE: We usually serve morels with beer or a dry Riesling and have never experience a problem. Some mushroom guides do however warn of upset stomachs when morels are served with alcohol.

Chef Joseph Lowery is the Chef Consultant at Avanti Savoia. He has worked as a chef, author, and cooking instructor since 1971.