Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Over 50 years ago, long before the American Culinary Revolution, vendors still walked through residential areas in my hometown pushing carts selling ice cream. There were little tinkling bells on their carts to announce their presence. Now, as a child, I was hardly denied a reasonable amount of ice cream, (especially homemade). However, I suppose that my parents did not want me begging for ice cream ever single day when the man went by our house with his cart.

So, they invented a subterfuge that must have worked for a number of years, at least until the other kids clued me into reality. My folks told me that the man with the cart was the “Hot Tamale Man” and assured me that I wouldn’t care for hot tamales. Remembering the “Hot Tamale Man” with senior members of my family can still bring us all a chuckle.

Now, as fate would have it, when I actually discovered real tamales I liked them very much. Clearly, so did the early inhabitants of Mexico, who were enjoying a whole range of tamales long before the Spaniards arrived.

There is still an enormous variety of tamales available all over the different regions of Mexico, as well as an enormous variety prepared in regions across America. Some of these are reflections of traditional Mexican cooking and some are created according to the whims of the individual cooks. My tamale story involves a little of both tradition and whim.

A few months ago, our friends with the American Wine Society requested that we do a program matching wine with Southwestern cuisine. I had really wanted to do this for some time and here was the chance. We celebrated our “fiesta” at the beautiful home of society members Bob and Judy Kryter.

It was not a particular region of Mexico that inspired me nor a specific adaptation from the Southwestern border states, although I was certainly influenced by my work and travels. “Comida Nueva” is a definition probably closer to the mark, but when asked about the definition of “Southwestern cuisine”, my answer was, “whatever we want it to be”… I really wasn’t trying to be smart-alecky, but I was trying to make a point – that being the fact that a whole new wave of culinary excitement has swept the US in the last few decades. New American, Regional American, and Fusion Cuisine – it can have several names but we are basically talking about classic cooking techniques paired with regional foodstuffs.

This is the major theme (some might say obsession) in my career. In the early 80s, I wrote in the preface for our book, A TEXAS FAMILY’S COOKBOOK -“Americans have become much more sophisticated in their native cookery. This grafting of classic techniques onto good home cooking is a major milestone in our national culinary history. …explore the New American Cooking; refining familiar dishes with classic preparation techniques and an increased awareness of health and nutrition. Perhaps this “new” cooking is simply a deeper appreciation of our potential of producing a cuisine truly global in scope and authority.”

Over 25 years later in his 2007 book, WHITE HOUSE CHEF, Chef Walter Scheib, indicates that his staff was directed toward “…making the White House a showcase for what our farmers and other culinary purveyors were creating, and also for the style being forged by modern American chefs who wove indigenous American ingredients and international elements and styles together into an exciting, ever-changing cuisine that defied easy description- and was garnering a great deal of attention from coast to coast and around the world.”

Now, my fun little dinner hardly aspires to the lofty heights of White House cuisine, but I think Chef Scheib’s observation is well taken. The recipes used were our own creations and adaptations with the exception of the Mole Poblano, which is taken from Diana Kennedy’s authoritative classic, THE CUISINES OF MEXICO. If you have the slightest interest in the cuisine and culture of Mexico, this is a cookbook that must be in your library.

Here is our menu and a list of the wines we enjoyed.

Quaffing Wine: White Wine Spritzer with lime

Antojitos (Appetizers)
Black Bean Pate
Ceviche with
Red Snapper, Scallops and Shrimp
Guacamole with Oranges
Pickled Garlic (from Low Country Produce-TRY THIS!)
Salsa de Aji Amarillo*
Blue Corn Tostados

Served with
‘06 Columbia Crest “Vineyard 10” - WA. State
’04 Albert Seltz Gewurztraminer - Alsace

Platillo fuerte (Main Course)
Open Faced Turkey Tamales with Mole Sauce
Squash simmered with Cream
Mexican Rice

Served with
‘07 Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec – Argentina
’07 Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc – Sonoma Co.

Postre (Dessert)
Texas Pecan Tart with Blue Bell Vanilla Ice Cream
Drizzled with
Leaning Oaks Cabernet Chocolate Sauce

Served with
NV Domaine Chandon Brut Classic – Napa Valley

So as not to be just guessing about these pairings, we prepared a “Chef’s Table” a few weeks earlier. Margaritas and beer usually tend to be the beverages of choice with this kind of cuisine. However, matching the spicy flavors with the nuances of wine was fun and educational. All in all, the combinations worked well, and with us serving two very different wines with both the appetizers and the main course, I think everyone found something they liked.

Without question, for me, the standout combination was the food friendly Malbec with the tamales… and to get back to the tamale story… In the midst of testing the tamale recipe several times, I became aware of a local cooking contest in progress, sponsored by our newspaper The Knoxville News Sentinel, a grocery store chain, and a local TV and radio station among others.

The contest was a part of a much larger event known as the Women Today Expo. The event featured a number of celebrity appearances including ABC’s Robin Roberts. The Expo also included a Cooking School segment featuring local chef and “Hell’s Kitchen” star, Carol Scott. Former White House Chef Walter Scheib and TV cake baking Master Warren Brown wowed the crowd with demos and signed copies of their respective cookbooks.

Rounding out the culinary production were the three winners of the recipe contest.
There were 3 categories including “Eat Light, Eat Cheap and Eat Sweet”- Cheryl Hodge won the “Eat Sweet’ with her Applesauce Spice Pudding Cake, Mary Gushen’s Ultimate Inexpensive Chicken Enchiladas took “Eat Cheap” and my own Open Faced Turkey Tamales won the “Eat Light” competition.

I think my wife, Gail and I made those tamales about 5 times in the course of a few weeks, including the demo at the Women Today Expo itself. Gail and I also offered a short tamale presentation at the wine society dinner, assisted by our good friend and noted Food Stylist, Linda Ullian Schmid, to whom we are much indebted.

Although, I have never though of myself as “The Hot Tamale Man”, I guess now I have some claim on the title. Surely, my parents would have been highly amused.

We offer a big “Muchas Gracias” to Bob and Judy Kryter and to the members of The American Wine Society. We also must thank Mary Constantine, Erin Slocum and the rest of the News Sentinel staff. Kudos and appreciation also go to Chris Kahn and her remarkable team of volunteers that worked so hard to make the Women Today Expo a reality.

*Aji Amarillo (Capsicum baccatum) is arguably the most popular hot pepper in Peru. It is a particularly beautiful pepper with a bright shiny yellow-orange skin. It is considered to be a medium hot pepper but that also depends on your personal taste. The flavor is fruity and aromatic and altogether delicious!
Although, this is not an ingredient common to our local markets, we are fortunate to be able to have access to it by way of our generous friends, J Owen Peterson and his wife, Thea Barrios Peterson. Thea is originally from Peru and still has many family members in that country. Owen is a noted professional photographer www.customphotographicservices.com and amateur grower of Aji peppers. In an upcoming blog, he has promised to share both photos and family recipes with us. We enjoyed serving the bright sauce Owen made using these peppers with our Southwestern dinner. THANKS!

Open-faced turkey tamales

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large white onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 pounds ground turkey
2 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon thyme
1 pickled jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
One (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

2 quarts chicken or turkey stock
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cups Masa Harina
32 dried corn husks soaked in warm water
1 cup (per pan) of chicken or turkey stock for steaming

Saute onion and green pepper in oil until soft. Stir in turkey, garlic, cumin, salt, oregano, thyme and jalapeno pepper. Cook until turkey is done, about 6-8 minutes. Pour in tomato sauce, cook another 5 minutes and set aside to cool. Make dough by bringing the stock, salt and cumin to a boil in a large stockpot. Very gradually whisk in Masa Harina to stock so that it doesn’t lump. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook 15 to 20 minutes until it is quite thick, stirring frequently. Let cool at least 10 minutes. Pat corn husks dry and spread 3 tablespoons of the dough about 1/4 inch thick over the middle of the each husk. Top with scant 1/4 cup turkey filling. Gather together each end of the tamale and tie with a strip of corn husk. Leave the middle open with the filling showing.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange tamales in one layer on bottom of baking pans (will need more than one.) Bring stock to a boil and, in each dish, pour 1 cup stock around the tamales. Cover with a lightly oiled piece of aluminum foil and place in oven. Cook for approximately 45 minutes. Serve plain or with Ranchero or Mole sauce. Yield: 24-30 tamales, depending upon how generously filled.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


…more than an estimated 36 million other Americans
My wife and I can both trace some of our ancestry to Ireland, as can more than an estimated 36 million other Americans. We do celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, but mostly because it’s there, rather than for any inherited tradition.

…popular “history”
In any case, much of the popular “history” of the life of this Irish saint is certainly myth. It is believed that he was born in Britain, but taken to Ireland by raiders. It seems that he was held as a prisoner and labored as a Shepard for several years before escaping and returning to Britain.

…he began to have visions
It was apparently after his return to his homeland that he began to have visions and turned his heart to religion. He did train as a priest and legend has it that he was told by an angel in one of his visions to return to Ireland as a missionary. Tradition has it that he died on March 17th around the year 460AD.

… stories that my Irish Catholic mother told me
As we know, story telling and music is a strong part of the Celtic tradition in Ireland and it is difficult over 1500 years later to separate fact from fiction. I remember quite well learning from the stories my Irish Catholic mother told me that the saint drove the snakes from Ireland. Today it is thought that this story is a metaphor for his opposition to the Irish pagans. St. Patrick is also credited with combining the Celtic symbol of the sun with the Christian cross to create what we know today as the familiar Celtic cross.

Legends aside…
Legends aside, many of the customs that we associate with our modern St. Patrick’s Day are American in origin. Our first St. Patrick’s Day parade originated in New York City and our culinary tradition of Corned Beef and Cabbage is an Irish tradition in the cabbage part alone. Although cabbage has most certainly long been a part of the Irish diet, corned beef only became part of the duo at the turn of the last century, again in New York City.

…quirk of fate
It is an interesting quirk of fate that the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish has become such a part of our American experience, considering the extreme negativity with which Irish immigrants experienced just a little over a century ago. Now there are at least 100 St. Patrick’s Day parades across the country, with the largest taking place in (where else?) New York City. Boston and Chicago are also well known for their celebrations with the dyeing green of the Chicago River as one of the more outlandish events.

…public imbibing
Americans also associate St. Patrick’s Day with the public imbibing of some serious liquid refreshment and such aberrations as green beer. However, this image is somewhat Americanized as well, considering that in Ireland itself, pubs were closed by law until the 1970’s.

...we have taken considerable license…that…has virtually nothing to do with…Ireland
So, considering the propensity of Americans to interpret traditions in our own way, we have taken considerable license in our own cuisine for this Irish event. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were pondering a menu for our own St. Patrick’s Day merrymaking. Not realizing the truth behind Corned Beef and Cabbage tradition, we started with the idea of smoking the brisket instead of cooking it in or on the stove. That led to our decision to make a super-duper Reuben sandwich, which we did and it was delicious, although it has virtually nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day or Ireland!

…that’s the way I like it
Here are the components: my wife, Gail’s homemade Rye bread, Smoked Corned Beef Brisket, Bavarian Sauerkraut, good Swiss cheese and homemade Thousand Island dressing. Yes, I know that most recipes call for a “Russian” dressing, but I first had a Reuben made with Thousand Island dressing and that’s the way I still like it and there you have it.

Gail’s Rye Bread
Before I met my wife, I did not own a bread maker and didn’t have a very high opinion of them either. But you know, after the first time I tasted a loaf that she made in her bread machine, I thought -why on earth am I being so uppity about this? The machine makes a perfectly decent product, easy to slice AND I don’t have to make it.

Place into the mixing case of the bread machine the following three ingredients:
1 cup warm water
2 Tblsps. Molasses
1 ½ Tblsps. Butter

Next, add:
2 cups unbleached white (Bread Machine) flour
1 cup rye flour
1 Tblsp. sugar
½ Tblsp. dry milk
2 tsp. salt
2 Tblsps. Caraway seeds
1 package active dry yeast

Turn on Bread Machine to whole wheat mode and allow to process and bake. Cool thoroughly before slicing.

Thousand Island dressing
Yields about 4 cups

1 ½ cups celery, finely chopped
½ cup sweet or dill pickle relish
1 Tblsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 cup chili sauce
1 tsp. Tabasco sauce (or to taste)
½ tsp. sea salt
2 cups mayonnaise (homemade if you have the time)

1. Combine all ingredients and stir together well. This can be made in a food processor; just do not over process it.

Smoked Corned Beef Brisket

One 2 or 3 lb. piece of brisket

1. Allow brisket to sit overnight in the brine and pickling spices that usually come with it, pickling your own from scratch is easy, but we will get into that another time.
2. To smoke the meat: Light your fire (natural hardwood charcoal is best)- as a matter of fact, the famous French chef Jacques Pepin feels that natural wood charcoal produces a significantly lower amount of tar on the cooked meat than does processed briquettes.
3. Place wood chips (we have had good results from hickory, wild cherry and mesquite) for smoking on top of charcoal and place brisket on top of clean rack. Depending on the type of grill that you are using and the heat that is generated it will take about 45 minutes for each side. We generally cook ours to about an internal temperature of 140 degrees. When done remove the meat from the grill, cover with aluminum foil and allow to sit for at least15 minutes before slicing.

Next, all you need is a 14oz. can of Bavarian Sauerkraut and some slices of a good Swiss cheese. Spread a little dressing onto the sliced bread and pile it up with thin slices of the smoked meat, sliced cheese and a hearty pile of sauerkraut and top it with another slice of bread. Toast the sandwich slightly in a toaster oven or a Panini machine. Serve with a little more dressing on the side and a great dill pickle.

Here’s to an excellent St. Paddy’s Day celebration- make a Reuben, put on CD by the Chieftains, open a Guinness and enjoy!

“May you never forget what is worth remembering or remember what is best forgotten.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


…a serious influence

The American Southwest will always be a serious influence in my cooking and lifestyle.
Not only are there many regionally based cuisines in Mexico itself, but there are also unique variations in the American states bordering Mexico as well.

..."specialties" can run the gamut
This can include specialties from each of the border states- California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Those “specialties” can run the gamut from authentic Mexican traditions to highly adapted and popular cooking styles such as Tex-Mex. This does not even touch on the creative “Nueva” cooking from South Florida reflecting both Latin American and Caribbean influences.

…you will notice distinctly different styles
Even if you have wandered across the Border States (like I have) tasting food in the small Mexican restaurants along the way, you will have noticed distinctly different styles in the cooking of say, south Texas and northern New Mexico. There are also many chefs experimenting with combining the new and old in examples of crossover fusion cooking.

…it is quite possible to preserve authentic…classics…while encouraging innovation
Such innovation is not without controversy; although it seems to me that it is quite possible to preserve authentic regional classics while at the same time encouraging innovation and creativity in the kitchen. Such concepts as fusion, New American, New Regional American or even more specifically Comida Nueva are in a sense not new at all. The term “New American Cuisine” can probably mean just about anything. For my purposes here I define it as a combination of favorite regional foods and any number of international cooking techniques.

Antoine’s …can hardly considered modern or trendy
With the celebration of Mardi gras still fresh in my mind, I’m reminded of a very interesting conversation that I once enjoyed over lunch with Bernard R.Guste at his French Quarter restaurant, Antoine’s. Mr. Guste is the fifth-generation proprietor at the landmark New Orleans Creole establishment. Founded in 1840, this classic Creole eatery can hardly be considered modern or trendy. Yet, more that 150 years ago, this restaurant was experimenting with what can be called “New American Cuisine.”

Lacking a suitable snail in southern Louisiana…
As Guste tells the story, his great, great grandfather, remembering the succulent escargot of his native France, wished to serve something similar at his New Orleans restaurant. Lacking a suitable snail in southern Louisiana, he turned to an interesting substitute. In a move that would be considered rank heresy to many of his countrymen, the chef opened fresh oysters, packed the shell with delicious green herb sauce and baked them on a bed of rock salt. Thus was born Oysters Rockefeller, the original recipe still a secret to this day. Mr. Guste’s story has always seemed to me to be the perfect example of how to explain the rationale behind the New American movement.

My own tinkering…has not always been greeted by such enthusiasm.
Now, although generations of Americans have delighted in this chef’s innovation, my own tinkering with tradition has not always been greeted by such enthusiasm. Once upon a time, I suggested a minimal effort to make the lowly taco more appealing and acceptable to a vegetarian. My idea was to replace ground beef with a mixture of brown rice, cracked wheat and tofu flavored with easily recognized Mexican seasoning. It was really almost an afterthought and not one in which I had invested much time or energy. That being admitted, look at the extreme reaction that my recipe received from a food writer in one of the major Texas daily newspapers.

Real Texan (?)…
“We offer the following, not as a recipe we expect any real Texan actually to prepare and eat, but as an example of how New Age food mongrelization debases tradition.”

...self-appointed cultural arbitrators
Well now…….of course, I had to respond in kind! So, I said, “when self-appointed cultural arbitrators retreat into complaints about what a “real” Texan or “real” anyone might do or eat, it leaves me more than a little suspicious of that person’s sense of identity. Scratch the surface of someone crying about being a “real” Texan and often you will find just another self-consciously insecure urban cowboy wannabe!”

Naturally, I will share the recipe with you, let you judge for yourselves and hopefully inspire you to post some comments of your own.

Makes about 12 hearty tacos

18 oz. firm tofu
1 cup cooked crack wheat
½ cup cooked brown rice
2 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 ½ tsps. Salt or to taste
½ tsp. crushed red pepper
1 tsp. whole cumin seed, lightly toasted
3 Tblsp. tomato paste
¼ cup Avanti Savoia all-purpose cooking olive oil
12 corn tortillas
½ cup Monterey Jack cheese, grated

1. Crumble tofu into a bowl with cooked cracked wheat and brown rice.
2. Add minced garlic and chopped onion to tofu-grain mixture along with salt, red pepper, cumin seed and tomato paste. Toss lightly.
3. Heat oil in a large skillet and stir in tofu-grain mixture. Cook 3 or 4 minutes or until sizzling and hot.
4. Heat tortillas home style by placing each one directly on a medium burner, either gas or electric, for just enough time to mark each side. Just a few seconds will be enough and a little practice will make you comfortable with the process.
5. Serve taco mix with heated tortillas and grated cheese. Allow guests to fill their own tacos.
6. Serve with guacamole, salsa and fresh sprigs of cilantro.

Texas Independence Day
On March 2, 2009 Texas celebrated 173 years of independence. We are observing the occasion not only with this post exploring culinary tradition and innovation, but also with a Southwestern “fiesta” for our friends, the East Tennessee Chapter of the American Wine Society. The menu will include Antojitos (Appetizers), Platillo fuerte (Main Course) and Postre (Dessert). The photo on this post is of the Main Course, Open Faced Turkey Tamales with Mole Sauce. Check out our next post with the complete menu, recipes, fiesta photos and a selection of wines carefully chosen to match the many flavors.

Sometimes it’s easy to let simple things slip your mind. Like for instance, just how luscious our Carnaroli rice from Cascina Belvedere really is. Aroma, flavor, beautiful appearance and delicate texture... this plump, white rice from the Piedmont and Lombardy regions almost upstaged the gumbo we served with it for Mardi gras.