Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Listening…Floyd Cramer; Flip, Flop and Bop
Drinking…The Champagne of Beers
So, yeah, the trip to Taos. I’ve been holding off on writing this because I still don’t know how I feel about it and I’m pretty sure that the way I think I feel about it is going to make me sound like a dick. But, to paraphrase Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, “I said those things, I did those things. I can live with that.”
First of all, Taos is a smaller and dirtier version of Santa Fe with even more arrogance. I’ve been to Mexico several times and I’ve had better food out of a push cart there, seen better art laid out on the sidewalk there and enjoyed all the run down adobe look without any of the hey-we’re-really-fucking-special attitude. I bet Taos was really cool when Georgia O’Keefe was there, but that now she would probably choose to live somewhere like Carrizozo. The one nice thing about Taos was some of the people who I met there, the eight month pregnant bartender at the Adobe Bar who genuinely was enjoying herself while serving the cartoon in the buckskin jacket with the bead work who stole my seat when I had the nerve to walk away from the bar to answer my phone and the couple-but-not-a-couple from California who were arguing most of the time they were there (in between his calling people to loudly proclaim that he was in Taos…no shit, asshole, I’m also in Taos, I know you’re in Taos and I bet the guy on the other end of the line doesn’t give a shit where you’re at, he’s just glad he’s not sitting next to you…).
Yeah, and that guy at The Bean coffee shop was cool too. And the crew at Michael’s Kitchen. What wasn’t cool was that the food was average and overpriced at the Adobe, about eleven bucks for three tacos with a few shreds of beef and the kind of blue corn tortilla shells you can buy at pretty much any supermarket these days, and $8.50 for a slice of coconut cream pie. Yep, eight-fitty…for pie. Yeah, it was good, but it wasn’t eight-fitty good. It was maybe five dollars good, but I can’t blame people for charging what the consumer is willing to pay. If no one was buying the nearly-nine-dollar pie they wouldn’t be charging that much, would they? Hell, I bought it.
Then there was the $2.50 cup of black coffee at The Bean. Yeah, it was good coffee and yeah, I know that Starbucks has trained Americans to accept that a $1.00 cup of coffee is really worth $3.00, but I can still get that $1.00 cup at little Sacred Grounds here in Ruidoso and it’s always the same politically correct (fair trade, organic, etc.) coffee as at the gourmet places. Oh, and The Bean’s breakfast burrito was average. The breakfast burritos from the gas station up the street are better.
Michael’s Kitchen was the highlight, I only ate there once and had blue corn pancakes with pinons and a side of bacon. The service was outstanding and the food was really good and the coffee was cheap, hot, and my cup never got lower than half without someone topping it off. It is the little things, isn’t it?
The cheese class? It was boring and kind of annoying. Did I learn? Yes, I did. To reduce my karmic damage I will only say that the NMSU staff did a really good job and not talk too much about the other students and the facility staff, actually just one member of that staff. I will say that some people enjoy their positions of minimal authority far too much and that I cannot stand being treated like a 1st grader.
The facility itself is great, the class was held at the Taos County Economic Development Center which is a non-profit that provides space and counseling for local small businesses. There is a day care on site, as well as a branch of the Youth Conservation Corps, the community garden, a glass art workshop, as well as the several small food businesses that operate out of the facility's commercial kitchen for a very nominal fee. In this place, the folks of Taos have something to be very proud of. Actually, the food that came out of that kitchen, burritos, tamales, salsas, dressings, and Mexican wedding cookies, all produced in small batches by these very talented and caring micro-business people, was the best that I had while there.
The whole bad taste in my mouth, for the most part, honestly came about because of phone call. One of those phone calls that just fucks you up for a while and pretty much ruins your mood for a couple of days. In spite of sounding like a huge baby, here goes. So, I’m sitting at the Adobe Bar when my phone rings. I look at the number, it’s out of state, I don’t recognize it and I almost don’t answer it…but I do. I immediately recognize her voice, “Hey, I’m coming home and I thought I’d call and see if you guys need anything.” She moved out almost four years ago, and even though I took my ring off within a couple months of her leaving, the mark is still visible on my finger and there’s not one day that goes by that I don’t look at it and wonder if I am cursed to second guess myself and to be alone, and question whether or not I would take her back until that little indentation is completely gone. I tell myself that I would not, that the damage was too great, that there would be just too much to get past, but still, and I hate myself for feeling it, my heart leapt with “…I’m coming home…” only to find that she’d misdialed. Then it was relief, pain, and feelings I don’t even know how to describe.
Yeah, that fucked my mood up; hell, it’s still not right, so maybe Taos deserves a second chance. I do need to go back for one thing. A friend had suggested a hike nearby which she described as being one of the most beautiful on Earth, and I didn’t get to make it because of a snow storm, so I’ll go back, at least for that.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
I’ll try to write more later, but my mom always told me that if couldn’t say anything nice, not to say anything at all (not really, I’m pretty sure that was my high school typing teacher and that I laughed in her face. Sorry Ms. Keener).
Monday, March 23, 2009
Had a mildly disappointing day in the menu testing department today. I tried an idea for potato wrapped halibut that I saw in the March edition of Bon Appetit, but it was a flop all the way around. First, I live in a hole where neither halibut nor Yukon gold potatoes are available without special order, so we made do with flounder and white potatoes; second, wrapping a fish fillet in slices of potato layered to look like scales is way flippin' harder than it looks; third, I frakked up and had the oil too cool when the (barely) wrapped fish hit the pan and the seam on the back didn't sear shut as it was supposed to. The end result tasted like what it looked like: oily fish draped with undercooked potatoes.
Although fish and potatoes are hard to come by here, I was able to pick up some nopales, prickly pear cactus pads, at the store. I'd never worked with them, but had heard that they should be treated much the same as okra. The pads at the store were all pretty limp and the end results were less than great, but I'll try again with fresh pads. Raw, the pads taste like watermelon rind and they are viscous like okra. Dusted with cornmeal, salt and cayenne, they are pretty tasty. I think we'll try them in soup and see if they share a similar thickening ability with okra while losing some of the slime, sort of a nopales gumbo.
The potato wrapped fish being a flop, Brett tried wrapping the filets in poblano and green chiles and making fish rellenos. These were better, but the strong peppers overpowered the mild flavored fish, so we'll have to work on that a little more before writing it off. We also tried wrapping with squash, but it just snapped in half. Maybe if it was par-cooked.
One thing that did work pretty well was spinach and oyster mushrooms sauteed with chorizo. I'm planning on trying a variation of that as one of the veg dishes: mushroom and spinach enchiladas.
Just noticed that Bon Appetit has a full page ad for Pizza Hut...no wonder they're not trustworthy.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Anyway, Jared is up front doing waiter stuff, Em is on her way with doughnuts and Macie has a ballgame and will be late. Dan just walked in and got started prepping the front with Zac right behind him looking stoned. All present or accounted for.
I signed the lease and got the keys yesterday for the new place. We still don’t have a name for it yet, but we should be in there and getting work started next week. Remember the Green House Café, Holly? That’s the place, and I promise that there will be more than just a salad on the menu for the vegesaurs out there.
West Texas spring breaks are over and the ski area closes today, so it should be slowing down this week, soon we'll be able to do some more work on the menu. I’m also going to a cheese-making workshop in Taos this week, so we’ll also be kicking up our cheese production in the coming months. There was a couple in Capitan that had a really nice little cheese business up there, making very good cheeses from milk provided by their own pampered cows and selling it at the farmers' market. Unfortunately, they flaked out and sold their place and moved to Argentina. Fortunately, that opens the playing field for us to have the only locally produced cheeses, not only for the two restaurants, but for retail sales as well.
I think I would like very much to be sitting on a porch in the early morning chill a few years from now, somewhere north of the Jicarillas, watching over a small herd of cows and goats as they amble in from their pasture for their morning milking. Or maybe not, maybe I’d like to be trying my hand at another restaurant, or maybe I’d just like to be traveling and writing. Or maybe I’ll flake out and move to Argentina, it looks nice.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Eric wants… Hysung’s phone number. I don’t even know her, but what the hell.
Eric loves…Lisa. Don’t know her either, plus she violates my “No-Names-That-End-In-A” rule
Eric hates…shots. No, I don’t.
Eric believes… “If I wrote the best play/I won’t get any say/No-one would listen/No-one would hear true music.” Okay, off to cut myself.
Eric wishes…you a good year from El Quemao. Wow, it’s really, really nice here.
Eric sleeps…on Flickr. Hey, I was tired. Not the most inopportune time that I’ve fallen asleep.
Eric smells…the best. It’s the hot maidens in my Irish Spring body wash.
Eric eats…out. Wow, this is amazing.
Eric tastes…our RougeGain. I don’t think so, I checked the page and that shit looks gross.
Eric realizes…that he’s got one of Batu’s pajama tops on, one of the inside-out ones. Honest, Lisa, Hysung, it’s not what it looks like!
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn starch or 1/2 cup AP flour
3 cups milk
5 egg yolks....ok, if you want calf slobbers you gotta reserve the whites
2 TBL butter
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
Baked pastry shell
Combine sugar and cornstarch/flour. Stir in milk and chocolate; cook and stir over medium heat 'til mix gets bubbly and thick. Reduce heat; cook and stir for two more minutes. Remove from heat.
Beat egg yolks lightly with a fork. Temper with about one cup of the hot filling . Return to pan and bring to a gentle boil. Cook and stir for 2 more minutes and remove from heat.
Stir in butter and vanilla. Pour the filling into a baked pastry shell and bake for 12 to 15 minutes at 350. Cool on a wire rack and then chill.
The new restaurant is a go, I asked the health inspector to do a pre-inspection so we would know exactly what we were in for before signing a lease and it turned out better than expected, much better.
We’re shooting for a May 1 opening, so lots of stuff to do in a short time. We tested another recipe the other day, this time for Chicken Lime Soup, garnished with cilantro, avocado, fried tortilla strips, and lime and it was very good. I think we’ll bump the spice up next time and finish the soup with a touch of heavy cream and it should be excellent. I'll try to remember a camera next time so that I can get some pics of the food up.
Well, my Sunday morning beer is gone and the cooks are starting to get backed up, so off my ass and onto the line. Hope everyone’s having a good weekend!
Saturday, March 14, 2009
A couple of days ago my friend Steve brought in what looked to be a 12 pack of Michelob Ultra. Thankfully, my disappointment was short-lived as he reached inside and removed a gorgeous chocolate creme pie. Steve's mom bakes him a pie every year for his birthday and he's good enough to share with his friends. I probably wouldn't be. The first time I tasted one of Steve's mom's pies I knew exactly where the recipe had come from and even (approximately) what edition the cookbook had been.
A while back I wrote the following as an answer to a question posed by Sarah. Steve's birthday pie reminded me of it so I tweaked my draft and here it is.
Over the years I've gone from being a sweet fiend to not really having that much of a sweet tooth. When I was a kid I loved Banana Flips, a processed confection made with so much sugar in the crème filling that it crunched, and through high school raspberry Zingers were often lunch, at least until I started working and had money for food and Galaga. In the army, after a seven-mile run, nothing recharged the batteries like a pack of raspberry jelly filled powdered sugar covered doughnuts from the PX along with a quart of chocolate milk and a Marlboro. Following this diet I had a remarkably low amount of body fat and was able to run for hours.
At some point in the past few years I have somehow lost this love of sweets except for two days of the year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. On those two days (of which Thanksgiving is my favorite, hands down) I almost always bake pies, they are nearly always custard pies, and there are always at least two of four old standbys: chocolate, coconut crème, butterscotch and buttermilk. The wife of a friend made the buttermilk pie years ago; I got the recipe from her not long before she died. Every time I see buttermilk pie on a menu I try it and I’m happy to say that my friend’s has never been bested and I think she would approve of mine. The butterscotch is the newest; I started making it maybe ten years ago, as my then wife loves all things butterscotch. Two years after our divorce I was able make and enjoy it again. The chocolate and the coconut crème go way, way back. From the time I was a little boy, my mom and grandma would make these pies. They were slightly different but equally good. The only problem I had with grandma’s was that she put meringue on her pies, while mom left hers bare so we could add Cool Whip. Grandpa called meringue “calf slobbers” and from the time I was small I hated it and would scrape it off my slices of otherwise wonderful pie.
When I first married, my mom gave us the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, you know, the one with the red and white checkerboard pattern on it, it used to come with a fondue set at every wedding. Might still, I try to stay away from such affairs these days.
Being in Germany, and not having been home for over two years, I had missed out on four holidays worth of my favorite pies and decided that since I now had the recipes (my mom and grandma, at least to my knowledge at that time, had never used any cookbook but the BH&G), I could now make my own pies. And I did, and they weren’t the same. They were close, but different.
Over the years I continued to make them, changing only my crust recipe, and always thought they just tasted…different, good, but not as good. In 1999 my grandma had a stroke and died within a few days. Grandpa followed her four years later. During the time between arriving home after grandpa died and his funeral there was the miserable chore of going through…stuff. My dad and his siblings had already secured photos and papers; now, as oldest grandchild, it was my turn. I have to admit that though I hated it, wishing with all my heart I wasn’t going through this house that I once loved to visit, but now hated to be in, I experienced a tiny thrill at what I found. I took only an old black Stetson, my grandpa’s worn out leather wallet that I had given him for Christmas a decade or more before, his pocket knife and a pair of cockroach killer cowboy boots (so called because of the wearer’s ability to get into a corner with the pointy toes to dispatch any varmints). From the kitchen I took a percolator, an ancient boning knife, a cast iron skillet, and the crown jewel, grandma’s own copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, its pages falling out and filled with her own handwritten recipes and those cut from magazines or torn from can labels. Later, my dad insisted that I take a microwave and a chainsaw that I didn’t really want, but that I would “be able to use.” The microwave, yeah; the chainsaw, not so much.
For years my mom had greeted my insistence that my pies just weren’t as good as I remembered hers and my grandma’s with mild (and I have to say, seemingly feigned) consternation. She doesn’t want mine to be as good, I often thought, and just let it go. But there in the pages of my grandma’s cookbook was the answer. The Thanksgiving after grandpa’s death I decided to use grandma’s cookbook. Thus far, I had only glanced through it, now I really looked, at the colorized pictures of 1950s haute cuisine like pineapple ham and lots of stuff with mushroom soup, then at the recipes, and I knew why our pies were all different, mine drastically so. Grandma’s book called for an entire hen house worth of eggs in its custard pies, my mom’s (I confirmed later) a few less, and my “modern and healthy” ‘80s model uses the fewest of all. “Not as rich,” I remember telling my mom.“Hmmmmm,” she would respond. Yeah.
I still bake at least some combination of two of these four pies at the holidays, though last year I thoroughly enjoyed letting a local BBQ joint cook our Christmas dinner, and I now use Grandma’s recipes every time, and, in spite of now rarely eating sweets, I will still eat coconut crème or chocolate pie until I am sick to my stomach, and the leftovers ‘til they are no more.
These days, I am much more likely to crave salted snacks, chips, I do love trail mix with a little bit of chocolate in it, in fact, I really do enjoy that salty-sweet combination, as well as spicy-sweet. Caz and Jerod picked up some apricot-habanero jelly at the Tularosa farmer’s market a while back
that was fantastic. But if I do find myself at home, late at night, craving something sweet, I almost always make a PB&J, or have a couple spoonfuls out of whatever ice cream carton the kids have in the freezer. Half a package of Nutter Butters also makes a fine snack.
Oh, though I don’t make it for my pies, if someone else feels like putting calf slobbers on a pie I don’t scrape it off anymore.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Monday, March 9, 2009
Sunday, March 8, 2009
One of the best parts of this job is finding myself unexpectedly excited about what I do every time I start thinking I hate my job. I'm not a chef and my restaurant isn't fine dining, but I am fiercely proud of it and the food we make. I dislike the guy who dismissed my pizza as "okay" more than I dislike the guy who my ex moved in with right after she left me. Maybe not by much, but a little. Ok...maybe not really, I'm still a little confused by all that.
Let me just rant about that guy for a minute, the former one. So, I'm eating a friend's restaurant and this guy and his wife are at a table talking to my friend. As I get up to leave, my friend (let's call him Richard, 'cause that's his name) calls me over and introduces the couple.
"Oh, Cafe Rio," the man says. "I'm somewhat of a pizza connoisseur. I've been to your place and had your pizza, and it's ok..." I kinda zone out at that point, except for a red flashing sensation behind my left eye..."do you have a wood-fired oven?" Ok, did he just say that he'd been in my place and then ask if I used a wood-fired oven? We do all our pizzas up front, separated from the customers by a counter. If there had been a wood-fired oven up there I'm pretty sure that he would have noticed it.
"Uh, no, we use gas ovens with stone decks."
"You really need a wood, or coal, oven to do pizza well," he assures me. "There's a guy in Phoenix, I can't remember his name, but he uses wood and has won some major award..."
"Chris Bianco," I tell him.
"Hmmmm, maybe, I've never been there." Maybe, my ass. Pizzeria Bianco is one of the best in the US, he's won the James Beard award for Best Chef-Southwest, the only pizzaiolo to ever do so, and he does a fantastic job, using house-made mozzarella and only the best ingredients. He is fanatical about his pies, he makes every one himself and will not make orders to go since the pizzas are not as good after steaming in box. I drove to Phoenix one day last June and ate two pizzas and drove back. Total time: 20 hours. Worth it? Yes. Was it the oven that made the pizza that good? No, it was Bianco's passion and his determination to do simple food using the best ingredients he can get his hands on.
Anyway, none of that is the point. But, damn, that guy pissed me off.
The point is this: we work with a set menu and it gets a little boring doing the same thing day in, day out. Actually, it gets really boring. When it's summer and we're slammed from the time we open the doors 'til we're turning people away at closing time it is most fun I've ever had at work, we're all a little buzzed and joking around and the days just fly by and we all make really good money. This time of the year, not so much, even the weekends are so-so and the weekdays are absolutely miserable, the hours dragging by with only the occasional order. But the other day I got a call from the owner of a restaurant whom we'd been talking to at the first of the year. He was wanting to rent it out and the terms were good, the guy that was renting it before and operating a very good restaurant out of it didn't go out business, he just didn't want to do it anymore and quit. It's basically pay the rent, get a license and order some food. There were some folks ahead of us, but apparently they've bailed and he called to offer us the place. Brett and I are going up to look at it tomorrow and barring any problems we'll probably take it. So, that means having to develop and test a new menu...awesome. We're going to do simple, authentic Southwestern and last night we tested a recipe from Rick Bayless's excellent book, Mexican Everyday, for Puerco a la Mexicana, pork tenderloin with onions, roasted chiles and tomatoes. It's easy to make and delicious. We served it up to the staff with prickly pear fruit margaritas and they wiped out a huge pan of the stuff in no time. So yeah, that's going on the menu.
Today, I'm thinking these black bean and chorizo sandwiches look pretty damned good.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Years ago I had a friend who suffered a house fire. She said that as she was watching it burn she was pretty bummed, thinking, ‘Oh my God, all my stuff is gone.’
Then she realized that having all that stuff just tied her down, not only to a place, but to emotions, some of which were better let go, and she ended up smiling as she watched the place burn.
Get ready kitchen, you’re next.