This whole notion started when a conversation surfaced on a food blogging Facebook group I am a part of. The complaint was that there was no good vegan barbecue in town [Austin, TX]. Upon reading it, I thought to myself, “Well, honestly, vegan barbecue is an oxymoron, is it not?” The entire concept behind barbecue is smoking and cooking a large piece of animal flesh for hours over a wood-based fire to make it tender and then mix it with region-specific flavors. This is different from grilling which often uses charcoal or gas to cook meat or vegetables in a relatively short amount of time.
The more I thought about it, the more I became perturbed by the idea of vegan barbecue. I know there are many vegan and vegetarian takes on food with meat. But is there a point at which the food created to serve a vegan/vegetarian audience no longer qualifies it to be in that category? I think barbecue is an excellent example because the technique used to make barbecue—smoke, heat, wood and time—would do something completely different, to say, a piece of tempeh or a mushroom. So can vegan barbecue exist?
I argue that no, it cannot exist because the main ingredient (and therefore the tradition) would not be present. Famous Argentine/Uruguayan Chef, Francis Mallmann, hits the nail on the head in his book, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. He writes the following in reference to chimichurri sauce:
“At a Latin American themed James Beard Award evening in NYC, I couldn’t believe what some of the chefs had done with it: mango, strawberries, mint! I was so sad, I wanted to crawl inside my oven. Invention is fine, but you have to stay true to the original idea.”
Grilling a piece of tofu or smothering store-bought barbecue sauce over soy crumbles is not staying true to the original idea of slow-cooked-animal-flesh-over-burning-wood. It’s simply not barbeque. Do we ever think that maybe not all dishes should be made to fit a certain perimeter or culture?
So beyond technique, this is really getting at semantics. What does barbecue mean? Does it just mean throwing sauce on something? I’m definitely not the only person who has debated these “semantics.” Food labeling is incredibly strict around the world in order to protect certain varieties of products and food. Take, for example, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Per Italian law, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can only be made in defined northern regions in Italy. Furthermore, the government dictates the types of inputs and the methods used to make the cheese. What this does is protect the intellectual and cultural property of traditional foods. I personally am a fan of this as more and more of our food supply becomes monopolized and homogenized.
I am not aware of a government-sanctioned definition for barbeque. And I am not about to create a campaign for one. But, I do find it fascinating to think about the context in which our food is marketed and even created. Does it exist as we know it? Should it?
These past two weeks I’ve had a “stay-cation”–something I’ve never taken as a working professional. Most of the time when I know I will have time off, I’m busy planning months in advance–road trip to West Texas? Visit family in Maine for a white Christmas? Laugh for a week straight with a best friend in Chicago? Fly across the Atlantic to feast on divine offerings in the Mediterranean? These are just a few of the ideas that danced through my head as my two weeks in December grew closer. But having been to Bolivia in September, the Caribbean in November and with an impending February trip to NYC (!!!), I decided it would be good for my wallet to lay close to home this time around.
Two “To-dos” during my staycation were (1) Bake bread and (2) Visit Con’Olio.
Why I wanted to bake bread you ask? Frankly, I’m sick of paying $4-$5 per loaf. Especially since I cook so many other things, why not learn to make my own bread? I did bake my own bread when I was in the Peace Corps in Bolivia as I grew tired of the bread available. But living in Austin, there are lots of varieties of great bread. But for a price. The recipe I used is based on the Master Dough recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.
Ingredients (Yields about 4 one-pound loaves. Note: I halved the recipe)
- 3 cups lukewarm water
- 1 1/2 Tbsp yeast
- 1 Tbsp kosher salt
- 6 1/2 cups unbleached, unsifted all-purpose white flour
- Additional flour to form loaves
- Combine water, yeast, and salt in bowl. Stir to mix. Add all flour at once and stir with wooden spoon until dough is wet and sticky with no dry patches. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap (NOT air tight) for 2 hours at room temperature. If you are not using the dough immediately, put in fridge, covered, for up to 2 weeks.
- To make loaf, lightly sprinkle flour onto the dough’s surface. Scoop a handful the size of a grapefruit and cut or tear it away from the remaining dough. Rub the dough with a layer of flour while forming a round loaf, tucking the edges underneath. Put the now formed loaf on a cutting board dusted with cornmeal (or flour) to prevent sticking. Let it rise, uncovered, for at least 20 minutes and up to 90 minutes. The loaf will plump but not change radically in size.
- 20 minutes before baking pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a broiler tray or metal pan on the bottom rack of the oven. Put the baking stone or cast iron skillet in the oven on the middle rack.
- Dust the loaf liberally with flour. Slash the top with a cross or three lines and slide onto the pre-heated cast iron skillet or baking stone. Carefully pour 1 cup hot water onto the broiler tray or metal pan and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the crust is browned and the loaf feels light and hollow. Cool at room temperature. (Note: I put Herbs de Provence in the water in the tray to give the bread some flavor, which the recipe recommended. However, in the actual bread I could not taste it. Next time I will probably add some herbs to the dough itself.)
For not having made bread in 4+ years, I was very happy with the result. But, I wanted to keep trying. And I also wanted to add some fiber and flair to the next batch, so I checked out the follow up book to Artisan Bread, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I have not yet made a whole grain dough, but I am enjoying the book with all the dough making tidbits and suggestions. Also, I might add that the basic premise of these books is that it only takes minutes to have fresh baked bread daily and it’s CHEAP! Music to my ears!
As I experiment with new recipes from Healthy, I will be sure to share the failures and/or successes!
I had heard of Con’Olio somewhere through the grapevine. Con’Olio is an olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting boutique store in Austin. What inspired me to put it on my list of “staycation to-dos” was an interview I heard on Fresh Air featuring Tom Mueller and his new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. It’s wasn’t long ago (July 2010 to be exact) when I had tasted my first olive oil and had that ah-hah moment. It was while on the wine trail in Sonoma. Preston Vineyards of Dry Creek produces organic wines, vegetables and olive oils. It was the first time I had tasted an olive oil that was heavenly, grassy and alive.
So yesterday a friend and I made the trek up to the busting Arboretum shopping center where we sampled olive oils, truffle oils, walnut oils, infused olive oils, and a vast array of balsamic vinegars (including an 18 year one which was superb). I won’t go into much detail about why mass-produced olive oils found at the grocery don’t taste like much or what the secret is to producing olive oils that literally are peppery, as I think Extra Virginity would do a better job (as would the kind folks at Con’Olio). But I will say it’s just like sampling different types of wines or beer–there are slight subtleties to each type of olive based on geography and climate as well as the actual production and age of the olive oil.
I ended up purchasing a bottle of the harissa-infused olive oil and a bottle of the expresso balsamic vinegar. (Harissa is a North African hot chili sauce.) When combined, it is a lovely combination of spicy, sweet and warm, perfect for a salad dressing or marinade. The woman who introduced me to the combination commented it was like a barbeque sauce–she was completely right! As with my bread adventures, I’ll keep you updated on uses for my new flavor combination!
Oh, and Happy New Year!
I recently got back from a lovely week in the Caribbean, visiting Grenada (pronounced GrehnAIDa, St. Lucia (pronounced St. Loosha), Antigua (pronounced Anteegah), St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John and Puerto Rico. As with all my travels, I am always interested in seeking out the local fair.
ST. JOHN–these aren’t food, but pics of sugar mill ruins
Wowzers! Has it really been that long since I’ve blogged?? Over a month! Well, in case you didn’t know, I took a 2.5 week trip to Bolivia to visit my friends and godson, Jesus. (I served in the Peace Corps there from 2005-2007.) The trip was fantastic! Jesus is now 13 but he is still the same person I met when he was 7–very studious, eager to learn, polite and an all around great kid–I have such high hopes for him! Luckily we did not get stuck in any bloqueos or mudslides. In fact, everything went incredibly smoothly for Bolivia. (Ok, there was one bloqueo in La Paz–parents were protesting against the municipal government because their children had not received their vaccinations as promised. It was a peaceful protest and we walked an extra 1.5 miles or so to get through it and then continue on with our day in La Paz. It was Jesus’ first bloqueo, so hey, it was educational!)
To view all the pictures of my trip, click here.
I was able to eat all of my favorite food and then some while in Bolivia. Here is a recap of the deliciousness!
I wasted no time to start eating all the Bolivian food I missed! After we arrived to the airport (~9 am) and were picked up by my friends Sandra and Susana, we went to my favorite salteña cafe in Santa Cruz for breakfast. I ordered my usual: one spicy chicken salteña and fresh papaya juice. Whenever I would come to the city during my service, I always made it a point to come here. Salteñas are savory pastries that originated in the northern city of Salta, Argentina and somehow made their way to Bolivia. They are a typical mid-morning snack all over the country. They are primarily made with ground beef (and rarely chicken), spices, very finely diced potatoes, and sometimes a boiled egg and olive inside. In my opinion, the juicier they are, the better. Ironically, I didn’t care for Vallegrande’s version of the salteña. (Vallegrande was the town I served in.)
The space that hosts the salteña shop in the morning doubles up and also happens to host my favorite afternoon “masita” shop, called Horno Caliente. Masitas are little pastries, most of them savory that people eat in the afternoon and evening with tea or coffee. Most Bolivians do not eat dinner as the main meal of the day is lunch and “dinner” ends up being something simple like a masita, bread, etc. My favorite masitas cruceñas (from the Santa Cruz department) are the cuñape (round ball on left) which is about a 50/50 mixture of yuca (manioc root) flour and cheese–it’s basically a cheese bomb.! And the other one is a sonzo which is made of boiled and then mashed yuca mixed with cheese and then baked. They are both best fresh out of the oven.
This photo won’t win any awards, but it does feature another of my favorite dishes–charque. Charque is basically dried and then cooked beef. Think jerky. In fact, the word jerky comes from the word charque. The charque I ate is beef, but it is also made from llama meat, more commonly consumed in the western Altiplano area of the country. It is usually served with boiled potatoes and mote, which is reconstituted dry corn. Another one of my favorites!
This is not Bolivian food! One morning, my mom and I made my friends typical breakfast tacos, fresh squeezed OJ and papaya. The Bolivians approved 🙂
Ok, here’s another not-Bolivian-food. This is my mom’s famous Chocolate Icebox Cake that she only makes for birthdays. She was so sweet to make it for me on my bday in Bolivia! (And IMHO, Bolivian cake is not…well…good…)
Sandra made majadito, which is a typical Santa Cruz dish: charque, rice, veggies, fried plantains and an egg on top. Yesssssss!
Comfort food: choclo con queso y yuca (fresh corn, farmer cheese and yuca). I have fond memories of women selling choclo con queso on my 7 hour bus ride from the city back to my site, Vallegrande. “Choclo con qUEEEEEEEsOOOOOOOOOOOOO” they would shout.
Just a typical market scene!
I took this photo because it demonstrates that tubers are king in Bolivia. In the middle row from left to right are: red potatoes, purple fingerling potatoes, papaliza, more varied potatoes and oca.
Cual lengua quieres? (Which tongue would you like?) My friend, Andrew, with whom we stayed in La Paz, had his empleada make us picante de lengua (below).
Picante de lengua is made with tongue, veggies and aji seco, or dried chile peppers. It’s not really picante. Here it is served over tunta. Tunta is freeze-dried potatoes. It had been traditionally made by the indigenous Aymara and Quechua communities. The process involves exposing a frost-resistant type of potatoes to the freezing night temperatures of the Altiplano region and then exposing them to the intense sunlight during the day. They are then constantly sprayed with water, which makes them white as opposed to chuño, which is another freeze-dried potato but is generally black and not exposed to water. The advantage of treating potatoes this way is that they can be stored for very long amounts of time. I’m kinda luke-warm on eating chuño/tunta–maybe it’s an acquired taste?
In the background, you’ll see a bottle of Hauri, my favorite Bolivian beer, still made with Huari spring water.
These two pictures feature the granadilla, one of my all-time favorite fruits. Sadly, I have never seen them for sale in the U.S. The granadilla is in the passion flower family and is originally from the Andes between Venezuela and Bolivia. I nicknamed it “brain fruit” because that is what it looks like. The “shell” is easy to break with your fingers and then you eat the seeds and gelatinous material surrounding the seeds. Yes, I know, it sounds gross. My mom put her nose up at it when I showed her the fruit, but upon eating it, really liked it. Don’t knock anything before you try it!
Here is Jesus eating Pique Macho. Pique is a dish that you pick at and often share. Basically it’s a bed of homemade fresh fries piled high with beef (think fajita meat), hotdogs, cheese, boiled eggs, tomatoes and locoto (one of the typical hot peppers of Bolivia). This was a treat for Jesus!
As I’ve shifted my diet to exclusively cook locally and sustainably-raised meat, my interest in the butchering process has grown. Honestly, I am fascinated. Maybe it’s the anatomy lesson. Or the fact that this type of butchering is no longer the norm in our food system. The irony to it all is that I’m a little squeamish when it comes to blood and guts. I remember career day in high school when I visited a vet clinic; I saw Fluffy the cat spread open for surgery and I just about passed out.
Over the past year, I have seen more animal butchering than I had ever seen before. And really I have only seen two–I watched (and helped where I could) my friend’s father field dress and then butcher a deer Andy hunted last Christmas; and then of course there was the more recent feral hog harvest in San Saba in May. Also, one lazy evening, Andy and I watched a cable TV show that showed how to butcher a cow (from bullet to ribeye).
I recently came across these two chicken butchering videos via the Austex Poultry Yahoo Group to which I subscribe. (There are two parts and they last about 25 minutes, combined.) As I started to watch the first video, I had my hand hovering above the stop button just in case I couldn’t take seeing the chicken being killed. But, the process all happened so smoothly and the narrator’s voice is so calming, that it really wasn’t a problem. In fact, the woman who does the butchering is awesome. I especially liked her comment that butchering animals is “not about being brutal and macho” but rather it is about “understanding that you kill things…and eat them; that’s how the world works.”
When I think to myself that here I am learning to butcher a chicken by watching a YouTube video….I can only think what my Great-Grandmothers Frey and Casnovsky are thinking…
This past Christmas I gave Andy (and me) a pass to take a Thai cooking class at Thai Fresh. Last week we finally had a chance to use it! Thai fresh is a neighborhood Thai restaurant in South Central Austin that features Thai food made with seasonal, local food. They also offer cooking classes.
The class we took was “Thai Favorites” which featured the most-ordered recipes at Thai restaurants: Coconut Soup with Chicken and mushrooms, Pad Thai w/ Tofu, Red Curry w/ chicken and seasonal vegetables and Sticky Rice w/ Mango. I have taken several cooking classes at Central Market, which were all great. However, the reason I was really excited about taking this particular class is I felt like I would implement the techniques and knowledge I learned right away.
Both Andy and I are good cooks, but wanted to know the “basics” of Thai cooking, which this class showed us. When I do eat out, I tend to go for ethnic foods that I don’t know how to prepare at home, like Thai or Indian. But I have a growing desire to learn how to create these cuisines at home, where, in my opinion, the food is always a step above restaurant food.
There were about 13 of us in the class. We all stood around a large stainless steel prep table in the back of the kitchen as Jam, the owner of Thai Fresh, took us us through the steps of the recipes, which we prepared together. As we sat down to eat the 4 delicious recipes, I thought, wow, that was not too difficult; really it is understanding the base and then the rest is fairly easy.
Did you know that Thai food is known for it’s balance of 5 fundamental tastes–spicy, sour, sweet, salty and bitter? These flavors can be encompassed in one dish or several dishes that make up one meal. When Jam first moved to the US, she had a hard time finding all of the necessary ingredients. Slowly but surely she has found distributors for some of the ingredients, as well as started to grow the items that thrive here, like kaffir limes, lemongrass and Thai chilis. And, as a matter of fact, I have lemongrass growing as well as lots of chilis (but not Thai chilis this year). Kaffir limes grow well in Central TX, so I might be adding that to my culinary garden…
Stay tuned for upcoming blog entries that I’ll share upon making these recipes in my own kitchen!
*Please note, these are photos of a hog harvest; if you do not wish to see these, do not continue reading*
Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting my friend, Liz, in San Saba, TX (2 hours NW of Austin). For the past 3 summers, Liz has been doing her field work for her PhD. Liz studies bats and her work is specifically looking at whether or not increased bat numbers, species and activity correlates with decreased insect numbers, and specifically the insects that eat pecan trees and nuts. In other words, would bats be a resource for those wanting to use organic or natural methods to control the bug populations so they would not have to spray chemicals on their pecan orchards? Pretty interesting, I think! Liz has based her research out of an organic pecan orchard along the San Saba river, owned by John and Jimma Byrd, one of the neatest couples I’ve ever met. Both John and Jimma are from the San Saba area, so they are true Texans. However, unlike the stereotypical Texas rancher or pecan grower, they are very progressive in their way of life–they only use organic methods in their orchards and vegetable garden; John rigged up a solar system so they are now “off the grid” as far as energy is concerned; Gimma feeds the hummingbirds daily (and believe you me, there are LOTS), but refuses to put red food dye in their syrup; Sally Fallon and Joel Salatin are household names–you get the picture.
Not surprisingly, John and Jimma are fantastic stewards of their land and the organisms that call it home; and this includes population management, aka hunting and fishing. On a typical day, you will find venison, squirrel, feral hog, and fish in their deep freezer. All of this food was hunted or fished right on their own land. They take only what they can use and they use it all.
The feral pig population is out of control in Texas. The first pigs were brought to Texas by the Spanish in the 1600s. More were brought over by additional settlers in the centuries following. Eventually enough of them escaped domestic life and are now essentially wild. They are incredibly adaptive, smart animals. They are omnivores and can adjust to whatever life throws them. Also contributing to their population explosion is their high reproductive rate.
The Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas Dept. of Wildlife have given Texans the green light to harvesting as many feral hogs as possible. Sadly, many hunters kill the feral hogs only to let their carcasses rot under the hot Texas sun. This unnerves John as he only “harvests what [he] will eat” and doesn’t waste the meat. Despite the government encouraging the hunting of hogs, the population is still growing and expanding. In fact, my co-worker, who lives in North Austin near the Samsung campus said that feral pigs have now invaded their residential neighborhood, tearing up flowers, gardens and trees.
When I arrived to the Byrd property on Saturday morning, Liz and John were out in the orchard studying the damage caused by one of the moths species. They were both perplexed to see the damage considering there was a very active bat population that lived in that orchard.
As we were riding across the orchard in the electric golf cart I could see “my hog” in it’s pen over by the compost pile. John had caught it for me, knowing I wanted to harvest one during my time out there. The trap is such that it lures the hog into the pen with corn, and then the hog trips the door, it shuts and the animal is stuck.
So there I was in the field, looking at my hog and Liz says, “Well, there’s your hog, enjoying it’s last few minutes…”
That’s when I took a breath. Ok, we really are going to kill this feral hog because I want the meat. And the population is out of control.
We zoomed around the orchard in the golf cart, taking care of a few odds and ends. We stopped over by the “butchering station” where John grabbed his .22. This is real, I thought to myself.
On the short trip back over to the cage, I thought, maybe I should pull the trigger and kill it. After all, I’m the one who wants to eat it. My biggest hesitation (besides the fact that my own hands were going to cause something to die for me to eat it) was the fact that I’ve only shot a gun once. What if I didn’t shoot it well and the hog suffered?
“BAM….BAM” The gun is shot twice. The hog is lying on the ground, bleeding through it’s nose, kicking wildly.
“Is it dead?” ask Liz and I in unison.
“Oh, it’s dead. And that kicking, that’s just a reflex. It’s dead,” said John again.
So before I could even get the words out of my mouth, that ok, maybe I will shoot the hog, it was done. Fast. No suffering. John, Liz and I hoisted it up into the back of the golf cart and made a b-line for the “slaughter” station. The pictures below capture the actual butchering.
After carving up the meat, we put it in a dry freezer overnight that John built. In the morning John taught me how to make sausage using the hams from the feral hog and pork fat from Sand Creek Farm in Cameron, TX. We didn’t have casings, so what we made is more of a breakfast sausage. And boy, is it delicious!
All in all, I made 14 pounds of sausage. Additionally, I had two shoulders (I plan to make pulled pork), the back (good for roasts), ribs, and the tenderloins. But, I do I feel strongly that for small, local farms and producers to survive, that we have to eat all of the animal. That being said, I need to figure out how to cook (and eat) the organs.
For several days following the harvest and butchering, I woke up at night, picturing the hog in it’s final moments in life, standing in the cage, watching us from across the field. This is the closest I’ve ever come to life, death and the making of a meal. A friend with whom I served in the Peace Corps once told me that he no longer would eat beef; he said he had had to butcher cows in Bolivia and felt that he really couldn’t do that again, so he have up beef. I share similar sentiments; if I’m going to eat animals shouldn’t I feel comfortable killing and butchering them? I can only speak for myself, but for me, as someone who seeks out an intimate relationship with food and the surrounding land, I’d have to say, yes, I should feel comfortable. Do I, in reality? No. But I am starting to warm up to it.