Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Beans

When one thinks of Texas (I like to think everyone does), many things come to mind.  It is both a state and a state of mind, and it is bigger than the sum of its parts.  It is said that everything is bigger in Texas, but as any Texan knows, it is the little things that make it big. 

Barbeque is big in Texas, and so are Tex-Mex, chicken-fried steak, catfish, and chili.  But it’s the small things that make these big.  The smoke, the seasonings, the simplicity, the pride (well, maybe that’s a big thing), but the little things add up to something bigger than the sum of its parts, just like the state.  I was thinking about one little thing a few days ago that is so small most Texans take it for granted, but without it history may have been a little different.  It’s the bean.

I’ve heard it said, “all Texans are full of beans.”  And while this is usually not said in a positive manner, I think there may be something to it.  Texas is home to a lot of bean eaters, and there are many ways to cook those beans so the Texans can be full of them.

Beans have long been a staple in mankind’s diet, and all too often beans were the only item in the diet.  Immigrant pioneers lived on beans.  They were easy to transport and prepare.  The cowboys lived on beans.  Farmers lived on beans.  Everyone grew a few beans in their gardens.  Beans were everywhere.  Just add water and heat and dinner was on the way.  Of course, a little salt, chiles, pork, onions, and other things could be added to the pot, but at the bottom of it all, it was a pot of beans.

I believe beans were responsible at times for the direction of history.  Their ease of transport allowed adventurers to travel far and wide.  How much more difficult would the cattle drives have been if beans were not along to fuel the men on horseback?  And what would “Blazing Saddles” have been without beans around the campfire?

Beans can stand alone, or they can be the foundation of something bigger.  They are also at home as an ingredient to another dish, or just sitting on the side of the plate.  Main meal, ingredient, side dish, or garnish, beans are at the foundation of every Texan’s life.  I’m not getting back into the controversy about beans in chili, except to say they are welcome in this Texan’s chili as an ingredient.

When I have a hankerin’ for beans as a main dish or side dish, this is the first recipe I think about.

Texas Beans
Serves 6 to 8.

    1 pound dried pinto beans                                      
    6 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded                             
    3 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
    2 Anaheim chiles, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
    6 cloves garlic, minced                                        
    1 large yellow onion, diced                                                 
    1 (14 1/2-ounce) can tomatoes with juice                       
    1 tablespoon brown sugar                                         
    1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar                                 
    1 teaspoon paprika                                              
    1 teaspoon cumin                                               
    1/2 teaspoon dried oregano                                     
    1 cup water                                                    
    5 cups beef broth
    1 cup beer (Shiner Bock is perfect)
    3 cups chopped cooked beef brisket
    Water as needed                     
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste          

Soak the beans covered in water—either overnight or the quick soak method in which you place the beans in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, cover and remove from heat and let sit for one hour.

Drain and rinse the soaked beans.
 
In a cast-iron skillet heated up to medium high, cook the anchos and guajillos on each side for a couple of minutes (or until they start to bubble and pop), turn off the heat and fill the skillet with hot water. Let them sit until soft and rehydrated, which should happen after half an hour or so.

In the pot in which you’ll be cooking your beans, heat up a teaspoon of canola oil and cook the onions and chopped Anaheim chilies for ten minutes on medium. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Throw the cooked onions, Anaheim chiles, and garlic in a blender and add the tomatoes, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, paprika, cumin, oregano, water and rehydrated ancho and guajillo chiles. Puree until smooth adding more water as needed.

Add the pinto beans, beef broth, and beer to the pot and stir in the chile puree. On high, bring the pot to a boil and then cover; turn the heat down to low and simmer for two and a half hours, gently stirring occasionally and checking the level of liquids. (Do not let the beans dry out or get too thick.)  Stir in the cooked beef brisket. At this point, I check my beans for tenderness as depending on the freshness of the beans I find that the cooking time can be as short as two and a half hours and as long as four hours. When you're satisfied that the beans are done, salt and pepper to taste.

Serve these with chopped onions, jalapenos, shredded cheese (your choice), warm tortillas, red salsa, or just about anything else you want on top.  (I like a couple of big cheese enchiladas with them.)

I gotta go check on my beans.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Barbeque Controversy

Yes, I said what I said.  In “Barbeque” I expressed my opinion of my favorite form of barbeque and now I’m hearing back about it.  The responses from Tennessee, the Carolinas, Kansas City, and all points outside of Texas understood what I was talking about.  Barbeque is where you find it, and all of it (well, most of it) is worth trying, even if it is not your preferred style.  The problem I am having is with the Texans.  Why doesn’t that surprise me?

Texans are the most opinionated people to walk this earth, and that’s my opinion on the matter.  Texas is so big that it can be viewed as distinct regions for just about everything, food included.  Barbeque has so many regions and approaches in Texas that I always wonder just what people mean when they refer to ‘real Texas barbeque.’ 

A portion of my family comes from Shelby County in East Texas.  The last time I was there was in the late 1950’s, but I remember the pig being roasted over a pit dug in the ground and filled with burning coals.  When it was done, we cut it into chunks and served it with a vinegar/pepper sauce, home baked bread, and poke salad greens.  They called it barbeque. 

The next day we were invited to a neighboring farm where the pig was baked in a smoky wood-fired brick oven, and then chopped into tiny pieces and mixed with a thick tomato/mustard sauce and served with hamburger buns and cole slaw.  They called it barbeque.

One of my friends lived in Wichita Falls where they grilled steaks over a hot fire, and served it with slices of cantaloupe.  They called it barbeque.

Out near El Paso, I had lunch at a barbeque joint that served only chicken marinated in vinegar and chiles then tossed onto a smoky grill.  On the side were cheese enchiladas.  They called it barbeque.  Actually I don’t care what they called it as long as it came with cheese enchiladas.

At a friend’s home in Dalhart up in the panhandle, big chunks of beef were simmered in a tomato/chile broth, and then finished in the oven.  The broth was served as a soup.  They called it barbeque.

In San Antonio a restaurant I frequented served cabrito, tortillas, beans, rice and hot pickled carrots.  They called it barbeque.

A market in central Texas serves ‘hot guts’ (sausage) and calls it barbeque.  I could eat my weight in these things.

A family I know in Eagle Pass simmers big pork shoulders in a broth, and then smokes it directly over hot mesquite wood coals before slicing it and frying it in a skillet.  They top it with a thick ancho chile sauce and serve it with big ears of boiled corn.  To them it is called barbeque.

I’ve seen barbeque cooked in big smokers, on top of grills, in skillets, ovens, and slow-cookers.  And then there is the open pit.  This is more or less what my East Texas relatives were using, but I’ve seen some of these things that looked as though they were a city block long.  Maybe they were.  In the summer of 1967 I attended a Walter Jetton catered event northwest of Fort Worth where enough pigs, chickens, steers, and sausage were on the pit at one time to feed almost 3,000 people.  And this was not considered big by Walter Jetton standards.

This doesn’t begin to cover the many approaches Texans take to barbeque.  My preference is the central Texas German smoking style found in and around Lockhart, but if I am not in Lockhart or the surrounding area, I will definitely not go hungry. 

Once again, barbeque is where you find it.

Right now I live in California, and there are a few places advertising ‘real Texas barbeque.’  They have some interesting approaches, and I’m certain somewhere in Texas this is considered ‘real Texas barbeque,’ but this is California.  So why isn’t this ‘real California barbeque?’  Come to think of it, I see ‘real Carolina barbeque,’ ‘real Southern barbeque,’ ‘real Kansas City barbeque,’ ‘real Memphis barbeque,’ and a few other ‘real’ barbeques, but I’ve never seen ‘real California barbeque’ being advertised in California.

Before I travel down this road much farther, I must acknowledge Santa Maria barbeque.  Of course I’ve tried it, but I wasn’t impressed.  From my experience it is either an expensive steak burned over a hot red oak fire and served covered with ashes, or it is a tri-tip soaked in vinegar, coated with black pepper, burned over a hot red oak fire and served sliced and covered with ashes.  The taste in both cases was juicy over-smoked grit.  If this is ‘real California barbeque,’ no wonder they try to imitate other places.

I know I’m going to hear about this, but I think I’ll look into this a bit deeper.  It may take a while.  So much barbeque and only one of me.  I’d better get started.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Crappie

Crappie fishing can be big fun.  My Uncle Sam loved to fish and crappie was his “go to” fish when nothing else were biting.  He shared with me his secret hole one day, and it was everything he said it was when no other fish could be found in the entire lake.  Since he always saved it for the last resort so as not to be skunked, it was not overly fished, and each time we went there, the crappie were biting.

Sam was a man of pride (aren’t we all?), and he refused to return home without fish to brag about.  I didn’t know of this secret crappie hole for about a year after I started fishing with him, but that was because we had always caught enough fish to brag about.  Then one day it happened.  Even Sam couldn’t find a fish.  They were there, of course, but we spent hours at the best spots and couldn’t bring anything to the boat.  So he told me about his closely held secret.

At the north end of Eagle Mountain Lake near a place where the West Fork of the Trinity River made its entrance to the lake was an old collapsed wooden dock where Sam had me tie up the boat to one of the remaining pilings.  He refused to allow me to drop the anchor because it would spook the fish, so I went along with it.  He tied a small hook on his line and skewered a small grub on it.  Slowly he lowered it into the water and quickly he brought it back up with a decent crappie on it.  I followed his lead, and in about 45 minutes, we had enough fish to have a fish fry.

I was sworn to secrecy.  And I could not fish there unless he was with me.  During the next year, we went there only two or three more times, but once was just because Sam wanted to prove some point to another family member who wouldn’t get in the boat with him.  We headed straight to the crappie hole, and came back an hour later with a boatload of fish.  I didn’t ask Sam what he was trying to prove, nor did I ask who the family member was, and it didn’t matter.  Sam felt he proved his point, and that was good enough.

One day Sam refused to go fishing with me.  For two years we had fished at least twice a month, and most of the time it was three or four times each month.  Never before had he turned me down, and no one else would fish with him, so I was baffled by this.  He said something about having done it all, and the tide had turned, but I didn’t get it.  No other explanation was ever given.  Sam never went fishing again.

I began fishing elsewhere.  There were many lakes surrounding Fort Worth, and I believed I should try them out.  Besides, each time I returned to Eagle Mountain Lake to fish, my heart wasn’t in it.  I missed my fishing buddy.  As ornery as Sam was, he had become my friend and fishing mentor, and I couldn’t think about fishing that lake without him.  He would still talk fishing with me, and he would loan me specialized gear from time to time, but he never returned to the water with me or with anyone else.

The knowledge of fishing Sam passed on to me became the basis of successful fishing throughout my travels.  My job took me all over the U.S.A. as well as some other countries, and everywhere I went, my fishing rod and tackle box went with me.  At no time did I feel I couldn’t fish a new body of water due to lack of experience as a fisherman.  Maybe the fish were different from my home territory, and maybe the techniques varied a bit from what I knew, but I could hold my own with very little guidance.

I fished in several places most people can only dream of fishing, and I caught some very exciting fish.  Yes, sometimes I didn’t catch a thing, and I thought about that secret crappie hole, but I couldn’t go there.  I had promised Sam I wouldn’t go there without him, and he wasn’t fishing any more.  Not to mention the crappie hole was often more than a thousand miles away.

Whenever I was back in Fort Worth, I would always go visit Sam, and we would talk about fishing, and he always loved to talk about it, but he still wouldn’t go.  Then one day about a year after he stopped fishing Sam told me the crappie hole was mine.  I could go there anytime I wanted to and I didn’t need his permission.  As far as he knew, no one else was aware of it but him and me, and soon it would be just me.  That’s when I first noticed his age.  Sam had always been ageless to me.  I should have known better, but there are many things I don’t notice about a friend and age is one of those things.  Now Sam suddenly looked his age.

A month later I returned home from a business trip to discover Sam had passed away, and I had missed the funeral by a few hours.  I grabbed my fishing gear, pushed a boat into the water and headed straight to the crappie hole.  That afternoon I caught at least 75 fish and probably many more.  I took them home, cleaned them and put them into the freezer, and I never again fished Eagle Mountain Lake.  It had been a crappie day.