Friday, July 18, 2014

Breakfast

To a Texan the only way to start a day is by attacking a substantial breakfast.  I’m not talking about a leisurely conversation with a cup of coffee and a roll, I’m talking about a literal attack against a formidable opponent.  It could also be called ‘striving toward a goal,’ or ‘man vs. food,’ or ‘a winning attitude.’  It could be.  But that would be a Texas-sized understatement.  But any way you look at it, breakfast in Texas is not for wimps.

A simple breakfast is just a couple of eggs, a chicken fried steak or two, biscuits and gravy, and some home fries.  Grits may or may not be included, just keep them off my plate.  But it’s not too unusual to see the addition of bacon, ham, fried catfish, enchiladas, beefsteak, pork chops, and fruit pies.  Beans, rice, and tortillas are a given.  French fries are always a welcomed change from home fries, and one could easily include just about anything else found on a Tex-Mex menu from tamales to carne asada.  Even a barbeque menu makes a good breakfast.  Coffee is no-brainer, and I’ve been asked more than once at a restaurant if I wanted a beer.  Once I was brought a shot of tequila with my orange juice.  Yes!!  That’s what I’m talking about!

It’s a wonder that Texans aren’t as big as the state, or at least the region of abode, but hard work is the norm and the calories are put to good use.  Life on the farms and ranches starts early and isn’t over until the sun is long gone.  Every day.  Some of the larger spreads have two breakfasts.  The first one is just enough to get started gathering eggs or other small chores.  Then comes the big one.  After that, it’s off to the hard work for five or six hours before the next meal arrives.

After I began working and traveling for a company in the late ‘sixties, I discovered breakfast isn’t the same in other parts of the country.  In Denver I encountered something called a ‘quiche.’  Basically it was just a small slice of baked scrambled eggs in a pie shell with a few things such as onions, cheese and spinach thrown in.  After eating two full breakfasts of these things, I was still hungry.

New York was some fish on a piece of bread shaped like a doughnut.  It took me a few years to appreciate the bagel, but it’s still just fish on a piece of bread.

Many of the southern states served grits with some substantial sides such as shrimp or ham and bacon and eggs.  Not too bad, but not enough, and I’m not a fan of grits anyway.

California served juice and salad, or just a cinnamon roll.  Idaho served potatoes and eggs (more please).  Wisconsin served eggs and cheese with a sausage (a very good sausage).  Chicago was pastry and weak coffee.  A restaurant in Vermont served unlimited pancakes with maple syrup.  The main problem was the use of sawdust instead of flour to make the pancakes.  Many places had a good, but rather small, breakfast.  And just as many places served a large inedible breakfast.

In St. Louis I encountered a pork steak for breakfast.  It came with three eggs, biscuits and gravy, home fries, a big slice of ham and some sausage links.  I was just about to declare St. Louis a part of Texas when I discovered this was being served family style to the three of us at the table.  Oh, well.

I found a place near Oklahoma City that served a fantastic breakfast.  It was a truck stop cafĂ© with seating for about 30 or so, but the parking area was a bit small, and about 20 trucks would fill it up.  Even so, the place always had people standing outside the door waiting to get in.  I was driving by one morning when several of the truckers were leaving, so I took advantage of the open parking and stopped in.  It was the right thing to do.

The waitress looked at me for about 3 seconds, and then said, “Fort Worth, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll get your breakfast.  Meanwhile, coffee’s over there.  Help yourself.”

I got my coffee and sat back down before I realized I hadn’t even ordered my breakfast.  But it didn’t matter.  Within a couple of minutes the biscuits and gravy arrived with a big chicken fried steak.  Two more minutes and I had three eggs over easy with home fries.  I was swallowing the last bite of the chicken fried steak when a plate of ham, bacon and sausages arrived, along with more biscuits and gravy and two more eggs.  She came back by with a bowl of grits, but before she set them down, she looked at me for a moment, and then walked away with the bowl.  She returned with two big cheese enchiladas and a wedge of apple pie.  (How did she know?)

“I’m sorry, but we’re out of apricot pie.  Hope the apple is okay.”

“Perfect.”

There were a few other ‘perfect’ breakfasts I found outside of Texas, and they were mostly at truck stops or out of the way cafes.  Not every perfect breakfast came with enchiladas and pie, but every one of them was good and in quantity.

A recipe for a Texas breakfast menu is not an easy thing to do, but here is a recipe for one of my favorite inclusions in a Texas breakfast.  Just remember, every breakfast is better with a couple of big cheese enchiladas.

Machaca con Huevos
Serves 4 to 6.

         Marinade:                                                 
    1 tablespoon A-1 Steak Sauce
    1 tablespoon soy sauce
    2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce                                   
    Juice of 4 to 5 limes
    Juice of 1 large orange
    1 chipotle chile in adobo, minced
    1 teaspoon adobo sauce                                              
    4 cloves garlic, chopped                                       
    1 teaspoon ground cumin                                        
    1 teaspoon chili powder mix                                        
    1/2 teaspoon dried crushed oregano                             
    1/2 teaspoon salt                                              
    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper                        
    1/2 cup olive oil                                              
         Machaca:                                                  
    3 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 4 to 6 pieces     
    1 large red onion, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced across  
    1 large red or green bell pepper, sliced                       
    4 cloves garlic, chopped                                       
    1 (10-ounce) can tomatoes with chiles, diced                  
    1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles                             
    1/2 cup beef stock                                             
    1 tablespoon dried crushed oregano                             
    1 tablespoon ground cumin                                       
    1 teaspoon Mexican hot pepper sauce such as Cholula or Tapatio                                     
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper                    
    Olive oil for the pan                                          

    8 large eggs, lightly beaten  
    1 small red onion, chopped
    2 New Mexico or Anaheim green chiles (preferably Hatch chiles)
    Unsalted butter
    3 plum tomatoes, chopped
    3 cups dried Machaca
    chopped cilantro
    flour tortillas

Marinade and Machaca:
Whisk all the marinade ingredients together.  Pierce the meat deeply all over with a sharp fork, then place the beef chunks into the marinade.  Cover and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

Remove meat from the marinade, drain, and pat dry.  Discard the marinade.  Allow the meat to sit, covered, for about 45 to 60 minutes to bring to room temperature. 

In a large heavy pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.  Sear the meat well on all sides, in batches so as not to crowd them.  Remove the meat as it is browned and set aside.  When all of the pieces are browned, pour out the accumulated fat in the pot leaving a layer of drippings on the bottom of the pot.  Bring the pot back up to a medium heat, add in the onion, peppers, and garlic. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes to soften. 

Add the tomatoes, broth, pepper sauce and spices, and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot to release all the browned bits.  When it comes to a boil, place the beef chunks back in and push down until each piece is submerged, and then lower the heat to bring down to a low simmer.  Simmer, covered, for a few hours.  Stir from time to time, but keep the heat as low as possible and still simmer.

After 2 ½ to 3 hours the meat should be fall-apart tender. Lift the meat out of the sauce, let cool for about 15 minutes, and then using two forks shred the beef along the grain.  Return some of the meat back into the sauce in the pan and cook some more to reduce and thicken the sauce.  This is perfect for burrito or enchilada filling, or served with rice and beans.  But reserve at least half of the meat to make the dried machaca.

Spread the shredded meat in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Bake in a 250F oven for 20 minutes.  Check after 20 minutes. The meat should be dry to the touch with no accumulated moisture beneath.  If not, dry an additional 10 minutes.  Alternatively, the beef can be dried on top of the stove using a cast-iron skillet over medium low heat.  Stir often.

Machaca con Huevos:
Saute the onion and peppers in butter, and when they have softened, add in the chopped tomato and machaca.  When hot, remove from the pan, and then on medium heat cook scrambled eggs until almost done.  Stir in the machaca and tomato mixture.  Garnish with cilantro. Serve with hot flour or corn tortillas.

As always, breakfast is best served with a couple of big cheese enchiladas, but I’ve said this before.

Since I moved away from Texas I don’t hear much about machaca anymore, and I don’t know why this is so.  I occasionally find it in a restaurant in a chimichanga, or a burrito, but I can’t count on getting my machaca fix very often unless I make it myself.  This is the recipe I’ve been using for a very long time, and as with most good eats, it isn’t fast food.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ice Fishing

I like warm weather.  Today is July 4th, and it’s warm outside.  Actually, it’s almost hot, but that’s okay.  I can always find a cool spot if I need it, but I can never seem to find a way to get warm when it’s cold outside.

I’ve lived most of my life in places like Texas, southern California, and Arizona, and I have rarely allowed myself to experience the cold.  At various times circumstances dictated a trip to cold country, but a shivering body and chattering teeth are not my favorite forms of exercise.  I think it is great that some persons like to ski, or ice skate, or snowboard.  I think it is great that some persons ride snowmobiles and some persons ride bobsleds.  I think it is great that Santa lives at the North Pole.  I think it is great that I live where it is warm.

In Fort Worth the temperature would occasionally drop below freezing in the winter and a reading of ‘zero’ was not overly unusual, but warmer days were never far off.  In Arizona cold nights were not uncommon, but warm days were expected.  And I’ve never seen snow in Long Beach, CA. 

My first experience with extreme cold was on a business trip to Great Falls, Montana.  I left Dallas in 70-degree weather and landed in Great Falls in minus 40-degree weather.  I had on a heavy coat, but it wasn’t enough.  When I stepped off the plane, I could instantly feel my various parts freezing.  Or maybe the problem was that I couldn’t feel my various parts freezing.  My parts were growing numb very fast.  I wore a handlebar mustache in those days, and when I placed my hand over my face to protect it from the weather, I broke off one side of my mustache.  It had instantly frozen.  So I did the only thing that made sense at the time—I broke off the other side.  Oh, well.

I rented a car that had a block heater.  At my motel I could park just outside my door and plug in the car to an electrical outlet to keep the engine block warm without running the car all night.  Cool.  (Maybe that was the wrong expression.)  I parked the car and went inside to get the extension cord the motel provided.  When I tossed it out of the door to uncoil it, the cord shattered in mid-toss.  It froze as fast as my mustache.  I guess that was the reason the motel had about a dozen extension cords in my room.

The following morning I met with the manager of the store I was visiting, and all he could do was stare at my face.  Finally I asked him if something was wrong.

“It’s your mustache.  Why is it so lopsided?  And your hair is a different length on each side.  Is this a new trend that hasn’t reached Montana yet?”

I knew my mustache had a problem, but my hair?  Apparently I had managed to break off a large portion of my hair on the way to the store that morning.  I wanted to go home.

On a business trip to Minnesota, I was talked into some ice fishing.  The temperature was only about 10 below so I wasn’t too worried about my newly re-grown mustache, but it was still very cold.  Leonard, the store manager, assured me we would be quite comfortable.  He had an ice hut.  I didn’t understand exactly what I was getting into, but I was reluctantly willing to give it a try.

About 5am we were standing at the edge of a frozen lake with a sled full of our gear.  Maybe I should say that it was all Leonard’s gear.  I owned absolutely nothing suited for this adventure.  In the dark distance I could see a number of cabin-like structures sitting out on the ice and most of them had smoke emanating from a pipe extending through the roof.  We were going out to the red one.  Wait, they were all red, but Leonard knew exactly which one was his.

I had never walked very far on ice before, but it wasn’t as difficult as I had supposed it would be.  Visions of slipping and sliding and falling were going through my brain, but nothing like that happened.  I just walked normally, and together we pulled the sled behind us to Leonard’s ice hut where a sign on the door identified him as the owner.

Inside we were sheltered from the elements to a degree.  The hut was about six feet wide and about eight feet long and had a wooden floor in it with a trap door that could be lifted up to expose the ice underneath.  There was a small cast iron stove at one end in which Leonard started a wood fire.  Soon there was a coffee pot on top of the stove and we were getting ready to fish.

The first thing to do was to open the trap door and cut a hole in the ice.  Leonard used an auger and a metal spade to accomplish this, and he threw the excess ice into a bucket and then he then tossed the contents out of the door.  He opened a small box and removed from it some heavy fishing line with a leader and a lure of some kind attached to the end.  Into the hole he dropped the lure and lowered the line about 10 feet.  And he sat there holding that line.  Occasionally Leonard would raise and lower the line a few inches, but mostly he sat there.  Finally I asked him what came next.

“Oh, well, uh, not much unless a fish bites.  Sometimes we need to scoop out the ice from the hole.  It re-freezes quickly.”  Leonard was happy, but I was bored—and cold.

It didn’t take me long to realize that only one person fished at a time, and Leonard was doing the fishing.  My job was to sit quietly, sip coffee, and keep the fire in the stove going.  After an hour of so of this, Leonard handed me the line so I could take a turn “fishing.”  No sooner than I had taken the line, a fish took the lure.

It wasn’t a big fish, although it did require some effort to retrieve.  I’ve never been much for hand line fishing, but when attempting it with cold hands and heavy gloves, it becomes rather difficult.  I couldn’t feel the fishing line through the gloves.  In fact, I couldn’t feel the inside of my gloves with my cold hands.  But I managed to get the fish up through the hole and into the cabin.  It wiggled for about ten seconds before freezing, and after I removed the lure, the fish was tossed into the corner of the cabin.  We didn’t need an ice chest—we were sitting in a freezer.

Then Leonard took over the fishing duties again, and I can honestly say I was glad he did.  I believe I could find more enjoyment by watching paint dry.  I was cold, I was bored, I was cold.  I threw more wood into the stove, poured another cup of coffee, and I waited.  About 10am I began to wonder what was going on outside the hut.  I opened the door to see snow falling and several men pulling their sleds back toward the edge of the lake.  Maybe it was time to go.

Leonard laughed at the idea.  “Wimps!  They’re just fair weather fishermen.  Afraid of a little snow.”  Apparently we weren’t going to go.

At last Leonard caught a fish and tossed it over with the other one.  I took the line when he handed it back to me, and I dropped the lure back into the hole.  And I sat there with Leonard looking at me as though he was the happiest man on this earth.  Maybe he was.  He was certainly happier than me.

It was well into the afternoon when I caught another fish, and I thought we would go home at this point, but I was incorrect about this.  Leonard wanted to give it another try.  I opened the door again to look out at the snow and could see little more than a gray/white fog.  Now I was starting to worry.  I actually had thoughts of abandoning this effort and trying to find my own way back to the truck.  But, 1) I didn’t have a clue where the truck was, and 2) Leonard had the keys.  I closed the door, threw some wood into the stove, poured another cup of coffee, and sat down.

Leonard caught his second fish about 5:30 and said that was probably about all the fish were going to pull out of there today.  At last he was going home.  We packed our things (including the four fish) onto the sled and started off into the now very dark fog.  With unerring accuracy we walked to the truck and within an hour I was back in my hotel room where it was warm.  Warm.

I was to visit Leonard’s store several more times over the next few years, but always in the summer.  He would constantly remind me of the great time we experienced ice fishing, and he would never forget to invite me back; however, for some strange reason, my visits to his store were always in the summer.