Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Texas Goats

My family were basically omnivores.  We farmed much of the veggies we ate, and we raised a lot of chickens for the table.  One of my grandfathers almost always had a calf growing fat for the freezer, and pork was occasionally on our plates, although not very often.  We weren’t afraid to eat what we had, because if we didn’t eat it, we didn’t eat.  But we didn’t have much contact with goats.

I was in my early twenties when I first went hunting deer with a friend in south Texas.  There were whitetail everywhere, and we each had our deer by the end of day two.  We took them to a butcher in Freer and hanging in the shop were several dressed out goats.

I sometimes ask really stupid questions, such as “What’re those things?” and “What’cha do with ‘em?”

About two hours later my friend Marty was giving me instructions in goat cooking.  It took the entire night, but by sunup we were ready to feast on goat chili, barbequed goat, baked goat, goat stew, goat carne guisida (not the same thing as goat stew or goat chili), goat steaks, and fresh goat sausage.  Six goats make for a lot of cooking, but Marty’s family, and the ranch hands were all eager to dig in.

While we were working in the big ranch kitchen, Marty began telling me about the real importance of the goat in Texas.  It seems that goats were one of the cheapest things a person could eat, and after the trail drives began in earnest in the late 1860’s, no one really wanted to eat their beeves when goat was so readily available.  The beef was worth money.  Real cash.  A goat was worth almost nothing, but it was quite edible.

He also mentioned that his roots were in San Antonio, where for well over two hundred years his family had operated eateries of various kinds.  One of his great grandmothers and her two sisters had sold chili in one of the plazas in front of their small café.  Food was prepared in the café’s kitchen and brought out in the evening to a big table where it would be dished up to the rich and poor alike.  Then she would sit down on a stool and play her guitar while everyone ate their goat chili.  The sisters never served beef, and rarely served pork or chicken.  Goat was the meat of choice for the chili pot.

Without having to think too hard about it, I realize one beef would feed a handful of cowboys for several days, but without refrigeration, most of the beef had to be made into jerky.  For fresh meat on a more consistent basis, goat was the answer.  It was smaller, cheaper, and quite tasty.  Very little, if any, was left over after a few hungry cowboys or vaqueros left the chuck wagon.

I knew about cabrito that was served in some of the restaurants in Texas, but I always thought it was some kind of “foreign food.”  At least it was foreign to me.  That morning I tasted my first goat.  It was goat chili on top of a fried egg with tortillas, onions, and queso fresco.  Very good.  Then I proceeded to eat my way through a little of everything else we had prepared.  I left the table a changed man.

A few weeks later I was in San Angelo on business, and there was a goat auction taking place that day.  I wandered over there and watched for a short while, but auctions aren’t my thing.  However, I spoke with a few of the men there about what they do with all those goats.  The answer was almost always the same.  Food.

I never knew just how important the goat was to Texans.  Or just how tasty goat is.  It may well be one of the best-kept secrets in the state.  Apparently all the goat eaters weren’t sharing their knowledge with anyone else.

There are as many ways to prepare goat as there are ways to cook beef or pork or chicken.  Here is one of my favorites.

Goat Chili
Serves 6.

    3 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
    2 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded 
    1 negro chiles, stemmed and seeded 
    1 dried chipotle chile
    Boiling water, to cover
    1 tablespoon chili powder
    1 tablespoon smoked paprika 
    1 tablespoon toasted and crushed coriander seeds 
    1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons ground cumin
    1 teaspoon dried oregano
    1 teaspoon minced fresh red jalapeno or serrano chile
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
    1 pound lean ground goat meat
    3 pounds cubed goat meat
    3 slices unsmoked bacon, chopped
    Canola oil as needed
    3 tablespoons all purpose flour
    2 medium onions, chopped
    1 cup or more Shiner Bock beer, or your choice, light or dark
    2 cups veal or chicken stock, or goat stock if you have it available
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
    Hot pepper sauce                                               

Chop or tear the chiles into small pieces (under 1 inch), and place in a small pan or bowl.  Cover with boiling water and allow to sit covered with a lid for 30 to 45 minutes.  Drain, but save the liquid.

Place the chiles, chili powder, paprika, coriander seeds, cumin, oregano, jalapeno, and garlic in a blender and cover with the soaking liquid.  Blend until smooth.  Add about 2 teaspoons salt and 3 or 4 big grinds of black pepper to the puree and blend another 15 seconds.  Pour the puree over the cubed goat in a glass bowl, stir to coat, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.

Remove the goat mixture from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature for about 1 hour.  Sprinkle the flour over the goat, and stir to mix well.

In a 10- to 12-inch skillet, cook the bacon to render the fat.  Remove the bacon to a platter.  Add about 1 tablespoon canola oil to the skillet and brown the ground goat meat, breaking up any clumps with the back of a spoon.  Remove the browned goat to the platter with the bacon.  Add 2 tablespoons canola oil to the skillet.  Cook the cubed goat over medium-high heat until browned all over, working in batches if necessary.  Add canola oil as needed.  Remove the browned goat to the platter with the bacon.

Turn the heat down to medium low and sauté the onions until soft.  Raise the heat to medium-high, and add the beer.  Bring to a boil and reduce to about 1/2 to 2/3 cup.  Pour in the veal stock and heat to a simmer for about 10 minutes.

Pour into a stockpot, add the meat from the platter and bring to a simmer for 6 to 8 hours.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.  When cooked, remove a small portion and taste for seasonings.  Add additional salt, pepper, and hot sauce as needed.

This recipe can also be finished in a slow cooker.  Reduce the onion/beer/stock mixture in the skillet by about one-fourth, and then pour the onion/beer/stock mixture into the cooker and add the meat.  Cover and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours, or on high 4 to 4 1/2 hours.

Serve with warm tortillas, queso fresco, chopped onions, and hot sauce.  And maybe a couple of big cheese enchiladas.

You’ll never look at a goat the same way again.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The West Fork

The San Gabriel River is in the Los Angeles Forest area of the San Gabriel Mountains just north of the town of Azusa.  It consists of three main forks—East Fork, North Fork, and West Fork—along with several other creeks and small rivers as tributaries.  I’ve never fished the North Fork, and I have rarely heard of anyone who has done so, but I have fished both the East and West Forks of the river, and I managed to find trout in each one.
The San Gabriel River completes its journey just a mile from where I live, emptying its waters into the Pacific Ocean after a winding through a number of Southern California cities.  The waters are dammed into reservoirs just before exiting the mountains, trapped in flood control projects along the side of a freeway, channeled through concrete troughs, and used to provide steam for electrical plants before it finally finds rest in the ocean.  But that’s just part of the story.
Along the East Fork is a road for a few miles from where one can easily reach the water for some recreational fishing.  Where the road ends, a person can hike along a trail above the water (occasionally crossing it) for a few more miles before arriving at the Bridge to Nowhere.  This oddity was constructed in the 1930’s for a road that was never built, and there it stands today as a launching place for bungee jumpers.
The fishing along the East Fork is interesting.  From the end of the road to the Bridge to Nowhere, the fishing is acceptable at times, but a bit difficult to reach, and for someone not in good shape (yours truly) the fishing is better elsewhere.   From the end of the road and westward, the East Fork has other fishing problems.  First are the gold miners.  They are somewhat touchy about someone jumping their claim, and distance from these unique persons is prudent.  The other main problem is the, um, ‘city wildlife.’  These critters have no regard for anyone else and don’t mind jumping into the water right in front of a fisherman.  And the trash.  And the dirty diapers.  And the graffiti.  There are fish in the waters, and they can be caught, but…
This leaves the West Fork.  At the main road, the side road to the West Fork is gated to prevent traffic along this fragile ecosystem.  It’s okay to hike or bike in, but motorized traffic is limited to service vehicles or, with permits, handicap access.  About one mile is the maximum the ‘city wildlife’ is willing to travel on foot, so for those individuals able to hike, bike, or gain handicap access, the upper reaches of this stream can be a delight to fish.
There are four handicap access ramps leading down to the river making access to the water very simple; however along most of the water, the access is rarely difficult.  The flow of the water is dependent upon the release rate from the dam at the Cogswell Reservoir just up stream (which means this is a tail water fishery), but rarely is the water too high or too fast to provide a good time for a fisherman.  The trout seem to range in size up to twelve or thirteen inches, but most are in the four to seven inch category.  Still, they are trout, and they are fun to catch.
I’ve been on the West Fork several times, and I look forward to going back again soon.  This is one of the few waters accessible from Southern California where one can still fish with a degree of solitude.  I’m certain the ‘city wildlife’ have made it back this far on occasion.  I’ve seen the scars where the graffiti on the rocks has been painted out or scrubbed off, and I’ve heard of vandalism to Forest Service signage, but the critters have been out of my line of sight.  And it’s been quite.