The Victual Files: Casa Mañana

Across the high plains of north Texas sits dusty Wichita Falls. You may know the city from the giant tornado that hit it in the early 80’s or because the Dallas Cowboys held training camp there or the world renowned Hotter ‘N Hell 100 bike race that takes place in the hottest part of August every year. You may not know the city at all…there are only about 100k people that live there at one time, however the city is home to Sheppard Air Force base so there are quite a few of our brave servicemen and women who have spent some time there at some point over the last 60 years.

Either by bike or plane, a trip to Wichita Falls can be a bit underwhelming. At one time the city was a bustling boom town, and was the “big city” destination in The Last Picture Show that was set in Archer City, Texas. However, now it can seem like a city that is hanging on by a thread to past glory. Depending on when you go, the downtown can seem almost like a ghost town. There are gorgeous buildings down there, but the style harkens back to a time when people around the country thought all Texans looked and acted like the characters on the tv show Dallas.

With that long-winded intro, let me say that love to go to downtown Wichita Falls. There’s a great kitchen supply store there, and you can usually catch some pretty unique events at the Kay Yeager Coliseum/Multi-Purpose Event Center (MPEC). As well, one of the better steaks in all of north Texas resides at McBride’s Land and Cattle right at the corner of 6th and Scott. However, the greatest joy in Wichita Falls comes from a visit to Casa Mañana, the “Home of the Red Taco”.

Confused? Yeah…just hang on. This is a good ‘un.

If you don’t know what you are looking for, you will miss it. It’s on a street next to a shoeshine place that I’m not sure is still open, and that’s next to a store that I’m pretty sure is closed also. Look for the red door. On the inside, it looks like a simple Mexican food joint you can find in any strip mall. If you are looking for authentic Mexican food, then you are going to be disappointed. I’m not really sure exactly how you’d describe this food other than being authentic Wichita Falls. It’s definitely TexMex but it’s unique.

The menu is about what you’d expect from any other Mexican food place, complete with the stereotypical sleepy Mexican picture and random bullfighting image.

However, right on the inside cover at the bottom, you notice something very telling: Home of the Original “Red Taco”. Red taco? Oh, hell yeah. Red Taco.

Ask anyone from the area about the Red Taco and you’ll see their eyes light up. I’ll get there in a sec. First…

Oh, yeah…there’s a sombrero…

…and the vexing young Alicia, our server for the evening. Ask for her.

They start you out with a nice cold beverage and a bowl of chips. These chips are as thick as sheet metal and are extremely crisp and tasty. Along with…

…some really tasty salsa, it’s a great way to start this meal. The chips are really good, but that’s only the beginning of this unique experience. Every table gets a bowl of queso. Check this stuff out:

Yeah, it’s kinda orange. The first time I ate at Casa Mañana I made a funny face when they brought this stuff out. Don’t be scared, though. The queso is thick and it is good.

It hangs on those chips. The next unique item comes in a plastic bottle.

You might have to ask for a bottle, but it’s worth it. They call it “red wine sauce”. I have no idea what it is…it might just be catalina dressing, but it’s sweet and tangy with the slightest bit of spice. You squirt it out like ketchup right on the chips, and the locals tear into it like lions.

Weird, huh? Weird but delicious. Now then…let’s talk about those Red Tacos. You can get the Taco Plate, which is just two red tacos.

No rice, no beans. Just tacos. And onion rings (what?).  What’s so special about them, though? Well, first of all they are red. That’s easy to do with food coloring. However, the texture is soft yet crispy.

Now, the tacos are what these guys are known for, but I’m here for the star of the menu: the Casa Relleños, a plate full of chile relleños. It just so happens that the Casa Rellenos comes with a Red Taco to start along with a big ol’ dollop of guacamole. So, let’s talk about these tacos to start off.

The flavor is hardcore corn, but there’s some toothiness to it.

They are stuffed with meat, cheese, and lettuce. And folded over perfectly.

They are chewy, but when you bite into them you get a snap. I’ve postulated that they make these with extra lard in the masa but I have no earthly idea how they do this. However they do it, it’s something that you’ll crave after you have it the first time.

The first few bites of the experience is something you want to savor (claw and antlers to RC Slocum). Get crazy and squeeze a little of that Red Wine sauce.

Great warm-up to the main event:

The chile relleños. Two peppers stuffed with creamy cheese and topped with tomato ranchero sauce and tons of cheddar. No fancy garnish…just a slice of onion and jalepeño. Let the food speak for itself.

The rice is perfect, with a taste of spice but still fluffy and al dente. Same goes for the beans:

Perfect consistency, with a starchy texture but not creamed to the point where it feels like bean dip on your tongue. The plates are served in the traditional Tex-Mex style of being so hot that it will burn the bones in your fingers if you touch it when it’s first served. Somehow, the waitresses can hold them without a towel, though. Never have been able to figure out how they get used to it.

Cutting into the peppers yields melted cheese that you’ll have to wrap around the fork using your knife. The breading is light and crisp, even under the tomatoey ranchero sauce. At home, I’d try to replicate this with an egg white base, but this is done so well. They don’t try to overcomplicate the stuffing…just cheese, but that’s all you need.

You come to Beef Country, you expect a good steak. I can find you a good steak in a few places. However, if you want a meal that is unique and will be like nothing you can find anywhere else, head up north to Casa Mañana in Wichita Falls.

Burgers with Bacon and Blue Cheese (The Great BBB)

Everyone loves a burger…everyone (with the exception of my wife) loves it more when it has bacon and blue cheese on it.

There are only two cooking methods for a burger: flat top or grill. The both have their merits. Today we are cooking on the grill. Your George Foreman grill is not a grill. Return it.

Start with good ground beef.

Scratch that…start with a drink:

Then, move to the ground beef.

Season well with smoked paprika, some shots of cayenne, and Cavender’s Greek Seasoning.

Form a patty. I use this press for consistency.

Cook the bacon. Save the fat.

Fire up the grill. When the grill is hot, grill the buns. Use good buns…seriously. You need to put some fat on the buns beforehand. You can use butter or bacon fat (from the bacon you just made). As I am very health conscious, I use both.

When the buns are done grill the burgers. A little extra seasoning on the burgers at this point is a good idea.

Leave them alone on the grill…play with them too much and they will fall apart.

Get your blue cheese.

Remove the burgers from the grill (medium is perfect).

Turn on your oven’s broiler.

Assemble the burgers (bun, burger, bacon, blue cheese) on a baking sheet.

Place them under the broiler until the cheese is melted.

Garnish and consume with the beverage of your choice.

The Victual Files: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill

One of my favorite things in life to do is to go to a small town and check out the local eatin’ joints. Restaurants in small towns define the character of the town itself in so many ways. How many towns to do you know of only because there’s a restaurant there that serves good BBQ or chicken fried steak or even a great hamburger? Out here in Arcadia, it’s commonplace for us to take trips SPECIFICALLY based on eating something we’ve heard about.

So, we decided to put together a side project for the Arcadian Experience…we took a map and drew a 100m circle on it, and decided that we are going to covertly go into restaurants within that circle in north Texas and post our thoughts about the dishes and overall experience.  We call this new project:  The Victual Files, prounouced “vittle files”.  We are Victualphiles working on the Victual Files.  Catchy, campy, and all ours.

This isn’t a chance to slam restaurants or to give harsh criticism for their food. Rather, it’s a chance for us to share a little piece of life in those towns and the love and care they put into their food. Disclaimer: even though we will focus on the 100m radius, we will probably do this for any other restaurant we might venture into anywhere we go. It’s our site, our project, our rules.  Another disclaimer: I seriously need to update my iPhone to a new version.  The camera on this thing sucks to high holy hell.  Sorry in advance for the blurry pictures.

I’m going to start with one of my favorite places to eat: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill. Owners Marlene and Ben Horst started this restaurant in 1999 and both still work there daily. When you walk in, the first thing you notice is that you’ve stepped back in time…an anachronism to a “simpler” life when sodas came from jerks and green was a much softer hue. From the outside, you see the sign and the awning that immediately give you an idea what to expect on the inside.

When you step in, TBC doesn’t disappoint. From the floors to the lights to the tables, this is as authentic as you get in a small town. One of Ben’s trophies even hangs on the wall right next to the old Dr. Pepper machine (although, the modern stereo on top of the Dr. Pepper machine might not be all that authentic).

Above the service area, Marlene writes her daily specials on a large white board. One of my favorites, the crawfish etouffee, is running today for the last time this season. It happens that her son and daughter-in-law live down in Lafayette, LA, so she’s got a little Cajun tint to her. From time to time, Marlene and Ben will have a crawfish boil dinner. I love crawfish anyway, but they make it BYOB so you can bring your cooler in and have some tasty mudbug that they cook in the alley behind the store.

The quaintness of TBC is striking. From the colors on the walls to the ceiling tiles and light fixtures…

…this place makes you want to sit down and have a nice lunch in the middle of the day. Oh, but wait…my favorite part of the entire place…

It’s this bar. I’ve been literally BEGGING Marlene and Ben to rebuild the foot bar that goes underneath the stools so I can eat up there. I tried it one day, but the stools are just long enough that you can’t get enough leverage w/o sliding off. If there’s any critique I have of TBC is that I can’t sit at the bar and eat lunch.

Above the bar:

If Tom’s peanut bar doesn’t scream “old timey”, I don’t know what does. What’s that you say? Old Dr. Pepper and Coke stuff say “old timey”? Well, ok, they’ve got that, too.

I love sitting in the booths along the mirrored wall across from the bar. They bring out the tea, and keep it flowing. A big cup of Texas sweet tea is a great way to start out lunch.

When I go to TBC, I don’t even have to order. They know that I’m there for the French Dip. I love a French Dip in the first place, but the FD at TBC is my favorite. It’s not too stuffy and not all that complicated. Just a nice hoagie roll, some melty cheese, and tasty beef consommé to dip the sandwich in. Marlene’s hoagie bun is this delicious chewy bread that holds together so well when you dip it. A lot of FD’s will have a yeasty bread, but falls apart. This doesn’t do that…it stays nice and gummy, with lots of yummy gluten to hold it together.  Sorry to my celiac-suffering friends.

There are lots of other things on the TBC menu that are good as well. They have other sandwiches, special hot lunches (again, the etouffee is remarkable; the Cajun catfish is our minister’s favorite. We call him “Rev. Awesome”). Sometimes I’ll throw them a curve and order something different, but if I’m treating myself it’s the French Dip all the way.

If you order a sandwich at TBC you get choices, mainly what sort of chip you want and if you want a pickle. Nothing overly complicated…it’s either Sun Chips or Ruffles, and the pickle is just a clean, crisp deli pickle.

Let’s talk about pickles for a second. I love pickles, and not just pickled cucumbers. Pickled okra, pickled green beans, pickled eggs (Pedigree White Trash)…I love pickles. Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor offers you two types of pickles with your sandwich: old pickle or new pickle. The difference is how long they’ve been in a jar. (For the record…Zingerman’s is the best deli I’ve ever been in.  The reuben there might be the best sandwich alive.)  I’d love to see some homemade pickles make their way to a menu near me here in Arcadia, but that’s a big order and a lot of work. “Who has time to make pickles?” one might say. Not me, which is why I want someone else to make some pickles. I digress…

My order: French Dip, Ruffles, pickle. Sweet tea. That’s all I need in this world.

Look at that cheese melting out of the sandwich. You get a healthy stack of roast beef, a decent ramekin of dip, and a good handful of chips. Luckily for me, Ben has big hands. And now I feel kinda awkward…

A closer look at that cheese oozing out…

Take that little monster and hold her head underwater for a bit…

Then let her up for a breath before you devour her…

And that’s a helluva lunch. I’ll slowly walk thru this sandwich…if I don’t have a good 20min to eat once I get my plate, I won’t go in the first place. No need to rush, and no need to rush the experience. As a matter of fact, I’ll take those plain ol’ chips and dunk them in the dip, too.

As a creature of habit, I have places I go eat for specific things, and at some point I’ll cover some of them in the Victual Files digest. I can’t think of a better place to start, though, than at Marlene’s.

Marlene’s @ The Big Chill in Graham, Texas…open M-Sat for breakfast and lunch.  Breakfast at Marlene’s is suberb as well.  Do yourself a favor and go give Marlene and Ben a try.

The Best Soup I’ve Ever Tasted

I love soup, and when the weather starts turning cool I try to eat soup as often as possible. A lot of people will choose the salad when given the choice, but I often go with the soup as a first course, especially if it’s all made from scratch.

My three favorite soups:

3) Cream of Artichoke soup at  The Messina Hof Vintage House in Bryan, Texas. The restaurant there is hit or miss, but the cream of artichoke will change your life.

2) Red Chicken Curry at Samui Thai in Plano, Texas. I judge thai food joints based on their curry, and Samui always is rock solid.  The bamboo shoots and aubergine are incredible.  I’m not sure if you can really count this as a soup, but it’s my list so I make the rules.

1) Chicken and Mushroom soup. Right here, right now. Buckle up.

Here is the ingredient list (for the most part):

Make a classic mirepoix, which is diced onion, celery, and carrot. I cut these in random sizes for texture. Melt 3tblsn unsalted butter and then throw in the mirepoix and salt. Caution: you are going to add a lot of salt to this dish, but you want to do a little as you go. The salt will help reduce the vege.

Once the carrots start getting soft, add a bunch of garlic. I did four cloves here, but you could go with more if you are a garlic geek. Keep it moving so it doesn’t burn. We are going to use three types of mushrooms here: shitake, oyster, and plain ol’ white button mushrooms, all sliced in a rough chop. Clean the mushrooms WITHOUT water (rub them down w/a towel to remove the dirt). Once you get them sliced, toss them in. Shitake:

Oyster:

Button:

And into the pot with more salt. The shitake have this great beefy taste, the oyster a buttery chewy taste, and the buttons are just a great all around mushroom. If the vege start to look dry, add a little bit of olive oil. It should look like this:

When the mushrooms all start looking soft, add a tspn of red curry paste.

This is what I use. Now, it’s not a thai dish, but we do want a bit of the thai spice that it’s hard to combine with anything other than the paste.

Add the curry paste and toss the mixture to make sure it’s good and mixed in. Let it cook down for a few minutes, then add some white wine. How much? Hell, I don’t know. About that much:

Let that simmer for about five minutes and then add ½ chicken, chopped up. I just used one of those rotisserie chickens from the grocery store. I think the flavor was Garlic Herb. By “1/2 chicken”, I mean ½ breast, a leg, thigh, and then all the dark meat from the back. That’s some of the tastiest meat on the bird.

Then add 6oz of tomato sauce.

And about 6oz of chicken broth.

Simmer for 5 minutes or so, stirring regularly. We are looking for the liquid to reduce down quite a bit. Once you get it so that you can see the moisture but it’s not standing in broth, add 1c of heavy cream:

And 1c of half and half:

Of course, you’ll need to add more salt. Go ahead and grind some pepper in this as well. Let it simmer for 10 minutes or so, add chicken broth to keep the liquid at a soupy consistency. It should look like this:

Get some parmesan cheese (not the cheap powdered crap…get grated parm), and add a cup or so. How much? Hell, I don’t know. About this much:

Cut the heat down to low, and let it simmer for yet another 10 minutes.

The cheese should finish off the flavor. Toast up some French bread and sprinkle on some fresh parsley, and you have one of the most delicious things you’ve ever tasted.

That’s it. The best soup I’ve ever tasted.

Scotch Eggs,Texas-style

“I had some Scotch Eggs this morning. Man, they were incredible, ” J-Skip said to me. What the hell is a Scotch Egg? “It’s a boiled egg wrapped in sausage and then deep fried. It’s so good.”

This was the actual conversation I had with a friend of mine. I’d never heard of such a thing, but anytime you mix egg and sausage together you have a winning combo. So, out I go to the internet. Apparently, J-Skip was absolutely right. The Brits eat these things like we eat burritos here in America. They sell them in supermarkets and gas stations, and are a preferred snack for scores of limey bastards all over the UK.

I thought about this a bit, and came up with a bit of a different take on this and it worked out INCREDIBLY. What I did was mix one of my favorite sausage treats (sausage balls) with this idea of Scotch Eggs. Check it, yo:

To make sausage balls, you mix a pound of sausage with 2c of baking mix and 1/2lbs of shredded cheese.

Mix these together and kneed so that you have all the baking mix “wet”. It should give you something that looks a-like so.

Now, normally you’d roll these into 2″ balls and bake at 350deg for 15-20 minutes until they are golden and delicious. Instead, I’m going to make a patty and push in a little concave spot the size of a boiled egg:

I take a little bit of extra baking mix in a bowl, and then roll a peeled boiled egg in it just to dust it a bit:

Then, let’s fold the patty around the dusted egg:

It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want to make sure the sausage is a nice even layer around the outside and you have sealed off the holes. You’ll want it oblong in the shape of an egg so you know how the egg is laid out when you cut it open.

In another bowl, I put some panko bread crumbs and rolled the ball around a bit. You don’t have to have too much or any at all. It’s just for a little bit of extra crunch.

The extra I rolled into sausage balls, just because they are bite-sized and awesome. Onto a rack so the sausage can drain while they are cooking, then into the oven at 350deg until they are golden, probably about 40 minutes or so.

When they are finished, it should look something a-like so:

To plate this thing up, I’m going to cut it in half:

I made some quick gravy and sliced some fresh tomatoes

Toast up some bread and top with some preserves and pour yourself a big ass glass of grapefruit juice:

And then you have an instant classic here in Arcadia, the Scotch Egg.

Bob the Cook’s Pit

One of my favorite things to do in life is to cozy up with a beer on a Texas afternoon and do some outdoor cooking. It’s what Arcadia is all about…sharing what you know and do well with your friends and neighbors. In my case, I love seeing the creations that my fellow Arcadians come up with and the crazy things we make different cookers out of. My buddy down in Madisonville made a smoker out of a barrel; my dad’s fish cooker is made from an old gas water heater; and one of my favorite outdoor cookers is my plowdisc wok. I can do fajitas and breakfast tacos on that thing to feed a small army and/or a group of tailgating Aggies.

Across the country, you’ll find cooking competitions of all sorts: chili, BBQ, steaks, or even full chuck wagon competitions where you have multiple dishes as part of the submission. One of the most well-known of the outdoor cooks in our neck of the woods is Bob the Cook out at Wildcatter Ranch. Bob is an incredible gastronomist. He knows his food and knows his wine. If you ever get a chance to make your way to Young County, Texas, make sure you stop by Wildcatter Ranch and let Bob pair up a bottle of his favorite wine from his extensive wine list with a slab of medium-rare Texas beef and then top it off with his banana pudding in a Mason jar.

Bob the Cook (or “BtC” as we like to refer to him) recently catered in ribeyes to a function in downtown Arcadia. Never passing up an opportunity to sidle up to a genuine Texas cooking rig built and used by someone I regard so highly, I got a chance to snap a few pics and talk to BtC a bit about how he goes about making ribeyes for so many people at once.

It starts with his pit. He made this out of a U-shaped pipe that he had bent to a box. Now, this thing has been used time and time again and had to sit out in the Texas weather, so some of the original features aren’t quite as functional as they once were, but the design is still awesome. BtC used a design idea from the great Joe Allen in Abilene, but put some proper modifications on it to increase efficiency for an outdoor unit.

Here this bad boy is with the lid up:

You’ll notice that the grill grates are on a slant. That’s key for a steak cooking pit so you can adjust the amount of heat on the meat. Steaks with less marbled fat are going to cook much faster than the ones that have tons of flavorful fat, so you want to put them in a cooler spot on the grill or pull them earlier. Also, notice the lip that folds over in the front. That has two functions: first of all, it allows for easy access to the cooking surface as well as for moving the grills to an angle. See the bar on the inside of the lip? You can put the grates on that for an even cooking surface when you are doing things like sausage. The other function it has is that it can be propped up from underneath so you can use it as a flat working surface for your tools or bins holding the meat you are putting on the grill.

The firebox has two entrances in for proper flow, and you can adjust the flow in on both sides. There is a chimney on the back side of the lid, but BtC admits that the design is somewhat flawed. Moreover, the chimney just acts as a stop for the lid so it doesn’t flop all the way back.

You can see how easy it is to get to the working surface from here. BtC puts the beef onto the grates before he seasons them so that the meat warms up and absorbs the seasoning all at once. Also, he keeps the meat that will cook faster on one side so he can properly tell how well done the meat is. The fire is well enough away from the meat so you don’t have crispy char on the steaks.

You can see from the backside that there was a pulley system at one time to raise and lower the fireplate, but years of use and weather rusted out the bottom. BtC had to have an additional plate welding in recently for repair, so the pulley system is non-functional now.

This is BtC’s trailer, specifically built for the cooker. He can haul and move this all by himself, which is remarkable because the cooker itself weighs hundreds of pounds. He took an old axle from a junk pile and made a long tongue on it for counterweight. Then, he welded a stinger that pins onto the cooker itself.

Right by the door on the side cooker, you’ll see a halfpipe. Also, on the trailer you’ll see bars that go across. BtC engineered this so the bars on the trailer go into the halfpipes on the cooker as a latch. With the trailer tongue up in the air, he latches the pin in place on the stinger and can pull the tongue down and attach it to his truck. The tongue is counterweighted perfectly so you have a zero balance right on the axle.

Using rebar and pipe, he engineered a hinge system as well as a poking bar all in one. You can see the bar there…he’ll use that to close the doors on the fire box as well as to reach up with the hook to pull the lid down during the cooking.

Secure pins are chained to the side so you don’t lose them. This is a great shot of that lip in the front.

There you have it…a Texas steak pit, fully mobile and as efficient as you can get for outdoor cooking.

The Smoker Project – Rehabilitating a Backyard Cooker

When you decide that you want to get into cooking as more than just sustenance and more of a hobby, one of the things you have to do is evaluate your gear. You don’t have to have the best gear and you may not have the money to spend on the most expensive equipment, but you need to have the right tools for the job. One of the things I love to do most is to smoke on a good smoker. The flavor of smoke combined with the caramelized flavors from your rubs and the “bark” of the meat is an art. Competitions around the country for smoked meats begin and end with the competitors trying to outdo each other on their rigs, and quite often they rip ideas off from each other to make the most complete cooker possible.

The question I get most from my friends who I cook for and are interested in getting into the hobby is, “What kind of ____ should I get?” People will try to skip a few steps in the learning process and go straight to overbuying for their skill of cooking. You have to spend time learning how things are cooked to really understand what kind of gear to get, although you never want to go with the cheapest thing you can find.

It’s like playing guitar. Sure, you can go out and buy the most expensive guitar you can find, but you won’t really appreciate it if you have no idea how to play a guitar. Most teachers will tell you to get as much as you can afford when you are starting out, then upgrade as you begin to know the difference. Always try different pieces, but most important is to get as good as you can get on your own, then try out other people’s instruments when you can and figure out what you like more/less about yours compared to theirs.

Now then…with all that out of the way, there is something that you should know: despite what hobby you are getting into, you should always try to minimize the amount of work you have to do in order to get the best results.  That goes double for cooking food.  Furthermore, if you don’t mind being a little bit creative and once you get your feet under you, then you should take the opportunity to use what you’ve learned and put it to practice. In regards to any smoker, these are the things you need to have as a constant:

-regulated temperature that’s not hard to control

-good airflow from intake (where the air comes in) thru flue/chimney (the “exhaust pipe”) and out the vent (where the smoke comes out)

-no flames directly on the meat

I don’t care how big or small your smoker is, if you don’t have those three things you won’t have a good experience. There are many other things you need to do, but those three are constants.

In regards to our backyard smoker project, we’ll keep those same things in mind. I had a smoker that was about five years old. I mainly kept it at my house for quick meals and I can use it as a pit because the firebox (where you build the fire) has an area for me to put a grill rack in for direct grilling. However, like any smoker off the rack, it’s not exactly built for heavy-duty use. After a few years, the paint was gone and rust sat in. Sometimes meals turned out good, sometimes they didn’t, mainly because it’s hard to control temperature on a smaller rig.  If you are handy with a welding rod, you can do some amazing things.  So, off to the Arcadian Ranch we go to do some metal fabrication.

This is what we are working with:

It’s just your standard smoker. This one is manufactured by a company called New Braunfels, and I think it came from Academy for $150. Nothing expensive…just a typical little smoker that definitely has its place in the world.  When you open it up:

You have decent access to the grill, which is actually pretty good sized. You can put a whole brisket in there and probably a rack or two of ribs at one time. That’s crowding it, though because:

The hole that goes to the firebox lends itself to direct flames on the meat. Direct flames create carbon, which is NOT GOOD TO EAT. A closer look at the firebox and the hole that goes to the smoking chamber (where you put the meat) shows the inefficiency of the design:

I took one of the grill grates off so you can see. The hole is so big that once you get a fire going, there’s nothing to stop the fire from attacking your food. Also, note that ash and cinders that are picked up in the airflow will be carried directly into the smoking chamber without anything to slow it down. Ash on food is NOT GOOD TO EAT.

The firebox design is pretty good, all things considered. You have a hinged door, a nice long handle to move the smoker, and a way to control your airflow.

Speaking of airflow, let’s go ahead and look at the basic design flaws that we are trying to remedy. First of all, airflow is key when you are trying to smoke. One of the basic principles that people fail to learn early on when taking on the hobby is how to make the damn thing work. You have to open up the vent (where the smoke comes out) and adjust the intake (where the air goes in) to regulate the temperature. Never, ever, evereverevereverevereverEVER close down the vent on the top. Creating an area that has stagnant airflow will result in building up a creosote, and creosote is NOT GOOD TO EAT. This particular smoker is originally designed so the air flows like this:

That’s a great design if you want to be able to get this thing fire engine red and cook the ever living shit out of anything within about a five foot radius. The suction from the intake is so strong you can actually feel it if you put your hand down there. As well, the air almost feels like it’s being propelled by a fan coming out of the vent. That’s just not what we are looking for if we want to keep our temp around 225-250® for 6-20 hours at a time. What we want to do is keep the good airflow but minimize the exposure to flame. To do this, we are going to need to put a plate inside the smoking chamber right under the grills over that giant hole. We want the airflow to be more like this:

This will:

-allow us to keep the temperature down (much lower than before)

-keep good airflow to reduce the risk of creosote

-eliminate the food in the smoking chamber from direct flames

Boom. That’s our design. It’s the design that any smoker should have. You can add on modular pieces, like a warming box or even another stack so that it’s easier to get the fire started to begin with, but we want the smoke to travel under the grill for heat and then across the meat for flavor and then out as soon as possible.

Let’s start with the plate running across the bottom. I didn’t take pictures of the welding itself, but you could imagine how hard it is to weld on thin metal that’s rusty, especially when you are welding it to brand new sheet metal. There are actually two pieces of sheet metal here that we’ve overlapped for strength. By placing the sheets directly under the lip of the smoker, we’ll have built in stability. As well, we need to tack a few spots along the side to keep it up. You could put in a brace underneath for stability, but once the weld should hold them in place. There won’t be any weight on them other than the drippings from the meat.

As well, we need to put a level on the plate and make sure that it’s tilted down towards the hole where grease falls out. Otherwise, you’ll have excess buildup that could create a flame.

Once we get the first plate on, we’ll slide the other one on and attach it both to the smoker body itself as well as the first plate we put down.

It doesn’t have to be air tight, but it does need to direct the airflow down the chamber as well as keep flames from licking the bottom of the food.

I have to move that chimney over to the other side of the smoker chamber. I stuck a piece of cardboard up to the hole from the inside and traced the hole with a pencil. Then, I cut the hole out and cut a hole into the chamber on the exact same spot on the opposite side of the back of the smoke chamber.

Now, I need to seal up the original chimeny hole.  I just took another piece of sheet metal and cut it into halves, putting one section on the outside and one on the inside, making sure they covered the hole completely.  Using the same bolt holes as before, I bolted the sheets on.

That creates the perfect path for smoke/air to flow so that I achieve my three constants of not being able to control my heat easily, not having stagnant air, and not having flame ups.  Once it’s all finished, I took a product called Ospho and coated the outside.  That kills the rust and it’s now ready for high heat paint.  (The two pictures above are post-Ospho)

After the paint cures for a couple of days, then go ahead and fire it up and get it hot.  With a spray bottle of oil, cover the outside and let it season.  Same on the inside…you need to spray it down when it’s hot with oil from time to time to make sure it keeps its season.  Once it’s seasoned, you can go ahead and cook on it.

There she is…my little backyard smoker.  I will add some other modifications down the road, like a more stable brace and bigger wheels, but as for now it’s ready and functional.  As they say in the Army and in prison:  smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Trav’s Corner: Blog Lasagna

11:30 Decide to make lasagna for dinner. Do a quick inventory and realize I no longer have a good pan for lasagna. This will need to be purchased. I can make the sauce now, but lunch first: pinto beans over spring greens with chopped roma tomatoes and hot sauce.

12:22 Assemble ingredients for sauce: 1 lb ground beef, 1 pkg Johnsonville Sweet Italian sausage (removed from casing), 1 onion (chopped), 8 cloves of garlic (peeled and chopped), dried basil, & oregano, ½ a bottle of 2003 Terrazas Malbec Reserva, V-8 low sodium, 1 regular size can of diced tomatoes, 4 large cans of crushed tomatoes. Grabbed a small stockpot.

12:29 Heated up pan over high heat with a little olive oil. Threw in ground beef and sausage. Stirred it around with a wooden spoon, breaking up meat until finely crumbled. Threw in 2 tbsp basil and one tbsp oregano. Let the water cook off, then stirred occasionally, letting the meat brown and caramelization develop on the bottom of the pan. Poured off some of the grease, and then threw in the onions. Sweated the onions some, threw in the garlic and stirred for about a minute. Poured in the red wine and brought to a boil while scraping the bottom of the pan with a spoon. Added about 1 ½ cups of V-8, brought back to a boil. Added all the tomatoes, brought back to a boil, tasted and added 1/2 cup of sugar. Covered and set aside to cool. Done at 1:10.

3:59 Purchased 9 x 11 Pyrex pan w/silicone lid. However, realizing that I have a lot of sauce, also purchase two “deep lasagna pan” foil containers. 

4:52 Begin assembly. Preheated oven to 350. In each pan, put the following layers, bottom to top: sauce, uncooked noodles (4 across, then one broken noodle going sideways (alternate sides of sideways noodle)), sauce, mozz, noodles, sauce, mozz, a 24 oz container of small curd cottage cheese mixed with an egg, noodles, sauce, mozz, noodles, sauce mozz. I regret not getting parm to mix with the mozz. I have to open a 26 oz can of Del Monte “Traditional” spaghetti sauce to finish the last layer and a half of the second lasagna. Covered with plastic wrap, then aluminum foil. Thought about how every time I tell someone about this, they ask “won’t it melt?” To which I have always bit my tongue and said “no, it won’t. Seriously.” Put the lasagnas in the oven at 5:27. Set timer for 1 hour and twenty minutes. 

6:47 Looked at lasagnas. Noting that there was no overspill from the pans, decided on another 15 minutes. 

7:01 Took off covers and set timer for 30 minutes. 

7:30 Took out of oven to rest and cool. 

7:40 Couldn’t wait any longer. Cut a piece. Mmm…

 

Texas Prairie Martini

There’s a part of me…a rather LARGE part of me…that loves a nice cold glass of liquor. The best alcoholics choose vodka as their boisson de choix, and who am I to argue with the experts?

There’s nothing like an ice-cold martini. Some prefer the Xmas tree lingering taste of gin, some like a little bit of vermouth; it all depends on the mood and most importantly depends on the drinker. That being said, there’s an equal if not greater part of me that’s North Texas white trash pedigree with a palatte for food that is hard to describe to most normal humans. We like our taco burgers, our Pittsburg Hot Links, and our pickled eggs. You put the two together and you have this incredibly dynamic mix of either delicious cocktail greatness or just a country washboard glass of goodness.

Up north of the Blackland Prairie where I grew up is the beautiful town of Muenster, Texas. If you want to throwback to the best of anything north of Dallas, you’ll find that this little town has it all. It’s a German town of about 1,500, and these people keep their town as clean as they can. There are two schools, one 2A school and one Catholic school (Sacred Heart ISD). The two schools are literally across the street from each other. Muenster hosts their annual Germanfest celebration, a half-concert/half-food festival in the last week of April every year. We don’t miss it in our family…I think we look forward to it more than we do Christmas. If you get a chance, you should make a day or even a weekend out of Germanfest in Muenster, Texas.

In downtown Muenster, there’s my favorite grocery store on the planet: Fischer’s Meat Market. Not only do they have a great selection of beer, wine, and Affiliated Foods groceries (the gears in any white trash family in north Texas), they have an incredible butcher counter (the back part of the store is also a slaughterhouse where you can take your beef to be dressed out), fresh German bakery items, and an entire row of canned/jarred food items that any north Texan would fall all over him/herself over. You can get apple butter, Hot N Spicy mustard, pecan pie in a jar, or any type of jelly you can think of including jalapeno jelly, muscadine jelly, or peach preserves. Right in the middle of this goodness is one of my favorite things in the world…pickled eggs. And not just any type of regular old pickled chicken egg; they have pickled quail eggs. This is the inspiration to this drink: leaning back on Lake Nocona on the Texas Prairie and sucking one of these down is as close to nirvana as possible (without the heroin).

First of all, to make a proper martini, you’ve got to chill the glass. Fill a martini glass with ice and then water and let it sit for a few minutes.

 

In the meantime, let’s review the ingredients list:

In that Aggie pub glass, we’re gonna throw in a few cubes of ice, three fingers of vodka, and another finger of the olive juice. That’s a pretty dirty martini…you can cut down on the olive juice if you prefer it to be sweeter and less olivey. What is a finger? Hold your finger up to the side of the glass and fill it up to the top of your finger. Then dump it all into the silver shaker, cap with the pub glass and shake three or four times to get it all mixed together. Dump out the ice water in the martini glass and clean out the extra water. Strain the vodka into the glass.  If it’s short, pour a bit more vodka into the glass, but don’t worry about stirring…that will come later.

Now comes the fun part. At Central Market, you can find a white cheddar called Isle of Mull. It’s incredibly sharp, but absolutely delicious. Take a bamboo skewer and run a couple of pickled eggs onto it. Then break off a hunk of cheese, and then top it off with a single olive. Break off the extra part of the skewer, but leave just enough to be able to hang onto it. Holding the broken end of the skewer, swirl the cocktail swizzle around in the vodka a couple of times to mix in the extra vodka (if necessary) and then serve with it across the rim of the glass (so the cheese doesn’t fall apart).

Voila…a Texas Prairie Martini, the perfect white trash cocktail and an awesome way to enjoy your cold liquor.

Trav’s Corner: Speckled Trout Tacos

One of the great things about being a food junkie is you get to find other food junkies and learn how to really cook things right.  Our S. Texas buddy, Travis, is a REAL foodie; a bona fide professional chef who left the trade for a normal job.  We’ve invited him to share some of his favorites from time to time here on AE.

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My corner of Arcadia is on the beach at South Padre Island. We’ve got a little place on the bay in Port Isabel with a dock and we keep an underwater light there that comes on at night to attract speckled sea trout. Not only are these fun to catch, but they’re also real good eating. My 7 year old son likes to catch a couple every night. We keep them for trout tacos. Here’s how I do it.

First, you’ve got to filet the fish. Start by laying the fish on the cleaning station with his back towards you.

 

Lift up the side fin and position your filet knife right next to the fin with the back of the knife at a diagonal towards the head:

 

Cut straight down to the backbone, and then turn the knife so that it cuts along the backbone.

 It’ll be tough at first as you’ll have to cut through some ribs, but after you get through that, it’ll go real easy all the way to the tail. Some people like to leave a piece at the end attached to the tail to make it easier to skin, but I prefer to cut it all the way off. Next you’ll want to remove the ribs. Place your knife right along the rib line and cut down at an angle, following the rib bones.

 

 

To get the skin off, lay the filet flat against your cutting surface, skin side down. Holding your knife flat, start at the tail end and cut through a little piece of meat to the skin.

 

Hold onto this piece with one hand and move the knife back and forth with the other. Let the knife do the work. Don’t try to push the knife along, and don’t pull the skin. This takes practice, but you can just trim off any skin you miss. Now turn the fish over and repeat.

 After you wash them off, you’ve got two nice filets. The next step is seasoning. I could put together some bad ass blend, but Tony Chachere already did:

 

 

Sprinkle this stuff on liberally, and then the filets go into a hot nonstick pan with canola oil. Cook over high heat until browned and then turn over and do the other side:

Note: searing with Tony’s can result in some pretty caustic fumes. Make sure your vent hood is on (assuming it vents to the outside) or make sure your kitchen is well ventilated. Once the filets are browned on both sides, remove from the pan and place on a paper towel or rack to drain.

While they’re draining, heat a tortilla in a dry pan until warmed through. I like Mission multigrain tortillas with this for health reasons (and cause they’re really good), but you can use corn or flour or whatever.

Once you’ve got all the tortillas warmed up (two filets makes about 6 tacos) you can start assembly. Break off a piece of filet long enough to cover the tortilla lengthwise. Next, spoon on some Greek yogurt:

 

 

This is some good stuff, and you can use it like sour cream. Next, squeeze some lime juice on there and start adding toppings. Here’s one with tomato, avocado and sprouts, but you can go with what you like here, including cabbage, peppers, onion, lettuce, cheese, cilantro, etc.

 

 

Now sprinkle on your favorite hot sauce and go to town. I usually serve with rice and beans.

Special note: you inland types can sub bass or catfish for the trout. Tilapia will do in a pinch. Just go with white fleshed fish and you should be fine.