This summer, our family took a little vacation to Red River, New Mexico. Here are a couple of neat photos.
My compulsion to garden began with my quest to grow an abundance of tomatoes. I didn’t even like tomatoes until I was about 22 years old. The first time I remember loving the flavor of a freshly-picked, salted tomato was when I lived in Chicago working my first post-college job. I visited friends in Champagne one weekend and bought tomatoes at the farmers’ market. That first bite of beautifully ripe tomato was like heaven on a plate and since then I’ve been hooked. Two years after that tasty bite, I moved to Michigan—where the climate is just right for tomato growing.
My first garden was a success in Michigan, which has a much milder climate than North Central Texas. The harsh Texas summers and drought conditions make gardening a challenge. I decided to approach the objective from a different angle by looking for the best-performing vegetable varieties for my area.
I consulted the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service’s list of recommendations but only found a few tomato varieties for sale at local vendors– Celebrity, Beefsteak and Big Boy are the most commonly available. So I started looking to seed sources and catalogs, hoping to find varieties that would grow well where I lived. Over the last few years, I’ve amassed quite an assortment of seed stock and catalogs. The more I learned about the plentiful tomato varieties, the more intrigued I became with open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of all plants, not just tomatoes.
Even though Texas “technically” has a long growing season, the hottest part of the summer is about keeping things alive, not producing. So really we have two short growing seasons with fall being best of all. In the spring I try to grow bush-type tomatoes that ripens (55-70 days) all at once. In July I pull the spent vines and start seeds in the same beds. What sprouts and makes it will produce the best fall fruit. If a volunteer tomato comes up, I let it grow. Every time I’ve done that, it’s produced the most awesome fruit.
After three trial-and-error growing seasons of starting tomatoes from seed, I’ve found that Porter and Porter Improved are the top performing tomato cultivars in my backyard; Willhite Seed has the highest germination rate of all the sources I’ve used; and when a volunteer tomato plant starts growing, let it grow because you will be rewarded for it.
My favorite resources:
Texas Agri-Life Extension http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ — a great resource for all Texas gardeners. If you live in a different state, look for your local extension service. It will be affiliated with the land grant university in your state (Auburn, Michigan State, University of Illinois, Purdue, Texas A&M, etc.)
www.willhiteseed.com – everything I’ve ever grown from this supplier has been top notch. They breed their own watermelon seeds! The first year I grew their Porter tomatoes, I had a 98 percent germination rate – that is quality seed!
www.botanicalinterests.com – this company is part of the coalition of non-GMO growers and suppliers of seed. They have the best information on their seed packets – tons of information about each variety and cultivar.
www.totallytomato.com – the 2013 growing season is the first year I’ve used seeds from this supplier. So far so good. They have the most comprehensive selection of tomatoes I’ve ever seen. They also have a wonderful selection of other seeds, especially night shade plants (tomatoes are part of the night shade family).
www.rhshumway.com – this company has the coolest retro-style catalogue and is one of the best sources for beans. 2013 is the first growing season I’ve used this seed provider. The germination rate has been excellent. It will be awhile before I can report on production.
Victory Seeds www.victoryseeds.com – one of the best sources for open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that grow in most parts of the United States. They produce their own seeds and are a non-GMO seed source.
Baker Creek (rare seeds) www.rareseeds.com – another comprehensive source for heirloom, open-pollinated and non-GMO seeds. I have not grown any seed from this supplier but they have great reviews.
A week ago (Feb. 21, 2013) Jdubs and I were out feeding the cattle. As we were looking for our last herd, we came upon a momma cow that had just given birth to her calf. She hadn’t even delivered the placenta yet.
We approached the pair, very carefully, because you never really know how a new momma will react, even if you “know” the animal. Momma cow was looking a little nervous but settled quickly. We sat close to the calf and watched him for a few moments. Then on occasion the Almighty lets us see a little miracle… This newborn calf stood up and took his first steps and we got to witness it.
A few minutes later he stumbled over to his momma and took his first suckle of colostrum. It was a precious moment and one that was worth a thousand hours in a classroom. These are the things that can’t be taught. They have to be experienced, witnessed.
We couldn’t stay long because the rest of the herd began to show up, which made momma cow really anxious. And she was hungry too. Momma cow and the rest of the herd haven’t had much grass to eat– we’re at the tail end of winter, just as the spring grasses begin to grow, not to mention the long-standing drought. Our cattle really look forward to and rely on the high-protein cubes we feed daily.
We led and fed the herd a short distance from the pair. When we circled back around to count heads, momma cow and calf had rejoined the herd.
We departed the pasture double-time, no need to freak out the newborn calf, that can’t see with the loud feed truck and noisy, bawling herd.
At the gate, I asked Jdubs if he had thought of a name for the calf. He very nonchalantly said, “his name should be Sombrero Potato.” I asked where that came from. He said, “the name comes from Mexico, mom. And he has a Mexican name.” And thus, we have Sombrero Potato. (I declined to point out that the Spanish word for potato is “papas.”)
Out here in north Texas, when the Fall hits we get to take our choice of festivals every weekend. From cooking competitions to fundraisers and heritage celebrations, we get a decent selection of weekend activities within a quick drive for just about anyone in all of the north part of the state. One of the best you can find is right in Young County held every second full weekend in November.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church started making homemade sausage in the 1970’s after one of their parishioners who had a German family recipe for sausage came up with the idea for a fundraiser. Originally, they harvested the pork in the local fields as hog hunters would provide the meat. As it grew, though, the church had to go to a more reliable source of pork. Decades later, the annual fundraiser lives strong, and the entire church turns out to lend a hand to pull off the impressive event. The church will feed 1,200-1,500 people hundreds of pounds of homemade sausage made over a weekend. Named “Sausagefest” (funny name acknowledged), folks from all over flock to the church to eat lunch on Sunday and buy the uncooked sausage for their freezer so they can have it all year long (or at least until summer when they run out). Here’s a little tour behind the scenes.
The week before the festival, the pork roasts arrive in boxes.
The roasts are then taken out of the boxes and cut up into small chunks by volunteers.
The church has a large commercial kitchen in its annex where all the magic occurs.
The chunks of pork are loaded into large tubs, which are stored in a refrigerated storage container, retrofit with a large air conditioner.
The chunks are then fed thru a commercial grinder not once but twice. The pork is dusted with the special secret seasonings that includes cayenne pepper and garlic before the first grind. The smell is overpowering when you walk into the kitchen.
There’s a guard over the grinder to avoid injury.
The pork after the first grind:
And after the second grind:
And here’s the grind:
Then the casings have to be filled. What are casings? Well…if you don’t know, it’s probably best I don’t explain it. Let’s just say that the sausage is all natural. The casings are soaked in warm water:
Then loaded onto PVC pipes so they are easier to push onto the sausage filler…
And then the casings are filled.
The sausage filler is pretty ingenious. You load the barrel with the the ground pork
Which is powered by a water hose attached to a water faucet outside. It’s a pretty cool system…the pressure on the water builds up, you slowly release the water into the barrel and the sausage shoots out of the cap:
The casing is loaded on the spout and the pressure inflates the casings with delicious spiced pork.
Want to see it in action? Check it:
The sausage is then moved to tubs…
…and then hung in the refrigerated storage container to cure for a couple days before it’s cooked. The sausage is hung on 1″x1″ boards that run the width of the container.
Outside the kitchen is a commercial smoker with 12 rotating racks. On Sunday morning, the sausage will go on and given the perfect combo of heat and Texas smoke from wood cut down and seasoned locally, usually a combo of oak and mesquite.
And lo, we have sausage.
It’s a delicious bite all the way thru with the perfect blend of spice and flavor. The ladies in the church also make a special secret recipe of sweet mustard, as well as fresh cobblers for the crowd.
And there you have it…St. Mary’s Sausagefest. You don’t want to miss it.
As luck would have it, we just got a shipment of fresh beef from slaughter off the ranch. As a “quality control” measure, we try to reserve a steer a year to make sure the bloodline we are breeding is producing the highest quality beef. The standing beef is put into our own version of a feed lot, which is just one of our stalls in the barn where we can finish out the beef with 120 days of high corn feed without a lot of exercise by the steer. This builds nice marbled fat within the meat fibers, which will go a long way when we go to cook these bad boys.
If we look at the diagram of a beef:
You see the group of muscles along the back of the beef just below the shoulders labeled as “rib”. That’s where our ribeyes come from. It’s a long muscle that, when the beef is finished out, doesn’t get as much work as a cow or a steer that’s out roaming for grass to chew on. It’s the most flavorful cut of steak you can get while maintaining a tender chew.
See all the white specks within the meat? That’s good…those bits of fat are going to melt and lubricate the meat fibers, which will make the steaks juicy and easy to masticate. There are a couple different muscles here, and the outside of the steak is just as good if not better than the inside.
Most people take these chunks of bovine heaven and throw them on a hot grill or a hot skillet, which usually sears the shit out of the outside but can make for an uneven cook as the inside of a thick steak can still be cold even if the surface is burned. Traditionally, the solution to this is to sear the outside and then finish off in an oven set at 400deg until the steaks are cooked to the desired temp. This is how I did it for years, but Cooks Illustrated proved that if you go the opposite way…bring the steaks to temp first then finish them off on a grill or skillet…then you get the perfect steak every time. EVERY. TIME. It’s foolproof, and it’s how I do my steaks now. However, a true Texas beef eater will tell you that the thing that beef needs to really be perfect is a little bit of wood underneath to give the beef just a little bit more rounded flavor. That means you finish out on a pit, with a bit of pecan/hickory or, preferably, mesquite. No oak is allowed around here unless it’s in the fireplace.
I recently acquired a kamado-style cooker, so I’m going to do the finish out on it. My first order of business: get a nice, rolling smoke going on the cooker.
Then, we want to lay the steaks out onto a cookie sheet and into a 150-170deg oven with the rack as far away from the heating elements as possible. We want to bring the steaks up to 90-100deg, but it doesn’t have to be exact. The least amount of pokes, the better, so leave the thermometers in the drawer and trust your eyes and your hands. If the red meat turns gray, it’s too hot. It’s not ruined, but that’s too hot. If you take your hands and cup them around the rim of the steak, you can squeeze the steaks together and see the muscles begin to separate.
The steaks are still raw, but what we’ve done is begin to melt the connective tissue between the muscles. THAT’S GOOD. Taking a closer look:
You can see little pockets or canyons where the meat pulls apart. THAT’S GOOD. Onto seasoning…
The great Joe Allen’s Steakhouse in Abilene uses three ingredients on their steaks: salt, pepper, and garlic powder. That’s all you need on your steaks. Dust the steaks with kosher salt evenly, and then scatter garlic powder right on top of the salt. You’ll want to press down just a bit to push the seasonings into the meat. Notice that I didn’t add pepper? That’s by design…if you cook pepper over open flame, it becomes bitter and loses its peppery punch, so let’s save the pepper until the very end.
Notice also that the steak is kinda round…that’s a tip I learned from a buddy of mine that runs a steakhouse. When you cup your hands around the steaks, you can simply form them into a round steak. Don’t get too rough…just press it together so it’s round.
Get your grill as hot as it will get, and throw the steaks on. After 3-4 minutes, turn them with tongs from 11o’clock to 2o’clock to get those neat diamond sear marks. After another 3-4 minutes, flip them and repeat. You can test how well done the steaks are by pressing the meat with your finger. If it feels like your cheek does right around your canine teeth, then it’s med-rare. Inflate your cheek with as much air as you can…that’s well-done. If you cook your ribeyes to well-done, leave your address so I can send you a bag of crap in the mail.
When finished, this is what you should have:
There’s a red tint to the steaks from the wood/smoke. Notice, also, that there’s just the smallest amount of char…that adds so much flavor to the steaks.
Pull them off the fire, add freshly cracked black pepper, and cover loosely with foil for 10 minutes. The rest is important to even the cook.
A closeup of the steak….see how the fat that was yellow before creates pools of liquid right on top of the steak? Sweet beautiful liquid.
I like my ribeyes medium-rare. Rare will give you stringy meat, and we don’t want that. At med-rare, you still get the juiciness of the fat with all the tender toothiness of the melted connective tissue.
Served with a baked potato, some fresh salad, and a dark beer or a super red wine, you’ve got the meal I’d request for my last if I get the chance.
First, assemble the ingredients:
1 cup Hatch chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded & diced
¾ cup chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 roma tomatoes, diced
1 large avocado, diced
½ cup chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
2 cups half & half
1 cup chicken broth
In a large saucepan, sauté the onion in some olive oil & butter until soft and translucent. Add the chiles and garlic and sauté briefly. Do not allow the garlic to brown. Add the chicken broth and bring to a rolling boil for two minutes. Add the half & half, lime juice, tomato, avocado, and ½ the cilantro. Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Put into bowls and serve with a sprinkle of cilantro and a twist of lime.
Our South Texas chef buddy, Trav, checks in with another great recipe. For more info on Trav’s culinary offerings, services and contact info, visit his Facebook page.
1 pork loin section
8 oz crawfish tails
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 onion, chopped
First, make the filling. Drain the crawfish tails and sauté with the onion and bell pepper in a little olive oil. Season with Old Bay and celery seed. When the onion is translucent, deglaze with a little white wine, squeeze in a little lemon juice and reduce til the liquid is almost gone. Remove from heat, toss in the parsley and set aside.
Next, make a roulade with the pork loin. Using a long, sharp knife, start cutting the loin the loin about an inch from the bottom, like so:
Continue cutting, turning as you get to the sides, maintaining a constant thickness until you have a flat sheet.
Season the meat with salt and pepper, then spread the crawfish filling on the loin.
Roll up the loin and tie with butcher’s twine.
Season with Tony’s, the roast in a 375 degree oven until a thermometer inserted to the middle reads 160 (about 30-45 mins). While it is cooking, make the sauce:
1 stick of butter, room temp, cut into pats
In a small sauté pan, boil the shallots in half and half mix of white wine and lemon. Reduce to a glaze, and then add a little chicken broth, three times as much cream and the paprika, cayenne and tomato. Reduce to a sauce like consistency, and then strain. Whisk the butter into the hot sauce, one pat at a time, until completely incorporated. Keep the sauce warm, but not hot. If it gets too hot, the butter will melt and the sauce will break.
When the loin is done, slice, plate, and pour the sauce over the top. Serve immediately.
If you’ve spent anytime in a sports bar and/or Hooters, then you’ve been exposed to the chicken wing. Some approach chicken wings like a necessary evil in order to go to crappy restaurants with big boobed waitresses, but I love chicken wings. The texture of the meat and the amount of sauce-to-meat ratio is until any other piece of chicken, especially if you know how to eat one correctly. However, the average home chef tends to avoid cooking chicken wings at home because it’s so much quicker to go pick some up on the way home from work. If you give yourself some time to learn the correct way to cook them, you’ll realize how easy they really are. I think the biggest issue people have is a) how to prepare the sauce and b) how to cook the wings themselves.
I like my wings baked. Wings have a ton of connective tissue in them, and if you cook them too quickly then you’ll have wings that are kinda hard to eat because the meat has a lot of sinewy parts holding it all together. This is by design…the bones of a chicken are very thin and easy to snap, however they don’t fly. This means that the wings are nice and meaty so you can eat them. Without any hesitation, I’d tell you that the wing is my favorite part of the chicken to eat, and the best way to cook it is buffalo style.
Butcher’s knife/cleaver, sharpen and put to steel
Shallow cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil, shiny side up
Oven preheated to 425deg
When you buy wings, you should plan on 14 pieces per hungry adult heterosexual male. That’s going to be 7 full wings, and you can count them inside the package when you buy them. We are looking for WINGS…not drummettes or wings that are already cut. We’ll do the heavy lifting here, so buck up.
When you get your wings home, make sure they are defrosted. For some reason, butchers are starting to keep these things in the freezer frozen. Take them out of the package and wash them down with water just to rinse off the slimey shit.
REMEMBER – Mishandling chicken can kill your ass, so you need to wash your hands before and after dealing with chicken, including any other kitchen tools you touch as well.
This is what we are looking at:
There are three parts to the wing: The “tip”, which is akin to a hand, the “flap” or the “flat” (I’ve heard it both ways) which is the middle section, then the drum. If you lay the wing skin side down, you can spread the wing out and get a good working surface.
If you feel the joint where the tip meets the flap, you’ll feel a little ball. Put your knife right on top of that ball, put the tip of the blade down on the cutting board and your free hand on the top of the blade to steady it and cut down in a sharp snap. This will cut thru skin and bone at the same time, leaving a nice clean cut. Then, take the wing and set it upright on the tip of the joint so both remaining parts stick up into the air in a V shape. If you spread the wing out, you can see that there is a piece of skin connecting the two parts. The joint is a ball joint, so we can easily sever the two parts by cutting directly down into the V of the joint and working the knife around the ball joint to cut all the way thru.
Admittedly, this is a hard thing to explain and probably harder to understand just by reading. So, click this link and you can watch a video of it.
As you chop the wings, align them on your pan skin side UP. I like to align mine by either flap or drum. It will make sense why later.
Season with garlic salt and pepper, but not too much. Flip them over (skin side down now) and do the other side.
Pop them in the oven for 20 minutes.
Buffalo-style sauce is relatively easy, but it’s all up to you on how you want it to taste. Start with five tbls unsalted butter, melted. Do not let it get to hot or it will separate and make a mess. Then add 1/2c of Frank’s Red Hot sauce.
Whisk it in. Now, I like to put a lot of shit in mine to flavor the sauce. All this does is make it spicier and/or hotter, so at any time feel free to stop.
Let’s add 1/2tbls of garlic chili sauce:
And a few squirts of sriracha sauce (chili sauce):
And since this is so acidic, lets throw in a sprinkle of sugar to cut it and some soy sauce for salt. For extra heat, I add just a bit of this bad mother fugger:
Taste it along the way. You’ll want to put it in the middle of your tongue when you are testing it to get the full flavor.
After 20 minutes, flip the wings and cook them another 30 minutes. Watch them…you are looking for crispy but not burned or dried out. After 30 minutes you can put them under the broiler for a couple of minutes to really crisp them up, but be careful because they will burn very quickly.
If you let them sit out for a couple of minutes, they are easier to pull off the pan w/o tearing the skin. Give them a jiggle if they stick to let the fat work its way under the wing.
Put some sauce into a large bowl and add a few wings at a time. Toss, add more wings and sauce and repeat until you are done. I like to do equal parts drum to flap when I toss them. The sauce should be room temperature and the butter solids may begin to solidify. That’s ok…when the wings are added, it will heat up the sauce and melt it down perfectly. You just want the sauce to be kinda runny so it coats the wings good.
Plate them up and serve with blue cheese and/or ranch for dipping. I’m a big fan of fries with wings as well as all the beer I need to wash down the heat.
For the past two months, almost two cases of beer were in my front hall closet going thru a process of fermentation, carbonation, and conditioning. If you’ve followed along with us so far, then you’ve seen the background of how we got to this point and why. You might have even seen the second batch we bottled. Weeks of waiting and holding and damn near torture and we’ve arrived at Judgement Day…we’re going to uncork.
This beer is a clone of Tire Biter Bitter Ale. We used a blonde malt…
And steeped hops for 90 minutes:
This creates a “wort”. The wort is the beer before it starts beerifying itself. We left the beer in a primary fermenter for a month. NOW…we should have pulled this after the first 7 days and then moved into a secondary fermenter, but we didn’t. Also, we realized when we went to bottle that we left out a couple pounds of sugar on the recipe, so we added it posto facto. It couldn’t be that great of an idea, but it worked out pretty good, all things considered. The wort went for a second fermentation with the added sugar. Then we pulled it, bottled it, and let it sit for 3.5 weeks to condition perfectly.
And here we are.
We keep a stocked kegerator that has a freezer on top, perfect for keeping frosty mugs and p’s for the beer. Four friends, four frosty pubbers, four bottles of beer.
Let’s do this…
The immediate pop is a HUGE relief to us. You never know if the carbonation is going to really take place. As long as the sugars stay fermenting and the cap stays airtight, then we should be good on bubbles. If not…well, let’s not discuss the ‘if nots’ right now.
The pour is perfect…lots of air, lots of foam. Good head forms on the top of the golden elixir and tiny bubbles work their way up thru the now completed beer.
Tasting notes: I’ll admit…I expected this to kinda suck. The homebrews I’ve had in the past have sucked harder than anyone has ever sucked before. This got off on the right foot in the glass. It looked like beer. It smelled like beer. And by gawd, it TASTED LIKE BEER. And not just homemade beer…this tasted DAMN GOOD. Tons of hoppy flavor and bite, a very citrusy finish that didn’t linger as much as the hops. We didn’t take measurements on this one, but from the buzz we got right afterwards, we are guessing that the abv is quite high.
This was a really good beer. Not to brag, but we KILLED it the first time out. We all sat in awe of the process and the work we did, still not really sure if one or all but one of us got together and filled the glasses with real beer as a joke on one person. It was a very good beer, to the point that I’d take it over most commercially made beers. The body was deep; lots of character to it. The bubbles made a perfect head with creamy froth for your lips.
We call this one “Made In Voyage”. It’s a play on words from “maiden voyage”, or our first time thru the process. But mainly because we changed things up from the original recipe as we went, so we were literally making this in the voyage and making it up as we went. We are still learning the rules, but so far our little maverick ways have paid off.
And after all this time, all it took was a little homebrew. I’m hooked. Can’t wait to get right back in and try another batch.
As a quick aside from our beer chronicles, we went ahead and purchased the ingredients for a Double Bock (or a “Doppel Bock” as the purist say) the last time we were in the brewstore. This is made with DARK malts and dark roasted grains. The recipe is meant to be a clone of the delicious Paulaner Salvator Doppel. I’ll add more pictures down the road at some point, but this actually is worth a quick post just to tell the story of our first ‘big’ beer. We wanted one that would be ready in a couple months and a fun one. This one takes 6 months to finish off. That sounds long to the novice, but the masters will brew then cask in bourbon oak casks for a year at a time to mellow their wort.
We’re not waiting that long, at least not at first when we are still learning how to do this. Here’s the fun part, though….when we were bottling the bitter ale, we realized that we LEFT THE SUGAR OUT OF THE DOUBLE BOCK. That’s an issue. Without enough sugar, the yeasts can create enough alcohol and the flavor will be really weak. After some deliberation and a commercial beer or two, we decided to go ahead and mix in the sugar AFTER the initial fermentation to restart the yeasts for another fermentation before we bottled. The process would last 3days to a week until the sugar was devoured.
Now…was this a smart idea? Probably not. The risk of picking up mold spores or dust or anything bad in the transfer is really not something we want to do. However, spending 6 months on a beer that ends up tasting like something they sell in Oklahoma where they limit the beer abv to 3.9% is not something we’d rather do. So we mixed up the sugar with some of the wort we siphoned out of the carboy then funneled it back in. After a full week, the bubbles stopped and the beer was ready to bottle. We left it in an extra week. Why? Well, we were busy. That’s probably not that smart either, but hey…we are new to this.
Bottles, disinfected and dried
The glass carboy with the delicious double bock waiting inside. Notice the ring of yeast around the top. That’s where the wort was when we first put it in. The yeast ate it down that far.
The color is like cappuccino. Dark brown with a foamy crema on top.
I’m fast forwarding a bit, but this is what the carboy looks like after it’s drained. The bottom looks like saturated river bottom sand. Doesn’t smell like it, though…this smells like warm yeasty bread with a PUNGENT alcohol punch to it. Smells incredible.
This is the brew in the secondary fermenter that we are using for bottling b/c it’s the only bucket we have with a spigot. Forgive me for the heaven photo effect, but it’s the only one I could find that highlighted the brew and the crema without picking up any other colors. The texture is similar to a dark soy sauce. It’s a sweet flavor that’s definitely young and needs some time in the bottle. In a pinch, though, you could drink this right now. It would need to be in a pinch, though, because this needs some bottle lovin’ for a few months.
We used a couple oversized bottles that Runnin’ Buddy has been saving for a few years in case he ever picked up homebrewing. It’s almost destiny.
Some random shots of the bottles, filled with the sweet nectar of the double bock.
And there we have it…forty bottles of our double bock that we lovingly named Big Jim’s Double Dark. Check back in August when we get to open these.