My Precious Tomatoes

A rainbow of fall tomatoes.

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.

Peppers: Jalapenos and Serranos

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.)

Willhite Seed
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!

Botanical Interests
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.

Totally Tomatoes
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).

RH Shumway
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.

Sombrero Potato

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.

Momma cow just had this calf moments before we spotted her.

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 precious moment caught with my trusty iPhone. This baby calf took his first steps.
Just learning to stand up … I’ve probably seen thousands of first steps by newborn calves, but I’m always amazed, every time I see it.
Jdubs put his hand out and the calf came to him. Newborn calves don’t see well for a few days, until their eyes adjust to seeing light after nine months in total darkness.

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.

The first taste of milk … the hard-wired instincts are amazing to watch in nature.

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.

I’m wondering what the conversation is going on between these two?

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.”)

Meet Sombrero Potato

St. Mary’s Sausagefest

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.

Grilling A Proper Ribeye

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.

Our steaks:

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.

Trav’s Corner: Cream of Hatch Chile Soup

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.

Trav’s Corner: Pork Loin Roulade Stuffed w/Crawfish in a Cajun Butter Sauce

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

Chopped parsley

Celery seed

Old Bay

White wine


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:

White wine

Lemon

Shallots, minced

Chicken broth

Cream

Diced tomato

Paprika

cayenne

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.