Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Oooof, followed by The Pig, Again

I am finding myself gone all topsy-turvy in reacting to the looming presence of Thanksgiving tomorrow.

While I am deeply grateful for the chance to sit and eat a home cooked meal with all of my immediate family this year, I find I am also chafing at the wretched excess I found over the past weeks as I wandered the the food blog interweb.

The hype around this one meal has outdone the H1N1 virus in terms of reaching fever pitch. I am reacting to it as I would any holiday incarnation of a toddler caught mid-tantrum. I long for nothing more than the chance to gently lead my holiday back out of the public eye, calm it way the hell down, and reduce the histrionics until it is manageable and enjoyable again, for both our sakes.

That out of control sense is (cough!) probably coming from inside out, so rearranging my own attitude will be just what the doctor ordered.

With that in mind, I am heading into the kitchen with renewed determination to be more wabi-sabi as I put together the reasonably simple sides and desserts my family designated as "required".

The main course, the dressing and an appetizer will be the focus of attention for tomorrow's cooks, whoever ends up holding the spoon. My goal is to seek the opposite of perfection this go-round. I want to celebrate any and all imperfections and let them be Just Right.

So for the moment, while I head off to wrestle with my perfectionism demons, let me leave you with something of an Anti-Turkey post and rather share with you another recent foray into the realm of Porky Wonderfulness.

Without further ado? Ladies and Gentlemen, the Pig, Again....

Cochinita Pibil is a family favorite I was determined to reproduce at home.

The result of a citric braise with an achiote centric marinade, cochinita pibil is typically served with pickled onions and rice, often eaten simply folded into a heated tortilla. This simplified technique, using a shoulder roast of whatever size you wish, can yield enough for a small family (with great leftovers) or a small crowd. Your call.

Chef Son had assured me he could guide me through the easy technique, and once I located a source for Achiote that came with a recipe for the marinade right on the packet, he reviewed it and pronounced it as very close to the one he'd used in a restaurant setting. I gathered my ingredients and laid out a three day game plan.

Madrecita Achiote Marinade
4 tablespoons achiote (one small package)
2 cups orange juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground pepper
pinch ground cumin
pinch ground coriander
pinch oregano
(I added a pinch of cinnamon)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt to taste

Marinate seafood, pork or chicken from 3 hours to overnight
. (printable version here).
"Pibil" reportedly refers to a stone lined pit and "cochinita" is an entire baby pig, so calling this dish cochinita pibil is taking liberties, clearly. I suppose to be more accurate, we'd have to dub it Puerco a la Pibil or something like that, but a need for accuracy was off the table as long as we ended up with a delicious dinner in its place.

The Strategy:

Day one was to make the marinade according to the Madrecita packaging and let it sit overnight for the flavors to speed date, fall in love, and hastily marry.

Day two I cut a Niman 2-3 pound half pork bone in shoulder roast into four smaller chunks and placed it into the marinade for an overnight steeping.

The third day, I made a half recipe of the pickled onions, refrigerated them, then put the meat and the marinade into a dutch oven for a long slow cook at 325 degrees.

As advised by ChefSon, I put a bit of water into the pan to make sure the liquid level came 3/4 quarters of the way up the meat.After several hours in a low oven the meat was fork tender as required - all ready to go. I siphoned off as much of the fat as I could out of the pan, shredded the pork and spooned the defatted pan liquid on top. It can hold in a warm oven at that point until needed.
Pickled Onions, or Cebollas Curtidas

(Rick Bayless)
 Makes 7 cups
4 large (about 1 1/2 pounds) red onions, peeled and cut in half
2 cups fresh lime juice

Thinly slice the onions (this can be done using a food processor fitted with a thin slicing blade). Scoop the onions into a heat-proof, non-reactive bowl. Pour boiling water over them, wait 10 seconds, then pour the onions into a large strainer. Return the drained onions to the bowl, pour on the lime juice and stir in the 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cover and place in the refrigerator until serving time. Before serving, taste and season with additional salt if you think necessary. (printable version here).

I didn't make a habañero salsa as is often featured as companion piece for this first go round as nobody at the table was much of a pepper head. I do have habañero peppers finally set on our plant out back, so when they ripen I will make another batch of the puerco pibil and add salsa as a table condiment. Alternately you could set out a bit of Sriracha or jar salsa for anybody that wanted to lively up their tacos.
The results were delicious and not at all tricky, though it did require juicing a small mountain of limes and oranges as part of the prep. If you have any recipes calling for piles of citrus peel, dig them out for sure. You will have peels in abundance after making the marinade for the meat and onions.

Also, Annato is quite a tenacious dye, especially when combined with rendered pork fat, so you will want to take a bit of care not to paint yourself or your counter with any of the pan juices. That tendency put this dish into the sartorial "No Whites!" category for me already populated by barbeque, Rotel dip, and anything with potentially drippy staining propensities. You may have better luck than I have historically experienced eating messy sauces without staining light colored clothing. I know my limits and while this dish doesn't need bibs, it does require attention. You've been warned....

The final moist and smoky slightly sweet pork was its own reward for the requisite sticky time with the juicer. I'm not sure Johnny Depp's Agent Sands character from Once Upon A Time in Mexico would have shot me over the results, but you never can tell. I sat facing the front door, just in case.
Once you hit the point of Turkey/Pumpkin Palate Fatigue, get yourself a pork shoulder roast and try some Cochinita Pibil as delightful antidote, won't you? ¡Adios, amigos! And, Happy (relaxed) Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

When life gives you lemons...

A year or so ago after watching in amazement how productive the potted tree was at the house where I picked up my CSA baskets, I stalked a local nursery relentlessly until I managed to pick up two Meyer Lemon trees all my own.

I potted them both up and gave one to ChefSon to anchor the culinary patio garden he was cultivating at that time, keeping the other for our own back yard sustainability experiment in liberally mixing edibles with lookables.

Fast forward several months and ChefSon moved into a slightly smaller non-ground floored condo space vacated by his sister as she headed off to graduate school. I re-inherited Meyer Lemon the Second, and have the two trees flanking a mosaic bed out back.

Now nearly a year later and we have the first "all our own" crop of lemons to crow about.

After meditating over the possibilities of "what to do with all those lemons" I finally decided to forgo limoncello as we are just not that into liqueurs.

I skipped over marmalade because we haven't eaten all the loquat strawberry jam from last Spring's efforts and aside from aggressively gifting people with more jars of jam (not that anybody has complained, mind you) I don't want to end up with cabinets filled with jams and preserves.

Lemonade would be a decadent misuse of the Meyers I believe and while I have plans to use some of them, juiced, for a couple of Thanksgiving recipes, I decided the rest ought to be preserved in a salt mixture, where they will hold for several months.

Here from David Lebovitz' amazing website is the basic process, although I am calling in ChefSon later today to add any tweaks of his own, and he will rightfully share the bounty, seeing as one of the trees was originally given to him.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons

Scrub the lemons with a vegetable brush and dry them off.

Cut off the little rounded bit at the stem end if there's a hard little piece of the stem attached. From the other end of the lemon, make a large cut by slicing lengthwise downward, stopping about 1-inch (3 cm) from the bottom, then making another downward slice, so you've incised the lemon with an X shape.

Pack coarse salt into the lemon where you made the incisions. Don't be skimpy with the salt: use about 1 tablespoon per lemon.

Put the salt-filled lemons in a clean, large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add a few coriander seeds, a bay leaf, a dried chili, and a cinnamon stick if you want. (Or a combination of any of them.)

Press the lemons very firmly in the jar to get the juices flowing. Cover and let stand overnight.

The next day do the same, pressing the lemons down, encouraging them to release more juice as they start to soften. Repeat for a 2-3 days until the lemons are completely covered with liquid. If your lemons aren't too juicy, add more freshly-squeezed lemon juice until their submerged, as I generally have to do.

After one month, when the preserved lemons are soft, they're ready to use. Store the lemons in the refrigerator, where they'll keep for at least 6 months. Rinse before using to remove excess salt.

To use: Remove lemons from the liquid and rinse. Split in half and scrape out the pulp. Slice the lemon peels into thin strips or cut into small dices. You may wish to press the pulp through a sieve to obtain the flavorful juice, which can be used for flavoring as well, then discard the innards.

Figuring out how to best employ this seasonal excess reminded me of various reactions I experienced as I helped LawSchoolGirl make a drive from Michigan to Texas recently.

I purposefully did not take my camera, partly due to space restrictions in the packed car that was to serve as my return transport to Austin, and partly as intentional discipline.

I wanted to soak up the sights on this trip using my eyes and not my camera. I wanted to experience what could come from simply seeing, rather than my typical framing, cropping, and review of the shots captured instead of relying upon my own powers of remembrance and observation.

Sightseeing out a car window, rather than flying so far above the fray, is its own reward. As we moved at car's pace from the North, where frosts and freezes were routine repeaters in the local weather forecasts, all the Fall color was on the ground, already carefully raked off of sidewalks and driveways. As we made our way South to where leaves were still clinging, it was fascinating to me to use my roadside vantage point to observe patterns of harvest I miss from my suburban setting.

In Michigan I noted one particularly large orchard along the highway we took while heading towards Indiana. Acres and acres of empty trees merely hinting at the bounty they had so recently released. Were these apple trees? Pears? Whatever they were, they were meticulously groomed and obviously well cared for.

Apples are a fruit I've begun to really enjoy again after years of avoidance. Alar scares have been overcome by the wider availability of organics plus several newly introduced varieties that pack all sorts of flavor, texture and nuance back into what had become all about packaging with no real content. Honeycrisps are a current family favorite. I've seen them described as "cider still in the skin". I think I like their crunch almost as much as the taste.

We moved past miles and miles of emptied corn fields in Illinois, some of them with stalks recently plowed under while others were just beginning that process. As we moved further South we caught up with the harvest, finally driving alongside fields where ears were being stripped of their kernels which were then being blown into trailered hoppers.

After crossing the line into Arkansas, the dominant roadside view abruptly changed from corn to cotton. Most of the white puffs were off the plants already and packed into huge 18 wheeler sized loaves lined along field edges, covered with colorful tarps and tagged with coding. Here and there in the small spaces between fields were drifts of cotton bolls looking like so many tiny snow drifts in the November sun shine.

Also predominant in Arkansas, especially in the early morning portion of our drive, were large red tailed hawks, seated on fence posts, all facing the rising sun. I eventually lost count of how many I saw that morning, but it was clear they had at least a temporary affinity for the newly harvested cotton fields. I suppose all sorts of small prey were exposed by the stripping of the fields, and perhaps the hawks were following the harvest opportunistically? I noticed once the roadside cotton and a few grain fields I couldn't readily identify were replaced by stands of old growth pine and understory sumac, there were no longer hawk sentinels along the highway.

The last two observations I'll share were somewhat related. All along the way we passed and were passed by vehicles loaded down with what appeared to be an entire family and all their belongings. I ventured a guess many of them are migrant harvesters, moving South, following the crops being taken from the fields. Some of them may have been heading home to share holidays with family and friends, but I feel certain most of them were hoping to find more work in the still sun warmed fields and orchards of the Rio Grande valley.

Watching these families with their belongings precariously piled atop various vehicles and trailers I was starkly reminded of how much I blindly accept in the process of bringing food from the field to my table. Driving past mile after mile of field planted fencerow to fencerow in relentless monoculture format was a stark reminder of how deeply invested our economy is in large scale agribusiness.

Even if governmental policies were to more actively support/demand determined divestment from monoculture agribusiness, it will take years of careful crop substitution and repurposing of the vast majority of our fields and farms to move from one style of food production to another. Do we have the national will for such a task?

Do we really have any other good choices?

One final note. After getting back home and making some pumpkin sausage soup in anticipation of a rainy cold front supposedly on the way I had just over a cup of pumpkin purée left over.

Relying on a faint memory I turned to the search engine of the ever reliable Simply Recipes to unearth this gem of a recipe: Pumpkin Ginger Nut Muffins. (And sure, I am partly telling you this because I am so impressed with myself for recalling a recipe I read and thought looked good over a month ago... In TexasDeb memory terms a month is like seven years!)As promised they were a snap to put together, did not require a stand mixer or any special equipment, and filled the house with the most wonderfully evocative autumnal aroma while baking. After the olfactory buildup I was hopeful the taste would stand up to the sensory promise already made and oh.... Me oh my. It so did just that.

These muffins are not overly sweet and would be perfect to have on hand as breakfast or late night snacks for any and all kitchen help you might manage to corral in the next week or so. And if you don't find yourself with a cup of left over pumpkin purée, these are well worth opening a can. Make a double batch and just try not to eat half of them before your guests arrive.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

unsubscribe me!

One thing has led to another and I have two discoveries to share.

The first discovery involves a form of bandwidthism, a schism of sorts that has evolved in the blogging world between those with dial-up woes, and the rest of the interweb world.

As is all too typical of the "haves", I was going merrily along my way, posting photos, BIG photos, at times between nearly every paragraph of a post, convinced that the visuals were every bit as important as the text.

And they were, they most certainly are. I was correct about that, but not at all in the way I originally envisioned.

After reading a post on a recently discovered website, I was quite chastened by the author delineating that, if she had not visited certain web sites recently, it was chiefly due to her frustration with the agonizingly slow process of waiting for large photos to load, especially when accompanied by little in the way of explanatory or engaging text to keep her occupied while the images arrived.

There are all sorts of NSFW (not suitable for work) warnings to be seen on posts, but I don't recall regularly seeing anything warning dial-up users of an image-weighted post.

I had not only been ignoring the problem I had been oblivious to it. It struck me. How very broadband of me to assume that everybody would be content to wait, textless, while my three photos of a front porch berry arrangement crawled across the wires.

I am not certain what a proper response to this new awareness might look like, but I do know I will try to be more aware of how and when I use images in future posts. There will be times and there are certainly formats that are all about the imagery, but here especially, I like to think it is the text that is the work horse.

On to my second epiphany for this week.

At some point in the remote past, I had been opening my email program only to experience a dearth of arrivals. I was not bright enough to be properly grateful for that I suppose, and along the way I signed up for all sorts of "newsletters" and "alerts" and automated daily post type services. This meant that, whether or not I had anything in the way of real communiques from friends or relatives, I had what at the time was a comfortably stuffed looking in box.

Gradually however, I found myself scanning the "from" column to find the "real" mail scattered sparsely in between the automated stuff. The posts from people I really did wish to read, the actual emails from friends directly and only written to me, along with the few daily updates I still enjoyed perusing, rather than those I was feeling obligated to at least skim.

I now find myself in a situation where I will be away from all that is "online" for a span of days. Not wishing to return to hundreds of unread missives, I determined the need to unsubscribe my email account from everything of a daily delivery nature.

While I knew it would be relatively easy to do so, what I did not anticipate was the rush of lightness and a very distinct feeling of liberation that arrived along with a batch of "you have been unsubscribed" confirmatory emails. The relinquishing of these various daily shared obligations has triggered a sense of deep relief, not loss.

How did I get to a point where I was allowing myself to feel obligated to read almost everything that arrived electronically? I certainly do not feel I must open, much less read the various snail mail assortment I find in each day's postal delivery. I pursue what attracts my interest and ignore (recycle) the rest.

I'm not altogether clear how this intentional self immersion took on such unintentional emotional weight, but I am delighted to have raised my head back above those waters for now. Once I am back at the keyboard regularly again if I find it too time consuming to hunt down certain resources on a daily basis, I will resubscribe.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to an abrupt weaning away from a pattern of hours spent in front of this glowing screen. A change of pace, even when not altogether intentional, is always instructive if not thoroughly enjoyable. Whatever I miss much, I will enjoy that much more upon my eventual return. Whatever I forget about will be fine without me and vice versa.

It is a gorgeous day. I intend to get out into it, for once leaving my camera and my constantly post composing mindset behind.

While I am away, fare thee well, my friends. I will be back before too long and I hope you will return as well. In the meantime, feel free to weigh in with your own reactions to what you find in your email inbox in the comments section below. Here are a few queries to get the comment juices flowing....

Aside from the patently junky, are you getting only what you really want in your email inbox?

Do you feel obligated to stay subscribed, and past that, to regularly read everything you try out for a time?

Have you developed a sense of loyalty to certain sites? If so, does that serve only as boon to the time you spend at your computer or does obligation lurk just beneath the surface?

Let's hear it - what is your reaction when you open your email inbox?

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Gesundheit! I want to celebrate two teensy recent successes with you.

Success Numero Uno:I did not cave in and buy any chocolate candies for Halloween this year. Not even after the day itself when everything was marked down to half price. Sorry for handing out what many would consider the cheap stuff, neighborhood children!

That meant when (no "if" in this equation) the Hub and I did hit the Halloween leftovers (AND the bag we essentially scarfed down all ourselves in the two week run-up to Halloween) it was artificial flavored and colored sugary stuff sure enough, but it was Fat Free artificial flavored and colored sugary stuff. (cue crowd "oooooooooooh" noise followed by wild burst of applause).

Thank you, thank you, no really, thanks a lot, you can stop applauding now, really, (holds hand up), seriously, thanks very much....

Sucess Numero Dos:I finally got my act together and actually prepared the recipe for Marc's Cashew Chicken I'd salivated over on Simply Recipes recently after having the printout prominently displayed on my counter for four full days. It got to where I couldn't look at the piece of paper. It just sat there, mocking me, representing as it did one more thing I wanted to do but hadn't. Until I did yesterday, that is.

That success was twofold: I did what I set out to do AND the chicken was every bit as delicious on the plate as it read to be on Elise's blog.

The Hub had only one complaint about this: he felt the serving I gave him for dinner last night was too small. This was followed up by a mild fritz of sorts upon his discovering that yes, although we did have leftovers, I had in fact already stashed said leftovers in the refrigerator.

A recent practice I have employed, after two reasonable servings are on our plates for dinner, of putting whatever is left into a container that goes directly into the refrigerator, has proven to be a fairly successful gambit for preventing an all too common after dinner debacle which runs a bit like this.

One or the other of us will arise from where we have eaten, stack and then stroll virtuously (we are cleaning up yes? yay us!) into the kitchen with our dirty plates, ostensibly to place them in the dishwasher.

At this point however, the Hub might cave and dish up a second, hopefully slightly smaller version of dinner from the still warm leftovers in the pots and pans. Which is at least an open admission "I am going to eat more".

More perniciously, if I am the one taking the dishes into the kitchen, I sometimes end up standing flatfooted at the kitchen counter, "cleaning up" by scraping out and eating the remnants of some portion of our dinner directly from the pot or pan, often using the serving spoon itself.

Worst case scenario for me? The above happening while the water is running full blast for no good reason into the sink as I am power spooning that extra serving of mashed potatoes into my mouth.

Waste not want not!

Or put another way, Ask not for whom the elastic waist pants toll, they toll for thee!

So yes, putting any leftovers immediately into the refrigerator at least means if either of us is going to ignore that we have just eaten what is considered a normal portion of whatever is for dinner and get ourselves more food, we at least have to go to enough extra trouble to do so that it will hopefully make us stop and think long enough to realize: this is eating that is not about being hungry.

Back to Marc's Cashew Chicken.
Photo from Simply Recipes website
I have only one quibble with this recipe and that is with regards to the suggested addition of minced fresh ginger to the marinade.

The flavor was fantastic but the high heat for all the stir frying meant the ginger bits in the marinade over browned. Next time, I will either put the ginger into the marinade and then strain it out and discard it before cooking, or I will put the minced ginger in towards the end with the chopped onions instead.

I think my final answer will probably be B: add the ginger in with the onions. Once those bitty bits are in the marinade enough of them will stick to the chicken pieces that even after straining there will be over browned remnants in the end product. Which said over browned remnants, I hasten to add, did not keep us from snarfing down every delicious bite last night. No, no, not at all.

This cashew chicken had deep layers of flavor, was easy to make, fast to cook up, and especially simple after I did most of the prep hours ahead. Getting all the chopping and cashew boiling done at the same time I placed the chicken pieces into the marinade meant dinner was ready rapidamente.

Check the full recipe out here and see what you think.

How did you do at Halloween? Lots of trick or treaters in your place or no? Apparently some neighborhoods were swamped with kids from all over the area while others, like ours, had just enough of a crowd show up to mostly drain the candy cauldron.
I am the ghost of Halloween past.....
Granted, I was doling out the treats by the hands full to each child, but I figure that was the best way to make up for the whole "no chocolate here!" scenario.

Next up Holiday wise is Thanksgiving, and while I am not especially grateful for the recipe frenzy this season typically triggers "48 new ways to prepare cranberries!" I am happy that this year, as it turns out, all our merry band of four will be gathering for a shared meal after all.

With the Hub and both my babies at the table, food will be running a very slow second in the race for my attentive gratitude. Give me a chance to hang out with my family, and I am already one satisfied gal. Add to that the prospect of a (small! really!) piece of leftover pumpkin pie for breakfast the next morning, and it doesn't get much better.