BBQ Brisket, Creamed Corn and SaSo Sweet Potatoes

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Here’s how my morning started:

Me: Hey, how’d you sleep?

Mrs. NH: Oh, crud.  You forgot to season the brisket.

Me: Crap. You handle the girls’ breakfast and I’ll do it now.

You see, we take our brisket pretty seriously in the NH household.  It’s a rare, expensive delicacy in the Czech Republic.  It’s even more special when it’s accompanied by homemade creamed sweet corn – flash frozen in the waning days of the summer.  To top it off, Mrs. NH “invented” her own SaSo seasoned sweet potatoes the last time we had this and I could have eaten the whole damn batch.  Twice.

The girls like it, too (not the sweet potatoes – too much of a kick in SaSo). But to be completely honest, we have to fill them partially full of “appetizers” before dinner or I swear my 8-year-old daughter would eat 2 lbs of brisket all by herself.  But honestly, who can blame her? (Coincidentally, I came home to the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies this evening. Stop judging.)

We’ll freeze some of this batch of meat for barbacoa tacos to be enjoyed on some crappy-weather January Sunday.  It lightens my mood just thinking about it.

Lard-Fried Chicken

Hey, Larda**! Chow down, wide load!

Anybody who has seen “Stand By Me” will remember the above line.  Interestingly, as three white blocks of rendered pork lard were liquefying in my frying pan, the chant “Larda**, Larda**, Larda**!” did enter my mind.  However, instead of it being a taunt, it was all about self-satisfaction.  I had never cooked with lard and I was about to cook one meat with the fat of another meat.  What’s not to like?

I used the Homesick Texan’s recipe.  Fitting as I am homesick for Texas since the rest of my family is there.  But the fried chicken I whipped up last night went a long way to making me feel better.

The day started with a trip to the Tesco Express to pick up two whole chickens and three blocks of lard.  With plenty of free time on my hands I decided to break down the chickens myself, having not done that since the early days of my marriage.  My wife gets a little freaked out by raw chicken and with her out of the picture, I was free to add a little more “homemade” to this recipe.  With 16  beautiful pieces of chicken before me, I brined them in saltwater according to the recipe.  The recipe called for a minimum of 8 hours for the soak and by the time I got home from the store, I only had time to do them for about 7 hours.  Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t have more time – as the end result was just a tad on the salty side.

I fried up the birds in four batches.  They cooked evenly and the end result was a thin but delightfully crunchy crust surrounding the most moist chicken you’ve ever eaten.  I usually pass on chicken breasts but the white meat done by this method was tender, juicy and full of flavor.  Chased down with a cold Gambrinus and accompanied by celery sticks, it was a meal fit for a tub ‘o lard bachelor.

As I’m in full test kitchen mode, I froze a good portion of the leftovers for weeknight meals while the girls are out.  The four other pieces in the fridge will be dinner for me tonight.

This is one Larda** that can barely wait to chow down.

Chicken and Dumplings or Chicken ‘n Dumplins

Growing up in Nebraska I always loved chicken and dumplings.  My dumpling world was limited to the ones Mom made, however.  If I recall correctly, these were dumplings made with Bisquick.  They were delicious and a personal favorite but they are considerably different than the ones you’ll find on order in Texas.  Mom’s were pillowy spoonfulls as opposed to the traditional wide Texas strips.

My Texas experience with dumplings began at the Paris Coffee Shop.  Fridays were the special day of the week when Paris served wall-to-wall patrons with delicious helpings of chicken ‘n dumplins on cafeteria style trays along with traditional Texas sides like steamed okra.  It was a pilgrimage for many of us.  Comfort food after ill advised nights out or breaks from study sessions.  (Oh, who am I kidding, the latter probably never happened.)

So, imagine my delight when my wife-to-be brought me home to Houston during a break in the semester only to introduce me to her Gramma, in the kitchen, preparing a delicious pot of chicken and dumplins.  Mrs. NH’s family was serious about this dinner.  My future father in law even had his own dumpling bowl.  I’ll admit, I was a bit taken back by the seriousness of the whole ritual.  Dedicated dumplin bowls?

Yet, as soon as I took my first bite of these dumplins, I realized exactly what all the fuss was about.  I wanted this recipe in my family.  Marriage seemed like a pretty good way to lock it in.

So imagine my glee last Saturday night.  I was in the NH kitchen to witness the first mother-daughter joint dumplin cookoff.  Mrs. NH passed down the recipe and technique to Little NH just as her Gramma did before she passed away.  I have to say, love must be a major component in this recipe.  Because with both generations of NH girls in on the cooking, they tasted better than they ever have.  And that’s saying something.

Oh, and a note on the spelling of “dumplin”; I was informed at my first meal with the family of my wife to be that dropping the G was the correct pronunciation.  You think I’d argue and risk getting a second helping?

I have to say, it’s great to have family traditions like this especially when all I have to do is eat the finished product.  With any luck, my girls will pass this tradition down to my grandkids some day.  Time to get me a dumplin bowl.

Gone Fishin’

It was a pretty awesome Texas day on Thursday. Highs were in the 80’s with some fast-moving clouds overhead.  So, Little NH and I headed to Wal-Mart to pick up her very first fishing pole.  She passed on the Disney Princess pole and went for the Dora the Explorer model instead.  Not a move I would have predicted but such is life as a father of two girls.

After the trip to Wal-Mart, we met Mrs. NH and NH2 for a tasty outdoor lunch at Los Cucos.  I had a margarita and enjoyed the sunny day with my girls.  Little NH2 had plenty of shade and slept through the whole meal, seemingly smug from having gained 4 oz over the last 48 hours.

After that, we all came home and took a nap as a Texas rainstorm blew in and scattered as quickly as it came.  When little NH awoke, we tied on the Dora practice plug and threw a few casts in the backyard.  With the concept firmly down, we hit the lake in the subdivision where we’re staying.  The whole family.  Yep, little breastfeeding baby and all.

Little NH is generally a lucky kid.  On her first time playing the arcade “claw” game with me she won a stuffed dinosaur.  On her first trip fishing, her luck was mixed.  She caught something on her 3rd cast.  Unfortunately, it was a turtle.  Lucky for her dad, he slipped off the hook about a foot from the dock.  Little NH was momentarily crestfallen and I was relieved.  After that expedition, we made the requisite excited calls to the grandparents and went to sleep dreaming of more fish to come.

On day two, Friday, we stacked the deck in our favor of packing a wheat bagel as bait as well as the can of corn we had used the day before.

I mentioned that Little NH is lucky a couple paragraphs above, right?  Well get a load of these numbers: 5 casts, 3 hooks, 2 weights, one bagel, one snapping turtle, one 3″ crappie and one 16″ largemouth bass.

It was an exciting 45 minutes before the sun went down, I’ll tell you.  You should have seen the way the Dora rod bowed in two as we hauled in the fat ‘ol bass.  The folks canoeing on the lake and sitting outside their houses shared in our elation by saying, “Wow, that’s a big fish!”  “It’s only the second one she’s ever caught,” I yelled back.

Much like catching the big dinosaur with the claw on her first try, this experience is going to be tough to top.  That said, I think we both look forward to a lifetime of trying.

Texas Time

“Are you bored yet?”

That’s the question I get from, well, pretty much everyone who isn’t around me here in Houston.  The answer is, “No, not yet.”

Not at all.

Between the doctor’s appointments, sojourns to the grocery store, post office and whatnot, I’ve actually been keeping up with what’s going on in the office.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see friends from all over.  Sometimes in the same day.  Did I mention the grocery stores?

Oh, and then there are the wineries, museums, the zoo, brewery and ice cream factory that we’ve managed to visit.  Life’s good here in Texas.

Now, if we could just get this baby thing underway…

Shiner Brewery Tour – Shiner, TX

On the road between Houston and Austin and have an hour or two to spare?  Set the cruise to 74 on some back roads and hit the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas.  Any old GPS (or map) will get you there and it will be worth your visit.

I’ve visited a few breweries in my time and almost no one gets it as right as Shiner does.  It was a quick, informative, free and tasty tour.  On the beer trivia front, it was interesting to learn that Shiner has the capacity to bottle almost 500,000 bottles of beer a day.  Not to mention, it brews everything from a “Light” to a “Bohemian Black” and can switch its bottling line from style to style in about 20 minutes.  How’s that for old world beer and German engineering brought to small town Texas?

Finally, our gracious tour guide Anne, made it clear that some of the old world is still in this delicious Shiner brew.  The hops.  Yes, the hops come from “Germany and the Czech Republic”.  When we queried our hostess on pinpointing the actual home of the hops, she demurred.

All that and a secret recipe, to boot.

Merry Christmas from Texas!

We made it, we made it, we made it!  Flying through Amsterdam was a breeze and the flight to Houston was complete with generous wine service, movies in the headrest of the seat in front and all in our party had a really great flight.  We arrived to see Gigi, aunts, uncles and cousins and got a decent night’s sleep.

I got up this morning and set up Gigi’s new wifi router and now I feel right at home.  Merry Christmas to all of my faithful readers.  We’re looking forward to seeing some of you soon in person and we’ll be on skype with the rest of you!

Merry Chrismas!

Still in Prague (or) What are You Doing New Years?

Yep, we’re still here.  Went to the airport and came back home again this morning.  I loaded the bags into two (two!) taxis, rolling them through about an inch of snow.  The cars fishtailed their way to the airport, but we made it.  We got checked in (they didn’t even charge us for the extra bag) and made it to the gate and were doing hi-fives until about 5 minutes before we were supposed to start boarding.  Somebody passed us and said there would be a 5 hour delay.  Cinco horas, peeps.

Bye, bye connecting flight to Houston!

We called the airlines and they were characteristically clueless.  About another 20 minutes passed and they told everyone to go to a ticket counter – outside of the secured area.  As we went that way, we passed by a luggage carousel and saw our bags.  We loaded up and took another big van back home.  No sense in being stuck in Frankfurt with the other poor punters.

But we’re all taking this in stride.  With so many people in such terrible shape these days, even with some aborted attempts to get home, we are infinitely blessed.  We get to spend the lead-up to Christmas in a warm, semi-stocked house with an internet connection, Christmas music and each other.  Texas and family will wait.  It may not be the 25th or even the 1st but it’ll still feel like Christmas to us.

Heck, when you look at it that way, it’s Christmas already.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve done this before…

Summer Barbeque in the Oven

The temperature hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Prague this weekend and our apartment is on the top floor, with lots of windows and absolutely no A/C.  So, you could say that cranking an oven up to 300° for five hours and 400° for another hour and a half would not be in most families’ plans.  However, we’re not most families.  We are meat loving Texas BBQ freaks by nature.  We miss ribs and brisket.  If we don’t get ribs and brisket, we get cranky.  So, heat be damned, we made ribs and brisket.

I’ve been making Coca-Cola Brisket for years but have finally perfected it.  I have a pretty basic dry rub that I use that consists of paprika, cumin, S&P, garlic and chili powder.  It does the trick for me and doesn’t include any weird (to my palate) aromatics like cinnamon or ginger.  It’s what I imagine cowboys using after rustling cattle all day.  And man, it just works.  That, a 5 pound fatty brisket and a few ounces of Coke and it’s cooking time.

Now this is the part I had to kind of tinker with over the years.  For years I cooked it with the heat too low.  It was always tasty but too tough.  Somewhere I saw a recipe that said I should cook it a 225 F.  Little did I know, that wasn’t hot enough to melt all the fat and make the brisket fork tender – how it should be.  So, I did a little more research online and found that fat melts between 275 and 300 and still keeps the meat moist.  That did it.  The brisket we had this weekend was better than many of the briskets that I sampled on my last swing through Texas.  I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.  There was just one thing missing – smoke.

However, I took care of the smoke quotient on my second dish, ribs, by cheating with impunity.  I used a bottle of liquid smoke that Fredericksburg Flash and Mrs. Flash had imported on one of their recent trips to Prague.  (To see the more traditional, smoky route taken, check out Scamp’s post here.)  For the ribs, I used the same rub plus a couple of tablespoons of instant coffee and a few dashes of liquid smoke on the ribs.  I put them in a baking dish and poured in a bottle of dark Krušovice beer that I had boiled to reduce by 1/2.  After covering the pan tightly with foil, I put those babies in a 400° oven for 1.5 hours and watched as Ma NH put the finishing touches on some ‘tater salad and doctored a can of baked beans.

The ribs were barely clinging to the bone as I took them out of the oven.  Mrs. NH, not a huge rib fan (she doesn’t like things still on the bone – the McRib demographic?), sampled some of the meat that I pulled off one of the costillas.  She was floored.  I don’t even bother finishing these things on the grill.  The beer and rub give them so much flavor that even a quick dip in BBQ sauce is completely optional.

I congratulated myself loudly through the entire meal.  I think it’s time to have our Prague friends over for an oven BBQ.  This meat combo, Mrs. NH’s potato salad, a cooler of cold beer and a peach pie made with my Grandma’s recipe could make any summer heat tolerable.  Even if you happen to also be standing next to a 400 degree oven.

Cranky Frank’s BBQ – Fredericksburg, TX

I love to cook.  Part of the reason for that is the fact that I love to eat.  What’s more, I really like to eat good stuff.  So, Mrs. NH and I have put our cooking skills to use over the past 5 or so years in order to recreate the flavors from the US that we miss eating.  However, there’s one flavor that we haven’t been able to completely master in our Prague apartment.  That’s barbecue.  We’ve tried and even had some good success with ribs cooked in dark Czech beer and the legendary Coca-Cola brisket.  They hold our cravings at bay.  Well, I should say they did until this last trip to Texas.  Then, darnit, my folks took us to Cranky Frank’s and ruined everything.

Cranky Frank’s, quite simply, is the best Texas BBQ I have ever had.  No, I’m not the biggest Q expert on the planet but I do know the good stuff when I have it.  On our last swing through Texas, we hit the aforementioned Frank’s (Fredericksburg), Rudy’s (Austin), Strack Farms (Spring), and Salt Lick (Dripping Springs).  All had something to love, but honestly, Cranky Frank’s kicked the butt of all of them.

I ate there several years back when it was still Ken Hall BBQ and it wasn’t as good.  This time, it was superlative.  Tender, moist and succulently salty ribs.  Pull apart brisket laced with just enough fat to equal tons of flavor.  And the right “bang” of vinegar in the potato salad to stand up to Frank’s signature sauces.  Smokey beans with a nice, silky texture.  Wow, wow, wow.  It so hurts to write this post from over 3000 miles away.  I topped all of those flavors off with a Lone Star beer (criminally underrated brew, by the way) and haven’t stopped talking about the meal since then.  To add to it, I brought a Cranky Frank’s bumper sticker to a Welshman named Frank who works down the hall from my office.  Lo and behold, he’d been to Fredericksburg but sadly for him, not to Frank’s.

No, that meal hasn’t left my mind since I took the first bite off of those beautifully smoked ribs.  It’s the gold standard of Texas BBQ as far as this blogger is concerned.  The fact that it’s something we can’t replicate at home makes it all the more legendary – and that makes me cranky.

Baby Ruth Stuffed Jalapeños

Sometimes simple is the most surprising.  You know, like stuffing a jalapeño with 1/2 a mini Baby Ruth and throwing it on the grill.  Who on earth ever thought of that?  I’m not quite sure who came up with the dish but I had a couple as an appetizer at my folks’ house in Fredericksburg, Texas.  Yes, chalk up one more Texas surprise from my trip down south.

The picture above actually does the dish justice.  If you know what a grilled jalapeño tastes like and if you’ve ever had a Baby Ruth, you can imagine the dish.  The slightly crunchy, smoky jalapeño envelopes the gooey caramel peanut crunch of the Baby Ruth.  Heck, the whole thing is a bit of an assault on the senses.  The sweetness of the candy is the first flavor to hit your tongue but eventually gives way to the tang of the pepper and, if the cook missed a few veins of capsaicin, the spice.  The ones we had were just spicy enough to register on the palate but not over power the dish.  Delicious and really, really interesting culinary fodder for conversation.

I also got to enjoy a proper bubble tea while we were there.  The stuff my folks made was loads better than what I tried to make a few months ago.

Yeah, it’s a creative kitchen there in Fredericksburg.  It’s no wonder that when I was a little kid and people asked what my favorite food was I said ‘artichokes.’

Fuel City Tacos – Dallas, TX

Texas always holds its fair share of surprises and this trip was no different.   When a post-concert request for tacos turned into a detour to the “other side of town,” the surprise was well worth the trip.  When I requested tacos in the first place, I was expecting something like Taco Cabana.  What I got, thanks to a good friend, were Fuel City Tacos.

Yeah, the name confused me as well.  I mean, it sounds like a gas station.  That’s because it is.  It’s literally a hole in the wall of a gas station (complete with bars on late-night visits).  They serve Beef Fajita, Chicken Fajita, Pastor, Picadillo and Barbacoa tacos with plenty of options including corn or flour tortillas.  The Barbacoa came highly recommended so I got three.  Words cannot do these Mexican vessels of delight justice.  Fluffy soft, double-wrapped in corn tortilla, the barbacoa sits nestled under a blanket of onions, lime and cilantro.  On the side you get a red and a green sauce and I ended up using both liberally.  As the juice ran down my arm (and I fought to keep it off my buddy’s car interior), I was transported to a place one rarely gets to visit.   The place in your head where you know you are having some of the best food you will ever eat.  Fuel City Tacos are the best tacos I have ever had.  Ever.

Buoyed by this late night visit, I took the family on a “fuel stop” to Fuel City Tacos on our way out of Big D.  This time, our friends had recommended we looked for the “Corn Lady” in front, under an umbrella-topped cart.  She was described as serving some of the best corn you’ve ever had.  I took the bait and got the corn.  It was big kernel corn with a super-concentrated hot sauce, what looked like Chihuahua cheese and maybe mayo.  The picture makes it look like kind of a mess but the dish that she served up in the styrofoam cup was excellent.  The corn was just the right tenderness and the mix of other ingredients (I ordered mine “gringo” mild and am glad I did) served as the perfect foil to the sweetness of the corn.  That followed up by another five barbacoa tacos and we were ready to hit the road down to Austin.

Interestingly, on that drive south, I was overcome by an incredible sense of well-being.  Part of it was the fact that I had just spent several days with my bro, his family, and some of the best friends anyone could ever hope for.  The other part was the fact that Texas, in general, felt like pulling on a worn pair of jeans and Mr. Rogers sweater after a long day in a suit and shiny leather shoes.  Everything makes sense in Texas.  Even the fact that the best tacos in the state can be found at a gas station.

The Dog Ate My Homework

Hi, there.  Good to see you again.  I’ve been out on a bit of a winter break, I guess.  I have tons of reasons why I haven’t blogged in ages.  In classic blogger fashion, I’ll offer myself as the center of the universe and tell you why I haven’t blogged in such a long while:

1) I was traveling seeing friends and family in Texas.  I was eating, drinking and celebrating too much to find time to blog.

2) Since I’ve been back, all of that eating and drinking has caught up to me.  I have constant heartburn and cooking up new recipes has taken a back seat of late.

3) I have totally revamped all computers in my home as well as my wireless network.  That has eaten up all my free time after work.

4) Work has been fast and furious since my return and I’ve written a lot of BS there so I don’t feel much need to write further BS to you when I return home.

However, with all those excuses now behind me and my fist clutching a bottle of Zantac, I realize that I’m full of new blog posts just itching to be published.  I have loads of thoughts and impressions on Texas people, food and music as well as everything that goes with getting into the 21st Century world of Windows 7 all across the house.  There are even some politics that interest me these days from Ukraine to Massachusetts.  And, now that I see people are using Google translate to translate my blog from English to Russian, it’s good to see that my brilliance is going around the world.

Take heart, dear readers.  I’m NotHemingway and the 2010 fun is about to begin!

Adios, Texas!

The end of my first trip to Texas in three years is nigh and I am sipping one of my last American beers in the Houston airport.  Thanks to Google, I’m on free wi-fi and get to catch up on some mind numbing web surfing and prepare for the 12 hour flight ahead.

This has been an incredible trip.  Sitting in Prague, only glued into the Internet and a smattering of US news, one can get the impression that America has seen its last best days.  Being here, in person, amongst Texans, I get a completely different impression.  Yes, times are hard.  Some are faring better than others in these dicey economic times but most are getting by or will be in short measure.  The quality of life here continues to be one of the highest and most egalitarian that I have seen anywhere in the world.  And, if your idea of good living is great music, pretty country, succulent BBQ and incredible Tex-Mex, then everyone here is living like a king.

The American dream continues to roll on, meaning different things to different people.  Many are oblivious to what is happening outside their towns, and contrary to popular thought, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It hasn’t been many generations since man has had reason to worry about what is going on in other places other than the 20 city blocks that they frequent.  Kind of hard to blame them, isn’t it?

Typically, trips like these leave me conflicted.  This one is no different.  Family and friends are in abundance here and I miss and love each one of them.  But we’ve also made a really good life over in the Czech Republic.  We’ve been blessed with great friends, days that are always interesting and unpredictable and the chance of a lifetime.  Luckily, Mrs. NH and I agree that we’re not quite ready for the end of this chapter abroad.

That being said, there’s no place in the world like this great state.  It has everything that is great about this country. The best thing is, as we mess around abroad, Texas just seems to keep on keepin’ on and get better on the way.  So, if this Russian analyst is, in fact, correct, at least I can still be a Texan.

Deep in the Heart of Texas or Texas Deep in the Heart

We’ve been bouncing from town to town, house to house, party to party, concert to concert and Tex-Mex to BBQ since I arrived in the great state of Texas.  We’ve spent lots of time with old friends and even more time with family that we haven’t seen in years.  I’ll admit, I’ve found myself wondering why we live in the Czech Republic when life here is so good, easy and friends and family are so close.  Of course, I’ve just decided to concentrate more on tacos, margaritas and all of the great music in this state instead of worrying about the mysteries of life.

I’ve already gotten too deep here.  Time for a margarita.  Happy New Year.