Texas Barbecue Crawl

My brother-in-law hails from San Diego, and has become hooked on Texas barbecue since he had some great smoked brisket at a family reunion a few years back. He was in town over the weekend recently, and spent his day Saturday hitting central Texas barbecue joints in search of the best brisket in Texas.

I’ll have to get him to provide me with a written report, but he hit Kreuz, Smitty’s, and Black’s, all in Lockhart (the self proclaimed barbecue capital of Texas), Luling City Market, in Luling, and South Side Market in Elgin.

This weekend, he found Kreuz’s brisket to be the best, as he got a nice juicy piece with a crispy fat ring around it. At South Side Market, he found the brisket lacking, but also picked up 5 pounds of fresh sausage for me, some of which I smoked last night. Elgin hot sausage from South Side Market is the best i’ve ever had, and I love that I can get it fresh so I can manage the smoking process myself. One thing I love about the sausage there is it is not even tied into links. It’s just foot after foot in a continuous tube. I love curling about 3 feet of that into a spiral on my grill, then just breaking off a piece after smoking it over pecan for an hour.

Seafood Paella

Seafood Paella

Paella is one of those iconic dishes of Spain.  Other than sopa de ajo, chorizo, and manchego cheese, I cannot name another classic Spanish dish.  Well, there’s also gazpacho, serrano ham, fried hake, and pisto Manchego.  And don’t forget the tapas.  But really, that’s about it.

I first cooked chicken paella with a college roommate whose father was Cuban – I recall he brought a special spice from home called “bijol.”  I haven’t seen that since.  This recipe calls for saffron instead of bijol, so I’ve got the obligatory yellow-colored spice bit covered.

Paella calls for a large shallow pan called a paellera, but I uses a wide bowl-shaped saucepan, and that seems to work fine.  The key is to move the pan around a bit on the stove to keep it from burning.

Start with about 1 to 1 ½ pounds of seafood.  I’ll use about ¾ pounds of shrimp (before peeling) and either ¾ pounds of scallops, or about a 12-16 mussels.  Squid is another possibility.  I’ve added ¼ cup of browned chorizo on one occasion, and that does enrich the flavor a bit.  Actually – does chorizo ever get brown? It always looks red to me.

  • 1 ½ pounds seafood
  • 1 red and 1 green pepper, roasted, peeled, and finely chopped
  • 1 red onion (medium), finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 14 ½ oz. can peeled diced tomatoes (or whole, mashed with a fork)
  • 3 cups chicken or fish stock
  • 3 teaspoons paprika (smoked Spanish paprika if you can find it – I can’t)
  • 1 pinch saffron, or ½ teaspoon bijol
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • fresh ground pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil

There are a lot of steps in this recipe, and several of them are simultaneous, so I’ve split them apart and created a timeline so you can have a simple picture of the required activities.  My day job is working in IT – I can’t help it.  This should take you about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, depending on your speed and efficiency in the kitchen.  Actual cooking time is about 45 minutes if you manage to char the peppers and sauté the seafood in parallel with the earlier steps.

Prep Work – 15-30 minutes

Do the prep work first by setting aside the peppers and chopping all the other vegetables, peeling shrimp, cleaning mussels, etc.  Core and deseed the peppers, and slice one side open, so they can open up into a flat sheet (like a Mercator map of the globe).  If you are fairly efficient in the kitchen, you will have about 15 minutes of spare time during the cooking to peel shrimp, slice squid, clean mussels, etc., but for peace of mind, it’s easier to do it up front.

Onions, Parsley, and 3 cloves Garlic – about 8 minutes

In your paella pan, sauté the onions, parsley, and 3 of the cloves of garlic in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil for 6-10 minutes until the onions are translucent.

Peppers – 10-12 minutes

While the onions are cooking, set a cookie sheet on the top rack of the oven and broil the peppers on high skin side up until the skin is charred black.  The timing depends on how high the rack is, and how hot your broiler is, but this will likely take 10-12 minutes.  Just check on it after 5 to make sure you’re on the right track.

Tomatoes and Paprika – 9 minutes

Once the onions are ready, add the tomatoes and paprika.  Continue to cook on a low simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mix is about the consistency of jam.  This will take 10 minutes or less.

Peel Peppers – about 5 minutes

The peppers should be ready to remove from the oven while this is going on, so remove those, and peel.  They can be hot for bare fingers, but tongs can do the bulk of the work while they’re cooling.  If they’ve been under the broiler long enough to completely char the skin, they should be cooked through.  Dice and set aside.  Have another skillet and/or saucepan ready for the seafood.

Rice and remaining ingredients – 10 minutes

Once the tomato mixture is complete, add the diced peppers, 1 ½ cups of medium grain white rice, and stir it together for a minute with the heat on.  The rice should be evenly distributed and coated before adding the remaining liquids.  That will be 3 cups of heated chicken or fish stock, 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt, ½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, and a pinch of saffron threads.  Stir well and bring to a rolling simmer and cook uncovered without stirring for 10 minutes.  Note that paella is not supposed to be stirred the entire time, but you have to be good about moving the pan around the heat source to avoid burning – I compromise by stirring a bit after the first 10 minutes.  If you’re using chorizo, add that to the mix as soon as it is browned.

Sauté Seafood – 2-3 minutes

Once the final paella mix is simmering, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the 1 remaining garlic clove in another skillet, and sauté the seafood until it is barely cooked through – depending on crowding, about 1 ½ to 3 minutes.  For example, remove shrimp as soon as it turns pink, almost so early, you are worried that it may be undercooked.  Salt and pepper and set aside.

If you’re doing mussels, cook those at this time in a covered saucepan with about a half inch of simmering water until they open – about 5 minutes.  This is also the time to brown the chorizo, if you’re using that – add this to the paella as soon as it is ready.

Paella – 15 minutes

Once 10 minutes have elapsed, give the paella mix a stir and cover, lowering the heat to a low simmer for another 15 minutes.  If you have a proper paella pan, it’s not supposed to be covered, but I use a deeper saucepan and prefer to cover to cook the rice through.  Your seafood should be ready by now.  Wait 10 minutes into the final simmer, and stir in all seafood other than the mussels to the paella mix so that it cooks for the final five minutes.  If you’re adding mussels, place those on top of the paella once cooking is complete (discarding any that have not opened), then remove from heat and let rest, covered for 5 minutes before serving.

Couscous Salad

This is so easy, I’m almost ashamed to be posting it as a recipe. But I’m lazy, which is exactly why I like making variants of this dish. I discovered pearl couscous about a year ago, packaged at Whole Foods under the moniker “Israeli Couscous.” The funny thing is I’ve had couscous a number of times in Israel, but never found this stuff. They just serve the standard Moroccan couscous you can get anywhere on the Mediterranean or in Paris.

Anyway, I digress. Pearl couscous is just a larger sized pasta (about the size of a ball bearing or peppercorn) that’s cooked more like rice. It’s good to make at least two cups of this, so you can store it and have it handy as a snack, but I’ll provide the recipe for 1 cup.

  • 1 cup pearl couscous
  • 1/2 package of feta cheese (4 oz, i think)
  • 1/4 cup red onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 cucumber, diced
  • 1 medium tomato
  • red wine vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • olive oil

Cook couscous according to package directions. I prefer to brown it a bit in olive oil prior to boiling, but some brands are already toasted. Add a tablespoon of high grade (at least 92 octane) olive oil, stir well, and chill. It tends to clump together as the steam condenses, so I stir frequently during the chilling process, and sometimes even stir a couple of ice cubes into the bowl to speed it up.

Once couscous is chilled, chop onion, feta, cucumber, and tomatoes. Or add your own favorite vegetables – I’ve added olives, garlic, pine nuts, you name it. That’s it. It will keep for a few days in the refrigerator as long as you don’t have any leafy green vegetables in there, so you can pull it out for a light snack. If you’re making a lot, perhaps you can add the tomatoes at serving time so it will stay fresh. I prefer to serve with red wine vinegar (not balsamic). I think balsamic can be too sweet for this and i like the tartness of the red wine (or even white wine) vinegar. Grind some black pepper to taste. You probably don’t need salt as the feta will provide some salty flavor.

Mung Bean Noodle Salad with Tofu

Ever since I bought that Mung vase at a garage sale (I can’t believe the deal I got!), I’ve been wanting to fortify my soul with some mung bean noodles. Also known as glass noodles, or bean thread noodles, these guys come in bundles (sometimes tied with string) in a pink net bag at your Asian grocery store.  They look just like rice vermicelli, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may walk right by. I’ve seen these in the Asian section of my local HEB market here in Houston, too. You can do anything with these that you’d want to do with rice vermicelli, although these hold their own better and don’t turn into gluten immediately.

Advance warning – this dish could take more than an hour or so of elapsed time, given that you’re soaking, boiling, then chilling noodles. You can get a head start by preparing the noodles in advance.

This recipe is a cold salad, although it could be served with cold noodles and hot tofu (or other grilled ingredients, such as shrimp).  I have a friend who makes a noodle bowl from this with cold noodles, sesame oil, and scrambled eggs.

Start with…

  • 3 bundles mung bean noodles
  • 1 pound firm tofu
  • 5 limes
  • 1/4 cup cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons of fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • sesame oil (whatever it takes)

Soak the noodles in cold water for 10 minutes or longer. A day is ok, even, although it doesn’t make much difference to the end result. Boil like any pasta for 2 minutes. Remove and drain in a colander. Cover with ice to chill, or stir in some olive oil or sesame oil and refrigerate. If you refrigerate, it will turn into a solid mass, requiring some manual break up with your bare hands when you prepare the dish several hours (or a day or two) later. If you cover with ice and stir, you need 30 minutes to an hour to get the noodles chilled.

While the noodles are getting their groove on, you should get the tofu all cubed up, dumped onto an oiled baking sheet, and brushed with sesame oil. Depending on your measurement system of choice, cube size can be anywhere from 1/4 inch to 1 centimeter. Broil the tofu on high for 6 minutes and let cool – it’s ok to leave it in the oven after turning off the broiler – it won’t get too upset.

Squeeze limes into a measuring cup and chop cilantro. Once the noodles are cool, stir in fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice (through a strainer, if there are seeds), and a few shakes of sesame oil, until the noodles are evenly coated with everything and feeling good and slippery. Add the cilantro and tofu and stir some more. Add more soy sauce and/or fish sauce to taste. When it’s ready to serve, you’ll know it!

That’s about it for this simple dish. Enjoy!

Kibbutz Barbecue with a side of World Cup

Last night I had the pleasure of a cookout on a hillside in the north of Israel at a kibbutz with a number of colleagues. Of course, World Cup was playing on the big screen, as we watched Spain defeat Portugal 1-0.

The new dish I learned was quite simple. I’ve never been a big eggplant fan, and I was surprised to see two large eggplants just placed on the grill, whole. As one side collapsed, they were turned, and eventually removed.

Once removed from the grill, they were sliced open and slathered with generous amounts of tahini and the juice from half a lemon. I politely accepted a few scoops of the tender flesh, hoping I wouldn’t dislike it too much. It turned out delicious! I think it was the lemon that did it.

Smoky Salsa – First Attempt

I’m drowning in tomatoes over here. The spring garden has been bountiful this year, yielding piles and piles of tomatoes. Some years, I make a big pot of marinara sauce, and this year I decided to try my hand at salsa. It turned out OK, but this recipe definitely needs improvement. First, I’ll share what I did, then I’ll move to what changes I’ll make with the next batch. The fact that these were garden fresh tomatoes put me ahead of the game from the start, but I did not exploit my advantage to the extent that I would have liked.

  • 4 pounds fresh tomatoes (about 18 medium to small dudes)
  • 4 small cloves garlic
  • 6 medium sized peppers (a mix of jalapeño and serrano – also fresh from the garden)
  • 4 limes
  • 1 medium sized yellow onion
  • 1/4 cup of fresh cilantro (alas, i had to buy this at the store – it’s more of an early spring crop)

Pictured are my tomatoes, with a couple of tomatillos thrown in – I’ve got those going on in the garden this year, too.

You’ll want to do some things in parallel – first start up your smoker and smoke the garlic, peppers, and onion. I like to slice an onion in half and smoke for about 30 minutes. Smoke everything until the peppers’ skins are charred so you can peel those off. The garlic should be easily peelable at this time, as well.

Once you start the smoker, get the water going for your tomatoes – you want to boil those bad boys for about 10 minutes. Remove, and plunge into iced water, or put them in a colander and cover with ice, and pour some cold water over them. Let the tomatoes cool down a bit so you don’t burn your fingers, then peel off the skins and core out the stem part. If you’ve boiled them for awhile, they’ll be pretty pulpy and not need much help falling apart. Toss these into a saucepan.

Add the peeled garlic (if it’s still firm, dice it), and dice the peppers and onion and add those, too.  Heat on medium so the tomatoes are bubbling. Stir a lot to break up the tomatoes – if they’re too firm, you may want to run them through a food processor, but they should be falling apart easily by now. Squeeze in the juice from the limes, and dice the cilantro. Let this simmer, while you stir for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro. Pour into whatever jars you have to store this in – I have some quart sized Ball mason jars, but note that this is not a proper canning recipe. you will need to refrigerate. This batch made about 1 and 2/3 quarts of salsa.

The Results

I found the sweetness of the tomatoes to be fantastic, but the heat factor on the salsa was just not there. The smokiness was really good. The recipe needed salt, too. Adjustments I’d make.

  • Double the onion
  • Double the peppers
  • Add salt to the recipe (1 tablespoon)
  • Double cilantro
  • Increase lime juice (i had four small limes, not really juicy – 4 large ones or 6 small ones would do the trick)

So recommended ratios are, for each pound of tomatoes:

  • 1 large juicy lime, or 2 smaller ones
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 1 large or 2 medium jalapeño or serrano peppers
  • 1/4 medium yellow onion

I’ll try this out next week after harvesting another few pounds of tomatoes, and let you all know the results.

Fresh Dill Pickles Redux

I made another batch of fresh dill pickles from my garden cucumbers last night.  It’s getting hot and the cucumbers start getting yellowish orange on the vine from the heat, but they still taste great. The recipe is in this blog here. Here’s a picture before adding the liquid. I dropped in a couple of fat slices of red onion just so I could eat some pickled onions. I love those!

Fresh Dills

Stuffed Green Peppers

This year, in addition to my regular mix of jalapenos and serranos, I planted some “chocolate peppers.” I had never heard of those. They turned out to be larger in size – about the size of a poblano but the bright green color of bell peppers. Maybe had i let them age on the vine, they’d have turned browner in color. But I was hungry.

I just cored out the top of these guys, and stuffed them with ground beef, diced onions, some leftover pico de gallo, cumin, salt, pepper, and slices of corn tortillas. I slightly browned the beef prior to stuffing just to drain some of the fat and get it partially cooked before popping into the oven.

Bake covered at 400 for about 30 minutes. Yummy!

Sea Bass Filet, Asian Style

Smoked Sea Bass

You can smoke or grill this.  Sea bass is so good, you don’t need to do much to it in order to have a fantastic meal. It’s a rare indulgence for me, but i felt like being indulgent yesterday when I was at my local grocer.

I bought a nice 8 ounce filet, and marinaded it in sake, soy sauce, a bit of sesame oil, chopped ginger, and garlic for about two hours, turning once.

I smoked this over pecan for about 30 minutes then moved it to directly over the coals for about 3 minutes to char one side.  That’s it!

I hate wasting a good marinade, so I took this, and sauteed some mushrooms and carrots with red pepper flakes in the wok to create a nice topping.  I had to add about a tablespoon of flour to thicken, and served with rice.


Brazilian Black Beans and Rice (Feijoada)


If you want some black beans and rice that will kick any beans and rice recipe’s ass in futbol, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve enjoyed gallo pinto in Costa Rica (wonderful!), pintos and rice in Texas, and the southern Louisiana standard, red beans and rice. Feijoada beats all of them by a score of at least 3 goals to 1.

A good Brazilian friend hooked me up with this recipe, and for inspiration, I started with the recipe from the Eating Dangerously cookbook.

Total prep time: overnight (bean soak) + a little over 2 hours.

Here’s what I did:

  • 1 pound dry black beans
  • 1 1/2 pounds smoked sausage
  • 1/2 pound bacon
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ancho chile paste (if you’ve got it)
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 2 large bay leaves
  • 1  jalapeño, serrano, or habanero pepper
  • 1 cup salsa
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • aged cotija cheese or equivalent (optional)
  • rice (kind of important)

I started with 1 pound of dry black beans. Cover these guys up with at least an inch of water and soak overnight. After a couple of hours, you’ll need to check the water to ensure they’re still covered. First thing in the morning, I started up my smoker with pecan chunks and got the sausage and bacon smoking. Yes, I smoked the bacon – it is incredible. To smoke bacon, separate the strips so each gets imbued with wonderful pecan smoke. Once you’ve got the meat situation under control, return to the kitchen, pour the water off the beans, rinse them, and put them in a large saucepan. Add the beef stock, then enough water to cover the beans by about 1/4 inch. Add cumin and chile powder, bring to a simmer, then cook on low heat. Overall, I like to cook black beans about two hours. The meat will take about 1 hour to an hour and a half (I smoke at about 250 degrees F).

While all this cooking is going on, it’s time to do some chopping and sauteing. Dice up that onion and pepper, and chop the garlic finely. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the aforementioned chopped ingredients to said skillet. Saute for a few minutes until the onions are translucent. Add the bay leaves and chile paste if you’ve got it (I do have a recipe on this blog), and dip a slotted spoon into the beans and pull out about a cup of them. Mash the beans into the onion, pepper, and garlic mixture and continue to saute. Be careful you don’t burn the beans in the skillet – that can ruin the whole dish. Get this mixture bubbly hot, and add it to the pot o’ beans. Add salsa. Cover and simmer on low heat. This is about the time you need to think about starting your rice. I hate when I’m nearing completion of a recipe and then I remember the rice. D’oof! I cook brown rice, which takes 45 minutes. Call me a health nut – I want complex carbs with that sausage and bacon.

Now it’s time to check on the smoking activities. Note that i start with “smoked sausage,” from my local grocer but it’s so much better to smoke it again at home. I’m fortunate enough to live in Texas, which has the best sausage in the world – we’ve got a lot of Czech, Polish, and German influence throughout Central Texas, so there are some great brands from Elgin, Chappell Hill, and even El Campo. But I digress.

I like to smoke sausage until it starts to shrivel just a little bit. I also do not like to break the skin of the casing – too much fat can drain out and it gets too dry. When smoked long enough, most of the fat is gone, but there’s just enough there for the links to be juicy and tasty. OK, who am I trying to kid – this dish has high fat content – deal with it. If you take the time to nibble a piece of smoked bacon right out of the smoker, you’ll thank me later.

Once the meat is finished (60 to 90 minutes), remove and cut into small bite sized pieces. If you get nervous about fat content, dab it all with a paper towel before sliding it into the pot of simmering beans. Doing so will remove at least .2 to .4% of the fat before it hits your palate. Raise the heat on the beans to a more aggressive simmer and cook for at least 15 more minutes – or up to half an hour longer. Serve as pictured, with a crumbled aged cheese. I topped with sliced avocado.

Bom apetite!