Category Archives: American regional

It’s the Great Pumpkin!

Apparently celebrity farmers are the Next Big Thing.  And while a humble Sonoma County vegetable grower probably isn’t going to achieve the cult status of say, Joel Salatin (who was popularized in The Omnivore’s dilemma), Leonardo Urena was a Rock Star (captial R, capital S) at the Harvest Fair yesterday.

About a dozen people surrounded him as he told the tale of his 1110 pound pumpkin which took first place in the annual pumpkin weigh-off.  He grew it organically, kept it shaded and watered, and even cut chunk out of it to prevent mold from spreading and destroying his prized pumpkin.

Watching him answer questions made me realize that for every celebrity farmer, there are hundreds- if not thousands- of others who will live their lives in relative obscurity, and it makes me glad there are competitions like this at state and county fairs because it gives these quiet people a chance to shine before they come back down to the earth to which they’re so connected.

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Road Trip, Post 5: Backroads Basque Cuisine

Elko, NV

Interstate 80 isn’t exactly a backroad, but if you’ve ever been on it, you know you’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  It seems to be a vast nothingness– sort of like outerspace– but occasionally you’ll bump into a star, or in my case the Star Hotel.

By this point in the trip, I was pretty much ready to get home, but my day brightened considerably when the Nevada tourist information book said that our evening’s destination, Elko, was a center of Basque culture and had several Basque restaurants.  We chose the Star, which was highly recommended by the clerk at our motel (which had a Basque restaurant right next door, but didn’t get her resounding endorsement).

I had no idea what to expect when I got to the Star– I’ve never had any Basque cuisine nor have I read much about it (except one chapter in Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour), but once I saw the crowded dining room, I figured this place must be doing something right.

  

The Star Hotel was originally a boarding house for sheepherders (and still is, apparently; the waitress told us they ring the dinner bell for the boarders at 6:15 every night) and the tables are still communal and the meals are served family style. 

A word to the wise: come hungry.  Another word to the wise: if there are just two of you, split an entree because the amount of food they give you could feed an army.  If you do this, the restaurant charges the entree price for one person and then a charge for just the side dishes for the other person.

The minute we sat down, our waitress presented us with a loaf of bread and a giant bowl of cabbage soup with orzo in a broth that had a faint hint of saffron. 

We gobbled up our soup while we checked out the menu.  We decided to share a one pound ribeye and a bottle of wine.  The menu featured several bottles from Spain and we picked out the Sangre de Toro– blood of the bull– a natural choice to go with our steak.

Next, the waitress delivered a bowl of salad which was a crispy iceberg lettuce lightly coated with a creamy, garlicy dressing that was so good I could have picked up the bowl and licked all the dressing out of it. 

Then came the ribeye (which looked to be much bigger than one pound) topped with slivered garlic and a jaw-dropping array of side dishes: french fries, green beans, pinto beans, and spaghetti.  

 

According to our waitress, the pintos and the spaghetti were dishes commonly served at the hotel– my guess is that they provided good stick to your ribs food for the cowboys who were probably pretty hungry after a hard day of herding cattle.  The french fries were excellent– crisp and hot.  The spaghetti and green beans were okay, but the pintos were nice– perhaps a bit skimpy on seasoning, but they were properly cooked instead of being mushy blobs.  You can always add salt, but you can’t do much about overcooked legumes.  The ribeye, by the way, was great.  Cooked exactly the way we ordered it (medium), and the garlic scattered on top was a welcome condiment.  When we finally pushed back from the table, I felt liked I’d gained 10 pounds, but I was totally content and thrilled that I’d discovered a new American regional cuisine that I didn’t even know existed.

If you’ve been to Spain and have tried traditional Basque cooking and come here expecting more of the same, you’re probably going to be disappointed.  This isn’t totally traditional Basque cooking.  It’s Basque-American and reflects how Basque immigrants adapted their culinary tradtions to a new continent with different ingredients, which in my opinion is more “authentic” that trying to precisely mimic dishes being cooked 6000 miles away with an entirely different larder of ingredients.  For instance, many traditional Basque dishes use seafood because the region is bordered by the sea, but in the mountains of Nevada, seafood doesn’t make sense. Lamb and beef does.

Of course, I’m sure they get some seafood in for Paella night, which is Tuesday night at the Star Hotel.  I was sorry that it was only Friday and that we couldn’t stick around to try it, but if I ever find myself back in Elko, I’ll make sure I’m there on a Tuesday.

Road Trip, post 4: Cal-Mex is no Az-Mex, but it’s a good 2nd

Santa Rosa, CA

I’m going to admit my bias against California burritos right up front.  My Mexican food habits and predilections were formed largely in Arizona, so I just can’t wrap my head around a tortilla wrapped around rice.  In Arizona, burritos are filled with lots of things, but not rice (unless you’re eating at Chipotle or another fresh-mex chain), so in California I pretty much steer clear of burritos, which sometimes makes choosing a taqueria difficult since so many of the online reviews focus on burritos.

You can’t swing a dead cat around these parts and not hit a taqueria, but Taqueria Santa Rosa on Mendocino Avenue seems to be one of the most popular.  I’ve been here twice and the first time had the carnitas plate, based upon online reviews.  Like the reviews said, the carnitas were certainly crispy, but they were also too dry.  On my second visit, I got tacos with carne asada and pollo asado and these were spot on– especially the carne asada.   The chicken came with a salsa verde and the beef with a red sauce.  Rice and beans are very good, as are the chips and salsa (not complimentary).  The chips are served with both an incredibly fresh-tasting red salsa, and a green salsa that is unlike any other I’ve ever had.  It seems to be a blend of traditional salsa verde and guacamole and kept me dipping for more.

The hubs had a burrito that’s about the size of a newborn, and after he eats it he looks as if he’s in his third trimester carrying a burrito baby.  I never get to try this because 1) as I mentioned earlier I’m not keen on the CA burritos and don’t press the issue and 2) If I reached for a bite I might draw back a stump.  Anyhow, the boy likes it and it usually seems to satisfy his man-wich appetite.

When we make it back to Santa Rosa there are other taquerias I must try, but I don’t expect I’ll ever find anything to meet the impossibly high standards set by the Arizona-style green chile chicken burros.

Road trip, post 3: Taylor’s Refresher: Better than In n’ Out?

St. Helena, CA

Every trip we make out west invariably includes a stop at In n Out.  My husband is obsessed with the secret menu and orders all things “Animal Style”.  In n Out is great, but I must admit, Taylor’s Refresher has In n Out beat by a mile (although the husband would argue that point until his dying breath).

First things first: for burgers, fries and shakes, this place is pricey, despite USA Today listing it as a “bargain bites” place in February of this year (are they kidding? A $7 burger and $6 shake are not exactly  “bargains” during this sucking recession).   But was it worth it?  I set out to see if the proof was in the pudding.

The burgers actually tasted like beef (thanks to Niman ranch products); the lettuce and pickles both nice and crisp; buns toasty with just a hint of crunch.  The fries were hot and crispy on the outside, but still soft on the inside, and the strawberry shake was sublty sweet and tasted of REAL strawberries.  In fact, the ice cream was still white, not that pepto bismol pink color that is a tell tale sign of a shake concoted with artificial strawberry flavor.

So was it worth the $25 price tag for two burgers, fries and a shake?  It’s not something I could afford to have for lunch every day (or every week for that matter), but when it’s totally fresh, made with natural ingredients and  humanely raised, $25 isn’t too much to ask for real food.

Road Trip, Post 2: The movie star, the Mexican restaurant and a moral

Winslow, AZ

So we pull into this town, famous because of its mention in the Eagles song “Take it Easy”, after 16 hours on the road and ready to rip each others’ heads off while hunting for a motel in the middle of town instead of along the interstate.  We finally found one and headed to find some food, and based upon the state of the motel room, I wasn’t expecting much food-wise from Winslow.

I once lived in Arizona for 10 years and knew next to nothing about Winslow or anything in it.  But I lived here long enough to know that if you find a Mexican restaurant with a lot of cars outside, it’s probably worth venturing in.  So we went into the Casa Blanca Cafe and after picking out my usual (Green Chile Chicken, the dish I use to test the worthiness of a restaurant) I looked around and spotted someone who looked VERY familiar sitting at another table.

“Oh my God! That’s the dad from Family Ties,” I told my husband.  Then I thought, “It couldn’t be.  We’re in Winslow-freaking Arizona.”  But then I heard him talk and, sure enough, it was Michael Gross.  Then I started debating whether or not to say something to him.  I had my camera.  Do I ask to get my photo with him? Do I get his autograph? My husband told me to leave him alone, but I was unconvinced.  This is where the evening took a much more interesting turn, if you’re food obsessed like I am.

A man walks in, his arms full of jars of honey, and walks over to Dad Keaton’s table and starts handing out honey to him and his seven dining companions.  I love honey and I was super jealous. I no longer cared about getting a photo with a hollywood star, I wanted to talk to the beekeeper about his honey.  I summoned him over and he told me about the different varieties he had including desert wildflower and a camelthorn honey (we also discovered that his brother lives about 10 miles away from my hometown in Missouri which is also where I currently hang my hat).    The camelthorn was most intriguing.  It turns out this plant is considered one of the “dirty dozen” invasive species of the southwest, but this beekeeper was using it to make honey.  Sadly, he had none left, but it is on my list of honeys to try.

So Michael Gross leaves, and I’m having a few regrets about not asking him for a photo until a woman pops up out of the booth behind us while the waiter, waitress and I were talking about our celebrity sighting.  She starts talking to my husband and me and it turns out she’s the owner of the restaurant. 

Helen Ribera looks like she could be anybody’s Nana.  She’s dressed in a purple print top and is wearing a large, striking necklace that hits just above her waist.   She proceeds to tell me that she’s owned the restaurant 40 years and that she makes sure everything in her restaurant is made from scratch.  The beans soak overnight and are cooked slowly starting in the morning.  She makes sure the rice is made in 4 quart pots so everyone gets it fresh– no bain maries keeping food warm here.  The honey served with the sopapillas? She gets that from the honey man who was in the restaurant earlier.  It was so great to find a small-town restaurant that’s committed to fresh, homemade, local-when-possible food.  The food doesn’t have to be fancy; at Casa Blanca  it’s just good and simple home cooking.

The green chile chicken enchiladas, which were excellent along with the homemade beans and rice

The green chile chicken enchiladas, which were excellent along with the homemade beans and rice

Sopapillas with honey made locally in Winslow, AZ

Sopapillas with honey made locally in Winslow, AZ

 Mrs. Ribera was an absolute gem and I’m so glad she told us about her restaurant and her food.  After meeting her, I no longer minded that I didn’t talk to Michael Gross.  In fact, I decided I’d rather have her picture than his.  Unfortunately, she had already left when I went to ask if I could take her photo.  But I managed to talk our waiter, Stephen, and the waitress who is also Mrs. Ribera’s granddaughter, Brianna, into letting me take their photo.

Stephen and Brianna, servers at Casa Blanca Cafe

Stephen and Brianna, servers at Casa Blanca Cafe

So the moral of the story: Flash and fame may be impressive, but it’s usually the quiet people who have the best stories to tell.

* For those who are wondering what Michael Gross was doing in Winslow, it seems he was on some sort of train tour.  Winslow is a big railroad town and it turns out Michael Gross is a train and railroad enthusiast.

Road Trip, Post 1: Czech this out

Prague, Oklahoma

As my husband and I set off from Missouri bound for California with a mission of finding a job, I really didn’t think we’d make too many food discoveries along the way.  Boy, was I wrong. 

I was totally sick of paying tolls on I-44/I-40 in Oklahoma, so being a massive cheapskate about things like that, we took an exit that gave us a partial refund on our toll and took the back way into Oklahoma City.  About halfway into our detour, we hit Prague, and I see this sign:

Did someone say kolache?  I grabbed my notebook to mark the date, just in case I could make it back here for the festival. 

And then I saw this:

 

I had my husband swing the car around like he was Luke Duke driving the General Lee.  The Prague Bakery, which was full of locals  enjoying coffees, pastries and each other’s company at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, had lots of different sweet rolls and donuts, but there was only one object of my desire.  I wanted a kolach, but I couldn’t buy one individually.  I had to buy them by the dozen.  Darn.

Kolache (plural for kolach) are small pastries filled with fruit or cheeses that hail from Central Europe and they are an ideal companion to a cup of coffee.  We opted for a mixed pack of cherry, apple and apricot.

These were delicious (especially the apple and apricot) and managed to last us for three breakfasts on our road trip.  They were also the perfect reminder that getting off the interstates is a great way to find good food.

Springfield, MO: Center of the Culinary Universe

Just kidding.  But at least it is today.  I about fell over when I clicked to the NY Times food section today saw this article on Springfield-style cashew chicken. 

To those unbaptized in the oyster sauce gravy, this is a dish that unites Springfieldians culturally.  It’s basically fried chunks of chicken (all white, naturally), bathed in the aforementioned gravy and sprinkled with cashew nuts and chopped green onions.

I took this photo at Fire & Ice while I was in town visiting last summer.    This recipe is THE original SSCC.  Fire & Ice only serves this dish on Wednesdays and native Springfieldians pack the place to get a taste of  this particular cashew chicken because of its pedigree.  The then-chef at Fire & Ice was Wing Yee Leong, the son of David Leong who is the father of SSCC.

When I went back to Fire & Ice in January something was terribly wrong.  Someone had tinkered with the recipe.  I detected Chinese five spice in the batter and I was not pleased.  I looked around the restaurant’s open kitchen and noticed Wing Yee was not there.  Today’s NY Times article confirmed my suspicions. He left the restaurant in December. 

Even though SSCC isn’t authentic Chinese cuisine, its authenticity comes from its roots here in Springfield. And for people like me who cut their teeth on spare ribs at Leong’s Tea House and Gee’s East Wind, when you mess with the original recipe, you mess with perfection.