Archive | March, 2009

Is Missouri a Southern State?

19 Mar

mopostcard

We think not. Read the short story below — it comes from Liz Williams of the Southern Foods Museum in New Orleans, LA. Our negative vote has just been recorded.

Recently the question of what is a southern state has come up again. Originally we decided to define the south by the generally agreed upon definition of the New South. This decision is not set in stone. As we approach our one year anniversary here at the Riverwalk, I have been having second thoughts about what it means to go forward and just keep doing what we have been doing because that is what we have been doing! So as not to get into a rut – and thereby let opportunity and creativity pass us by – I think that it is time to re-examine the question of what is the south?

I would like your advice and thoughts on the matter. Does Missouri qualify as a southern state? Whatever your answer is -why? What about including Puerto Rico in our embrace? It is not a state, but neither is Washington, DC, and we include it. I am throwing rules to the wind and really want to hear from you about this. Please email me at liz@southernfood.org. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Catfish Sliders and Mint Juleps in West Hollywood

19 Mar
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As the blue skies of summer stealthily approach—hey, March is close enough—your thoughts naturally turn to all things barbecue.

You’re not alone: the famed Venice Beach institution known as Baby Blues BBQ is quietly opening up a new West Hollywood spot on Friday, and they’re bringing their Guinness-soaked ribs with them. (Translation: won’t stay quiet for long.)

Think of the grub as authentically inauthentic—meaning, they proudly mix things up in the kitchen rather than focusing on one particular region. Of course, if you’ve lost a few good shirts to the founding Venice spot, you know that already—but this new outpost has a giant kitchen complete with deep fryer, so in addition to your old favorites, here you’ll find Fried Green Tomatoes and Hush Puppies.

Grab a stool to the left at the full bar (another improvement) for a Mint Julep, and order her a rum-heavy Sweet Tea. (It’s in a pint glass, but she can handle it.) You can choose your own sliders, everything from pulled pork to brisket to shrimp to catfish—but if you’re thinking meat platter and slaw, you’ll probably want to get yourself a table by the windows.

It’s just like a backyard, without the backyard.

Cashew Chicken in Springfield, MO

17 Mar

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Our friend John T. Edge recently wrote this piece:  

STANDING in the parking lot of Mr. Yen’s, a 560-seat palace of Chinese cooking owned by a family friend, David Leong scanned the red clay pagoda roof and rose-colored walls and staked a claim that few here in the Ozarks would dispute.

“All this came from my cashew chicken,” said Mr. Leong, the 88-year-old patriarch of the Chinese food industry here. “All these restaurants. This wealth. From my family.”

Cashew chicken, in the form first cooked by Mr. Leong nearly a half-century ago, is not the stir-fry served by many Chinese-American restaurants. Around Springfield, cashew chicken — deep-fried chicken chunks in a brown slurry of soy sauce, oyster sauce and stock, scattered with green onions and halved cashews — is the culinary common denominator. It’s a weeknight dinner, bought from a drive-through. It’s a weekday plate lunch, accompanied by fried rice and an egg roll.

More than 70 Chinese restaurants in this city of 157,000 serve cashew chicken, from Lucy’s Chinese Food, a three-location chain owned by brothers John and Tom Gregoroski, to the Canton Inn, a converted Dunkin’ Donuts where Chiwa and Foon Wong keep a pot of chicken stock simmering on the stove and the cashew chicken special costs $3.75.

In St. Louis and Kansas City, cashew chicken is served “Springfield style,” heralded with provincial categorization like Sichuan or Cantonese. In Springfield, however, cashew chicken accepts no categorization.

It’s a standard at the Vietnamese restaurant Little Saigon. (The menu includes a section of “breaded chicken” dishes.) Golden Korean, a neighboring strip-mall purveyor of bulgogi and kimchi, sells crab Rangoon purses by the half-dozen and cashew sauce by the pint.

Cashew chicken transcends nationality. At Ziggie’s, a diner owned and operated by the Zendelis, a family of Albanian origin, it’s a white-board special, served in a skillet-shaped ceramic crock with a roster of side dishes that includes cottage cheese and hash browns.

“It’s not necessarily Chinese,” said Vicki Hilton, a local zoning inspector on lunch break at Ziggie’s. “Our kids eat cashew chicken in their school cafeteria.” (A number of schools rely on the Hopsing brand of cashew chicken sauce mix, a powdered product made in Springfield, colored with turmeric and goosed with MSG.)

The Heritage Cafeteria, a strip-mall dowager that opened in 1960, stocks chicken planks, yellow rice, roasted cashews and a vat of brown gravy alongside haunches of roast beef and tubs of gelatin salad. “Our sauce is made from chicken base, soy sauce and Clear Jel,” a thickening agent, said Kulwant Hundal, a native of Punjab, India, who has worked the line for 10 years. “I love it.”

At Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, the flagship location in a Springfield-based national chain, Marcel Bonetti is the company’s executive chef. “I brought my recipes to this country,” said Mr. Bonetti, a native of Aix-en-Provence, France. “But all I heard was cashew, cashew, cashew. So I made my own version. I added bourbon.”

Some Chinese restaurateurs with fine-dining aspirations try to resist the pull of cashew chicken. They fail.

“We’ve got dim sum on the weekend,” said John Burke, 36, proprietor of Mr. Yen’s. “And spicy pigs’ ears on the menu. But it doesn’t matter — 40 percent of our business is cashew chicken.”

“It’s not the Chinese cashew chicken you think you know,” said Mr. Burke, whose family immigrated from Taiwan in 1976. “It’s fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. It’s Missouri. Only we sub fried rice for potatoes.”

“When I took over, I wanted to serve something other than chicken nuggets in brown gravy,” Mr. Burke continued. “My father said: ‘Are you stupid, son? Are you that stupid? You can’t cook Chinese in Springfield without cooking cashew chicken.’ ”

“I fought it at first,” he said. “Now I eat cashew chicken three or four days a week.”

Kelly Knauer, a native, was eating an order of the same at Fire and Ice, a swank open-kitchen restaurant that once featured a pizza with fried chicken, cashews and mozzarella. “Cashew chicken is a kind of inside joke in Springfield,” he said. “But it’s also our daily bread, our defining food. And it starts with David Leong.”

Unlike many dishes of American pop provenance, Springfield cashew chicken comes with a well-curated narrative. Residents here recognize the primacy of Mr. Leong. They embrace the Leong story as a Springfield story.

Mr. Leong immigrated to the United States in 1940 from Guangdong, China. He became a naturalized citizen, then served his adopted country during World War II. (During the Normandy invasion, he was in the fourth wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach.) After the war, he bounced from restaurant to restaurant, from Philadelphia to New Orleans to Pensacola, Fla.

At Pirate’s Cove, a Pensacola restaurant where he honed a reputation for broiled scallops and flounder braised in sweet and sour sauce, Mr. Leong met a Springfield neurosurgeon, John L. K. Tsang, who was also a native of China. In 1955, Dr. Tsang lured David Leong and his brother, Gee Leong, to Springfield to open the region’s first Chinese restaurant, Lotus Garden.

It didn’t last. A year later the brothers were cooking at the Grove, a supper club famous for T-bones and highballs. They dished up sweet and sour pork and moo goo gai pan. And, inspired by similar Chinese dishes, David Leong experimented with the dish that would become cashew chicken.

“When I moved here in the 1950s, people kept telling me about fried chicken,” Mr. Leong said. “I did what they wanted. I gave them fried chicken with Chinese oyster sauce and cashews.”

After six years at the Grove, the brothers departed. “Bill Grove didn’t want to pay me to cook,” David Leong said of the owner. “He thought anyone could do what I did. He was wrong. Wasn’t long before he was begging me to come back. I had my own place by then.”

That new place, Leong’s Tea House, set on the suburban fringe of town in what had recently been a cornfield, didn’t come easily. Loans were tough to secure. And some locals suspected the motives of Asian immigrants. “This was not long after the war,” David Leong said. “They thought all Asians were Japanese kamikazes.”

In November 1963, less than a week before the new restaurant was set to open, someone tossed 10 sticks of dynamite at the base of the low-slung building and stole the lion statues that flanked the front door. The crime made the local newspaper. But, as was the case with many incidents of bigotry-born violence in the 1960s, no convictions followed. The Leongs bounced back, repairing the damage quickly and opening the 350-seat white-tablecloth restaurant within a couple of weeks.

Inspired by the economy of the dish and the success of the teahouse, a number of cashew-chicken-centric restaurants followed the Leongs’ lead. (Fewer copied their egg rolls. According to David Leong, the secret ingredient was peanut butter.)

In 1972, when the brothers parted ways, Gee Leong opened Gee’s East Wind, on the same street, on the opposite end of town. And Cheong Leong, David’s oldest son, opened and closed a number of restaurants named House of Cheong, some of which were housed in former Whataburger franchises.

Throughout the 1970s, other Asian families immigrated to Springfield. First came other Chinese, then a large influx of Vietnamese. Many opened Chinese restaurants. By the 1970s, the Leong family dish had become such a part of the Springfield culinary ethic that the curriculum at Graff Vocational Technical Center included instruction in the cooking and serving of hillbilly steak sandwiches, chocolate cream pies and, yes, cashew chicken.

At the moment, no Leong family member runs a Springfield kitchen. In 1997, after the death of his wife, Wong Shau Ngor, David Leong closed Leong’s Tea House. In July 2000, his brother Gee Leong closed Gee’s East Wind. (Soon after, he died.) Cheong Leong moved to Las Vegas.

Wing Yee Leong, 52, another of David’s sons, who was manning the fry station at Leong’s Tea House when the family restaurant closed, now works as a journeyman chef. Over the last decade he has moved from Cartoon’s Oyster Bar to Mikayla’s at the Millwood Golf and Racquet Club to Fire and Ice, where he fried chicken and blanched cashews until last December. Each of those restaurants has adopted cashew chicken as its own.

More recently, Wing Yee Leong was a consulting chef at Pan Asia, a downtown Springfield restaurant owned by Dara Thach, a Cambodian immigrant. The restaurant closed recently, but before it did, Mr. Thach took pride in the dynamite sauce, a mix of mayonnaise and chili purée, that he served with sushi rolls and the cashew chicken recipe he adapted from the Leong tradition.

Occasionally the younger Leong joins his father for an early coffee at Canton Inn. One recent morning, as David Leong read a Cantonese language newspaper, Wing Yee Leong and Foon Wong reminisced about the Cashew Craze fund-raiser that used to take place as a benefit for the Developmental Center of the Ozarks.

“One year the Rasta Grill did a jerk cashew oyster sauce,” recalled Wing Yee Leong, as he worked a pair of chopsticks, pulling noodles from a bowl of soup. “I’ve tried some different stuff myself. Cashew chicken on a stick, fried in cashew flour, with an oyster dipping sauce. Cashew chicken is just like a hamburger. Everybody fixes it different.”

CASHEW CHICKEN

1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast (per person)
2 eggs per pound of chicken
1/4 cup milk per egg
flour
salt & pepper
peanut oil for frying

Sauce
2 chicken bouillon cubes per cup of water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons oyster sauce

chopped green onions
cashew halves
hot rice for serving

Heat water to boiling and dissolve bouillon cubes. Stir 1/4 cup of broth into cornstarch to make a smooth slurry. Stir cornstarch slurry into broth with sugar and oyster sauce. Set aside and let sauce thicken as chicken cooks.

Heat oil to 350-400° in deep pan or fryer. Cut chicken into small pieces, dredge and let stand in flour for 15 minutes. Mix together egg, milk, and salt & pepper. Remove chicken from flour and let stand in egg mixture for 10 minutes. Roll chicken pieces in flour and deep-fry, in batches if need be, until golden. Drain well on paper towels and keep warm in covered pan in 200° oven.

Serve chicken over hot rice, topped with sauce, cashews, and chopped green onions. Pass soy sauce at table.

P.S. Is cashew chicken good for you? Well, all I can tell you is that my brother says the last time he ran into used-to-be-skinny-and-shy pal Ling, here was “this big, muscular extrovert with a hot girlfriend.” That’s what Springfield Cashew Chicken does for a person (especially, a Leong). Haw!

FL Crystals Offers Organic Sugars

15 Mar

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Florida sugar cane being harvested in the above photo

I just spotted these products for the first time at my local PUBLIX supermarket. Can’t wait to give them a try. We are trying to buy more organic products and purchasing locally produced products is never a bad idea. Read the blurb below from their web site and request their products at your local co-op or mega mart.

Florida Crystals is a leading domestic sugar producer and North America’s first fully integrated cane sugar company, guiding our sugar from the field to the table.  We are America’s first and only producer of certified organic sugar, grown and harvested in the United States, and the first and only American sugar certified Carbonfree® by Carbonfund.org. Our renewable energy facility is the largest of its kind in North America and provides clean energy that powers our sugar operations and tens of thousands of homes, which helps us reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Florida Crystals® Organic Cane Sugar jugs and pouches are now certified Carbonfree® by CarbonFund.org!  Made from pure sun-sweetened sugar cane, we are the only source for organic cane sugar grown and harvested in the U.S.A., produced in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program and certified organic by Quality Assurance International.  Our organic sugar delivers a flavor that is earth friendly and uniquely delicious! www.floridacrystals.com

Los Angelinos Fighting to Save Taco Trucks

12 Mar

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles, loath to rally cohesively around a local cause, has joined hands around tortillas.

A new county ordinance restricting taco trucks has outraged food bloggers, construction workers, residents of East Los Angeles accustomed to plopping down in a folding chair, taco in one hand, nonalcoholic sangria in the other, as well as members of the taco-loving public willing to drive 15 miles for the best carnitas.

Nearly 5,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the new law at saveourtacotrucks.org, where “carne asada is not a crime.” Enraged taco cart proprietors are defiant; some have hired lawyers. On Thursday, people flocked to taco trucks in support.

This a place where you can pave over a freeway’s carpool lanes with toll roads, and few will complain. You can propose a 40-story skyrise in the center of Hollywood, and hardly anyone two miles to the west will take notice. You can squander public money, close down the ports and flatten landmarks, and many residents of this sprawling metropolis will simply yawn and move on.

But this is also a food-obsessed city with rich Hispanic cultural traditions, and tacos have crossed the miles of road and class divides.

“Taco trucks are iconic here,” said Aaron Sonderleiter, a teacher from the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and one of the petition founders. “You go to one and you see black, people, white people, old people, young people. They really capture a microcosm of L.A.”

Violations of the old rules, which allow food vendors to remain in a location for 30 minutes, are mere infractions, and in any case the rules are seldom enforced. But under the new ordinance, which goes into effect next week, taco carts would be required to change location every hour, with violators facing fines, misdemeanor charges and, possibly, jail time. County officials say the change comes at the behest of residents who find the carts eyesores, and some restaurant owners who feel undermined by the price-chopping ways of their mobile competition.

“They are a blight,” said Omar Loya of East Los Angeles who took his complaints about the trucks to the office of his county supervisor, Gloria Molina.

Ms. Molina’s policy director, Gerry Hertzberg, said the trucks had become “a big quality of life issue” in some neighborhoods.

“Businesses with a fixed place of business complain about unfair competition and the spillover effects mobile vendors have on the surrounding area,” Mr. Hertzberg said, citing litter, noise, public urination and excessive parking space hoarding as typical complaints.

The new restrictions apply to the county’s unincorporated areas, of which East Los Angeles, which lies just east of downtown, is the most populated. In this dominantly Hispanic neighborhood, taco trucks — and their culinary cousins, fresh fruit vendors — are the curbside pizza storefronts of New York.

At night, some serve as social centers, where communities gather to listen to music and chow down. Some trucks — loncheras — are adorned with names or artwork that signifies the region of Mexico that the vendor hails from, and the food served often also has a regional distinction.

Far faster and far cheaper than restaurants, they are a favorite for day laborers, poor families and cheap dates.

“In my case I have 30 minutes for lunch,” said Carlos Baptista, a construction worker eating a fish taco last week. “And when I only have $4 in my pocket, it is more cheaper than restaurants.”

Under the new ordinance, trucks in a commercial zone will have an hour to sit; those in a residential area will still have to leave after 30 minutes, but in much of East Los Angeles, commercial and residential are one. After the allotted time, a vendor would have to move at least one half mile from the location, and not return for three hours. The district attorney may also charge taco flouters with a misdemeanor, and fines will increase from $60 to $100 dollars for first violation, increasing to a cap of $500.

The City of Los Angeles already has similar restrictions, but they have been uncontroversial because they are rarely enforced; a law regulating food trucks in the city was enforced 28 times last year, according to the police. Efforts to restrict the vendors have met resistance in other cities, as well.

Several taco truck owners last week said they had heard of the law change and were displeased.

“We are hard workers and we pay taxes,” said Jose Naranjo, who has been selling fish and shrimp tacos from his truck in East Los Angeles since 1989. “We are poor people feeding other poor people.”

Mr. Hertzberg said the current county law was enforced roughly “150 times a year,” although Henry Romero, the captain of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s East Los Angeles station, said they had not issued a summons in four years. (Mr. Hertzberg later said that he was referring to 2004, during which one violator was fined 60 times.)

Law enforcement officials say the new ordinance has clearer language that will make enforcement easier.

“Is it one of my primary goals?” Captain Romero said. “Put it this way: We will enforce it when we get complaints from the community.”

Several restaurant owners in East Los Angeles, when asked about the taco trucks, shrugged. “What they do is different,” said Bernardo Garcia, who owns three restaurants.

But there are plenty who disagree.

“A lot of these food trucks are not from our community, they make money in our community but do not give back to the community,” said Lourdes Caracoza, the president of Maravilla Business Association, which covers a small section of East Los Angeles. “People say this is part of our culture. I don’t recall any towns in Mexico having taco trucks.”

Rotten Ralph’s Not All That Bad

6 Mar

ralph-sign

I have lived in the Sarasota area for nearly two years now and I just found out about Rotten Ralph’s via a piece in Sarasota magazine. How in the heck could this happen? I mean, seafood dives are kinda my thing, ya know?

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It’s a funky little place located at the Anna Maria Yacht Basin. But don’t let that lead you to believe that this is a high brow dining experience. Well, I guess you sort of figured that out by the name … sorry!

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My table offered a nice bay view — the place is just surrounded by million dollar boats. That might explain the pricing, which leans a bit towards the pricey side. For example, the seafood platter at lunchtime is $24. Now, I don’t know about you, but I rarely – check that – never drop 25 bills on lunch. Expense account or no expense account, that’s just nuts.

ralph-platter

I did find one value choice – the all-you-can-eat Fish n’ Chips for $9.99. The fish arrived at my table hot and crispy. The french fries buried underneath were also piping hot. That’s the good news. As for the bad, the slaw was roughly chopped, dry, and flavorless. I might also add that I don’t think the fish is locally caught. It tasted like frozen Atlantic haddock to me. Guess that’s why it’s $9.99 and the grouper sandwich is $12.99. My platter required a good deal of salt and several splashes of malt vinegar to get the fish’s flavor fully “up on its fins.” I saved room for Mama D’s homemade Peanut Butter Pie until I learned it was $5.29 per slice. Pass!

ralph-roll

I was duly impressed with the “Rube Goldberg” contraption shown above. A roll of paper towels dangled from a plastic clothes hanger (attached to the ceiling with rope) above each table. Pretty nifty idea, Ralph. It keeps the wipes handy but off the table for extra elbow room. They scored points for this one. Their choice in music left something to be desired. Never thought that the “island spirit” they promote on the sign out front includes Toto, Bon Jovi, etc. A little reggae, some cool jazz, and a couple of breezy Buffett tunes might be more fitting, folks!

ralph-boat-dock

You can pull up your yacht (whichever one you choose to take out that day), grab a bite to eat, fill up your massive tank with gas, and motor back out to the Gulf to continue your day of fishing or recreation. “That’ll be $4,000, sir!”

Visit their web site and find out how Ralph earned his dubious nickname at: www.rottenralphs.com . Give ’em a try if you’re in the neighborhood, but please don’t go out of your way to find this out of the way diner. We still maintain that there are better options for fresh local seafood, great waterfront scenery, and reasonable prices. For starters, check out the Starfish in Cortez Village or the Rod n Reel Pier on Anna Maria Island.

Hush Puppies – A Good Basic Recipe

4 Mar

hush

Hush puppies are delectable little balls of fried, seasoned cornbread, and a favorite accompaniment to Fried Catfish . You can fry them right alongside the catfish, in the same hot oil, in the same skillet, if you like.

Vegetable oil
3 cups self-rising cornmeal flour
2⁄3 cup self-rising flour
1 small yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 small green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely
   diced
2 1⁄2 cups buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten

1. Pour oil into a large, deep cast-iron or heavy-bottomed skillet to a depth of 3″ and heat over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, 350°–360° on a candy thermometer.

2. Meanwhile, combine cornmeal flour, flour, onions, and peppers in a large mixing bowl. Add buttermilk and egg and mix well. Working in batches with a small ice cream dipper or spoon, drop batter by the scoop or spoonful into the hot oil and fry, turning occasionally with metal tongs or a slotted spoon, until hush puppies are browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. Push loose any hush puppies that stick to the bottom or side of the skillet as they fry. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Serve hot.

For more recipes like this, go to www.Saveur.com 

New Book on Tabasco legend

3 Mar

tabasco

We received a wonderful new book from University of Mississippi Press yesterday. It is a beautiful coffee table volume detailing the long and glorious history of my favorite condiment — Tabasco hot sauce. The writers have obviously done their research and the book is filled with amazing photos and period pieces of all kinds. Don’t miss this one if you’re looking for a red-hot read!

Here is the product description from Amazon.com …

Tabasco®: An Illustrated History is the first and only book about the McIlhenny family and company based on previously untapped documents in the McIlhenny Company Archives. This chronicle examines the origin of Tabasco® sauce, from its post-Civil War creation on Avery Island, Louisiana, to its evolution into the “gold standard” of pepper sauces and a global culinary icon.

It also examines the often stranger-than-fiction stories that are inexorably bound up with the rise of Tabasco®–Edmund McIlhenny’s creation of the sauce in the midst of Reconstruction- era economic ruin; John Avery McIlhenny’s adventures in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders volunteer cavalry regiment; Edward Avery McIlhenny’s explorations in the unforgiving Arctic; and Walter S. McIlhenny’s amazing heroics in World War II, which eventually secured him the rank of brigadier general, even as he modernized his family business and ensured its success into the late twentieth century.

In addition to the central narrative, Tabasco®: An Illustrated History contains numerous detailed sidebars, as well as over a dozen historical recipes selected from handwritten McIlhenny family cookbooks and other archival sources. This book boasts hundreds of fascinating photographs, both in color and black-and-white, many of which are previously unpublished.