Sunday 22 October 2017

Native American Cooking - Blue Corn Tacos, Chips and Navajo Fry-Bread

Navajo Fry-Bread Tacos
At the end of my first Route 66 road trip I saw something made me question everything I knew about Native Americans.

If I'd thought about them at all, it was the cliches of my childhood. Red skinned men with feather headresses living in Tepees. Women dressed like Pocahontas. The baddies in the endless Sunday afternoon Westerns. They were a long way from suburban England, part of the playground games of Cowboys and Indians.

What I saw on Route 66 was the well preserved ruins of Puerco Pueblo, outside of Holbrook Arizona. At its peak, in 1300AD, 200 people lived in brick houses around a central plaza.

This isn't what I knew about Native Americans. I didn't know they lived in houses, in villages. I didn't know they farmed crops. That they lived in conditions little different to early Medieval Britain.

Corn and Bean Salsa
Since then the story of America's indigenous peoples has fascinated me.

When I saw a restaurant offering 'modern Navajo cuisine' on this year's road trip, I had to visit. The Black Sheep Cafe in Provo, Utah was a short detour, and dinner was delicious (read my review at the foot of this page).

 It also raised many questions - how authentic was it? Would a Navajo Indian recognise it? What did other Indian tribes eat? And - most importantly - can I learn to cook this at home?

Very quickly, I hit problems defining 'Native American Cuisine'. First, there's considerable regional variation - North America is a vast country, and I wouldn't like to be asked to define 'European Cuisine'.

While most European countries were defining their cusines as part of their national identities, the Native Americans had more serious problems - theft of their lands, disease and grinding poverty. No one had the luxury of being able to pause and write a cookbook.

Blue corn, ready to made into tacos
There's also the thorny issue of 'authenticity'. Do I rule out all dishes that use ingredients brought by the Europeans?

I could, but this means winding the clock back five hundreds years.

I wouldn't describe English cuisine in terms of the pottage and game diet of the Elizabethans. Nor would anyone modern recognise the jellied meats and offal dishes favoured by the Edwardians.

No, just as I would have to consider Chicken Tikka Masala when writing about modern British cuisine, I would have to allow the Native Americans their outside influences too.

It's also interesting to consider their influence on American - and British - cuisine. There's the potato, of course, and the turkey, although neither featured that heavily in Indian diets. A stronger influence can be found in the cornbread, grits and tacos that occur all over the South.

Blue Corn Tacos with Corn and Bean Salsa
In fact, it could be argued that Mexican food is basically indigenous American cuisine. The dishes may have Spanish names, but almost none were eaten by the European Spanish.

So where to start? The food of the nomadic Plains Indians - the Teepee living Indians of my childhood cliches - was by necessity simple. Bison featured heavily - and would be tricky to get hold of in Waitrose too.

The Hopi indians probably had the most refined and well documented cuisine. Living in villages, they had the ability to bake bread and cook complex dishes. Proficient farmers, they had a ready supply of fresh and dried ingredients. There was also considerable cultural cross fertilisation with the Mexican and South American indians.

Blue corn tacos, cut ready for chips
The main Hopi crops were corn, beans and squash. Most beans we consume here in Europe have American roots (the broad bean, or fava, is the only common indigenous European bean).

The Natives Americans have been eating wild beans for at least 7,000 years, and eventually learned the secrets of cultivating them. The Hopi developed many varieties of bean and have been growing them since the 5th century.

Corn cultivation dates back 4,500 years. It is incapable of sowing its own seeds, and must be planted by hand. This practice gained religious significance with tribes such as the Hopi, and performed with great respect and reverence.

The Zuni believed their six colours of corn represented the six points of the compass (including up and down). Navajo legend relates that blue corn came to the people when a giant turkey flying high above the world dropped ears of it from under her wings.

Frying the blue corn chips
The three crops grow together in a simple but perfect symbiosis. The large leaves of the low lying squash suppress weeds, the stalks of the corn provide a vertical support for the climbing beans.

The first dish I made was a simple corn and bean salsa - two of the three sisters. I cooked together some tomatoes (another Indian ingredient) with some onions (a rare Spanish influence) and a little jalapeno chilli (an influence from Mexico).

To this I added equal amount of black beans and sweetcorn, plus a little lime and coriander, and warmed it through.

Next, the classic Hopi ingredient - blue corn - that I picked up in Taos after visiting the Pueblo. The Hopi believe that this, the hardest of the corns to grow, is also the best. They chose blue corn to symbolize their choice of a life of hardship and humility.

Salsa, margarita and fresh blue corn chips
I used the ground corn to make corn tortillas, mixed with twice the amount of plain flour to make it more manageable (without the flour, it's hard to get it to bind). I then rolled a number golf ball sized balls, which I flattened out with a tortilla press.

(One day I must try piki bread - a bread made from almost transparent layers of dough - but it sounded too complicated for that evening's dinner!)

A couple of the tortillas where turned into vegetarian tacos for my daughter. First, a big spoon of corn and bean salsa, then the classic Southwestern toppings of shredded iceberg lettuce and sour cream, with a little coriander.

The rest were cut into triangles to made into blue corn chips. I think this is more Mexican than Hopi, but I wanted to see how they turned out. I deep fried them in a wok, and drained them on kitchen paper. They lost their blue colour and perhaps needed to be thinner to make good crispy chips, but they were delicious none the less and went well with the salsa and a margarita!

Fry-bread dough, frying
Next a dish that almost anyone from the Southwest would associate with the Navajos - fry-bread. I'd encountered this once before, on an Indian reservation in Florida, but was surprised at how common it was across the Southwest.

It seemed to be a staple in the local Mexican restaurants too - I had a delicious example in Holbrook, Arizona. Another example of the cross-fertilisation of cuisines.

When I first encountered fry-bread, I was confused how this dish became associated with the Navajos. The adapatable Navajo were a nomadic tribe that learned agriculture from the Hopi and farming from the Europeans.

But none of this explained why a dish involving refined wheat flour and lard became the dish most commonly associated with Native Americans.

The finished fry-breads
The story of fry-bread is also the story of the appalling treatment of the Indians at the hands of the Europeans. The traditional Navajo homelands were in Arizona, where they lived in villages, growing crops and raising livestock.

As the Europeans settlers expanded into this desirable farmland, tensions grew between them and the Navajo. Ultimately, the Navajo were moved by the army to a reservation deep in New Mexico. Some 10,000 Indians were forced to walk 400 miles across the desert, with hundreds dying of starvation and exposure. This became known as "The Long Walk".

Their new lands weren't able to support their former agriculture, and the Navajo were forced to rely on handouts from the government. From these supplies of corn, lard, sugar and salt was born the fry-bread.

The fry-breads with ground beef topping
For the Native Americans, eating it serves as a link with previous generations and a reminder of painful past treatment.

I've made a similar dish to fry-bread before - the Italian pizza-fritta - and knew how delicious it could be. It's much lighter than you might expect for a deep fried bread.

There are as many recipes for bread as there are Native American tribes. Some involve yeast, but I thought I would go for baking powder (for ease and speed). I decided to fry in oil rather than lard. Most recipes involve milk powder - I guess to make it a store cupboard dish - but I had fresh milk and used that. The following ratios made a sticky dough that's enough for two fry breads:

1 Cup Plain Flour
1/4 Cup Milk
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
Sprinkle of salt

You might need to add a little water if it's too dry

I let it rest for 45 minutes, and in the mean time made some toppings. I cooked up some minced beef with cumin and chilli powder until browned and just starting to catch. Then I chopped a pile of lettuce and tomatoes.

I used a wok to get the oil nice and hot (I tested this with a little bit of dough), the split the dough into two balls and flattened each out with my hand.

It's best to do this by hand, rather than a rolling pin, as the unevenness gives nook and crannies for the toppings. I then fried the dough, turning a few times in the hot oil until brown, and left to drain.

A sweet fry-bread for dessert!
I then topped each fry bread with the beef, the left over salsa, some lettuce and tomatoes and a blob of sour cream.

There's a few things I could have tweaked - because I'd put a lot of research into getting the bread right, I didn't quite get the flavours right in the ground beef.

But overall I was very impressed with the dish - much lighter than you might expect - so much so that I made one more fry-bread. This one I had with honey and icing sugar, just like I'd had in Taos Pueblo that summer. And that's another story ...

Sunday 26 February 2017

Texan Delicacies - Chicken Fried Steak

Why am I surprised it's hard to get cheap steak? This is Cambridge, after all. In the end I had to settle for 21 day aged organic rump steak. But why am I looking for the cheapest, chewiest steak? Because I'm about to make that great Texan delicacy - chicken fried steak.

Chicken fried steak is one of those dishes, like biscuits and gravy, that sounds wrong to English ears. Is it a fried chicken steak? What is a chicken steak? What's going on? Well, it's a beef steak, fried like you'd fry chicken. Steak with a crunchy coating.

Oh, says my foodie readership, you mean like wiener schnitzel? Well, yes and no. We're not talking delicate slices of tender baby calf, we're talking cheap, chewy lumps of real cow. Hammered flat with tenderising mallets. Pulverised with a rolling pin. If you've got the kit, stabbed with a thousand tiny blades too.

Ready to go.
The dish comes from the same route as the schnitzel, brought by German and Austrian immigrants in the 19th century. But this is a hard working peasant dish. A cheap lump of meats can make a substantial dish - all that bashing makes it twice the size (and edible too). The coating of egg and flour increases the carbohydrate value of it too.

As ever, I trusted SeriousEats to provide me with a recipe. There's more agreement on how to create this dish than other, more contentious, recipes (I'm looking at you, chili con carne). However I'm sure German settlers didn't fuss around with seasoned flour and buttermilk dips like I did last night.

When it came to side dishes, I tried to stay as traditional as possible. Country gravy - white sauce - isn't optional. It's an integral part of the dish. I chose mash and green beans because that's what I've always had. Although I resisted the temptation to boil the beans close to the point of becoming mush. Keeping a bit of bite was my only concession to European tastes.

And did it all work? Hell yeah. A classic of comfort food cooking. I'll be making this again - especially if I can find some cheap and chewy steak!

Thursday 20 October 2016

Florida: Diners, Dives and Luncheonettes

Everywhere I reviewed!
After suggesting you watch this space, I can only apologise for the three month silence. Unforgivable. However, I wasn't completely idle in Florida - after my occasional rants about online restaurant reviews (here, and here if you need a refresher) - I thought I'd give it a go myself.

It's not easy. I'm too English to give just anyone a five star review. I'm too polite to post a bad review. With just a few exceptions, it's a long list of four star reviews.

Still, I stuck with it and reviewed every place I ate and if nothing else it gives me a diary to look back on. If you'd like to read them too, I think this link to Google maps should work.

Angel's, Palatka
However there were two places I thought deserved more than four stars and four lines in a Google review. Not only was the food delicious, but they were historically interesting too.

The first is Angel's diner in Palatka. This authentic 1932 diner is far from the diner's spiritual home of the American Northeast. It also occurred to me that this is the first traditional diner I've eaten in.

A diner novice, I commented to the waitress that it looked like a train's dining carriage, and she agreed that it probably once was. As romantic as that notion might be, it's unlikely to be true.

In fact, it's much more likely that Angel's diner was prefabricated in a factory and shipped to Palatka. The long, carriage-like shape makes it much easier to transport on the back of a lorry or on a rail car.

See, it looks like a train!
The opportunity to make this shape a feature wasn't wasted by designers like Roland Stickney, who designed the iconic Sterling diner, heavily inspired by the Sterling Streamliner train dining cars.

It's unlikely Patalaka is an original Sterling - I'm sure I would have discovered if it was - but it's very much in the same style.

So in some ways, the diner is very much like the static caravan, much beloved of British holiday resorts (or, perhaps, the American trailer) - but with a bigger kitchen and booth seating - and delivered to wherever a local entrepreneur has bought land and thinks they'll have passing trade.

Seriously good onion rings
But what if you weren't just a guy with a dream and a patch of land? What if you already had a general story or a pharmacy (in the more wide ranging American sense). Well, that's where the luncheonette, or lunch counter, came in.

Arranged like a diner, with seats around a counter and using very similar cooking equipment, it could easily be added to any existing store with enough space.

Which one supported JFK's bottom?
Green's Pharmacy in Florida's Palm Beach is host to Green's Luncheonette, an institution that's been there since 1938.

Palm Beach was also home to the 'Winter White House', John F Kennedy's winter escape, and Green's hasn't changed an iota since JFK would come for a burger, fries and a chocolate shake.

I skipped the shake, but the cheeseburger would definitely take some beating. In upmarket Palm Beach, Green's was charmingly old fashioned without being 'retro'.

In fact, that was something rather pleasing about both Angel's and Green's - neither had succumbed to over restoration, neither had jukeboxes of 50s hits, nor pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis.

It was packed!
Both had patina and been allowed to age gracefully. Both were also packed, so neither had to try too hard to attract the passing tourist dollar.

I am, of course, boiling up for a rant about over-restoration, about America's sometimes perplexing attitudes towards it heritage. But that's another post, for another time. See you in three months?

Friday 15 July 2016

Fun in Florida!

Another year, another margarita photo! Yup, we're back in Forth Worth's Stockyards and we're revisiting all our favourite haunts (if you need a reminder, read this post!).

The journey was relatively painless - although navigating rush hour Fort Worth from memory, with no GPS, was a challenge.

Google maps is awesome, but it does need a data connection and my phone provider let me down (naming no names, but the sum 1+2 = ? might give you a clue). I felt I earned that glistening goblet you see on the left.

But that's enough about Dallas - the title says "Fun in Florida!", and that's what I'm planning to have.

On Sunday I'll fly to Miami, the starting point of one of the USA's great road trips - south on US-1, across the bridges to Key West. So me, I'm going north!

I wouldn't say I'll be exploring 'undiscovered Florida' - this is a densely populated part of the US, popular with tourists from across the States and beyond. But I do plan to take the A1A north as far as I can, hugging the coast up to St Augustine - then a hop across the middle, and down the Gulf coast, picking up the Tamiami trail back to Miama. Only then do I feel I've earned the trip to Key West!

[The Route - every dot is a diner I want to try!]
What do I expect to see? Spaceships and alligators, the Everglades and urban beachside sprawl. I want to eat conch, frogs legs and crocodile. Florida has some classic 1930s diners that I'm itching to try - plus a restaurant that tries to include beer as an ingredient in every dish they serve.

I'm expecting mounds of crispy brown deep fried sea things, plus some of the freshest fruit in the US. I expect to hear Spanish in Miami, Salsa in Little Havana and dodgy 70s rock music in my car.

Watch this space!

Sunday 14 February 2016

How to be the Best Restaurant in America!

[Homeslice - best pizza in the world?]
Those of you that know me won't be surprised to hear I have a long list of fantasy road trips - and every now and then I'll see if they're still up to date, that nowhere has closed or gone down hill.

So I get to the Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine, a simple barbecue joint and possible lunch stop on US-395 (The 'Three Flags Highway') - and discover that not only is it still open, it's now the best place to eat in the whole of the USA.


Well, that's what readers of Yelp say - it tops their list of 100 best places to eat in the US. I already have a love/hate relationship with restaurant review sites and decided to investigate how this humble BBQ joint could become America's most well rated restaurant.

The journalists over at Slate have explained it best, and I fully recommend you go read their article after this, but here's my simplified take on it -

I'd written before that Americans love to give 5 star reviews and Slate say that over 40% of reviews on Yelp are 5 star. I've recently started using an app to rate beer and I've noted that my default review is always 4 stars.

Now, I'm a reserved Englishman, and that means I can't give anything a 5 star review (I'd reserve that kind of praise for the ambrosia of the gods, or the elixir of youth, should I find either). But I'm pretty free with my 4 stars. I like beer, and as long as the beer is okay, it gets 4 stars. Only if it disappoints me does it get less. And I'm rarely disappointed by beer.

[Really the best ribs in the USA?]
I think it's the same in the US - where their natural optimism and ebullience means that here, the 5 star review is the default. Hey, you're going out for a meal, the kids are with a babysitter, you're on holiday, you're on a date, you want this to be a good meal.

You want to give it 5 stars. And you will, unless something actually goes wrong.

So here's my four simple rules to having a well rated restaurant.

1. Make sure nothing does wrong. It's obvious, really, but - certainly in America - there's nothing like poor service to make you lose points.

Copper Top's owner gives away free food samples.

2. Don't be over ambitious. If your food truck serves hot dogs, and the hot dogs are tasty, you won't lose points. If I arrive at your food truck, and you confuse me with too many options, push me out of my comfort zone with venison sausages and sourdough rolls, and I don't like it, I'll dock you points.

Copper Top sell simple BBQ food on paper plates.

[Louie Muellers
is actually the best BBQ in the
entire world]
3. Don't be a local restaurant. I go to my local bistro once a month and always start with the risotto. I love their risotto. Last week the risotto was undercooked. I'm sad. There's a 3 star review coming now.

Instead, be a holiday restaurant. Ever noticed how fish and chips tastes better by the sea? You're relaxed, you want it to be good, and as long as it's not bad, it's best fish and chips ever.

It's possible that Homeslice in Austin doesn't make the best pizza in the world or that Riscky's in Fort Worth do the best ribs - but because I associate them with holidays, they'll always get 5 stars from me.

Copper Top is in the holiday resort of Big Pines.

4. Don't have your restaurant somewhere it rains. It's the holiday effect again. Rain makes us miserable. It's why there's fewer 5 star restaurants on the East Coast than the West. Chicago and New York both have world class restaurants, but the rain can wash away the occasional star, and that affects your averages. If you're thinking of opening a restaurant in Manchester, I simply say "don't".

Copper Top is, of course, in California.

So is all this advice true here in the UK? Well, here's the same top 100 list. (Relatively) warm and dry London dominates (just one restaurant in Manchester), as does simple comfort food. Number one is curry house Dishoom, and number two is a well regarded greasy spoon in Westminster. There's also pizza, two burger bars and a juice bar in the top 10 alone.

Need I say more?

Sunday 20 December 2015

Meri Kurisumasu! Celebrating Christmas in Japan ...

We recently had the delightful Maho stay with us -  a 17yr old from Japan through our daughter's school exchange program - and we thought we'd introduce her to the rituals and routines of an English Christmas.

So picture our surprise to discover that, although barely 1% of Japan's population is Christian, Maho was all clued up on Christmas. Oh yes, she decorated trees, put up fairy lights, ate chicken and loved Christmas cake. Christmas was big in Japan.

Hang on. Ate chicken?

Christmas Dinner, KFC Style
After a bit of research, it appears that the Japanese throw themselves into the festivity as eagerly as any Westerner - but it's the differences that are fascinating.

Shorn of any real religious meaning (apparently, among the younger generations, there's a little confusion as to whose birthday it is - Jesus? Santa?) - Christmas in Japan is undiluted commercialism. 

Mix in a little bit of Valentine's and its becomes the 'how much can you spend on your girlfriend?' festival, and woe betide any man who doesn't spend enough.

Like any good festival, Christmas in Japan also comes with 'special foods', and it appears that, yet again, the American fast food corporations have pulled a fast one. We're all aware how the classic Santa - white beard, red and white clothes, weight issues - is an invention of Coca-cola; well in Japan, it was an opportunity for KFC to get into the Christmas re-appropriation act.

Okay, I kinda see it. The logo is also red and white. Colonel Saunders has a white beard. Chicken is a bit like turkey (a rarity in Japan anyway). KFC definitely saw it, and didn't hesitate to run with it either, with a long series of campaigns telling the Japanese that the rest of world ate KFC on Christmas day - and so should they. Order your Christmas buckets here!

Christmas Cake!
And of course, there's also Christmas cake. More even than KFC, this is the one to cause cultural cross-confusion, especially between travellers to and from the West.

 The US has no tradition of Christmas cake, and are mystified when told that it's an essential part of Christmas by the Japanese.

The English think they understand - but our traditional heavy iced fruit cake is completely alien in the East. A Japanese Christmas cake is a light and fluffy creation of sponge, cream and strawberries.

All I can think of is that the red and white evokes Christmas.

We're sticking with our routines this year - no KFC bucket, no sponge cakes (but probably just as many expensive gifts from Santa-san). But we wish Maho - and everyone else - a Meri Kurisumasu!


Saturday 24 October 2015

Tacos vs Burgers and other Austin Adventures

Mmm. Tacos.
I caught a headline recently that the taco is about to overtake the burgers as America's favourite fast food.

Can this be true?

Austin seemed the perfect place to investigate. After all, Texas is the home of all-American beef - and also shares a 1,241 mile border with Mexico, spiritual home of the taco.

Burgers and tacos sit cheek by jowl in the trendy food areas of Soco, South 1st and South Lamar - and given we had a month ahead of us in our off-Soco house, we thought we'd investigate further (the things we do for you!).

Now, tacos haven't really hit the UK yet. There are nearly 6,000 branches of the ubiquitous Taco Bell in the US, yet just 4 here. You'd be hard pushed to find one at all outside of the trendy Hoxton/Shoreditch triangle. If I were a betting man, I'd say these could be the next big thing.

Mmm. More Tacos.
In Austin, they're already big news, and none bigger than Torchy's - a rags to riches, trailer to mini-chain story that spans just 10 years. As I speak, they should soon be opening their latest store right on Soco. They seemed the perfect place to taste test the taco, and oh boy, if all tacos were like this they deserve to win.

Between us we had a 'Republican' (jalapeno sausage), a shrimp, a fajita and the most awesome green chili queso. It was everything you'd hope for from Mexican food - bright, zingy flavours, just the right amounts of heat, crunch and chewiness. Flavour explosions and all those other food review cliches.

By comparison, we went to the bright star of Soco burgers and marveled at the seven mile queue for Hopdoddy's. There's always a queue, regardless of the hour - even in the 100F heat of Austin's summer.

In the UK we'd call this a gourmet burger, with all the toppings you might expect - feta cheese, smoked cheddar, field mushrooms, brie, truffle aioli, fritos, sprouts - combined with beef, bison, turkey or tuna - to make fourteen(ish) different burgers such as 'Greek', 'Buffalo Bill' and 'El Diablo'.

Indifferent picture of an indifferent burger.
If you've been to Byrons, GBK or one of the other countless up-market UK burger chains, you'd know what to expect - but this concept is still quite new in the US, which I guess explains the popularity.

Well, of course, I had to be awkward and order a 'Classic' (a simple bacon cheese) - and here's the problem. It wasn't very good. If I'd queued for an afternoon in the heat I would have been seriously upset.

Maybe if I'd slathered it in goats cheese and six different varieties of hand-picked lettuce, I might not have noticed. But simplified down - by their standards - it exposed that under it all was simply an indifferent burger. And I don't think that's just me being picky - Serious Eats weren't impressed either. And I'm sorry, I think they purposefully over complicate their ordering system to ensure there's always an epic queue.

So at this stage, the taco's definitely winning - but it's never that simple. Next stop, Wahoo's Fish Tacos, also on Soco. Where it was surprisingly difficult to actually find the eponymous taco on their menu - snuck down at the bottom, and made with the same degree of indifference. It was basic, bland and unimpressive.

Wholly Cow!
Then it was time for the burger to redeem itself. Wholly Cow on South Lamar was quite simply one of the best burgers I've ever had in the US. This part convenience store, part burger joint was doing simple, tasty, meaty burgers. No goats cheese and arugula nonsense here - just good burgers, clean and simple. And no queue round the block either!

So what's my conclusion? There's no doubt that Tacos are on the ascendancy - but there's always going to be room a simple, delicious, classic burger. I also give an honourable mention to Caminos on 6th - the location and the 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' hype had made me a little nervous, but the burgers were up there in the top five. And also to Guero's on Soco. It's not the best Mexican in Austin, but they do a tacos el pastor that's to die for.

Austin, thank you for a great month! See ya'll again soon.