Tex-Mex Night in Italy

I’d like to think all the guys down at the celle liked me - either that or their interest was piqued by the Texan with knee-high cowboy boots and a ragged-out topper. By day two of my staging with Dario Cecchini, I was becoming accustomed to being referred to as either, “Chuck Norris” or “Walker Texas Ranger.”

Apparently, Italians are a bit behind on American television and pop culture. Walker Texas Ranger is the hot show in Panzano.

 

 My hat was often used as a prop for the Italians enjoyment.

My hat was often used as a prop for the Italians enjoyment.

Riccardo (Dario’s number two man) went as far as playing the "Walker Texas Ranger" theme song at the celle while we worked – even those who couldn’t speak English sang along. He talked many times about cooking Tex-Mex food for me and so on my first off day, Riccardo threw a Tex-Mex party at his house.

When I arrived, we all joined in preparing the food for the evening: guacamole, pico de gallo, roasted pork, and chicken wings.

I know what all you Texans are thinking right now – THAT AIN’T TEX-MEX!

But in our defense, it’s pretty difficult to find the necessary ingredients for an authentic Tex-Mex meal over here. Cilantro is non-existent and tortillas the same.   However, after being away from home and missing Lola’s tacos for almost a month, I was ready to kill a bowl of guacamole.

The rest of our friends from Dario’s celle began to pile in and we had one hell of a time. My buddy Daniele even dressed up for the occasion. He donned a dinner-plate sized Harley Davidson belt buckle, roach-killer boots, and a Toby Keith cowboy hat. However, I could tell he had his eye on mine and was looking for a trade.

Eventually, it would come down to a poker game, but that is for another post.

 Two killer pair of boots!

Two killer pair of boots!

The finished fare included chicken wings, a variety of grilled vegetables, and pulled pork tacos - yes, Riccardo miraculously scrounged up some flour tortillas in the middle of the Italian countryside. Topped with a dollop of guacamole, those pulled pork tacos made me reminisce of home and authentic Tex-Mex food.

I will admit I had a momentary pang of  homesickness from it all.

I was amazed at the enormous amount of hospitality shown to me by my new Italian friends. They had only known me for a short time, but I found myself in their homes, eating, drinking, and laughing like one of them. For this, I am grateful and will always cherish their hospitality and friendship.

Daniele and Riccardo are already planning a trip to Texas if and when I open my own butcher shop. I promised them that if they came, I would make sure they got a true Texas topper on their head and some boots on their feet.

The Gringo and la Reina Tamal

In Texas, tamales are a holiday tradition. Our gringo family has always been lucky enough to be gifted a couple of dozen for Christmas or we hit up Ventura’s in Victoria, Texas for some homemade, south of the border goodness. Since my dive into the culinary world this past year, Mom thought we should try our own hand at tamale making, so she scoured social media in search of the best tamale teacher in town. Word on the street was Mrs. Lisa was the “reina tamal,” or the tamale queen for you gringos. My last post talked about the hog’s head and pork butts I brought back from New York. Now I could get to work on those beauties.

With the meat thawed, I carefully skinned the hog’s head and the Boston Butt then threw them into a monster-sized pot to boil.

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My younger cousins scrutinized the pig’s head submerged below the water’s surface and unanimously swore they would “never eat tamales again!” The trimmings from the skin, along with the ears and snout were tossed into a dehydrator to be made into dog chews. This is the concept known as the “nose-to-tail” butchery. As a rule, you use every part of the hog except “except the squeal.” These dried remnants were going to make some pooch really happy come Christmas morning and I didn’t want to waste a thing.

Now if you’re wondering if ‘la reina tamal’ was in anyway a bit apprehensive about some gringo family contacting her out of the blue on Facebook, in search of her prized tamale recipe, you would be spot on. Once Mrs. Lisa arrived with her husband Steve, she confessed she had prayed over the matter before getting the green light from the Big Guy. So there we were. Standing in our kitchen like old family friends. One ready to teach and one ready to learn.

Mrs. Lisa quickly took over the pot of cooking pork. Seasoning and testing. Seasoning and testing.

Let me stop here and explain this is the part where Steve comes in. Steve is ‘la reina tamal’s ’ official taster. Mrs. Lisa has a long tradition of never eating tamales except on Christmas Eve. Not even to taste it for spiciness during preparation. All these years, she has passed forkfuls of pork to her husband until he gives the official “go-ahead” nod of approval. So finally, with a bow of the head and a grin on his face, Mr. Steve proclaimed the meat, “perfect.”

Mr. Steve going in for a little masa taste test.

Leaving me to debone and hand-grind the pork, Mrs. Lisa warned me the real work didn’t start until the next day. Early tomorrow morning we would all gather and start the tedious, assembly-line process of filling and wrapping. She advised me more than a few times before she and her husband left for the night, to get a good night’s sleep.

Early the next morning, the family assembled in the kitchen, ready for the real lesson to begin. Mrs. Lisa arrived with yet another secret ingredient: fresh made masa from a local tortilla factory.

Freshly made masa

Mrs. Lisa, who doesn’t sit at anytime while she makes her tamales, carefully seasoned the masa and mixed it with her hands. Just as before, she abided by her rule religiously. She never tasted the meat or masa at any point, but would pinch off small balls of masa for me to judge. Mr. Steve presided over the whole process, making sure the gringo didn’t steer Mrs. Lisa too far from the original recipe.

the Masa Mash

Once the masa was seasoned and chili red in color, we turned the kitchen into a small tamale factory. One end of the breakfast table was devoted to spreading the masa on the pre-soaked cornhusks, or “ojas” as Mrs. Lisa called them. The other end of the table filled the ojas with meat, then rolled and wrapped the top of the filled husks over.

The family, young and old, assembled to partake in the tamale making. Not saying you are old Aunt Audrey!

The meat end of the table was going smoothly, but I could see Mom and the aunts having difficulty with the masa spreading. Mrs. Lisa’s years of practice, churned-out some textbook ojas. All precisely spread with masa. All perfectly ¾ of the way up the husk. Mom and the Aunts, not so much.

Nana having a tough time spreading masa!

Two and a half ours later, 21 dozen tamales lay bundled on the table, ready for steaming. Using the leftover seasoned water from the boiled pork, I lined 2 large pots with the remaining cornhusks. After a little steaming, the family crowded around to sample.

Tamales ready to be steamed.

Remember those family members who were grossed out by the meat? Yeah, they got over that pretty quick. These were some of the best tamales I’ve ever eaten. The family thought so too.

21 dozen tamales! And they were SOOO good.

A BIG THANKS  to Mrs. Lisa and Mr. Steve. I really appreciate y’all taking the time out of the holiday season to share your treasured family recipe. My family and I had an absolutely wonderful time.

My teacher, the queen of tamale making, Mrs. Lisa. Thanks so much!

Packin' Pork

All I have been talking about for the last three months is how good the pasture-raised pork is from Fleishers.

  • How it tastes like pork is suppose to taste.
  • How breeders are breeding the fat back in after the anti-fat stigma of the 70s.
  • How modern farmers are raising these animals on open range and supplementing their diets with tubers and apples.

So the family mandate was in. They wanted me to put up or shut up. Mom had scheduled a tamale making class for when I got home so I thought it would be perfect timing if I packed some pork back to Texas for Christmas tamales. Just one small problem, well, actually one big problem, how was I going to get all of my belongings and the pork packed in my suitcase?

I never got rid of the boxes I originally shipped my stuff up to New York in. They actually turned out to be multi-purpose, standing in as chest-of-drawers, a nightstand and a dining table. So flipping the boxes upright, I crammed in all of my earthly processions: espresso machine, cook books, cutting boards, boots and bedding and shipped them back to Texas via the neighborhood UPS store. That left me with my carry-on for the plane and one 55lb. box of pork as checked baggage.

Let me pause here to itemize the contents of my checked baggage: two 13 lb. Boston butts, four Frenched pork chops cut 1” thick, and one large hog’s head perfect for tamales.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I wish I had one to show you here, but I don’t. Just try to picture this scene in your head if you will:

I sauntered up to LaGuardia’s Southwest Airlines check-in and presented my documents for boarding. I then hoisted my box of pork onto the luggage scales and waited for my baggage claim check. It was at this point that Miss LaGuardia informed me that I must use "Southwest Airline approved boxes" for my belongings. Ok, no problem. So there on the spot I begin to unpack and transfer my pork to the approved shipping box.

Lets just say that Miss LaGuardia’s eyes moved to “alert” status when the lovely pink chops surfaced. By the time I was transferring the hog’s head, she was on full "Silence of the Lambs” alert. But the best part was when I reached down and grabbed my knife roll, looked up at her and said,

Ma'am, I’m a butcher and I am going to pull out my knives now.

I just wanted to let you know.

After a gasp then a pregnant pause, her relieved expression showed she now comprehended that indeed I was not Hannibal Lector, but an actual butcher. With the color returning to her face, Miss LaGuardia waved off security and finally handed me my baggage claim check. (Something tells me she is going to let the next guy in line slide with his cardboard boxes.)

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My flight from LaGuardia to Chicago was easy, but the last leg into Austin seemed like it would never end. I was more than ready to be home, so I pre-maturely unbuckled “before the plane had come to a full and complete stop.” I grabbed my carry-on and quickly located my pork box at baggage claim. As I went to the outside curb for pick up, I spotted the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. There she was. Waiting curbside for me. Black hair, black eyes and fluorescent hunting collar. I dropped everything as my Remi ran to me for a good ear scratchin’ and face lick.

Home, sweet home.

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Final Note: I’m back in Texas for a bit to re-group and plan my next leg of my carnivorous journey. In the meantime, I will be holding some jerky and sausage making classes. If you are interested, send me a message in the “contact me” section.

I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and eats well this holiday season. I sure will!

Empire State of Mind

  Three months in the big city have come and gone and I find myself once again back in the Lone Star.

Damn, it feels good to be back!

My last week in New York was a whirlwind. I had final exams at Fleishers, one of which required me to break an entire steer in a single day. In case you were wondering, I broke that bad boy down with hours to spare thus finalizing and passing the 12-week Fleishers’ apprenticeship with flying colors.

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My last Friday there, the Fleishers staff presented me with my course completion certificate and an amazing knife roll from Victorinox. The knife roll is ridiculous. It holds all nine of my knives, plus my honing steel.

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It was bittersweet leaving New York.  Already, I am missing my Fleishers family and our intimate family-style lunches. I will miss Chef Jason in the kitchen and all of his patience with my endless culinary questions. I will miss butchers Jason, Josh and Anderson in the cutting room and all of their wisdom and knowledge imparted to me over the last few months. And of course I will miss my fellow apprentice, Timmy, who always kept things interesting. “Guy” and I had some good times and I will treasure our beer-infused conversations about Chicago's  supremacy in everything from pizza to subways.

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To the Fleishers Family,

Gracias and vaya con dios.