Monday, June 2, 2014

Eating Out My Hot Secret Sulphur Hole

Hi kids!  Miss me?  It's been almost a full year hiatus since the great brisket learning experiment.  And honestly it's been a nice break of not getting mad at myself for forgetting the camera at home yet again when I should be documenting what I'm sticking in my neck hole.  But, you dear readers have yelled at me enough times to instigate a deep sense of guilt for not tearing at the soft pink underbelly of Fresno's culinary scene.

Another big circle I found the corner of was a trip up to Mono Hot Springs.  Where one drunken morning, I decided to fry up some bacon, chop up potatoes and season them with some garlic salt, thyme, sage and pepper and fry those in the bacon fat.  Mixed them both together in a bowl and sat in front of last night's fire and had a transcendent meal experience.  Fresh air, birdsong, amazing surroundings and probably the best breakfast I've ever served myself, inspired me to take the picture that you see at the top of the blog.  And more than that, it's where I came up with the title and the very premise for this mouth of madness. 

So with all of these reminders from people and places, it seemed long past time to take up the tiller of this ship and get back to what I do best.  Be a dick about other people's hard work.  And since we were up in the backcountry, miles from civilization and ensconced in lovely hot springs.  Why not try to find something to review?  And by pure chance, the River Rock Café had just opened for the Memorial Day weekend!

How we wound up eating there is almost as interesting as the meal.  We had split up our group so that the woman could enjoy a nice spa day in the hot spring tubs coupled with a proper hot shower, while I and my buddy took his son fishing for his first (successful) time.  Nice, keeper sized rainbow trout.  Lacking an ice chest to preserve a catch, it was released to go forth and make more hungry fishies. 

Like any boys out harassing wildlife, we completely lost track of time and it was a no breakfast sort of day.  So I hike back to the store/resort area expecting to find an exasperated love of my life, wrinkled fingers grasping for my neck.  But as I am walking up the driveway I turn my head towards the café to potentially catch a sniff of whatever is cooking, when I notice a familiar ponytail.  There's my girl!  And smarter than all of us, she's having a nice lunch and scratch made pie!

Now, approaching the café, it's a quaint, cabin style building with a beautiful covered deck for outdoor dining.  Because who the hell wants to eat inside when you're in gorgeous country like the deep Sierras?  Only madmen, that's who.  Instead we were joined by a pleasant hiker couple and a small family, to be joined later by my friend and his son once they began to wonder where the hell I disappeared to.

The server was prompt in her arrival with a spare menu for me.  The beer list was somewhat familiar as it's exactly what is offered at the resort store as well.  Synchronicity!  Which also meant that she didn't mind me swilling on a TS General Sherman we had bought at the store earlier that morning. 

They've got a pretty good selection on the menu considering that they're 3 hours from any sizeable store.  But I've only got eyes for their buffalo reuben.  This isn't some sacrilege of bbq sauce on corned beef.  They actually corn buffalo brisket!  So I'm all in on the sandwich and ask for a side of their house made chili.

After a brief wait, she brings out my basket of curiosity.  I've cooked with buffalo in the past and found it quite tasty, but distinctly different from beef.  You've got to treat it a bit differently.  It has way less fat and a certain mineral taste, so your usual beefy methods won't produce the same flavors you'd expect.

In this case, the sandwich was extremely well done.  Rye bread, lightly grilled, with a shmear of thousand island, hugging house made (I presume) sauerkraut and the star of the show, the corned buffalo.  Their chili is a lighter style than the heavy Dennison's style that springs to mind.  A mix of kidney and black beans, large chunks of stewed tomato and onion that also included ground buffalo.  Tastily, a little bit sour from the tomato and a little sweet, not heavily spiced, no cumin.  Just the stand up flavor of the veg and that playful buffalo flavor peeking out on the finish.

The first bite of the sandwich was extremely surprising.  In that it was all so extremely mild.  When you think reuben, you're expecting a pungent assault on the senses.  But in this case the flavor profile felt like it had been adjusted to ensure that the buffalo kept center stage in the sandwich.  The kraut was very light, good crunch and not incredibly sour.  Sort of a gentle pickle.  But the star of the show was certainly the corned buffalo.  It had perfect corned beef texture, a little flaky with a hearty chew and a bit of spicing from the pepper.  But it takes on a much cleaner sort of red meat flavor with a mild mineral finish.  Almost like it had been finished with an infused salt.  Absolutely an excellent lunch that turned my expectations onto their head. 

Now, the absolute last thing that I want is for my perfect unspoiled wilderness getaway to become even more inundated by assholes driving Mercedes up a 1 lane road that they don't have the basic understanding, skills, or courtesy to drive safely on.  However if you absolutely must make the 3 hour trek and occupy space on my beloved mountain.  Remember: Use the damn turnouts, some of us actually know how to drive.  Put out your campfires thoroughly and pack your trash out.  Don't muck up the natural pools and remember your flashlight at dusk.  And absolutely have a meal at the River Rock Café.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Eating Out a Fresh Taste of a New Season

Summer's greetings intrepid readers!

So as I've previously noted, the season has changed!  And with it, we find new excuses to escape outside to burn animal flesh that we somehow didn't feel justified embarking upon when the weather was slightly less fucked.  There's nothing I prefer more than being able to experience alcohol poisoning AND a severe sunburn.

And how better to burn yourself to a crisp, than to take a 16 pound beef brisket to task over your lovely smoker?  I mean, who has lived until you have to discover how to make fire not so damn hot to be able to cook your expensive meat hunk in the stately manner that you want?  Nobody, that's who.  Now let's look at that beautiful bitch in the raw.

Ain't she purty?  That's a home made rub, mostly consisting of salt, garlic powder, paprika, some dried chiles, black pepper and a wee bit of thyme.  We trimmed a couplefew pounds of fat out of her and slapped on the rub while we made the...

FIRE!  This is a 12-16 hour cook.  So a good coal bed is important before you get started.  It's also wise to go ahead and set up a drip catching system in your cookin' chamber, because this baby is gonna bleed sauce all day.  Okay, just one more.  It was a helluva fire.

Okay, it's hella sexy.  But we're calming down.  Making embers and setting up for low and slow cooking in heat that could cook the meat by itself.  The heat is really just for the wood flavor if you've got a big black iron smoker in mid-Fres-ummer.  So get 'er going and then chill that badboy out.  While you're fighting your well set fire, maybe look at injecting your brisket with some beef broth and a few spices, maybe some bay, thyme, scotch whiskey, you know, whatever.

That's nice.  Sorta like pre-cook plastic surgery.  Slapping 30cc flavor tits on your brisket before you put it to the fire.  Wait, fire?  Sure we can do just one more.

Ain't it pretty?  But now, we must take our carefully tended patient, all pumped full to bursting with extraneous juice and meander it towards our hopefully smokey, yet 180 degee smoker.  We were lucky to get it down to 250 for the opener.  Your mileage may vary.

And now comes the waiting and the drinking.  Or the drinking and the waiting, depending on your priorities.  Mine of course, lean towards the latter.  So in the meaty slab goes, to be gently tickled by my mesquite charcoal until she meanders up and towards 150 degrees.  That's gonna be hella important right after this picture.

Yup, that's what she looks like at 150.  And here is where we throw on the Texas crutch.  I'm sure there are 50 names for wrapping a big hunk of smoking meat in tin foil so that it'll continue to gain heat even as the water starts to evaporate from the muscle, which is primarily why an untended meat primal takes all damn day and night rather than just the lion's share of a day.  And here's a super secret!  Don't take that dang foil off until it's done!  We stripped ours at 185 and watched the meat drop back into the 160's and park there for an hour.  Use direct heat to stiffen up the bark after the cooking is done friends.  Learn from my three hour mistake.  But even then, my mistake looked like this...



And here's what she looked like after another 3 hours of proper cooking and a good rest.

Here comes the slicing...the drunk, drunk, slicing

And just a little proof that I can cut more than two, juicy, perfectly smokey and tender slices...

And so friends, I wish you a happy opening to summer!  No full recipe for this one.  Just the advice to put together your own rub, tend your fire carefully and watch the thermometer in the slab until she gets around 201-205 degrees and don't take that damn foil off!  However you do it, it's a wonderful experience to have a beef entrée for three full days for 4+ people at less than $2.50 per hungry mouthface.

Happy Summer Fresnish peoples near and far.  Now make with the cooking!


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Eating Out One's Heart

Post Rogue Festival greeting friends and readers!  The great arts festival of Fresno has come and gone.  And with it's annual passing, so do we say farewell to two weeks of frantic rehearsals, prop buying, fact checking, venue scouting, flyer pimping, panic drinking and gut wrenching fear of bombing in public.  But also we shed a wee tear over new artist friends flying home or on to their next fringe festival, having the excuse to rub elbows with the locals while you're doing promos, the victory drinks after a sellout night and the warm regards of an audience that doesn't seem to hate you after the show.

It was a mighty fine Rogue Festival year this year.  And of course it is the first year that I've head honcho'ed my own, ever.  I've got to say that it has been an extremely rewarding yet panic inducing experience.  Has someone ever actually cooked during a stage show?  Will it work?  Is the idea of incorporating an odor component to a storytelling show stupid?  And that's just the early conceptual fears.

It's a week before Rogue and my show-mate Jody and I are sitting around writing out various stories from our lives.  Gritty, real things.  Ok, his were gritty and real, mine were pretty much universally gross and silly.  But the idea was to give a peek at the inside of a kitchen and what stories we share with each other.  Pretty dark stuff, although compelling.  But something just doesn't feel right.  Which is shit-your-pants panic time when your opening show is less than 3 days away.

So it's in the midst of the fear and a double handful of beers that it seizes my pen and forces me into a manic tornado of writing.  It's so simple!  It's a show about food and people who make it.  So keep it close to the food!  And who hasn't had to take a food job at some point in their life?  From there it was just a matter of winnowing out some topics where we have fertile ground to remind us of the comedic and horrifying experiences that we've had as spatula jockeys!

Two days.  Two days to self generate our lines and attempt to rehearse them with an eye to fill our 45min time slot.  Two days to gather the food for the first week's show, attempt to get flyers passed around, buy supplementary props like whisks and spatulas and then organize it all in such a manner that we can load in and load out somewhat quickly.  And don't even get me started on the nightmare of trying to find wireless microphones for under $200.

So there we are.  Friday night.  The first show.  I have to grab a shot of Jameson's to steady the nerves and wake up the gabber inside.  It's a light audience.  Maybe a dozen or more.  But that's okay.  I'd rather tank in front of a dozen people than realize that I've disappointed a sold out house.  We start the burners, arrange the ingredients, wait for the venue manager to do her opening and then we're off.

Ahhh theres The Fear.  Not of the audience or what their reaction is going to be.  The plain old, pants down, I shoulda studied harder, it's all my fault, Fear.  Fortunately it has been with me at every show for every performance.  And though it turns my guts into ice water, it's also a comforting old friend that is there to greet me as we start. 

I'm staring at my notes too much.  Pans are getting too hot.  One of the burners has flamed out.  The pepper isn't sticking to my steaks.  How much smoke is that pan kicking off?  Crap, did we bring enough bacon?  Squash?  Who the hell cooks squash for aroma?  Wow, the drug talk is getting bad reaction?  Wait until we get to the molesty manager stories!

All of this is running through my head at a million miles an hour while I'm trying to coordinate my hands and feet into the familiar rhythm of cooking under the gun.  And at the same time I'm forcing my mouth to keep pumping out life story after life story.  All the while, my mind keeps dancing around the fear that the crowd is going to collectively stand up, call me a hack and tell me I need Jesus.

They didn't.  Thankfully.  Although one terror did come out in the show.  My flambe' fizzled like no other.  The only real cookery showmanship I had to display, ruined due to not splashing enough brandy into the pan.  Okay, so I had one other fear, burning the whole place down.  So I was a little conservative.  I'm sure the Spectrum Gallery thanks me for it.

Then it comes.  The monkeywrench of doom.  I'm SURE we're only about halfway through the show, when I start getting wild signals in my peripheral vision.  I'm looking at the venue manager wildly gesticulating FIVE, FIVE, FIVE.  I smile and wave a fiver back and plod on.  Then, she gives me the WRAP IT UP sign.  And I'm like "Fuck! How did we burn 45mins already?"  So I let Jody finish his section then break in and apologize and tell everyone that we've run long and need to wrap it up...

But WE HAVEN'T and DON'T!  Shit on me sideways with a series of shallow dermal incisions!  Talk about fucking up your flow and the suspension of reality!  Crack a joke and get back on track or you're done for!  The crowd is kind.  The muse is still there.  And so we forge right on into our last 15 minutes of the show.  The food gets finished, the stories are told and I don't flub our closing too terribly.

We've done it!  The first show is officially in the past.  And now friends and audience members can come up and attempt to chat while I'm furiously breaking down like I'm closing the kitchen and want to get out in time for a night on the town.  Because really, I am.  To both. 

We soak up some love after the show and then hike up the road to a friend's house for the victory dance.  16 year old Lagavulin never tasted so good.