Monday, July 27, 2009

Right In My Own Backyard

I always enjoy trying new flavors and fusions to see what works well together. Lately, I've been trying to look in my own backyard to find more local or regional flavors. Having the freshest local produce is always important when cooking, but I wanted something even closer to home. Something distinctly regional in both flavor and origin.

Being a born and bred Texan, it's hard to ignore the Mexican influence in our heritage. Especially the chiles. While trying to find new ways to stay true to my Texas roots, I came across a small spindly little plant in my yard. It had small, brightly colored peppers all over it and carried a slightly citrus-like aroma. After a bit of searching, I discovered they were indigenous chiles called chilipequins. The pequín pepper originates from the Rio Grand Valley or Northern Mexico area. (Once including Tejas) It gets it's name from the Spanish name; chile pequeño, meaning 'small' or 'little' chile. (since they rarely get larger than 2cm) Despite it's small stature, this local chile has a big bite. It tops the chart at a whopping 75,000 scoville units! Compare this to your traditional Jalapeño which only has about 4,000 scoville units.**

Because of their small size, the chiles must be harvested by hand, and therefore are not readily available in
most grocery stores. But if you are in Central or South Texas, be on the lookout for this wild-growing delicacy. But remember, if you're new to these little fire-breathers, you may want to use them with caution.

**The Scoville scale measures the hotness of a chile pepper, as defined by the amount of capsaicin(a chemical compound that stimulates the nerve endings in the tongue or skin) present.

RECIPE: Spicy Chile Pequin Shrimp (serves 4)

  • 16-20 Jumbo Gulf White Shrimp (peeled and deveined) 1-2lbs. or 4-5 shrimp per serving
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon diced chile pequin peppers (5-6 ct.)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/2 med. white onion chopped
  • 1/4 cup celery chopped
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic chopped
  • 1-2 teaspoon flour
  • 4-6 tbsp. of unsalted butter
  • 1/3-1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions (green onions)
  • 2 tablespoons sliced jalapeno (optional)
  • 2 cups cooked white rice **
After shrimp are peeled and deveined, pat dry with paper towels to remove any excess moisture. In a medium sized bowl, combine shrimp, chili powder, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, salt & pepper, lime juice, and 1 tbsp. olive oil. Mix until well coated and let them marinate for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat add remaining oil and combine with onion, celery, garlic, and fresh pequin chiles. Cook until fragrant, or about 3-4 minutes. When onions are slightly translucent, add 2 tablespoons of butter. Once the butter is melted, increase to medium-high heat and add shrimp. Pan-sear shrimp quickly. 30-45 seconds or until slightly browned. Add remaining butter and sprinkle in the flour. Add cream and jalapenos and stir until combined and a sauce forms. Serve atop white rice and garnish with scallions.

** You can also serve with your choice of pasta or other starch. Toasted baguette works well if serving as appetizer.

(I forgot to take a picture of the Shrimp Pequin when I made it, so I found something close to what it should look like.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Steakhouse in Town

I was recently invited to have dinner with a few friends at the new steakhouse in town. Being a small town, they are not known for their fine dining capabilities. In fact, aside from a few authentic Mexican restaurants, our town tends to steer more towards the bland, mediocre fare that you see at a value buffet. A few spots for 'down-home-cooking' mix it up nicely, but there's only so much chicken fried steak & mashed potatoes one person can tolerate. Needless to say, I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of our new steakhouse with much anticipation. 'Hasler Bros. Steakhouse' was in small bold letters on a brick building in historic downtown Bastrop. The front of house had a very welcoming ambiance. A well lit bar area catered to patrons awaiting there reservations, and a few lonely housewives. A piano player set the mood with a baby grand, a brandy glass full of tips, and some soft jazz. My first reaction was 'wow'. They had spared no expense to make it the premier steakhouse in town. The decor of dark woods and earthy tones reminded me of something you might find in a larger metropolitan city. The high ceilings, old school-high backed booths and white tablecloths set the stage for the dining room. The staff were all dressed to a 'T' and standing at attention. We were promptly seated with menus and wine lists to look over. That is where it started to go down hill...

I must first tell you, that the meal was excellent. Nothing but the freshest ingredients and choicest cuts of meats were used to prepare our feast, and the kitchen did not miss one beat. The service however, was a different story. Our waitress was very nervous and inexperienced. As she awkwardly attempted small talk, I reviewed the wine list with a few glances. Checking which wines were by bottle, and which were served by the glass. The list was quite substantial, and even had one of my favorite wines. (Jordan Cabernet '04) After taking our order for appetizers, she vanished for a short time. A small boy would pop up from around the corner to keep our waters filled and to bring us bread. (which he forgot to do.) I learned it was a soft opening, so I had expected a few hiccups, and didn't pay much mind to the grand opening jitters that most new staff seemed to be experiencing.

For the appetizer we decided on the crab cakes. Every good steakhouse must have a good crab cake, and Hasler Bros. was no exception. Light and creamy with just the right hint of lemon aioli to the plate. The only thing I would have added is more crab...but who doesn't want more crab?
After our appetizer, we placed our main course order and paired it with the wine. I also ordered a 'Beefsteak Tomato Salad w/ Roquefort Blue Cheese'. One of my favorite salads of all time...
Sadly, our wine arrived later than we would have liked. Well...she forgot about it. Again, I attributed this and most other blunders to the 'soft opening' they were having that evening.

Our salads came and everyone seemed to enjoy them. The Roquefort cheese was exceptionally fresh and tasted delicious. The 'beefsteak' however, was just your garden variety slicing tomato, and was prepared in a very...unique way. They had decided to scoop out the center of the tomato, and stuff it with bits of lettuce, celery, red onion, basil and of course the cheese. Besides being difficult to cut and eat, they had ruined a favorite steakhouse staple of mine. The flavors were there, (with the exception of the beefsteak) but the presentation was pretentious and the design was a mess to eat. I was disappointed, but still very optimistic about my steak.

I had chosen the ribeye. My own personal test of a steakhouse is to see how well they can prepare a ribeye steak. Hasler Bros. passed with flying colors. The steak was well marbled and had a rich beef flavor. Seasoned perfectly, and prepared to exactly medium-rare. A near perfect steak! I was blown away and ready to forgive all of the shortcomings, until I realized another giant blunder...our beautiful waitress had forgotten to place one of our orders. While the rest of the table enjoyed their dinner, Jeff (or 'el hefe') had to wait 10 minutes while they prepared his fillet. Needless to say, he was not very happy.

Despite the poor service and lack of food, we did enjoy ourselves. Overall, the pricing is on the higher end, but still reasonable for the quality of food. I hope the restaurant is here to stay. I will return to Hasler Bros. in the future, and hopefully they will have all of their staff fully trained and ready to go.