Austin Eats at #ACL

Austin Eats header text

Hey, sorry for falling behind for a couple of days! We had some houseguests and related excitement, and since I’m trying to blog for #31days by the seat of my pants, I got a bit behind. The comeback starts now.

On Saturday we went the Austin City Limits music festival and overall we had a great day. One of the fun things about ACL is always the food. There’s an Austin Eats food court where all the vendors are locals–some are brick-and-mortar sites and some are food trucks. This year is the first time I’ve had to be super-careful about which foods to eat, and fortunately the festival organizers did a great job of noting which menu items were gluten-free. I’m not sure how the GF designation was made, but it turned out that there were other dishes not marked GF that were just fine and super delicious. My only complaint, and I know it’s a festival, is that the prices were so high relative to either the quality or the portion size. The best thing I put in my mouth all day was a sample of the Salt Potatoes from The Best Wurst. We only got one and devoured it, but when I tried to get some for dinner the line was so long I just didn’t have the patience. Which was the wurst decision I made all day. The small Yukon Gold potatoes are boiled in a salt brine and then slathered with butter and a sprinkling of green onions. It’s a veritable mouth party.

Austin Eats Highlights:

Daily Juice
Daily Juice had three different beverages on offer, including my favorite: watermelon. I love watermelon juice more than just about any other beverage and it took restraint to get only two servings throughout the day.

Daily Juice edited

The Peached Tortilla
The PT has several food trucks and they do a lot of catering, too. Their food is a bit of fusion with an Asian twist. Chinese, Japanese, and Thai flavors inform many of the dishes. Their GF offering at ACL was a Thai Summer Salad. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting in terms of flavors, but for $7 I was expecting a larger portion. The salad base was shredded cabbage and other vegetables topped with what seemed to be a peanut sauce dressing, with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and maybe a few bits of peanut. I’m not a huge fan of peanut anything, so I probably should have asked when I ordered. Overall it was pretty tasty, but the size : price ratio was disappointing.

Hat Creek Burger Co.
Hat Creek is a local chain with a location just down the street from me. I’ve never eaten there because they serve burgers and I don’t really eat beef. So I was pleased to see that they had non-beef gluten-free options on the ACL menu. I had the Chicken Flashers (which sound kind of dirty–is it just me?) and the sweet potato fries. Great portion size, and though the fries were pretty standard, the chicken nuggets were quite good. I almost got over the fact that I couldn’t have a Mighty Cone.

The ice cream sandwiches from Coolhaus melted too quickly to get a photo, but the gluten-free coconut-almond cookie was a perfect base for the salted chocolate ice cream. The cookie was similar to a macaroon (a real one, not those weird Manischewitz rocks) and I’m insanely grateful that Coolhaus had such a fantastic gluten-free option.

My dinner choice was incredibly disappointing, so much so I’m not even going to share it here. I wouldn’t patronize the vendor again, either at a festival or in the real world. But I did very happily snarf down another watermelon juice.

In case you were wondering how the omnivore husband did at ACL, he happily inhaled a bratwurst with all the fixings from The Best Wurst and some of my Hat Creek fries followed by a chocolate chip/salted chocolate Coolhaus ice cream sandwich. And for dinner he had a Chopped Beef Sandwich from The Salt Lick.

I know I should be writing about the music. We liked Haim, enjoyed Lissie and The Joy Formidable, had a nice hangout while jamming to Wilco, enjoyed our dinner to the sounds of The Mavericks, and relived our high school romantic angst to The Cure.

Sadly, our tickets were for the rained out weekend, which is having a terrible impact on the food vendors. There may be some pop-up events, but a full day’s prep for 75,000 expected attendees is potentially going to waste. If you’re in Austin and any of these food mentions tickle your fancy, consider visiting these vendors at their trucks or restaurants as they try to make up the losses from this weekend.

Figgy Fun with Confituras

Fig Collage Text final

Last month I met Stephanie McClenny, founder and creator of Confituras, at a class she taught on preserving peaches. Stephanie is the creative force behind the stunning array of jams, preserves, chutneys, and pickled fruits on offer at Austin’s farmers’ markets and specialty food stores. She uses only the freshest local fruits in her confitures, and the flavors are both traditional and unique.

As excited as I was to attend the peach class, I mentioned how sorry I was to have missed her earlier class on figs since I’ve always wanted to learn how to make fig jam or preserves similar to the ones my grandmother made from the figs that grew in her yard in Galveston. A few days later Stephanie turned me onto her upcoming class in concert with Jackie Letelier of Pâté Letelier, focusing on fig preserves and chicken liver pâté. I was sold in a minute. The results of our class were delectable–Paul and I ate them up in just a few days–and I reminisced about the homestyle versions of those foods made by my grandmother.

My Jewish grandmother, Gertrude Plantowsky, was a great cook, and her fridge was always stocked with schmaltz. Despite her kitchen aplomb, she wasn’t a patient teacher, so assisting her was a rare opportunity and I never really had a chance to learn some of her most special recipes. Despite being raised in a kosher home, one of her best dishes was crab and shrimp gumbo. At some point the Gulf seafood trumped her traditional upbringing.

Two others that were special and delicious were her chopped liver and her preserved figs. I did help out with the chopped liver once: my job was to grind the cooked livers and onion through her table-mounted meat grinder and it seemed like it took ages. But I never did get an insight into how she made her figs. I have trouble remembering exactly how they tasted, but my vague recollection is of figs preserved in syrup with lemon. I think they were sliced, or maybe halved. They were sort of jelly-like so you could spread them on toasted challah, but they weren’t chunky and seedy like preserves. One day I hope to figure them out.

Last weekend I tried, using the preserving experience from Stephanie’s peach class and the details I learned about figs from the pâté and preserves class, and set to work in the kitchen to preserve about two-and-a-half pounds of figs in syrup scented with lemon, cinnamon, and cardamom. The result was six half-pints of beautiful figs, and even though they aren’t quite like Gert’s, they are delicious.

A Father’s Day Grilled Feast

It’s barely mid-June, but deep in the heart of Texas it’s hot everyday and the locally-grown fruits and vegetables are rolling into the markets, tables groaning under the bounty of summer. With Father’s Day upon us, it was time to pick up corn, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and ‘shrooms and fire up the grill. We mighta’ sneaked a few chunks of chicken in there, too.

Grilling is nearly a state religion in Texas but, in my opinion, there’s no one way to do it rightly or wrongly. It takes a few decisions, a few key tools, a little bit of creativity, and an apron with a built-in bottle opener and koozie to keep you cool when facing the flames.

First decision: gas or charcoal. Down and dirty grillmasters and -mistresses swear by charcoal. For the last two years I grilled only on charcoal and it does have benefits, such as superior heat control and hot spots exactly where you want them. But all my recent grilling has been on gas, and what you give up in control is a trade-off for easier cleanup and possibly fewer carcinogens launched into the atmosphere.

Second decision: what to grill. I know folks swear by steaks and burgers as their grilling favorites, and while it’s hard to beat a beautifully caramelized piece of grilled flesh, vegetables take on a wholly new character when they come off the fire, delicately charred and bursting with flavor. Marinate them or not before sliding them over the flames, but do give a judicious coating of olive oil, salt, and pepper to minimize sticking and guarantee great flavor.

Third decision: direct or indirect heat. I’m definitely no expert on the benefits of direct and indirect heat for grilling meats, but when it comes to veggies I think that medium direct heat is best, and keep the grill lid closed! Not only will the food cook more efficiently, but you’ll also be rewarded with luscious grill marks and that smoky char. Place your larger, sturdier vegetables over the hottest spots of the grill, which tend to be right between two burners.

Fourth decision: skewers or not. When grilling vegetables I’m agnostic about skewers. Metal skewers do a bang-up job when grilling meat kabobs, since they conduct the heat through the center and help it to cook evenly. Mixed veggie kabobs look amazing, but they are difficult to manage because the vegetables cook at different rates–tomatoes will split before the zukes have even realized they’re getting warm. I think that nice big hunks of veggies cook more evenly when placed directly over the heat, but that it’s worth using skewers for mushrooms and tomatoes, or any other small vegetables likely to break up on the grill. Screw bamboo. Politely, of course.

Arm yourself with a long pair of tongs and a spatula and dinner is yours in about 15 minutes. Your ol’ dad will love it, too.