Sisters Maria and Sylvia Calderon cook side by side in their tiny eatery located on the banks of the Ramos river in Allende, Mexico under a towering tree. At their one-room, one-table restaurant, they only serve one dish–chile con carne–though sometimes they call it “carne con chile.”
It comes in a bowl with another bowl of beans on the side along with a plate of mashed avocado, a plate of queso fresco slices, and a plate of sliced onions soaked in lime juice seasoned with a little salt and oregano. We were served an extra dish–jalapeño chile relleno. The sisters start making flour tortillas as soon as you sit down.
The chili is made to order in small skillets that each fill one bowl–enough for two people. The meat is chopped round steak. It is browned in lard with a touch of garlic. Roasted roma tomatoes are pureed in the blender with some wild chile pequin and that mixture is added to the browned meat. It simmers long enough to cook the meat, but not long enough to make it very tender. This dish would be called carne guisada in South Texas, but if las comadres want to call it chile con carne, you best not argue.
While we ate, Maria took fresh tortillas, drizzled them with manteca, and squeezed them tight in her hand to form a sort of squashed-together tortilla log. It was amazingly tasty. “My mom made the same thing with hot flour tortillas spread with butter,” my dining companion, Monterrey cooking school principal Robert Navarro told me. “She would make a little animal head on one end–we called them burritos. I always thought that was where the name came from.”
The river flooded some years ago and washed the restaurant away. The sisters thought it was a good opportunity to rebuild a sturdier structure. The new building looks pretty stout. To make a reservation, visit their facebook page.
Eating lunch at Las Comadres and talking about cooking with the Calderon sisters reminded me why I used to spend so much time in Mexico. I realized that I have been away too long.
I’ll be attending the Foro Parallelo Monterrey this week. I’m giving a talk on chili con carne and its role in Tex-Mex to the gastronomic conference. Should be amusing! Come see.
Opened in 1958 in a former theater at 1213 U Street, Ben’s is a Washington D.C. landmark and an icon of the golden age of chili parlors. Ben’s signature dish, the original chili half-smoke, is a quarter-pound link of the griddled sausage on a steamed bun, with mustard, onions and chili sauce. The chili half-smoke was one the best “chili dogs” I’ve ever had. The meaty coarse-ground beef and pork link reminded me of that Texas barbecue tradition, Elgin sausage.
The chili came in a Styrofoam bowl with saltines. I asked for the cheese and onions on the side. The chili in the bowl had red kidney beans, it looked like a meaty gravy. Not the best chili I ever ate, but not half bad either.
Texans are somewhat dismissive of what passes for chili in other parts of the country. But my tour of American chili venues revealed that the chili con carne culture is better preserved in places like Washington D.C. that here in Texas.
Chili will always have a place at the center of the Tex-Mex tradition, but the truth is most Tex-Mex restaurants serve chili gravy on their enchiladas–many don’t even make chili anymore. As for restaurants dedicated to chili in Texas, The Texas Chili Parlor in Austin is about it. Meanwhile, D.C. has the Hard Times Chili chain (more about that one in another post) and Ben’s Chili Bowl–arguably the most famous chili restaurant in the country.
In Prague, I ate a spectacular venison goulash with Carlsbad dumplings at a cozy inn by the river. Goulash is everywhere in Prague–the Czech equivalent of a burger.
Goulash and chili have a lot in common. The Hungarian word gulyás means cowboy. The dish is named after the cowboys who prepared it while they herded cattle on the Great Hungarian Plain or Puszta in the 19th century. Paprika peppers were introduced to Hungary by the Ottoman Turks in the 1520s.
There are more than a dozen varieties of paprika in European supermarkets. In Germany, I cooked a fiery beef goulash with Hungarian hot “rosen” paprika, This goulash tasted nearly identical to New Mexican Red Chile with Beef. The main difference in technique is that goulash is thickened almost entirely by caramelized onions.
Here’s a recipe:
Spicy Hungarian Goulash
Sweet Hungarian paprika is widely available in the United States. It is also increasingly common to find Hungarian hot paprika. You can substitute 2 tablespoons sweet and 2 tablespoons hot paprika for the “half-sharf” in this recipe. (Sharf means sharp, or hot and spicy, in German.)
1 lb. beef stew meat
Salt and pepper to taste
4 medium onions
2 Roma tomatoes
1 red pepper (Hungarian type preferred)
4 tablespoons Hungarian “half sharf” paprika
3 tablespoons tallow, lard or vegetable oil
Cut the beef into half-inch dice removing any obvious ligament and season with salt and pepper. Peel and chop onions from end to end into half moon-shaped slices. Chop the tomatoes and red peppers, keeping each separate.
Heat half the fat or oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat and fry the onions stirring occasionally until soft and golden in color, 15 to 20 minutes. At the same time to a skillet over medium-high heat, add the other half of the fat and brown the meat in small batches. Reserve each batch of cooked beef on a plate.
When the onions are soft and golden, add the paprika, stirring well to combine. Add the meat, the chopped tomatoes and peppers and stir together. Deglaze the skillet in which the meat was cooked with a cup of water, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom and add the water and remaining fat to the onion mixture.
Simmer covered, checking often to make sure the stew doesn’t stick to the pan. Add water was as necessary. Continue simmering until the meat is ‘fall off the bone’ tender and the vegetables begin to dissolve into a thick sauce. Serve over noodles.
Goulash tastes better reheated the next day and also freezes well for up to two months.
Suet Dumplings for Goulash
Ask the butcher at the supermarket to save you some suet next time he cuts beef.
4 ounces self-raising flour, plus a little extra for dusting
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 ounces shredded suet
Salt and fresh black pepper
Mix the flour and shredded suet in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and add enough cold water (6-8 tablespoonfuls) to make a smooth elastic dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and divide it into 12 dumplings. Gently drop them in the goulash, do not hold them under, just let them float. Put the lid back on the goulash and simmer for another 25 minutes or until the dumplings have risen. Put a couple of dumplngs in each bowl as you serve the goulash.
A Gose beer in Leipzig
Sour, salty, cloudy and refreshing, the radical wheat beer of East Germany called Gose has a flavor reminds some Texans of the Mexican beer cocktail called a michelada,
only without the hot sauce.
In German, Gose has two syllables, it’s pronounced GOES-uh. The best version on earth is brewed at the Bayerische Bahnhof, a brewpub and beer garden located next to (and named after) the oldest restored train station in Germany, the Bayerische Bahnhof station in Leipzig.
The original Bayerische Bahnhof station.
I sat in the beer garden there one afternoon, drinking Gose and eating sliced ham and salami. I even got to watch the brewers wrestle large sacks of grain while getting a batch ready to brew.
All the while, I was thinking that I had made a monumental beer discovery. I couldn’t wait to tell my beer nerd friends about this wonderfully wacky wheat beer.
Back home, I came to find out that Gose has long been beloved in much of the country including Atlanta and Portland. And that not one, but two, Texas brewers are currently making Gose including the heavy hitters at Real Ale. Okay, so it looks like I’m a little late to this party.
American beer writers are falling all over themselves over this and a few other old obscure wheat beer styles from East Germany and Poland.
I have to admit, it was a nice break after drinking a helluva lot of Pils in Prague and Eastern Germany. And in the middle of the summer, the flavor was perfect.
But the funny thing is, the beer tastes the way it does because of the saltiness of the local water. Halle, a scenic town just outside of Leipzig, is famous for the salt produced by evaporating water drawn from its ancient saline wells.
No wonder nobody in this part of the world drinks tap water. I am guessing that modern brewers add some salt to simulate how bad the East German water used to taste.
The Goulash Canon in action.
This website has been quiet over the summer–my family took a vacation in rural Holland, Prague, and mostly Leipzig, Germany. (We swapped houses for a month with a Leipzig family.) One day, while driving through Leipzig’s industrial district, I noticed a food stand called Gulaschcanone Leipzig. The menu, which was painted on the outside wall so you could read it while stopped at the traffic light, featured “chili con carne.” I pulled our rented Renault over and checked it out.
In a parking lot, there were some picnic tables outside of a large tent that held the food stall. Parked halfway in and halfway out of the tent was an unusual-looking Army surplus trailer with a wood-fired stove that heated three huge covered kettles. The olive drab-painted trailer had large wheels so it could be pulled behind a military truck just like a mobile artillery piece. German soldiers nicknamed this kind of mobile kitchen a Gulaschcanone, or “goulash canon,” hence the name of the food stall.
Chili con Carne trailer
Gulaschcanone Leipzig was owned by a young entrepreneur named Ken Weber, it had been in operation since 2006. This week’s menu included Erbseneintopf mit Kassler
(pea soup with ham), Soljanka
(Eastern European sour and spicy soup)–next week Chili Con Carne was the special. I asked if there was any chili I could taste, but Weber apologized that he didn’t have any. “Come back next week,” he said. But alas, I was on my way home by then.
His chili recipe was pretty simple, he told me. Ground beef cooked with garlic, then tomatoes and tomato paste, red kidney beans and white kidney beans, and for the heat a healthy dose of the bottled Indonesian pepper paste called sambal olek. Surprisingly, the one thing Ken Weber never cooked in his goulash canon was goulash. Everybody and their grandma cooks goulash in Germany–chili con carne sounds much more exotic.
On the flight back to Houston, my wife asked me what new insights I was taking home. I told her I wanted to get one of those goulash canons. I want to tow a BBQ trailer and a Goulash Canon one behind the other from the back of the new dually pick-up truck I have been meaning to buy.
At an open air market near Prague’s Old Town, I happened on a booth where they were selling “kolacé.” These big round pastries looked like fruit pizzas. The cherry version was amazing. I guess these are the Old Country version of Texas kolaches.
Taco Keto’s Hungry Pig
There are two “U”s in hamburguesa
- Is that lettuce and tomato sticking out the end?
Do you see faces of a mother and child?
Tiny pepper? Or giant burrito?
While we were working on the Food Lover’s Guide to Houston at Houstonia Magazine, I fondly recalled my first purchases of Patricia Wells’ Food Lover’s Guide to Paris (1984), and Food Lover’s Guide to France (1987). Those two wildly successful guidebooks created a genre that inspired dozens of “Food Lover’s Guides” to various places in books and magazines.
I was a newbie food writer in 1993 when I called up Patricia Wells at her apartment in Paris and asked her to autograph my copy of the Food Lover’s Guide to France. She was very gracious, in fact, she invited me to come upstairs and have a glass of champagne and some olives she had cured herself at her summer home in Provence. I remember that it was February and her dining room was bedecked with forced tulips.
I got the book down off the shelf the other day, the binding is falling apart now, and I don’t think I will take it with me while traveling in France anymore. But I was somewhat astonished to see the inscriptions inside. I have never been much of an autograph seeker. For some reason, while I was traveling in France, I got the impulse to ask chefs to sign their names in the book.
It was a shock to see the autograph of Bernard Loiseau, the chef at Cote d’Or Restaurant in Burgundy who inspired the movie Ratatouille and tragically took his life when he lost one of his Michelin stars. One of the best chefs in the world, Loiseau was the mentor of Houston chef Olivier Ciesielski of L’Olivier restaurant on Westheimer.
A book review of La Mere Brazier in the Daily Beast got me thinking about a “type of kitchen peculiar to Lyon—that of the Grandes Mères and their cousins, Les Tantes.” In the late 1980s, I had a chance to eat dinner at Chez Tante Paulette, and persuaded Paulette Authely, to sign my book. I still follow her recipe for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic that appears in the book on the page opposite her photo. “Places such as Chez Tante Paulette — where Paulette Authely reigned supreme with her chicken and garlic until five years ago — are no more,” wrote Patricia Wells of Tante Paulette in 1994.
Maurice Bernachon took over the small chocolate shop he renamed Bernachon on Rue Franklin Roosevelt in Lyon in 1953. He reigned as France’s King of Chocolate until his death in 1999. Bernachon allowed me to hang around while he roasted a bag of cacao beans and ground them to silky smoothness. He signed his name with brown ink. The shop is still in business, its run by his children and grandchildren–the two most famous names in the gastronomy of Lyons, the Bernachon and Bocuse families, are intermarried and running a culinary dynasty.
There are many other autographs in the book. Chef Georges Blanc drew a little chicken beside his name after his speciality, poulet de Bresse; Robert Husser at Hostellerie du Cerf in Marlenheim wrote a long note after serving me the greatest platter of choucrote I have ever eaten; and Marc Haeberlin wished me “Best Regards” in the 28th of June 1996 after whipping up a wild game dinner at Auberge de L’ill in Alsace. There are also receipts for cave tours in Reims, currency exchange chits, and other memorabilia folded into the pages of this old tome.
Twenty or thirty years ago, these autographs were a silly tourist impulse, a lame attempt by my younger self to prove that I had really been to those places. That the chefs might pass away or the restaurants disappear never occurred to me.
Today, as a sentimental alter kocker, I touch the pages and treasure the memories.