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ZZ Tex-Mex

IMG_5490Billy Gibbons stopped by El Real Tex-Mex for brunch today. He wanted to try the bacon enchiladas–two cheese enchiladas with bacon inside and a sunny side up egg on top–it’s our number one brunch entree. Billy loved them. I gave his wife, Gilligan Gibbons, one of those northern Mexican goat’s milk caramel and pecan candies known as Glorias. That was a hit too.

We talked about the couples favorite versions of hot chocolate–they recounted awesome cups of chocolate they had been served in Paris and Madrid. Billy bought his wife a copy of the Tex-Mex Cookbook and the Chili Cookbook–she cooks at home all the time. They were knocked out by the photo of lobster in green chile with corn on the cob that’s one of the first images in the Chili Cookbook.

I once ran into Billy in the Hobby Airport food court. We were both traveling alone. I was carrying a tray of Chinese food from Golden Happy Panda Dragon or whatever that place is called. He was sitting by himself eating a plate of enchiladas with chips, salsa and a beer. I said hello and he recognized me from the restaurant and from a couple of other encounters and invited me to sit down. The Chinese food was awful and I found myself drooling over his refried beans.

“Billy, tell me the truth. Do you eat Tex-Mex at every meal?” I joked.

He said he ate lots of other stuff but there wasn’t any good Tex-Mex where he was going, so he was stocking up.

Captain Buddy down at Katie’s Seafood is a TV Star!

Galveston’s most popular seafood market and the family that runs the place are featured on a new National Geo reality TV show. It seems to be an imitation of Deadliest Catch, only without the icy water. Sure it’s a little contrived, like all reality TV shows, but its great to see Galveston and our local fishing fleet on the tube.

Reviews and Write-ups:

Olives from Spain

The shockingly delicious combo of giant Spanish Queen olives stuffed with goat cheese and tossed with olive oil, honey and chopped apples will make you reconsider your preconceptions about how to eat olives. And the brightly tart combination of black pitted olives in a minced orange marinade will likely show up on my Thanksgiving table. (Although I may tweak the recipe to use up all the ripe fruit from my kumquat tree.) I used to be an olive snob who only served olives with pits–to the chagrin of my younger children. But lately, my olive horizons have widened.

Who knew you could take grocery store canned olives and turn them into a sexy appetizer with ingredients you probably already have in your fridge? The goat cheese-stuffed olives and another app of black olives with citrus were two of three sample dishes at the Olives from Spain booth at a recent Spanish food and wine showcase called Spain’s Great Match at Silver Street Studios in Houston. In past years, the Spanish olive producers have asked American chefs to come up with exciting restaurant dishes with olives. This year, their goal was to show American home cooks how easy it is to create cool olive dishes at home.

It was Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the “Rat Pack” that made the martini garnished with a green olive stuffed with pimiento an American classic. Sales of the stuffed Spanish olives took off and the U.S. has been the largest export market for Spanish olives ever since.

Olives from Spain is the name of the Spanish olive producers association, look for their logo in the olive section of the grocery store. (That’s not much of a challenge since Spain produces the majority of olives consumed in the U.S. including 95% of the pimiento-stuffed olives.)
Spain has a rich tradition of olive production and olive cookery, olive trees have been growing there since the first century.Today the highly modernized Spanish olive industry leads the world in quality and food safety standards. Spain also boasts the widest range of flavors in a staggering variety of olive types including top sellers like Manzanilla, Hojiblanca, Gordal and Cacereña, specialty olives like Carrasqueña, Aloreña,Verdial, Cuquillo, Lechín and Empeltre, and my favorite, the itty-bitty Arbequina.

Like olive oil, olives are good for you, they contain monounsaturated fat (the good kind).

If you’re using the Mediterranean diet as a model, olives are great in pizzas, salads, pastas, rice, meat dishes, fish dishes, and stews, and as a table snack with an endless variety of stuffings including anchovy and blue cheese. Mexican and Californian cooking traditions reflect the Spanish introduction of olives to the New World centuries ago. Black olives have become a familiar part of Americanized Mexican food—especially Cal-Mex. Huachinango (Red Snapper) Veracruzano is one of my favorite Mexican seafood dishes—and it’s loaded with olives. Modern Mexicans prefer their cocktail olives to be stuffed with jalapeños!

Logo Olives From Spain

Full disclosure: The Olives from Spain folks hired me to spread the word about Spanish olives this month. It was my recent blog series about curing my own olives at home (my new house in Galveston has an olive tree) that caught the attention of the Spanish olive gang. Along with the descriptions of olives from around the world, I wrote one blog post about the amazing combination of Spanish green arbequina olives, Marcona almonds, and Fina sherry. I first sampled that combo at the bar of the now-shuttered Catalan restaurant—and I’ve thought about it ever since.

A variation on that ancient Spanish triumvarate turned up the third olive dish served at the Olives from Spain booth–it was a giant bowl of Spanish green olives and marcona almonds, mixed with chopped, slightly piquante, piquillo peppers, olive oil, sherry vinegar, honey, thyme and big chunks of cabrales, the distinctive Spanish blue cheese. It was a real show stopper.

259A6606 When my pal Pete Mitchell, the owner of Under the Volcano bar, came by the olive booth, I handed him a sample bowl of the Spanish olive and marcona almond mélange and walked him down to a Spanish winemaker’s booth where they were pouring samples of Fina Sherry. Pete was blown away by the uncanny combination of flavors. Don’t be surprised if Spanish olives, almonds and sherry shows up on the menu at Under the Volcano soon. What a great appetizer to kick off a Monday steak night!

Check out the recipes at the Olives from Spain website.

The Making of… Chili

When was the last time you had a steaming bowl?

DIY Olives: Home Curing Recipe

How to Cure Olives:

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Our new house in Galveston has a small, and very old, olive tree near the back porch. I haven’t figured out the cultivar–my iPhone plant app says they are “African olives.”

When I noticed that these olives were starting to get ripe, I decided to pick them–and come up with a plan for how to use them. I went with a simple brine fermentation. IMG_7342So, now in the months that it takes to cure these olives, I will share my trials and errors and few thoughts about the ancient foodstuff.

IMG_7436 We had a dinner party last week and I served Spanish arbequnia olives, olive oil-fried marcona almonds and sherry as the first course. We had our olives and sherry on the porch. It turned out that our guests were familiar with the tradition from their time in Spain–and they were delighted.

The sherry was La Guita, a manzanilla, and I served it chilled. Manzanilla is nearly the same as Fino sherry but produced around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, closer to the sea than Jerez. Marcona almonds are a Spanish variety of almond that are gaining in popularity recently–they are often served roasted or fried. The olives were tiny arbequina olives–their flavor is the model I am shooting for in my own olive curing.

For the last three weeks, I have been soaking the olives I picked from my tree in a brine solution, changing the water every day. (Okay, almost every day–I forgot a few times.) I tasted the olives every couple of days to see what was happening. The olives started out very bitter–like laundry soap. After the soaking, they got softer and less objectionable. Then I put them in another brine with vinegar for a longer malolactic fermentation. Three months is the suggested curing time, but every few days, the olives get a little tastier. I may take them out early.

When do cured olives start tasting good? That’s an interesting question–and entirely a matter of personal taste.

Years ago, the California olive industry concluded that Americans like their olives without any bitterness whatsoever. And so we got the American industrial black olive–picked green, chemically turned black and treated with lye until all of the native olive bitter flavors were gone. As American food lovers began to discover the wonderful flavors of Middle Eastern and European olives, they started to prefer olives with a little of that native bitterness left in. If you taste a lot of olives side by side, you can determine just how much “olive flavor” you prefer.

Green French picholines are treated with lye, then brined so they are pretty mild. Tiny green Spanish arbequina olives from the Catalon region are brined, but not treated with lye. They have lots of herbal flavors and some of that natural bitterness. That’s the flavor I am going for. Here’s a recipe I adapted from several sources:

Robb’s Olive Curing Recipe:

For: 2 cups raw olives
Soak olives in a 7 to 9% brine, change the water everyday for two weeks.

Transfer olives to a jar with lid.

Dissolve 4 tablespooons of salt in
2 cups of water and add
4 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
Pour the solution over the olives to cover.
Place a slice of onion in the top of the jar to keep the olives submerged. Then pour 4 tablespoons of olive oil on top as an oxygen barrier.
Soak 3 to 6 months, testing often.
(Replace the onion slice if it starts to get funky.)
Prepare for serving by placing the finished olives in a marinade of olive oil, garlic and herbs, etc.
You can add lemon peel, peppers, or other flavorings if you like.

Got Tacos?

Tacolandia taqueros in LA

Tacolandia taqueros in LA

Join me, Paul Galvani, Mando Rayo and the the best taqueros in town on Saturday, October 24, 2015 from 4PM – 7PM at The Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park as we celebrate the Inaugural Houston Press Tacolandia. (The event is already a tradition at our sister newspaper in Los Angeles.)

thumbnail-1Tacolandia is an outdoor Taco-sampling event and festival that will feature Houston’s best tacos, ranging from urban contemporary to authentic street style. Complete with live music, cash bars with beer and cocktails as well as awards for best tacos in various categories.

Doors open at 3:00 for VIP and 4:00 for General Admission.

General Admission Tickets: $25 – $40
VIP Admission Tickets: $65 – $80

General Admission ticket includes:
• Entry into the event
• Unlimited food samples from Tacolandia vendors
• Beer & Cocktails available to purchase

VIP Admission ticket includes:
• Entry into the event 1 hour earlier than general admission (entry at 3pm).
• Unlimited food samples from Tacolandia vendors
• Access to VIP lounge with its own VIP Private Bar with complimentary Beer and Cocktail Samples
• Access to VIP Restrooms

Houston Press Tacolandia 2015
Saturday, October 24, 2015 4PM – 7PM
105 Sabine St., Houston, TX 77007

All Guests must be 21+, with a Valid I.D.

TheWaterWorksThe Waterworks at Buffalo Bayou Park is an urban wonderland–no really!


DIY Olives: Who Ate the First Olive?

How to Cure Olives:

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Our new house in Galveston has a small, and very old, olive tree near the back porch. I haven’t figured out the cultivar–my iPhone plant app says they are “African olives.”

When I noticed that these olives were starting to get ripe, I decided to pick them–and come up with a plan for how to use them. I went with a simple brine fermentation. IMG_7342So, now in the months that it takes to cure these olives, I will share my trials and errors and few thoughts about the ancient foodstuff.

Back in the 1980s, I rented a house in Lafayette, California on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland and Berkeley. The house had three olive trees and they produced lots of olives. Curiosity drove me to try a black olive right off the tree. The glucosides in uncured olives make them taste like soap–strong nasty soap. I didn’t just spit it out–I had to go brush my teeth.

The internet was not a research option at the time, and the information I could find at the library informed me that industrial olive producers in California pick green olives, turn them black with chemicals, cure them with lye, pit them and can them in a mild brine. This didn’t encourage me to try curing the olives in my backyard. The black olives we Americans eat from cans are a sorry version of the ancient foodstuff.

Olive trees were cultivated in Crete over 5000 years ago. You have to wonder who started eating these bitter little fruits? Perhaps an olive tree growing near salt water somewhere dropped a few fruits in a tidal brine pool? According to Greek mythology, Athena gave the olive tree to the people of Athens. I learned more about European and Middle Eastern olives in the blossoming Berkeley food scene of the 1980s. I learned that there are dozens of different olive varieties and lots of ways to cure olives.

Today, olives are such a big part of the American food scene that you can find kalamata olives and Greek olives in supermarkets all over the country. Even my local Galveston Kroger has an large olive bar display. I have studied the different curing techniques with great interest. Here’s the results of my taste test with examples from the Central Market Olive Bar.

Dry-Cured Olives: Dry salt cures are among the oldest ways to make olives palatable.

Black Beldi: Morocco (Marrakech, Fez): Leathery, wrinkled skin, dense velvety texture, deep meaty flavor. The black Beldi is rolled in salt and sun-dried.IMG_7422

Green Halkidikis (Greece) An ancient olive sometimes cured in dry salt then marinated in oil. This is a classic Greek olive with bold flavor.IMG_7426

Lye-cured olives: Curing olives briefly in lye before brining speeds up the process and makes tender olives.

Picholines: France (Provence): One of the world’s definitive green olives, crisp, tender, salty. Often picked green and cured in lye before brining. Also picked black for olive oil production. IMG_7424

Green Cerignola Italy (Puglia) Huge, glossy skin, chewy and mild. La Bella di Cerignola olives are cured in lye for 10 hours, then brined in a 9% saline solution and sometimes treated with food colors IMG_7421

Brined olives: The little olives from my Galveston tree resemble the tiny Arbequina olives of Spain. And since I love the flavor of these Spanish mini-olives, I followed the same brining technique used to cure them.

Arbequina: Spain (Catalonia): Tiny and firm with a delicate herbal flavor, Spanish argequinas are cured in a 9% saline brine for 1 to 2 months. IMG_7420

Avenue O Olives: United States (Galveston, Texas): Tiny to medium-sized, green black and somewhere in between, these olives all came from the same tree. Cured in 3.5% brine for 11 days and 9% brine for 7 days (so far).

Marinades and Mixes: Mixing olives with other ingredients in a marinade is a favorite way of serving olives in Europe and the Middle East.

Basque Olive Mix France/Spain (Basque region) Three different olives harvested on both sides of the border in a marinade with sweet peppers, Espelette peppers and herbs make a brightly flavored blend.

DIY Olives: Pimientos or Anchovies?

How to Cure Olives:

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Our new house in Galveston has a small, and very old, olive tree near the back porch. I haven’t figured out the cultivar–my iPhone plant app says they are “African olives.”

When I noticed that these olives were starting to get ripe, I decided to pick them–and come up with a plan for how to use them. I went with a simple brine fermentation. IMG_7342So, now in the months that it takes to cure these olives, I will share my trials and errors and few thoughts about the ancient foodstuff.

When Americans think of olives, they think of green ones with red peppers inside–the kind you get at the bar. We can thank Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack for making the pimiento-stuffed green olive famous as a garnish for the iconic martini cocktail. imgresThanks to our thirst for martinis, the United States has become the largest importer of Spanish aceitunas rellenas, or stuffed olives. The U.S. accounts for nearly a quarter of all Spanish table olive exports, some 685 million pounds.

Queen Olives stuffed with pimiento (Spain)

Queen Olives stuffed with pimiento (Spain)

Stuffed olives are also the most popular olives in Spain, though the locals prefer different stuffings. (And the traditional drink with olives is sherry, not gin.) Anchovy-filled green olives account for around 40% of all table olives consumed in Spain. But there are some 90 varieties of stuffed olives on the market in Spain, with new ones being invented all the time. At the Andalucía Sabor trade fair, 36 different kinds of stuffed olives were displayed.

Popular fillings include: lemon, lobster, roasted red peppers, spicy chorizo, almonds, blue cheese, jalapeño, smoked salmon, garlic, pearl onions, tuna, orange and Spanish ham, among others. While the U.S. likes pimiento-stuffed olives (usually mispronounced “pimento”), Mexican like jalapeño-stuffed olives and Eastern Europeans like them stuffed with blue cheese.

Olives stuffed with almonds (Spain) pair well with Spanish sherry.

Olives stuffed with almonds (Spain) pair well with Spanish sherry.

Spanish olive producers have sponsored competitions among American chefs to come up with new olive stuffing (and cooking) ideas. Chicago chef Michael Kornick offered Chorizo-stuffed olives, and Florida chef Giorgio Rapicavoli made Grilled olives stuffed with Manchego cheese.

I won’t be stuffing my olives–or cooking with them anytime soon. The recipe I am using called for an initial two weeks of brining, with a daily change of salt water. I used the standard pickle brine formula for a 4% saline solution. That was my first mistake. Most of the olive producers in the world use a 9% saline solution.

Tomorrow, I will make a batch of saltier brine.