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An Oasis of Calm and Great Flavors at NIOSA

An Oasis of Calm and Great Flavors at NIOSA

It’s Shrimp Parilla time at NIOSA. What are you waiting for?

Once the parked traffic on North St. Mary’s decided to move Tuesday afternoon, I was finally able to find a place to park and then rush several blocks to the Villa Espana area at A Night in Old San Antonio. I was late for my shift at the Shrimp Parilla booth, but chairman Mark Swanson didn’t seem to mind.

Booth chairman Mark Swanson displays his Shrimp Parilla.

His first crew had already begun assembling the shrimp skewers that would be grilled after NIOSA opened while he finished putting up the decorations, which included a pair of stuffed shrimp, strings of lights and more to brighten even more the already colorful booth.

I quickly fell into the habit of skewering alternate layers of marinated shrimp, green bell pepper and onions while chatting away with the rest of the team, which included several volunteers who work with Swanson beyond their volunteer time on behalf of the San Antonio Conservation Society. 

In midst of the convivial chaos that is NIOSA, the Shrimp Parilla booth proved to be an oasis of calm. Taking their cue from the laid-back Swanson, the team did their jobs with a sense of dedication but without rushing. While Swanson’s son, Wesley, chopped peppers and onions, we put enough skewers together to last longer than our two-hour shift. Swanson, who has worked the booth for about 12 years and has been chairman for the past two, paid attention to the grill and the heat level of the coals underneath. Others sold the skewers once they were ready, and two marched out front with signs designed to lure in the hungry masses.

For the past 18 years, I’ve worked at a different food booth each NIOSA. I started with Maria’s Tortillas and have gone through the booths that produce fried mushrooms, Yak-i-tori skewers, Cowboy Klopse, shypoke eggs, bean tacos, Bongo-K-Bobs, escargots, fried green tomatoes, anticuchos and more. I can honestly say that I haven’t worked a booth as straightforward and stress-free as this one. After the hassle of the traffic and the pace of the workday, it was a welcome relief. 

And the Shrimp Parilla tasted great, too.

“We really do not have a secret recipe,” Swanson insists. 

A customer gets his Shrimp Parilla.

Perhaps that’s why Shrimp Parilla would be an easy treat to recreate at home.

All you have to do is marinate jumbo shrimp as well as the chunks of peppers and onion in Italian salad dressing. Then thread the pieces onto moist kebab sticks, starting with a pepper or an onion, the alternate each with a shrimp in between. Place the kebabs on the grill over high heat and grill them until the shrimp turn from translucent to white and the tails begin to look crisp, Swanson says. The grilling takes no more than 15 minutes and includes turning the skewers once. If you pay attention, you should know just what to look for after your first batch. 

When you remove the skewers from the grill, top them with your favorite spicy seasoning before serving. The booth uses what Swanson calls “lemon pepper and redfish seasoning.” (Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme marketed his own Blackened Redfish Magic, but here’s a recipe if you want to make your own. Or you can tone down the heat if it’s not to your liking.) The end result is both fresh and refreshing, something I can see myself serving at home in the future.

It’s time to make the shrimp skewers.


“Even though there’s nothing really special done to them,” Swanson says, “they sure taste really good.”

If you’re looking for a snack at NIOSA that won’t leave you feeling heavy, give Shrimp Parilla at NIOSA a try. You’ll likely take this flavor of NIOSA home with you, too.

A Night in Old San Antonio, which benefits the San Antonio Conservation Society, continues through Friday. For more information, click here.

Mark Swanson finishes decorating the Shrimp Parilla booth at NIOSA.

Other scenes from the opening of NIOSA include images of San Antonio partygoers enjoying the great weather and some time spent with friends.

What’s NIOSA without some wonderful hats?

Churros fresh out of the fryer.

Lines for the fried mushrooms are always long.

Great weather and great crowds at NIOSA.


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What Do You Do with Mamey Sapote?

What Do You Do with Mamey Sapote?

Mamey sapote in the market.

I was walking through the produce section of my neighborhood H-E-B the other day when I first spotted them. They looked like overgrown sweet potatoes crossed with a football, but they weren’t with the tubers. They were in the exotic fruit section, next to layers of dragon fruit, guavas and fingerling bananas.

Mamey cut in half

The sign indicated that they were mamey sapotes and the price was close to $4 a pound.

Pricey to be sure, but I can’t resist something new — or at least new to me. So, I Googled the fruit on my phone and found out that I wanted one that was soft without it being bruised. I took one of the smaller ones, which still rang up at about $12.

Despite the size, the mamey can be cut in half lengthwise, like an avocado. There is a long black pit at the center, also like an avocado. You don’t eat the peeling, but you do eat the soft flesh inside. But there the similarities between the two fruits end.

Mamey tastes earthier, more like an dryer papaya. That could be a polite way of saying it is boring or too subtle to be truly enjoyable by itself. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the thick texture and the almost dehydrating pucker that it brought to my mouth. 

A mamey milkshake with ice cream and milk

But you don’t have to eat mamey by itself. Many of the recipes I found online referred to mamey milkshakes, so I hauled out the Vitamix and filled it with a bit of fruit, milk and vanilla ice cream as well as an extra splash of vanilla. You’ll want a strong blender, because the fruit is dense and absorbs a lot of extra liquid, so you’ll need a strong motor as you add more and more milk to dilute it to get the texture you want. The result was comforting without being especially exciting — which I find strange when you consider that it had ice cream in it. What isn’t made more wonderful by the addition of ice cream? 

I read up on the fruit. It grows in Mexico and Central America as well as Australia on trees that can gain up to 148 feet in height. That is, at least, if you believe the Wikipedia entry on pouteria sapote.

Just add rum

So, it likes tropical climes. It might like complementary tropical flavors, like coconut milk. So I started over and created a non-dairy milkshake with a can of coconut milk and a little water. I also added cinnamon this time, which brought out a really comforting, pumpkin pie like flavor. That was what the first milkshake needed, not more vanilla.

And then I got an even better idea.

Out came the spiced rum and suddenly everything fell into place. That was the real lift the mamey milkshake needed.

Or maybe it was just the lift I needed.

By the way, I thought about planting that pit, but I doubt I will. I don’t think the neighbors would appreciate a tree approximating Jack’s beanstalk shooting up out of my backyard. 

So what do you do with mamey sapote?


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Feasting on Chinese New Year in Austin

Feasting on Chinese New Year in Austin

MT Supermarket

If you’ve ever shopped Buford Highway in Atlanta, you’ve likely wandered wide-eyed through one or two of the mammoth Asian markets that sell every imaginable food stuff from the Far East, from fresh bitter melon in the produce market to your choice of canned squid bites and shrimp-flavored potato chips.

The choices are vast.

Although I enjoy San Antonio’s growing host of ethnic markets, I missed the scale of those storehouses and the sight of an entire aisle devoted to more varieties of ramen noodles than I would ever know what to do with. But I did find one in Austin, MT Supermarket, which is located in the Chinatown Center, 10901 N. Lamar Blvd. 

The market bills itself as the largest Asian market in central Texas, and it’s certainly the largest I’ve come across. When we entered it recently, we were greeted with a massive Happy New Year banner, welcoming the Year of the Rooster, as well as an array of treats to help your celebration. 

On the right end of the store is a massive produce section, rich with the latest offerings of the harvest, including daikon radishes, Japanese eggplant, gargantuan jackfruit, chestnuts, various styles of cabbage, bundles of herbs and items you may not even know how to use. 

At the back is a fresh seafood area with tanks filled with tilapia and catfish while the display cases were packed with numerous fishes on ice. An online poster complained of a “funky” smell to the place, but I would counter that by saying the seafood area had the fresh, briny aroma of a bustling seafood market. People not used to where their food comes from may not recognize that, which only makes me hope they never encounter a market that truly smells funky. 

The meat market is similarly massive, as is the frozen food section with everything from whole crabs and mussels to an oddity called vegetarian ham. But we didn’t have a cooler with us, so we kept our attention to the aisles filled with Indonesian, Korean and Japanese favorites in addition to Chinese staples. 

Vegetarian ham, anyone?

It was interesting to discover that food trends we’re used to have gone beyond our borders, such as gluten-free panko-style crumbs. And there were a few American foods that made it to an end cap, because, let’s face it, Heinz ketchup and mustard, not to mention Carnation canned milk, are consumed internationally.

Check MT Supermarket out for yourself the next time you’re in Austin. Carve out some time for the rest of the Chinatown Center as well, and a make a pig of yourself. At the First Chinese BBQ, you can get a pig’s head for $10 or you can find pig’s head cakes at the nearby Texas Bakery.

MT Supermarket, 10901 N. Lamar Blvd., (512) 454-4804.

Step aside, Kitty. Say, “Hello Panda.”

Even Asian goods are becoming gluten free.

Or you can have your gluten fried and fixed with peanuts.

While you’re in the plaza, stop by the Texas Bakery for pig’s head cakes.

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Hospitality Adds the Right Seasoning

Hospitality Adds the Right Seasoning

Raise a toast to hospitality.

In looking back over the past year, I have found myself reliving more than a few outrageous food memories, which run the gamut from shucking oysters at a gin tasting party to standing in line with the guys from Naughty by Nature to get pulled pork sliders at Rachael Ray’s annual SXSW house party. If there’s a common thread running through all, it is that each involved sharing time with friends old and new.

The most spectacular event of all was one that I wasn’t originally supposed to be at.

Moutsounas Cafe in Zenia

I had been staying on Crete with my friend, Carol, at a resort high above the northern coastal town of Chersonissos. Every day we would hit the road, driving across the island, watching the landscape change every few moments as we passed olive orchards on one side of the road and vineyards on another with mountains stretching straight up from beaches. Windmills in the Lasithi Plateau made way for rockier climes echoing with the sound of goat bells. Oranges, apples, persimmons and walnuts all seemed to grow within reach of each other while wild herbs were easily scavenged if not trampled under foot.

Whenever we started to hanker for something to eat, we were suddenly on the lookout for an open taverna or cafe. We weren’t always in luck, as we were visiting in early November, which is after the tourist season has come to an end and many places were closed. But we knew this would be our largest meal of the day, and wherever we landed, we enjoyed sampling as much as we thought we could eat, which sometimes amounted to six or seven dishes.

Manolis Farsaris (front) and a friend tend to the annual raki making.

Early in our trip, we passed through the tiny village of Zenia, and we made a beeline for the Moutsounas Cafe, a massive tourist shop, restaurant and museum that was shaded with an arbor of grapevines extending the length of the building. We parked on the other side of the highway, in an area festooned with a lively assortment of signs and tableaux designed to catch your eye and invite you in. A small patio looked out over a dramatic gorge that swept between mountains on the way to the sea at the southern side of the island.  

Before we sat down, we met Manolis Farsaris, the owner and jack of all trades around the place, which seemed to become more baroque and diverse every moment. Every way you looked, there was something new to catch your eye. It could be a shelf of icons with a Pieta of Mary cradling the post-crucified body of Jesus, a naked Hercules or the mother goddess of Crete all occupying the same shelf. In the largest space, you could find olive wood dishes next to barrels of homemade wine and raki, the local firewater. 

At one of the few indoor tables, Carol and I found ourselves feasting on warm dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with rice, and tzaziki sauce, yogurt and cucumber with plenty of garlic, when Manolis returned to our table with a surprise, a dish of the eggplant and potato stew that his mother had brought to him for his lunch that day.

Making sure the barrels are clean

He didn’t seem to have time to eat with his family as a few other customers appeared on the scene, but he did take the time to explain one of the more intriguing signs in the room, which was taped to a barrel: “Raki with honey no doctor.” It seems that his grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 107 without having to see a doctor because, according to family legend, he drank his homemade raki mixed with honey every day of his life. (That honey, by the way, came from bees living in boxes on the mountainside above the cafe.)

It’s a tradition on Crete to make guests feel at home by offering them a little something, like Manolis did with his mother’s stew. But he didn’t stop there. He also brought out the shot glasses and poured us a taste of his raki, which I discovered had nothing to do with the Turkish liqueur of the same name. The Turks make something that is akin to ouzo and is marked by its strong licorice flavor, while Cretan raki is more like vodka in that the clear liquid is flavorless but has a potent effect.

How does he make his own raki? When does he do this? How much of his honey does he use?

Rather than provide us with answers directly, Manolis simply invited us to join him the following week when he made his annual supply. He didn’t know the date, but he said we could always contact him to find out. So phone numbers were exchanged and a new friend was made on Facebook. We were all set. 

Coals go from the still to the grill.

Word came in the following week that the raki making was going to be held on Saturday at a house nearby. That was the day I was supposed to fly back home, leaving Carol and her friend, Clairy, visiting from Athens, with the chance to go to the party by themselves. Then my flight home got canceled. After days of wrangling with airlines and ticket companies that didn’t care where I was or when I was flying out — at least until I shelled out a few hundred more dollars — I finally got things worked out so I wouldn’t leave until Sunday. And that meant I could attend the raki making, too!

We returned to Zenia early Saturday afternoon and were directed to a house that sloped up the side of a mountain. We scaled the steep driveway to a patio entrance on the side that let us know we were in the right place, thanks to the sight of an enormous double-columned copper still with a raging fire underneath the larger unit. The still was so close to the steps that you had to watch your step climbing onto the patio.

The grill is perfect for lamb and potatoes.

But there was Manolis with a host of friends and family tending to the fire as the alcohol from the mash was apparently siphoned from the main chamber through an overhead coil into the neighboring column still, out of which came the raki. The precious liquid was filtered through a mass of cotton before ending in a pot below. Firewater, indeed.

The mash had been made using potatoes as well as the leftovers from the previous weeks’ wine-making efforts. Skins, seeds and stems hadn’t been wasted; they all made their way into the mash for the elixir. Who knows if they had another use for them after the raki making? They didn’t merely discard the used mash. It was tossed the back of a truck, possibly for use as compost. Nothing on the island went to waste.

Who can resist lamb, potatoes, olives and raki?

Whenever the fire burned down a little, one of Manolis’ friends would take a shovel and move the burning coals to one of several nearby grills where food was being prepared for all to enjoy while the hours passed. Marinated lamb, thin slabs of potatoes and thick cuts of bread all made it to the grill, where Manolis and his sister tended the food. When the potatoes were done, they were drizzled with the family’s own olive oil and lemon juice before being finished off with a sprinkling of salt. Other potatoes were buried whole in the coals to roast until they were finished.

Manolis’ father savors the lamb. (Photo courtesy Carol Yeager)

A plate of olives, picked from a nearby tree no doubt before brining, appeared. So did a basket of apples from the year’s harvest, which our host peeled and cut up into pieces that he handed out. Everyone was soon handed a shot glass so that we could toast this year’s raki with some of last year’s. Our glasses were refilled several more times, and I was glad I wasn’t driving.

Not much English was spoken, except by Manolis and a friend who had once lived in London. Clairy translated a few questions that we had, but even that wasn’t always necessary. The hospitality transcended language, so did the raki.

At last it came time to head back to reality and let these people continue their work, which would likely last into the night. We thanked them  for their hospitality, which had helped make the day perfect for three visiting food lovers. 

I had taken more than 150 photos over the two hours or so that we were there, images that captured the scope of the enterprise, the serious nature of their work and the joy they derived from it. I also brought back a bottle of that handmade raki, which I plan to share with friends in the same spirit that Manolis and his family showered on us during our visit.

The outdoor operation

The still in operation

The raki is filtered after leaving the still.

Carol takes a picture of our new friends, including Manolis, his daughter, his sister and his brother-in-law, plus Clairy on the right.




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Planning a Children’s Christmas Party 1935 Style

Planning a Children’s Christmas Party 1935 Style

christmas-bookA friend cleaned out her cookbook collection before moving out of town, and she left me with 11 boxes of treasures that I’ve been going through them now for months. In one was a slender volume with a gorgeous cover featuring a handful of youngsters partying with Father Time, an Easter bunny, jack-o-lanterns, a witch and, of course, Santa Claus.

It’s called “Children’s Party Book: Games, Decorations, Menus and Recipes,” and it was written by Cornelia Staley. It was published in 1935, and each copy sold for the then-princely sum of 25 cents. A quick glance through it suggests a much simpler time. Much simpler than I can ever remember. Can you think back to a time when you taught your children how to write their own party invitations by hand, such as this one from the book’s premier party girl, Barbara Smith?

Buy tiny horns, attach a tag and write on it:
“Blow me at my New Year’s Party.” I do hope you can come. Wednesday, January 1, at 3:30 o’clock.
— Barbara Smith

Each occasion, from birthday to New Year’s,  includes games suggestions far removed from the world of Xbox and World of Warcraft, such as this one for Halloween:

Bowls of Fortune

Place in a row an empty bowl, a bowl of clear water and one of milky water. Each child in turn is blindfolded, turned about three times and told to put on hand in a bowl. If the child touches clear water, it means marriage to a bachelor or maiden — milky water, a widower or widow — the empty bowl, unmarried.

There are even tips on planning the appropriate decorations, including hanging groups of pastel colored balloons from your chandelier for an Easter party.

For the Christmas party, Barbara Smith has learned that “Gay Christmas seals on white, red or green cards will make your invitation gala.” And she suggests you use greeting: “School’s out! Let’s celebrate the Happy Holidays at my house on Thursday from 3 to 5.”

christmas-pictureIf you can make it, expect as many red and green balloons tied to the Smith home’s chandelier. But don’t expect Barbara and her party crew to stop there. Here are Staley’s suggestions for table decorations:

Cover your table in white, and for a centerpiece dip a fat little Christmas tree in a thin solution of Staley’s Starch. While still moist, sprinkle it generously with artificial snow or silver glitter. Hang red and green balls on it. Have a small tree at each place and a suitable gift gaily wrapped and tied to the stick of a lollipop.

Game ideas include Spider Web, Pin a Star on the Christmas Tree, Paper Race and Chinese Tag, in which “any child who is ‘it’ must hold on to the spot he has been tagged with one hand while trying to tag another child with the other.” How that makes it Chinese is anybody’s guess.

The suggested menu for all this fun includes Minced Turkey or Chicken Sandwiches, Tiny Molds of Cranberry Jelly, Celery Curls, Hot Chocolate, Ice Cream Santa Claus, Snowballs and Lollypops.

Yes, you can make your own Lollypops, and Cornelia Staley offers her own recipe, which naturally uses Staley’s Crystal White Syrup. In case you can’t find that, white corn syrup will work as a substitute.


2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2/3 cup Staley’s Crystal White Syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Red vegetable coloring

Cook sugar, water and syrup until sugar is dissolved, stirring constantly. Then cover and boil 3 minutes. Remove cover and boil undisturbed to 310 degrees or the brittle stage. Remove from heat at once, add vanilla and coloring. Pour into small buttered muffin tins 1/2-inch deep, and when almost cool, insert a wooden skewer in each.

Makes 2 dozen, 2 inches in diameter.

From “Children’s Party Book: Games, Decorations, Menus and Recipes”/Cornelia Staley

Serve your lollipops up with the following joke from Staley:

Why are lollipops like race horses?

Because the more you lick them, the faster they go.

If that’s not enough fun for your Christmas party, have the kids make Dried Fruit and Nut Men: “Funny figures can be made just as easily with fruits and nuts as with candies. Large fruits, such as prunes, are used for heads and bodies, toothpicks for legs and raisins strung on hairpins for arms.”

As silly as it sounds, I think that’s an activity adults would enjoy as much as children. Everyone loves playing with food that they can then eat, even prunes.

Staley’s goal in Depression America was to show people how their children could have some fun and good food — and for not much money. It’s a goal that carries through to today. After all, it’s not the cost of the party, but the good time that people have at it that matters.

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Learning the Joys of Greek Salads Firsthand

Learning the Joys of Greek Salads Firsthand


Horiatiki (Greek Salad)

HERSONISSOS, Crete — When a friend with a timeshare calls and invites you to spend two weeks with her on the island of Crete, you don’t say no. At least, I don’t. So, I found myself on an island in the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by some of the best food I’ve had in ages.

Tomatoes drying in the sun in front of Marianna, a taverna in Mesa Potami, part of Crete's Lasithi Plateau

Tomatoes drying in the sun in front of Marianna, a taverna in Mesa Potami, part of Crete’s Lasithi Plateau

One advantage that Cretans have is that they grow or raise most everything that they use in their diet. Almost everywhere you look, there’s food growing, whether it’s olives on the many acres of trees that run up and down mountains, grapes in the growing number of vineyards or orchards filled with apples, oranges or pomegranates. We didn’t see all of the family gardens bulging with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more; some of those items were just after season for our visit, but we were given freshly harvested grapes, persimmons and walnuts by some of the wonderful people we met.

In the mornings, I could hear the bells of the goats roaming through the undeveloped lands nearby, reminding me of how close one source of all the feta and yogurt was. Lambs and sheep often grazed close to the road, while the Mediterranean offered the promise of untold seafood specials.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the eating was built on the numerous herbs that were oh so easy to forage. It seemed that most every time Carol stopped our rental car, I could find something worth taking back to our kitchen, whether it was oregano or mint, dill, arugula or thyme.

I used those in the series of Greek salads, called horiatiki (hor-ee-ah-tee-kee), that I made most every day. There is no hard and fast recipe for this beloved dish, and you can make plenty of substitutes to suit your tastes. But the foundation for ours included tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese and olive oil. To that, we added green bell pepper and olives. The first supermarket we went to only sold onions by the large bag, so we used scallions until we found another place where we could pick up a red onion. We also tried lettuce in the mix; it worked, but it wasn’t necessary, so we left it out after one or two tries. Cabbage worked much better, adding crunch in a way that was different from the cucumber or the bell pepper.

The olive oil was so good that red wine vinegar or lemon juice wasn’t necessary to dress the salad with. Plus, if you find the freshest, most flavorful ingredients, especially the tomatoes, you didn’t need much oil, either. A little salt brings out the juices of the various vegetables, making it’s own dressing that the olive oil only takes to another level.

A Cretan salad with greens and pomegranate seeds

A Cretan salad with greens and pomegranate seeds

We discovered a variation native to Crete. It is, of course, the Cretan salad, and it adds rusk, potatoes, hard-boiled egg, capers and sun-dried tomatoes to the mix. See, even they don’t follow a single recipe. And in the case of the rusk, you’ll see them using up every last scrap of bread rather than throwing it out. That, to me, has been the secret of some of the best meals I’ve had in my travels.

The third salad recipe you’ll find below is for a Socrates salad, which Carol’s friend, Clairy Panagiotou, made for us when she joined our group. Clairy runs the Bouradanis Hotel on another Greek island, Kos, where she makes the meals nightly for her 70 guests. On the basis of this salad alone, I am ready to make a trip to her hotel.

It’s named after the Greek philosopher, Clairy said, because it’s supposed to open up your brain cells and make you smarter. I don’t know that my IQ shot up any while eating it, but my happiness level certainly did.

Again, there is no hard and fast recipe for the dressing or for the salad. Just make it to taste. Just make sure you’re using the best ingredients you can find, ingredients that tasted like they were grown in your own backyard and tended with care. You can taste the difference.

Horiatiki (Greek Salad)

Make this salad to suit your tastes. If you don’t like or don’t have bell pepper on hand, leave it out. Want to add lettuce or shredded cabbage? Go ahead. I added anchovies and occasionally some slices of radish to mine. Capers would also work.

Horiatiki (Greek Salad)

Horiatiki (Greek Salad)

Tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
Cucumber, sliced
Green bell pepper, sliced
Red or white onion, sliced
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Feta, crumbled or cut in a slab about 1/3-inch thick
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar (optional)
Herbs, fresh or dried

Mix the tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, onion and olives. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, if using. Top with feta. If using a slab of cheese, drizzle olive oil on top.

If you’re using vinegar with the oil, drizzle these on before you add the cheese. Top with herbs.

Herbs both dried and fresh can be used. A few to consider are oregano, parsley, mint and thyme.

Or you could serve with the oil and vinegar on the side.

From John Griffin

Cretan Salad with Rusk

Cretans love rusk, dried clumps of leftover bread that soak up olive oil and tomato juice. They serve as a foundation for this salad, a variation on horiatiki that, once again, can be made using whatever ingredients you have on hand. One version we had used various field greens and was crowned with pomegranate seeds.

A Cretan salad with hard-boiled eggs, rusk, sun-dried tomatoes and capers.

A Cretan salad with hard-boiled eggs, rusk, sun-dried tomatoes and capers

Rusk or zwieback
Tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
Cucumber, sliced
Green bell pepper, sliced
Red or white onion, sliced
New potatoes, boiled, peeled and quartered
Hard-boiled eggs, quartered
Sun-dried tomatoes
Salt, to taste
Feta, crumbled or cut in a slab
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar (optional)
Herbs (optional)

Place the rusk at the bottom of your salad bowl. Top with a mix of tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, olives, potato, egg and sun-dried tomatoes. Sprinkle salt to taste over the salad.

Top with feta, then a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle capers over the top and finish off with a sprinkling of dried or fresh herbs.

From John Griffin

Socrates Salad

Open your brain cells to the wonders of this salad laden with dried fruit and nuts.

Socrates Salad

Socrates Salad

Dried figs, cut into bite-sized pieces
Dried cranberries
Pine nuts
Tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
Apple, peeled, cored and cut into bite-sized pieces
Parmesan cheese

Balsamic vinegar
Olive oil

Toss the figs, cranberries, lettuce, radicchio, pine nuts, tomatoes and apple in a salad bowl.

Make the dressing from a mixture of balsamic vinegar, honey, olive oil, a little water and salt to taste. Whisk together then lightly toss with the salad.

Top with Parmesan cheese shavings.

From Clairy Panagiotou/Bouradanis Hotel

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Rolling with the Klopse at NIOSA

Rolling with the Klopse at NIOSA

Stop by most every food booth at a Night in Old San Antonio and you can get a serving of family history alongside your favorite snack.

Allison Schmidt (left) talks with her Cowboy Klopse crew.

Allison Schmidt (left) talks with her Cowboy Klopse crew.

Take Richard and Joy Slavin for example. Their family found their way to Frontier Town in the early 1970s when they worked at the chili con queso booth. After a few years, chili con queso moved out of the neighborhood, but the Slavins decided to stay on their NIOSA block. They found themselves working at the then-new Cowboy Klopse booth, where they have volunteered ever since.

Their daughter, Allison Schmidt, and her husband, Smitty Schmidt, are now chairing the booth, and you’ll find the next generation of the family, the Schmidts’ twin daughters, Jessica and Julie, joining in the fun. Allison’s brother, Rick Slavin, also pitches in where needed.

For those not familiar with the NIOSA favorite, Cowboy Klopse is the name of a meatball that’s been coated in a jalapeno batter before being deep-fried to a dark golden perfection.

Cowboy Klopse

Cowboy Klopse

According to Allison, the recipe was created by a woman named Jane Fricke, who ran the booth for a year before deciding she’d had enough. So, she left behind her recipe, which draws thousands of hungry customers over the course of the celebration. One bite will convince you why.

Throughout the duration of NISOA, the booth expects to sell just shy of 3,000 servings, Smitty says.

He’s the one who showed me how to fry up these treats. The recipe begins with a Golden Dipt Batter mix with diced jalapeños stirred in. Then you add the meatballs and get them thoroughly coated. Using a pair of kitchen tongs, you grab a meatball out of the bowl and make sure it has a thick coating of batter around it before dropping it into a fry vat and letting the hot oil do its magic. About halfway through the frying process, you shake the balls loose from the bottom of the fry basket, so they can float to the top and finish cooking.

It’s not a complicated process, but like anything you cook, the procedure has to be followed fairly closely — and you have to do it without giving yourself a grease burn. It took no time to learn how to fry them up right, but it did take me a few baskets before I got the process right. On my very first try, I managed to get the Klopse stuck in the corner of the fry basket, so I had to a clean pair of tongs to loosen it. It took a while to develop the right method of shaking the balls loose while they cooked. And I managed to splash myself with oil once. Thankfully, it wasn’t bad.

Meatballs in jalapeno batter

Meatballs in jalapeno batter

I picked up additional technique from my fellow fryers, some of whom have worked the booth for anywhere from five to 10 years. They made me feel like an old pro in no time. One of the volunteers, Bibi Nuñez, has been making klopse since 1984. He loves the work and he loves the protection that the booth offers from the sometimes overwhelming NIOSA crowds. “It’s fun being behind here, watching the people” he says. I’ve thought the same many times.

The crew fell into their jobs as if they had been frying up meatballs last week, not last year. “Everybody really knows what they’re doing,” Allison says. “It’s really in good hands.”

The finished product

The finished product

They also began to catch up with each, swapping stories about work, about volunteering for NIOSA and the San Antonio Conservation Society, the rain rock that was supposed to ward off the thunderstorms that had been forecast, you name it. Smitty told me about Caritas Ranch BBQ, which he used to make and market. Allison talked about sweating through a hot NIOSA when she was pregnant with her twin girls. And Jessica talked about heading off to Alpine with her sister this fall for college.

In the 15 years or so that I’ve worked at NIOSA, helping out at booths as diverse as Bongo-K-bobs, fried green tomatoes, Yak-i-tori, Shypoke Eggs and bean tacos as well as the no-longer-offered Maria’s tortillas and calf fries, I can’t recall a booth where the workers loved their product quite as much as the team at Cowboy Klopse. Yes, all of the booths took deep pride in their work, but these workers delighted in it, and that made it even more fun than usual.

Of course, you can’t make it through a shift of working at the Klopse booth without hearing a few jokes about the hot balls that they’re serving up to hungry customers. After all, as Allison Schmidt says, “They’re anatomically correct. We sell them two at a time.”

Three generations of NIOSA volunteers: Richard and Joy Slavin (front) with Smitty (from left), Jessica and Allison Schmidt at the Cowboy Klopse booth.

Three generations of NIOSA volunteers: Richard and Joy Slavin (front) with Smitty (from left), Jessica and Allison Schmidt at the Cowboy Klopse booth.

The sales pitch

The sales pitch


Bibi Nuñez has been making Cowboy Klopse since 1984.

And what's NIOSA with a party hat?

And what’s NIOSA with a party hat?

A Night in Old San Antonio, a benefit for the San Antonio Conservation Society, continues through Friday. For more information, click here.

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Griffin to Go: A Tribute to the Food Lover and Novelist Pat Conroy

Griffin to Go: A Tribute to the Food Lover and Novelist Pat Conroy

Author’s note: The following column from September 2009 has become all the more meaningful, to me, at least, because of the news that Pat Conroy died recently. In the years since I wrote the piece, I did finish reading all of his works, and I also managed to get a copy of “Charleston Receipts.” I’ll be making the benne seed wafers soon in his memory.

One of my prized possessions is an autographed copy of “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life,” a collection of food stories as well as recipes from the author of “The Prince of Tides.”

ConroyI ordered the book off the Internet from a store in Decatur, Ga., that has numerous signed copies of his work (Books Again), so there’s no backstory of standing in line to meet Conroy after a reading or bumping into him at some literary gathering.

But I did meet the author once, about 15 years ago, when he made an appearance in Sarasota, Fla. I hadn’t read anything of his at the time, and that kept me from interviewing him for the newspaper where I worked. It seems Conroy’s fame had taken him to the point where he could ask that he be interviewed only by someone who had read his work.

That may seem odd, but it really isn’t. Conroy wanted to discuss his work, not what Barbra Streisand or other Hollywood types had done with it when translating his stories into movies.Yet he agreed to come to the newspaper office, which, at the time, also housed a 24-hour TV news station.

While waiting for the interview room to be set up, Conroy wandered through the newsroom, introduced himself to a couple of us and talked about how his visit was going. He was jocular and ingratiating, a sort of bear that seemed to be enjoying life, even if it meant having to sit for yet another interview.

How nice he was made me search out his books, first “The Prince of Tides,” then “Beach Music,” “The Water Is Wide” and so on. I haven’t finished all of his output yet, but I have enjoyed each volume I’ve picked up. It could be the Southern boy in me that relates to his almost poetic prose about Charleston, S.C., a city I have longed to visit. Then, there are those grand sweeping sentences that match the sweeping emotions he conveys.

Or maybe it’s just the food. Not the famous dog food scene in “Prince of Tides,” mind you. But food pervades much of Conroy’s writing. This is a man who honestly confessed at the beginning of his cookbook: “The subject of food is nearly a sacred one to me.” And that permeates his writing. I could practically taste the pasta in the Italian scenes of “Beach Music” and the Lowcountry fare in just about all of his other novels.

The food of his home state pervades his new novel, “South of Broad,” which deals with, among other things, the integration of schools in the South. Food is one item that transcends racial barriers, and it’s no wonder food is used as a way to bring people together. Here’s a short passage in which our young hero, Leopold Bloom King, is making cookies for some new neighbors:

“I opened the copy of ‘Charleston Receipts’ that my father had bought on the day I was delivered at St. Francis Hospital, and I turned it to the benne seed wafer thins, a recipe submitted by Mrs. Gustave P. Maxwell, the former Lizetta Simons. My father and I had cooked almost every recipe in the ‘Charleston Receipts,’ a transcendent cookbook put together by the Junior League and published to universal acclaim in 1950. Father and I placed stars each time we prepared one of the recipes, and the benne wafers had earned a whole constellation. I began toasting the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet. I creamed two cups of brown sugar with a stick of unsalted butter. I added a cup of plain flour sifted with baking powder and a pinch of salt, and a freshly beaten egg that my father had purchased from a farm neat Summerville. …”

Doesn’t that just send you into the kitchen to make your own batch? Well, I don’t have a copy of “Charleston Receipts,” complete with the old-fashioned term for what we now call recipes. But I did find one on the Internet, which appears below.

I also include a recipe for Conroy’s killer crab cakes from his cookbook. As he writes in the introduction, “I think I make the best crab cakes and shrimp salad in the world, and I will take on all comers.”

That’s it for now. I’m headed back to “South of Broad.”

Crab Cakes

1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over and cleaned, with all shell fragments removed
1 egg white, lightly beaten (until foamy, not stiff)
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons finely snipped fresh chives
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt, divided use
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons peanut oil
Lemon wedges

Place the cleaned crabmeat in a medium mixing bowl. Pour the egg white over the crabmeat slowly, stopping occasionally to mix it through. When the crabmeat has absorbed the egg white and feels slightly sticky to the touch, sift the flour over crabmeat and sprinkle the chives, black pepper, cayenne pepper and 1 teaspoon salt over the top. Lift the crabmeat from the bottom of the bowl, turning it over gently, to mix the ingredients without overhandling.

Separate the crabmeat into 8 equal portions and gently roll each between the flattened palms of your hands to form loose balls. Flatten slightly and transfer to a plate. Sprinkle both sides liberally with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before cooking.

Line a baking pan with paper towels. Fry the crab cakes in two batches to ensure a crisp crust. Using a small (8-inch) heavy skillet that conducts heat well, melt half the butter and oil together until the mixture is foamy and begins to brown. Carefully place the crab cakes in the hot fat and fry until a crust forms, turning once, about 2 minutes per side. (The fat should be sizzling hot enabling a crisp crust to form before the crab absorbs the cooking fat. This is the Southern secret to perfect crab cakes.) A small pastry spatula (with a thin tongue) will make lifting and turning the delicate crab cakes a lot easier. Remove the crab cakes and drain in the prepared pan. Cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm while you make the second batch.

Carefully pour off the cooking fat from the first batch, wipe out the pan and return it to the heat. Prepare the second batch of crab cakes using the remaining butter and oil.

Serve hot with lemon wedges.

From “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life”

Benne Seed Wafer Thins

1 cup sesame seeds
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place the sesame seeds on an ungreased baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes, watching closely, until lightly browned. In a large mixing bowl mix the brown sugar, melted butter or margarine, egg, vanilla, flour, salt, baking powder and toasted sesame seeds together until blended. Drop dough by half-teaspoonfuls onto a lightly greased baking sheet, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between cookies. Bake benne wafers for 4 to 6 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cookies cool for about 2 minutes on baking sheets; remove from baking sheets to a wire rack to cool completely. Store cooled sesame seed cookies in an airtight container.

Makes about 72 cookies.


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Feel Like Drowning Your Sorrows?

Feel Like Drowning Your Sorrows?

The news last week that the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,”  Harper Lee, had died was sad to all of us who loved her book as well as her iconic characters, including Scout, Atticus, Dill and Bo Radley. I first read the novel in freshman English class many years ago, and just to remind myself of its brilliance, I re-read it a few years ago, marveling once again at her storytelling abilities.

tequilaBut I was also reminded of another book — and I don’t mean Lee’s other novel, “Go Tell a Watchman.” The book I was thinking of was a slender volume from 2013 bearing the punderful name “Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist” (Running Press, $15) by Tim Federle.

Yes, your favorite volumes of literature (and a few you may have hated, too) have provided the basis for some fantastic drinks. Romance lovers will lap up the liquid tale of Romeo and Julep or the Austen-inspired Rye and Prejudice. Fans of magical realism can always soak up Love in the Time of Kahlua, while a few too many Malted Falcons will give you a noir to forget.

These are not simply classic drinks with a classic title twisted to suit the occasion. Well, not all. Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margarita? does offer a fine, traditional mix of tequila, triple sec and lime without any sugary additions. The Lord of the Mai-Tais, though, starts with rum and a slice of pineapple as a garnish, but the drink also includes a winning combination of cranberry juice, orange juice, coconut rum and grenadine. Gin Eyre is an original mix of gin with mint, lemon juice, sugar and orange bitters for a refreshing summertime treat. And who would not be crazy for a drink called The Rye in the Catcher with its blend of rye, pineapple and lemon juices, and ginger beer?

tequila mockingbirdFederle has taken his gift for puns on to other fields and has produced two more cocktail books, “Hickory Daiquiri Dock: Cocktails with a Nursery Rhyme Twist” and “Gone with the Gin: Cocktails with a Hollywood Twist.” As if that’s not enough, he’s also a YA novelist who’s working on a musical version of “Tuck Everlasting.”

But back to “Tequila Mockingbird.” In writing about the original novel, Federle offers this explanation for the inspiration of his drink: “After a conclusion that leaves you both hopeful and haunted, toast to a sometimes sour justice system with a tequila shot that’s guilty of packing a dill pickle punch.” Raise a toast to Harper Lee while you’re at it. and enjoy.

Tequila Mockingbird

1 1/2 ounces tequila
2 drops hot sauce
1 dill pickle

Pour the tequila into a shot glass, add the hot sauce, and slam that bad boy back before chasing with a big chomp of pickle. No tears allowed here: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the South.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From “Tequila Mockingbird” by Tim Federle


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Let’s Raise a Glass to Jay Corley

Let’s Raise a Glass to Jay Corley

Word reached me late last week that the California wine world had lost one of its pioneers earlier this month. Jay Corley of Monticello Vineyards in the Napa Valley died on Jan. 11 at the age of 84.

Jay Corley (

Jay Corley (

Folks in town who frequent wine dinners at various restaurants may remember Corley, who came to town to promote his wines. Over a bottle or two of his Cabernets and Merlots, he formed lasting friendships with more than a few locals who treasure the time they spent with him as well as his wines.

I first met Corley at one of those dinners. It was at Las Canarias, and he was surrounded by friends old and new. During his talk, he was quick to issue invitations for one and all to come see his winery. That was all I needed to seek it out on my first visit to California. Having some sort of connection always helps when you have a seemingly unlimited array of choices, and there are hundreds of wineries in Napa.

Corley’s Napa Valley winery is indeed modeled after its namesake, Thomas Jefferson’s home. More than being beautiful, it proved to be a haven of peace in the wine-tourist crazed area. While walking around the place, I was able to enjoy the sounds of nature on an overcast afternoon and take in its agricultural beauty. It was here that I really came to understand that for as elevated a treat as wine is, it is the product of farming.

The tasting room was having a sale that day, and I remember sending a case of older Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs back to San Antonio to grace several holiday meals after that.

I next encountered Jay Corley in New Mexico, where he was attending the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta. I was traveling with friends Mickey and Glenn Drown, who are among the friends Corley had made over the years. Jay and his wife, Joan, had an annual party that the Drowns and the others in our group had attended for years. Once there, everyone seemed to fall back into each others’ company as if they had seem each other the previous week. Jay was especially proud that year of his Syrah, which showed off the best that his estate could produce and which was a grape that he had managed to continue to produce despite public tastes at the time.

monticelloDuring the evening, Corley mentioned to Glenn that he wouldn’t be able to make an exclusive tasting that had been set up for the governor’s mansion on the following day. He gave the tickets to Glenn, who invited me to accompany him. (It was there I met Douglas Murray, who invited me to visit his winery, Montes, in Chile. But my trip to his winery is another story.)

The day after the tasting, we went to a Corley wine dinner, which, if I recall correctly, was somewhere on the compound of the Museum of International Folk Art. During the winery owner’s presentation, he handed out several gifts. As my birthday was the following day, I received a gift of a DVD about Jefferson and the pioneering work he did with wine in this country. Corley was a part of the documentary and he was in his element, talking both about his hero and about winemaking. I treasure that gift more now than ever.

I have been holding on to a bottle of Monticello Vineyards Pinot Noir for a few years. What better way can I honor Jay Corley’s life than by lifting a glass of one of his finest to his memory? Join me.


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