What does a Japanese exchange student love about Austin? Cheese pizza, Whataburger and wakeboarding

When you’re a foreign exchange student from Japan studying in Austin for a month, you might not expect wakeboarding to be part of the experience.  

Or churro-flavored Chex mix, or ukulele pop song performances from your host. But that’s what 15-year-old Chiharu Sano got when she drew the lucky straw to stay with me and my two kids for a weekend over the summer.

Chiharu stayed with us through the Texas Intensive English Program’s monthlong language and culture program, which the organization has been hosting for 20 years. This year, 61 students came in July to Austin from Mishima, Japan, near the slopes of Mount Fuji. All the students get to stay with a host family for a weekend. Some families host more than one student, and some host families also participate in a monthlong exchange with students from the program in January.

Chiharu is a dancer and a nature lover whom I first met at a barbecue the weekend before her stay. We quickly bonded over playing sports, swimming and shopping.

At the meet-and-greet barbecue, I also met Marcelle Vasquez, who has been hosting Japanese exchange students through this program for 14 years.

She grew up in Peru, where her parents were part of Rotary International. “I grew up in a family where we always had people coming through the house,” she said. “We appreciated many cultures and had that spirit of international hospitality.”

When her boys were teens, she wanted to introduce them to the same exchange, so she started hosting students for the weekend. After more than a decade, Vasquez also began hosting students for the month in January. Vasquez says she has learned over the years that the students, who do activities all over Austin, really enjoy just being at the house, watching movies and talking about life stuff. “They want to be part of the family while they are here,” she says.

After all these years hosting students, she receives postcards, pictures and gifts from her past guests and looks forward to the visit every year.

Chiharu had already been in Austin for three weeks by the time we picked her up from a building near the University of Texas, where she and the other students were staying. It was a Friday afternoon, and we drove straight to Home Slice on North Loop. By the time our large cheese pizza — half pepperoni — arrived, all three of the kids were playing with balls of pizza dough and sharing basic details with each other about school, siblings and favorite activities.

“We don’t have anything like this,” she said, referring to both the restaurant and the style of pizza.

We found out that Chiharu had climbed to the top of Mount Fuji when she was a kid and that her favorite band was K-Pop band BTS.

Later that night, we took turns showing each other videos online to explain the things we’d been talking about. We watched “Anpanman,” the long-running series about a cartoon bread man, and BTS music videos, and showed her “Adventure Time” and a best of Beyonce playlist.

We went to a bake sale on Saturday morning, where we picked up that cinnamon-spiced Chex mix, and then went through the drive-thru at Whataburger, where Chiharu marveled at the size of the Styrofoam cup of soda. With burgers and fries to fuel us, we headed out to Quest ATX, the wakeboarding park and water obstacle course in southeast Travis County.

We played hard on the inflatable obstacle course, the physical activity setting aside the need to communicate through language. By that point, we’d shared many rewarding conversations, but it was so nice to play and laugh and try a new physical challenge together.

On our second full day together, Chiharu and I made breakfast. We had occasional help from my kids, but it was mostly a time for us to continue doing what we both came here to do: share culture.

She made the connections between the Dr. Seuss book that my youngest read to her and the art we saw at Art on Fifth on South Lamar, a favorite stop whenever we go to Half Price Books.

As we drove through the city, I told her about the various neighborhoods and businesses, touching on historical and cultural connections I wanted her to make. We went to H-E-B and H-Mart and talked about Americans’ love of fast food, slow food and global cuisines and why that has grown so much in recent decades.

Sadly, the weekend of her visit, I needed to go to a memorial service for a friend who had died unexpectedly the week before. The service started hours before we were scheduled to drop her off. She wasn’t eager for the weekend to end, and neither were we, so I told her about what I knew would be a casual and kid-friendly gathering for my friend. I tried to describe why I wanted to go and what it would be like and then asked her if she wanted to go back to the dorm or come with us. She decided to stick around.

With beers in coolers and attendees in shorts, the memorial service was lighthearted and sad, funny and heartbreaking, celebrating the life of a young philanthropist and dog-lover who was dedicated to helping foster kids. Alongside my own children, who have been to a number of memorial services in their short lives, Chiharu was able to see a side of American culture that many visitors might not, and although I think she was surprised to see the beer, I could tell how much being part of the event meant to her.

Forty-eight hours didn’t seem like much time to bond, but we squeezed the most we could out of our time together. I didn’t cry when I dropped her off, but I told her in all seriousness that my family had added another bucket item to our life list: traveling to Japan to climb Mount Fuji with her.

Thanks to Instagram, we’ve been able to stay in touch with her in the weeks since her visit, not unlike how we have with the AirBnB family whom we stayed with in Mexico City in May. In a way, that was my family’s own little weekend family exchange, and it helped me understand what Vasquez explained at the barbecue: The connections that you make when you open up your home to someone who is as interested in your culture as you are about theirs will stick with you forever, no matter if you’re the host or the guest.

From the archives: Meet the one and only Crescent Dragonwagon

Editor’s note: This story was originally on June 27, 2012.

Crescent Dragonwagon was a household name growing up.

Crescent Dragonwagon’s 2012 book “Bean by Bean” highlights all the things you can do with “that magical fruit.” With her customary humor and poignancy (she’s written 50 books), Dragonwagon shares stories, tips and recipes alike. Contributed by Crescent Dragonwagon.

At the time, the author was running the Dairy Hollow House, a nationally renowned bed and breakfast in Eureka Springs, Ark. She was a local celebrity for hosting people such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Betty Friedan, and my mom relied on her “Dairy Hollow House” cookbooks as others did the red plaid “Better Homes and Gardens” book or “The Joy of Cooking.” (And no, Crescent Dragonwagon is not her given name. She made it up as a teenager when getting married to her first husband — the name outlasted the marriage.)

RELATED: This spicy black-eyed pea curry will kick off 2018 with a twist

Crescent Dragonwagon’s “Soup & Bread” book was to my mother what “The Joy of Cooking” was to others.

Only as an adult did I discover that, like her mother, Charlotte Zolotow, Dragonwagon also writes children’s books, many of which use food as a storytelling device (“The Bread I Baked Ned, ” “Is This a Sack of Potatoes?” and, my favorite, “Alligator Arrived With Apples: A Potluck Alphabet Feast“).

Many of Crescent Dragonwagon’s children’s books revolve around food.

This year, she’s back with both genres. “Bean by Bean,” a recipe-filled homage to the lowly legume, came out earlier this year, and “All the Awake Animals are Almost Asleep,” her first children’s book in almost 10 years, is coming out this fall. (Another first: Dragonwagon will record an e-book, so children at bedtime can hear her mellifluous voice read her own carefully crafted words.)

This book, her 50th, is Dragonwagon’s second on beans, but as she notes in the introduction, “beans have certainly come up, up, in the world since I first began writing about them.” Once lacking in social standing and availability and “reviled nutritionally as little more than starch, ” beans across the board are more appreciated than they ever have been.

The self-proclaimed “legumaniac” gets excited talking about all the possibilities a single bean presents.

“If you have a dry bean, you could join it with hundreds of its fellows and have it for dinner, ” she said last week from her Vermont home. (She and her late husband, Ned, turned the Arkansas bed and breakfast into a writer’s colony, which still exists today.) “Or you could rinse it, soak it and sprout it and have it for dinner in a couple of days. Or you could plant it and eat it as a shoot, eat it as a pod or eat it as a shelled bean. Then you could dry them out and plant them again.”

As one of the only plants that puts as much back into the soil as it takes, beans are helpful at every phase of their lives. “They are so generous.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that beans are one of the cheapest forms of protein available. “Everyone is watching their income now, yet you can still bring a giant dish of wonderfulness and protein to a potluck, ” she said.

We tend to think of beans as an ingredient for wintertime soups and stews, but many of the recipes in the book are perfect for summer, including dips, stir-fries and salads, such as this Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Lime Vinaigrette. (One of Dragonwagon’s favorite dishes is a seven-layer Middle Eastern mountain dip that would be a nice change if you’re tired of bringing the same seven-layer Tex-Mex dip to parties.)

Dragonwagon says she pours the nurturing spirit that made her bed and breakfast so successful into two places: Fearless Writing workshops that she hosts at her home and, much to her surprise, Facebook. “Thanks to the Internet, I’m interacting with people about food and tender things in a different way, but in a connected way. I ran the inn for 18 years. That nurturing energy needs to go somewhere.”

This Black Bean and Sweet Potato with Honey Cilantro Vinaigrette is from Crescent Dragonwagon’s “Bean by Bean.” Addie Broyles/American-Statesman

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Cilantro Vinaigrette

For the honey-cilantro vinaigrette:
1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup honey
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tsp. salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Dash of Tabasco or similar hot sauce
1 cup olive oil
For the salad:
3 cups (two 15-oz. cans) tender-cooked black beans, drained well and rinsed
4 scallions, roots chopped off and whites and 2 inches of green sliced
1/3 lb. (about 1 1/5 cups) chilled, cooked green beans, sliced into 1-inch lengths (optional)
2 or 3 large sweet potatoes, baked, peeled and chunked

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper For the dressing, combine all of the ingredients except the oil in a food processor and buzz smooth. You may need to scrape the processor sides once or twice. If your machine’s pusher tube has a little hole, pour the oil into the tube in two batches and let the oil drip in as the machine runs. Otherwise, drizzle in the oil by hand. Taste for seasonings, then transfer to a lidded container or jar and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Combine the black beans, scallions and green beans, if using, in a large bowl and toss with about 1/2 cup of the dressing. Add the sweet potatoes and toss very, very gently to keep the tender sweet potato pieces somewhat intact. Taste. Correct the seasonings with salt, pepper, and additional dressing if you like. Pass the remaining dressing at the table. Dig in, and get ready for the compliments; act modest. Use additional dressing on lettuce salads or even on entrees like enchiladas or a stir-fry. Serves 4 to 6.

— From “Bean By Bean: A Cookbook: More than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, Even Sweet Beans!” (Workman, $17.95) by Crescent Dragonwagon

Honoring my grandma’s legacy of peach pies, goulash and community service

The world lost a great goulash-maker two weeks ago.

My dear grandmother died after a long summer of falls and failing health. She lived to be 87 years old, and for 60 of those years, she was the comfort-food-maker-in-chief of Aurora, Mo. She made lemon cakes for people who needed a little sunshine in their day and goulash — a casserole of ground beef, canned tomatoes and dried macaroni — if they were in mourning.

I was always particularly close to my grandma, especially after I became a mom and a writer, which gave me an excuse to ask her even more questions about her life.

My family and so many people in her tight-knit community back home have been in mourning, but we’ve also been celebrating a woman who wasn’t a stranger to this food section a few states away.

In these pages and in real life, I called her Gaga, and I first told you about her in 2008 in my second column as a food writer. I wrote about how she always used to make peach pie when I traveled to Missouri for a visit to my hometown and the resiliency she showed when the pie she made for our photo shoot didn’t turn out exactly right.

Gaga taught me how to make her famous peach pie in 2008, when I first started writing about food for the newspaper. Ricardo Brazziell / American-Statesman

I would always ask her for her favorite recipes, ostensibly for research on a column, but really I just knew that it was a gateway into getting her to tell stories about when she used to make a certain dish, where she got the recipe or the lives of the people she was feeding.

I complained once that I couldn’t find a lemon bar recipe that I liked online. She went straight to her pile of clipped recipes and pulled out one she’d cut from Guideposts. “This is Gaga’s internet,” she said as she handed me the recipe. It was exactly the one I’d been hoping to find.

For another column, I told the story of our family’s immigration to America through a 130-plus-year-old bread knife and rolling pin that came with our ancestors from Sweden in the 1890s. I wrote about her moosebread (our family’s funny term for lemon poppy seed bread), the orange glaze rolls she used to make by the dozen at Christmas and a coffeecake that came from her mother, a first-generation Swedish American.

Until just a few months ago, Gaga was still showing up every Saturday morning to make sack lunches at church. Her weekly effort to feed the community inspired me to pick up a Meals on Wheels route five years ago.

Carolyn Cook was the matriarch of our Missouri family, keeping all of us connected to the small town she called home since the 1950s. Every member of the family was there to remember her at her funeral two weeks ago. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

As her health declined over the past few years, I wrote about the changing roles in their home, where my parents were her caregivers and I was the one who would show up to surprise her with an upside-down peach cake.

Last year, my sister and I traveled to Sweden because we wanted her to get to see us go back to the ancestral homeland. We ate cinnamon buns and texted her selfies from the small island village where her grandmother was born. Last Christmas, I surprised Gaga with a Skype call with Swedish cousins she never knew existed.

All of my uncles, aunts and cousins gathered a few weeks ago to remember stories like this for her memorial service. We ate barbecue and potato salad, quiche and, at the funeral luncheon, not one but two kinds of cheesy potatoes, plus more chocolate cake and cookies than we could have eaten all week.

I’m grateful for the many years we had together, especially when food became an opportunity for us to deepen our conversations and our relationship. Ever since she and I made that imperfect pie together, I often channel her when I’m cooking something that feels like it’s gone awry. That moment when she just pieced together the cracked pie crust and didn’t throw her hands up in despair when things fell apart stuck with me. She fixed what she could, without apology, and moved on.

Gaga’s warmth, humor and good nature stuck with her until the end. For decades, she would quietly send newspaper clippings and birthday cards (and St. Patrick’s Day cards and Valentine’s Day cards) to a long list of relatives and friends.

Gaga requested that her collection of dachshunds were set up at her funeral, so people could pick out their favorite to remember her. A few weeks ago, my mom and two sons helped her pack them up to take them to the church. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

She was the only person I knew who used the word “larapin” to describe delicious food, and she had this quirk of collecting hundreds of dachshund figurines, which she wanted given away at her funeral. (Her wish was fulfilled, including the one wearing the cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.)

Once, I stopped by the dentist office she’d worked at for years as a dental assistant to get fitted for a guard so I wouldn’t grind my teeth at night. The dentist, one of the countless friends in town who might as well have been family, wouldn’t let me pay him. “Tell your grandma she can just send one of her lemon cakes.”

Lemon Poppy Seed Bread (Moosebread)

Lemon poppyseed bread, aka “moosebread,” is a favorite recipe in my family, which has been a little obsessed for all things moose for more than 30 years. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

This poppy seed loaf, which half of our family calls moosebread and the other half calls moose food, is easily one of the most treasured treats in my grandmother’s recipe box. Her recipe calls for butter extract and oil instead of butter, which gives you an idea of when the recipe was likely developed in some unknown Midwestern kitchen. To honor that legacy, I’ve kept them in this modified version. The only real change in my version is swapping out orange juice in the glaze for lemon juice. You’ll need two loaf pans for the batter.

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 teaspoons butter flavor extract
2 teaspoons lemon zest
For the glaze:
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter flavor extract (optional)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch-by-5-inch loaf pans with cooking spray and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine baking powder, flour, salt and poppy seeds. In another bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, milk, oil, extracts and zest. Slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and thoroughly combine. Divide the batter between the two loaf pans. Bake for about 1 hour until middle of the bread has set.

During the last 10 minutes of baking, make the glaze by heating the glaze ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for a few minutes, and then turn off heat.

Right after you remove the loaves from the oven, slowly pour the glaze on top of each loaf. Once the loaves have cooled, remove from pan and wrap in plastic wrap. Serve slices of bread at room temperature or warmed slightly. Makes two loaves.

— Addie Broyles

Like so many cooks from her era, my grandma diligently kept up a handwritten recipe collection with cards that she continued to use whenever she cooked. As she grew older, she baked fewer lemon cakes, but she will be remembered for her community service, which included years of making sack lunches at church and dropping off goulash for families who had lost a loved one. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The fanciest burger recipes we’ve ever published, crushed Fritos and all

Editor’s note: We’ve hosted a number of reader recipe contests over the years. For 20 years, longtime Statesman food writer Kitty Crider ran a Christmas cooking competition, and I’ve coordinated a few cookie contests. In 2009, features writer Patrick Beach, who is no longer at the paper, led the effort to have a burger contest. Readers submitted lots and lots of their best burgers, and Beach and I picked the finalists. We teamed up with then-restaurant critic Mike Sutter, who is now at the San Antonio Express-News for a backyard burger-off. Beach spun this great story out of it, including the five top recipes, which might be the fanciest burger recipes we’ve ever published in print. Happy grilling, National Burger Day, Memorial Day and a beyond.

This cheesy Eternity Burger, which includes crushed Fritos, won a contest we hosted several years ago.  Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

So as not to bury the lead: J.M. Smith,  take a bow — you’re the American-Statesman’s Best Backyard Burger Chef.

When we started soliciting readers’ recipes for their best grilled burger back when it started getting really hot out — which if memory serves was around 1980- – we weren’t sure what we could expect. We knew Central Texas home cooks were pretty imaginative,  but burgers are like pizza: orthodoxy topped,  if you’re lucky,  with adventurousness.

If anything, we underestimated the adventurousness. Of the roughly 60 recipes we received throughout this eternal summer of ours, you spatula’d up an array of ideas: burgers with salsa, fruit (pineapple, cherries, apples,  pears), fontina cheese, Canadian bacon, carrots (in a relish) and, one of my favorite secret weapons, the Thai hot sauce sriracha.

A handful of recipes seemed frozen in time – one even called for pre-formed,  frozen burgers – but for the most part you impressed us,  which was the goal.

A few weeks ago,  so we’d have a winner in time for Labor Day, American-Statesman food writer Addie Broyles, restaurant critic Mike Sutter and I (my qualifications: I had beer and a grill) sat down to choose five finalists that we would grill,  taste and judge the following Saturday. We were looking for diversity – if it were up to me,  all of them would have had blue cheese and/or bacon – and creativity.

The Caprese Burgers included a mixture of mushrooms and onions on the bun. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

We liked the summery simplicity of Martha Barrack Martinez’s Caprese Burger — basically a Caprese  salad with the addition of grilled onions,  mushrooms and of course a hamburger patty. J.M. Smith’s Eternity Burger sounded like an unholy mess of wonderful things, including white Cheddar, avocado, Hatch chiles, crushed Fritos and (!) cream cheese. Keri Holder’s Ancho Mama’s Bohemian Black Lager Burger wowed us with alliteration and Southwestern flavors,  including a slaw with chipotle adobo,  lime and cumin. Cori Schneider’s Sweet and Spicy Burger had lots of “Whaaa?” factor with the addition of finely chopped pear and green apple.

And in terms of sheer ambition and originality,  Mollie Hejl’s Hickory Cherry Cheddar Pecan Gourmet Burger With Cherry-Butter-Wine Sauce — with cherry-wood chips in the grill’s smoker box — sounded less like a recipe than a weekend project. Printed, the ingredients list took up most of a page, the procedure another.

These Hickory Cherry Cheddar Pecan Gourmet Burgers were complicated, but the work paid off in a restaurant-quality burger. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Then we shopped, chopped, prepped and on a Saturday morning convened to grill 15 burgers from five recipes. Addie, Mike and I were the only voting judges, although we were aided by Mike’s daughter and my two sons, who served as helpers. We quartered the burgers as they came off the grill so we wouldn’t fill up and accidentally favor the earlier samples. And we took notes,  which we hereby offer in the order in which we ate:

Caprese: With a basil mayo made with herbs out of my garden,  really terrific fresh mozzarella and a good — although store-bought — tomato,  this was really redolent of the season. The addition of chopped basil in the mayo really spread out the flavor. This was pretty much the simplest recipe of the bunch and each ingredient shined. Addie pronounced it “messy but delicious.” But remember,  a) sauteed onions and mushrooms and b) we were quartering them.

Hickory Cherry Cheddar etc.,  etc.,  etc.: To this recipe’s elaborate instructions I would add,  “Get someone else like Addie to pit and chop two pounds of fresh bing cherries,” and that’s what I did on grilling day. Some of the cherries went in the burgers, while the rest went into a sauce with butter,  brown sugar,  garlic, dry mustard and zinfandel. The extra sharp New York white Cheddar was also finely diced and mixed into the burgers,  as were green onion tops,  peppercorns,  pecan chips and more. The cheese melted nicely into the meat once grilled,  at least the portion that didn’t melt out on the grates. As for the wood chips,  cherry or otherwise,  let me be blunt: I challenge anyone to take a blind taste test using wood or no wood and see if you can discern a difference. For something like a burger, which is going to be on the grill just a few minutes, there is none,  I’m telling you. We liked the al dente crunch of the pecans and the bright tang of the cherries, but between that and the zin in both the burgers and the sauce,  we were borderline-overwhelmed by fruit. Hejl, who tells us she built this recipe for another contest,  wins our consolation prize: Most Imaginative Burger.

Ancho Mama’s: We were really excited to try this one — bacon, avocado, an ancho chile rehydrated in beer, then processed and mixed into the meat,  a crunchy slaw topping and a mayo blended with lime juice, lime zest and honey. What wasn’t to love? If you like chili,  you’ll love this one,  but our collective opinion was that it tasted a little too much like chili, what with the ancho, paprika and cumin — the latter spice showing up both in the burgers and the slaw. Mike suggested serving the slaw as a side,  which would break up the cumin presence a bit.

Sweet and spicy: Jalapeños and burgers are a hallowed Southwestern tradition,  and I tried and enjoyed a Bobby Flay burger recipe that had a green apple slice as a topping. But pear? Even a firm one, when chopped in a food processor, is going to turn a mushy and mealy consistency, which is exactly what happened. The mix of sweet and heat was pleasant enough, the mouth feel not so much.

Eternity: We chose this as our winner because it fulfilled on the plate the potential it offered on the page: white Cheddar, avocado, Hatch chiles,  crushed corn chips, cream cheese, red onion, a little horseradish for extra heat and celery salt for an accent. This one really had it all, and it was our unanimous pick for top burger.

For his troubles, Smith takes home lifetime bragging rights, a gift card and a modest collection of grilling and barbecue cookbooks. “My first thought is I don’t even deserve it, ” said Smith, who lives in rural Hays County and describes himself as semi-retired from the real estate business. “I didn’t do it for notoriety,  I just wanted to share a recipe. It says ‘Texas’ to me.”

Smith said he’s played with the recipe over the past few years, making it 12-15 times to front-to-back positive reviews. Smith also tells us he hasn’t made them much this summer on account of it being 200 degrees and all.

But, uh, next time? Can we come over?

Cori Schneider’s Sweet and Spicy Burger

1 lb. ground beef
1 green pear,  cored and chopped
1/2 green apple,  cored and chopped
1 jalapeño,  chopped and seeded
1/3 cup red onion,  diced
1 egg
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
Salt and pepper
Sliced baby Swiss cheese
Whole wheat buns
Light mayonnaise

In food processor,  finely chop pear,  green apple,  jalapeño and red onion. Remove from food processor and dry some of the moisture out on paper towels.

In a large bowl,  combine ground beef,  mixture from food processor,  egg,  bread crumbs and salt and pepper to taste. Mix until ingredients are fully combined. Grill burgers about 6-8 minutes on each side or to your liking. Add cheese slices atop each patty until melted. Serve on whole wheat buns with light mayo. (Note: The recipe didn’t spell out how many burgers this makes. We made 3.)

Martha Barrack Martinez’s Caprese Burgers

Onion-mushroom topping
1/2 medium white onion, sliced into 1/2-inch-long pieces
6 large fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 tsp. olive oil
1 lb. lean hamburger
1/2 tsp. smoked salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. olive oil
6 Tbsp. mayonnaise
6-8 leaves fresh basil,  finely chopped
6 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese,  sliced
1 large tomato,  sliced
4 leaves of Boston lettuce
4 large toasted sesame hamburger buns

To make the onion-mushroom topping,  cook onions and mushrooms about 15 minutes in olive oil until onions are caramelized. Set aside.

For the burger,  mix spices and olive oil into meat. Form into 4 patties. Cook hamburgers to preferred wellness (I like medium-rare) on an outside barbecue (my preference),  an indoor griddle or on top of the stove.

While burgers are cooking,  get a bowl and mix mayo and chopped fresh basil together. Set aside.

Making the masterpiece one at a time: Take toasted sesame bun,  put generous amount of basil/mayo on each side. Stack the burger: one slice fresh mozzarella cheese,  one large slice tomato,  mushroom-onion mixture and lettuce.

Makes 4 burgers.

Keri Holder’s Ancho Mama’s Bohemian Black Lager Burgers with Adobo Lime Slaw

Patties
1 1/2 lbs. freshly ground chuck
1 lb. freshly ground sirloin
1/2 cup Shiner Bohemian Black Lager beer
1/2 ancho chile
2 Tbsp. butter,  room temperature
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt
Adobo lime slaw
1/4 small head of red cabbage
1/4 small head of green cabbage
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. adobo (drained from canned chipotles in adobo)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cumin
Juice from one lime
Honey-lime mayonnaise
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. honey
Zest of 2 limes
Juice of 2 limes

The rest
6 slices bacon, cut into halves
2-3 Tbsp. vegetable oil,  for brushing on the grill rack
1 large,  ripe avocado, cored, peeled and sliced into 18 thin slices
3 oz. or 6 slices Manchego cheese
6 highest-quality hamburger buns,  split
3/4 cup canned french-fried onions

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill with a cover,  or preheat a gas grill to medium-high.

To make the patties: Pour beer in a small bowl and soak the ancho in the beer for 30 minutes to soften. After the ancho has soaked,  place the pepper in a blender with 2 Tbsp. of the beer from the bowl. Add the butter,  cumin,  black pepper,  coriander,  paprika and sugar to the blender. Blend well. Place the ground chuck,  ground sirloin and salt in a large bowl. Add the mixture from the blender to the meat and combine the ingredients,  handling the meat as little as possible. Shape into six patties to fit the buns. Cover with plastic and set aside.

To make the adobo lime slaw: Cut the red and green cabbage thinly enough for cole slaw. Place in medium bowl and add chopped cilantro. In a small bowl,  whisk together adobo,  red wine vinegar,  mayonnaise,  salt,  cumin and lime. Add to slaw and toss. Cover with plastic and refrigerate.

To make honey lime mayonnaise: Whisk together mayonnaise,  lime zest,  lime juice and honey. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

Place the bacon in a 10-inch fireproof skillet on the grill and cook,  turning as needed until crisp. Remove bacon from skillet and drain on paper towels.

When the grill is ready,  brush the grill rack with vegetable oil. Place the patties on the rack,  cover and cook,  turning once,  until done to preference,  5 to 7 minutes on each side for medium.

Place 3 avocado slices and 1/2 oz. of Manchego cheese on each patty during the last 3 minutes of grilling. Place the buns,  cut side down,  on the outer edges of the rack to toast lightly during the last 2 minutes of grilling.

To assemble,  spread a generous amount of the honey-lime mayonnaise over the cut side of the buns. On each bun bottom,  place a grilled patty,  then two halved bacon slices,  equal portions of the adobo lime slaw and the french-fried onions. Add the top bun and serve.

Makes 6 burgers.

Mollie Hejl’s Hickory Cherry Cheddar Pecan Gourmet Burgers with Cherry Butter Wine Sauce

Grilling spray
2 cups cherry smoking chips
6 artisan (scratch-made) wheat or multigrain kaiser rolls – sesame-seeded,  ‘everything’ or plain (if others unavailable) – 5 inches in diameter,  split
Patties
2 lbs. certified Angus beef,  91 percent lean (preferred) or chopped sirloin
2 cups fresh dark bing cherries,  pitted and finely chopped. (Note: A total of 2 lbs. of cherries are required for entire recipe.)
1 package (10 oz.) New York extra sharp white Cheddar cheese,  finely diced
1 cup green onion tops,  finely chopped
2 packages (2 1/4 oz.) pecan pieces
1 Tbsp. fresh ground peppercorn medley (black,  pink,  white and green peppercorns in grinder or pre-ground)
2 Tbsp. Lea & Perrins Thick Classic Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tbsp. liquid smoke flavoring,  hickory
1/4 cup zinfandel wine
Topping
1/4 cup zinfandel wine
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. prepared crushed garlic
1 tsp. prepared spicy brown mustard
1 container (5 oz.) seasonal salad greens,  organic preferred
Fresh herbs,  mixed baby greens or spring mix

Sauce
1 cup fresh cherries,  very finely chopped
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp. crushed garlic
1 tsp. dry ground mustard
1/2 cup zinfandel wine

Preheat gas grill to medium-high heat (400 degrees) and coat rack with grilling spray. Soak cherry chips in water for 15 minutes. Drain,  cover chips in foil,  leaving small opening,  then place packet at end of grill rack,  remaining there for at least 15 minutes while preparing ingredients. Close grill cover.

For the patties: Crumble ground beef into large mixing bowl. Use very sharp knife and stain-resistant cutting board to finely chop cherries,  removing pits and stems. Finely dice cheese by first slicing,  then cutting 1/4-inch small cubes from the slices. Thinly slice green onion tops. Add cherries,  cheese and green onions to beef,  along with pecan chips,  freshly ground pepper,  Lea & Perrins,  liquid smoke and wine. Combine all ingredients thoroughly before shaping into 6 patties (5 inches across to fit kaiser rolls) and place onto large cookie sheet.

For the topping: In a large stainless steel bowl,  add wine,  olive oil,  garlic and spicy brown mustard. Combine all ingredients,  placing salad greens on top. Set aside until patties are cooked. Don’t toss greens until later.

For the sauce: Use food processor to very finely chop cherries. Melt the butter in 2-quart (fireproof) saucepan,  placed on outer edge of grill rack. Remove pan from rack and add brown sugar,  garlic,  dry mustard, and chopped cherries. Reposition pan on rack so that heat allows mixture to boil. When sauce reaches boiling,  continue cooking,  stirring constantly,  for about 5 minutes,  then add wine. Continue stirring,  for about 5 more minutes or until sauce cooks down and thickens. Keep sauce warm,  covering with foil if necessary. (Sauce may be prepared while burgers cook if all three cups of cherries for this recipe are processed together,  with remaining cup of cherries ready for sauce.)

Grill the beef patties about 5-7 minutes per side,  closing lid while cooking to enhance cherry-smoke flavor. Cook patties until medium-well but still juicy and keep warm. Toast rolls cut side down for 1 minute on grill until golden brown. Transfer cooked patties to toasted bottoms of rolls. Toss greens,  placing 1/2 cup on top of patties. Distribute 2 Tbsp. cherry butter wine sauce over toasted top portions of rolls. Close rolls or serve open-face.

Makes 6 burgers.

J.M. Smith’s Eternity Burgers

8 oz. ground Angus beef
2 oz. white Cheddar cheese,  grated
1 small avocado,  sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 Hatch green chiles from a can (we simply heaped a good 2 Tbsp. of canned,  chopped green chiles on each burger)
2 Tbsp. crushed-up Fritos
2 Tbsp. cream cheese
1 slice of red onion
1 whole grain wheat bun
1 Tbsp. melted butter
1 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. prepared horseradish
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/8 tsp. celery salt

In mixing bowl, combine beef with Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, horseradish, chili powder, black pepper and sea salt. Mix well and form one good patty for the grill.

Grill over high heat and turn only one time. After flipping beef over,  place cheese on top of patty to melt. Cover burger to help the melting. Prepare meat to desired doneness. Open bun up and place on hot grill to toast.

Mix mustard,  butter and celery salt in a small bowl. Place avocado slices directly on bottom bun and  sprinkle crushed Fritos on top. Use a knife to “spread” the Fritos into the soft avocado.

Place red onion slice on top of avocado-Fritos mixture and then spread mustard sauce on top of it. Place burger with melted cheese on top of the mustard sauce. Cover with green chiles.

Spread cream cheese on top bun, then place on top of chiles. Note: This makes one Texas-sized half-pound burger. We doubled the quantities and made three one-third pounders.

If you’ve never baked bread, here’s the absolute easiest way to get started

To paraphrase the great Oprah Winfrey: “I love bread.”

OK, that’s her Weight Watchers quote verbatim, so I’m not paraphrasing. I, too, love bread, especially the homemade kind.

No-knead breads are a great introduction to baking bread. You mix together the dry ingredients, add the wet and then stir with a spatula. Alexandra Stafford’s method calls for baking the dough in a buttered Pyrex bowl, which is a great use for this common cooking vessel. Other oven-proof bowls are fine, but the 1 1/2 quart bowls are the right size for two loaves. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Over the years, I’ve baked bread the laborious way and the easy (but overnight) no-knead way and now I’ve found a new no-knead technique that doesn’t require fermenting the dough for 12 hours but yields a wonderful loaf nonetheless.

MORE: Headed out on your own? Here’s a no-knead bread for beginner bakers 

This new technique comes from Alexandra Stafford’s new book, “Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves & Meals to Savor Every Slice” (Clarkson Potter, $30), which I got a few months ago and have been baking with ever since. I’ve made her regular loaf, a quinoa flax loaf, one with olives and another with cinnamon and raisins, and each I would make again, if I haven’t already.

From Stafford’s base recipe, you can make all kinds of additional loaves, like this one with quinoa, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

In today’s food section, you can find three of those recipes, but I wanted to share the base recipe here and encourage you to try it, even if you’ve never baked bread before.

Baking bread isn’t one of those skills you have to have to feed yourself, but I have found that baking bread gives me the confidence to try other kitchen tasks I might have thought were out of my leave. Plus, it’s cheap to experiment with, and unlike my previous no-knead favorite, this recipe doesn’t take much time to complete.

The Peasant Bread Master Recipe

Here it is: The no-knead bread recipe my mother has been making for 40 years, the one she taught me to make 20 years ago, the recipe I published on my blog in 2012, the recipe that inspired the creation of every recipe that follows in this book. This formula is simple — 4 cups flour, 2 cups water, 2 teaspoons each salt and sugar, and 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast — and can be adapted in countless ways. Make it once as described below, then tailor it to your liking.

— Alexandra Stafford

4 cups (512 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
Softened unsalted butter, for greasing

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar and instant yeast. Add the water. Using a rubber spatula, mix until the water is absorbed and the ingredients form a sticky dough ball.

Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Set a rack in the middle of the oven and heat it to 425 degrees. Grease two 1-quart oven-safe bowls with the softened butter — be generous. Using two forks, deflate the dough by releasing it from the sides of the bowl and pulling it toward the center. Rotate the bowl quarter-turns as you deflate, turning the mass into a rough ball.

Using your two forks and, working from the center out, separate the dough into two equal pieces. Use the forks to lift each half of the dough into a prepared bowl. If the dough is too wet to transfer with forks, lightly grease your hands with butter or oil, then transfer each half to a bowl. Do not cover the bowls. Let the dough rise on the countertop near the oven (or another warm, draft-free spot) for 10 to 20 minutes, until the top of the dough just crowns the rims of the bowls.

Transfer the bowls to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 17 to 20 minutes more, until evenly golden all around. Remove the bowls from the oven and turn the loaves out onto cooling racks. If the loaves look pale, return them to their bowls and bake for 5 minutes longer. Let the loaves cool for 15 minutes before cutting. Makes two 14-ounce loaves.

— From “Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves & Meals to Savor Every Slice” by Alexandra Stafford (Clarkson Potter, $30)

 

This master kombucha recipe unlocks infinite flavor possibilities

pineapplekombuchaI’ve been so crazy for kombucha lately that it’s filling up my Instagram.

At least a few times a week, I post part of the process. Yesterday, it was the only two ingredients you need to get started: black tea and turbinado sugar.

In today’s paper, I have a column about coming back to making my own kombucha after a seven-year break. For two months now, I’ve been making all kinds of different flavors of kombucha from one master recipe, which came from my sister in Boise, Idaho, but that I’ve tweaked slightly.

There are two different brewing methods: continuous brewing and batch. I use the batch method. I also make a slightly smaller quantity of tea than the full gallon that Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory, the authors of “The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea,” call for in the master recipe in their book, because four of those 500 ml bottles of kombucha is plenty for us to drink in one week.

mangokombuchaThe key trick that I learned from my sister is using fruit purees instead of juice to add additional flavor to the kombucha. She purees blueberries or strawberries with a little bit of granulated sugar, but I quickly moved on to honeydew melon, pineapple, mango and even cucumber and mint to flavor mine. My kombucha-loving kids have decided that our next batch will be kiwi watermelon.

Once you start looking at every piece of fruit in the grocery store as a possible kombucha flavor, the creativity really kicks in. I haven’t even started playing with cinnamon, citrus or other ingredients that will add layers of complexity to my homemade booch, but when you’re making a batch every week, you have lots of tea to experiment with.

And you can be sure I’ll be posting about it on the Instagram.

What crazy flavors of kombucha have you made? What should I try next?

Kombucha

kombuchateaThis quantity of tea makes enough kombucha to fill those four 500 ml bottles, with enough liquid left over to act as a starter for the next batch. If you find yourself running low on leftover liquid, make a little extra tea next time. You’ll want to have at least a few cups of liquid remaining in the jar each time. The more starter liquid, the faster the tea will brew. The less, the longer.

Every once in a while, I’ll have to brew a larger batch to make sure there’s enough extra liquid to keep my SCOBY hotel full and to start my next batch. Either way, you can use 4 bags of tea (or about 1 1/2 Tbsp. loose-leaf tea) and 1 cup sugar.

10 cups filtered water
4 bags black tea
1 cup turbinado or white sugar
1 cup kombucha
1 SCOBY or piece of SCOBY, at least a few inches in width

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a pot large enough to hold all 10 cups. Add tea and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn off heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags and add sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add the remaining filtered water and let the mixture cool.

Add the tea to a large glass jar. Add the kombucha and then place your SCOBY on top. (It’s OK if it sinks.) Cover the jar with a cloth and secure with a rubber band. Place jar in a dark, cool place for seven days.

To flavor and finish processing the kombucha: Using a funnel, place 2 Tbsp. fruit puree in a 500 ml (about 17 ounce) bottle with a flip-top closure. Place a strainer inside the funnel (optional) and then pour the fermented kombucha tea into the bottle, leaving between 1-2 inches of air at the top. Repeat with remaining bottles. Quickly seal each bottle after adding the kombucha, which should be fizzy from the fermentation. Leave at room temperature for at least two days or up to five. Refrigerate the bottles and, when ready to drink, strain and serve.

— Adapted from recipes by Chelsea Barrett and from Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory in “The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea

Like grilled corn? Consider this Japanese spin on elote

Grilled corn is such an improvement on boiled corn.

Well, really good sweet corn is so good that you don’t even have to cook it at all, but since we can’t always get that kind of corn, it’s smart to have other options.

In today’s food section, grilling writer Jim Shahin put various grilling methods to the test, concluding that you really need to soak the corn in water first and then you can grill it with or without the husk with great results.

By 8 a.m. this morning, I had an email from a reader named Kathy who suggested another way of grilling corn that we didn’t include.

This Japanese-style of serving corn includes topping the grilled corn with furikake and kewpie mayonnaise. Photo from Arnold Gatilao.
This Japanese-style of serving corn includes topping the grilled corn with furikake and kewpie mayonnaise. Photo from Arnold Gatilao.

She said that in Japan, where her husband has spent some time, they remove the husks and silk, put the ear on the aluminum foil, drizzle with soy sauce, wrap and grill. “It’s good, it’s attractive, but a little salty for me, even with low sodium soy sauce,” she writes. Seems like you could cut way back on the soy sauce and sprinkle the corn with furikake, that sesame seed seaweed seasoning that is so good on everything from fish to rice and vegetables. Oh, and roll it in kewpie mayonnaise.

How do you like to cook your corn? Do you have a favorite grilling method or are you more of a microwave kind of person?

 

This chicken soup will cure the rainy day blues

Want to make a better chicken soup? Start with a whole chicken, use plenty of aromatics and only bring the soup to a simmer -- not a boil -- when cooking. Photo by Addie Broyles.
Want to make a better chicken soup? Start with a whole chicken, use plenty of aromatics and only bring the soup to a simmer — not a boil — when cooking. Photo by Addie Broyles.

How do you make chicken soup?

I do have a soft spot for canned chicken noodle soup from Campbell’s, but Jon Shook, a Los Angeles-based chef who will be here for the Austin Food & Wine Festival, recently convinced me that I’ve been making homemade chicken noodle soup wrong my whole life.

Despite reading over and over that you aren’t supposed to boil chickens over high heat to make broth, I’ve always cranked up the heat when I have leftover chicken carcasses. I rarely started with a whole bird and almost never took the time to simmer it slowly.

After chatting with Jon and his chef partner Vinny Dotolo for today’s lead story about why chicken doesn’t have to be boring, I made the most divine chicken soup according to his directions, following the most important rule: Do not boil the bird.

Yes, you need to simmer the chicken in order to draw out all those yummy flavors, but as soon as the bubbles start to come to the surface, reduce the heat so that the liquid doesn’t come to a hard boil. Why? A violent boil causes the skin, fat and collagen to disintegrate into the liquid, which can make a cloudy, greasy stock.

If you cook the bird over low heat, not all of the fat in the chicken skin will render out, so you’ll pull it off the bird after the meat has cooked. Also, keep a strainer nearby so you can skim any foam or scum that gathers at the top.

Jon’s Chicken Soup

1 (3-4 lb.) whole chicken (giblets and innards removed)
2 to 3 large brown or yellow onions, peeled and divided
8 to 10 carrots (roughly equal to quantity of celery), peeled and divided
1 head of celery, divided
1 bay leaf
1 bunch flat loose-leaf parsley
1 bag wide egg noodles
Kosher salt to taste

Place whole chicken in a 12 quart pot. Cover the chicken with an inch of cold water. Chop half of the onions, carrots and celery into 1-inch chunks. Add vegetables to the pot, as well as the bay leaf and about a dozen sprigs of parsley. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat so that the liquid is just simmering. Cook for roughly 1 hour or until chicken is falling off the bone. Strain and toss the cooked vegetables.

Let the chicken cool enough until you can handle it and then pick the meat off the chicken. Put broth back in a clean pot over medium heat. Cut the other half of the onion, carrots and celery into pieces that are about 1/4 inch or smaller. Chop remaining parsley leaves for garnish.

Add the onions, carrots and celery to the broth and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the pulled chicken and simmer for another 20 minutes. In a separate pot, cook noodles following the directions on the bag. When done, run the noodles under cold water but keep the noodles separate from the soup. Once the vegetables are tender, add salt to taste. Serve soup in bowls, adding the noodles to each bowl. Serves 6 to 8.

— From Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo

Poll: Savory porridge, yea or nay?

Have you ever had salty oatmeal?

I didn’t realize until a few months ago that lots of people put salt and pepper on their oatmeal. I grew up eating it with brown sugar, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started seeing savory porridges on the menus of fancy restaurants.

In today’s food section, I explain why this savory porridge idea isn’t quite as crazy as it might sound, including several recipes for risotto-inspired porridges and breakfast grain bowls.

As I’ve talked to people about this, it seems like just the idea of savory porridge is pretty divisive, so I thought I’d take a very scientific blog poll to get a sense of where you’re at with the concept. Below that, you’ll find my favorite recipe from the story, which is less porridge and more grain bowl, but similar nonetheless.

We often think of sweet porridge for breakfast, but grain-based bowls can easily turn savory with the addition of eggs or sauteed vegetables. This egg curry breakfast bowl is from “The Whole Grain Promise” by Robin Asbell. Photo by Steve Legato.
We often think of sweet porridge for breakfast, but grain-based bowls can easily turn savory with the addition of eggs or sauteed vegetables. This egg curry breakfast bowl is from “The Whole Grain Promise” by Robin Asbell. Photo by Steve Legato.

Egg Curry Breakfast Bowl

This Indian-inspired bowl uses two teaspoons of curry powder and coconut milk, and although the title suggests that you’d eat it for breakfast, this would be a fine meal any time of day. Double the recipe if you’re planning on serving it as a dinner for four.

1/2 cup coconut milk
1 medium carrot, chopped
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh ginger
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 (15-oz.) can diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice or other grain
4 large eggs, or 8 ounces soft tofu, cubed
2 scallions, sliced lengthwise (white and green parts)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees with the bottom rack positioned at the lowest level.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat the coconut milk and add the carrot, onion, and ginger. Stir over medium heat until the carrot is softened and the coconut milk is thick.

Stir in the curry powder, brown sugar, salt and tomatoes and mix well. Bring to a boil and stir in the rice.

Divide the rice among 4 ovenproof ramekins or bowls and make a depression in the center of each. Crack an egg into each depression (or add tofu). Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, to your desired level of doneness. (You may want a firmer yolk or a runny one; a runny yolk will act as a sauce.) Top with scallions and serve immediately. Serves 2 to 4.

— From “The Whole Grain Promise” by Robin Asbell (Running Press, $20)