Dispatch from Austin: Rainy with a Chance of Bacon

So, I’m back in Texas, see?

These boots are made for plantin’, apparently

Coming off a holiday weekend of houseguests and parties and children and exhaustion, I haven’t eaten anywhere new in NYS since my jaunt to Corning. Monday was spent packing for Texas and slogging through the kind of laundry only nine houseguests can create, and Tuesday I got up at 3:45 a.m. to fly to Austin and worked a full day upon arrival. With the snarky treatment I’ve received this week from my allergies and the long day of travel, I had just enough energy to haul my cookies through the tropical storm-strength downpour in downtown Austin last night to the Four Seasons, next door to my hotel.

As expected from a Four Seasons in Texas, the bar off the lobby is a little bit swanky and a little bit country. There weren’t any recognizable celebrities in the bar, a possibility I was informed of by a colleague, but I sat in the bar and ordered a satisfactory – if not special or radical – bloody mary anyway. The friendly barkeep suggested the tuna tartare off the pub menu, which sounded appropriately light and appetizing. I went with it.

This is how I go for it

The disc of flawless cubed tuna sat atop a luscious circle of avocado, swimming in a shallow pool of soy-lime dressing. Sesame crisps were the vehicle to deliver tartare to my gaping maw. And see the pink on top? That’s the piece de resistance, pickled ginger, which perfected the dish. It was light, it was fresh, it was tasty. Exactly what I desired after a long day of travel and the sniffles.

Now, I realize an appetizer dinner at a hotel bar is not up to the usual snuff of Big Hungry. I’m sorry about that. Circumstances, man. Would it placate you if I shared the yummy treats we ate over the holiday weekend, and some corresponding recipes? I sure hope so!

First off, as I promised a few weeks ago, I made spiedissimo sandwiches, a la the Spiedie and Rib Pit in Vestal! I bought the pre-marinated Lupos chicken spiedies, went to Jim Roma’s in Endicott for the rolls, sautéed up onions and peppers with some Greek seasoning and butter, and topped them off with aged provolone. They were a hit! I also made a double batch of my (semi)famous mac -n- cheese. Here’s the recipe, if you’re interested.

2 T cornstarch
½ tsp salt ¼ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp dry mustard
a pinch of fresh grated nutmeg
a pinch of cayenne (optional)
2 T butter
2 ½ cups skim milk
2 cups grated extra sharp cheddar – my favorite to use is River Rat extra extra sharp white, but any of the nicer cheddars from the Wegman’s gourmet cheese case will work, as will the washed curd from Helluva Good
2 cups elbow macaroni, cooked 5 min in salted water and drained but not rinsed
¼ cup dry breadcrumbs
about 1 T EVOO

Preheat oven to 375. In a medium saucepan, combine your cornstarch, spices, butter and milk all at once. Whisk constantly and heat over medium-high until it comes to a boil. Boil for one minute, then remove from heat and add all but ¼ cup of the cheese. Combine the cheese sauce with the macaroni, and pour into a casserole dish. Top with the extra grated cheese. Mix the breadcrumbs and EVOO together in a little dish, then top with the oiled breadcrumbs. Baked for about 25 minutes, until brown and bubbly. Eat some. Sneak back to the dish and eat some more. Take your plate to the sink, but then steal a couple extra bites straight from the casserole dish when your beloved isn’t looking. Proceed directly to treadmill and run until your legs don’t work.

The nutmeg and the quality of the cheese are what set this above other mac -n- cheeses. The dry mustard also gives it a kick without adding too much heat. But it all comes down to the cheese. Please, please, buy a brick and grate it yourself instead of letting Kraft or Sargento do the work for you. The quality of the cheese you use in this dish will absolutely affect the end result. You can also get brave and mix up your cheeses. Use half extra sharp cheddar and half smoked gouda; or maybe sharp cheddar with some emmentaler...the world is your oyster. Just make the effort to step away from the mainstream dairy aisle and towards the pricier cheese case. You’ll thank me. The other thing I love about this recipe is that I can use skim milk, which is all we drink, and there’s no complicated roux-making or béchamel-breaking. Who needs that?

We also had the awesome sorta-asian slaw I shared a month or so ago on my Big Hungry Facebook page. Have you joined that page? If not, you should. I post all kinds of fun stuff on there. Plus, did you hear I’m tweeting these days about my food adventures? It’s true. Just follow BigHungryShelby on Twitter to catch the wave. Well, there’s no wave, but you can catch the scent of hot sizzling bacon wafting from my house, I’m sure.

The next morning, I whipped up some individual breakfast casseroles a la the newest issue of Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food magazine, which I love. They’re super easy! Get out a muffin tin! And a loaf of regular old sandwich bread – I use Martin’s Whole Wheat Potato Bread. With a rolling pin, flatten out a piece of bread for every two casseroles you want to make. Cut the flattened bread in half diagonally, then again to make little dough triangles, and use two triangles per casserole. Use some melted butter to slather the insides of the muffin tin really well, then press your little dough triangles into each like a crust. Lay a piece of parcooked bacon (I used Wegmans applewood smoked bacon) on top of your crust. Then you can whisk up one egg per casserole and pour them in, or if you like your eggs intact, just crack them straight in. Once the eggs are filling the cups up to the top, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake at 350 for about 20 minutes, or until the eggs are just set. If you have extra butter from your initial slathering use it up after you put the bacon in, but before the egg, and your little toast points sticking up will be all buttery and delicious. You can also use crumbled sausage instead of the bacon, or even some sliced ham or prosciutto. If you’re really feeling wacky, you could use some finely diced veggies in place of the meat (I would do onions and tomatoes, maybe some mushrooms) and add a touch of grated cheese! The possibilities really are endless, my Hungries. Go Hog Wild! But do put a baking sheet under the muffin tin before you bake. My eggs got a little overzealous and spilled a bit and stank up the kitch. Ew.

My friend Chris had a stroke of inspiration when she served herself her individual casserole: she requested some maple syrup to drizzle down over it. Yum! What a great idea! The boys, being more hardy, simply popped them out of the muffin tin and ate them whilst strolling idly around the kitchen, no fork required. So, you know, these babies are versatile, too.

So that’s what I have this week, my hungry friends. No dazzling upstate NY restaurant recommendations, but guess what? I’ll be in the Northcountry on Friday, for my Mom’s birthday weekend, and we’re ordering cake from Chrissy Beanz, in Sackets! So I guarantee I will have something yummy to write about next week. Don’t despair; I am plotting more Big Hungry tasteventures all over New York State. Check back in next Wednesday, because you know the drill: My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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