Thursday, October 6, 2011

Texas For Breakfast

Being broke, but not poor, means that there are some exotic things that you have to give up. And living overseas means that no matter how much money you have, you're likely to have to do that anyway. But one of my favorite things has always been breakfast tacos, something I discovered in Texas during my very first visit (at the famous La Reyna Bakery on S. 1st in Austin, which used to be in the little frame house on the northeast corner of Mary instead of on the northwest corner where the behemoth its success has turned it into stands today) and have pursued every time I've gone back.

And, of course, learned to make at home. When I lived in California, it was easy: potatoes, eggs, flour tortillas, salsa. The flour tortillas got fresher and the salsa got better after I moved to Texas. And then I wound up in Berlin. For a while, there was a Mexican restaurant near me owned by friends, where I could buy a few uncooked flour tortillas, but that didn't last long: it was deemed too hard for the kitchen to deal with. And then I made a discovery: I could make my own. It was easy.

What wasn't easy, though, was getting salsa. Unbelievably enough, my neighborhood supermarket carried Pace Picante Sauce for a while, even the hot variety. They got wise to that: the Germans aren't big on stuff with flavor, so it vanished. Then, on special occasions, I'd get Paul Newman salsa, which was incredibly expensive. And, in the days when you were allowed to carry glass jars on airplanes (ask your parents, kids), I'd return from trips to Texas with a jar or two of something good, and visitors from Texas would also be asked to bring some with them. Then I moved to France, and the salsa problem got worse. The French like flavor, but only specific kinds of flavors, and salsa ain't one of 'em. (Amazingly, Doritos sells a hot salsa that's almost good -- certainly better than all the Old El Paso crap -- but it doesn't really make the cut except in extremis.) Then I made another discovery: I could make salsa, too. Better than Paul Newman. And better than Pace.

I made this discovery through a care package a couple of Texans who were then living in London sent, which package included a copy of Robb Walsh's Tex-Mex Cookbook. I knew Robb in Austin; he took over my cooking column after I left, and now he's a star of Texas foodways. But, I'm sorry to say, I'm not going to print his recipe here. Nope: you're going to have to buy the book, because I'm very sensitive to copyright issues and authors needing to make a living, and if you'd ever met Robb you'd see how emaciated and hungry he looks all the time, so I'm not going to take food out of his mouth and the mouths of his children -- especially when I can put it in my own by urging you to buy a copy of the Tex-Mex Cookbook off of that gizmo over in the right-hand column (the one headed "My Cookbooks"), which not only pays Robb royalties, but deposits a dime or so in the fund Amazon's keeping for me from purchases people make from this blog. And if you need a Ferrari or a washing machine or something (does Amazon sell Ferraris yet?), buy it while you're buying the cookbook, because the click-through also pays me and I get a piece of that action, too.

People in France should be aware that there are two ingredients in Robb's recipe which are unavailable here, once again, as with the powdered rosemary in the pastafazool recipe, because they're below French standards of edibility: dried onion and dried garlic. Horrid stuff which I don't use anywhere else, but boy, the salsa doesn't taste right without them. Seriously. You can get them in Germany, natch. Also: that vinegar you use to de-scale your coffee-maker? You'll need some of that.

Anyway, where were we? Ah: you've made the salsa, and you've done it the day before, because you have to let it rest overnight. I toss in a bunch of chopped cliantro to make it even better, and I recommend that, if you can't find jalapenos (and you can't in France), you just use the largest green chiles you can find at your neighborhood "Asia" grocery.

Okay. Now, with the salsa made, it's time for breakfast. This is so simple I can do it before I even make coffee. I also do it before I take my shower, and here's why:

You need, for six big torillas:

1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons lard (preferred) or vegetable shortening
1/4 cup water, more or less.

I use a food processor for this, but it's not essential unless you're as smazed as I am in the morning. Whizz those dry ingredients together, then add the fat. When it's integrated, add the water, and soon the mixture will tighten up into a ball. You want slick, but not sticking to your fingers. If it's falling apart, add more water, tiny bit by tiny bit. If it's too gooey, add tiny bits of flour. You'll soon figure out when it's just right after you make it a few times. Then you take the ball and stick it in a plastic bag and seal it tightly and let it rest for at leas a half-hour -- an hour is better. That's when you take your shower and all.

Keep your flour out and handy; you'll need it.

The next thing is to get a big potato (or several small ones, duh) and cut it into 1/4" cubes.

Heat some oil -- about 1/4 cup, minimum, in a non-stick pan (this is important for later) and fry these cubes until they're golden brown all over. This will take about 20 minutes if done right. Don't worry about how much oil you're using: you'll recycle it in your own special potato-oil can and use it over and over. Well, until it goes bad, which you'll know when you heat it and it doesn't smell too good. Oh, and turn the oven onto low. Anyway. Next, break three eggs, like these beauties I get from the guy at the market, and scramble 'em with some milk.

The Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning is to sprinkle on the fried potato cubes once they're drained of oil, but you can just use salt or your favorite seasoning mix or make some out of powdered chipotle and other good things. You do want some salt in there, though. So: drain and season the potatoes, then toss in your eggs and watch them set -- it won't take long.

Plate them and stick the plate in the oven. Put your pan back on the heat and raise the heat a little.

Now grab a rolling pin, and the fun begins. Dust some flour on your cutting board, open up your dough, and twist off a little ping-pong-ball-sized hunk and roll it into a sphere.

Then, take your sphere and put it into your flour and shake so it gets covered with flour.

Plop it down in the flour on the board, flatten it gently with your hands...

And roll it out as thin as you can. I flip it with each pass of the rolling pin, and apply pressure from the center of the tortilla-in-making so that the edges are good and thin, too.

Then put it on your (non oiled) nonstick pan and pay attention. As you may be able to figure out from this exclusive Blur-O-Vision photo, bubbles will appear after a little while. It's your signal to flip the tortilla.

(I discovered that the smaller that photo is, the better it looks). Anyway, now you flip:

You only toast that other side very briefly, or you'll wind up with something like matzoh (albeit matzoh made with lard). You then put it someplace that'll keep it warm without heating it. I use aluminum foil, but some of you may have specialty tortilla warmers you bought on the border and never knew what to do with.

Texans will know what to do now, but here's an illustrated guide for those who've never tried this astonishing delicacy. Here, all your ingredients are in place: salsa, eggs, tortilla.

First, stick some eggs on the tortilla, leaving a good margin around the edges.

Knock some salsa on there...

Now, the part I couldn't photograph because it requires two hands and I was also scared of drooling on the camera: you turn a flap up from the bottom of the tortilla, folding it over the eggs. Then you make right and left "wings" from the other two margins, roll it up and stick the fourth quadrant of the breakfast taco in your mouth.

For absolute authenticity a la La Reyna, you need small cans of orange juice poured over ice (I could never figure that one out) and pretty lousy coffee.

Most Tex-Mex restaurants also feature bacon and egg, sausage and egg, (Mexican) chorizo and egg, bean and egg, and other breakfast tacos. These flour tortillas can also be used in other border delights, like carnitas (which some friends made in Berlin: no problem finding pork there!) or chicken-and-avocado tacos... But there is no reason to pay some huge international food conglomerate €3.99 for eight flour tortillas made with god knows what additives, which'll go bad the minute you open them if you don't use them immediately, when you can make your own for about €0.35.

You can also use the salsa, heated, for huevos rancheros, with a dusting of sharp cheese. But the tragic truth is, genuine corn tortillas are pretty much unobtainable by consumers in Europe: the supermarket may offer something called corn tortillas, but they don't look right, and no wonder: they're 75% wheat flour with some corn flour added for coloring. So yet another thing to smuggle back from Texas or ask your visiting friends to bring over. They freeze just great for about six months, although they eventually absorb too much water and get funky after that.

So bon appetit, y'all!


  1. You need stamina to make that lot before breakfast.

    You should take the tram out to Mondial Market on the N113 (opposite Opel), you might find dried onion etc. there.

  2. When I first moved to Germany, I was dismayed by what passed for salsa in the stores. It was, basically, ketchup with the occasional sad little sliver of onion floating in it. So I started making my own.

    But the only fresh peppers I could find were either those long green turkish ones, the tiny red asian ones, or some which looked like dark red cayennes and were called "German peppers" and made a merely so-so salsa. (The asian ones made it too hot without any actual pepper flavor. I never tried the turkish ones.)

    So I asked my family to send me some seeds, and I got several pots and some potting soil and started growing my own jalapenos, serranos and habaneros in all of my window sills. I had 12 plants going.

    I like to think I learned how to make a pretty damn good salsa during those days. Also a few surprising discoveries: The cheapest vinegar in the stores in Germany is a brown brandy vinegar, and it's 10x better than white vinegar or lime juice in salsa.

    I never used garlic powder or onion powder. Just fresh crushed garlic and chopped onions. You're 100% right about it needing to sit overnight, though. It pisses me off so much when I make some fresh salsa and people dig into it right away, and I have to run into the kitchen and threaten them with a knife to put it down, and they say "no no, it already tastes good now!" and I feel like the salsa is just being wasted on someone who can't even tell the damn difference.

    I could wax philosophical about salsa all day.

  3. drooling.
    I'm a bacon & egg, bean & cheese, and chorizo & egg kind of girl. My heart beats for breakfast tacos. Luckily, I've been mastering my tortilla making skills. That's the secret, the tortillas.
    Have you heard of Homesick Texan? She's got great recipes and gives tips on substitutions.

  4. Drooling...I think I must go to SXSW this year, and have a breakfast taco...

  5. You'll want more than one, and if you do go, I'll take you to the La Michoacana Meat Market for the types the more gringoid places don't have. I don't know what's in some of those, but boy, are they good!


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