I first had chicken tikka masala at home, complete with lime pickle, naan, the most perfect basmati rice and raita. The lime pickle is a very different flavor that just has to be tried to understand. Earthy and spicy yet a strong tart note that cuts through the richness of the curry. The balance of all flavors together sticks with you for ages. I've done the simple raita presented to me over and over, always tweaking it a little to see what improvements I could make to have balance. With the new year I'm doing intermittent fasting and Rebecca is on a meal plan so we're finding ways to make dinner plans that not only help us reach our goals but taste good. Being food photographers we're constantly handed really gorgeous food to shoot and encouraged to try nearly everything we photograph when on location at a restaurant so don't worry, we'll still get plenty of cheat meals in. One of the best ways to tame our carb intake in a meal like curry is to omit the rice and naan. It also allows a few more calories to spend on things like chicken. Normally I chop the chicken up and stew the pieces in the sauce but I was wanting to try a different process because that's just fun. I put my four chicken thighs (we had leftovers) in a jar of simmer sauce, cleaned out with some water to rinse the extra sauce out of it to make sure the thick sauce didn't over reduce while braising.
Most tikka sauces come ready for tomatoes as well so I added some fresh vine tomatoes I had on the counter, a whole onion and popped it in the oven to braise at 375 degrees. After my chicken hit 175 degrees, I pulled them out of the sauce with about 1/4 of the onion, tossed it into cast iron for a few minutes under the broiler, set to low. The skin crisped up a bit and I pulled the thighs out to rest while I threw the sauce and the 3/4 of onion into my vitamix to puree.
Once I had a perfectly smooth sauce, it needed a bit of reducing to thicken up so it was tossed in a sauce pan to simmer while I deboned chicken and made cauliflower rice. The first time I made cauliflower rice I tossed it into my food processor all willy nilly with the standard dual blade and it was TERRIBLE. This time I utilized the shredding wheel that leaves space for the veg to fall below and it's perfection. I sauteed garlic in a bit of olive oil, tossed in the whole shredded cauliflower and cooked it until some of it started to brown, added tumeric and smoked paprika finished with salt and cilantro.
The final step with the chicken was to cut it off the bone, cube it and get a hot sear in the cast iron. I let the meat stick just a touch and tossed in the onion I set aside along with the bit of liquid around them to deglaze the pan. As this was all resting I assembled my Raita. Since I didn't have any lime pickle I figured a bit of lemon rind peeled off (with no white) and sliced very small would give the notes needed to get that bit of pungent citrus note that I love so much. That added with a 1/4 english cucumber and 1/4 cup of greek yogurt, a pinch of salt, 1/2 bunch of rough chopped cilantro into my vitamix and gave it a slight spin to break up the cucumber and add some liquid into the yogurt. Next time I'll set half the cucumber to the side in chunks and just puree the cucumber with the yogurt and maybe add in some cumin as well.
In the end this wasn't a traditional preparation but I feel like it's very close to the essence of what makes tikka masala so good. Rich sauce, tender chicken, balanced by yogurt and fresh cilantro. Next time I'm taking the heat levels up a notch, using more tomato and fixing my raita but I hope you enjoyed my process.
In 2020, we all have had a lot of challenges to face. To make your businesss work in this environment we've been nimble, cut unneccessary expenses and found ways to deliver our clients something remarkable against all odds. Or so it felt at times. The American Egg Board and Razorfish Chicago office tapped us to help revamp a website. It was the peak of the early pandemic when everything was shut down, supply chains were almost nonexistent and shooting with a team was unthinkable. Considering that there are two of us with unique talents outside of just photography we were able to make a compelling case for creating the work. Rebecca has lots of prop styling and hand modelling experience, having done both for Nordstrom in the midwest product photography studios. In many ways she has more experience hand modelling than anyone else in Kansas City. Caleb has the food styling knowlege to not only plate things properly but also concieve and execute technically challenging dishes. Normally for a shoot of this magnatude you'd want a team of 6-10 people but that just wasn't going to be possible. We not only made due with our circumstances, but exceeded client expectations. We were two people working from their homes, sourcing props and building spaces with a tight deadline and high expectations. This year had the potential to break us but it made us instead. Sure we had lots of "learning moments" but we want to share it all here moving forward.
In this new year we're going to dedicate some time better telling our story. We spend lots of effort planning, strategizing and executing content for our clients but have realized we need to apply some of that creative effort towards what makes our business special. We're a team of two with lots of unique talents and have found lots of ways to make a mark. We moved to Kansas City in December of 2021. Since then we've shot the cover six times for Kansas City Magazine, and 4 times for Feast. Our photos made it into Esquire after our return client Fox & Pearl was placed in the top ten restaurants across the US. We landed big commercial work and are on the preferred vendor list for two of the top agency groups worldwide. We bid a job with more zeroes than ever and only missed out because we nailed the creative brief and the client changed directions midstream (the agency creative was 100% behind our proposal deck). While it hasn't been all roses and we definitely don't feel we've made it, we're living our best lives trying to see how far we can take our ideas. Feeling you've made it is maybe a bit dangerous anyway. There's always something else to achieve, new stories to tell, and adventures to yet experience. We hope you follow along as we do our best to show you what we're about and share our adventures as a creative endeavor.
On my last venture to Wichita, Kansas I couldn't have been more surprised or pleased by all the positive changes I had seen come to my hometown since I left in 2008. The people that I met had all seemingly come together. Almost as if to collectively say that we don't have to settle for mediocrity in cuisine. We deserve authenticity, diversity and passion put into our food. I made my decison before we even left that I had to come back. I needed to see and experience more.
First things first: where to stay? In this day and age with the existence of Uber and the free Wichita Trolley (genius), staying anywhere in the city is a possibility. No need to waste all that beer money on an expensive downtown hotel or penthouse Airbnb. Learning that the east side Wichita Marriott had just undergone a facelift, we decided to check it out. Staying in the Presidential Parlor had us as giddy as two school children. We opened the doors to a space that made us feel, well...presidential. With a welcome package of a large fruit and cheese platter accompanied by personal hand written note to welcome us. The hospitality we experienced during our stay would be hard to beat.
Now let me tell you the most surprising part. When you come to stay at a hotel the most common things people tend to be concerned about are bed size, fittness facilities, access to a pool, ect. The Wichita Marriott has all of these things down with the added bonus of a killer restaurant, The Fireside Grille. The newly renovated dining area is nestled up to an elongated fireplace that feels both cozy and romantic. Asking for recommendations from the staff, the gentleman helping us said the salmon was some of the best he had ever had. Kansas isn't typically known for the freshest of seafood so I was a little skeptical. Sure enough, the salmon was moist and flavorful, the mussels were fresh and cooked in a wonderfully savory broth and the steak had been aged and cooked to perfection. I remember remarking to him that I normally wouldn't think to recommend that people come to a hotel just for the food, but that I was going to have to start.
Dempsey's Burger Pub
The first place that I knew I wanted to go the next day was a burger joint I had heard rumors was the best in town, Dempsey's Burger Pub. Located in Clifton Square which was originally started as a group of Victorian style houses transformed into a shopping square. Dempsey's has been well known among locals as the place to be for award winning burgers that are both inventive and mouth watering. Sourcing most of their ingredients locally, you can always count on getting an angus beef pattie that is fresh and never frozen. One of the things that stood out most to me was that they had an entire section of their menu dedicated to different types of fries and unique sauces. Everything from duck fat fries to fire fries that have been tossed in chili oil and pepper flakes. I'm also fairly convinced their truffle cream dipping sauce is actually the nectar of the gods. With rotating burger specials and an extensive beer list, this is a place that should be visited more than once.
When I heard that there was a good barbeque joint in Wichita, my first thought was that it would be good but not "Kansas City good". I was willing to give it a try. I couldn't have been more wrong. Initially established in 1996, it started as a gift shop that happened to have a back area where they served up plates of barbeque. After growing in popularity, B&C eventually rebranded with a focus on the food and creating a space more appealing to women. Set in a building that used to be a car garage it is still set up with the large retractable doors that stream in beautiful light while an ornate chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Whether you want to pick away at the buffet or order straight from the menu, you can't really go wrong. I left saying that it was some of the best barbeque that I had ever had and wondered how I could have grown up in the same city never knowing it existed.
Aero Plains Brewing
Later that night we headed to Aero Plains Brewing. Wichita being the Aircraft Capital of the world, it only seems fitting to have a brewery that gives a nod to the title. They even have a flashing beacon on their business sign that lights up at night, guiding your way towards a proper pint. The beer was absolutely delicious, the decor was fun but our favorite part of the night was the people we met while we were there. After completing our shoot, we were asked by some of the staff to sit with them and enjoy a few drinks. They accepted us at their table as if we were old friends. They brought out a flight (actually in the shape of an airplane) of some of their favorite beers for us to try and recommended many of their go-to local spots. If cheers were a brewery, this would be it. A place where everybody knows your name.
Little Lion Cafe
The next morning we headed over to Little Lion Cafe. Located in the Revolutsia shipping container shopping area; they were recommened to us on our last trip when we visited neighboring German restaraunt, Prost. Both Ian and Jubilee are extremely well traveled and wanted to bring some of their experiences back to Wichita. The concept of opening a cafe occured to them both in the middle of the night while traveling through Spain on a bus. Entering the cafe, it is cozy and inviting with Morrocan influenced decor. You are instantly hit with the sweet scent of waffles cooking in the air. They take special care in the details with custom made pottery, artisanal ice cream and espresso that makes you feel more like you in a eurpoean cafe than in the heartland. As if we really needed an excuse to get waffles and ice cream for breakfast?
Norton's Brewing Company
Next we headed to Norton's Brewing Company. When we entered the brewery, I was instantly in love. A place that obviously takes great care in creating an atmosphere that makes you know they give a damn but are not the least bit pretentious about it. While the patio area has a beautiful gazebo with porch swings attached, they also have numerous plastic pink flamingos steaked into the ground and last years Halloween decorations still out. Most notably, a giant ghostbusters slime monster hanging from the ceiling along with matching green beer hop lights. They serve a large list of delicious beer that accompanies a food menu that feels more like you're at a state fair than a brewery. We would definitely recommend the funnel cake and the Norton Burger, a double cheesburger sandwiched between two grilled cheese sandwiches, topped with bacon, lettuce and tomato. They're not messing around here and we found ourselves wishing we could come back later for more.
Piatto Neapolitan Pizza
Our final stop was Piatto Neapolitan Pizza. Oddly enough, Lincoln Wine Bar, an Iowa woodfired pizza joint we had done a photoshoot for previously recommended them. When it comes to pizza, they say even bad pizza is good pizza. When you take something that is already good and seek to make it the absolute best it can be? You have something with the potential to be otherworldly. Robert McMullin literaly traveled across the world to learn from the masters in Naples, Italy. Talk about dedication. It's not magic creating Neapolitan pizza but it might as well be. Fermenting the pizza dough for 3 days and using only the freshest of ingredients, you can guarantee each pie they make would be given any Italian grandmother's blessing.
My overall experience has shown me that it isn't possible to fully grasp the growth that Wichita is going through in merely a few trips. There will always be a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. There will always be a new idea that someone is waiting to present. Whether its a recently opened cafe or an established restaurant that has been around for over 30 years. The people that I have come to meet on my journey in seeking out what makes Wichita special, have shown me that they are continuing to be open for that growth. So I am confident that no matter what, I will always be left with more to discover in Wichita. That is why I will always be excited to come back to a place I once called home.
In September this year I had an important birthday and wanted to celebrate it by camping with Rebecca across the west. We stayed in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, creating imagery all along the way for ourselves and a few new clients. We have a new outlet for a lot of this imagery as it's almost a brand to itself and some of it focusses on hunting our own meat. Conservation Society can be found on Instagram, youtube and Facebook for now while we sort out how to leverage an audience for the image and videos. We want to be more connected to our food and where it's sourced and eat as much of it from sustainable sources. Licenses also directly fund conservation and time away from a screen is essential to sanity in the modern age. Here's a small sampling of out takes from the trip. We'll be adding many more to our portfolio soon. We want to make sure our clients get first dibs on sharing images.
When I left my hometown of Wichita, Kansas almost 11 years ago, I left thinking I never wanted to go back. I longed for culture and the unknown. New experiences and strange places. I was drawn to people who lived their lives defying stereotypes and paving their own paths. When I left Wichita, the vast majority of those I knew lived their lives in the comfort of chain restaurants and trusting in their neighborhood church members to picket any establishment that might dare serve a cocktail. The American dream was to settle down in a suburban home that mirrored the rich and popular neighbors that lived just down the cul de sac. The most exciting moment of my week was racing to be the first family from our church to arrive at the local Pizza Hut after services relinquished.
After traveling the world for the last 10 years and absorbing all that I could from cultures that challenged everything that I had known, I heard whispers that a new breeze had been cast on my sleepy hometown. Exotic food, hole in the wall dives, and breweries; there had been an awakening of sorts. Blame it on social media, the traveling youth returning to their hometowns or transplants believing that people will gravitate towards their ideas as long as they sense that it is authentic.
Before arriving in Wichita, I had asked for recommendations as to where I should visit. I was amazed at the variety and diversity. So much so, that I actually planned out several different themes I could put together based on the locations. In the end I decided to go with diversity in cuisine I had not known existed along with a few breweries…because hey….beer.
Hopping Gnome Brewing Company
We started with Hopping Gnome Brewery. Who doesn't love a brewery with a twist. Small but mighty, they grabbed my attention with their unique theme and won me over by the friendliness of the owners Stacy and Torrey. Coming in before opening to meet with us and show us their space. This place has a vibe that is quaint and inviting. Plus, they offer a sour beer that is EVERYTHING a sour beer should be, called the HBIC (head bitch in charge). It's flavor lives up to it's name. Stick around for the food trucks and occasional live music. We'll definitely be back for another visit.
Next we visited German restaurant, Prost. Want to talk authentic? Manu is German born (near Frankfurt) and relocated to Wichita with her American husband, Austin. In typical German and Midwestern fashion, they definitely made sure we didn't leave hungry. My only regret was that I didn't have more people there to help share in the amazing feast they prepared. Everything from Curry-wurst to Schnitzel to a special run once a week called Schweinshaxe (a hearty ham hock with a German pretzel stabbed through it). They run a Stein club in which you get your own personal beer stein with yearly discounts on beer. The food was amazing, the owners and staff couldn't be more hospitable and I left saying I wanted to bring my entire family back to try everything on the menu.
George's French Bistro
The following day we headed to George's French Bistro. With all my traveling, Paris was one of the places I frequented the most. I have such a fondness for the cuisine so when I saw there was an authentic French restaurant, I knew I had to visit. The chef was classically trained in Montreal so I knew I was in for a treat. The atmosphere and decor are impeccable. At one point, I saw the chef himself scrubbing down the brass handlebars lining his wine bar and knew that he really gave a damn. Now lets talk food. Any place that can serve a lunch chicken sandwich with fries and make it feel like I am getting something so unique and gourmet, you have me sold. Also, in the Midwest, getting fresh seafood can be a challenge. Mussels, shrimp and oysters; we had it all and it was all amazing.
Whenever I want comfort food I often think of a hearty soup, more specifically Ramen. So simple yet so delicious. Discovering Yokohama Ramen was such a treat. Written up by USA Today and still a quaint little spot nestled into Delano (although rumor has it they are expanding). Typically I have trouble in the midwest finding places that are willing to serve you something actually spicy, not this place. If you like some heat you want their B.T.T.M. Spicy Beef Tongue TanTanMen. A wide variety on their menu with everything from fried rice to boba tea. You can be sure to take your Mom who is tentative about trying new things and she will find something she enjoys (trust me, I did it).
Central Standard Brewing
The last place on our short trip to Wichita was Central Standard Brewing. A good beer selection with a patio and rotating food trucks. Cozy velvet chairs on the inside and picnic tables on the outside. A Wichita brewery staple worth visiting. You can check out their website for daily food trucks worth pairing your brew to and sit outside on a nice day to enjoy.
Overall, I'm thrilled to see my hometown thriving. We all need it. We only benefit from it. Wether it's high end or low brow, as long as there's passion and attention put into it, there's no denying it's value. Coming back home to a city that I was convinced would continue to always remain stagnant gives me hope. It shows me that we are open to new ideas and new experiences. Given the amount of growth I've seen, I can expect that boundaries will continue to be broken, ideals will continue to be crumbled and walls will always fall. The future is uncertain but at least there's always hope.
Living in Chicago was amazing. The food scene is always evolving and changing. Something that never did, thankfully, is the classic Chicago hotdog. Over time the same toppings and the actual hotdog have remained, like some statue in the middle of a city square reminding us all of times past. Living in Iowa now, I find myself in a quandary. Whereas in Chicago everyone honors the tradition of using only Vienna beef dogs, bright green dill flavored relish, mustard, onion, dill pickle spear, sport peppers, tomato slices and the lightest dusting of celery salt on a (most times) poppyseed bun. In Iowa that's not the case. I've run into a few adherants to tradition but then a couple of wildly agregious examples, using such tyranny as cheap tubemeats (a vienna beef dog costs so little already!) and the worst offenders tend to be the $8 hotdog joints. What's even worse about that is in O'hare airport where a bottle of water costs $3, a proper dog for $4.50.
Rants aside, http://theflyingwienie.com/ is an oasis in Cedar Rapids, harkening to times past. With the same bright red aesthetic as many of the classic chicago fast food spots, complete with wood panels and an airplane on top of the building but most importantly the FOOD IS GOOD. In Chicago even the diviest of mom and pop spots will nail what they're doing. There's no room for bad food in cities like that. You'll get laughed out of a business. Recently Rebecca and myself went to feed a craving for the ubiqutous tube meat and were totally blown away but it's perfection.
Amidst the new wave of restaurants we see day in and day out, don't forget the classics. Eventually our favorite new spots will hopefully last into the decades and if everyone gave up on them we'd be missing out on tradition. Some things need no innovation in food, or rather should remain as they always have to provide needed contrast to the new ideas as a sort of standard for which the new is measured against. An almost reference like quality that's needed with an ever more fast moving culture.
That brings me also to a new business in Cedar Rapids that has Chicago fast food as it's centerpiece, http://giannasbeef.com/. Having lived in Chicago as well the owners as well as many of the workers lean on experience to bring some pretty authentic italian beef, dogs and other classics to the downtown area. When they first opened up we gave it a shot (we need to come back more often admittedly) and were pleasantly suprised by the food.
Getting italian beef right is an art, and takes patience. The meat is cooked until it becomes insanely tender, normally around 30+ hours and topped with gardinera and the delicious liquid that results from that amount of cooking time. The decor may not be classic and is updated for a more modern aesthetic but the food sure is. It's great to see new places staying true to classics and carrying on the traditions in American food. The United States carries a tradition of immigrants coming to it's shores and making new foods. Some of these foods are our heritage and the Italian beef sandwich is one of them. Much like BBQ there are new ideas mixed in but the attention to detail and patience present in much of european cooking, there's a real center to this food. Briny, spicy relish on a deeply flavored meat on a soft roll. While you'd never find this in Italy, you can see how this would come from the same minds when presented with a different set of ingredients and audience. Food comes from culture, and recognising our past helps us celebrate that past with context and nuance.
The owner pictured above, Adam Hadjis, comes from a family of restaurant owners. His parents ran the Greek Vernon Inn for decades. It was where I first had Greek food on prom night in high school and was part of my early obsession with trying new foods so I'm glad to see the torch carried on by their son who named his new place after his daughter who passed in a tragic accident. The history is rich there and I hope that if you're here you give them a shot or if you're visiting and are craving some Chicago style fast food. You won't be let down.
In my experience of learning about BBQ, what first drew me in was pork shoulder. There are so many ways to use it and many cultures use various parts of pigs to great ends and the ethos of using the whole animal the shoulder is typically slow cooked into pulled pork, smoked into BBQ sandwiches, chopped up for stew, made into sausages and so on. The rear legs are typically turned into hams while the front shoulders are cooked in different ways considering the high percentage of connective tissue present.
When considering how to cook a piece of meat you have to look at how it's made up. How much marbling of fat or connective tissue are your starting points. Lean cuts can be cooked quickly, like a loin but the shoulders are totally a different type of cut. Over time, what would be a tough gristly piece of meat falls apart because the fat renders out and the connective tissue breaks down and basically disappears. A good average I've found for cooking the front shoulder of any four legged animal is to give myself an hour for each pound of meat. What that ends up meaning is that when I want to cook a pork shoulder it becomes an all day process. So either I will cook it in advance and freeze it for later use, or what I've recently realized is maybe a better approach.
I've started breaking down the shoulder, following the white lines of connective tissue in the meat and cutting out the bone present. I make what are approximately 1 pound chunks, put them on a rack to season, toss into a cast iron for 45 minutes at 450 degrees F, and then cover and drop the temp down to 280-300 and let them cook for another hour covered. A six lb shoulder turns into soft perfectly cooked meat in less than half the time, you get more of that precious outer bark seasoning layer and can eat sooner. This time I'm cooking a bunch in advance but I could have frozen some of the pieces for future use.
Another passion of mine is Ramen, which requires bone broth. So I'll take the shoulder bone and a fatty section of pork and add some water to slowly simmer on low for 8 hours. The pork and bone are later removed and I'll add a miso paste to taste and that stock is either used right away or refrigerated/frozen for later use. I have a hard time finding ramen in eastern Iowa where I live that's really up to snuff so I've resorted to just making it from scratch. I'd highly recommend making your own bone broth and using it as a starter for whatever soup or stew you're making. I've added it to chili, stews and so on and it's magnificent. There are apparently tons of beneficial healing qualities to the nutrients found in bone broth that you could research endlessly online so I won't bore you with that here. I'm just here to encourage you to look for more ways to get more deliciousness and nutrition out of your meals. Meat requires the life of an animal and we should not only strive to source humanely farmed or hunted animals but also honor them with beautiful rituals like an amazing meal. Not wasting or overlooking any part of an animal is about respect, for me.
Having been vegetarian for quite some time in my early twenties and in general wanting to just eat more ethically I've searched for the best diet for myself. I've reduced my consumption of factory farmed meats by finding good local providers of quality product that do so in a way that doesn't pollute as much and am quickly moving towards trying to actually hunt as much of my meat as possible if I'm going to continue to consume meat. That maybe sounds brutal to some people but personally I find that being a part of the process at every stage to be very sobering and essential to a respectful death for another living being. Also there are absurd amounts of certain kinds of meat that are actually invasive species due to the way that we as humans have taken over North America. Wild hogs are a big problem in the south and do a lot of damage to habitat that other animals need. Deer need culling to stay at healthy numbers. Without other predators to keep them in check, our wild lands would be quickly eroded into completely different habitats. So I'm dedicating time and funds into this adventure this coming year. Not just because of my lust for meat but also knowing that my direct action can restore a small bit of balance to the ecosytem and also that the funds I put into the activity through taxes on hunting and fishing gear and the licenses I purchase will DIRECTLY go to habitat and wildlife preservation.
Lake Macbride is one of my favorite places. I remember going there as a kid and swimming at the beach, and coming home for the summer during my college days and taking one of the paddle boats out for a joyride at midnight with some friends (we put it back and didn't damage anything, don't worry friendly park ranger). It's where I caught my first big wiper, a striped bass and white bass hybrid that fights like nothing else in fresh waters. I have serious cabin fever this week since the real cold has finally hit Iowa and while looking through our archives to find images of the Czech Village for a website, I ran across this series of images that's just nice too look at. I was scouting for locations to shoot portraits and ended up having a great time soaking in the sunset. Enjoy!
January in the midwest is typically full of snowstorms, new year's resolutions to work off the holiday overeating, fly tying and a huge dose of cabin fever for me. This year we were blessed with a saturday that hit a high of 50 degrees out and seeing the forcast ahead my buddy Matt asked for a last minute day off. I was wanting to shoot some footage for my outdoor lifestyle reel and specifically make something on fly fishing so I asked to tag along with him and Ryan.
We headed to a park that's maybe one of the more beautiful locations in the Driftless region of Iowa, Backbone state park. The park is defined by the huge bluffs and ridges, one called the Devil's Backbone. We had unfortunately entered the park from the west side which leads you about 2 miles from the trout streams with a huge bluff in between the area that the Maquoketa River cuts through and where the stream is accessible. There actually are trout in the Maquoketa but we'd travelled to fish the creek. I quickly cast out into the river while Matt tended to nature's call and ended up catching a small but strong rainbow trout on my second cast and was given a bit of hope for the cool winter adventure.
After catching that first fish my left hand was terribly cold and I'd not brought any gloves to warm up with so I just stuck my hands into my waders and walked up stream after the guys to see what the plan was. Matt had taken off up stream to try his hand at the river but after a few holes with no luck, Ryan was intent on crossing the park to where the streams were. We figured we could get to the other section in 20 minutes or so of walking and we took off over the hill. After chatting about the huge deer herd that we bumped into multiple times and a few dumb jokes we finally saw the stream and decided to go towards it's inception to some of the better holes that we had both frequently hit. Along the way there in the tail ends of pools in very calm water we saw small trout taking some Baetis or small blue winged olives that were hatching and started fishing up stream from them in the riffles. One of my favorite holes had been silted in a bit from the terrible fall flooding and there weren't really that many trout present in the typical spots. It made for a very different fishing experience than I was used to on these waters but we persisted with some small flies and lots of jokes.
While we didn't get any more fish to hand there were enough missed takes or fish that spit a hook after the take on a jump to keep us invested and eager. Matt finally crossed over into our area and gave me a call to find our location and we all tried our hand in the more scenic sections. The sunny 50 degree weather was great, the salami and jerky we'd packed in kept us fueled but most of all the comradery of being in wilder country with trees, water and a hard walk really made it all worth it. After being in even a small city for any period of time you're struck in nature by the peace of it all and also the focus allowed by the lack of stimulation. Being a bit struck by ADHD, nature is a place where I'm free to focus. There's no extra stimulation of a social media feed, no passing sound of cars, no flashing lights. Normally I'm out on a walk just observing, foraging, fishing and occasionally sitting very still leaned against a tree hoping to see a deer. Those activities are some of the oldest human endeavors and it feels just as much when you're participating in the long tradition of human existence alongside nature.
While I enjoy a great restaurant, killer live music, museums and so on, I get so much peace from participating in the natural order presented by nature. If there's one thing I'm hoping to share with you all is that passion for the outdoors and conserving as much of the wildness around us as possible. For every dumb loud person on social media ranting about something just remember there's another ten of us using all the tools available to ensure public land stays public and do things like buy hunting and fishing licenses or gear to do said activities with an extra high tax rate to make sure the wild stays wild.
The taxation of these activities goes directly to conservation, in higher numbers than any other activity or group currently in America. While there has been a somewhat divisive set of topics put forth by the media in regards to outdoors people (trophy hunters in Africa comes to mind), dig into the ethics of those harvesting wild creatures and the conversations currently being had. I started out having really bad feelings about both activities and the more I investigated the more I found that people are more complex than you see on the surface. Trout anglers, especially the fly fishing community, mostly catch and release and only keep a small number for eating. They seem to be a pretty passionate group looking to maintain and improve the rivers, not degrade and pollute. It's not about taking from nature it's about being a part of nature and preserving it for generations to come.
An american classic I love cooking on new years day is a dish called Hoppin John. Originating in the south, and most likely in the Creole country of Lousiana, it's thought to bring good luck to eat black eyed peas on New Years Day. The French Creole word for pidgeon peas (a similar legume to black eyed peas) is "pois a pigeon", pronounced like "pwah peeJon" which likely sounded like Hoppin' John to anyone not well versed in french. I can just hear the lovely Lousiana accent saying the word right now. Rebecca and I have been to New Orleans together and it's a really special place so this dish has become a part of our regular cooking routine. In fact, now when I make pit beans with my BBQ I always toss in a bit of bacon and cabbage in homage to the dish. Another important influence in my cooking is mexican food, especially the bean dishes. This year I decided to take a little twist on my favorite New Year's dish and add in some new flavors. If you're some sort of stinky food purist maybe skip this post. I'm going to lay out the dish in a loose process recipe and list my ingredients at the end. I feel like explaining the concepts and process of cooking is as important as the ingredients. I want people to learn to improvise and substitute where possible and know what's the core flavor and what can get a new substitution when maybe you're out of something, don't have access or just want to try a new idea. So much good food over the years has come from people making do with what's available to them so feel free to riff on this idea.
First I wanted to create my stock and secure the basic essential flavors of the dish. I started out by making a sofrito. I cut up some bacon in big chunks that I'd smoked and sauteed it in a bit of lard. The tradional recipe calls for ham hocks but I had to use bacon as that's what was available to me. Tasso can also be a great substitution with all the dried spices on the outside of the cured meat. While that was getting rolling I chopped up my celery, onion and carrots. Once the bacon started to brown I tossed in my veg, let those get a bit of color, let the onions turn translucent (a key signifier that flavors have arrived, that sugars have been extracted from the onion) and turned the heat down to a low setting. Now that the sofrito was ready I added in a liter of chicken stock and about a liter of water.
With the stock I added 3 cloves of garlic. It wasn't nearly enough so later on I added in 4 more to balance out the strong smoky flavors the bacon was putting out. Along with the garlic I added a couple dry Guajillo chiles. The original Hopper John calls for cayenne but I don't really use them and had Guajillo on hand. I also have some mexican smoked chili paste in my fridge so in it went.
For christmas my brother in law Louis gifted us one of his favorite spice mixes that smelled like it might add some complexity so in a tablespoon of the mix went as well. I then covered my dutch oven and let the stock cook, reduce and gain a depth in flavor that only time gives.
The other thing to get going that you could even do in advance is cook your beans. For this recipe I decided to go for a different bean because it's new years day and I didn't want to go out and grab the black eyed peas. I have lots of dried black beans so I decided to give it a shot and see how that would go. To prepare dried beans you can soak for a few hours or overnight to get them more tender before you start cooking but I didn't plan ahead so I just boiled them 3 times, rinsing after. The 4th time I brought them up to temperature I added a bit of salt (adding salt too soon breaks down the bean so it's best to wait until later to add).
Once my beans had softened appropriately I added them to the stock, cut up an inch off a cabbage head, diced the veg and tossed it in as well. At this point I added a couple small banger size links of smoked pork sausage as well. This link I THINK (I'm bad at labelling sometimes) is one that has some spicy tomato jam added to the pork and will be a nice zing. I let all of this cook for another hour to really come together as a dish. I normally start this dish right when I wake up on New Year's day so we can have a big lunch as we stay up celebrating our anniversary every NYE. The final garnishes on this years pot are cilantro and truffle oil I recieved as a gift. This dish may be a classic and will hopefully be something I mess with for years to come. ¡Buen provecho y feliz año nuevo!
1 cup dried beans
1 small onion, diced
6 stalks of celery from the inside of the bunch with greens intact, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 cups of cabbage, diced
1/4 lb of bacon, cubed - if you can acquire it unsliced to make into 1/2" cubes even better
smoke ham hocks can be subbed in for the bacon if you can find them
2 bay leaves
2 dried chiles, guajillo, ancho, hatch or other larger dried peppers are best. They're hot but not insane.
6 cloves of garlic, smashed then chopped
1 liter of chicken stock
1 liter of water (you could also just use 2 liters of chicken stock)
1 sausage link per person
1/4 cup cilantro, rough chopped for garnish
1 teaspoon truffle oil for garnish per bowl (optional)