Eat. Talk. Drink. Talk. Drink. Talk. Eat. Talk. Drink. Talk. Eat. Talk. Sleep. Repeat.
Imagine three days of this.
It’s true. We spent a glorious (and need I mention gluttonous) few days at a friend’s ranch in South Texas last weekend. David and I, along with 20 or so other locally food-focused people (and general characters) from Austin sprinkled with a few San Antonians gathered together for the annual South Texas Food Salon.
What is this South Texas Food Salon? (Rebecca Rather, a pastry queen from Fredericksburg and author of several cookbooks writes about the first “salon” in her cookbook, Pastry Queen Parties. Or peruse a mostly visual review of the second annual salon written by Penny de los Santos, photographer extraordinaire, on her blog.)
Hosted by the lively and loving Loncito Cartwright, a sixth generation Texas rancher at his family’s Twin Oaks Ranch in Dinero, 100 miles south of San Antonio, this annual event might be on its fifth or sixth edification at this point and is all about bringing the best of South Texas together for a weekend retreat in the middle of nowhere and see what develops. There was a forging of new friendships, strengthening old ones, immense laughter, rich conversations, potential new projects and collaborations, incredible food for days and equally fabulous, serene and pastoral surroundings.
Loncito (pictured above at center wearing his Quarry Farmers & Ranchers Market hat) is known for his pastured lamb, but, over the last few years, he has redirected his ranching expertise and is now raising pastured pork unlike anyone else in Central and South Texas.
Anyone who eats this pork knows why Loncito is so respected. It is simply the best.
To honor this, the menus were built around lamb and primarily pork, as Loncito is the go-to rancher a growing number of restaurants and farmers market shoppers flock to each and every week, while the sustainable produce was mostly raised by Boggy Creek Farm in Austin. A leader in the urban farming world, Boggy Creek Farm is known as one of the nation’s first urban organic farms “providing hyper-fresh produce” since 1991.
Years ago, when there were few farmers markets and chemical-free produce options in San Antonio, David and I would drive to Austin to shop for food and eat, and Boggy Creek Farm was always on our list, especially in the winter when they grow amazing greens. We have the Boggy Creek Farm cookbook and we would often plan our trips on Wednesdays so we could stop by the farm and fill our bags with organic produce.
The Western-themed accommodations and lodge offer all of the comforts of home. This includes private and well-appointed rooms, a pool and hot tub with an outdoor living area and an outdoor fire pit where we congregated at night.
The cavernous lodge and multi-purpose space includes a pool table, shuffle board, dining room tables, lounge area and, of course, a fully stocked commercial grade kitchen with lots of room for chefs and cooks to move around in as well as generous storage and ample area for on-lookers to sit at the bar (as we usually do, David and I held up the bar most of the weekend) or stand around and watch the professionals make cooking artful and almost easy, though we know it’s not nearly as easy at it looks.
There were two chefs and restaurateurs from Austin who did most of the cooking–Alan Lazarus (of Vespaio and Enoteca) and Emmett Fox (of Asti and Fino and a soon-to-be third restaurant). The culinary organizers were Mike Dyer and his wife, Lesley, who were obviously born to host parties. Really good parties, of course.
The group also included David Norman, the artisan baker from Austin’s beloved Easy Tiger, a cheesemonger (Ray Bair) from San Francisco and Joaquin Avellan, the cheesemaker behind Dos Lunas Artisan Cheese of Austin, their wives, a congressman and his wife, a filmmaker, a geologist/aspiring olive oil rancher, an artist and her mixologist husband, Garin Fons and his wife, a farmer, a rancher, two members of the market including a fifth-generation butcher from Spain and his wife, Nacho and Marisa, and an authentic Italian gelato maker and his wife, Josh and Dilitta, along with a few colorful people who all came together to share what they love. Food. Whether growing or raising it or producing it or just eating it, this weekend celebrated the growing local food movement across South Texas.
It was beautiful.
Carefully organized and symphonically orchestrated, everyone seemingly left their egos at the entrance gate to the ranch and relaxed and enjoyed the impressionable moments as we shared wine and broke bread together. Lots of bread.
Friday night’s culinary theme was Spanish and a paella was the focal point, along with this lovely magnum of rose along with many other bottles of wine. Copious amounts of cheese curated by Ray, a former Austinite who now owns Cheese Plus in the Russian Hill district of San Francisco started the party on the right notes, along with Spanish chorizo made by La Mancha, one of the best classic Spanish tortillas with romesco sauce, cured meats from Cured in San Antonio and Salt&Time in Austin, handmade breads, grilled bacon-wrapped jumbo shrimp and a gorgeous lemon cake with white chocolate buttercream completed the first evening’s feast.
Classic Sinatra-esque tunes filled the air of the lodge while some danced, played pool and shuffle board as tantalizing conversations closed out a perfectly delectable Friday night. Slowly, everyone eventually retired to their rooms to rest up for the big event: Saturday.
Waking up well rested is the trick to this long culinary weekend, and a nap is also a good idea to ensure your batteries are fully charged. Since we didn’t want to miss a single second of action, David and I got up early to go and see what was happening in the kitchen, which was already busy and percolating with Katz’s coffee and kaffeeklatch when we arrived at 8 am-ish.
Saturday’s breakfast featured authentic handmade arepas made by Venezuelan-born Joaquin Avellan of Dos Lunas, stuffed with lightly scrambled eggs and served with plates of Thunderheart Bison sausage, Loncito’s newly released and much anticipated bacon and more breads including slices as well as pain de chocolate and cinnamon rolls. Cowgirl Granola and Mother Culture’s spectacular Greek yogurts were also featured along with a lovely fruit salad. (You can see below that the Greek Orange blend is scraped clean. The good stuff always goes fast.)
While we were enjoying breakfast, sipping cups and cups of dark roasted coffee and getting to know our fellow guests a bit more, the chefs and staff were hard at work prepping for the evening’s Italian themed festivities.
Then we disbanded for a few hours. Some walked the ranch, some read, napped while others did some genealogy work or just relaxed and soaked in the tranquility and peace of doing absolutely nothing. A few hours later, we reconvened to prepare lunch.
This time, something light and simple was planned. Loncito’s famous ham was used to make sandwiches on more of David’s spectacular homemade breads. Alan Lazarus’s wife, Susan, whipped up her devilishous deviled eggs that she lovingly spiked with a squirt (or two) of sambal and there was a vinegar-based Asian-type slaw that combined quite well with the cured ham sammies.
After lunch and a brief break, we all piled onto the hunting truck for a ranch tour and to feed the pigs. Loncito led the way in his Jeep and, like good guests, we happily followed. It had rained a bit in the morning, the humidity had dropped just enough for it to be pleasant outside and everything was lush and green scrub country. We saw a few head of cattle, lots of natural water and then we came upon the famous pigs. A cross between the Red and Black Wattle, these pigs are not just any pigs.
The pigs are fenced in to keep the feral hogs out, but sometimes the feral hogs are determined enough to find their way in. These docile animals are not afraid of us being in their space, they are happy and there was absolutely no smell of pigs. We were all impressed with this, as many of us had visited or driven through communities housing concentrated animal farms, so we knew what it could have smelled like. But it was a world of difference from that conventional method of raising animals. This was humane and respectful, hence the name Peaceful Pork.
Throughout the ranches many acres are old communities where ranch workers used to live in decades past. We would get out, walk around and listen as Loncito shared his vision for the future of the ranch with us. Then we piled back onto the truck and headed back to the lodge where it was time to start–you guessed it–cooking again.
Saturday’s Italian spread seemed like an endless stream of food. On both nights, we started with a classic drink that Chris gave a contemporary spin to–a margarita-like drink on Friday night and a whiskey sour on Saturday, which certainly helped to set the standard for what was to follow. These drinks were wickedly delicious and not short on alcohol, but so tasty that you couldn’t even tell how serious they were. Until you were asking for a refill.
A cheese tray by Dos Lunas, cured meats and breads for appetizers along with olives, pickled items and candied pecans started us off on the right foot. Porchetta with salsa verde, grilled lamb, braised chicken roulade, custom made sausages, one of the best caponatas I have ever had, balsamic onions, long beans from Boggy Creek Farm, roasted potatoes, polenta with Parmesan and then arugula salad rounded out the second course.
Because we hadn’t yet had enough to eat, there was one more spectacular cheese tray served before dessert. By this time, I am done, really done. In fact, I am “cooked” and swear not another bite will pass my lips.
Unfortunately, I was forced to eat my words (sorry for the pun) when I saw the most exquisite butterscotch pudding (or more specifically butterscotch budino with caramel sauce, perfectly whipped cream and rosemary-pine nut cookies) made by Lisa Fox.
I succumbed (because you only live once, right?) and had a butterscotch pudding and blindly.ate.the.whole.thing. (This dessert was so good, only one person did not finish it entirely leaving a few bites in the bottom of the cup.) There were also assorted and always fabulous A La Mode gelatos. (By this time, as you can guess, I am in a virtual food coma and unable to document this gluttonous experience any more.)
Despite wanting to stay awake and chat with our new friends all night long, David and I bid farewell to our new friends and escaped to our room so we could get up early on Sunday morning.
Like the good farmers market organizers we are, we woke up at 6 am and were on the road back to the big city by 6:40 am. The one-hour drive allowed us to relive the glorious weekend, discuss all of the amazing flavors and dishes and, most importantly, feel like a real rancher/farmer making the drive to the farmers market.
But so you won’t feel left out, here was the menu for Sunday’s low-key breakfast: flown-in from Russ & Daughters lox and bagels with caviar and cream cheese and all of the fixins’ including red onion, capers and tomato plus Cowgirl Granola, Mother Culture Greek yogurt, orange juice and pastry treats.
After such a decadent weekend, we haven’t much been interested in food since Sunday. In fact, we have been sticking to the liquid basics with plenty of cold-pressed juices, smoothies and even a few scrambled eggs. Nothing roasted, braised, grilled, pickled, caramelized or sauteed has passed our lips.
This smoothie recipe in particular is especially delightful and pleased both David and me, which is not easy to do. Named the Green Monster Smoothie, I think even the most difficult palates would like this combination of orange juice, apple, banana, kale and mango.
Though our bellies are thanking us for this brief food break, our minds are already planning for next year’s salon. Special thanks to our host Loncito and our many new friends who we look forward to seeing again very soon.
Green Monster Smoothie
- 6 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice
- 1/2 organic apple cored and chopped
- 1/2 frozen banana
- 1/2 cup organic kale packed
- 1/2 cup frozen organic mango chunks
In a blender, pour the orange juice and add the rest of the ingredients--placing the frozen items in first. Let the ingredients sit in the blender for a few minutes to thaw.
Turn on the blender and let it come together. If there is any hesitation, press the ingredients down into the blender and give the frozen ingredients a minute to defrost. Eventually, the ingredients will begin to blend and you will have a beautiful green monster smoothie.
Pour into a glass, sip, relax and enjoy.