One in an occasional series about the Central Texas food scene outside of Austin
It's been almost 10 years since Pabst brewed its last can of beer at the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, but in the past few years, the area near the abandoned brewery complex just north of downtown has become the heart of San Antonio's food scene.
With a Saturday farmers market, three of the city's top restaurants, a cooking store run by one of Texas' foremost experts on border cuisine and the newest branch of the Culinary Institute of America, Pearl is quickly becoming the city's top food destination.
"The driving force at Pearl is food," says Shelley Grieshaber, the Pearl's director of culinary operations. She says that when the Culinary Institute of America joined the partnership, it became clear that Pearl would become a culinary gathering place, the crossroads of Latin America and American cuisines. "Not just for San Antonio, not just Texas, but worldwide," she says. Within the next few years, she says they are hoping to have about a dozen food-related operations on the property's 22 acres. "When people think of San Antonio and great things to eat, people will think of Pearl," she says.
One of the first food projects to launch was the Pearl Farmers Market, which opened in May 2009. There are other markets in San Antonio, but none with as much buzz as the one that takes place Saturday mornings in a parking lot between one of the Pearl buildings and the San Antonio River. During a visit last month, customers had lined up 10 people deep before the opening bell to buy watermelons, flowers, fish, peaches, okra and chile peppers in a rainbow of colors. Like many farmers' markets, you can grab a breakfast taco or pastry from one of the food vendors and stroll the booths that feature produce from farms within 150 miles of San Antonio and specialty products from local artisans like Alamo Gristmill and Spice, whose Squealin' Pig gravy mix is one of their top sellers.
After a stroll through the Pearl Farmers Market, stop by the Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina, one of the newest ventures from cookbook author and rancher Melissa Guerra, whose family has been rooted in South Texas since the late 1700s. The store features a variety of specialty ingredients such as dried chiles and Mexican vanilla and cooking utensils including colorful platters and ceramics from Mexico, high-end food processors, Dutch ovens and even paella pans. (On Saturday mornings, Guerra's brother sells cuts of beef including steaks and brisket from ranches near McAllen.)
If you can't imagine a trip to San Antonio without a margarita on the banks of the San Antonio River, hit up La Gloria, one of three Pearl restaurants run by institute graduates, for a crispy taco and something cold to drink. Earlier this year, Johnny Hernandez opened up the fast-casual Mexican street food restaurant that is a masa-lover's paradise, specializing in tlayudas, sopes, tostadas, gorditas and tamales. The restaurant also overlooks part of the newly expanded part of the river called the Museum Reach, a 1.3 mile stretch of new riverside sidewalks, parks and public art that connects the downtown part of the Riverwalk to the Pearl and the San Antonio Museum of Art.
Andrew Weissman, one of San Antonio's best-known chefs, opened Osteria Il Sogno a year ago, and, shortly after closing his highly acclaimed French restaurant Le Rêve, relocated his Sandbar Fish House and Seafood Market from downtown to a space in the Pearl. Sandbar is easily the best place in the city to get oysters, and it's possible to pop in and out of Il Sogno for less than $50 if you stick to the antipasti bar and starters, including the sage and cream gnocchi or asparagus with fried egg drizzled in truffle oil. (Il Sogno, which tied with La Gloria for the San Antonio Express-News' best new restaurant award this year, doesn't take reservations, so on Friday or Saturday nights, either plan an early dinner or be prepared to wait.)
The Pearl is about halfway between downtown and Brackenridge Park, which features kid-friendly stops like the zoo and the Witte Museum. If you're looking for a little solace in which to walk off some of those calories consumed at one of the Pearl eateries, you'll find it at the McNay Art Museum just a little further up off Broadway Street.
But if you're ready to get off the well-worn San Antonio tourist path, consider taking a cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America's San Antonio campus. For more than three years, the New York-based culinary school, one of the most prestigious cooking programs in the country, has been quietly operating a modest, 5,000-square foot campus in the heart of the Pearl Brewery complex, but after a grand opening on Oct. 9, when the campus officially expands to more than 30,000 square feet, even those of us living in Austin can expect to hear a lot more clanging from the kitchen.
If one of the world's best-known culinary schools setting up a campus in San Antonio seems unlikely, it's because it is. The nonprofit school probably wouldn't have expanded to San Antonio without Kit Goldsbury, a San Antonio investor who became a billionaire when he sold Pace Foods to Campbell's Soup Co. in the 1990s, says institute spokesman Stephan Hengst. "Having gained so much from Latin food, he wanted to give back," Hengst says. Goldsbury wanted to give Latinos the opportunity to take on leadership roles in the food industry. He hired the institute to consult on the design and curriculum of a new culinary school called the Center for Foods of the America, which in 2007 he handed over to the institute along with $20 million for scholarships and land for the expansion that will be completed this month.
The school currently offers students a 30-week certificate program, but within the next few years, it hopes to be able to give out associates degrees in culinary arts management just like the other campuses in Hyde Park, N.Y., and St. Helena, Calif.
But you don't have to enroll as a full-time student to don an apron, a tall white chef's hat and learn how to evenly chop onions without tearing up and sear meat without all the juices running out at the end. "The onion punishes you for not doing it right," chef instructor Hinnerk von Bargen says toward the beginning of one of the day-long "food enthusiast" classes last month. "Don't fear the knife, just respect what it can do."
Von Bargen is one of several institute instructors who also leads day-long, two-day or weeklong classes for students like San Antonio dentist Sylvia Martinez, who after taking three of these Saturday classes, can wield her knife almost as naturally as one of those round mouth mirrors. "Now that I'm an empty nester and I have the time, I want to learn how to cook more than chicken nuggets and mac and cheese," she says, but the other cooking classes she looked into weren't as hands-on. "The only way to learn how to cook is to make mistakes," says Martinez as she grated zucchini for the dish she was in charge of during a class called "CIA Favorites" that featured 12 courses (find recipes for three of them, right) from one of the school's cookbooks. (You can take both general classes such as knife skills or themed classes covering topics like baking, brunches, soups or holiday hors d'oeuvres. For a schedule of cooking classes, go to www.ciaelsueno.com.)
But unlike messing up in your home kitchen, student mishaps become light-hearted, humorous teaching points for the entire class when affable instructors like von Bargen are in charge. Towering a full foot above his students, von Bargen keeps things light, knowing that his students are paying big bucks ($250 for a five-hour Saturday class) to not just sit back and let a chef demonstrate a dish but to actually do the dirty work, preparing several courses as a team, eating a lunch of the other teams' dishes and then cleaning up the massive kitchen.
"If you don't use your pan drippings, one day, you will meet your creator and he will send you to culinary hell and say, 'You see, this German guy, he told you so,' " von Bargen joked.
Von Bargen says that the school will be operating a bakery open to the public sometime after the grand opening, and that hopefully in the next year, a student-run barbecue club will use the pit in front of the building to roast big cuts of meat and give away samples on Saturdays.
That means there will be plenty for visitors to sink their teeth into while at Pearl.
Green Beans with Frizzled Prosciutto and Gruyère
If you can find slender little haricots verts, use them in this salad. Large green beans can be left whole or sliced on the diagonal if you wish. Try Romano beans for an even richer bean taste. Cut the Gruyère into sticks that are about the same size and length as your green beans.
3 Tbsp. lemon juice, or to taste
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. shallots, minced
Salt and pepper, as needed
7 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. green beans, ends trimmed
1/4 lb. prosciutto, thinly sliced
1/4 lb. Gruyère cheese cut into sticks
Combine the lemon juice, vinegar, shallots, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Gradually whisk in 6 tablespoons olive oil. Season with additional salt and pepper, if needed. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the green beans and cook until bright green and just barely tender to the bite, about 3 minutes. Drain the green beans and rinse with cold water until they feel cool. Drain well.
Toss the greens beans and the dressing together and let them marinate at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the prosciutto to the hot oil and cook until it "frizzles," about 2 minutes. Add the prosciutto and the Gruyàre. Season with additional salt and pepper if necessary. Serve at room temperature. Serves 8.
— All recipes from 'The Culinary Institute of America Cookbook' (Lebhar-Friedman Books, 2008)
Sautéed Chicken with Moroccan Hot-and-Sweet Tomato Sauce
Ginger and cinnamon give the tomato sauce its heat, while dark honey gives it a touch of sweetness. If you can't find the dark honey called for in the recipe, try using either Grade B maple syrup or molasses.
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 tsp minced garlic
4 boneless skinless chicken breast pieces (about 6 oz. each)
Salt as needed
Freshly ground black pepper as needed
2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus as needed
2 Tbsp. butter
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
Pinch cayenne pepper or as needed
1 cup tomato sauce (recipe below)
1 Tbsp. dark honey
1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted
2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro leaves
Pureée the onion and garlic in a food processor until a coarse paste forms. Set aside. Blot the chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a casserole or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the chicken pieces (do not overcrowd the pan; work in batches until all chicken is prepared and add more oil as needed) and sauté on the first side until about 2u20133 minutes. Turn the chicken and sauté on the second side for another 3 minutes. Lower the heat if necessary to avoid scorching the chicken. Transfer to plate and keep warm.
Heat the butter in the pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic purée and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is tender and has a sweet smell, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne and cook for another 2u20133 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and honey to the pan and simmer for another 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Return the chicken to the pan. Spoon the sauce over the chicken pieces, cover, and cook over low heat until the chicken is fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle the sesame seeds and cilantro over the chicken before serving. Serves 4.
2 cups whole plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 cup tomato purée
2 Tbsp. butter, sliced and chilled
Salt as needed
Freshly ground black pepper as needed
Purée the whole tomatoes in a food processor until a coarse paste forms. Transfer the tomatoes to a saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Add the tomato purée and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes.
Scatter the sliced butter over the sauce and swirl the pan until the butter is incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 2 cups sauce.
These pancakes feature feta cheese and chopped walnuts to punctuate the relatively mild taste of zucchini in these crunchy fritters.
3 cups coarsely grated zucchini
Salt and pepper as needed
2 cups chopped scallions
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup chopped dill
1/3 cup chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. chopped tarragon
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
2/3 cup chopped walnuts
Olive oil for pan frying
1 cup tzatziki sauce (recipe below)
Place the grated zucchini in colander. Sprinkle with salt and let stand for 30 minutes. Squeeze the zucchini to remove as much liquid as possible. Dry the zucchini by pressing it between several layers of paper towels.
In a large bowl, combine the zucchini, scallions, eggs, flour, dill, parsley, tarragon, salt, and pepper until evenly blended. Fold in the feta cheese. (The pancake mixture can be prepared to this point up to 3 hours ahead. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Stir to blend before continuing.) Fold the walnuts into the zucchini mixture.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees to keep the pancakes warm as you work. Place a baking sheet in the oven.
Add enough oil to a skillet to come to a depth of about 1/8 inch, and heat the oil over medium-high heat until the surface of the oil shimmers. Working in batches, drop heaping tablespoons of the zucchini mixture into the hot oil, leaving enough room for the pancakes to spread as they cook. Fry until pancakes are golden brown and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer each batch to the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Serve immediately with the tzatziki sauce. Serves 6-8.
This yogurt-and-cucumber sauce cools the heat from fiery curries, and adds richness to Zucchini Pancakes. You also can serve it on its own as a salad.
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup grated cucumber, squeezed dry
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. minced fresh mint or dill
1 tsp. lemon juice, or as needed
1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest
Salt and pepper as needed
Combine the yogurt, sour cream, cucumber, and garlic in a food processor and purée until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the olive oil, mint or dill, lemon juice and zest. Stir until combined and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. Makes 11/2 cups.
If you go . . .
Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina, 877-875-2665, www.melissaguerra.com
Sandbar Fish House and Seafood Market, 210-222-2426
Osteria Il Sogno, 210-223-3900
Culinary Institute of America at San Antonio, 210-222-1113, www.ciaelsueno.com
La Gloria, 210-267-9040, www.lagloria icehouse.com
Pearl Farmers Market, 210-212-7260, pearlfarmersmarket.com