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TODAY

Saturday, May 25

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Airbags

I got back a few days ago from Austin, Texas, where I was hanging out with a couple of thousand geeks at SXSW Interactive. It's a great time full of learning, networking, information sharing, and this year playing with Legos. At least that's what goes on before 5pm. After 5 it's all about the drinking and the eating and the drinking and the eating. Since we rarely went to bed before 3am, there were often two dinners to be eaten every night.

Add that to the social lunches, and that meant I had the opportunity to sample some amazing barbecue for lunch, as well as eat an absolutely delicious bacon-cheddar hamburger at 1am. We returned to the restaurant where I first ate migas, and I was looking for a new experience. Unfortunately the margaritas that the fine folks at UpComing.org bought me the night before weren't making me feel very adventurous, so I got some standard stomach-settling fare for a late breakfast. But I looked at the menu hoping to find something I'd never had before.

It didn't take long for me to spot something called carne guisada. I asked the server what the difference was between carne guisada and carne asada and he mumbled something about different cooking methods. I filed it away in my mind to come home and check it out. And I have.

But what I've found is confusing. One website swears that carne guisada is true Tex-Mex cuisine, another says it's Columbian, yet another says it comes from the eastern side of Mexico, while yet another claims it's a distinctly Puerto Rican dish. Babelfish tells me that carne guisada means stewed beef. OK. I can accept that something as simple as stewed beef is native to many countries, but the flavors are slightly different from one country to the next. I admittedly haven't had the time (or the desire) to try every iteration to discover which is the best. But I had to come up with something similar to determine what my skittish stomach caused me to miss.

Side dishes also seem to signify the difference between regional cuisines. This beef in its thick tomato-based gravy goes great over tortillas (flour or corn), or over rice, or alongside black beans or with "Spanish" rice, or even fried plantains or mashed yucca root. Carne guisada doesn't have to be a spicy dish, but if you want to counteract any spiciness, chop up a little ripe mango and serve it alongside the stew. The sweetness will help counteract some of the spice. As I learned after eating something called a nuclear taco, a little bit of ice cream also will help. Seriously! It's the only thing that kept me from crying.

I'm not exactly sure which country the recipe below is most similar to since I combined stuff from lots of recipes to get the one I liked the best, but if there are ingredients which you dislike, you can leave them out or substitute them with something similar. And since this is a dish cooked in a crock-pot, you can wake up a few minutes early to get it started and come home to a house that smells like you've been cooking all day long. Because you have.

One note: I'm allergic to bell peppers so I left them out of the recipe. However, almost every recipe I saw called for one bell pepper sliced into strips and cooked alongside the onions. You may need a little more olive oil to keep the onion and pepper from sticking.

Carne Guisada
1 1/2 pounds of either stew meat or flank steak that has been cut into 1" pieces
1 tablespoon of olive or vegetable oil (maybe more, add if things start sticking)
1 large onion cut into 1/8ths
4 cloves of garlic that have been minced
1 stalk of celery minced fine
8 ounces of button mushrooms that have been chopped
1 cup of dry red wine (or beer)
1 14 ounce can of stewed tomatoes
2 fresh jalapeno chili peppers that have been seeded and diced (or two tablespoons of canned chipotle peppers)
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
2 cups of beef broth
salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet over medium high heat add the beef and the vegetable oil. Cook it for about five minutes or until all the sides are browned. Once it's cooked, add it to the slow cooker set on low for all day cooking, or on high for 4-5 hour cooking, keeping as much of the oil in the pan as possible. Return the pan to the burner and add the onions (and bell pepper if you're using it). Sauté them for about 5 minutes or until they're soft. Now add the garlic, celery, and the mushrooms and cook for an additional 3-5 minutes or until the celery softens up a bit. Add these ingredients to the slow cooker. Pour the wine into the skillet and stir to remove any stuck-on bits from the pan. Dump the wine into the slow cooker. Now add all the other ingredients except for the salt and pepper. Stir everything to combine well. (If a more tomatoey sauce is desired, you can either add 1 teaspoon of tomato powder or 1 tablespoon of tomato paste.) Cover the slow cooker and let it sit for the appropriate amount of time.

About 30 minutes before serving taste and add salt and pepper if required. If it isn't spicy enough for you, either add some hot sauce or some chili powder dissolved in a little beef broth. If the sauce is too thick, add more broth. If it is too thin, add some cornstarch to some of the hot broth and stir it to combine well. Gradually pour it into the slow cooker and stir to keep it from clumping. Turn the heat to high, cover, and let it sit for another half-hour. If the sauce doesn't thicken you may have to transfer it to a large pot and bring it to a boil on the stovetop.

I'm glad to be home in Chicago where I'm able to sleep in my own bed and cook in my own kitchen (and eat over my own kitchen sink), but I had a great time in Texas hanging out with my peers. People who understand most of my jokes, people who don't look at me blankly when I exclaim "I have to remember to put this in my blog," and people who enjoy good food as much as I do. More than one server, door guy or bartender told us how much they appreciated the first week of SXSW since geeks tip well, don't try to impress them, and are polite. One of our favorite door guys said, "None of y'all make me wanna bust heads." Well, "Thank you kindly, Austin." I'll be back next year, and I'll let you know what other Tex-Mex deliciousness I come across.

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