This is not a restaurant review. It is the story of an incredible dish at one of Texas' best restaurants, my attempts to reverse engineer the dish, salsa from a taco stand behind a Houston farmer's market, and the ways in which cooking resembles improvisational jazz.
Hudson's on the Bend is a great restaurant near Austin known for creative cooking and exotic game. On my last visit, I had rattlesnake meat fritters and grilled ostrich and kangaroo meat. But the most creative part of the meal was an amuse bouche we received to start the meal. It was glass cone containing a bright green icey slush topped by a single shrimp covered in some sort of chile sauce. The waiter identified it as something like a "basil infused mojito ice with ancho crusted shrimp." The ice had the texture of a 7-11 slurpee, it tasted like a classic mojito, except that the mint flavor had been replaced by basil. This was set against the spicy shrimp, coated in a flavorful ancho sauce. The dish was utterly creative -- a wierd and wonderful combination of southwest and cuban flavors, a strange contrast of spicy chile with a soothing rum drink. It was perfect for the end of summer.
I had to try to make this dish.
As a cook, it can be difficult to reverse engineer a creative dish. I began by trying to figure out how to make basil-infused mojito ice. I searched the internet, and no one had ever posted a recipe for such a dish. But I did find Tyler Lawrence's recipe for a mojito slushy. I knew I only had to switch out the basil for mint, let it sit for a long time so the basil would infuse, and then strain the dish to remove the tough bits of basil.
The biggest, problem, though was creating the ancho chile sauce that coated the shrimp. The salsa has to cling to the shrimp or it will just run into the mojito ice. An ordinary tomato-based salsa just wouldn't work. I did not know how to make a salsa that would stick
Fortuitously, I went for breakfast at Tacqueria Tacambra, a taco truck parked behind Canino's Farmer's Market on Airline Drive. Robb Walsh recommended it. Robb was right; the tacos were fantastic. But the real revelation was the salsa. As Robb described it, ". . . it was made out of nothing but cascabel chiles. The dried cascabels had been soaked until soft, pureed and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and maybe a touch of garlic. It was a purist's salsa." The salsa was earthy and spicy, but best of all, it was sticky and was certain to adhere to shrimp.
I knew I had my dish.
So I asked some friends over for a 5-course meal that began with this dish. It turned out a little different from Hudson's -- more of a flavor bomb. There was more basil and rum in the ice, and the cascabel salsa was much spicier than Hudson's ancho salsa. In some respects, my version was more far out than Hudson's. You might even call it psychedellic.
Which reminds me, cooking is like improvisational jazz. You might start with a tune that someone else composed, but then it takes another direction when you start to play with it. John Coltrane took the drippy standard "My Favorite Things" and turned it into a trippy, eastern-sounding, psychedellic classic. Jimi Hendrix tore up the National Anthem and created a classic. Of course, I'm no Coltrane or Hendrix. I credit Hudson's for composing an utterly unique idea. But as an amateur cook, I am learning how much fun it is to play with my food.
Here is the recipe for the dish as I made it:
Basil Infused Mojito Ice with Shrimp in Cascabel Puree
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup fresh lime juice, about 4 to 6 limes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
2 limes, zested
1/2 cup light rum
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 tsp olive oil
10 dried cascabel chiles
2 tsp olive oil
8 cups crushed ice
In a small pan over medium heat, add the sugar and water. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear. Set aside to cool.
Put the sugar syrup, lime juice, basil leaves, lime zest, and rum into a blender and blend until smooth. Set in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
Sautee the pressed garlic in 1 tsp olive oil until translucent. Add the dried cascabel chiles. Cover with boiling water. Set aside for at least 20 minutes.
Transfer the cascabel chiles to a food processor with a little of the soaking water. Puree for about 20 seconds. If the mixture is too dry, add more soaking water, but not so much that the mixture is runny and will not adhere to shrimp. Add salt to taste. Place the mixture in a cup.
Sautee the shrimp in 2 tsp olive oil for about 3 minutes – until they turn pink. Remove from heat.
Strain the mojito mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove any solids. Pour into a blender. Add the ice and blend until slushy. Pour into glasses. Dunk each shrimp into the cascabel puree. Place two shrimp in each glass. Garnish with a sprig of basil.
Of course, you don't have to follow my recipe. You can always come up with your own version.