Blue Plate Special: Riding high and loving it in the Brass Buckle
J.D. Hairston with the ingredients for Huevos Rancheros, including the roasted peppers fo teh salsa.
Huevos Rancheros with home made salsas and fresh avocado at the Brass Buckle in Greenfield.
JD Hairston loves his work. By night he and his partner Anika Balaconis play in Rebel Base, which they describe as a “sci-fi, heavy-metal” band.
By day they serve breakfast and lunch at the Brass Buckle, a one-year-old restaurant on Main Street in Greenfield.
Balaconis handles the finances and manages serving. Hairston cooks.
Like its owners, the Brass Buckle has a lot of personality. Its colorful walls feature art, record-album covers, and photographs that combine Balaconis and Hairston’s interests in science fiction and the American West.
Brass buckles, of course, can be seen all over the place, even on the ceiling.
“Every couple of days a customer will bring one in,” Hairston told me.
“The place is littered with brass buckles.” He seemed pleased with the litter.
Hairston grew up in Texas and traveled extensively before settling in Greenfield. He confessed that he has always been “obsessed with restaurants and food and cooking.” His main culinary training took place at Greenfield’s own Hope & Olive restaurant.
“Hope & Olive taught me all about being a popular restaurant — and having exacting standards. Maggie (Zaccara of Hope & Olive) tries to serve the community and is true to her own vision. I was inspired by her,” said Hairston.
He added that Zaccara gave him her blessing when he told her about his plans for the Brass Buckle.
I asked Hairston how he and Balaconis had created their restaurant’s personality.
“We did tons of homework and thinking about what kind of message we wanted to send with our food and our style of hospitality,” he explained. “We want everyone to have a unique and delicious experience. We try to be very friendly. We have conversations that involve half the customers in the restaurant.
“Our style follows the idea of being a third place, someplace that’s not work and not home where (people) can hang out and feel comfortable.”
Although it is relatively small (it seats 44 in all), the Brass Buckle has a variety of seating areas from which customers can choose, including a community table at the center.
“You can see three separate parties all sit down there,” said Hairston. “By the end of their meal, their plates are all empty, and they’re all chatting with one another.”
The food at the Brass Buckle is inspired by Hairston’s roots in Texas and the South. He has added a few twists along the way. For example, his pork-belly kimchi tacos are unexpected but well received.
“Greenfield has let me get away with some pretty ambitious food,” Hairston told me with a smile.
Massachusetts foods are integrated into the menu both in Hairston’s policy of using as many fresh, local ingredients as possible and in choices he makes — like the main ingredient in another popular taco, corned beef.
The customers at the Brass Buckle are as diverse as the menu. “If there’s one commonality in all of our clientele, it’s that they love food,” said Hairston.
“Beyond that we’ve got everything — nurses, lawyers, construction workers, college students, students at Deerfield Academy ...”
Asked whether running his own restaurant has lived up to his dreams, Hairston made it clear that the Brass Buckle has exceeded expectations.
“I always thought it would be endlessly grueling. I didn’t imagine it could be as emotionally fulfilling as it has been.
“Even though I work more than I ever have in my entire life, I’m happy,” he concluded. “We have a great staff who really love carrying out the dream that we’ve all shaped together.”
The recipe he supplied was for the Brass Buckle’s Huevos Rancheros
“This dish isn’t the usual Huevos Rancheros you’d expect to find at most places, with a pile of beans and melted cheese and a hot tomato sauce,” said Hairston.
“Instead, this is a variation known in Mexico as Huevos Divorciados. It derives its name from the two different salsas on the eggs. We just call it Huevos Rancheros at the restaurant because forcing our customers to pronounce the other seems so tedious. Also, divorce is not a subject best discussed at breakfast.”
Obviously, the Brass Buckle makes its salsas in bulk, so you can feel free to cut the salsa recipes down. I would suggest starting with 1/4 recipe of each (that is, 1-1/4 pounds each of chiles and tomatoes and so forth) unless you’re serving a crowd and/or adore salsa.
BRASS BUCKLE HUEVOS RANCHEROS
for the green salsa:
5 pounds Anaheim chiles (mild, long green peppers well suited for roasting; one may substitute a combination of Poblanos, which are spicier, and Cubanelles, which are sweeter)
canola oil as needed
2 bunches cilantro
2 bunches scallions
about 1/2 cup white vinegar
salt to taste
for the red salsa:
5 pounds fresh tomatoes
6 to 8 whole cloves garlic
1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and very finely diced
2 teaspoons chili powder (they make their own at the restaurant by toasting and grinding a mixture of dried chiles, but readers may use a good store-bought brand)
apple cider vinegar as needed
salt to taste
for the dish:
good quality, store-bought or homemade corn tortillas
mild cow’s milk feta cheese
eggs (two per serving)
avocado wedges, sliced raw red onions, tortilla chips, cilantro sprigs, pickled jalapeño slices, and/or thinly sliced radishes (optional, for garnish)
First, make the green salsa. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. On a large baking sheet toss the peppers in a splash of canola oil and roast them until the skins begin to blacken, “but not so long that the peppers deflate and turn to mush,” according to Hairston, about 30 minutes.
Remove the peppers from the oven, place them in a large bowl, and cover the bowl with a plate or plastic wrap. This will trap escaping steam from the peppers so that their skins will come off more easily.
While the peppers are steaming, finely chop the cilantro and scallions and place them in a blender. Pour in the white vinegar, and give the blender a couple of pulses to break up the herbs. Do not puree; just mix briefly.
Uncover the peppers and peel them as well as you can. Add the flesh of the roasted peppers to the blender. Try to avoid adding too many seeds, as these are slightly bitter and are spiciest part of the pepper. Pulse a couple of additional times, until the salsa has achieved an appropriate consistency. You may need to add more vinegar. Salt the salsa to your taste.
Next, make the red salsa. Set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. Core the tomatoes and cut an “X” in the bottoms. When the water has reached a boil, plunge the tomatoes into the pot for about 30 seconds, or until the skins start to slip away. Strain, cool with cold water from the tap, and peel the tomatoes.
Heat a dry cast-iron skillet on the stovetop on medium heat, and add to it the whole garlic and coarsely chopped onion. The pan may get a little smoky, but toast the vegetables until the outer surfaces start to blister and blacken.
Remove the pan from the heat, and place the toasted garlic and onion, along with the peeled tomatoes, in a blender — you may have to work in batches — adding just a little vinegar.
Pulse the blender until the salsa looks like salsa; then stir in the minced jalapeño, chili powder, and salt.
Next, assemble your plates. On a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the tortillas until they are soft and warm, about 30 seconds per side. Put two on a plate, side by side.
In a separate nonstick pan, cook the eggs as you prefer them; at the Brass Buckle they are fried over easy. Place one cooked egg on each tortilla. Cover one egg with green salsa and one with red. Sprinkle the cheese over both, and, off to the side, add any garnishes you like.
Each plate of 2 eggs serves 1 person.