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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Intermission: Yelapa

This is not a restaurant review. I'm not tagging it as such.

I can't review this meal in Yelapa objectively. For one thing, I indirectly had a hand in the making of maybe the best dish of the night. For another, the gathering I was with was clearly a bunch of the better known foodies of Houston, and thus, was interacting subjectively with the staff and proprietors of the restaurant.

So, that said: it's good. In a city rife with TexMex and admonitions to "authentic" Mexican cuisine, this place manages to pay homage to Mexican cooking, without being TexMex or Mexican. Mexico is the inspiration, but the execution is experimental new American. Which matches the pricing - these are not taqueria pricing. Aside from the food, I must pay kudos to the service - they are obviously staffed with people trying to cultivate regulars - they try their best to remember names and faces, and to take the extra step to be proud of the dining experience. That's an intangible that is worthy of mention.

As for the food - the most successful dish of the night isn't even on the menu: I brought the chef a gift of a bag of calamansi, which he served thinly sliced with chiles on cured escolar along with white and black beans. The escolar itself was cured like bacon, and it worked well with the fatty fish. The aromatic acid from the calamansi fruit, rind and all, was a wonderful counterpoint.

One of the things that I was most excited about is are a series of non-alcoholic "cocktails" on the menu: I tried two of them - a ginger based drink and another based on prickly pear. Both of them came across as being very sweet, and, disappointing in lacking complexity. I wish I could recommend them - but not as they are.

I noticed that almost the dishes I tried involved the brave use of some kind of sweet component in the preparation - this is unusual for Mexican (or in this case, Mexican-inspired) cooking. The "carnitas" are crispy smoked and cured pork belly cubes served atop a shredded green papaya salad (itself hiding small flavor grenades of house made tamarind candy). But it needed some kind of starch vehicle - a tortilla, perhaps? Quite a bit less successful is the "real guacamole panzanella", which was, indeed, more panzanella than guacamole. Essentially a fruity bread salad that used thick tortilla chips as bread, and incorporating avocado and watermelon radish in the preparation. Unfortunately, the chips don't soak up dressing as regular stale bread does in a panzanella, which results in the dish tasting oily as the sweetish vinaigrette separated on standing. My dining companion, the knowledgeable food explorer Jay Francis, suggested that it would have been better served by using bolillo bread as its base rather than the chip, thus preserving the Mexican inspiration while still executing it as a more conventional panzanella.

I explored some of what could be the strongest parts of the restaurants repertoire, which are raw fish dishes, cebiches and traditos. These also tended to incorporate sweeter profiles by a generous of fruit like apples, but the restrained use of acid, and the thicker fish cuts result in a less than aggressive flavor.

A very young restaurant, Yelapa is a pretty unique concept, and has an excited and proud staff behind it. A dining experience there is enjoyable, and I've no doubt that they take all responses with aplomb. I wish them great success, and look forward to the menu maturing.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Food Incomplete

I've been weighing carefully my opinions of the movie Food, Inc. This self-proclaimed exposé of the American industrialized food manufacturing and processing system is taking the food blogosphere by storm, and appears to have life changing effects. After seeing lauded so-much, and then finally being preached upon by random people using the movie as their sole source and justification, I find I must extend the discussion.

First though, as spoiler alert - I am not going to recap the movie, but I'll assume that you have watched it by now. It has been out on DVD for a while, and the accompanying website and blogs are the stuff of rebellious activism. Unfortunately, it is activism that is co-opted by a number of disparate causes, some of which are only tenuously related to the premise. And the premise itself is shaky.

Here's the gist of the message: the industrial production of most American food stems from the monoculture of crops (GMO corn and soy) that feeds into factory feed lots which produce meat and dairy that supply American supermarkets. Problems are highlighted on this so-called "unnatural" arrangement (more on that later). Consolidation and legal corruption has squeezed out competition. "Organic" farmers are the rebellion against this set up, and produce not only better food products, but by supporting them, you fight against the man.

I don't agree with many of these conclusions, because they pick and choose from a complex set of issues to drive home a monolithic image and message. But let's start with one issue that isn't described adequately: cost.

An ominous theme described is one of food safety - that the monolithic setup and increasingly consolidated sourcing of food in the US is a very weak link in terms of contamination. By commoditizing food production, a single outbreak or contamination in one producing source of say ground meat or packaged salad mix can contaminate the entire food supply. All of this points to requirements for better oversight on a perennially underfunded government entity supposedly responsible for this. All the while, the movie points to anecdotal evidence that "pastoral" farmers are somehow pristine and immune from such outbreaks simply by being outside of the system.

Nonsense - what it is the convenience of interpreting the unknown to favorable ends. Pastoral farmers are not systematically monitored. Moreover, by their very nature of being unstandardized, anecdotal evidence cannot be extrapolated. Simply put, we are aware of the problems in the commoditized system, but the pastoral system is a black box. That does not make them inherently advisable or superior.

But the reasoning behind the commoditization stems from the need to increase standardized monitoring for lowered cost. Bottom line is, the system may be broken, but it was created to conform for a demand for cheap and reproducible food. Change that demand, and the system will fall apart. "Organic" (whatever that means) produce doesn't address that specific core issue.

More on this later.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

May as well not buy it

When the food is labeled this ominously, it makes one wonder. And this is just barley!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Color your meal

I remember an episode of "Top Chef" where the contestants were asked to put together a menu centered around a color. If I recall correctly, the person who got green botched the opportunity. It's a very pervasive color in cooking, and should provide the widest range of ingredients.

I had thought about having a "Black" dinner, with primarily black ingredients - squid ink, black sesame seeds, pidan, black garlic...truffles (grin). But the real challenge is the color blue. Mainly because there really isn't a naturally occurring blue pigment in biology - in most cases where we perceive blue, like in butterfly wings, it is primarily some kind of prismatic effect. It's so rare that humans naturally reject blue coloration in food - give it a try. When food is colored blue, it seems to become less appetizing. 

Okay, someone is going to say blueberries - which are really purplish black. And blue cheese - and not everyone thinks that appetizing :).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Novel Ingredient: Rousong

How often have you ordered a steak, and it got cooked a little too far for your liking? You know, you wanted it medium rare, and somehow, it's tough as leather (well, not literally) well done, and it's ruined. Throw it away, right?

Well, not if you're resourceful. A novel ingredient in Chinese cuisine is rousong, or meat threads.  Basically, cheap cuts of meat are stewed to well beyond overcooked in sweetened soy sauce, then shredded, dried, and tossed in a hot wok until it resembles, well, meaty lint. Then it can be used to top congee or hot rice, rolled in sushi, heck, I've seen sandwiches made from mayo and rousong. Quite versatile, and lasts pretty much indefinitely when kept dry.

Rousong can be made from pork, chicken, even fish. It's the cotton candy of the jerky world.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Remember when you learned something on TV?

I used to love watch cooking shows on TV. When I finally got Food Network on my cable system, it became my default channel, because no matter what time of the day, I found a cooking show on. One that taught me new concepts in cooking, demonstrated technique, and reminded me of old favorites that may have slipped my mind.

One rarely sees cooking shows in TV now. Even Food Network, a show ostensibly founded on the concept of food on television, shows less about its preparation, than the pomp and artificial cinema around it's consumption. Shows like Top Chef are more about the personalities created than the practice of cooking itself. Locally, I think public television networks show these types of cooking programs relegated to Saturday mornings as an alternative to the children's programming block.

I've given up on television.

Fortunately, I found a great website with a pretty good cooking show. I must admit, I really enjoy the production values and pacing of Working Class Foodies, over on HungryNation.TV. The Lando siblings appear approachable, although the concept is distinctly New York in execution - after all, $8 a person buys a lot of takeout in Houston. And I don't buy the "organic" woo-woo but that's a story for another day.

Suffice it to say, it's pretty good watching. And I can catch it any time. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chile con carne über alles

On the recommendation of local Houston Food Explorer (and probably living treasure) Jay Francis, we went to check out the enchiladas at Molina's (I must warn you, an animation with music plays immediately on load). The key there is like getting a core sample of Tex Mex cuisine history, as Molina's apparently serves enchiladas with old style chile con carne gravy. Indeed, on the menu, the relevant enchilada is prominently labeled with the sign "Since 1941". The enchiladas were fine, the gravy quite tasty. Rich in flavor, but not very spicy at all.

But then, this thing came out, and I don't get it.


It appears to be a corn tortilla, fried into a bowl, and served upside down, before being covered in some kind of pasty cheese sauce. What's the point of this thing?

Two ways of doing an egg

One of my favorite ways of preparing eggs is to heat up a nonstick pan, do a quick wipe with butter, and then crack an egg on the surface. Put on the lid, and bring down the heat. So-called "steam frying", this gives me many of the benefits of sunny side up, without actually having to futz with the egg, yolk comes out runny, I use a minimal amount of fat, and there's that nice crispy edge.

Then, as I read John Besh's book My New Orleans, he describes something called Eggs on a plate, which is essentially the same thing, with a difference - he starts with a cold pan, greases it, and puts the egg on it, before he heats it. I tried this method, and it resulted in a rather intriguing texture, more akin to that stage between soft boiled and hard boiled eggdom. However, the edge was unpleasantly tough rather than browned and crispy, and I suspect that if I worked in a restaurant, I'd trim that off.

Monday, December 14, 2009

And so it shall be

I am recovering from a weekend of absolute indulgence. Harrah's of New Orleans spared no bounds in pampering a small group of bloggers, from taking us to some prominent restaurants (I'll have more to say about that in a later post), to providing the small touches that spell luxury in a big way (a presentation of hand crafted chocolates on the second evening was beautiful and at the same time over the top). But the key message in all of this that they'd like us to convey to everyone is: New Orleans is a vibrant city for tourism, and a first rate food town, and Harrah's will take good care of you.

To prove their point, they have provided me with a two-night stay at Harrah's for a lucky reader who commented on the blog over the weekend. After reading all of them, I am pleased to award the two night stay to Adam. I hope you and your spouse enjoy your stay and reconnection to New Orleans, and please come back to the blog and share with us your experiences there.

Laissez les bon temps roulez, as they say in the Crescent City.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Born of necessity

The good folks at Ogilvy and Harrah's arranged a trip to the New Orleans School of Cooking for the blogger group as part of "The Greatest Weekend Ever". Which, unbeknown to me, was part lesson, part theatre, and yet another meal. If you have a chance to visit New Orleans, this is a fun and relatively inexpensive way of spending a couple of hours - and you'll walk away full.

The key element in the lesson, where two main dishes are prepared (a soup, and crawfish etouffee), is the importance of roux is to the New Orleans (and Louisiana) cooking. Story is that since poor people couldn't afford spices, the browning of flour in oil, by way of the Maillard reaction, produced a range of flavors that anyone could attain in a short period of time. Roux comes in a variety of colors, ranging from blond to nearly black, at each level decreasing in thickening power, but increasing in flavor complexity. Add the variety of oils used in roux making (our instructor was particularly enamored of lard, although created a roux from butter as well), and there's a range of flavoring components available for the dishes known well in this region: gumbo, etouffee, and other stews.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Let it pour

Amidst a very rainy day here in New Orleans, as we continue our adventure in excess courtesy of Harrah's New Orleans. We started our day with beignets delivered in from Cafe du Monde (wisely informed later on by our excellent tour guide that really, beignets are nothing more than sopapillas served with sugar rather than honey). And like most fried doughs, it quickly loses its magic when it's cooled, and these were definitely cold by the time it got to us. But beignets served as my Hanukkah fried dish of the day.

After a "walking" tour of the French quarter (in a massive limo tank) - lunch was a K-Paul's, Paul Prudhomme's place. We ordered a bunch of things (necessary consequence of dining amongst Chowhounds) - the worst item was something called a Sunny Salad, which consisted of an amalgamation of cauliflower, raisins and broccoli, atop greens, sprinkled with garlic fried chicken bits, and served with a sweet apple dressing. The textures were all over the place, and the flavors centered on being overwhelmingly sweet. I dressed the salad with a very small fraction of the supplied dressing, and it still came out too sweet.

On the other hand, most of the dishes were quite successful. The fried oysters in the oyster po-boy were large, flavorful, and expertly fried. The addition of oyster mayo (yes, mayo) took it over the top. Chicken was moist, and paired well with the ravioli, although the dinner roll served alongside seems to timid to stand up to the flavors. The chicken and andouille gumbo was expertly prepared - dark, smoky, complex, spicy and rich. And, I am finding, not as texturally thick as I expected it to be. But the sweet potato fries simply blew me away. These were crisp, spicy, and tender - not the usual oily sad orange affairs I have tasted in the past. Dipped in the oyster mayo, this completely reinvents the idea of the Belgian frites into something distinctly New Orleans.


If you're going for that giveaway of a two night stay at Harrah's, I hope you'll also post a reliable way for me to get back in touch with you. Good luck, keep the posts coming.


Flares of brilliance, floods of abundance

The reasoning behind this junket to New Orleans was put in pretty plain terms last night: the city wants the world to know that it's back. And it's exploring bloggers and social media as the new way of sharing it with the world. After meeting my fellow bloggers, we were treated to a meal at Emeril Lagasse's restaurant, Delmonico. And it's difficult to have a bad meal when you are asked to order anything you want. Pictures coming later, although many have live-tweeted the meal.
In some restaurants, one is impressed by the attention to detail and complexity of the dishes offered. Delmonico isn't one of those restaurants - instead, the food comes to you with abbondanza. Not so much in volume but in voluptuousness. The service is top notch, and follows strict norms, attentive without being intrusive, and impressively knowledgeable.

Rather that following the French inspired norms of structured meals, the menu breaks into some a somewhat confusing array of appetizers, small plates, medium plates, big plates, and sides. Given the diversity of appetites ringing the table, we managed to sample a good selection of the available preparations.

Charcuterie is prepared in house, cured in the beautifully appointed (and conveniently glass walled) wine cellar - impressive given the humid Gulf Coast atmosphere. The charcuterie grand tasting plate contains some real stars, like the fennel packed cured tuna, and conciliatory pancetta wrapped dates, but I think the other cured meats would be better served with contrast against a very good rye bread roll, and a potent selection of pickled vegetables. However, the apologetic separation of these sides muddles the flavors a bit, as the overlapping porkiness tends to get cloying.

Perhaps the star of the plates that I tasted was the crispy pork cheeks served atop dirty rice, crispy and unctuous at the same time, one could fight over the scraps of this dish. We also had some nice rabbit in crepes, as well as some mussels cooked with harissa. Mussels were excellent, and the rabbit was rich. I also ordered some lamb tenderloin cooked with Moroccan spices, and while the meat was done medium rare, I don't think the dish was a success. The texture of the chewy lamb clashed with the coupled sausage, and the spices would have worked better had this been a stew. Fortunately, I got to taste the pork shoulder preparation, which was meltingly tender, although I think needing some acid component.

For dessert, I ordered the spicy chocolate creme brulee which came with home made marshmallows atop the sugar crust. This didn't work - the marshmallows themselves were good, but the chewy nature just interfered with getting to the brulee. Next time, serve it on the side...perferably atop a proper hot chocolate for  chocolate overload. The brulee itself was appropriately spicy, and enjoyable. Most of the table was agog over the bananas foster, which was prepared tableside with appropriate theatre, but really, that's not a difficult dish to make.

Overall, Delmonico's feels like a good celebratory restaurant, but it's greatest strengths seem to lie with pork. But eating here does tend to induce a food coma.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Purely arbitrary

Harrah's of New Orleans is taking a few bloggers along the next few days for something they call "The Greatest Weekend Ever". I've seen the agenda, which features such things as meals in Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico, or at KPaul's, and an interview with the head chef of Besh. No doubt my fellow bloggers and I are going to take our readers along for the ride by blogging, or tweeting about the experience, but Harrah's has also generously provided a two night stay as a prize to be given away.

First the disclaimer: The two night stay covers only the hotel stay, and does not include travel, meals, and other expenses, is open only to legal US residents, and must be redeemed by 12/30/2010.

Now, who gets it? I'm being purely arbitrary - the criteria are my whim. Write me a post about a good question that you'd like answered about the food in New Orleans. Or tell me how you'd use that weekend in New Orleans. But wait! The winning post must be done on Saturday, Dec 12, before 11pm. I'll announce a winner on Sunday. That's about it. Good luck.

7% more delicious

Man, I love it when people document a proper test in food science.

This blog post documents how long steak should be rested after cooking. Just the pictures are pretty illustrative.

Resort Dining

I hope you haven't abandoned my blog yet - I was away on a little out of the country trip in an all inclusive resort in Mexico. Don't envy me yet, I paid for that one. But I'll say this much - the food in such resorts, when the target audience is American (caucasian?) tourists, leaves something to be desired. Despite being in Mexico, the Mexican influence is carefully clouded and doled out reluctantly. Salsas and guacamole lack spice, japapeños are kept separate, and there is a strong emphasis on grilled meats. Overcooked grilled meats (requesting things done medium rare was a struggle). Breakfast was amusing - at least half a dozen hangover "remedies" are easily on hand, from a bloody Mary bar, to mixes of celery and beet juice.  Oddly enough, the traditional Mexican remedy of posole is relegated to dinner - on a separate counter, with chili oil on the side to spice things up. Not a bad posole...if only it weren't prepared with white chicken meat instead of the traditional pork.

For all of that, I cannot fault the service of the resort - the staff did their best to accommodate my less than stereotypic demands. I requested and got huilacoche with my breakfast omelet (although they didn't seem to have the traditional Mexican crema available), and while they couldn't conjur up horchata, they placated me with a passable agua de Jamaica. But perhaps the best thing I ate there, I requested a few hours in advance: an authentic regional ceviche. Still light on the spicing, it was, however, wonderfully fresh and bracing, and so stark a contrast with the "Gringo-fied" food, other guests were clamoring for it.

I noticed that many of the cooking staff were young, and, perhaps a little afraid of the "ugly American" attitude - the ones who will come with the machismo of claiming to handle spicy food, only to discard it choosing to blame the cook rather than owning up to their own shortcomings. Hence, this strict adherence to middle road cooking - a shame, really, as there were some amazingly quality ingredients the resort.

This coming  weekend, I have an opportunity to visit a resort of a different sort. I was contacted a few weeks ago by PR firm Ogilvy representing Harrah's hotel of New Orleans, and was invited to spend a weekend there. They have asked for nothing in return, other than I write about the experience in my blog, and to share it with my readers. I think this is a future-facing direction in publicity, recognizing the impact that bloggers have on the public image of a restaurant (or hotel). At least one restaurant in LA has set up a mini-food photography studio to permit food bloggers to take pictures of their food. At New Orleans, I'll be joining a few other (perhaps more established) Houston bloggers on this ride, and please stay with us as we document it.

I hope it makes up for the seeming silence  of the last week or so. And we'll have fun stuff to share as we go along. I welcome any questions you may have to ask about the staff of Harrah's or about the scene in NOLA - please post them below, and I'll try to find answers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Profiles in umami

In one episode of the TV show "Top Chef", the contestants were given the theme of umami to cook for. All of them somehow made a mad dash for mushrooms.

What exactly is umami? The so-called fifth taste, it is the perception of savoriness or meatiness in a taste. The key item being detected is the amino acid glutamate, which also acts as a neurotransmitter. Thus, the creation of the flavoring agent monosodium glutamate (MSG) which serves to bolster the umami quotient in a dish, without interference from other flavors. I think of this as one of the earliest forms of molecular gastronomy. MSG has quite a reputation as an unhealthy additive in Chinese and other Asian cuisines, but despite decades of research, no conclusive evidence links MSG to high blood pressure or other health anomalies. That said, like anything else, it is probably wise to consume it in moderation.

Umami, however, can come from so many other sources, mostly from protein rich foods, or, better yet, ingredients that have degraded proteins. Miso (pictured) is a very umami rich ingredient, as are the different fish sauces, and fermented tofu. And, of course, umami is likely to big reason behind using broths and stocks in Western style cooking, as there, the central focus of protein comes from animal meat and bones.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Is it auspicious in France?

Here's to wishing everyone a happy National French Toast Day!

Whether you call it pain perdu or French toast, it is one of the great triumphs of remaking leftovers. In fact, French toast needs somewhat stale bread to work well. Making leftovers the desirable thing is the real genius of cooking, be it fried rice, or turkey stock.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Science to cooking Thanksgiving

Follow me on this meandering train of thought about festive molecular gastronomy on the cheap.

Perhaps one of the newest techniques to emerge in the field of cooking is sous vide, and it's taking  much of the new chefs by storm. In essence, in sous vide, an item (usually a meat of some kind) is encased and vacuum sealed in a plastic bag, and cooked in a circulating water bath at the precise target cooking temperature for the ingredient. This gains a lot of the benefits of poaching, where the meat is cooked evenly, but then can be finished at high heat to get the benefits of caramelization. I hear (thanks, Chef MO), that whole birds are not amenable to sous vide because they don't hold up to the vacuum.

Vacuum sealing the ingredient maximizes even conduction of heat because there would be no air separating the heated water from the plastic sealed ingredient; the plastic bag prevents the water from dissolving and diluting compounds. One could attain some of the same benefits by poaching in a non-ionic liquid, like olive oil or clarified butter. And gain some additional ones with regards to flavoring. Problem is, this is expensive, and, let's face it, you're soaking your dish in warm oil for a long time.

In celebration of Thanksgiving, many have chosen the avenue of deep frying the turkey - but perhaps butter poaching the bird could be a less cumbersome dish. Problem will be the inordinate amount of butter required...or is it? Nathan Myhrvold reported that you don't really need all the butter in poaching - he got similar results when the butter is just brushed on after steaming certain fish.

So, here's my idea:

1. Take the turkey (dry brined). Be sure it is dry.
2. Coat it in butter. I envision brushing on layers of butter on the cold bird so that it solidifies like primer and paint.
3. Partially freeze the bird to get it cold on the outside.
4. Embed the bird in 1.5% agar. This would involve pouring 50C agar around the cold bird to get it completely encased in a block of agar, again, chilling to make sure that the agar is completely solid
5. Poach the whole block at 65C. The effect here is that the solid agar is the water, and the butter layer will liquify - but stay as a layer around the bird, effectively butter poaching the bird. The agar will remain solid at this temperature indefinitely.
6. After the appropriate period of poaching, allow the block to cool to handle, and break the block to release the bird; stick it in a high heat oven to brown. At this point, the bird should be mostly cooked, the skin should crisp up, and any bits of agar will melt off as the outside surfaces hit a temperature above 100C.

Leftover agar can be reused, of course. :)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Supermarket Fail

HEB is one of my preferred supermarkets. A Texas-based chain, they have great prices, and usually excellent selection and quality - even the house branded items are terrific (I go out of my way to get HEB lactose-free milk). But this is one thing that keeps bugging me - the packaging of HEB butter. The unsalted butter is packaged in blue themed boxes, but the labeling on the individual bars are in red. This wouldn't be a problem, if it weren't for the fact that the salted butter uses blue labeling for the individual bars! I have made the mistake of grabbing the wrong type one time too many. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

A belated eureka moment

Before the Great Western Casa McBardo, there was the Great Eastern Casa McBardo.

And there I did my first trip out to visit and cook over a year ago. We had a spectacular good time in the warmth of the Maryland summer, overlooking tomato plants and blossoming strawberries, preparing a smoked pork shoulder, fresh bread, baby chard and warm mushroom salad, curried tomato soup, even ancho spiced chocolate truffles. But there was one dish that didn't work.

I had this idea of making a savory application for rhubarb. I figured that the tangy herb can be used to flavor a sour fish stew akin to the Filipino sinigang, usually soured with tamarind or unripe guava. Flavorwise, I was able to get it. However, instead of a pink soup I had envisioned, we got this grayish muck that was fortunately served at dusk so people couldn't see it.

What went wrong? Only today did I realize what is going on - the redness in rhubarb is the presence of anthocyanins, water soluble compounds whose colors change with the pH. And when I introduced fish into the equation, the buffering of protein brought the pH to a level where the anthocyanins would be...bluish. Hence, the gray color.

I'll need to re-imagine this dish in the future, where I make a butter and rhubarb sauce to be served atop poached monkfish.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Tale of Two ... South Indian Restaurants

In the last week, I had the pleasure of dining at two similar Indian restaurants to help compare them: Madras Pavilion (please try to ignore the sushi roll prominently displayed on their website template) and Udipi Cafe (I'd put a link here for, but apparently, Google diagnosed it as hosting malware). For the people not familiar with the socio-geography of Houston, there are regional rivalries and stereotypes about the city, not unlike the rivalries of Washington DC (inside vs outside the Belt) or Berlin. Houston is defined by the 610 Loop, which is a freeway that encircles a large region including the downtown area. Thus propagates this definition of culture "Inside the Loop (ITL)" or "Outside the Loop (OTL)". A common stereotype pegs people ITL as more affluent and less adventurous (despite the self-described bohemian enclaves there enclosed), while people who frequent OTL are either suburbanites or living in immigrant ghettos.

The choice of these two restaurants, both of which offer South Indian vegetarian food, is as much a contrast of the catering the clientele type as it is how they prepare their dishes. In both locations we ordered far too much food to finish, and the main topic of food comparison will emerge from the pages of the Houston Press Eating Our Words blog. Instead, I'll focus on what was notable at either location.

Our large and raucous group certainly garnered attention at the quiet little Udipi Cafe, both because of our copious appetites and bizarre questions (BYOB? From the traditional vegetarian Hindu perspective, I don't think drinking wine at the table is ever a consideration. This was a double-whammy considering we had a sommelier dining with us). That aside, the food was, for the most part, fantastic. Sambar was spicy and ubiquitous (sadly, texturally identical as well) as glasses of water. Then again, we had to have curries, dosai, pullaus, and, heck, two full on thali dinners. Very few clunkers in this set (I'll count among them this odd yogurt cilantro drink. Probably an acquired taste.). The paneer curry here is perhaps the best implementation of paneer I have ever had. Rather than a crumbly or spongy affair, the paneer had a slightly chewy consistency akin to mozzarella, and the expert spicing worked very well with the texture and flavor of the homemade cheese. Eggplant curry was silky and bombastic, rava masala dosa crisp and crackly, the simple dish of cabbage and lentils sing, as does the impressively puffy (though greasy) battura. Get the chai if you can (the service is a bit spotty, perhaps due to the large group I was in) - it is redolent with cardamom, and thankfully arrives unsweetened for the individual drinker to adjust to taste. Too often chai is served far too sweet for my liking.

In contrast, the ITL Madras Pavilion actually has a wine and beer menu, is a certified kosher restaurant, and staffed by amusing and personable waiters who entertain their often not quite desi clientele (even in malleable crowds) with aplomb. The menu has cleverly designed a set Indian food dinner, which acts as a tour of South Indian cuisine shrouded in Western dining conventions. This includes miniature masala dosai (which is served with an absolutely stellar coconut chutney), some really nice croquettes, and a good selection of curries (saag paneer, korma, and chana dahl), and a really flavorful rice pullaw. It's a beautiful, "safe" meal, which didn't have the wild highs and lows of the OTL Udipi Cafe.

Which is probably just fine for the conservative diners ITL, and the adventurers willing to travel OTL.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The structure of a meal

"Is halo-halo a dessert?"

I get asked that every so often. For the uninitiated, halo-halo ("mix-mix) is a Filipino dish consisting of a variety of sweetened items (fruit, beans, flan, halaya - the variations are endless and dependent on the region and season), piled together with crushed or shaved ice and doused with milk. The diner is expected to mix it up into a melange while attempting to sample all the different bits. It's a snow cone on steroids. It's been presented as a dessert on Top Chef. But, really, it is substantial enough to stand for a small meal in some respects. Then again, there's a whole array of dishes - kakanin - which aren't meant to be eaten during the big meals of the day, but are rather pamatid gutom ("bridges across hunger").

I think the concept of the Western meal and meal components is at times too restricting. The convention of three meals, with the requisite sub-meal breakdown of courses, is as more ritual than natural, and yet much of the vocabulary in discussing food forces us to classify things to fall into these categories, even though it's a false requirement. Much of the world does not eat in these monolithic patterns, where a large hunk of protein serves as a central focus. The Chinese dimsum is a leisurely series of small plates, dining in Malaysian kopitiams, even the drinking focused Spanish tapas and Filipino pulutan extend dining to less formalized affairs.

The concept of eating more frequently in smaller quantities results in more modulated blood sugar levels, and thus, obviate the "starvation" response come meal times. Some debate points to these spikes in insulin/glucagon as one of the key elements in the obesity epidemic. But, really, what enforces these patterns are cultural in nature; meals are mostly points of social interaction more than individual sustenance. While much of focus of the angst of the anti-industrial food complex has been the nature and source of food for Americans, they don't pay as much notice to the social mores that enable these dining habits.

Take the idea of the individually plated meal. Turns out that people don't so much eat to satiety but rather eat to finish a portion. There's an excellent experiment in this when someone is given a bowl that slowly refills itself with soup, the person eating it is unaware how much food they have actually consumed. Family-style "shared" plates encourage people to choose only a portion which they can finish, rather than trying to finish what is put in front of them. Moreover, it's a source of social interaction - the family-style sharing of food is a central focus of social acceptance in many Asian cultures. When I bring someone to an authentic Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant who then orders something, and "hoards" it as if eating a hamburger rather than sharing it with the rest of table, this usually results in a bit of uneasiness. Likewise, a Chinese person will offer a half eaten sandwich during a work lunch to anyone who isn't eating yet - resulting in some uneasiness in the opposite direction.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Flavors in a cube

These boxes of flavoring cubes go beyond the usual boullion to entice
people to forgo chopping onions and other primary flavoring notes.
It's sofrito in a cube. Of course, the primary ingredients are still
salt and MSG.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Novel Ingredient: Latik

I've been thinking about ingredients that I have encountered before that seem unusual to others, and I hope to write about them once in a while. One is an absolutely delicious item called latik. I know it is found in Filipino cooking, but I really haven't encountered it in any other cuisine.

Coconut oil is made from pressed coconut milk by heating slowly it until it "breaks" - that is, as the water evaporates, the protein encapsulated lipid coalesces and forms the oil. The result of this is that the proteins and sugars clump together, and cook in the heat, forming this brown crumbly stuff that is sweet and full of Maillard reaction goodness. It's coconut oil cracklings, and is used to top any number of sweets and snacks in the Philippines. I daresay it is perhaps a bit more prized than the oil itself.

I should think latik ice cream would be an outrageous treat, as well as a sprinkling of it on top of a panna cotta.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Milk and Microbes Redux

Well, this is about as no-nonsense as it gets.

From the website How Stuff Works: Is Raw Milk better for you?

It's not a long article, but it's well linked. And simply put - no evidence for it. And lots of evidence that it can harm you.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shoulda coulda?

I was pondering that perhaps we did things wrong when we butterflied the pig for the pig roast earlier this year at the Great Western Casa McBardo. The problem with the way we did it (and mostly because of the way the dressed pig was prepared) is that the belly lost its integrity. What we needed to do better is to get a pig that was spatchcocked:

Not that I know any butchers that will spatchcock a pig.

Green beans and boar

That's a wild boar sausage and green bean fritatta.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is it made from real beaver?

I have a burger buddy. We go out periodically for a burger - part of my personal quest to get over my general apathy for the burger. But we do have some great burgers in this city, and this week, we paid a visit to Beaver's for a Beaver burger. At $9, it's one of the pricier burgers we have sampled, and I was a little disappointed that it wasn't made from beaver meat (just kidding).

What the burger itself was made of is a proprietary mixture of beef, brisket and bacon - the killer Bs. And it makes for a killer burger. Juicy, flavorful, unctuous and unabashedly sinful, the burger, bread and cheese make for a gigglingly good sandwich. The problem comes in from the haphazard selection of sides that come with it. The thickly cut slab of tomato was mealy, and the novelty pickles don't seem to fit in. My companion frowned in distaste over the pickled cauliflower, and asked why can't she have some regular cucumber pickles. The pickles were like annoying scene stealers trying to distract from the good stuff. Moreover, there seems to be some kind of opposition to fries. You can get chips - not in the British sense - American style potato chips which were oddly tasteless.

Fortunately, you can swap them out for a serving of macaroni and cheese, and we recommend that highly. It's a very good casserole.

But through in slabs of bacon on a bacon suffused patty, and we learned to forgive the misdirections, and ordered the Beaver balls. Again, not made from beaver (thank heavens). They are deep fried crusted brownie balls. Served with some very good vanilla ice cream, and some powdered peanut butter (that my dining companion literally's dangerous stuff). The dessert is definitely indulgent, and my main complaint is that there wasn't enough of the ice cream.

And my companion wanted more peanut butter.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Immigrant to Grocery Row

The area bordering I-10, Bunker Hill and Blalock is now Grocery Row - never mind the presence of the large mega mall near by, in this area, we have the huge HEB grocery, a Costco, the Korean supermart Super H-Mart, and now (grand opening today) , 99 Ranch market. The newest addition is ubiquitous chain in California, but this outpost is the first incursion in to the Texas market. They're not entering an easy situation - Houston already has its share of mega-Asian markets, ranging from Viet Hoa, to Hong Kong City Mall, and any number of additional markets around, mostly centered in the Southwest Bellaire region. And they all carry mostly the same goods, in roughly the same price range, so differentiating from each other will be difficult. The Sino-centric 99 Ranch is opening in an area at the moment served only by the Korean-centric markets, so they'll manage to distinguish themselves in this region. I paid a visit to them prior to their grand opening, when construction is still afoot in some small corners, and tenants are still sought for the small accessory store spaces in the building.

I happened to be parked next this spectacularly considerate (not) driver of a sports car.

So, how was it? On first blush, 99 Ranch compares well with other Asian supermarkets here - prices are comparable, produce is fresh (I couldn't help but pick up some really cheap fuyu persimmons), although some are prepackaged in plastic bags (ie, greens). Speaking of packaging, they're really overboard with the packaging here. I got things that were wrapped, wrapped again, and then bagged. Could just be the pre-opening jitters.

So, what is different? First, there is a more concerted effort to appeal to the Texan mainstream. Staffers are in all ethnic stripes, from Hispanic to Indian to the Caucasian lady manning the buffet line (more on that later). And they're all working extra hard to make a good impression this early in the game. A necessary consequence is the effort to communicate in English, even if the customer appears to understand Chinese or Vietnamese. In another nod to the neighborhood which can be cash averse, credit card terminals are everywhere, and unlike in the Bellaire shops, they don't request (require) a minimum to charge.

Unlike the other Sino-centric shops in town, they have a dedicated Indian Foods section. Not just an aisle, but a separate alcove complete with freezer section and displays.

But what will bring me back here would be things that I can only locate in this store. And that will come from the prepared foods that they sell here. Despite the appeal to American mainstream sensibilities (ie, labeling pictures of zongzi with "Chinese Tamales"), the air of authenticity shines in the food court. I found a counter selling Sichuan style cold snacks and pickles. The dimsum counter sells various dumplings and snacks appealing to the Chinese tastes - I picked up a sizeable bowl of beef noodle soup for $3.

The takeaway buffet line is an interesting concept. You get either a small ($3.50) or a large container ($5), go through the steam table, and pile on whatever you want. As long as the container still closes, that's the price you pay. Dishes on the steam table are not the usual sorry state of fried crap found in "Chinese" buffets around town. This small unapologetic table carried bitter melon stir fried with beef, and whole small fish (head still attached, yes), and mushroom and tofu stew. Turnover appeared brisk.

Over on the sushi counter (yes, a sushi counter - they did carry sashimi grade fish here), I spotted maki made with purple rice. Hmm...I didn't think that stuff made for good sushi. But the presentation was eye-catching.

The bakery, though, called Desir, is probably the mini-store I'll come back here for. For one thing, most of the loaves of bread are packaged without the "end cap" crusty slices...and all those endcap slices are packed together and sold for cheap. A very practical solution, no unexpected in Chinese immigrant sentiments. The bread here is of the fine textured sort favored in Asia, not quite that crusty, although I did find a walnut "bagel" - which didn't have the same chewiness as a regular bagel. I saw bags of pan de sal as a nod to Filipino clientele, but didn't have a chance to sample them.

Pasteis de belen - I picked up and tried this properly labeled "Portuguese egg tart". Unlike the flat, yellow tarts common in dimsum houses, these tarts are sunken in the middle and browned, indicated a rapid, high heat baking. But creamy on the inside, not too sweet, with a nice flaky crust.

Pork sung and radish pinwheels. Another innovative thing I tried are these pinwheels made from the same steamed dough as mantou, but rolled around pickled radish, and flaked dried pork. Sweet, savory, and texturally a riot.

I also tried this "teriyaki bun" - those things that look like wood shavings are shaved dried bonito (often used to make Japanese dashi). The teriyaki glazed bun is baked around...a fish ball. Probably made from pollock.

An intriguing store, worthy of additional visits.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I encountered these in a party I recently attended. Ever been in a party, and whether in a state of inebriation or not, you can't remember which cup you were using? No problem, you end up getting another cup...and another one...and another one. Pretty soon, the host has to clean up after all these phantom half cups of beer or what not lying around. Never mind the environmental impact. Some party hosts try to get guests to label their cups, but who could be bothered? And not to mention the pen always gets lost.

Well, these cups come with a scratch-off side that lets you personalize your cup simply by scratching out a distinctive pattern on the side. You don't need a pen, a key, or heck, a fingernail will suffice. And should cut down the wastage.

Of course, now you can *really* target that sleeping pill to the right cup...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Food in disguise

Happy Halloween, everyone! Okay, never mind the usual celebration of death and the macabre, Halloween has morphed into one about costumes and disguise. I mean, really, how does dressing up as the Octomom count as a scary costume? :) I kid, I kid.

There's a lot of the "traditional" foods which tend to be high in sugar and whimsy. But really, shouldn't we just extend it to foods dressing up. For example, at San San...

where vegetables dress up as meat! I passed up on the array of smoked vegetarian "duck" and vegan sausages, and settled on a large tub of "Nutrition Congee"

Despite the pallid gray color, the porridge is chock full of nuts and beans, and is quite savory, with ample umami from the use of dried mushrooms. The dried tofu, gluten blocks, and other ingredients supply a nice textural contrast. I'd try this in place of your usual microwave oatmeal some morning.

With a side of bacon.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

You can eat that

I once watched an episode of Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days", where his then girlfriend complained about how tight their food budget was, at the same time cutting up some broccoli florets, and throwing the stems away. I was horrified by the hypocrisy - broccoli stems are definitely quite edible, and in fact, perhaps more versatile than the florets themselves.

Which lead me to thinking about all those edible things that most Americans throw away. The wastefulness is appalling sometimes. I'm not even talking about the delicious animal parts like fish heads and beef tongue. For example: the rind on brie is quite edible. Some may even say it's an important part of the brie eating experience (as it is a part of the mold that is responsible for brie's distinctive flavor and character). Cauliflower leaves are quite edible, so just chop up the whole head, and cook away. At least potato skins have made their way into regular restaurant items (albeit loaded with sufficient fat to mask it's prior discard status :).

As we enter the season for the hard winter squashes - here's a tip I learned from Nigella Lawson - you don't have to peel butternut squash. I noticed that this seems to be the case for just about most winter squashes - acorn, butternut, kabocha - when baked, the peel can be eaten. Easier - and adds to your fiber.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Milk and Microbes Part 2: A change of tone

Morgan Weber of The Orchard Chronicles contacted me about the part 1 of these connected blog posts, and was both civil and gracious. I admit that the initial tone I had set may appear somewhat adversarial, but my intent, as always, is simply to educate and inform. Morgan has taken down the posting about the "Campaign for Real Milk" down to edit it. I commend him for it. I hope I can help in its clarification.

5. Who was Weston A. Price?

One of the statements in the original "Campaign" article was an attribution that milk "has an unbelievable immune system". Paraphrasing, the idea is that when gallons of raw milk are injected with high amounts of Salmonella, "Staph Aureas", E. coli O157 : H7 and other pathogens, and allowed to sit for a while, the pathogens eventually died off, proof that the raw milk rejects potentially deadly bacteria. This work was credited to researchers from the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Who was Weston A. Price, anyway? And what is the deal with this foundation? Is it a research institution?

Weston A. Price was a dentist who lived in the turn of the 20th century who espoused a belief that sugar not only cause tooth decay, but social and moral decay as well. These conclusions were and are controversial, in part due to some flaws in his design. The Foundation was set up to archive and propagate these beliefs, that a return to an aboriginal diet is better for humanity. Near as I can tell, the Foundation does not conduct or fund any scientific research, rather is built more on activism and lobbying. The quarterly journal they publish isn't peer reviewed nor necessarily recognized as a scientific resource.

Nonetheless, I think the interpretations about the "immune system" in milk likely come from an article written in the Foundation's journal by one Ted Beals, a retired pathologist who is a member of the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup called "A Campaign for Real Milk", that is mostly a critique of the article "Does raw milk kill pathogens?" presented by Amanda Rose at the American Veterinary Medical Association conference in 2009. Rose's paper concludes that whatever pathogen killing properties raw milk has is so low as to be unreliable.

Beals' article proceeds to nitpick Rose's article citation by citation, which can be rather tedious, but I'll highlight just one example:

In another cited paper, researchers Massa, Goffredo, Altieri and Natola inoculated seven different strains of E. coli O157:H7 into fresh unprocessed whole milk to determine their fate after days of storage (Letters in Applied Microbiology 28(1):89-92). Like Doyle and Roman, they spiked the milk with extraordinarily high numbers of each pathogen (1,000,000 per ml — Doyle and Roman used 10,000,000 per ml). Even with these huge numbers of pathogens, the E. coli O157:H7 strains failed to grow and died off gradually. Actually, the purpose of this research was not to determine whether the pathogens were being killed, but whether it was acceptable to store milk at 8°C ( 46°F) rather than the standard 5° C (41° F). The authors conclude that the colder temperature should be used as the standard. tive inhibition properties of fresh raw milk. [italics mine]
Here is an excerpt from the abstract from the original Massa et al paper:

...There was essentially no change in the viable population of three EHEC strains for up to 14 d. The remaining four strains showed an increase in population from ³2 log to 3 log cfu ml−1 in a time period of between 9 and 17 d. The results indicate good survival or even multiplication of E. coli O157 : H7 in raw milk when stored at 8 °C and reaffirm the need for pasteurization and holding the milk at >=5 °C. [italics mine]
Note how the exact opposite conclusion is derived by Beals. This type of argument, where looking for incompleteness in the scientific evidence as proof of the counterargument is a logical fallacy commonly employed by creationists and other pseudoscientific movements. By invoking scientific terms and papers, they ride upon the credibility of scientists but really deploy a different message altogether. Of course, writing is also more entertaining when there is a duality to be presented.

Back to pasteurization and raw milk. Cornell University has put together a website that links together many resources behind the science and technology of modern milk production. Fact is, prior to pasteurization, 25% of all food and water borne illnesses can be traced to milk. The implementation of pasteurization has dropped that rate to less than 1%. The antimicrobial compound lactoferrin is naturally found in milk, but is very dilute. But here's the important fact: it is not affected by pasteurization.

In many cases, people will want to consume raw milk regardless of the scientific evidence. The evidence for any health benefits from raw milk is tenuous at best, and the potential public health problems are a proven historical fact, but I also happen to think that individuals have a right to decide what to do with their lives so long as they don't harm someone else in the process. So, go into it with open eyes: consuming unpasteurized milk is a risky activity. Like unprotected sex, or Russian roulette, or skydiving. And people undertake those risks, anyway. Just don't delude yourself (or others) about it.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The hot beverage triumvirate

This week, Tara Dooley wrote an excellent article describing the new higher end coffee scene in Houston. I spoke to many who seem to think that the epitome of good coffee is found in overpriced green adorned coffee cups, and aren't even aware of the artisan nature of some baristas - in contrast to the coffee worshiping culture of the Pacific Northwest.

That said, we also have at least three different teahouses in Houston, staffed and run by people as passionate about tea as the baristas so mentioned in the article, yet I have not seen too many mainstream articles written about them. Tea offers an even wider range of flavors and ritual, yet plays second fiddle to the coffee mainstream. Put on your conspiracy hats, I'll seed the rumor mill - maybe it's because the teahouses are run by women, whereas baristas tend to be male. I have no basis behind that speculation. I'll admit to having some distaste for coffee, while liking some teas and tisanes.

But much as I (and some others) may grouse about how tea is treated in the coffee dominated world, that pales in comparison to the sheer neglect hot chocolate or cocoa gets treated in America. Culturally considered a seasonal drink for cold weather (never mind that the same people will quaff boiling coffee even in the peak of summer), hot chocolate is seen mostly as vehicle to deliver milk. Most places fall back on industrial mockolate syrup as sufficient for making the beverage, as if simply an excuse to say that they have something for the ones with a sweet tooth. In fact, most commercially prepared hot chocolate barely uses chocolate at all! Chocolate, of course, carries equal complexity and variety to coffee, in sourcing, ingredients and preparation. Try a Jacques Torres Wicked Hot Chocolate, prepared the right way, and you can taste the true potential in the beverage beyond simply appealing to the kiddie sweet tooth.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Milk and Microbes Part 1

I've noticed a rise recently in debates and articles exhorting the benefits of consuming unpasteurized or "raw" milk, some from the perspective of flavor, but most alleging nutritive and immunological benefits. There are some merits to these arguments - aged cheeses prepared from raw milk has a different character than those prepared from pasteurized milk, and as a fermented product, the point of initial pasteurization is mostly moot. Moreover, the draconian enforcement of pasteurization laws, initially meant to protect the public health, is stepping into the territory of small farmers transacting with private consumers - people who are aware of the risks, and are consenting to undertake them. It's not wise, but the debate there is about government stepping into areas between consenting adults.

I do, however, take issue where scientific merit is taken, and twisted in the name of propaganda for the raw milk movement. Take for example, this recent blog posting from a Orchard Chronicles about a "Campaign for Raw Milk", despite a noble intent to espouse healthier living, is rife with scientific inaccuracies. I'll try to clear up a few of them:

1. rBST is not a fake hormone. It is, in fact, molecularly identical to the bovine somatotropin. The recombinant part simply means that it used recombinant DNA technology to mass produce it so it can be cheaply made. I reserve judgment on whether or not rBST treatment of cows for
improved milk production is wise.

2. Modern farmers do use prophylactic antibiotics to ward off early infections, but it does not "disinfect" milk, nor keep it from being contaminated. The issue with heavy use of antibiotics center more along accelerating the evolution of antibiotic resistance through horizontal gene transfer among bacteria - and raw milk consumption has nothing to do with that.

3. Phosphate in milk is not destroyed by the transient heating involved with pasteurization. In fact, the presence of free phosphate is deleterious to retention of calcium, as the formation of calcium phosphate as an insoluble salt happens, and it precipitates out. The papers citing problems with this involve heat labile compounds in milk that keep phosphate away from calcium to prevent this precipitation. And not because humans can't absorb the calcium (after all, the acid environment in the stomach will release free calcium from the salt), rather, it's because the salting out can clog up harvesting and processing tubes.

Mind you, the papers being cited here are published in the 1920s and 1930s - I have found no more recent publications backing them up, and pasteurization practices have changed since. Also, in many of these early milk nutrition studies that involve mouse models, the assumption in the experiment is that milk is the sole nutritive source. Most studies indicate that nutritive loss during pasteurization is at most minor (mostly to heat labile vitamins) that are easily made up in a varied human diet.

4. Perhaps the most problematic issue in this posting is the poor understanding of microbiological terms, and a direct misinterpretation of the sources behind them.

4a. Coliform is a generic term referring to the shape of bacteria - in this case, short rod shaped cells. Coliform bacteria are both benign, and pathogenic, and I have found no peer reviewed published evidence of "cultured coliforms" being used to treat Staphylococcus infections. In fact, since 15% of human fecal bacteria are coliform, water and food safety assays look for a coliform count as a rough measure of fecal contamination.

4b. Milk as it emerges from the teat is sterile - all bacteria found in it are present by way of contamination. The problem with contamination is that it is difficult to control, either in kind or amount, which is the problem with distinguishing between so called beneficial or pathogenic bacteria. But there is no argument that before pasteurization, milk borne diseases were a major public health hazard.

4c. Lactose is the primary sugar (disaccharide) in milk. Human infants produce the enzyme lactase in the intestinal lining to digest milk, but as most mammals mature, they lose this enzyme. Some humans, however, by quirk of evolution, retain lactase to adulthood, while others do not. The inability to digest lactose unassisted is thus diagnosed as lactose intolerance - even though it's really the ability to digest lactose that is the odd thing out. But it is a beautiful example of how natural selection acting on variations in the species results in propagation of traits (in this case, the incorporation of harvested milk as an adult food source).

4d. Lactobacilli are a general term for spore forming bacteria that can use lactose as a primary carbon source, and converting it to lactic acid. They are important in fermentation of things from kimchi to sourdough, but in this case - fermented milk products like yogurt and cheese. They do not assist humans in digesting fresh milk. When you convert milk to these other milk products, then yes, their actions will cause the lactose content to drop (but the acidity to rise). Fresh milk does not have appreciable levels of benign lactobacilli to have an impact on lactose digestion. Milk can be treated with lactase early on to produce lactose-free milk. But to hold it that long, pasteurization is advisable.

---> to be continued --->...Who was Weston A. Price?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

From one capital to another

We used to have a rapidly expanding Malaysian restaurant scene in Houston. "Used to" being the operative words - late last year, many of the emergent restaurants just as rapidly shuttered. Now, arisen at the same spot as the restaurant Kuala Lumpur is another restaurant named after a capital: Managua (7818 Bellaire Blvd).

Managua is the capital of Nicaragua, but I am a little unfamiliar with the cuisine of Nicaragua. I resolved to try the place out - stopped by one night to peruse the menu and order something. Inside, the place looks like someone's home; that hasn't changed much from the days of K.L. The place is also cash only (good thing I brought cash), and the ultimate caveat - no one speaks much English. I took that as both good and bad sign - in this neighborhood so close to "new" Chinatown, I'm surprised that they expected and were getting a predominantly Hispanic clientele, at the same time promising some authenticity to the experience.

I found Nicaraguan food clearly a variant of the Cuban/Mexican/Caribbean bent. For example, gallopinto, as it turns out, is simply rice and beans, aka Hoppin' John. Except in the choice of bean - Cubans choose black beans, and call the mixture "Moros y Cristianos". Gallopinto's use of red beans result in a mottling that is reminiscent of certain rooster breeds. I found the pickle vegetables (curtido) tangy and refreshing against expertly fried plantains. And the beef tongue in "special" sauce was tender, flavorful, and sat amidst mushrooms and carrots. Nicaraguan cuisine is supposedly proud of their fresh juices and concoctions, so I ordered some pinolillo, which turns out to be a traditional drink of cornmeal and cacao. Fortunately, sweetened, and served on ice. It was mostly quite sweet, with the cornmeal jutting in occasional gritty sip. It was drinkable, but not notable.

All told, I had a good introduction to the cuisine, although I fear I have yet to sample the dishes that convey the Nicaraguan identity. A good reason for a repeat visit, no?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What the World Eats

Time Magazine and CNN published a series of photoessays available on the web that illustrates what people around the world eat. In the first two segments, they focus on what a family buys in a week, and how much it costs them.
What the World Eats, Part I,

The third part, however, looks at the different places where people buy their food. I didn't know that one could get narwhal meat.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Three stars and the sun

In the aftermath of the weather related calamities visited upon the Philippines a couple of weeks ago, a local Filipino American group called the BahalaNa Tribe organized an Adobo Hoedown on October 18th. Although ostensibly a cook-off featuring the vinegar/garlic scented national dish of the Philippines, what actually emerged was a festival of music, cuisine, karaoke, martial arts, graphic design - a veritable circus in celebration of Filipiniana housed at the mixed arts space Diverse Works.

Plenty of food was to be had. Ranging from traditional plate lunch style servings, to Filipino baked goods, more American bake sale items like pecan tarts, and of course, the actual sampling of various versions of adobo prepared by cooks of earnest and professional caliber. The adobo versions prepared ranged from traditional to avante garde. Jonathan Jones of Beaver's wore his fondness of the Filipino culture proudly, decorating his table with photographs of his trip to Banaue and beyond, and preparing a smokey grilled stew. Other entrants included wet preparations, dry ones, spicy ones - but the pickled papaya was a real stunner, complimenting the rice and adobo rather well.

Of course, one cannot forget the notable Plinio Sandalio and his adobo ice cream (red striped hair to the left). I must admit, Plinio captured the adobo flavor in the ice cream, although the responses from the unprepared was generally comical. On the same station here are the Tuscany Coffee pair, David and Ecky, presenting a collaboration with Randy Rucker on iced coffee with ube.

In the end, though, it was about the people, and the good cause that this supported. The Bahala Tribe did a great job assembling this affair, which I unfortunately had to leave before the event closed. So, I don't know who actually won this handcrafted trophy. Anyone?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

One other thing

Green tea cream puff, Beard Papa
Happy Diwali, everyone.

Share a sweet. I know a green tea cream puff isn't traditional Indian, but it's the spirit that counts, right?

Restaurants go, restaurants come

And sometimes, they are interesting.

In the spot of Kuala Lumpur, one of the once thriving Malaysian restaurants of Houston, a new restaurant has established itself - Managua. I don't think I have had Nicaraguan food before, and this may be worth exploring.

Speaking of capital cities - how a place named Cafe Beirut? It's wonderful that there is a proliferation of new ethnic cuisines, as it emerges from the life cycle of cuisine adaptation here in America. Ms. Horn's essay is wonderfully succinct:

When a group first attains critical mass in America, its restaurants are mostly for its own members. Later, as these groups gain confidence, they begin selling their more accessible foods to a general public craving cheap exotic eats. These dishes then mutate into American form, a la chow mein, and the group's American-born children typically spurn these foods as they try to assimilate. Around the third or fourth generation, the descendants of immigrants are secure enough in their American credentials to explore their "roots." Shortly thereafter, food nostalgia sets in, and the quest for the "authentic" begins.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A quick cake

Ah, the last of the summer peaches are fading from the markets. But back when they were abundant and cheap, I made this cake several times this summer, and it capped our tripartite dessert for the pig roast at the Great Western Casa McBardo. Along with the chai ice cream, we grilled some fresh ripe while freestone peaches. And this peach "cake". Or is it a clafouti?

Basically, you toss the peaches (and the occassional plum... or any handy fruit) with some cornstarch (or flour) and sugar, and layer onto a buttered baking dish.

I mixed up a quick batter (slightly thicker than pancake batter) flavored with vanilla, and poured it over the top, dotted with butter, before baking in a hot oven. Resulting thing was devoured so quickly we don't have photographs.

But word has it that memories of the peach upon peach upon chai combination still ring on months later.

Monday, October 12, 2009

An (unholy?) delicious collaboration

The flavor profile for this is Vietnamese but I think this may be a distinctly American if not houstonian creation. From Parisian Bakery III, I find the rare waffle taco. The shell is a waffle made with coconut and scented with pandanus, and stuffed with black glutinous rice and sweet white bean paste.

Unique and delicious.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

I love controls

I think I've seen this before in a science fair experiment, but certainly not as well documented as this blog posting on finding (and defining) the perfectly boiled egg. I must note, however, despite the careful explanation that incorporates understanding the chemistry of heat denaturation of protein, many of the commenters still pooh-pooh science in favor of old traditions "that have always worked".