Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Burger and cup

"A $1.95 burger!"

My friend exhorts me to try McCormick and Schmick's Happy Hour specials, served from 4-6:30 (and from 9-11 am, as it turns out) at the Galleria area Uptown Park, only in the capacious bar area. So, I resolve to go try it myself; I arrive at around 4:30, when I am instructed to simply seat myself. I promptly ordered the cheeseburger, medium rare, and waited as I read the other parts of the menu.

First of all, the cheeseburger is really $2.95, although there are other items on the menu which were $1.95 (the parmesan fried asparagus looked particularly interesting). Then my eyes spotted the small print.

*prices valid with a $3.50 minimum drink purchase

Ah, so that's the kicker. That's why the waitress kept coming back and asking if I made up my mind about a drink yet. I ordered an Arnold Palmer (which I had only recently learned was a mixture of lemonade and iced tea). The drink was fine, if a bit overly iced. Not sure if it is worth $3.85. My burger arrived a bit later, a bit cold, with a small collection of fries near it. The fries were somewhat tough; I suspect that they were fried once, allowed to cool (or even refrigerated), before being fried again. It was a decent enough cheeseburger for $3, but inferior to the $5 Smashburger. Well, the deceptive drink requirement effectively pushes that price up anyway.

On the same trip, we had dessert next door at Crave Cupcakes. The store looks like it was pulled out of some LA design studio, with a minimalist aesthetic that is very pretty in bright sunlight. But how was the product? I ordered a dark chocolate flavored cupcake - it was reasonably sized, frosted with a thin layer of butter cream, and sprinkled heavily with chocolate sprinkles. The sprinkles themselves tasted artificial, perhaps constructed out of "mockolate", which distracted from the flavor of the frosting or the cake. The cake itself was rather fragile, falling apart readily when peeled from the liner that it is served from, perhaps to improve the impression of moistness. But the chocolate notes were there, albeit not quite as aggressive as the name implies. It is a serviceable snack/dessert, but not too remarkable, again, specially considering the price (at $3.25, it was more expensive than the burger I just had). I had wanted to evaluate the quality of the frosting, but I couldn't even really taste it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pure texture

Over at the Food in Houston blog, author anonymouseater is experimenting with jellyfish as an ingredient, and discovers that it is actually quite bland and simply a carrier for other flavors. This is actually quite a common theme for Chinese cuisine (and maybe for other localized Asian cultures that have derived it from Chinese influence): the use of ingredients purely for their textural components. Oddly enough, when we speak of food in the Western sense, we strictly focus on flavor (and even there, the language fails in describing things like 麻辣 "hot and numbing"), but Chinese connoseurs will pick apart items based on the interplay of textural components and how they act as carriers of flavor. The most expensive and celebrated ingredients among Chinese cooks: shark's fin and birds nest - the latter being so perilious to gather that it results in a significant number of deaths each year - are both purely textural ingredients.

Likewise, the concept extends to things that are textural, although carry mild flavors of their own - such as tofu and rice. Funny thing is, I think most Western palates would classify shark's fin, birds nest, stewed beef tendon, soft tofu, jellyfish and sea cucumber as simply gelatinous, when in fact, they demonstrate a range of textures appropriate for different applications, just as the different pasta shapes are appropriate for different sauces in Italian cuisine.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The things you encounter

I'm contemplating making clotted cream as a project. I may do it at the great Western Casa McBardo if greglor and family permits, although it is a long process. While researching it, I found that most any pasteurized American cream is inferior to what is available in England - a conclusion that I already knew - although some farmer's markets may stock high quality unpasteurized cream. In any event, this is a blog link worth reading because it is so funny:

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Someone else does the moffle

And they used store bought mochi. From Whole Foods. 


Link to moffle fulfillment and happiness. I do think it's time to experiment with sandwiched moffles on my next visit to the great Western Casa McBardo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is this a gym?

Over on a little strip mall on Bellaire near BW-8 is this establishment on the second floor (for people not from Houston - or new to town - this is right around 'new Chinatown'). We spotted it while eating at Banana Leaf, now one of the few surviving Malaysian restaurants in town (sadly, my old favorite Cafe Malay is now shuttered). Everyone's impressions (who don't read Chinese) is that it is a gym of some sort.

So, I went to check it out - and it is so not a gym. Fit is a place that sells inexpensive Japanese knickknacks. It defies easy categorization - most items they sell are $2, with a few items at a higher price. They sell things from post it notes, a wide array of little desk toys, soaps, containers of various shapes, sizes, colors and Engrish notations...and some kitchen doodads. Notably, this should be your central location for proper, creative, kawaii bento box creation. Everything from cute pastel chopsticks to this teeny dropper containers for soy sauce to molds for making onigiri.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dietetic fail

Just an anecdote from the past: when I was still pretty new to Houston, I went to the cafeteria where I work, and I ordered the salad plate.

Which turns out to be a scoop of potato salad, a scoop of tuna salad, a scoop of chicken salad, and a serving of bean salad.

As I was checking out, the cashier looked at my plate, and sympathetically commented:

"Salads only? On a diet?"

Fat washing

Well, so... I promised I wouldn't post on bacon again... but...

I discovered a rather cool thing on Chowhound a while back. I haven't had time to try it until rather recently. It's called fat washing. Basically, you take the fat left from bacon (or any other source) and mix it with your alcohol of choice. Let it infuse for a spell, and then freeze it to harden the fat, and pass it through cheesecloth to remove the chunks of fat. What you have left behind is the flavour of the fat in the alcohol, without the scum of a separate layer of fat floating on top.

Essentially, the vanilla that we use in baking is an alcohol infusion. You extract the essences of vanilla into alcohol (brandy, generally). It pulls the alcohol-soluble flavourful vanillins into the alcohol, but you don't have the solid bits of vanilla in there. Fat washing does the same thing, but instead of vanilla - you use - well - fat.

It's kind of gross sounding. But kinda good sounding, too. So I had to try it. I used a Woodford Reserve bourbon. I mixed about 2/3 of a cup of bourbon with the drippings from 15 or so strips of cooked, homemade bacon. I mixed them, and let them sit in the fridge for a day, and then in the freezer for a few hours. I passed the bourbon through cheesecloth, and let it warm to room temperature (to ensure that I could do an accurate comparison with the non-treated bourbon). I thought the difference would be subtle - wow was I ever wrong.

HOLY SMOKES!!! No, really. The bacon-bourbon was smokey. And fattish. It mellowed the sweet side of the bourbon, and made it a more smokey scotch-like flavour. It was kind of good, in an unrefined way. I wouldn't want to do it frequently, but as a change of pace, it was quite nice. I bet it would be great in a mixed cocktail. All in all, it's another way to add bacon to your diet. And something to talk about during those awkward silences with your coworkers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Patrons and privilege

For someone who is perennially sober, I have very bad luck when it comes to bars. Last Friday night, I tried to meet some of the local Chowhounds at a new bar called Anvil. I say tried, because I was turned away at the door. I was politely told that they were at capacity that evening (no, there wasn't a line behind me), but would welcome me another time. When I reported this to the other Chowhounds who visited Anvil that night (most of who were quite enthusiastic about their drinks), most were quite mystified by the event. Hypotheses ranged from my mistaking a different bar for Anvil to having some mischevious client posing as the Anvil doorman to turn me away as a practical joke.

I would be nonplussed by the incident, were it not for the fact that I have experienced being barred at the Houston trendy bar scene before, and it was quite ugly. I was to meet some friends at a midtown Houston bar called Pub Fiction, but when I walked up the door, was told that I was wearing inappropriate pants. I apologized for not being aware of the dress code, and inquired what was appropriate. I was told that it changes from night to night. As I spent the next hour in vain trying to contact the people inside who may think that I am standing them up, I observed that some people were going in and out in ratty tattered shorts, and sandals with nary a concern, while others were being barred even though they were dressed rather nicely. I then made the connection that there is a very strong correlation between the racial makeup of the people being barred and those being let through.

I found plenty of comments online describing racial profiling going on at Pub Fiction. Speaking with bartender friends, I learned that bar owners in these neighborhoods do instruct their personnel to weed out people based on their ethnic makeup, because they fear that if a bar becomes perceived as catering specifically to a type of minority, they'll lose the more lucrative mainstream market. To which I understand the balkanization that "gay bars" undergo, but apparently, there are "black bars", "Asian bars", and other such liquid ghettos all over the place. Perhaps I have grown accustomed to the English pub concept which acts as a central gathering place for all members of the community. Incidentally, I am loathe to invoke discrimination as an explanation, as the phenomenon can be rather subtle. Defenders of Pub Fiction have blamed me for not dressing up appropriately for the "scale" of the establishment.

This ties in with a recent discussion on the Houston Chowhound forum asking as to the definition of a "high end" restaurant. Is it just the food? I daresay it really is the trappings, pretentious as they may be. After all, exclusivity refers to someone being excluded, be they men who refuse to wear jackets as they eat, or perhaps colored folk who should be serving not being served. Many modern restaurateurs have eschewed the trappings as being archaic, adopting more casual attitudes to bring good food and drink to more people.

Incidentally, this story has a happy ending. On the public Chowhound forum, Anvil proprietor Robert Huegel openly acknowledged that they had to close the bar for a short while to new customers as they are working out capacity problems, apologized for it, and offered me a free drink if I would give them another chance.

All told, a very classy response to the situation. Kudos.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Where automobiles roam

Yesterday saw the "soft" opening of the burger chain Five Guys Burgers and Fries here in Houston at the emerging commercial strip mall at Bunker Hill and I-10. The place was mobbed due to a promotion offering free burgers to people on Facebook. A local contingent of Houston Chowhounds made an expedition to try out the burgers of course, but I failed to join them due to scheduling conflicts. I had other plans in the area later in the evening, so I decided to check the place out, even if I had to pay for the food (how expensive can a burger be? - turns out, around $5). Although they let me in initially, the manager hurriedly intercepted me on the way to the ordering line to tell me that they aren't really open yet, and ushered me out of the place (which was, incidentally, teeming with people eating burgers, so I can't say I wasn't a just little miffed).

So, I took a moment to walk around this emerging commercial megalopolis. Although not quite stocked with vendors yet, the area promises to be huge. At the back of Five Guys, I found the other little gem of this area - an upscale branch of El Rey Taqueria! This Mexican/Cuban chicken and comfort food joint makes great food, and is a stalwart standby of the Shepherd/Heights area for a while. The menu seems relatively unchanged except for slightly higher prices.

Adjacent to these two restaurants are a few more chain eateries: Panda Express, an Arby's, Denny's and an Olive Garden. And an obvious predominance of drive-thru windows. Despite the proximity of these establishments, the designers do not expect pedestrian cross pollination of clientele - there are barely any established pedestrian walk zones.

Such is the stereotype of automobile driven life in Houston.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stacking the deck

I bought a slice of banana poundcake from Starbucks this afternoon, and noticed that it tasted rather intensely of banana. Very intensely. I suspect that Starbucks (or at least the source of this particular piece of cake) used an additive - isoamyl acetate - which is the "essence" of that distinctive banana flavor, and used too much of it. It is rather unpleasant, remind me to bake some banana bread as soon as I manage to get some bananas to overripen.

The universal recycling techniques

I was reading an article on how to be a thrifty cook, and it occurred to me that most of these articles focus on a limited number of methods to really stretch leftovers:

1. Raw food scraps can be stored and simmered for stock (meat and veg), or added to soups and sauces (cheese).

2. Savory food leftovers can be battered, or crumbed, and fried. Preferably deep fried.

3. Sweet leftovers can be covered in chocolate

4. When in doubt, puree and make into a sauce. :)

At the end of the day, if you had to throw it out, well, they're just scraps anyway.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Guess you can't call a burger a sandwich

Of course, these internet polls are far from scientific, but this recent posting on Slashfood lists some 54 "best" sandwichesfrom all over the US, and I noticed two things about the list:

1. There are no burgers on the list.

2. Texas isn't on the list. <- this latter observation being my ulterior motive so I can scope the place out.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Kitchen visitor etiquette

While at a most excellent St. Patrick's day party, I noticed that the host was carving the corned beef without regard to the grain of the meat, resulting in a number of slices that were tough to chew on. I wanted to point it out, but refrained, feeling that it may be rude to lecture someone in their own kitchen. Come to think of it, what is appropriate behavior in such a circumstance?

I didn't think there was a tactful way of bringing up a carving lesson at the moment, and let it slide.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Guilty Indulgences #1 - HEB Cornbread Entertainer biscuits

Usually, I am loathe to use processed foods, things which seem ubiquitous in many American kitchens. Most people I know can't even imagine making pancakes or cakes without resorting to the boxed mixes, whereas I have a hard time even buying a loaf of industrial presliced bagged bread. But I'll confess to my guilty indulgences - there are a small number of processed food items that I find either enjoyable or irreproducible in any other form, and I'll feature them in a series of blog posts.

First up, a recent discovery:

HEB's Cornbread Entertainer Crackers

Not exactly flaky, more crumbly. Somewhat sweet, goes rather well with a cup of hot tea and some cheese - and watching a Wallace and Grommit film. Cheap enough that I can't seem to justify learning how to make them :).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Frugality and necessity

The global slowdown in the economy impacts everyone (unless you're living in one of those communities which still has a barter economy - but then again, you'd not be likely to be reading blogs now, would you?), and the record high unemployment rates hits close to home for most. I have a friend who was recently laid off, and is thus, on a very tight budget. Nonetheless, I felt no qualms about inviting said person out to lunch, because I plan on (and usually go to) rather inexpensive ethnic eats establishments in the city.

"I don't eat vegetables."

There, in a matter of fact fashion, my friend dismissed an entire class of food as, well, not food.

I am really of mixed emotions about the matter. For one thing, I am sympathetic to someone who is recently unemployed, and I was prepared to treat for the meal. But on the other hand, under financial straits, eating less meat is a surefire way of being frugal and being sensibly healthy as well.

Perhaps I don't understand the plight of the adult picky eater. To their minds, most plants are simply inedible. And I have to admit, I encountered this mostly in America, where for many, a meat-heavy item is a necessary focal point of a meal - even to the point that when someone is a vegetarian, one must emulate the meat-heavy item (ie, veggie burgers, tofurkeys). The diversified "flexitarian" meal patterns of many other, less privileged, cultures seem inconceivable.

What do you think? Does one who is in enforced frugality have the choice to avoid vegetables in their diet?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

London Sizzles...sort of

Saturday night, I joined a group of local Houston Chowhounds for dinner at London Sizzler, an Indian restaurant in the Southwest part of Houston. I guess I am reviewing the dining experience, which actually falls into three parts: the company, the ambiance, and the food.

1. The company of the local Chowhound group is convivial, at time riotous, always educational, and funny. In short, thumbs up. If you like food, and happen to live in the area, get thee to a HouCH event some time. And you'll get a group of people who will happily order every other item on the menu just to try it. Whee!

2. The ambiance of London Sizzler is meant, I suppose, to reflect a higher end pub feel. In that sense, it worked - the place has a sizeable bar, and a good attendance of people who seem to be having a good time. And that all comes a lot of promise to the food, as I overheard one group enthusiastically tucking into their order.

3. When asked what he thought of the food so far, local food explorer Jay summed things up very nicely : "Did you want me to be honest or tactful?"

And in all honesty, the food at London Sizzler was at best a mixed bag. Our appetizers ranged from pretty good (lamb samosa) to a little odd (vegetable samosa with cinnamon) to just bad (onion bhaji ). In general, items that came out of the tandoor (oven) were rather nice - the tender tandoori chicken, and the nicely baked breads. But the stewed items, like rogan josh or the vindaloo, were just hot with a capsaiscin burn, but no underlying complexity of spice. Or perhaps the hotness overwhelmed whatever more subtle masala there. The chicken tikka masala was pretty bland, though - in all likelihood, properly reflecting Anglicized Indian cuisine.

But is this a failure? I actually saw the food as the ultimate reflection of adaptation - first, transplant Indian food to England, where the meats become overcooked, and the spice level has to be brought down. I've experience this eating in a pub in a rural English countryside, where the "fearsome" chicken curry was so bland, I could have probably rubbed it on raw wound without flinching. Then bring that cuisine to Texas, and the locals will demand that be doctored up with lots of chili. But in the process, that complex mix of Indian spices and herbs, that melange of flavors forming the bedrock, is lost.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

It is a puzzlement

I always wonder why there are recipes for dealing with leftovers. Like, say, Garbage Pail Pasta. By definition (and probably what is most perplexing for people who follow recipes strictly), leftovers are unpredictable in quantity, if not in composition, and holding up a prescribed recipe seems counter intuitive.

Cake decoration failure

fail owned pwned pictures
see more pwn and owned pictures

I like watching Failblog :).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Steel cut oats from Jamba Juice

Well, for only a buck. I personally really like steel cut oats, and most people who only know pasty microwave oatmeal should give real slow cooked oats a try. I can make some at home, but I am curious how Jamba Juice does. I know that a recent survey (I need to find the link) between the offerings from such joints as Starbucks awarded Jamba as the best tasting variety.

Definitely worth a try.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Smiling Irish

Ah, March. The things that this month brings - there are the religiously motivated Easter and Passover meals (the traditional beast for feasting at the Casa McBardo is bunny). And then there is the oddly interpreted St. Patrick's Day celebrations in a couple of weeks. I've been invited to such a party, although I suspect that culinary pursuits are less of a pursuit than green dyed beer and kilts (yes, I know those are traditionally Scottish, but for some reason, the party host insists that kilts are part of the celebration).

I see many parallels between St. Paddy's and Cinco de Mayo, where the significance of the event is so diluted that anything remotely reminiscent of the cultures they originate from (Ireland in the former, Mexico for the latter) is considered sufficient. In this case, many of the common outlets should be featuring "traditional" Irish cuisine, ranging from corned beef and cabbage (odd, since beef was quite expensive in poverty stricken Ireland), to colcannon, and, of course, beer. The iconic crop of Irish cooking is seen as potatoes, although potatoes weren't introduced into Ireland until the 16th century from the New World. Potatoes became so central to Irish cuisine, though, that they are an abject historical example of the dangers of monoculture agriculture - the potato blight and following famine stands as one of the defining moments of Irish history, when so many people starved to death.

But, really, we need to focus on the actual significance of St. Patrick himself. Which means that the appropriate beast of the feast in this case should be ... snake.