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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sweet things

This may be one of the longest blog descriptions of a meal ever :). But we're near the finish line. To recap, we had just finished an orgy of meat paired with vegetables cooked in duck fat. Yet a great deal of the energy actually went into the making of this Thomas Keller recipe, involving a pineapple that is roasted, cut into "chops", coated in vanilla, caramel and butter, and served with deep fried custard and whipped cream. In a word - outrageous. Before we embarked on serving that, however (and there are numerous components to it), time for yet another palate cleanser.

In this case, #14 lemon-lavender cookies, with ricotta cheese and honey. Or at least the aftermath thereof. We really need to get better at the photography.

Finally, the coup de grace: An array of #15 roasted pineapple "chops" in vanilla, caramel sauce, with fried custard.

The main comment afterwards is that although it looked pretty, it wasn't that easy to eat, since the retained inedible pineapple skin made handling difficult. That doesn't stop the truly dedicated, who will pick it up and eat it as it would be a meat chop. Not a complete success, as the final assembly of the dish involves hot and cold items that need to be fired up and set in place. The fried custard is easy enough to make, and probably dominates the dish too much. I also suspect that the documentation on making the caramel sauce is missing something. 

But that's not all. 

A guest decided to bring in a bonus course #16...or where else we can stash it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Munching on Meat

After the palate cleanser (and putting kids to bed), we went on to the meatier portion of the meal. Here, the dishes are served in protein-veg combinations. But to be sure, duck fat was used in cooking either of the vegetable dishes.

#10 Gailan in duck fat. Hmm, this may seem familiar. Okay, it may be a little tame, but we paired it with #11 Chicken grilled in pandan leaves. To do this, chicken meat was marinated in a wet rub of coriander, and ginger pounded into a paste, and then wrapped in pandan (aka, screwpine) leaves. The package is then grilled until the pandan leaves char (but steaming and scenting the chicken with the distinctive aroma). It's a good technique, as it leaves the chicken very moist.

#12 Fingerling potatoes in duck fat. This is a classic preparation, and as easy as they come - brown halved fingerling potatoes in hot duck fat, finish in oven, and salt it.

Lucky #13 is hickory grilled pork with mussamum sauce, an idea cobbled from my fascination with sacrilege dining. The pork were these cuts of pork butt in strips, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and grilled with some charcoal and a bit of hickory wood. The sauce is a complex mixture of coconut, peanut, garlic, vinegar, palm sugar, chili flakes, coriander, fish sauce and cilantro. I thought we had made twice as much as we needed to - but the dish was licked clean in the end.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Intermission: Rant

Okay, this is food related, but it shouldn't be. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is heavily advertising some event called Big Bite Nite. Supposedly, with representation from some of the city's best restaurants (I noticed, however, that Jamba Juice is there...).

My rant - what does this have to do with (natural) science? There is a tiny little segment supposedly on the chemistry of cooking ... that is at best reaching. It links to a couple of short videos, one on making butter from cream, and another on ice cream, and links further to articles like this one: The Science Behind Ice Cream. Go ahead, take a quick peek, and come back. Notice that although there is a recipe for making ice cream, there is really no discussion of science. It's only in the title, very GWB-esque.

Food and cuisine are a fantastic teaching tool when used creatively, from Heston Blumenthal's Kitchen Chemistry, to Harold McGee's seminal work, and an understanding behind the science of taste itself. The way this thing is structured is pablum for (potentially) wealthy people who see dinosaur skeletons as yet another objet d'art rather than an important stimulus for critical thinking and an understanding of the natural universe.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Defeating the spikes

The patriarch of the Great Western Casa McBardo has been enamored of late of a couple of cookbooks. For the grand dame of the seafood courses, he chose to cook from Grant Achatz's Alinea cookbook. If you're not familiar with the work of Grant Achatz, he is one of the chefs in the forefront of the molecular gastronomy movement, and his Chicago-based restaurant Alinea was recently listed as among the top 10 restaurants in the world. The cookbook is not one for the faint of the heart, describing dishes that call for an antigriddle or volcano smokers to prepare. Nonetheless, greglor undertook the task of preparing #8 Uni in vanilla gelee.

First of all, we need to get uni - which is sea urchin roe. Well, not really roe in the fish sense, as we don't really know the sex of the urchin. More like urchin gonads. Trust me, it's yummy when fresh and well prepared. So, it has to be impeccably fresh. Turns out that one of the stalls at one of the San Diego farmer's markets is staffed by divers who sell these beautiful live sea urchins. Based on the color, and the size, I swear these are Strongylocentrotus purpuratus.

Sea urchins are echinoderms, related to starfish, and like their kin, exhibit a five point radial symmetry, although the ball shape and spines disguise this. Trust me, on the inside, it is definitely evident. First, though, you got to get inside. To do this, one cuts around the mouth area with a pair of kitchen shears (don't try this with a knife), and shake out most of the guts (good thing the vendor provides dissection instructions).

See the orange stuff? That's the yummy uni, arranged along the shell in between ribs in a five point symmetry. One has to scoop them out with a spoon, intact - this is a lot trickier than it seems, as you're trying to scoop out delicate stuff while essentially blind since your hand will block the hole you're seeing through.

Here's something a little spooky - eviscerated sea urchins continue to move...

The extracted uni has to be soaked in salted iced water to permit them to firm up. After that, they are embedded in the gelee - which contained a huge amount of vanilla. Individual rounds are punched out of the gelatin, set carefully on a spoon, topped with a piece of red jalapeño pepper, a piece of mint, and a sprinkling of black volcanic sea salt.

The result is a single bite with a riot of flavors and textures, ranging from the creaminess of the uni, the sweetness of the gelee, the blast of heat from the pepper, and the final finish of salt.

After something that intense, we needed to refresh the diners, and served #9 Lime Basil Sorbet as a palate cleanser. Which resulted in the quip of the night:

"I could cleanse my palate all night!"

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tasting Intermission

A brief interlude as I talk about my sudden foray into Feast, a celebrated restaurant here in Houston. Much as been said recently about Feast, including a review by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, which was catapulted this young establishment into national attention. I was spontaneously invited to dinner there last night, with a crowd of fellow food enthusiasts, two of whom are already established fans of Feast. On a weeknight, the place had a casual feel to it, akin to a rustic British pub, dark wood tables, and nice paintings. I wouldn't have been surprised if a local knight strolled in inquiring about room in the inn upstairs.

Unfortunately, I didn't take photographs, as I didn't have a camera with me, and besides, most of the dishes were eaten within seconds of the plate resting on the table.

The menu at Feast rotates regularly, and our waiter wasn't shy about making recommendations. Much has been spoken about the bread at Feast, and this is my first opportunity to sample it. Served with some warmish butter (in misleading containers that make it appear that they contain more than a pat of butter), the breads were dense, and had a pronounced sourish flavor, but a pretty closed crumb. Served cold, I liked them well enough as being above average for bread served in Houston - but not particularly fantastic. I think the standards for bread is just so low in most places in town (maybe in general in America, compared to the norm in places like Germany and Britain) that these slices are hailed so strongly.

For appetizers, we got the pork cheek and dandelion salad, some brawn with picallili, and off the menu chicken cracklings. The chicken cracklings were savory, crispy chips of meaty umami and salt. The brawn was described as being the tastiest head cheese ever - if you like head cheese. Personally, I really liked the pork cheek and dandelion salad. Very nice complementation of textures and flavors.

Main courses - I ordered the beef tongue with root vegetables (which turned out to be carrots and parsnips), and other dishes ordered included some lamb and pork belly. I also ordered a side of roasted brussels sprouts to try them out. The sprouts were quartered before being cooked in an appropriately hot oven so that you get these caramelized spots. An ample sprinkling of salt, and its a pretty tasty dish. I've had better, but these are more than serviceable.

I'm not a big fan of lamb, but I can attest to the requisite gaminess of the lamb preparations. The sides were fun, nice crispy potatoes, and cabbage. The pork belly was cooked crispy on the outside, rich and porky throughout. What I tasted of it was a success - but I'll hold it up against a proper lechon kawali some time. The beef tongue was nicely prepared, mild, flavorful, tender (but still chewy)...although I thought two slices was rather miserly. The carrots were nice, but the parsnips were all over the place - a piece nearly raw, another practically mush, another too woody to cut with a knife. The broth was very flavorful, and I wished we had sopped it up with bread. Actually, we did, but we were getting full. I think I would have preferred a more reduced sauce rather than the jus poured over mashed potatoes - as it was, it felt like a shame to waste all the flavor.

We ended the meal with some bread pudding and sticky toffee pudding. The bread pudding was again all right (after all, it started with good bread), but the sticky toffee pudding was the better of the two. The strong caramelized notes of toffee complemented the warm confection quite well, and it wasn't sitting in that usual pool of creme anglaise found in so many other restaurants.

Overall, I liked the unpretentiousness of the place, and the good service, but I found the food still having rough edges that could be worked out. I have a feeling it'll come into its own, but I do need to investigate the maturation.

Now, what was I talking about?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Into the sea

After the series of "appetizers" - for lack of a better term - we moved on to the fish courses. Which is kind of fun, because we only had one vertebrate fish in the series. While shopping for ingredients, we noticed that the store (99 Ranch) stocked #6 green New Zealand mussels in addition to the more conventional black mussels. Seeing no price difference between the two, we opted to take a risk, and get the green ones - mostly because they were so pretty. For the party, I took a large heavy pot, heated a bit of oil, threw in slices of ginger and galanga root, and a bashed up lemongrass stem. A few minutes of cooking, and in go the cleaned mussels (still alive, I hope), along with a splash of water. Clamp on the lid, and go back to socializing. About 15 minutes later, I peek in the pot to find that most of the mussels had opened up (whew! - we were a little worried that the soak in California tap water would be too harsh on these saltwater denizens). I took them to the table to be eaten.

The mussels were a revelation: plump, meaty (most of them nearly filled each shell), they tasted clean and bright, and the liquor was yummy sopped up with the grilled bread.

And one guest got a bonus: this little baby crab was probably trapped inside one bivalve. We joked that it's like a king cake. More like a shell game, I guess (ba-dam-bump - thank you, thank you...)

We followed this up with a #7 ceviche, prepared from red snapper, lime and lemon juices, chopped up jalapeños, kumquats, cilantro and Asian pears. Fruity and fishy - but it works.

The grand dame of the piscine tableau deserves a post of its own. A hint, though - it involves a spiky purple ball.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Deconstruction and reinterpretation

The most complicated of the "appetizers" is the arguably #4 Pizza Soup. The dish had three components, although fortunately the mozzarella can be served directly in the form of bocconcini. The idea is a kind of deconstructed pizza. The main soup itself is tomato based, of course, derived from using both fresh plum tomatoes, and canned tomatoes (we resorted to this combination because we're not quite in the peak of tomato season yet, and I deemed the plum tomatoes I picked up merely adequate). The fresh tomatoes are peeled, seeded, and then added to a saucepan which contained sizzling mustard seeds, olive oil and garlic. After cooking down a bit, a large can of crushed tomatoes was added, seasoned with dried oregano, and allowed to slow simmer for a while. Seasoning was adjusted, fried lardons of home made bacon and a healthy dose of torn basil leaves were added.

For the "crust", I resorted to a high water content bread dough, and allowed it to ferment for 20 hours so that autolysis will form the gluten, and the flavor can develop. The dough was punched down, and spread into a flat shape, before being spread with olive oil, salt, and fresh rosemary. After a few minutes to rest, the dough was slid on a hot grill to seal the outer edges, flipped, and baked on the grill in indirect heat to produce this rustic bread. Crusty and toothsome, it probably has quite a bit more in common with naan bread than pizza, but the char certainly brings in the character of the dough.

The final assembled soup consists of a ladel of soup, topped with a fresh mozzarella ball, and a hunk of the bread.

We ended this portion of the meal with something that serves both as palate cleanser and "mini-dessert" - #5 Apple slaw rolls. Granny smith apples were cut into thin sticks, as was fresh pineapple, and dried cranberries, and dressed with quark (a kind of soft cheese) and honey. The slaw is wrapped in thin tapioca sheets in the same style as Vietnamese spring rolls.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dining begins in earnest

One thing we have learned about these multicourse tapas dinners is that we should designate someone to be the dedicated photographer. We haven't take pictures of all the dishes, which is unfortunate. But the early portion of the meal continued.

#2: After the pahjeon, we served these parmesan crisps filled with goat cheese. Parmesan cheese was carefully microplaned, mounded in ring mold on silpat sheets, baked, and quickly formed into these cups by forming them into egg case cups. The crispy cheesy goodness was further accentuated by a creamy goat cheese filling. These were rather well received.

#3 The next course was a plate of roasted summer squash blossoms, and spring asparagus, done in olive oil and salt. At the center are king oyster mushrooms, cut into rounds, and treat like scallops (seared with a little salt, finished with a dab of butter, and a sprinkle of flat leaf parsley). Some were surprised that the flowers were edible, and many have never had king oyster mushrooms before. They are a real treat, and hold up very well to the searing treatment.

When eleven isn't enough

As the opportunity arose to cook once more at the Great Western Casa McBardo, greglor's first response was:

"Let's try to cook more dishes than last time!"

Last time, we served eleven dishes in a tapas style roll out, impromptu. This time we were a bit more organized, as having a whiteboard written menu be a guiding game plan. The dinner was divided into a series of "courses", each one rolling out in turn.

#1 As people arrived, we started out with pieces of pah-jeon - Korean scallion pancake. Actually, pahjeon is pretty straightforward, and malleable to different regional interpretations. The version we made came from egg, a bit of flour, cold water, salt, cayenne pepper, and a lot of chopped scallions. The pancake was cut into rustic serving pieces, and served with a dipping sauce prepared from raw garlic, soy, vinegar, sesame oil, chili powder, and a pinch of sugar.

That is just the beginning.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The teaser

Feasting at the Great Western Casa McBardo. Photographs and details forthcoming. But last night was a 15, nay, 16 course extravaganza:

  1. Pah-jeon squares (Korean style scallion pancake)
  2. Parmesan crisps with goat cheese
  3. Roasted asparagus and friends
  4. Pizza soup
  5. Apple slaw rolls
  6. Mussels in lemongrass and ginger
  7. Red snapper ceviche
  8. Uni in vanilla gelee
  9. Lime basil sorbet
  10. Stir fried gailan
  11. Chicken in pandan leaf
  12. Fingerling potatoes cooked in duck fat
  13. Hickory smoked pork with mussamum sauce
  14. Lemon lavender cookies with honeyed ricotta
  15. Caramel and vanilla coated pineapple with deep fried custard
  16. (twinkies)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Catch up

This weekend, I am once more at the Great Western Casa McBardo, enjoying the hospitality and the opportunity to cook in the dry climes of Southern California. We have an ambitious cooking project later today, but I did cook dinner as soon as I got in, but due to the rush, we didn't photograph it. Nonetheless, here's the description:

Chicken and pork adobo, reinterpreted slightly. This is a dish that has numerous variations, but at its core is chicken and pork cooked in vinegar and garlic. My version used plenty of garlic, peppercorns, ribbons of dried ancho chiles, a sprinkling of fenugreek, whole roasted chestnuts, rounded out with coconut milk, and finished with a healthy sprinking of cilantro.

Side dishes were rice cooked with dates, and mixed with toasted pine nuts, and a simple stir fry of blanched green beans, carrots and enoki mushrooms in olive oil, garlic and salt. The Grand Patriarch of McBardo cracked a bottle of sake and served it in a shamrock-graced cheeky shotglass.

After that, we began cooking in earnest.

Monday, April 13, 2009

One name to bind them all

A problem I have been wrestling with is the issue of how restaurant reviewers tend to focus on a dish and some idealized paradigm of how that dish should be. For example, you have blogs that just focus on a "good" hamburger - whatever that incarnation may be. There are aficionados who decry the dry burger, or the addition of onions or garlic because it interferes with the "beefiness" of the flavor. But perhaps there are independent interpretations of each dish, and we just lack the language to do them justice.

Recently, I ordered beef noodle soup at four different locations, and came up with four different interpretations. In general, the beef used is a cheaper cut chuck full of tendons - consequently, chewy and flavorful. The directions taken, as well as the choice of noodles, vary greatly.

Tea Cup Cafe: in the same strip mall as Viet Hoa, this is the most expensive item on the menu. The broth is redolent with star anise and ginger, served with egg noodles, and plenty of blanched bok choy. It is comforting on a chilly night, and coupled with free WiFi access, makes for a well paced single bowl meal.

Fufu Cafe's interpretation of the beef noodle soup is spicy, complex in flavor, served in an enormous bowl (in my opinion, sufficient to serve three people), bolstered with a dose of pickled mustard leaves, uses excellent home made wheat noodles...and is about $2 cheaper than the version from Tea Cup Cafe. No WiFi, though, but I don't really know if that is something that can be tasted :).

Many Vietnamese restaurants (for example, Mai's in Midtown) offer at least two versions of the beef noodle soup. Bun bo Hue, a spicy brothy soup that is coupled with pork blood cubes, and uses rice noodles, and bun bo kho, more of a stew with carrots, and cinnamon, and usually served with egg noodles.

Thai Spice Express serves the Thai beef curry noodle, rich with coconut milk, spiked with fish sauce, fresh herbs, and tamarind, and carrying a hard boiled egg as a coup de grace.

Dare we even compare these versions to canned beef noodle soup?

I personally can't put these dishes on the same scale - they are different variations of a theme, each one with strengths the others don't. How pointless would it be to say where the best beef noodle soup is to be found?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Of resurrection and dining

The subtext of the image of Easter as a celebration is a hybrid, a veneer of Christian interpretation of divine reanimation laid over the more primal celebration of rebirth, and fecundity in spring. Hence, the bizarre juxtaposition of eggs, bunnies, lambs and Peeps in the food scene for the period.

I think ham was added just to piss off the Jews with the recent conclusion of Passover.

Although, in reality, I think ham is the more appropriate item to celebrate reincarnated food - it was dead, and yet preserved and eaten again. In that light, I propose that the new foods of Easter should look at reincarnated food stuffs. For example:

1. Century eggs (pi-dan) - black, stinky, eggs that should be dead -- but are yummy in a bowl of congee. Maybe remarketed as Zombie Eggs? Problem is, they aren't easy to hide.

2. Bread pudding - stale bread reborn as unctuous dessert. Can be risen again on the third day even.

3. Biscotti - baking the first time should have killed it; but doesn't really come to it's own until the second baking.

Actually, almost anything made from leftovers would be good. That way, we can roll together the tradition with spring cleaning - clearing out the fridge.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Surprisingly good

Just got off the plane on, and I was surprised at what they served in coach class on Continental Airlines. Along with a generic iceberg lettuce salad, they had a package of "Spinach Feta Spirals". Think cinnamon rolls, except using spinach and feta cheese. It was actually quite good.

Although I note that there is no meat involved, I daresay this was a well done microwaveable product. I wonder who came up with it.

I should be in the Great Western Casa McBardo this weekend. And we expect to cook up a storm.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Shalom y'all and all that

Despite the gruesome premise of the holiday (remembering a evening of divine massacre), one of the things I admire about the celebration of Passover is that it is structured around a meal. Done well, a seder is at once a contemplative and educational experience, respecting the history and lessons of a people through times of hardship and perseverance, and a meal slowly paced, where each item has significance and meaning, and company and food can both be tested and savored.

The coincidence with the Christian/Pagan hybrid Easter celebration is at times just hilarious. After all, for many, the Easter meal is traditionally commemorated by a ham. Last year, I witnessed the hysterics of a proper Jewish woman so insulted at Central Market by having the Passover display right next to the bacon and ham section. The Casa McBardo tradition of feasting on bunny is a bit more apropos, methinks.

(On a side note, last night, I made an observation that the Hindus don't really need to celebrate Easter because for them, everyone gets reborn.)

Personally, I think we need a traditional party celebrating Good Friday. Hot cross buns were invented to remind people of the crucifixion day, but we can go all out. I say cruciform food, dancing to Madonna music from the 80's, and gambling for scraps of cloth should be in order. Heck, we could do the gambling with dreidels and bridge the histories.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Universal Improvers

There are some elite ingredients that seem to improve any dish...well, at least to the mind of most people. At least when they're not talking about dessert. If you consider filling in the blank:

"----- always makes things taste better."

I think there are a limited set of items that can fit in there. Such as...

"A fried egg"






So, care to try your hand at filling in the blank?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Guilty Indulgences #3 - Popcorn, Indiana Kettle Corn

Kettle corn is indeed a strangely addictive substance. Basically corn that has been popped in the presence of sugar to create a thin coating of melted sugar, plus a sprinkling of salt, it should be easy enough to prepare at home. I've seen Youtube videos demonstrating how to make it, yet, somehow, it's still a little tricky to prepare in small batches. I have heard that kettle corn purveyors can be found sometimes in carnivals and other street events, but I have never encountered fresh kettle corn in the Houston area.

After testing all the available prepackaged kettle corn (most of who overload with sugar, making it a difficult differentiator from caramel corn), I have settled on a favorite: Popcorn Indiana. While it doesn't quite compare to freshly made kettle corn, there is nary an unpopped kernel in each bag. And it is a nicely nuanced sweet/salt balance. Not exactly the cheapest thing, it is comparable in price to other chip snacks, but a reasonable indulgence.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Warnings in all the right places?

Lately, I've noticed that many establishments have posted signs warning about the negative effects of alcohol on pregnancies. Written in the second person vernacular: "If you think you may be pregnant..." Which is good. 

The curious thing is that these signs are all in the men's toilets

No, this is not an April Fool's joke, although I do write it in tribute.