Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Babkaquest: Shaka, when the walls fell

The term, of course, refers to something in Star Trek, in tribute to the opening of the rebooted franchise movie. It is a metaphor for failure. This post was originally posted on 10 May 2009, but has been updated with additional material.

While Houston local food enthusiasts take appropriate pride in the diversity of foods available here, there are gaps. Myself, I am fond of chocolate babka bread, a rich yeast bread that originated from Eastern Europe. I discovered this wondrous foodstuff in the New York City. I usually make the effort to pass by Zabar's in NYC, and pick up a few loaves of Green's chocolate babka bread to bring back to Houston. Fortunately, the stuff freezes well, but I have been looking for a local source for babka bread.

The main source of Jewish style baking is Three Brothers Bakery, which has been shuttered since Hurricane Ike. They allegedly would make babka bread ever Friday, although in all the times I've tried, they never seem to have it in stock. Perhaps the best in grocery bakery in town, Central Market, tried its hand at babka bread a while back, and it was awful. I bought a loaf and was so appalled at the product, I actually wrote a letter of complaint. I've never seen it stocked there ever again.
Slices of Central Market Babka - not a good thing
Last December, the local Whole Foods carried Green's babka, albeit at quite a markup (and I don't know if this is a special arrangement, but it seemed quite a bit smaller from what I remember it to be). However, I was informed that this was a seasonal arrangement (which I don't understand - babka isn't really a celebratory food).

Recently, I was advised that babka bread is available at Kenny and Ziggy's in the Galleria. Excited that there may be a good local baker of babka, I took the opportunity to order it there when I went there for lunch yesterday. One thing about Kenny and Ziggy's is that the place is an exaggerated stereotype of a New York touristy midtown deli, complete with oversized desserts, homemade pastrami, walls covered in Broadway posters, but with a conveniently spacious dining area. The babka was offered with the option of being warmed, and served with ice cream. What arrived was a generous slice of what is unmistakably Green's babka bread. I asked if they made the babka in house, and was told that they don't, but wouldn't tell me their source. I'm pretty certain that they had this shipped in from New York City as well.

So, the verdict still stands: There is no local Houston babka maker. Shame.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Free eBook

Speaking of needing to explain this, Cook's Illustrated offers a free cookbook: An Illustrated Guide to Foolproof Cooking. The catch? It's an eBook.

For Kindle.

The dilution of the press

I have to link to BBQdude's most recent posting on Indirect Heat (it's a pretty nice blog, please go subscribe), where he bids adieu to a long enduring subscription to Gourmet magazine. In it, he decries that Gourmet, well, doesn't do gourmet anymore. And that's a problem - everywhere I look, the cooks who once inspired me are disappearing, being replaced by personalities and procedures dumbed down to make cooking "approachable" and "easy". From the loathesome prattlings of Sandra Lee to the endorsement of precut vegetables by Rachael Ray (can you believe that Central Market has an entire section of the store now devoted to precut vegetables? And "kit cooking"?), to the need to revise such enduring works as The Joy of Cooking to remove overly complicated terms like "creaming butter".

There's a crevasse between teaching and dumbing things down. And I do believe the popular media is doing just that.

Of course, one issue is that just because one has a recipe doesn't mean that one can cook. There's a set of skills that comes from experience that is difficult to record and transmit quickly. Cooking well is an art melded with science, and tempered with performance.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Sushi has increased in popularity in America so much that school cafeterias carry the stuff now. As well as most supermarkets. Unfortunately, most people think about the sliced rolls of rice and seaweed as the incarnation of sushi (in fact, cooking shows almost exclusively focus on this when they say they'll teach you how to make simple sushi at home). Japanese cooking, however, focuses on quality of ingredients, and minimalism in handling. American interpretation is usually just gimmicky.

Sushi's soul, of course, is in the rice, and it comes in multiple shaped variants. Aside from the rather well known nigiri (topped rice balls) and maki (rolled) forms, perhaps the simplest and yet most enjoyable is the chirashi (scattered). For the version I got, nicely cooked sushi rice is topped with small nuggets of tuna and eel. Emerald fragments of cucumber float among yellow cubes of egg, and jewel-like orbs of salmon roe. The textural and flavor contrasts are likewise delightful.

Lunch from Nijiya Market, Sawtelle, Los Angeles.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sharing a ride

Today, around lunchtime, I shared a ride in the elevator with a matronly woman, who, on one hand, held a small ceasar's salad...and the other a large cola and three cookies.

And she took the elevator from the first to the second floor.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Puff creamy

When I ask you about Japanese food, does pastry come to mind? More accurately, choux pastry? Well, an entire franchise based on selling cream puffs sprouted from Japan. Beard Papa's has franchise locations all over the world, but sadly, none in Houston.

The basic cream puff is filled with vanilla pastry cream, and is best eaten in the store. I think I actually see vanilla seed flecks inside.

But that's not all. Among the other flavors (they seem to rotate, although I don't think there are more than four at any one time) is this macha dusted green tea flavor.

The delicate bitterness works with the sweetness of the pastry cream, although I think I much prefer the regular vanilla.

I had these at the Sawtelle branch in Los Angeles.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

All Candy Expo

There are days I wish I could visit Chicago in a heartbeat. Like when the annual All Candy Expo rolls into town. It's a trade expo, so there are all sorts of weird and wacky ideas to be found. Gizmodo covers it, and so far, my favorite is the concept of a bacon lollipop called Man Bait.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Did you inhale?

Okay, so smoking is falling out of fashion (thank heavens) even in Europe (although smoking is the norm in China). So, that opens an entire market for recreational (ahem, legal) inhalation. Enter, Le Whif. An inhaler that supposedly lets you breathe in the sensation of eating chocolate. 

Uh, did someone with asthma just figure out a way to make it dessert?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

These ain't your father's rice cakes

A gallery of creations from the tteok festival in Korea. Tteok (dduk) is the Korean interpretation of glutinous rice cakes, used in both sweet and savory applications, and related to mochi. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Guilty Indulgences #5 - Banana Crisps

Just the latest in an ongoing irregular series about processed foods that meet my approval.

I found these (and still only find these) in HEB stores here in Houston. They seem to be made by some company in New Jersey. They are distinguished from the regular banana chips because they seem to be cut on the more thinly in diagonal, and perhaps fried, resulting in a preternatural crispness that evokes an addictive quality. I can literally finish off a bag in one sitting. I can imagine that it's okay and healthy because I am having fruit. I'd probably be deluding myself.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bring on the explorer

With great pleasure, I welcome Jay Francis, Houston's own Food Explorer, as the newest author to write in this blog. Jay has blogged over at the Houston Press, and is considered a local celebrity in his own right.

Whenever you feel up to it, Jay.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Santa Monica Farmer's Market

I love visiting farmers' markets. I hate to say it, but sometimes our local farmers' markets in Houston aren't quite up to snuff. While I appreciate the availability of such things as organic produce, really, what excites me about such markets are the discovery of new kinds of produce, ideas, and things that simply cannot or will not be carried in regular markets due to cost or handling concerns.

So, on my recent trip to Southern California, I had the chance to visit the Santa Monica Farmer's Market. More accurately, the Pico location for the Saturday market.

I may not have recognized her right away, but the voice was unmistakable - this is Laura Avery, host of The Market Report, on the radio show and podcast, Good Food.

Some long leeks.

I counted at least six different varieties of strawberries on sale. I didn't even know that there were that many. I got to taste three, and they did taste quite different from each other.

Green garlic, which is essentially very young garlic. Seasonal, a spring time treat.

Carrots were available in a myriad of colors.

As was Swiss chard, one of my favorite leafy greens.


The New York Times gets in on the uni action. Notice the mention of a certain dish by Grant Achatz that involves suspending the sea urchin gonads in a clear jelly with vanilla and mint.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The pulse of the fooderati

The while the Houston online scene has been atwitter with talk of the recent national kudos showered on our local high end restaurants, there has been nary a mention of the upcoming 36th Annual Pasadena Strawberry Festival, next weekend. I've been to the Strawberryfest in the past, and found it to be a puzzling affair - after all, the centerpiece is the allegedly largest strawberry shortcake in the world - which isn't really a shortcake. And I don't think they grow strawberries in Pasadena - I saw crates of strawberries imported from California. Then again, it is well into the peak strawberry season.

But the Houston online scene seldom talks about notable varietal crops, or ingredients. Robb Walsh's crusade to bring recognition to the Gulf oyster helps, but after a few months of being active in the "food aficionado" (aka, foodie, chowhead, etc) scene in Houston, I've observed that we seem to be more of an "eating" city than a "cooking" city. Places like Portland talk as much about the berry crop as they do the outrageous doughnut shops. Aside from BBQ, Houston doesn't seem to have much of a cooking culture. Most of the online talk revolves around eating out in restaurants.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Umami burger

On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to try Umami Burger (reviewed in the LA Weekly by Jonathan Gold - the Robb Walsh of LA). The concept intrigued me; umami is the fifth taste, the flavor of meatiness that emanates from perceiving glutamate, an amino acid. It's why people use MSG, or soy sauce, or anchovies.

Now, the caveat - I am not a big burger fan, although I have resolved this year to be less averse to eating burgers. 

This is one gourmet burger - the signature umami burger costs $9, and doesn't come with fries or green trimmings. The description ascribes six different kinds of umami in the sandwich. I detected a roasted tomato, a shiitake mushroom, grilled onions, and a parmesan crisp, along with the juicy burger itself - but that is only five by my count. The burger itself is cooked medium rare, pinkish, juicy, and I have to admit that the different flavors worked well together. It's a pretty good burger sandwich. The sweet potato chips we got to go with it, however, were lackluster and oily. We didn't feel like investigating the "cakemonkeys" that they had available for dessert. 

My own verdict - it's okay. I don't regret ordering it, but I am not dreaming about it. The anticipation has been slaked. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

File it away

File another idea away for the prototype restaurant "Sacrilege"; and appropriate for Cinco de Mayo:

Host Nachos

That is, eucharist crackers covered in cheese, jalapeños, fajita pieces (well, pork carnitas if you must), and quickly baked. Served with margarita in a salt-rimmed chalice, of course :).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Shoestring on the air

I encountered a series of stories on NPR called "How Low Can You Go?" - you can listen to the shows over the internet. The premise is a challenge to cook a meal for four on a budget of US $10, and they invite notable cooks and chefs to meet the challenge. It's a bit of an error-prone system, of course, as specific food costs vary significantly from location to location, even between states in the US (ie, a $10 food budget in Alaska buys very different stuff than in Maine); not to mention the four people may be an adult and three toddlers, or four linebackers. But it's an interesting challenge, as I do think historically, almost all cuisine is born of creativity in times of necessity.

So far, they have done a story with a Spanish chef, a Chinese-American chef (one of my favorite celebrity chefs, Ming Tsai), a former Navy chef, and the Neelys, who have a Food Network show specializing in Southern style home cooking. The last one, the Neelys, kind of dismay me. While the others presented chickpea stew with spinach, upscale fried rice, or skate with potato gnocchi (all foods based on mainly unprocessed ingredients), they did macaroni and cheese. In the interview, they justified the choice because it was filling, and that it was nutritious because it had meat in it. In the form of bacon.

I consider that being nutritionally shortsighted.

Personally, I think I can do pizza soup for four for much less than $10. Certainly enough left over for some slices of pepperoni. 

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A revelation of sorts.

This revelation will be a short one, but I think it's an important point. Every year at Christmas, my family would purchase various and sundry nuts for the table for snacking on. Included in there were walnuts, which I often avoided, due to their bitter aftertaste. As an adult, I have also eaten walnuts, but mostly to be polite in situations where they were being served. That bitter flavour that follows you after eating them just didn't sit well with me, and I found it would take something extremely falvourful to remove that taste from my mouth.

More recently, I've moved to California, where fresh walnuts are readily available at the farmer's market. My mother, a vegetabletarian, bought some on her last visit. Holy smokes if they weren't delicious! Nutty, and mild, with none of the typical bitterness at the end, we've been adding them to salads or eating them plain. They're simply delicious, and I'm a new walnut fan. Imagine my surprise to discover that the vast majority of grocerystore walnuts are simply rancid, and that most people are used to that (and even expect it).

Get yourself some fresh walnuts and taste 'em today!