Standard Pages (they don't change often)

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...