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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.