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Friday, December 31, 2010

Chef driven

A couple of months ago, I walked up to a local food truck, and ordered some tacos. Upon taking my order, the proprietor then proceeded to knead masa and make the tortillas. Needless to say, those tacos took a while to make, but were amazingly delicious. Unfortunately, I don't think most people appreciate the value that the tortilla itself brings to the taco.

Take, for example, my experience dining at one of the newfangled chef-driven food trucks, H-town strEATS.

At $3 per taco, they were double the price of the average taco truck around town, but I suppose some allowances were to be made for such exotica as pork belly and Korean beef tacos. Never mind that such standbys as lengua, sesos, ojos, barbacoa, and chicharrones are already considered exotic by mainstream standards.

To put it gently, I was rather disappointed. The start with, the tacos were presented on machine pressed prefab tortillas. Even reheated on a grill, contrasting that to freshly made tortillas is no contest. What's evident here is that the tortillas are nothing more than carriers for the filling.

So let's talk about the filling. I didn't exactly understand what was Korean about the Korean beef taco, least of all the inclusion of cotija cheese. The pork belly came in the form of shreds. Which already obviates the point of pork belly, which gets a lot of it's appeal from the layering of meat and fat. The contrast with the cucumber is a natural, but not so impressive.

The fried risotto balls (which are Italian arancini near as I can tell) fare a bit better. The rice is proper risotto texture, and there's a little chunk of mozzarella in each one. The tomato jam underneath it is too sweet, however.

The problem I see here is that food trucks are trendy at the moment, and seems that every rising chef sees the need to be amidst this trend, recapitulating "restaurant quality" food on the street, but with much lower overhead. But it isn't food truck quality food, which, contrary to the false dichotomy, can and is actually be very good. And amazingly inexpensive.

Unfortunately, I didn't see the soul in the food of strEATS. It is by no means bad, but at double the going rate of lonchero tacos in town, I'd like to taste more effort.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Favorite food discoveries of 2010

Last week, the leading food critics of Houston ( and posted their respective lists of "best new restaurants" of 2010. Aside from the fact that both lists aim to be a list of 10 (one doesn't quite make it to ten, the other chafes under the restriction), I noticed that the two share a lot of restaurants in common. The overlap is blatantly significant, with at least six restaurants named to both.

I note this because one of the things much lauded about the Houston dining scene is diversity. Granted, the criterion of being new restricts the range of candidates for the lists a bit, but the dynamic nature of the restaurant industry probably ensures that a number of new restaurants open each week (balanced out, sadly, by closures). Which leads me to suspect the other criterion as being the culprit: that despite the wide range of available cuisines and styles available in the city, the in press definition of "best" is remarkably narrow.

A meat stuffed duck neck sausage with nori mayo from the potent imagination of Chef Seth Seigel-Gardner (currently of Kata Robata).

So, here's my year end list. I reject the idea of lauding whole restaurants all the time - like people, there are good points and bad points to knowing restaurants, and by dealing with them coarsely, I fear we often throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, these are the most memorable restaurant based dishes or food-related experiences I've had this year in Houston, experiences that I'd like to return to, and to share with others. Because, after all, cuisine is really a cultural experience, and one of the most potent bridges between people.

Bihari kebab at Bundu Khan. A Pakistani favorite, this spicy grilled meat has a distinctly new texture that is wonderfully complemented with naan. Other Pakistani restaurants in the city also offer it.

Dahi Puri at Sweet N Namkin. I actually went around and tried four different renditions of this savory-sweet-crunchy-spicy-explosion in the mouth snack during the year, and settled on the carefully constructed puri here as my favorite so far.

Kinutamaki at Sushi Miyagi. Here, fish is wrapped around a core of cooked burdock root, roe, avocado, and seasoned cucumber, before the whole thing is wrapped in pickled daikon radish. A wonderfully flavorful take on the traditional seaweed/rice combination.

Smoked boudin at Pierson's BBQ. Redolent with smoke, skin taut and rice tender, the smoked boudin here is unlike any other version I've had before. And very delicious.

Mexican chocolate cream bun from Desir Bakery, 99 Ranch. I'm not sure how this is done here, but at $0.99, these things are somewhere between bread and pastry. A soft bun is covered with a sweet crunchy coating, and filled with chocolate custard. A great way to end a meal or start a day.

All these places are in Houston. I'm sure a search engine will let you find them easily enough.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Names set expectations

Over at Patisserie Jungle Cafe, I met a couple of friends for dessert, and found that they advertised a very seasonal St. Honore pastry. Named after the patron saint of baking (bless the Catholics, there's a patron saint for all sorts of things, even computers) the St. Honore is a very labor intensive cake characterized by the inclusion of little cream puffs glued on with hot caramel.

What we found was this:

By no means bad, this wasn't a St. Honore. It's actually something closer to a small croquembouche. The choux pastry itself was fine, as was the filling, and the use of chocolate I suppose was to evoke the flavor of a profiterole. But the chilled dark chocolate was hard mortar, and made prying the item apart difficult and messy. The small patês de fruit festooning the creation were fine, but we couldn't figure out what the deal was with the leaves. We weren't sure if they were edible, and their flavor really didn't seem to add anything to the dish.

Still, a fairly nice dessert, and seasonal for the occasion.

But I do highly recommend the boxes of intensely fruit flavored marshmallows. At just $3 a box, they are a steal and a delight.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fungal Food Facts

We have an odd cultural relationship with fungi. On the outset, most people thing of fungi as disease causing microbes that cause infection (think athlete's foot). Truth is, fungi are a very diverse group of organisms that play a lot of roles in our lives. Of course, we eat them, and they form an essential part of almost every cuisine on the planet.

Pictured above are the gifts of foraged fungi I got from friends.

Perhaps the most visible form of fungi consumption are mushrooms. Most folks are used to the common cultivated white button mushroom, although an increasing number of varieties are entering the US market. From Japan, you get the shiitake, the maitake, the elusive matsutake, and the white spindly enoki. Europeans have long foraged and consumed mushrooms from truffles, porcini, cepes, and morels, to name a few. And then there's the use of portobellos (the mature cap of the cremini) as a grilled "burger".

In fact, mushrooms are often used as the "meaty" substitute for meat in vegetarian cooking. They convey that umami flavor that is inherent in cooking meat. I find this amusing, because, try as you might, fungi are not plants. There's an old discredited idea that fungi are just defective plants that lost their ability to photosynthesize, but with modern genomic tools, we know that fungi are really close cousins to...animals. That explains why there are very few effective anti fungal compounds: our close biological kinship means that there are significant side effects when used as drugs. They taste meaty because, well, they kind of are meat.

Here's another fact: mushrooms are usually the visible reproductive parts of the organisms. The main body of the fungus is in the hyphal mat usually underground, but we get to lop off the genitals and eat them :).

Oh, and let's not forget our friends in the bottle: harnessing single celled fungi are key to the development of a lot of modern cuisine. I speak of course, of yeast. The forefront of fermenting, most yeast used today are from one basic species, that make alcohol and carbon dioxide, to produce beer, wine, ale, and my favorite, bread. Almost every culture on the planet has found some way of putting yeast together with their local carbohydrate source to make beer (or some fermented liquid). So raise a glass to our boozy brethren, and their anaerobic waste products.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Seasonal gratings

So, we approach the countdown to that Christmas time. Everyone stresses out over needing to have a gift at that right time, or to have their traditional item prepared then. Let's say you miss it by a day - it really isn't so traumatic. Really.

Then again, there's really something disturbing about the incessant playing of carols in supermarkets and other locations, a gentle hum of the dominance of Christendom. Including signs like this one.

No matter, though, I do like the festive atmosphere. At the invitation of a friend, I went down to the Discovery Green park in downtown Houston to watch in the flagrant suspension of natural weather: the outdoor ice skating rink. Appropriate to the occasion, I got a hot cocoa from the Lake House. For those of you who don't know, the Lake House boasts such things as artisinal and seasonal food. And my server cheerfully boasted that the hot cocoa was fresh and good.

I regretted the drink after one sip. Despite appearances, the hot cocoa was devoid of any chocolate flavor, just insipid overly sweet milky liquid definitely not worth the $4. While fortunately also free of that metallic twang common to syrup driven drinks, it's only redeeming quality was the heat to ward against the cold, but the shock inducing sugar level lead me to discard it not long after this photograph was taken.

I should know better by now, though.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alinea 7: Architecture

Perhaps the most contentious dish that Mr. Achatz does among bloggers is the "hot potato, cold potato", because it is so carefully architected in temperature and ingredients that it allows too little time for photography.

Imagine, if you will, a bit of warm potato soup, over which is held a piece of butter, a piece of cheese, a piece of cold potato, and a slice of truffle. The bowl, incidentally, must be made of paraffin. That enables the use of the pin for holding the cold ingredients above. The diner is instructed to pull out the pin, which slips the cold ingredients into the soup, and the paraffin seals up the hole. The diner is to toss back the resulting concoction of contrasts, hot and cold, buttery and truffled, as a single mouthful.

Few dishes are constructed to be so timing crucial. As the heat rises from the soup, it affects the items suspended above it. If it cools too much, the contrasts in the mouthful are lost. Thus, the uneasiness of entertaining the time spent getting the absolutely perfect food porn shot.

Verdict: it's quite good, but I suspect the strong luxury of having a slice of truffle in it overwhelms the nuance a bit. Because without it, well, it's a very tricky bit of potato soup. Not that it's a bad thing, but that's peasant food putting on airs.

Previously on this series:

Alinea 6: The Stacked Sphere
Alinea 5: The Ikea Course
Alinea 4: Clarity
Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Convenient ponche

Until last year, the Mexican hawthorn apple, tejocote, was the most smuggled fruit in America. You can probably find ample quantities of the fruit nowadays in the back stalls of Canino's market, as it is primarily used for the seasonal hot drink, ponche - often loosely referred to as Mexican punch. Like a tisane of various tropical fruits and sugar (I believe piloncillo is the conventional sweetener), tejocote is the indispensable ingredient that makes it ponche.

But why gather all of that stuff, when you have modern technology?

Behold, the ponche kit. Dehydrated fruits, spices, and tejocote, all packaged and ready for boiling. Just add water.

And maybe rum, but I didn't say that.

Found this little item in Fiesta, but can likely be found in various markets around the city.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fear is not an ingredient

Among the tourist trinkets being sold in the shops of the French Quarter in New Orleans, I spotted a box for a mix to make bread pudding.

Historically, bread pudding is simply a way of using up old bread. There really isn't a set recipe, as one can never really be sure of what bread is available, unless one intentionally stales the bread just to make pudding. So to have a preset mix or kit to make it boggles the mind.

Much the same thing happens with brownies or pancakes. Most seem to inevitably reach for a boxed mix to prepare these things. A brownie is born out of a failed cake recipe, and look, it came out delicious. In this age of festive cooking, leave fear off the ingredient list, many of our much beloved classics are products of happy accidents.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Somewhere between a soup and a drink: Oatole

Long ago, I encountered an option in a vending machine for a can of V8. Curious, I popped open the can of savory chilled vaguely synthetic liquid. I went no further than two sips - I wanted to pour it out to a pan, and eat it heated up with a piece of toast. Having chilled tomato soup just didn't sit well with me. We have an odd relationship between soups and drinks. In general, soups are considered warm savory liquids presented in a bowl, and eaten (drunk) with a spoon, while drinks tend to be sweeter, colder, and presented in a glass to be consumed by bringing the vessel directly to the mouth. So many things break these paradigms, though.

Drinks can be savory (bloody Marys come to mind), or warm, or chunky enough to require spoons (name your favorite super thick milkshake, more so if supplemented with tapioca pearls). Soups can be cold, as with the favorite gazpacho, or even sweet and alcoholic, such as sweet fruit soups. Moreover, soups are now often served in mugs sans spoons to be drunk as coffee.

Given the current rash of cold weather in Houston, I am enamored of the Mexican soup/drink called atole. Basically, it is thinned out masa, flavored with anything from cinnamon to fruit to chocolate (the last is also called champurrado - I haven't found a translation for the verb champurrar). Thick, mildly sweetened, it retains the heat in the liquid, and the thickness encourages slow sipping. Moreover, it's substantial enough to be filling.

Taking inspiration from the atole, I have developed a cereal soup/drink for breakfast, based around oatmeal, and peanut butter. I call it "oatole".

Take some leftover cooked steel cut oatmeal (I think the instant kind would work, but the steel cut version is superior, better if mixed in with some cooked oat groats), add about an equal amount of milk, and a spoonful of peanut butter. Microwave until hot, stirring until smooth, and sweeten to taste. A dollop of strawberry jam can make this intriguing, so does a dash of vanilla. Cocoa powder can provide a chocolatey kick. Serve in a mug or a bowl with a spoon, a warm blanket, a cold night, and a movie.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah 2010

The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of a day's worth of temple oil that lasted eight days. Traditionally, Hanukkah foods center around things that are cooked in oil - namely, fried foods. So, on this second day of Hanukkah, I present the fried food item of the day:

Poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, battered and fried. I did miss posting about the first day, though, but I understand that the traditional thing are doughnuts. Well, here you go:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Alinea 6: The stacked sphere

A tradition in India is the tiffin, a stacked metal contraption holding a series of compartments that allow the transport of the many components of a proper Indian hot lunch. The nearly error free delivery of tiffin containers without the use of computers continues to be the subject efficiency research, but it is the structure of a tiffin container that I am invoking. Despite possibly holding multiple sections, a sealed tiffin is a standard sized cylinder with a handle. As we began our next course in Alinea, we were presented with a rather large while ceramic ball, which had an indentation on top. And within that indentation, lay a beautifully decorated scoop of rutabaga gelato, atop some kind of herbed gel. The attention to detail of the small garnishes is really quite impressive.

After we at that, the top hemisphere of the ball was removed to reveal that the interior housed some steamed and fried rutabaga, apparently cooking within as we ate the chilled version of the vegetable. Notice that the food sits atop a slotted platform.

That's because what was steaming the dish was yet another version of rutabaga, cooked in cream and onions, texturally soft, but savory only in the way a root vegetable cooked in milk can be.

I enjoyed this progression of treatments of rutabaga, moreover how the whole thing is carefully calibrated in temperature and insulation to be revealed in time for eventual enjoyment. Ceramic affords this progression like no metal tiffin can, but should be interesting what Mr. Achatz can do with it.

Previously on this series:

Alinea 5: The Ikea Course
Alinea 4: Clarity
Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cleansing what?

This being the week for Thanksgiving in the USA, one of the few times of the year when home cooking is celebrated, and gluttony is given a free pass (nay, it is expected), I'd like to write about cleansing.

Often referring to The Master Cleanse, this is an all liquid diet regimen that purports to allow one's body to be purged of "toxins". During the course of a cleanse, the practitioner subsists primarily on a dilute concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. While there are those who buy into the idea that the human body accumulates unnamed toxins that can be cleaned out by starving yourself for a period of time, most I think undergo this regimen simply as self-inflicted penance for a period of overindulgence.

I don't think this practice is altogether healthy, but for the average Western first world individual, replete with all the bounty of an indulgent lifestyle, a little deprivation centers oneself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Impartiality in a restaurant review

An interesting debate is currently happening over Twitter, sparked in part by a comment in this posting on the Eating Out Words blog of the Houston Press. Namely, does participating in a media event for a restaurant devalue the opinion of a food critic?

It's an interesting conundrum. I, myself, have participated in a number of media junkets. Around this time last year was the most opulent outing arranged by Harrah's of New Orleans along with 8 other bloggers from the Houston area. That was a weekend which included meals at Emeril's Delmonico and John Besh's Steak.


Last month, I had the pleasure of being invited to Tony Vallone's new Montrose area restaurant, Caffe Bello. There, we were plied with so much food, even after a 3 mile walk, I was full through the next day.

In the modern age of ubiquitous communication and computing, restaurateurs are wising up to opportunities in new media. Old school criticism relied on anonymity, and a certain number of visits to account for the atypical experience, but this may be a promise difficult to keep in the era of Google and live tweeting. Indeed, the stricture of impartial judgment emerges from the fact that control of communication used to be held by relatively few people, and, paraphrasing Stan Lee, great responsibility comes along with that great power.

By staging such media events, restaurants are taking a proactive gamble: instead of being judged on a typical day, they'll put their best food forward immediately, when they are ready and at their prime. While a thumbs up in such a situation should be interpreted with a grain of salt (after all, finding the will to be truly critical while being feted is difficult), a misstep is disastrous.

Then again, perhaps we are worried over nothing. After all, with the barriers to self publication so low, where hordes of Yelpers, Facebookers, and Twitterers reporting on a meal as it is being chewed, concealing a potential food critic in the crowd may not be an issue. Nothing can keep a kitchen on its toes as the realization that every client, as petty and as unreasonable as they may be, can also voice their opinions online. Perhaps faster, if a little cruder.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart, pretty and talented

Appropriate to the season, pie baking is all the rage. Much of the debate centers on what kind of fat to use (lard has its proponents), but in this video, Joanne Chang demonstrates frissage, a technique of smearing dough on a surface to create an extra flaky pastry in the end. I also didn't realize that she is a Harvard graduate who went through something like three different careers before settling in on her love of pastry and baking.

A well produced video, even though it really is a commercial for King Arthur Flour.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There's a waffle in there somewhere

It sounded like a good idea at the time. The hour was late, and we made our way over the 24 hour NY inspired restaurant Katz's on Westheimer near Montrose for some dessert. Maybe it's the levity of the occasion, but I decided on ordering the Belgian waffle with ice cream. I mean, yes, it could double as breakfast, too. Right?

What arrived was a plate piled high with neon white "whipped cream", and streaks of that obnoxious goo that covers strawberries. Somewhere in there was a blob of industrial ice cream. And perhaps the saddest waffle I have ever encountered. First of all, it was by no means a Belgian waffle. Soggy, tasteless, it bore no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Don't fall for this pricey trap if you do go to Katz's. Stick to the cheesecake milkshake if you must.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Alinea 5: The Ikea course

The waiter brought us a plate each, on top of which were arranged these artfully sliced and prepared items. Mise in place, I suppose. The green balls are honeydew melon. There's a dollop of hot sauce on a spoon just out of frame. There's that one lonely curl of coconut. On the watch glass appears to be a slurry of lime juice and basil seeds. But, lo, this platter conceals a hidden compartment, for once the white surface is moved off, the wooden base has carved space in it, holding a strange metal contraption. We were instructed to assemble into a holder.

Remember the tapioca sheet from earlier?

Turns out it wasn't simple table decoration, but was to be draped atop the contraption. Into the sheet was dolloped a lump of pork belly cooked in coconut milk, and we were to adjust the flavors with the accompanying ingredients.

Now this strategy hearkens back to southeast Asian cuisine, where a number of adjustments are usually offered to the diner, far beyond the simple salt and pepper shakers, to adjust the flavors to the diner's liking. Anything from chili pepper infused vinegar to a squeeze of calamansi or a dash of pungent fish sauce makes every plate an individual canvas.

Problem here is, well, we have one, maybe two, bites. We have to guess without tasting as we go.

So, most diners dump everything in. And for the most part, the flavors chosen are proven complements, so there's no harm in that. Not sure why the basil seeds are in the lime juice, I think the gelling effect blunted the already timid lime. I think it needed more acid to counteract the richness of pork belly cooked in coconut milk, more aggressive citrus may be a good idea. Yuzu, perhaps?

Previously on this series:

Alinea 4: Clarity
Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts

Monday, November 8, 2010

Straining the definition

“Watch this.”

And with those words, Chef Seth Seigel-Gardner (now of Kata Robata) sprayed out some batter from a pressurized charger, stuck it into a microwave, and a minute later, was plating a light cake, warm and fragrant.

What he was demonstrating, of course, is that cakes and pastries do not have to be baked. In fact, this is a common theme all over the world. In southeast Asia, steamed cakes are quite the norm

I procured these steamed cakes from a local Thai shop, but an entire set of cuisine called kuih in Malaysia exist for these types of colorful and flavorful cakes. Most kuih are steamed, but they don't necessarily puff up like the heat stabilized foams conventional cakes are known to be. Once freed of the need to even use wheat flour, kuih can be gelatinous, or multitextural, depending on the starch and ingredients used, and can be sweet and savory.

Perhaps the most ornate example of a steamed cake in this tradition is the Korean mujigae ddeok, here demonstrated by the lovely and talented Maangchi.

Funny, but it's definitely possible to have a bakery without actually baking. Granted, the point of dry heat baking in an oven is the creation of a caramelized flavor possible from crust formation, but if you can't bake, well, you can roast a cake.

I'll have to hand it to inventive Japanese manufacturers to take an obscure German baking technique, and make a mass marketed packaged product with it. That's actually available in the large Asian megamarts in Houston. Chalk one up for globalization.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Puffs three times

In the past, Jell-O would advertise its products with pictures of these ornate multilayered colorful creations, ostensibly to show off the creative potential of artificially colored sweetened gelatin powder. But market research demonstrated that these ads didn't work because people would try to create the same things at home, and they got depressed when it didn't come out looking quite as good. Notice that nowadays, all they show are simple mounded up servings - because that's what people really do at home.

In general, when I go to a restaurant, I avoid looking for items that I can easily execute at home, I seek out that mythical ornate Jell-O creation that evades my home kitchen conveniences. Indian chaat snacks fall in this category easily; aside from requiring a large number of ingredients, cooking them involve multiple stages for the components to produce the range of flavors and textures.

To wit, the dahi puri.

At it's most basic, the dahi puri is based around a puri, a puffed up fried pastry shell, filled with any number of seasonal ingredients. Traditional additions are potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas, onions, cilantro, sev, tamarind chutney, spicy green chutney and yogurt. Yes, all those things. But when presented with all these components, there are several permutations to them.

I went to explore dahi puri at different local restaurants. First up, local vegetarian favorite Shri Balaji Bhavan.

Presented on a stainless steel platter, the dahi puri here is a merry mess of crisps, spice, and yogurt. Barely manageable for eating with bare hands, it's homey in it's chaos, and shareable only with others you are intimate enough with.

Over at Bombay Sweets, the dahi puri acquire some individuality.

The tamarind chutney here is quite a bit sweeter than most places, and an almost shocking red color. And despite being presented on a disposable plate, the snack remains satisfying. I'm not a fan of putting yogurt on top of the sev, as it makes it soggy, but it's a minor quibble.

However, the artistry is evident over at Sweet n Namkin.

Beautifully assembled individual bites, this is India's answer to the nigiri. The puri shells here are strong, lasting minutes longer than the others, and you can happily present these as party hors d'oeuvres.

And watch people giggle happily as the riot of textures and flavors explode in their mouths, with something a little too big to fit in one bite, but can't be eaten in two.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cook on one side

Lately, I've been enamored of broiling vegetables. Well, fruits really, but the kind that are usually classified as vegetables. It's remarkably easy, and works for such things as eggplants and zucchini. In this above pictured case, I gilded the lily by glazing with shiro miso and a touch of mirin.

Basic strategy: take the eggplant (I had small variegated eggplant, but Japanese eggplant work well here) or zucchini (hopefully not too big), cut in half lengthwise, and score the cut surface. Lay down on a pan, and rub or brush some oil on it, and sprinkle with coarse salt. Put under a hot broiler.

If glazing, mix some mirin, miso, a bit of sugar and vinegar together into a sauce, and when the vegetables have caramelized a bit, brush on the glaze. Return under the broiler until the glaze has caramelized. Sprinkle with some sesame seeds, and you're ready to go. No need to turn it upside down.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Alinea 4: Clarity

Following our jaunt through faux Asia, the staff at Alinea put down these pillows in front of us. As I debated taking a snooze the table, these large square white plates were put on those pillows.

Turns out the pillows were filled with the aroma of cut grass (from an air freshener can? Maybe they extract it from patches of wheatgrass), and the weight of the plates are so calibrated to force it out as we dined, thus perfuming the air. In this dish, we are presented with a salad of heirloom tomatoes, but like in no form I've seen before. At least one was cut so thinly, it was like it was painted on the plate. Accompanied by items like olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, and onions, although again, those agents were freeze dried or otherwise transformed to change the salad eating experience. The flavors, however, remained familiar. I'll admit that the aroma effect was subtle, if at all memorable. Then again, of course, one desensitizes to a particular smell in about 15 seconds, so I'm not sure if the gimmick is meant to last.

That was followed by this palate cleanser. An aqueous distillation of the flavors of Thailand: from fish sauce to lemongrass, one could really taste the components. It's not much to look at, but I think this was one of the more successful and inventive items to hit the table. We marveled at how one could cram so much complexity into a clear water based liquid, but the staff wasn't telling.

Previously on this series:

Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts

Friday, October 29, 2010

For pride

Congratulations to BBQDude over at IndirectHeat for placing third in the blog based Duck Challenge. It may be all electron celebrations but it's still a win. Right?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

In season: Persimmons

Persimmons are coming into season, and I had a recent discussion about choosing the right variety. A persimmon is such a unique time bomb of a fruit; unless it is completely ripe, many varieties will be mouthpuckeringly astringent. Both the American species, and the Asian species (hachiya) exhibit this astringent property. Consequently, as a rule, these varieties can only be eaten when they are pudding soft in texture. Which turns some people off, even though the flavor can be spicy and very sweet.

Fortunately, there are also non astringent varieties as well. Well, that's a misnomer, they are also astringent but lose the astringency earlier in the ripening process. The best known commercial variety is the fuyu, and thus, most non astringent varieties come to be known as fuyus as well, even though they may not be.

The fuyu is a little more squat, and can be eaten while it's still crisp like an apple. One can also wait until they ripen completely and be soft, but the firmer textured fruit offers opportunities the completely ripe form does not, such as slicing thinly for salads. Ripening does allow for a more intense flavor.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bloody good

Following up on yesterday's gory food ideas, I'm not sure why everyone is so queasy about eating blood. Well, maybe it stems from the religious taboos against eating blood, such as those of the Muslim faith, but blood as an ingredient shows up in many cultures and dishes around the world. Cooking blood turns it very dark, so things are often called black pudding, or svartsoppa (Swedish black soup). The French dish coq au vin is supposed to be thickened with the blood of the chicken, and chunks of congealed blood are requisite parts of the Vietnamese bun bo Hue soup.

Okay, maybe that's enough vampiric cogitation for a day. Sangria, anyone?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Unwimpify Halloween

What the heck is up with candy and Halloween? For such a macabre "holiday", the offerings to scare people are so wimpy. Fake eyeballs made from grapes? Jell-O "brains"?


Come on, if you're going to get into the spirit of things, serve these things as your treats:

  1. Soondae No, not an ice cream soondae (although I dare some avant garde chef out there to make that a reality). It's a Korean blood sausage, made with rice. Think boudin, but with gumption. Not that boudin is all that wimpish of a food to start with. By the way, I find it amusing that the site where I found this description conveniently doesn't mention the use of blood.
  2. Dinuguan. Ah, the famous Filipino "chocolate meat". Of course, you already know the secret ingredient, right? Hemoglobin, of course. 
  3. Tacos de sesos. It's just a taco. With braaaaaiiiins. Well, why mess around with gelatin and milk when you can have the real thing? You can even buy it around here in Houston year around. 
  4. Tacos de ojos. For that matter, what is up with the fake eyeballs? Why not the real thing? Of course, in a taco. 
  5. Candy. Oh, all right, I give. Have some candy. Scorpion candy.
Thanks and maybe apologies to all the associated websites to whom I am linking to. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bivalve compromise

Here in the Gulf coast, September is greeted with anticipation as the first month with the letter R in it, meaning it's the early start of the oyster season. However, troubles with the BP Deep Horizon operation has left people wary of Gulf Coast seafood, although experts assure us that no contaminated seafood have hit the market. The public relations damage is so bad, however, that on our visit to New Orleans last month, some restaurants slyly import Florida oysters so that they can continue to claim that they are serving Gulf oysters.

Fortunately, we paid a visit to the New Orleans restaurant institution, Drago's, and were assured that they were still serving Louisiana oysters. However, being early in the season, they refused to serve them raw, as the flavor wasn't there yet. Undaunted, we opted for the famous Drago's roasted oysters.

Charred in high heat such that the shells blacken, the oysters were coated in butter and cheese, and served with bread intended to sop up any melted butter. However, we ignored the butter, as we wanted briny bivalve goodness. And here, we tasted a good melding of oyster liquor and butter, but with enough cheesy incineration to distract those who are just here for the dairy.

Drago's other attempts at cooked oyster dishes are less successful. These bacon wrapped oyster brochettes were served a measly three sticks at a time, with two oysters on each stick, but tasted mostly of fried bacon. Not bad, but not oyster.

We ordered and consumed a second dozen roasted oysters to assuage our disappointment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

They should have that in English cuisine

A few days ago, I introduced a couple of friends to a new hole in the wall Pakistani restaurant. As we sat at our table awaiting our order, I blithely commented that the most interesting thing about the restaurant so far were the cricket bats.

To which my friend replied, "I don't remember seeing those on the menu."

Of course, I was referring to these:

And not some dish made from a mixture of insects and chiropterid meat. Although I'm sure that would be delicious in a curry.

After laughing over the momentary confusion, my friend concluded,

"But I wouldn't put it past you to order it if it was on the menu."

Well put, sir.

*disclaimer: I paraphrased a bit.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken

Part of an ongoing series recapping a meal at Chicago restaurant Alinea.

At the start of the third course, our waiter put down this plate of what looked like freshly pressed napkins on the table.

Given the avant garde nature of the presentation, I wouldn't be surprised if we were told that this was edible. But then, this course is supposed to be an exploration of the cuisines of Asia, and came as a triplet of bites. Allegedly from China, is this battered bite of chicken wrapped around a cinnamon stick (disclosure, due to dietary restrictions, all of my dishes were done with chicken while my dining companions got lobster or crab - I presume the preferred ingredients).

The middle item was a tribute to Japan, and consisted of a crispy fried stick of yuba, around which was wrapped some chicken and sesame seeds, and presented with a small tub of miso mayonnaise for dipping. I didn't manage to photograph that creation, but eating it was akin to eating a savory version of this:

And finally, the final item was supposed to be a tribute to Vietnam, where a sugar cane stick is infused with various flavors evoking the streets of Saigon.

If you've never eaten a sugar cane stick before, you essentially chew it to extract the juices and flavors, and spit out the woody pulp. That's what the napkins at the start of the meal was for.

While I applaud the desire of chefs to expand the horizons of their diners, I find this trend of injecting "Asian flavors" as a point of exoticism tiring. Because what I tasted wasn't so much a nuanced celebration of the three highly disparate cultures before me so much as a touristy distillation of the stereotypes. I think the fried chicken thing was supposed to evoke the feathery crispness of fried taro, but the cinnamon was like an uncomfortable bystander. There was no fire or sweetness to the sugarcane (which I suppose is a credit to the technique of the chef) but evoked nothing of the Southeast Asian experience. The yuba dish was perhaps the most successful, mainly because it was indeed fun to eat.

And why it disappeared before I managed to photograph it.

Previously on this series:

Act 2: Green
 A symphony in 21 acts