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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A little indulgence

The French macaron is quite different from what Americans think of as macaroons. Not a thick chewy affair of coconut and sugar, the macaron is a delicate pair of ethereal meringue like cookies sandwiching a bit of buttercream. Flavoring options are myriad, as are the possible colors, which can look like gems when artfully presented.

It's a fru-fru snooty moonpie.

Well, in the land of the Double Stuf Oreo, let's kick it up a notch, shall we?

Behold, the chocoron.

A chocolate covered macaron, topped with a disk of colored white chocolate. This one is flavored with mango, but I'll admit that there's so much chocolate there I could barely taste it. But it's an inexpensive indulgence.

And it still looks like a gem.

At Patisserie Jungle Cafe, Houston, TX. $2.50

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thai. Hot?

I had initially read a blog write up about the mango curry over at Khun Kay Thai (KKT) on Montrose, and was intrigued by the idea. I imagined a curry that marries the herbaceous complexity of Thai cooking with the punchy sweetness of chutney, a novel use of fruit in a savory preparation.

Khun Kay Thai Mango Curry

What I did get was little more than somewhat overcooked white chicken meat (why do restaurants keep using this?), bathed in coconut-based curry sauce, with some ripe mango chunks thrown in. The sauce itself was rich in texture, and certainly peppery with cayenne, but lacked the depth and balance of flavors in good Southeast Asian cooking.

I also ordered what I consider to be a good barometer of Thai cooking: the coconut based soup called tom kha gai.  Well, in this case, the gai part is optional: KKT allows you to choose different proteins to go into the soup.The soup base has the herbaceous tones of lemongrass, but lacked the funk of galangal and fish sauce. The mushrooms floating in it are nearly raw white button mushrooms instead of the slippery straw mushrooms, and the capsaicin burn of the soup is also raw, and poorly integrated, as if it was sprinkled on last minute. And I think I hit upon what bothers me about the food here. It's deconstruction gone wrong. 

Much of the beauty of Southeast Asian cooking, particularly when it comes to curries and soups, is in the symphonic combination of flavors, from salty to sweet, sour and spicy, to produce a melange that greater than the sum of its parts. What I see here is a restaurant caught between a vision of good Thai cooking and conforming to the skittish palates of the rapidly gentrifying and yuppifying neighborhood. We asked about som tum, and was told that they would love to serve it, but it's too unpopular. While people often write about modulating the heat of Thai cooking, there's a lot more it that flavor profile than heat - the tang of keffir lime, the brace of ginger, and it fits into the backdrop of coconut richness.

In trying to appeal to the squeaky wheel, I fear that KKT's execution of Thai food lacks soul and vision. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Never mind the toys

This is a rant.

It's about strawberry shortcake. No, it isn't about the cartoon character (which will predominate your Google search should you decide to try). It's about what gets called a strawberry shortcake in most bakeries and restaurants in Houston. And maybe America, but I'm not sure.

One of the traditional attractions for the Pasadena Strawberry Festival is the so called "Biggest Strawberry Shortcake in the World". What it is a layered field of industrial sponge cake, synthetic whipped topping, and strawberries coated in neon red goo.

Even a store targeted to the food knowledgeable like Central Market offers two different things called strawberry shortcake. And only one of them is accurate.

Problem is, any kind of cake and strawberry combination gets labelled a strawberry shortcake. A shortcake is a very specific kind of cake, more akin to a scone than a classic sponge. Combined with fresh strawberries and rich whipped cream, the combination is at once rich and ephemereal. While I am no stickler for absolute authenticity, I do agree that the name of a dish should at least bear some semblance to its archetype. With strawberry season in full swing, I should hope that bakers out there stop calling things which are strawberry cakes shortcakes.

And stop using that disgusting red goo.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tea and trouble?

Women who consume large amounts of tea have an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Mind you, key word there is LARGE amounts of tea, so don't panic. Yet. In case you don't know, RA is an autoimmune disorder where one's own immune system attacks the tissue arounds the joints. The study, however, does not see the same correlation with coffee consumption. Good news for male coffee drinkers, I guess - they're at risk for disorders other than RA.

Like, maybe insomnia. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

For whom the bhel tolls

One thing I admire about Indian cuisine is its inventive embrace of sweet and savory snacking. An entire area of cooking is devoted to chaat, the catchall name for small snacks eaten at just about any time of the day. And perhaps my favorite Indian dish is a chaat item called bhel puri.

Like many archetypal dishes, there's really no set recipe for bhel puri, it adjusts depending on the availability of ingredients and taste. But at its essence, it consists of puffed rice and other crispy snack foods like sev (a noodle-like item made from besan - chickpea flour), tossed with boiled potatoes, fresh onions, spices, coriander, fresh chickpeas, and one or two chutneys. Some versions include yogurt.

The resulting dish is a riot of textures and flavors, from sweet to spicy, crispy, juicy, starchy and filling all at once, with that fleeting nature of breakfast cereal in milk: its texture and flavors change as you consume it since the components hydrate and meld in between bites. I've had few dishes with this kind of fun in its existence in contrasts; chefs like Grant Achatz are lauded for one or two dishes that capture the temporal frivolity of this common Indian/Pakistani snack.

I've had the opportunity to compare the bhel puri from two Houston shops: the stalwart Bombay Sweets, and a younger chaat shop Bismillah. Both are located in the "Mahatma Ghandi District" centered around the intersection of Harwin and Hillcroft. The Bombay Sweets version is crispy, chunky, spicy and a bit sweeter, redolent with tamarind and fresh cilantro from two separate chutneys. It's addictive and filling, and a great snack to have on a hot Houston afternoon.

The preparer at Bismillah  asks if a spicy version is requested; their version is oddly warm, and has the tang of yogurt. The addition of whole chickpeas offsets the duller brown colors of the snack, but stuff I got was oddly soggy.  And, unfortunately, that's a major failure for a dish that capitalizes on textures as its strength. Although I've by no means tested all the bhel puri versions in the city, I'm afraid I can't recommend Bismillah for this dish.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Some foods need instruction

One notable aspect of the Star Trek science fiction franchise is that in at least a few occasions, they  pay their respects to their characters' need to eat, and their respective cuisines. After all, this show probably popularized the idea of asking for "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot" to a whole generation of coffee drinkers. But you'll find that whenever a setting involves alien food (and at least in the series Star Trek: Voyager, one of the major characters was a cook), a prop they used is the kiwano melon.

Also known as a horned melon, this thing really does look like it's from outer space. Covered in regularly spaced horns, its flesh is slimy and bright green. And apparently, even the act of eating it requires some training. I've seen few recipes that ever really call for it - unless you're cooking up a space opera.

Solid mass

On a recent trip to Crescent City Beignets, I noticed that they offered a few breakfast sandwiches. Not inexpensive at close to $7, I thought that a savory addition to sweet fried beignets was appropriate. And I found the addition of "beignet sticks" a creative nod to the proviso of French fries to sandwiches in general.

What we did get in the sandwich was a solid yellow rubbery mass. I recognize this thing; I've had it once before in some airport kiosk. It appears to be a precooked mass of egg so shaped to slide conveniently in between two pieces of bread. While I can forgive this in a situation with cramped cooking quarters, such as say, a airplane galley, a full restaurant should be ashamed to serve such a monstrosity. Never mind charging so much for it.

Funny thing, such "omelet cakes" can be done well. Notably, in Japanese cooking, where slices of carefully cooked slabs of egg can adorn nigiri sushi, and is a tribute to the skill of the chef.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Snack Illustrated

I don't often do this, but I'm linking out to another blog entry. Because it is just awesome.

Behold. Balut. Illustrated.

Tasty Island is rapidly becoming one of my favorite feeds to read. And is yet another reason to visit Hawaii.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The criticism isn't what you think

This posting from details a potentially brilliant idea: udon carbonara. Take a classically Japanese pasta form and give it an Italian makeover.

Reading just the ingredients list for the recipe, however, details some of the folly of this version. The author is best educated by JC Reid's magnum opus on the essence of carbonara. Bacon in place of guanciale is forgivable, but cream? The addition of green onions is a nice touch, though.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Second generation breakfast

I have a friend who loves French toast, although I suspect that he has a fairly limited conception of what French toast is. The concept is, as with many great foods, a brilliant way of using up leftovers. The French don't call it plain toast, as the joke would say, rather, the name is "pain perdu" - which translates to lost bread (the quasi-rhyming lost toast may be an acceptable translation perhaps). As usual, stale bread seems to work better, specially for soaking up the custard, resulting in a beautiful textural contrast in the end product. I've even made savory French toast, opting for cheese and bacon rather than the obligatory syrup.

And then there is the delicious idea from K24 - two delights in one. It's French toast, made from an old croissant. The apple compote is thankfully not very sweet, and the strips of fresh mint complement the dish well.

K24 is in Los Angeles in the Hollywood area. It's open 24 hours, and worth a visit for a meal.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Now this is clever

Sushi shaped donuts. The language is Thai, by the way.

Hat tip to Boing Boing.

Ketchup humbug

So, this link to a recipe purports to have directions to making ketchup without high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), no doubt capitalizing on the "sketchy" health consequences. Unfortunately, it uses agave syrup, which, at 70% fructose, is even higher fructose concentration than HFCS.