Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More than one too many, I think

Yes, this is a post about beer. Or is it?

Under the "Brew Blog" category, the Houston Press Eating Our Words blog published a chart describing that a Bud Light has as high an alcohol content as a Guiness. I found the data visualization shoddy, and sought to do a better job of it. Following the links described to, I found no direct path to the data used to create the chart. However, the author had kindly provided a second link to a more "scientific study" at

On this chart, open (unfilled) circles are the light beers, and nonalcoholic brews are triangles. Dark circles are the rest. What I immediately noticed is that the data from the two sources cited did not match. Bud Light has a markedly lower alcohol and calorie content than Guiness. Good data visualization enables humans to detect such patterns easily, and a careless job of it can obscure them. Of course, if one cherry picks the sources, then one can report all sorts of patterns, but may have little bearing on reality.

Or perhaps the author has had a little too much to drink while interpreting quantitative data. :)

While we are on the topic, note that calorie and alcohol content pretty much track linearly, although the definition of light beer significantly overlaps with regular brews. On average, regular beers are about 50% more calories, and 30% more alcohol, but in some outliers, the lightest regular brews are as light as the lightest beer, and a German light beer is as potent as a regular brew (up there with Guiness in calorie content, and exceeding it in alcohol).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Crumb cookies

In the area of wishful thinking, eating crumbs from a cookie container have no calories. I'm sure there are people who intentionally damage the cookies to nibble at the crumbs without actually counting it (you know who you are). But, what if the whole cookie was made up entirely of crumbs?

I present the realization of the dream. These are biscuits made without eggs, and a modicum of water. Sometimes just pressed together before being baked, they crumble at the touch of a tooth. And it is that very crumbly powdery texture of these little cakes that they are prized for.

Polvoron is the classic, the name itself deriving from the root "polvo", meaning powder. Made from wheat flour and powdered milk, it is incredibly delicate. Puto seko swaps out the wheat flour with cornstarch, resulting in a harder biscuit that suddenly dissolves into powder, absorbing all the saliva in your mouth. Competitions have been held where contestants are asked to put an entire puto seko in their mouths, and the first who can whistle wins.

My personal favorite are the uraro cookies, made from cassava flour, and come in small portions. The cassava flour appears to provide a balance of structure and flavor that quickly becomes addictive. Plus you can put an entire uraro biscuit in your mouth without gagging.

I do advise that you eat any of these with a glass of water alongside, just in case.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sometimes, the description fits

A few years back, I was in London, and being hungry, stumbled into a shop that was selling pie and mushy peas. Thinking that it was some kind of clever play on naming a dish, like spotted dick or toad in the hole, I ordered it.

What I got was, well, what was described. A pie and mushy peas. The gravy was salty, the pie crust was okay, the filling forgettable. And the mushy peas were a grade above baby food. But you can't always have stellar experiences: this is probably comfort food for some folks.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A couple of strange food related products

Because we have to find something to do with all this virgin plastic.

Would you buy $15 gadget that just cracks eggs open? And based on the box picture alone, it doesn't look like it works well.

How about something that makes food into a projectile? More precisely, a marshmallow gun? Talk about a great way to waste food. Well, a food like substance, as per the Pollan parlance.

And we worry about people going hungry when you can literally play with food.

Monday, August 23, 2010

File under "Obviously"

Nowadays, we think little of Catholics who eat steak on Fridays, or Jews that have no problem with the occasional lobster. So I shouldn't be surprised to learn that there are Muslims who observe Ramadan without fasting. After all, many such dietary restrictions can be seen as rituals pointing to a deeper meaning.

I had the pleasure of breaking the Ramadan fast in the popular Pakistani restaurant Bundu Khan. While the restaurant specializes in grilled meats (colloquially referred to as barbecue, although being in Texas, this stuff looks nothing like Texan BBQ), they don't serve the main dining room until 8pm, which is after evening prayers. While seated, the waitress passed out complimentary plates containing a samosa, some dates, a bit of spicy chickpeas, and some diced fruit salad, as well as a glass of rosewater flavored (rooh afza?) milk: a traditional iftari. I learned at this point that while some Muslims don't fast for Ramadan, everyone holds off eating until the fast is broken together out of respect.

Bundu Khan has a fairly simple menu, consisting of yogurt marinated chicken and beef (Halal of course) grilled on skewers, and served with chutney, onions and cucumber. The tasty behari kebab is a specialty here, and I suggest reading the review at Houston Foodie to appreciate the very spicy meat. The kitchen has a way with chicken, serving up juicy breast meat that even some of the fancier restaurants in the city have difficulty executing. During the breaking of the Ramadan fast, the entire restaurant has a mild air of festivity, of families gathered, and bonds formed and strengthened.

I must note that the meal is served without more than an occasional plastic fork as a utensil, as per tradition, one is expected to eat using bare fingers (and if you are adept, you should only be using the right hand). Which I think leads in part to that beautiful community building meal: No one is able to pick up a cell phone to text or Twitter while eating, instead choosing to focus on the food and the conversation.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The simplest things are the hardest

I find that the simplest dishes in a restaurant are the ones to order with trepidation. That's because with few components and procedures performed on them, one has few areas to hide flaws in the execution. Take for example, the steak. One of the most expensive items regularly featured in restaurant menus, it is also one of the simplest: a piece of meat and some dry heat. Yet the fine line between perfectly cooked and ruined is at once blurry and easy crossed. 

Which is why this blog post comparing BLTs (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches) on the Houston Press Eating Our Words blog puzzled me a bit. The great thing about a BLT is its inherent simplicity - it only has five components, two of which aren't even cooked. But the sum is a blissful enhancement over the parts. Instead, the specimens highlighted chose to use the BLT not as the highlight of the dish, but rather as a canvas,  lashing it with such distractions as a thick layer of egg salad or loads of shrimp. It may wow some folks, but but I interpret it as a ploy to hide the flaws in the BLT components.

A year ago, Michael Ruhlman launched a challenge to make a  BLT from scratch. It's a return to fundamentals of that symphonic melange from carefully cured meat, home baked bread, fresh vegetables, and wondrous mayonnaise prepared apart from the industrial process. The winners were an amalgamation of creativity (a BLT pie!) to bordering on admirably absurd (grand winner made his own salt).

[addendum: BBQDude over at Indirect Heat entered the BLT from scratch challenge, and earned an honorable mention. In fact, both the bacon and the tomatoes pictured above emerged from the Dude kitchen.]

But these did not distract from the essence of a BLT. And that's the key. Too often in Houston restaurants (maybe in American restaurants in general), the base components of a BLT - bacon, lettuce, tomato, bread, and mayonnaise - are seen as side additions to some other main dish - a burger, perhaps. The genius behind a BLT sandwich is that when each is chosen, prepared, and assembled with care, the result is a sandwich worthy of being a classic.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fuwa fuwa

The term fuwa fuwa is Japanese for fluffy. I've described before how much texture matters to Chinese cuisine, and one particular food texture is prized in East Asian cooking is the sensation of fuwa fuwa. Particularly in bread and cake.

While the bowl of rice may be emblematic of the cuisine of China and Japan, quite a few bread products are eaten there as well. Baking, however, in dry heat, is a recent incorporation. Most often, breads are steamed. Perhaps the best known are the bao, where bread dough is wrapped around some kind of filling, be it seasoned roasted pork (char siu), or red bean paste. Incarnations of the steamed bao have migrated around the world, evolving into the Filipino siopao, and the Hawaiian manapua, incorporating fillings sweet, savory and everything in between.

But what about the bread itself? Sans filling, the bread is called a mantou.

This version from the Six Ping bakery in Houston incorporates dried fruits, nuts and seeds to make a multitextural affair that I find actually works well toasted and topped with cheese. Steamed bread can also be filled with stewed pork belly and peanuts to make cua pao, a highly lauded version of which is served in David Chang's restaurant Momofuku. In his cookbook, relates the search for recipe of the steamed bread, only to find that it really isn't too different from standard white bread, just that steaming changes the nature, from bland to fuwa fuwa.

Monday, August 16, 2010

All about texture

Amidst the restaurant wonderland in the southwest portion of Houston, the restaurant Fufu Cafe enjoys a particularly good reputation. Aside from consistently delicious food, they offer the killer combination of low prices and late hours. Despite having almost no advertising outside of word of mouth, the place is so popular that long lines of people waiting for a table at 11pm is not unheard of. Recognizing the opportunity, the owners expanded to an additional space in the same strip mall, and dubbed it Fufu Restaurant.

The new space is definitely tailored for larger parties, and higher end decor, and the presence of aquaria of live seafood. The menu is quite similar to the Fufu Cafe, which unfortunately leads to people making direct comparisons to the original. And the impression I hear often is that it's more expensive, and isn't as good. Which mostly means that the diner ordered the same item and the new chef doesn't prepare it in exactly the same way.

In my opinion, this is doing the new place a disservice. This isn't a question of improvement or loss, it's about consistency. And the key is that it is a different restaurant. To wit, one should order things that are specific to the new place.

For example, the sea cucumber and beef tendon hot pot. Not particularly strong in flavor, it is a celebration of texture. If you haven't had tendon before, just be aware that it's the primordial source of gelatin. It's stewed with the sea cucumber in what is obviously a starch thickened sauce, and presented with crisp carrots and broccoli. I thought it could use some spice and salt, but I really liked the textures.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Onion indulgent

Caramelized onions are a remarkably versatile and easy to make with the simplest of components - onions, oil, salt and heat - but I find them underutilized. Basically, all you have to do is cut up some onions, and cool them until the sugars burn a little. That's about it. The caramelization process is technically known as the Maillard reaction, and can be accelerated by increasing the pH of the recipe. The most common way this is done in the kitchen is the addition of a little bit of sodium bicarbonate AKA baking soda (not baking powder, that's a discussion for another day).

The folly of doing this, however, is if you are using red onions, which contain the pH reactive anthocyanin pigments. They'll turn a different color that may be a tad alarming.

Pictured above is a calabasita and caramelized onion quiche, prepared by putting down a layer of caramelized onions in a frozen pie crust, then topped with calabasita squash chunks sauteed in olive oil and cayenne pepper, and finally a custard of eggs and cream poured over everything before being baked. I suppose cheese would match this as well, but I was out of cheese.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Pet peeve: the best

Addressing yet another pet peeve of mine: I often get asked a question along the line of

"where is the best ______ in the city?"

The blank can be filled in with an inquiry about pie, or burgers, or bread, or nihari. Or whatever.

The. Best. It's meaningless.

A couple of problems with that inquiry. First is the concept of "the best". In order to objectively answer that question, one would have had to establish a fixed set of criteria, and to have assayed every single iteration of the target foodstuff. Some people may obsess about California maki rolls, with some archetype ideal that they wish others to emulate. I applaud these people, but I don't follow them. The corollary to this is that since the archetype is built and reinforced, this involves the concept of "authenticity" which trumps the basic question of - "did it taste good?"

Secondly, it smacks of culinary hyperbole. The idea that food can only belong in two categories: the best, or utter crap. And by definition, only one winner can emerge.

Truth is, perception is dramatically subjective, and what people seek when they eat out or procure food determines what they'll consider acceptable at that moment. And foods evolve, just as human culture evolves. General Tso's chicken in America wouldn't be recognized in China.

Of course, maybe I'll say that a certain place has the best _____ in town. Because it'll be the only place that sells that item.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Compotes and freezer jams

Sometimes, I wonder why anyone would buy those bottled jams in the supermarket during the summer. We have an abundance of cheap fruit, and it's so easy to make at home - they taste superior as well. Problem is, preservation.

Well, preservation here comes in two forms - the sugar and the bottle. Jams and preserves are so sweet because of the amount of sugar used, and that's also because the sugar prevents bacteria growth. Like us, bacterial cells need water to survive, and if the concentration of sugar is high enough, it sucks the water right out of them (look up "osmosis"). Bottling them also serves to heat kill many of the bugs before they even get a foothold.

But really, what does it take to make a jam? Just mix fruit with some sugar, and heat it for a while. If you barely cook the fruit, it's a compote. Cook it until it breaks down, it's a jam. Or a preserve if there's enough pectin in the system. And then, you can keep them around in the freezer. In this way, one can make jams that aren't quite so sweet since you don't need the preservative effects of sugar.

It's so easy, you can probably whip some up for breakfast to go on the toaster waffles.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Not interchangeable

Another pet peeve to talk about: the difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate. In America, the terms are used interchangeably, both of which usually pertaining to something like heated hyper sweetened milk flavored with tinned syrup - generally a thin watery beverage.

Most other places, the watery version is called cocoa (or chocolate aguado) but the term hot chocolate refers to a hot drinking chocolate, thicker, and prepared by melting solid chocolate into something between a beverage and a pudding. Stories abound of hot chocolate so thick you can stand a churro in it. The key difference between the two, of course, is the incorporation of cocoa butter. Yes, this is the fat of chocolate, and is it special.

Some versions of hot cocoa, in order to approximate the luxurious mouthfeel of cocoa butter, will incorporate the use of heavy cream or half and half. Or, in the age of mockolate, maybe palm oil. Truth is, nothing is quite like cocoa butter, not the least of which it's melting point which is remarkably close to body temperature.

Of course, when you are preparing hot chocolate of some sophistication, one learns of it's ability to pair with other flavors both savory and sweet, from smoked chiles to coffee to bacon. Good hot chocolate is a special treat to be enjoyed on occasion, let's not confuse it with microwaved chocolate milk.