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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: