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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Favorite food experiences of 2011

Writing a blog is often akin to the modern diary. One is able to look back and see how things changed. 2011 was quite an interesting year in food, both in travel and domestically. Even late in the year, I continued to experience some notable culinary items. I share my remembrances of the most notable restaurant experiences I had, as we all look forward to what 2012 offers. These are the dishes that I would be happy to return to, and have again. I hope you'll get a chance to try them, too.

Miso Butter Ramen, Cafe Kubo, Houston. Rich, flavorful, and not what most stereotypically think of Japanese food in Texas. The pat of cold butter that melts as you mix the hot broth up is key. It is comfort food, with just a touch of the exotic.
Taiwanese Lucky Cake, Six Ping Bakery, Houston, TX. Salted duck egg yolks, raisins, and pork fat combine in a riotous combination of flavors and textures. This is one of the pricier options in this otherwise inexpensive bakery, but well worth getting. Also, it's seldom labelled in English. Don't miss out on the quail egg bao, though. 

Fish Tamales, Hugo's, Houston, TX. Takes guts to put something as delicate as fish into the robust masa package of a Mexican tamale, but Hugo dares. 
Crispy fried intestines, Mala Sichuan Bistro, Houston, TX. At the moment, Mala is the focus of quite a bit of foodie buzz, and well deserved. The young restaurant has already tweaked its menu with some unique offerings, and is quickly introducing the Houston public to the maddening pleasures of the Sichuan peppercorn. Though I've tasted some amazingly well seasoned dishes here, from duck to konjac, the intestines surprised me with its delicacy and texture. 

Mangalitsa pork chop, braised fennel, blue cheese mash, Max's Wine Dive, Houston, TX. A special creation by Steve Marques, then sous chef at Max's, he has since moved on to Tasting Room Uptown. By combining all the components in a bite, the melange elevates beyond the sum of its parts.

Spicy Spinach, Peppersoup Cafe, Houston, TX. We may be encountering a growth of African cooking in Houston, spearheaded by idealistic entrepreneurs wanting to evangelize the cuisine. While I enjoyed the fritters and signature pepper soups here, my mind remains on the spinach. Humble in appearance, it packed a flavor punch the stands up to the heat of the feast. 

Crispy beef cake, Yummy Kitchen, Houston, TX. Fetishists of Taiwanese cooking tend to focus on stinky tofu (chou doufu), and Yummy can deliver on that front. In fact, newcomers are often alarmed by the acrid aroma usually not associated with freshly cooked food. Those that persevere, however, are awarded with some delicious creations. Don't overlook the funnily named crispy beef cake, which layers braised seasoned beef and scallions in crispy fried thin pastry. A savory creation, it affords the textural and flavor diversity that is addictive and substantial. 

Sadly, I don't have much in the way of desserts to report in the Houston area. It's a plight that I am not alone in bemoaning. But did have a couple of notable sweet items this year outside of the city.

Burnt marshmallow and nutella liquid nitrogen milkshake, Flipburger, Atlanta, GA. The use of liquid nitrogen was pretty much just eye candy (and this photograph has superior eye candy already), but the flavor combination of nutella and burnt marshmallows is enlightening. 

Pinoy flavor macarons, Bagoong Club, Manila, Philippines. The restaurant scene in Manila has ballooned, and truly great fusion concepts converging in the megalopolis. Flavors here included ube (purple yam), tablea (raw chocolate), calamansi, and toasted coconut. The texture was spot on, and the flavors bright and sparkly.  

I do have a couple of beverages to share with you. I think these are under appreciated gems. Move aside, champagne.

Mint tea service, Casbah Couscous Grill, Houston, TX. Perhaps the last remaining Moroccan restaurant in Houston, Casbah serves up a traditional mint tea, poured with a flourish from tea pots. One finds oneself unable to stop drinking this stuff, shared among friends, wiling away the time over tagine and couscous. It's hospitality captured in a cup, refilled over and over again. 
Drinking Chocolate, Cafe Luz Houston. The scientific genus of the cacao plant is Theobroma, which is Latin for "food of the gods" - and the smooth, subtly sweet concoction holds true to that appellation. Using single source chocolate that is locally roasted and ground (very local - in nearby Spring), the different batches reflect the complex personalities of the beans and methods chosen. Chocolate with character and depth - what better way to welcome hope for the year to come. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pet Peeve: Healthier

As we roll into the thick of the "festive" season, not only are people eating with greater abandon, but the backlash with regards to nutrition is building. And this question of "healthier" eating picks out pariahs and saints of food.

I've witnessed parents pick out Gatorade(TM) and other "sports drinks" as "healthier" to drink for their children over soda. But this stuff was formulated for athletes under high exertion. Many who quaff the artificially colored salty sugar water is doing sports mostly through TV console avatars. 
But what's missing here is the issue of amount and circumstance. Very few things are universally "healthy" - the question of nutrition and how it affects health is a dynamic one, and can be influenced strongly by lifestyle choices.

Packaged pre-sliced apples. Healthier? Depends. More expensive? Absolutely.
In general, though, omnivorism, encouraging inclusion of a diverse definition of food, maximizes the options of what are available to the diner, depending on the particular circumstance. A self-imposed restriction, particularly if it subscribes to a community, outsources the responsibility to choose.

Canned vegetarian "choplets". 

Science proceeds apace. We know now that a little bit of sugar helps establish dietary satiety, and some fats provide cardiovascular protective effects. And at the end of the day, whether something is healthier for you is a question of taking personal responsibility, to take the item in context with your life.

But sodas, most supplements, alkalized water, and "organic"? Waste of money.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What ever happened to them?

Here's a blast from the past: 
The guys from Eepybird were among the first internet video pioneers, who hit upon using the propulsive force of putting the rough textured Mentos candies into carbonated beverages to make kinetic and performance art.

They have since secured sponsorships (from Coke and Mentos, of course), and gone on to making additional kinds of art, but there's something truly mesmerizing about that explosive fizz of adding Mentos to the bottle.

Their latest? Human propulsion. I think gas is still cheaper for the mileage.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Be Distinct

More often than not, prepared food is reviewed on the basis of archetypes. Most restaurant reviews and subsequent discussions center are dishes that can be found in common - hence never-ending hairsplitting over minutiae of the ideal steak, hamburger, banh mi, spaghetti, pizza, General Tso's chicken, pad thai, brisket, burrito, or California sushi rolls. In a vicious cycle, restaurant proprietors feel trapped within these archetypes, and seldom venture out to producing items distinct and unique for fear of disconnecting with prospective customers.

Thus, discovering dishes of distinction is a phenomenon to be celebrated.

Cup of awesome. Drinking chocolate from Cafe Luz. 
I've written before that what most people call hot chocolate is actually hot cocoa. Fact is, hot drinking chocolate is a very rare thing to find most places in America, much less in our little corner of Houston.  For the colder months, Cafe Luz is offering drinking chocolate, and it is very much the real thing. Rich, thick, and wonderfully restrained in sweetness, this is the sipping beverage that warms the soul and calms the mind. Treated this way, the complexity of the chocolate blooms, and one appreciates the multitude layers of flavor with every sip. Don't quaff this, take your time.

About the only thing that would complete the experience would be some hot churros.

As a bonus, I learned that the chocolate itself was roasted and prepared in the Houston area. Tejas Chocolates are based out of Spring, and are not (only) chocolatiers, but also chocolate makers. They import beans, roast and process them here to make their single source bars (also sold at Cafe Luz). I don't subscribe to the "local for local sake" ideals, but I do agree that the time is ripe for artisanal attention to chocolate preparation. Chocolate making joins in synchrony with the passion of the emergent artisanal coffee movement, the burgeoning craft beer brewing industry, and the mature cheese and wine industries. Surely, a market for the possible range of possible flavors, textures, and applications for distinct chocolate products can develop in Houston and beyond.

Monday, December 12, 2011

European Chocolate

When you hear the phrase "European Chocolate", what country do you think about? Belgium comes to mind easily, as does France and Switzerland. Spanish chocolate carries a somewhat different connotation.

However, many other European countries make chocolates - including those not conventionally thought of as chocolate makers. I took a sampling from four locations, and conducted blind taste tests. I chose bars that were specifically just labeled dark chocolate, no inclusions, and were sampled at room temperature with sips of water. Tasters came to remarkably similar conclusions. 

Wedel, from Poland. Dark, rich, complex, this chocolate's flavor evolves as it melts on the tongue. 

Ülker, from Turkey. More bitter notes suggest the inclusion of coffee, but surprisingly enjoyable. 

The Polish and Turkish chocolates were consistently ranked on top, often changing spots depending on the taster, but  they definitely were considered head and shoulders above the other two.

Dorina, from Croatia

Laima, from Latvia - a remarkably sweet bar for being dark chocolate. 
The lower ranked chocolates, from Croatia and Latvia, were not inherently poor chocolates, but when tasted alongside the other two, highlighted their poor notes. Laima, in particular, was chided for tasting almost like milk chocolate. 

These bars are usually more affordable than their more famous Swiss or Belgian brethren. Enjoy - Poland, in particular, has a long history of chocolate making, with competition between the Wedel and Wawel factories. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Skirting the bottle

America has an addiction to the bottle. Well, the other bottle: bottled water. In some situations, bottled water is justified - you're off someplace with no tap, or maybe you're in the desert. But to most people, bottled water is just a luxury item, a marketer's weapon used so glibly on an obliging public. Leave it to Penn & Teller to spell it out in entertaining terms (watch for the serving of Agua de Culo - they didn't translate that one).

The travesty of bottled water is documented in multiple ways since, not only as an economic issue but potentially an environmental hazard as well. No matter, though, as the allure of bottled water is its luxury cachet. 

How would you like VERY expensive bottled water under the tree this holiday season? 
Bottled water with its exorbitant premium over regular tap water is also a cash cow for some retailers. Some establishments refuse to even offer tap water, forcing patrons to purchase bottled water (although I understand this is against regulations). But the backlash against the ubiquitous plastic water bottle is slowly afoot.

From the cooler at Pete's Fine Meats.
Boxed water, anyone?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Two little fishies

Exmoor Toasts, Feast, Houston,TX
I've read about the Exmoor Toasts at Feast in Houston. People wax rhapsodic about the combination of anchovy, clotted cream and toasted bread, and I was eager to try them. I've eaten at Feast before, although I didn't get to try Exmoor Toasts back then. But I had great hopes - the unconventional combination (which is potentially kosher if pork fat was excluded) seems promising.

Sadly, to my own palate, the toasts were ... nondescript. The oily fish, combined rich clotted cream, lost its flavorful punch, while canceling out the distinct luxurious notes of the cream. As my dining companion quipped, it may as well have been cheaper cream cheese. Only the crispness of the toast provided any counterpoint. A bit of parsley and lemon would have brought the dish forward. Not that it was a bad dish by any means, I simply found it serviceable and unremarkable. Which is only a poor point given the exalted expectations.

In contrast, a recent visit to Friends' Kitchen (9889 Bellaire) yielded this comparably priced plate of fried female capelins. The smelt, many pregnant with roe, where crusted with rice flour, and seasoned with a melange of chiles and sichuan peppercorns. The fish were eaten bones, fins and all, and each bite was redolent with a punch of mala and a riot of textures from crunchy to meaty. The fish was as addicting as popcorn, and substantial enough to be a meal.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The food that tastes you back

Tongue usually counts as one of those exotic organ meats people automatically develop some pyschological aversion to. Maybe it is the strange texture: after all, the tongue is unique among skeletal muscles. Most of the muscle eaten as meat are attached to bone and under voluntary control; all the muscle fibers are oriented in the same direction as the original muscle only needs to move in one axis. Thus, there are optimum ways of carving meat like a skirt steak, to cut through the fibers and make it easier to eat.

The tongue, however, moves omnidirectionally, thus, the muscle fibers there run in all sorts of directions. There really isn't an optimum cut, and the whole thing needs to be cooked until tender. On the other hand, there's no bone to contend with.

 Here in Houston, (beef) tongue is often encountered as lengua in tortas and tacos, but that tongue meat has been shredded into unrecognizable bits. Tongue can also be found sliced thinly in delis for sandwiches. 
In Mexico, I encountered right proper Mexican lengua stew. The tongue is stewed in tomatoes and spices, and then cut into generous half inch slices. It was delicious with freshly baked telera bread. Now that's the way to enjoy this unique cut of the cow. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Guess the product

I spotted this in a market in Jalisco, Mexico. Care to guess what little brown particles in the bag are? Hint: it's not coffee. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Legislating Tomatoes

Tomato carpaccio
The distaste Americans have for vegetables extends into adulthood - to make it easier to conform to the letter of the mandate to get children to eat more vegetables, Congress is passing a bill that effectively allows a slice of pizza to be counted as a serving of vegetables. The justification? That the small amount of tomato paste on the pizza suffices as vegetables.


Because, of course, a tomato is really a fruit.

Or is it? Enter another piece of legislation: in 1893, the US Supreme Court declared it a vegetable. What is with all this legislation trumping science and common sense anyway?

Fact is, we are skirting around the true mission: to expand the nutritional and culinary repertoire of our youth. Unfortunately, a lot of money is riding on profiting from keeping things monotonous - makes for a dependence on easily industrialized food systems. Our school systems waste good food as it stands - these arcane regulations only open the avenue for gaming by lobbyists who don't have the health of children in mind.

And I'll bet that pizza was prefrozen and tastes like cardboard.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Savory Starch redux

Here in Houston, one of my favorite bakeries (well, there aren't really that many) makes a rice pudding empanada. But who's to say that the starch in starch combination is unique to Houston?

A popular street food item in Japan is yakisoba pan. Yakisoba are basically stir fried noodles. These are in turn stuffed into a long roll, and behold - a noodle sandwich. It's actually quite good when done right, and I should the perfect portable carboloading bullet for your marathon run.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Yes we have bananas

You've heard the stories, right? About how the banana is doomed for extinction. Because all bananas are clones of each other, and because of the Panama fungal blight, the monoculture cannot evolve resistance. Well, truth is, that's only for the Cavendish banana, which turns out to the most imported fruit into USA.  There are many varieties of bananas, although and infrastructure that matches the processing, shipping, and cultural acceptance of the Cavendish will take a while to redevelop in the aftermath. 

So, what do some of these other banana varieties look like? 

The "saba" - a cooking banana. 

The thinner skinned latundan.

The lakatan. 
The lakatan has a distinctive yellow flesh, and a floral aroma. 

By the way, the "seedlessness" is the consequence of triploidy. But you knew that already. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Best kind of flattery

Something looks really familiar about them.

I spotted a Colombian chocolate milk drink in the supermarket last night. Something about it seems awfully familiar.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Houston's Diners

Ethiopian style congee.

In a recent survey by Zagat (now a property of Google) revealed that Houstonians dine out more often than any other city in the US. Some seem to think that this is something to be bragged about.

Why is that?

If there's anything I've observed about local dining out habits is that these diners tend to go to the same narrow range of restaurants, all of whom tend to offer very similar dishes. Moreover, people tend to order the exact same dish with every visit. I believe the latter part is true of most American restaurant patrons. These habitual systems fuel the burgeoning monotony of the dining scene in Houston. Our diversity stems from the number of different ways one can put toppings on a hamburger, or the minutiae of smoking brisket. And at the end of the day, familiarity often trumps flavor at the checkout receipt.

But the necessary consequence here is that Houstonians tend to cook less often at home. And this should be recognized as a sad matter. There's a true and essential skill to cooking - it's the art of finding flavor amidst compromise, a balance of knowing enough of the science of chemistry and microbiology to apply heat and time to raw ingredients, to bring forth a transformation worthy of one's palate, discriminating or otherwise. And above all, it's about taking responsibility for the outcome, something that Texans, and all Americans, for that matter, are supposed to take pride in.

And even the humblest of cooks are better equipped to appreciate the vision and efforts of a fellow cook by their very exposure to the craft.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Veggie of the Mother Continent

What do potatoes, tomatoes, and chile peppers have in common? They are all crops native to the Americas that have changed world cuisine. One cannot even imagine Italian food without tomatoes, English cooking without potatoes or Indian food without chile.

But here's a triumvirate you probably don't think about: okra, tamarind and coffee - crop plants that originated from Africa, that have changed much of world cuisine.

Okra tempura as part of the "dry" sinigang

Americans tend to ascribe okra to Southern cooking - as it was the import along with African slaves to the South. Beyond gumbo and fried okra, though, the fruit doesn't figure heavily into North American cooking. I have encountered Yankees who don't even think that okra is a real word. What surprises me is that it didn't seem to transfer into Mexican cooking, despite the proximity. But the African influence certainly shines in Brazilian cooking.

Okra is also quite popular in Filipino cooking. Without a direct African immigration, I was puzzled how the okra got there. The lack of okra in Mexican cooking added to the puzzle, as the close history of two countries as colonies of Spain may have explained things. So, where else is okra a major culinary ingredient? Cuisines of Egypt, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia - it appears that okra traveled along the path of Arabic explorers along Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Not photogenic

"But it looks like cat poop."

Kopi Luwak, or "civet coffee".
I wasn't even showing my friend the infamous kopi luwak, which is indeed the product of cat poop (those are coffee beans recovered from the droppings of civet cats that eat the coffee berries).

 Instead, I was showing them a fruit that is quite ubiquitous the world around: the tamarind.

A sweet tamarind pod. A particular cultivar from Thailand that is less tart and is eaten as fresh fruit. 
A brown pod with a papery dry skin, the edible part is the sticky brown pulp surrounding the shiny seeds.

Peeled tamarind pod. 

A sweet tangy flavor, it's an essential component of multiple Asian cuisines, from chutney to pad thai. Tamarind figures prominently in worcestershire sauce, but in places from Mexico to Trinidad, tamarind pulp is diluted into a kind of chilled sweetened drink, or mixed with sugar and spices into a kind of candy.

Unlike plants like tomato and potato, that originated in the Americas to transform old world cuisine, the tamarind originates from Africa, and in fact, did the opposite: it infiltrated itself into the cuisines of the Americas. I think it is only the appearance that keeps it in the under the radar of the fragile North American sensibilities.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pet Peeve: Ethnic Flavored

I have a good friend who once worked as a translator. She related this anecdote about a client who called her asking if she can translate from "Asian". Which leads me to a pet peeve of mine: the generic ethnic food descriptor. Take this article, for example, writing that there's an imminent rise in popularity for "latin flavored" cocktails. It's preposterously comfortable in its ignorance and lack of respect for individual cultures. I'm tired of people ascribing nachos and tacos to Spanish cuisine. Or the fact that "Chinese" restaurants in certain parts of the US are expected to carry pad thai and sushi. And what the heck is so Chinese about "Chinese Chicken Salad"?

And the biggest annoyance of all? The ubiquitous "oriental flavored" items.

Or maybe a backlash is coming for the "Nordic flavored", "Muslim flavored", "Eskimo flavored", or "Canadian flavored" products.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steen. Mangosteen.

In the last post about longans, commenter John L. (an esteemed and educated person) inquired about mangosteen. No relation to the mango, this treasured fruit has been dubbed "The Queen of Fruits" (apparently, the odoriferous durian claims the King title) and is indeed difficult to ship outside of the tropics. I've seen and purchased them in frozen form in area Asian markets, and I fear that they lose their distinctive flavor this way. The promise of fresh domestically grown mangosteen was reported in 2006, but I've yet to see the fruit of that promise. The Panoramic Fruit Company founded for this purpose in Puerto Rico simply reports that they are not shipping to the mainland US.

It's a shame. I've had mangosteen in Canada (for a shocking price), but it couldn't be brought back over the border.

Mangosteen, opened.
Like the pomegranate, one eats the white arils surrounding the seeds (don't bother spitting the seeds out, just swallow them). The main pulp is a beautiful purple color, but isn't really eaten. The flavor is bright, acidic, sweet, ephemeral. It really is its own flavor. Some of the best are grown in Thailand - if you have the opportunity, you should try it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stoned Fruits

 As we come to the end of summer here in Texas, we also come to the last points of plentiful fruit season. When people speak of stone fruits, they generally speak of peaches, plums, nectarines and cherries (and the various hybrids thereof). But the basic architecture of such stone fruit - a skin around an edible flesh surrounding a stone - are found in other fruits not of the Prunus genera. Although these other stone fruits were previously known as exotic Asian crops, they are now quite readily found in Houston area markets. Pictured above is the rambutan. Despite the furry appearance, the outer skin peels off easily to reveal a delicious white golf-ball sized meat.

  You may encounter lychee quite frequently in the canned form in Chinese restaurants. Or in the trendier bars as part of a martini. But the humble longan seldom gets such star treatment.
So how does one eat one of these fruit types? Let's dissect one. The longan is about the size of a large marble, and if you press on it, the skin splits, and can be easily peeled away.
Longan, half peeled. 

Longan, naked.

One then chews around the sweet translucent flesh, and spits out the pit. Repeat with the next fruit. Enjoy.

Longan seed.