Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

In good company

To you, the readers, thank you.

I open with that because I'm sometimes surprised to learn about who reads my blog. I just recently found out that this humble forum is nominated for a Foodie Star award over at My Table Houston. It stands with some illustrious company:

29.95 (Houston Chronicle)
Delicious Mischief (John DeMers)
Eating Our Words (Houston Press)
Guns & Tacos (Jay Rascoe)
Houston Foodie (J.C. Reid)
Texas Eats (Robb Walsh)

Personally, I think that Nishta Mehra's heartfelt Blue Jean Gourmet blog, a recent awardee at the Houston Web Awards, should have been a member of this group. The final winner is determined in part by popular vote - voting opens August 1 at

To be honest, I don't expect to win, so I am already pleased with the nomination. The blog is up against some powerful competition: Two of them are professional, ad driven blogs with staffs of bloggers. The others have a strong focus on dining out and travel - which is in line with the main theme of My Table as a magazine.

Part of the reason why I started this blog is that all too often, when someone says "food blog", the focus in particular is in dining out. While I do recount experiences of dining out in different restaurants, I firmly believe that the subject of food encompasses so much more, that there's a lot to learn about the art, science, and practice of food. As a cultural experience, as a scientific endeavor, as a learning experience, and as fundamental diplomacy.

I applaud the other nominees. They are all works of great talent and enthusiasm, and encourage you to read them, to learn the pulse of food in Houston. Thank you again for visiting, and I'll just keep writing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pet Peeve: High End/Upscale

freshly cooked shrimp served with coarsely ground and creamy grits.

Previously on pet peeves: the best.

A shiny metal trailer is making waves on the interwebs. It's called theModular, helmed by Josh Martinez, and it is yet another of the latest "trendy food trucks". With a difference.

Sous vide pork belly with pickled onions and Granny Smith apples. On "nori rice". The rice was forgettable.
Paul Galvani reviewed the food for, and gave it a thumbs up. Culturemap's Ruthie raved about it. HoustonPress blogs about the product.

For the most part, I agree. It's food that is not only surprising to find served out of a trailer, it's definitely a cut above, and a fair product for the price.

Tuna poke tacos. I applaud the use of wonton shells for the taco, but I think the tuna is minced too finely to be called poke. Flavors were on point, though.

The chicken thighs, in my opinion, were the weakest dish. The meat was mushy, and the flavors reminded me of an ersatz adobo. Pickles helped. The crew hasn't mastered rice making, though. 
But many of the reviewers use the terms "upscale" or "high end" dining, and how surprising it is coming from a trailer. Just what the heck does that mean? Is it the ingredients or techniques? Certainly the source ingredients that theModular's crew tend to use are of pretty humble origins: chicken thighs, duck wings, fish collars. Is it the use of sous vide? Or the compositional plating on paper boats? I don't think cooks behind this truck would themselves use the term upscale to describe their cooking - just good food. I find that the use of "High End" is one of exclusion - that this is food not all of us are worthy to partake - and that doesn't seem to be the philosophy of theModular.

So I won't insult their cooking by calling it that. I'll call it good cooking at a fair price. Just needs to make better rice.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Life Resists

Just a quick explanation - this sensationalist article is making the rounds of RSS feeds and the blogosphere - that "superweeds" are on the rise, threatening our food supply. What's worse is that the article explicitly points a finger as the biotech company Monsanto as being the punching bag bogeyman in this phenomenon. There are a couple of things wrong or misinterpreted in the article:

1. The concept of what a weed is stems from our understanding of what is desirable or edible in context. For example, in parts of the world, canola is considered a weed. Dandelions are pests in some yards, but just about the whole plant is edible, and you can pay a pretty penny to get "organically grown" dandelion in health food stores. Weeds only threaten the food supply if our definition of food is controlled by someone else.

2. Superweeds were so named because they are resistant to the commonly used herbicide glysphosphate, aka RoundUp. Monsanto makes a fortune off this herbicide because of their patent for the gene that confer resistance to the herbicide; a large number of commercial crops carry the patented gene, so farmers using the technology can spray RoundUp everywhere, and only plants that carry the gene will grow.

At least, that's the idea. Anyone with a modicum of understanding of evolution knows that the strategy will only work with a limited period of time. Life, with each generation, will adapt. Likely, there is more than one biochemical pathway to resistance to glysphosphate, and continued exposure to one particular herbicide, with little controlled management, will eventually result in increased population frequency of the allele. In short, the "weeds" are just adapting. They are only superweeds in the sense that they aren't staying put in evolution the way that humans would like them to.

The problem doesn't lie with Monsanto, rather, it lies in the practice of agriculture without respect for the very real forces of evolution and natural selection. The solution is education. Populations that become dependent on the use of herbicides as a way of maintaining high crop yields, rather than diversification of the diet, will continue to be faced with this problem, regardless of the suppler.

Incidentally, we face the same problem with regards to antibiotic resistance in the clinic. But that's no longer food related...unless we're talking about animal husbandry.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


The Google logo - 20 July 2011.
Today, in tribute to the great legacy of the father of classical genetics, Gregor Mendel, Google changed their logo to be made from images of peas. Mendel posited the idea that inheritance can be divided into traits (seed color, height, texture), and that these traits can recombine independently during the course of crosses. He wasn't completely correct - he had no idea of linkage (and probably fudged his numbers to gloss this over) - but this formed one of the fundamental concepts in biology: genetics.

The other, of course, is evolution.

But as we celebrate the triumphs of science, we shouldn't forget the tribulations that these scientists underwent to defend and explore their ideas. Certainly, Darwin's legacy remains contested in America to this day. However, while even basic education reminds everyone of Mendel's work (even if most don't remember the details), we are remiss in remembering Lysenko's legacy. Biology and agriculture suffered greatly in Soviet Russia the government empowered ideology over science. Scientists were jailed and fled, thousands suffered as agricultural crops failed.

And we best learn from history. As legislation is enacted to as a knee-jerk reaction to ban technology (ie, "GMO"), rather than the open debate of science, we stand on the precipice of Lysenko's rebirth.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Spherification commercialized

At this point, boba drinks are no longer a particular novelty. But just in case you're uninitiated to the practice, boba shops concoct tea, coffee or smoothie drinks that are served with chewy tapioca balls at the bottom. As you sip the drink, the chewy bits provide lots of entertainment and interactivity. Originating from Taiwan, the drinks have grown in popularity so much that numerous shops around Houston carry them, with names such as Tapioca Express or Teahouse. 

One way to diversify the offering, aside from the drinks themselves (which are, often, concocted from instant powders) is to change the solid inclusions. Some shops offer an array, not just of tapioca ball sizes, but also pudding, agar cubes, nata de coco, or other jellies. Recently, I encountered "popping boba". 

Coconut smoothie with mango "popping boba". 
The concept is quite simple - each ball is actually a bead of juice encapsulated by a skin. As one bites into the ball, it pops, releasing the juice.

Modernist cooks will recognize this as an application of spherification, where sodium alginate is used to generate "caviar" out of any number of liquids. Although this may be the first industrialized application of spherification I have seen. Online sources of popping boba appear to have constrained supplies at the moment. The pearls themselves come in multiple flavors, and the skin appears fairly resilient. Ideas for other applications of these pearls await exploration.

Friday, July 15, 2011


The new edition
Soon to hit your favorite book shelves and App Store, the newest edition of the Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide. Proper disclosure: I'm on the Council. It's in the credits. So, secret is out.

That said, I've always wondered a bit about the adjective "Fearless". What's there for a critic to fear? None of us who shared our opinions have our livelihood dependent on the review process. Mostly, we like to eat in restaurants (whether it be to explore, or just revel in the mythical social experience) - the worst that can happen is that a restaurateur who recognizes a critic can ban that person. In a city with the sheer number of restaurants in Houston, what kind of threat is that? 

No, perhaps the monicker "fearless"  is more aptly applied to the restaurateur/chef/cook/entrepreneur behind the establishments. Some of whom risk it all for the idea, a chance at living a dream of being appreciated, or maybe just to follow a path set for them. We can sit at the table, needle the performance because we've paid, but we have little to fear. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

The definition of food

On a recent visit to a friend's house, I noticed a decorative palm tree in the yard heavy with ripening fruit.

I picked a ripe one, examining it for a while. "I wouldn't eat that if I were you", came the cautionary warning.

After cracking it open, I took a taste. It was quite good. This, as it turns out, is the fruit of the pindo or jelly palm, and, like the loquat, is seldom sold in Houston markets, despite being commonly grown as decorative plants.

The very concept of food is something that is shrouded in debate, science and superstition. It's the product of a culture despite its close ties to the scientific basis of nutrition. Why else would mainstream America find the heads of fish inedible (even as the filets from the bodies are prized) while conveniently accepting quasi-non-milk "milk" as health food? We read often nowadays of an impending food crisis, that food shortages loom as our population outstrips our capacity to grow conventional crops or raise domesticated vertebrates, but the edible options for an omnivore are vast.

Sharing a common definition of food, however, is a visceral aspect of cultural identity. Humans create bonds by sharing meals, and divide into groups depending on what subgroups opt to eat or not to eat, be they vegans, entomophagists, Muslims, or teetotalers. And this shared definition of food (and its requisite implication of what is not food) can be held hostage by a wily set of suppliers. Ad campaigns paint a meat centric diet as the "proper" acceptable meal, or "organic" food as being the only acceptable kind - and are both likely driven by similar motives. 

Take back the control of the definition to food. Be responsible for the knowledge of what is edible and what is delicious. Test, try, make mistakes, and learn. Be accepting of others with different dietary definitions. And, then, perhaps fear turns into adventure.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011


If there is anything that stands as a poster child for Michael Pollan's "edible food-like substances", it's the synthetic stuff people quaff for "athletic" purposes. This "Muscle Milk" stuff claims to contain no milk (but has a primary ingredient of sodium caseinate - the predominant milk protein isolated), and is chock-full of derivatized oils, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives. I've sampled the stuff - to my palate, it is atrocious.

This picture was taken in, of all places, a prominent hospital cafeteria in Houston. After celebrated efforts to ban sugary flavored milk from school cafeterias, our own institutions to health actually stock this stuff.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The bad girl tingles

Beef konjac stew, Mala Sichuan Bistro
"Does anyone else feel like your tongue is a little numb?"

My dining companion was experiencing the eponymous sensation with the food of Mala Sichuan Bistro, a newish joint in the Chinatown/Bellaire area in Houston. I'm particularly intrigued by the choice of name, as a Spanish speaker will read that as meaning "bad girl". But in Chinese, mala describes the simultaneous feeling of spiciness and numbing conferred by the use of Sichuan peppercorns, the signature flavoring of the region. And Mala is unapologetic about the use of the spice.

In fact, don't come expecting to have the stereotypical American perception of Chinese food - the staff here pride themselves in the "exotic". This is the first restaurant I've been in Houston with konjac on the menu - a high glucomannan gel made from the root of the Devil's tongue plant. Stewed with beef and pickled ginger, it appears to substitute for the more expensive sea cucumber in texture.

One warning: the restaurant itself is rather difficult to find from the street. Although it looks nondescript from the outside, entering the door, it opens into a spacious and nicely appointed restaurant, with prompt service, and a staff particularly welcoming of English-speakers uncomfortable with Chinese words. I can think of few places one should try taking a taste of the wild side. And don't worry - the mala sensation wears off quickly.

The surprise hit of the night: crispy spicy pork intestines. Chewy, crunchy, flavorful.

Ants on a Tree. Despite the name, there's neither trees nor ants involved. Rather, minced meat is stir fried with the glass noodles, and they cling to the noodles like ants on a tree. This is but one of the more poetic dish names.

Crispy and spicy chicken. I found the chicken pieces too small, and there's certainly no shortage of dried chiles in use, but the flavor was on point. There's a second spicy chicken on the menu, but we didn't order it.

Garlic Bacon. The name just doesn't convey what this dish is. It's cold cooked pork belly, sliced thinly, and wrapped, jelly roll style, with cucumber slices, before being slathered in this garlic-peppercorn sauce. It is a fantastic dish, but you'll have to adjust your expectations a bit.