New Year’s Nosh

It’s the last day of 2007, ladies and gentlemen! And you can’t ring in the New Year properly without the appropriate New Year’s Nosh.

An old tradition in the South (and here in Texas, which I don’t really consider to be a part of the South, but that’s a whole other story…) is to have black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve. A New Year’s Eve spent without black-eyed peas all but guarantees that you’ll have bad luck in the coming year, so I suggest you get yourself down to the grocery store ASAP for some black-eyed peas and saltpork and fire up that crock pot. You’ll thank me next year.

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Another tradition around our house is to have caviar on New Year’s Eve, as a once-a-year indulgence. We hit up Liebman’s for some divine sevruga caviar a few days before and keep it nice and chilled until the day of. Serve the caviar with wooden or mother-of-pearl utensils (so as not to spoil the taste) on pieces of mini-toast with a glass of champagne, and even if you’re just sitting in your living room watching yet another Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year’s Eve, it’ll be a smashing time.

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However, if caviar isn’t an option for you (for monetary, dietary or moral reasons), then let me provide you with a third option for your New Year’s fare which combines my two favorite New Year’s dishes into one: Texas Caviar.

Texas Caviar is a savory, spicy dish reminiscent of fattoush, except that it’s made with black-eyed peas instead of stale pita bread.  You can serve Texas Caviar and kill two birds with one stone: your black-eyed pea-induced luck will be taken care of, as will your desire for some luscious caviar.  It’s a winner all around!

Here are some recipes to get you started, but remember that Texas Caviar is ultimately a salad and therefore can be interpreted rather loosely, and no two recipes are the same.  Don’t like avocado?  Leave it out.  Prefer it less spicy?  Forget the jalapeños.  Try a bunch of recipes until you find one that you like; they’re healthy and delicious and will please a crowd, so you can’t really go wrong.

Texas Caviar from Allrecipes.com

Texas Caviar from Southern Living

Texas Caviar II from Southern Living (my old favorite!)

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Have a wonderful and safe New Year’s Eve!  As my extremely astute cousin always says, it’s amateur night out there tonight, so be extra careful on the roads and highways.  But above all, have fun!

The wonderful photo of Texas Caviar, above, is courtesy of Jason Perlow at Off the Broiler.

Dimassi’s vs. Dimassi’s

Dimassi’s, Houston, Texas (Katy Freeway location)
December 26, 2007

Dimassi’s, Houston, Texas (Richmond/610 location)
December 29, 2007

If it were up to me, I’d probably eat Mediterranean food every single day of the week. So when two separate groups of friends wanted to try Dimassi’s this past week, I eagerly accompanied them.

The original Dimassi’s location at Richmond and 610 has been a favorite haunt of mine since high school. The decor has changed a few times over the years, from the original “Assisted Living Facility Bland” to the current design scheme, which looks like my Egyptian friend Amin’s mother’s sitting room, if the sitting room were the size of a high school cafeteria. Not exactly beautiful, more quirky and fun and a testament to the heritage of the owners and patrons. But even with the changing decor, the food has remained consistently wonderful despite the fact that it’s all served buffet-style. I attribute this to the vast volume of people flowing in and out of this location daily; the food has to be fresh, since it’s going so quickly.

The newer Dimassi’s location took over the old west Houston outpost of King Fish Market after Chris King decided to pursue other ventures (which, by the way, what the hell? where are you, Chris King? I miss your crazy local commercials…). King Fish Market was a big loss to our restaurant scene: always busy and always good, it was a favored happy hour location for the entire neighborhood and an easy and pleasing answer to the age-old “…I don’t know…what are you in the mood for tonight?”

King Fish Market was cheerful and welcoming inside, so when I heard that Dimassi’s would be filling out the abandoned restaurant, I was elated. Now I wouldn’t have to brave Galleria-area traffic when I craved good baba ganoush and falafel! But when I first entered the reinvented space, I was disappointed to see that the Dimassi’s redecorating team had torn out the beautiful stained glass bar (I know that there’s technically no need for a bar in a Middle Eastern restaurant, but I’m sure it could have been repurposed as something…) and replaced the entire area with hideous, commercial kitchen-grade flooring and three extremely unaesthetic buffet tables. The walls had all been repainted with dark clashing colors and random lamps and wall art had been hung haphazardly throughout the now-derelict looking facility. It looked absolutely, unredeemably hideous.  Continue reading Dimassi’s vs. Dimassi’s

Your Moment Of Zen

There’s a palpable undercurrent of menace about this video, which is what I imagine would be the end result of David Lynch directing a series of ice cream commercials. It reminds me of a Discovery Channel special that Richard was watching the other day on maggots. It showed several different corpses (dogs, pigs, foxes, humans — all of which I’m assuming were donated to science/a body farm) being devoured by maggots over an extended period of time, but through the magic of time-lapse cinematography so that it wasn’t nearly as squicky as you’re imagining right now. They just kind of…collapsed in on themselves. That’s all. (note: I whited the text out because it’s a little PG-13, so highlight to read at your own risk.)

Okay, so it was really gross. But in an enriching way, because– hey — it’s the Discovery Channel!

Which makes it all the more disturbing to me that I enjoy watching this video and find it relaxing, even. I’m hoping that all that says about me is that I really like Mulholland Drive and the Discovery Channel.

Merry Christmas From The Family

No, my family is not quite as bad as the eponymous Family from the famous Robert Earl Keen song (what? you don’t know that song? go here posthaste and familiarize yourself with this holiday classic!). We don’t serve bean dip or Diet Rite at our Christmas meals. And we don’t use cans of fake snow. And we don’t have relatives that drive in from Harlingen and park their motorhomes on the front lawn.

But we do have our share of holiday moments each year, being thismuchremoved from the boonies of East Texas.

This year’s festivities included a bird getting trapped inside of the house, me trying to chase it back outside and my ever-helpful husband following behind me with the video camera, giggling hysterically while hooting “This is going on America’s Funniest Home Videos!”

Great. As if I didn’t hate that show enough, now there’s the very real possibility that my husband is going to send in footage of me in pajamas, with crazy hair and brandishing a rake, tear-assing after a tiny wren while shrieking to Richard, “You’re not exactly helping, asshole!”

The festivities also included my father and brother bringing back a big buck from the deer lease. So, in lieu of the leg of lamb that was originally planned, my folks went to work preparing the deer for our big feast.  My father spent all day Monday cleaning the carcass in the backyard and carving out some venison steaks for Christmas dinner. And then my mother spent all afternoon Tuesday soaking it in milk in an effort to reduce its gaminess while making side dishes to accompany our venison feast.

For Christmas dinner, we had the venison steaks with a — for lack of a better word — confit of red onions, Maytag blue cheese, golden raisins and pine nuts, with sides of potato and leek gratin and some delicious little peas. It was a beautiful dinner. My mother had laid out the table on par with any Martha Stewart production and the food was plated brilliantly. Everything was quite posh, all in all.

As we all sat down and joined hands to say grace — our heads bowed in thoughtful reflection and the scent of venison wafting gently towards us — my father began to pray: “Dear tiny infant Jesus…” and the whole table just lost it in fits of howling, snorting laughter.

We can only keep our inner rednecks inside for so long, it would seem. Hope you and yours had a merry Christmas, too!

Santa Cake!

I came into work this morning to find that my awesome Day Job boss had left this on my desk as a Christmas present:

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Not the actual Santa cake, mind you, but the adorable cake pan from Williams-Sonoma that one would theoretically use to create the Santa cake pictured above.  To wit:

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She had also thoughtfully packaged it together with this scrumptious-sounding cake mix:

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Although I prefer baking from scratch — sans mixes — the addition of eggnog (extract? flavoring? tiny eggnog molecules? I have no idea how Williams-Sonoma is defining this) to a poundcake is irresistable.  It should make for a nice, festive dessert on Christmas Eve alongside our leg of lamb and whatever else my mother is whipping up for dinner.

Now, as to the actual decorating of said Santa cake, I fear that with my subpar decorating skills it will turn out less like the lovely cake pictured above and more like this:

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Thank God we don’t have little kids coming to Christmas dinner this year.

J. Alexander’s

J. Alexander’s, Houston, TX
December 19, 2007

As with so many of my restaurant excursions, I did not intend to end up at J. Alexander’s for lunch yesterday.  It happened only because the other occupants of the car had suddenly decided that Thai food was too “different” and the accessibility and familar food of a chain restaurant beckoned to them from Westheimer (seriously, sometimes I really struggle with my very nice but very sheltered and timid coworkers).  And so it was that we wound up directly across the street from the restaurant I never wanted to leave the day before (Bistro Le Cep) and, sadly, in an entirely different culinary universe from the one that Bistro Le Cep inhabits.

If it’s not already been well-established, then let me get this out of the way right now:  I strongly dislike chain restaurants.  Thank God I live in a city like Houston where they can be deftly avoided in favor of locally-owned and operated establishments.  I’d be utterly screwed if I lived in Dallas.

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There are a few chain restaurants that I will go to, knowing full well that they serve microwaved Sysco products cooked by a person a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from an orangutan.  On those occasions, I’m doing what is fondly referred to as “giving up” because I’m exhausted or preoccupied with other matters and I’ll eat whatever is put in front of me.  However, I don’t often make a conscious choice to eat at chain restaurants.  Yesterday’s meal was a perfect example of why I maintain this practice. Continue reading J. Alexander’s

Bistro Le Cep

Bistro Le Cep, Houston, TX
December 18, 2007
 

I’m on a slow, occasionally frustrating path to introducing my somewhat reluctant coworkers to something other than what is nuked and passed off as food at the Alonti cafe downstairs or at the utterly horrifying Olive Garden across the street.  To that end, I suggested Bistro Le Cep for lunch yesterday.  And — to my surprise — they agreed.

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Since it was a last-minute decision, we didn’t make reservations.  But the folks at Bistro Le Cep were more than accommodating, seating us immediately even though the restaurant was thoroughly packed.  This was a marked and welcome departure from our debacle at that other French bistro a few weeks ago.  A few of my dining companions were amused to see that one of the daily specials at Bistro Le Cep was wienerschnitzel, a typically Austrian dish (although they actually said “German” and I had to restrain myself from being that unsufferable twat who corrects people on things they didn’t really care that much about in the first place), and this is one of the things that I love about the Bistro.

Bistro Le Cep doesn’t limit itself to only Bourguignonne or Provençal cuisine; it takes the best dishes from each region in France and crafts them into delicious, little one-night-stands that you can have with an adventurous andouillette from Cambrai or a handsome cassoulet from Castelnaudary or even some stoic spaetzle from Alsace.

As we settled into our booth, admiring the homey warmth of the place, we were quickly and cheerfully attended to by a waiter who, when asked by my coworker which dish would make her happier — the salade Niçoise or the salmon — existentially informed her that while they are able to serve her a delicious meal, they could not manage her happiness and that it was hers alone to determine.  His off-the-cuff philosophy of self-fulflling happiness was the bright spot of my day.

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My companions ordered their dishes and I was pleased to note that most of them were trying authentically French dishes — an order for coq au vin on one side, an order for lapin aux haricots verts on another.  My foie de veau aux pommes avec confit d’ oignons arrived looking like something out of a 16th-centrury tapestry hanging in a castle; it was indecently large and sumptuous-looking.  I ate with abandon.

The foie de veau was delicately rich and the taste of the slightly musky liver flooded my mouth with a rush.  Paired with the apples and onion confit, it was sophisticated in its simplicty, yet somehow still decadent.  I was transfixed.  You’d think I’d never had liver before, with the way I was raving about the dish.  In retrospect, it might have even been a bit embarassing.  But such are the hazards of eating out with me.

Everyone else apparently enjoyed their dishes as much as I enjoyed mine.  Before we knew it, we had all cleaned our plates and were peering around at each other curiously, as if we’d just emerged from a group trance.  There was no sharing of bites or pecking at the plate next to you; we had all simply and greedily enveloped ourselves in our own little, rabbity or chickeny worlds before finally falling back into our chairs, exhausted and sated.  Afterwards, we all sipped the Bistro’s delicious coffee, which tasted slightly of chicory, and resumed any polite discussions which had fallen by the wayside during our food orgy.

Now that’s what I call a good lunch.

All photos courtesy of Bistro Le Cep’s website; I didn’t take these myself, sad to say.

Care Package

From the files of my weird and hilarious friends…

My friend Jessica recently moved out to California, oh so far away from any of her friends and family.  So she was excited to receive a giant care package in the mail from our friend Julia, who’s always been the maternal one of the group.  Jessica tore excitedly into the enormous box, eager to see the baked goods and socks that she was certain Julia had lovingly placed inside (…yes, socks…it’s a thing we do).

Instead, she was startled to find herself staring into a caverous box of kettle corn.  There was Ziploc freezer bag upon Ziploc freezer bag of kettle corn, layered one on top of another.  There were a dozen gallon-sized bags of it in all.

Jessica thought that surely the kettle corn was a a clever and edible form of packing peanuts for something much more valuable, but alas — kettle corn was the sole occupant of the box.

That is except for the four, empty sandwich-sized Ziploc bags that Jessica found as she was stowing the giant bags of kettle corn in the cupboard.  Each tiny bag had been marked “To Go” in Julia’s familiar handwriting.  Jessica finally called Julia to figure out her intentions with the kettle corn.

Julia: “I just made a LOT of kettle corn the other day and figured you might want some.”

Jessica:  “A whole, microwave oven box full of kettle corn?”

Julia (impatiently):  “I gave you To Go bags!”

Got a kid in college?  Friend overseas?  I highly suggest this as a care package.  It’s cheap to make AND send.  And who doesn’t like To Go bags of kettle corn?

Three New Faces In The Crowd

I’m a little late to the party on this, but I felt it worth mentioning anyway…

Rhea Wheeler (the Houston entrepreneur-cum-restauranteur responsible for the award-winning Ibiza) is opening a “mixed-use” restaurant in Midtown that will include — among other things — private wine lockers, an upscale restaurant, a club and a sushi bar.  While that should be interesting in and of itself, what really intrigues me is the location.

No, it’s not new construction!  I know — unheard of!  It’s…wait for it…in the old Boy Scout headquarters on Bagby.  No news yet on what the restaurant will be called, but I’m giddy with anticipation.

The real estate and development hawks over at Swamplot have additional details here: Secret Midtown Boy Scout Sushi Location Revealed.  The headline itself just makes me giggle.

In addition to the mixed-use restaurant (which I’m not-so-secretly and desperately hoping will be Scout-themed — can you imagine the possibilities of the staff uniforms alone??), Wheeler is also opening a downtown gastropub called Hearsay and another Midtown restaurant, to be called the White House.  All three are being established in “historically significant properties,” which gives me a small hope that perhaps we won’t tear down every single structure built prior to 1980 during this building frenzy that has currently enveloped the city.

Hearsay will serve — as expected — gastropub fare, which is classic English pub fare done in a much more upscale manner and with the addition of unexpected, high-end menu items.  Gastropubs began making headway in the United States in 2004 after being imported from the U.K. with great caché, the food trend equivalent of The Beatles.  Houston, being a bit behind the times in most things, has been somewhat slower to cotton on.  As previously noted, The Red Lion has made a feeble attempt at this trend.  Let’s hope that Hearsay does a better job, because I’d love to have a quality gastropub in town.

The White House is still a bit shrouded in mystery, too.  All we know at this point is that it will be located in an eponymous white mansion on Austin at Elgin and will serve “Texas cuisine,” a descriptive phrase that annoys me almost as much as the hollow “California cuisine.”  We’ll see what comes of it.  As for now, I’m hoping for something a bit like The Inn at Hunt Phelan in Memphis which, despite its rather dull and pedestrian website, is actually beautiful inside and out.  The Inn at Hunt Phelan, a restored Civil War-era mansion, specializes in Creole/southern cuisine and their food is subtly magnificent.  You might see where I’m drawing a few parallels here.

Rhea Wheeler appears to me to be almost the antithesis of Tilman Fertitta (whose vile, greedy building projects and painfully, nauseatingly gaudy yet utterly-devoid-of quality restaurants are permeating the city).  Wheeler’s zeal for good food and his seemingly true appreciation for the city make me eager to support his restaurant endeavors, entirely absent of any acclaim that Ibiza has received.  That is to say: even if Ibiza weren’t the huge success that it is, I love the direction that Wheeler is taking and I’ll happily follow him along the journey.