Lamb Chops in a Balsamic-Syrah Reduction with Swiss Chard and White Potatoes

This is about as fancy as I get, folks.

But, lord.  Was it ever good.  I called my mother five minutes after I finished eating, specifically to tell her that it was the best meal I’d ever cooked, if not one of the best meals I’d ever eaten.  I don’t believe this is a great tribute or testament to my cooking skills, per se, but more to the lovely simplicity of the recipe and its various ingredients.

The Syrah was a wonderful accompaniment not just to the reduction itself (with the balsamic vinegar and shallots), but also tasted perfect alongside the lamb at dinner.  And the spice rub was subtly magnificent, not overpowering in the least.  Last but not least, the Swiss chard — which is shamefully underrated — added an ideal undercurrent of sweetness to the richness of the lamb and tangy bite of the reduction.

Spice Rub
Spice Rub

All of the elements in the meal seemed perfectly synchronized.  Eating it was like watching an expertly-perfomed ballet.  I can’t recommend this recipe highly enough.  And to think that it was inspired by a recipe on Allrecipes.com…

My mother had purchased some beautiful lamb chops for a client, but ended up not needing them after all.  So, the plump little delicacies were delivered to yours truly, who wouldn’t normally purchase lamb chops for $15 a pound.  I ended up casually browing Allrecipes for a recipe that wouldn’t require me to purchase anything else outside of what I already had at home (I enjoy the challenge of cooking with what I have on hand, as I’m sure you all know by now).

What I found was a recipe for lamb chops in a balsamic reduction, served with potatoes au gratin.  Richard prefers his reductions with only a hint of balsamic (…heathen) and I prefer serving healthier items than au gratin potatoes, so I bastardized the recipe into what follows.  And for a bastard recipe, it ROCKS.

As a quick note, the Syrah I used was from the Chateau Ste Michelle vineyards in Washington state (of which I have very fond memories involving aggressive peacocks and drinking wine out of plastic cups), and it was absolutely divine.  Just goes to show that a Syrah doesn’t have to be from California or cost $30 a bottle to be wonderful.

Lamb Chops in a Balsamic-Syrah Reduction with Swiss Chard and White Potatoes

Serves: 4

  • 3/4 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1/4 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • koshering salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 4 lamb chops (3/4 inch thick)
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. minced shallots
  • 1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 c. Syrah (Cabernet or Port would also work)
  • 3/4 c. vegetable (or beef) broth
  • 1 large bunch Swiss chard 
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 lb. white or Fingerling potatoes

The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects

First, assemble your spices and combine the rosemary, basil and thyme in a small bowl.  Add the koshering salt and pepper to taste.  Pat the spice mixture onto the lamb chops, covering both sides well.  Place the chops on a plate, cover with a paper towel and set aside for 15 minutes to let the chops absorb the flavors from the spices.

Lamb Chops
Lamb Chops, Prepped

While your lamb chops are soaking up their spice treatment, prep the Swiss chard and potatoes.  All that you need to do with the Swiss chard is to cut off the lovely red ends and tear the leaves into somewhat smaller pieces.  Upon cooking, it will wilt quite heavily — like spinach, not like kale — so you don’t have to make them bite-sized.  Put the leaves into a pot and add a small amount of water for steaming.  You’ll want to start steaming the Swiss chard as soon as you put your lamb chops into the pan, since it takes longer to steam than spinach does.

Swiss Chard
Swiss Chard

As for your potatoes, you can either roast them (…yum!) or boil them.  I boiled them only because Richard adores boiled potates (seriously…you can take the man out of England, but you can’t take the love of English cuisine out of the man).  However, I would recommend roasting them in all other circumstances.  Either way, get your taters to boiling (or roasting) while your lamb chops are finishing up their spice bath.

When all of that is finished, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.  When the pan is hot, add your olive oil.  This will help prevent any sticking, which is definitely crucial when dealing with delicate meat and reductions.  When the oil is hot, place your lamb chops in the skillet and cook for about three minutes per side for medium-rare.  If you insist on having your lamb any more done than medium-rare, well…I guess that’s your perogative, but it sure won’t taste as good.  Remove the chops from the skillet, and keep warm on a serving platter.

Add the minced shallots to the skillet, and cook for one or two minutes, just until browned. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and Syrah, scraping any bits of lamb from the bottom of the skillet, then stir in the vegetable broth. Continue to cook and stir over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the sauce has reduced by half.  You may feel inclined to add a knob of butter at this time; I say, go ahead.

Lamb Chops with Swiss Chard and White Potatoes
Plated

The Swiss chard and potatoes should be done by this point.  Plate the lamb chops on top of the steamed and drained Swiss chard and pour the balsamic-Syrah reduction on top.  Serve alongside your roasted (or boiled) potatoes and enjoy!

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Absence

I realize that’s it’s been ages (in blogging measures of time, that is) since I last posted anything.  I even missed Pi(e) Day.  I’m sorry.  I’ve been terribly derelict in my duties, but with good reason.

Work has been particularly busy, which means that when I do get home, writing is the last thing I have time for.  Sucks for those people interested in my ramblings, I imagine, but even more for me, since this is my outlet and one thing that I truly enjoy doing.

In addition to work, I’ve been ramping up to leave the country for a few weeks, so there will be even fewer postings in the coming days and weeks.  I’ll try to post while I’m abroad, but can’t make any promises due to time constraints and the general practicality of finding a computer from which to write.  I will, however, be taking lots of fantastic photographs and eating lots of delicious food and writing down everything in my journal so that I can share when I get back.

In the meantime, let me leave you with something non-food-related, but which I find hilarious.  Here are a few of the utterly ridiculous, Dr. Seuss-ian nonsense words that a salesman in a recent meeting seemed to make up on the fly, and then incorporate into the rest of his conversation throughout course of our meeting:

  • issuematic (adj.) — “It’s not a problem, per se, more of an issue.  So, if something becomes issuematic for you, then we’ll address it from there.
  • applicabilities (n.) — “The software’s applicabilities are such that you can use it across many different applications.”
  • constructured (v.) — “The infrastructure has been constructured so that you can immediately access the data from any location.”
  • informationally (adj.) — “Informationally speaking, we can get that to you in a few days.”
  • documentate (v.) — “We’ll make sure to documentate that issue as part of our take-aways.”

Le sigh.

Can you see why this little food blog is so dear to me?  And, more importantly, to my sanity?

Fresh Tortillas

The Houston Press had a wonderful article recently on the head tortilla-maker at the original Ninfa’s on Navigation.  In the article, Linda Leseman interviews the tortilla-maker, Maria, and attempts to discover Maria’s secrets while learning to make tortillas herself during a low-volume shift at the normally packed restaurant.  The article is both touching and hilarious:

Juan explains in Spanish to Maria. She nods. I have already washed my hands at the nearby sink, so I plunge into the trough and attempt to produce a ball of dough that is roughly the right size. Maria weighs it in her hand against the balls she has created. Mine is a little too big. The official weight for fajita tortillas is 1 ¼ ounces. Tacos are larger: 2 ¼ ounces. Heath Beeman leans over my shoulder.

“You know,” he says, “if you were to weigh each one of those,” indicating the balls produced by Maria, “they would all weigh exactly the same.”

I am beginning to understand the magic of Maria Lagunas’s hands.

It’s also comforting to know that at least one other person shares my innate fear of the griddle:

I am instructed to toss my tortilla onto the griddle, where another woman is monitoring it with a spatula. I find this unnerving. Something tells me that the sizzling griddle will jump out and attack me if I stand too close, so I toss my tortilla onto it from a few feet away. Maria and the other woman are laughing. If only they knew the disasters I have caused in my own kitchen.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to taste fresh, handmade flour tortillas — and you’re only purchasing the doughy, pasty, nasty, mass-produced, pre-bagged kind for sale in your grocery store, you do NOT know what you’re missing.  Fresh tortillas taste intimate and familial; all of the ingredients combine to produce a feeling of immense comfort and satisfaction.  The warm tortillas melt in your mouth, leaving behind only scant traces of flour and shortening, the tastes of home.

The good news is that you can make tortillas yourself, in your own house.  Trust me.  You can.  Even I can make tortillas, with my clumsy hands and fear of hot surfaces.  And once you’ve made a batch of tortillas yourself, at home, you’ll never want the store-bought kind again.

One of the best tortilla recipes to date can be found in Robb Walsh’s inimitable book, The Tex-Mex Cookbook.  Walsh is, coincidentally, the restaurant critic for the Houston Press.  What can I say?  We know our Tex-Mex around here.

I won’t publish the tortilla recipe here; you’ll just have to go and check out Walsh’s book for yourself.  In addition to being a great cookbook, it’s an entertaining and well-researched history of Tex-Mex cuisine and culture.

However, if you just can’t wait, another great recipe can be found here at Texas Rolling Pins: Flour Tortillas (de Mi Abuelita Elvira Gonzalez Leal).

Happy eating!

Spinach and Watercress Salad with Pomelos and Roasted Beets & Pan-Fried Eggplant

Enough about raw meat…  I’ve been properly shamed by my admissions of popping grease fears and pitiful meat-cooking techniques.  On to something that I do do well: vegetables.

Beet Stems
Beet stems and leaves.

These beautiful beets were part of the Farmers’ Market haul from Saturday morning, as was the rest of our meal on Tuesday night.  I decided to do a twist on a typical Southern meal, using very Southern ingredients while keeping the meal fresh, contemporary and healthy (sorry, Miz Deen).

Fresh Beets
Fresh beets.

First up was roasting the beets for the salad.  I chopped off the stems and leaves, saving those for a later meal (you can eat beet greens, just like you’d eat any other greens…collard, mustard, kale, etc.).  I trimmed some of the rougher spots off the beets, roughly chopped them and tossed them with some olive oil and koshering salt.

Beets
I love my knife.

I threw the beets onto a cookie sheet and into a 375 oven for 45 minutes. I covered the beets with a layer of tin foil, but removed it for the last five minutes of cooking. Some people/recipes may tell you to put water into the pan while you’re roasting the beets. I disagree and feel that the beets do much better on their own, like any other root vegetable (sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, etc.).

Unroasted Beets
Ready to rock.

While the beets are roasting, you are free to tend to other tasks around the kitchen.  For me, this meant cleaning and prepping the spinach and watercress for the salad, making the vinaigrette, slicing and prepping the eggplant and creating a little workstation for the flour/egg/cornmeal bath that awaited the eggplant later on.

Watercress
Fresh watercress.

First things first: cleaning and prepping the spinach and watercress.  Spinach, especially, tends to be very sandy and loamy and requires a lot of washing.  The watercress, thankfully, requires just a quick rinse.

Oranges
Oranges, prepare to be juiced.

Balsamic vinaigrette is one of my favorite things to make, since there are endless permutations and variations and methods of creating it.  Tuesday’s vinaigrette was my favorite recipe yet and was composed — on the fly — of the following ingredients:

  • juice of half an orange (above)
  • 2 oz. olive oil
  • 1 1/2 oz. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • pinch of koshering salt
  • a few grinds of black pepper

Most people prefer a 2:1 (or, worse, 3:1) ratio of olive oil to vinegar, but I prefer the sharpness and tang of a more evenly-matched ratio (1.5:1).  Make sure to adjust for your personal preferences.

Homemade Balsamic Vinaigrette
Handy cruet with recipes on the side.

Once the salad was prepped and ready to go (by the way, there are no pictures, but just take that pomelo, slice the rind off with a sharp knife and cut it into chunks along the membranes…don’t bother with peeling it, since it will take you FOREVER), I started prepping the eggplant.

There is the traditional “Italian” way to pan-fry eggplant, after dredging it in breadcrumbs.  And then there’s the Southern way, which uses cornmeal.  Slice your eggplant into half-inch thick slices, and walk it down the line:

  • Dredge it in flour
  • Give it an egg bath (one egg and a little bit of water, whipped together)
  • Coat it in cornmeal
  • Lay the slices in a pan with hot oil (I use canola), two at a time

You’ll need to turn the slices only once, cooking for about three to five minutes per side, depending on thickness.  After each batch is finished, let them drain on a plate with some paper towels to absorb any excess oil.  Your eggplant will have a delicious, crispy exterior and a melty, creamy interior that’s a miraculous combination  of textures.

When everything was finished, I plated the eggplant with just a little smidge of the salad for garnish, while the rest of the salad went into wooden bowls:

Spinach and Watercress Salad with Pomelos and Roasted Beets
Finished salad.

The roasted beets are sweet and earthy, perfectly paired with the crisp, almost bitter taste of the watercress and the tangy, full-bodied vinaigrette.

And last, but not least, the eggplant:

Pan-Fried Eggplant

OG Southern-style, cornmeal-battered and pan-fried.  You may be saying to yourself: But, K, that’s not exactly “healthy.”  Well, it’s certainly healthier than deep-frying it or using an entire stick of butter.  Plus, let’s count all of the fruits and vegetables that have gone into this meal…  Beets, spinach, watercress, eggplant and pomelo.  I think that a little pan-frying won’t hurt anyone, especially in the presence of all that wonderful, fresh food.

Happy eating!

Raw Meat

It finally happened.  I met a steak too rare for even yours truly — steak tartare lover extraordinaire; she who turns up her nose at people who order their filets medium or, God forbid, well-done — to eat.

The worst part of this sad affair?  I made the steak.  It was a spectacular failure.  There’s a reason, once again, that I normally leave grilling to the men-folk.

The steaks were…frozen.  I know, I know.  Leave me alone.  Just shut up, okay?  Richard found them in the bargain bin at Randall’s for $1.50 —  I SAID, SHUT UP — and brought them home, inordinately proud of his suspiciously inexpensive meat purchase.

I was woozily recovering from mouth surgery, and in no mood to eat or cook steak for at least the next week, so I threw them into the freezer without a second thought.  Flash-forward to a few days ago, when Richard came home after work hungry for his cheap steaks.  It was 6:30, definitely not enough time to properly defrost the ignominious steaks.  Tired from work and irritated at having to cook steaks when all I wanted to do was eat my leftover salad from lunch and watch Lost, I threw them into the microwave and started some potatoes boiling on the stove.

After I was satisfied that the steaks has been thoroughly defrosted, I removed them from the microwave.  They were an unsettling gray color around the edges.  I glared at my microwave, silently hating it and its dubious “defrost” setting.

Into a hot pan of oil went the steaks.  They immediately started shrieking and spitting up hot oil left and right.  I ran away, like the coward I am, cursing myself for forgetting to pat them dry before putting them in the pan.  I’m stupidly terrified of grease, especially when it’s leaping at me like tiny, hot daggers.  I hovered near the kitchen door until it looked like the steaks were ready to turn.  Armed with an apron, thick oven mitts and giant tongs, I gingerly turned the steaks and ran away yet again.

The steaks ended up cooking for much, much longer than I intended, due to my irrational fear of the grease.  Quickly removing them from the stove, I plated them and let them rest while I finished the mashed potatoes and green beans.  Truly a man’s meal, and not one to which I was particularly looking forward.

At the table, Richard and I sat down to my rather shabby-looking meal.  The green beans had retained a strange, rubbery texture and the steaks looked charred.  At least the mashed potatoes were looking good.

As I cut into my steak, I was horrified to see that it was completely and totally raw inside.  Not rare — raw.  And the outside looked like a charcoal briquet.  How was this possible?

Of course.  The microwave, my old mortal enemy, hadn’t defrosted the steaks all the way through.  Yet another reason I primarly use that little white beast as a breadbox. 

Richard, for his part, ate the steak with barely a second glance.  Such are the palates of Englishmen.  I wretched and threw away all but the mashed potatoes, then retreated to the couch with my bowl of starchy comfort to watch Lost and try to erase all memories of the awful meal I’d created.

Lessons learned?

  • Avoid bargain bin meat (you’d think this would be a given…)
  • Conquer ridiculous fear of grease (or, at the very least, broil the steaks next time)
  • Continue using microwave as fancy, button-covered breadbox (nothing can go wrong in this scenario)

Phoenicia Specialty Foods

In the comments section of my recent post on the closing of Cost Plus, a reader asked if I’d ever been to Phoenicia.  My reply was that it’s like a second home; a definite favorite in the sprawling Houston grocery store/supermarket scene.

Entrance to Phoenicia
Entrance to Phoenicia.

Phoenicia Specialty Foods (or, just Phoencia, for short) began its life as a small deli / market on the wide, fierce river of pavement that is Westheimer, way out here in the boonies of West Houston.  I remember stopping by there for shawarmas and pita bread during high school and relaxing on their small patio on warm days, watching the Westheimer traffic flow by.

Pastries
Bakery.

These days, the Phoenicia empire has relocated across the road to a store that is roughly the size of an airplane hangar.  Inside, the shelves on the right-hand side of the store reach all the way to the two-story tall ceiling, piled high with enormous bags of lentils and tins of eggplant and jars of curry and boxes of fruit-flavored tobacco.  The left-hand of the store beckons you with a butcher, olive bar, bakery, cheese shop, fresh produce section and tables to sit at and people watch as you idly munch on hummus and fresh pita bread.

Phoenicia
Just the beginning…

Phoenicia stocks much, much more than just Middle Eastern food these days.  They also have a brilliant selection of European and Latin American foods, especially from the Eastern European countries.  And as such, your fellow shoppers in Phoenicia resemble nothing so much as a miniature United Nations convention.  It’s a vivacious and cheerful crowd, and the different languages spoken drift throughout the store like music.

Kebobs
Meat counter.

The butcher shop inside Phoenicia stocks some of the freshest meat in town.  Very reputable opinions other than my own hold that there is no better place to buy fresh lamb, which is hard to come by in most stores.  And if you’re looking to be a huge hit at your next party, grab a tray of their baklava and bring that to your hosts.  Additionally, their wine section is stocked with wines that I’ve rarely seen in Houston, including many Eastern European and Russian wines that I’ve only encountered in one other store (the excellent Moscow Market on Dairy Ashford).

Mmm...Baklava
Baklava.

The original Phoenicia Deli is still located across the street, at Westheimer and Kirkwood, as a reminder to never forget one’s roots.  Go and grab a bite to eat there, and then trek across the road to visit the big sister.  It’s best not to visit on an empty stomach anyway.

Tobaccos
Fruit-flavored tobacco.

More photos below the cut… Continue reading Phoenicia Specialty Foods

The Official Ice Cream of Texas

Over at my second home, Serious Eats, a fellow foodie posed the question: what ice cream would best represent your home state?

There were 54 answers the last time I checked — at least one for each state — but only one person had represented Texas, and…it wasn’t what I was hoping for:

Blue Bell Ice Cream is #1 brand in Texas. There are four food groups in Texas: barbecue, tex-mex, chicken fried steak and Blue Bell. Their best seller is Homemade Vanilla.

While I can’t argue with the food groups — they’re pretty much spot on — I’ve got to believe that we can come up with a more creative flavor than boring old vanilla to represent the Lone Star State.

So, fellow Texans, what ice cream flavor do you think would best represent our fair state?  It doesn’t have to be an ice cream flavor that anyone — even Blue Bell — currently makes.  Be adventurous!