Green Drinks

Initial thoughts from the Green Drinks happy hour last night (to support the Caroline Collective) at Beaver’s:

The cocktails. Were. Awesome. If you’ve read this blog at all, you’ll know that I’m a beer connoisseur and drink liquor very, very rarely, if ever. But I couldn’t go to Green Drinks and not try one of the Green Drinks themselves. Oh, what a slippery slope… Before I knew it, I had sucked it down and was onto the next cocktail, a Summer’s Delight, which Jeff shoved into my hand despite my protestations. I’m going solely off memory here for the drinks, so if I don’t have them quite right, well…tough.

The eponymous Green Drink is a twist on the traditional Lime Rickey. It was a highly-refreshing mixture of vodka, gin, lime juice and rosemary, with a fragrant sprig of rosemary as a garnish. True to its name, all of the ingredients are organic or environmentally-friendly, right down to the supposedly recycled glass tumbler in which it’s served. Being a non-cocktail kind of person, it had never occurred to me to put a savory herb into a drink like this (I think of lime juice, I think of mint…that’s how my thought process works). But the results are fantastic. The drink is cool, slightly spicy, slightly tart and extremely invigorating.

The next drink was the special of the night: Summer’s Delight. Almost the polar opposite of the Green Drink, the Summer’s Delight was nevertheless equally refreshing and an excellent option for a hot summer’s night. Composed of rum, ginger syrup and Crenshaw melon, with a juicy chunk of said melon as a garnish, this drink was unabashedly sweet and peppery with musky undertones from the rum and the melon. It was an outgoing, fun, sultry cocktail that I could have easily drunk all night.

But the evening wasn’t all about cocktails. There was also food, of course.

The evening’s appetizer special was a redfish ceviche topped with creamy guacamole. I tried very hard to make out all of the ingredients in the ceviche, but it was dark inside and –frankly — I was too busy shoveling it into my mouth at warp speed to make out every nuance of the dish. If they filled a trough with this ceviche, I would eat until my stomach burst. It was that good.

The chunks of redfish really stood out, a welcome change from most ceviches where the fish is overpowered by lime juice or bits of mango or whatever other crap the kitchen has thrown in. With Beaver’s ceviche, the fish truly is the star and is subtly enhanced by the other ingredients. I truly believe that I saw and tasted octopus in there as well, but I could be wrong. If so, bravo. Octopus is my favorite seafood and is criminally underused. There were also fat pieces of carrot and other veggies scattered throughout, making the dish almost a full meal in itself. The chips it was served with were heavenly: flour tortillas cut into pieces and fried until stiff but crumbly. You know the ones…so good.

Great pictures from the night can be seen here. However, if you also want to see really crappy-looking pictures from the night, you’re in luck! Read on…

Inside Beaver's
Inside Beaver’s. Very cozy.

Bar at Beaver's
Home of some very friendly, very professional and very talented bartenders. Also, I love the glass lanterns above the bar…

Green Drink
I totally butchered this photo of my Green Drink, but look at that fantastic table! No, really! Those are environmentally-friendly tabletops from the guys at New Living, a green home and building supply company here in Houston.

One down, one to go
Green Drink down; Summer’s Delight, go! See that delicious scoop of melon?

Ceviche!
And, of course, the divine redfish ceviche.

Remember, Green Drinks will be on all summer, so head over to Beaver’s next Wednesday if you want to try some fun, inventive and delicious cocktails and food for yourself.

UPDATE:  Jeff (a different Jeff from the one above) posts his thoughts on the night along with a few menu “suggestions” for the fine folks at Beaver’s.

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Want Some Steak With That Shake?

Yeah, I thought so.

I have it on good authority that none other than the famous midwestern / southern diner that is Steak ‘n’ Shake is opening up on FM 1960 and Eldridge this summer.  Which should be right about….now.

I know, I know.  The last thing that we need in Houston is another chain restaurant, let alone one that serves devilishly unhealthy diner food.  But I have a strange soft spot in my heart for good old Steak ‘n’ Shake.

I used to travel quite a bit for work, but never anywhere interesting or with remotely friendly people (ask me about my old job some time and why those people hated me so much…no, really).  Instead I was sent places like New Iberia, Louisiana; Valdosta, Georgia; Meridian, Idaho; and Greenville, North Carolina.  But it seemed like every random little Southern city I was sent to had a Steak ‘n’ Shake (along with the ubiquitous and despised Bob Evans).  It became a source of comfort when I was out on the road, knowing that I could always dip into the little diner no matter what time of day or night and find solace in a patty melt and a banana shake.

So, while Steak ‘n’ Shake may be just another diner chain and while it will never beat my favorite diner meal in the world — which, frankly, probably no one can beat since it doesn’t exist anymore (a butterscotch malt and a Ring Of Fire from 59 Diner; the malt still exists but the Ring doesn’t) — I’m still a little bit excited to see them finally come back to Houston after a long absence.

Breakfast Strata and Buttermilk Apple Cake

I suppose it’s a good sign when the food you make for your coworkers is eaten far too quickly for you to even take one picture.  In the words of our (far younger) temp: “Yo, K, they tore that shit up!

So you see how sticking my face in there even for one picture would have been dangerously similar to sticking your arm in a piranha tank.  I should have just taken a few before I left the house this morning…

Since the food was such a smash, I figured I could at least post the recipes here, if not the pictures.

The breakfast strata is a straightforward recipe that we’ve all seen a million times, but I tweaked this one based on the ingredients I had on hand and my coworkers’ predictable tastes.  It ended up a million times better than any other strata I’ve made before, and will now be my go-to breakfast casserole.  Hope you enjoy!

Sausage and Cheese Breakfast Strata
Serves: 8 to 10

1lb. ground sausage
8 slices white bread, cubed
2 c. potatoes, diced
1 small onion, diced
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 c. shredded cheese
8 eggs
3 c. whole milk (none of this skim milk crap!)
2 Tbsp Worcester sauce
2 tsp Potlatch seasoning (if you don’t have this, just use seasoned salt)
4 to 5 big pinches of koshering salt
several good grinds of black pepper

Don’t preheat your oven!  This strata — like all others — needs to be refrigerated overnight to set.  You’ll bake it tomorrow…

Cook your ground sausage in a pan over medium heat.  I prefer hot Jimmy Dean sausage, but my weenie coworkers don’t.  While it’s cooking, dice that onion.  After the sausage is cooked, remove it from the pan to drain on some paper towels but leave the drippings in the pan.  Saute the onion in the sausage drippings until translucent.  When done, combine the onion and sausage in a bowl and set aside.

Add the vegetable oil to the sausage/onion pan (see? all cooked in one pan!) and heat over medium.  Once the oil is hot, add the diced potatoes and cook until slightly browned, turning often.  When finished, remove the potatoes from the pan and drain on paper towels.

Cut the bread into cubes.  Take half of the cubed bread and toss into a greased 13x9x2 casserole dish.  Toss in half the cooked potatoes and half the shredded cheddar cheese on top of the bread.  Spread the sausage and onion mixture evenly across the top of the bread/potato/cheese mixture.  Then take the rest of the bread, potatoes and cheese and toss on top.  Basically, you’re making three layers here (I’m seriously terrible at writing recipes…).

In a separate bowl, beat the eight eggs together well.  Add the three cups of milk, Worcester sauce and Potlatch seasoning.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Pour egg and milk mixture evenly over the three layers in the casserole dish.  Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, remove the casserole dish from the fridge and let stand for 30 minutes.  During this time, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  After 30 minutes has passed, put casserole dish into oven and bake for one hour (60 minutes) or until set and cooked in the center.  Enjoy!

Buttermilk Apple Cake
Serves: 6 to 8 

This recipe would normally be used to make muffins.  However, upon remembering last night that I loaned out my muffin tins, I made this into a coffee cake-style recipe at the last minute.  Although still delicious as muffins, I rather liked the cake instead.  It was a unique twist on what everyone initially thought was coffee cake until they got to the sweet little nuggets of apple inside…

1 large Granny Smith apple, diced
1 c. brown sugar, divided into 1/4 c. and 3/4 c.
3/4 c. walnuts
1 tsp. cinnamon, divided into 1/2 tsps. (please use real cinnamon here, not cassia!)
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/3 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 325 and grease a square baking dish.  Combine 1/4 c. brown sugar, walnuts and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.

Combine flour, baking soda, salt and remaining cinnamon (I added just a smidge more cinnamon here than 1/2 tsp.).  In a separate bowl, combine remaining brown sugar, buttermilk, vegetable oil, beaten egg and vanilla.  Add dry mixture to wet mixture a little bit at a time until just barely blended.  Add the diced apple and mix well.

Pour batter into baking dish and top evenly with brown sugar/walnut/cinnamon mixture.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.  If desired, sprinkle top with confectioner’s sugar after it has cooled off.  Enjoy!

Image courtesy of Flickr user StarbuckGuy, who does awesome nature photography.

Grilled Frog Legs With Cornbread And Purple Hull Peas

If I thought that my husband was repulsed by the giant lump of pasty saltpork that was sitting idly on the counter yesterday, just minding its own little salty business, it was nothing compared to his nearly-hysterical reaction to the sight of the frog legs marinating on the counter behind him.

As I watched him, utterly bemused by the sudden tumult caused by my pile of frog legs, it occurred to me then — between his frantic pacing around the kitchen and beleaguered cries of “You can’t be serious!” and “They look like peoples’ legs!!!” — that there are two types of people in this world: people who were brought up on Houston cuisine and people who weren’t.

Purple Hull Peas
Purple hull peas.

Sometimes I am appalled — in hindsight, of course — by my own cultural naivete in assuming that since I grew up eating _____________, then everyone else must have, too.  Hushpuppies, liver and onions, catfish, boudin, pickled okra, grits, crawdads, chicharrones, oxtails, cornbread, tripas, beets, nopales, chicken and dumplings, migas…

All the magical, nostalgic dishes of my youth, which I have only realized as an adult are the product of a childhood spent in southeast Texas, in Houston.  A product of growing up in a complex confluence of cultures: southern, Cajun, Mexican, all flowing together as one.  All mingling and bubbling and stewing to create the unique cuisine of Houston.

Cornbread
Fresh skillet of cornbread.

Someone mentioned in the comments section recently that Houston doesn’t have an “indigenous” culture of its own, nor does it have any specific ingredients that can be pegged as “Houstonian.”  I agree, heartily.  Because what we have — what we’ve cobbled together — is greater than any one cuisine.  We’ve taken the best of all the many people and many cultures that have settled here and made it our own.

Frog Legs, Cornbread & Peas
Dinner.

So, on Sunday, I unassumingly set about making a dinner that — to me — was normal.  But what it represented, now that I look back on it, was everything that I love about Houston: the fresh ingredients, the unapologetic mixing of cultures and the idea that you should eat what you love, no matter who or where it comes from.

Grilled Frog Legs with Cornbread and Purple Hull Peas

The cornbread and peas could, in reality, be eaten as a meal by themselves.  The creamy, fluffy cornbread is the perfect counterpart to the rich meatiness of the purple hull peas.  However, if you’re going to add an actual meat to this meal, something light and delicate like frog legs (or shrimp, or catfish) is ideal.

The cornbread recipe that follows is one I adapted from none other than Alton Brown, whch is essentially the exact same recipe that he adapted from generations of old southern ladies.  The cornbread which results remains unchanged from the dreamy, golden manna that my mother and grandmother have always made.

Homo Milk
You’ll want to use buttermilk. Homo milk has an altogther different taste. 

Creamy Cornbread
Serves 4 (at 2 pieces each)

2 c. stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbs sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 c. buttermilk
2 eggs
1 1/2 c. creamed corn
1 1/2 Tbs vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Place a well-seasoned (read: good and juicy) cast-iron skillet into the oven while it preheats.

In one bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda and whisk to combine.  In a another bowl, combine the buttermilk (I cannot stress enough how important it is to use buttermilk), eggs, and creamed corn and stir until combined.  Slowly add the dry ingredients (I do three separate additions, stirring well in between) to the liquid ingredients and stir to combine.

Remove the cast-iron skillet from the oven.  Carefully add vegetable oil to the cast iron skillet and then pour the batter into the skillet. Bake until the cornbread is golden brown and springs back upon the touch, about 25 minutes.  Because your skillet is well-seasoned, the cornbread will slip right out and onto your plate.

Peas, Front and Center
Cooked peas.

Purple Hull Peas

This is the loosest recipe in the world, but cooking peas isn’t brain surgery…

If you happen to see purple hull peas in your local store or farmers market, BUY THEM.  If you live in the city, this might be your only chance this year to get any.  You don’t know how lucky you are to have found some!  They aren’t black-eyed peas.  Don’t buy black-eyed peas and think that they’re the same thing.  They aren’t.

If the peas aren’t already shelled, shell them.  Wash them well.  Put in a pot with water that more than covers the peas.  Simmer on low and skim off any scum that rises to the top.  If your peas are well-washed, this shouldn’t happen anyway.

Once your peas are scum-free, add a chunk of salt pork and a few good pinches of kosher salt.  Bring the peas to a rolling boil and then reduce to medium.  With the lid on the pot, let the peas and salt pork cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until done.  Remove salt pork before serving and take time to enjoy the lovely purple shade that it’s turned.

Froggies
Fresh froggies.

Grilled Frog Legs

I take it back: this, indeed, may be the loosest recipe in the world.  I’ll let y’all be the judges…

Buy some fresh (not frozen) frog legs from your local butcher. Remove them from their packaging and pat dry. Season on both sides with a little seasoning salt (I prefer Lawry’s) and allow to sit for a while, but not too long (about fifteen minutes should do it).

Take your froggies out to the grill and grill them over medium heat, about two to three minutes per side. You don’t want the meat overdone, since it will lose that delicious juicyness if you cook them for too long, so watch them carefully. When the meat starts to turn opaque white with just a hint of browning, they’re done.

Froggy Goes a Grillin'
Froggie goes a grillin’.

You’re ready to serve dinner now!  If you have a bunch of people, you can make this an even bigger and better meal with the addition of some greens (collard or mustard, your call) and some squash boiled down with butter and sugar and a little bit of salt.  For dessert, if you haven’t eaten all the cornbread, split a piece in half and drizzle a bunch of honey over it.

Enjoy your Houston meal, and toast the fact that while we may not have any cuisine of our very own, we’ll happily appropriate someone else’s, incorporate it into our crazy, mixed-up culinary family and love it every bit as much as they did.

P.S.  My husband gamely ate the frog legs, even though he claimed to feel like a contestant on Fear Factor.  He admits, however, that the meat is delicious…if you can just get past the visual above.

P.P.S.  Upon seeing the pictures from our dinner last night, my boss remarked, “Your poor husband.  Did he know what he was getting himself into with you?  It’s like Beauty and the Geek.”  …with the clear insinuation that I was the Geek in that little equation.

Culinary Capitals

MSN.com offers up an article today on U.S. cities that are considered the “capital” of a particular food.  Some are familiar and expected, while others come out of left field.

It should come as no surprise that Cincinnati is the chili capital of the world.  Even though chili is often though of as a Texan or southwestern dish, it was actually invented by a man from Cincinnati named DeWitt Clinton Pendery in 1890.  Granted, he moved to Ft. Worth shortly afterwards and brought his recipe with him, but Cincinnati’s claim to chili fame was thus born.

Cincinnati chili is wildly divergent from Pendery’s original recipe and from the more standard meat-and-beans based dish known around these parts.  People (yours truly included) may argue that the three-way, four-way or five-way sludge served by Skyline Chili and Goldstar Chili and their many competitors isn’t “chili” so much as strangely-sweet meat stew with spaghetti, but you can’t deny the fact that Cincinnati is all about chili.  After all, Cincinnati has more chili restaurants per capita than any other city in not just the nation, but the world.

More surprising entries in the food capitals article?  San Francisco is apparently the burrito capital of the nation — although one could argue that it’s more accurately the capital of Godzilla-sized burritos the size of a toddler, and not the burritos that Tex-Mex fans know and love — and that Hammonton, New Jersey, holds the widely-contested title of blueberry capital of the world.

Locally, several Texas cities have made boastful claims including the tiny town of Friona, Texas proclaiming itself the cheeseburger capital of the nation.  However, as the article points out, perhaps the boldest claim of all comes from Lockhart, the supposed barbeque capital of the world.  I’m not knocking Lockhart, by any means, but I hear that Luling would like a word with them outside…

What do you think?  Is your town a capital of a random food item?  Do you think barbeque is too great a conquest to be claimed by one master?  Share your opinions below!

Images courtesy of www.netitor.com and www.nataliedee.com.

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!

All-You-Can-Eat-Crawfish and All-You-Can-Drink-Beer!!!

…did that grab your attention?  Good!

If you’re a Houstonian and you like beer and crawfish (and what good Houstonian doesn’t?), then you absolutely can’t miss the annual MDA Crawfish Boil & Music Festival that’s being held on Saturday, March 29th at Warehouse Live.

mda-crawfish-boil.png

For only $35, you’ll be able to bury your face in as many buckets of crawfish as you can eat, and there will — of course — be plenty of beer (or cokes or water) to wash it all down with.  That’s a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.

Even better, the money goes to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) and their research, so you’ll be doing a good thing while you’re bolting down those delicious little mud bugs.  The MDA is a partnership between scientists and local citizens that battles neuromuscular diseases affecting more than a million Americans.  Specifically, the proceeds from the MDA Crawfish Boil & Music Festival will go to benefit families in the Houston and Gulf Coast region who are fighting muscular dystrophy and other neuromuscular diseases.

The all-you-can-scarf-crawfish-and-beer window runs from 4pm to 7pm, so make sure you get there early to maximize your crawfish eating time.  Live music will be performed throughout the event, by such great Texas musicians as Bleu Edmondson and Rich O’Toole.  The festival runs until 10pm, so make sure you stay past 7pm to catch the main acts: Micky & the Motorcars and Honeybrowne.

Sadly, yours truly won’t be able to make this event (which is being headed up by my awesome friend and bridesmaid and committed healthcare professional and dedicated MDA volunteer, Robin), as I’ll be heading overseas on March 21st.  But I hope that you good crawfish-eating, beer-enjoying, music-loving, charity-giving Houstonians will head out to the MDA Crawfish Boil and have a wonderful time!

Last year’s festival was almost too big for the venue (over 700 people!), so it’s been moved to Warehouse Live this year.  I’m sure that this year will be even better than the last and — with any luck — some of our cooler local personalities like Isiah Carey and Leslie T will be in attendance once again.

For more information on the MDA Crawfish Boil & Music Festival, head on over to their website at www.mdacrawfishboil.com.