Category Archives: english cuisine

The Weekend In Food: Holy Monkeys, It’s November

It was a busy weekend, folks.  So keeping that in mind, I’m going to try and stick to the food-related milestones of the weekend, or else we’ll be here all day.  And no one wants that.  …or do they?

Friday

7:00pm:  Pulling up to Feast with Richard for our anniversary dinner.  No, we didn’t get married on Halloween, but who wants to go out to a fancy dinner on a Monday night?

7:15pm:  Love the service at Feast.  Love it.  We have a bottle of gorgeous Spanish red — Castell del Remei Gotem Blue — and some fresh bread and silky butter and ice water and we’re going to town on ALL of it.

7:30pm:  Appetizers are out.  Richard has the curried parsnip soup and I have the stuffed pigs’ feet.  Both are amazing.

8:00pm:  Noshing on the main courses.  Richard is having the steak and kidney pudding with fresh suet, which was made expressly for us by James.  It is divine, and this is coming from someone who does not like steak and kidney puddings, pies or anything else of that nature.  I’m having the equally heavenly sweetbreads with roasted root veggies.  SO GOOD.

9:00pm:  Far too stuffed for dessert.  Sloshing a bit as we finish off the wine.  Watch the Montrose pub crawlers go by outside on Westheimer, on bicycles and on foot, all dressed in outrageous costumes.

9:30pm:  Playing “World Capital Trivia,” which Richard is winning.  Bastard.  I’m no good at geography when I’m full of wine and pancreas.

10:00pm:  Headed home.  Need to sleep off massive amounts of food…

Saturday

7:00am:  Up early for no particular reason.  Would make breakfast if we had food in the house.  Must go grocery shopping.

8:00am:  Have discovered some smoked salmon in the pantry!  NOM NOM NOM.

9:00am:  Piddling around on computer, attempting to write Dynamo article for Houstonist and failing.

12:00pm:  Leave house to meet Groovehouse for lunch at BB’s Cajun Cafe.

12:30pm:  Elbow deep in an overstuffed oyster po-boy and a St. Arnold’s Lawnmower.  It is an absolutely gorgeous day outside, I’ve got a great beer and a great sandwich — what more could a girl want?

12:31pm:  CHEESE GRITS.

12:32pm:  AND CATFISH.

12:33pm:  I’ll bet Groovehouse is regretting eating lunch with me right about now.  Me = notorious food thief.

1:30pm:  Must go back to BB’s soon; too many menu items I didn’t get to this time around.

5:00pm:  Back at the house after a long afternoon of piddling around with friends.  I do an inordinate amount of piddling.  But it’s good for the soul.

5:30pm:  All dressed up and looking semi-cute.  Richard and I ready to leave the house for the McCormick & Schmick grand opening party with Jenny and Fulmer when he gets a call from Trafton: Rockets tickets, tonight.  Bye-bye, husband!

6:30pm:  At Jenny’s house, drinking a bottle of Pulque and waiting for Fulmer to show up to escort us out on the town.  I like the Pulque.  I don’t care what the world thinks of me!

7:30pm:  At the McCormick & Schmick opening.  Free champers and oysters FTW.  Except that they don’t seem to be checking invitations and there are an awful lot of randoms in shorts and flip-flops.  Boo.

9:00pm:  Getting bored.  There’s only so many trays of dropped sliders and random Police cover band songs to hold your interest for so long.

9:30pm:  At Morton’s Steakhouse, drinking coffee and eating a key lime pie that Fulmer owed me from the last Tuesday Trivia.

10:15pm:  Jenny has decided that we need to get into the Foundation Room at the House of Blues.

10:30pm:  And so we do.

11:00pm:  After a lovely tour by the GM (the whole place smells like nag champa; it’s intoxicating), we’re given some free drinks and left to our own devices.

11:30pm:  Those devices include going to Saez & Zouk.

12:00am:  Bottle service?  Hah!

1:00pm:  Can’t hold my own anymore, even though I’m only *mumblecoughmumble* years old.  Jenny and Fulmer drop me off at my car and head off into the great night beyond.  I head home and collapse into bed.

Sunday

6:00am:  Up early again; extra hour of sleep helped.  Cleaning house and doing weekendy-around-the-house things.

2:00pm:  Head over to Coffee Groundz for Houston Twitter Meetup.  Hail, hail, the gang’s all here!

2:30pm:  Mmm…gigantic bold coffee.  Love.

3:00pm:  Some delicious gelato is being passed around: honey lavender.  What?  MUST HAVE.

3:01pm:  ALL GONE.  SO GOOD.

3:02pm:  Licking gelato cup.  I have no shame.

3:30pm:  Free glasses of Malbec?  Yes, please!

4:00pm:  Free glasses of Chardonnay?  Yes, please!

5:00pm:  Free glass of Merlot from the totally and all-encompassingly awesome MagsMac?  YES, PLEASE.

6:00pm:  MORE free wine from MagsMac?  Yes, but not before I get on this awesome golf cart and drive around while Fayza yells at people and we cuddle cute dogs named Bentley.

7:00pm:  All this free wine and coffee is awesome, but I’m HUNGRY.

8:00pm:  Heading over to Chuy’s with Monica, Fayza and Groovehouse.

8:05pm:  OH, CRAP.  Lost track of time!  I was supposed to be at Sacred Heart for the fundraiser this evening!!!  !&#!&*!$%@()&!*#

8:10pm:  It’s probably over by now…  Tex-Mex will have to calm my guilty soul.

8:30pm:  Steven rolls up to Chuy’s for our Tex-Mex feast.  We have a healthy five people at a four-top, cause we’re cozy like that.

9:00pm:  NOM.

9:30pm:  Taking leftovers home to Richard, who has probably not left his little Richard-shaped indentation on the couch today for fear of missing football-y goodness.

10:30pm:  Aaaaaaaand…bed.

Hope you had a wonderful weekend, folks!  And just think: you made it through yet another Monday, so only four more days to go until the next one.

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Feast-ing

Feast

There isn’t much more left to say about Feast that hasn’t already been said.

A restaurant like Feast wouldn’t seem to mesh well with the Houston dining scene upon only a cursory glance: strange items like pork cheek and dandelion green salad, black pudding and whole breaded pig’s trotter dot the menu.  Mostly, these are items that the average Houston diner has never eaten, much less encountered on any menu, anywhere.

But upon closer consideration, this is exactly the kind of comfort food upon which this city thrives.  It’s rustic, unpretentious, hearty fare that your grandmother would have made if only she’d been slightly more adventurous, English, and been trained up by Fergus Henderson.  What could be more inviting on a crisp October night than a bowl of oxtails with carrots and mashed potatoes?  Or a velvety dish of lamb shanks with roasted potatoes and kale?  This is truly comfort food taken to the next level.

Dining Room

The dining room, too, is just as inviting, with simple wooden tables and chairs under a low-slung beamed ceiling.  A fireplace filled with candles give off a warm glow equalled only by the warm greeting you get when entering Feast.  Walk up the pleasantly creaky stairs to the second floor and out onto the balcony, where you’ll be surprised to find an amazing view of not only Montrose, but also the twinkling skyline of downtown Houston, which seems close enough to touch.

Canapes

The appetizers on hand this past Friday night were decadent: back fat (yes, the menu says “back fat”) wrapped around walnuts and parsley, grilled sweetbreads, chicken liver pate with cornichons and my favorite of the night, Welsh rarebit.

The pork back fat was so completely antagonistic, but I couldn’t stop eating it. You know deep in that rational part of your mind that you don’t need to be popping pieces of white, dimpled fat into your mouth like Skittles, but the fat was so luscious and had just the right amount of give without being too spongy or chewy.  The hard bite of the salty walnut in the middle was the perfect accompaniment.

The Welsh rarebit, too, was heavenly: a thick spread of savory cheese sauce over a piece of toast drenched with Worcester sauce.  Perhaps the bite of the Worcester sauce was too tangy for some, but I loved the way it complemented the velvety cheese with its sharp aftershock.

Scallops, Salad and Wine

Soon, we moved on to the first courses: scallops baked with a cream mushroom sauce and the aforementioned pork cheek salad with dandelion greens, roasted shallots and garlic. The pork cheeks were redolent with fat and glistened up at us from the bed of bitter greens, mixed in with a few croutons that had been similarly soaked in pork fat. Perhaps this would be a good time to mention that if you don’t like pork, or pork fat, Feast might not be the best place for you.

The scallops were good, but had nothing on the salad. I ate so much of the salad that I feared I’d ruined my appetite for dinner. The pork cheeks reminded me ever so slightly of the piping hot, fresh chicharrones that you can get from the old school Mexican markets around town. You know the ones: grab a bag and eat them with a dab of hot sauce while you do your shopping and they’re gone before you know it. Each bite of the salad was different, never knowing exactly what combination of textures you’d get from one to the next.

Peg had brought a lovely Radio-Couteau shiraz to share with us, and its heady, smoky smell drifted pleasantly over the table as we eagerly awaited our next course: the pigs.

Twins

James Silk, butcher-chef extraordinaire and co-owner of Feast, brought along his sous chef to carve the beautiful suckling pigs that Peg had requested for her birthday feast. They were small, delicate things yet the aroma was intoxicating. Inside the roasted pigs was a traditional sage and onion stuffing, which made your mouth water and your mind wander fondly to holiday meals past.

James Still Hard at Work

James made quick work of the piglets, as he plated the trotters, the stuffing and the delicate loins. Some of us couldn’t wait, however, and absconded with one of the heads. Soon, a group had formed around the head, as it was dismantled for the fresh cheeks, chin, ears and other savory parts.

Heads Don't Last Long Around Here

As we passed around the platters of roasted pork and stuffing, the side dishes were brought out. Steamed carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts, dusky kale with anchovies and melt-in-your-mouth mashed potatoes, which tasted as if they’d been made with equal parts potatos and heavy cream. All of the sides were outstanding, especially the Brussels sprouts, which are so rarely made well. These were roasted quite simply and still had a slightly crunchy bite to them.

No More Room for Lamb

The lamb was a late but welcomed arrival to the table. As we tasted our first bites, there was a general confusion over the slightly sweet melange of spices used to prepare it. Joanne finally asked James when none of us could figure it out, and we were surprised to hear that it was a combination of mace and juniper. The mace is a throwback to traditional English recipes of yore, but tasted fresh and new when used here with the juniper.

With Custard, Please

By this time, the clock had long since struck 10pm, but we weren’t going anywhere. Peg had obtained some ice wine during her latest trip to Canada that not only scored a perfect 100/100 in a recent tasting but is also entirely unavailable in the States, and Feast had graciously agreed to create a dessert to pair with it.

Their creation, a divine apricot and date crumble, appeared at the table in warm dishes alongside a jug of thick, creamy custard. The room fell mostly silent as we ate, a combination of exhaustion after our long feast and the warm crumble filling our mouths and bellies, keeping our tongues busy with more important activities than talking.

Exterior

I’ll be making a return trip to Feast very soon, as James has promised a steak and kidney pudding — a dish which, owing to its suet pastry, is exceedingly difficult to find in the States — if I give him a few days advance notice. It’s a dish that fits Feast nicely: the most rustic of food, made with bits and pieces that are in keeping with the “nose-to-tail” mantra of the restaurant. But even if there weren’t promises of the tantalizing dish, I would still be returning to Feast again and again and again.

English Food

…is damn fine stuff, people.  I’m especially fond of the butchers and cheese shops on every corner, the freshly-baked bread and sweet cream butter in Cheshire, the unabashedly hearty portions and the way that tucking into a steak and mushroom pie feels like pulling on a warm, comfortable sweater.

With this inescapably hot weather, I find myself turning every day to sanguine thoughts of cold, rainy England, trekking through the quiet, early morning streets for a cup of strong coffee and the Manchester Evening News or venturing out at night for a pint of bitter and a pasty in front of a roaring fire.

I can’t wait for autumn to come.

1. Barm Cakes, 2. Coffee and Tea, 3. Meat!, 4. Lunch!, 5. Fruit Stand, 6. Chips at the De Trafford, 7. Lambing Season, 8. Mmm…English butter, 9. Albion

Click on the links above for larger versions of each photo.

The Zythophile

I think I have a new favorite foodie blog (well, more like ale and lager blog, but let’s not split hairs):

The Zythophile

Read, for instance, this fascinating post on the spurious history behind the “traditional” ploughman’s lunch served in pubs the world over.  I feel seriously vindicated now, as I never liked the pissant little bits of lettuce and cheese and pickle that comprised a ploughman’s lunch anyway, and always wondered how that rabbit food could be considered substantial or hearty enough for a field laborer to eat for lunch.

Also awesome: Fraudulent Ale Questions, where the author debunks various myths about beer, including some myths that I’ve never even heard of, such as:

Medieval ale-conners wore leather breeches and tested ale by pouring some on a wooden bench and then sitting in it and seeing if they stuck to the bench.

Apparently quite false.  Who knew?

And, of course, there’s a short but sweet section on the underappreciated art of beer and food pairing.

The beer snob in me has found a new home, folks!

Squeamish About Squirrel?

Courtesy of loyal reader, intrepid eater and world traveler Callie, comes today’s article from The Guardian.

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I’m not squeamish about much when it comes to food: raw chicken, deep-fried insects, honeycomb, other things that look like honeycomb (I have serious visual texture issues with things that look like pores or a series of tiny holes; I have no idea why).  But I think that if presented with a plate of squirrel, I’d have to add that to my list.

Sure, there are lots of people that eat squirrel — probably people in my own family at some point or another — but I would no more eat squirrel than I’d eat a fancy rat.  But apparently, I’d be the odd man out in England:

It tastes sweet, like a cross between lamb and duck. And it’s selling as fast as butchers can get it.

And my husband claims that WE eat strange things over here…

The Guardian, a UK-based newspaper, recently ran a story on squirrel meat, which is apparently the ethical meat du jour across the pond.  It’s worth noting that the squirrel that’s in such high demand is not the tradtional red squirrel, the Squirrel Nutkin-style squirrel that we all grew up with and which is native to the UK.  No!  To eat such a beloved animal would be unforgiveable.  Instead, it’s Nutkin’s far mousier and much more invasive cousin: the North American grey squirrel.

The grey squirrel — that familiar and loveable rodent here in America — was introduced to England and Scotland in the early part of the 20th century.  It has few natural predators and is hardier and more disease resistant than the native red squirrels.  The gray squirrel also has the advantages of being able to eat many more foods than the red squirrel can digest, and can reproduce faster and even under difficult circumstances (which Squirrel Nutkin cannot; he apparently has performance anxiety…).  What all of this means is that the red squirrels are slowly being eradicated by natural selection as the gray squirrels take over.

The UK has offered many responses to this situation, ranging from flat out shooting the grey squirrels on site to introducing Pine Martens (a type of weasel, and one of the only known predators that kills grey squirrels) into the grey squirrels’ habitats.  However, the latest solution is by far the most interesting.

At Ridley’s Fish and Game shop in Corbridge, Northumberland, the owner David Ridley says he has sold 1,000 – at £3.50 a squirrel – since he tested the market at the beginning of the year. ‘I wasn’t sure at first, and wondered would people really eat it. Now I take every squirrel I can get my hands on. I’ve had days when I have managed to get 60 and they’ve all sold straight away.’

Both believe its new-found popularity is partly due to its green credentials. ‘People like the fact it is wild meat, low in fat and local – so no food miles,’ says Simpson. Ridley reckons that patriotism also plays a part: ‘Eat a grey and save a red. That’s the message.’

You can’t disagree that grey squirrel is an environmentally-friendly choice for meat: it’s locally-acquired, free-range (although this isn’t always a valid argument), there is no grazing or ranching required, there is little-to-no carbon impact in transporting it and you’re ridding the environment of a pest at the same time!

But the important question is:  Would YOU eat it?

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UPDATED:  Amusing takes on the squirrel-eating story from SuperVegan and Diet Blog.

Cestrian Pleasures

It’s been a while since I wrote about our recent trip back home to England (Richard’s home, not mine).  I’ve been busily parsing through the ridiculous amount of photos I took and trying to cull the best ones out of the lot.  They aren’t all food-related, but neither was our vacation.  Today’s trip back through Chester is simply an assortment of my favorite photos that I wanted to share with you.

Chester Street 
Tudor-era timbered buildings and the Eastgate Clock.

While I don’t consider myself that worldly of a traveler — I’ve only been to a few countries in Europe, briefly took jaunts into Canada a couple of times, and have visited Mexico about as often as you’d expect any other Texan to — I still found myself utterly dumbfounded when it came to Chester.  It was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for, and unlike anything I had thought it would be.  If you’re planning a trip to England any time in the future, I can’t emphasize this enough: go to Chester.  You won’t be disappointed.

St John's Church
St John’s Church, outside the city walls.

Chester was originally founded in A.D. 79 as the Roman city of Deva Victrix.  Deva was originally built as a fortress, but a civilian settlement eventually grew up outside the enormous walls that the Romans built around the city.  As such, Chester has an assortment of ruins and artifacts that most other English cities do not.  There is, for example, an excellent amphitheatre that is still being excavated, as well as a very well-preserved section of Roman baths.  The thick, fortress walls that the Romans built beginning in A.D. 120 stand to this day; Chester has the most complete city walls of any other city in Britain.  Although the walls have been repaired and entire sections were rebuilt during medieval and Victorian times, they are nonetheless shockingly imperious and impressive.

Richard and Wall
Richard about to climb up to the walls and begin our walk around the city. 

One fantastic way to observe Chester is from the walls themselves. You will get an unparalleled bird’s-eye view of the city as you orbit from your stony path.  Any time you feel like going down and visiting a part of the city that appeals to you along the two-mile walk, simply exit through one of the many sets of stairs down into the mad bustle below.  A visit to Chester can be split into simple parts this way; most things can be reached while walking along the walls:  The Rows (the main shopping area), the Chester Cathedral, the River Dee and the Roman ruins.

Chester Rows
The Rows.

The Rows are perhaps the most important visual representation of Chester.  They are very unique in both their design and their antiquity.  The best way to describe it would be:

They consist of buildings with shops or dwellings on the lowest two storeys. The shops or dwellings on the ground floor are often lower than the street and are entered by steps, which sometimes lead to a crypt-like vault. Those on the first floor are entered behind a continuous walkway, often with a sloping shelf between the walkway and the railings overlooking the street.  — courtesy of Wikipedia

In the picture above, you can see the white picket railings of the “continuous walkways” and the tops of the signs for the shops below them.  The walkways ingeniously allow you to shop and walk throughout the city while keeping dry, since rain is an ever-present (although not unpleasant) part of life in Northern England.  The Rows themselves date from the 17th century, although most were built far more recently, in Victorian times.

The Crypt
The Crypt, a pub in The Rows dating back to A.D. 1180. Yes, it really was a crypt at one time.

This part of town also houses the most exquisite restaurants and pubs.  Richard and I had a terrible time choosing where to eat lunch and finally settled on, of all things, a French bistro that was absolutely heaving with people.  By this point in our trip, we’d had plenty of meat pies and heavy ales and desired something a bit lighter.  French bistro food sounded ideal.

Easter Time
We shall never forget what time of year we visited England…

We found a table for ourselves on the first storey (second floor, to us Amurricans) of cafe f.b., Boulangerie et Cafe Françaís on Northgate Street.  Their menu was simple and straighforward: an assortment of freshly-made sandwiches served with the soup du jour, potato-leek.  I went with the bacon and Brie sandwich, along with a cup of tea to warm my bones back to normal body temperature.  The sandwich was every bit as delicious as you’d expect something with those ingredients to be: toasty French bread, with thick, dusky strips of English bacon (so different from our own) and hot, bubbly hunks of Brie on top, melting down to the plate.  The potato-leek soup was heavy yet fresh, thanks to the strong taste of the leeks.  It was the perfect meal to fuel us on a cold, rainy English afternoon with much more walking ahead.

Fruit Stand
Fruit stands throughout the city, at every turn.

Second part of our Chester trip to follow tomorrow… 

The Red Lion Pub, England

…called so, of course, to differentiate this post from my not-so-favorable review of our very own “Red Lion Pub” right here in Houston.  No, no.  The Red Lion Pub in Holmes Chapel may as well exist on an entirely different planet from its cousin in Texas.

On our first full day in England, we set about on a drive down the narrow, winding roads past hand-laid stone walls and brilliantly green fields full of fat sheep.  Richard drove me through the posh streets of Prestbury, alongside the immense, 21st-century monolith that is Jodrell Bank, underneath viaducts and train tracks until we reached his second hometown in Holmes Chapel.

Holmes Chapel
The main street, Holmes Chapel.

I say second hometown, since his childhood was — as so many of ours were — divided between places.  He spent his youth in Bollington, a mill town up the road, and his adolescence in Holmes Chapel.  The village is older even than Alderley Edge, having been recorded in 1086 in the famous Domesday Book as “Chapel Hulme.” Coming of age in Holmes Chapel leant him a keen familiarity with the three local pubs: The Red Lion, The George and Dragon and The Swan.

The Red Lion Pub in Holmes Chapel
The Red Lion.

The Red Lion was his pub of choice, located only a short walk past the church and grocers from his house.  In his youth, he spent many a lunch there with his schoolmates and many a long, cold night surrounded by friends.  Richard recalls that it was the epitome of a tatty, well-loved old pub: worn and slightly-sticky carpets, very basic bar and low, sloping ceilings.  When we first approached the place on foot that day, Richard presciently remarked, “Looks a bit spiffed up.”

Red Lion Window
Windows.

Entering The Red Lion was like walking into an expertly decorated hotel lobby, perhaps an Aspen boutique hotel, with trendy fabrics and cushy armchairs all perfectly akimbo.  Richard stopped, mouth open, marvelling at what was clearly a different Red Lion than the one he left behind over six years ago.  While I admired the upmarket window treatments and flower arrangements, my poor husband stared blankly at what I imagine was his utterly destroyed adolescence.

A Pint of Bitter, Please
A pint of bitter, please.

The Red Lion is one of many pubs that’s been bought out by the large chain Ember Inns, which is itself under the umbrella of its enormous parent company, Mitchells and Butlers.  Ember Inns operates over 2,000 pubs throughout the UK.  This may seem like a large number, but keep in mind that even the tiniest of villages — like Holmes Chapel, for example, with a population of only 5,600 people — has at least three pubs.  Not having any frame of reference within which to judge, I can’t say whether or not this is a good thing.  I enjoyed the non-pubby atmosphere of the place more than I expected to, given my innate hatred of chains.  That hatred was mollified by the fact that the building itself doesn’t seem to have changed any (according to Richard) except for the new decor and presence of a higher-end restaurant inside.  Richard, to this day, remains mostly ambivalent towards the changes.

Wild Mushroom Dish Closeup
Wild mushroom risotto in puff pastry with vegetables.

The food itself was wonderful and very inventive.  Take, for example, my meal: a wild mushroom risotto inside puff pastry.  A bit on the starchy side, yes, but — delicious!  Oh, so delicious.  Who would have ever thought to put risotto inside of puff pastry?  Ember Inns, I suppose.  The main dish — containing five different types of wild mushrooms — was served with a side of roasted sweet potatoes and butternut squash (the English seem to love their roasted root vegetables, which I wholeheartedly support), some roasted potatoes and a side of mashed potatoes with gravy.  Okay, so the side selection needed a bit less…starchiness, I agree, but you couldn’t argue with that main dish.

Wild Mushroom Risotto in Pastry with...a lot of starches
I have now gained a solid understanding of why Richard thinks it’s okay to have chips (fries), mashed potatoes and roast potatoes all on the same plate as side dishes.

Richard ordered scampi (which he, once again, ate before I could get a picture) which is strikingly different from our own “scampi” over here: it’s battered and fried shrimp (a.k.a “prawns”) served with chips and peas.  When I mentioned to him that our version of “scampi” meant that the shrimp was sauteed in white wine and garlic butter, he just peered at me as if I were out of my mind.

Main street in Holmes Chapel
Heading back out to the main street.

We needed a long walk after eating so many potato-based items, and headed out from The Red Lion satiated, ready to attack the rest of the day with very little need for any other food, save a very light dinner that night.  English cuisine is wonderful in the sense that it fuels you to face all the walking that one needs to do on a daily basis, and seems to protect you from the cold from the inside out.  As we left The Red Lion, Richard seemed slightly sad.  I asked him what he thought of the new-and-improved pub of his youth.  He thought for a while before diplomatically stating, “Well…the food was great.”