My New Obsession

If this drink was a person, I would totally be going all Rear Window or Single White Female on it right now.  I would be spying on its every move from my bedroom (while Grace Kelly swans around the place, giving me style tips, of course).  I would be cutting and styling my hair to look just like its hair, changing my entire wardrobe so that I resembled it in every aspect.  It’s that damn good.

And what is this obsession-worthy drink?  It’s the new signature hot chocolate from Starbucks: the Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate.  I know.  You can call me crazy for going all Hitchcock over a cup of hot chocolate from Starbucks, but not before you try it yourself.

The hot chocolate is mixed with thick caramel and topped with artisanal smoked sea salt and Turbinado sugar.  The mixture of the rich chocolate, the buttery caramel and the smoky salt is absolute heaven.  It’s by turns silky, nutty, savory, sweet, smoky and salty: like a parade of every favorite flavor through your mouth at once, all blending perfectly together.

Okay, so it’s got 550 calories per serving.  And it’s got quite a lot of fat in it (more than half of it saturated fat).  But no one ever said that obsessions were supposed to be healthy…

My consolation in these facts, however, is that you’ll all soon be just as obsessed as I am.  I dare you to get a cup of the Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate and then not fantasize about it for the rest of the day.  Go on.  I triple dog dare you.

Advertisements

tenacity, Part Two

First things first: let me apologize for not getting this out sooner.  My little camera has officially given up the ghost, so I was only able to shoot the first half of the meal.  And even then, I had to struggle to get the pictures out of the damned thing.  Pictures from the second half of the meal are courtesy of Ronny, Randy’s brother cum sous chef cum photographer.  Anyone who wants to buy me a new camera (yes, please!), form an orderly line at the door…  Heh.

Anyway, without any further ado, let me present tenacity, Part Two.

Pigs Feet

We were a bit late arriving, and were shocked to find a house fit to bursting with people.  I kept telling Randy that I had a feeling there would be a great turnout, but was stunned to see just how great that turnout was.  On the table were the appetizers/amuse bouche for the evening: chicken feet.

Foot

What’s that? You’ve never had chicken feet? That’s okay; neither had I before last week. I was a bit reluctant, only because of the visual issues associated with eating something that still has toenails intact, but anonymous eater cheered me on as I tentatively bit into a foot (and, after all, I had to make up for the fact that I couldn’t stomach the pigs’ ears from the dumpling crawl the week before). I am so glad that I did. I can’t say that all chicken feet are going to taste this good, since Randy braised his in Indonesian sweet soy sauce. But these were damn fine feet. They were like the sweetest, most tender barbeque I’ve ever had. You just have to mind the toenails, is all.

Chef at Work

Randy was hard at work as the rest of us chatted and passed around random bottles of wine, including the aforementioned anonymous eater, Tasty Bits, I’ve Got The Munchies, the head of the Personal Chefs Network and the mastermind behind B4-U-Eat. We Houston food bloggers are an incestuous bunch.

Fordhook Zucchini

I browsed through Randy’s garden as everyone else mingled. As other bloggers have pointed out, the garden is integral to these dinners. Randy will dart in and out of the house at different points during the evening, snipping off a piece of lettuce here or a handful of herbs there. The freshness and the simple idea that so many ingredients are homegrown and lovingly tended transforms your entire experience while eating, especially when you walk into a garden that you know will soon be feeding you for the evening. Above you can see the beginnings of some lovely Fordhook zucchini.

Lined Up

On to the first course… Barely-cooked Gulf shrimp tartare with sprouting radish, kyuri and baby lemongrass. This luscious spoonful of still grey-blue shrimp, soft with the salty taste of the sea, along with the slight crisp of cucumber and the grainy, tangy texture of the lemongrass was the perfect introduction to a meal redolent with fresh seafood.

First Course

It was so good in fact, we scored seconds.

Second Course

The first part of the second course was this glass of leche de tigre. Similar to our Bloody Marys, leche de tigre is a Peruvian cocktail/hangover cure that’s made with all of the leftover juices from a large serving of ceviche. As a cocktail, it contains pisco. Ours simply had the heavenly, salty milk that tasted sharply and strongly of the ocean, with just small bits of ceviche lingering in the bottom of the glass. I can see how this would be a rather effective hangover cure.

Second Course II

The second part of the second course was this delicate little piece of amberjack, a trash fish not to be confused with the Japanese amberjack, or hamachi. Randy had purchased the amberjack in Galveston earlier that day, where he was besotted with its wet eyes and overall freshness. It paid off, as the fish was perhaps the best I’ve tasted — I still can’t believe it’s considered a trash fish. On top of the amberjack is preserved rhubarb, for bite, gelled tomato and red-veined sorrel. The gelled tomato in particular was amazing. Randy marinated the tomatoes and then hung them in cheesecloth, allowing only the juices to escape; it had only the slightest sweet hint of tomato with no astringency and added a rich layer of flavor to the entire dish.

Action Shot

The third course was my second-favorite dish of the night: chilled Third Coast shellfish nage (from the French, to swim), octopus, neri uni, crunchy pig ear and celery pesto. Pig ear with shellfish? Octopus with celery? Things that would never occur to me, which is why I’m not a chef. The contrasting textures (especially the crispy pig ear) and flavors were mesmerizing. I could have eaten this dish all night. And I particularly love the action shot above, where you can see Randy pouring the nage, which was made from a reduction of blue crab and shrimp heads, into the bowl to rendezvous with the other ingredients.

Another note about this course, which I loved: so as not to be wasteful with precious seafood, the shrimp from the first course had their heads end up in the nage here. I love the idea of using every part of an animal or plant possible, especially in today’s world where it’s more important than ever that we not be excessively wasteful. I’d love to see more chefs and restaurants taking this approach. Not only would it cut costs, it would lend itself splendidly to inspiring more creativity in the kitchen.

From here on out, the pictures are courtesy of Ronny. Want to see more? Click here!

Fourth Course

Our fourth course, and my favorite of the evening: “best parts of the pig” with shimeji mushrooms, courgette, marigold and foamed hollandaise. The “best parts of the pig” were, among other things, the headcheese, the hog’s ears, cheeks, shanks and eyes. These different parts had been compressed slightly and seared on one side, for a different texture depending upon which side you ate first. I was in heaven. While one would assume that all these parts would be heavy, fatty or greasy (or just plain unappetizing), they managed to be incredibly light and summery. The shaved courgette, which is just a summer squash, added to this feeling with its softly crisp texture and fresh, delicate flavor. To quote from my tasting notes: “mushrooms ex. dark & earthy; squash light & ethereal; pig surprisingly spring-like.” It was, once again, an incredible pairing of flavors and textures.

Fifth Course

The fifth course seemed to be everyone else’s favorite (I have different tastes in all things, it seems): cobia smoked with apple-wood and broiled, red malabar spinach and cream brown butter. The cobia, a sport fish, had — like the chicken feet from earlier — been braised in the same Indonesian sweet soy sauce that imbued it with an almost caramel-like flavor. I overheard some other diners claim that it verged on tasting almost like butterscotch. The fish was firm with a surprisingly delicate flakiness. I think that many diners might have found a new favorite fish that night.

Sixth Course

Our sixth course was the first of our two desserts: a frothy guava smoothie with coconut shreds. The smoothie was so perfectly summery and fun, with its unabashedly pink hue, cotton candy-like tangles of coconut on top and a tiny bendy straw to drink it all down with. The coconut was fresh and sticky sweet on top of the ice cold smoothie, a tongue-in-cheek and utterly laid back beginning of the end to our meal.

Seventh Course

The seventh and final course: corn pudding with whipped agave nectar, papaya and caramelized dairy with poppyseeds. The corn pudding was actually corn juice cooked over high heat with an emulsifying agent stirred in towards the end. It was surprisingly sweet while retaining that vegetal bite. The whipped agave (the white puffs above) tasted almost like divinity, while the sweet and savory papaya played a nice balance between the earthiness of the corn and the sweetness of the agave and caramelized dairy. An upbeat, fruity, tropical way to end a summery meal.

Randy’s next dinner is tonight, and I hear he still has a spot or two available if anyone is interested. Until next time, campers!

Dumpling Crawl, Part The First

My fellow Chowhounds and I hit the streets of Chinatown on Sunday afternoon, pounding the pavement in search of the perfect soup dumpling.  Yes, folks — it was a good, old-fashioned dumpling crawl (not to be confused with a good, old-fashioned walkoff).

Chinatown FountainThis isn’t where we started; I just like this fountain in front of the Southern News Group building (a local Chinese newspaper).

Starting at 11:30am, we hit Fu Fu Cafe first, which recently won the Houston Press award for Best Dumpling.  That’s saying quite a lot in a town like Houston with so many dumpling joints to choose from, so we decided to start at the top.  Jenny, the head Hound, ordered for us in Mandarin at all of the places we went on Sunday, which only increased my enjoyment of the afternoon (I really love listening to other languages, which a polyglot city like Houston caters to nicely).

Beijing DumplingsBeijing-style pan-fried dumplings.

At Fu Fu, we ordered their steamed pork dumplings, the Beijing pan-fried dumplings and a few orders of scallion pancakes for good measure.  The soup in the dumplings was by far the best here.  The dumplings themselves were huge, with soft, doughy skin that didn’t break as you separated each dumpling from its friends.   The soup was mild, salty and savory, the ideal counterpart to the downy dough and little nugget of steamed pork inside.  Their pan-fried dumplings were also fantastic, with a mysterious smoky flavor that we decided must have come from the super hot oil in which they were fried.  I topped my crispy scallion pancakes with generous portions of spicy Sri Racha sauce and thought of heaven.  This was a meal.  I was almost afraid to go to the next restaurant, as I felt it wouldn’t possibly live up to the delicious bounty we’d just eaten.

Scallion PancakeI could have eaten my weight in scallion pancakes. The restraint I showed was highly admirable, people. HIGHLY ADMIRABLE.

And, of course, it didn’t.  Classic Kitchen was our next stop, across Bellaire from Fu Fu and a world away in terms of service and quality.  It has certain qualities going for it — it’s clean, bright and airy inside.  The clientele definitely looks like they know their dumplings.  And the kitchen is relatively open — always a good sign.  But they were less than enthused about our large group of people: ten of us, to be exact.  They didn’t want to seat us, and they weren’t polite about it.  Jenny eventually wrangled a table for us, but the staff refused to bring us anything to drink and took away our chopsticks, literally throwing a pile of forks on the table and haughtily walking off.

Classic MenuBefore they took our chopsticks away from us.

We managed to get some dumplings, and even wrangled a specialty breakfast item from the kitchen — a donut-type sweet bread wrapped in an omelette with cilantro, wrapped in a crepe/tortilla-ish thing.  It was, despite that admittedly disgusting-sounding description, delicious.  We also had a plate of boiled peanuts with cucumbers that I thought were delicious, although they remained mostly untouched.  I would have eaten them all if I wasn’t trying to pace myself.

Taiwanese BreakfastTaiwanese breakfast oddity.

What we didn’t get at Classic Kitchen was any drinks (they wouldn’t even bring us water) or any semblance of service.  It’s a shame, really, since they could have had ten new happy customers and instead just ended up with ten really pissed off foodies.  Never good for a restaurant, no matter how good their food may be.  And after all that?  Their dumplings weren’t even that great.  They tore the moment you touched them, spilling out all of the precious soup inside and effectively ruining the dish.

Boiled PeanutsDangerously addictive boiled peanuts.

After our rather miserable experience at Classic Kitchen, there was nowhere to go but up.  We hit the famous Lai Lai Dumpling House next, one of the oldest dumpling places in town.  As Jenny noted, it was clear from the moment we went in that this place had been around for a while.  The clientele has gentrified from predominantly Chinese to mostly American.  The only Chinese faces we encountered were the kitchen and wait staff.  Their food has also gentrified to meet American tastes.

More on the weekend’s dumpling crawl tomorrow, including reviews of Lai Lai’s, Sichuan Cuisine, Lee’s Sandwiches (not Chinese, I know) and a few other gems.

In the meantime, if you want to read more, Jenny’s account of our afternoon is much more detailed than mine (and uses the correct terminology!) and anonymouseater’s account is straightforward and picturesque.

tenacity

My mother and I headed over to Randy’s house last night to finally experience “tenacity” for ourselves.

I think the evening can be perfectly described with Misha’s statement at the end of the night:

*taking last bite and then a long, contemplative silence*

“I have to go back to eating regular food tomorrow, dammit.”

The evening was perfect, from the come-as-you-are attitude to the endless bottles of wine to the invitation to help yourself to anything in the fridge to the absolutely phenomenal food.  If there’s one thing better than eating great food, it’s eating it with other people who appreciate it as much as you do but in a totally non-judgmental way.  Conversations were varied and amusing, people ate with their hands and no one had a single air of self-consciousness about them.  It was the ideal supper.

We were lucky to have so many fresh, organic ingredients on hand last night.  All of the herbs used came out of Randy’s own garden, and the wild hog that we feasted on for the fifth course was killed by Randy’s brother last week.  The fish were freshly caught, the fruit was from local markets and the vegetables were of the highest quality.

Now, first I have to apologize for the photos.  You all know the sob story by now.  But I’m sure that — at some point — Food In Houston and Tasty Bits will have much, much better photos up, and you can see what the food actually looked like.  Until then…

Tilefish in Ginger and Lemongrass

Canapes: tilefish marinated in ginger and soy sauce with lemongrass and basil.

 

Butter and Thyme

Bread and butter sprinkled with salt and flowering thyme.

 

Randy and Butter

Randy prepping the butter to go out on the table.

 

In Kimchee Consomme

First course:  tilefish tiradito cured in yamabuki miso and lemon verbena in a kimchee consomme with Thai chilis.  Fiery, salty, rich — tasted of the sea, in a very good way.  We ate the fish first and then greedily drank the remaining kimchee consomme from the bowl.

 

Jenny and David 

Some of last night’s guests: Jenny and David, to the right.  Jared Estes and Justin Bayse, both formerly of the ill-fated VIN, in the rear.

 

Gulf Crab and Foamed Dashi

Second course:  gulf crab, foamed dashi and garlic flowers.

 

With Smoked Vichyssoise

With the addition of smoked vichyssoise, of which Randy left an entire pitcher on the table.  A fight nearly broke out to get seconds from the pitcher…  Okay, not really.  The vichyssoise (potatoes and leeks) was so delicate and flavorful, completely unlike traditional vichyssoises which are bland and uninspired.  The smoking process completely transformed this dish.  The gulf crab and the heady dashi all blended perfectly.  This was perhaps my second favorite dish of the night.

 

Smelling the Dashi

Witness me inhaling the scent of the dashi and smoked vichyssoise.  I smelled it for a full two minutes before I finally ate it.

 

Roasted Peaches

Third course:  Roasted Gundermann’s Farm peach, red Komatsuma lettuce and a eucalyptus-lime meringue.  The liquid on the plate is a fenugreek-peach puree, with tiny fenugreek seeds scattered throughout among the cinnamon basil leaves.  Robert brought a fantastic bottle of sweet and spicy Selbach-Oster riesling that went perfectly with this sweet and spicy dish.

 

Randy Prepping

Randy prepping the next course while Megan supervises.

 

Toasted Gnocchi

Fourth course:  My favorite dish of the night.  Toasted bacalao gnocchi, trumpet royal mushrooms, pea shoots and parmesan cheese.  Technically, trout was used in place of cod in the bacalao gnocchi.  It had been salted for five days and infused the gnocchi with an altogether different flavor.  The dish was earthy, salty, savory, and deeply powerful.  The pea shoots were an ideal accompaniment to such strong flavors, with just an essence of baby pea and a light, fresh taste.

 

Randy and Sous Justin

Justin helping Randy; once a sous, always a sous?

 

Compressed Pork

Compressed pork, from the wild hog that Ronny (Randy’s brother) killed last week.  The pork was braised in Coca-Cola and Indonesian spices over several days, then put into a terrine with some added pork fat since the hog was so lean.  Although I don’t have a picture, it was our Fifth Course, toasted and served with preserved Japanese cucumber in the Aquavit style.

 

Lemon Balm Gaspacho

Sixth Course:  Frozen lemon balm gazpacho with opal basil.  The gazpacho was an infusion of sixteen different ingredients, ranging from grapes and cucumber skin to basil and vinegar.  It tasted almost buttery, and highly fragrant yet refreshing.

At this point in the night, we had a final aperitif: a moonshine-style beverage that Randy had made almost three months ago and forgotten about in a jar in a cupboard.  He called it a parfum.  Like the gazpacho, it was composed of many different ingredients, such as Meyer lemon flowers, lavender, cardamom, peppercorns, star anise and vodka.  Unlike the gazpacho, one sip could have powered a small city.  It was fiercely strong, highly herbal-smelling, cloudy and completely different from anything I’ve ever tasted.  That could have been the mantra of the night, in fact: Unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

 

Confluence of Chefs

Randy prepping, Justin making an escape, and Jonathan Jones of Americas in The Woodlands.

 

Strawberries

Seventh course:  Strawberries in yogurt with chocolate mint and espresso grounds.  A perfectly sweet and simple way to end the night, after a tornado of other courses, all of which completely expanded your views on how ingredients interact with each other and how seemingly-opposite flavors can truly work wonders together.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; we are lucky as a city to have the likes of Randy Rucker and his merry band of renegade chefs.  They are changing the way that Houston views food, one artfully-crafted plate and one astonished person at at time.

Know A Salsa Lover?

Then you might want to direct them over to Wrights of Texas.  Every delicious jar is locally handcrafted and made from scratch by Texas native Peggy Wright, a Houston transplant from San Antonio.

No, this isn’t an ad.  And, no, Peggy Wright didn’t ask me to do write-up on her.  In fact, she doesn’t know me from Adam (or any other person who sampled her salsa this afternoon in Whole Foods).  But when I stumbled across her at her salsa table today while Richard and I were shopping, I was impressed with not only her salsa (which is seriously good), but also her hard work.

It takes a lot of effort to create a recipe, to market it yourself every day, to scout a commercial kitchen to cook out of, to put yourself out there and — most of all — to develop a product that’s worth selling.  I commend people like Peggy who have found something they love doing and do it well.  Her enthusiasm and joy is evident when you speak to her, and I think it comes across in her well-crafted salsas, too.

Her salsa comes in two flavors — original and habanero (my favorite; nice and hot!) — and two sizes.  She makes new batches every week, each one full of nothing but tomatoes, peppers, herbs and spices.  None of it has preservatives, so it will last about a month as long as you keep it constantly refrigerated (no keeping a jar on hand in the pantry, folks).  That’s it.  Simple, straightforward and, most importantly, fresh.

I can’t think of anything better on a hot Houston afternoon than a bottle of Corona and some chips and salsa.  Peggy Wright’s salsas taste like summer, home and fresh air — all odd descriptors, I know, but true.  So if you’re like me and always looking for good, homemade, super-fresh, locally-made salsa, I encourage you to give Wrights of Texas a try.

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…