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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was so good in fact, we scored seconds.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!