Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for July, 2004

Houston has at least one neat farmers' market (BACKPOST)

Posted by beer_chris on 15-July-2004

The farmer's market on Airline in North Houston is a really interesting place. I have vague memories of the flagship store, Canino's, going back many years to many trips I made there with my grandmother and mother. Going back for the first time in many years last summer was something of an emotional experience, but wandering out back for the first time last weekend was definitely a culinary adventure.

It's watermelon season in south Texas, and there were melons as far as we could see. Some stations were manned by groups of men around pallets of different varieties and sizes, and some were simply trucks loaded down with valley melons. We stopped and looked at a seedless, probably the biggest I've ever personally seen, that must have been 25 pounds. It looked like a huge pumpkin, and we were told it was only $4. Amazing, but neither my mother or I wanted to carry a 25 pound round object back to the car, nor did we want to try and navigate our way back to the melon stands in the car. We moved on.

The market is one of the only places where you can buy purple hull and cream peas in the shell, or have them shelled on the spot by this big whirling pea shelling contraption. You can buy veggies in full bushels, or can simply buy one of the small buckets of something. Jaime's favorites are the little sweet baby bananas that are simply everywhere.

One thing that is always true – everybody has just about the same thing. One week it might be pineapple, the next peaches (although not this year – the pea man told us it had been too wet in the Edwards plateau this year – all the Texas peaches were on the ground.). This week it was melon and mangoes – crates of mangoes, at least 20 fruit, were going for 2-4 bucks. Amazing.

It's one of the places I would take a visitor to really experience the culture of Houston.

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My stomach speaks to me – about hot dogs, mainly. (BACKPOST)

Posted by beer_chris on 14-July-2004

I satisfied a serious craving yesterday evening, one that had been rattling around in my brain for a good month, but one I just couldn't bring myself to satiate. Last night I spent a frustrating extra 4 hours at work, staying late purportedly to help the folks in Singapore install a copy of our system software. Well, the software had not yet copied out to them, after TWENTY HOURS!. This was a little disappointing, especially considering that I had spent a few extra hours at the office just waiting for the sun to come up in the Far East. Waiting, as it turned out, so I could discover that I really didn't need to be waiting after all.

Anyway, I promised the contact out there I would burn a CD with the files and drop it in interoffice mail – just in case something happened and the files never actually completed their marathon copy. I decided to go ahead and complete the CD copy while I was at the office, as CD copies just eat time, of which I don't have enough during the day. It was about 8 PM, and I had just downloaded the second Dark Tower eBook onto my Palm the day before, so I figured I would take care of the burn and get a little reading in. After spending about half an hour cleaning up the full hard drive on the shared burner PC in the information center/library of the building, I fired up the burning software and settled in with my eBook. Trouble was, the software and files totaled 640 MB, which the HP burner software estimated would take somewhere near 45 minutes to complete. It being 8:15 already, I looked at my watch and sighed, realizing that it would be nearly 9:40 before I would be able to get home. My empty tummy rumbled at the thought, and I wondered if the pasta I had brought into the office the previous Thursday would be any good. I dismissed it, buried myself in my book and decided not to think about dinner until the CD burn got closer to completion. After all, I had eaten a larger then normal lunch.

Generally, I eat a pretty small lunch at work, usually the equivalent of a six inch Subway sandwich. In many cases, that's exactly what I do eat. I don’t like a heavy lunch, as it makes me tired in the afternoon, and I'm pretty convinced that big lunches are what have contributed to my extra 30 pounds. No, I've gotten accustomed to eating relatively small amounts, and have found a few places in Baytown to that cater to folks like me. My favorite has to be 'The House', the Colonial House of Sandwiches. Strange name, but they have FOUR locations in Baytown! The sandwiches they make are on normal plastic bread. Nothing special about the meats either, and the drinks are single 12 oz cans. Simple enough, but there is something about the sandwiches that just tastes great – that and the prices are super low, the best deal in town. I can get a small sandwich, chips and drink for under 5 bucks. That, and the sandwiches actually taste good, unlike Subway, where everything pretty well tastes like eating notebook paper with mustard and bell peppers on top. Colonial House is a very good place – cash only, of course, and always the same faces, but good. One of those little small local places you just happen onto one day, as I did early in my Baytown career while looking for a small, cheap local sandwich shop like downtown Houston is full of.

Anyway, I had eaten a large Colonial House sandwich, my favorite, the Po-Boy. The Po-Boy is salami, ham and provolone cheese with a generous helping of mayo and some shredded lettuce and thin sliced tomato. Unlike the other CH fare, it is served on a hoagie roll. The normal size I get, the small, comes on a half roll. The large is a full roll. I ate it and my baked Lays, sipped my Diet Coke and felt stuffed at 11:45 that morning. I thought I would be just fine for my evening work plans.

Well, my stomach had other plans about 8:45. I started to get hungry – no, not hungry, ravenous. Part of my hunger was undeniably based in my frustration. My body wanted to know just what my brain had thought, keeping food away from it. Since nothing had really come of the evening, my brain had no excuse, and pretty much just let my stomach run roughshod over all logic and willpower.

I wanted James Coney Island hot dogs. 5 of them. Covered with that cheese-from-a-gun they use and onions.

YUMMMMM!

No! I told myself no, there was tomatillo soup at home, and leftovers from the previous night's dinner. At the least, I could get a chicken sandwich at Whataburger of Wendys and eat it with a bowl of the soup.

By 9:10, after pretty much staring at the burning countdown for the last 5 minutes (my stomach wouldn't allow me to read in peace), the final nail was driven into the coffin of my logical eating habits for this night.

The CD burn had failed, totally. The CD was ruined, and the extra hour in the office was a waste. My stomach roared disapproval, and outright commanded my brain to give in – get the dogs, GET THEM NOW FOR ME, you OWE it to me, you BASTARD. As much as I tried to resist, I knew it was a futile exercise to even try,

Nevertheless, all the way home I tried to convince myself to just go home, dredge up some popcorn or something and go to bed. By the time I got to the tollway (15 minutes from home), it was hopeless. I was going to James Coney Island, they WERE going to be open, I WAS going to get the 5 cheese-only hot dogs, and the only questions were whether I was getting french fries and how I planned on making it home without eating the dogs in the car.

My mouth was watering so much as I pulled up to JCI at 9:45, I thought I might never eat again. Fortunately, they are open until 10 PM. Unfortunately, I wasn't the only poor soul giving into a hot dog craving. It took almost 15 full minutes to get my dogs, however, the screaming voice in my ear (from my gut) had subsided slightly. I imagined it slouched back with a smug smile on it's stomachy face.

I managed to get the dogs home, and gave all the way in. I sat down at the computer, cracked open a beer, and wolfed down the completely processed foods.

Holy shit it was good. I could have eaten 10 more I think. My stomach finally was satisfied…

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The beginning of a vision – cuisine d'Houston? (BACKPOST)

Posted by beer_chris on 11-July-2004

It's been a little while since my last entry. Since then, Side Street Brewing has closed, my pico was a complete failure (WAY too much lime juice – do NOT dump the juice used to mellow the onions into the mix!), I've been to Europe, and eaten the magnificent food of France, Germany and the pubs of London, and I've invented one heck of a good cream of tomatillo soup.

I was joking with my mother that my tomatillo soup is what I want to open a restaurant with. One of my pipe dreams is to try and open my own British-style pub, complete with 'pub grub' menu of delicious-but-good-with-beer-foods. The tomatillo soup is the dish I think every good pub needs – a signature dish people come specifically to eat on a regular basis – a dish I can be known for, but something that can be eaten when just stopping by for a pint. It has that combination of uniqueness and great flavor that I think could fit the bill. Tomatillos are related to the tomato, I think. They look kind of like green tomatoes, with a husky leaf like covering. They are coated with some kind of waxy oil that smells something like squash and fresh tomato leaves combined, and the insides smell this way too, and are full of small round seeds, much smaller then a normal tomato. The flavor is bitter and remotely vegetal, with a little heat hidden in there somewhere. They are used primarily around Houston in salsas and sauces for things like enchiladas, but are available almost everywhere (even Kroger), so I think there must be other recipes. However, I don't think I've ever seen a dish featuring them. To make my soup I start with about two pounds of tomatillos, husk, wash and quarter them, and then boil them in chicken stock for about 20-30 minutes, or until they are soft. The cooking enhances the vegetal flavor and softens the meat, which is pretty firm to start with. The soup needs heat or sweetness to balance out the bitterness of the main ingredient, and I use both. For heat, I use jalapeno, fresh, and for sweetness I use cloves. The cloves are what I think makes my soup unique. It's that kicker ingredient no one will ever guess is included, and it's the key to make the soup good. Without it, the flavor is overwhelmed with the bitterness of the tomatillo. With it, the heat, bitter and sweet balance is just right. I put in just enough to taste it as a unique ingredient, but only if you are expecting it. Otherwise the flavor is just seems balanced (at least that's what people tell me).

As a side note, I think this is also one of the important qualities of a 'signature' dish – some ingredient that no one would ever guess, but which makes all the difference in the taste. It takes something super easy to make, like cream of vegetable soup, and 'fixes' it so that no one can ever duplicate the exact taste without actually knowing the exact recipe. It's this combination of ease of preparation and impossibility of duplication that makes something like the Doubletree chocolate chip cookies, or biscuits at the DOT diner something to be had only at those places. Part of the taste of the dish becomes the place it is served. I think this soup can be that kind recipe. Anyway, I've made it without as much heat, and the bitterness really overwhelms. It needs two jalapenos with seeds to balance. Additionally, salt is required to bring out the 'tomatoness' and spiciness of the tomatillos themselves. Fat is also important, as it is with any cream soup. I've tried it with 1 stick plus 2 tblsp butter, and a cup of cream, but that is just too heavy. 1 stick + 1 cup is about right, and maybe a little more cream might work, just to further work on the bitterness of the tomatillo. I start with a soup base, garlic, celery, onion, shallot, jalapenos, brown the onion and then add the stock and tomatillos. Honestly, I haven't noticed that much of any of those flavors in the final dish, and I'm going to experiment some with added spices and additional amounts of the soup base veggies. Here's the basic recipe:

Chris' Tomatillo Soup

2 lbs tomatillo, husked and quartered
2 whole jalapenos, or other fresh (and hot) peppers
1/2 small onion
2 stalks celery
1 shallot
2 cloves garlic
1 stick butter (salted or unsalted)
1.5 quarts chicken stock
Salt (to taste, about 2 tsp for me)
Cloves (to taste, 1/2 to 1 tsp, depending on how much heat is in the puree)

1. Give the onion, celery, shallot and garlic a rough chop to uniform pieces. It's not required to mince, as the soup is going to be pureed later, but the pieces should be uniform so that they cook evenly.
2. Carefully chop the jalapeno, taking care to keep the seeds and juice away from you (I use rubber gloves that I keep specifically for cutting hot peppers, my skin is extremely sensitive to capsaicin) Saute the chopped veggies in 2 tblsp butter over medium high heat until the onion is colored a golden. Try not to burn the milk solids in the butter.
3. Add the stock and tomatillos, bring to a boil for 20-30 minutes, or until the liquid has lost about 1/2 quart and the tomatillos are releasing their innards
4. Puree in SMALL batches (to avoid blender explosions!)
5. Add the butter and cream to the puree, and heat slowly until the butter and cream are fully incorporated into the mixture.
6. Bring to a low boil, stirring regularly. Boil for a minute or so to set the cream and thicken
7. Add salt and clove to taste

Serve with fresh cilantro. Really good cold!

I think it could take more garlic (maybe even double), and more onion. I also have used some of those tiny little red peppers that people grow on ornamental bushes – they add just a little bit of color. The overall color should be a rich pea green. I'm considering adding a spice mixture (Zatarans or a cumin mix or something) at saute time, to see if I can deepen the flavor at all. Maybe it could be made with less fat. I won't be trying that ;-). This is one of those dishes that kind of fits with my current focus – trying to use the ingredients that are available freshest here in town to create a cuisine d'Houson that isn't completely reliant on Tex-Mex dishes, and doesn't delve too deeply into the banal southwestern cuisine that dominates the professional culinary world west of Sealy. I think it might be possible, given the success I've had to date with this dish and my 'Houston jambalaya', which used venison meat, couscous and chorizo to make a really great cajun influenced but uniquely Houston style dish. There just doesn't seem to be much out there that really does that kind of fusion – southwestern, Tex-Mex, authentic Mexican, cajun and home-cooking.

Maybe that could be my vision for a culinary career…

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