Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for February, 2008

Plant sale report

Posted by beer_chris on 24-February-2008

Made it for the 8 AM preview yesterday at the Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners spring plant sale, and as expected it was crazy. At least 200 people showed up for the 'preview', and the majority of these only came so that they were assured early entry to the sale. Easily 80% of the sale is dedicated to fruit trees that are adaptable to conditions in Harris county precinct 2 – which generally is the southeast corner of the county. Most all of Harris County is in USDA plant hardiness zone 9a. This basically means that the lowest annual temperature is no lower than 20 F. There is some argument that the southern area of Harris County and all of Galveston County is actually in zone 9b, where the lowest annual average temperature is somewhere closer to 30 F.

In any event, the plant sale in precinct 2 is really customized for 9b, and so it attracts a large crowd of people anxious to purchase fruit trees and plants that are well proved by the master gardeners in their area to thrive. Unfortunately most of what is sold at the 'big box' nurseries in Houston is not at all appropriate for the climate in southern Harris county. Additionally, most tropicals and unique plants are not sold in the big stores. These two facts drive the attendance at this plant sale – it's a once a year event, and the crowds come out for it.

Even knowledgeable of all of this, the precinct 2 master gardeners are not able to coordinate their event. The vast majority of the 200 people who showed up for the preview were only there to get a jump on the crowds and get their fruit trees/plants as fast as possible to avoid the major delays in checkout that are inevitable once everyone is let in. The line for checkout easily gets to 3 hours long within the first 30 minutes of the sale. This is because the organizers have one line for checkout – regardless of payment type, and the volunteers that run the checkout have to look up each plant individually. It takes at least 10 minutes to check out each person, plus any time to process a credit card. With 300-400 people, this adds up quickly.

I go to get tomatoes and peppers – this year my focus was on tomatoes. On my last visit I showed up half an hour after the event 'started' only to find the inevitable madhouse created by the huge crowds, and to realize to my horror that paying with a credit card would require a 4 hour wait. Last year I left my selections with Jaime and went to an ATM to get cash to pay my bill – as there is a cash line for people buying tomatoes and peppers that does not require nearly as long a wait as the other line.

This year I came prepared with cash and an early wake up alarm. Supposedly, everyone that attended to 8 AM preview was supposed to get 15 minutes head start on the 'rest' of the crowds. However, the talk lasted until nearly 9:05 and when we were 'released' into the shopping area the organizers went ahead and let the folks in line (who had not attended the preview) come in as well.

The result was a madhouse of pushing and shoving to grab the plants that were most in demand. I probably hip-checked at least 4 old ladies to get at the tomatoes I wanted, and for those that had not reviewed the lists of available plants ahead of time the most logical course of action was to hoard – grab as much as possible within reach and get the heck into line to pay for it. As I knew exactly what I was after, I strategically shoved my way to the get plants on my list. Jaime, on the other hand, got separated from me and grabbed what she thought were good options.

I have space for 14 plants in my garden, and was on a mission to retrieve at least 2-4 on top of that for my father-in-law. We ended up with about 20 plants, and gave the remainder to someone in 'line' to get into the tomato area.

A quick word on this 'line'. The tomato area of the event is under a tent, and has enough space for two people to pass each other on each side, standing up. With plants under the tables, people carrying trays and pulling wagons, this becomes an issue very quickly, as anyone that stops to read the plant tags or bend down to check out the items under the tables is run over, and a huge human traffic jam results. The inexperienced queue up on one end of the tent, waiting their 'turn' to get inside. What they do not realize is that this monument to disorganization means that their line really doesn't move. When we were 'released' from the talk, I rushed to the opposite end of the tomato tent and began shoving my way through. Many rookies shot me dirty looks as I pushed my way back to the 'line', but I just shoved, reached over or pushed them and stayed focused – and got the plants on my list.

By the time we checked out (at 9:30AM – 30 minutes after opening) the line for 'normal' checkout was easily 3 hours long and nearly every fruit tree in the sale was gone. The tomatoes and peppers lasted a bit longer, but the crowd picking through the remains remained easily 100+ people.

So with all of this craziness why do I go? Well, part of it is the adventure of the whole thing, and another part is that I get varieties I simply wouldn't be able to get otherwise, with an assurance that they will grow in my garden.

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Tomato time!

Posted by beer_chris on 22-February-2008

The Harris County Precinct 3 spring plant sale is this Saturday, and although last year's crop grown from plants from this sale was a disappointment, I am blaming it on the weather rather than the plants I got at this event. We had what I remember as an exceptionally dry and hot June, which is the critical month for bloom set and fruit growth. Also, as I bought entirely determinate plants, that first fruiting was all I was going to get. I know from experience now that getting there early is key – in 2007 I arrived about 30 minutes after the gates opened and it was an absolute madhouse trying to get any type of heirloom plants.

Anyway, I think I may try to get there at 8AM for the 'preview' which allows me in to the sale a bit early.

The list of available plants is here

Keys to a successful plant sale –

  • Arrive early
  • Be ready to fight and potentially trade with others for what you want
  • Bring cash (or be ready to wait in an hours long line)
  • Have your garden ready to put these smallish transplants in the ground ASAP

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Copyright law and recipes – and a request

Posted by beer_chris on 21-February-2008

I have always hesitated to post recipes from published sources on my blog, preferring to allude to them with enough detail such that any reader or Googler could find them on his own with a minimum of effort. However, I've never really known for sure if this was really fulfilling the spirit of copyright protection of something like a recipe, or if I am just mental.

Turns out it's the latter.

Sites like Recipezaar are full of recipes culled from other sources, but I never really understood how that worked. Now I guess I know.

So, by special request, here are the recipes for the Bolognese sauce and polenta lasagne from Marcella Hazan's 'Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking'

Obviously I have paraphrased rather than copied Marcella's prose, below. I have also modified the ingredients list to indicate exactly what I did (i.e. she called for 1/2 cup of onion, chopped. I used a half of an onion, and I like my mirepoix chopped pretty fine, so I chopped it pretty fine and indicated that here for the onion, the carrot and the celery) If something isn't clear let me know, or just buy her book šŸ˜‰

Bolognese Meat Sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter plus 1 for tossing the pasta
1/2 of a medium onion, chopped fine
3 stalks celery, washed and chopped fine
2 medium carrots, washed, peeled and chopped fine
3/4 lb ground beef (I used the Kroger tube 'o beef)
salt
Fresh ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk
whole nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine (I used $8/bottle Ecco Domani pinot grigio)
1 22 oz can canned tomatoes with juice (I used my fave – the .79 For Maximum Value brand, stem ends trimmed, but any brand packed only in juice and not puree will do)

  • Put oil butter and onion in a medium dutch oven and turn heat to medium, cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and begins to yield it's liquid. Add the remainder of the mirepoix and cook for a few more minutes until fragrant and well coated.
  • Add the ground beef, a pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble the meat and cook until the raw color is gone.
  • Add milk and lower heat to let it simmer gently. Stir frequently until the milk has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating of nutmeg (about 1/8 of a tsp)
  • Add the wine, allow to simmer until evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn heat as low as possible – maintain barely a warm bubbling, and cook this way (uncovered) for at least 3 hours, preferably 4-5. When the fat separates from the meat and there is not enough liquid to stir it back in, add 1/2 cup of water and continue the cooking. I added about 2 cups of water over 6 hours. All the water must be evaporated off before the sauce is complete.

Makes ~2 cups. Refrigerate for up to 4 days. Preferable to let it rest at least 1 day, I allowed 3.

Baked Polenta w/Bolognese Meat Sauce

  • Make instant polenta according to package directions. Form into a flat square about the size of a 9x5x2 baking pan. Once cool enough to handle cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Allow to cool completely.
  • Warm the bolognese sauce and stir the lovely congealed fat back into the meat.
  • Prepare a thin bechamel, about the consistency of sour cream. Put to the side and keep warm.
  • Slice the polenta into noodle-ish slices – about 1/2″ thick. Keep them as even as possible but don't worry too much about it.
  • Smear a lasagna dish with butter. Cover with layer of polenta slices. Combine the bechamel and meat sauce, and put a layer of this mixture over the polenta, and then add a sprinkling of parmesan (use really good nutty-flavored expensive aged parmesan – not romano or asiago and certainly not the pre grated stuff in the green can!!!)
  • Cover with another layer of polenta, repeating until you have just enough meat/bechamel mixture for a light topping over the last of the polenta. Sprinkle with cheese and dot sparingly with butter.
  • Bake on the uppermost rack of the 450 oven for about 10-15 minutes. Allow it to rest a bit before serving, as it is hot as lava.
  • Enjoy an esoteric experience with a nice glass of Chianti, and go to the bookstore and BUY MARCELLA HAZAN'S BOOK ALREADY!!!

Serves 5-6.

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Odd veggies

Posted by beer_chris on 18-February-2008

Short update this morning.

My local Kroger always has an interesting selection of vegetables I have never seen before. Yesterday it was something called 'dragon's tongue', a bean looking thing that was flecked in purple and white (pic here. Apparently it is some type of heirloom bean – see reference here

I guess you could make 'dragons tongue' casserole with the beauties. Maybe add some lizards scales and eye of newt and have a regular witches brew of foods!

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Back home at last – and what am I eating?

Posted by beer_chris on 16-February-2008

Well made it home this week. For those that might consider taking a flight home from Dubai, landing at 7 PM on Monday and heading in to work on 8 AM Tuesday, please think twice. It seems like a good idea to jump right back into routine and all, but I think I have extended my jet lag – I am still waking up at 3 and 4 AM every day even this weekend.

Anyway, my first meal on Monday night was cheese enchiladas from Lupe Tortilla – Jaime got beef fajitas. YUM!!!! Tex Mex is just home for me, and I really missed it. I met my parents for cheese enchiladas and the ubiquitous chile con queso puff at Los Tios on Beechnut last night. The chili gravy there is not quite the same since the Skeeter's crew took them over a few years ago, but it's still really good.

Tonight I'm headed over to BW3 in the village to eat wings, play trivia and pre-coat for a bachelor party/pub crawl on Morningside.

Could I have picked four more especially Houston-ish things to do upon my return? I'm a happy boy…happy as anything to be home and eating the food I love at the places that make this place home to me.

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So what is adobo?

Posted by beer_chris on 5-February-2008

I gave a gift of adobo seasoning in a small Penzey's gift pack this week. I love the stuff, but the first question from the folks whom I presented it to was 'is this Filipino'? Of course, I was puzzled – as a Texan, adobo seasoning is a decidedly Mexican ingredient to me. However, in the back of my mind I was wondering if I had not heard of Filipino adobo before – and certainly there is Spanish influence in both Mexico and the Philippines – so it makes some sense. So as it turns out the wikipedia entry for adobo does include only a reference to the Filipino version – which is a mix of garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaf and black peppercorns.

The entry also provides some etymology – the word adobo in Spanish means 'seasoning' – so with that nicely general definition anything called adobo from anywhere would be accurate in meaning even if varied in content. Mexican adobo seems to consistently include Mexican oregano (dried), Tellicherry black peppercorns, garlic (dried) and paprika. However, with a name as general as 'seasoning', I easily found 5 different preparations for 'Mexican' adobo – some including things like sugar and vinegar, others hot cayenne pepper.

Regardless of the history, adobo is just plain tasty as a rub for any type of meat, or as the base for a long simmered sauce for meat (adobado).

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Sysco's upscale image

Posted by beer_chris on 3-February-2008

Although I am in Dubai I read an article in the Chronicle via chron.com today regarding Sysco branching out and including more local and gourmet suppliers as a method to broaden their customer base and sales within upscale restaurants. Sysco is a Houston-based conglomerate serving the food industry. Their headquarters are on the west side of town off of Richmond just outside the beltway. Needless to say I have cultured myself to be on the lookout for Sysco products at a restaurant. They have a reputation, at least with me, as being the lowest common denominator of restaurant supply – cheapest and easiest but not exactly best quality. So, I am a little suspicious of the motives of a giant company like this in working with boutique suppliers and with small chef/owner establishments. The article, which for now is linked here (chron.com changes their story URLs frequently, so this link may not last) reads a bit like a press release – I think that's reality and not just my bias talking.

Robert Del Grande is quoted, although it is not clear if it is directly or via the advertisement the article states that the inventor of the fast casual concept appeared in for the Sysco program – called ChefEx. Of course Del Grande just repurchased Cafe Express from the holding company that owns Wendy's, so I wouldn't exactly call him a 'chef/owner' anymore. He is nearing Tilman Fertita status in my mind.

In any event the Chron also quotes Tracy Vaught – who is owner of Backstreet Cafe and of Hugo's (w/Hugo Ortega of course). She admits to being skeptical and later being convinced by the variety of product available – but there are a couple of telling details in the article. One is that the ChefEx program is part of a larger series of acquisitions/business expansions by Sysco into this area. Mentioned is the purchase of an upscale steakhouse supply company a few years ago by Sysco. Additionally is the seemingly side comment of what a small part of Sysco's overall operating profit these services represent. Numbers are not given – and in my brief overview of the 2007 annual report on Sysco's website, this segment of the business is not even mentioned – save for in a few wide references to 'specialty suppliers' in the various summaries.

Sounds to me like this is being used as=a a way in the door to restaurants to sell other Sysco products. The example of Tracy Vaught – who in the article mentions that she 'kicked Sysco out', obviously was not a customer before this program was brought to her attention. And the mention of the business review process and simplification of billing perhaps means that Sysco is trying to sell other services by using these specialty arrangements as a sort of loss leader to get the restaurateur's attention. In fact, the annual report discusses at length the idea of the business review with customers as part of Sysco's long term strategy to increase sales without increasing COGS/inventory costs.

So, from a purely pessimistic perspective Sysco seems to have absolutely no interest in selling better food products, helping small independent suppliers (assuming the ones given as examples actually are small suppliers) or ultimately getting better food to the consumer more effectively. They want to make money, and this is a good way to do it.

Optimistically, if one looks at Sysco as a middleman only then they are using their scale, purchasing power and access to make it easier for restaurants to provide good products at a fair price – adding efficiency to an otherwise highly inefficient process that would normally depend on the restaurateur to do the coordination to get multiple small suppliers to provide good quality products.

I tend to think the reality is somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, Sysco is not interested in providing expensive and difficult to source products, and appear only to be doing so in order to sell other products or services. Additionally, restaurants seem unlikely to lower prices – my bet would be that any savings by using Sysco would go directly into the owner's pocket. So, from a consumer's point of view I see no reason to think Sysco is any better than before – and I will probably still view them skeptically, and likely try to avoid the places where I know they supply the majority of the foodstuffs. I am not convinced that slow food can include Sysco in the equation.

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