Sunday, March 29, 2009

Armadillo in Texas?

For dinner, I had lobster ravioli (not as posh as it sounds- thanks, Costco), with a garlicky tomato sauce and a glass of Yellowtail Pinot Grigio. Oh, and an orange-flavored Cadbury's egg for dessert. It was all pretty good.

More interesting is what I ate last night: a catered dinner at the Galleria's Westin Hotel, as part of a grad school celebration.

The first course was a mixed greens salad with a balsamic vinaigrette and a rather large, deep-fried goat cheese thingy. I want to call it a "purse", but that sounds pretentious. It was actually very good- nicely balanced dressing, an interesting mix of greens, and rather innovative cheese thingy. I wish the rest of the meal had been that good.

We didn't get a choice of entree, although our Kosher friend was accommodated with a fabulous-looking roasted veggie plate. The main course was chicken. It reminded me of an armadillo on the plate. Not kidding- the scaly chicken skin was left on, and it had been stuffed and cut into slices that resembled an armadillo's rounded carapace. I tried to remove the skin, because it had the leathery, rubbery texture of chicken feet (don't ask), but most of it refused to come off. The filling remains unidentified. My first thought was of mushed veggies, ratatouille gone wrong, but the texture was too smooth, and it had a toxic yellow-orange tinge. Sort of unconscionable, considering a simple stuffing of cheese and roasted pepper (or any number of other, not-toxic-orange things) would've been amazing. The green beans that accompanied it were crunchy, hard, and raw.

The desserts had been taunting us the whole time, as they'd been placed in the middle of each table prior to service. Unfortunately, they were deceptively attractive. I settled on a chocolate mousse sitting atop a thick, crumbly chocolate crust base. The mousse was decent, but had a plasticky texture. It had been dusted with too much cocoa powder, which puffed all over the white tablecloth with each forkful of mousse. And the crust was too thick and cakey to balance the mousse.

I tried a spoonful of the other dessert for research purposes. It was far worse. It looked like berries mixed with Cool Whip, but it had been sitting out too long and tasted like styrofoam. Next year, we'll advocate for better food.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I wish post #100 involved a more interesting meal.

For dinner, I had roasted butternut squash and couscous, with a St. Arnold's Lawnmower Ale.

Yes, I still have meat fatigue. And I was too lazy to go to the grocery store. As strangely minimalistic as it was, it wasn't bad. I first envisioned adding something to the couscous, maybe some oil-cured olives and citrus chunks, or some black beans and roasted garlic. But no, laziness won again.

I don't own a couscousiere, for obvious reasons, but I'm open to trying to make my own one day (or maybe I just wanted to use the word 'couscousiere'). Today, however, I was using whole-wheat, quick-cook couscous, which is very easy- boil water, dump in couscous. Let sit. Fluff, add goodies. I added some butter and salt, and a very little bit of Kraft Parm. It was nice, a little dry.

The squash was more labor intensive. I love squash, but I almost slice off an arm every time I attempt to tame it in its raw state, and it's impossible to figure out how long it should *really* be cooked, and at what temperature. My new solution is to plop the damn thing in the oven whole, turn the oven on high, and forget about it for at least an hour. It worked beautifully, though the squash was a little on the watery side. You're supposed to choose the most dense squash for better flavor, but I usually end up with the water-retaining ones instead. I managed the squash crisis by using a paper towel to dry them out a bit, then slathered them with butter. Very tasty.

The Lawnmower Ale is from St. Arnold's, Houston's only craft brewery of any importance (ARE there any others? Quick Google says no, but that's too sad for me to believe). It's a grassy, malty, relatively light beer that's perfect for spring and summer.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lasagna at Home

For dinner, I had vegetarian lasagna with fire-roasted veggies.

I'm only now starting to get over my childhood-induced fear of frozen foods. I've always been ok with frozen pizza, and I rediscovered frozen fruits and veggies a year or two ago. But meals? Even with the best of intentions, they're never very good. Tonight was no exception.

I happened across Safeway's O organics line in the freezer section of the grocery store, and promptly stocked up on their delicious frozen pizzas. Their lasagna sounded intriguing, and I was completely sick of meat (and calories) after a week of dinners out with the in-laws. I briefly thought of eating whole-wheat couscous and veggies for dinner instead (such is the horror of frozen entrees), but I wanted something a little more substantial and caved.

It wasn't awful, but it had that weird frozen taste all frozen meals seem to have- sort of a dried-out cardboard flavor underpinning everything. The lasagna noodles were not overcooked, and the zucchini chunks were nice. But there were also undercooked (ie, not cooked) chunks of bell pepper that prevented all the flavors from coming together into the cohesive goodness of something I would label "lasagna". The relatively low calorie content, and the skimpy cheese coverage probably contributed to my dislike as well. I've never made real lasagna (my mother used to let me help her make something called "crafty lasagna" that involved pressing cans of refrigerated pre-made dough and sesame seeds on top of lasagna prior to cooking, and which made me think I hated Italian food until I was about fifteen), but I've heard it's not very difficult. Next time, I'll try to make my own.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Muy Sabroso: Restaurante La Mexicana

For dinner, I had chicken enchiladas in mole sauce with refried beans and limeade. And then some ice cream.

Dinner was at La Mexicana in Montrose.

The mole sauce was nice, probably homemade. Moles vary a lot from one restaurant or recipe to the next, so it's always interesting to try them. In general, it's a thick brown sauce made of several kinds of chili peppers, ground nuts or seeds, and unsweetened chocolate. Theirs was a little chunkier than most, with deep savory flavors- I want to say "musty", but I mean that in a good, forest-y sort of way- and a nutty undertone that may have come from peanut oil or ground walnuts. The sauce overshadowed the shredded chicken inside the tortillas, but mole is usually about the sauce rather than the carrier protein anyway. Their beans were creamy and probably full of lard- delicious.

After dinner, we headed to Amy's Ice Cream for dessert. I had some incredibly good lavender-honey ice cream earlier this week somewhere else, so was interested in their more unusual flavors. I sampled their avocado ice cream, but it was utterly strange. It had an off-putting bitter aftertaste. I'd try it again, but it might be better mixed with another flavor. I ended up getting half rose, half Shiner ice cream. The rose was as flowery and over-the-top as you'd expect, but it was very creamy, almost custardy, and worked really well. Amy's uses real beer to make the Shiner ice cream, so the interaction between frozen alcohol crystals and frozen milkfat gave the whole thing a grainy, sandy, sorbet-like texture. The Shiner flavor didn't come through very well, so it ended up tasting like slightly caramel-flavored frozen milk. I enjoy interesting textures in my food, and the flavor wasn't bad, so I liked it anyway.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dumplings for Dinner

For dinner, I had some shrimp dumplings, "seafood cheese puffs", and an iced tea.

The location was Auntie Chang's Dumpling House. Jon is hopelessly addicted to dumplings in all their incarnations, and AC's is the epicenter of that obsession. Literally, every time we've driven by AC's for the last SIX years, he's had a Pavlovian freak-out of epic proportions- "ohmigod! AUNTIE CHANG'S. They have the BEST dumplings EVER!!!(*drool*)". It became a little game after we moved here, me shooting down his dumpling cravings every time he suggested we go there, just because he seemed so weirdly obsessed with the place, and I figured it wouldn't measure up to the monolith of perfection he remembered.

So, I finally gave in. The dumplings were very good: clearly homemade, with chunks of shrimp and shrimpy goo inside. Each table was stocked with eight or so sauces- ginger, chili paste, hot mustard, "sweet", duck?, and several unidentifiable others. The outside was nicely chewy, they were sweet without being mushy or cloying, and their "sweet" sauce was wonderful. The "sweet" sauce wasn't actually sweet, but I have no idea what was in it. It tasted like a very mild vinegar, congealed into sauce consistency and dotted with little fragments of citrus fruit.

I needed something else to make a dinner-sized meal, so I ordered the seafood cheese puffs. They were beautifully fried, and came out hot and crispy. The downside is that Jon and I spent the meal debating whether they were seafood puffs or cheese puffs. No seafood or seafood flavors were found. I thought I saw something pinkish in the filling at one point, but I think it was the lighting (strings of Christmas lights, heavy on the red).

I'd go back for more dumplings, and their service was great, but AC's is not worth obsessing over. In any case, Jon says their dumplings have lost their place in his heart to another dumpling house, Doozo, which is famous for the "Dumpling Nazi" owner. It's in an office building food court downtown, and I was never impressed, but I think I'll have to try it again as some sort of dumpling wars thing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Turkey Made Me Cry

For dinner, I had chipotle-apricot roast turkey and a baked potato.

I've become addicted to baked potatoes lately, mostly due to a serendipitous run-in with them at Beck's Prime a few weeks back. I love their burgers, but I was trying to be healthy and ordered a massive, delicious stuffed potato instead. It was the best potato I've had in decades, if ever, with crispy skin I HAD to eat. I wonder if they coat their potatoes in lard? They're that good. I speculated at the time that it was probably as bad for me as a burger, and I finally looked up the numbers today. It's actually worse for you than a burger by 200 calories. And almost as bad as the delicious (but very, very bad) cheeseburger I love. I ate said evil cheeseburger for lunch.

So, a healthy dinner was called for. I was fascinated with the art of the perfect baked potato, so I bought a couple to experiment with, along with some turkey from Whole Food's prepped food area. The potatoes turned out well, if not quite as crispy as the ones I made a few days back. It seems like those had slightly thicker skins, even though they were all Russets. Baking at 425 for an hour, coated in olive oil and a little salt seems to work consistently, if not always perfectly.

The turkey, however, was awful. Perhaps I should have anticipated that white turkey meat, sliced and left in a display cooler all day might not be terribly moist, but, well, I expect nice grocery stores to sell food that doesn't suck. The purported "chipolte" and "apricot" flavors were invisible, so I supplemented by slathering the meat with some peach/prosecco jam and some Marie Sharp's. Of course, I grabbed the "hot" bottle instead of the "mild" MS by accident (we have at least four varieties floating around in the fridge), so the turkey also made me cry.

I also had a glass of carignan with my meal. WF's wine selection is absurdly overpriced, even compared to Central Market, so I was ecstatic to find an old vine French red for under $7/bottle. I know most people dislike carignane except as a blending grape, but it's actually one of my favorites. This particular one is so generically labeled it doesn't really have a name ("Carignan, vin de pays d'aude 2006"). I was surprised at the structure, considering it's a few years old- it tasted like vinegar until it got some air, then opened up into a very tannic, tart wine with cranberry and smoky flavors. Sort of what pinot noir might taste like if it weren't so damned watery and soft.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Experimental Breakfast at Home

For breakfast, I had oatmeal. Special oatmeal.

See, it's getting close to Easter, which means primarily one thing- Cadbury's chocolate eggs are here. I know they're actually disgusting, full of sugar, corn syrup, and other things I rail against. But I love them anyway. They're the one mass-produced candy I can't get enough of, and it's only gotten worse since they started selling them in 4-packs. So, I happened to have about six of them sitting on my counter this morning (including three of their new orange-flavored ones, which are amazing), and I really, really wanted to eat a chocolate egg for breakfast, instead of boring oatmeal.

So I formulated a compromise. I'd heard about people making cupcakes with a chocolate egg in the middle, what about egg in oatmeal?

I broke the egg into a few pieces and placed them on top of my bowl of oatmeal and milk, then microwaved the whole mess until the egg looked melty.

Finally, I mixed the softened eggs into my oatmeal. It looked disgusting.

Not so good in terms of taste, either. The egg gave the milk a nasty fake flavor and almost puddinglike texture, and the oatmeal ended up tasting like watered-down Cocoa Pebbles. Interesting experiment, but not one to be repeated.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ravioli at Home

For dinner, I had ravioli and a glass of wine. And some organic Cheeto-like things...

I bought the ravioli Saturday at the Spec's downtown. First, I'll say that the flagship Spec's on a Saturday afternoon is about as much interesting cultural experience as you can have for free in Houston. I decided on a whim to grab some prosciutto San Daniele, one of my favorite guilty porky pleasures, because the price was the best I've seen anywhere.

While waiting, I had to deal with the obnoxious woman ahead of me in line who would not move for me to look into their meat display. She then proceeded to request a sample of, like, eight different things. Between each sample, she would spend a few minutes cogitating, and then request another sample of something else. Not to be rude or anything, but I think this story makes a little more sense if I add that she was Russian. The poor meat counter lady tried to help me while the woman was busy contemplating her many samples, at which point the woman proceeded to throw a hissy-fit. So, I got to wait. And wait. And wait. The Russian woman actually walked off before her last bit of charcuterie was done, never to be seen again.

It was finally my turn, but then they had to open a new ham for me. I don't think the San Daniele was very popular. It took the woman ten minutes to open it and slice off the outer cap of fat. However, it made my wait worthwhile when she handed over a sample, a few ounces worth (we're talking $2-3 of ham here). At which point some incredibly strange older man, also Eastern European, walks up and requests "cheese samples" in a thick accent. No specific type, no intent to actually buy cheese, he was just cruising Spec's for samples. The counter woman was so frustrated by this point that she couldn't understand anything he said. I translated, and offered him a bit of my prosciutto sample, which he accepted. I finally got my pork, and toddled off to the wines. On the way out, I grabbed said pack of whole wheat Putney Pasta spinach-cheese ravioli.

I was concerned when I took it out of the freezer to cook, only to discover large chunks of frost and patches of freezer burn. I guess the lesson here is to avoid buying pasta at what's basically a big wine store with a deli/specialty foods wing on the side. Despite the icky look (even after it was cooked, several pieces were an entirely different color due to serious freezer burn), the flavors were very good. I think the presence of very good Italian parm made the difference, as did the homemade garlic butter sauce I tossed it in.

The wine, also from Spec's, turned out to be nice, after much speculation. It was Alamos' malbec, 2007. Alamos is the less expensive brand made by Catena Vineyards, from Argentina. All of their wines I'd had before were at least great, and some exceptional. They get kudos for making excellent chardonnay, something Argentina is definitely not known for. But I opened this wine Saturday night, and it was terrifying. I love very dry tannic reds, but this was almost like vinegar. I wondered if it was corked. But no, once it had a few hours to breathe it was fine. Still not my favorite wine from them, nor my favorite malbec, but not bad. I think it just needs more aging before it's truly drinkable.

Then, the Cheetos. Jon bought some organic Cheeto-equivalent puffs from Whole Foods the other day. I was left with a ton of garlic butter sauce from my ravioli, and no bread in the house to soak it up...I didn't want to waste all that garlicky yumminess. Solution: cheese puffs. All those little internal pores really sucked up the garlic butter nicely. I know it sounds disgusting, but it was yummy.