Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Polenta and Honey

For breakfast, I had hot polenta cereal at Empire Cafe.

I've always seen it on their menu and wondered what it was like. I've only had polenta a few times- covered in butter and salt, it's lovely, but otherwise not a favorite. Plus, virtually anything covered in butter is good. But polenta-as-breakfast, covered in honey and almonds, sounded very interesting.

It was a little goopy and gloppy, in the same way that grits are sometimes gloppy. Almost like they've mixed in a little egg. The polenta was pretty dull, but the honey creme drizzled on top was fabulous. The almonds should have been toasted, and there should have been more of both. It was served dry, so I trotted over to their self-service coffee area and sloshed maybe a quarter cup of whole milk over the top. Much better.

In other news, the wine I had with dinner (baked salmon with horseradish butter)smells like peanut butter. As soon as I opened it, I was seriously confused. Upon reflection, the peanut butter scent is mixed with strong, wet mineral and pine notes. It's the Petit Caprice 2007 vin d'pays. Very tannic Grenache/Syrah blend. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it. I always find it intriguing when wines (usually French wines) have an unusual scent or flavor. It didn't go with my salmon very well, but it's fun to puzzle through a wine every now and then that's not "drinkable" in the ordinary sense.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fusarium Venenatum

Tonight for dinner, I ate something I am ashamed to love. The food that grosses me out the most for being disturbingly fake and over-processed is not factory farmed chicken, or Little Debbie snack cakes, or McDonald's. It is Quorn. But God, is it good.

Quorn is frozen mycoprotein- basically, fungus grown in a lab and mixed with egg whites and natural caramel color. I'm disgusted by the concept, and if you have ANY mushroom allergies whatsoever you should not go near it. But it is, hands down, the best meat substitute I have ever tried. And I've tried them all. Tonight, I took their ground beef substitute, thawed it in the microwave, mixed it with some leftover pasta sauce and Kraft sprinkle cheese, heated, and poof- a meatloafish dinner. Quorn by itself is a little dry, but mixed into sauces is completely indistinguishable from beef. What I ate tonight would have been amazing over spaghetti or gnocchi.

I think I would be less freaked out by mycoprotein if it weren't quite so good for you. But no, it is incredibly low-calorie, and very high in fiber and protein. It's like a disturbingly engineered superfood from space. It also comes in different textures- I keep their fake grilled chicken patties in the freezer, too. They are a little dry (again, sauce is your friend), but the inner texture is exactly like chicken. I don't know how they do it. But I'm a little scared.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hamburger Fail

No, I actually didn't have a hamburger for lunch.

I've been wanting to try this place for months. Jon had gone a few months back with friends, and raved about how yummy it was. Good god, they make their own hamburger buns, it has to be good. I told him he was sort of lame for not inviting me, but as long as he brought me next time, whatever. It's in an inconvenient location unless we're already downtown, so it's not the sort of place I'd think to go on my own.

Did I mention my darling husband went years without eating red meat, refuses to grill (that's my domain), and regularly eats tofu for dinner? I am the rabid carnivore around here. So one can imagine how thrilled I was this afternoon, after my meal of thawed frozen edamame and a smoothie grabbed on the run, to discover where Jon ate lunch. Again.

I think this qualifies as hamburger fail.

As for MY lunch, meh. Frozen edamame is surprisingly resilient, and I melted a huge pat of butter on top. I'd enjoy anything with that much butter on it. The smoothie came from Jamba Juice, and was possibly the worst smoothie I've ever had there. I love Jamba Juice, but this one was located in a Whole Foods and staffed, er, poorly. They did not have a functional cash register, so when I ordered, the woman wrote a UPC on a slip of paper and sent me off to pay in the grocery line. I was too flustered to remember to tell the woman what sort of vitamin boost I wanted, so I don't think I got one. Or perhaps I did get a protein boost, because the resulting smoothie had that nasty, chalky protein flavor I hate. Also undertones of very spoiled bananas. Yuck.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Smorgasboard for Lunch

Today for lunch, I had a little bit of everything- some steak, some quasi-chicken picatta, green beans, scalloped potato casserole, a roll, a brownie, and some iced tea.

All this culinary excitement was caused by a CLE (continuing lawyer education) course at school. Turns out, lawyers demand better food than the pizza-or-Chipolte conundrum faced by student organizations. I was very surprised at the good quality of food, particularly the steak and the potato casserole. The steak was a perfect medium rare and tender, individually hand-sliced by some poor catering guy. The potatoes tasted like some little old Southern lady's home cooking. The potato flavor was prominent and woodsy, with perhaps six pounds of butter and cheese melted in between the layers...I could eat that for weeks. Everything else was just ok; the chicken picatta was pretty sad, although I was impressed they actually put capers in it (and red pepper? weird). The brownies were clearly not from Chick-Fil-A, but tasted like they were. It was a nice meal, and an interesting afternoon diversion, mortgage crisis lecture notwithstanding.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ravioli at Home

Tonight for dinner, I had some red pepper ravioli in a garlic butter sauce with a glass of rosé.

I didn't really know what I wanted for dinner, so I wandered aimlessly around Central Market looking for ideas. I came across some yummy-looking clams at their seafood counter, and started planning for pappardelle with clam sauce. Their seafood counter was grossly understaffed. I waited several minutes, only to discover that they were not utilizing their take-a-ticket system and it was line-jumping anarchy. I was seriously annoyed, so kept wandering. I found the papardelle, grabbed some wine, and looped back around to seafood, as I hadn't found anything else I really wanted for dinner. The congestion was actually worse. I found it interesting that twenty or so people were clogging the seafood counter, while the meat counter had exactly one customer. Usually it's the opposite. Maybe all the Texans need a warm-weather respite from all the beef. I was irritated that the two unoccupied meat counter guys weren't popping over to help, and finally gave up on clams.

I ended up with some red pepper, mozzarella, and basil ravioli. It was really red pepper ravioli, with only the slightest inkling of mozzarella, and none of basil. Still pretty decent. I got some Alessi marinara sauce to go with it, but decided at the last minute to make a simple garlic butter sauce instead.

The wine was the standout of the meal. Santola is a Portuguese producer, and I'd had their vinho verde and their red before, but never their rosé. It's delicious. I was looking for a French-style rosé (usually pretty dry, floral and herby) rather than a California-style (usually sickly sweet and fruity), and this is passably close. It's sweeter than a French rosé, but it has the most amazing smell- lots of heady grassy and floral honey smells. It doesn't taste nearly as good as it smells, but it smells fabulous.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cheesy Lunch at Home

Today for lunch, I had a spinach salad and some couscous.

They were both very, very simple. I think salad should be about the greens, not the dressing, so I don't usually use any dressing at all. If I do, it's a splash of olive oil and salt, or Annie's Shitake Vinaigrette. But today, nothing. I added some strawberries and cheese to the spinach to make it a little more substantial.

The cheese was a cave-aged Swiss gruyere I got on sale last week at Whole Foods. I'm still ambivalent about it. I normally buy a different cave-aged gruyere that has a really nice nutty-toasted flavor, with some sweet and floral undertones- I don't recall the brand. Sometimes I buy Le Gruyere, which is even cheaper and almost as good as my regular kind. But this stuff looked very funky and crumbly, and was normally super-expensive, so I was curious. It lacks the nutty flavor I love, and has that slightly musty sweat-sock-ammonia smell common to certain aged and blue cheeses. The first time I tried it, I hated it. It's growing on me, but it's still nothing like what I imagine when I think of "gruyere".

I topped the whole-wheat couscous with some shredded gruyere and sea salt. The starch cuts the pungent cheese to a more manageable level of funkiness. Not a bad lunch.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I hope dinner won't kill me. But it's so good.

For dinner, I had some homemade cured salmon, with an arugula salad and a Fireman's 4 beer.

Cured salmon is one of my favorite things to make. I base mine loosely on this recipe from Cooking for Engineers. My version is very lazy and very easy. Basically, you rinse the fish, then coat it with a 50-50 mix of sugar and salt and whatever herbs or spices you like. Wrap in plastic wrap, stick in a drip-proof container, weight with a plate for 24 hours, then flip and weight for another 24. Unwrap the mess, rinse off any remaining mixture, and eat. This time, I bought about a half-pound of wild salmon, and flavored it with some Ethiopian bere-bere spice mixture I had lying around. I was a little worried about how the spicy and exotic mixture would go with the salmon, but it turned out very well. It doesn't taste weird or fishy, just a mellow sweet-spicy salmon flavor. Next time I make it, I'll try to remove the skin prior to curing, because it's always very hard to separate the fish from the skin after curing.

I had a huge arugula craving today. I bought bigger leaves than I normally do, so my arugula salad was very spicy, a nice counterpoint to the salmon's spicy-mellow flavors. Originally, I meant to cook some rice for a chirashi sushi sort of meal, but I didn't have time to cook the rice. Nonetheless, it was pretty good.

The beer, Fireman's 4, is from a (sort of) local brewery, the Real Ale Brewing Co out of Blanco, TX. I always thought it was an Austin-area brewery, but it looks like Blanco is actually out pretty far West into Hill Country. F4 is the only beer of theirs I like. I respect little breweries a lot, but their other beers are just ok. F4, on the other hand, is a drinkable, medium-bodied ale with a sassy label.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Au Mal Pain

For lunch, I had a roast beef sandwich, some French onion soup, and iced tea at Au Bon Pain. It was decidedly not bon.

I hadn't been to an Au Bon Pain in approximately fifteen years, and I always walk by this outpost and drool, wishing I had time for lunch. Today, I did.

First, their ordering methods are ridiculous. I stood there for several minutes staring at their (overly busy) menu, wondering why none of the employees were trying to help me in a completely deserted restaurant. Then, one of the employees helpfully pointed out the ordering cards. I dutifully checked the one little box on the huge piece of paper, wondering all the while why there wasn't a list of options to check off- no mayo, extra cheese? Not here. Complete waste of paper, and my time. Then I tried to hand my card to an employee, who pointed out an empty wire basket into which I was supposed to place said card. Perhaps this is all a tactic. They took so long to make my sandwich, I bumbled right into a bowl of soup I didn't need.

I have a huge French onion soup thing, and I'd really been craving it lately. I thought it was my lucky day when I saw the French onion soup lurking among the six or seven heated tureens. Lesson #1: a fast-casual restaurant attached to a hospital cannot possibly make seven good soups. Maybe not even one. The French onion was depressing. It was the most tasteless soup I've ever had: no hint of onion, no hint of beef, or sherry, or even chicken. Just a lot of tasteless oil. I'd like to think my garbage disposal enjoyed it.

The sandwich was not so much offensive as incredibly boring. It consisted of very peppery roast beef, mayo (er, what I thought was mayo but is allegedly "Caesar dressing"), improbably large leaves of romaine, and an asiago cheese crisp, all on rubbery, strangely shiny wannabe ciabatta. It was the cheese crisp that intrigued me, but it was too thick to be "crispy" and the overall effect was messy as I tried to eat it while driving.

Then, the tea. Like an idiot, I grabbed the "Peach Tea" over the tea I knew to be unsweetened, because I'm used to designer unsweetened teas at Chipotle and the like. It was indeed sweetened, with something resembling battery acid- you know, the fake peach flavor that stings the back of your throat. Yuck.

The final straw? Somehow, my total came to $13. After much consultation with my receipt, the only thing I can figure is that they have some kind of soup n' sandwich deal that is more expensive than each item individually. It'll be another fifteen years before I go back.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Tapas in Houston

For dinner, I had a variety of tapas from Mi Luna in Rice Village, with a glass of merlot.

Are there any truly good tapas restaurants in this country? Not that I frequent tapas places (pricey!), or that this one was bad. But none of them are ever quite right.

The atmosphere was good- a very long bar, huge windows, nice patio, and good "rustic" color palette- lots of rusty reds, yellows, and browns. The waiters all spoke Spanish, and had an authentic Spanish feel- little mustaches, white aprons, slicked back hair.

I'm incredibly picky about tapas- everyone makes them a little bit differently (which is kind of the point), but I have very definitive ideas about what they should taste like. For me to enjoy them, they have to either taste exactly like my Platonic ideal of that dish, or be mind-blowingly delicious in their own right. I've never been to a tapas place in the US that did the classics well- it's always the more unusual traditional ones, or avant-garde fusion weirdness tapas that are good. Like the last decent tapas place I've been, The 9th Door in Denver- their gambas al ajillo are an affront to everything holy about garlic and shrimp, but they make an amazing serrano ham/manchego cheese/quince paste chip thingy.

So, Mi Luna. We ordered patatas bravas, boquerones al vinagre, jamon serrano, gambas al ajillo, B'stilla, Lombarda al chorizo, and Queso de Cabra Montanes. My two favorite tapas are the boquerones and the gambas. I also judge a tapas place by their patatas bravas, but it's usually not my favorite dish. I love jamon, but it's cheaper at the grocery store. The rest of our choices were more or less random.

Boquerones= anchovies. The tapa consists of fresh, raw anchovies cured in a vinegary brine that you eat with bread, or, in the case of one place I went in Madrid, potato chips. It sounds disgusting, and I was skeptical, but it's actually very yummy- think salt and vinegar potato chips. Also note that these cured anchovies taste nothing like canned anchovies that you'd use on pizza or in Caesar salad- they're just briny, vinegary protein. Mi Luna's boquerones were actually smelt rather than anchovy, so they were a little thicker than normal. Not bad, but not amazing.

The patatas bravas were a little strange. I judge restaurants more and more on their patatas because it's a hard balance to execute between smoky and spicy and tomato. The idea is to have small chunks of potato that are very soft and creamy on the inside and slightly crispy on the outside, that stay crispy even after they're lightly coated in a spicy, tomato-based aioli. The potato worked, but the sauce was a little off flavor-wise, as though they'd added cream rather than mayonnaise and Latin American peppers rather than Spanish ones. They were decent bordering on tasty anyway.

Likewise, the gambas were decent but not amazing. And if there's one thing that can be transcendentally delicious if executed properly, it's shrimp bathed in scalding olive oil and a ton of garlic. There is a tapas place in the Netherlands (of all places) that makes the best I've ever had, accompanied by delicious homemade bread to soak up all the garlicky olive oil. Mi Luna's fell short because the shrimp were a little overcooked, and the whole plate was covered with quite a bit of ground pepper.

So what was yummy? All the strange tapas. In particular, the B'Stilla and Lombarda al chorizo. B'Stilla is a North African dish I'd had once before (at a Moroccan restaurant, not as a tapa). It sounds gross, but is incredibly good- shredded or ground meat, cinnamon, roasted nuts, and honey, baked inside layers of phyllo dough.
The Lombarda consisted of smoky Spanish chorizo and soft caramelized onions on top of more patatas bravas. The flavors went together really well, but I was almost too full at this point to enjoy it.

Finally, the wine. Unfortunately, they didn't have tinto verano, which is literally red wine mixed with orange Fanta half and half, and the BEST summery drink ever. Instead, I had a glass of their de facto house red, a merlot from Chile's Santa Rita. I usually drink their cabernet, which is decent, and only ordered the merlot by mistake. It was not as good, and tasted like it had been open a while.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Smashburger, still meh.

Who knows, maybe if you like all this crap on your burger, it's good.....

For lunch, I had a cheeseburger and fries from Smashburger, with an iced tea to drink.

I've only been there once before. It was about a year ago- I visited one in Denver, where the chain is based, trying to figure out what the hype was all about. I came away very underwhelmed, still wondering what the big deal was.

Come to find out, the chain's expanded, and there is a VERY popular location in Houston. I decided to give them another chance, so I headed in for a late lunch.

First, the good: their burger was recognizably tasty. The alleged crispiness was still not there, but it tasted fine, was a bit crispy looking, and the cheese was that awesomely gooey synthetic-looking American cheese that's oddly delicious.

The fries, however, were not. The menu labels them "shoe string cut", but they're really just McDonald's fries- look, taste, texture. I hate McDonald's fries. The kicker, however, was that about half my batch had clearly been left in the fryer for at least one, maybe several, additional cycles. These fries were crispy all the way through, and most of their innards had been fried away into nothingness. Ew.

The tea was good, and a little more exciting than Lipton- a Tazo black tea blend that had a little more flavor and character than generic iced tea.

Smashburger just does all the little things wrong. Their menu is illogically structured- rather than listing available sizes and toppings, they have several generic burgers with one or two minor topping differences (including a boring-sounding "Texas Smashburger" that isn't on their menu online), and then a list of several more custom burgers. I'm a minimalist at heart, so I have to wade through it all. I tried simply saying "1/3 pound burger, with nothing but cheese and onions", but no, that wasn't good enough, the guy (admittedly shy a few brain cells) made me pick a menu item. There is no simple "hamburger" or "cheeseburger" to choose. Normally I wouldn't care, but the late lunch meant my low blood sugar was already dangerously close to the 'jump across the counter and rip your heart out' zone.

Moreover, a 1/3 pound burger is $5, no sides, no drink. The fries? They're another $2.50. Unless you want the yummy-sounding fries that have olive oil and garlic on them, that's extra. Not only do I LIKE Beck's food better, their cheeseburger is actually a little bit cheaper per ounce (which is crazy, considering how expensive Beck's is), and they'll cook it rare if I ask.

Oh, and they were blasting their A/C in 75 degree weather. I left as soon as I was done eating, because I was freezing.

So, after a second visit, I still really don't understand what's so special about the place. To me, it's like a slightly tastier, slightly posher, more than slightly more expensive...McDonald's. I can understand the popularity a bit better in Denver, because it fulfills a niche- contemporary, fast-casual burger place with a liquor license. But down here, Beck's Prime fulfills those aims much more ably and deliciously. Beck's even has a beautiful outdoor patio, so I don't have to freeze my ass off, either.