Friday, March 30, 2012

Odd Ingredient du Jour: Flying Fish Roe

I'm still exploring the local H Mart's variety of foods for work lunches. The only requirement being minimal prep, as our office lacks a real kitchen.

Last week, I bought tobiko, aka flying fish roe. It was a random purchase- I like salmon roe much better, but it was exponentially more expensive, and I wondered if it would dry out faster due to the larger egg surface area.

So I was left with these weird little fish eggs. In a late-night moment of craziness, I smeared them all over a bagel with cream cheese. And it was pretty tasty, about as good as lox spread, but a little more subtle. I also dipped asparagus spears into cream cheese, then the roe. That technique emphasizes the roe's almost crunchy texture, and is a great rice-less take on contemporary sushi.

Then this morning, I woke up craving rye crepes.

And that's how tobiko blini was born.

The nutty rye flour balanced well with tangy creme fraiche and the sweet, salty roe. Not bad at all. My next project is going to be soft-scrambling eggs with the tobiko. I've seen stir-fry recipes involving tobiko, so it's not that crazy to cook it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Not again.

Guess what we did this weekend?

Oh yes. Taco Bell.

With wine. Sorry, y'all, you're up for more torture. As were our cardiovascular systems. This, er, "tasting" was less formal than last time, so I didn't take notes on the wines.

Our first course was "Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes". We were going for a patatas bravas tapas sort of thing. This is what Taco Hell's food stylists think they look like. This is what they actually look like:

On the good side, there was leftover "cheese" to dip some of the drier courses into. And they came in cute reusable plastic tubs. But overall, not good. The sour cream tasted incredibly strange- research indicates that TB uses low-fat sour cream for some unholy reason. It was thin, with an oddly fluffy texture and watery mouthfeel. The cheese was like a watered-down version of bowling alley nacho cheese. And the potatoes? They'd be at home in a breakfast taco, or maybe in your freezer courtesy of Ore-Ida. Not awful, but a little fake tasting, with savory spice flavors. We also had nachos as a second appetizer of sorts. They were pretty awful, and required a cinnamon twist palate cleanser before we moved on. Interestingly, the cinnamon twists were the insurgent standout of the evening.

Our wines with this course were oddly spiral-themed. Thanks, Trader Joe's. The Spiral Chardonnay actually worked pretty well with the potatoes. It was slightly effervescent and balanced, and cut through the layers of cheese-and-sour-cream-slime reasonably well. The Espiral Vinho Rose, though it's a decent pick on its own, didn't work with the potatoes.

Did I mention we spent $27 at Taco Bell between four people? That's actually possible. The poor counter woman was seriously confused. In other words, there are many courses to come.

Next came the Doritos.

Dorito tacos.

Sadly, I missed out on this delicacy. So sad. I had a bite, and it was decent. Accepting the premise that the sour cream is fake, and the "meat" tastes like TVP, it was actually not bad. The dorito shell wasn't crispy, but that was probably our poor handling between restaurant and serving.

This was some kind of chicken burrito rice thingy. Or maybe a soft taco. Is there a difference? This was a rare example of the "I-could-make-it" axiom: it wasn't bad per se, but why would you buy it? It's not unhealthy enough to be junky fast food, but it's not so exceptionally tasty that you'd go out of your way to order it. Plus, as an astute taster noted, the chicken tastes canned. You'd do better making it at home.

Around this time, we opened a bottle of Sainte Croix Syrah-Merlot blend. It was a nice, versatile red that paired well, if not exceptionally, with all the courses.

The crunchwrap was a rare beacon of joy in the field of contenders. Jon has loved the crunchwrap for many years now, but I've always made fun of him. It's like drunken pothead methy food...why would you consider eating something like that? The answer, as my foodie cred goes slinking away, is that it tastes really good. "Really good" is of course still relative to it being Taco Bell. But yes, really good. The mixture of crunchy taco shell and chewy flour tortilla worked, and the filling wasn't disgusting or obnoxious.

No idea why those positives didn't spill over to our next course, which also involved the fundamental opposites of crunchy and chewy.

This is a double decker taco. The idea is right, but I felt like the filling-to-wrap ratio was off. It was ok, but nowhere near as magical as the crunchwrap (I refuse to capitalize "crunchwrap"). Especially with wine.

After that, there was another burrito course. Actually, two kinds of burritos. But I can't recall what they were, they were pretty unexceptional, and my photos just look like the last burrito course. But less interesting. So we're going to skip those and head for dessert.

¡Santo Dios! This is a caramel apple empanada...god help us, indeed. It was sort of like an apple pancake, but inappropriately chewy and too sweet. It worked with the effervescent dessert wine, but was overall not fabulous. Next time, I'd go for some cinnamon twists instead.

The good news, I suppose, is that we survived. Now to re-group for the next adventure. Chik-Fil-A, anyone? Finally I'll have an excuse to guzzle Chik-Fil-A sauce guilt-free.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Southern Magic

I have mixed feelings about the South. It's as insular as everyone says. Most of it is not as cerebral as I would like. But I've also lived there, and grudgingly discovered it can be quite charming, even extraordinary. At its best, it's the closest America gets to Magical Realism. If you're lucky enough to find the locals who aren't insular and ridiculous, they're really, really nice. And, odds are, they can smoke a mean brisket.

Living in the South, especially as a non-native, carves out a special little fuzzy spot in your heart for New Orleans. No, I'd never want to live there. But it really is the most amazing city in the US. I can't believe I just said that, but it's true. If, like me, you look for novelty and uniqueness in a city, your city is NoLa.

Which explains my over-the-top glee at finding delicious Cajun food at Bayou Bakery.

Andouille sausage with spicy mustard, and a legitimately kick-ass sweet potato and peanut soup. Also, Zappo's chips. And Abita on tap. No wonder I was gleeful.

Then, beignets.

Oh, and cafe au lait.

I'll definitely be going back. But mostly, I'll be checking plane tickets to New Orleans. I need a muffaletta and some oysters, too.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cheap Food, Healthy Food

So, I recently started a new job. It's in a pretty cool location, food-wise, in that it's relatively close to a lot of interesting ethnic food, as well as a few national chains (eg, Noodles & Co). So far, I've availed myself of Thai and Lebanese, and I look forward to trying more. Persian kabob place, you'd better watch out. But the best thing of all?

H Mart!

I was despondent when we left Houston behind. Mostly because of H Mart. But, happily, there are a few in the metro area, including one right next to work. For the uninitiated, it's a fabulous Korean grocery store.

This morning, I bought seaweed salad, sashimi salmon, and marinated tofu slices. H Mart's prepared foods section is seriously awesome.

I am a cheapskate at heart, and their prepared food prices always seem a little pricey for an ethnic grocery store. But then I started thinking about the cost relative to other options. Likewise, tonight at dinner I ate half of a pasture-raised, super-happy chicken that was pricier than I'm used to paying for chicken. As hard as it is, I think it's important to do the math and really think about it.

I'm not even talking about your typical "I read the Omnivore's Dilemma and now I'm a food snob" type arguments. Food is so ridiculously cheap in this country, our nice chicken dinner for two was less than a meal for two at Popeye's (which, don't get me wrong, I adore on occasion as well). My $5 of tofu, $3 of seaweed salad, and $7 of sashimi will keep me healthy and super-happy for at least three days of work lunches, for about the same price and less hassle than the crappiest Subway sandwich I could possibly eat (no, I really *don't* adore Subway).

It just comes down to eating really being about choices, with the exception of people who really don't have as many choices (food deserts, I'm looking at you). I feel like people make poor food choices based on a sense that they're somehow cheaper, and that much of the public discussion of food issues assumes that crappy food, or healthy food that no one wants to eat, is the only cheap food. But if you take a few minutes to think about food, and plan things out, it's almost ridiculous what tasty things you can enjoy.