Monday, July 27, 2015

Underbelly Houston

 A couple months back, with no idea I'd be arriving in Houston, I read a chatty little article about chef Chris Shepherd. Though the story of chef Shepherd's culinary evolution and his love for the many immigrant communities in Houston and their collection of unique ingredients was interesting enough, what I remember most was Shepherd's description of his "pants free" days off -- eating pho noodles on his balcony in his underwear. That's how he met his neighbors he claims.
 Arriving in Houston I suddenly thought of that article and though I couldn't remember his name or his restaurant's but I remembered the big man who loves Vietnamese noodles.
Underbelly is loud and friendly celebration of Gulf Coast bounty. It's menu a collection of small plates (not that small) meant for sharing featuring the diverse ethnic ingredients chef Shepherd came to love while first working in Houston. I started with grouper, marinated in yogurt, dill, turmeric, and (at least according to one server but not another) cardamom. Cabbage and fresh greens dressed in a fish sauce spiked vinaigrette with cold rice noodles below seemed like a spring roll opened up and paired with a vaguely tandoori fish.
Underbelly is about the party. The fish, though tasty, was not portioned evenly so the ends were just overcooked while the middle was just under. The highest priced on the menu but into the open kitchen I can see bowl after bowl coming out. Nearly every table has one.
A big man and a big presence, when chef Shepherd walks through the open kitchen to the dining room he high fives line cooks, hugs a server, and meanders past diners in awe to have the chef himself in their midsts. The 2014 James Beard award winner says a few hellos, poses for a photo and settles down at a table of some (I assume) chef friends.
Chef Shepherd and I share a love for the Korean gochujang. And the restaurant's signature combination, the only dish my server tells me is always on the menu, braised goat and dumplings comes heavily sauced in the pepper paste. The meat is cooked to a near mashed potato softness and the rice dumplings -- though usually soft in Korean dishes -- are quickly crisped to add welcome texture to the dish.
Underbelly is not about finesse. It's about bold flavors and assertive combinations. It's about reaching across the table to taste your friend's dish. It's about a frat party of flavor.
Shepherd's dishes are interesting. The flavors are fun. But these are not dishes to eat alone. The first bite is exciting, even tantalizing. The next not quite as good. The third is more than enough. The dishes here oddly become less interesting as you eat them. They are shock value.
Go with friends so everyone gets that first great bite.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Golden Carrots

About two months ago in a rush before leaving town I tossed out some seeds. Carelessly. Recklessly. Added a little top soil, watered and walked away.
Now, several trips later I am seeing the rewards of slap dash gardening. Beautiful long golden carrots much nicer than I ever grew carefully.
Tonight I'll roast them with harissa and olive oil and top them -- just as they are in the garden -- with carrot top pesto.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Marin County Fair 2015

  A holiday weekend. Perfect for the county fair. I rushed past the stormtroopers (it is Marin after all, home to Skywalker ranch) to the exhibit hall to find a blue ribbon on my rose geranium angel food cake, a recipe I invented and made for the first time for this year's fair.

 Another blue ribbon for white chocolate peppermint fudge. I used to make this for our Christmas party every year and though it's not exactly seasonal I gave it a go for this year's fair. Winner. James loves it so much I have been instructed to hide the candy left at home.
 Though this very same recipe took a first place at last week's Sonoma Marin Fair (we live at the epicenter of 3 quality fairs) it only placed second here in Marin.
 I'm sure this is not quite what the fair committee had in mind when they set the gingerbread category as part of the quick breads and muffins division. But the Guiness flavored cake has been a favorite for years and I thought it might do well. The ginger chocolate glaze and crystallized ginger were new for the fair but I might add it to next year's Christmas cake.
 Not my best showing, but another ribbon to add to the tally.
 One fair to go and so far this year I have 5 first place blue ribbons, 4 second place, 4 third place, 1 fourth place, 1 fifth and 1 dreaded honorable mention. The tally grows.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Peck Of Peppers

James went over to bring a jar of jam to our neighbors and came back with a huge bag of peppers. Our neighbor is an amazing and prolific gardener, and a very generous one.
Looking into that bag I heard one thing -- piperade.
Piperade is a Basque dish of sautéed peppers flavored with ham and spiked with Piment d'Espelette the beloved spicy pepper (used dried) cultivated in the Basque region of Southern France. Piperade is traditionally flavored with Bayonne ham, a dried pork product (like prosciutto) often flavored with the same spicy paprika. Not quite traditional, for ours instead of substituting prosciutto I went for rich flavorful Spanish chorizo which I sautéed in olive oil to start the dish. Then I added in 2 sliced onions, 4 minced cloves of garlic, 1 bay leaf, about 6 sprigs of thyme and a healthy sprinkle of Piment d'Espelette over medium heat. When the onions were very soft I added in  thinly sliced green peppers and red peppers, 3 each. I covered the pan, turned down the heat and let the peppers soften. After about 10 minutes I added 2 large handfuls of cherry tomatoes sliced in half. Now when Julia Child made her piperade she peeled and seeded fresh tomatoes to add to the flavorful sauce. The last thing I feel like doing on a bright summer day is boiling water and peeling tomatoes so I tossed in the cherries, covered the pan and let them soften for another couple minutes. Though Julia served her piperade over lovely roasted or poached chicken to make ours a meal I added a couple eggs into the broth and covered the pan for just a couple minutes until they were set.
Poached eggs with piperade a summery dish to celebrate our local peppers.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Off To The Fair

 The second fair of summer fair season around here and I missed the jellies and preserves drop off date. . . so I had to make a big splash on the baking and confections day. This morning I delivered a very floral rose geranium angel food cake with rose water glaze.
I had to get up at 3 this morning to make sure this whole wheat lot had time to rise but the crust was still crisp when I arrived at the fair. Not quite seasonal, the small boat of white chocolate peppermint fudge (my old reliable by Christmas dessert/ party treat) topped with broken Hammond's candy canes was this years foray into confections. Last year I did pretty well with macadamia nut brittle so I am hopeful.
I don't think this is the kind of gingerbread the judges are expecting. In the fair handbook gingerbread is classified with quick breads and muffins but mine is really a cake -- James' favorite Christmas cake as a matter of fact. Specially for the fair I topped the moist spicy cake with dark chocolate ginger glaze and candied ginger. That might be risky, but it is delicious.
And then my old stand by, Portuguese (or Hawaiian) sweet bread. A soft light bread perfect for breakfast with jam, french toast or sandwiches. I don't know why I decided to enter sweet bread. I haven't made it in years since I started make more rustic, crisp crust breads like the wheat one I made early this morning. But something felt right and I've already taken home a blue ribbon from the season's first fair for this delicately sweet, moist bread.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Pecan Lodge Dallas, TX

I am a barbecue bigot.
When I go looking for barbecue I somehow feel cheated if I don't land at a roadside trailer, dodgey neighborhood or woodyard shack. I search out the picture book "authentic," roadfood unrefined and well, gritty outposts as some sort of personal test merit badge of procurement.
Pecan Lodge is exactly the kind of place I generally avoid. Its new purpose built, well designed restaurant in the hipster filled Deep Ellum area of downtown Dallas is the domain of owner and pit master Justin Fourton (and his crew). Not the product of family generations of wood smoke bathed grizzled, sleepless meat cooks but a refugee from corporate America who started a catering company out of the Dallas Farmers Market that quickly grew to a sensation.
Staring down at Pecan Lodge's massive beef rib I think about my stereotyped view, perhaps more rooted in the past than the art of barbecue itself. Barbecue -- as I have always felt -- should be about the food and only the food. The smoke, the flavor, the piles of juicy meat. Not the atmosphere. So why do I so often object to pleasantries and assume a brick and mortar restaurant can't offer the true flavor of the pit?
Like all the best places you can smell the wood smoke from Pecan Lodge well before you can see the line, usually out the door. Following the lunch only tradition (though PL is open for dinner Friday and Saturday), they sell their long cooked meats by the pound until they run out. You order at the counter and pick up your tray before finding a seat. Get there early to get your first choice.
I think of Austin's Franklin Barbecue, the undisputed, world renowned king of Texas Barbecue and it's clean modern building and young James Beard award winning pit master chef.
Old stereotypes die hard in my heart but with the first bite of Pecan Lodge's meltingly tender, fatty, smoke filled brisket my romanticized visions of glorious Texas beef barbecue start to grow dim. The ribs are good but Pecan Lodge for me is all about the brisket. The sides are okay. I always try the sides but remember Anthony Bourdain's sage advice in barbecue to save room for the meat and meat alone. Pecan's macaroni and cheese is good -- very, very good. The cole slaw and okra are no better than the versions I make at home. The pickles are from a jar and the not plentiful (one of the online complaints about PL -- along with the prices) rolls (not thick slices of white bread here) are appropriately doughy and slightly sweet but nothing too special. But oh that brisket. Some the best ever and doused, if you choose from squirt bottles at the table, with the very untraditional (in Texas at least) Carolina style vinegar based sauce (I like it better than PL's more regionally familiar Texas style sauce) it's slightly spicy, puckery sweet perfection. The noise of the raucous dining hall fades away in between bites.
And yet brisket is not the Fourton's only triumph. In general I would never think to order anything but smoked meat in a barbecue place but so many online reviews raved about Pecan Lodge's fried chicken I had to take a bite. The pit master's wife, Diane, offers up her "Mamaw's" recipe. It is juicy and flavorful and better than mine. This is chicken that could capture area diners' attention if not for the tremendous brisket and barbecue theme of the Dallas restaurant.
To think I might have missed it all. I'll strive to be more open minded. It's so much easier to be open minded when your mouth is full.
After all, it's all about the food.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Stampede 66

If you spend any time at all searching the internet you will find several sites (or nearly every one) that list Stampede 66's fried chicken as some of the best in Dallas, certainly in the top 5. It's not the kind of place I usually like to go. I generally search out a mom and pop, locals only shack but with so many stellar reviews and walking distance from the hotel, Stampede 66 became hard to resist.
Walking in, the dining room is some sort of Texas stereotype Disneyland covered in barnwood, branded panels, massive steer horns and a glowing rattlesnake that crowns the row of tables closest to the bar. It is, as D Magazine described, " A yeehaw assault on the senses."
I was seated at a "rusty" metal table, oddly oval making it uncomfortably far from the banquette no matter where I sat. Patrick, my ebullient server, immediately greeted me with such charm I soon forgot about the table shape and turned to fried chicken. The reason for my journey.
As Patrick described the mission of the restaurant by local celeb and 5th generation Texan chef Stephan Pyles is to honor the traditional home cooking of the Lone Star State with modern cooking techniques. If press releases are to be believed the chicken recipe came from Pyles' grandmother which the chef improved by injecting the meat with Texas wildflower honey before coating in seasoned flour and buttermilk.
At dinner the chicken comes out with homemade tatter tots and buttermilk biscuits which I probably would like better. At lunch propped in a cute little galvanized bucket the "seasoned fries" were limp -- I assume they had waited for the chicken to finish cooking -- and heavy with I think cumin that had a slightly earthy, even muddy flavor. If Patrick had a flaw as a server it's that he didn't ask why I hadn't touched the fries. Even during a busy lunch service he should notice and let the kitchen know how guests are reacting the food.
The chicken was fine. Not the best I've ever had but certainly better quality meat than generally served at the mom and pop joints I love. The breast was big and meaty and though it seems the batter was a tiny bit over cooked (I think the oil was too hot so the crust shattered and separated from the meat as soon as I bit in) the meat was moist and tender and cooked all the way through -- no small feat when frying a piece that large. Very impressive frying.
The flavor again carried that hint of cumin that seems just a touch muddy (even the little jar of pickles, my favorite part of the meal had that same spice). Fine but not great. I didn't eat it all.
Overall I don't think Stampede 66 would be on my 10 best list -- especially if the fried chicken is, as reported, their best dish. Fine but not stellar.