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.