Thursday, January 28, 2010

Growing My Own - EarthBox

Back when I was a much younger lass, I enjoyed puttering around in my parents' garden. It wasn't huge, but it did produce lots of fabulous home-grown tomatoes and a steady crop of a vegetable I knew as jiu cai, but which Wikipedia calls garlic chives.

Many years later, I'm living in a much hotter climate and have much less free time. As a result, my "gardening" technique has typically been to throw plants outside and if they were able to survive on their own - they could stay. If not, well, I pretty much considered it survival of the fittest around here.

Enter Carla Crownover, one of the co-owners of Austin Urban Gardens. Carla and her business partner, Patrick Urbanski, build custom raised garden beds (as well as rainwater collection systems and sandboxes). In addition, they sell Earthboxes, which look like planters on wheels but actually contain a super-cool irrigation system so you don't have to water as often (this is the part that perked my ears up - because in the heat of an Austin summer, you pretty much have to water daily or plants shrivel up into crackly bits). The Earthboxes also come packaged with fertilizer and dolomite.

Inspired by Carla's own amazing garden (which I blogged about here), I wanted to try my hand at growing my own food again. But although we have a spacious yard, I knew getting out there and watering daily in the heat of the summer just wasn't going to happen. So I thought I'd try on an Earthbox for size.

Last weekend, Carla dropped by with my new Earthbox. We had talked about what I wanted to grow, and she suggested that I begin with already-started plants rather than seeds so I could experience some success right off the bat. Such an excellent plan - THIS is why Carla's business is so great! She makes gardening feel so very easy and accessible. I have some lettuce, some chard, and two varieties of kale (which I have decided is my favorite vegetable). Just look at how pretty it is!


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I'll keep you posted on my progress. In the meantime, check out Carla's company, Austin Urban Gardens, if you'd like to test your own gardening moxie.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Easy-Peasy Molten Chocolate Cakes

I can't tell you how many times I've had molten chocolate cake at an upscale restaurant and wondered how they created a cake with such a lovely, melty center. So when I stumbled on this recipe for a molten chocolate cake, I figured I'd take a look. I was surprised at how easy it sounded (and how little flour there is in the recipe!).

I have a bad habit of only trying new recipes when either company is coming or I've agreed to bring something to an event - I guess because there's really no reason to whip up a big batch of food for just two of us. So I of course decided to try this recipe for the first time when we had friends over this weekend. Fortunately, it (mostly) worked and was pretty darn delicious.

The hardest part is figuring out how long to bake them. The original recipe says 6-7 minutes; I baked mine for 10. However, the first one leaked when I tried to unmold it (thus the "mostly" above), so another minute or two in the oven probably would have been good (the other three came out of their molds perfectly; I think because they cooked a little more in their ramekins while we were fussing with the first one). When they just barely start to pull away from the edges of the ramekins, you'll know they're ready to be unmolded.

I tweaked the recipe a tiny bit based on my experience and some of the comments to the original recipe, so I'm re-creating it here.

A seemingly-fancy dessert that is really remarkably easy to make. I'm definitely keeping this one in my repertoire.

Easy-Peasy Molten Chocolate Cakes

Ingredients:
• 1/2 cup butter
• 4 (1 ounce) squares bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips. If you use chocolate chips, 2/3 cup is equivalent to the four ounces you need for this recipe).
• 2 eggs
• 2 egg yolks
• 1/4 cup white sugar
• 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Butter four 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups and dust them with cocoa powder. (I have 6 oz ramekins, and they worked just fine.)

2. In the top half of a double boiler set over simmering water, heat the butter and the chocolate until chocolate is almost completely melted. You can also melt the chocolate & butter in the microwave, if you'd like - microwave in 30-second increments until it's melted.

3. Beat the eggs, egg yolks and sugar together until light colored and thick.

4. Beat together the melted chocolate and butter. While beating, slowly pour the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, then quickly beat in the flour and mix until just combined.

5. Divide the batter between the four ramekins and bake at 450 degrees F (230 degrees C) for 10 minutes, until the cakes just barely start to pull away from the edges of the ramekins. The centers of the cakes will still be quite soft. Invert cakes on serving plates and let sit for about 15 seconds, then unmold. Serve immediately with fresh whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.


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Just prior to ummolding. The cakes will rise to form a little dome.

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Mmmmm...moist, warm, chocolatey goodness.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More Trailer Treasure: Odd Duck Farm to Trailer

I've been hearing rave reviews from all sides about the recently-arrived Odd Duck Farm to Trailer. Yelpers love it; my foodie friends on Twitter love it - it was high time to go.

I finally trundled over there for lunch today with my friend Mike, who was gracious enough to relent when I asked to change our previously-agreed-upon lunch venue at the last second. I think all the food bloggers had the same idea this week; we ran into Marshall from Eat This Lens there, I heard that Peter of Tasting Buds had been there too, and after I returned to the office, I saw several other food bloggers on Twitter arranging a meeting there tomorrow. Open the floodgates!


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Odd Duck is at 1219 S. Lamar Boulevard;
it shares space with trailer brethren Gourdoughs and Austin Brevita.

Odd Duck Farm to Trailer is the brainchild of Bryce Gilmore, whose restaurant experience includes stints at Z Tejas Grill, Wink, and Moonshine, as well as a number of establishments outside the Austin area. Bryce also probably had some cooking juju in his genes, as he happens to also be the son of Jack Gilmore (the founding chef of Z Tejas, who just opened his own brand new venture, Jack Allen's Kitchen).

Whatever the source of his skills, they are certainly in fine form here. Everything we sampled from the menu was delicious, and Bryce's focus on locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients guarantees that everything is fresh and good for your soul, too.

Portions here are on the small side, so I'd suggest ordering at least a couple of things per person. For the two of us, we ordered two sliders, a salad, a soup, and an order of polenta, and it was just about perfect.

We started with a cup of cauliflower soup ($3) and a grilled romaine salad ($5). The salad was, in a word, groundbreaking. I've never had grilled romaine before, and was completely taken by the wonderful smoky flavor that it imparted to mere lettuce. The goat ricotta was incredibly creamy, and the farm egg was poached just right and oozing with freshness. My only complaint was that the only utensils they gave us to eat this salad with were plastic soup spoons. Laughably inadequate. We ended up just picking up the lettuce with our hands.

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Grilled romaine salad with goat ricotta and a poached farm egg.

The soup was also wonderful, although less innovative. At first I thought it was a hair on the bland side, but as we got deeper into the bowl, it got more flavorful. Maybe it just needed a tiny bit of a stir.

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Cauliflower Soup.

Next up was an order of polenta with turnips, mushrooms and pulled duck leg, topped with a soft duck egg ($6). Again, wow. This man can cook an egg. And the polenta was smooth as silk and made a delightful base for the smoky duck, the earthy mushrooms, and the soft turnips.

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Finally, we each devoured one of these wonderful sliders ($5) - filled with coffee porter braised pork, paprika roasted carrots, and some sort of delightfully garlicky sauce that I think was an aioli. Insert snarfing noises here.

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The entire meal for both of us set us back just $23 including two bottles of ice cold Topo Chico. This may sound like it's on the high side for trailer dining, but trust me - it is well worth every penny.

Menu changes daily and is diligently updated on their website, so if you're going with a picky eater or somebody with dietary restrictions, check it out here first. If they decide not to join you, give me a call.

Odd Duck Farm to Trailer
1219 South Lamar Boulevard
Austin, TX 78704

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Food as Art - Beat the Bleak Party

After a rather indulgent girls' night out in Las Vegas on Friday, I was moving a little slowly on Saturday night and disposed toward a quiet evening at home. However, our fabulous neighbors Michael and Amèlie were throwing a party, and I figured I could get it together enough to stumble next door for a little neighborly cheer.

Plus - how could I possibly resist this invitation?


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When we arrived, the dining room table was covered in Chinese to-go boxes. Half of them contained a salad of lettuce, cheese, and kiwi fruit dressed in a light vinaigrette. The other half contained homemade gazpacho which I later learned had been made by Amèlie's mother and shipped to Austin...from Florida.

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There were so many of these little containers that I thought it was the extent of the evening's food. Oh how wrong I was!

A short while later, two men came into the dining room carrying...this:

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"What is that?," you ask? That's what she we said. Turns out that it was a massive, real, discarded log that Amèlie had rescued and spray painted silver, into which she had then drilled scores of holes and inserted skewer after skewer laden with cheese tortellini, fresh basil, artichoke hearts, marinated cheese, olives, and tomatoes. Stunning and delicious.

Then this came out:

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This smaller log carried skewers of large shrimp alternating with either tomato or...something fried (I didn't get one of the skewers with a fried nugget, so I'm not sure what it was).

At some point, somebody removed the large log. It soon reappeared covered with skewers of cheddar, turkey, tomatoes, cornichons, and olives.

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I wandered behind the scenes and happened upon another neighbor, Gail, and a relative of Michael's preparing the final log for presentation:

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Oh, happy day! Potstickers and egg rolls. Mmmmmmmmm.

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Come here, my pretty.

After all the fried bits had been devoured, the table was cleared and a white parachute was draped over it. The room was abuzz, and not only because we had collectively drank about 100 bottles of wine. Amèlie and a couple of other guests began to spread fluffy, colorful bits of cotton candy all over the table. You've got to love an adult party that includes cotton candy.

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On top of the bed of cotton candy, they scattered massive quantities of cream puffs and malted milk balls, then they punctuated the display with Pocky.

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Sugar buffet!

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This display reminded me of the truffula trees from Dr. Seuss' book, The Lorax.

The bar for neighborhood parties has definitely been raised. Thanks, Michael and Amèlie, for a fabulous, bleak-beating fête!

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

La Boîte - a Container of Deliciousness

The recent proliferation of mobile and mobile-ish food purveyors around town has sparked a lot of discussion amongst Austinites about whether trailer dining is just a passing fad or an ingenious (and lasting) way for worthy restauranteurs to launch eateries in a relatively inexpensive manner. A few of my early outings suggested that perhaps some folks were capitalizing on the novelty of it all to sell mediocre foodstuffs at a ridiculous markup. However, a few trailers have popped up along the way that restored my faith in the Airstream - notably, Sushi-a-Go-Go (which is on my "to blog about" list) and Crepes Mille, and I've been hearing raves from reliable sources about Odd Duck Farm to Trailer and East Side Kings.

As a result, I'm optimistically open-minded about such things, these days. This morning, that optimism paid off. I had an early errand at the courthouse that was finished quickly, so I thought I'd pick up some treats on the way to the office. I passed by a couple of obvious choices - Sweetish Hill and Whole Foods - racking my brain for something new, when La Boîte popped into my head. La Boîte ("the box" in French) had been garnering some great reviews on Yelp, so I was excited to check it out.

As I pulled up to the place, I was immediately taken by its lovely aesthetic. La Boîte is built from a reused shipping container, but the design geniuses behind this venture have managed to somehow make that look good. It all looks very intentional and well-thought-out; there's even a lovely sitting area outside with a modern-looking canopy surrounded by several strategically-placed planters.


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As with so many things I photograph, it looks better in real life.

I was caffeine-less at that point, so I completely neglected to photograph the interior. Or maybe I was just distracted by the pretty pastries. The selection wasn't huge at 9:15ish a.m., but I managed to snag two kinds of croissants (almond and butter - which one of the co-owners, Dan, assured me were "the best you can get outside of Paris") and two varieties of brioche (sausage and chocolate). Eight pastries set me back less than $20 before gratuity.

Hungry vultures were waiting at my office, so I only managed to photograph and try the almond croissant and the chocolate brioche. Both were absolutely outstanding.

I tasted the almond croissant first. At first bite, I had one of those moments of being transported to another plane by sheer virtue of the deliciousness exploding in my mouth. I literally had to close my eyes to block out other stimulus so I could properly savor it. The exterior was laden with slivered almonds and had the crispy texture of pastry that is coated with just a hint of carmelized sugar...the interior was buttery-moist and fragrant with the scent of almond extract. Pure heaven. I had every intention of just tasting a small bite, but I kept going back in the kitchen to cut off additional chunks.

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Go ahead. Lean over to your screen and take a whiff of this beauty.

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Watch that powdered sugar, though.

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Many-layered goodness.

I had purchased three of the almond croissants, so I was sorely tempted to keep cutting off bites of those and pass on the chocolate brioche altogether. It couldn't possibly be as good. But, ONLY because I am a good blogger and wanted to report on my findings, I took a bite.

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And whoa. I don't know what kind of chocolate they put in these, but it is fantastic - very intense and totally deserving of eating plain, which I don't say lightly. Chocolate is a very serious matter.

La Boîte also offers a small selection of sandwiches at lunch, which I need to go back and try as soon as humanly possible (there is a photo of one along with a terrific writeup of La Boîte by Natanya of Fête and Feast here. And to satisfy your environmentally-conscious side (you are an Austinite, after all!), La Boîte serves primarily local and sustainable products, including Owl Tree Coffee.

Further proof that thinking outside La Boîte can lead to unconventionally wonderful results.

La Boîte Café
1700 S. Lamar Blvd.
Austin, TX 78704

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Chilly? Chili!

Between this cold(er) weather we've been having and this post by Kristi Willis of Austin Farm to Table, I found myself with a bit of a hankering for chili. The last Sunday of vacation seemed like the perfect time to put a pot on to simmer, so I gathered some ingredients and away I went. Kristi's chili is advertised to "melt your mouth" (not IN your mouth, but to actually melt your mouth because it's so hot) - and although I like hot foods, I didn't really want to melt my mouth (or my gastrointestinal tract). So I dialed back the spice substantially, 86'd the bell pepper (I don't really like cooked bell pepper), swapped some lean ground beef for the bison, threw in some mushrooms I had kicking around, and before I knew it, it was kind of a different recipe.

I'm reproducing it here just for my records more than anything, but the beauty of a dish like chili is that there is a LOT of leeway to add ingredients you like, remove ones you don't, fiddle with quantities depending on your tastes and what you have on hand, and end up with something perfectly delicious.


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These leftover crimini mushrooms made a nice addition.

Beautifully Beefy Beanless Chili

• 2 lbs lean ground beef
• 1/2 lb mushrooms, sliced (I used crimini mushrooms because that's what I happened to have lying around, but I think regular old white mushrooms would be fine, too)
• 2 - 14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes
• 1 T olive oil
• 1 onion, chopped
• 5 cloves garlic, minced
• leaves from a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme
• 2 T chili powder – I used Central Market's house blend, but any variety will be fine so long as it's fresh (best reason to buy spices in bulk rather than in those huge jars that hang around forever and lose their freshness)
• thickener (cornstarch, flour, corn masa)
• Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Over medium heat, heat the olive oil in a large pot and sauté the onion and garlic until the onions are tender. Add the ground beef and brown the meat. Add the tomatoes and spices, stirring well.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the chili and allow it to simmer for 1 hour. Taste the chili, adjust the seasoning as necessary, and cook for another 30 minutes. If the chili is too thick, add a little more water. If it's too thin, you can add any number of thickeners - I ended up using about 1-3/4 tablespoons of flour, because that's what I had handy; Kristi recommends mixing 1 tablespoon of corn starch with a little water, then adding it to the mixture. I also let mine simmer uncovered for the last 30 minutes so a little of the water would evaporate.

Serve either over rice or alone with crackers - I'm partial to stoneground wheat crackers (like Red Oval Farms' Stoned Wheat Thins, only I usually buy the Central Market Organics version).

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It'll take the chill out of those bones, guaranteed.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Crack 'n' Cheese

For the first time in as long as I can remember, we skipped the big, fancy New Year's Eve meal out this year and cooked at home. We started with a lovely cheese plate garnished with marcona almonds, then had huge, thick, ribeye steaks with red wine and wild mushroom sauce, sauteed green beans, garlic mashed potatoes, and what turned out to be the best mac 'n' cheese EVER, made using this fabulous recipe from The Pioneer Woman, a/k/a Ree Drummond.


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I follow lots of food blogs, but the large majority of them are Austin blogs, except for the incredible eye and mind candy that is Not Without Salt. So I only recently heard about The Pioneer Woman when she was here promoting her new cookbook at Bookpeople. I know. I need to get out more.

But I digress (as usual). This is the first time that I've made one of Ree's recipes, and it turned out beautifully. I loved the way she illustrated each step, thus making it totally idiot-proof (well, mostly idiot-proof; I got all enthusiastic and neglected to reserve some onions and bacon for the top, but it worked out fine without them). It was super easy to make and just really delicious; I could not stop eating the stuff. The macaroni was nicely al dente rather than being all mushy, and the bacon and carmelized onions imparted a nice textural interest and flavor.

One problem with blogging about something that a nationally-renowned blogger made is that your photos (or, at least, my photos) can't possibly stack up. But food blog posts without photos are boring, so I'm posting them, anyway. Although I usually prefer to do so, I won't reprint the recipe here, as I didn't change a thing from hers - other than kicking the temperature on the oven up to 375˚F (after 25 minutes in my oven at 350˚F, it still was not browning).

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One part ooey, one part gooey, one part rich, one part chewy. In other words, perfect.

Another helping of that crack 'n' cheese, please.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Christmas in Minnesnowta, part II

One of my family's favorite haunts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is Mandarin Kitchen, an unassuming strip mall Chinese restaurant that turns out absolutely wonderful food. We visit Mandarin Kitchen at least once every time I'm in Minnesota. The service is always very friendly (although this may have something to do with the frequency of my parents' visits there) and the food always hits the mark.

One thing I really love about MK is that they give every patron free soup bookends with every meal. There's a savory appetizer soup and a sweet dessert soup, and both are warm and inviting and very much the stuff of comfort food - at least, they are to somebody who grew up eating Chinese food nearly every day.


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Free appetizer soup - pork with bitter melon.

For those of you who haven't tasted jellyfish, it has a crunchy texture that is somewhat reminiscent of calamari, only it's simultaneously crunchier and more gelatinous. Maybe a cross between calamari and seaweed salad. Something like that.

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Jellyfish with roast duck seasoned with sesame oil.

One of my favorites: salt and pepper squid. We actually got two orders of this. For six people. And finished both.

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Salt 'n' Pepa's heah...!

When the squid is gone, I like to eat the crunchy garlic/jalapeno/green onion bits with rice.

And the next dish goes really well with salt & pepper squid: sauteed snow pea leaves. One of my favorite vegetables of all time - so much better than spinach!

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Popeye missed out.

For the noodle lovers: Singapore-style rice noodles. Mmm.

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I have a penchant for adding a giant dollop of la jou (hot oil) to my Singapore style rice noodles.

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Mandarin Kitchen also offers one of your choice of about ten or so dishes free for every $60 of food you order. The shrimp version of salt & pepper squid was on the list, so we got one of those, too. I personally prefer the squid version, as it's easier to eat. Some people just eat the whole shrimp without peeling it (the frying process makes this easier than you might imagine), but I personally think that even after frying, the shells and legs are still too scratchy and unpleasant to eat and sort of stick in your craw.

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Watch out for those beady little eyes.

And for dessert, a (free!) sweet warm bean soup. Definitely beats those lame fortune cookies.

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Mandarin Kitchen also has Chinese barbecue:

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And seafood tanks with some of the largest lobsters and crabs I've ever seen.

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By the way, did I mention how cold and snowy it is there this year? I'm posting this at 1:00 p.m., and it is -13˚F there right now. NEGATIVE 13 degrees, in case you missed that subtle little dash up there. Not including windchill.

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Won't be barbecuing for a while.

Almost makes you want to go get some free hot soup at Mandarin Kitchen, doesn't it?

Mandarin Kitchen
8766 Lyndale Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55420
(5/5 stars on Yelp -
link to my original Yelp review)

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