Sunday, December 27, 2009

Eating in Minnesnowta, part I

We just returned from another chilly holiday with my family in Minnesota. Despite the fact that the weather seemed more bitterly cold than usual, it was so wonderful to get a rare opportunity to spend some quality time with everyone and to finally get a chance to see my brother and sister-in-law's beautiful new home and meet my new furry nephew, Daniel. As is her custom, my mom plied us with a steady stream of wonderful, home-cooked food, and this year, my brother and sister-in-law added to our feedbags. I am assiduously avoiding the scale.

I don't think I can possibly blog about everything we ate, but I thought it might be interesting to you all out there in blogland to read about some of the more traditional Asian food and snacks that we request every time we visit my parents' home. My mom is a fantastic cook, and these dishes (and many more in her repertoire) formed the base of my food tastes as an adult.

For starters, this rice porridge (also called xi fan, or congee) is pretty much the perfect winter breakfast (and I would not turn it down in the summer, either). It's just rice with LOTS of water and, in my mom's version, a meat (chicken, turkey, or beef), cooked long and slow until it's about the consistency of grits. You can doctor it to your taste by adding all manner of pickled, preserved, and dried things; my favorites are something referred to on the can as "preserved vegetable" (a close examination of the ingredients reveals something called "mustard root" - a photograph of the can is below), a bit of soy sauce, some fresh green onion, black pepper, and a handful of dry roasted peanuts. My parents also sometimes add rou song (dried, shredded meat that is also sometimes referred to as pork floss) or hundred-year-old eggs.

My perfect breakfast.

The mysterious mustard root. Yes, I know the can looks like it's about 90 years old.
It tastes good, though, I promise.

One of our favorite lunches is niu rou mien, which translates to "beef noodles." I'm actually not sure how traditional this preparation is, since it involves regular spaghetti noodles, but I grew up eating it this way and wouldn't change a thing. Except maybe I would take out the carrots. I don't really like cooked carrots.

Notice how I mysteriously ended up with only one cooked carrot in my bowl. What a coincidence!

Another favorite lunch time treat is my mom's homemade potstickers, or gwo tieh. My mom's version is stuffed with lean pork. My brother is a master at cooking these, and has a patented (but again, non-traditional) method of getting them to cook together in one clump, then flipping them so that both sides get a wonderful, crispy finish.

Browning the second side.


I sometimes wonder whether niu rou mien and potstickers are just excuses for us to eat massive quantities of kim chee.

Pungent, garlicky, delightful kim chee!

Gwo tieh + kim chee is a match made in heaven.

Another dish that my mom often makes when we're there is a cold dish featuring something called fu zhu. It's a soy-based product made by boiling soybeans, which forms a film, or "skin" that can be lifted off the top and dried. You buy it dried in bags, reconstitute it by soaking it in hot water, then stir fry it - my mom mixes it with black mushrooms and carrots. I love the texture of the fu zhu - much firmer than it's cousin, tofu - and it picks up the flavors of whatever it is cooked with very nicely.

Fu zhu, mushrooms, and carrots.

My mom hand-carved these carrots to garnish her fu zhu dish last year. I wish I had inherited more of her artistic talent.

A carrot garden!

All right; I have several more things I want to blog about from this trip, but this post is getting long and it's getting late, so I'll plan on a part II and leave you with this shot of my new "nephew," Daniel.

This is his, "You guys are eating THAT and all I get is this green toy?" look.


Cookie Swap! And "Chinese" Needles in a Haystack.

Well, the holiday season got the best of me, and I'm way behind on my blogging. However, I wanted to belatedly write about a very fun cookie swap that I had with some of my neighbors about a week ago. I was really excited when one of my neighbors suggested the gathering, as I was very sad to have missed the Austin food bloggers' cookie swap while we were in Lubbock. Hooray for second chances!

Five families participated in the swap, and we were to bring six (!!) dozen cookies each. Let's just say there were a LOT of cookies. We also assembled a little potluck meal, the highlight of which was a huge stash of absolutely wonderful tamales from Elsi's Restaurant on Burnet Road. The tamale selection included some very interesting tamales filled with coconut, as well as a variety of Salvadorean tamales. I'd never had Salvadorean tamales before, but I loved them - they are much larger than Mexican tamales, wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks, and use white corn masa rather than yellow corn masa, which is smoother and creamier than the yellow.

Coconut tamale.

Really poor photo of a Salvadorean tamale, but I wanted to give you an idea of what they look like.

Then, of course, there were the cookies. We had chocolate crinkle cookies, thumbprint cookies, snickerdoodles, walnut acorns, and my contribution, a candy (I cheated) that I'm renaming "Chinese" needles in a haystack.

The spread.

My sweet neighbor Owen, doing some taste testing.

My candies were made using a recipe from Austin Epicurean, who brought these little morsels to the food bloggers' swap. Austin Epicurean calls them Chinese New Year candy, but I've also seen them called haystack candy in various places online, including here and here. I harbor an innate snobbery against anything that calls itself Chinese but most definitely is not, as well as anything made with those awful things that pass as chow mein noodles in the La Choy world, but I had seen lots of food bloggers Tweeting and blogging about how much they liked these, including one Asian person, so I decided having an open mind should prevail over my snobbery. Plus, I'll admit it - I was pressed for time, and I liked the fact that these didn't need to be baked.

Although I didn't modify Austin Epicurean's recipe at all, I'm reposting it here because I live in fear that someday a recipe I've linked to will disappear and I won't be able to find it again.


"Chinese" Needles in a Haystack

* 24 oz. Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips (I think bittersweet would also be great)
* 24 oz. Butterscotch Chips (I used two 11 oz bags, and they turned out fine)
* 12 oz. Chow Mein ‘Noodles’ (usually come in 24 oz. bag)
* 12 oz. Salted Peanuts (not dry roasted). Costco carries large tins of Virginia peanuts that are super fresh and wonderfully crunchy - I used those for my candies. If you go this route, 12 oz of peanuts is roughly equivalent to 3 cups.

Melt the chocolate and butterscotch chips together over a double broiler or in the microwave.

Once melted, mix in the peanuts and chow mein noodles.

Spoon onto parchment or wax paper and allow to cool for a few hours.

Chill in the refrigerator prior to serving. I actually recommend storing any leftovers in the refrigerator, too, as they are fairly prone to melting.

Mine were the size of heaping tablespoons, and one batch made about six dozen candies.

Other add-ins that I think could be interesting: marshmallows, mini pretzels, raisins, dried cranberries...really, anything that tastes good covered in chocolate (i.e., everything).

Quick, easy, and tasty...even if they aren't really Chinese.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lubbock or Leave It

"Dust bowl, Bible belt
Got more churches than trees..."
~ "Lubbock or Leave It," by the Dixie Chicks

We spent last weekend in Lubbock, celebrating Christmas with my in-laws a little early this year. Nothing against Lubbock in particular, but spending time in other Texas cities really makes me appreciate all that Austin has to offer. Lubbock is very flat and the air is ridiculously dry, so it's frequently very windy and the wind seems to carry a lot of sand with it. The environment feels rather hostile to me...and this coming from somebody who grew up in a city where windchills of -65˚F were not uncommon.

We spent some time one afternoon in the mall trying to knock out some Christmas shopping, and I was amused to see stores called Horseshoes and Hand Grenades; Cutting Edge Gifts (which sells knives - because nothing says "I care" like a gift of a knife); and Corndog Heaven.

Mean climate and sharp gifts aside, we had a nice weekend. Here are a few scenes from our trip:

My mother-in-law makes the best lemon meringue pie in the universe. I mean, JUST LOOK AT THIS PIE.

Hello, pie. I will eat you now.

She also makes giblet gravy that begs to be eaten by the spoonful. I'm pretty sure it involves massive amounts of lard.

Six of us came very close to consuming the entirety of this very large crock of gravy in one sitting.

I convinced my brother-in-law to spend lots of time painting so he wouldn't have as much time for eating gravy and pie. This orchestra painting is the largest piece he's ever done, and I love the way it is turning out. You should buy it. At very least, you should buy some of his other art.


Lubbock produces a lot of cotton. I loved the way this bulb seemed to be merging with the clouds.


There were a ton of Canadian geese here on this visit, on their way to warmer climes.


As enjoyable as our weekend was, when given the choice poised by the Dixie Chicks - to Lubbock or leave it - we chose the latter. And as we were making our approach into Austin, we were treated with an absolutely stunning sunset. What a nice welcome home.




Sunday, December 13, 2009

Self-Indulgent Foodless Post

I was over in the new Mueller development recently on a rainy day, and as I was getting into my car, the way the water was glistening off the landscaping caught my eye. I got back out of the car and snapped a few shots with my trusty Canon SD800 IS ultracompact, which I carry with me pretty much all the time. I thought some of the shots turned out looking kind of neat, so I wanted to share them here even though they have absolutely nothing to do with food.

I love the fact that digital photography really makes photography accessible to anyone. I never in a million years would have gotten these shots myself if I didn't have the ability to see them instantaneously and to take a bunch of photos without worrying about the cost of developing.

Other than giving these a little contrast boost and cropping one or two of them, these are the way they came out of the camera.







Friday, December 11, 2009

Eat Local Event with Finn & Porter and the Cupcake Bar

Two weeks since my last post?!? That is completely unacceptable.

It's certainly not for lack of eating; thanks to the holidays, I'm probably eating more than ever. I've just been too flappin' crazed to write about any of it - although the burgeoning number of photo sets on my hard drive proves that I've at least been taking photos to share. I was thinking about you, really.

Anyway, I did get to attend a standout event on Monday that I've been dying to tell you about. I was invited to an Eat Local event at Finn & Porter as a guest of the cool folks over at The Cupcake Bar, one of the event co-sponsors. It was a TON of fun and I ate and drank myself silly sillier.

Check out the spread:



And more sushi

Under normal circumstances, I'll choose sushi over most other things, but this incredible pork belly was a superstar amongst superstars. It was expertly seared and served with mashed sweet potatoes graced with a warm, gently-savory Shiner Bock broth.


These beet & goat cheese napoleons were lovely, but had a really hard time competing with the sushi and the pork belly.

Beet & goat cheese napoleon with chipotle beet syrup

These quail legs, on the other hand, held their own.


These "tacos" held a little surprise - the shell was made from a very thinly sliced piece of jicama. Great low carb idea.

Salpic├│n of beef tacos with pickled jicama "shell"

You may recall that Finn & Porter was also the scene of Yelp's Second Anniversary Party. Both times, the food and the service have been truly outstanding; I really want to make it a point to visit them more often.

To help wash down all this fantastic food, the folks from Pedernales Cellars were on hand with a selection of their Texas wines. If you're looking for a great Texas wine, I highly recommend their Texas Tempranillo - a lovely wine that is delicious by itself or paired with a wide variety of food.

For dessert? Cupcakes, of course! The Cupcake Bar was offering both their signature "build your own cupcake" option (a super fun idea which can be booked for events), as well as a trio of Texas-themed mini cupcakes. There were Texas pecan pie cupcakes with Texas pecans and crumbled shortbread; Texas honey & lemon Cupcakes with Texas Olive Ranch's blackberry balsamic reduction & fresh berries; and my favorite, Texas sweet potato cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese icing, caramel, and walnuts. Mmmmmm.

A portion of the "build your own" bar

Texas honey & lemon cake with Texas Olive Ranch's blackberry balsamic reduction & fresh berries

IMG_0512crlgt.jpg IMG_0511.jpg
LEFT: Texas pecan pie with Texas pecans and crumbled shortbread
RIGHT: Texas sweet potato cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese icing, caramel, and walnuts

I've sampled a large cross-section of the cupcakes Austin has to offer, and I was very impressed by these moist, luscious cuppies. Absolutely wonderful!

This was a really fun event that was well worth braving bad traffic and cold, rainy weather to attend. Many thanks to Lori Schneider of the Cupcake Bar for inviting me out!


Friday, November 27, 2009

Pasta Carla-ara (or: Midnight in the Garden of Good Eats)

For months now, my friend Carla has been talking some big talk about how she knew where to acquire the best carbonara in town. I've been known to crave this delectable dish and have even devoted a blog post to it, so of course I needed to investigate this rather audacious claim.

We waited a while till the weather grew cooler, then Carla pronounced it Carbonara Time. On the appointed day, we met at La Traviata, a sweet little restaurant on Congress Avenue that I'd been to, but it had been years. As I battled to find free parking (I have a strong aversion to paying for parking, particularly when the closest lot to the restaurant costs $10 for the privilege of occupying a space for an hour or two), I groused that THIS was why I didn't like eating dinner downtown.

But as we entered the restaurant, my irritation dissipated almost instantly. La Traviata is small and packed, but it has an elegant, cozy feel to it that is utterly charming. We snagged a small table in one of the nooks near a street window, under a sparkling chandelier.


Almost immediately, our affable server provided us with sustenance, in the form of a basket full of bread with an olive oil accompaniment.


We ordered, enjoyed a lovely bottle of wine, and chatted...until this came along and rendered us mute.


Truly the most perfect carbonara I've ever had the pleasure of encountering, this specimen was composed of perfectly al dente pasta, gently piled and sprinkled with bread crumbs, then lovingly topped with a nest of slivered scallions and a farm fresh egg that was simply stunning in its simplicity. The sauce was surprisingly light - perhaps with a touch of lemon? - balancing out the rich pancetta and steering the entire dish away from the heaviness that I often encounter in a carbonara. I swooned with my first bite, and am still swooning, days later. This carbonara changed carbonara for me forever.


How does one top that meal? One doesn't. We opted out of dessert and retired to Carla's house for more wine and an after-dark tour of Carla's amazing gardens.

Carla is the co-owner of Austin Urban Gardens, and her garden at home is a testament to her prowess in that department. Despite the fact that it was pitch black outside and windy (making focusing extremely tricky, as you'll see below), I endeavored to photograph some of the fruits of her labors.







Some of the bounty that's already been harvested:


Chocolate Cherry Tomato

I could not have imagined a more delightful evening. Memorable food, wonderful company, and a passel of inspiration for gardening (I've added an EarthBox to my Christmas wishlist). As if that weren't enough, you can bet that I'll now be the first in the car if anyone suggests driving downtown for dinner.


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