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All things food

how to keep your garden alive during drought

The last time I posted an urban garden update, it was before Houston hit its hottest time of year–that is, the month of August. This year’s summer has had record-breaking heat, record-breaking lack of rain. For every single day in August (and I’m not even exaggerating), we had highs above 100, and I can only recall one morning when it sprinkled. You can imagine how desert-like our city has become.

The drought and extreme heat have not left our garden very viable. In fact, the only thing that seems to be thriving is our Thai basil which, I guess, thinks it’s back at home with this climate. Most everything else has withered like a great-grandma’s toes. I recently wrote a piece for Eating Our Words about what we can do to drought-proof our urban gardens (or at least make it drought-resistant). Got any tips on how to protect your crops from this crazy weather? Help us turn our brown thumbs green, and share the knowledge. Click on the link below to read my Houston Press post.

6-month urban garden update

Garden - June 2011

It’s been six months since we planted the first of our urban garden. Since then, we’ve expanded a little; the backyard is now home to all the original herbs–rosemary, parsley, thyme, cilantro, and oregano–in addition to the original broccoli heads. In February, we purchased lemon and lime trees, roma tomato plants, Italian basil, and Thai basil. We had to show up bright and early at the nursery and elbow all the old people out of the way to get to the tomatoes and basil–those things sell like hotcakes. We were happy to get our hands on some but ended up destroying so many of them anyway. So here are the lessons learned during the first six months of our brown-thumb urban gardening.

TOP 5 BROWN-THUMB LESSONS LEARNED IN THE FIRST SIX MONTHS

  • Lesson #5: Don’t plant your lemon and lime trees in terracotta pots. Terracotta clay is too hot for the heat of Houston summers and will likely burn the roots of your trees. We learned this only after we already bought the terracotta pots and planted our dwarf lemon and lime trees in them. All other pots were either ugly or too expensive so we left our trees in them with the hopes that excessive watering will keep the roots cool. (Who said trees can’t be fashionable?) Too bad we are probably not watering them as often as we should. The curse of a lazy gardener.
  • Lesson #4: Give your tomatoes plenty of room because those suckers are wild. The roma tomatoes were rampant which you think would be a good thing, but we used weak bamboo sticks to hold up the vines a la zip ties, and the result is a crazy looking mess. Better to buy tomato cages and give the tomatoes plenty of space. We planted our Thai and Italian basil too close to the tomatoes, and now the crazy tomato vines have overshadowed the basil and stunted their growth.
  • Lesson #3: Make sure you use the right ratio of soil-to-fertilizer for each plant. In other words, check the chemical levels of the soil and fertilizer used because different plants require different ratios. The Black Kow fertilizer was fine for the herbs but virtually burnt our tomatoes. The tomato plant bore scores of little tomatoes but they all had burnt black bottoms, a result of too much nitrogen in their diet, I believe. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)
  • Lesson #2: Watch your dogs very carefully. My delinquent dogs have been eating all my Thai basil. I didn’t even know until I smelled it all over their breath. Why couldn’t you dogs at least eat the parsley which is better for your breath and more plentiful anyway? I haven’t even had a taste of my Thai basil because they’ve all gone in my dogs’s tummies! And to think I blamed it all on the crazy tomatoes.
  • Lesson #1: Don’t be lazy about watering. The problem with the Houston heat is it truly makes one lazy. It’s so hot and humid outside–we’ve already hit a record-breaking 100 degrees the first week of June!–that nobody ever wants to venture outside. The downside is our plants are also dying of thirst. The broccoli is probably having a heat stroke right now as I type this. To combat our weariness, my husband rigged a homemade irrigation system: he made a rain water collector out of a garbage can and some piping which he attached to a porous hose that seeps water out through its gauze-like exterior. He also bought a water timer so now promptly at 7:30 CDT every other day, the garden gets a drink.

John is already talking about building another garden bed–the Beta Bed, it would be called. This garden bed would be built from scratch (rather than from the Costco kit) so that exact dimensions are achieved at a fraction of the cost. In this Beta Bed, we will employ all of our lessons learned in the first six months of urban gardening and try our hand at bettering our brown thumbs–maybe they can become beige. We’ll use the correct dirt, give plants enough space, use an efficient crop rotation. Check back later for more updates.

yee haw! trader joe’s coming to texas!

Trader Joe's

If you’ve ever been out west, you’ve likely come across Trader Joe’s, a decades-old organic grocery store offering higher quality foods at lower costs than, say, Whole Foods or Central Market. While I love Whole Foods and Central Market, their prices just sometimes leave me flinching. With some new competition on the block, consumers will have wider options, and I’m super stoked to have one open in our city. According to Houston Press‘s food blog, the market will open its first Texas store in Dallas by the end of 2011 and is currently scouting sites for their Austin and Houston counterparts. For years, I have been lamenting our lack of a Trader Joe’s, so you can imagine how excited I was when this news broke some weeks ago. Now my only perturbed question is: why does Dallas get everything first? (Ahem, H&M?)

my favorite cakes in houston

Wedding cake

From Leduc Gourmet Bakery

Since today is my birthday, I decided to do a post on where to find some of the best cakes in Houston. So here is the short list in no particular order:

  • Leduc Gourmet Baker located on Bellaire Blvd. between Kirkwood and Boone just west of the Hong Kong shopping center has some of the best Vietnamese-French cakes in the business and for a reasonable price, too. Since the French colonized Indochina some centuries ago, the fine French way of cooking has definitely left its imprint on Vietnamese cuisine, and this does not exclude the pastries and cakes which Leduc does a fine job of producing. Their most popular cake (and one of my favorites is a coffee cake with mocha icing topped with fresh strawberries and lined with almond slivers. I grew up with my mother buying a similar cake from another nearby bakery, and it always sends me on a nostalgic run every time I eat the stuff. John and I also ordered our wedding cake from Leduc; at $2.25 per slice, it was one of the better deals we could find for such a delicious cake. We got two flavors: (1) coffee cake layered with chocolate truffle and mocha butter cream (for the chocolate lovers), and (2) amaretto cake with raspberry jam filling (for the fruit lovers).
  • Whole Foods, the Austin-based grocery store specializing in organic products, makes a berry chantilly cake that is also super-delish. There are fresh berries on top with cream cheese icing, and the cake is ever moist. The best part is it’s made from all organic ingredients so you know you aren’t getting overly processed stuff in your system. My friend, Joanna, ordered the berry chantilly sheet cakes for her wedding, and I’ve never heard anyone not like the cake. Thanks, Jeanette, for first feeding me this cake for my birthday many years ago.
  • Take the Cake is a bakery that I haven’t had as much experience with but I’ve heard great things about it. I’ve had one cake from there that my cousin brought for Christmas lunch last year, and I do remember it was yummy. I’ve heard many like their Hummingbird cake (a springtime dessert with banana, pineapple, and pecan cream cheese icing–I know it sounds weird), so I might order it for my mama-in-law for our Mother’s Day/my birthday dinner this weekend.

Where do you get your favorite cake?

first ever haute wheels food truck festival in houston

WHEN: Saturday, May 14 from noon to 7 PM and Sunday, May 15 from noon to 5 PM

WHERE: HCC southwest campus (5601 West Loop South)


With Houston often racing neck-to-neck with Philadelphia to be America’s fattest city, and with a plethora of diverse (and actually really delicious) cuisine, it is only fitting that Houston host a food truck festival. Food trucks have been all the rage of recent years, beginning with perhaps the stinkin’ Kogi truck of southern Cali (which I stood four hours in line for–don’t even ask) and culminating with Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race”. What is our obsession with food trucks? I can only speak for my own personal penchant for them, and it stems from a love for travel and, if you look even deeper, a love for adventure.

I was bitten by the traveling bug as soon as I had a little money to do it. It began with my first trip to NYC my senior year of college during spring break. It was the first non-family trip I took that involved getting on a plane (and not just loading up in a car and driving down to South Padre). It was then that I realized there were so many other things in this world that I had no clue about, and I suddenly wanted to be cultured. If NYC blew me away, what would Brazil, Ireland, Turkey, Japan do to me?

Of course, I’d always loved food as well. And when I got older, accumulated more dollar bills in my pockets, I started venturing to more places, finally able to afford the finer things in dining life. And when I began to lose my vision, my appreciation for the sense of taste grew exponentially. Traveling has obviously become more of a burden now that I cannot see, and I often couldn’t care less about sightseeing, but trying indigenous foods of other cultures? I’m on that like white on rice.

And how else does one experience true foods of a country than by eating at street vendors? That’s where you spend the least money for the most authentic (and often, tastiest) delicacies. And thus is born my/our love for food trucks. It gives us a sense of adventure, like we are in the middle of Copenhagen instead of just plain old Houston. (Or, rather, Mumbai since that’s probably closer in climate.)

So the point of this whole long-winded post was to inform you that Houston will host the first food truck festival on a HCC campus in mid-May. Tickets ($16 for adults and includes $5 of concession vouchers) are limited, so get yours now. You can bet I’ll be blogging about it after the fact. Bon appetit!

brunch on easter (or any other time of year)

Backstreet Cafe
1103 S. Shepherd Dr.
Houston, TX 77019
713-521-2239


4.5/5 mimosas


Backstreet Benedict

Backstreet's version of Eggs Benedict

Who doesn’t love brunch? What’s not to like about eggs and such savory delicacies melting in your mouth at the perfect time of day when it’s not too early that you’re rejuvenated and not too late that you still have a whole fresh day ahead of you? My friend, Teresa, loves brunch, and she told us about the yummy spread offered every weekend (11 AM to 3 PM on Saturdays and 10 AM to 3 PM on Sundays). I keep hearing from other friends that the brunch at Hugo’s is also phenomenal and being that Backstreet Cafe is their sister restaurant, I had to try the brunch for myself. But first, a little descriptive story behind the restaurant…

Backstreet Cafe first opened its doors in 1983 as a burger joint but has since become a fancy diner serving fine foods in an intimate atmosphere. When I say intimate, I don’t necessarily mean quiet and dark–our brunch experience was far from that with the noisy bustling of the staff through the enclosed patio’s French doors–but I mean it’s cozy. My husband describes it as a sort of French country, beachside cafe. Just the kind of place I’d love to dine in; if only I could see! The restaurant is nestled inside a 30-year-old house in the River Oaks district and while I’ve only been here for brunch, I’d definitely want to return to try their other menus.

Crepes

The special that day: ham & gruyere crepes...ooh la la!

Of course, now on to the important part: the FOOD. John ordered the Backstreet Benedict ($14), their rendition of the classic eggs Benedict: two poached eggs atop cheddar chive biscuits under a slather of jalapeno hollandaise sauce with Canadian bacon and grits. Teresa and I had the special which were ham and gruyere crepes. We thought it was really good although Houston Press bloggers called it secondary to the lobster sandwich. (I’ll have to try that next time–perhaps a gourmet lobster roll?)

Service was prompt and courteous, and we had a good time with our small group. I’m sure Easter will be crazy so maybe make reservations today.

50% off at feast

For John’s birthday last year, I treated him to a dinner at Feast. By word of mouth, I’d heard that Feast features an exotic menu with locally raised and grown meats and veggies. The point is for the diner to be able to track exactly where it is the food on their plate came from. It was an enjoyable meal and not too pricey–you can even stop in for a cheaper lunch menu. We’ve been meaning to go back, and now’s a better time than any with today’s Living Social deal: for $20, you get $40 worth of food and non-alcoholic beverages at Feast. Located on Westheimer between Taft and Bagby, it is an unassuming little eatery offering great dishes. On Saturday nights, they even cook in the kitchen at Grand Prize Bar a few blocks over on Banks. Treat yourself to some good food, but hurry, the deal ends at the end of the weekend.

the best indian food in houston

Gourmet India
13155 Westheimer Rd.
Houston, TX 77077
281-493-5435


5/5 samosas


Chicken tikka masala

Chicken tikka masala

I first discovered Indian food when my college roommate unpacked tupperwares filled with brightly colored edibles into our mini-fridge in our dorm room. When my roommate missed the comforts of her mama’s home cookin’, all she had to do was pop a tupperware into the microwave, and volia, there was mama’s curried potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, chickpeas…

She was always kind enough to offer me some, and I nibbled only with reserve, feeling guilty for taking her mama’s food. But I enjoyed the bursts of flavor and spices that Indian food had to offer. My palate only grew more adventurous after college when I was finally making my own money and could afford tasting different cuisines. I found myself craving Indian food whenever I thought about my friend’s midnight snacks, the aromatic herbs wafting out from beneath the crack of our door and filling the hallway with delightful pungency.

“Where can I find good Indian food?” I asked another friend once I moved back to Houston post-graduation.

The best Indian food in Houston, she told me, was actually only blocks from my home. Gourmet India, an unassuming restaurant located in an abandoned strip mall where the dollar theater I used to frequent as a child sits as either a modified Bollywood theater or a vacant storefront, cooks up some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had. True, I didn’t grow up with an Indian mama, and true, I’ve probably eaten in less than a dozen south Asian restaurants, but nothing has beat Gourmet India’s dishes. Seriously.

My father only discovered the place recently after my husband and I took him there. It’s a shame that after 20+ years of living in the same house, he only now got to eat at this fine restaurant which is literally down the street.

Naan

Naan--flatbread you eat with your right hand (not your left--it's custom)

The dishes I tend to order are:

  • naan, the popular Indian flatbread used to scoop bites of other dishes into your mouth
  • saag paneer, a spinach and paneer cheese dish which, due to its creaminess, goes great with naan
  • chicken tikka masala, another creamy dish made with grilled chicken and tomato sauce
  • the basmati rice which, here, is made with almonds and peas–a family favorite

All the dishes I’ve gotten here have not been a disappointment. If you prefer to try a little of everything, lunch is often an all-you-can-eat buffet Of course, you can always order my staples; I’m almost positive you won’t be disappointed. I’ve learned to make chicken tikka masala at home (though it’s not as good as Gourmet India’s), but for the life of me, I cannot find a decent saag paneer recipe anywhere. So I’d be grateful if anyone out there could send me one. Anyone?

Rice

Basmati rice

where not to go for valentine’s day

Stella Sola
1001 Studewood St.
Houston, TX 77008
713-880-1001


3.5/5 bone marrows

Note: The restaurant lighting was way too dim for any quality photos so no images for this post.

For one of our Supper Club experiences, we ventured to Stella Sola, which came highly recommended by a foodie friend. The restaurant supposedly fuses local Texas ingredients with Tuscan flair, this being yet another project brought to the Houston dining scene by the same crew that brought us Reef and Little Bigs.

“You thought the bone marrow at Catalan was good? Wait till you try the marrow at Stella Sola,” Foodie Friend said.

So we did try the bone marrow at Stella Sola. But we had to wait a good long time for it. The service was incredibly slow–we must’ve waited over 30 minutes for our appetizer. The bone marrow was delicious, but I recall Catalan’s bone marrow to be superior; Stella Sola’s was not as rich, and I preferred the condiments served alongside the marrow at Catalan. Or maybe I was already grouchy from having waited too long.

For my second course, I had the “country style” pork rib with bacon braised greens, olive oil mash (whatever that is), and lemon mostarda ($23). (What is with these complicated menu descriptions anyway?) The sides seemed to me like a polenta, and I wish they would’ve just called it so and save us all a headache. The first few bites were good, but as the dinner wore on, my dish began tasting saltier and saltier. My dinner companions also noted that their dishes–a Wagyu steak (which the server described as a Texas kobe) and a local Texas fish–were nothing to rave about and definitely not worth the price.

In the end, we were lukewarm about our experience. I personally would not choose to go there again, but to be fair, I’ll usually give everything a second chance. Stella Sola seems to fall into line with my impressions of the other sister restaurants. While I liked Reef, I didn’t buy into all the rave with Little Bigs. And that’s exactly how I felt about Stella Sola: it’s good but nothing awesome.

When I told Foodie Friend that I was unimpressed with Stella Sola, she admitted that their prices dictated more of a “sitting at the bar and ordering just the bone marrow and wine” type of visit before heading elsewhere for a more suitable meal. Oh well. At least I can say I’ve tried it. But the fact that I was ambivalent about something Foodie Friend had raved about makes me wonder if I have truly transcended what is considered normal and entered into true gastronomical snobbery. That idea, too, causes me ambivalence.

chuc mung nam moi!

Translated from Vietnamese to English, this means “Happy New Year!” Growing up in Alief where there was a Vietnamese-American presence, most all of my non-Viet friends knew this phrase. And today, I say it to you as it’s the New Year, according to the lunar calendar.

There are many customs practiced during Tet, or Lunar New Year. For days and even weeks leading up to the New Year, households prepare for the impending celebration by cleaning house, cooking, repaying debts, buying new clothes, etc. How you spend the New year, the Vietnamese and Chinese believe, dictates how the rest of your year will be. It is considered bad luck to clean on the New Year, and visitations to families and friends are done in a particular order to avoid insult. Money in red envelopes are given to children (or elders), firecrackers are ignited, and dragon/lion dances are performed to loud percussion all to ward off evil/bad luck spirits. There are so many traditions and superstitions linked to the Lunar New Year that I, as a second-generation Vietnamese-American, can only fathom a handful of them. I have yet to be in Vietnam during a New Year celebration (which I heard lasts for a week or so–businesses close shop to celebrate), but it’s supposedly a much larger spectacle than it is here in the States.

The traditional New Year’s food for the Vietnamese is banh chung or banh Tet: a sticky rice cake containing fatty pork and mung bean. It is wrapped in banana leaves before steaming, the leaf lending the savory cake an olive green hue once done which is supposed to symbolize the earth. Growing up, I’ve always eaten banh chung all year round. But during the New Year, it’s especially a treat. My paternal grandmother made the best banh chung; she’d make dozens of them to give as presents to visitors during Tet. Today, I’m not so lucky to get homemade banh chung, but I find that My Hoa Food Market (13201 Bellaire Blvd., 77072) makes some pretty comparable banh chung. Unlike my grandma’s (which were an enormous 8″x8″ square), the ones from My Hoa are a more manageable size, fitting into the palm of your hand. I grew up eating them plain, but some like to add sugar or Maggi seasoning sauce (similar to soy sauce and GREAT with eggs sunny-side up). I’ve even seen some pan-fry their banh chung in a skillet until the rice becomes crispy. Supposedly, this frying method is a good way to “freshen” up older banh chung.

I know that I as the Blind Cook would typically have a fabulous recipe posted, but frankly, I am no banh chung master. I do have a recipe from an aunt but I have yet attempted to make it from scratch. I’ve seen my grandmother and aunts squatting over the bowls of sticky rice, shaping them into perfect squares and rolling them inside banana leaves, to know that it ain’t no easy task. Perhaps I’ll attempt it one day. Perhaps I won’t. Maybe I’ll continue opting for the ready-made kind at My Hoa. Whichever way we eat them, it’s still a timeless Tet tradition. So let’s lift our forks full of glutinous bites of banh chung and toast to this Year of the Rabbit!

Banh chung

Took the pic myself. The square cake with Maggi on top.

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