Eat it.

All things food

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.

starting our urban (and hopefully organic) garden

I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions. I’m a firm believer in creating goals as soon as you find the need or desire to do so rather than waiting for the dawn of a new year to tell yourself you need to do something you should’ve done long ago. Last weekend, my husband and I finally planted our first greens in our urban garden, and even though it just happen to happen on New year’s weekend, it had been something I’d wanted to do for years. The original plan for a garden was delayed after I realized I would eventually put my old home on the market and move. Then when we settled into our current house a little over a year ago, there were just other things that took priority, e.g. furnishing the place. We purchased a cedar raised garden bed kit from Costco several months ago, and it wasn’t assembled until more recently after I’d declared a new household rule that for every time John played a round of golf, he’d have to accomplish some task around the house. (And tasks I considered maintenance (e.g. mowing the lawn) didn’t count–they had to be “new” tasks.) Even after assembly, it took some time for us to get around to doing the research for optimal urban organic gardening. John’s boss, who is an organic gardener himself, recommended us this book entitled How to Grow More Vegetables…. Can you say there is a lot to learn for gardening? I think John cracked open the book a few times and then gave up. We drove straight to Lowe’s and bought Black Kow manure which was then stored in our garage for quite some time. You can imagine how nicely our garage smelled for those several months of cow poop storage. Finally, on the day after New Year’s Day, we ventured over to Buchanan’s Native Plants, a nearby nursery specializing in Texas plants. The employees were incredibly patient and helpful, holding our hands through the entire timid process of popping our garden cherry. We ended up walking away with cilantro, oregano, Sicilian (or flat-leaf) parsley, rosemary, thyme, and broccoli for our vegetable garden. For the shaded area next to our front door, we bought a dormant hydrangea and several aureas which John planted in the half barrel whisky cask we’d also bought from Lowe’s last year. Hopefully the hydrangea will bloom nice and big once spring and summer come.

In February, we plan to return to Buchanan’s for some tomato plants and basil which fare better in slightly warmer weather. I don’t even know if the plants we’d already purchased will survive the rest of winter; we don’t have a clue as to what we’re doing so don’t take this post as advice of any kind–it’s more of an update in our culinary lives. Yes, with our new urban garden, John and I hope to cut the spending at grocery stores all the while learning to appreciate the care that goes into growing our own food and enjoying the delicious and healthier alternative of self-sustainability. I know it’s silly but I’ve been going outside almost every day and sticking my nose into the herbs and inhaling the magical scents. (Hey, how else can a blind person monitor the growth process of her plants?) More updates on our gardening experiences to come. In the meantime, here’s a picture of our humble garden. Also, feel free to leave some gardening tips for us in the comments section. We can use all the help we can get. Remember, this is a couple who’s killed a cactus and just about every plant they’ve ever come across.



Garden

Starting off small

food that will touch your heart

Fung’s Kitchen
7320 Southwest Fwy. #115
Houston, TX 77074
713-779-2288


4.5/5 steamed xiu mai


Fung's xiu mai

Xiu mai - one of my favorites

Happy New Year! Dim sum used to be a New Year’s tradition in my family; every January 1st, we’d gather at a dim sum restaurant mid-morning for this delicious Chinese brunch. Like the Spanish’s tapas and the French’s hors d’oeuvres, dim sum is the Chinese’s variety of small dishes conducive to socializing.

Dim sum, which translates to “to touch the heart,” stems from the tradition of drinking tea while conversing with friends. Travelers on the Silk Road in ancient China would need rest stops along the way, and so teahouses sprouted on the roadside. After a long morning of manual labor, farmers also needed a place to commune and relax. Teahouses began serving snacks as an accompaniment to the tea, and thus, dim sum was born.

Dim sum is mostly associated with the Cantonese people in southern China and Hong Kong who, over the years, had transformed the dining experience from a respited to a joyful, bustling one. Today, dim sum is typically eaten for brunch, enjoyed by the elderly after morning exercises or on Sundays for family get-togethers. In some of these overseas restaurants, dim sum can be served from as early as six in the morning and continue until three o’clock when the typical Western afternoon coffee break takes place. Many dim sum restaurants in the States still follow this tradition, some not even serving dim sum unless it’s Sunday morning.

Fung's fried taro puff

Fried taro puff - my other favorite

Dim sum in the U.S.is an experience in itself. The restaurants have open floor plans as large as ballrooms, and all tables are made for ten; even if you’re a party of three, you may get seated at a table for ten. Food isn’t ordered off the menu; carts piled high with steaming hot dishes are pushed around the restaurant, and you point to what you want and it’s given to you straight away–now that’s literally “a la carte.” The wait staff marks the dishes you order by stamping a paper that remains on your table until you’re done and it’s time to calculate the bill. In smaller or less traditional restaurants, you’re given a sheet of paper, and you mark off which dishes you want before handing it to the wait staff. Dishes come in small quantities (which I love) so you can try a little of everything. There are steamed buns filled with Chinese barbecue pork, all sorts of dumplings and fried pastries, cold jellyfish salads, congee (or rice porridge), braised chicken feet, egg tarts, and so on. Dim sum experts claim you should start with the steamed dishes, then move on to the exotic, then fried, then finish everything off with the sweets. And hot tea is always the beverage of choice–it aids in the digestion of the greasy foods. My friend, Joy, and even John when we had first met both did not like dim sum, saying that every dish tastes the same and not that great. I said they were going to the wrong places and eating the wrong dishes. Personally, these are my dim sum staples that I have to get at every dim sum meal:

  • Xiu mai – steamed dumplings filled with either pork or shrimp wrapped in a wheat flour skin and topped with crab, roe, and/or mushrooms
  • Har gau – steamed shrimp dumplings wrapped in wheat starch skin
  • Cheung fun – steamed large flat rice noodles rolled around shrimp or meat and served with sweet soy sauce
  • Nor mei gai – a lotus leaf filled with sticky rice and other savory ingredients such as hard-boiled egg, Chinese sausage, chicken, and/or pork
  • Gai lan – steamed Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce
  • Pork spareribs steamed with black beans and jalapenos
  • Fried taro puff

Fung’s Kitchen, along with Golden Palace and Dim Sum King (which serves dim sum every day, all day), are my favorite places to eat dim sum in Houston. These are the top three–I think I’ve only had better dim sum in Vancouver. I know this entire article was about dim sum and not about Fung’s itself, but I really can’t pinpoint what it is exactly that I like so much about Fung’s aside from the fact that their food is just damn good. Try it and see for yourself. Now after typing this post, my mouth is watering for a little food that would touch my heart. Maybe I’ll have to revive the old family tradition and plan a dim sum outing today. Happy eating! Here’s to many more in 2011…

what do vera wang and white castle have in common?

Vera & Martha

Smell my candle.

No, it’s not a wedding gown made out of those little delicious sliders which have a cult following and are even featured in a movie. If you said a bride wore one of Vera’s gowns to a wedding at White Castle, your guess gets closer, but still no cigar. (Somehow I doubt a bride who gets married in a fast food joint would be wearing Vera Wang for fear of smearing that grease all over the tulle.

It turns out the renowned designer herself was at a White Castle in NYC’s Herald Square Tuesday night. She, along with Martha Stewart, were there to promote a new slider-’n-onion scented candle made by Nest Fragrances. The candle will be sold at White Castles everywhere for $13 (equivalent to 14 sliders), and proceeds benefit Autism Speaks which promotes awareness for, obviously, autism.

Supposedly the candle smells more like sweet onions than greasy burger, but what a novel gag gift idea nonetheless. It’s funny that I read about this story today because I was just craving White Castle cheeseburgers lately and had just added them to my grocery list before stumbling across this story. Living in Texas for most of my life, I was not fortunate enough to taste a “fresh” White Castle slider, but the blue and white packages could frequently be found in my freezer throughout my childhood. I love how they’re a savory, satisfying snack and so easy to prepare–just wrap in a napkin and microwave for 60 seconds. I personally prefer frozen White Castles to fresh Krystal ones. (I’m much more a fan of grilled onions than mustard in my sliders which, if I remember correctly, is what Krystal’s adds to their sliders.)

Perhaps even more fascinating than the concept of a slider is the history of White Castle. It began in 1921–19 years before the first McDonald’s even opened– in Wichita when a dude named Walter Anderson partnered up with a cook named Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram to push hamburger eating on America. The country was weary of ground beef at the time due to Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, which exposed the unglamorous meatpacking industry. Anderson and Ingram tried to change America’s views by invoking a sense of cleanliness with their burger joints, using white porcelain enamel on stainless steel along with spotless employees’ uniforms to conjure a sanitary image. Anderson is credited for inventing the hamburger bun and the kitchen assembly line, a method similar to Henry Ford’s car manufacturing process, which guaranteed customers everywhere the same product every time. Almost a century later, and White Castle still exists. Amazing. I can’t wait to get my hands on some sliders ASAP.

how to start a recipe exchange

This email recently showed up in my inbox. Being the Blind Cook (thus always on the lookout for new recipes), I jumped on board. You can too. Just read below, and starting your own recipe exchange will be self-explanatory. If you’re the first person, just put your name in the #1 spot and instruct the recipients to add their name as #2. It’s easy, quick, and you could get an inbox full of recipes in the next few days.

Hello

You have been invited to be part of a recipe exchange. I hope you will participate. I’ve picked friends and family to make this fun.

Please send a recipe to the person whose name is in position #1, even if you don’t know them. The recipe should be something quick, easy, and without rare ingredients. The best kind is one you already have memorized in your head and can type right now. Don’t agonize over it; it’s one you make when you’re short of time.

After you’ve sent the recipe to the person in position #1 below (and only to that person), copy this letter into a new email. Move my name to position #1 and put your name and email in position #2. Only my and your names should show below when you send your email. Send to 20 friends/family members. If you cannot do this within 5 days, please let me know so it will be fair to those participating. It will be fun to see where they come from. Seldom does anyone drop out because we all need new ideas. The turnaround is fast since there are only 2 names on the list, and you only do this once.

  1. [someone's name & email]
  2. [your name & email]

turn on your man with…pumpkin pie?

Our friend Daniel loves pumpkin. Anything with pumpkin, he’ll not only eat it, he’ll ingest it with the utmost joy: pumpkin pie, pumpkin lattes, pumpkin eggnog, and so on. I imagine he’d eat pumpkin puree straight out of the can if given the opportunity.

Earlier this week, Daniel sent me this story which outlines a study that showed the popular Thanksgiving dessert ingredient to be an aphrodisiac for men. Say what??

According to Dr. Alan Hirsch, the Director of Chicago’s Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Center, a study using 40 aromas showed that pumpkin pie topped ladies’ fragrances. In fact, the number one aroma that aroused men was a combination of lavender and pumpkin pie. And by itself, pumpkin pie was the single strongest stimulant. In an attempt to explain it scientifically, perhaps the odor of pumpkin pie decreases anxiety, and less anxiety means lower inhibitions. Some alternative medicine experts even recommend pumpkin seeds for erectile dysfunction.

I always knew that vanilla was supposedly a “turn-on” aroma for men. (I read this in a magazine years ago.) But pumpkin? Interesting…You’ll have to test this out to see if it’s true. I guess it’s true what they say: the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach (or nose?).

best fried chicken ever?

Babe’s Chicken Dinner House
1456 Belt Line Rd. #171
Garland, TX 75044
972-496-1041


5/5 drumsticks

Note: Sorry, no photos for Babe’s; the restaurant was just too dark.

We enjoyed trying out a new place in Dallas, but then I had to return to an old favorite. Every time I go to Dallas, I have to eat Babe’s. I first discovered the Southern cookin’ delight in 2005 thanks to Karen who took me to a fast food version of the diner. The last two times I ate Babe’s, however, it was at their actual restaurant which has the feel of a true Texas eatery with its heavily wooded interior and the quaint Southern drawls of the surrounding staff and patrons. I prefer this Belt Line location because ambience and atmosphere often add to the elemetn of experience.

But most importantly, the chicken is damn good. How it works when you dine in is you choose a meat (entree)–pot roast, chicken fried steak, chicken fingers, fried catfish, etc.–and then the sides come “free” with the meal. I highly recommend the fried chicken; even though I haven’t tried any of their other dishes, this is their signature entree. For $11.99, you get the entree (in our case, it was a basket full of fried chicken), crushed buttered corn, green beans, buttery mashed potatoes, and biscuits. The fried chicken is completely awesome. The skin is fried to a golden brown: crunchy and full of all the right flavors. It isn’t too salty, which is a problem a lot of tasty fried foods seem to possess. The corn and mashed potatoes were yummy (probably full of butter) but I found the green beans a little too “canned”-tasting.

John says this is the best fried chicken he’s ever had, and I may have to agree (although I’m sad to say I think my husband may have a more discerning palate than me). Better than Popeye’s, Frenchy’s, KFC‘s original recipe, and Catalan‘s gourmet fried chicken. Besides improving the green beans, the only thing I’d say would make the place even better is if they’d start serving sweet tea. I mean, sweet tea is a Southern thing, so why not?

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