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pasta 101: choosing & measuring

Most of us started with pasta when we first learned to cook. Spaghetti with a jar of Ragu or whatnot. Just heat and serve. Or if we were feeling especially adventurous, we’d add some sauteed onions or mushrooms or ground beef. That was exactly me in my second year at college when I lived in my first apartment complete with its four-by-five foot kitchen.

More than a decade has passed, and while my pasta repertoire has stretched beyond spaghetti and jar sauce, I realized I still did not know exactly how to cook the perfect pasta al dente. This, of course, called for a blog post.

I found a plethora of pasta choosing, measuring, cooking, serving, and eating tips on What’s Cooking America. Because there is just so much to know, I’ve decided to split up the pasta tips into two posts. Here is lesson one, Pasta 101. Get ready to know everything you need to know about pasta.

Choosing Pasta:

  1. The best dried pastas are made of 100% semolina (“durum-wheat semolina” or “semolia”). Durum wheat retain their shape and firmness when cooked so they won’t be too mushy or sticky to toss with sauce. Of course, pastas not made of semolina can be used for casseroles as they won’t need tossing.
  2. Have you ever wondered the difference between noodles and pasta? Noodles are typically made of eggs which give it a more vibrant color.
  3. Also, have you ever figured why there are so many different shaped pasta? The shape is matched according to the type of sauce. Flat pastas are best with thin sauces while others with nooks and crannies are good for picking up chunkier sauces or catching soups.

Measuring Pasta:

  • Most dried pastas double in volume once cooked. A general rule is one pound of dried pasta will serve six as an appetizer or four as a main course.
    • 4 oz. dry long pasta (spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine, linguine> = 1 in. diameter bunchof uncooked pasta = 2 c. cooked pasta
    • 4 oz. dry short pasta (elbow macaroni, penne, shells, rotini, wheels, ziti) = 1 c. uncooked pasta = 2.5 c. cooked pasta

Stay tuned for the second half (and arguably the more important half) of Pasta class.

salt 101: why kosher?

I first encountered kosher salt some years ago when I bought my first Barefoot Contessa cookbook and noticed most of her recipes specifically called for kosher salt. At the store, I picked up a box of Morton kosher salt, and I never went back to regular table salt again.

Personally, the only reason I liked kosher salt better was because it’s not as salty as the iodized version I used to buy in cardboard canisters. But in writing this post, I dug around online and discovered why cooks like to use kosher salt in their kitchen.

We should begin by noting that the popularity of kosher salt is a recent phenomenon. Thanks to all the hype surrounding cooking shows on the Food Network nowadays, table salt has been cast aside into the dusty corners of our pantries. But don’t be so quick to disregard that table salt. You’ll see why in a moment.

Let’s begin at the beginning. All salt consists of sodium chloride and happens to be the only rock consumed by humans. All salt is also made by some process of evaporation. Here we’ll look at the three main types of salt found in American kitchens.

  • Table salt is made by driving water into an underground salt deposit or mine. This brine is then evaporated, leaving fine, cubic crystals that resemble granulated sugar. Table salt usually includes additives like iodine (to prevent thyroid disease) and/or calcium silicate (to prevent clumping). It has a sharper taste than kosher and sea salts, but because it dissolves quickly, it is the baker’s salt of choice. When baking, do not use any other salt or else it may not fully dissolve and thus leave your baked goods not so good.
  • Sea salt is harvested from evaporated seawater and essentially undergoes no processing, and so it retains much of the minerals from where it came. It is coarser than table salt, and because it’s expensive and loses flavor when dissolved, sea salt is best put into a mill and placed on the table as a condiment.
  • Kosher salt is made the same way as table salt except the brine is constantly raked during the evaporation process. The result is a flaky, coarser, purer tasting, less salty salt perfect for taking a pinch of and adding to savory foods while cooking. It contains no preservatives and comes from under the ground or sea. Kosher salt is not itself kosher; it takes its name from the fact that it’s used to make meats kosher. Its larger, flatter granules won’t dissolve right away, so it does a better job of extracting the blood by sitting longer on the meat.

And that’s why I prefer to cook with kosher salt. Of course, when a recipe calls for salt, it usually refers to table salt. You can substitute kosher salt by taking into account that kosher salt granules are larger than table salt granules and measuring about a two-to-one ratio in volume of kosher to table.

While the latest medical news say Americans consume too much salt (leading to high blood pressure), salt in moderation helps make eating even more enjoyable. It can take the edge off bitter and acidic foods and enhance the natural flavors of others. So there you have it: Salt 101. Any thoughts?

great beer, great people, great city

Mike the Beer Geek

That is the motto of the inaugural Houston Beer Week to take place from October 11 through 17. During the week, dinners, tastings, classes, and other activities centering around beer will be held at venues all over the Houston metropolis. The week will culminate in a Monsters of Beer Charity Festival hosted by Live It Big, Inc., a Houston-based 501(c)3 non-profit that helps small and start-up charities grow by raising money year-round and providing administrative assistance.

After perusing the website, the most promising events include the HBW Kick-Off Party (October 10) at The Usual Pub where there will be a homebrewers tutorial with DeFalco’s Home Wine & Beer Supplies and Southern Star, a local brewery just north of Houston. The Petrol Station (which I might add has one of the best burgers called The Hulk, but that’s for another post) will host a homebrewers competition called the Pumpkin Beer Throwdown (October 14). Then on the last day of HBW (October 17) is the Monsters of Beer fest at 13 Celsius from 12 noon till 6 PM. At this event, you can sip on craft beers from local breweries, three of which are new. Advance tickets to this last event are $20–$30 if you buy at the door. All the other events throughout the week vary in price and include events with Beaver’s Ice House, Catalan, and Ginger Man seems to have something going on every night of HBW.

So if you have a penchant for craft beer, or just beer, or just alcohol, or just a good time, then venture out and hit up a spot or two; it’ll be a way for you to extend Oktoberfest. Check out the HBW website for event details.

hrw: take 2

Olivette
111 N. Post Oak Ln.
Houston, TX 77024
713-685-6713



3/5 sea bass filets


Our second venture during Houston Restaurant Week was to the Mediterranean restaurant at the Houstonian hotel in the heart of Houston’s Memorial and Galleria neighborhoods. The hotel is nesteled within wooded acres, making for a lovely surrounding and view from the restaurant. There is complimentary valet for restaurant dining, and we were greeted by every Houstonian employee we crossed paths with on the way to the restaurant from the valet, doorman, and even random staff bustling through the hallways.

The restaurant was rather empty for what should be the primetime dinner crowd (calling for raised eyebrows), but we withheld judgment.

For our first course, we all ordered the Gulf crab cake dressed in a tomato chutney and jalapeno remoulade. The crab cake was very tasty, although I recalled preferring the ones from Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.

For the second course, all four of us again chose the same: Chilean sea bass with wilted baby tomatoes, sweet onions, basil, and aged balsamic. The fish filet was a sizable and definitely would’ve been worth the flat $35 price had it been more flavorful. I know we’re in the health-conscious age and all, but the fish needed some major butter. After a few bites, the fish (being humongous and all) became a chore to eat, and that’s just the saddest thing. (If I’ve learned anything from my 31 years of eating and ten years of cooking, it’s that you always want to feed your guests just enough to leave them wanting more.) Toward the end of our entree, we were struggling to finish, not enjoying the sea bass as much as we did at the beginning.

For dessert, we decided to all get something different. There was the tres leches (rum milk syrup, vanilla cream, Swiss merengue, and blueberries); the strawberry and almond shortcake; and the devil’s food cake (coconut pecan praline, Valrhona milk chocolate, and ganache), which we all felt was sub-par.

For $35, the value wasn’t bad for what should be a four-star restaurant, but it failed to impress us, which is too bad because the Houstonian is such a nice hotel.

Note: We had photos of our food but in all honesty, it wasn’t even worth posting. Just imagine big chunks of food on a plate that tasted all mediocre. And there you have it.

bad start to houston restaurant week 2010

MenuArcodoro
5000 Westheimer Rd., Ste. 100
Houston, TX 77056
713-621-6888


2/5 maggot-looking Sardinian teardrop pasta pieces

In our defense, John and I did not choose to go to this restaurant. It was not on my original list of restaurants to try during HRW 2010. It was a friend’s farewell dinner, and so we ended up at a stately table in a private room with 13 other people.

I ordered:

  1. Carpaccio di Manzo al Pesto di olive – Cured Carpaccio of Angus Beef Tenderloin with Black Pepper and Sea Salt, Served over Chopped Romaine Heart and Cherry Tomatoes, Leccino Olives and Sundried Tomato Pesto Dressing
  2. Gnocchetti con Sugo di Maiale e Ricotta Salata – “Malloreddus”, a Traditional Sardinian Teardrop Pasta Served with Pork Shoulder Ragu and Aged Ricotta Salata Cheese
  3. Tiramisu Cioccolato – Chocolate Sponge Cake, Topped with Layers of Mascarpone and Ladyfingers, Finished with Thin Cracked Chocolate

John ordered:

  1. Crostini di Melanzane e Mozzaralla di Bufala – Paesano Bread Crostini Topped with Roasted Eggplant Mousse and Melted Buffalo Mozzaralla, Served over Arugula Salad and Fresh Fig Balsaba
  2. Paella Sarda – Sardinian Style Paella made with Fregula Pasta Simmered in Homemade Lobster Stock with a Medley of Seafood, Calamari, Clams, Mussels, Shrimp, Scallops and Saffron
  3. Seadas al Miele – Traditional Sardinian Puff Pastry Filled with Sweet Cheese, Lightly Fried and then Drizzled with Sardinian Bitter Honey

Sounds tasty, right? Let’s see about that.



1st course A
1st course B

Arcodoro started out strong. I enjoyed the carpaccio: a mix of thinly sliced cured meat complemented with the tart tastes of the vegetables. I only had a bite of John’s first course and found it rich but delicious enough. (I preferred my dish, however, and so didn’t waste time nibbling on his.)



2nd course A
2nd course B

But then came the incredibly disappointing second course. Three people at three different times commented that my teardrop pasta looked like maggots. I didn’t mind the spongy texture, but if that many people said it reminded them of maggots, then shouldn’t you rethink serving it? Who wants their customers to think of nasty bug larvae while dining? To make matters worse, the dish tasted like it came from a can: the pork shoulder was crumbly, and the sauce was nothing special. John’s paella (which I already knew would be a mistake) was not at all like the paella of our Barcelonian honeymoon. Granted, maybe Sardinian paella uses pasta instead of rice as their main ingredient, but the prawn was cold and the clams overcooked.



3rd course A
3rd course B

Arcodoro redeemed themselves slightly with their dessert. I thought the tiramisu was light–not too heavy with the liqeur nor cheese, and the chocolate atop the dessert was deliciously bittersweet. John’s dessert tasted like a lesser quality beignet.

Accompanying our meals were one iced tea and one Jameson on the rocks, running our HRW bill to $104! You bet we were pretty pissed. John and I don’t really believe one should pay top dollar for Italian food, so already we were peeved. And while we know HRW menus don’t usually display the best dishes of that restaurant, we thought the venue should still put some thought and care into what they choose to serve during HRW since there will be many newcomers, and if their first experience is ruined by an unimpressive meal, then you can bet those people won’t ever be coming there again. And that definitely applies to us–John and I will never go to Arcodoro again.

not your typical spanish fare either

Catalan
5555 Washington Ave., Ste. A
Houston, TX 77007
713-426-4260


4/5 big beefy bone marrows


In continuing our attempt to relive our honeymoon gastronomically, John decided to take me out on a spontaneous dinner date. We’ve heard two of our friends claim this place to be in their top five, so naturally, we gave it a try. Since half of our honeymoon was in Barcelona, which is part of Catalonia, I was looking forward to reminiscing over some familiar foods. We arrived right before the dinner rush at about 6:45 and were not turned away nor did we have to wait despite our lack of a reservation. (We were, however, seated near the back at a table with wrinkly linens. But this didn’t bother us–we were there for the food.)

The menu is extensive, and everything sounded delicious albeit unfamiliar–there was no mac ‘n cheese in Barcelona as far as I could recall. Our waiter could not recommend any particular dish, saying “everything’s great.” Thanks for the help, buddy.

We ended up ordering three appetizers and one main dish to share. The plates were brought out one by one; we were not presented with the next until we were done with the previous. This aided in a slow dining pace which I enjoyed because it allowed for full concentration on one dish at a time. Our entire dinner conversation consisted of how the food looked and tasted–we felt like true critics.

The first plate was crab croquettes ($12) with a lemon zest sauce dribbled over it. A croquette is a small deep-fried little ball of goodness usually containing some variation of protein (meat or seafood), vegetables, dairy (cheese, eggs, etc.), and herbs. It is wrapped in bread crumbs before frying. Croquettes, which come from the word meaning “to crunch” in French, are originally from France but have since popped up all over the world. At Catalan, we oiriginally ordered pork croquettes but were told they had just been placed on the menu that night and were not ready. John and I exchanged glances. It didn’t seem very professional to print things on the menu only to disappoint your customers. Nevertheless, thinking back to the chicken croquettes I had at Paco Merlago (more on this later), I knew I wanted croquettes.

Crab croquettes

Crab croquettes with lemon zest


The croquettes were tasty but nothing to rave about. We thought it would be better if there was more lump crabmeat inside and less of the creamy filling. The lemon zest sauce added an interesting citrus twist to the flavor, but call me old-fashioned because I think I prefer a traditional croquette. I do commend the chef for trying something different. If it’s any consolation, I am not much of a fan of anything with lemon flavor, e.g. candy, cookies, pies.
The next dish was the bone marrow ($14) which is spread on a slice of toast and topped with a pickled onion. This was my first time to ever have bone marrow, and I must say, this dish blew me away. It tasted even better than foie gras. There is something delightfully rich about each bite. The marrow was salty, and its marriage to the pickled onion was perfect. John and I could not stop swooning over this dish.
Bone marrow

Awesome bone marrow with pickled onion on toast


Our last of the appetizers was the seared foie gras ($18) which was dressed in a blueberry jelly. John enjoyed the salty and sweet complexity (probably a testament to his love of PBJs), but I found the jelly too sweet. I like to taste foie gras for its fatty, substantial essence, and so to add anything that overpowers the foie gras usually results in disappointment for me.
Foie gras

Foie gras with blueberry sauce

Finally, our entree arrived: Bryan’s farm-raised fried chicken with redneck mac ‘n cheese and watermelon pickles ($24). I always judge fried chicken on its battered skin, and this fried chicken was pretty damn good. It tasted of a lot of herbs, and I like that (I like KFC’s original recipe, what can I say?). Even the white meat was fairly juicy. Redneck cheese, we were told, is a particular cheese from Texas. It tastes like a sharp cheddar to me, but not too pungent. It made the mac ‘n cheese taste like home cookin’ with a gourmet kick. I tried a bite of the watermelon pickles just to try it. It wasn’t too tart and tasted refreshing, but because John is much more of a watermelon and pickle fan than me, I gave him all of it. I’m sure he was glad to have more to himself.

Fried chicken

Our main dish: gourmet Southern comfort food

John had a $12 glass of cabernet sauvignon, and after tax and tip, we ended up spending an even $100. Don’t get us wrong–we are typically cheapos, and this was much higher than we were expecting to pay for a Friday night dinner, but we are still newlyweds and still splurging on our dates. But I do think $100 for 3 appetizers and a shared entree with only one glass of wine is pretty high. Catalan is great, but for that price, we still prefer Mark’s. But because of the heavenly bone marrow and I give it four out of five big beefy bone marrows.

Disclaimer: I know the photos posted on this entire blog are sub-par, but for what it’s worth, either I (a blind person) am taking the photo, or we’re using an iPhone and not a nice camera. So please excuse the mess. I’m sure you can understand the Blind Cook’s blog won’t be the most visually appealing.

french provencal mixed with texas home cookin’

Mockingbird Bistro
1985 Welch St.
Houston, TX 77019
713-533-0200


4/5 truffle fries

American kobe burger with foie gras and truffle fries


Chilean sea bass with vegetables

Our July Supper Club was spent at this quaint bistro in the eclectic Montrose neighborhood. I picked the spot because I’d heard of the name in passing before and happened to see them on the Restaurant.com summer sale where $25 coupons were going for $2. (Per my previous Chick-Fil-A post, you know I’m a sucker for discounts.)

Before ordering, a small plate of beef carpaccio was set on our table. “From the chef,” the waiter said. It was like nibbling on a little bit of heaven and did its job of whetting our appetites.

We decided to skip additional appetizers and go straight to the entrees. Two of us ordered the American Kobe beef burger with foie gras and truffle fries. Another two ordered the fish special which was Chilean sea bass with vegetables. And I ordered the meat special which was a beef filet in red wine sauce with vegetables.

Those who had the burger said it maybe one of the best burgers they’d ever had. The foie gras accompaniment apparently made all the difference. The truffle fries came with what seemed like a aioli sauce, or at least that perfectly spiced mayo condiment that the French love dipping their potatoes in. Those that ordered the sea bass claimed it was cooked just right: tender and juicy. As for my filet, I very much enjoyed the first several bites but found it slightly oversalted after that. I suspect it was in the sauce. Regardless, I mopped up my plate and then just downed two glasses of water.

For dessert, we all shared the torte and bread pudding. A torte is a cake made mostly of eggs, sugar, and ground nuts instead of flour. Both were delicious.

None of us had leftovers which meant: a) the portions were perfectly well thought out, and b) the food was delicious enough that we finished it all. The bistro itself was small in size, a marking of a true European bistro. This is no surprise considering Executive Chef and owner John Sheely has spent much of his career cooking up food from the likes of the French Riviera. At Mockingbird, he combines his Texas roots with Provencal fare in his French-American comfort foods. Since its opening in 2002, Mockingbird Bistro has had numerous accolades and rave reviews. I’m following suit.

The restaurant does, however, have a reputation for slow service, but it wasn’t until we waited for our check that it became apparent. But in their defense, the computer had trouble applying the Restaurant.com coupon to a split check. (Hrm?) I give this place 4 out of 5 truffle fries and would definitely return.

$2 thursdays at luby’s

If you read about me, you would know that I don’t believe good eats always equate with expensive eats. This is why I’m not ashamed to put it out there that I love Luby’s! I recall the days of girlhood when my immigrant parents, who had no idea how to roast a Thanksgiving turkey, would order our holiday meals from Luby’s. And during the other times of the year, my mom would take me to the cafeteria after either my piano lesson or a long day of shopping. I would always get the Lu Ann Platter (a half portion entree served with two vegetables and a bread of choice) with fried chicken, corn, and either mashed potatoes or mac ‘n cheese, the dinner roll with extra butter, an iced tea which I drowned with ten packs of sugar, and (if my tooth was feeling extra sweet) a serving of strawberry Jell-o. Back then, the Lu Ann Platter ran us only a few dollars, but prices have since gone up. That’s why I appreciate the $2 Thursdays at Luby’s where you can get a chicken fried steak or a fried fish for just two singles. You can bet I’m going to round up my fellow Luby’s fan club friends one of these upcoming Thursdays and relive the magic of cafeteria childhood.

And here’s an interesting tidbit: The Lu Ann Platter is the inspiration for the same named character on “King of the Hill,” a redneck TV show created by Mike Judge which was based on real people he knew while he lived in Texas. Judge is also known for making “Beavis and Butt-Head” and the Office Space movie. On “King of the Hill,” Lu Ann Platter is Hank and Peggy’s niece who moved in with the family after her mother stabbed her father with a fork, and their trailer was capsized. The late Brittany Murphy played Lu Ann’s voice for several seasons. At first, I couldn’t stand the show because it stereotyped Texans–I’ve had more than one person ask me if Texans were like that–but after watching a few episodes, I found myself laughing aloud. Give it a try some time. They’re syndicated on FOX; check out the showtimes here.

didn’t get to try everything on your houston restaurant week list?

There are rumors that many of the participating restaurants have decided to extend their HRW menus until Labor day (September 6). Originally, HRW was scheduled to end tomorrow, August 21, but now we get the chance to try out even more restaurants. Personally, I’m not sure if I can handle any more of the dents in our wallets. We did, however, get to try four of the venues (reviews to come). Some were great, some terrible. At least we know some of the money is going to a good cause.

So as I type this, it hasn’t been confirmed on the official HRW website yet. But can anyone say for sure if some venues are indeed extending the HRW?

$1 coffee & tea smoothie at jamba juice

There is something about Jamba Juice that increases my willingness to part with multiple dollars for an un-fancy orange juice. Maybe they slip something into my drinks. Or what about that matcha green tea smoothie? Yum.

But today, let’s try something different. For today only, you can get coffee and tea smoothies at $1 a pop. No coupon needed; just go right up to the counter and order.

Thanks to Heari (a.k.a. love.sewn) for the tip. Keep ‘em com’in’, guys.

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