Saturday, December 28, 2013

In Honor of National Chocolate Day, Try Some Mole

Today, December 28, is national chocolate day. That is great for chocoholics everywhere. But what if you don't have a sweet tooth? Well, there is at least one way that I know of to enjoy chocolate on this day that is not sweet. I'm talking about mole. Mole is a traditional Mexican savory sauce that can be used with just about anything. Mole, like Mexican cuisine itself, has a considerable number of variations dependent on region, custom, family tradition, even an individual cook's style. The most "typical" mole people think of is a thick rich dark brown to brick red concoction made of dried chiles, peanuts, other spices, and unsweetened chocolate.

To make truly authentic Mexican mole is a long arduous process involving multiple steps as well as a plethora of ingredients. For this reason mole sauce bases are the easiest way to prepare it. Even in Mexico it is not uncommon to use a premade base. However, those are usually available at the local market and usually prepared by the person selling it. Here in the US, there are many brands you can find at your local supermarket. El Mexicano, Doña Maria, and La Costeña come to mind. They are typically concentrated so you will have to add liquid to it.

If you are willing to and brave enough, you can always try making your own. The internet is filled with recipes for all levels of cooking acumen. In fact, here are some good ones:

Authentic Mole Recipe

Quick Chicken Mole Recipe

Mole Sauce Recipe

Rick Bayless Red Mole Sauce

So there you have it. Mole sauce works well on everything from chicken to shrimp to even eggs. On this national day of chocolate go out and enjoy some chocolate, even without a sweet tooth.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas in the Rio Grande Valley

This year's Christmas has been a harrowing one for reasons I'm not really ready or willing to discuss in such a public space. However, this Christmas season still allowed me to cook a little. Originally my mother and I had planned on preparing two dishes: a roasted pork leg and bacalao (salt cod). We were going to prepare the pork leg adobada and the bacalao Spanish style, but like I said, circumstances got in the way of that. Instead, I ended up making the pork leg with a mustard, garlic, and herb rub and slow roasting it in the oven. I also made a mushroom risotto as a side. The rest of the sides were made by my mother-in-law.

I knew the pork leg would take all day to cook. The thing was HUGE! It was easily 20 to 25 lbs. Most people have no idea how big pigs truly are. The first thing I prepared was the rub for the pork leg. Originally I was going to use fresh garlic and herbs. However, when I went to the grocery store the fresh herbs were insanely expensive. Instead I opted for dried herbs. Even those were a bit overpriced. I decided in the end to just use what my mother-in-law had on hand. I did manage to acquire fresh garlic, parsley and some spicy brown mustard. To make the rub I combined the entire 16 OZ bottle of mustard, one bunch of chopped parsley, an entire head of garlic, about a cup of oil, salt and pepper and a garlic and rosemary seasoning blend I found in the cupboard. As a chef you learn to be flexible and roll with the punches. When the rub was completed, I placed the leg on a roasting pan large enough to hold it lined with foil (for easy clean up). I completely rubbed the pork and whatever leftover rub I had I placed on the bottom of the pan with about a half cup of water. I then covered it with foil and then placed the leg in a 275° F oven. The pork leg went in about 10:30am.

The leg cooked all day. About 12:30 or 1pm I kicked the oven up to 300°. Approximately an hour after that I had my wife remove the foil. It was at 4pm, an hour before I anticipated the pork would be done, that I started to make the risotto. Now a lot of people consider risotto to be difficult to make. While it does require a bit of patience, it is no more difficult to make than a regular pot of rice. The first step was to heat my fat in the pan I was making the risotto in. I used a combination of butter and olive oil(about 3 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp oil) . While the fat was heating up, I also was heating up my liquid. I used a combination of chicken and beef broth. When making risotto it is important to use hot liquid. Once the fat was hot I started to sauté the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms were soft, I added the rice (about 3cups). For risotto you want to use Arborio rice. I stirred the rice allowing all the grains to be coated in fat. After that I added about a cup of dry white wine. I stirred the mixture allowing the rice to absorb the wine. When the wine had been mostly absorbed, I started to slowly add my hot broth. Now the key to making risotto is to keep stirring as you add your liquid and to add the liquid slowly. You have to give the rice time to absorb the liquid. The risotto is done when it is creamy and the rice is tender. After you reach this step season the risotto with salt and pepper. You can also add parmesan cheese if you'd like. Since I did not have any, I left it out.

Once the risotto was done I pulled the pork leg out of the oven. It looked and smelled wonderful. The pork leg still had the skin on it so it had a nice layer of fat to keep the meat moist. The flavor of the rub had penetrated the meat. I will admit that if I had had a chance to let the rub sit for longer it would have had a deeper flavor. The meat around the bone of the leg was also a little under done, but I was not worried about that since I was carving the outside first. After dinner I put the leg back in the oven to allow it to cook some more. The risotto also turned really well. It was creamy and rich with the flavor of mushrooms.

As stated earlier my mother-in-law made some other things. She made a pot of pinto beans and some chicken in gravy as well as a side of green beans. As you can see we had a veritable smorgasbord for Christmas dinner.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dilled Potato & Apple Salad

This is a recipe I made at work recently.  At first I was unsure of how the potatoes and apples would play off each other.  But after making it, the salad combine sweet and savory elements in a nice light and refreshing dish.

2 cups fat free plain yogurt
2 tbsp honey
1/8 cup lemon juice, fresh is preferable
Black pepper to taste
3-4 tbsp fresh dill weed or 2 tbsp dried
4-5 medium  or 6-8 small red potatoes
2-3 apples (use a mix of sweet and tart for best results)
1 cucumber peeled and seeded
1-2 carrots shredded (if using preshredded  carrots this is about a cup to a cup and a half)
1 med. to large red onion sliced

In a mixing bowl, combine first 5 ingredients until blended and smooth.  The mixture should have a nice balance between tangy, cream, with a hint of sweetness

The potatoes should be quartered or cut into bite size pieces.  Boil or steam the potatoes until they are fork tender, but not falling apart.  Cool them down.

Core and slice your apples.  If you are not going to prepare the salad immediately, you can store your apples in water with a little lemon juice to avoid them turning brown.

After you peel and seed your cucumber you can dice it, or cut it into half moons

After you have prepared all your fruits and vegetables, mix them  together in a large mixing bowl.  Add your already mixed dressing and toss lightly to incorporate.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving Sides

As Thanksgiving (one of my favorite holidays) quickly approaches, many of us have already made or are in the process of making plans.  I, as I do most years, plan to take in all orphans, wanderers, and stragglers from my social group.  Given that it is sometimes difficult to travel on Thanksgiving I decided some years ago that I would have a place where all those unable to go home could go and not spend Thanksgiving alone.  To that end, I have hosted what I call Epic Thanksgiving over the past few years (pictures and another post later).  Yesterday I was speaking with my best friend about Thanksgiving and he was asking my opinion about how to make a good gravy.  As we spoke I also told him about some of the side dishes I was going to make.  He got so excited that he asked me to write down the recipes and send them to him.  Never one to jump on an opportunity to write in my blog, I agreed I would share my recipes with him and with all my readers.

During the years I have served Epic Thanksgiving I have made a side dish that is so popular, it is requested every year.  My sweet potatoes with blue cheese and bacon are so popular that one of my friends half jokingly requests a small casserole dish be made especially for him.  I ran across this recipe when I was working at Central Market and have made it my own.

2-3lbs sweet potatoes
1 cup milk 
1/2 lbs bacon (thick cut preferably)
2 cups blue cheese
Salt and Pepper to taste

1. Dice bacon into small pieces and render the fat. Remove bacon and save the fat.

2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into large pieces.  Boil in water until soft, as if preparing for mashed potatoes.

3. Warm the milk in a sauce pan.

4. Mix soft sweet potatoes with milk, bacon fat and salt and pepper.  Adjust the seasoning to your taste.  If you don't want to use bacon fat, butter can serve as a substitute.

5.  Spray a casserole dish big enough to hold all your potatoes with cooking spray. Add your potatoes and spread evenly.

6. Top with bacon and blue cheese evenly over the top.

7. Bake in a 350 degree oven until everything is hot and cheese is melted a bit.  This dish can be prepared a day ahead of time and just baked the day of serving.

My next side dish is something I will be making for the first time this year.  I usually change out the vegetable side for the meal. One of the previous years I made some balsamic roasted Brussels sprouts.  At work as of late I have made some balsamic glazed roasted butternut squash with kale.  I decided to make a hybrid of these two recipes.

2-3 lbs butternut squash peeled and diced.
2-3 lbs Brussels sprouts halved
1 lbs kale chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4-1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

1.In a large pot bring about a half gallon to a gallon of water to a rolling boil.  While the water comes to boil, fill a large bowl a fourth of the way with ice.  Fill to half with water.

2. When the water is at a boil, drop in your Brussels sprouts.  Leave them in there just long enough for them to become fork tender and bright green.  Usually between 1-2 min.

3. Once they are tender, use a spider or slotted spoon to fish them out and immediately drop them into the ice water.  Once all your sprouts are cooked, you may drain them.

4. Using the same boiling water you can do the same thing to your kale.  The kale will take significantly less time in the hot water.  (Note, you will have to make a new ice bath or use the same one provided you did not  dump it out to drain your sprouts.)

6. After draining both the kale and the sprouts, dry them off with a towel.

7. Mix the brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper together until smooth.

8. Toss the butternut squash and the Brussels sprouts with the sugar and vinegar mixture.  You can toss the kale too if you would like.  Just know it will result in crunchy kale which is not bad.

9.  Roast vegetables in 350 degree oven for about 20 min or until butternut squash is tender.  I usually check mine after 15 just to be safe.

10.  If you have not previously tossed your kale with everything do so now.  The heat of the other vegetables will heat up the kale.

11. Serve and enjoy!

Last, this is how I make my giblet gravy using the drippings from the roasted turkey.

1 cup flour
1-1 1/2 cups white wine
2 cups chicken stock or broth
Giblets from the trukey
Fat and drippings from the turkey, preferably still in the roasting pan.
Salt and pepper

1. Place roasting pan with fat and drippings over heat and get the fat hot.

2. Add the giblets and saute in the fat allowing them to brown.

3. Add the flour and mix with the fat to make a roux.  Allow to cook for about a minute. If the roux looks too doughy, add more fat, such as oil.  If it is too liquidy or fatty add more flour.  The roux should be smooth.

4. Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all the tasty bits.  The liquid will become very thick from the roux.

5. Add the stock/broth stirring vigorously so as to avoid lumps.

6. Add salt and pepper to taste and strain your gravy.

7. For added flavor, take the giblets and chop them up and add them back into your gravy.

8.  If your gravy is too thick you can add more liquid to thin it out.  If the gravy is too thin, you can add a cornstarch slurry to thicken it up

9. If you gravy has a dough like taste to it, just allow it to cook a little longer over low heat.

So, these are my side dishes for this Thanksgiving.  You may ask why there is not recipe for a stuffing.  Well, my wife takes care of that.  If she is feeling generous, she may do a guest post and give up her family secrets.  I will post more about how I make my bird later.  For now, I hope you enjoy these and I hope they help.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sweets by Belen

What do you think of when you think of great desserts?  Probably cakes and pies hailing from the United States or maybe even parts of Europe.  Some may even go as far as thinking about Mexico.  Well, what if I told you about desserts from Peru? I was introduced to Ms. Belen Bailey via email encouraging me to try something different from your typical desserts and sweets.  Always the intrepid foodie willing to be adventurous, I agreed to meet her.  Belen is the owner and operator of Sweets by Belen, a "food truck" specializing in desserts with a South American (Peru in particular) flair.

Belen Bailey came to the US from Peru to be a teacher, not a cook or baker.  In fact, she was a Spanish teacher for 12 years.  However, during that time Ms. Belen told me that she missed the home cooking form her mom and grandmother and would often contact them to find out how to make things from home.  It was during this time that she discovered her true passion for baking and making sweets.  During our conversation Ms. Belen told me that the reason she changed careers was not because she did not enjoy teaching, but rather because she enjoyed baking more!  She did the baking thing only as a hobby and part time enterprise for 7 years before fully committing to making baked goods full time a year and a half ago.

In a way she does not have a food truck in the traditional sense. Where most food trucks will sell their product out of said truck, Belen uses it more as a means to get her business around.  The truck (more like a van) is used to make deliveries or get product from point a to point b.  Rarely does she actually sell out of the truck, but it can be prominently seen so as to indicate where she is.

 A good portion of her business come in the form of catering, either from her website or from customers who have ordered from her in the past.  Belen told me that she even does cakes and other baked good for some restaurants that either don't have an in house baker or just don't know how to do the things she does. 

I met Belen at the Rice University farmer's market where she can be found every Tuesday from 3:30 to 6 pm.  It was actually at farmer's markets (specifically the Kingwood farmer's market) where Belen first started selling her wares.  Now she not only does the farmer's market scene, but also does food festivals as well.  The festivals are a good way to get here name out there.  A majority of food trucks sell savory dishes so Sweets by Belen provides a good alternative.  Even if there is another dessert truck, it is a certainty that they will not offer what Belen has.

When I walked up to her stand, Belen had a full array of sweets out on display.

Banana Breads and Merenguitos
Various Sweets

 One of her more popular items was the alfajores.  These are little shortbread cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched in between them and coated with confectioners sugar.  Belen makes them in three varieties: traditional, pecan, and chocolate.  At the market she was selling them in packages of 6 cookies.  The cookies were marvelous.  Light and crumbly but not too sweet so that the dulce de leche could provide the sweetness and shine on its own.  I would highly recommend these to anyone.

Traditional Alfajores with one missing.
The most popular item with the kids, however, were the ice pops.
Exotic and more traditional flavors available.

Have to keep them frozen.
 These cool treats were basically just tubes of frozen goodness.  Using the most traditional recipe with the most basic ingredients, Belen creates magic.  She has flavors ranging from the well known, like strawberry, passion fruit, and mango, to the more exotic like chirymoya , lucuma or chicha morada.  I opted to try something different so I chose the chirymoya.  It had a taste that while different it was not unfamiliar and all together enjoyable. Belen mentioned that having chirymoya had gotten her a number of Vietnamese fans seeing as how the fruit is now cultivated over there.

Belen was nice enough to give me some things to try at home with the wife.  So here at home we tried the banana bread and the merenguitos.  The banana bread has liquour infused raisins that Belen infuses herself.  The merenguitos are small meringue "cookies".  They are just basically meringue piped into a shape and baked until hard.  The banana bread was delightful.  The infused raisins played well with the bread and did not overwhelm it.  And while not my favorite, the merenguitos were also good.  They provide an interesting alternative if nothing else as far as sweets go.

Banana Bread w/ Infused Raisins

Merenguitos: Baked Meringue Cookies
 While talking to Belen she told me that she only uses all natural ingredients in all of her confections.  She also tries to use local ingredients too as much as possible, although some of the more exotic fruits she has to ship in frozen.  Right now you can find some of Belen's handy work at both of the Phonecia Specialty Foods locations.  So next time you find yourself in a farmer's market or food festival, keep an eye out for Sweets by Belen and try something out.  I promise you it will be worth it.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Why I Cook: A Chef's Manifesto

To start, I think we have to answer a more fundamental question: why do we eat?  The most basic of answers is a simple biological necessity.  If you don't eat, your body starves, shrivels up and dies.  But there is of course more to it than that.  If not, then why not just "evolve" food into a nutrient rich paste from which we can all derive our sustenance?  Why then did Homo erectus start using fire to cook food?  The answer lies in our love of food.  I don't think anything else could be far more rudimentary and primal than a love for food.  I mean, who does not have that one comfort food?  You know that one favorite meal or dish that can be eaten at any time for any reason.  From that love of eating comes the love for cooking.

I love to eat.  I love food.  And I want to make good food that others want to eat.  It all starts from wanting to make good food; to make something special.  From knowing that if you combine A with B, you not only get C, but you get something that is so much more than the sum of its parts.  That C is something that A and B could never achieve alone.   This drives me to make good, nay, great food.  This is why I hate serving anything that is only ok or even worse, bad.  It is such a disappointment when I make food and I know I could have done it better.  And lord knows I have had my fair share of disappointments.  But from each disappointment I have seen it as a chance for growth and improvement.  Every time I have failed I have learned from it.  I have seen what I did wrong and how to do it better or correct the mistake and make sure I never do it again.  That is why I now make one hell of a kick ass picatta sauce.  But for every mistake, there are countless other triumphs.  That is where I derive the most satisfaction.

Let me explain. For me personally there is nothing more satisfying than when I hear someone compliment my food.  When someone says that what they have eaten that I made is great, it pushes the primordial pleasure centers of my brain.  I think it is the same sense of satisfaction that comedians get from laughter and great musicians and actors get from applause.  I love hearing this from my friends and family.  But it truly has weight when I hear it from strangers and customers who come through my place of employment.  I say this because while I know friends and family give comments sincerely, I also know that part of it comes from the relationship we have.  When a customer writes an email to the executive chef or comes back and tells me personally, I know my food has caused them enough joy to go out of his or her way to let me know about it.  And quite frankly, they really have no incentive to do so.

For this reason, whenever I go out, I make an effort to let the crew in the kitchen know if they have done a really good job.  I know at least one of them will appreciate the compliment.  As a member of the same industry I know what it takes to produce a great meal.  It takes time, dedication, knowledge, sweat and sometimes a little blood and tears.  So next time you go out and have a truly great meal, let the guys in the kitchen know it.  If there is a comment card, fill it out.  If there is not, just tell your server to let them know how much you enjoyed your meal and appreciate the effort put into producing it.  Trust me, it goes a long way!

One thing that I have discovered about cooking along the way is that it is really not as difficult as some people might make it seem.  Sure, it is not without its share of difficulties and there are some things that take some more advanced skills and know how to produce, but the thing you most need to cook is "ganas" or willingness to do so.  Some of the best food ever produced is also some of the easiest and most simple.  Just take the humble grilled cheese sandwich.  Who does not love grilled cheese?  All you need is two slices of bread, some cheese and a skillet.  With a little effort you now have some deliciousness.  If you really wanted to, you could even dress it up.  Use two or three different types of cheese.  Add some fresh tomato slices.  Add bacon!  See?  See how simple that is.  All it takes is a little effort.

I know the biggest thing that probably keeps people from cooking more is fear.  Fear of the food not being edible, much less good.  Fear of wasting time or money on something that you can't eat.  I understand that.  But here is the thing: you have nothing to fear.  If you have never cooked anything before then start small and basic.  Use recipes.  Do your research.  After a while you can move on to more difficult dishes and meals.  If you keep it up long enough you might even reach the point where you don't need a recipe or if you use one, you use it as a guideline.  Whenever you are cooking, just keep this in mind: what's the worst than can happen?  You produce something inedible.  OK, throw it out, learn from it, and try it again at a later point.  I once made pork chops with Worcestershire sauce that were awful.  I learned never to do that again.   Always remember that there are plenty of pizza places around. 

So in the end, I hope this sheds a little light on why some people love to cook.  I also hope it encourages everyone to get in the kitchen and give it a shot if you don't do so already.  Don't eat just for the sake of eating.  Enjoy your food.  And if you make your food, I guarantee it will taste that much better.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cumin Roasted Carrots with Fresh Mint and Honey

Recently at my place of employment, I have been moved from the Italian food station to what they call "Whole + Sum".  This area is what you would call the health food.  At first I was a little hesitant about being moved there because who wants to cook and eat rabbit food, right?  However, my executing chef helped me realize that there is more to it than meets the eye.  The challenge is to make good food that is healthier for you.  And if one is to grow professionally, one must take challenges head on and see them as opportunities.  So, one of the first side dishes I made was the cumin roasted carrots with fresh mint and honey.  It is an intriguing way of using carrots and quite tasty to boot.

The first thing I needed was carrots, lots and lots of carrots.  Given that I work in a professional kitchen, all I had to do was ask my sous chef to order me some carrots.  What he gave me were batonnet cut carrots.  Now, if you can't find this cut at your local super market, you can always cut them yourself, or just another type of carrot.  Baby carrots or sliced work well.  Try to avoid matchstick carrots.

Next I gathered all the ingredients I would need.  This included cumin, chopped garlic,

fresh mint,

honey, olive oil,

orange and lemon juice.


I chopped the mint and divided it into halves.  One half I wold toss with the carrots before cooking and the other I would use as garnish after cooking. 

Next, I took the juices, garlic, honey and half my mint, as well as the oil and made a sort of vinaigrette.  I combined the first five ingredients and slowly whisked in the oil. 

After I had my dressing, I tossed my carrots in it along with the cumin.  After being tossed and dressed, the carrots went on a sheet pan and into the oven.

The carrots took about 20 - 25 minuets in the oven.  When they came out, I panned them up and garnished with my reserved mint and they were ready for service!

The carrots are flavorful but low sodium and low fat.  This is great way to eat your veggies. For those of you who want to do this at home, here is a simple recipe:

2 lbs carrots
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
5 sprigs of fresh mint
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tbsp honey
1/4 cup orange juice
1/8 cup lemon juice
1-2 tbsp cumin

Prepare carrots by cutting them into whatever shape you would like.

Fine chop mint and separate into halves.

Mix garlic, half the mint, honey and juices.  Slowly drizzle in olive oil while whisking until everything is incorporated and smooth.

Toss carrots with mixture.

Place carrots on a sheet pan and sprinkle with cumin evenly.

Roast carrots in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  Check after 15.

Carrots should be tender, but not mushy.  Some might have a light char on them, but they should not be burnt. If the carrots are not done, let them cook longer checking in 5 minute intervals.

Once the carrots are done, sprinkle with the other half of your mint. 


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tango & Malbec

Two weeks ago was my wedding anniversary.  So my wife and I decided to try a new restaurant.  We had spotted Tango & Malbec a couple of times while driving through the Galleria area and were intrigued by its name.  My wife is a big fan of malbec wines.  Tango & Malbec is a South American steakhouse.  While a little on the pricey side (special occasion type of restaurant), the food and atmosphere were well worth it.  I did make reservations, but when we got there it did not seem as if we needed them.  There was plenty of seating available.  The dining area was warm and inviting.  The lights were dimmed to set the perfect mood for a romantic night out.  We were seated close to the open staging area.  What I mean to say is there was a big opening where the waiter would pick up plates from the kitchen and we could look into and see the guys working over the grills.

The first thing that the waiter brought to our table was a bowl of different types of bread and house made chips with a smaller bowl of chimichurri sauce. The chips were exquisite. They were nice and crispy without being burnt or hard.  The chimichurri was equally as good having a nice balance of tang from the vinegar, eathiness from the herbs, and sweetness from the sugar.  They both played very well with each other. The bread was just your standard sliced baguette, some small bread sticks and some sliced parmesan bread.  Good, but nothing spectacular.

While looking over the menu, my wife and I decided to order a bottle of wine.  We got the Humberto Canale Estate '11, which is of course, a malbec.  This was a very robust wine that was good right out of the bottle but really opened up once you let it breath a bit in your glass.  Our waiter was also very good about keeping my wife's glass filled.  I was taking my time with it, so I did not need as many fill ups.  The wine also made for a fine accompaniment of our dinner.

Before we placed our order, the waiter informed us of the specials for the night. The thing is, he did not just tell us about it, he showed us.  An assistant and he brought forth a very large butcher's block filled with various types and cuts of meat ranging from a filet mignon, to a dry aged ribeye, to a couple of tomahawk steaks. In the end, we decided to order something off the menu.

As a started we decided to go with the ceviche.  The ceciche was fresh fish and shrimp cooked in lemon juice and jalapenos and topped with some avocados and freshly made tortilla chips.  The fish had a very fresh taste.  It was very citrusy with some kick from the jalapenos.  The shrimp had good flavor, but was a little rubbery as if it had be overdone slightly.  Still, the ceviche was a nice way to start our meal.

For our main course, my wife and I decided to order the Como En El 50, which is a sort of sampler plate for two.  It comes with skirt steak, lamb chops, tenderloin, short ribs, sausage and blood sausage as well as accompanied by grilled vegetables.  My wife and I also decided to order a side of fried yuccca.

The meat was served on a metal served platter with hot coal underneath it and place in the middle of the table where my wife and I could serve ourselves.  We were both given a plate with our accompanying vegetables.

The vegetables were prepared with the utmost care and respect they deserve.  They were flavorful and tender without being mushy and overcooked.  The yucca was also very good.  It was the perfect starchy compliment to our mostly meaty meal.  Like well made fries, the yucca was crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  

The meat, of course, was the star of this dinner show.  Given so many options it was difficult to know where to start.  We started with the black sausage.  My wife was a little hesitant about it, but I told her to be adventurous.  The sausage had a very mild flavor with an almost boudain like quality to it in texture.  Next we moved on the the normal sausage which was also very good.  Next I tried the tenderloin. It was cooked just as I like my meat, medium rare.  The meat was very well seasoned, moist and tender.  The flank steak was equally as good.  

The two meat that really shined were the lamb chops and the spare rib.  My wife described the lamb chop as possibly the best she's ever had.  It was moist and tender without any gamyness to it.  It was so good, we were both gnawing on the bone.  We both know you are not really supposed to do that in public, but screw it.  It was that good.  The spare rib was incredible.  The meat had a buttery quality that was beyond description.  My only fault with it was that there was not more of it. There was, however, plenty of food to go around.  My wife and I both had our fill and still had enough to take home to make steak and eggs for breakfast the next morning. 

In just in case we were not stuffed to the gills on delicious meat, Tango & Malbec threw in a complimentary dessert.  I had mentioned when I made our reservation that it was our anniversary, so I guess they decided to add some tres leches to our meal.

Not really a birthday.  Unless you consider it our marriage's birthday.
The tres leches was an unexpected, but pleasant surprise end to our dinner.  As far as tres leches cakes go, it was above average.  It was also a very good portion size.  After having such a big meal, the cake was a perfect size for sharing with another person.  My wife and I both got a taste, but it was not so much that we would feel sick after eating.

Tango & Malbec left a good impression with me.  I enjoyed the food and the atmosphere and would definitely return.  Given the possible hefty price tag, this will not be a place in heavy rotation of our favorite places to eat, but it will always come into consideration for special occasion meals.

Tango and Malbec on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Omelette & Waffle Restaurant

My wife and I first discovered this small, unassuming eatery shortly after it opened a couple of years back. The only problem is that is it so unassuming that we had really forgotten about it until this past Sunday.  If you are looking for a nice little spot for breakfast or brunch, this place is it.  Located in a strip mall and surrounded by various other store fronts, it is easily overlooked.  But if you can get past the outside, you will find an unpretentious "mom and pop" restaurant with quick and friendly service as well as good food.

Omelette & Waffle Restaurant is the epitome of straightforward cafe style food.  I mean, the name alone screams "SIMPLICITY" from the rooftops.  The interior reflects the no nonsense directness of the restaurant.  Always clean and tidy and with little frills, the restaurant has about 5 or 6 tables along with a counter.  We were promptly greeted and seated and handed our menus.

I must note that Omelette & Waffle Restaurant does serve lunch and dinner options, but mainly I go there for breakfast/brunch.  It is close to the house and serves perfectly for that Sunday after a late night or for whenever you just don't feel like dealing with the ordeal of making breakfast.  First thing my wife and I ordered was coffee.  You can't have a proper morning brunch without coffee.  The coffee here was quite good.  It was nice and strong without being overpowering or bitter. It was a pleasant proverbial kick to the senses.  Our waitress was also very keen on keeping our mugs filled.

Now, given that omelette is in the name of the restaurant, you think I would have ordered one, but alas, such is not the case.  I was tempted by something more basic on the menu and something that I truly love for breakfast.  I chose to order on this morning the pancakes with eggs and bacon.  Something a little simple, but I love pancakes so much that I will judge a place on the quality of its pancakes. That being said, let me start with the eggs and bacon.  The eggs and bacon were served on a plate of their own so the pancakes could have a stage all to themselves.  I order the eggs over easy and that is exactly how I got them.  The whites were nice and cooked while the yolk was still soft and runny.  The bacon was nice and crisp without being burnt.  The surprise of this plate was the salsa.  My plate included a small ramekin of homemade salsa and it was great.  You could really tell that someone took care in making this salsa.  It was flavorful with just a little bit of kick.  It played really with with my eggs and bacon.

Next we come to the pancakes.  The pancakes were very nice.  They were served with warmed maple syrup and topped with some sliced strawberries and a dash of powdered sugar.  It was just enough to take notice, but not so much that the pancakes would be confused with a snow topped mountain.  The pancakes themselves were very tasty.  They were, however, a little dense, almost like olde timey flapjacks.  To me this was great.  I liked them like that.  I can see how this could be a detractor for others though.  It all boils down to personal preference.

My wife decided that she wanted to try one of the daily specials.  She ordered the chicken fried steak with eggs, hash browns and a half order of the Belgian waffle.  She also received a ramekin of the homemade salsa.The chicken fried steak came with cream gravy and the eggs were cooked to order.  If I remember correctly she ordered over easy as well.  The eggs were cooked with the same precision as mine, so nothing to note there.  The chicken fried steak was good, but nothing amazing really.  The hash browns were quite good. Golden brown and crispy on the outside while being soft and tender in the middle and nicely seasoned.

Where Omelette & Waffle really shined was with... the waffle.  It was one of the best waffles I have had in a long time.  It was nice and crispy while still being light and fluffy.  The warmed syrup only accentuated the flavor of the waffle.  The waffle was topped with freshly whipped cream and strawberries and bananas. All together they danced and elegant waltz upon my palate I won't soon forget. Tasting the waffle can only lead me to one conclusion: if the waffles are this good, then the omelettes must be amazing as well.  I look forward to coming back and exploring more of the menu.

Omelette & Waffle Restaurant is a fine neighborhood eatery.  The problem might be that its reach might not extend past that.  So if you ever find yourself in this neck of the wood, do yourself and favor and check out this place. 

Omelette and Waffle on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Polenta's Potential Predicated

Polenta. What is it exactly?  It sounds like something exotic and crazy.  But really, it is such a simple dish that has the potential to be extraordinary!  For those of you who grew up in the south, polenta is no more than Italian grits.  Now I know some will cry out that "Grits and polenta aren't the same thing!"  Well, yes and no.  You see polenta and grits share some very fundamental and basic attributes.  Polenta and grits are both essentially dried ground corn that is slow cooked in hot liquid to make a porridge like concoction.  Both can be cooked with water alone, but we all know they are better with butter and cream.  And both can be creamy and runny or as hard as mortar. The key differences are really what they are made of and what you put in them.  Polenta is generally made with ground yellow cornmeal while traditional grits are made from hominy.  Polenta has an Italian slant to it, meaning that any spices or seasoning as well as cheese added to it will be Italian.  Grits usually are associated with Southern cuisine and served as a side dish with little to nothing added although cheesy grits are an exception. 

Now that we have that comparison out of the way, lets talk more about polenta.  At work I have become somewhat of an expert polenta maker.  In fact, I had to save my sous chef's polenta when he was about to do a chef's table!  That polenta turned out so well that one of our customers insisted on the recipe (provided below).  Since I usually make large quantities and I usually make mine by feel and instinct, I had to sit down and think about it.

So what makes a good polenta?  The first thing you have to know about polenta is how you want to serve it. As stated previously, polenta can be creamy and almost fluffy like good mashed potatoes, or nice and firm like a piece of cornbread.  Knowing what you are going to do with your polenta before you start goes a long way to achieving that goal.  Next, you have to let the polenta dictate how it will cook and how much you will need.  As much as a recipe calls for certain amounts and times, it really comes down to how the food behaves and how you react to that.  Lastly, good polenta takes fat and calories.  It is difficult to make really good polenta that is low cal.

Here are a couple of tips and tricks for good polenta making:

When buying your ingredients, don't be fooled into buying fancy packages of "polenta mix".  It is all just cornmeal.  The cornmeal is just as good for about a third of the price.

Don't get cornflour.  You generally want coarsely ground cornmeal.  Cornflour is just really finely ground cornmeal. For whatever reason, I have found that it does not make for good polenta.  It just ends up grainy.

Polenta will continue to cook even after you take it off the fire.  That means it will get thicker.  Take it off the heat a bit before your desired consistency.  Keep in mind when you are adding your cheese that it will also add density.

If your polenta ever ends up too thick or dense, just add some hot liquid to loosen it up.  At work I use hot water from the pasta machine.

If you are transferring your polenta to a serving dish, spray your dish and whatever utensils you are using to transfer with cooking spray.  This makes serving it easier. 

For firm polenta that can be cut into shapes, add enough cornmeal to make it difficult to stir, but not impossible.

When making polenta for cutting, make sure you spread it in your dish or baking pan before it sets.  You can now cool it and save it for later.  Once you are ready to serve it, you can reheat it by baking, grilling or searing it.

Polenta is versatile.  You can add anything from mushrooms to sundried tomatoes.  Get creative.


1 cup milk (2% works well)
1 cup cream
1/2 cup water
2-3 cloves of garlic minced (garlic powder works in a pinch)
3-4 tbsp Italian Seasoning  or fresh herbs1/2 to 1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal (grits can serve as a substitute)
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or your favorite Italian cheese
1/4 to 1/2 stick of unsalted butter
Salt and Pepper to taste (if you can, use white pepper)

Mix your milk, cream and  water in a sauce pan big enough to hold double the volume of the liquid.

Add your minced garlic to the liquid. You can also choose to add the dried herbs now, or wait until later.  If using fresh herbs, it is best to wait.

Heat your liquids on medium high heat until they simmer.  Do not allow liquid to boil over or scorch on the bottom. 

Once the liquid is simmering, begin to add the cornmeal a little at a time slowly, whisking continuously to avoid lumps.  As the cornmeal cooks it will thicken slightly.  Once you have reached your desired thickness, lower the heat.

Add your cheese, butter, seasoning and herbs(if you have not done so already).  Keep stirring the mixture until the cheese and butter are completely incorporated.

Serve and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Couscous and shrimp stuffed portabella mushrooms topped with a sauteed carrot and zucchini confetti

Just a simple recipe that my wife and I came up with one night for dinner.

Servings: 4

4 large portabella mushrooms
2 cups couscous cooked
1 lbs salad or cocktail shrimp
1/2 cup matchstick carrots
1/2 cup matchstick zucchini
3-4 tbsp olive oil for vegetables and as needed for the mushrooms
salt and pepper as needed

 Remove the stems and gills from the mushrooms.  Brush liberally with oil. Season with salt and pepper.  Place mushrooms either in a hot saute pan, a griddle or in a 350 degree oven for about 10 - 15 min or until softened.

Cook your couscous according to the directions (bring 1 part water to 1 part couscous to a boil, add couscous to boiling water and turn off heat. Cover and let it stand until all the water is absorbed, usually about 5 min.) For extra shrimp flavor add a little shrimp bouillon to your cooking water.
 If the shrimp is frozen, allow it to thaw, if raw throw it in the cooing water for the couscous.  Once the couscous is cooked fluff it with a fork and toss it with the shrimp. 

Using a mandolin, cut zucchini and carrots into matchsticks.  If you don't have a mandolin, you can use a grater.  You can also buy pre-cut carrots and cut the zucchini with a knife.  Heat the 3-4 tbsp of olive oil in a saute pan and add your vegetables.  Season with salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables become soft. 

Take the couscous and shrimp mixture and stuff it into the concave side of the mushrooms.  Top it off with your vegetable confetti and serve.  You can actually prepare these in advance.  Just allow everything to cool before assembling them.  Once you are ready to serve them, just pop them into a 350 degree oven for about 15-20 min. or until they are warm.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Epic Bar-B-Que of EPICNESS!!

Just in case you have not figured it out, I love to cook.  I mean I really LOVE to cook.  I especially enjoy preparing epic meals and having people over to share them with.  There are a couple of times through out the year that this is especially true.  (Thanksgiving and Mardi Gras)  However, this year has been different.  Due to some mitigating circumstances, I had not been able to  cook and have a large get together.  So when my wife asked if I wanted to have a bar-b-que over the Memorial Day weekend, I jumped at the chance.  And given the fact that I had not done this all year, I wanted to make it a big blow out event.  So I went all out.  I cooked the better half of a barn as my wife likes to tell people.  I decided to smoke a brisket, make slow cooker pulled pork, have smoked and grilled chicken and grill some sausage to round out the affair.  To make life "easier", I just had guests bring things such as sides, drinks and various other accouterments.

In order to properly prepare for such an undertaking, you really have to start at least a day ahead of the event, if not several.  If you count pre-purchasing all of the meat so that it would not be as big of a financial hit all at once, then I started several weeks ahead of time.  In truth though, it was only about a couple of days that I began preparations.  The first thing I did was take out some of the meat (such as the pork butt and whole chicken) from the freezer so that it could thaw out by the day of my BBQ.  Next thing I did was procure the brisket and prepare it for smoking.  I only really had to do this the day before.  However, it is VERY important to not wait until the day of to prep.  First of all, you really won't have time to prep the day of. (I will explain shortly.)  Secondly, it helps the meat if you season it and allow it to marinate overnight.  I used a wide breadth of spices and seasoning for all of my meats and sauces.

The day before I began cooking I started by trimming and seasoning my brisket.  Essentially what I did was split the brisket into two pieces.  I split the brisket to make it easier to smoke, give the meat more flavor, and reduce the cooking time.  Every brisket has a vein of fat running through it.  If you cut the brisket down this vein, you have what they call the fat cap(also called the point or deckle) and the flat.  The flat has more meat and the fat cap has more fat.  You don't want to trim off all the fat from the brisket, as this will dry out your meat in the smoker.  You do want to trim off some of the fat, especially in places where it is thick or there is a big hunk.  Once I trimmed my brisket, I seasoned it with my own rub which is a combination of salt, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne, garlic and onion powder, brown sugar, and paprika.

After the brisket is seasoned, I put it in an foil tray sealed with foil and let it sit overnight.  The next day the brisket should have produce a little liquid in the tray.  You want to save the liquid and the tray.

The day before I also seasoned and prepared the pork butt.  My pork butt was not a hundred percent defrosted, but it was most of the way there.  I cut the pork down into three smaller pieces since it did not fit into my crock pot.  I also seasoned the pork with a similar rub to the brisket, adding a bit more brown sugar to this rub.  To help the rub stick and to give the pork the smoky flavor of being in the pit while only cooking in the crock pot, I used some hickory flavored liquid smoke.  Once the pork was seasoned and packed up in my crock pot I let is sit in the refrigerator overnight as well.

I also wanted to leave my pit/smoker ready for the next morning so all I had to do was get it going.

The next morning started out really early in the morning:
That's AM!
The reason you have to start so early is to get the pit/smoker going and to have enough time to let the meat properly smoke and cook.  I try to get started about twelve hours before the event.  After I woke up the first thing I did was start the fire.  Once the fire got started I let it burn for about fifteen to twenty minutes so that I had hot coals and not flames.  Flames will burn your wood faster than just hot coals.

After my coals were set, I added smoking chunks of hickory and mesquite.  When I think of Texas BBQ, I think of the flavors of hickory and mesquite.  I also use smoking chunks instead of chips because they provide a longer burn and plenty of smoke, which is perfect for a brisket.

Next I added my meat to the pit.  Since my pit is a double compartment grill I put the meat on the opposite side compartment.  This allows the meat to have indirect heat while still being immersed in smoke. Now remember how I said it was a good idea to save the foil pan and liquid form your brisket?  Well, I used the foil pan as a drip pan collecting drippings and juices from the cooking meat and the juices have a bunch of flavor.  If you are worried about raw meat juice, don't.  It will be in a hot smoker for as long as the brisket is in there so it will cook.

The most important part of cooking with smoke is temperature control. That is why you need a good probe thermometer.  Without it you won't know what your meat or pit is doing.  Now, there are many good thermometers out there and a whole lot of different opinions on them.  Personally I like a simple probe thermometer that I can leave in the meat and it will monitor the meat's temp as well as the the pit's.  Once you have your meat and fire set up, you need to close up your pit and minimize the amount of time you open it until you are ready to pull out your meat.

So lets talk temperature.  What is the ideal temperature for your pit?  For me, I like to keep my pit at about 250 degrees.  It is a little bit difficult, but that is my goal.  At the very least I want to keep the temp above 200 if not 225.  Why the large variance?  Well, with my pit it is sometimes difficult to keep a steady temp.  I check the fire and temp at least once per hour if not more often.  I also have plenty of wood on hand to keep adding to the fire.  This helps keep the temp up.  It also helps that my pit is designed with opening doors that give access to the fire chamber directly so that I don't have to open the lid. Opening the lid quickly brings down the temperature of the chamber where your meat is.  As for the temperature of the meat, you want your meat to be at an internal temperature of at least 190 degrees.  Technically the meat is cooked at 160 degrees, but your meat will be tough and chewy.  In other worlds, not sexy.   You have to be patient with brisket and give it time to cook and get to that perfect state of tenderness.  You also have to keep in mind that every piece of meat is different.  So these temperatures are just guidelines.  One brisket can be done at 180 degrees just as easily as another can not be done until 200.

Once I had my brisket going I really only had to check up on it and wait.  The hardest part of all this is the waiting.  I feel like I have to keep doing something and when I am not, I get anxious.  At about 10 AM I started the pork.  I put the crock pot on high and just let it cook until the meat became fork tender.

At that time I also seasoned my chicken for smoking.  I just took a whole fryer and split it down the middle.  I seasoned the bird with a rub made from salt, paprika, garlic powder, cayenne, red pepper flakes, dried thyme, dried oregano and brown sugar.  After I seasoned the chicken I let it sit the refrigerator until it was time to smoke it.  I did not season it the night before because given its smaller size, the chicken did not need all night for the flavor of the seasoning to really sink in.  Add that to the limited space in my ice box and it was something that could wait until the day of.

Back to the brisket for a second.  The brisket has been cooking all this time and I noticed that the temperature of the meat is rising steadily and a bit rapidly.  In fact, it seemed that it was rising a little too rapidly.  I was concerned that the meat would be done well before my guests arrived.  Well, I had forgotten about the stall.  You see when you are cooking brisket there comes a point, usually about 150 to 160 degrees, where the meat refuses to rise in temperature for hours on end.  But why?  There are many theories and explanations.  But the one that makes the most sense, scientifically speaking, is that the stall is due to evaporative cooling.  In other words, the same thing that happens to you when you are working out or doing yard work happens to a brisket.  As moisture is released and evaporates, it prevents the brisket from rising in temperature.

Eventually the meat will pass the stall and begin rising in temp quickly.  You have two choices when you hit the stall.  You can choose to wait it out, or you can help it along with a "Texas crutch".  A Texas crutch is essentially wrapping up your meat with foil so that the moisture escaping the meat does not have a chance to evaporate and therefore "cool" it.  You can then leave it in your pit or finish it in the oven.  When my brisket reached 160 degrees (about 2 hours before my guest were set to arrive), I took it out of my pit, placed it in the drip pan with all of the juices, sealed it up with more foil and placed it in a 300 degree oven.  Some argue against the crutch while others sing its praises.  I did this to ensure my meat would be done on time and to allow my to now use my pit to smoke my chicken.  Once the meat reached about 200 degrees, I pulled it and let it rest.

While my brisket was finishing in the oven I added more wood to the fire, and proceeded to smoke my chicken, once again using indirect heat.  About 45 minutes before my guest arrived I threw some pre-seasoned HEB BBQ leg quarters on the side of the pit with the fire so as to grill them. To finish off all the chicken I threw it in the oven just to finish cooking it off. After the chicken was done, I threw some sausages on the grill as well for good measure to complete my meat menagerie

Along with the meat I also made three different types of BBQ sauce.  I made a Carolina style mustard based sauce, a Shiner Bock BBQ sauce and a traditional ketchup based sauce.  The mustard based sauce I based on a recipe I found online with my own little tweaks.  The Shiner Bock recipe I also found online.  This one I followed a little more closely.  For the traditional BBQ sauce I started with 3/4 of a bottle of ketchup, about a cup to a cup and half of the BBQ drippings form the brisket, salt, pepper, cayenne, two bay leaves, garlic powder, molasses, and brown sugar.  I let all three sauces simmer until they were thickened slightly.

Left to right: Traditional, Shiner, & Carolina BBQ Sauces
 After all the meats were done, all that was left to do was to slice, chop and cut into serving pieces. I used the flat of the brisket for sliced while I used the point for chopped.  The pork was nice and tender so all I had to do was pull it apart with some tongs.  My wife also decided to make a Greek yogurt based cole slaw for the pulled pork.  Everything came out smashingly, for lack of a better term.  All my guest were properly fed.  In fact some left with doggy bags.  All in all I would call this BBQ a great success. 

Left to Right: Chopped &Sliced Brisket

Smoked & Grilled Chicken and Grilled Sausage

Crock Pot Pulled Pork