Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rustika Cafe & Bakery

   This little taste of breakfast heaven is found at  in a little strip mall next to US-59.  My wife and I have been coming here pretty much since the place opened and we have never been let down.  Rustika's menu includes lunch and breakfast as well as a wide variety of baked goods.  That being said, my wife and I love to go there for breakfast or brunch.  On numerous occasions we have taken guests or out of towners.  The breakfast menu is quite varied and borrows influences from Latin America as well as Europe.  In fact you will probably recognize a couple of Mexican breakfast classics such as migas or huevos rancheros

   Before I start talking about the food I also want to point out that Rustika is indeed a bakery.  It is not just in the name for show.  Chef Francis is quite the baker.  Her creations just look exquisite. She has a number of catalogs to show off her cakes. The store itself has cases to display cookies, already prepared cakes and pastries.  The savory empanadas are especially tasty, my favorite being the chicken mole.



   So, onto the food.  Choosing what to eat here is never easy.  Just when I think I have narrowed it down to a couple of choices, something else catches my eye.  And to complicate things, Rustika usually has some kind of special.  In fact two of my favorites started off as specials before being added permanently to the menu. The two items in question were the BP omelet and the Ike omelet.  The BP omelet was named after the BP oil spill in the gulf.  It encompasses scrambled eggs topped with hash browns and mole.   The Ike omelet is named after Hurricane Ike and it is all the omelet ingredients scrambled together in a big mess.

   On this occasion both my wife and I stepped out of comfort zones, so to speak.  We both ordered something new.  My wife ordered the Nutella and strawberry crepes.  I ordered the chilaquiles, which were a special menu item.    

   The Nutella crepes my wife order were very luscious.  They had a great flavor.  The crepes were light, fluffy and thin.  The strawberries were fresh, crisp, with just the right amount of tang.  My wife's only objection was that the crepes were almost a bit too rich, having gone over on the Nutella just a bit.  But hey, if you love the Nutella, you will love these crepes.

  The chilaquiles I ordered were superb.  I ordered them with the green salsa instead of the red.  They also included a side of black beans and I ordered an additional side of scrambled eggs.  The eggs were great.  They were seasoned well and had a pillowy, almost gossamer, texture to them.  The black beans were cooked to perfection.  They were soft, not mushy, yet firm, not hard, and were seasoned just right.  The chilaquiles were amazing.  They had a nice tangy flavor as is to be expected form a green sauce.  It had some nice spiciness to it that was not all that immediate. It sort of built up on your tongue and palate lingering with a pleasant heat. Another great quality about the chilaquiles was that they did not end up as one big clump of tortilla.  You see, when cooking chilaquiles, you take your tortillas that have been cut and fried and saute them in the sauce.  This usually lends to the chilaquiles ending up as one big mass.  These were layered and you could separate the individual tortilla pieces.  The whole thing was topped with a dollop of sour cream, fresh diced onion, and some queso fresco.

   To round out our breakfast, my wife and I both ordered coffee.  The coffee at Rustika is self served.  They usually have three or four varieties to choose from and you can fix the coffee however you'd like.  If you don't want to make your own coffee, I would recommend ordering the Cafe Cubano.  It is a little more expensive and you don't get a free refill, but it is worth it.  The coffee on this morning however was a bit of a let down however.  The reason why is because the coffee itself was a little on the cool side.  I suspect the coffee had not be heavily rotated since we had gone on a weekday when it was not quite so busy.  Other than that. the coffee was just fine.

  So if you ever find yourself looking for a place for breakfast or brunch, I would recommend Rustika Cafe and Bakery.

Rustika Cafe & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 21, 2013

Calabaza and Pork Stew

   This is a recipe that takes me back to my youth.  I am pretty sure anyone of a Latino persuasion has eaten some variety of this dish.  Of course, we know as Calabaza con Puerco.  It also works with chicken in which case, it is known as Calabaza con Pollo.  What exactly is a calabaza?  The word itself is just the Spanish term for gourd or squash.  However, I am referencing one particular type of squash.  It is also known as Mexican, calabacita or tatuma squash. You can usually find it hanging around with the zucchini and yellow squash.  It is mainly green and white flesh and has a very mild flavor not unlike the two aforementioned vegetables.  In fact, in a pinch  or if you can't seem to find the calabaza you can use zucchini. 

   The great thing about this dish is that it is fairly easy to make, very hearty, and will give you great bang for your buck.  Using some simple ingredients you can make this delicious recipe.  For this dish you will need:

1lb pork (which cut is up to you)
1 onion diced
1-2 cloves garlic minced
1 can beans (I prefer black, but any will do)
1 can tomatoes
1 can corn or about 1-2 cups frozen corn
2-3 good sized squash
1 bell pepper diced
1/2 bag baby or matchstick carrots
2-3 cups of cooked rice (white or Mexican)

   The first step to the perparation is to dice your pork.  You want to cut it into bite size pieces, big enough to coexist on a spoon with other ingredients.  One chef I worked under always told me the key to a successful dish is to have everything fit on a spoon.  The other advantage of cutting your pork to this size is that it will cook quickly and even if it is a touch cut of pork it will have time to braise and become tender.

   The next step is to cut your vegetables.  Dice your onion and bell pepper into small pieces.  The calabaza can usually just be quartered then cut into pieces.

If you are using baby carrots, this would be the time to cut them into smaller pieces.  If you are using matchstick carrots, you don't really have to do anything to them.

   The next step is to start cooking.  First start to cook your onions and garlic in a pan large enough to hold everything.

After the onions and garlic become translucent, add your pork and allow it brown.

While the meat is browning take advantage and open your cans and or packages.

As you can tell, we had to use black eyed peas.
After the meat is mostly brown add your vegetables and allow them to start cooking.  Next add your tomatoes, corn and beans.  Drain your beans as you will get plenty of liquid from the tomatoes and other vegetables.

 Stir it around and season with salt and pepper.  If you want you can add dried oregano.  Next slap on the lid and allow it to simmer for about 20 minutes.

 Now would be the perfect time to cook your rice if you have not done so already.  It works out perfectly because the stew will be done by the time the rice is also fully cooked.

   Once everything is done, serve it in a bowl having the rice topped with the stew.  Some great options for this are to add a little queso fresco or avocado to it.  Picante sauce is also a great condiment for this dish.

Que Disfruten!

Monday, June 17, 2013

London Sizzler

  Let me start by asking a question.  Have you ever constantly driven by a place and though to yourself, "I really should try that place out."?  Well, such was the case with London Sizzler.  It located in a little shopping center right off of US HW 59 which I drive by everyday on my way home from work.  So last Friday when my wife and I were trying to decide what to do about dinner, I suggested we try something new.  At first we did not directly choose London Sizzler.  I had suggested something out of that general location given that there is a good amount of options there.  After doing a little research online, we decided London Sizzler was the place to go.

   When we got inside my wife and I were promptly greeted, then seated by the hostess.  We were then attended to by a waitress.  When prompted as to what we were drinking, my wife and I had previously decided to try a lassi.  I ordered the more traditional salted lassi as I am found of savory drinks.  My wife went with the "safer" mango lassi.  I also figured that since we would be eating Indian food a yogurt drink would help calm any of the spicier notes of our meal.

   The mango lassi my wife had was very good.  First of all you could tell they used real mangoes to make it.  It tasted fresh and refreshing, especially for a hot Houston summer day.  The yogurt played well with the mango and it gave it a nice consistency overall.  It was midway between a smoothing and a milkshake.  It was sweet, but not overly so.

  The salted lassi was also exquisite.  It was thick and creamy.  In fact, it was a little thicker than my wife's lassi.  It had a nice salty taste to it.  Just enough to make it pleasant.  The saltiness along with the flavor of the yogurt gave it an almost cheesy flavor.  It was the perfect accompaniment to what I ordered, the lamb vindaloo.

   After pouring over the menu for several minutes, I finally decided on the lamb vindaloo.  I had narrowed it down to this or the butter chicken. What made the vindaloo win out after all is that my wife pointed out that I like spicy food, but don't really get to eat them at home on account of her milder palate.  The vindaloo came accompanied by a bowl of Basmati rice, which is good because the vindaloo was indeed spicy.  While not quite "kick you in the groin" spicy, it was still enough to make me sweat.  The rice as well as the lassi really helped my handle the heat.  The vindaloo had a nice robust flavor and the lamb was very tender.  Every once in a while I would encounter a cardamom pod, indicating freshly made food.

   My wife, given that she is not into the spicy food, had the tandori chicken.  While tandoori chicken is usually spicier in India, here it is toned down.  My wife order the half chicken which was served sizzling hot on a cast iron platter.  The chicken itself was nicely cooked.  It was juicy and tender.  I had the nice tangy flavor you would expect from being marinated in yogurt and spices.  My wife's only complaint was that it was difficult to eat since it was served bone in.  You don't really want to gnaw on the bone in a public restaurant.

  To accompany our meal, we also order some garlic naan.  London Sizzler has a nice variety of naan and other breads.  It was a little overwhelming, so we stuck to something we knew.  The naan itself was delicious.  It was served warm so it was still soft.  It had just the right amount of garlic so that you knew what it was, but not be overcome by it.  The naan also had a slightly crunchy underside so it was crisp while still being pliable.

   Complimentary to our table was a little condiment tray.  On it was included fresh lemon wedges, sliced onions, a red sweet chile sauce, and a spicy green cilantro sauce.  Now, not being an expert on Indian cuisine, I am not sure what these condiments were meant for or what the two sauces are called.  Perhaps someone who is more familiar would like to enlighten me.  Non the less, the two sauces were very good.  I tasted them both with a bit of naan.  I preferred  the red sweet chili sauce and thought my wife would too, but she said she liked the green sauce better since it complimented her chicken more. Go figure.

   Now this is a place I would recommend to anyone, unless you are not a fan of Indian food.  As far as I can tell this is more Indian fare via UK, so it might be a bit different than a restaurant focused a particular region of India's cuisine.  In any case, I think this place might make it onto our rotation of favorite eateries.

London Sizzler Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Scampi Style Lobster Ravioli with Roasted Red Pepper and Artichoke Ragout and Pesto Bread (At Work)

   This dish was inspired by National Lobster Day.  Raviolis are usually pretty popular and today was no exception.  And given the fact that they had lobster in them, well, let's just say I knew I was in for a busy day.

   The first thing I prepared today were the peppers for my ragout. While this was not a true ragout, but more of a ciambotta. It served as basically a topping for my raviolis.  So, like I said, the first thing to do was to roast my peppers.  After they were roasted, cooled and cleaned I diced them up for my dish.  Next I sauteed some freshly chopped garlic in oil.  I allowed the garlic to become aromatic and then seasoned it lightly with salt and pepper.  When the garlic was ready, I tossed in some canned artichoke hearts, allowing them to start heating up and cooking.  I also used some unroasted diced red peppers to add bulk and a contrast in textures.  The last thing I added to the pan was my roasted peppers and some crushed tomatoes.  You don't want to add the roasted peppers too early since they are already cooked.  The crushed tomatoes helped to add body to everything.  I adjusted my seasoning and added some fresh parsley at the very end.

   The pesto bread was also quite easy to make.  All I did was take some baguettes and slice them in half.  I then spread pesto on each half and cut them diagonally to make my individual pieces.  I then put the bread in a 350F degree oven for about five minutes.  You want to make your bread crusty, but still leave the center soft.  Now for the home cook you can easily buy pesto sauce from your grocery store or you can make your own. 

   The lobster raviolis were no problem at all. Given that they were already made and all I had to do was boil/cook them.  A little addendum to that.  When cooking stuffed pastas like ravioli or tortellini, you can tell when they are done cooking when the pasta begins to float.  Now, let me pull back the curtain on the professional kitchen, or at the very least, my kitchen.  While we try to do a lot of things ourselves from scratch, some things are just too time consuming and labor intensive to do.  It cases like this where our talents can be used on other things that we buy stuff pre-made. 

   Scampi usually refers to a large shrimp or langoustine that has been cooked and served in a garlic butter sauce.  So to make this dish scampi style, I made a garlic lemon butter sauce.  I started by sauteing plenty of garlic in oil.  Once the garlic softened I added a little white wine and lemon juice.  I waited for that to reduce slightly before I added more water.  After everything came up to a boil, I thickened the mixture with a little corn starch.  Then I slowly whisked in enough butter to give the sauce its velvety texture and buttery flavor.  I seasoned it with salt and white pepper.  I even made a little extra so that I could toss my ravioli in the sauce before being put on the plate.

   The last thing that accompanied this dish was a side salad.  Nothing to fancy here, just a mixture of romaine lettuce with spring mix as the base.  I used shredded carrots and cherry tomatoes to mix in with my lettuce.  As a dressing I used a zesty Italian.  I would premix some of my salad and have it ready for when orders would come in.  The last thing I want to do is waste time making a salad for each individual customer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

There's nothing to cry about!

  I consider onions one of the quintessential ingredients in any kitchen.  If my kitchen does not have onions, it is not fully stocked.  I mean onions go in just about everything save for desserts.  Did you know that they have been cultivated over 5,000 years.  Native to central Asia and Palestine, the humble onion is now grown all over the world, including China, India, Russia, Turkey and of course the US.

   When purchasing onions you should look for ones that are firm with a dry, smooth, and crisp outer skin.  They should have no visible signs of mold or sprouting and free of blemishes.  Avoid onions that have soft spots as this may be indicative of the layers underneath rotting.  Fresh onions should not really have a smell when uncut.  If they have a strong odor, that means they are getting older and starting to go bad, if they are not already bad. Essentially trust your senses.  One good thing about onions is that if you discover that some of the onion has indeed turned, you can still work around that part and salvage the rest.  Just either peel off the outer layers or scoop out the middle ones that have gone bad.

   Now to cut onion first start by cutting the onion in half.

 Next cut off the bud end but leave the root end intact.  This will help hold your onion together as you cut it.

  Now peel off the top two, maybe three layers.  You want to take off anything that feels papery since this will be tough and not very good to eat. 

The next steps can be a little tricky.  For half moons,  just cut parallel to the root end until you get close to it always hold the onion steady with the root. 

If you want to dice an onion the first cut to make after you have your halves is to cut the onion parallel to the cutting board from the cut bud side back to the root end making sure not to cut all the way through. 

Start down towards the board and work your way up making about three or four cuts depending on how big a dice you want and how big the onion you are working with is. 

The next step is to make cuts from the top of the onion down perpendicular to the root end.

 Try to make these cuts roughly about the same size as your previous cuts and once again try not to cut all the way back to the root end. 

The last cut you want to make is parallel to the root end from the top down working your way from the bud end to the root end. 

If you do this right, you will have some nicely diced onion.  

  OK, so how many of you have had the problem of teary eyes when cutting onions?  The reason this happens is because when you cut into an onion you are rupturing its cells which then release their contents.  When mixed with air, the sulfurous contents create allyl sulfate which is irritating to the eyes.  There are several easy ways to lessen, if not altogether avoid this.  First and foremost, use a very sharp knife.  A sharp knife will reduce the amount of trauma when cutting into the onion's cells, therefor reducing the amount of allyl sulfate produced.  Another way to avoid teary eyes is to cover your eyes with something like goggles or glasses.  Swimmers goggles are particularly effective.  If you don't want to look goofy while cutting your onions you can always chill them.  One hour in the refrigerator or fifteen minutes in the freezer will work well.  The chilling helps to stabilize the sulfates in the onion so that they don't mix so readily with the air to create the irritant.  Some other options are to soak it in cold water or vinegar, cut it under running water, or blanch it slightly before cutting it up.

   Onions are very versatile.  They can be eaten raw or cooked.  When they are cooked they loose the sulfurous enzymes and become sweeter, thus making them milder.  Onions are especially flavorful if they are slowly cooked in fat until they are softened.  Fresh onions keep for a good while.  Yellow onions will keep for about 2-3 months while red onions will be good for about 2-4 weeks.  Green onions will last about a week in the refrigerator.  The best way to store onions is in a cool, dry, well ventilated place.  Hanging baskets are especially good for this.  Onions should not be stored close to potatoes as they will absorb moisture causing them to rot and sprout.  Do not store onions in the refrigerator because their odor has a tendency to spread to other foods.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Hokkaido Sushi

   Who here does not like sushi? Speak up now.  Well, just know that if you don't like sushi, we can't be friends.  That and stop reading now because if you have not guessed already, this post is about a sushi place.  Now that THOSE people have left, the rest of us can get down to business.  Today I am writing about Hokkaido Sushi located on Bellaire Blvd. in Houston's Chinatown.


   Hokkaido has two things going for it.  One, it is really close to where I live, so it is convenient. OK, that is great for me, but what about you guys?  Well, the other and more important thing it has going for it is that Hokkaido provides good sushi for a very affordable price.  I don't want to use the word cheap because that just too many bad connotations, especially referencing sushi.  Like I said, Hokkaido has good sushi.  I can't in good conscience call it great, but it is tasty.  It will more than do the job if you have a hankering for sushi but don't want to break the bank at one the pricier places in town.

   So once you enter the establishment you grab a menu and seat yourself.  Technically there are two menus.  One is laminated sheet with all the appetizers and other Japanese treats as well as sushi combos and specials.

The other is a sheet of paper where you order sashimi or sushi ala carte.  After you make your decisions you walk up to the a counter where you place your order and pay.

   While you wait you can help yourself to a bowl of complimentary miso soup.  The soup itself is quite good.  It was nice and hot and was accompanied by fresh sliced green onions.  The miso served as a great palette cleanser in preparation for our meal.

   My wife ordered a tempura roll as well as a light Philadelphia roll.  I ordered a spicy tuna roll along with sushi combo A which included salmon, tuna, red snapper, egg, smelt roe, surf clam, shrimp and a California roll.  We both had an order of the seaweed salad and shared an order of ika shogayaki (ginger squid Japanese style).

   We both started with the seaweed salad.  It was just the right amount of salad (maybe a cup to a cup and half) to serve as an appetizer.  It was crisp and sweet and dressed with sesame seeds and sesame seed oil which complimented the sweetness of the seaweed quite nicely with its toasty flavor.  It was done just right so as to not be greasy or oily. 
The sushi itself was very appetizing.  The fish was cut thickly.  It tasted fresh and flavorful.  The rice had the sweetness you would expect from sushi rice and it held together quite nicely.  Nothing spoils sushi like badly made rice that isn't sticky and fall apart.  My wife was quite found of the tempura roll saying how she enjoyed the crunch.  My personal favorite is the tuna.  Both the spicy tuna roll and the piece from the combo satisfied my tuna craving.  If I had one issue with any of it, it would be that I kind of expected the spicy tuna roll to have more of a kick.
Front left to right: Philly Roll, Tempura Roll. Back: Spicy Tuna Roll

Sushi Combo A
Last is the squid.  The squid had a great flavor.  Even though the sauce was primarily soy sauce, you could really taste the ginger.  It was obvious they did not skimp.  The squid itself had a good texture.  It was chewy, but not gummy.  It had the right amount of give.  Only negative about this dish was that a little of the cuttlebone was left in the tube of the squid.  Other than that it was quite an enjoyable dish.

   So for anyone who considers themselves a sushi lover, I would recommend Hokkaido Sushi as a good place to eat.  At the beginning of this post I said that this place was not great and I stand by that.  Hokkaido is a great everyday sushi place, but there are certainly better places to go to get sushi.  The thing is, at those places you are going to pay a premium.

 Hokkaido Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon