Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hobbit Cafe

The Hobbit Cafe has been a Houston eatery since back in 1972.  I have been in Houston since 1998 and I had never been.  It took an old friend visiting from California to get me in the door.  I had heard about the place and was curious, but never enough to actually step foot in the door.  Located on Richmond between Kirby and Greenbriar, The Hobbit Cafe is tucked away in a little alcove of different establishments.  Having driven by on many occasions and having seen the sign I always thought the building facing the street was the establishment.  In actuality,  it is hidden towards the back.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the quaint feel and relaxed atmosphere of the place.  It looked like a place where you could be comfortable with yourself and whoever you were dining with.  Since I was eating with a rather large group we were seated outside.  There was ample room but we still had to separate the group into two.  To combat the oppressive Houston heat and humidity fans were placed throughout the patio.  Truth be told, they did not really do a whole lot to help and I consider myself lucky to have gone somewhat early in the day.  Two other things I noticed about the seating was that the chairs were all cheap plastic chairs and that the tables were covered with cheap plastic table clothes that felt a little sticky.  These two things did not really fit in with the rest of the aesthetic, but could be overlooked.

Smaug's Delight w/ Bacon and Fruit
Smaug's Delight w/ Sprouts and Black Beans
Having scooped out the online menu beforehand, I already had in mind what I wanted to order.  This was a good thing because The Hobbit Cafe has a vast menu with lots to choose from and plenty of tempting choices.  I decided to order the The Smaug's Delight, which is a smoked turkey sandwich served on toasted wheat bread with melted cheese and avocado.  You have your choice of the slim or classic version. I was hungry enough so I order the classic.  I was also prompted by the waiter if I wanted to add bacon or alfalfa sprouts.  Since everything is made better with bacon, I opted for the bacon. When asked what I wanted as my side, I asked for my options.  I was presented with the choices of chips, fries, shredded carrots, black beans, and fresh fruit.  I went with the fruit.  Others at the table also got the Smaug's Delight but with other options so it was almost like a different sandwich. 

Another member of our table ordered The Dwalin, which is a sandwich of curry chicken salad with grapes, almonds, lettuce, tomato, and mayo, with a side of shredded carrots.

My sandwich was good.  The turkey was moist and flavorful.  The cheese was hot and melty and the bacon was cooked crisp.  My only complaint is that the sandwich had too much avocado.   "How in the hell can there ever be too much avocado?", you ask.  Well, when about a third of the volume of your sandwich is made of avocado and it compromises the structural integrity and overwhelms the other ingredients is when you have too much. 

Mithril Mix
Athelas Kiwi Strawberry
Before arriving I had decided that I wanted to try one of their smoothies as well.  The way I had interpreted the menu I thought the sandwiches came without a side.  I figured I could have a smoothie instead.  I ordered the Mithril Mix which is simply a strawberry, banana, and pineapple smoothie.  My friend from out of town ordered the Athelas Kiwi Strawberry.  The smoothies were good, but nothing really spectacular.

Along with my smoothie I also ordered a mixed berry tea.  It was spot on for the hot summer day.  It had a great bright red color that made it look really appetizing.  Even without sweetener, it was very tasty.  I had a flavor not unsimilar to water with a hint of lemon it, only stronger.

The one thing I will say was beyond excellent was the gingerbread pancake.  My friend ordered just one pancake so he could taste it and let me have a bite.  It blew my mind.  It was moist and fluffy and it tasted like GINGER-BREAD.  What I mean by that is the pancake did not taste like gingerbread in the shape of a pancake.  It tasted like a pancake with some ginger accents.  It was great.

The Hobbit Cafe has some intriguing menu items that make me want to come back.  However, I feel I must warn you about a number of things.  While the prices on the menu are reasonable, I did feel that they failed to convey some of the charges that ended up on my bill.  For instance, I was expecting the sandwich to not include a side.  However when the waiter asked me what side I wanted, he did not tell me that they were extra, or there was a steep substitution fee.  This was also true of the bacon.  Now, while I kind of expected a surcharge on the bacon, I was not expecting it to be as much as it was.  I certainly would have declined if I had known via the menu or the waiter.

All in all this was a pleasant experience.  I would not say no to going back.  After all, they have been around for a long time for a reason.

Hobbit Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 23, 2013

Food At Work: Inside Round

As I have stated before, my primary role at work is to man the Italian food station.  However, every so often (mostly on Fridays) they ask me to work another station.  In this case I was asked to work at the carving station, otherwise know at the Butcher Block.  In this instance I was asked to prepare slow roasted inside round with a wild rice blend and fried mushrooms and topped off with a house made steak sauce.

Let me start by saying that an inside round is a very LARGE piece of meat.  So that way that I prepared meat was that I first cut each round into thirds.  This gave me more surface area to season the meat and also greatly cut down the cooking time.  I then rubbed copious amounts of Montreal steak seasoning on the meat.  I placed all three pieces of each inside round into a deep hotel pan with a wire rack on the bottom and covered them with foil.  The foil served to keep the meat from browning too much too fast. It also helped with the cooking process since it helped keep moisture trapped inside the pan.  This moisture then turns to steam which circulates around the meat and helps cook it faster.  I put the beef in a 275 degree oven  for about 3 1/2 hours.  When the meat was about 90% done I took the foil off to allow the meat to brown.

 I pulled the meat out when the temperature right in the middle was at about 120 degrees.  Even though I cut the original inside rounds down, each piece was quite big.  Pulling the meat out at 120 degrees meant that there would be some variety of doneness with each piece of meat.  The outer edges would be close to medium or medium well while the middle would remain closer to rare. 

The wild rice blend was really just a packaged blend we got from Sysco foods.  In order to make it more appetizing that just cooking it the steamer, I added butter to my rice when I cooked it.  This added some nice flavor and richness.  I also seasoned the rice and tossed with some fresh parsley after it came out of the steamer.

The fried mushrooms were straight forward  fried mushrooms.  I did not batter them myself.  In the kitchen you pick your battles on what you can make fresh and what you have to concede and use something pre-made.  The key to using pre-made items is to know how to use them to get the highest quality.  For instance, the mushrooms had to be fried at the last minute so that they would remain crispy on the outside.

And last is the steak sauce.  The steak sauce was quite easy to make. It complimented the beef quite well and helped give moisture to those who enjoy their meat more well done.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Don't Mistake the Steak Sauce

Let me first start by saying that for the most part I am not a fan of using steak sauce on an actual steak.  For me, the flavor of a good steak should stand on its own with little more seasoning than some salt and pepper.  That being said, I have come to realize and accept that steak sauce has its place and can serve as another condiment option.  So what does that mean exactly?  If I am not using steak sauce on steak, then what is it for?  Well, for starters it goes great on burgers.  It can be used as a substitute for either ketchup or BBQ sauce.  It goes well with chicken or pork.  The only real limitation is what you want to do it.  Get creative and crazy.  You never know what you might come up with or accidentally discover.

In today's culinary world steak sauce wide variation and diversity.  The most commonly known steak sauce is A.1. Steak Sauce.  But that is far from the only one.  It seems every grocer has at least half a dozen options on the shelves for everyone's particular taste ranging form the sweet and tart to the hot and smoky.  The origins of steak sauce come from Great Britain and something they called "brown sauce". 

Truth is you don't need any fancy labels to enjoy a great steak sauce.  You can make one yourself quite easily.  And the thing about making your own is that you can customize and adjust it to your liking.  I am including a recipe for a very basic steak sauce.  From here you can take it and make it your own.  If you like it spicier, add a little of your favorite hot sauce.  If you like it sweeter, try some brown sugar or molasses to your liking. 

2 cups ketchup
1 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 8 oz can tomato sauce
1/4 cup vinegar (apple cider or red wine work best)
2 tbsp Montreal Steak Seasoning
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder

Mix all the ingredients in a heavy sauce pan and let them simmer on low to medium-low heat for at least half an hour.  This will allow the flavors to meld and mingle.  

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sonoma Retail Wine Bar & Restaurant

Let me start of by making two points about my review of Sonoma Retail Wine Bar & Restaurant.  First, I went to Sonoma with my wife as a romantic dinner date as it was the first weekend she was home after being away for a couple of weeks.  Having said that, my second point is that I was unable to get any pictures due to the atmospheric aesthetic that was at this establishment.  Taking pictures of food and wine with a flash in a darkened room seemed kind of tacky.  Do not fret though, as I hope that my words will suffice to impart a sense of the fabulous time my wife and I had at Sonoma.

The very first thing that struck me about this place was the overall atmosphere.  It had a sense of panache that exuded class.  However it never felt pretentious or flashy, like it was being forced.  Part of that came from the types of patrons that were frequenting Sonoma.  While there was a fair share of sharply dressed groups, my wife and I included, you also had your share of more casually attired people there.  And the thing about it was that no one felt out of place or awkward.  At stated previously, the mood lighting was was set to give the place an air of intimacy.

The next thing I noticed was the service.  Don't get me wrong, the waitstaff was very friendly.  However, they did fall to waiting by committee, and as I have stated before, this never works ideally.  This may have been a by product of having a large party there at the same time, but non the less, it did affect our service somewhat.  Our primary waitress gave us our menu and explained that, should we need anything, we could call on any of the waitstaff.  While we pondered our options for the evening we noticed a little lag time in being attended.  Once we ordered our drinks, they were brought out to us promptly.  The food seemed to take a little longer than one would have liked, especially when waiting from our first to second course.  I ended up ordered a second glass of wine and it almost went unserved.  I will give the waitstaff credit for being knowledgeable about the menu; both the food and drinks.  In the end, even though somethings took a little longer that optimal, the waitstaff made up for it.

As far as what we consumed at Sonoma, my wife and I both had some wine.  The difficulty of that was the fact the Sonoma has quite an extensive wine list.  Luckily for us, the list was cut down significantly due to the fact that only a few wines were offered by the glass.  My wife and I were not so certain we would have been able to polish off an entire bottle by ourselves, especially if we wanted to drive home.  Instead, she opted for a wine flight and I had a glass.  The wine flight consists of 3 oz of four different wines.  She choose what is called the Well Traveled which includes Canta Perdices Tempranillo, Domaine de Fontenille Cotes du Luberon, Claudio Morelli ‘Le Terrazze’ Sangiovese, and La Florencia Malbec.  Being fan of the malbecs, I choose La Florencia as my wine.  My wife enjoyed every wine with the exception of the first (the tempranillo).  She is not a fan of wines that are overly dry and she felt that the first wine fell into that category.  While I would agree that the tempranillo was a bit dry and could have benefited from a little aeration, I did not think it was too dry.  The malbec I had was quite good on the other hand.  It had a nice balance between the sweetness and the tart as well as nice body.  It was so good, that I ended up ordering a second glass.

My wife and I also ordered food during our outing to Sonoma.  We ordered the Duck Confit Eggrolls as an appetizer and one of the hand rolled gourmet pizzas as our entree.  We also ended up ordering dessert.  The duck confit eggrolls were very tasty. You could tell they were made with fresh ingredients.  The mango mustard that accompanied them was also surprisingly good  I would have never expected mango and mustard to go well together, but they did.  The sweetness of the mango played a good foil to the spicy mustard.  My only gripe about the eggrolls is that they were a bit on the small side.  The only real reason I see this as a bad thing is the the duck confit tended to get lost in the eggroll with so much else going on in there.

The pizza my wife and I ordered was the Nappa pizza which included  olive oil drizzle, forest mushrooms, fresh herbs, goat cheese, parmesan, mozzarella, and white truffle oil.  You had me at goat cheese and truffle oil.  These are two of my favorite things, and by putting them together on a pizza, you are just pulling at my heartstrings.  The pizza was thin and crisp and as our waitress described it, "top heavy".  What she meant by that is that it was fully loaded with the toppings.  She was not wrong on that end.  The pizza had that perfect ration of toppings per pie to make it great.  

When it came time to order desserts, my wife opted for the bread pudding.  I asked what the dessert of the day was.  They waiter told me that it was rocky road bread pudding, but that they might have run out of it already.  I told the waiter that the rocky road bread pudding sounds delicious, but failing that, I wold have the four layer chocolate cake.  Unfortunately I ended up with the chocolate cake.  Now, I don't want to give anyone the impression that the cake was bad.  It was good.  It just wasn't spectacular or special.  My wife's bread pudding on the other hand was amazingly good.  Definitely some of the best bread pudding I have had in a long while.  If given the choice now, knowing what I know, I wold choose the bread pudding every time.

All in all my wife and I had a great time at Sonoma Retail Wine Bar & Restaurant.  In fact I look forward to going back and am even planning on taking some friends who would love this place.  At such a time I hope to bring back some pictures of the food and adding an expansion to this review.  I would wholeheartedly  recommend this establishment to others and encourage them to go.  

Sonoma Retail Wine Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thickening Agents

In the culinary world more often than not you have to add viscosity and body to something you are preparing, whether that be a soup, a sauce, or a stew.  Luckily for the cooks of the world there are a variety of methods for doing just that.  Each method has its own pros and cons as well as a preferred application.  The most traditional and most commonly used methods is through the gelatinization of starches. Some other methods include reduction and adding an already thickened substance.  When you thicken something your goals should be to avoid lumps, have a good clean taste that is not pasty or floury, have a good consistency and that it will not separate or break when being held.

One of the most classic methods, and generally one of the first taught is the use of roux.  At its most basic roux is simply equal parts flour and fat (by weight) that have been cooked together to make a paste.  Roux varies by color gradient ranging from white, blond, and brown roux.  You achieve a darker color roux by cooking the flour and fat longer.  The color of the roux plays a part in what you are using the roux for.  White roux is used for things that are either white in color or where no added color is wanted.  Dark roux is used in dark colored items, such as gumbo.  Another important note is that as you cook a starch you remove some of its ability to gelatinize in liquid, so you will need more dark roux than lighter roux to thicken the same amount of liquid.

The procedure for making a roux is the same no matter what the color.  First heat your fat in a heavy bottomed saucepan taking care not to burn it.  After the fat is nice and hot add your flour.  General purpose flour is ok to use, but pastry or cake flour work better for roux making due to the higher starch content.  Avoid high gluten flour.  Stir your flour and fat mixture until you reach your desired color.  White roux does not take very long while dark roux can take several minutes.  When you are cooking your roux it is important to watch over it and constantly stir it.  Roux, especially when making dark roux, can go from tasty thickening agent to burnt disgusting mess in an instant.  Burnt roux does not thicken anything and will make your food taste bad.  A little trick I have learned for making dark roux without constantly watching over it is to put your roux on a sheet pan (cookie sheet with four sides) and put it in a 200 degree oven until you reach your desired color.  A good roux will have a nice almost nutty smell and will be slightly stiff, nor runny.

When you have made your roux you can incorporate it into your food in two ways.  You can let your roux cool down and add it to hot liquid, or you can add cold liquid to your hot roux.  In either case it is important to stir vigorously with a whisk so that the liquid and roux are properly incorporated and you avoid lumps.  After your roux has been added you need to allow your liquid to heat up to a boil.  This will cook out any of the flour taste and allow the starch to gelatinize.

Another way to use flour and fat(butter) to thicken items is to make a beurre manié.   Beurre manie is equal parts flour and butter, by weight, that have been kneaded together.  The mixture is then whisked slowly into a simmering liquid to thicken.  Unlike roux, the mixture remains uncooked and it generally added at the end of the cooking process as a finishing technique or as a quick thickener.  The butter adds shine and flavor as it melts.

The next way to add thickness to liquids is to use cornstarch.  Cornstarch is much easier to use than roux because the only thing you need to do to use it is to mix it with water to create a slurry.  Once the cornstarch is completely incorporated with the water, just slowly stir it into hot liquid.  The liquid does not necessarily need to be boiling, but it does at the very least need to be simmering. Unlike roux, cornstarch will have a more immediate effect.  Cornstarch is used heavily in Asian cuisine.  It gives liquids a glossy sheen that may or may not be desired.  Cornstarch also has the benefit of having twice the thickening power of flour.  However, liquids thickened with cornstarch are less stable as it can lose its thickening effects over prolonged heating.  Also, products that have been thickened with cornstarch should not be reheated.

An alternative to cornstarch and flour as a thickener is arrowroot.  Arrowroot is derived from the roots of several tropical plants and is similar in texture and appearance to cornstarch.  In fact, you use it the very same way.  You mix it with cold water making a slurry than whisk that into a hot liquid.  Arrowroot has slightly more thickening power than  cornstarch, is not affected by acidic ingredients or freezing, thickens at a lower temperature than flour or cornstarch and it has a more neutral flavor.  Arrowroot however, does not work well with dairy products, producing a slimy texture when it does.  Arrowroot also has a tendency to break down when overheated and is quite a bit more expensive.

When not using starch to thicken liquids you have some options at your disposal.  The easiest is to  thicken something by reduction.  All this means is that you allow the liquid to cook down until it is reduced in volume.  This method is especially useful for making sauces or glazes.  Just keep in mind that when you are reducing something the flavor of your liquid is being concentrated into the remaining liquid.  Another way you can add viscosity to your liquids is by incorporating an already thickened liquid or item to it.  Many a time I have added tomato paste to a tomato based sauce or soup to give it the consistency I wanted.  It is also not uncommon to add thickness using demi-glace to a sauce.  Just keep in mind that your desired thickness will have to be based on what you want thickened and what you are adding to thicken it.  You can't turn an au jus into a gravy with nothing but a reduction or by adding only demi-glace to it.

One quick final note about thickening.  It is always important to try to achieve your desired thickness with whatever method you are using.  However, if you over thicken something the solution is just to add more liquid so you get it to where you want it.  You may end up with slightly more product that you had originally intended and you may have to adjust your seasoning, but that is better than serving a gravy when you just wanted a light sauce. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Halibut ala Hatch

August has come along and that means serveral things.  The summer is slowly dwindling away but not before it gives us its hottest days.  School will starting up soon.  And the hatch chile season is upon us.

A hatch chile is a long, green chile that hails from Hatch, NM. It kind of resembles an Anaheim chile. Its season is extremely short, so a big deal is made when the chiles are available. This usually happens in the form of a festival, a chile festival. This is true about Central Market,where I used to work. Chiles are roasted and sold. Or not roasted and sold. Everything is Hatch. And I do mean everything. Hatch salsa, hatch dips, hatch crab cakes, even hatch sausages. On that note, I came up with a way to integrate the hatch chiles and some halibut. So this is what I came up with.

2 tbls butter or cooking oil
3-5 Hatch Chiles, roasted, seeded, deveined and chopped.
1 white onion diced
1 clove garlic minced
1/2-3/4 cup heavy cream
1 lbs halibut fillets Salt and Pepper

 To make the cream sauce, heat your fat in a saute pan. Add your onions and garlic and sweat (cook until aromatic and translucent) Add your chiles and saute until hot. Add cream and let it reduce down slightly. Season with salt and pepper After the sauce is made, place your fish on a sheet pan. Season fish with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over the fish. Bake the fish in a 375 degree oven for fifteen min. or until the fillets are nice and flaky. Serve and enjoy.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Quick And Easy Alfredo

Part of my job duties at work are to have the sauces prepared for the make your own pasta bar.  These include marinara, alfredo, and pesto.  Today I will be talking about the alfredo sauce specifically.

Alfredo sauce is typically referred to a cream sauce that includes Parmesan cheese and butter.  However, the reality is classically there is no such thing as an alfredo sauce.  Usually the prepared dish was fettuccine alfredo which did not include a sauce.  Instead the noodles were tossed with butter and cheese.  As the cheese melted, it emulsified the liquids into a thick consistency.  Sometimes cream would be added in addition to, or instead of the cheese.

Today alfredo sauce is a completely separate entity and often sold in jars or otherwise prepared.  This is a shame given how easily alfredo sauce can be prepared at home.  At work I will prepare a big batch of several (6-8) gallons to have ready for the week.  I will then heat a smaller amount for the day's use.  I start with equal parts milk and heavy cream.  To save time you can also use half and half which is equal parts milk and cream.  I will then heat the mixture slowly over low heat.  I will prefer to use our large steam kettles. This help me avoid scorching the bottom of my sauce.

Once the dairy is at a simmer, at about 190 to 200 degrees, I start adding my spices and cheese.  For spices I used salt, white pepper (very important it be white), and nutmeg (just a smidge).  I will use good quality grated Parmesan cheese. For the 6-8 gallons, I usually used about 2 1/2 pounds.  You can use shredded cheese, but just know it will take longer to incorporate.  When adding your salt keep in mind that you want to add it sparingly at first since the cheese will also add saltiness to your sauce.  You can adjust the seasonings later.  Now, when you add the cheese, don't just dump it in all at once.  Add it a little at a time and stir the sauce until it is incorporated in.  Repeat this process until all of your cheese has been added.

After all of your cheese and spices have been added it is time to thicken the sauce.  Now, traditionally it is only thickened with cheese and some reduction of the dairy and you can certainly choose to do that.  At work I will usually used a cornstarch slurry to help it along.  While the sauce is still hot, I will stir in the slurry until the sauce has reached the desired consistency.  Now it is very important you add your slurry while the sauce is still hot.  Otherwise the sauce will not thicken.  Now if you ever find that you over estimated how much cornstarch you needed and over thicken your sauce, you can just thin it out with more dairy or even a bit of water.  You can thicken your sauce using various other methods (roux, beurre manié), but the slurry is honestly the easiest. 

When the sauce is at the desired consistency, you need to taste it.  This is where you can adjust the seasoning.  You can add salt and pepper if needed.  The reason you want white pepper is so that your sauce remains white.  Black pepper will show up as black flecks in your sauce giving it the appearance of cream gravy.  As far as the nutmeg goes, you want to add enough to barley be perceptible.  Nutmeg's flavor goes very well with dairy and you only need a small amount as to not overwhelm the flavor of the sauce.

If you want to make this sauce at home, here are some amounts to help you along the way:

1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups half and half
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pinch nutmeg
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 water

Serve over your favorite pasta with your favorite ingredients!