Monday, November 22, 2010

Popover Mania

The first time I had a popover, I remember wondering what kind of magical ingredients could make a breadform so airy and light… Was it yeast? Fairy dust? Unicorn tears?

Turns out, it’s none of the above. Even though popovers might taste like little pillows of heaven, they’re actually quite earthly to make. So easy, in fact, that I’ve been wearing out my new popover pan with a steamy batch almost daily. Yes, my popover obsession is both otherworldly and out of hand. And while I like to savor them, I’m not ruling out a game of Chubby Bunny this Thanksgiving either. Mmmm!

Below is my family’s tried-and-true recipe for popovers, the one I keep coming back to... my golden standard. And as friends have suggested, I’ve also been kicking this basic version up by adding chopped nuts, a pat of soft cheese, or a dollop of strawberry jam to each batter’d cup.

In our world of excess, it’s nice to find a recipe that’s as simple as it is scrumptious. But that doesn’t mean I don’t overindulge in the bad boys below. Happy Turkey Day!

2 large eggs
1 cup milk, room temperature
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour (bread flour works best)
1/8 cup sugar (or less)

Preheat oven to 450. Beat egg, then add milk, melted butter, salt, flour, and sugar. Mix until smooth and well combined. Place popover pan (or muffin tin) in oven to heat for five minutes. Remove pan, spray with cooking spray, and fill cups about 1/2 to 2/3 with batter. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 and bake until popovers are puffed and golden, 15-20 minutes more. Do not open oven door during baking or popovers may fall. Finally, remove popovers and use a knife to knock a small slit in the top of each popover to vent the steam. Return to oven and bake for 5-10 minutes more until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve hot. Makes 6 classic popovers, or 12 using a muffin tin.

NOTES: 1) I've taken to making the batter right in my large mixing cup, which makes for easy pouring into the pan. 2) Last night I tried using a muffin tin; the popovers cooked much faster and weren't quite as airy. Cook be that I overcooked them a bit, though.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Local Holiday Gift Guide

As December approaches, we’re often tasked with finding the perfect holiday or hostess gift. Below is a list of gift ideas that support our fabulous local Houston-area food community. I’ve broken them up into five groups: gifts that give back, ideas for the food lover, cookbooks to catch, drink suggestions, and creative local favorites that just didn’t fit anywhere else. Enjoy!

The Center is a wonderfully inspiring nonprofit that serves Houstonians with mental retardation. Why not gift some of their famous gingersnaps or cheesesnaps for the holidays? Both offerings come in gorgeous tins, no gift wrap required. Similarly, the Brookwood Community for adults with special needs sells fabulous salad dressings, roasted pecans, and jalapeno jelly. All items are wonderful and keep well in the fridge or freezer. Katz Coffee features three flagship cause coffees: Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Friends of Enchanted Rock, and Austin’s Bat Conservation International. Each organization has its own specialty beans, and 50 cents of every pound sold goes directly to that charity. Need something longer lasting? Urban Harvest sells fantastic “I Dig Houston” shirts at its Eastside, Discovery Green, and City Hall farmers’ markets for $15, with proceeds benefiting the gardening community. Or try a donation to the Houston Food Bank. A special card lets them know that a donation was made in their names, and you can tell them the part about how $1 in the hands of the Houston Food Bank can provide a full day of meals for someone in need. HFB also sells coffee mugs, tote bags, and cute holiday ornaments made in the HFB youth programs.

It’s super fun to troll the farmers’ markets for various things to give to family and friends. How about some of the fantastically earthy olive oil from the Texas Hill Country Olive Company? You could pair it with a fresh baguette from Slow Dough or Angela’s Oven and a hunk of local cheese from the Houston Dairymaids. On the other hand, you could also offer some homemade granola with a tub of creamy goat’s milk yogurt from Swede Farm and some delicious local honey from Bee Wilde. You could always pack up some cured meats from Chris Shepherd at Catalan. Some people might *love* the Gluten-Free Holiday Kit from Gluten Free Houston. Or if you really need to wow ‘em, try a ready-to-bake cheese soufflĂ© from Elizabeth Swift. They are? To. Die. For.

We’re Houston proud of our local cookbook celebs... Among Robb Walsh’s hometown collection, Sex, Death, & Oysters is pretty much a must-have. Or if you’re thinking of something a little more ethnic, Indo-Houstonian Shubhra Ramineni’s Entice with Spice offers dozens of fantastic Indian-inspired recipes with stunning photos and detailed explanations. Shubhra’s subtitle is “Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People,” and she takes great care to create accessible recipes without compromising the distinct flavors. My old standbys are the Junior League of Houston cookbooks, which offer fabulous meal ideas while giving a little something back to the Houston community (a portion of the books’ proceeds goes to Texas Children’s Hospital). If a magazine’s more your style, My Table has a holiday special: Buy one subscription at regular price ($24 for a one-year subscription of six issues) and get unlimited gift subscriptions at half-off.

Give your friends a trip down Memory Lane with a bag of Fluffernutters from the Fluff Bake Bar. Need more variety? You could also give the super cute cookies from Paulie’s, the gorgeous macarons from Maison-Burdisso, or the sensational cupcakes from Jodycakes. Want something more versatile? Then perhaps a few cinnamon rolls from Sinfull Bakery. If all else fails, a gift card to Hank’s ice cream just might do the trick. Maybe you can get them to sell ya a pint of peppermint!

For the beer enthusiast, give a grab bag of local brews from St. Arnold’s and Southern Star. St. Arnold’s even offers a super duper Christmas Ale. Plenty of other labels have seasonal offerings, too -- they’re just not brewed right here in your backyard. Tito’s Vodka and Deep Eddy sweet tea vodka are from right up the street in Austin. Or if you’re looking for something a little more tame, try Mexican hot chocolate mix from El Bolillo or a gift card to a local coffee shop, like Antidote or Catalina.

Howsabout a tshirt from our local favorite burger chain? Customize your Whataburger shirt the same way you customize your burger. Tamales always make great gifts, and Berryhill sells thousands of them over the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s only, they’ve got the fabulous turkey tamales. Go get ‘em! For something a little more “little guy” local, you could gift a holiday burger challenge: gift cards to local burger shops Hubcap Grill, the Burger Guys, Becks Prime, and more. Include handmade score cards so you can determine the true Burger King for yourself. Or more creatively, give an herb garden starter kit with planters or seeds from Buchanan’s Native Plants.

Got any more local gift ideas? Let me know, and I’ll add ‘em to the list!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jus' Mac and Cheesy

Show me someone who doesn’t love macaroni and cheese, and I’ll show you a liar. The dish is warm, creamy, and comforting… It’s basically a bear hug in a bowl. So strong is my affinity for the stuff, I had a mac-n-cheese bar at my own damn wedding. Sweet! Not that I was really able to partake.

But I had mixed feelings when I heard about Jus’ Mac, a new restaurant based entirely on macaroni and cheese, opening in the Heights. On the one hand, macaroni and cheese is awesome, and it’s great that creative versions are there for the taking. On the other hand, do we really need a gimmicky place that’s destined to fail when the trend grows old? Hmmmm... I was intrigued enough to give it a whirl last week for lunch.

The menu at Jus’ Mac offers a fairly extensive list of creamy mac ‘n cheese options. They’ve got an All-American and a Chili Cheese. The Popeye has spinach, mushrooms, and onions, while the Pit Master is topped with beef brisket. The Rustic comes with basil, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and mozzarella, and the Puebla features roasted poblano peppers. There’s a Buffalo Chicken, a Four-Cheese, and a Bacon Bliss. Along with a handful of other iterations.

As best we could tell, the kitchen just cooks up huge vats of mac ‘n cheese, then adds the toppings to order. I tried the Mexi-Taco, a fake cast-iron skillet of mac-n-cheese topped with ground beef, tomato, onion, avocado, and tortilla chips. And my friend Victoria got a bowl o’ nostalgia: mac-n-cheese topped with hot dog bits and a squiggle of yellow mustard. We both agreed that the toppings were nice -- interesting and creative options, a little something for everyone. But we also agreed that the pasta could use some help in the form of seasoning. As Victoria said, “There’s just something nice about that saltiness that comes from good ol’ American cheese.” And she’s right -- that’s what was missing. The delight here is not the mac-n-cheese, itself, but rather the mask of additional flavors. At $9, the portions seemed pricey; however, neither of us was able to finish our serving and ended up packing up about half to go.

Is this the best mac-n-cheese in town? No, I’d still give those honors to Beaver’s. But if you can get past the annoyingly small parking lot, disposable utensils, and fake cast-iron skillet dishes, Jus’ Mac is fun for a try. Once. Are there enough people to support the spot throughout the years? I have my doubts, but only time will tell.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Delicious Assistance for Thanksgiving

Preparing an entire Thanksgiving meal on your own can be scarier than snakes, Marilyn Manson, and politics. In that sense, it’s nice to have help with at least a component or two. Here are a few ideas for those of you looking to take it a little easier this holiday.

If you need help with the star of the show, try a smoked turkey from Wood Duck Farm. The farm-raised birds are brined with salt and molasses; then they’re trussed, stuffed, and smoked with Red Oak that's picked fresh from the backyard. You can choose from 1) unstuffed, 2) stuffed with apples, thyme, and rosemary, or 3) stuffed with cilantro, lime, and jalapeno peppers. Sound good? Just place your order online, then pick up the turkey on Tuesday 11/23 at the Rice University farmers market or on Wednesday 11/24 at the City Hall farmers market. Turkeys come in three sizes and price points:

-- A 10-12 lb. dressed bird is $42
-- A 12-14 lb. dressed bird is $49
-- A 16-18 lb. dressed bird is $63

Or maybe you’ve got the dinner down, but can’t even think about dessert. In that case, pastry chef extraordinaire Rebecca Masson is ready to help. This year she’s offering a fabulous pecan pie with an outrageous shortbread crust and a side of philanthropy. Pies cost $25, with $5 of that going directly to the Corridor Rescue program. Order your pies online; then pick them up on Tuesday 11/23 or Wednesday 11/24 (between 12 noon and 5 p.m.) at the Natural Paws store at 514 W 19th Street in the Heights. Deliciously sweet and sinfully easy.

And if you *really* need help this Thanksgiving, you can pick up pretty much anything on the list of traditional Thanksgiving favorites at Central Market. Less fun, maybe -- but also less stress, giving you more time to make hand turkeys and pilgrim hats.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Houston's Cult Classics

Last week Poor Taste came out with a list of the Top 100 Cult Restaurants in America. What elevates an eatery to that God-like status? Here’s how they measure success:

“First, the restaurant must have a highly devoted customer base and should appeal to locals and tourists. Second, the food must obviously be stellar and unique enough to produce a dedicated clientele. Being home to ‘The Best’ or ‘The Original’ of something helps. Third, the wait is almost always unbearable -- but worth it. Fourth, multiple locations are okay, but not too many. Finally, a single meal should be relatively cheap. Less than 20 bucks per person is ideal.”

It’s not surprising that the list is big-city heavy… But while California accounts for a whopping 32 of the 100 (including 26 of the top 50), only three Texas restaurants make an appearance: Smitty’s in Lockhart (26), El Rey here in Houston (79), and Salt Lick BBQ outside of Austin (80).

While I’d like to rage against the pub for quashing Houston, I can’t actually think of many restaurants around town that meet their criteria. The thing about our fair city is that it really doesn’t have two or three of those restaurants that capture the precise amalgamation of taste, touch, and tenure as to be considered cultish. What we have instead is the luxury of so many great places that there’s not one or two that truly stick out as cult phenomenons.

That said, here are a few things that strike me as cultish from Houston:

1) Ninfa’s on Navigation. Poor Taste chose El Rey as Houston’s lone cult restaurant, but that place doesn’t fit the mold nearly as well as the original Ninfa’s. Yes, El Rey has a devoted customer base and the menu is somewhat unique, but the food is definitely not stellar. In fact, it’s actually dog food disguised as Cubo-Mexican. Or something like that. Only Ninfa’s inspires as much love from in-towners as it does from out-of-towners, has an often unbearable wait, and makes outlandish claims to be the original creator of the fajita. Perhaps most endemic to the list, they offer some of the best Tex-Mex around, including fantastic iterations of stuffed quail, Shrimp Diablo, and softshell crab. While the franchised versions imitate the original, they never come close to equaling it, which makes Mama Ninfa’s my cult favorite.

2) Bryan Caswell. Even before his run on The Next Iron Chef, Bryan Caswell had a semi-Koresh-like following around town. And it’s easy to see why: Each of his three restaurants (REEF, Stella Sola, and Little Big’s) is unique, offering fresh foods in interesting combinations that glorify the local and the seasonal. Even more interesting is that these places all managed to avoid the sophomore slump so common in the industry. True, the Little Bigs in Hermann Park closed recently, but the original location on Montrose still packs ‘em in. Don’t expect Caswell’s Midas Touch and rockstar status to plummet with his next venture, either -- a new take on Tex-Mex with Houston’s other favorite son, Robb Walsh.

3) The debate over the best burger. Houston’s Burger Battle happens often and happens crazy. Mmmmhmmm, it’s been known to incite the kind of feud that can resurrect wrestling or separate a family. Touchy stuff. Rumor even has it that the cult-like In-and-Out Burger chose Dallas over Houston for its first Texas location to avoid competing with the Bayou City’s proliferation of solid burgers: Hubcap, Sam’s Deli Diner, Tornado, Christian’s Tailgate, Becks Prime, etc, etc, etc, and it’s easy to see their point. As for me, I generally try to avoid the debate -- not because I don’t have a dog in the fight, but rather because I really don’t care. Too many awesome burger joints is a problem I’m happy to have. Let the debates rage on!

What do you think? What else is cult-like in Houston’s culinary pantheon?