Sunday, July 20, 2008

Austin Food Scene

I never pass up a chance to drive up to Austin, Texas, especially if it involves food. Now, Houston has over 16,000 restaurants and even the McDonald's are a cut above those in the rest of the world, but Austin has that eclectic mix of satisfying Bar-B-Que, Tex-Mex, Southwestern fusion and elegant dining all within the city limits.

For breakfast you can't beat Trudy's. There are two locations but my favorite is the ramshackle house on 30th Street. This morning, (YEAH, THIS MORNING!), I had the Migas Enchiladas which are corn tortillas wrapped around a generous portion of migas, covered in cheese and chipotle red sauce and baked. Served with refried beans and hash browns and a margarita. OK, the margarita is extra but what's a Sunday morning without a margarita?

This trip we were able to try out two restaurants new to us: Ironworks and Gumbos.

First, Ironworks. Ironworks BBQ is on the site of an old ironworks established in 1913 in the center of Austin. It's a rustic kind of joint. You pull your beer out of tubs of ice and take your food on trays lined with paper. Potato salad and cole slaw are served in giant cups. You're encouraged to clean up after yourself when you're done eating just like at home. The waitstaff are kinda scarce. The food, however, is unsurpassed. Delicately smoked ribs and brisket, and flavorful sausage links are hands-down favorites. Although open to the elements, the dining area was cool and breezy even in late July and somehow the fresh air made the food (and beer) taste all that much better.

Good Food, Good Company

Nothing complements a good restaurant more than good company and at Ironworks I found that in spades. Here in Austin attending the Netroots Nation convention were my good friends and fellow bloggers Josh Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education in California and author and writer Ed Brayton from Michigan. It was good to see Josh again, and although I had never met Ed in person it was a double treat for me at Ironworks BBQ.

Ed commented expertly that Ironworks BBQ was the best of three BBQ restaurants he had visited in Austin this weekend. Judging from the chomping and gnashing noises, I would agree with Ed's assessment.

On to Gumbo's

To complete my gastronomic visit to Austin we had a meal at Gumbo's Louisiana Style Cafe near the state capitol. If ever a restaurant was misnamed it was this one.

Louisiana Style Cafe. Not.

Expensive, upscale, classy restaurant. Yep.

Don't expect to get out of this 4-star "cafe" without dropping a few bills or burning a large hole in your credit card. That said, the food was as outstanding as the service was lacking. By 4-star I mean that if you take a typical bottle of wine that you can buy at your local Kroger's and multiply the price by 4, you're at Gumbo's! I must say, however, that the wine list was extensive and our selection, a Pinot Noir from Oregon was exceptional, even at the inflated price.

Gumbo's is like the Home of Wine Reductions. So many of the selections involved wine reductions that I could envision huge vats of wine being reduced by slaving sous-chefs wielding large paddles. I picked Blackened Shrimp with Crawfish Etoufee and was not disappointed. The shrimp were generous and the crawfish supportive. Spiced with precision I hesitated to add a touch of Louisiana Hot Sauce, and reserved my abomination to a small portion. Additional hot sauce neither improved nor augmented the flavor I learned.

On the way home I snapped this lame picture of the Texas State Capitol at night through the windshield of the car. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to drive in traffic AND do photography? It's insane!

Yeah, those are Green Lights in the distance. It means, "Hey, go ahead and take a picture while dodging 18-wheelers! It's Texas!"

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Ridiculous Stupid Omelette

“How’s the omelette?”

“It’s ridiculous!”

“Say again?”

“It’s totally stupid!”


“It’s so stupid it’s ridiculous stupid.”

“OK, glad you like it.”

Ridiculous stupid is high praise, indeed.

It’s a good thing as Martha would say.
Yum-O according to Rachael.
Delightful would say Julia if she weren’t dead.
Bam, it’s that simple, chimes Emeril.
You’re gonna like the way you look. No, that’s George Zimmer of the Men’s Warehouse. Wrong thread.

Over the years my omelette might have been described as great, groovy, radical, boss, tubular or sweet, although it’s not sweet-sweet.

Today it’s ridiculous. Or it’s stupid. Or, totally radical tubular praise, it’s ridiculous stupid.

Here’s the blueprint.

Like most things ridiculous stupid, necessity is the mother of invention.

“What would you like for breakfast?” A simple question.

“How about a cheese omelette?” A deceptively simple answer.

Just cheese and egg? Seldom is the case. The key to taking a cheese omelette to the ridiculous or stupid level is the element of surprise. Cheese is the teaser, but it implies something else. A special spice, bit of meat, something unexpected that transforms breakfast into BreAkFasT!! Yum-O! Thanks, Rachel, uh, chop some mushrooms for me, ‘K? Thx.

At the very least the cheese omelette maker should forage through the refrigerator (new!) and pantry for scraps of this and that that need eating up.

Green onions? Yes.
Mushrooms? Definitely.
Swollen can of pinto beans circa 2002? Pass.
Tomatoes? Possibly.
Cheese? Duh.
Ham slices? Yes.
Red bell pepper? Interesting.

And, thus, was born the ridiculous stupid omelette.

First, I chopped up everything and got some grits cooking. Hey, this is Texas. Kiss my grits if you don’t like them, or maybe fry up some leftover potatoes or do toast or a side of bacon or fruit. Knock yourself out. Thanks, Emeril.

This was a 4-egg omelette so I used a tablespoon of butter to grease the skillet. In went the chopped onion, bell pepper and mushrooms. After they softened a bit I tossed in the sliced ham, chopped into small pieces.

I beat the eggs in a measuring cup and added about a quarter cup of milk to thin it out a bit, then I added the egg mixture to the pan, mixed it up a little and turned down the heat to low.

Don’t molest the omelette. I always say that. Just let it sit on low doing its omelette thing.

When it started to dry along the edge and bubble in the middle I grated some Mexican quesadilla melting cheese on top and added some fresh tomato wedges. I figured I could use the tomato somewhere. Then I grated more cheese on top and put the entire pan in the oven under the broiler to cook the top and get the cheese bubbling.

I didn’t use any salt or pepper or any other spice during the cooking, although I could have been inventive. Turns out extra spicing wasn’t needed.

If I had to pick the special ingredient it would be a tie between red bell pepper and the Mexican melting cheese. The cheese is very mild but has a great melted texture, smoother than Colby or Longhorn which I normally use.

This was an unplanned, great breakfast which is totally stupid, and it turned out to have great flavor which is totally ridiculous!

And that’s a good thing!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Pardon Me While I Smoke

The Fourth of July.

Picnics, bar-b-que, swimming, sunburn and fireworks. Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention cubic miles of cold beer and acres of hot dogs.

The Fourth of July. Summer is here. It’s hot, but not too hot to eat outside. It’s exciting with anticipation. Waiting for the hot dogs to cook, waiting for the hand-cranked ice cream to freeze, waiting for nightfall and the fireworks display.

There are bands and celebrations of all kinds. Fun runs, and I must say, running on the Fourth of July in Houston is fun, fun, FUN! (Not.)

Nothing typifies Americana more than the Fourth of July.

Here at Chez Fondue we are planning to go with the flow and produce an All-American feast of delights.

We started this morning with a Red, White and Blue breakfast: blueberry pancakes and bacon. The salty, red bacon complimented the savory-sweet blueberry pancakes perfectly, accompanied by Starbucks Somalia dark brew. Kink the cat nosed ever closer to my bacon only to snag a piece of pancake. Clever boy!

On the menu tonight we are having:

Smoked hamburgers
Grilled corn-on-the-cob
Bacon potato salad
Surprised greens

Raspberries and blueberries on Blue Bell Vanilla ice cream

Here’s the blueprint.

Grilled Corn-on-the-Cob

Corn is a very forgiving vegetable. You can cook it to extinction and it’s still good. You can do grilled corn-on-the-cob a variety of ways.

Typically, I strip the husk from the ear of corn, remove the silk and wash it. Then I wrap the ear in a piece of aluminum foil. I place the wrapped ear on the bar-b-que as I’m bring it up to temperature.

It doesn’t matter if you have a gas grill, charcoal or no grill at all. Just place the ears on the fire and let them cook for 30-45 minutes. You can even do this in a 350-degree oven. Turn the ears once about half-way through cooking. I threw some wood chips on the grill to give the burgers that outdoors taste.

Unwrapping the corn, some of the kernels will be a toasty brown and very nutty in flavor.

In fact, you don’t even need to wrap the ears in foil. With fresh corn, carefully peal back the husk, remove the silk, restore the husk and drop on the fire. The water in the husk will steam the corn and protect it from burning. A little browning to the corn adds to the flavor.

Cowboy Beans are very easy to make. Simply add a few tablespoons of your favorite bar-b-que sauce to a can of beans and heat. Magic!

Smoked Hamburgers

I think the key to a good hamburger is to cook it well, but not too well. Hamburger is tricky because you don't know where it's been unless you make your own. So, you have to get the internal temperature to at least 160 to cook out any bacteria that may be lurking inside.

With a gas grill you have some flexibility in cooking hamburgers. You can use a high heat to sear the outside, then use a lower heat to cook the interior while adding things like BBQ sauce or smoke. For today's menu I used smoke from mesquite wood smoldering on the back grate. I got the wood chips going early so I'd have a lot of smoke by the time I put the burgers on the grill.

I didn't do anything "funny" with the hamburger patties. I just mashed them into shape and sprinkled a little salt and pepper on both sides. Really, you don't need more than that.

Potato Salad

When it comes to potato salad I'm all over the map, in that I like most kinds of potato salad. That is not the case for the rest of my family, so over the years I've adapted a rough recipe that seems to please everybody. It's a variation on warm German potato salad.

I use white, waxy potatoes because they hold up best after being boiled. I use bacon, some herbs, celery, egg and that's about it. I cook the potatoes until you can pierce them easily with a knife and cool them rapidly in an ice bath to prevent further cooking. I think this is key to ending up with a chunky, rather than a mushy, potato salad.

Once the potatoes are cooled, chopped and in the bowl, then Fun Time begins! What to do next depends on what you have in stock. Red bell pepper? Sounds great! Celery? Definitely! Chives or green onions? Bring it on!

I toss in the kinds of things I think my family will eat in a potato salad, mix the concoction and let it sit for an hour or so.

The finishing of a potato salad is the dressing and I've tried all sorts. My favorites are mayonnaise and either sour cream or plain yogurt. For this potato salad I used a Greek yogurt which turned out to be thicker than the Danon brand I normally use, but was very flavorful.

It's hard to quantify what I actually do with mayo and yogurt or sour cream. I just add a bit of this and that until the mixture looks moist and creamy. Then I let it sit for an hour or so for the flavors to mingle.

This potato salad can be served slightly warm, if the potatoes aren't totally cooled, or cold or in between. You can also serve it with a Ridiculous Stupid Omelette the day after.

Potato salad, it's what you want it to be.

Nice Salad
I made this nice salad which we didn't have an appetite to eat! It was grape tomatoes, arugula, mache and goat cheese. Looked nice, but we were stuffed!

Red, White and Blue Ice Cream

This was a simple dish. Using Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream, I simply placed blueberries and raspberries to suggest an American flag.

Happy Fourth of July!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Mid-Course Report

New Year’s Resolutions.

The year is half over. How are you doing?

Lost that 20 pounds? Taken up that new hobby? Learned to play the guitar? Speak Spanish? Work out at least three days a week? Stop smoking? Trim your nose hairs at least once a month?

Face it, your resolutions are dead. Kaput. All you have at this point is guilt. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

Fail. That is you. Total loser.

You haven’t lost an ounce. You’re still the dull, miserable recluse you were last year. You don’t even own a guitar, much less play one. Hola? You’re clueless. You’re a lazy, smoking sloth with a mustache, oh, sorry, those are your Nose Hairs.

Well, welcome to the New Year’s Resolutions Club. Membership: You.

I’ll cut to the chase. The reason you have FAILED in your resolutions is that you set the wrong resolutions. Unachievable. Lofty, yes, we are proud, but unachievable. Face it, in 20 years of announcing New Year’s Resolutions how many have you actually fulfilled?

Right, just as I thought: ZERO.

That’s because you’re going about it all wrong in setting resolutions. You’re thinking Grand Strides when you should be thinking bABY sTEPS. Little resolutions. Things you could actually achieve.

So, let’s have a look at my New Year’s Resolutions for 2008 and see how I’m doing.

1. Gain 20 pounds. Check.
2. Spend at least six days a week on the couch. Check.
3. Stop reading non-fiction. Check.
4. The garage is fine, it doesn’t need cleaning. Ever. Check.
5. Drink more beer than in 2007. Check and double Check.
6. Take care of Barky Dog. In Progress.
7. Stop using turn signals. Check.
8. Be more opinionated and less tolerant. Check.
9. Do not learn Spanish. Check.
10. Don’t worry, be happy. Check.

Now, isn’t that a better way to go? I’m well on my way to achieving all my goals for 2008 and it’s just over half-way through the year.

Well, I gotta run. Checking out a new Rent-a-Snake site I found on the Internet. Free shipping! I just might be able to take care of Resolution #6 if all goes well.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the couch. The new People just came out. Can you believe what’s going on with Lindsey Lohan? So illuminating.