Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hunger Awareness Blog Project, post 2

Ever since our meeting at the Capital Area Food Bank, I've struggled with the nutritional aspects in regard to are food bank recipients getting appropriate nutrition? The average bag of food from a pantry is almost pure starch -- rice, potatoes, pasta -- with a few nutritionally devoid (almost) cans of over-processed veggies. How do families with children get a proper, balanced meal? I don't have kids, but I have wondered nonetheless. I am assuming that a good majority of these children eat one (or more) meals at their schools. But we've all heard how many school districts serve poor quality meals -- pizza, french fries, "chicken" patties, etc. Is that actually what kids in the Austin-area eat?

And then in today's paper, there was my answer. The story by Addie Broyles on local school lunches, inspired by Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. It turns out, "Austin schools have been working for more than 20 years to improve the quality of the food, while still meeting federal nutritional standards and staying on budget." In AISD, they do baked sweet potato fries, whole wheat hamburger buns, lean hamburger meat, and even have signs up asking students if they've eaten their fruit or vegetable for the day. They've made the conscious effort to improve the meals of their students. So thanks to Addie's story, I feel a bit more at ease, knowing kids have access to a decent meal. 

Back to the food bank project, what have I been eating? There's been a good amount of oatmeal in the mornings, supplemented by a fresh banana or canned fruit cup. The bean dip I made from dried cannelini beans (see previous post) has been eaten with carrot sticks. Dinners have been more interesting! Those russet potatoes? Gnocchi! Baked the potatoes, let them cool, peel them, put through a ricer (or food mill), toss with flour, make a well & add an egg yolk and fresh ground nutmeg, and combine. Roll into 3/4" thick ropes, and cut into 1" lengths. You can leave them as pillow, or lightly squish them with a fork to make indentations, which help to hold your sauce. I squished them, and in a not very patient manner, and they came out rather ugly! Toss them in boiling water, and about 2 minutes later when they float to the top, they're ready. The first night, I tossed them with leftover pasta sauce, and the second night I did them in a brown butter sauce. I melted 2 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet, and slowly let it brown, so it gets that nice caramelly color and deep nuttiness. I tossed in some chopped fresh sage from my garden. One tablespoon of butter actually would have been fine for one serving; both nights, I ate the fresh green beans from my original shopping trip. 
I found a can of black beans in my pantry, and made black bean burgers with them (a little protein, where the gnocchi didn't account for much). It probably wasn't the best of recipes, but not horrible; the one in today's paper in the school lunch article looks good, AND it uses oats! (Next time...) The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of salsa, but I used a chipotle sauce from the fridge. I think salsa, BBQ sauce, chipotles in adobo, etc. would all be fine -- the object is flavor. I did add too many breadcrumbs, so the burgers were a bit dry after I pan-fried them with cooking spray. Fries and burgers go hand in hand , but I wanted to do something a bit different with my potatoes, so I made potato chips. I used the slicer blade on my box grater (or a mandoline, or a very sharp knife), and tossed them with a touch of olive oil & salt. Bake at 475 for about 10 minutes, until golden. Remove to a rack, and they crisp up nicely. I sauteed a little onion and red bell pepper, and added the can of corn. The corn isn't as nutritious as say, a fresh leafy green vegetable, but it was a decently balanced meal.
And we can't forget potato salad! I boiled a couple of potatoes, let them cool, and peeled them. This recipe used a little pickle juice and some dill pickle in it, as well as red onion, celery, mayo & mustard.I swear I've barely used half the bag of potatoes, maybe not even that much. Good thing they keep well.
This challenge certainly makes me think more about what I spend on what I like to eat. I am accustomed to shopping in the bulk departments of grocery stores, but I think the average shopper is scared off by them. They see the word "bulk" and think they have to buy a huge quantity. In reality, you can buy a tablespoon of something or two pounds of it. Retailers receive the items in huge 25 pound (and up) bags, but customers can save money and space in their pantry by just buying what they need for a recipe. Get to know the bulk department of the store you shop in the most. HEB's have their "Nature's Harvest" area, which has spices, flours, nuts, legumes/beans, grains, and more. Places like Central Market and Whole Foods will have those, plus much more. Making an Asian dish? The $5 bottle of Chinese 5-spice powder doesn't exactly appear feasible when on a budget. How about a 50 cent bag instead? And now to change tracks....

My friend and fellow participant in this project makes a great point in her blog, Savor the Earth, about how Texas' economy never really tanked in this fiscal depression like it did in places like California. Yet while the state marches on, it's citizens are second from the bottom in food security. Where will their next meal come from? Can we, as some of the citizens who at least have enough food to fill our bellies, go about social change? Can we start our own food revolution to see that everyone gets what they need? The schools are a great starting point. But what about for adults who are struggling to get by? They still deserve a quality meal, made from "real food" as Michael Pollan says in his latest book (and my current read), Food Rules, An Eater's Manual. Not processed foods, real, whole foods. The quality and quantity of foods both count here.

Pick up a copy. Check out Jamie Oliver. Find out what foods are served in your kids' school district. Support your local food bank with time or money, or both, if you can. Can you afford to eat everyday? Can you afford not to?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Austin Food Bloggers Hunger Awareness Blog Project

I am a member of the Austin Food Bloggers group on Facebook, which was created by Addie Broyles, the food editor of the Austin American-Statesman. She sent out a post last week, asking if people would like to be involved in a project that raises issues about hunger in our community. The basis of the project is to cook from foods that a typical food bank recipient would receive.

A group of about two dozen met at the Capital Area Food Bank on Wednesday evening. We were greeted and given an incredibly informative tour from Lisa Goddard, their Online Marketing Director. At this point, I am ashamed to say I had never been to the CAFB before, and one of their volunteer coordinators is a friend of mine. When I was in high school, I was very active in hunger & homelessness issues, and had volunteered a bit at a food bank, and I think once in college, a one-day project took us to one. I've lived in Austin for HOW LONG now??

Let me first share some of the sobering information Lisa gave us. CAFB houses a 60,000 square foot warehouse, where they sort and organize food for donations to over 350 partner agencies in Travis and 20 counties. Of these agencies, 95% say they could not stay open without the support from CAFB, which relies on donations from stores such as HEB, Walmart & Randalls as well as the US Dept of Agriculture. CAFB is the second largest distributor of produce in the US, behind New York City. Last year, they donated over 23 million pounds of food, up from 17 million the year before. Obviously with the economy in the doldrums, the need for food and resources has increased in the past year or so. But just because some one is receiving food from a food bank, it doesn't mean that person or family is homeless. That's one of the biggest misconceptions out fact 82% of the population served are not homeless. I could go on and on; please see the CAFB website for more stats and eye-opening info.

So if a family were to visit one of CAFB partner agencies and pick up food, the following list is typical of what they would receive. For a month. Yes, month.

2 cans spaghetti sauce
4 cans veggies
4 fruit cans
1 meat selection
3 drink items: choice of large bottle of cranberry apple juice and/or powdered milk (shelf stable milk) boxes and/or apple juice boxes
1 bag spaghetti or egg noodles
1 bag of pinto beans or navy beans
1 bag of white rice
1 package of jalapeno slices
1 ready-made dinner (e.g. hamburger helper)
1 bag/container of rolled oats
1 bag of cheerios
5 lb bag of potatoes

With any luck, that family would also have other funds, whether from food stamps, wages, or what have you to supplement this list as you'll notice there's not a ton of nutritional balance on this list. Fresh produce, dairy, and additional protein are kind of missing. (Though apparently fresh produce donations is a rapidly growing category at CAFB.) So my challenge: to shop for a similar list, and try to create balanced meals.

I went to HEB on took me an hour to shop this! I have always been a label-reader, at least in terms of ingredients. I have extreme aversions to high fructose corn syrup, additives & preservatives, and high fat & high sodium labels. I buy very little processed foods in my "normal" life. A frozen pizza here and there (but generally better quality ones with ingredients you can recognize) and some chips now and then, but I am in the habit of cooking, because it is something I am good at, and something I enjoy. And yes, I am a food snob (there, I've said it!).... I couldn't bring myself to purchase a hamburger helper type meal or canned green beans. I bought items I knew I would eat whether for this project or not, though I fully know that's not the point of this exercise. Mea culpa.

I bought:
1 lb dry cannelini beans
1 lb brown rice (why get white when you can get brown? it was 69 cents)
1 can corn (here, I bought the slightly better quality Green Giant Shoepeg corn, even though it was about 30 cents more than the HEB or Del Monte varieties)
1 4-pk canned peaches
1 lb 90/10 ground beef (I couldn't bring myself to buy the 73/27 beef that was cheaper; who needs that much fat?)
1 lb whole grain penne pasta (yes, you're most likely to receive plain spaghetti; this box of pasta was $1, and it's whole grain)
1 bottle (48 oz) apple juice (this one was the cheapest, AND it didn't have added sugars)
1 jar (45 oz) pasta sauce (I was going to get the HEB brand, then I looked more carefully at the cost per ounce, this one is 5.56 cents/ounce, the HEB 7.27 cents/ounce)
1 container (16 oz) oats
5 lb russet potatoes (it's a lot of potatoes for one person...)
1/3 lb fresh green beans
4 minneola tangelos
2 bananas

I spent $15.58 on my groceries. I shopped for items on the above list, as if I were a food bank recipient, and then I also supplemented with a few fresh produce items, with my "food stamp" money.
Some of the things I didn't buy, and would assume (though we all know where that gets us...) that clients would have oil for cooking, salt & pepper.... I had yellow onions, garlic, parmesan cheese, fresh herbs at home; luxury items, yes, but not unheard of on a food stamp budget either.

I think what shoppers don't always realize is how much they can save by shopping in the bulk foods area of a grocery store. Spices, nuts, grains, flours, often liquids such as honey, balsamic vinegar.... bulk is a bargain! Take advantage of that area! At times it may mean a little more menu planning in advance, but a jar of spices can cost anywhere from $3 on up, and often half the jar goes to waste. If you can shop in bulk and pretty much just buy what you need, you can jazz up your meal without spending a lot. Many bulk departments even have dry soup mixes or hummus mix, which is a great source of protein.

I made a ground beef pasta dish with 1/2 lb of the beef, maybe 10 oz of sauce, and 1/2 the box of penne pasta; I followed a recipe that was on the back of the pasta box. Essentially, brown the beef, add chopped onion & lightly brown, add sauce, & add cooked pasta. I took it one step further by putting it in a casserole dish, topping with a little bit of breadcrumbs & parmesan cheese, and baking for 15 minutes until bubbly. Add a fresh green vegetable, in this case steamed green beans, and you've got some nutritional balance. The pasta dish is easily 4 large servings, and more like 6 smaller ones.
I also soaked some of the cannelini beans, and made a fresh bean dip, by putting them in a food processor with garlic, fresh thyme, olive oil, salt & pepper. It's a great snack or light lunch with carrot sticks, or a multigrain cracker.Finally, I made granola from the oats. I don't know why, but granola cereals (well, cereals in general) are some of the most overpriced items! But you can make your own for pennies! I took a cup of the dry oats (say 4 oz by weight, so 27 cents worth, since the 16 oz container was $1.09), mixed it with 2 tablespoons brown sugar, a pinch of salt & cinnamon, 3 tablespoons oil (I used grape seed because I have it, but canola or vegetable would work; I wouldn't use olive oil for this), 3 tablespoons honey, 1/2 cup sliced almonds, 1 tablespoon of flax seeds, and about 1/4 cup flaked coconut. All of these things can be bought in bulk at someplace like Central Market, Whole Foods, Sprouts, New Flower..... and possibly even HEB. Even the Congress & Oltorf HEB, which is not a large store comparatively, has a bulk section (Nature's Harvest?), where most of these would be found. Combine everything together, and bake at 325 for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
To date, Thursday night for dinner, I ate the pasta casserole & green beans. For breakfast Friday a bowl of oatmeal with a tablespoon of peanut butter added. For snack, Greek yogurt (already had it open in the fridge) with some granola. For lunch, white bean dip with carrots & a leftover piece of focaccia bread, and a banana. For dinner, same as Thursday night. And that is my start to this project. I will say now, while I will stick to this for the week as much as I can, I have some work commitments and evening plans that were already in the works, so I can't dedicate every single meal to this. But the shopping process really did make me think about the "what if's".... how can I do better with what I DO have? What can I do, and what can you do?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cafe Racer

Trailers, trailers everywhere! One of the newest is just a few blocks from my house -- Cafe Racer at South 1st & Live Oak..... I saw it's "installation" one morning when I was out for a walk, and it opened in mid-March. There's a motorcycle theme to it, from the bike parked out front (the side you can't see in the pic) to the pics on their website.Headed home around 7:30 pm on Wed, I was hungry, and knew I wasn't going to feel like cooking. These are the times when I really miss the Baby Greens salad drive through spot that was at S. 1st & Oltorf until it's unfortunate demise last fall. Popeye's fried chicken is always tempting, but I was hoping Cafe Racer was open for dinner (I remembered it was open for B & L, but didn't know about D). To my happiness, it was open! Walking up, I was immediately greeted by Russ, who's the owner. I ordered the Cooper, a grilled cheese with bacon & pears and a potato salad to go. We chatted for a minute, and I went to sit amongst the colorful picnic tables & adirondack chairs while I waited. I had noticed a new trailer was on his corner, which was closed, but advertising snow cones. Russ said it's apparently going to be Cuban food, so we'll wait and see on that one!Fairly quickly, he brought a brown bag out to me, and I toddled on home. Unwrapping the sandwich on my kitchen counter, I snapped the picture. Then picking it up to take a bite, I found out that the entire bottom side was burned. Like not uneatable ('cause I DID eat it), but fairly dark and unappealing looking. Fortunately, there was not a burned toast taste to it, because then we would have had problems! And while it was tasty & a good combo of flavors (sweet from the pear, salty from the bacon & I guess savory from the cheddar), what I quickly realized was, these are canned pears. And while it didn't say "fresh pears" on the menu, that's what I expected, fresh. As for the potato salad, to me it had a commercial-made taste about it; a certain twang to it that makes me think it wasn't homemade (trailer-made), though I could be wrong.So maybe my expectations were too high. I checked Yelp for other reviews, and they were all 5-star and glowing, so I felt compelled to write a 3-star one, stating my feelings/opinions as above. Would love to know what others (whose food opinions I know and trust) think of the place. I really want to like it, especially because the owner was totally nice.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

La Condesa

Here's a place that's been open not even a year, and it's already got a James Beard Best Restaurant Semi-finalist award. It's also a place I've heard very minimal buzz about, though it's situated in the heart of what should be a very buzz-worthy, hip location. A place with cutting edge architecture and interior design. Beautiful website too. But La Condesa showed some flaws in the meal, and at their prices, it makes me hesitate on any rush to return.

Wednesday night at 7 pm. We were seated in a booth under the gigantic hyper-kinetic back wall; it's some huge star burst design (see the pics on their website) made from....old wallpaper? Posters? Can't quite tell. Our waiter came by and asked if we had dined there before, and neither of us had. He said he'd give us some time to look over the menu, and took our drink order. I asked if there were any specials not on the menu which we should be aware of, and he said yes, but since we hadn't been in before, he wanted us to look over the menu as it could be overwhelming at first glance & he gave us an orientation to the menu. A few minutes later, and back with ice teas, he asked if we wanted chips & salsa, and he proceeded to upsell us with one of their fresh guacamoles, complete with pomegranate seeds & queso fresco; we also ordered the cangrejo (crab) huarache. I did really like our waiter; he was chatty and informative, and not obtrusive. He named his favorite dishes, apologized when looking at his notes for the evening specials, and was well acquainted with the items on the menu.

The appetizers arrived, and I sort of consider the actual dish ware they were served on to be old-school Americana. White oval plate, with a red flower border, and the chips were in a metal bowl with that flecked paint (like dishes you take camping) with a similar spoon (see the picture). There were four (!) different freshly made salsas; all had great flavor. I had the waiter run through the types twice, but without writing it down, I can't remember all of them, but there was habanero & apple; a creamy poblano, a salsa verde, and .... but all very tasty. The guac was nice too; the pomegranate seeds were fresh, which I had been hesitant about because it's not really pom season.Huaraches are a fried piece of masa dough, in a oval shape, that are topped with different things; the name derives from the Mexican sandals -- the masa is shaped like a sandal. Ours arrived, with lovely crab and pickled red onion; the masa was quite dense, though appropriately crisp. Looking back now at the menu, they have huaraches described as "crispy corn tortillas with different toppings." That sounds like a tostado; to me, there's nothing "tortilla" about what was presented....I wonder how many confused customers they get. Anyway, it was tasty.
For main dishes, I ordered the barbacoa de cordero (lamb) and my companion, the pato con mole negro (duck with mole sauce) both to our waiter's approval; he says the lamb is one of his favorites. My lamb dish was outstanding. It was a lamb chop, cooked perfectly to medium-rare, as requested, atop some roasted lamb shoulder meat, which has been cooked in maguey (agave) leaves. I'd love to see how this is done, since the agave plants I am familiar with have very thick, tough leaves! The shoulder meat was on the salty side, but had great flavor & somewhat crisp, kind of chewy texture. Also accompanying the meat was a well-emulsified jalapeno-mint sauce, which was the perfect balance of both flavors. The plate was rounded out by a cup of fresh corn with crema and seasonings (a little rich, but delicious) While reviewing the menu for this write up, I noticed the term "esquite", but had no idea what it meant. I have also now learned it's the proper term for my bowl of corn; elote denotes corn on the cob, that's roasted, often with seasonings, butter, mayo, etc. Finally a salad with red onion, radish, and some green leaves (spinach? arugula?) rounded out the plate. Now the menu description calls it a cactus salad, but I don't think I found anything remotely cactus-like (I have eaten nopales before)....unless I am way off base in thinking the cactus were onions, but I don't think so. Tasty, yes. Cactusy, no.

Now for the mole dish. I love a good mole negro sauce -- it's that marriage of multiple types of chiles, spices such as cinnamon and allspice, nuts (often almonds), seeds (pumpkin, sesame), and chocolate, usually in the form of cocoa powder or bittersweet chocolate. They are not to everyone's liking, kind of like curry dishes, but I love them! Over the years, I have found the ones at Miguel's and Sazon to be some of the better in town; hear Borrego de Oro's is great. I have also made my own on a few occasions, and so I can greatly appreciate the couple of hours it can take to make it, not to mention the lengthy list of ingredients. Well, it apparently takes three days to make this mole. Our waiter said the chef does it when no one else is in the kitchen, as it's exact ingredients & process seem to be a secret. I would have ordered the mole if my companion had not; it's often the dish I order when I go to a new interior Mexican restaurant for the first time. The sauce tasted great; it had the high and low notes to it, a good balance of spiciness with sweet. From what I could tell though, there just wasn't a whole lot of sauce on the plate. There was a duck breast and a confit leg, on top of rice, with a bit of the sauce over them. I am used to the poultry being almost smothered in mole, and that's how I like it. Furthermore, the skin on the duck breast was very soggy, not crisp at all. So I'd give high points to the mole sauce, but not so much to the execution of the rest of the dish.

For dessert, I ordered the tarta de chocolate salada, and my companion the cafe con leche. Mine was a chocolate & caramel tart with sea salt on top, with roasted coconut ice cream. The crust on my tart was not crisp....maybe a couple days old? Not a great crust, but the filling was good, and there was a ton of salt on it. The ice cream was another disappointment. It didn't taste remotely like coconut, and the texture was granular, as if it had melted and been refrozen, not smooth and creamy like good ice cream should be. The cafe con leche was a huge coffee cup of a thick pot de creme of richness! A small espresso cup might have been more appropriate given how rich it was. So, a little hit and miss, which I think could be said for the whole meal.

La Condesa has a lot of terms on the menu the average diner, and even the slightly above average diner (me!) aren't immediately familiar with. Huarache, chipotle meco, salsa morenita, esquites.... maybe they need to include a glossary on the menu.

Pictures you ask, where are the pics of the main courses? Unfortunately, they did not turn out on my camera phone. They kept dimming the lights, so by the time the main dishes arrived, it was much darker, and my phone couldn't handle it; the pics are very grainy. If you're dying to see them, email me, and I'll send them to you! Interestingly enough, the booth adjacent to us was photographing their food as well. However, they had a complete professional set up -- lights on the table, the mini umbrellas to direct the lighting, and a HUGE camera! Definitely puts mine to shame! But, what it really made me realize is I need to carry a flashlight, so I don't encounter this problem again. My Android phone takes really good pictures, when there's enough light, and in general, it's easier than carrying my digital camera around. So I will find a small flash light to carry in my purse....The pictures, like the meal, was hit and miss.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll

Vote before April 19th in the annual Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll! Do it now! :)

Makin' Bacon

Ahhh, the pig. What's not to love? And what's not exciting about the prospect of making your own bacon? Here's the tale of my experiment in makin' bacon.

When I was in Denver last week, we went to Savory Spice Shop, a local spice store. They had curing salt, also known as pink salt, which essentially is sodium nitrate, a natural preservative used for meat curing. (Celery is high in SN, and many natural hot dog & sausage makers will use straight up celery juice in their "curing" process... I think Applegate Farms is one.) I knew that I could buy SN online or at someplace local like Callahan's, but would probably have to buy a larger quantity than I would ever use in this lifetime. I was able to get 4 oz for about $2.....and I bought some extremely dark cocoa powder (smells like Oreos!), but we'll save that for another time!

The day after I got back, I went to Whole Foods for groceries, and while getting ground lamb for meatballs, I asked the butcher if they had any pork belly. He checked in the back, and lo and behold, he did! I asked for a pound, and asked if he had ever cured it before. He said he had cured other things, but not pork belly; he said you have to have a really sterile environment, and he has a separate fridge that he only uses for curing things. So I was slightly intimidated, but figured at only a pound of pork belly, I wasn't loosing much monetarily if I screwed this up. Furthermore, he looked high and low in all of his books, but couldn't find the proper code for pork belly, so he charged me only $1.99/lb..... I think the total was $2.14 for the little belly!
So got home and started Googling pork belly --> bacon recipes.... found out that for bacon, you really don't need the pink salt, as it was primarily used in the olden days to prevent botulism. I guess since the belly is cured, smoked, and then cooked in a skillet/oven, any chances of botulism are negated. However, if you're making various salumis, yes, use the sodium nitrate.

Looked at a variety of different recipes utilizing different techniques. After a few days, I just decided to go for it, and make it up as I went along, based on what I had read. So on Friday morning, I combined (again, just 1 lb. of belly here):
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. coarse ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. curing/pink salt (I decided just to use it anyway since I had it, it's certainly not going to hurt anything, especially at that small amount)
1/2 tsp. ground bay leaves
1/2 tsp. ground coriander...and then proceeded to slather all sides of the belly, and pop it into a ziplock bag.
And into the fridge for the next 2 1/2 days! Turn the bag every 12ish hours or so to evenly distribute the seasonings and extruded juices. This also gave me time to ponder on how to smoke it. I don't own a smoker. I could have rigged one up with my gas grill or some other Alton Brown-esque method, but ultimately decided to go with a borrowed Cameron Smoker and some applewood chips. (I debated between applewood & hickory, but applewood came out on top.) If you're not familiar with Cameron Smokers, they're great home-kitchen devices! You can smoke ANYTHING in them -- fish, red peppers, meat, cheese... you name it! You can kinda tell from the picture below, it's a metal box with a drip pan in the bottom, and a rack on top. You place your wood chips beneath the drip pan, close up the box, and light it up!

And in my excitement to start smoking it, I forgot to take a picture of it on Sunday evening when it was done curing. It gave off about a quarter cup of liquid, which it's supposed to do (salt extracts liquid, remember?). So I rinsed it off and patted it dry, and let it sit on the counter for about 30 minutes.

I knew from my research, the internal temp of the belly needed to reach 150 degrees. So with the probe thermometer inserted, and it's control set to 150, I set up the smoker, closed the lid, and turned on the gas burner on my stove to a medium-low temp.
Thirty-five minutes later, it was beeping and ready! I was sort of surprised it was done that fast, but the thermometer doesn't lie! So it went onto a cutting board to cool down. About 20 anxious minutes later (it really didn't need all that time to cool down, but I just wanted to be sure), I was slicing it for BACON! I JUST MADE BACON!Into the frying pan over medium-low heat -- you can't rush greatness! And a few minutes later, I was getting my first tastes of pig-fantastic! I MADE BACON! IT ACTUALLY WORKED!!!Overall, I am ecstatic! Very pleased with the flavor, though I don't know that I am 100% sold on the flavors of the cure. I took some to my peanut gallery foodie friends this afternoon, and everyone loved it, and thought the cure was fine, not too sweet with balanced flavors. (Thanks, ya'll!) Might try a brown sugar and cayenne next time. Because there WILL BE a next time! And a time after that! In regards to the actual smoking, I used about 3 tablespoons of the applewood chips; I think 2 T. would have been enough for this size piece. Also, future batches should probably be smoked outside on the back porch, using a portable butane stove...a day later, my kitchen still has a lingering smoke scent.

Anyone reading this ever try this? Any suggestions for a great cure? I am open to them! Very excited about it, and it really was pretty darn easy! I WILL be doing this again! Soon! All hail the very tasty pig!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Food & Photos

And, from today's NY Times, an article on people who photograph their meals.... in many cases, EVERY meal! Well, I don't do that! Just some of my meals! I am not totally OCD....yet!


A long weekend in Denver to see one of my best friends (K), her husband (C), their 6 month old baby (adorable!), and their new house! It was a nice getaway and time away from work! Here's a brief rundown of the food stuffs.

Dinner Thursday night was a fabulous home-cooked meal of Thai (panang curry) made by C, who particularly enjoys Asian foods. For breakfast the next day, we made ebelskivers, little Danish "pancakes" (think golf balls) that can be filled with jam, chocolate, or made into savory snacks with cheese & herbs too. I had never had them before, but rarely have I met a bread-y substance I didn't like! These were great, and fun to make. We did batches with raspberry & blackberry jams, and also nutella, and sprinkled them with powdered sugar.After breakfast, we all headed just outside town to Red Rocks, a gorgeous, natural sandstone formation in a huge bowl shape, upon which an amplitheatre was built in the early 1940s. No it's not exactly edible, but I really loved it, and feel compelled to share some pictures of it!We ventured back into town, and had a late lunch at Buenos Aries Pizza, a spot just a few blocks from Coors Field (home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team), that my friends have been to before. We split appetizers of papas fritas a la provencal (french fries w/ garlic & parsley) and higos envueltos (bacon-wrapped figs in BBQ sauce); both were delicious! The fries were nice & thinly cut with just enough seasoning on them, but were also great with their chimichurri sauce. The saltiness of the bacon & the sweetness of the figs really complements each other; the BBQ sauce on them was actually a bit too sweet, and if I was going back, I'd ask for it on the side.While we were tempted to order one of their specialty pizzas, we each got a couple empanadas; I had the beef picante and the corn. What I appreciated the most about these pastries was the crust. It was the right balance of dry & flaky with a decent crispness to it. To me, the dough that often comprises the sweet Mexican empanadas like pumpkin, is way too soft of a dough without the appropriate flakiness. I particularly liked the beef one, it had some of the traditional elements with the ground beef -- hard boiled egg, green olives, and raisins or currants (I now can't remember which,but they give just a hint of sweetness). The corn one was good, but I think the addition of a little potato may have helped it. My friends say their pizza is very good, and you can choose tomato sauce or just olive oil underneath your toppings.Friday evening, K and I did a stroll through the Santa Fe Arts district which was having open houses; neat to see, but can't afford the items I like! For dinner, we ended up in the Highlands neighborhood on 32nd Street at a place called Venue, which turned out to be spectacular. We got primo parking along 32nd, and figured we'd walk around to see what looked appealing, and about one door down from the car, a signboard on the sidewalk caught my eye. Specifically, the words "pork belly" caught my eye.....hhmmmmmmm. The small dining room was crowded, but they had one table for two right by the door, so we took it.

We started with a cheese plate with cheeses purchased from a local shop; Taleggio (soft-ripened washed-rind Italian cow's milk; creamy & mildly pungent), Montasio (semi-hard Italian mountain cheese, also cow's milk, fairly mild), and Rogue River bleu, an Australian blue with a nice creaminess and spreadability. The bleu, coupled with the slices of Granny Smith apple and toasted nuts was hands-down the best of the plate. Also on the plate though were some pickled green beans & onions, which K totally fell in love with. She asked our waiter about how they were made, and he actually returned from the kitchen with a pickling recipe written out from the chef! Granted the recipe makes like five pounds worth of beans, but it was extremely gracious of them to share it! (Venue was very dark inside, and my Droid phone has no flash, so sorry the pics are a bit dark & blurry.)I decided to order two appetizers, the baby beet salad, and surprise!, the pork belly; K got the duck confit, and we were both incredibly happy. My baby beets were roasted, and served with cashews, goat cheese & an orange vinaigrette. Clean flavors that work well all together. The Kurobata pork belly was nice & crispy, and came with a side of a spiced apple compote (the quenelle looking thing on the left in the bottom photo) and a slaw with a nice vinaigrette, so sort of a play on pork chops and apple sauce. Play or not, the flavors together were fantastic. I know I go on about liking sweet & savory together, but when you eat something like this, how can you not?! K's duck confit was tender and succulent, but I had a hard time getting that pork out of my mind. (I think they haven't updated their online menu, because the listing for the pork belly has it paired with roasted winter vegetables & crispy cauliflower; glad I got my version!) For dessert, we split the chocolate tart and the bread pudding. I didn't care for the crust on the tart (too mushy), but it was a very rich, bittersweet chocolate, and the thin pieces of almond toffee accompanying it were great (they didn't stick to your fillings!). The bread pudding was really more like a piece of well-cooked French toast, so it was nice and crusty & seared on the outside. This boded well for me, being a French toast lover, and generally a disliker of bread pudding because I find them too mushy, but their's is certainly not what I'd call a traditional bread pudding. K has proclaimed Venue her new favorite place in Denver, and we were both sorry that C missed it, as he was home with the baby. Prices were reasonable and the service was good. The bathroom was also rather small, but a whimsical note, the poem The Owl & The Pussycat (kids poem, look it up if you don't know it!) was printed on the wall. We asked one of the wait people, and she said the owner just liked the poem and wanted to put it up in there (no deeper meaning than that, apparently!).Saturday morning, we ventured out to Waffle Brother's for what else? Waffles! It's kind of a goofy spot, but they specialize in a Belgian-style waffle, made on waffle irons from the other side of the pond. They put a special kind of imported sugar on the waffle iron that gives them a nice little caramelized crunch when you bite into them. The combos are seemingly endless, but I opted for the Full Monty, which is the waffle with cinnamon, powdered sugar & whipped cream, for $3. K & I were happy with ours, but C's was a little more undercooked, so perhaps the key next time is to ask for a well-done waffle. The place was very family friendly and equipped with Wi-fi. After some more Denver-area sights, and tending to the very well-behaved baby, we decided on a dim sum place called Star Kitchen for lunch. Always a good sign when it's teeming with Asians, and you have to wait for a table. After about 15 minutes, we got a table, and began the parade of carts. Not even sure where to begin... Chinese broccoli, chicken dumplings, shrimp shumai, egg cream buns, a beef noodle dish from off the menu, shrimp-stuffed fried wontons, pork buns, sesame balls.... and a couple things I can't remember! All fairly good. Maybe not the very best dim sum I've ever eaten, but certainly not bad.Saturday night, K and I went to the Pepsi Center, and the Denver Nuggets vs. LA Clippers basketball game. She was able to get half-price tickets through her workplace, and it was "family night" so free food to boot. As we wandered off in the second quarter to get our chicken fingers & fries, the Clippers had a commanding lead, but the Nuggets fought back, and eventually won the game, even without their most charismatic player, "Birdman," out with a bad ankle. :(

For Sunday (Easter) brunch, we had reservations at a place called Duo, where K & C had had dinner before. It was a decent enough brunch, but I don't think either of my companions totally loved their different eggs benedict dishes. I was torn between biscuits & gravy and French toast, and opted for the former, along with a side of cheese grits. The biscuit was good, and it was a flavorful chorizo gravy over it. The pre-portioned grits had been sitting under the Salamander a bit too long, so were a bit tough on top; the bottom half of them were better, more creamy. A cute touch was the laminated paper placemats, with some recipes from kids on them -- I got a kick out of them!

We opted to skip dessert here (actually, the waiter brought the check without asking us if we wanted anything else {pet peeve!}, but we had already discussed going elsewhere), and have ice cream at Little Man, one of C's favorite spots. Unfortunately, by this point, my phone/camera battery was low, so I couldn't take a picture (see their website), but the building is a giant old-fashioned milk urn! I had mint chocolate gelato, and K discovered that the baby LOVED the strawberry ice cream! (You're creating a monster!) We did an early dinner at Vina Pho & Grill on Sheridan in Edgewater (no website that I can find, so the link is to the Yelp page) before I caught my plane. My friends had driven past it, but hadn't gone, and we were all pleasantly surprised. C got the beef & brisket pho, which had a fairly good, fragrant and flavorful broth. He proclaimed it to be one of the better he's had in Denver. K & I both got vermicelli noodle bowls, mine with grilled pork, and hers with grilled shrimp. Both got two thumbs up! We also observed a dish that other diners had -- a huge platter of greens & meat to create your own do it yourselves spring rolls. It looked fun -- dipping your own spring roll wrapper in water, and making your own concoction. I think K & C found a new (and relatively inexpensive) place that's not too far from them!

Denver's got some nice hidden gems. I am fortunate that K & C are big food people too, and had some places in mind to take me to; we're also fortunate to have stumbled into places like Venue and Vina. I've got to watch that baby grow up and be a strong eater, so I know I'll be back!