Friday, April 29, 2011

Hunger Awareness

Last year, a group of food bloggers were invited to the Capital Area Food Bank for a tour and an education. We learned what types of foods a food bank recipient would actually receive, and we were challenged to shop and prepare meals as if we were recipients ourselves. (My posts from last year are here and here.) It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
That group of food bloggers are now part of a non-profit organization, the Austin Food Blogger Alliance; one of the missions is that of philanthropy, and this was the kick-off event. We met at the CAFB on April 20, with presentations from Lisa Goddard, their Online Marketing Director, a discussion of SNAP benefits, a mock nutrition class (more on these in a moment) and a tour of the facility. Some of the things I learned and was reminded of:

-- The face of hunger is everywhere, and can be anyone. 
-- One of every two people will have been on food stamps, even if just on an emergency basis, at some point in their lives.
-- Food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is administered via the Lone Star Card here in Texas; it is federal dollars, not city or state funding. (You may hear someone say: "I am on food stamps/SNAP/Lone Star card" -- it's all the same thing.)
-- Only half of the eligible people are actually on SNAP in our area.
-- The food bank encourages people to fill out the application for SNAP (and has trained counselors to educate people about it and assist with the applications; they work the 21 counties that comprise Central Texas). The use of food stamps creates more economic activity, otherwise federal dollars designated for the SNAP programs are left on the table, which could lead to under-funding in future budget cycles.
-- The application process is NOT user friendly. The state of Texas has a 10 page application, that generally has to be re-submitted every 6 months; the average family of four receives $306 per month in SNAP benefits. (SNAP applications for other states were passed around at the meeting; they were all much, much simpler apps. Pathetic that the state of Texas allows this to continue, but clearly they are trying to limit access to the funds. That's a whole different soapbox that we could get into....but I'll just say, I am really disappointed with our state government and legislators. As Lisa so passionately put it: "There are barriers in place to prevent people from applying.")
-- If there is ANYBODY who you know in Texas who you think would be eligible for SNAP benefits, please encourage them to apply. You can start with the Health and Human Services website to see if you/they are eligible. Then complete the application, and then wait for an interview with HHS. If you're eligible, why NOT apply? It's "free" money.
-- You can't buy just anything from the grocery store with SNAP funds; no prepared foods, such as rotisserie chickens, but raw chicken is fine.

We also had a presentation from Angela Henry, who, as a registered dietitian, conducts classes in the community on how to make healthy meals. She goes into the community to teach basic nutrition, meal planning, kids classes and more. And these are all free classes to SNAP recipients.  Angela and Lisa challenged us as food enthusiasts to come up with healthy, nutritious meals made from items that a SNAP client would be able to buy. We also need to consider that some clients will only have a stove top available to them, no oven or other equipment beyond the basics. CAFB's goal will be to take our recipes and incorporate them into the classes that Angela teaches.

What I've decided to do is to look at some dishes that regularly cook, and see how they can be stretched with a few basic additions. I started with polenta (or you could use grits; they are practically the same, but there are some technical differences). I like to prepare my polenta with half water, half milk, because they come out creamier, and they can easily be made on the stove top in a saucepan. Follow the instructions on the package; I buy the instant ones, that take about 5 minutes; all you need to add are water (and milk if you wish) and salt. By themselves, they're a great filling dish, and organic ones run about $2/lb, and that makes a lot of polenta.  
You can add things like cheese (a nice sharp cheddar, shredded) and herbs (chives, especially) to your polenta to give it more flavor.You can also add protein; this requires an additional skillet or other pan. I've chosen turkey sausage, because it's lower fat than pork sausage.  I removed the turkey sausage from it's casing, and browned it in the skillet with about a teaspoon of oil. Frozen (or fresh) shrimp would be a great one too -- shrimp and grits! 

Add your protein to your polenta/grits, and you've got a good meal. Or, you can keep going. Do you have tomatoes, either fresh or canned (canned are easier for this)? Once you've browned your sausage, add some chopped tomatoes to the skillet as well, and let them heat through.
But wait! Do you have any kind of leafy green? Whether it's a bunch of kale, or loose leaf greens, you can add them in. If you're at the grocery store and you have the choice between romaine lettuce and spinach, get the spinach! Lots of nutrients in the spinach, not so much in the lettuces. Try spinach, arugula, kale, collards, chard -- all good leafy greens. Chop some up, and add it to the sausage and tomato mix; put the lid on the pan for a few minutes to let the greens wilt down. 
When you add this to your polenta, you get a hearty, filling, nutritious meal, with lean protein, vegetables, and grains/carbohydrates. You'll notice I haven't given any measurements for these meal suggestions. Again, follow the package directions for making the polenta/grits, based on the number of people you are feeding. For the protein, a serving is about 4 oz, or the size of a deck of cards. Then add as much tomatoes and greens as you wish. Baking is a science, but cooking is much easier!
Back to the protein for a minute. If you can't find turkey sausage, you could easily use ground chicken or turkey, even ground beef, if you get a leaner one. These meats also freeze well; you can portion them out, wrap in plastic wrap, and put into a freezer bag (label it so you know what it is!)

When shopping, go check out the Bulk section of your grocery store. Stores buy these items in bulk, so you can buy as much or as little of the item as you need. This is a GREAT place to get spices and dried herbs. Say you are using ground chicken, which on it's own is fairly bland; you can get a couple tablespoons of Cajun spice for about 50 cents, and use maybe a teaspoon to season the chicken. Or buy a bottle of Mrs. Dash; there are tons of flavor options, and they don't have sodium. Things like dried beans are usually cheaper in the bulk section than the prepackaged ones, same with rices. Can you plant an herb garden, or pick up some potted ones at the local garden center? This is a great way to get kids involved -- have them care for the plants. Then you've got easy access to great flavor enhancers! Think fresh and think flavor -- those will take you a long way in making a nutritious meal.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Well, you may have noticed this here blog has a new look to it! After three years, I figured it was time to change things up a bit! The background tile with the plate and silverware is what I use for my Twitter logo, so it seemed like a good idea to streamline things a bit. I also added the Austin Food Blogger Alliance logo, as I am now a dues paying member! I think I am happy with the changes; if you have any feedback or suggestions, please let me know! (I am not a computer whiz, but Blogger makes it fairly easy.) And hopefully a Facebook page for the blog coming soon!

The main "real" news that I ran across this morning on Twitter is the forthcoming Thai restaurant from Rene Ortiz of La Condesa, and it will be in my neighborhood! The northeast corner of South First and Elizabeth, in what has been an abandoned property for years, will become a Michael Hsu-designed Thai spot. I've lived in the Bouldin area for almost 13 years, and I don't think that location has ever had anything functional on it. 

The irony, is this place will be directly across the street from a new Vietnamese place in the old Bouldin Creek Cafe, which is being put in by the team who owns Lambert's and Perla's. The bigger irony is La Condesa and Lambert's are directly across the street from each other on 2nd Street, downtown.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I recently received word there was a new bar downtown -- tenOak took over the old Cuba Libre spot on Colorado, between 4th and 5th (next to Frank). I made a date with a friend for happy hour, and we went to check it out.

And the quick verdict: yum!

They've got a daily 4 - 7pm happy hour, and while the menu for food and drinks is abbreviated, everything is $5, though you can order other items too. I started with the Water Cooler cocktail -- vodka with muddled berries, St. Germaine, blue curacao, and a bit of prosecco. From there, I moved on to Office Politics -- vodka, pomegranate liquor, pineapple juice, and a dash of sweet + sour. I liked the second one a bit better, but would happily drink either of them again!
We had the Jester King beer braised pork sliders, which were absolutely delicious, though rather spicy (and the spice isn't mentioned on the menu so it may some as a surprise to those with more delicate palates); you get these two, nice fat sliders! Messy to eat, but perfect for sharing! We also had the Fig in a Pig, where figs are stuffed with blue cheese, wrapped in bacon, and grilled. This is almost heaven for me, incorporating my love of both pork and sweet and savory flavors melded together. Could eat a whole lotta those, and hey, you're eating fruit!
We finished the affair with a dessert -- a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich. Amy's ice cream too. It's really hard to go wrong with that kind of classic, especially when it's drizzled with caramel. All items on the Texas-inspired menu are nicely priced at under $10.

TenOak's decor is inspired by a Texas oak tree, and pays homage to oak barrels.  It's a masculine design aesthetic, but certainly not overbearingly so. Three televisions ring the bar, and fortunately, the sound was off on all of them. For the bourbon and whiskey fans, they've got the largest small batch collection in town. There are different types of seating areas -- about 8 booths along the right of the bar, seating at the bar it's self, patio tables up front, regular tables to the left of the bar, two couch/lounge areas towards the back, and a whole separate room at the back that looks to be bar/live music space when needed.

So head downtown for a cocktail or two! The prices are right, the service was friendly, the food creative, and 80s rock music on the speakers. What could be bad?

Mother's Day is coming up!

Three South First street businesses are teaming up to create a package deal for Mother's Day: bakery La Patisserie, florist Mercedes, and jewelery shop Schatzelein. They are creating a "Sweet Suite" with twelve macarons, a bouquet of fresh flowers, and a pair of handmade earrings for $70 (click here to see the earring options, though jewelry upgrades and customizations are available). 

All three businesses are within three blocks of each other, and are women owned and operated. Orders can be placed by calling Schatzelein (512/382-0969) by May 5th to ensure completion for Mother's Day on May 8th. What a clever idea by these local gals! I hope this is successful, and they team up on future endeavors!!!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Songkran/Thai Festival at the Buddhist Temple

Songkran is the Thai new year's festival, and it's apparently one of the bigger celebrations, held in mid-April. (Read about it on Wiki here.) There's a Buddhist temple in Del Valle, out past the airport, Wat Buddhananachat, and there are currently 5 monks who live there. The Thai community prepares all kinds of street food, there is karaoke, raffles, beauty pageants, and moon bounces for the kids, and I think the monies raised benefit the temple. I've been 3 or 4 times now, and Songkran is the one you want to go to for all the varieties of food! 

We've also learned they tend to run out out of certain foods, so best to get there early. The flier I had was mostly in Thai, but I think they get started in the early afternoon, though it isn't til the evening when the pageants are held. We got there about 6 pm, and hit the ground running, buying up foods as we came across them so we wouldn't have to backtrack!

It started with a salad bar clam shell container of fried chicken skins for $5. Really it's a bargain, and they are utterly addictive! Same booth also found grilled pork skewers, which I think were 3 sticks for $6. Marinated in some galangal and lemongrass. We found yellow curry chicken in a puff pastry-type dough. Fried fish cakes. Grilled fish balls. Fried plantains, dipped in this yummy batter with black sesame seeds, that kind of caramelizes when fried. Sesame balls with a sugary egg yolk filling. There's one table inside the main hall that always makes the best green papaya salad, and they'll ask you how hot do you want it (medium!). And then there's the puffed rice cakes, drizzled with palm sugar, that I am also addicted to. So a bunch of us take some wine (don't forget the bottle opener!), and kind of have a big communal table of foods! 

Here's a woman sitting on a table, tending to the fried plantains. Yes, she's barefoot. While I've never had a problem with the safety and sanitation of the foods there, it IS a street food festival.  I had never had these plantains before, and they're terrific!
Below -- upper right: chicken skins; bottom right: green papaya salad; middle: pork skewers; bottom left: egg roll and fried shrimp, which came with a really great sweet/sour/peanutty sauce.
Above -- curried chicken in puff pastry, sesame balls, plantains; below, my breakfast the following morning! Peanut butter toast, with some of the reheated fried plantains and my beloved rice cakes, which I am eating as I write this! 
Lots of kids, seems like more people this year than last, and in general, a cacophony of noise. But the unique foods make it all worthwhile. Only disappointing thing is now I have to wait another year for the tapioca balls with peanut filling that we missed out on this time. 

Many thanks to my Thai friend Noi, who took me inside the actual temple and residence hall of the monks, and introduced me to the head monk, who was a very genial host.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bits and Druthers

Friday night, we took a walk on the East Side, starting with East Side Show Room for happy hour, followed by dinner at the East Side Drive-In trailer park. Contentment was found by all! 

A dear friend was visiting from out of town, and we picked ESSR as the spot to meet up with two other friends. When we arrived at 6 pm, there weren't many people inside, but by 6:15pm, the place was hopping! The bar got a little backed up making our cocktails, but they do make all of their concoctions from scratch, from the simple syrups to the infusions. I had a Moscow Mule, which may be a new favorite! We also got the artfully presented cheese plate, with three lovely local cheeses and homemade jams and mustards to pair with each other; wish I had caught the name of the cheeses, but I think Dirty Goat was one of them. We also got the fried beets, which were served with a pesto and a chiffonade of something fried on top -- little thin crispy green strips. Quite tasty. 

I've been to ESSR one other time to meet up with friends; only had a drink then. I really would love to have a full-on meal there sometime; they are really committed to local and seasonal, and the menu sounds interesting. Someday.

We then walked across the street to the food trailer park, where there should be something for everyone: the No. 19 Bus, Local Yolk, Ugly Banjos, Vegan Yacht (closed that night), Pig Vicious, Pueblo Viejo, Love Balls, and a tapas place I didn't catch the name of. I think that's all the trailers there! But it's a perfect place for people with different tastes -- we took up shop at one of the tables, and then everyone could go pick food for themselves, like a food court at the mall, just a million times better. 
I was itching to try the fish and chips from Bits and Druthers (British pub grub), having recently heard their praises. I got the large order ( $7, vs. $5 for the small), and figured my friends would want to try. It's presented to you in a piece of white butcher paper, wrapped up in a cone. Back at our table, a bounty of food had been found, from a grilled veggie sandwich from the No. 19 (cheesesteaks, American food) to the Jimmy Crack Chicken at Ugly Banjos (homestyle cookin') and the takoyaki (octopus) balls and yaki-onigri (rice balls) from the Love Balls Bus  (Japanese street food).
You can sort of tell from the picture, that was a HUGE piece of fish (turbot, in fact)!  And it was delicious! It was a touch greasy, but I think only because they didn't give it time to rest on paper towels after frying. Great batter on it, made with locally made Real Ale, and a very tender fish. The fries are a nice size, and both go well with the homemade tartar sauce. And I used my Go Local card for a free drink. Win win! I had bites of everyone else's food, and except for the tako balls, everything was really good. The tako balls were a bit of an odd texture -- yes, it IS octopus -- but unfortunately, didn't sit too well with the primary eater. The garlickly rice balls were quite good though. 

It was also just the perfect night for sitting outside; the weather cooled off a bit, and there was a bit of a breeze. And, it's nice to see that East Side Drive-in is getting people, and in fact the place was rather busy. Lots of kids, families. And, for future reference, you can BYOB. Plus, they've got on-site recycling going on for the plastic and glass bottles. Hopefully, the SoFi food court can start attracting some of this kind of business.

Sidebar: My friend who was visiting used to live here, but hadn't been to ATX in 5 years. She was stunned by all the changes, like the growth of downtown and the food trailer culture. We had 2+ days of great eating! 

Friday (the food listed is what we both had, not just me!):
La Patisserie -- almond croissant, morning bun and toasted almond macarons
Ruby's BBQ -- pulled pork sandwich, Elgin sausage plate
Opal Divine's -- 512 Black IPA and Divine Peach Lemonade
East Side Drive-in -- detailed above

Curra's -- breakfast tacos, Oaxacan coffee, oj
Frank -- Jackalope, porked plain dog, corn up, poutine and waffle fries
The Gingerman -- 512 Wit and Pyramid Apricot
Asti -- calamari,  margarita-esqe pizza, carbonara, risotto, pasta special (ditalini with pancetta, white beans in light tomato sauce), cauliflower and spinach sides, tirimisu, affugato, cheese plate. And yes, this is a lot of food for three people; I am friends with Chef Jason Donoho's mother and aunt, he saw me come in, and sent the pizza and two of the desserts over! Overly generous and delicious!

Magnolia Cafe -- french toast, omlettes

I am well-fed.


A new trailer discovery!

Ate on a recent Saturday night at the relatively new Arancini, which is located at South First and Live Oak in the SoFi trailer park (neighbors to Fried Green Tomato whom I like, and two others which I haven't yet tried). They have a catchy orange trailer that looks to be outfitted with all new equipment. We had their namesake arancini risotto balls, the mixed green salad with poached egg, bacon, blue cheese & hazelnuts, and a grilled flatbread with sausage, peppers & onions.

The food was really really good, particularly the arancini balls, which had bits of bacon in them, which was a nice touch, and as much as you know that I love the pig, these were just well-fried and tasty and mozzarella oozy. The salad was very fresh, with a nicely poached egg oozing on top. The flat bread was good, nice that it was grilled, but it could have just used a bit more flavor and oomph, like from some red pepper flakes. 
I will most definitely go back, especially since I don't live too far from them! They had some different stuff on the menu the night we were there than what's posted on their website. Hopefully, SoFi can attract more people to their little food court, because of the two I've tried there, they are both rockin' it! 


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Newsy stuff

1) A huge congrats to Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine and Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, for being named one of Food and Wine magazine's top 10 new chefs. A great accomplishment, especially since Barley Swine has only been open since the end of December, and it puts him in the company of other local greats David Bull (at the Driskill Hotel when he won, currently at Congress in the Austonian building) and Tyson Cole (Uchi and Uchiko). Austin American-Statesman restaurant reviewer and nominator of Gilmore, Mike Sutter, posted this in today's Food section.

2) And for a super-duper job well done, congrats to Austin Bakes, and especially the chief organizer Kathryn Hutchinson, aka Austin Gastronomist for raising over $11,500 in a city-wide bake sale that supports relief efforts in Japan through AmeriCares. I made Grenada Nutmeg Cake and biscuits for the south location (the Hotel San Jose/Jo's Coffee parking lot, in the middle of all the hot rod cars here for the Lone Star Round Up!), and will need to improve upon my packaging techniques for future endeavors! The labels and packages I saw were absolutely adorable!

3) Torchy's Tacos opens TODAY, at 3005 S. Lamar, in the old Chango's spot. Can never have too many Torchy's!

4)  A little further south on Lamar, the Along Came a Slider trailer moved in where Chris' Little Chicago had been, next to Red's Porch. Don't know anything about them, but the menu looks good, and the name is catchy.

5) From the owners of Imperia and Speakeasy, tenOak recently opened in the old Cuba Libre spot on Colorado Street, next to Frank. Said to be a masculine space, paying homage to bourbon and bloody marys, with a price-conscious listing of small plates.

Keep in your thoughts
6) Sagra, the Italian place I recently wrote about for the use of their digital tablets, has sustained a fire causing $100,000 worth of damage. Initial reports blamed the blaze on a faulty pizza oven installation, and the owners hoped they'd only be out of business for about a week while repairs were made.