Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Texas Local Meat - In My Kitchen

A couple of weeks ago we drove around the countryside near Brenham, amidst rolling hills and cattle ranches. Brenham in Washington County is considered to be the birthplace of Texas. It is a region for Texas wines, lavender fields, heritage trails, and home of the Blue Bell creameries. We have only sniffed at the region, going back for more soon. Cruising around this scenic land with its vast pastures and free-roaming cattle, I remembered the "pledge" I made to myself when I first arrived in Houston: find a local organic farmer who delivers directly to consumers. And I did.
I found a long list of local farms through the detailed and informative database of EatWild.com. Founded some ten years ago, this is a site dedicated to present-day foods that are grown, cultivated and/or raised so it has the nutritional value (not to mention taste) you would find in foods grown and/or roaming wild. EatWild shares related articles, food-for-thought, and background information. And then there is their state-by-state directory: a coveted list of local organic farms who sell directly to consumers. It is here that I found the link to a local farm who delivers to my house: A Better Way Beef.

And so, in my kitchen this April, I have a box of various cuts of beef, lamb, pork, and chicken. All from a ranch not far from Houston. Where hills are rolling and fields in Spring are vibrant with the flaming red of Indian Paintbrush, and the delicate blue of Texas' state flower: the blue bonnet.

Less is more: lean meat
My son has this joke: say "milk" ten times. Then answer the question: what does a cow eat? Growing up in the Netherlands, my answer automatically and invariably is: grass. A Better Way Beef is grass-fed meat. Their cattle (and lamb) roam freely on grassy pastures rich in herbs and wildflowers. The ranch uses two local facilities to process their meat. Slaughtered humanely, under state inspection, the meat is dry-aged on site for two weeks. Dry-aging makes for lean, meaty meat. Think of dry-aging as ripening: instead of packaging the meat straight away, nature gets a chance to intensify the flavors of the slaughtered meat before it is sold.

I unpack my box. There is ground beef, a T-Bone, a sirloin steak, pork ribs, lamb ribs, ground lamb, lamb chops, and 4 quarter chicken. It's the latter I stare at the longest. One quarter chicken is the size of what I normally buy as a whole chicken. I pick up a humongous leg, and I know it will love me if I cook it ever so slow.

I do love meat, but I also know you don't have to eat large slabs of it to feel satisfied. Growing up, money was tight, and meat was a luxury item on our dinner table. My mother always insisted you don't need more than 100gr (3-4 oz) of meat per person, and you don't need it every day. Carnivores among you will gasp at the notion. My son one of them. Meat portions in my kitchen are not that mean, but they're not huge either. And not daily: meat meals are balanced against vegetarian and seafood. It is a nano-contribution to sustainable food: slow down demand, and demand good meat.
What I have done with the meat so far:

Sirloin Steak
Allowed to come to room temperature 2 hours before, the steak is looking relaxed with its deep-dark red meat, soft to the touch, and with creamy white fat. The smell is good too: it is the smell of fresh, raw meat. I feel the meat, and love the promise of a velvety texture. I don't think it needs any acidity to tenderize. No vinegar, no wine. I season the steak with coarse sea salt grains, let it sit for 30 minutes as the grill heats up. It grills on high heat until I feel enough resistance when I poke it gently with my finger. It looks whitish, but then I remember: in dry aging, moisture slowly evaporates. It smells good, the resistance of the meat feels medium-rare, the fat looks cooked, so off it goes to rest for 20-30 minutes. When I slice it, my food heart jumps with joy: it is beautiful meat. Tender, velvety, and oh so full of meaty flavor.
Pork Ribs & Herbs
A beautiful slab of pork ribs looks good: the meat is dark pink, the fat creamy white. I will try something other than the BBQ: I rub the ribs lightly with mustard, sprinkle with coarse salt, fennel seeds, and freshly ground black pepper, and place them on a bed of rough sliced red onion and halved garlic bulbs. Add a splash of white wine if you like. Fresh sage and thyme from my own herb bed share their aromatic love on top, and covered with heavy foil it goes into a moderate oven for about 2 hours. After that, the foil comes off and the ribs roast uncovered until crisp. The meat falls off the bone, infused with the aromatics around it. The sage and garlic (now crisp and roasted) go into a base of cream and stock. Rotini get to roll in it, and together with roasted sprouts this is one very good meal.

juicy tender jerked chicken, try it with corn & poblano quinoa (recipe here
Love That Chicken
One chicken quarter fed the three of us generously. I marinated it overnight in a homemade Ancho-Chile BBQ sauce with added fresh orange juice for acidity. It "jerked" off-heat for almost 4 hours. What we ended up with, was a chicken that in taste and texture raised the bar high for any future chicken. Rich, firm, tasteful meat, you will never ever want to eat the bland meat of inflated bio-industry chicken ever again.

Lamb Kofte
When meat smells good enough to eat raw, close your eyes and you can almost picture the animal running around in a meadow rich with grasses and wildflowers. The delicious raw meatiness of this ground lamb begged for fresh herbs, for natural sweetness, for a hint of spiciness. It longed for a gentle roll on the hot grill. This lamb also sought a tantalizing liaison with the vibrant colors and crisp flavors of fresh vegetables, and the fragrance of saffron in rice. The full recipe, including the colorful salad and saffron rice, is available here (The Food Lane Recipes).

As I write this, one humongous chicken leg is defrosting. This one I will ever so gently braise in coconut milk fragrant with lemon grass, lime leaf, fresh ginger, and red chili. Wanna come for dinner in my kitchen?

www.abetterwaybeef.com: a Texas ranch where cattle and lamb roam free, chickens chase grasshoppers, pigs roll in mud. Check for deliveries, orders are a minimum of 25lbs (meat comes portioned, wrapped, and ready for the freezer).
www.eatwild.com, getting wild nutrition from modern foods: a great website bursting with listings for local organic farms, free range meats, great reads and background information.

In My Kitchen is a foodblogger-sharing series initiated by Celia @ Fig Jam and Lime Cordial: www.figjamandlimecordial.com/in-my-kitchen

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On The Annapurna Trail

There is something about mountain hiking. It is liberating and energizing like few things are. I love mountain hiking, even if for me, it comes with a good deal of huffing and puffing, a fair amount of under-the-breath swearing, and envious looks in the general direction of anyone passing me by with a vigor and stamina that I don't have.

I much prefer gentle alpine hikes with a reward in the way of panoramic views and a hut to rest and recharge, but for my husband it can't be too strenuous and challenging. We've always met in the middle, figuratively speaking. A longstanding dream of his was to hike in the Himalayas, and when I saw images of the Annapurna region, I was sold. I was even prepared to rough it on yak milk and communal toilets to make it to the Annapurna base camp. Closer to decision time, however, I had second thoughts. I had come across a "luxury lodge trek" in the same area that spoke to me much more than the strenuous struggle up to the base camp. It was a trek where you stayed in authentic mountain lodges; one that came with tea and biscuits at sunrise, a leisurely lunch, happy hour, and a three course dinner. You still had to walk an average of 5-6 hours every day, but with plenty reward in the making. A perfect meet-in-the-middle in my book, but I could see the disappointment on my husband's face. No base camp, no trek beyond the tree line into the snow-covered world of the Annapurna. And then it occurred to me: "Why don't we start out together, you go on to the Annapurna Base Camp with your own guide, and we (son and I) make a lower-altitude trek. We meet again back in Pokhara." The best of both, he would get to rough and tough it, our 8-year-old and I did a gentler trek, and part of it we'd walk together. It was a good plan on paper, and a great adventure looking back. At the time, however, when that moment to say goodbye arrived after our first night at the Himalaya Lodge, and I watched my man steadily climb further and up towards the base camp, tears welled up in my eyes. Suddenly, the absurdity hit me of the three of us splitting up in the middle of the world's highest mountain range.
Hiking in the Annapurna region for me was about the scenic beauty, the remote villages, the panoramic views, and feeling humbled by the strength of the villagers, their arduous work on steep slopes ploughing fields, harvesting produce, raising animals. I saw them en route to the town market, carrying towering packs. And on the way back, the load even heavier with new supplies. As my feet tramped the stony trails, I took it all in. The rice noodles drying on corrugated roof tops, a woman grinding rice to flour by hand, a couple sifting and shaking large mats to separate husk from grain. Rice is cultivated on the lower slopes, ground in-house, mixed with water and worked into a dough, which is then stretched and rolled to form individual noodle strands to dry in the crisp mountain air. They grow corn and vegetables on other plots, water comes straight from the mountains, and their domestic animals provide for other needs, including dung for fuel. Nepal is one of the poorest countries on earth. Yet the villages around these mountain slopes seemed self-sufficient, and in many ways manage so much better to sustain a living than the poor population in the big cities, Kathmandu in particular. 
Every morning, straight after breakfast we set off on the serpentining trail. Our guide (a Gurkha) showed me how to ease on the upper legs by drooping one leg a little before moving up the step. The easing is marginal for the inexperienced like me, and soon it felt like I was dragging my legs rather than relieving any strain. What did lighten my step, were the stunning views, the intoxicating motley of smells, children playing in the hamlets, and the "namaste" at every turn. What quickened my step was the pride I felt for my 8-year-old son, light-footedly treading the mountain trails, chatting with the guide, urging his sluggish mother on. There was only one moment in all six days that he stopped, sat down on a rock, pulled his hat over his eyes, crossed his arms, and refused to move. The guide offered to carry him, but that was going against his mountain-goat principles. He took the chocolate candy bribe, and marched on. Every day, with destination in sight, both of us were like the proverbial horse smelling the barn. And what a "barn"! Each of these lodges is an authentic mountain house with thick walls, tiny windows, wooden doors, and decorated with local handicrafts and artwork. The luxury is in the spoiling. You wake to a gentle knock on the door. Huddled in the down jackets provided, you get out of bed to watch the sun rise over these glorious mountains. It is a spectacle that never tires. You sip your hot tea, dunk in a biscuit, and slowly wake up, taking in the invigorating crisp morning mountain air. You spend the day on the trails under the caring guidance of your guide and his porters. A late lunch waits when you reach the lodge, and you relax the rest of the afternoon. And while you are having dinner, a hot water bottle is slipped into your bed to pre-warm it for a cold night.
Food memories of the Annapurna region for me are the smoked flavor of the milk, giving the early morning sunrise tea an added dose of mountain magic. The fried corn bread for breakfast, and the Nepali dal bhat for dinner: a delicious array of curries and condiments served with rice. It was the berries and herbs on the trail the guide had me try. It was the sweet, strong black tea that kicked out the mid-hike lull. And never, ever did a momo taste better than sitting by the fire after a long day of leg-pounding climbs and descends.

The moment all three of us reunited in Pokhara was priceless. After the young mountain goat and I returned to Pokhara, we checked into the Fish Tail Lodge. We were lounging on the grassy meadow by the pool, with a magnificent view of the Fish Tail mountain, when I saw my mountain-man approaching. Stubble beard, radiant eyes, tanned face, he was looking good. It was a happy moment all around.
Trek details
We booked the trip with Ker & Downey (website). Our lodge trek started in the Sanctuary Lodge, up to the Himalaya Lodge where we stayed two nights (day hikes in the area). From there we walked to the Basanta Lodge, then the Gurung Lodge, and finally, another night in the Sanctuary Lodge before returning to Pokhara. It is an incredibly varied trek, and it takes you through bamboo forests, past steep rice fields, across plateaus, and through mountain hamlets. Himalaya Lodge is at 2,000 meters, the Annapurna Base Camp sits at 4,130 meters. Even on the "luxury lodge trek" prepare to make several considerable elevation gains and drops on one and the same day. A typical day of walking has you gain 700 meters, drop 500 meters, ascend another 400 meters, and so forth, before you reach your next lodge. The first day particularly, it had me literally wobbling on my legs. Amazing how mountain walking works: rather than not being able to lift a muscle the next morning, I was actually feeling quite chirpy and ready to tackle the trails again.

My husband went up to the Himalaya Lodge with us, then continued on a fast-paced trek to the Annapurna Base Camp, spending two nights on the way up from the Himalaya Lodge, one night at the base camp, and two nights on the way back to Pokhara.

Our trip was in April: skies were clear, days were warm and sunny, nights and early mornings rather cold. The rhododendrons were blooming, adding even more beauty and color to the spectacular scenery. We stayed another 2 nights in the Fish Tail Lodge (website) in Pokhara, before returning to Kathmandu.

photo: Raymond Franssen

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Return To New Orleans

Earlier this year in January, we drove to New Orleans. From Houston, past Lake Charles, and across the Atchafalaya Basin with its sweeping swamp, open bayou waters and cypress knees standing bare and bold in the winter light. The Boudin & Cracklins billboards are a giveaway you're in the heart of Cajun Country. Many list "specialty meats", which you know ain't just andouille or turducken: it's also meat from edible swamp creatures like alligator and turtle. Excitement mounts when the first sign for New Orleans appears, but is abruptly smothered when we hit traffic just before the bridge across the Mississippi. Something is rumbling, and it's not my husband's audible annoyance with the traffic jam. It is getting close to eat-o'clock, and it takes at least another hour to our destination. I look up the number of Dante's Kitchen to adjust our reservation. I think of their spoon bread: freshly baked hot molasses-sweet cornbread served in a skillet with a dollop of butter. Better block it out for now. When we finally arrive in New Orleans, it is well after dark. We find the restaurant as if we were just there yesterday. Finally, three hungry wolves delve into that spoon bread, while waiting for boudin rouge and crispy confit pork steak.

We moved from New Orleans in September 2002. The weather forecast reflected my whirlwind of emotions: Hurricane Isidore was building in the Gulf, and whirling its way towards Louisiana. The city was boarding up doors and windows, and we prepared to move our effects into a sea freight container. I had set aside several larger items to leave behind in case container space ran out. It was loaded into the container first, of course, and well behind the rest of our stuff by the time I noticed. Isidore around the corner, tickets booked, new job waiting, farewells said, there was no time to reload. We left with the crappy desk and cheap bookcases, leaving behind our beautiful patio furniture.
and now
We lived Uptown, close to Danneel playground, three blocks from St. Charles and one block from Jefferson Ave. Uptown is looking very good. Our house in fact looks even better than when we lived there. New windows and doors, freshly painted, a new fence placed all around, and the garden redone with a patio and new plantings. The one thing gone is our raised wooden deck. Our landlord at the time built it for us, following a design he assumed us Europeans would love: intimate and enclosed. After all, in Amsterdam (he researched this, he told us) most gardens and patios were ultra-small. We just smiled. His plans for the deck outsized anything you'd find in Amsterdam. We loved our deck. It was raised to the level of the kitchen door, with steps down to the garden. Potted plants and wind chimes hung from the overhead beams, it had black iron patio furniture, including a fire pot and swing.

That landlord moved to Nebraska and sold the house, with us in it. The new landlords were a fun and food loving couple, and we shared many a meal, at their table or ours. They got my baby son a life-size labrador cuddle. He still has it, named Arnie. After the lovely landlord who gave it to him, and who sadly died a year or two after we left New Orleans. I feel sad all over again when we stand in front of our old New Orleans house, staring at the upstairs windows where they lived. The five years that I lived here left such an un-erasable impression. For the first time since I left eleven years ago, I feel homesick. I look at my house. I don't live here anymore. And as down as that may sound, it feels good too. It comes with memories that put a smile on my face.

At the time, the stretch of Freret between Jefferson and Napoleon was not a street you would venture much. Today, it is a thriving hub of hip cafes and eateries. All within walking distance from each other. Further up towards Tulane, Cafe Freret in its converted old gas station, was our favorite weekend breakfast spot, a short stroll down Octavia from our house. Close to our old house also is Gautreau's. It was badly damaged during Katrina, and closed for almost 2 years. It came back on top. Literally: Gautreau's holds a steady place in New Orleans' top 10 best restaurants. Cruising around Uptown, it's exciting to spot many of our usual suspects still there. Jacques Imo's, Jamila's, Mat & Naddy's, Dante's Kitchen and Brigtsen's near the river. Martinique Bistro reportedly is even better today, Crepe Nanou looks pretty much the same, and Upperline is as canary yellow as ever. We cross to Tchoupitoulas where Dick & Jenny's (opened shortly before we left), changed hands after Katrina and is now owned by the same "Liguria Meets Louisiana" couple who owns Martinique Bistro since 2003. We keep on cruisin' for a little bit longer. Past Tipitina's and Rosy's Jazz hall, where we were lucky one day to meet piano legend McCoy Tyner before his concert. He signed my son's birth announcement, whose middle name is McCoy, after the pianist. It's a long story. Back to cruising, along the way we spot some of our late-night watering holes, looking uninviting in the broad daylight. I wonder if Dos Jefes still has those bar-side swings out on their patio. It's too early in the day to go and find out. As many the places we recognize, there are just as many - if not more - that are new.
Commander's Palace is housed across from Lafayette Cemetery. Went to the restaurant, and friends lived around the corner. But somehow, I never wandered around the cemetery. Glad I did this time!
There is no avoiding a visit to the Audubon Zoo. My now teenage son is quite insistent, after all the stories I told him over the years. We used to have a membership, and it was a favorite meet-up with fellow moms-with-babes. A stroll in Audubon park is another must-do. Oh the footsteps we left in this park. Get-togethers, Friday afternoon volleyball, picnics and fun runs. Evening concerts with the symphony orchestra performing under the iconic Southern live oaks, draped dramatically with Spanish moss. I look at the ducks in the lake, descendants perhaps of those we fed. I smile at my teenager, and teasingly ask: would he like to feed the duckies? He rolls his eyes at me, and we laugh.
oh the beautiful memories in this city...
On the pavement outside a hardware store I see a row of ladders with a little box on wheels attached to the top, standing upside down. We had one such ladder, painted in bright colors of green, yellow and purple, and my son's name written on it in dancing letters. In a troupe with friends, carting likewise ladders and toting kids, we went to secure a good spot along a parade route, put the ladder box-side up, and planted child inside to watch the Mardi Gras parade, while we reached for a beer or wine in also pulled-along cool box. Rows and rows of these toddler-filled ladders made for a spectacle almost as entertaining as the parade itself.

Our beloved gourmet deli and wine shop on Baronne Street is gone. Martin Wine Cellar moved to Magazine Street after it succumbed to flooding and looting as a result of Katrina. A stone's throw from our house (as the proverbial crow flies), we never missed a wine tasting, hauled truckloads of wine from their well-stocked shelves, and had many a great, creative lunch there. We drive past the new Whole Foods on Magazine Street. New to me, that is: we used to go to the crammed but cozy one on Esplanade, next door to Cafe Degas. The "new" Whole Foods is housed in the former Arabella streetcar barn, and looks imposing on Magazine street among the small and colorful neighboring shotgun houses. Just off Magazine Street, towards the river, we are excited to find Domilise's still there, and very much the same at that. Queuing up outside, we patiently wait our turn to order what Domilise's is famous for: po'boys. Crusty loafs of bread sliced open, dressed with salad, sauces and spice to your liking. We order "to go", drive to the levee behind Audubon Zoo, and watch the Mississippi flow by as I bite into my po'boy stuffed liberally with crispy fried gulf oysters. Spicy sauce dripping, pickles crunching, and bread crumbs falling, a cold Abita Purple Haze, a local beer with a hint of raspberry, would have made it even more perfect.

next stop New Orleans: Jazz Fest!

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Six months after leaving Dubai - In My Kitchen

A great friend and passionate food blogger, Sally Prosser of My Custard Pie is an inspiration for me, in many ways. She has a beautiful blog, and her food heart is where mine also beats a little faster for: good, honest food. Her style of writing is naturally captivating, and her photography delights in the same way. I miss our regular interactions. Over food and wines, usually. Sally - a self-confessed social media junkie - also inspired me to be more social in the media, which prompted me to create a Facebook page and join Twitter. I still feel like a digital dinosaur and haven't even begun to get a handle (pun intended) on Pinterest, Instagram, and what else is out there.

Six months after leaving Dubai for Houston, I find a post by Sally that inspired me to write this one: In My Kitchen (links below)
In My Kitchen in March 2014 I find I am very much settled in Houston. Kitchen appliances have been replaced. US has a different voltage. I knew this going in, but also heard and researched about options to use an up/down transformer. My beloved meat slicer works fine with the transformer, it just misses the artisanal, farm-cured meats I spoilt it with. Alas my faithful pastry machine hummed and wanted to spin, but didn't. It is stored in my huge pantry. I love my pantry. With childlike enthusiasm I take everyone to have a look inside this pantry that "is the size of the room I lived in as a student". Children like to exaggerate. It holds all of my pots and pans, including my new favorite dark eggplant colored Dutch oven. It was on sale because of the color. An absolute mystery why you wouldn't want it, for me it was love at first sight. Today this aubergine pot is filled with different root vegetables and slowly simmering.

On a lower, darker shelf in my pantry is a big jar where lemon peels are infusing vodka. I started in Dubai making limoncello. It is not a difficult thing to do. If you have vodka (80-proof works fine), lemons and sugar, all you need is time and a dark, cool place. I used the beautiful lemons I got from my neighbor and new friend, who has a lemon tree in her garden. It's been infusing long enough now, so I will strain it, add sugar syrup, and let it all mellow for a little while longer. At least until this prolonged cold spell in Houston has made way for what I expect the weather to be like in this Southern city near the Gulf of Mexico: warm!
In my Houston kitchen is a large eat and read corner, natural light flowing in from the big windows to the garden. It is by far my favorite spot in the house. I so often blog from this spot, relaxed in the cushions on my bench. There's a big cherrywood table, the wooden bench, colorful kitchen chairs, and bookshelves filled with food and wine books. In this first week of March, realizing it's been six months since I left Dubai, some of my Middle Eastern cookbooks are on the table for a sentimental food journey. Ready to go into the garden when it warms up is a cardboard tray of potted herbs. I love adding sprinklings of fresh herbs to my food.

Up to six months ago, I'd get my spices from the bulk bags at any of the big supermarkets in Dubai. Or from the spice souk, whenever I had the wanderlust to "cross the creek". I used to stand there and inhale the beautiful aromas of these spices, considering myself richly lucky to have this at my fingertips. In Houston, we have Phoenicia. Founded in 1983 by the Tcholakian family of Lebanese/Armenian descent, Phoenicia is as close to the Middle East as you can get in Houston. Dried fruits from the Levant, an olive bar that includes preserved lemons and pickled roots, the list is long. Arabic breads are made in-house. Rolling down on the conveyor belt from bakery, the entire store smells of fresh baked bread. The deli is delicious, and it's where I go for a Middle Eastern food fix. My spice cabinet is full of spices from Phoenicia: sumac, Aleppo pepper, a great Ras al Hanout spice mix, and many more. And this March in my kitchen, also from Phoenicia, is a piece of salted cod that I soaked and soaked in cold water. I am making bacalao croquettes later this week.
In Dubai I had a weekly vegetable box coming to my house from a local organic farm. As much as I enjoyed opening that box like a treasure trove, I love it even better that in Houston I can go to nearby stores with great, farm-fresh produce, both in availability and variety. It is veritable vegetable galore. We love our vegetables, always have, and to have that kind of choice, is a foodie's treat. This winter we've enjoyed the fresh sunchokes that are grown in abundance in Texas, dark leaf vegetables like kale, collard, large-leaf spinach, chard, delicious potato varieties like purple and fingerling, and a colorful choice of root vegetables.
March has a spotlight on vegetables. This month is VegOut: a 30-day challenge to introduce (more) vegetables to your normal diet. Behind this focus on vegetables is Recipe For Success, a foundation dedicated to encourage healthy eating in the fight against obesity. Vegetables are (and always have been) an integral and appreciated part of our family meals. It seems so natural, yet for some apparently it is not. So in my kitchen this month an extra focus on vegetables; recipes to share, new vegetables to try. I made my Many Vegetable Lasagna earlier this week, tonight sees a Squash & Root Vegetable Casserole come to the table.

Link to Celia's Fig Jam & Lime Cordial, the one who initiated this fun series of "In My Kitchen": www.figjamandlimecordial.com

Sally's Kitchen: http://mycustardpie.com/2014/03/05/in-my-kitchen-march/

The Food Lane Recipes: www.foodlanerecipes.blogspot.com

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Magna Carta and McNuggets

From a destination restaurant to a coffee corner with homemade pastries, how important is it for a museum to offer something good and unique to its visitors? A fine looking space with a good, balanced menu that possibly, at some level, shows what the museum is about? Does it boost the overall image of a museum if it has its own "signature" restaurant?  Conversely, how do you rate an impressive museum, with collections both permanent and current to keep you entertained for hours, yet not a museum cafe to rest and peck? It is what we found at Houston's Museum of Natural Science, where "easy access to McDonald's" is all the museum offers. No outside food or drinks allowed, it narrows your options down to fast food or "elsewhere".

How exceptional would it be if this Museum of Natural Science, with its comprehensive collection of dinosaur skeletons and fossils, its gallery of the human evolution, and its current exhibition of The Cave Paintings of Lascaux, had a restaurant where you could eat like a caveman? A tasting of paleolithic foods? In a wider sense, a menu that echoes the museum's expansive link with Earth, from prehistoric petrified poop to original mummies of Ancient Egypt, its earth science halls, nature displays (including Texas Wildlife), and not least its Foucault Pendulum moving with the Earth's rotations?

A museum is a cultural institution, a center of learning and appreciation, be it art, history, heritage, science, technology, or any dedicated collection. And in this day and age where obesity is a worldwide problem, I think especially a museum of natural science, given its cultural-educational role, should be on the forefront of including nutrition, not only in food-topics for workshops or presentations, but in providing as well. The one in Houston as much as any other natural science museum around the world.
The Magna Carta
One of the many exhibitions that make the Houston Museum of Natural Science such an amazing place to visit, opened on Valentine's Day. It is a temporary exhibition around one of four original editions of the Magna Carta. This historical document dating back to 1215 has never left England in all of its nearly eight centuries, and has left its permanent residence at the Hereford Cathedral only once, during World War II. Under the strictest safeguarding measures, it was flown to Houston, along with the original King's Writ: the letter written by King John in which he informs the sheriff of Gloucester that he will seal the Magna Carta.

The history is a complex and interesting one. I had just “re-acquainted” myself with the era of King John’s reign through an essay my son wrote for history at school, in which he describes how the discontentment among the barons over King John's tyrannical reign led them to rebel, and as a condition to stop the threat of civil war, drew up the Magna Carta for the king to seal. My son could barely contain his enthusiasm when we entered the exhibition. His history class was coming to life. The Magna Carta Exhibition is a full exhibition of historical overviews, and a fun one with its many visuals of life in the Middle Ages: you can balance a joust lance, feel the weight of a chainmail armor, read up on facts and figures, and wander past shields, swords, knights, and many displays of medieval life.

From Magna Carta to McNugget
Back to food: never before did I so not appreciate the presence of fast food in these halls of history, nature and science. When we came out of the exhibition space, having stared at the historical treasure of an 800-year-old authentic, parchment paper document that helped shape today’s democracy, the main hall reeked of the fast food fryer of McDonalds. It simply does not compute. It is such a great museum, offering such an incredible amount to see and do, from paleontology tours to planetarium films. A museum of this caliber deserves its own, dedicated Natural Science Museum cafe-restaurant. Not in walking or driving distance, but right there, in spitting distance of the very exhibits that make you want to linger all day long. 

The Magna Carta is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until mid-August 2014. 

More reading:
The Magna Carta and the foundation of democracy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19744823
From the HMNS website: The Magna Carta at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Caracol, Houston

Succulent, sweet, super-fresh shrimp stretched on a skewer, spicy with guajilo and ancho chili, and grilled over wood fire. Plump Gulf oysters asado: wood-roasted on the half shell, topped with a sprinkling of bread crumbs and chipotle butter. Thin slices of tender-cooked Kobe beef tongue finding a tasty partner in a lightly pickled salad of carrots, nopales, and prickly pear, a beautiful dish. Crispy tostadas (little deep-fried corn tortilla rounds) topped with lump crab meat and fresh, aromatic herbs, a delicious combination. Fork-tender pork shank resting bold and beautiful in a dark, rich mole spiced with ancho and pasilla chile, both dried peppers from Mexico's chili abundance.

We didn't even put a dent in the menu, it is that expansive. Left and right on the menu are smaller plates, listed as antojitos, or "street food of Mexico". The grilled shrimp fell in this category, and there are about 8 more, all of them begging to be chosen. The "starters" are equally tempting with a wide selection of ceviches, escabeches, soups such as green turtle soup, or blue crab soup with masa dumplings. The center of the menu is reserved for mains such as our pork shank, grilled lobster, bone-in short ribs, crispy duck, butterflied snapper, many accompanied by a salsa or mole using Mexico's large chili pepper varieties.

Craving something sweet after all this talk of spicy, savory delights? How about pineapple stuffed hot churros, served with homemade rum and raisin ice cream? I have a penchant for churros: crispy and hot with a light chew, Caracol's had a pleasant fruity find in its core.

Caracol is a hip place. Spacious and modern with huge glass windows, high ceilings and an open-plan layout in which the bar takes center stage. On our Saturday night visit, it was heaving with people. All tables occupied to the last seat, even the bar area was packed. Everyone seemed to be munching or sipping on something, making the ambiance lively and content. We started with cocktails and oysters at the bar. The cocktails are a feast, made to order and with care, even if our bartender sighed with relief when after a Paloma, Cosmopolitan, and the Caracol Rita, our fourth order was simply a glass of bubbly. I had the Caracol Rita, a margarita made with tequila, orange liqueur, campari, peach nectar, and a tea-infused salt rim. It was one for the books, and a universe away from your typical frozen margarita.

Authentic Mexican is a cuisine I am not all that familiar with, and definitely one I want to discover further. Learn more about the depths of flavors, intriguing ingredients, styles of cooking and definitely: its huge variety of chili. Ancho, guajillo, serrano (not the ham), pasilla, poblano, so many more, and all used one way or other in a salsa or a many-layered mole. One beautiful experience with authentic Mexican cuisine was two years ago in Montreal, when Oaxacan chef Javier Olivo cooked as part of the gastronomy menu for Montreal's indigenous festival (link to post).

No caracoles (sea snails) on the menu as far as I could tell, Caracol brings food from the coastal regions of Mexico, created by Houston's James Beard Awarded chef Hugo Ortega. His restaurant Hugo's - serving authentic regional Mexican cuisine - was (is, I should say) top on my list. Distracted by luring images of fresh seafood and coastal cuisine, I booked Caracol instead. Hugo's will be next. Or will it be Caracol again?

Caracol is in the heart of Houston's Galleria area, on Post Oak Boulevard (sounds like I really know Houston, doesn't it - nothing could be further from the truth, but I am beginning to get my bearings). Excuses for the absence of photographs: Caracol Ritas make for blurry pictures...

Website: www.caracol.net

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pianeta Terra: Slow Food in Amsterdam

Pianeta Terra in Amsterdam is an Italian restaurant cooking according to a "moment in time concept". Seasonal, organic, artisanal and slow food are at the core of this concept. The overall emphasis of Pianeta Terra's menu is on Slow Food Presidia: authentic and unique products of controlled origin from small-scale producers. Pianeta Terra is one of five restaurants in the Netherlands that are part of a Slow Food alliance with chefs: cooking with Slow Food Presidia. Launched in 2009, this alliance now counts over 300 participating chefs.

What a find, this restaurant! I still relish the honest, pure flavors, the well-made food, the superb ingredients, and the intimate atmosphere of this beautiful boutique restaurant, housed in a 17th century building in a narrow street between the meandering canals of Amsterdam. 

honest food, nature's best
The amuse bouche showcases how nature's best can wow. Firm, pendulum shaped datterini tomato bursting with sun-ripened sweetness, rich, fruity farm-produced Umbrian olive oil, creamy-soft buffalo mozzarella from Puglia, and delicate, full of flavor Ligurian Taggiasca olives

We have wild oysters, harvested from the mud flats at low tide in the Dutch Wadden Sea. I tasted these wild oysters at the 2012 Salone del Gusto, shucked on the spot and accompanied by a passionate tale of sustainable fishery in the Wadden Sea, a world heritage area (link). Gently saline, soft as butter, these are some fine oysters. I had a discussion recently, about how to enjoy an oyster. I like to give it a long, caressing chew and attentive taste. After all, once it slides "down the hatch", it's just gone.

Pianeta Terra has a menu that is ingredient-driven, based on what's available "in the market". We dined here in December, and our winter menu included chestnuts, sunchokes, venison, beans, lentils.... We had Mora Romagnola, a heritage breed pig from the Emilia Romagna. It came roasted, sliced thin, drizzled with olive oil, topped with peppery rucola and fresh herbs, and a very tasty coarse pesto of chestnuts and rosemary. 

Moving further south to Naples, well, culinary speaking, the kitchen brought out tender stewed squid in a wonderful tomato-based broth. Rich in many layers of seafood, herbs, gently cooked onions, garlic, this was a broth that had been given time to slowly simmer and incorporate every last bit of aroma. Enriched with the succulent taste of the squid and the hearty dark green of cavolo nero, the dish was sublime.

pure and simple
Among the mains was venison. It came medium-rare (as per order) with crunchy roasted topinambur and the most delicious beans. Lake Trasimeno beans are velvety soft like butterbeans, and packed with flavor, reminiscent of marrowflat peas. Small, firm and tasty Ustica lentils (from the volcanic island of Ustica, Sicily) came with turbot from the Dutch Wadden Sea. The turbot was prepared as delicately as this beautiful fish deserves: skin on, and drizzled with a little butter and fresh lemon juice. Along with the turbot also cime di rapa (known as brocolli rape, or friarielli (in Naples), these dark leaf greens have a savory, slightly bitter taste like collard greens, and a tender texture similar to spinach. Pure and simple, both dishes shone for their honest ingredients and a preparation that did it justice. 
While we enjoy Slow Wines - an Etna DOC Cru and a 2010 Foradori Teroldego from the Trentino-Alto Adige, my son was advised to "have a cola". From a micro brewery in Italy's Piedmont, Baladin cola is 100% natural, made from Sierra Leone kola nuts (here). It does not contain any preservatives or artificial coloring. Baladin brewery also made the (Piemontese) black beer used for the honey-sweet reduction that came drizzled around a dessert of profiteroles filled with Chestnut and Ricotta Mousse (www.baladin.it). 

Pianeta Terra, Beulingstraat 7, Amsterdam, www.pianetaterra.nl  Reservations are highly recommended for this small restaurant with its refined kitchen and "cooking across Italy" Slow Food menu.
soft, tender pumpkin-stuffed ravioli with sage butter
warm and delicious pure chocolate lava cake
profiterole with chestnut-ricotta mousse and black beer reduction
Pianeta Terra gets many of its ingredients from Casa del Gusto, THE place to go in Amsterdam for authentic and artisanal products from Italy, including Slow Food presidia. Casa del Gusto is also involved in culinary events, and was a driving force behind Dutch restaurants participating in the chef and Slow Food alliance (read more here and here).

Other Slow Food posts you may enjoy (or click Slow Food in the drop-down menu):
Slow Shepherds and the Cheese Resistance
From Nose To Tail: Cooking Without Waste
The Nordic Food Lab

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