Thursday, August 30, 2007

I'm Beggin' for No Bacon

I've heard of bacon-wrapped scallops, and a few years ago, at a Christmas party, I had two. They were delicious; the large, clean, muscle-y scallops, almost two inches in diameter, gingerly wrapped in a thin slice of bacon. But recently, it seems like the best gift to give yourself and your guests comes wrapped in a strip of salty pork.

As I peruse the Web sites of Gourmet, Food & Wine and Bon Appetit for good appetizer recipes, I find myself coming up short on new ideas. Mainly because it seems like everything these days needs to be wrapped in bacon to be good.

Take a peek; any seafood that can be grilled can also be wrapped in bacon as the summer melts into fall. I do not like this new trend. I cannot understand it. From scallops, it has progressed on, surrounding shrimp, a whole trout, and, as reported by a co-worker, an entire burger patty. Is anyone else confused by this madness? Is this necessary? And, more important to foodies, is this even good?

Bacon, by nature, is flavorful, salty, and distinct. Added to any dish, it's presence is immediately identifiable. But wrapping something in raw bacon and cooking it only infuses the strong flavor into the food. It seems as if it could be almost overwhelming, making said trout to taste like a flaky, light-textured... piece of bacon. And I'm including prosciutto in this too. Sorry, but for all the delicacy of prosciutto, it's similar enough to bacon. No matter how much you're trying to class a dish up, you're still doing so by encasing it in a salty strip of a pig.

Admittedly, I don't eat bacon and I don't eat pork. So maybe I'm being unfair. But I also don't eat red meat, like that burger I mentioned, yet I'm disturbed by ruining beef's own flavor in an effort to try an make a staple more upscale.

It's a staple for a reason, just like good trout and grilled shrimp in the summer. When we think of these classic foods, it's because you can do so much or just a little to them, and they're still good. Thread some shrimp on a skewer, fire them up plain, and I'll bet they'll still be delicious. Marinades and rubs are meant to enhance the flavor of these dishes, not mask it.

And to me, that is precisely what wrapping food in bacon does. It takes the true flavor of the food and covers it up with another. If you ask me, that's just not fair.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Slate is Spot On

When it comes to enjoying wine in the summer, Kendall and I chill everything. No red is too good to stick in the fridge. Luckily, someone agrees with us:

Red Wine, Cold?

Bottoms up, and dive in!

High Marks for Hai Ky

Okay, so I broke my vow. I wasn't going to eat out anymore ever again. But on Saturday, my pal needed to use my sewing machine, and we were headed to FlugTag at 5:30. That meant no time to repair the holes in his jeans, cook, eat, clean and get to the festival on time. So we went out.

And I was impressed. I've been getting snottier and snottier with what I think is food good enough for the money. Hai Ky, a Vietnamese restaurant, served up a good deal of food (enough for two meals) at a reasonable price.

The pad thai with chicken arrived with carrots and cucumbers on the side, boasting crumbled peanuts on top. The chicken was plump and luscious especially with that savory and velvety sauce. Not only was the dish satisfying, it was also comforting. Something about tucking into a plate of warm noodles always brings me to a happy place inside.

I also sampled parts of a vermicelli bowl with chicken. The Nước chấm, the expected brothy sauce on the side, was sweet and light, as it should be, and the bowl was filled with all sorts of appropriate goodies, rounding out the meal with veggies, protein and starch.

The unassuming restaurant takes up its residency in a strip mall, which may make it seem seedy. But step inside, and you will find walls painted hip colors, artsy photos hung on the wall, often featuring Austin hot spots and landmarks, and simple tables. There are no utensils here, or at least, none that I noticed. The caddy on the table houses all your basic needs for the meal: sauces, salt, pepper, sweetner and chopsticks.

Would I recommend Hai Ky? Absolutely. But what's more, I'd go back again myself.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Will Write for Food... when I Don't Forget

Admittedly, I'm not as steady of a blogger as I set out to be. Back in the day, I wrote consistently. Now, every few weeks, I have to kick start myself again. But my passion for good food and a nice wine have not wavered. After being asked to write more here by my co-worker J, I started thinking about my own "food story."

I think it all started as I grew up with a mom who was always in the kitchen. If we weren't making breakfast, lunch or dinner, we might be baking. She also sewed. It was her do-it-yourself attitude that has instilled in me a similar work ethic. Even now, my family members often gather around a table and talk about how the meal we just enjoyed could not be found in any restaurant, and if it could, it would no doubt be noisy there and the dish would be served by some rude kid.

My real adventure with food came when I studied abroad. In my adolescence, I was a very picky eater. I had started to grow out of that in college. When I went to Ghana, I was forced to eat something new, to try different things. After my first week there, I was willing to eat whatever was placed before me, from a delicious street food that's only served after sundown, kelewele to a kebab, with what I'm still convinced was goat meat.

My motto became, "You don't have to like everything, but you do have to try everything." After all, a semester in Ghana was a once in a lifetime experience. This motto was solidified as I traveled to Egypt. Our hosts, the Korra family, treated us like hungry savages. The moment we arrived, it felt like food was all around. Every meal was a spread of similar size of a Thanksgiving feast. From sit-down dinners at the family table to street food like fried ricotta, we ate and ate and ate. I put on about 5 pounds in 10 days. But I also learned an important food lesson: the love for food is as universal as the language of music.

People everywhere like eating. I would wager that every culture has known what it means to go hungry; some cultures are still experiencing that in jarring numbers. So I learned not to refuse food when offered. Hey, if someone has the warmth to open their home to me and offer a little of their bounty, who am I to say no?

When I returned from Ghana, I had dreams of cooking in my head. I moved out of dorms and into an apartment. But sharing space with others meant that I didn't get my dream kitchen. I also didn't cook for anyone but me. Now that I have my own place and another belly to feed, I find cooking to be a relaxing and favorite activity.

Nourishing others means a lot to me. Cooking dinner goes beyond putting some food on a table so people's tummies will quit rumbling. It's about giving them a more sensory experience, and it's about opening my home and offering them something from my own bounty. It's about sharing.

What I love about food is that it doesn't have to be complicated. Some of the best and most-loved meals happen over a bowl of soup and a chunk of bread. Pour a glass of red wine, any red will do. Add some good conversation, some laughter. Suddenly, you're engaging in an act of community.

So that's where I'm at. I'm still learning about food and cooking. And through writing, I'm trying to share the experience even more, by reaching out and telling people about this amazing cab I had the other day, or this incredible yet simple recipe I tried last weekend. Maybe I'm trying to engage in community, be it through words or wine glasses.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Behind the Curve

I've been a Texan for, what, 22 years now. So there is absolutely no excuse for my ignorance when it comes to chipotle chiles packed in adobo sauce. Why did it take me so long to buy a can? Chipotles are in no way foreign to my diet. If something is flavored with them, then I'm ordering that dish. I love their smoky flavor, their spiciness.

When I finally picked up some chipotles at my grocery store, I was pleased to find that I love the adobo sauce equally. It has the dark, woody smokiness and sweetness that I love in other flavors like dark chocolate and mole. Now I throw adobo in everything; I stirred it with lime juice and olive oil and served it over pasta last night.

So, let this be a lesson, friends: Don't just try chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, but try anything that looks interesting, or simpler still, something you know you like.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Be Bold

After years of eating Texan and Southern fare, I finally tried my hand at my own chipotle mayo. The recipe is actually quite simple. I served it with grilled salmon and a side of pineapple salsa. The salsa wasn't terrific, but the mayo was! Never one to shy away from spice, I used more chipotle than called for and added a little more adobo sauce for good measure. The extra spice meant that I ate less mayo, and delivered a wallop of flavor.

The condiment earned me the compliment, "Hyde Park's got nothing on you, babe." If you live in Austin and have tried the heavenly sauce with their famous fries, you know what a statement that is!

Chipotle Mayo
1/4 cup mayo
1 1/4 teaspoon chopped chipotle chiles in adobo sauce

(I added a splash of lime juice for a bit of balance)

Stir well and serve.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Ste. G does it again!

Call me a sucker for local goods... whether it's work by local artists or artisans, veggies from Texas farmers, or wine produced in neighboring towns, I just can't get enough of the local delights.

Which might be why I am cheering for Ste. Genevieve's Pinot Noir. Sure, it might $8 for a cask, but I find it to be a surprisingly good wine. It's smooth, punchy, and yet still dark. If you're in Texas, I recommend you pick up a bottle, chill it if it's summer, and enjoy!

Picnic in the Park

Sad to say, but summer's about to start fading. The summer here in Texas has been a surprise. Lots of rain, instead of our usual drought, thereby bringing cooler temperatures and fewer sunny days. It's August, and we haven't hit 100 degrees yet.

Yesterday was one of those sunny, albeit humid, Saturdays. We took the recommendation from this month's Austin Monthly, and headed to the capitol grounds. The carpet grass was thick and lush, and the grounds are peppered with huge shade trees. We grabbed a spot and took out our spread.

The thought of sandwiches on a picnic is classic, but I wanted something else. Our basket was packed with a baguette, Camembert, crackers, spinach dip, a Greek salad and grapes. The cool dip, salad and grapes was perfect for the muggy afternoon, and we enjoyed a lovely lunch in the shade without breaking too much of a sweat.

I don't buy pre-made spinach dip at the grocery store. It's usually high in fat and calories. Instead, I buy a seasoning packet (it's next to the salad dressing in store I frequent) and I mix it with low-fat plain yogurt, instead of the sour cream it calls for. You still get the sour taste, but you also get a lighter spread that's refreshing, not heavy.

My Greek salad take a nod from some of the Greek salad staples: tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. I throw in some herbs, like basil or herbs de Provence, and red wine vinegar. Yesterday I also added mozzerella for a little extra protein, because Kendall doesn't like the more traditional feta. So maybe it wasn't really Greek, more French? Not totally sure, but it was delicious.