Monday, March 29, 2010

Cooking the Book - Cooking up a Storm – Austin Leslie’s Mirliton Gumbo

Fresh Market can be an interesting and infuriating place to shop for produce. It seems they never have the rudimentary herb that I want, but there’s plenty of lemongrass. I suppose that’s a sign I should cook more Thai food. They also seem to have a number of bins with very little turnover. Last month one of those bins was full of chayote squash, better known as mirlitons. Seeing them made me immediately think of mirliton gumbo. I’ve never actually had mirliton gumbo, and I can’t think when I’ve seen it on a menu here or in New Orleans. Conveniently there’s a recipe for Austin Leslie’s Mirliton Gumbo in my copy of “Cooking Up a Storm”. I suppose it’s time to see if there’s anything to this gumbo.

What better place to start than with the mirlitons?

The recipe calls for 6 mirltons, but I had 5 and going to the store for one squash doesn’t seem too worthwhile.

The squash are peeled, diced into 1 inch cubes, placed in a large pot and covered with water.

¼ tsp of thyme leaves, 2 bay leaves, salt & pepper to taste round out the rest of the pot. Everything is brought to a boil and then simmered for 30 minutes.

I fished all the mirliton cubes out of the broth and set them and the broth aside. I’m not really seeing a good gumbo coming from these, but I persevered

With the mirlitons set aside, I got everything ready for the next few steps.

Starting from the top is a quart of water, then ½ lb fresh pork sausage cut into slices, ½ lb andouille sliced (Jacob’s andouille in this instance), ¼ cup ap flour, ½ lb of chopped ham, 4 gumbo crabs cleaned, and lastly is a bowl full of 1 medium diced onion, 1 stalk of diced celery, 1 diced green bell pepper, and there are 5 sprigs of chopped parsley in there somewhere.

In my trusty Le Creuset dutch oven, I melted 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat.

The bowl of veggies was added to the pot and sautéed.

The ¼ cup of flour was added to the pot and an odd roux resulted.

Even on low heat and with constant stirring, this was just a sticky mess.

I didn’t make it the prescribed 10 minutes before the water was added.

It doesn’t look like any gumbo I’ve ever made.

Once that was brought to a simmer, the ½ lb of chopped ham was introduced to the pot.

It was only 5 minutes of simmering before the next ingredient was added.

The ½ lb of andouille was thrown in the pot and then 5 minutes of more simmering.

½ lb of fresh pork sausage was next in the pot for another 5 minutes.

At this point, I had a pot looking like this.

I thought it tasted pretty good as this point, but there’s much more to come.

The four gumbo crabs, ½ lb of peeled and deveined shrimp, 1 tsp of file powder, a pinch of thyme and garlic powder were added to the pot and everything was left to simmer for 30 minutes.

At this point things have been simmering for a good 45 minutes and I’m ready for the final ingredient.

In went the mirlitons and what resulted was a very odd gumbo. I liked the depth of flavor from the three types of pork, but the crabs had brought an odd flavor to the table. It’s not often I think of gumbo as a vegetable heavy soup but with that many squash each bite is just little bit healthier. That being said, the next time I’m leaving out the crab and sticking to pork and shrimp. At the very least, a few of those chayote pears at Fresh Market were put to good use.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

BBQ Fever - Jackson

For as much bbq as there is in Jackson, I rarely partake. That doesn’t mean that I hate bbq, quite the opposite. I simply rarely feel the need to indulge in any of the okay to pretty good bbq that Jackson has to offer. That being said, when I really want bbq, I’m always looking for something new and different in town. Isn’t it convenient that there’s a new bbq place called BBQ Fever.

Tucked inside a strip mall, BBQ Fever immediately seems a bit odd. Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of southern bbq, I think of dilapidated wooden shacks, a constant stream of smoke from the back, and a gravel parking lot. However, that’s just a stereotype as Rendezvous in Memphis only has the stream of smoke.

Back on point, BBQ Fever is quite nice inside. It still has that sense of newness about it. I’m not sure what was here previously, but it has the feeling of an old buffet restaurant. Sure enough, there is a buffet in the back, and after a quick look, I elected to pass.

With menus on the table, I immediately zeroed in on the jalapeno ribs. Pork, smoke, peppers, it seems like a match made in heaven. After a visit from the waitress, I had those ribs and a few other things on order. Being one of three patrons at 1 in the afternoon, it was no time at before I had my food.

I’m still not exactly sure why everything was served in to go boxes. There were an ample number of plates for the buffet, but none for me. I suppose it would make the inevitable leftovers easy to take home.

It seemed like a good day to try something out of the ordinary for me, so the first thing I sampled was the catfish sandwich.

With only 2 huge slices of bread and a cornmeal fried catfish fillet, you can’t ask for a much more basic catfish sandwich.

I tried eating a few bites with the bread, but it ruined the catfish. So ditching the white bread, I found this to be a juicy, well fried piece of fish with a great balance of salt & pepper. The catfish really was topnotch, but with fillets that size, I have a hard time imagining someone finishing an entire 5 piece dinner.

Moving on to the raison d’être of BBQ Fever, the jalapeno ribs were the first box I opened.

I suppose those big pieces of white bread follow the bbq tradition, but I generally find them useless.

These may look like any other ribs covered in bbq sauce, but if you look closer

You can see those chunks of jalapeno, and the disturbing lack of any smoke ring. Taking a bite, there’s no real smoke flavor, just the basic but somewhat comforting taste of charcoal. The ribs are actually quite tender, but not overcooked. It takes a little work to pull the meat from the bone, but the real star is the sauce. It’s sweet, spicy, a little vinegary, but not overpowering, just a quality sauce with a good lingering heat.

As if jalapeno ribs weren’t enough, I had also ordered half a slab of the regular bbq ribs or Chef Kelly’s twist and pull ribs.

Hurray, there’s enough bread to go around.

Again, there’s no skimping on the sauce, or the amount of ribs. There’s a full, meaty 6 ribs to this half slab order.

There’s still no smoke to speak of, but there’s a quality smoke taste; I later found out that the ribs are smoked with hickory. The original sauce is a little disappointing. I enjoyed the flavor of chili sauce but found it quite greasy.

One thing I really enjoy is the simplicity of the sauce choice. Instead of giving the customer dry meat and a variety of mediocre sauces, BBQ Fever has the stones to stick with a choice of two sauces and it’s applied for the customer. That being said, I came away with mixed feeling from BBQ Fever. It really does seem to try and offer a little too much variety on their menu. You have the standard bbq fare like chicken, ribs, brisket and pork chops, the choice of fried everything, and a variety of roasted options, all of which seem to dilute the intentions behind the name. I suppose I’ll have to keep looking for my go to bbq in Jackson.

BBQ Fever on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reef - Houston

Last night of my Houston trip and I was looking for somewhere interesting. I had dozens of places on my to go list, anything from pho to Thai to tacos to home style. Those all sounded great, but there was one restaurant that I been reading about for a while: Reef. Having made the rounds at Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Travel & Leisure, Reef is never short on praise. However, the mention from Garden & Gun really stood out to me. Apparently Reef’s sriracha remoulade is on the G & G list of Southern Foods to Try Before You Die. That was all the impetus I needed to give Reef a chance, and as a bonus, I convinced Jon to join me.

Inside Reef has that very modern feel to it, but what was really surprising was the crowd. It’s not that often that Houston has a rainy night in the 30’s, and on a Tuesday with that weather, I expected a ghost town. I could not have been more wrong.

Once we were seated, it was no time at all before our effervescent waitress arrived. Knowing I only had to try the sriracha remoulade, I was fishing for suggestions and she was more than happy to oblige. Seeing as it was prime oyster season, I asked about the oysters they had, looking for the smallest and briniest.

I don’t usually associate gulf coast oysters with small and briney, but these Apalachicola oysters were just what we were looking for. They had a very to the point flavor. It was a short, briney punch that was gone in an instant. In retrospect, we really should have ordered more than half a dozen.

Our waitress’ suggestion was the blackfin tuna bacon and red snapper tiradito appetizer served with green apple and avocado.

Jon and I both decided that the tuna bacon tasted like smoked salami. I had a hard time believing it, but there was a definite salami taste with a garlic background. What was really surprising is that I immediately wanted a bagel for the tuna. No idea why. Anyway, the snapper was a treat as well. It had the taste and texture of a piece of quality sashimi. Apparently tiradito is a sort of ceviche, but the method for tiradito is much more subtle. One thing I didn’t quite understand was the shaved apple and avocado. They were prime examples of both fruits, but I didn’t see what their role was in the dish.

Working with Frank’s description, it wasn’t long after the tuna bacon that I had the crispy skin snapper set in front of me.

According to Frank, Reef cooks the skin on snapper on one side. In the end, the fish is tender, moist, and cooked perfectly while the skin forms a crispy exterior. Well, it wasn’t just a theory; this was a piece of fish worth waiting for. The slightly salty crust was perfectly complimented by the rich, nutty brown butter. The sweet and sour chard was an integral part as well, cutting through some of the richness of the butter.

I thought I had struck gold with the crispy skin snapper, but Jon had found his own vein with the roasted grouper with braised collards, pecan-shallot crackling and potlickker jus.

Jon was nice enough to share, and that might have been a mistake. Once I got a taste of his fish, I had serious thoughts about stealing it. The fish, while great, was really a vehicle for the rest of the dish. The crispy crackling, the thankfully not boiled to death collard greens, the potlickker, they all combined to make something salty, savory, crispy, and frankly amazing.

I could wax on about how I thought about ordering a glass of the potlickker but I’ll refrain and move on to the crispy fries and Sriracha remoulade.

Starting with the fries, they’re pretty much perfect. Twice fried with a crispy, salted exterior and the creamy interior of a well cooked potato, I really couldn’t ask for much more in a French fry.

The remoulade….well, I’ve never been infatuated with remoulades, and at first this one tastes like practically any other well made version. However, a few seconds after the initial bite, there’s a distinct garlicky heat from the Sriracha in the background. It may sound bad, but I actually wanted some vinegar for the French fries. I suppose I’d had too much richness from the grouper to deal with a mayo based remoulade.

You would think the fries would be enough, but no, our waitress did a damn fine job and convinced us to try the fried mac & cheese as well.

I wasn’t expecting a cube of fried mac & cheese. It looks well fried at this point. I did later find out that there were chilies in the crust, thus making for some interesting times when parents ordered this for their children.

Inside there wasn’t macaroni, but what looks like rotini pasta. Looking to get the best of both worlds in one bite, I got a piece of crust and pasta. I couldn’t taste very many chilies, but the crust was fantastic and just a little salty. Made up of four cheeses, this was an excellent mac & cheese, but it was too dense to handle. Annoyingly I didn’t find out all the cheeses. Our waitress only knew it had gruyere and mascarpone in the mix. Regardless of what cheeses are here, this is a meal by itself.

When the dishes were cleared and our check was on the way, Jon and I had time to discuss what we thought about the dishes. If I had to nitpic, I’d say the snapper wasn’t as crispy as I imagined it would be, and it was a little dry in places. However that’s me “picking gnat poop out of pepper” as one cowardly commenter described. This was an excellent meal with extremely high quality products, but what really made the meal was the service. I wish I could remember our waitress’ name, but she was eager to please and eager to chat when she found out Jon had lived in New Orleans. Of course, I can’t leave out the sommelier. When we couldn’t decide on a wine for our entrees, she was more than happy to bring us samples to help us choose. We even saw chef Caswell emerge from the kitchen to check on a large table. It’s that sort of hands on approach that makes Reef a worthwhile meal, although the food doesn’t hurt.

Reef on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sichuan Cuisine - Houston

As soon as I had finalized my plans for my Houston trip, I started doing a little research. It had been nearly a year since my last visit to the area, and it’s a given that things had changed. After searching the a variety of local blogs, urbanspoon, and chowhound, there was one restaurant that was a consistent favorite: Sichuan Cuisine. Being a big fan of that “ma la” effect of the Sichuan Peppercorn, Sichuan Cuisine was on my definite short list.

It was my last day in Houston and in between my stops at the various grocery stores, I plugged Sichuan Cuisine’s address into the gps and was soon seated inside. Seeing as I was the only one there, I was probably a little early for lunch, but I stopped worrying as soon as I saw the menu. It is a vast effort, and I quickly recognized many Sichuan favorites. After convincing the waitress that I really wanted to order that many dishes, it was just a waiting game.

The wait was a short one. I have no idea how they cooked the dishes so quickly as it was less than 10 minutes from my order to everything on the table. All speed aside, everything looked excellent and the first dish I tried was the dan dan noodles.

Looking much different than what I make at home, the waitress to me to mix everything before eating it.

Plenty of sauce was at the bottom of the bowl, and it made for a delicious dish. There was a little numbing from the Sichuan peppercorns, but not as much as I was expecting. Regardless of numbing, those thick, fat noodles were perfect for the small amount of pork and vegetables.

Boiled Beef with Spicy Sauce was my next dish, and what a difference from Fu Fu Café.

Seeing as it was literally covered in pepper, it was no surprise when I began to experience the full “ma la”.

Underneath the beef was a lot of cabbage which turned out to be a very nice foil to the slices of beef. One thing I found surprising was the beef in this version was not as tender as Fu Fu Café, but the dish at Sichuan Cuisine didn’t seem as oily. Either way, this was an excellent dish; it alone was worth the trip.

However, I was far from done as I next moved to the Dragon Wontons or Sichuan Style Wontons.

There seemed to be a lot of extra wonton skin here and inside there wasn’t very much pork, but the chili sauce underneath more than made up for any shortcomings. It’s amazing that this dish cost less than $3

Moving on to a chicken dish, I went with the Chong Quin Crispy Spicy Chicken.

At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of chilies in this dish.

I soon found that each piece of chicken wasn’t that crispy but it wasn’t the least bit dry. The waitress has said it was similar to king pao chicken, but I think this was far superior. Sure it was a little salty, but the growing background heat and delicious chicken made me keep picking out each piece of chicken.

The next dish was centered on pork again.

Twice Cooked Pork was a dish I read about on Chowhound and I was a little underwhelmed. At first it does look a lot like fatty, undercooked bacon, but underneath is a very nice sauce. The greens provide a much needed textural contrast, but I’m just not a fan of this dish and it’s seemingly undercooked pork.

Here was another dish I got from Chowhound: Sauteed Ground Pork with Cow Bean.

This had a fascinating presentation. It looked like it was covered in chives. However, I’m still not sure what a cow bean is, but I think it’s a Chinese long bean that was cut into very small pieces.

Regardless of what they actually are, the beans were cooked perfectly, with a very toothsome texture. After that the pork blends in well with just enough heat to keep things interesting. Trying to eat this dish was a real exercise in chopstick control.

After all that, there’s still one dish to try: Ma Po Tofu. I only ordered this to see how it differed from Fu Fu Café’s version.

I’m amazed at how they maintain such large chunks of tofu. Past that, there is a very oily dish. There is a slight numbing effect and a nice level of heat, but the real key is the contrast the small pieces of ground pork give to the silken chunks of tofu. Even though this seems like the oilier of the two, I’ll have to give the nod to Sichuan Cuisine for the better version.

Just to make things clear, I did not eat everything at the table. I had plenty of Sichuan leftovers to bring back to Jackson. While the waitress was packing everything up, it gave me a chance to think about all that I had just tried. I think the boiled beef with spicy sauce was my favorite dish, but there the Sauteed Ground Pork with Cow Beans would be a close second. One thing that is hard to beat at Sichuan Cuisine is the price. I still can’t believe I got all that food for about $50. However, the best is yet to come. I’ll have to wait to have company before I can try the house specialty, the Hot Pot. I suppose that leaves me with something to look forward to during my next trip to Houston.

Sichuan Cuisine on Urbanspoon