"This is Top Chef, not Top Scallops!"

January 9, 2009

Did you really think I wouldn’t use that WONDERFUL little line of Fabio’s for my headline? How could I possibly resist? He is truly irresistible! In an endearing, make-me-laugh, hilarious way, NOT in an attractive way. Just wanted to be clear!

I’m beginning to be extremely irritated with the producers for heavily editing the opening scenes to cast an ominous tone over the obvious victims of the challenge. They toy with us loyal viewers! The rational side of us knows that Jamie and Hosea are probably safe and that Eugene and Melissa are in trouble. Yet, that sneaking suspicion lurks in the back our minds, all due to the editing! Ugh!

Chefs are STILL sunburned! Ridiculous! I don’t get it-is it really so intense and stressful that they have to swill large quantities of alcohol whilst sunning on the balcony just to get through the day? I can’t imagine what other reason there could be for the obvious lack of sunscreen use.

On to the quickfire!

Padma and the guest judge, Jean-Christophe Novelli, an acclaimed pastry chef, were waiting, with the usual self-satisfied cheer, in the Top Chef kitchen. Of course, the chefs all know Jean-Christophe. Does someone give them a primer of possible guest judges before the show airs, so that they can study their cuisines? I just can’t understand how they always seem to recognize the guest judges, even if they are going to have their own show on Bravo.

The Diet Dr. Pepper quickfire challenge (yes, this is the where the product placement has taken us-on a show about talented chefs, we’re being forced to think about Diet Dr. Pepper) was to make a sugarfree treat. Padma and Jean-Christophe happily wheel away a large cart containing all of the Whole Foods brand sugar in the Top Chef pantry. The chefs are remarkably calm, and quickly go about making their various treats. I would have been anxious, but it became evident right away that they all had a decent game plan. There was lots of yogurt and fruit floating around. Over half of Dr. Chase’s desserts at his restaurant are sugar free. There’s an awful lot of talk from him but no wins. In the midst of preparation, it would appear that Ariane was paid to pour Diet Dr. Pepper into her crepe batter. Eugene decides to make a Filipino dessert called bananas lumpias, which is basically a deep-fried banana. I’m concerned-usually his Filipino dishes are disastrous.

Eugene ended up being safe- Jamie, Ariane, and Carla misfired during the quickfire; Dr. Chase, Radhika, and Leah scored. I thought Leah’s dish, a crepe with whipped ricotta, honey, strawberries, and a balsamic reduction looked delicious! Definitely my favorite dish of the episode. Apparently, Dr. Chase really does know how to make a decent sugar-free dessert. Radhika pulled out the win for her lovely bread pudding. I half-expected Padma to say “Radhika, you are also the winner of a lifetime supply of Diet Dr. Pepper.” I mean, you could barely keep the Dr. Pepper out of your mind as you the camera constantly flashed to random cans sitting around the kitchen.

Padma announces the arrival of Toby Young, Gail’s replacement at judge’s table. Of course, Stefan and Fabio know exactly who he is, because he’s from England, and all European chefs know each other. The chefs are given the night off, which alarmed me at first-remember in Top Chef: Miami when the chefs got the “night off”? Tom and Padma pulled a fast one on them-the chefs got all dressed up to party and pulled up to a hoppin’ Miami club only to discover their elimination challenge was to cook late night munchies for club-goers.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case here. I think it might have just been another ploy of the producers to warm the cockles of our hearts as we listened to Eugene’s conversation (via a handy T-Mobile Sidekick) with his young daughter.

Tom arrives at the house bright and early. Fabio worries needlessly that Tom will be shocked at the house’s state of cleanliness. Instead, Tom jumps right in to the description of the elimination challenge: the chefs will be cooking a family-style dish “with no limits”, something that will show the judges “who they are and what they’re capable of as a chef.” The catch? It will be a blind tasting-the judges won’t know whose dish they’re judging. Now I happen to think that the chefs should be turning cartwheels upon hearing of this challenge. It’s the perfect opportunity to cook what they know best, without the pressure of working with an unfamiliar cuisine or ingredient or having to rely on a team. They should have been THRILLED. Perhaps their lack of enthusiasm came from the shocking news that not one, but TWO chefs would be eliminated. As Hosea smartly put it, that’s 20% attrition. I’m not sure why they were surprised-did they really think that act of generosity in the last episode was really without a price tag?

As the winner of the quickfire, Radhika got to decide which group of chefs she’d cook with. I should’ve known something was up when the chefs were divided into two groups (remember Top Chef: San Francisco? ), but I missed the hint. Interestingly enough, yet another indication of the general feeling of ill will toward Stefan was revealed, as Radhika based her entire decision on which group Stefan would be cooking with. He is obnoxious, but until he started wearing his “I make good babies,” shirt and criticizing my beloved Hosea, I didn’t really have a strong feeling about him.

During Group A’s 30 minute shopping foray into Whole Foods, Jamie expressed her alarm about Eugene’s dish: a whole fried red snapper with daikon fettuccine in a tomato-basil sauce. While Jamie’s arrogance and general attitude of pathetic moping when she doesn’t win are beginning to seriously grate on my nerves, I had the same reaction. Daikon paired with Italian? Ew. Eugene is a great guy, but if the past few challenges are any indication, he has really lost that amazingly sensitive palate we saw in the first episode, when he managed to create a perfect Indian dish based on what he tasted at the Indian grocery.

Group A consisted of Jamie, Hosea, Radhika, Eugene, Fabio, and Melissa. Radhika, the immunity queen, makes a spicy crab bisque that apparently is the sole reason that hoards of people come to her restaurant. That kind of talk would have been ominous if she had not won immunity, as we will later learn. Hosea makes halibut wrapped in bacon and roasted baby vegetables-yummy. Hosea is comforting, like a big bowl of mushroom ravioli. Points for whoever guesses that guilty pleasure pop culture reference. Fabio decides that “meat and fresh pasta is myself”, so he begins to make fresh ravioli and sous-vide lamb. Ha! I didn’t even have to look up the spelling for that one! I learned the technique from Hung in Season 3. It is a method of cooking in which the food item is vacuum-packed and placed in a container of temperature-controlled water. Hung is a master, but Fabio? Perhaps he should stick to his 500-year old Italian recipes. When it comes time to serve, he realizes that his lamb is under-cooked.

While Group A is panicking about finishing in time, Group B heads to Whole Foods. I’m getting weary of Dr. Chase somehow having expertise on EVERY kind of challenge or cuisine. He has catered events before, he is an expert on Latin food, he cooks family-style in his restaurant, and conveniently, he knows how to create a wide-variety of sugar-free desserts. Have you won immunity on your own yet, doctor? Carla had been doing fairly well up until this point, but once she arrived in the store, she began to listen to her cooking spirits again. Big red flag.

Back in the kitchen, Jamie describes her lovely and light scallop dish, which provokes Fabio’s clever response. “All she does is scallops. This is Top Chef, it’s not Top Scallops!” I just had to write that once more. It makes me laugh every time. For the record, I understand why Jamie wanted to redeem herself for the disastrous slimy scallops in the last challenge.

Group B arrives, ready to cook, only to discover that the five empty seats opposite Tom and Padma are for them. They’ll be judging their competitors! Group A is appropriately shocked, but they do have the bonus of watching all the reactions and comments on a hidden camera. I suppose that is a blessing and a curse.

Radhika’s dish, the famous crab bisque and crab salad, give us our introduction to Toby Young, aka, the Simon Cowell of Top Chef, aka pure EVIL in human form! He refers to her salad and bisque as “weapons of mass destruction.” Wow. What a way to start a run as judge. I’m feel quite sure the number of the applicants for the show might plummet after watching this episode. I didn’t think he could get any worse, but then he tasted Melissa’s ahi crudo tacos and compared them to cat food. That was below the belt, Toby. A low blow! Hosea’s vegetables outshone the fish, Fabio’s lamb failed but his pasta soared, and Eugene predictably bombed, despite Dr. Chase liking his presentation. All the judges loved Jamie’s scallops. I don’t particularly like her, but I knew that I was right about her skill!

I feel that Group B had an unfair advantage in that they were able to cook AFTER having been witness to the terror of Toby Young, but I suppose there was no other way around it. Leah, who I’m beginning to like more and more, decided to make “bread-crusted” fish, something she’s never tried. Not really her best move. Ariane made skate with pineapple and fried capers. That particular combination sounded a bit weird to me, but she was totally confident. I felt bad for Carla, making scallops after Jamie. Stefan made some sort of German dish with red cabbage.

Jamie AGAIN made an arrogant comment to the camera after sampling Group B’s dishes. I’m thinking she needs to start worrying a little bit about karma-it always comes around in reality shows! Stefan was a huge success, garnering only one criticism, from the number one member of the “I Hate Stefan” club, Radhika. Toby loved Dr. Chase’s mini-dishes and Leah’s fish, although the other judges weren’t wowed too much by them. Carla’s gremolata had enough garlic to ward off a coven of vampires. Tom still seemed a bit underwhelmed, and I don’t think the chefs have really gotten out of the slump that characterized the last few episodes.

Jamie finally obtained a victory, though her blithe behavior seemed extremely insensitive, considering Melissa was in tears pretty much since the moment Toby responded to her dish. Ariane and Stefan just came across as genuinely happy to be on the winning side. I feel that I’ve probably underestimated Ariane-she may not be too flashy, but she has proved to be consistent, once she felt comfortable with the competition and developed some confidence.

Not surprisingly, Melissa, Eugene, and Carla ended up in front of the judges to defend their dishes. In what is becoming a pattern this season, the chef that remained safe was the one who was able to own up to the mistakes in the dish and provide a reasonable and humble explanation of what went wrong, and/or what he or she would do next time to make the dish better. This time, that chef was Carla. The confession of her failed vision and a possible solution to improve her gremolata appealed to the judges. Eugene tried to highlight his creativity as a positive trait, but it just wasn’t enough. Melissa made the fatal error of saying “I didn’t think it was that bad.” NEVER the right sentence at judge’s table.

Hung is the guest judge next week! I cannot imagine the cruelty that can arise from the combination of Hung and Toby Young. I’m shivering thinking about it!

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There’s a dryer in my kitchen!

January 9, 2009

Today was yet another day in the lengthy quest to finish the installation of the washer and dryer. It marked the fourth day that the two brand new, lovely appliances have been parked in the middle of the kitchen. I have persevered thus far with cooking dinner, but finally gave in and ordered pizza tonight.

My job for the day was painting the wall where the laundry hookups have been installed. It was a fairly simple task, although it wasn’t fun craning my neck and balancing precariously on my stepladder whilst painting a patch of ceiling that was uncovered when we took out a cabinet to make room for the dryer.

In the luxurious stretches of time while coats of paint and primer were drying, I watched old episodes of 24 (I’m having my own personal marathon in preparation for the season 7 premiere on Sunday), started Beowulf, my reading for class next week, drank a toasty mug of mint hot chocolate….it was lovely. Being semi-retired is really not half bad. By the way, I say semi-retired not because I currently have a job, but because I don’t plan to be without one indefinitely. Perhaps when the house is fully moved into?

I did unearth a few more boxes, and joy of joys, found ALL my cookbooks. They’re now sitting prettily on my new bookshelf, as you can see, just waiting to be lovingly thumbed through. I must admit, I’ve been somewhat selective about the boxes I’ve opened. I’ve walked away from several non-promising ones in the hopes of finding good ones!

Stuck in a pile of cookbooks I came across A Call to Character, a book that my mom purchased for all of us last year. It’s a great collection of literary pieces, each selected to represent a character trait, such as loyalty or compassion. I highly recommend it for teachers, mothers, or anyone who simply enjoys classic literature. I’ll include a tiny gem of an excerpt here.

from “A Bargain for Frances”, by Russell Hoban (yes, the same Frances in my childrens’ book list)

“Well”, said Thelma, “from now on, I will have to be careful when I play with you.” “Being careful is not as much fun as being friends,” said Frances. “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”

Isn’t that a good bit of advice for life?

Oh, shoot. I just realized, upon gazing with happiness at my cookbook shelves, that I actually haven’t found them all. Just when I began to convince myself that my shockingly large collection of cookbooks really isn’t that bad, certainly not an indication of compulsive buying and/or evidence of a cookbook addiction…

Well, it would have been nice if I had managed to pen my Top Chef recap by now-the episode was great! I shall never be able to compete with the EW columnist if I can’t finish my recaps by the day after airing! I should really get started on that!

Broken Florentine Lasagna Bake

January 7, 2009

After enjoying this meal for two evenings, I determined that I had to write and share it with the blogging world. It is SO good! Not surprisingly, I found it in my newest Rachael Ray cookbook. I was initially tempted to make the lasagna bake because all of the ingredients, save for the spinach and chard, were things I keep stocked in my pantry. I made a quick stop at Trader Joe’s to purchase the greens-they’re only $1.99 a bag there!-and I was ready.

The recipe is straightforward, and can easily be put together in 20 minutes or so. The baking time, however, is 30 minutes, so it’s not technically a 30 minute meal-even for you, Rach! It’s a very low-maintenance dish though, a simple cheese sauce and sauteed greens. Unfortunately, I had not been able to purchase the no-boil lasagna, so I had to add that whole extra step, but it wasn’t too much of a hassle. The final result is very tasty, and you don’t even feel guilty about the cheesy sauce, because you’re also eating 3 POUNDS of greens! My husband usually rebels against any dish that doesn’t contain some kind of meat (even fish really doesn’t quite satisfy him!), but he seemed to enjoy it. It’s comforting, easy, and great heated up the next day.

Broken Florentine Lasagna Bake

4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter
4 tbsp all-purpose flour
3 cups milk (I used lowfat, and the dish was still creamy and delicious)
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg (I did NOT go out and find myself a whole nutmeg for this purpose)
1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tbsp EVOO
1 garlic clove, cracked away from its skin
1 bunch of green chard, stems removed, leaves coarsely chopped (I removed the stems from my bag of chard, and didn’t bother chopping, as it was already torn into largeish pieces)
2 pounds spinach, stems removed, leaves coarsely chopped (again, I didn’t bother chopping, and it made no difference at all)
1 box no-boil lasagna noodles (As I mentioned, I had to resort to regular lasagna noodles, but I didn’t use a full pound)

1. Preheat the oven to 375.
2. Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the melted butter, whisk to combine, and cook for about 1 minute. Slowly whisk the milk into the butter-flour mixture, season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and cook for a couple of minutes to thicken. Stir in half the Parmigiano (about 3/4 cup). Set the sauce aside.
3. Heat the EVOO in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Toss in the cracked clove of garlic and cook for a minute or two to release its aroma and flavor. Add the chard and cook, turning occasionally to wilt down, 2 minutes. Add the spinach a few handfuls at a time, wilting each batch before adding more. Season the greens with salt and pepper.
4. Break the pasta sheets into large pieces. Toss them into the pan with the greens and give them a good stir to incorporate them. Pour the sauce into the skillet, stirring again to incorporate everything evenly. Smooth the top down and sprinkle the remaining 3/4 cup Parmigiano into the skillet. Cover the skillet with foil, transfer to the oven, and bake the lasagna for 30 minutes. Remove the foil from the pan and let it finish cooking uncovered for about 15 more minutes to brown the cheese. (I found this extra 15 minutes unnecessary, as my oven is freakishly hot, and the lasagna bake was golden and bubbling.)

I’m still working on developing decent food photography skills-perhaps my husband’s new fancy camera will help-so you’ll have to excuse my amateur efforts. I do like the steam emanating from my skillet o’ greens. In case you’re wondering, my bag of chard was full of rainbow AND green chard-that’s why you see strange purple greens.

A welcome return…

January 7, 2009


Now, I am NOT attempting to write any sort of recap on the ridiculousness that was The Bachelor last night-I leave that to the queen of all recaps, Lincee. However, I admonish you, if ever feeling in need of a laugh, to observe at least one episode from the current season, which premiered last night. It’s going to be a wild ride! The first episode was replete with cardinal sins of the Bachelor-drunkenness, telling the Bachelor that you’ve quit your job to meet him, writing the Bachelor a love poem despite never having met him, and, worst of all, wearing fake hillbilly teeth for your first impression moment. Lest you shrug, responding “Hey, that’s not one bit different from any other season!”, I must tell you, single dad Jason selected all but one of those women! See! You. Must. Watch. I have left you with a photo of single dad Jason and my favorite bachelorette, Jillian, otherwise known as the Hot Dog girl. Admit it, you’re curious!

Top 5 Tuesday

January 7, 2009

I tackled perhaps my most difficult Top 5 this week. Oh the lists I made, the qualities I considered, the overwhelming pros and few cons, the wealth of options to revisit…Yes, this week I have selected my Top 5 restaurants. I was inspired by a random blog that I stumbled across this week-I wanted to rush right out and sample the delectable dishes the author mentioned. Unfortunately, I do not live in the Houston area. Oh well, on to the next best thing-writing about my own favorites.

As you can imagine, it takes some time to whittle down a top 5 list for restaurants, particularly for someone like me, who loves food and finishes breakfast only to dream about lunch. I mean, I could make top 5 lists for every meal of the day, for every genre of food, for all my favorite regional cuisines, for every restaurant feature…it could take years! I eventually had to settle for this select few. As you’ll notice, with the exception of one, they’re all found in my wonderful home state of Texas. That’s just where the best food is located. I should know, I have lived in a veritable food capital of the world, New York City, and I am a mere hour’s drive away from yet another food mecca, San Francisco. My opinion should be highly valued! Now for the list:

5. Palma, New York City. My fifth choice was particularly thorny. I was very confident about my top 4, but it took a while to figure out, among many, which eating establishment truly deserved the last spot. I finally chose Palma, not so much because of the wonderful food, but because of all the happy memories it evokes. My husband and I found Palma on a lazy Indian summer afternoon. It was just a street over from his apartment in the West Village, but as is usual when faced with a plethora of choices for eating out in New York, it had heretofore been easy to miss. It’s a tiny place, with a beautiful postage-stamp sized garden in the back (incidentally, I almost always ate at Palma during the colder months, and never actually got to enjoy the garden). The sparse décor is actually quite nice; the cream-colored walls are nicely softened by luminarias and the few tables, while fairly close together, still allow for intimate, romantic dinners. We always ordered the fried calamari to start-it comes with a generous sprinkling of parsley and several large lemon slices. We always had to ask for a bowl of marinara for dipping, because the waiters inevitably insisted the calamari was so pure and delicious, it didn’t need any sauce. Our main course was usually one of the pasta dishes, bolognese or gnocchi-they were always rich and decadent, arriving at our table in steaming bowls. On many a wintry night, we could be found indulging in a meal, and we invited many of our friends. In fact, the husband and I had starring roles in the place cards for a wedding we attended out in the wine country on Long Island. The couple, our dear friends, had a wine-based story for each table. Our table was named after a wine they had enjoyed at Palma, and we were mentioned in the little story attached to the table card. New York representation on the list!

4. The County Line, Austin, TX. Now, if you had asked me how high BBQ was on my list of favorite foods before I moved to Austin, I might not have seemed too enthusiastic. Besides home-cooked brisket and the amazing sandwiches at Lum’s, a hidden gem in Junction, TX, I’ve never really felt much passion towards BBQ. I don’t even like ribs. My opinion was changed the very first time I stepped out onto the riverfront deck at The County Line. It’s usually packed, no matter what time you go, but it’s pretty much impossible to mind waiting out on the deck, observing the turtles swimming in the cool green water and families tooling by in small boats. Once you’re finally seated, you can dive into a basket of warm homemade wheat bread, made even better with the addition of honey butter. I usually ordered a brisket platter, which comes with a generous portion of thickly sliced, tender brisket, and spicy beans. Delicious. My husband thinks it’s the best barbecue he’s ever had, and he always ordered a giant combination platter with all sorts of barbecued items, sausage, ribs, brisket, turkey…they’re all good.

3. Chuy’s, Austin, TX. Chuy’s is an eclectic, funky local chain restaurant (and by chain, I mean it has a few locations in Austin, and I believe one in San Antonio-it’s no On the Border!). It has the absolute best Mexican food, excepting the tiny hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop establishments from home. Again, its popularity ensures that it will always be crammed full of people, but you don’t even think about it, because you can enjoy drinks and the self-service chips and salsa bar-crisp, perfectly salted tortilla chips and divinely spicy salsa.. One of the best things about Chuy’s is the inclusion of New Mexico green hatch chiles in many of its menu items. It’s a flavor I love and grew up with, but not all that common to find. I usually order the oddly named “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”, chicken and cheese enchiladas with roasted green chile sauce. I always struggle to finish the meal, but every bite is precious, so I manage!

2. Kincaid’s, Fort Worth, TX. Whenever my mom and I talk about the one food that is most satisfying and crave-able, she inevitably mentions a good, old-fashioned hamburger. I’m always scanning through various dishes in my mind, like steak, salmon, Mexican food, a hot bowl of pasta, but Mom always knows what she wants! She says there is nothing like a good hamburger, and I’m inclined to agree. No hamburger could hit the spot more than the homestyle burger from Kincaid’s, housed in an old grocery. There is nothing fancy about the place, but it’s undeniably charming, retaining the old painted wooden shelves from the days when it was a real grocery. I always order a ¼ lb. burger with a side of onion rings-they’re perfectly crispy, and light on the batter, so not too heavy. A simple meal, but a great one.

1. Shady Grove, Austin, TX. Yes, I saved the best for last. My husband and I lived in Austin for almost a year before we experienced the wonder that is Shady Grove. It’s located just down the road from Barton Springs, the natural spring-fed pool that Austinites love to immerse themselves in. I could actually devote a post to the bliss of Barton Springs-there is nothing like a dive into the clean, cold water on a 90 degree Texas afternoon! Anyway, back to Shady Grove. It has a great outdoor patio surrounded by an old-fashioned wooded fence. There’s a small stage for live music on Thursdays and colored lights dangling from the trees. Bathrooms are cutely located in a gleaming silver Airstream trailer parked conveniently next to the outdoor bar. All in all, very aesthetically pleasing. And I haven’t even gotten to the food! I’m a bit ashamed to give Shady Grove the number one spot considering I’ve only actually eaten two of their dishes. The truth is, I had the tortilla-crusted catfish the first time, because I can’t resist any sort of “crusted” fish. It was really delicious, but it apparently didn’t hold a candle to my husband’s meal. He had been given a little inside secret from the waiter-the green chile black bean burrito can be made with the addition of brisket. Promptly, he ordered the burrito, which truth be told, is never what jumps out at me when I scour menus. After that first bite, I was a complete convert. Every time I’ve returned to Shady Grove, I’ve ordered the same burrito, and every bite is as incredible as that first one. That combined with the ambiance is why my “keep Austin weird” shirt is from Shady Grove, and why it’s my number 1.

I’m already working on next week’s Top 5. Pretty excited about it. Oh, it’s so wonderful to be able to create these memorable lists for myself, even if I’m probably the only one that revisits them! That’s just one of the joys of having one’s own blog!

Top 5 Tuesday

January 7, 2009

I tackled perhaps my most difficult Top 5 this week. Oh the lists I made, the qualities I considered, the overwhelming pros and few cons, the wealth of options to revisit…Yes, this week I have selected my Top 5 restaurants. I was inspired by a random blog that I stumbled across this week-I wanted to rush right out and sample the delectable dishes the author mentioned. Unfortunately, I do not live in the Houston area. Oh well, on to the next best thing-writing about my own favorites.

As you can imagine, it takes some time to whittle down a top 5 list for restaurants, particularly for someone like me, who loves food and finishes breakfast only to dream about lunch. I mean, I could make top 5 lists for every meal of the day, for every genre of food, for all my favorite regional cuisines, for every restaurant feature…it could take years! I eventually had to settle for this select few. As you’ll notice, with the exception of one, they’re all found in my wonderful home state of Texas. That’s just where the best food is located. I should know, I have lived in a veritable food capital of the world, New York City, and I am a mere hour’s drive away from yet another food mecca, San Francisco. My opinion should be highly valued! Now for the list:

5. Palma, New York City. My fifth choice was particularly thorny. I was very confident about my top 4, but it took a while to figure out, among many, which eating establishment truly deserved the last spot. I finally chose Palma, not so much because of the wonderful food, but because of all the happy memories it evokes. My husband and I found Palma on a lazy Indian summer afternoon. It was just a street over from his apartment in the West Village, but as is usual when faced with a plethora of choices for eating out in New York, it had heretofore been easy to miss. It’s a tiny place, with a beautiful postage-stamp sized garden in the back (incidentally, I almost always ate at Palma during the colder months, and never actually got to enjoy the garden). The sparse décor is actually quite nice; the cream-colored walls are nicely softened by luminarias and the few tables, while fairly close together, still allow for intimate, romantic dinners. We always ordered the fried calamari to start-it comes with a generous sprinkling of parsley and several large lemon slices. We always had to ask for a bowl of marinara for dipping, because the waiters inevitably insisted the calamari was so pure and delicious, it didn’t need any sauce. Our main course was usually one of the pasta dishes, bolognese or gnocchi-they were always rich and decadent, arriving at our table in steaming bowls. On many a wintry night, we could be found indulging in a meal, and we invited many of our friends. In fact, the husband and I had starring roles in the place cards for a wedding we attended out in the wine country on Long Island. The couple, our dear friends, had a wine-based story for each table. Our table was named after a wine they had enjoyed at Palma, and we were mentioned in the little story attached to the table card. New York representation on the list!

4. The County Line, Austin, TX. Now, if you had asked me how high BBQ was on my list of favorite foods before I moved to Austin, I might not have seemed too enthusiastic. Besides home-cooked brisket and the amazing sandwiches at Lum’s, a hidden gem in Junction, TX, I’ve never really felt much passion towards BBQ. I don’t even like ribs. My opinion was changed the very first time I stepped out onto the riverfront deck at The County Line. It’s usually packed, no matter what time you go, but it’s pretty much impossible to mind waiting out on the deck, observing the turtles swimming in the cool green water and families tooling by in small boats. Once you’re finally seated, you can dive into a basket of warm homemade wheat bread, made even better with the addition of honey butter. I usually ordered a brisket platter, which comes with a generous portion of thickly sliced, tender brisket, and spicy beans. Delicious. My husband thinks it’s the best barbecue he’s ever had, and he always ordered a giant combination platter with all sorts of barbecued items, sausage, ribs, brisket, turkey…they’re all good.

3. Chuy’s, Austin, TX. Chuy’s is an eclectic, funky local chain restaurant (and by chain, I mean it has a few locations in Austin, and I believe one in San Antonio-it’s no On the Border!). It has the absolute best Mexican food, excepting the tiny hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop establishments from home. Again, its popularity ensures that it will always be crammed full of people, but you don’t even think about it, because you can enjoy drinks and the self-service chips and salsa bar-crisp, perfectly salted tortilla chips and divinely spicy salsa.. One of the best things about Chuy’s is the inclusion of New Mexico green hatch chiles in many of its menu items. It’s a flavor I love and grew up with, but not all that common to find. I usually order the oddly named “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”, chicken and cheese enchiladas with roasted green chile sauce. I always struggle to finish the meal, but every bite is precious, so I manage!

2. Kincaid’s, Fort Worth, TX. Whenever my mom and I talk about the one food that is most satisfying and crave-able, she inevitably mentions a good, old-fashioned hamburger. I’m always scanning through various dishes in my mind, like steak, salmon, Mexican food, a hot bowl of pasta, but Mom always knows what she wants! She says there is nothing like a good hamburger, and I’m inclined to agree. No hamburger could hit the spot more than the homestyle burger from Kincaid’s, housed in an old grocery. There is nothing fancy about the place, but it’s undeniably charming, retaining the old painted wooden shelves from the days when it was a real grocery. I always order a ¼ lb. burger with a side of onion rings-they’re perfectly crispy, and light on the batter, so not too heavy. A simple meal, but a great one.

1. Shady Grove, Austin, TX. Yes, I saved the best for last. My husband and I lived in Austin for almost a year before we experienced the wonder that is Shady Grove. It’s located just down the road from Barton Springs, the natural spring-fed pool that Austinites love to immerse themselves in. I could actually devote a post to the bliss of Barton Springs-there is nothing like a dive into the clean, cold water on a 90 degree Texas afternoon! Anyway, back to Shady Grove. It has a great outdoor patio surrounded by an old-fashioned wooded fence. There’s a small stage for live music on Thursdays and colored lights dangling from the trees. Bathrooms are cutely located in a gleaming silver Airstream trailer parked conveniently next to the outdoor bar. All in all, very aesthetically pleasing. And I haven’t even gotten to the food! I’m a bit ashamed to give Shady Grove the number one spot considering I’ve only actually eaten two of their dishes. The truth is, I had the tortilla-crusted catfish the first time, because I can’t resist any sort of “crusted” fish. It was really delicious, but it apparently didn’t hold a candle to my husband’s meal. He had been given a little inside secret from the waiter-the green chile black bean burrito can be made with the addition of brisket. Promptly, he ordered the burrito, which truth be told, is never what jumps out at me when I scour menus. After that first bite, I was a complete convert. Every time I’ve returned to Shady Grove, I’ve ordered the same burrito, and every bite is as incredible as that first one. That combined with the ambiance is why my “keep Austin weird” shirt is from Shady Grove, and why it’s my number 1.

I’m already working on next week’s Top 5. Pretty excited about it. Oh, it’s so wonderful to be able to create these memorable lists for myself, even if I’m probably the only one that revisits them! That’s just one of the joys of having one’s own blog!

My next European adventure…

January 4, 2009

…Barcelona!

Yes, I am the fortunate lady who will be traveling to Barcelona in February with my husband, who HAS to be there for work. Oh, the trials and tribulations of jobs that require trips to Spain!

I know very little about Barcelona, so I would greatly appreciate any recommendations or suggestions from my loyal few. I do know about la Sagrada familia, the famously unfinished cathedral by illustrious Catalan architect Gaudi, pictured above. What a wonderful thing it will be to walk around the city, admiring his work.

It is nice to have first-hand, trustworthy advice, so really, please pass on your Spanish travel anecdotes. It would be ever so convenient to be prepared for my journey with knowledge other than the difference between a Spanish tortilla and a Mexican tortilla.

That’s it for now! Off to attack the piles of boxes in the garage!

As it turns out, Top 5 THURSDAY (holiday edition)

January 1, 2009

**Yes, I failed to post my weekly Top 5 until today. This just goes to show you our dependency on wireless connections.

I can’t believe this is happening! It’s Top 5 Tuesday, and I am STRUGGLING to come up with an interesting list. I have to admit not only to feeling a bit uninspired, but also to an intense feeling of inadequacy-many of my favorite blogs have just been so good lately! The goings-on of my mind seem so trivial! Granted, I am on Christmas vacation. There is usually not a whole lot accomplished during Christmas vacation. It’s for relaxing, after all. I say this knowing that I probably have more than my fair share of relaxing time, being semi-retired and everything.

I ran my final and only idea for Top 5 Tuesday by my loving siblings, but they both strongly objected. For some unknown reason, they both felt that talking about my top 5 holiday treats was ridiculous and lame. My brother informed me that he wouldn’t find a blog interesting that discussed such things. My sister did not approve of my final list. Not that we didn’t have a great time laughing, dissecting my ideas, and getting new ones for the future because we certainly did. I decided to write about my holiday favorites anyway, despite the protests, and mostly because while writing about the food that I enjoy is part of my original purpose for my blog, it often evokes warm, comforting feelings of familial bliss and treasured memories. While the five holiday treats that I include here are not necessarily elaborate or fancy, they are still the things that I remember indulging in, specifically around the holidays.

5. Christmas Morning Breakfast. I can see how this might be confusing-breakfast is a MEAL, not a treat. What a way to start such a non-original top 5! All I can say is that my favorite part of Christmas with my family is always our Christmas morning breakfast. It’s the same every year. As Frances the badger would say about routine and predictable favorite foods, (hers being bread and jam-see previous post relating to children’s books), “I always know what I’m getting, and I’m always pleased.” We all roll out of bed, usually around 7:30 or 8:00-it’s grown increasingly later through the years as the youngest in the family have matured past the age of frantically waiting in nervous anticipation to see what Santa brought. After the gift-opening, we all pile our plates with delicious scrambled eggs, fresh biscuits, and spicy sausage (patties, not links!). Cups of steaming coffee or hot chocolate are passed around. I usually pour a decent-sized pool of syrup onto my plate, into which I swirl my bites of sausage. Yes, it’s a simple breakfast. But there is something so wonderful about crowding around the tiny kitchen table in my grandparents’ house or having to seek out a spot amongst the remnants of our wrapping paper and boxes, balancing plates precariously on laps and hoping that the large silver urn of coffee will be constantly replenished. I absolutely love it.

4. Memaw’s Rolls. Memaw is my grandmother, as you might have guessed, from the aforementioned Christmas morning tradition. She is truly the most wonderful and amazing grandmother, like an angel on earth. That may sound trite, but it’s just really the best way to describe her. An angel on earth. As though heaven is where she has belonged all along. She works tirelessly to make Christmas a special time for everyone, taking on far too many tasks, including the making of her famously delicious rolls. Yes, I know that I use the word “delicious” frequently in my posts. It must be my favorite word. These rolls, a basic yeast roll recipe, feel light, but taste buttery and rich. Of course, they’re best piping hot and slathered with butter. The boys usually devour at least 2-3 rolls per meal, so you can imagine what a tremendous job it is to provide enough rolls for 18 people. Someday, I’ll have to attempt them myself, but I feel they probably won’t ever be quite as good as Memaw’s.

3. Queso. Again, I am completely aware of the simplicity of this dish. Every restaurant has a version, there are millions of recipes, in every cookbook for it. All kinds of cheese and mix-ins have been employed, I’m sure. I must admit, the best, and my favorite, queso is my mom’s, and while we have had it on other occasions (besides Christmas), we ALWAYS have it over the holidays, usually on Christmas Eve to accompany a fairly light meal of roast beef and ham sandwiches. My family has always eaten quite a bit of Mexican food-enchiladas, chile relleno casserole (definitely worth a post someday), and concoctions of meat, chiles, and potatoes were frequently on our menu-so we like everything pretty spicy. My mom’s queso is no exception-it’s full of finely chopped green chiles and tomatoes. I like it better that way, spicier instead of cheesy.

2. Chocolate Praline Bars. I’m including the recipe for this sinfully wonderful dessert. See, this post isn’t completely without substance! I’m sharing a recipe! My mom found it in a Christmas cookbook many years ago, and the bars are trooped out every year at holiday parties or just for us to devour when we’re home. She modified the recipe, coming up with the brilliant idea of the layer of chocolate chips herself. Thus, I’ve never tried the original quick praline bars, because they’ve always been covered in chocolate. Which is as they should be. It’s a very simple dessert, and can easily be doubled. I would suggest you run, not walk, to your kitchen to make these, IMMEDIATELY.

24 graham cracker squares, or enough to cover the bottom of your pan in a single layer
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup chopped pecans
chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350. Arrange graham crackers in SINGLE layer in ungreased pan (8 x 8). Heat brown sugar and butter to boiling; boil and stir 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Pour over crackers; spread evenly. Sprinkle with pecans. Bake until bubbly, 8-10 minutes. Spread chocolate chips generously over the top. Cover pan with foil; let sit for 3-4 minutes. Uncover, spread melted chocolate chips evenly over surface with a knife (it should be a thick layer). Place cookies in the refrigerator or freezer, covered.

1. Viscochos/Bizcochos. I wish that I had a picture to capture the loveliness of these precious little Mexican wedding cookies, flavored with anise. They’re very delicate, usually in an unusual shape, like stars or hearts, and absolutely doused in cinnamon sugar. Now, if you were to come across a recipe for bizcochos, you might blanch from the inclusion of lard in the recipe. Keep in mind that these are holiday treats-they are all unhealthy, rich, and calorie-laden. The lard is a crucial ingredient-it gives the cookies that “melt-in-your-mouth” quality. My mother attempted to make them once, without the lard, which resulted in a completely ordinary cinnamon cookie. Typically, we’ve had to find a friend or acquaintance who makes them at home, and then buy several dozen for Christmas or any other special event. You won’t find them in stores, in other words. My mom usually arranged to have them for Christmas when I came home from college, and I insisted on having platters of them at each table for my wedding. I would actually rather eat bizcochos than wedding cake (unless my sister made the cake, of course) or any other dessert for that matter. Tiny bites of heaven-that’s how I would describe them. Interestingly enough, when I was searching for a decent picture to include, I came across this article from the New York Times. Not only did the recipes look great (and there is one for bizcochos!), I appreciated reading about El Paso, the closest city to my hometown (and by close, I mean SEVERAL hours drive).

This wraps up my holiday edition of Top 5 Tuesday-make sure to eat some black-eyed peas today! Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas! (from Coldplay and me :) )

December 24, 2008

Top 5 Tuesday

December 23, 2008

I thought I’d go a different direction for Top 5 Tuesday this week, just in an effort to show to my loyal (2-3) readers that I’m not one-dimensional, and I actually do have interests beyond television, Rachael Ray, and the Twilight saga. Oops, I did it again! Wrote about Twilight in yet another post!

This week’s list is devoted to my favorite childhood picture books. I was fortunate and blessed to grow up with a librarian mother who loves books and a father who loves to read them. From a very young age, I was absolutely surrounded with books, and truth be told, I found them more interesting than any toy or game. I had a trusty Fisher-Price tape player, and my first experiences with Disney movies were the books-on-tape versions-I’m still a little frightened of Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent and the terrifying hunter from The Fox and the Hound! Nothing could be better for preparation for reading than being immersed in books, and my parents did a great job by ensuring they were a crucial element in my childhood. I still have many of my favorites, and I’ve often used them in school or even just to reread for a trip down memory lane. I can’t wait for the day I’m able to read them to my own children. Now, with no further adieu, I present my (very respectable and noteworthy) list of favorite picture books.

5. Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. Now this particular title is probably on many best-loved children’s books list, so I know it’s not that unique. It’s a really simple, unforgettable story, however. Who can forget the twelve little girls waking up in the night to poor Madeline’s appendicitis? On one of my first visits to New York City, I used my copy of City Secrets to find Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, where there are murals painted by Bemelmans encircling the dark wooded seats. It brought my memories of reading Madeline back in a flash.

4. Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey. My mother might be surprised to see this classic on my list, because I don’t think we even owned a copy at home. What I do vividly remember is reading this book at my grandmother’s house. She had an old, faded copy (even when I was little), and I can remember wishing that the blueberries on the pages were really bright blue. I can almost hear the clinking they made in Sal’s pail.

3. A Baby Sister for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoban. At some point in the future, I should probably make a Top 5 list of what I’ve learned from Frances. She is an incorrigible badger, with an amazing mother, who is able to gently and subtly teach her the way to be. I had a great tape of a collection of Frances stories, read by Glynis Johns, and we all listened to them over and over. I was thrilled to find a CD version, although I still have my original, well-worn cassette tape. All of the Frances books are wonderful, but this one, which touches upon sibling rivalry and the jealousy felt when a new baby comes along, is both touching and funny. “Things are not very good around here anymore…”

2. Patrick Eats His Dinner, by Geoffrey Hayes. Of all the books read to me as a child, this series stands out more than any others. Patrick Brown is a precocious little bear, always getting into scrapes and attempting to bend his mother’s will. There’s precious little dialogue on each page, but my dad really made it count when he read these stories to me. In this particular one, Patrick is forced to eat peas for dinner, much to his digust, before he is able to eat dessert. He sings a little song to himself as he mashes ketchup, honey, and various other condiments in the peas to hide the taste, and my dad came up with his very own tune. Even now, I can sing “Little green balls of mushy poison, little green balls of mushy poison…” and my dad will smile and remember. If you’ll notice, I had to take a photo of the book, because it is out of print and I wasn’t able to find a single image online. Two of the other Patrick books I own are fetching upwards of $250 from used booksellers, but you won’t ever see me letting them go!

1. Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. I don’t think my mother would be surprised with my number 1 choice-it was her favorite, I think, to read to me when I was little. Ferdinand is a young bull in Spain, raised by a loving mother, and sadly, eventually destined to bull-fighting. All he really wants to do, however, is sit and smell the flowers. Another book with not much dialogue, it’s really very good for reading to a young child. The black and white pictures of Ferdinand sitting alone in the huge fighting ring, taking in the scent of the flowers bedecking the ladies’ hair, are really wonderful. It is a sweet, special book, one that I would recommend to anyone to page through, young or old.

I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be able to blog during the holiday, but I’m sure that will be true of most of us terribly distracted by our blogs. I’m just going to enjoy taking in all of the things that I love about Christmas, the food, the family, the relaxing… I am trying to develop a list of New Year’s resolutions in my mind-don’t think I’ll write a Top 5 on those! One of the main things I want to work on is reading more-I’m so easily distracted at home, and I would like to set aside some time every day just to read for pleasure. It would be nice if I could write critically and analytically sometimes on my blog about what I’ve read!

Merry Christmas, everyone!