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A Big Taste of Houston’s Strip House

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Rank may have its privileges, but as I’ve learned more than once over the years, so does radio. Last night, as part of a taping for my show Delicious Mischief, we didn’t just get to spend some quality time with executive chef Bill Zucosky and learn about the company with only a handful of locations in New York City, suburban New Jersey, vacation Florida and downtown Houston. No, we got to taste a lot of the foods that make the whole success story possible.

Appetizers should be a favorite part of any meal, since they allow us to taste a bunch of interesting smaller things before committing to a big thing as an entree. I’m not talking silly “small plates,” mind you. Just the chance to enjoy new things, at least some of which are also delightfully old. Up top there’s Zucosky’s inspired Stonehenge of grilled sourdough bread with a dipping sauce of Italian Gorgonzola and English Stilton. And right here is what might be the best version of Italian-eatery standby clams casino I’ve ever tasted. I’m sure, somewhere out there, Sinatra is sorry he didn’t get any of these.

One of the niftiest things to happen to prime steakhouses over the past two or three decades is the explosion of terrific seafood options. As Ruth Fertel of Ruth’s Chris told me in New Orleans years ago, places like hers were losing too many parties of 6 or 8 because somebody didn’t eat meat. Even though I do eat meat, and in such large portions, I can certainly see myself ordering Strip House’s “angry lobster.” Eating it, I wasn’t angry at all.

Of all the transformations enjoyed by any type of seafood, that handed to tuna has been the most dramatic. After all, we all know what “tunafish” is like when it comes from a can. Yet at Strip House, and just about every other restaurant working above a certain pay grade, tuna is now impeccably fresh, billed as “sushi grade” and barely cooked at all. Here’s the sesame-crusted Strip House rendition. And while some may protest the veal demi glace added to the sauce, the thing sure does taste good.

While we kept our mouth full of Strip House’s lush truffled mac and cheese, we let Chef Bill tell us about his background: a childhood in the coal country of western Pennsylvania, followed by work around the restaurant business and culinary school in New York City – the latter, he boasts, a far cry from that demure, high-white-hat establishment up in Hyde Park. Work at several fine NYC restaurants pointed him toward the door of Strip House.

Needless to say, a place called Strip House does serve a mighty good steak – and that includes their signature cut in all kinds of ways, the New York strip. Chef Bill loves this cut of Prime beef, saying it’s the perfect middle ground between the tenderness of filet mignon and the marbled flavor machines of all those “lesser” cuts. The kitchen keeps things simple on this one, with only a bit of slow-roasted garlic as accessory to the crime.

Even though the original architectural notion (and the name itself) came east from Chicago, New Yorkers certainly know a thing or two about skyscrapers. Heck, at Strip House, they even apply the design to their chocolate cake. This one has 12 layers of cake, plus an equal number of icing – which makes it, by my reckoning, a 24-story skyscraper for your dessert. Chef Bill Zucosky lets on that there are few things better for the munchies at 3 a.m. than leftover cake with a tall glass of cold milk.

Smoked Sausage Queso

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SMOKED SAUSAGE QUESO

There are few things more Texan than the unrelenting pursuit of molten cheese, and there are few things that taste better in said cheese than smoked sausage. For those who think queso can be made only behind the swinging doors in Tex-Mex restaurants, here’s a straightforward process than almost any home cook can navigate.

3/4 pound Texas smoked sausage
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup finely chopped red onion
½ cup finely chopped green bell pepper
3 cups heavy cream
2 ½ cups shredded Monterey Jack
2 ½ cups shredded Pepper Jack
2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 teaspoons water
½ cup chopped green onions
Tortilla chips

In a food processor, pulse the sausage into a fine crumble. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and brown the sausage over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper, stirring until caramelized, 4-5 minutes. Add the cream, reduce heat to medium and whisk to incorporate. Gradually add in the cheese, stirring until melted and incorporated. Thicken with the dissolved cornstarch. Garnish with green onion. Serve in a bowl with tortilla chops. Serves 10-12.

 

Bacon-Onion Sliders for ‘Great Day Houston’

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JOHN’S BACON-ONION SLIDERS 

One fine day when I was minding my own business, I was asked to cook sliders on live TV the next morning – and that “opportunity” (come on, isn’t everything?) sent me meandering down Memory Lane on the way to the supermarket. After all, I grew up eating sliders without ever hearing the name, at a little place called Royal Castle that must have been related somehow or other to the better-known White Castle. Many an early-morning fishing trip with my father featured those caramelized-oniony almost one-bite burgerettes eaten in the car in the predawn dark on our way to the dock.  

3 slices bacon

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Creole seasoning, or salt and pepper

Crushed red pepper

½ teaspoon finely chopped parsley

12 slices pepper jack cheese

12 small slider buns or dinner rolls 

Cook bacon in a skillet until crisp. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of bacon fat. Cook onion in bacon fat until translucent, about 3 minutes, then add garlic and cook 30 seconds longer. Remove mixture from pan and let cool. Crumble bacon when cool enough to handle. In a large bowl, combine beef, bacon, onion mixture, Worcestershire sauce, Creole seasoning, crushed red pepper and parsley, mixing well. Form into 12 small patties and chill. Preheat grill to medium; oil when hot. Cook burgers for about 7 minutes for medium rare, turning once halfway through. Serve sliders with cheese on rolls, melting cheese under the broiler if desired. Makes 12 sliders.

Blue Plate and Blu on Weekend’s Radio Shows

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NOW HEARD IN THREE GREAT TEXAS CITIES! 

AUSTIN Saturdays 10-11 a.m., Talk 1370

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

Chef Kent Rathbun has done a lot of great things, most of them (including Abacus in Dallas and Jasper’s in several cities) since arriving in Texas. Yet lovers of comforting homestyle cooking may end up loving his Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen the most, as we learn while tasting and chatting with the chef de cuisine and the general manager. In our Grape & Grain segment, we talk with wine buyer Collin Williams of Spec’s about what it means for a wine to be green, sustainable, biodynamic and a whole bunch of other words we’ve read on bottles lately. 

HOUSTON Saturdays 2-3 p.m., News Talk 1070 KNTH

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

This week we head to Sugar Land to profile a very interesting new restaurant called Blu. Still, even if the restaurant is new, we meet up with an old friend in the kitchen – Thai-born, New York-savvy executive chef Junnajet Hurapan, who was our guest on the show back when he was opening Gigi’s Asian Bistro and Dumpling Bar at the Galleria. In our Grape & Grain segment, we talk with wine buyer Collin Williams of Spec’s about what it means for a wine to be green, sustainable, biodynamic and a whole bunch of other words we’ve read on bottles lately. 

DALLAS Saturdays 7-8 p.m., 570 KLIF

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

Chef Kent Rathbun has done a lot of great things, most of them (including Abacus in Dallas and Jasper’s in several cities) since arriving in Texas. Yet lovers of comforting homestyle cooking may end up loving his Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen the most, as we learn while tasting and chatting with the chef de cuisine and the general manager. In our Grape & Grain segment, we talk with wine buyer Collin Williams of Spec’s about what it means for a wine to be green, sustainable, biodynamic and a whole bunch of other words we’ve read on bottles lately. 

Our 22nd Year of Eating, Drinking and Telling You About It! 

 

This Week’s Delicious Mischief Recipe

JALAPENO-RED PEPPER HUMMUS 

Somehow, all roads must lead to Texas. Otherwise, how can we explain the popularity of this eastern Mediterranean favorite often first encountered in Lebanese or Greek restaurants? Though the basic flavor of ground chick peas, sesame tahini, garlic and lemon is amazing enough, Texas cooks just had to start tinkering to achieve a bit more  great taste. And a little kick of heat, naturally. 

3 cloves of garlic

1 (15 oz. can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

1/3 cup tahini

1/4 cup lemon juice

½ jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, as desired

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup roasted red peppers 

Start by draining and rinsing the chickpeas. Place the garlic cloves in a food processor and pulse a few times. This way, you don’t have to chop the garlic by hand. Next add the chickpeas to the food processor, then the tahini. Add the lemon juice, jalapeno and the olive oil. Process the mixture until it’s thick and chunky. Now add the roasted red peppers, and process again until the hummus becomes smooth and creamy. Serve the roasted red pepper hummus with warm pita triangles or pita chips. Serves 8-10.

Artisans and Texas Paella on Weekend’s DM

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NOW HEARD IN THREE GREAT TEXAS CITIES! 

AUSTIN Saturdays 10-11 a.m., Talk 1370

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

There are artists, we’re told, and then there are artisans. A new restaurant in Houston, created by not one but two exemplary French chefs, demonstrates just how much of the former there is in the latter. We chat with chefs David Denis and Jacques Fox about the foods and wines that make their Artisans tick. Appropriately, in our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about  the wonderful wines of the Famille Perrin from the Rhone Valley in France. 

HOUSTON Saturdays 2-3 p.m., News Talk 1070 KNTH

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

There are artists, we’re told, and then there are artisans. A new restaurant in Houston, created by not one but two exemplary French chefs, demonstrates just how much of the former there is in the latter. We chat with chefs David Denis and Jacques Fox about the foods and wines that make their Artisans tick. Appropriately, in our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about  the wonderful wines of the Famille Perrin from the Rhone Valley in France. 

DALLAS Saturdays 7-8 p.m., 570 KLIF

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

Burgers are big business these days, especially in the market segment known as the Better Burger. Recently we experienced one of these better burgers, in the funky setting that goes by the name Twisted Root. And we’re certain what we think about this all-American classic will never be quite the same. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about  the wonderful wines of the Famille Perrin from the Rhone Valley in France. 

Our 22nd Year of Eating, Drinking and Telling You About It! 

This Week’s Delicious Mischief Recipe

COASTAL BEND PAELLA

This dish is half great taste and half nostalgia, since it references the Gulf Coast of Texas that curves south with ever more Tex-Mex flavor to the old shrimping port of Brownsville on the border. My plan here is to take Spain’s classic rice dish on a similar journey, with a nod to the Cajuns and Creoles of southwest Louisiana while we’re in the neighborhood. 

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 chicken breast halves, cut bite-sized

1 pound smoked sausage

1 onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 carrot chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon onion powder

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled

1 tomato chopped

½ cup frozen green peas

3/4 cup chunky salsa

2 (10-ounce) packages yellow rice mix

7 cups water 

Heat the olive oil in a large saute (or paella) pan and brown the sausage and chicken. Add the onion, red pepper and carrot and cook until lightly caramelized. Add the minced garlic and stir quickly until golden. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, onion and garlic powders. Add the shrimp and stir just until pink, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato, green peas and salsa, stirring to incorporate. Pour in the rice and saffron seasoning, followed by the water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Serves 12-14.

Oregon Pinor Noir on This Weekend’s DM

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NOW HEARD IN THREE GREAT TEXAS CITIES! 

AUSTIN Saturdays 10-11 a.m., Talk 1370

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

Here in Texas, Shawn Cirkiel has risen to be one of the culinary superstars, first on the strength of his Austin gastro-pub parkside (on bar-happy 6th Street, no less) and then with his pizza-plus joint around the corner called backspace. Many of these influences come together in his new eatery Olive & June, and Shawn is here to tell us all about it. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a magical place for pinot noir (and yes, pinot gris) with winemaker Jesse Lange of Lange Estate. 

HOUSTON Saturdays 2-3 p.m., News Talk 1070 KNTH

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

As the weather heats up and baseball takes over the national psyche, it’s kinda hard not to want a hot dog. Here in Houston, we have easy access to some of the nation’s best, plus a whole lot more, at the beloved 20-location chain called James Coney Island. We hold our first-ever hot-dog tasting with no less than JCI president Darrin Straughan. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a magical place for pinot noir (and yes, pinot gris) with winemaker Jesse Lange of Lange Estate. 

DALLAS Saturdays 7-8 p.m., 570 KLIF

A Presentation of Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods 

Here in Texas, Shawn Cirkiel has risen to be one of the culinary superstars, first on the strength of his Austin gastro-pub parkside (on bar-happy 6th Street, no less) and then with his pizza-plus joint around the corner called backspace. Many of these influences come together in his new eatery Olive & June, and Shawn is here to tell us all about it. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a magical place for pinot noir (and yes, pinot gris) with winemaker Jesse Lange of Lange Estate. 

Our 22nd Year of Eating, Drinking and Telling You About It! 

This Week’s Delicious Mischief Recipe

COZUMEL TORTILLA SOUP

Presidente InterContinental Resort & Spa 

A couple weeks back, I went to a dinner at Houston’s Hotel InterContinental recognizing the GM from its sister resort in Cozumel on the Mexican Caribbean. Though the executive chef couldn’t make the trip, his impressive recipe for Tortilla Soup certainly did. A great big gracias to chef Daniel Lentz.                                                                

1/3 cup vegetable oil

7 Roma tomatoes, cored and quartered

1 white onion, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

4  guajillo chiles, seeded

2 pasilla chiles, seeded

3 tablespoons fresh epazote

2 tortillas, fried and quartered

1 ½ quarts chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups diced cooked chicken breast

Fried corn tortillas

Grated fresh cheese

Diced avocado

Sour cream 

 Heat oil in pan large enough to accommodate all ingredients. Saute all vegetables, chiles and epazote until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add liquid and tortilla chips, season with salt and pepper, and simmer  for about 30 minutes. Puree in blender and strain. Serve in bowls. Garnish each potion of soup with diced chicken breast, fried corn tortillas, grated cheese, avocado and sour cream. Serves 12-14.

 

 

The Burgers That Ate Houston

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As any private eye from 1930s’ noir will tell you, there are some days you regret answering your office phone. More specifically and more colorfully, there are days you regret leaving your office door unlocked so a gorgeous dame can step inside, cry on your rock-hard shoulder and beg you to help locate her missing husband. Updated to 2012, and into my own work and world, there are days you regret that some magazine editor asked you to taste Houston’s super-stacked burgers. Even when the assignment lets you tear into this Big Mac-inspired double-decker at Haven with chef Randy Evans looking on.

Evans’ new burger, which I have rechristened the “Farm to Table Big Mac,” completely mimics the high-volume, near-mythical original down to the sesame seed bun; he just does it better, with better stuff. The patties add up to three-quarters of a pound of beef, but even that isn’t the best part. That’s an honor reserved for his version of the Big Mac’s “special sauce,” here named for Avery Island in southwest Louisiana because of the Tabasco mash adding plenty of zing.

So, you’re surely asking yourself: How hard can this really be? Tasting five burgers already selected from photographs by the editor and publisher of Prime Living magazine? I mean: you go, you take a couple bites, and then you write a hundred words about each. Sure. Well, that’s before you face the likes of Max’s Wine Dive’s Kobe beef burger (shown here) with an “upgrade” of sliced avocado, cotija cheese and habanero salsa. And that’s definitely before all the other burger-loving restaurants in Houston find out what you’re up to and then insist you come try theirs. I’m sorry, you try to explain, we’ve already got our five. Come anyway, they all say.

Directly above is chef Rolando Sosa’s terrific new burger creation at CityCentre’s Bistro Alex. The 8-10 ounces of grilled Kobe beef rest on a jalapeno cheese bun that’s been slathered with mayo and pungent New Orleans-style Creole mustard, then covered in Texas-made cheese, caramelized onion and sliced avocado, followed by an egg fried in clarified butter and a green tomato salsa verde. By the way, the “fries” are panko-crusted avocado.

The new Houston Texans Grille at CityCentre, all themed-up and official, wasn’t content to serve me their Ginormous BLT Double Grilled Cheese Ranch Burger requested by the editors, who by the way didn’t dare show up for one of these tastings. Oh no. The Grille had to also bring me their Soon-to-be-Famous Deep Fried Cheeseburger, as grand a tribute to state-fair-meets-rodeo-carnival cooking as I have ever tasted anywhere. The whole cheeseburger gets made and set inside a bun with spicy ketchup, mustard and mayo. Then the entire affair gets dunked in tempura batter and deep-fried. Out of sheer spite, it shows up wearing a healthy leaf of lettuce on top like a silly clown suit.

A burger implies an all-beef patty, right? Well, at Houston’s ever-popular Rainbow Lodge with owner Donnette Hansen and chef Mario Valdez, that’s not an assumption you ought to make. Burgers turn up at RL just once a week, on Fridays, and only as long as the dozen they make hold out. That typically doesn’t take long, since the patty itself is formed of some ever-changing percentage of venison, bison and wild boar, all in need of a boost from a little pork belly. One of Chef Mario’s best variations is this multi-meat patty on a Slow Dough challah bun, with melty pimento cheese and fried cornmeal-crusted avocado. Those housemade pickles – bread and butter-style, but with an extra kick – are amazing too.

With his French accent and legendary good looks, chef Philippe Schmit seems the last person you’d expert to catch “flippin’ burgers.” As it turns out, even at his fine-dining Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, there’s demand for a burger and fries done right. The experience starts with 8 to 10 ounces of organic, hormone-free beef grilled somewhere between medium-rare and medium (to your taste), then set on an olive-oil brioche bun baked by Philippe’s own pastry chef. The pickles are housemade, as is the mayo and mustard, as is the North African-style harissa that provides a kick to the ketchup. The molten cheese is mild gouda, the chef explains, so as not to distract diners from the meat and the bun.

Our journey ended last night more or less where it began, with one beloved Houston chef wowing me with how far he could carry the burger from its mostly humble roots. Except, of course, the end came 11 burgers spread over 10 days after it began – three over a single painful lunch period – with any and all the added waistline those 11 burgers entailed. At RDG + Bar Annie, Robert del Grande applies the same Ph.D. in biochemistry to his burger that he applies to, well, everything else. 

The bun from Slow Dough, he tells me, has to be a little sweet (with the slightest dusting of chestnut flour after toasting in the kitchen) and, while puffy, able to be squished down to fit into the average human mouth. The half-pound of beef is USDA Prime, from the flavorful shoulder cuts, and grilled over an oakwood fire. Del Grande’s “secret sauce” involves a mayo, ketchup and mustard base (“like every secret sauce,” he says) with layer after layer of smoked gouda cheese, smoked chile (chipotle), steamed garlic, roasted shallots and what he, in highly technical Ph.D.speak, calls “a whole bunch of stuff.” Honestly, if I had to eat one burger in farewell – I DO think I’ll swear off the things for a while, and maybe get back to the gym – I can’t think of a better burger to remember them all by.

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