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A Late Afternoon in Provence

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It’s been a couple of years since I was lucky enough to spend time in Provence, researching a book but mostly going to open-air markets between severe bouts of eating and drinking. All those joys came rushing back to me yesterday afternoon, thanks to a late lunch with the Guy family of Houston’s Bistro Provence. Besides, any meal that starts with wine from Bandol and salad with the tres-crusty-twisty Provencal bread colorfully known as fougasse is guaranteed to remind me of something wonderful somewhere.

One of the beauties of Provencal cooking is that it doesn’t stop cooking when the weather turns hot. After all, being the crown jewel of the South of France and plugging directly into the French Riviera means the weather turns hot fairly often and tends to stay that way. On the other hand, with both Provence and Texas in mind, it’s hard to deny the good sense and great taste of this simply cooked fish served atop a room-temp, mayo-free potato salad. Did I mention that Provence produces some of the best olive oil anywhere?

Then again, here’s what I was saying about not stopping real cooking. In pragmatic terms, this roasted Cornish game hen may heat up your house a bit if you make it at home. But that’s only the cooking. As for the eating, complete with a crust of Dijon mustard and plenty of fresh thyme, this moist, flavorful bird is on its way to picnic food. In fact, chill the Tavel rose and call the outing le picnique, and I am so in.

If your taste buds insist on something with sauce whenever you hear the f-word – that being “French,” naturally – the Guys of Bistro Provence have a super-popular dish for you: honey-lavender roasted duck. Created a while back during a festival about the eight or nine different herbs in herbes de Provence, this duck has been taken off the menu once or twice, only to be returned quickly by mobs that resembled the ones outside the Bastille. Yes, lavender. Yes, honey. Two Provencal signatures. And veal demi-glace ain’t too shabby either.

By this point, just about everybody who cooks around here knows that I’m no chocoholic. Nonetheless, they also know that if their chocolate creation is intense enough, it plugs right into my love of dark-roasted coffee and chicory that I grew up on in New Orleans. Taking the bitter with the sweet, in other words. This double-thick version of mousse-meets-fudge is wonderful, especially when you get a little of the whipped cream with every bite.

Typically, a French-style apple tart is more to my liking – and the one set in front of me yesterday at Bistro Provence was to my liking a lot. It was a bit Franco-American, I’d say, since the stewed apples are enclosed as in the pie that there’s nothing more American than. Yet the flavor profile is French, as in the legendary tart Tatin. Best of all, perhaps, the usual vanilla ice cream (which I never turn down, especially this close to Brenham) is augmented here by cinnamon. Let’s keep the apple pie ball bouncing, shall we, right into this ice cream. I swear: had I dared drink a glass (or three) of pastis, I wouldn’t have needed a plane ticket to get back to Provence at all.

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Food Trucks and Wines from Simi

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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 

Beginning in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Austin, the food truck movement keeps on, well, picking up speed. We chat this week with truck-chefs participating in this year’s Haute Wheels Festival in Houston, coming up May 12 and 13, and we sample a lot more than we ever expected to come out of a truck. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about the wines of Simi with winemaker Susan Lueker. 

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

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

Beginning in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Austin, the food truck movement keeps on, well, picking up speed. We chat this week with truck-chefs participating in this year’s Haute Wheels Festival in Houston, coming up May 12 and 13, and we sample a lot more than we ever expected to come out of a truck. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about the wines of Simi with winemaker Susan Lueker. 

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

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

Beginning in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Austin, the food truck movement keeps on, well, picking up speed. We chat this week with truck-chefs participating in this year’s Haute Wheels Festival in Houston, coming up May 12 and 13, and we sample a lot more than we ever expected to come out of a truck. In our Grape & Grain segment, we taste and talk about the wines of Simi with winemaker Susan Lueker. 

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

This Week’s Delicious Mischief Recipe

CHINESE PORK AND VEGETABLE BROTH 

2 tablespoons hot sesame oil

1 pound pork tenderloin, thinly sliced

1 bunch scallions, sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

Sriracha chile-garlic paste to taste

5 cups chicken broth

3/4 cup water

3 cups thinly sliced bok choy

2 cups broccoli florets

1 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper

½ cup sliced bamboo shoots

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

8 ounces dried Chinese noodles

1 small cucumber, sliced into matchsticks, for garnish 

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add pork, all but 2 tablespoons of the scallions, garlic, ginger, sriracha and cook, stirring about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add remaining oil and stirfry vegetables for 4-5 minutes, then add broth, water, soy sauce and rice vinegar. Stir in noodles and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook till noodles are tender, 4-5 minutes. Return the pork mixture to the pan and stir to combine. Serve garnished with the remaining 2 tablespoons scallions and sliced cucumber. Serves 6-8.

It’s Springtime at Rainbow Lodge

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Donnette Hansen has hired her share of chefs at Rainbow Lodge, starting with Lance Youngs what feels like a million years and at least one location ago. That time, I remember it was cold and rainy outside, but owner and chef conspired to warm me up with gumbo and wild game dishes fit for, well, a hunting lodge on the banks of a bayou. With warm temperatures getting even warmer and young chef Mario Valdez in the kitchen, I can’t think of a better time or better excuse to reacquaint yourself with a three-decades-plus Houston favorite.

My lunch today was a definite case of  “something old, something new,” though not exactly in that order. My mission was to taste items from Chef Mario’s new springtime list, starting with a super appetizer (pictured up top) made with fried green tomatoes from Donnette’s several gardens. In this case, the fried green slices were topped with a delightful ceviche of sea bass, grouper and snapper. No matter how hot it gets in Texas this summer, however, I can’t see myself  going to Rainbow Lodge and not begging at least a cup of their exemplary smoked duck gumbo, which has outlasted several chefs and just may outlast us all.

Another nifty spin on spring is provided by the Rabbit Boudin Balls. Much lighter to eat than they are to think about, the balls have found an audience both as an official appetizer and as a snack in the Lodge’s oh-so-popular, fly fishing-themed bar. The shredded rabbit confit inside each ball is enhanced with pork butt and belly, while the choucroute garni (a kind of mild French sauerkraut) is sweet-sour with red wine vinegar and molasses. The squirts around the dish are Tabasco aioli.

As in the classic movie about baseball “It Happens Every Spring,” a number of things happen in the kitchen and garden as well. And several of them end up on this plate. Yes, that’s a chop of terrific Colorado spring lamb, which kind of speaks for itself. But underneath you’ll locate paper-thin slices of spring potato and roughed-up editions of English spring peas. There’s a spicy touch of Moroccan-style harissa waiting at the bottom of the pile.

Since Chef Mario doesn’t like the word “deconstructed” – and I don’t either – my lips are basically sealed. It is undeniable, though, that Rainbow Lodge’s latest desserts are lighter versions of heavier things, all-American favorites all. For instance, who would guess that the mound on the left is carrot cake…- de-, well, at least divided into elements like carrot cake and cream cheese mousse. Moving to the right is a memorable lemon meringue in a jar (it’s usually bigger, but the chef was having mercy on me) and a chocolate torte with espresso creme anglais. For a decade or more, I’ve always longed for Rainbow Lodgfe whenever the weather turns cold and rainy. Obviously, based on today’s tasting, I’ve been missing out on a lot.

The 26th Annual Sandestin Wine Festival

There’s nothing quite like a wine festival at the beach. And while I’ve heard of one or two others across the country, for the past two decades I’ve been a zealot for the Sandestin Wine Festival – held at the golf and beach resort of that name on the lovely piece of northwest Florida known as the Emerald Coast. That name, of course, is inspired by the see-through Gulf water that, at almost any time from sunrise to sunset, takes on a shimmering blue-green hue.

This festival was, is and perhaps always will be about wine – unlike many that weave the magic words “Wine and Food” or at least “Food and Wine” into their names. There’s even a “retail tent” for buying bottles to take home after you’ve wandered up and down the aisles for several hours of dedicated tasting. This year, however, there was the strongest presence I’ve seen yet for edible as well as drinkable goodies.

Borrowing a page from other successful wine festivals, Sandestin has also added a “reserve tasting” and wine auction to raise money for local charities. I attended this event for the first time yesterday, and with food from area restaurants (including familiar names like Carrabba’s and Ruth’s Chris, as well as the eateries on the Sandestin property), it was a great way to while away an afternoon heated by bright sunshine but cooled by delicious spring breezes.

One of the culinary highlights was provided by a young chef who works for the resort, serving up gumbo he said was made with duck confit and garlic andouille. Now I’m pretty picky about my gumbo, not least because I love my gumbo best, but this stuff was amazing. I almost regretted all the room I’d “wasted” on sliders, sushi, ceviche and grilled scallops, when I could have simply declared it the Sandestin Wine & Gumbo Festival!

And just when the late afternoon temperatures were peaking beneath the tasting tent, along came the San Gelato Cafe. While a simple-enough food and drink outlet with three locations (the Village at Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin, the Silver Sands Factory Stores and the Boardwalk-Okaloosa Island in nearby Ft. Walton Beach), the real Italians behind San Gelato actually make the stuff  masterfully enough to sell to national Italian restaurant chains. Yum!

When you get right down to it, though, I always love hanging out with the chefs best. This year, for the first time ever, there’s an impressive Culinary Pavilion staged by the folks at Coastal Living, which along with Saveur is one of the few magazines I actually read. Here we see chef Johnny Earles, who for 20 years ran his own place called Criolla’s on fabled Highway 30A, doing a demo for his current home, Seagar’s Steakhouse.

And while I’ve known Johnny Earles for years and remember his Louisiana-Caribbean food at Criolla’s very fondly, I’d only heard about and read about but never met chef Irv Miller – until I interviewed both chefs together for my radio show. They’d cooked here and there together and separately, like neighbors, for many years – and like most chefs who’ve shared trenches and tuna, they were even more fun together than separately.

After several legendary stints around Destin, including the beloved Bud & Alley’s, Chef Irv moved to Pensacola in the late ’90s to open Jackson’s Steakhouse. And he’s been going great guns there ever since. In the land of Gulf seafood, the two chefs I admire most find themselves “beefing up” the seafood selections… at prime steakhouses. Go figure! But quickly, thanks to the wonderful Sandestin Wine Festival, I finally got to catch these two great chefs in the same place at the same time.

Weekend Radio – with John’s Jazzfest Crawfish Rotini

NOW HEARD IN THREE GREAT TEXAS CITIES! 

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

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

This week we look at an unexpected Texas phenomenon: the success of chef Tyson Cole and his Uchi and Uchiko Japanese restaurants, first in Austin and now in Houston. Tyson joins us to talk about his personal challenges getting inside this exotic, mostly seafood cuisine – and then convincing a carnivorous state to embrace it. In our Grape & Grain segment, we chat with Spec’s wine buyer Collin Williams about the perfect wines for this crawfish season. (see our recipe below.) 

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

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

This week we look at an unexpected Texas phenomenon: the success of chef Tyson Cole and his Uchi and Uchiko Japanese restaurants, first in Austin and now in Houston. Tyson joins us to talk about his personal challenges getting inside this exotic, mostly seafood cuisine – and then convincing a carnivorous state to embrace it. In our Grape & Grain segment, we chat with Spec’s wine buyer Collin Williams about the perfect wines for this crawfish season. (see our recipe below.) 

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

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

This week we’re “movin’ on up”…  no, not to the East Side next door to The Jeffersons but to the top of the Reunion Tower in Dallas, where Wolfgang Puck has a taste of Asia awaiting us. We chat with the executive chef and general manager of a restaurant whose name says how many feet it is off the ground: Five-Sixty. In our Grape & Grain segment, we chat with Spec’s wine buyer Collin Williams about the perfect wines for this crawfish season. (see our recipe below.) 

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

This Week’s Delicious Mischief Recipe

JAZZFEST CRAWFISH ROTINI  

Whether it’s for the original introduced at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival or just for any version using the bounty of crawfish season, Texans crave this pasta from the far side of the Sabine River. Here’s my version that doesn’t use any trademarked name, so you can enjoy it without inviting your lawyer. Unless you want to, of course.  

1 pound of dry rotini pasta

1 onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

5 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 can Italian-style chopped tomatoes

Creole seasoning

Crushed red pepper

1 stick butter

1 pound of fresh, cooked or frozen Louisiana crawfish tails, undrained

Dry white wine

2 green onions, sliced

2 cups of half and half

Chopped parsley

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Cook pasta to al dente according to package directions. Rinse and drain well. Prepare a base by sautéing the onion, green pepper, celery, carrot and garlic in the olive oil until golden and caramelized. Add the chopped tomatoes, season to taste with Creole seasoning and crushed red pepper, and cook briefly. Puree this mixture in a blender or food processor. In a large pan, melt the butter and sauté the crawfish tails, incorporating any “fat” from the package for flavor.  Deglaze the pan with white wine. When nearly all the wine has evaporated, stir in the green onions followed by the half and half, bringing to a boil. Add the puree. Quickly toss the cooked pasta in the sauce. Garnish with parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty French bread. Serves 6-8. 

Note: Since we interview Collin Williams in this show about wines to pour with crawfish, we sent him the recipe for this dish. Here’s what Collin suggests. 

“Dishes that are higher in spice and cream bases require a wine that have brilliant acidity and a subtle touch of sweetness. For this I would normally turn towards a Riesling or Gewurztraminer. And, with this one I decided to go with the ol’ saying ‘What’s old is new again!’ I have always loved Rieslings from Australia because they seem to always showcase all of the flavors I love in Riesling (green apple, pear) while maintaining brilliant acidity and just a hint of sweetness. I tried this one recently and loved it: 

“Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa Riesling 2010 $12.99 cash100% Riesling from Barossa Valley and Eden Valley on 80-year-old vines. This wine showcases a wonderful assortment green fruit and lemon/lime flavors on the nose with a wonderful array of floral notes. Off dry and medium body on the palate, this wine is a perfect pairing for spicy and creamy foods as the balance of acidity and slight sweetness will harmonize on the palate. Long finish that is complex and mouthwatering and flavorful.”

 

Burger Time: First Down and Five!

“Let the Cholesterol Begin!”

That’s the announcement I heard ringing in my ears yesterday as I embarked upon a journey for Prime Living magazine. My mission, which I chose to accept, was to taste and describe five burgers in Houston that I took to calling “sirloin skyscrapers.” Because the article is for Prime Living’s July/August issue (ah, magazine lead times!), I refuse to ruin my own suspense. But I will say the first of five burgers to be enjoyed and survived was crafted for me by chef Ryan Hildebrand at Triniti.

It’s called the Farm & Sea, and it’s only available at lunch sometimes, since the burger du jour (no, they don’t call it that, though maybe they should) changes almost every day. For sheer extravagance, though, consider a half-pound beef patty not grilled but basted with butter in a saute pan, joining forces beneath gouda cheese on the bun with house-cured bacon and even slices of duck foie gras. That’s the Farm in the title. Representing the Sea, there are thin slices of Japanese nori in lieu of lettuce, plus delightful chunks of lobster.  

As a matter of perspective, I went to downtown’s wonderful Samba Grill for a quite different burger last night, and have another stop on the mission as a late lunch today. To find out where and what, of course, you’ll need to wait for the July/August issue of Prime Living, and I suspect even I’ll get hungry again by then. As for me, I’ll just remember the vision below: Chef Ryan going all out in the middle of a busy lunch at Triniti – just to make me a burger to, I hope, live rather than die for.

‘Eating It Forward’ to Haute Wheels

These two guys with the popular food truck Coreanos – motto: Mexican with Korean in between – are waiting to feed you at the second annual Haute Wheels Festival in Houston, along with 33 others interesting trucks. And if I were you,  I’d buy my tickets now. Last year, too many hungry people showed up, so this year the organizers are fielding more trucks, trimming their menus and selling fewer tickets. And with chefs like Angel and Luis waiting to cook for you, you won’t want to miss out.

One way never to miss lunch or dinner, I’ve learned over the years, is to show up a few weeks early. That’s what I did yesterday in the parking lot of HEB’s Montrose Market. And since HEB is one of the big sponsors of  Haute Wheels, that little placement made all the sense to get this mention, right? Four different truck chefs cooked so we could record a radio show; but the first thing I tasted was The OG from Coreanos (that’s “Koreans” in Spanish, of all things), a super-spicy meat wrap that brings its own French fries inside.

Chef Jerry Jan was also on hand for our Delicious Mischief – which was delicious, by the way, even more  than usual. Though long of RA Sushi, first the location in Highland Village and then the one out at City Centre, Jerry served me a dazzling shrimp taco from his food truck, Kurbside Eatz. For anyone afraid that a sushi veteran had somehow “gone Mexican,” the proof was in the taco. It tasted very Asian, and showed up in a bread more similar to Indian roti than to a typical tortilla.

Representing the “local, seasonal” food movement was chef James Ashley of Bare Bowls. At this “bowl concept,” every dish not only arrives in a (biodegradable, oh-so-sustainable) bowl but represents a clear, if multi-ethnic, presentation of protein-vegetable-starch. Pictured here is the Jamaican jerk chicken  that Bare Bowls will be serving at Haute Wheels. All the vegetables and even the basmati rice underneath are local. Basmati from Beaumont? I mean, who knew?

Also, who knew that HEB would field a food truck of its own – an extremely colorful affair known as Fork in the Road? We were quick to get our forks into several items whipped up by chef Sheryl Johnson, though she insisted everything was finger food anyway. Not surprisingly, this burger used to be billed as “Over the Top,” but I think it’s now called simply “Deluxe.” And considering the egg fried in duck fat and the truffle salt sprinkled on top, I think that’s a totally appropriate name.

What could be better than mac and cheese? Well, according to Sheryl, maybe mac and cheese with green chiles, formed into a ball, coated with Japanese panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried for dipping in a sweet-creamy sauce. Eating light again, I see? I suspect there will be little eating light at Haute Wheels Houston, May 12-13 at the HCC Southwest West Loop Campus. The $16 admission tickets include $5 worth of sampling and drink. If all this sounds like you, buy your tickets now at www.hautewheelshouston.com.