Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck in the UK is on a relentless quest to present diners with opportunities to “play” with their food. His creativity, along with Wylie Dufresne from wd-50 in Chicago and Ferran Adria from El Bulli in Spain, propelled molecular gastronomy into the global spotlight. Even though the trend is waning in these economically tough times to upscale comfort food, all three are a constant beacon to further my creativity.
Had a very long and intense weekend with the bloggers workshop on Saturday and Bacon Takedown on Sunday. Although I did not win the Takedown, I had a great time, especially with the Bacon Bloody Mary’s (thank you Lucky 13 Mixology!! ).
As promised, here is the recipe for my Bacon Pecan Toffee with Candied Bacon. Candy can be very temperamental and I prefer especially with these recipes to use a scale for more accurate results. An accurate candy thermometer is not necessary but highly recommended.
2 lb Fresh Salted Butter
2.4 lb Granulated Cane Sugar
0.4 lb Baker’s Special sugar **see note for substitution**
4 oz chopped candied bacon*** see recipe below***
12 oz cooked and crumbled bacon****see note below****
1 lb Whole pecans, lightly toasted
0.8 oz Salt
0.3 oz Lecithin*see note below*
6.4 oz Warm water
12 oz Ghirardelli 60% dark chocolate chips (can use milk, dark, whatever you like but these are my go to chocolate chips)
12 oz butterscotch chips
Place butter in a heavy pan. Bring to boiling point and add the warm water. Again bring to the boiling point and stir in the granulated cane sugar. Wash down sides with water and a pastry brush. Bring to a good stiff boil and add the lecithin. (*The lecithin is optional but helps ensure butter and sugar do not separate during cooking process.* ) Cook to 250°F. Add the roasted pecans. Cook to 280° -290°F and then lower the temperature on the stove. Cook to 300°-306°F. Take the pan off the stove and add the salt, crumbled bacon (not the candied bacon, that goes on top) and Baker’s special sugar(** I used equal weight of regular sugar and pulsed it in the spice grinder 7-8 times. The purpose is to seed the sugar in the candy to produce a fine grain to your toffee, so you want the consistency to be somewhere between granulated and powdered sugar.**) Mix well and pour onto a buttered cooling slab or cookie sheet lined with parchment paper that has brushed with butter or if you are feeling really naughty, use the bacon fat left from cooking off bacon. Quickly spread batch. Top warm toffee with a sprinkling of both chocolate chips and butterscotch chips. When chocolate is melted, use a skewer to draw a marbled pattern with the butterscotch. Top with crumbled candied bacon. Store in refrigerator for at least a couple of days but preferably for a week for toffee to achieve maximum grain and butter flavor. The easiest way to break up the toffee is to turn it toffee (as opposed to chocolate) side up, cover with a lint free cloth, and hit with a hammer. Store it in the refrigerator or freezer.
*** Candied Bacon-
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lay out the strips of bacon flat and not overlapping. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar over the bacon. Place in oven and then turn oven on to 325 degrees F. You want the bacon to cook low and slow to render out as much of the fat as possible. Cook for 15-20 minutes, to your desired doneness.
****I used candied bacon in the toffee for the first batch but found it to be grainy and chewy. I much prefer to use the candied bacon on top and regular bacon inside the toffee. You can cook off large batches on sheet trays similar to the candied bacon method but without the brown sugar and do not cook on the same tray. The candied bacon is much more sensitive to burning.
Wow. I am struggling to learn the art of making people salivate with words and the only one I can find to describe my dinner last night at The Carillion for Austin Restaurant Week is, “Wow.”
Josh Watkins is a kitchen dynamo that I have been following since he was the chef de cuisine at the Driskill under David Bull and later executive chef. I have had the good fortune to work both front of the house and back of the house with Chef Watkins on a couple of occasions and I find his fire and creativity inspiring.
I was on day 3 of my Austin Restaurant Week adventure which I kicked off with the raucous Bad to the Bone Smackdown at Stubbs. The events are not affiliated but their timing coincided to hurtle me into a foodie fest that feels like the upcoming SXSW must feel to the hordes of music fans about to descend on Austin.
The menu at The Carillion for Restaurant Week at $35 looked like a great bargain but turns out it is pretty close in price to the regular menu with a 3 course tasting for $38 and a 6 course tasting for $60. They also offer wine pairings for $12 and $22 respectively, which the friendly and accommodating staff even adjusted to our tastes. I was excited to further discover that Tuesday was also the kickoff of their new happy hour menu as well. Besides the lack of parking in the area that make the expensive parking garage a necessity, my innate love of both gourmet delights and bargain prices had me all tingly with anticipa————tion.
We started off with the pork belly with Diablo glaze, Asian pear salad, and fried mint as well as the lobster risotto with cremini mushrooms, sorrel, and lemon oil. The pork belly was crispy on the outside and meltingly fatty tender inside, with the perfect matchsticks of Asian pear giving a fresh crunch of sweetness. The lobster was poached just past raw to a sweet and tender perfection and nestled in a creamy risotto.
The coffee rubbed dry aged New York strip with roasted parsnips, candied garlic, and mesquite syrup was an interesting blend of sweet and savory. My dining companion was fascinated by the candied garlic which was a pungent raw garlic spice blend captured in an amber sheet of caramel used to garnish the medium rare steak. The braised beef short ribs were served atop a pool of celery root puree with fat asparagus tips and a black pepper gastrique. Every component was designed to highlight and enhance the dish as a whole. This attention to detail is what propels this meal to an occasion.
For dessert we chose the goat cheese cheesecake with huckleberry compote and salted caramel and the guanaja chocolate terrine with crystalized cilantro, burnt orange reduction and corriander cream. The cheesecake was light and creamy with a buttery, crunchy graham cracker crust. The slightly sweet huckleberries with the salted caramel made for a flavor symphony. The chocolate terrine is deceptively small but delightfully rich slice of truffle heaven, paired with an almost honey like orange reduction and topped with a tiny dollop of corriander spiked cream, I found myself slippng into a sleepy chocolate coma.
Our server was enthusiastic and charming. When she was unsure of a wine pairing we were not happy with, the manager was quick to step in with a wonderful substitute that speaks both to the customer service of the restaurant as well as the exceptional wine list. I see many visits to The Carillion in my future. I hope to see you there.
On Sunday March 14 at Emo’s Austin will get piggy with it at the Bacon Takedown. I love all things pork but bacon holds an especially high place both in my heart and in my cholesterol level. Bacon and cured things in general have been very popular recently, showing up in savory as well as sweet dishes. Since I am a pastry chef, I must go with the sweet side of things and plan to enter with my Bacon Toffee. I will post the recipe as soon as the contest is over. Please come out and vote for me. And try not to o.d. on the bacon.
Bad to the Bone was exactly that! On Saturday night at Stubbs, instead of the usually stellar rock stars on stage, chefs took over the place for the evening for an Iron Chef style competition benefiting the Sustainable Food Center. Each of the chefs got to choose a mystery ingredient which they all had to incorporate into their dish. The mystery ingredients were tangerine, goats milk, and achiote, a traditionally Latin spice also known as annatto that has a sweet and slightly peppery taste.
I was thrilled to be able to attend because I am fans of all three of the competitors and consider them some of the top chefs in Texas. Each has worked in the Austin area but only Shawn Cirkiel currently has a local restaurant, parkside, in the heart of downtown on 6th. Recently named one of the Hot ten New American taverns by Bon Appetit magazine, parkside does upscale casual in a uniquely Austin way. Shawn brought the gold home to Austin and captured the winning votes from both the crowd and the judges with a creamy and tangy goat milk sorbet served alongside an achiote and tangerine fritter which closely resembled the famous donut holes served at the restaurant.
David Bull, following an announcement the day before that he plans to return to Austin in the fall with two new restaurants at the Austonian, did an achiote glazed salmon with smoked bacon grits, goat cheese crema, and tangerine spinach salad. Salmon is tough to keep at the right temperature without drying it out like you must do for a large crowd. I did like the flavors and remember fondly a fabulous dinner at the Driskill that will have me as one of the first in line when he fires up the grill in Austin again.
Paul Petersen had a restaurant in Buda called Little Texas Bistro that was the subject of rave reviews. I put off driving all the way out there for dinner and missed my opportunity to say I knew Paul then. He packed off to win even greater praise and national attention as the executive chef at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, TX. I finally had the opportunity to sample Paul’s cooking at one of his classes at Central Market. His rock star style of teaching and cooking was as entertaining as his food was fresh and exciting. The class was filled with rabid fans from Little Texas and I could see why. At the Smackdown, Paul served annatto crusted pork loin with goat’s milk corn pudding and achiote seared tangerine. The pork loin was tender and delicious but my favorite dish of the night was the fabulously creamy corn pudding. The savory and warm dish resembled a loose polenta which pooled on the plate beneath the juicy pork loin. Last time I saw Paul there were rumors of a new restaurant in the Austin area but he is currently at Rick’s Chophouse in McKinney. Please come back, Paul. We miss you!
I read a great article today about the history of restaurant reviews and how they have evolved from a journalistic strive for accuracy and integrity to the freestyle world of blogs and yelpers available today. Since starting this blog a couple of months ago, I have published a few restaurant reviews and believe it might be helpful to my readers to state my approach to restaurant reviews as well as my perspective and standards.
Three of the main standards of traditional restaurant reviews are anonymity including paying for meals, repeat visits covering the full spectrum of the menu, and giving a new restaurant a couple of months after opening to work on kinks in the system before reviewing. With the explosion of food blogs as well as websites like Yelp and Chowhounds, reviews are just as likely now to be posted on the web by smart phones before the check has come. This blog is my opinion, like any review, traditional or otherwise. My purpose in reviewing restaurants here is to share my views in a manner that is as fair and unbiased as possible while still taking advantage of the wonderful world of technology available to us now.
My story as a foodie began with a mother, Vera, that worked full time as a teacher of both preschool kids and piano as well as the pianist for our church. Her mother was an excellent cook but my mom had a pretty full schedule with work and three children including my oldest brother Charles who has special needs. Our family meals consisted of lots of Hamburger Helper and casseroles involving Campbells soup. I admit to occasional indulgences of pork chops baked on a bed of rice and mushroom soup which I affectionately refer to as Redneck Risotto when I am craving the comfort food of my childhood. But I also remember thinking one of the steps to making toast was scraping off the black bits with the back of a spoon.
My grandmother, Thelma but known to her grandkids as MeeMaw, in contrast was a much more passionate cook. I remember fondly waking up to the smell of bacon and coffee when we visited. There was usually bacon AND sausage for breakfast as well as homemade biscuits, eggs, toast, cereal- hot and cold, milk, juice, and gravy to pour over it all. OK, maybe not the cereal but definitely over the biscuits. I consider my mastery of the art of gravy taught to me by my grandmother as one of my first culinary stepping stones.
My passion is pastry. Christmas in Graham, TX at Meemaw’s house was a grand affair with all the usual turkey and cornbread stuffing. But what I loved most was the wide assortment of pies, cakes, cookies, and candies that she had spent days lovingly creating for her family. I refined my love of desserts in the mid 1990’s with my bff Ethan and his Tuesday night dinner parties, as described in my “About” post. The short version is that I spent almost two years providing the dessert course to my friend’s hedonistic shindigs serving anywhere from 4 to 40. I am proud to say that I never repeated a dessert. The challenge to my creativity along with the gratification of hearing my friends make erotic noises while eating my Almond Truffle Squares and Toffee Banana Spring Rolls with Mango Chutney inspired me to attend the Le Cordon Bleu school here in Austin, which I graduated from summa cum laude in 2006.
I worked as pastry chef at several local restaurants but my most diverse and exciting experience has been as a volunteer at the Central Market Cooking School. I promise to do a full post on this subject but suffice it to say it has allowed me to work with such culinary luminaries as Martin Yan, Damian Mandola, Nick Malgieri, and David Lebovitz as well as develop new skills under the guidance of the STELLAR staff of the school. I have also met and worked with a number of local chefs. This leads me to my first controversy with traditional reviews.
I cannot promise nor do I seek complete anonymity. My relationship with chefs as well as others involved in the Austin food scene reinforce my experience and understanding of the pulse of the constantly evolving world of the foodies. But I also do not want to be some media whore that reviews for comps or criticizes without a fair and balanced review.
Like most people, I eat my share of fast food and consider a fine meal at an upscale restaurant to be a treat. I look for other opinions about an expensive restaurant before I make an investment of my time and limited restaurant budget, so the purpose of my reviews is to share my experience with other foodies who, like myself, love nothing better than discovering a new favorite chef. But I also love small mom and pop places, Austin’s wide variety of ethnic restaurants, as well as the bursting trailer food scene. I prefer locally owned restaurants that use locally sourced ingredients but I also will let you know about great specials at some chains.
There is no food budget to allow a full tasting of a menu shared with several other diners all paid for by an expense account. I pay for my own meals and try to do so as economically as possible. Happy hours, dinners with fellow foodies, and volunteering at festivals such as La Dolce Vita and the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival are a huge part of my experience with many local restaurants.
Making a living working in a restaurant is an entirely different experience to dining in one. You understand the chaos of opening weeks, integrating new staff, and compensating for the volatility of a profession that demands both creativity and viciously stringent work ethics. I find the world behind the kitchen doors equally if not more fascinating than the dining itself. Viewing a restaurant from only one side of the doors does a disservice to both the restaurant and the reader. If I have the opportunity to share this insider view, I will.
If a restaurant is reviewed within the first few weeks, it is only fair to follow up after the three month mark. If food is comped, I’ll tell you. If I know a chef which might influence the level of service I receive, I’ll make that clear. If I do not like a restaurant, I will return for a separate visit before I publish anything negative. I will strive to bring you the opinion of an experienced but economically limited palate that seeks the new and exciting. Whether you agree or disagree, I promise a stimulating culinary journey.
Looks like tomatoes on top of a mini nacho but that is watermelon. Slow cooked pork on top of goat cheese with pepitas and a spicy piquant watermelon sauce was Gariddo’s little bite at Taste of Austin last night. It was crunchy and creamy with a touch of heat and the slightly sweet notes from the watermelon. I was all set to name this the best bite of the night. http://www.garridosaustin.com/menu/
And then I tried this. Green chile mac from Moonshine. Grilled chicken, corn relish, and a green chile cream. Warm, spicy, creamy comfort in a cup with a sweet crunch of corn. I loved them both and declare a tie. http://www.moonshinegrill.com/menus.php
I had a great time at Taste of Austin last night at the Palmer Events Center last night. Around 50 restaurants participated in this scholarship fundraiser. It is a fun way to try both new restaurants and old favorites in one location as well as socializing with your fellow foodies.
I have been debating since last night if I should also post the worst bites at the event. There was a crunchy risotto, bland bangers and mash, and a cold, mushy stuffed mushroom from a place that was advertising their catering services. Serving from a small booth at a tasting event is a far different animal than serving from your own kitchen so I am inclined to cut some slack to those that showed poorly but if you are there to plug your catering services, you need to figure out how to serve a hot hors douvres. I have decided to hold my tongue for now. A restaurant deserves a fair review over several visits, especially if you are going to publish something negative. But please, veal osso bucco should not taste like it has barbecue sauce on it. You know who you are.
Back to the good! One of my favorite cookie places in town is Kevin’s Cookies. http://www.kevinscookies.com/ Trey and his adorable wife Jen run this little operation. They now only have a location south, so I don’t make it over there much but Trey sends out a great newsletter that makes me feel like part of the family. Last night they had half a dozen different varieties of their delicious cookies. Crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle, and full of chips, nuts, etc. My favorite last night was probably the white chocolate chip. And I hate white “chocolate”. I believe the darker the chocolate, the better. But these gems were delicious.
Spec’s had a booth and I <3 Spec’s! http://www.specsonline.com/ Very knowledgeable wine staff, great prices on wine and liquor, and a decent assortment of gourmet goodies. Some of the stores have a bigger selection than others. I frequent the one at Arbor Walk which also has a deli case but I hadn’t gotten around to trying it yet. I am pretty picky about my sandwiches, so when I got the sample from them, I thought, “Turkey on white, just another sandwich.” But it was really good. Fresh bread with very flavorful turkey. If they do that well on a little sample for the masses, I will be trying them in store soon.
I recently had Craigo’s pizza for the first time and was impressed. http://www.craigospizzaandpasta.com/ Last night they were serving pasta. There was an ok lasagna that had a little too much fennel for my tastes but they also had a spinach ziti that I believe was vegetarian and it was yummy.
One of the most exotic offerings came from Frank, the “purveyor of artisan sausage” at Fourth and Colorado. http://www.hotdogscoldbeer.com/ That is tony talk for $7 hot dog. Last night they were offering the Jackelope- antelope and rabbit sausage with a huckleberry compote, siracha aioli, and applewood smoked cheese. Good, different, innovative- yes. Worth $7 a hot dog? Not so sure but I was intrigued enough to want to at least check out the happy hour sometime soon.
There was a classmate of mine from culinary school passing out little bundt cakes from franchise outfit Nothing Bundt Cakes. http://www.nothingbundtcakes.com/index.php For something ever so slightly different from a cupcake, these cute little cakes were moist and rich with a bit of cream cheesy icing.
There were a few places I did not get to try because the lines were way too long. I tasted the sushi from Piranha Killer Sushi at La Dolce Vita this year and really liked it but the line only got longer last night as the evening wore on. What is really frustrating is when you see a full tray of food at the head of the line and people obliviously standing there and grazing like there aren’t 50 people behind them in line. Move it, people!!!!!
Taste of Austin is usually my first big foodie event of the year. It signals the beginning of my favorite time in Austin, spring means festival season! Before you know it, Austin Restaurant Week http://restaurantweekaustin.com/ will be here. Then my personal favorite, Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Fest! http://www.texaswineandfood.org/ You can buy discounted tickets for the Sunday Fair now for $25 (reg $45) through this link. http://twff.frontgatesolutions.com/choose.php?b=1&lid=39935&eid=46543 Price good only till February 1.
I am a champion for all things local for many reasons. I believe it is better for the environment, tastes better, and helps the local economy. I try to shop local, drink local, and eat local. But I do have a guilty secret. I LOVE the Zuppa Toscana from Olive Garden.
There are many better Italian restaurants in Austin (Vespaio, Mandola’s, etc.) but no place serves this particular soup. Probably because it is more traditionally a Portuguese soup than Tuscan. Olive Garden is about as “authentic” as Taco Bell but in this cold weather, nothing satisfies like a big bowl full of potatoes, sausage, and kale.
I am pleased to report that I no longer have to stoop to wearing a disguise because I am too embarrassed to dine at Olive Garden to get my Zuppa Toscana fix. I adapted this from various sources of copycat recipes. I wanted to print my own version so all the friends I have made this for can make it themselves as well as trying to liberate others from the tyranny of below average ethnic foods being served up by corporate chains.
¡Viva la Revolución!
- 3-4 slices pancetta (bacon is an acceptable substitute, canned bacon bits ARE NOT)
- 1 pound Italian sausage- I find that the HEB store brand of mild sausage matches EXACTLY the taste of the Olive Garden but you are welcome to use hot or whatever brand you prefer. It does need to be Italian sausage, though, as the fennel plays an important part in the final product.
- 1 large shallot, finely diced- many of the copycat recipes call for onion or some garlic. This is an ok substitute but the shallot flavor is also essential if you are trying to match the flavors exactly.
- 2-3 pounds of small white potatoes- actually any potato you have on hand will work here but it sure is easier slicing the small ones into disks, skin on.
- 3 cans chicken broth- yes, you are a kitchen god/goddess if you make your own weekly from locally sourced chickens but the canned stuff works fine
- 3 cups water
- 1 bunch Kale- remove the large stem in the middle, clean leaves thoroughly, roll into a tight cigar-like bundle and slice about 1/8 of an inch wide strips- Swiss chard is also an acceptable substitute.
- 1/2 cup milk- you can use cream, half and half, even skim- the higher the fat, the better it tastes but I use 2% milk and it saves a ton of calories.
- 1/2 pound parmesano reggiano- what you really want is the rind off the cheese to flavor the soup and shaved bits of cheese to garnish. This is way more cheese than you will need for the soup but chef deserves a treat, so keep some back for “quality control”. And no, the crap in a green shaker container or anything similar is NOT acceptable.
- salt and pepper to taste
Remove sausage from casing. Lots of the recipes I saw called for the sausage to be cooked in the oven or cooked in its casings and then removed. WRONG. You want the bits left in the pan after browning the meat. That is where the flavor comes from. You also want to use a non stick skillet and cook the meat in a single layer that does not crowd the pan. If you overcrowd the pan, you will see all the liquid come out of the meat which will then steam the sausage instead of browning it. Another common mistake is to stir the contents of the pan too often. Let it cook till it browns.
The toasting or browning of foods that exponentially adds to the flavor is known as the Maillard reaction. The little bits of brown goodness that stick to the bottom of the pan is called the fond. Both of these are very, very good things. Now that we know a couple of new terms, back to the soup.
Brown the sausage without the casings. Remove from pan and set aside. Brown pancetta in the same pan. Remove and set aside. Pour off any excess grease. Add shallots to the pan and saute until translucent. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken stock. As you add the liquid, the fond (dark and lovely sticky bits on the bottom of the pan) should loosen as you stir and become part of the cooking liquid. This is called deglazing the pan. Ain’t we fancy! Add the remaining broth, water, and rind from the parmesan. Bring to a boil and add the potatoes. Cook until potatoes are tender. Add browned sausage, pancetta, kale, and milk. Bring back to simmer to heat thoroughly. Serve with a healthy dose of parmesan.
My boss asked me the other day to send him a list of local farmers market. Even the Republicans are going local! OK, granted, this is Austin, notorious for its liberal leanings, so maybe the Hippies have gotten to him. But hopefully it is because even more mainstream consumers are seeing that the local movement makes sense.
John said he was looking for a good source for grass fed beef. He said he preferred the taste and was willing to spend a little bit more and eat less meat if it meant he could get better quality. With his family of four, he said he might not be able to afford to eat that way all the time but he was willing to dedicate part of his food budget to local meat and veggies if he could find them without a huge hassle.
Austin has a ton of options to shop local. The premier foodie shopping happens at the Austin Farmers Market which has recently moved to 4th and Guadalupe at Republic Square Park on Saturdays from 9AM to 1PM and at the Triangle at 46th and Lamar from 3PM to 7PM. Here is a link to the rest of the markets in the area. http://www.austinfarmersmarket.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=49&Itemid=65&lang=en
Another options is to buy a share in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). One of the farms in Austin that offers this is Rain Lily Farms through Farmhouse Delivery http://www.farmhousedelivery.com/order.html. For $35 per week or $37 for a biweekly delivery plus a one time $20 set up fee you get a bushel of farm fresh produce either delivered or you can pick it up. The bushel contains 7-10 items that are the best of the harvest that week. You do not get to pick the items in the bushel but through Farmhouse you can choose additional products to add to your order like Loncito’s grass fed lamb or Richardson’s Farms ribeye steaks.
Even a biweekly delivery is a little more produce than I can use as a single householder, so I opt for Greenling Organic Delivery service http://www.greenling.com/. No weekly commitment and you can order whatever you need for the week. Delivered to your door! You can not get any easier than that.
So come on, Austin. There is no excuse not to at least explore your local options. If for no other reason than taste, you cannot beat seasonally harvested fresh produce. As a baker, I can tell you that the difference between farm fresh eggs and the ones you buy at the grocery store are miles apart in quality. And as for grassfed meat, try a perfectly seared sirloin from Betsy Ross’ and tell me if you wouldn’t give up a trip to Starbucks once a week to have that on a regular basis. Local does not have to be painful.
Martha likes the sticky-icky-icky. It is so obvious and pandering but absolutely hysterical.