Friday, January 29, 2010

The AT&T Executive Center: The Carillon Tasting Reception

The Carillon at the AT&T Executive

I guess now is the time to reveal to my readers that I'm a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.  The spring semester barely kicked off, and I'm already smack in the thick of overwhelming reading loads and papers.  In fact, only a week passed since the start of school, and I already turned in one paper and received it back graded.  In short, I have to face saying goodbye to food blogging...

Not so fast!  I was ready to put food blogging on hold when I received an invitation to a tasting reception right on campus!  I couldn't make any excuses to back out when the tasting is perched right where I practically live! My graduate advisor looked at me incredulously as he saw me packing up my laptop and readings to get ready for the evening tasting and said, "What?  You're still here?"  My schoolmate, Shu, quickly replied, "See, we're such diligent students!"  Good cover, Shu!  Yes, dilligent students/foodies!  But no need for the prof to know about our alter egos! 

The new AT&T Executive Center offers guest accomadations and conference space on the UT campus.  There are two cafes and the center's signature restaurant, The Carillon.  The tasting at The Carillon was the first time I stepped into the new building.  However, I did not have time to explore the building that evening.  We were solely there to get introduced to The Carillon led by Executive Chef Josh Watkins.  You can check out a couple of YouTube videos of Chef Watkins in action here.

Executive Chef Josh Watkins

Chef Josh Watkins presented five tasting dishes for the reception.

The first dish that I sampled was the crisp pork belly with diablo glaze and Asian pear salad.  I have loved pork belly since my mom cooked me my first Dongpo Rou.  The pork is braised in a pot of soy sauce with sugar until the pork and the fat soak up all the liquid in the pot and become melt-in-your-mouth candied meat chunks.  The chef who created this now famous Chinese dish is my favorite Chinese historical figure, Su Dongpo (I wrote more about Dongpo here).  Pork belly has now become so trendy in the gastronomic world that I no longer get excited about trying various kinds of Asian-inspired pork belly.  The sweetness of the pork is preserved through the various interpretations.  Chef Watkins complements the concentrated dark flavors of the pork with a light and refreshing sweet Asian pear salad.  As much as I will always love the original Dongpo Rou and its now numerous reincarnations, I wish that chefs would develop the courage and the creativity to move away from an Asian-inspired version. 

The braised beef short ribs with apricot glaze, asparagus, celery root puree, and black pepper gastrique was smokey and tender.  My tasting companion noted to Chef Watkins that she particularly liked the sweetness and subtle acidity of the apricot glaze.  It seemed that the short ribs were a favorite among the tasters, including us.

Crisp Pork Belly with diablo glaze and Asian pear salad; Braised Beef Short Ribs with apricot glaze, asparagus, celery root puree, and black pepper gastrique

The white bean soup with smoked scallop and oven dried grapes was delicious in taste, but I found the consistency to be too thick.  I appreciated the strong flavor of the scallops in the soup, not just as a garnish.  I know that the main ingredient is the pureed white bean, but I hate it when a less interesting ingredient masks the flavor of a key ingredient.  I like to be able to taste or at least smell the ingredients I'm eating, otherwise they're superfuous to the dish. 

White Bean Soup with smoked scallop and oven dried grapes

I love dishes served in spoons as it saves me a step in putting food in my mouth.  It's such a direct calling of consumption.  The tuna tartare with Granny Smith apples and punctuated with truffle oil was served in this clever way.  I think it's quite appropriate that I'm born in the year of the boar.  I can smell truffle or truffle oil from a mile away and will find my way to the foodie gem without fail.  I love the waft of the truffle as the spoon passed under my nose, the puff of aroma that the tuna released upon my first chew, and the lingering scent in my mouth ten minutes later. 

The fried eggplant caprese tasted dull and missed the mark.  I could not taste eggplant nor mozzarella, just a mouthful of fried flour. 
Tuna Tartare with Granny Smith apples and truffle oil; Fried Eggplant Caprese

I enjoyed Chef Watkins creations and look forward to trying the lobster risotto and duck ravioli on the dinner menu in the future.  I wish The Carillon best of luck in its first year.  I think the main challenges the restaurant needs to overcome are one, an empty campus at night save for the poor students who are not the target demographic and two, establishing an identity apart from UT and the AT&T Executive Center so that Austinites won't pass up The Carillon when thinking of places to dine.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

La Boîte Cafe

After reading many Austin blogs about the coffee and croissants at La Boîte Cafe, I figured that I shouldn't hold off on my share of "the flakiest croissants in Austin" any longer.  My first impression was that partners Victoria Davies and Dan Bereczki have created a fun twist to an environmentally friendly eatery by reinventing a shipping container's space as a cafe with a clever name.  I had no idea how the food would actually taste.

I arrived too late in the day to get the sold-out almond croissants.  I had to settle with a small café latte and a paper bag of 3 plain croissants.  The latte was deliciously strong.


The croissants were indeed delicious.  But I found these to be more dense than flakey (I bought in the afternoon so maybe the flake factor had decreased by that time).  I'm not a pastry expert, so I don't know what characteristics make a true croissant.  I've had a range of greasy and limp croissants to flakey and light ones from various bakeries.  I haven't had a croissant of La Boîte's density and ungreasiness though.  The the croissant had a springy texture as I chewed.  I enjoyed these and will come back earlier in the day on my next visit to try the almond croissants.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tarka Indian Kitchen

After returning from China, I was shocked by how quickly Austin is changing-the construction of more high rises in downtown, new construction east of I-35, new communities of family houses popping up in south Austin along with new strip malls.  I'm all for the strip mall with an Indian restaurant close to home in south Austin!  Tarka Indian Kitchen received either really positive or utterly dismal reviews on Yelp.

I wanted to try this place out and judge for myself, and I finally got the chance when my best friend from high school and I chose this restaurant to celebrate living in the same city again after 8 years of separation.  Hooray for Austin's relatively healthy job market!

Tarka certainly isn't short on dishes that I'm interested in trying.  I decided to stick to the chicken tikka masala on my first visit so I can compare it to ones I've tasted before.  You have a choice of mild, medium, or hot, and I picked hot because people have commented on how the medium isn't the slightest bit spicy.  Well, I got what I asked for.  The tikka masala was tongue-burningly spicy.  For fast food Indian food, I find Tarka's chicken tikka masala well-made and seasoned.  However, the price isn't fast food cheap and is actually comparable to a sit-down Indian restaurant.  In that sense, it may be worth it to drive further north to lunch at Tarka's older sister sit-down restaurant, Clay Pit.

My friend enjoyed her vegetarian dish, but the highlight of our meal was the delicious, refillable mango lemonade.  It's more mango than lemonade, which is exactly what I hoped it to be!

Mango Lemonade

Minced Vegetable Kabob

Chicken Tikka Masala-Hot

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Delicacies from Various Traiteurs in Paris

Although it is uncommon to order food to-go at restaurants in Europe, there are plenty of of traiteurs in Paris to cater to your take-out needs.  In 2006, I indulged in trying different traiteur delicacies in my neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement and ate like a queen in the comforts of my broom-closet-sized apartment.

My wonderfully functional broom-closet studio:
(from left to right) View of my bathroom door, kitchen, and "dining/study room" from my bed

There were a plethora of Chinese traiteurs all over Paris, mostly run by Chinese immigrants from Wenzhou.  Unlike Panda Express in the U.S., these Chinese fast-food joints display cold prepared dishes and price by weight.  Then you can opt to have them heat your box of food in the microwave.  It doesn't sound appetizing, but I admit that I've visited these traiteurs a few times when I'm too lazy to transfer 3 times on the metro to go to Chinatown.  Many of these Chinese traiteurs offer Vietnamese fare, like rice noodles topped with beef balls and Vietnamese egg rolls.  My favorite item from any Chinese traiteur is the brochette de poulet.  Though, far from Taiwanese, it's super tasty and brings back memories of street food in Taiwan in the middle of Paris.  An interesting thing I observed in Paris is that you will be hard-pressed to find Taiwan-imported food products.  I couldn't find any Taiwanese soy sauce and other condiments, which I'm used to getting in the states, and thus I bought my first bottle of China-made soy sauce in Paris.  I apologize for going on about Chinese traiteurs without actually having photos to share!  Reember, I was in Paris before I cared about writing about food.

But I did take pictures of some other prepared foods from French traiteurs.  I first noticed prepared foods at my local fish monger's.  I wanted to get some pieces of cod, and I kept eyeing at the beautiful stained-glass looking seafood terrines against the wall and vowed to buy one everytime I came to the market on rue Cler (Here's also another list of stores on rue Cler).  A slice of seafood terrine with a piece of fresh bread and a small plate of salad make a delicious lunch.

Seafood Terrines

The most beautiful of these seafood delights was the salmon tower I got from the same fish monger on rue Cler.

(bottom up) Salmon tartare, sour cream and dill gelee, leeks, sour cream and dill, slice of smoked salmon, and topped with ground cherry, raspberry, and strawberry

I also love buying peel and eat shrimp while at the poissonerie for lunch.

Peel & Eat Shrimp

Just a few stores down from that fish monger, which I believe is La Sablaise Poissonerie, is Davoli-la Maison du Jambon, a popular Italian traiteur specializing in all sorts of dried and cured meats.  They also have an assortment of head cheeses.  I once got a trio to try out and liked them well enough to want to try and make some sometime this year.  Davoli is packed around lunch time and the late afternoons.  It's exciting having to make decisions quickly from an abundance of delicacies with a crowd waiting hungrily behind you, but I always end up leaving thinking "shucks, I should've also gotten this and that."

Davoli-Masion du Jambon sausages; Trio of head cheese

Like with many places where I've previously lived, I always end up regretting not visiting more places and trying more things.  Here are a few more photos of prepared foods I ate, and yes, I definitely wish I were wise enough to have explored more traiteurs.  When my mom came to visit me, I planned on buying some amazing traiteur foods for a picnic on the Champ de Mars (just a couple blocks away from my place), but alas that never happened because I was "too busy."  Next time, to hell with what I think I need to do;  I'm going to stop and smell the roses!  Mom and I did manage to have an impromptu picnic at the end of the Mouffetard market in the 5th arrondissement munching on crab meat potato salad and terrines and drinking from a bottle of rose flavored sparkling water while sitting on the curb of a pedestrian street.  Yeah, not very refined of us, but we were hungry, we couldn't resist the crab salad that would surely spoil by the time we arrive back to the 7th arrondissement, other people were sitting on the curb listening to a band play in the streets, and it was a gorgeous spring day in Paris.

Potato Salad with Crab Meat; Terrines

Zucchini and Shrimp Terrine from Le Notre

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs from Scratch

I've never made spaghetti sauce from scratch, and I thought that now is the perfect time to take on this time-consuming task.  My friend, Tammy, is of Italian descent, and she kindly gave me Lynn's, her mother's, spaghetti sauce and meatballs recipe.  I saw that the recipe called for canned crushed tomatoes, and I really wanted to use fresh tomatoes.  After searching all over the web with most recipes calling for canned tomatoes, I became worried that I fresh tomatoes would be out of the question.  I found out that you can use fresh tomatoes afterall, but it means more work.  I also researched other ingredients that can make my sauce stand out.  I came across a wonderful article by Kim Severson of The New York Times about a personal journey in tracing the roots of her family's spaghetti sauce. 

I immediately took a liking to her family's recipe because of the addition of a pound pork spareribs and chuck roast.  That's bound to be an exciting spaghetti sauce!  The Zappa family served these meats, including meatballs, piled high on the spaghetti. 

I decided to combine Lynn's and the Kappa family's recipes and use a variety of fresh tomatoes to develop my own homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs.

Fresh Tomatoes and Pork Ribs Spaghetti Sauce

1 rack of baby back pork ribs
3.4 lbs roma tomatoes
1.3 lbs orange cluster tomatoes
2 lbs vine ripened tomatoes
1 box of sliced button mushrooms (steamed to get rid of excess liquid)
2 (6 oz) cans of tomato paste
2 dried bay leaf
1 1/2 chopped onions
3 roasted bell peppers

The Following Can Be As Much As You Want

garlic (minced)
fresh basil (thinly sliced)
ground oregano
red pepper flakes
fresh parsley (minced)
olive oil
red wine

Dry Ingredients: Salt, Sugar, Red Wine, Tomato Paste, Olive Oil, Ground Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Red Pepper Flakes

Sauce Ingredients: Browned Pork Ribs, Seeded-Skined-and Chopped Tomatoes, Basil, Onions, Steamed Mushrooms, Garlic, Roasted Bell Peppers

If you want to use fresh tomatoes, be prepared to skin and squeeze a whole lot of them. 

Roma, Vine Ripened, and Orange Cluster Tomatoes (around 6.7 lbs!)

First, quickly bathe the tomatoes (5 at a time for 5-10 seconds) in boiling water, then immediately put them in ice water to remove the skin.

Tomatoes in Boiling Water; Skinned Tomatoes

After you have skinned all the tomatoes, cut the tomatoes in quarters and squeeze the water and juice out.  Then, roughly chop the tomatoes.

Squeezing the Tomatoes; Chopped Tomatoes
The entire sauce-cooking process involves one pot, so make sure you get a large enough pot.  The first thing you do in this pot is brown the pork ribs.  Heat the pot with some olive oil and lightly seasoned the ribs with salt before placing them in the pot to brown.  Turn the ribs so they brown evenly and don't stick to the pot.  After the ribs have brownd, take them out and pour out the fat from the pot.  The ribs should not be fully cooked.

Browning Baby Back Ribs

Heat the pan with olive oil again, and toss the onions and garlic into the pot.  Once the onion is half tender, Arrange the ribs in the onion and garlic so that the ribs are touching the bottom of the pan.  Pour in the red wine and let simmer for 5 minutes.  Then top the ribs and onions with the steamed mushrooms, roasted bell peppers, and tomatoes.  Mix the ingredients together and let the stuff set for 5 minutes. Then mix in 2 cans of tomato paste.  Season the pot with some of the salt, sugar, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and red pepper flakes.  Be careful not to over season the sauce.  It's safer to go light and season as you go.  Let the sauce sit for 10 minutes, then add half of fresh basil and parsley.  Allow the sauce to simmer on low heat for about an hour.

Ribs and onions simmering in red wine; Adding mushrooms and roasted bell peppers

Mixing the fresh ingredients together; Adding basil

In the meantime, prep the meatballs!


2 lbs extra lean ground beef
1 lb lean ground pork
2 cups mixture of Italian bread crumbs and regular bread crumbs (I didn't have enough of Italian bread crumbs)
4 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 tbls olive oil
garlic (minced)
1/2 onion (finely chopped)
1/2 cup raisins

Meatball Ingredients

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl by hand except the raisins.  Put the bowl in the fridge for 30 minutes then add the raisins and roll the mixture into balls.  Brown the meatballs in olive oil on medium heat.  Don't overcrowd the pan.  Brown the meatballs evenly but don't cook it completely.  Drain the browned meatballs on paper towels.

Mixing the meatball ingredients; Rolled meatballs ready for the pan

Browning the meatballs; Browned meatballs

Once all the meatballs are browned, extract all the pork ribs from the tomato sauce if you don't want to serve the ribs with the spaghetti, and gently put the meatballs in the pot of simmering tomato sauce and simmer for at least another hour.  Taste test the sauce every now and then for seasoning.  Then serve sauce and meatballs on spaghetti.

Meatballs on tomato sauce before being pushed to the bottom of the pot

Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Spaghetti and Meatballs

I was pretty happy with my homemade sauce and meatballs, but I think I under-seasoned everything.