Monday, August 9, 2010

Zoot Tasting Menu: Our 1 year anniversary!

Hey Readers! Hope this posting finds you well. I have some happy news to report, Han and I recently celebrated our 1 year anniversary, and as a present to ourselves, we purchased a Canon EOS Rebel T1i. It takes beautiful food photography shots (a.k.a. food porn) and best of all, we get to feel like real food bloggers, not just the only ones walking around events with our dinky point-and-shoot.

Anyways, we decided to break out the new camera with a trip out to Zoot at their new(-
ish) location way out west on Bee Caves near the lake. We caught a Living Social deal a few months back. $27 gets you your choice of the Chef's Tasting Menu or the Farmer's (vegetarian) Tasting Menu. We opted to go for one of each so that we could try a little bit of everything. Let me tell you guys, as good as the Chef's Tasting Menu was, I think any ferocious meat eater would also be hard pressed to say that the Farmer's Menu didn't also stand up pound-for-pound.

The first course was a Boudin sausage salad for the Chef's and Melon Salad with goat cheese for the Farmer's. The sausage salad was pretty good as you'd imagine, but the melon salad was definitely the more interesting dish. The cantaloupe was sliced thin like fat linguine noodles, and topped with cubes of watermelon, almonds, goat cheese, cayenne pepper, and a soy ginger dressing.

The next appetizer was a ham and fig salad for the chef's menu, and butternut squash soup for the farmer's menu. One of my favorite parts about going to nice r
estaurants is discovering really great food pairings that I never would have guessed. In this case, in the salad, it was figs and goat cheese. You've probably heard me say before that Han hates anything coming from an animal that goes "baa" but even she liked this one.

The next course was a soy/miso salmon and a mushroom risotto (left). Both dishes were
excellent. Consequently, these two dishes were not only our two favorites, but also the two that turned out the best in pictures, so they are the ones shown.

The final courses (before dessert) was a grilled NY strip steak for the chef's and these curried lentils and fried potato things for the farmer's. Now I meant what I said earlier about the veggie tasting menu being a close call even for meat eaters, and this was no different. For many meat eaters, steak is like the holy grail. I haven't been eating a ton of meat as of late, but I really thought this battle would be no contest. In the end, it really was tough to decided. I really think one of the best parts of being in a relationship (especially with someone else who loves food as much as I do) is that you don't HAVE to decide between two dishes.

The final course was the flourless chocolate cake. I'm not a big wine guy myself. I enjoy drinking it, but it's hard for me in most cases to say that a specific pairing really made that much of a difference in a dish. In this case however, the dessert wine that was paired with the cake made a huge difference. The tartness and bubbliness of the sparkling dessert wine made the cake taste like an entirely different dessert.

Well I don't think anyone really needed me to say something like "Zoot is indeed a great restaurant and you should definitely check it out." I'm just really glad we got the opportunity to celebrate in style. Til next time folks!

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Well we are back ladies and gentlemen, and just in time for one of the most anticipated Austin restaurant openings in recent history. Uchi chef Tyson Cole has opened up a second location, called Uchiko, at 42nd and Lamar (right next to the new TacoDeli location... could this be the most delicious corner in all of Austin??)

We had the chance to attend the pre-opening and sample some of the goods at half off. The overall concept of Uchiko is almost exactly the same as the original, just a completely different menu. So needless to say, as big fans of the original Uchi, we were very excited. When it came time to finally order, we really had no idea which way to go, so we decided to push all our chips to the center and order omakase. (Omakase is a Japanese sushi tradition, that translates to "It's up to you," and basically you are challenging the chef to give you his or her best stuff.)

I can definitely say that the two best decisions I have ever made in my life are: #1 Marrying Han, and #2 Ordering Omakase at Uchiko. All in all, we ate fourteen dishes, including two desserts. We will highlight each of our three favorite dishes.

Justin's Favorites

#1. Eggplant Nigiri

So not that everything we had wasn't fantastic, but about 8 dishes in, I thought to myself, "I've really enjoyed everything so far, but I'm still waiting to be blown away. Ev
erything we've had has been an 8 or a 9. I know a 10 is coming, but I don't know when." Well the eggplant nigiri was my 10.

Both incredibly innovative and delicious, this dish is served just like regular fish nigiri, but with a sauteed slice of eggplant served on top of rice. The BBQ sauce is sweet and tasty and the eggplant is grilled slightly crispy, and tastes remarkably somewhat like fis
h only better. This is especially a boon to vegetarians or anyone else who doesn't like raw fish.

#2. Bacon Sen (Pork Belly)

So truth be told, I probably would have considered this my favorite dish, but saying pork belly is your favorite is like saying your favorite band is the Beatles. The pork belly itself was as good as you probably imagine it; crispy on the outside, tender and fatty in the middle. But the real kicker was the garnishes: apple puree and kimchi apples. Eating all three in one bite was a perfect trifecta.

#3. Kai Jiru (Mussel soup)

I put this one because it was the one I was most surprised by. At first glance it looks like a weird amalgamation of vegetables and seafood in a shot glass. Also the description of the ingredients was a little odd as well. "Tomato water?" But don't be fooled, this was as tasty of a soup as I've ever had. The mussels were juicy and tender and the tomato water broth ended up being an amazing compliment.

Han's Favorites

#1. Usagi Yaki (Rabbit Terrine)

(Yeah so that's my impatient fork in that picture above...) One thing you have to know about Han is that she absolutely hates gamey meat, but she not only loved the Usagi Yaki, she thinks she wants to start raising rabbits for meat now. Much like the Bacon Sen, the Usagi Yaki is delectable enough on its own, but the additions to the dish, quail egg and pureed peas, take it to an entirely different level completely.

#2. Lobster Gazpacho

Han was already won over with the huge hearty chunks of lobster, but the gazpacho broth was just as incredible; watermelon-y but savory with the added bite of cilantro.

#3. Jiiro (Locke Du Arte Salmon)

This was probably our favorite true sushi roll of the evening, simple but innovative. Salmon and avocado inside of a soy wrap, but topped with preserved lemon. Dip it inside the swipe of skyr yogurt on the side for maximum experience.

And of course a special shoutout goes to the desserts. Both of which were incredible and unlike anything we had ever had before.

The Sweet Corn Custard

Understand I mean this in the best way possible: this dessert tasted like they had an Iron Chef contest where the ingredient was Captain Crunch. Corn bread crumbles with polenta over vanilla ice cream. Pure amazing.

Fried Milk

If the description of the Sweet Corn Custard sounded odd, I don't even really know where to begin with the Fried Milk. This was by far the most confusing but delicious dessert I have ever had. It was like eating a Picasso painting. Condensed milk deep fried, topped with ice cream and chocolate wafers. A MUST HAVE.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 5: Peanut Sauce Noodles and How You Can Help

Well here we are. We've come to the final day of the project. The final dish we wanted to prepare is a little more off-the-wall and fun. It may sound like something an intoxicated college student would dream up, but Han and I both remember eating something similar when we were young, making it somewhat authentic I guess.

And besides, all joking aside, price sensitivity is of course something that is common to both college students and people trying to make ends meet, making this an excellent dish to prepare.

  • 2 ramen packages
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • Garlic powder or salt to taste
  • Dried chives
First boil the ramen noodles for 3 minutes. Throw the flavor packages away. Drain the noodles and add back in the pot. Add in the peanut butter and soy sauce while stirring over heat. Add a
few dashes of garlic powder or garlic salt and sprinkle with the chives and you're done. This dish also goes really well with chicken or shrimp.

I liked this dish a lot because it was incredibly tasty. Plus, even though ramen gets kind of a bad rap in the food world, this is a big improvement because you're getting rid of a lot of the sodium by throwing out the rice packets and adding protein through the peanut butter.

So now that the project is over, where do we go from here? Maybe you've been reading our posts this week and want to know how you can help. Lisa Goddard of the Capital Area Food Bank says the biggest help can come in three ways:
  • Donate. Healthy, non-perishable food can be dropped off directly at the Food Bank or any Austin-area Randalls or RunTex. And as wonderful as food donations are, Lisa says that donating money really helps the Food Bank go a long way in terms of managing the types of food that are available to ensure that people are getting food that is fresh, healthy, and balanced.
  • Volunteer. There are a wide range of opportunities to donate your time, everything from sorting donations, to distributing food, even educating people on gardening or nutrition.
  • Contact Elected Officials. Right now there are several pieces of legislation that need support that would help feed families in the area, such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the the Women Infants and Children Program (WIC). If hunger issues are important to you, your elected officials need you to let them know to make it a priority.
Information on all of these and more are available in the Capital Area Food Bank website. And don't forget that the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive is coming May 8th. Look for your bag in your mailbox, fill it with healthy, non-perishable food and set it by your mailbox on May 8th to be picked up.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 4: "Sort Of" Pad Thai

So a few days ago, Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon from the Austin American Statesman paid us a visit to talk to us about the food blogger project, just in time to sample one of our more, um, daring recipes we made this week.

Jorge interviewed us on camera and took some shots of us cooking our dish for the night, which was probably your average run of the mill day for him, but for us it was pretty exciting and somewhat nerve-
wracking. The final cut of the video should be out early next week and we will definitely be posting in on the site. (Everyone should check out my mad knife skills, courtesy of the knife skills class Han got me for my birthday...)

Well so far all of our recipes have stayed pretty true to the original dishes, mainly because we were able to get key ingredients that we needed from our stash, such as rice and flour. Today, we posed a question of what happens when you don't get everything you need and you need to make some rather drastic substitutions?

Case in point: families who receive supplements from the Capital Area Food Bank gene
rally don't get any rice noodles (although understandably so...). So what's a recently-immigrated Asian family to do if they want some pad thai?

We looked at the ingredient list and thought that, while some suspension of disbelief might be necessary, we just might be able to make a half-decent pad thai dish out of everything.

  • 1/2 package of Spaghetti (cooked)
  • 1 can of mixed vegetables
  • 1 can of mushrooms
  • 2 eggs
  • Oyster sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 10 leaves basil (from our garden)
  • 1 tbsp Canola oil
  • 1/4 cup dry roasted peanuts, crushed
At this point, I'd like to make a quick note that oyster sauce and fish sauce are both very common Thai ingredients and we are working under the assumption that these are ingredients a recently-immigrated family would keep stocked.

Anyways, the first step we did was to heat the canola oil in a wok for a minute or so. Break the eggs into the wok and scramble lightly until mostly cooked. Add the minced garlic and mix. Mix in the spaghetti and stir fry until the egg is mixed in well. Add in the mushrooms and
vegetables and keep mixing!

Next comes the actual seasoning. Many Thai dishes have three common ingredients, each with its own distinct flavor - sugar (sweet), oyster sauce (savory), and fish sauce (umami??)

Together they combine to make the distinctly "Thai" flavor that you may recognize, and the ratio of the three can really make a big difference in the way the dish tastes. Try and experiment til you find a combination you like!

As for us, we generally like it heavy on the fish sauce, with about 3 or 4 "globs" of oyster sauce, and about a tablespoon of sugar. Just dump the ingredients right on the dish and keep stir-frying until it's dissolved.

Lastly, tear up the basil leaves and mix in to the pad thai. If you happen to have some bean sprouts lying around, you can add them here too. Sprinkle the crushed peanuts on the dish and you're ready to serve.

The result? Something that looks absolutely nothing like pad thai! But in total honesty it tasted pretty good. For sure the spaghetti in place of rice noodles was pretty weird, and of course our distaste for canned vegetables has already been well documented, but the mushrooms were actually pretty good, and if we had added some chicken or shrimp, I think this definitely could have been something.

Check back soon for our final post for the project!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#CAFB Hunger Project: Lessons Learned

We are a little over half way through our week of meager eating. Even though we are not sticklers to the food pantry menu, it is incredible what we have already learned thus far. There is so much we take for granted everyday. I've also learned a lot about myself and what I am willing to sacrifice in the name of taste. Food is a delightful pleasure, and when I am not able to enjoy it, I would just rather not eat. It has been difficult to change my mentality from "live to eat" to "eat to live." Here are a few other take-home-messages:
  • This may be obvious, but food = brain power. When whatever available is unappetizing, or if I make a conscious effort to not spend money on lunch, I make the incredibly poor choice of not eating at all. I don't notice an energy crash or stabbing hunger pains. Instead, the world feels like it is in slow motion and my reaction time is greatly reduced. My concentration sucks, and I become moody and mean. Not a great combination. I have to make a conscious effort to eat, for health and mood sake. Definitely a newly adopted "eat to live" mentality.
  • Frozen veggies are SO much better than canned veggies. The difference is surprisingly noticeable. Of course fresh produce trumps them all, but I will take microwaved frozen green giant over mushy canned peas any day!
  • That being said, canned mushrooms are delicious! They retain their firmness and flavor quite well. I guess some veggies just can better than others.
  • Beggars CAN be choosers. I will always take advantage of free food. But since this year, we have made a resolution to eat sustainably, cutting out factory farmed meat all together. We were at a baseball game with a free buffet, but without any veggie options. Ordinarily, I would've bought something else (nachos and cheese pizza anyone??). But in the spirit of this project, I tried to make do with what was available. I made a delicious potato-chip burger, complete with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, cheese, ketchup and mustard. It was yummy, I didn't even miss the protein. The chips added a nice crunch and texture.
  • It is very difficult, if not impossible to eat organic sustainable meat on a limited budget. It's as simple as Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Until your basic nutrition and hunger needs are met, who cares about the welfare of animals? You are going to make your dollar stretch as far as possible, regardless of the hidden costs. Unfortunately, the $8 terraburger is no match for Mickey D's dollar value menu.
  • Eating nutritious, well-balanced, and healthy meals takes practice with this diet. As you may have noticed, most of our recipes have been loaded with carbs. I'm sure it becomes easier to expand your repertoire. It is even harder with our "no-factory-farmed-meat" rule. Seafood is expensive. So is any organic meat. With a vegetarian diet, it is hard to get your protein. It's too bad the food pantry doesn't give out tofu! We have been relying on eggs, beans, and mushrooms for protein.
  • Variety is a luxury. We ate congee every morning for 4 days, and got quite sick of it. That was only 4 days!! As foodies, we really appreciate variation in our diet. I know some people like eating cereal every morning, but we are not those people. I try not to eat the same thing more than two days in a row.
  • We've had to get creative with our leftovers. I made mashed potatoes for dinner one night. The next day Justin made potato, egg, and cheese breakfast tacos, with some barbecue sauce. I added some wasabi and green onions to it for lunch as a side to my (non-food pantry) salmon. We finished off the potatoes, but had we had anymore, I was considering making it into a a chilled potato soup. Ah the possibilities!
  • There needs to be policy changes around food and nutrition in our country. Who can blame anyone for choosing a super-sized value meal (subsidized by government money for corn and ranching) over a spring salad that costs exactly the same?? What are our children eating for school lunches? A few things I remember from my teaching days are: frito pie, pizza, corndogs, nachos, and processed/packaged PB&J on white crustless bread. Keep in mind that for many kids, this is their only solid meal of the day. Full of fat, carbs, sodium, and sugar. As a testament to this, I gained 15lbs while teaching, from eating those lunches (oreos and chips for snacktime didn't help either... but that's what the parents brought!) and I lost that weight after moving to Austin and changing my diet. No wonder we have such round kiddos these days.
  • Major kudos to CAFB for providing nutrition education to families. Kids are picky eaters, and when you are trying to make ends meet, you don't exactly have the time or resources to get creative with making kid-approved healthy meals. I had one student who ONLY ate McDonald's, no joke. He refused all other food, threw his lunch away every day. Granted he had autism, and his parents just didn't know what to do. To make sure he ate, they gave in to his demands everyday. This was a huge financial drain on the family, not to mention nutritionally unacceptable. What else can you do? Thank you CAFB for your cooking classes and outreach to teach these families healthy alternatives.

Monday, April 26, 2010

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 3: Cong You Bing (Scallion Pancake)

So a quick announcement: we just got word that the Austin American Statesman is coming over to our house tomorrow to film a piece on the food blogger project. I think they're going to interview us and maybe film some shots of us cooking. Ack! Gotta clean...

Anyways, today's dish is somewhat of a dim sum classic, known in Chinese as cong you bing, and known in English by many names -- green onion pie, scallion pancake, etc. -- mainly because it's hard to really describe what's going on here that actually sounds appealing.

In essence, it's fried dough, with onions and salt, and when made correctly, is darn delicious. The recipe below, though, is a somewhat modified version, slightly different than what you will get at Chinese restaurants. This is actually something College Justin used to make all the time, particularly because it was tasty and inexpensive. The ingredients are simple:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • water
  • salt
  • oil
You will also need some kind of flat surface, like a cutting board or a clean countertop. Also this is incredibly messy so be sure to wash your hands often and remove any jewelry.

Start out by pouring the flour into a big bowl. Pour about 1/4 cup of water in the bowl and start mixing. A flour dough will start to form. Form as much clay into a ball as you can, about the size of a ping pong ball.

Flatten the dough on the surface and mix in a little bit of the egg. This is when it starts to get really messy. Once the egg is mixed in, add flour to the dough until it is dry. Add water and flour to the ball until it is about the size of a squash ball (that may or may not help - roughly 1.5" in diameter).

Flatten the dough again and mix in about a tablespoon of the green onion until it is completely meshed into the dough. Dust with some flour on both sides and repeat the entire process creating pancakes until the flour and green onions run out.

Next heat up some oil in a frying pan, and fry the pancakes for about 1-2 minutes on each side until fully cooked. Once each pancake is finished place on a paper towel to dry. Sprinkle some salt to taste and enjoy.

Now as I said this is something I used to make all the time. In fact this is probably the first time since college that I've made it, in a time when both money and nutrition value had little meaning to me. This time around I made about 10 pancakes, and Han and I literally just ate that for lunch and nothing else.

The other day I talked about how hard it is to eat healthily on a budget because the cost of fresh produce is so cost ineffective. Along the same line, it's very cheap to make food that still tastes pretty good, despite having little to no nutritional value.

Back in humanity's hunter/gatherer days, salt and fat were pretty rare and our bodies needed to get them whenever it was possible. As such, to this day, our bodies are pre-programmed to crave these things, even though they are both widely available and very inexpensive.

As delicious as it is, cong you bing is pretty much nothing but salt and fat (and carbs). It's generally served as a side dish, but after today, I can definitely see how someone might choose to eat this and nothing else for an entire meal or maybe even an entire day.

I think this might be part of the reason why it seems almost all cultures have some sort of fried dough dish -- doughnuts, churros, Indian fry bread, etc. People in every country have hunger issues, and it makes sense that they may try to feed themselves in the most inexpensive yet satisfying ways possible for them.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 2: Garlic Fried Rice

At the Hunger Awareness Project kickoff meeting last week, Lisa Goddard, the Online Marketing Director at CAFB, said that she had no real ideas on what to expect out of the food bloggers this week, and she liked that. She said that each face who comes into the Capital Area Food Bank has a completely different story, from the homeless man living on the street, to the mother of three who, although still fully employed, still just needs a little something extra to fill her pantry because she's unable to do so on her own means.
We're a few days into the project and I continue to be amazed as to the different stories that are emerging out of everyone else's experiences who are also on the project (Check out the other blogs as well, if you haven't gotten a chance already). Many of the bloggers, such as Something to Chew On and Austin Farm to Table, are diving full on into the hunger experience, eating nothing but stuff from the sample list for an entire week. As for us, we kind of made the executive decision to work with the list kind of like a Top Chef challenge. We want to produce some reasonably tasty Asian-inspired dishes made largely from the sample list with a few low-cost additions. The reason for this is, first, because we're much more familiar with Asian cooking than any other kind. But also our hope is that maybe (just maybe) a family who takes from the CAFB regularly who might be a little weary of Hamburger Helper and spaghetti marinara might somehow stumble upon these recipes and eat some dishes they might not normally get to eat.

Today's recipe is probably not one that's unfamiliar to any of you: garlic fried rice. Once again, the ingredients are mostly taken from the sample list of items visitors to the Capital Area Food Bank may receive:
  • 4 cups of white rice
  • 1 can of mixed vegetables (any mix will do, but we used peas and carrots)
  • Any protein that is available (chicken, pork, beef)
In addition, we are adding the following, which might already be available in many kitchens or at most would cost a few dollars at the grocery store:
  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup chopped green onions
  • Soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • Oil
The first step is the heat up a big wok or any large frying pan (with high sides, if possible) with a tablespoon of oil. Break the eggs open and scramble. Once the egg is mostly solidified, mix in the garlic, followed by the rice. As an aside, Mama Ren insists that the rice you add should be as old as possible to fully maximize the flavor of the rice. I will add that freshly cooked rice seems to work just fine and rice that is over 3 days old should probably be thrown out for safety's sake.

Stir-fry the rice and eggs until everything is hot (should be about 5 minutes depending on how cold the rice was initially). Next add in bite-size pieces any pre-cooked protein and stir fry for 2 minutes.

(Just like the congee, this dish goes great with whatever you have, leftover rotisserie chicken, pork chops, whatever.)

Drain the mixed vegetables and add them in as well, mixing while you add. Add in some soy sauce (to taste, although adding too much may make the rice soupy) and add salt and pepper (also to taste). Lastly add in the green onions and stir fry for another minute. Let sit for 5 minutes while the sauces absorb into the rice and it's ready to serve.

We make this dish a lot because it is fun to make and there is a lot of room for creativity. Sometimes we like using some green curry, other times we'll mix in some oyster sauce, fish sauce, and fresh basil for more of a Thai twist. But in almost all instances we like to use fresh vegetables, whatever we have lying around. Sometimes in a pinch I've used frozen vegetables, but this was the first time we've used canned vegetables and it was a pretty noticeable difference. Even as someone who is pretty adamant about the importance of eating vegetables with every meal, for a split-second I wondered if I should leave the canned vegetables out of the recipe.

This brings to light something which, in my mind, is a key issue in hunger awareness. Even if you are provide enough food for you family in terms of sustenance, it is simply not cost-effective to make the choice to eat healthy.

If we were making this dish like we normally do, I would have added in some bell peppers, celery, some broccoli, and maybe some carrots, but that would have increased the cost of the dish by about five times. Even just adding one fresh vegetable ingredient might double it.

A few weeks ago in the Austin Chronicle, Belinda Acosta wrote an article about the ABC show "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" that pointed out the fact that it's somewhat unfair to lambast middle Americans for making poor food choices when in reality it's not that feasible economically:

"[W]hen it comes right down to it, it's more profitable to create processed, unhealthy food than food that is good for the American people. When a person of limited means is trying to decide between a bundle of fresh broccoli and a bag of processed food that only requires the addition of a cheap cut of meat or pasta to feed a whole family, what do you think the logical choice is?"

With this in mind, it makes it all the more impressive that the Capital Area Food Bank boasts one of the largest fresh produce distributions in the country. The Fresh Food for Families program distributes an average of 30 pounds of food to more than 3,600 families each month.

When it comes right down to it, my distaste for canned vegetables might be seen as just me being overly picky. But it is quite the blessing that so many families, thanks to the CAFB, actually get to make that choice.