Thursday, March 27, 2014

A visit to Phoenicia

The first time I went to Phoenicia Specialty Foods, I was with a friend looking for bulk jordan almonds (almonds encased in sugar) for a wedding.  My friend bought her almonds and left. I stuck around and browsed, because I love markets, and Phoenicia is a really cool market. Houston is not short of specialty grocery stores, but Phoenicia specializes in foods from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, so it’s always a journey of discovery.
Candy that I've only heard about in books
Phoenicia used to mean a trip to West Houston, a fascinating and worthwhile trip, but still a serious drive. But they have recently opened a downtown location, on the ground floor of a ritzy apartment building near Discovery Green. And since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d take a look.
The new one is prettier; they are definitely going for a more up market vibe.  The Westheimer location isn’t ugly, it’s just basic.  It is more about grocery shopping, the new location is more about eating. The deli is prominent, which is smart, since they are so close to Discovery Green. You can grab something to eat and head over to the park. There’s also a little seating area, if you want to eat on location.

Freshly baked pita bread

I love the bakery, because it has a conveyor belt, and I get a kick out of that. (Yes. I know. I’m twelve.) There is a good selection of international foods: jams, pickles, cookies and candies of all kinds. Don’t miss the upstairs, which has spices, oils, and wines, along with a selection of international kitchenware and for some reason inlaid chess sets and hookahs. If I was going to go shopping, I’d still make the drive out to Westheimer. The old store is bigger and the selection is better. But if you are downtown already, Phoenicia is a good place to stop for lunch and an impulse buy.

Anybody need a Polish cheese lady?
Of course I bought some stuff:
  • Buffalo jerky - for my father’s birthday
  • Zorab’s olive oil dipping mix – because it’s great
  • Walnuts - because I haven’t been able to find any for months, and
  • Rose petal jam – just because

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spring break

Every Spring, I get a little antsy about being stuck in an office all day, so I take a day off of work. There’s no plan, except to see what fate blows my way. Last year, I painted trees blue. This year, I walked thought a giant inflatable sculpture.

"Miracoco" is the latest design by a group called the Architects of Air.  Made completely of some vinyl-type of material, from the outside, it looks like a futuristic bounce house.

Miracoco, on Discover Green, Houston

On the inside, it’s sort of like Star Trek on acid. It’s trippy. What’s even more impressive is that it is all natural light. So the light dims and brightens with passing clouds and times of day. And it is amazing what they can do with the material. There are domes, apses, bridges, and oddly organic looking corridors.  

Out of focus, but it gives you a sense of how dream like it is

Half of a huge domed ceiling - I really needed a wide angle lens to do it justice

A joining of seams. If you look at the exterior picture, this is one of the star shaped parts.

I just noticed the flush of blue in the middle, isn't it wild?

branching hallways
I think this was well worth missing work for.  I can always play with spreadsheets, but how often do I get to play inside an inflatable sculpture?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jazzercise Update

Basic is a good descriptor. My location is in a strip mall next to a dollar store. The floor is plywood and there is a raised platform at the far end for the instructor, along with mats and a selection of weights.

There are no mirrors or lockers. Instead, a small wooden ledge runs around the room like a chair rail. This is for water bottles and keys, underneath there are wooden pegs to hang bags or towels if you brought any.

You check yourself in at the front desk (your card has a bar code on it, so it’s a quick scan) put your water bottle on the ledge and pick an open spot of floor.

Class lasts a full hour, and it is rigorous. After a quick warm up, the whole thing is about keeping your heart rate up. The moves come from all over, kickboxing, pilates, aerobics and dance. I look forward to using the weights, because that means we’re entering the cool down phase. The music is current. Over the past 2 weeks we have Jazzercised to: Pitbull, Rhianna, Justin Timberlake, The Buggles (because there is always room for a classic) Katy Perry, Pink and a lot of pop music I’ve heard on the radio but couldn’t name under torture.

And Jazzercise can be torture. It’s hard to master steps when you can feel your heartbeat pounding in your ears.  I have tripped over my own feet, gone right instead of left, and been as uncoordinated as it is possible to be.  And there is a special kind of thigh muscle burning hell when the instructor says; far too cheerfully “I guarantee you’ll feel this one tomorrow!” Tomorrow? Really? You mean I’m not feeling it now?

That being said, there is wonderful sense of camaraderie. The instructors know everyone by name. The older members of the class make a point of encouraging the newcomers. The classes I’ve seen cover all age ranges, from high school through retirement.  It is 99.9% female.  There is one man who attends the class before mine, an older gentleman who comes with his wife. He’s terrible. But then again so am I.  So are a lot of us.  Even the super in-shape women who lead the class are panting and sweaty by the end, which I find comforting because it means that it’s not just me being out of shape, it is actually hard.

Have a good weekend!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Rainy Day Baking

I don't know what it is about rainy weather, it just draws me to the oven. And since it rained all day last Saturday, I just had to bake.

I was kind of upset with myself for not having a pie available last Friday (pi day), but it has since been pointed out to me that since this year is 2014, we have an entire pi month! Can you imagine the excitement?

I've also been getting a little tired of Japanese food, so I decided to go French, and make a quiche.  Of course, it doesn't count if it's a recipe I've made before, so I decided to try onion quiche.

Onions (according to this weekend's Wall Street Journal) are "hero foods" as are eggs and the olive oil I caramelized the onions in, so this has to be good for you.

The recipe is courtesy of Julia Child's The Way to Cook, which is a marvelous book. Julia's recipes are clear, and they always work - which is not a given in the cookbook industry. I got my copy at a used bookstore for 10 bucks, but it is well worth full price.  Even if I don't cook from it, I use it as a reference book, because Julia knows her stuff.

The only downside to this is that the house will smell like onions for the next three days. But for such a healthy, delicious and budget-conscious meal, it's worth it.

Onion Quiche

serves 6

3 cups of onions
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
3 large eggs with enough milk to make 1-1/2 cups
1/4 shredded Swiss Cheese
1 9 inch pie crust (pre-made is fine)
salt, pepper, and nutmeg (to taste)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degF.

2. Caramelize the onions in olive oil. (about 20 minutes over medium-low heat). Herbe de Provence is a nice addition, but completely optional.

3. While that is going on, make your custard, whisking 3 eggs into enough milk to make 1-1/2 cups. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste.

4. Line you pie plate with crust and sprinkle all but 2 Tablespoons cheese in it. Note: Julia recommends pre-baking your pie crust, which does make the final result firmer, but I'm lazy and did without.

5. Pour the caramelized onions over the cheese.

6. Pour in the milk and egg mixture and top with the last two tablespoons of cheese.

7. Put in the oven for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.

Bon appƩtit!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Washoku: Soy-Simmered Shitake Mushrooms

If you've been to an Asian grocery store, you know there's at least one aisle, if not two, devoted to dried foods. I've wandered through them, trying (pointlessly) to identify was I was looking at. Seaweed, squid, various leaves, the variety is staggering (Though there is no dried fruit - it took me 20 minutes but I finally found it, in the candy aisle; which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.)

Anyway, one of the basic ingredients of the Washoku pantry is dried shitake mushrooms. This week, I decided to try the recipe for Soy Simmered Dried Shitake Mushrooms or Shitake No Umani.

Dried mushrooms. They're pretty in a dried flower arrangement kind of way.

The first thing to do is soak the mushrooms in hot water, to rehydrate them. Easy enough.

Soaking mushrooms
Get out your pan and add stock, some of the water you soaked the mushrooms in and a little sake. Bring to a simmer and add the mushrooms. Then wait. (6-8 minutes) add sugar (another 6-8 minutes) add soy (2- minutes). Remove from heat and let cool in the pan with whatever remains of the liquid, most of which will have boiled off.

You are left with these:
Soy-simmered shitake mushrooms
And they are really good. A little sweet, a little salty, chewy. I realized that I've had these before at Japanese restaurants. They are usually used to garnish a main dish. To me they seem like a great addition to a lunch box, since they are supposed to be eaten cold. This is one I'll make again. I'll have to. I have at least 1/2 a pound of mushrooms left.

Have a good weekend!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hermann Park - 2014

Saturday, I was at a loose end so I grabbed the camera and headed to Hermann Park. 

Hermann is my favorite of Houston's parks. It's close to the Museum District, it's home to the Miller Outdoor Theater, and unlike most of the other parks, it is not inundated with exercise fanatics. Hermann is a place to relax, people watch, sleep beneath the trees and enjoy the day. If you want to work out, go to Memorial. 

It's also a photographer's paradise, with gorgeous spreading oak trees, fountains, sculptures, reflecting ponds, a Japanese garden etc. Most weekends you will see people posing for cameras all over the park. I particularly love watching the quinceƱeras, the dresses are so bright and fluffy.

2014 marks the centennial of Hermann Park, so there are a lot of things planned: performances, new art installations, and most importantly, the rose garden on the North side of the park has been bulldozed, along with the herb garden and garden center. The space is being completely re-done, but right now it just looks like a huge pile of dirt. 

This is supposed to become some kind of mount/water feature

stranded in the parking lot
 But even with the construction, Hermann does not lack charm. It also helped that the first flowers of spring were showing.
flowering pear branches

Japanese lantern and a redbud tree

Snowy egret

One of the new art installations, a house woven from twigs. 
So keep your eye on the park, who knows what's coming up next?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Having Technical Difficulties

Very short post today. My Internet connection is on the fritz and the repairmen won’t arrive until next week.  So this is being pecked out on a Kindle. I’ll try to have something better for next week.

I'm in an 80's music mood today. Back when MTV flirted with the avant garde, instead of showcasing spoiled brats and feckless teenagers.  And nobody does artsy, moody silliness better than George Michael.

Have a funky weekend.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Of Rice and Radishes

I've never understood why people would get so tense about about cooking rice.  To me, it always seemed fairly straightforward: boil water, add rice, cook until done. This is the pasta method of cooking rice, and results in a fluffy rice that does not stick together. This is wonderful to make pilaf with, or to add to soup. 

But if you want sticky rice, rice that can be molded into balls and picked up with chopsticks, this method is useless.  So I have to learn a whole new way to cook rice. A lot of cooks swear by rice cookers (and the cookbook does recommend some) but I have an aversion to kitchen gadgets, so I followed the recipe for stove top rice. 

The first thing you have to do is to pick your rice. Rice come in three basic varieties: long grain, medium grain, and short grain. Long grain is what we in the West usually eat.  The Japanese prefer a medium grain rice, so that is what I bought.

Wash the rice. The goal here is to wash off the extra starch and to get the rice absorbing a little water before you start cooking it. Don't throw away the water you use to wash the rice! Save it to water the garden, or for cooking. It contains valuable starch.

washed rice
Side note: In Katherine Hepburn's book on filming The African Queen, she tells of how they were having a horrible time keeping her hat brim from falling over her face in the humidity of (what was then) the Belgian Congo.  The wardrobe department came up with a brilliant idea, rice water. They boiled rice and used the starchy water to stiffen her hat brim.  Thus are Oscar winning movies made.

Back to the rice. After you've washed it 4-5 times put the rice and a carefully measured amount of water into a pot with a tight fitting lid, and from there it's mostly a matter of having a reliable clock and not lifting the lid, no matter how tempted you are. I followed the times the author specified (and didn't lift the lid) and it came out beautifully: snowy white, sticky but not glutinous. The perfect opportunity to use my impulse buy from the Japanese grocery store - rice seasoning.

I think I may have overdone it, but it tasted good.
Then, since I had saved the water I washed the rice in, I made Steamed Radishes in Citrusy Miso.  The recipe has you cook the radishes most of the way in the starchy water, and then finish them up in a seasoned broth made of dashi, soy and mirin.  Then you serve the radish chunks with a citrus miso sauce. 

Worth a try, but not a taste sensation
This was like the steak dish from a few weeks ago. I like all the components, I just don't like them together. And I'd rather have the daikon raw. Raw, daikon has a palate-cleansing crispness to it, but cooked, it was like eating plain steamed turnips. The miso sauce didn't really help. The cookbook recommends using the miso as a dip, and I can see where it would be really good for that.

Three more recipes completed! I'm thinking mushrooms next.

Monday, March 3, 2014

President's Challenge II

I don’t suppose you remember, but about a month ago I posted about the President’s Challenge. It was all about how I was going to get more physically fit. I even posted my pathetic numbers, so the change could be tracked. You don’t remember any of that do you?

Of course you do. People always remember extravagant promises of change. So, it’s been a month since the post and I have done…

Nothing.  I wrote the post and forgot about it until last weekend.  (Don’t look so shocked. You knew this was coming.)

One of the main reasons I don’t like exercise is that I find it boring.  It’s hard to push yourself to do something you dislike, especially without outside motivation to achieve. (like passing a course, or getting paid). This is why no-one does trigonometry for fun. 

So I’m trying something different. Instead of committing myself to a regular training schedule, I’m going to try out a lot of different activities, so I’m not locked into any one thing, and I’m always in the process of learning.  This should stave off the boredom, and if it turns out I really hate it, I’m only committed for a short period of time.

I prefer exercise classes, because then I’m committed to people other than myself, and I don’t really have to plan anything. I just have to show up, do what everyone else is doing and try not to trip.  I originally thought of doing ballroom dance classes. I love to dance – it’s one of the only forms of exercise I really like. But the cheap option at my local dance studio is $200 a month, which is a bit steep. They also keep trying to talk me into competing, in which I have no interest.

And there are all sorts of exercise classes available in the Houston area: barre, bellydance, spinning. I may even try martial arts, since there are several schools nearby, (Although I hope they have adult beginner classes. I don’t want to be in a room full of pre-pubescent boys - there's only so much embarrassment I can take.)

This month’s experiment is Jazzercise, mostly because the studio is two blocks away from my house. It’s also endorsed by Simon Doonan. If Simon Doonan (guru of eccentric fabulousness) says Jazzercise is cool, it must be worth a try.