Monthly Archives: July 2010

Even When It’s Bad, It’s Still Pretty Good

Thin crust Margherita with basil from the garden

I am by no means a pizza snob. I don’t have a pizza stone or a peel, I don’t have plans to build a pizza oven in my backyard anytime soon, and I don’t go in desperate search of the latest and greatest pizza in Houston. But I have recently come to the conclusion that making my own pizza with my own weird toppings is much cheaper than going to a pizza parlor and paying someone else for designer toppings and thin crust. It’s also healthier than ordering from the local $5 cheese-on-cardboard joints. When we moved to Houston we were saddened by the lack of good pizza places in our neighborhood. There are chain restaurants, but the pizza isn’t what we used to eat at home where the original Hideaway was just a block from our apartment. Our little corner of the city doesn’t have any  pizzas of note, so we decided to make our own.

Sausage and pepperoni with peppers

artichoke hearts, mushrooms, tomatos and garlic sauce

I started my pizza adventure making Pioneer Woman’s pizza crust. It was also an opportunity to use my Kitchenaid stand mixer which I was gifted for our wedding and had yet to use. The pizzas came out reminiscent of Hideaway Pizza, moreso because of topping than crust. Crust always seems more like a vehicle for the wonderful cheese/sauce/topping trifecta than a tasty element of the pizza, but I’m slowly learning how crust can change a pizza for the better. It’s also been exciting to learn about prepping yeast and how to knead dough and working with bread in general. It’s a whole science that I’m completely new to!

Margherita pizza slice

Pizza is important to my family and friends. My mom is always in search of the best New-York style pizza in Tulsa, currently NYC Pizza on Harvard. Every Friday of my teenage-hood was pizza night, usually Papa John’s. It was a fight to get the cold slices in the fridge for breakfast, everyone wanted some! In college, pizza was the go-to meal for movies, gaming, hanging, and dates. We ate a lot of really bad Little Caesar’s $5 pies while we stayed up all night talking and rolling dice. Hideaway pizza in Norman became an important locale during graduate school where we would gather for “Fridaways” to drink beer, share lunch, and dish on the latest department gossip and student antics. Pizza is a very social food for me, so while making it at home seems counter-intuitive to that social element, we’ve made it for a lot of friends and hope to keep doing so.

Gaming and pizza are like dwarves and ale!

feta, bacon, thyme, onion, and apricot toppings

Lately, I’ve been tired with the thick, doughy crust Pioneer Woman’s recipe yields and I’m experimenting with thinner crusts. I’ve been inspired to create something like what I ate at Home Slice in Austin last week. And I’m still dreaming about that fig and goat cheese pizza from Boulder, CO. The closest I’ve come was today’s savory-sweet feta, bacon, onion, and apricot pizza with olive oil and thyme. I’m excited about playing with pizza a little more in the next few weeks and trying to capture some of that summer simplicity pizza provides. And you know what they say about pizza and sex, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

sweet and savory pie

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I Left My Heart in Barton Springs: Austin Part 2

Community Pool

Our second morning in Austin reminded me very much of a morning at the camp M. and I worked at together. We awoke early, ate yogurt breakfast bars and oranges, donned bathing suits, stopped to get coffee/tea, and went swimming. The major difference between the two experiences was that we were not in charge of a band of 9 year olds and I was not yelling, “Don’t forget your underwear!” to any girl scout within hearing distance. Um, explanation: At Camp River Ranch the amphitheater overlooked the lake and children would leave their belongings all over the outdoor stone steps before swimming. By the end of each week the amphitheater was littered with panties and unclaimed socks. Barton Springs was surprisingly free of abandoned undergarments and wild children.

Best little coffee stand in Austin

We stopped at Jo’s coffee shop near the Austin Motel on Congress before going to swim. Jo’s is a really adorable coffee stand that has grown a porch and seating area into the parking lot next door. They serve breakfast, caffeine, juice, newspapers, cigarettes, and basically anything you need to get over your hangover. It’s a nice people-watching spot, although this particular Saturday morning Jo’s was populated by put-together-at-10 am yuppies and few hard partiers. Recently, Serious Eats issued a call for a return to “mug time,” a

"mug time" at Jo's

peaceful, contemplative coffee break that doesn’t involve working while drinking or taking the coffee to go. I think we got in some nice mug time on Saturday morning, lazily discussing our swim, our travels, and cooking. It was great to adventure with someone who was not only easy-going but also an easy conversationalist, someone who doesn’t make talking a challenge or a requirement. Those people are hard to find.

Springs at the bottom of the hill

shallow end where we paddled around

We drove to Barton Springs community pool after finishing our coffee. Parking in a dusty lot and paying our $3 to the unenthusiastic attendant, I was a little concerned about this well-reviewed swimming hole. Not to worry. As we wandered down the lush hill to the pool, it became evident that we had happened upon a slice of paradise. Hipsters and sorority girls sunned themselves in the park, while a giant swath of clear blue water filled the bottom of the small valley. Serious swimmers in caps and a few in wet suits lapped the three acre pool while kids played in water wings at the shallow end. We took the walkway around the deep end, watching the people playing in the “free” area of the springs, a runoff creek on the other side of the fence where mostly babies and dogs splashed around in the cold blue. The dressing rooms were open air and lush with wildflowers and grass. Walking back down to the water with our noodles and towels, we soaked in the sun’s heat to brace ourselves against the year-round 68 degree water. It did no good. Whether one plunges in or tentatively eases in, the water takes your breath

Lifeguard

away, fresh and clear and cold, cold, cold. Sitting chest-deep in the water after finally getting in I felt refreshed and comfortable, but it took a while to get there. We spend an hour and a half the first day, bobbing around on our noodles, chatting idly, people watching, and lazily paddling around our “floats only” area. I wish I could explain how BIG Barton Springs pool is, how grateful I felt, how weird to be in a natural springs looking at downtown office buildings through the trees. It’s the closest place to Lake Langlois or Buffalo National River I’ve been in a long time, and that’s a high compliment.

Margherita with fresh basil

After our swim we went back to the hotel for showers before heading out for a late lunch. We had every intention of eating at the South Congress Cafe, but ended up at Home Slice Pizza. The smell of pizza and the thought of something quick and simple was appealing after swimming (even lazily) for a few hours. We lucked out! It’s a New York-style pizza joint that sells by the slice. We both ended up with gorgeous slices of margherita, white pie with spinach, and sausage with onion. Yum!

Novelties at Monkey See Monkey Do

South Congress was pretty crowded with tourists at this point, but we hung around and did some window shopping until the heat became unbearable. Unfortunately, living in Houston’s air-conditioned environs has made me weak to the heat and we eventually had to go back to the hotel so I could collapse into a puddle for bit.

lovely courtyard

more courtyard

We ventured out later in the evening, taking a stroll around the state capital grounds before meeting a friend of M’s. The capital is really pretty– the trees, architecture, and history are all worth a visit. I was just glad I took M. somewhere off South Congress. We ended our day out on South Lamar at Opa! M.’s  friend had recommended Opa for a belly dancing performance and promised to meet us. Unfortunately, the food at Opa was less than appealing. I mean, I may be a harsh judge, but the gyro I had was the worst I have ever eaten with mushy meat and bad textures all around. I ended up munching on an apple and some bread for dinner. M.’s “greek” salad was also uninspired and dry. This is the major regret of my trip. I tend to have a pretty good instinct when I enter a restaurant and just know the food will be sub-par. I should have listened to myself.

Dancing with fire

But Opa does have it’s charms despite it’s terrible dinner offerings. It has a gorgeous courtyard with lots of tables and benches and swings for two hanging from trees and a big porch and lovely gardening and fountains and… I want to live in that courtyard. Opa also has an awesome wine bar with a lot of variety. It’s more than likely an after-work and after-dinner hangout. The belly dancers were also fun and interesting, wandering among the tables and gyrating in the most lovely, talented way when it got dark and they lit the torches. One dancer used some fire in her routine, balancing a bowl of flame on her head and holding small torches in her hands. We were happy to visit with friends and enjoy the warm evening and our last night in Austin.

Opa!

Before leaving we decided to visit Barton Springs one last time. It was still cold and clear and meditative and delightful. I’m pretty sure a piece of my heart resides there now. I may go to visit but I doubt I’ll ever retrieve it. M. and I regaled each other with stories from camp, something we had yet to do during our visit. From crying children to hysterical counselors to impromptu spoken word poetry to gossip, we relived our fun summer while bobbing around the pool. What a way to end a trip! The only other thing we did before leaving was stop for breakfast migas at The Screaming Goat, a cheap, fast, air conditioned restaurant where everyone was intently drinking coffee and watching soccer. I made sure to buy some of their unusual salsa for J. as a consolation for having to work all weekend. Austin, as usual, was full of hidden treasures, quiet moments, fun, laziness, and great food. I can’t wait to visit again soon.

gorgeous trees at the capital

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Goat Cheese for Pioneer Woman

widely sold

I may have cheekily emailed Ree Drummond aka Pioneer Woman and suggested to her that I be her intern. I may have also promised her goat cheese or at least a short entry about how I make my goat cheese, which I learned from this post on Serious Eats. I may be avoiding writing my last two exam questions in favor of making snacks. I may be nesting because the hurricane has poured down on our home for two days and although I like rain, the dog and I are getting restless. Regardless, I braved the storm earlier to buy goat milk and now I have herbed cheese!

quality cheesecloth

I make my goat cheese by heating up the milk  at medium temperature in a sauce pan and stirring it occasionally until it’s foamy and it just starts to boil. A good rule of thumb for this process is 15 minutes. I was using a meat thermometer to do this at first, but wasn’t good at keeping the thermometer out of the milk… er.

In the meantime, I take 9 square feet of cheesecloth (I am told a bandanna could work just as well for this) and cut it into three folded-in-half squares. I buy my cheesecloth at Bed, Bath and Beyond. The brand they sell is more tightly woven so the milk won’t run through it. Using a less tightly woven brand, I once poured the entire concoction through 9 layers of cloth into the sink. I cried. After cutting up the cloth,  I arrange it in a colander, then get out some kitchen twine, a wooden spoon, and my stock pot.

ladle milk into the cloth

hang the cheese to drain

When the milk reaches that frothy, almost boiling stage I take it off the heat and add 1/4 cup lemon juice and stir. This makes the milk curdle, but you would never know. If there are microscopic white grains on your spoon when you take it out of the milk, it’s curdling. I ladle into the cheesecloth slowly, making sure I don’t overflow the cloth. Then I brace myself for the heat and gather the cheesecloth up in my hand so the milk is bundled inside. I use my kitchen twine to tie it up and then tie it to the wooden spoon and hang across the stock pot. In one hour, it will drain and you have cheese! The tying up part is tricky, but as long as you don’t drop it or have a buddy to help you’ll be fine. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

I like rosemary and thyme as well as plenty of cracked pepper and salt in my goat cheese. This is not the strongest goaty taste in the world, probably because the cheese is pasteurized. It’s still pretty good and I’m always so charmed by the fact that I made it myself that it somehow tastes better. I hope you’ll try it and eat it with absolutely everything!

Rosemary and Thyme

Delicious!

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From Houston to Austin: Part 1

Thank goodness for girl scouts, facebook, and the adventurous spirit. Without them, my recent weekend in Austin would not have been possible. In April, an old friend from Camp River Ranch put out a message on facebook that she was thinking about relocating and wanted to check out Austin. I mentioned to her that I love Austin and wouldn’t mind giving her some tips or even being her tour guide. A few messages later we decided to talk on the phone and I offered to meet her in Austin, or, if she wanted, she could fly to Houston and we could take a weekend road trip.

Austin Icon

For me, Austin is a dreamy place. I got engaged in Austin at Laguna Gloria Museum at Christmastime. I love every restaurant there. I went to my first (and only) multi-day concert there. It reminds me of parts of Stillwater and Tulsa and Seattle and every other lovely village area with artists and funky stuff. “Keep Austin Weird” is the unofficial motto of the city. It’s the kind of place all liberal-educated humanities majors go to die. It’s also been called the live music capital of the world, or, as the t-shirt says, “A sleepy little drinking town with a Live Music problem.” It’s warm, lively, political, and just plain fun.

From the beginning, our trip was full of great food and new experiences. Last Thursday M. flew in and I picked her up from the airport. Several people had recommended Alamo Drafthouse Theater to her and we happen to have one near our home. They were presenting a special dinner viewing of Interview with a Vampire the day she arrived. Alamo Drafthouse is a restaurant/movie theater, but it is also so much more. They hold special events and viewings each month and seem to be community-oriented in a way most franchises are not.  This event, for example, was scheduled the week before Eclipse came out and geared towards a more grownup audience. Also, the food is actually good. We paid $50 a person for a delectable five course creole feast, a wine pairing with each course, and a great movie. We had a blast and a couple of us got quite drunk, not expecting “free” drinks with everything! But it was good, oh so good. It was our first time to the Alamo and we will be back just as soon as we recover from the alcohol poisoning.

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I couldn’t take photos in the theater, but here is the incredible menu:

Creole Feast Menu

  • Steamed Oysters with Crawfish and Mushroom Mornay— paired with Turning Head Sauvignon Blanc
  • Fried Green Tomato with Shrimp Remoulade— paired with Ventikali Riesling
  • Chicken and Andouille Sausage— paired with Vampire Pinot Noir
  • Pork Loin Stuffed with Duck Boudin accompanied by Stewed Okra— paired with Myrtle Grove Shiraz
  • Creole Bread Pudding with Vanilla Porter Sauce— paired with Dow’s Tawny Porto

Happy to be out of the car!

The drive from Houston to Austin on Friday was pleasant and not too long at 2.5 hours. My Seattlite friend was amazed at the short rainstorm we drove through while the sun was shining. We arrived around 1:00 and went straight to Magnolia Cafe for refreshment. Famous for being open 24/7 and being a staple of the Austin food scene (a scene that seems dedicated solely to feeding throngs of partiers, musicians, and roadies), Magnolia cafe was the first place I ever ate in Austin. The menu is extensive, the people watching is choice, the vibe is funky. “Sorry, We’re Open” is displayed proudly in the window. We ate “Mud,” a yummy dip with seasoned black beans on the bottom, slices of avacado on top, covered in velveeta-like cheese, and topped by pico de gallo. Mud is to die for– hearty and  healthyish. I also ate half of a very pretty salad (we sat outside and the heat ruined my appetite) and M. had the chicken salad sandwich. We then collapsed at the hotel and did not revive until dinnertime.

What do you do when you’re not up for clubbing all night and happen to like a reasonable bedtime but still want to do something fun and different, maybe even meet some locals? Queer Open mic night, of course! Well, anyway, that was what we tried to do. Monkeywrench Books was holding the reading according the Austin Chronicle. The bookstore is on North Loop, an area not unlike South Congress, but in miniature. We arrived early for the reading to eat dinner and explore. After saying “no, thanks” to Counter Culture, the vegan food truck across the street, we ended up at Phara’s Mediterranean restaurant. The atmosphere inside was cozy and mostly taken up by a family of 12, but we managed a table by the window and ordered shish-kebab and the aloo channa, a curry dish with chickpeas and potatoes. Phara’s was cute, not terribly remarkable, and probably has an awesome night-time scene with belly dancers and hookah later in the evening. After dinner we wandered over to Monkeywrench only to discover that the open mic was cancelled and no, for all their alternative and radical texts, they didn’t have any Judith Butler books. But we still had time before the sun set so we were off to see the bats!

divine

Yes, Austin has a semi-famous bat colony, being the largest urban bat colony in the world. They live under the congress street bridge and attract thousands of tourists every summer who stand around in ugly shorts and buy their kids glow necklaces and wonder, “Where are the bats?” Unlike in the movies, the bats don’t normally rush out from under the bridge in a giant swarm to suck your blood. They just meander out about 15-20 minutes after sunset, eat some mosquitoes, and fly around daintily. It’s still pretty cool and I like to go watch them and the people who have gathered around to see these little guys. M. and I decided to get Amy’s Ice Cream to enhance our bat-watching experience and console our hearts broken by the lack of queer teenage poetry. Amy’s is a must-eat when in Austin. It’s rich and satisfying and convenient and whimsical. It’s like Ted Drewe’s in St. Louis, it’s a local phenomena that makes where you live taste more like home. Our bat watching mostly involved eating melty ice cream and taking sunset photos of the city. The bats arrived after dark to eat and say hi. It was a lovely introduction to the city.

throngs of tourists

Sunset in the City

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