Put some Houston flare in your dinner menu

Published 12:04 am Saturday, June 27, 2015

Our daughter is moving to Houston for two years so I have a new city to visit and some new foods and restaurants to explore. She is specializing in pediatric surgery and has to do two years of research, so Houston was the choice. We spent a very hot weekend finding her a place that could accommodate her two cats (I think they should stay in Tucson, but one does not tell one’s grown daughter what to do!).

I did not realize that Houston is the fourth largest city in America, but having driven through a few times one does realize there are interstates going everywhere. Yes, Houston traffic is going to be a problem.

Beyond the traffic there are some good things. Because of the varied population there are many ethnic restaurants. There is a China town and Little India. There is a Shipley’s donut chain called the Kolache Factory that sells warm Eastern European pastries called kolaches, filled with sausage and cheese (It’s a Czexas thing our daughter informed us—Czech/Texas.). We ate there for breakfast and they were good. We had a wonderful Indian meal at a restaurant called Indika, and I had goat brains for the first time. They were delicious. I did notice that goat was on the menu in several places. For my main course at Indika I had grass fed beef, Holy Cow, as the waiter said. It had been grilled and was served in a masala sauce, with a creamy cashew nutmeg curry; chili oil and spiced sweet potato with caramelized onions and black garbanzo beans. I will go back to this place!

Another fun restaurant was Hugo’s. It’s a Mexican restaurant that has been around for some time and has won many awards for its food and friendly service. We were surprised to find squash blossoms on the menu. There was a squash blossom soup, a squash blossom salad, squash blossom quesadillas, enchiladas stuffed with squash blossoms, goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms, and tostadas topped with shrimp, zucchini and squash blossoms. My husband ordered two of these items and found them delicious. I had never been to a place where squash blossoms were featured with their own little menu. It was for a limited time since squash blossoms don’t last forever.

Perhaps the best find was Underbelly. Chris Shepherd is the James Beard award-winning chef for this restaurant and much to my surprise the new issue of “Saveur” featured him and his restaurant. Shepherd has a bold statement at the top of his menu, “Houston is the new American Creole city of the South.” Using the word “Creole” in a more general sense, to describe the mixing of disparate cultures, Shepherd is explaining that he cooks a version of Houston food derived from the culinary traditions of the enormous ethnic populations that live there. Instead of barbecue brisket he makes stewy braised goat with rice-cake-like dumplings, red curry with pork belly, and fried, turmeric-marinated grouper served over rice noodles, all seasoned from a coterie of flavorings—Chinese five spice, fish sauce, gochujang (the spicy fermented Korean condiment)—not widely used in Texas cowboy cookery.

The food at Underbelly is served one course at a time and served from the lightest to the heartiest course. They called it family style but by serving it one dish at a time, I thought it more like eating in a Chinese home where everyone dips their chopstick into the communal pot. You could enjoy each course that way and everybody got a taste. We had a tomato salad followed by the grouper described above (excellent), a pork belly with a cucumber salad, and the famous goat dumplings (which are always on the menu) and they were probably the best item. I will certainly visit this restaurant again. Also of interest, Shepherd has a list of small ethnic restaurants he would like you to try and you can take the list with you. He supports these smaller places and gives them the credit for teaching him how to infuse his food with all these great flavors.

I may have to visit our daughter again—sooner rather than later.

From the article on Underbelly in “Saveur” there are some recipes worth trying. They all have an Asian twist, but nothing you cannot do.

June/July 2015 issue of “Saveur” magazine

Watermelon, Feta, and Jalapeño Salad

Serves 6

2 tbsp. fish sauce

1 ½ tbsp. fresh lime juice

2 tsp. honey

3 shallots (1 roughly chopped, 2 thinly sliced)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

1 red Thai chile, stemmed

2 tbsp. canola oil

12 oz. watermelon flesh, cut into 2 ½”x1 ½ “rectangles

¼ cup crumbled feta

2 vine-ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered

1 jalapeño, stemmed and thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

¼ cup mint leaves

¼ cup torn basil leaves, preferable Thai

3 scallions, thinly sliced

Purée fish sauce, lime juice, honey, chopped shallot, the garlic, and chile in a blender until smooth; with the motor running slowly drizzle in oil until emulsified.

Toss dressing with watermelon, feta, tomatoes, jalapeno, salt, and pepper in a bowl; transfer to a serving platter and top with sliced shallots, the herbs, and scallions.


Cantaloupe with Peach Agrodolce

This dessert is simple to make.

Serves 6

1 cup sugar

½ cup apple cider vinegar

2 peaches, peeled, pitted, and diced

1 large cantaloupe, peeled, halved, and seeded, and cut into 1/2”-thick slices

¼ cup olive oil

1 pint blueberries

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

¼ cup torn basil leaves, for garnish

Bring sugar, vinegar, and peaches to a simmer in a 2-quart saucepan over medium; cook until peaches are softened and liquid is reduced by half, 10-12 minutes. Set agrodolce aside.

Build a medium-heat fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to medium. (You can heat a cast iron grill pan over medium.) Toss cantaloupe with oil, and working in batches, grill, turning once, until charred all over, 10-12 minutes; transfer to a serving platter with blueberries. Drizzle with agrodolce, season with salt and pepper, and garnish with basil.

Peaches and blueberries and basil and cantaloupe are all in season. You may want to make this your July 4th dessert if you are grilling that day.