Archive for the ‘Tasty Travels’ Category

Comfort Cooking: This Would be My Last Meal

September 13, 2010

I’ve been asked so many times “what’s the best meal you’ve ever had?” and I always rack my brain, sifting through the thousands of amazing meals I’ve eaten, but am never able to pick THE one. Coming back to Lebanon this year, and eating quite possibly the most amazing home cooked meals that anyone could have, reminded me that no restaurant or celebrity chef in the world could ever match up.

A large lunch at home with the family is a part of my grandparents’ daily routine, and there are never less than 3 or 4 dishes on the table, each crafted with the finest culinary skills by my self-taught grandma who has been cooking for over 60 years. Not only does she still cook multiple courses every single day, but she continues to make the best homemade pickles, jam, and other delicacies whose quality could never be matched by store bought products.

Every time I go to Lebanon, my grandma knows there’s one particular dish that I absolutely love, and she goes out of her way to make sure she has the necessary ingredients ready to make it. I crave it. I dream about it. And then I talk about it and can’t wait until the next time I can eat it. If I could pick my last meal, this, my friends, is what it would be. It includes 3 of my favorite things: Pasta. Meat. Marrow.


Spaghetti with goat meat in a tomato based sauce. The spaghetti is perfectly al dente. The meat couldn’t be more tender and falls right off the bone. While it sounds like a relatively simple dish, I know that hours of preparation went into it, allowing for the flavors to develop perfectly, making each bite taste like heaven.

The bones are left in the dish and have absorbed all of the goodness from the sauce. This is definitely my favorite part of the meal – hitting the bone against a small piece of pita bread until all the creamy, extremely rich marrow comes out. Seriously orgasmic.


As if this wasn’t enough, at this particular lunch, my grandma had also made one of my all time favorite side dishes – Sambousek – pastry dough that’s been stuffed with spiced ground beef and pine nuts, and then lightly fried until crispy. I could eat these all day. Every day.


And then to top it all off, dessert includes fried plaintains topped with sugar. These aren’t just any plaintains. They’ve been flown in from Nigeria and then sliced thinly and perfectly fried until the outside has a very slight crunch, giving way to a soft – but not at all mushy – center. They just don’t taste the same anywhere else.

….A month later….

I  already desperately craved the pasta. And I had a few weekend hours on my hands. Luckily, I had sat down with my grandma and she gave me the family recipe, step by step. Since it’s pretty difficult to get goat meat here in the US, I substituted with beef short ribs. I have to say, for my first attempt, it was deeeeelicious. The fat from the meat combined with the slow cooking made the sauce super rich and hearty.

I can’t divulge this recipe quite yet, but I will give away a little trick I learned that can be applied to other saucy pasta recipes — only partially cook the pasta in boiling water and then let it simmer in the sauce the rest of the way – instead of just having the sauce coat the pasta, this allows the noodles to actually absorb the flavors from the sauce while it’s cooking – trust me, it makes the biggest difference!

Massive Mounds of Meat – The Best BBQ in Texas

February 18, 2010

As mentioned in my first post, my New Year’s trip to Austin basically revolved around my meals.  Naturally, it being my first trip to Texas, my top priority was to have the best BBQ I could possibly find.  I didn’t want anything fancy, trendy, or touristy – I was looking for the real thing.  While having dinner on my first night in Austin, I asked a local where I needed to go to get the best of the best.  Without hesitation, he said “You have to go to Lockhart – it’s the BBQ capital of Texas”.

Lockhart is a tiny town about 30 mins south of Austin. There are four famous BBQ restaurants, and all had rave reviews, but I chose the one that had been recommended to me: Kreuz Market (pronounced “Krites”).

Even though it was 3pm, the place was PACKED.  I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like during peak lunch hour!  I loved the family style, casual ambience. There were two giant rooms of huge wooden tables and each room had a long line – My friend and I strategized – he took the condiment line to pick up some jalapenos and avocados, and I tackled the meat.  While I was waiting and pondering what to order, I noticed this awesome sign and knew this place was as real as it gets:

Meat is ordered by the pound and served up on butcher paper.  The place didn’t even serve sides – they had their priorities straight.  I wanted to try EVERYTHING on the menu so I asked for half a pound of their pork ribs (which is what I was most excited about), a quarter pound of prime rib (a friend I made while standing in the 25 minute long line said I HAD to try it), one regular sausage, one jalapeno-cheese sausage, and ¾ pounds of beef brisket for my friend.  I was salivating as I watched the man take the prime rib straight out of the smoker and cut it into thin, juicy slices.

They threw in some pieces of sliced bread and saltine crackers, but I knew I wasn’t going to be wasting any stomach space with those.

Now, I’m usually a hot sauce kind of girl but I didn’t even dare ask for BBQ sauce as I was told it would be taken as a major insult.  And sure enough, as soon as I bit into my first rib, I knew why the sauce wasn’t needed – the flavor explosion in my mouth was insane, and the meat was so tender I barely had to chew.  I can safely say the peppery spice rub made these ribs the best I’ve ever had.

The sausages were incredible – glistening and juicy, they had just enough spice for my taste.  The casing was super thin and the sausage was deliciously flavored with hints of jalapeno that didn’t over power the meat.

The prime rib lived up to its rave review – It was so tender and meaty.  Not a lot of spice was incorporated, but it didn’t need it; The cut of meat and the way it cooked in the smoker did enough to infuse the perfect amount of flavor.

My friend and I left Kreuz Market extremely pleased with ourselves for getting through almost 2 pounds of meat.  Even though I didn’t have many points of comparison in the land of BBQ, I knew I had experienced one of the best.  Next time you are in Texas and in driving distance of Lockhart, you can’t pass up a stop at the famous Kreuz Market.

KREUZ MARKET

www.kreuzmarket.com

(512) 398-2361

619 North Colorado Street, Lockhart, TX 78644-2110


My Austin Adventure – Day 1

January 6, 2010

As the end of 2009 was fast approaching, and I found out that I was getting an entire week off work, I decided that I needed to plan a mini-trip to close out the year.  Now, normally when I have an opportunity to travel, my mind (and stomach!) automatically goes to international destinations…Turkey, Egypt, Argentina, Chile, Philippines are among many of the countries next on my list to explore.  This time, however, I realized how much of the US I have yet to see and I knew that I wanted to start discovering some of the most fun cities America has to offer.  After much brainstorming, facebook friend advice, and online searches, I decided on Austin in the big state of Texas.  Granted, not a city where people normally think of taking a “vacation,” but I had only heard about how great of a town it is, how fun the live music scene can be, and come on – I’ve ALWAYS wanted to experience REAL Texas BBQ!  I was finally going to get my chance.

Naturally, when I travel, I tend to plan my days around my meals.  It’s not even intentional!  Just kind of happens.  This time, I hopped on the plane and made my way to the city of the Long Horns (who will be going down in the national championship this week!!  Sorry, the SC Trojan in me couldn’t hold back) with absolutely no plans or agenda – my favorite way to travel and eat.

I checked-in to a totally hip yet classy eco-friendly boutique hotel called Hotel San Jose on South Congress in the historic district of Austin, on the south side of the city.  It was perfect!  There was a cozy outdoor lounge right off of the lobby complete with a fire pit and heaters, and where live music is played regularly.  The rooms were modern and simple, but very comfortable and large with a sitting area, bedroom, bathroom, and even a little patio sitting area.  Service was impeccable – the guys at the desk really took it to heart and talked to me for a good 15 mins when I asked them for some dinner recommendations.

One of their suggestions was Lambert’s – they described it as one of the best “American” food and BBQ places in Austin that also has live music – The two exact things I came to this city for.  I was sold.   I walked in and the sound of live jazz couldn’t have been better!  The place had a woodsy but slightly trendy feel – appropriate for being in downtown.  I sat down, ordered a glass of Malbec, and perused the menu. The decision was not easy, but I went with the Fried Green Tomatoes with Crab Salad appetizer and Country Style Pork Ribs with a side of Green Chili Cheddar Grits.  It was deeeeelicious.  The ribs had so much flavor, I didn’t even feel the need to use any of the 3 BBQ sauces that sat in front of me – which is saying a lot considering I put hot sauce on almost everything.  It was my first time eating grits and I was pretty impressed.  I could totally see how they can have just about any flavor mixed in, and be eaten at any time of day.

Despite the fact that my stomach was telling me to stop, I decided to order the super creamy, velvety, decadent Smoked Chocolate Pudding topped with salted cream for dessert.  To go with it, I had to ask the bartender to make me a Hot Toddy since I’d never had one and he claimed it was one of his specialties.  I definitely didn’t regret the decision.  He mixed the drink in front of me (so now I can make it at home!) – a shot of bourbon mixed with enough hot water to fill the glass, a pinch of nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, a couple whole cloves, a cinnamon stick, a squeeze of lemon, and a few spoonfuls of honey stirred in.  Hands down one of the best cocktails I’ve had. It was spiced perfectly and totally warmed my insides.

The next morning, I took an awesome 2 mile walk  from my hotel to Progress Coffee in east Austin (@ProgressCoffee).  I had heard so many great things about this place.  It was even recently featured in Bon Appetit Magazine’s “Top 10 Best Boutique Coffee Shops” list! Great ambience: There was outdoor seating – which is always a plus for me, free WiFi – great for the students, and the music volume inside was just right to create both a comfortable social scene and conducive study environment at the same time.  I ordered the 5th Street Turkey Sandwich with Chips and Salsa – the bread was fresh, the chips were crispy.  It was an all around good lunch.

I had so much fun at my next stop.  Most people probably would have looked for some good shopping spots or local tourist sites to kill the time in the afternoon, but when I found out that the flagship Whole Foods market (aka. “Carmen’s heaven” as my friends describe it) was right on the west side of downtown, I got way too excited for my own good and had to check it out immediately.  I will proudly admit that I spent over an hour just walking around the place wishing that it was MY local Whole Foods market in LA.  They had everything you could think of:  From the multiple specialty eateries (vegan/vegetarian, seafood, pasta, paninis, etc), to the expansive meat and seafood sections, to the dedicated area for wild mushrooms in the produce section, my mind was racing with all the things I could make.  I could easily go on forever if I mentioned every detail so I’ll just highlight some of my favorites:

A Chocolate Bar complete with a tantalizing chocolate fountain, a number of different house-made chocolate candies and truffles, at least 5 varieties of chocolate covered apples, piles of toffee, bark, chocolate covered nuts, and so many other things I had to walk away from before completely over indulging.

The Cheese Counter – I walked up to it and had to shut my mouth after realizing that my jaw had dropped.  I felt like I was in France. They had just about EVERY kind of cheese you could want, from the rare moldy goat cheeses, to Brillat Savarin – a luscious and decadent cow’s milk triple cream brie cheese that has the creamiest, richest texture of any cheese out there. It feels almost like ice cream, and goes great paired with dates and/or walnuts.  It’s pricey, but totally worth it, even for a sliver. You’re missing out on one of life’s finest pleasures if you don’t taste it!

Naturally, I’ll follow the cheese with the amazing Wine Section. This part of the market felt like a dedicated wine store in and of itself, complete with a wine tasting counter.  There was an awesome selection of domestic and international wines, as well as  great deals on many varieties, including a few different types of Champagne and Prosecco (which was appropriate since New Year’s Eve was right around the corner).

Finally, I have to highlight the Nut Roasting Counter. What really excited me here was that you could make your own nut butter totally fresh.  It was like a self-serve frozen yogurt shop – there were canisters of the roasted nuts where you pull the lever and watch the nutty, buttery goodness pile into plastic containers.  They had the standard nut options, but I loved that they also offered peanut-chocolate and almond-chocolate – 2 combinations you can’t really find pre-packaged and mass distributed. To top it all off, they had very fresh nut oil and honey dispensers, including varieties infused with flavors like lavender.

Little did I know at this point what was to come…and that my second day in Austin was going to entail more than 4 meals, a celebrity owned cafe,  never ending smoked meat, and the best Belgian beer, but I’ll have to wait until my next post to share the delicious details.

HOTEL SAN JOSE

www.sanjosehotel.com

(512) 852-2350‎

1316 South Congress Avenue, Austin, TX‎

LAMBERT’S

www.lambertsaustin.com

(512) 494-1500

401 West 2nd Street, Austin, TX 78701-3802

PROGRESS COFFEE

www.progresscoffee.com

@ProgressCoffee

(512) 493-0963‎

500 San Marcos Street, Austin, TX‎

WHOLE FOODS (Flagship)

www.wholefoodsmarket.com

(512) 476-1206

525 North Lamar Boulevard, Austin, TX 78703-5411