A trip to the UnderBelly via Chef Chris Shepard


When looking for restaurants to enjoy in the random cities I get to visit, I always check a couple of sources to make sure my palette gets pleasured.  Luckily, being in the industry I get the luxury of referencing my DineAround publications from Datassential, they never steer me wrong.  

I also tend to scour endless websites that break down each city by culinary districts and flavor neighborhoods as I seek out the shadey locations that only the local foodies talk about.  Like many, I also enjoy some good food porn from time to time as well as I try to determine where to dine.  

Ironically or not, these amazing places fall in the typically “transitioning areas”.  These areas are always the up and coming and trendy sections of town that tend to scream good food, dancing, shopping and style.  Gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor these areas always lead the big cities and the rest of the country with their openness, creativity, edgeiness and general flamboyance.  

The call last week was Chef Chris Shepard’s UnderBelly.  This is his journey through the food scene of Houston, where in the underbelly of the city “lies an endless array of ingredients and cultures” that shapes his cultural influence.


He provides a great hipster vibe from when you walk in the door until you leave.  From the display of canned and preserved ingredients used in his dishes to the recycled book menu’s and daily changing dishes built from what he finds that morning in the markets, the overall look and feel is exciting, flavorful and fun.  Being known for his nose to tail approach, cured meats and interesting flavor combinations I dove right into the charcuterie plate.  

The charcuterie plate featured an array of traditional favorites and a salami with an interesting flavor twist.  While they were all delicious, his adventurous efforts didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  The mustard and pickled veggies are always a nice compliment to the fatty goodness, but while the meat was delicious, it was nothing above average.  

Here are the featured meats:

Vietnamese Salami – looking for the Vietnamese part of this one was a struggle.  As it was delicious, just tasted like salami. 

Mortadella – typical, like fancy bologna but has a nice spicy, peppery finish

Cured Pork Belly – melts away in your mouth like butter.

Coppa – melts with slight smokiness and sweetness

Molenzino – coppa type with nice salty finish

For my main course I tried to once again embrace his southern heritage and creative flavor spirit and went with the grilled chuck flap, braised greens and beet salad.  All three of these were nicely done, the beef was well marbled and cooked prefectly with a solid char and bloody center.  The greens were a prefect mix of bitter and sour and the beets, while slightly bland, complemented the dish solidly.  Overall, the main course was delicious and lived up to his underbelly theme.  

For dessert, I went with his staple and crowd favorite, the vinegar pie.  This was probably the most interesting part of the meal.  It was kind of like a key lime pie, but made with sugar cane vinegar.  While it had the awesome vinegar bite you would expect, the overall product was disappointing.  The crust was extremely thick and didn’t quite meld well with the sweet acid filling.  

The peanut brittle on top was a great idea, but the overall texture was extremely hard and sticking to your teeth, so while it was a good thought, I probably would have left it off.  

Overall, the hipster appeal was definitely there as the ambiance was Southernly inviting and elegant.  The food was creative and while I appreciated his story, vision and overall flavor combinations, the bill was a bit excessive for the flavor delivery and culinary impact.  In the end, while I would consider coming back the next time I am in Houston, it may fall back to the end of the list with so many other choices.

Starbucks found themselves a Unicorn this week 


In the hunt for the ultimate drink, Starbucks has struck gold this week with its introduction of the Unicorn Frappuccino.      In the words of the Barista at our local Oconomowoc Starbucks yesterday, “sorry, but the whole country is out”.   This is one day earlier than advertised, making the craze for this unique creation, even that much more successful.  

The drink takes a break from the normal hum drum latte and transforms the drinker to a magical world of pink and purple.  The sour and sweet combination makes the tongue sing with fantastical excitement.  This magical mixture of sour mango and sweet blue raspberry provide a perfect melody of deliciousness.  Like my favorite candy, Sour Patch Kids, it gives you a quick hit of sour, but finishes sweet,  like the naughty little creatures they are.  

When you look at the hysteria and happiness that this drink has created over the past five days, I would say that Starbucks has again successfully made many people happy and hyper.  With a mere 59 grams of sugar, it may not be the healthiest of treats, but it may be the most fun!

The Amazon Dash Button – The Future of Ultra-Convenience


The future is here.  Anything you need at the push of a button.  No thinking, no long lines, rude cashiers or wasted time.  The dash button is the next big technology break through that will revolutionize the way that consumers shop, think, order and buy their groceries.  This device takes ultra-simplicity to the next level by not only reminding you with the brand logo attached to your washing machine or cookie jar, but with one simple push of a button, your products are magically delivered to your door within two days.

Amazon offers over 500 products across 100 different brand buttons ranging from Huggies and Tide to Doritos and Red Bull with new buttons getting added daily.  ConAgra just added four buttons supporting their Hunt’s and Slim Jim brands.  Amazon hasn’t been vocal about their sales, but did report that Dash sales have grown 75% in the past three months and they have shipped from 300,000-500,000 buttons since last October.

Amazon has done a great job of taking the traditional club store format and putting it on-line and on-demand.  Who would have imagined that people would pay a premium to order something on-line?  Well, Bezos has again created another way to make our lives easier and gain a few bucks in the process with his Amazon Prime platform.  He has beautifully crafted a way for the consumer to enjoy premium services and benefits for doing something that they were already planning to do, shop.  Since I haven’t seen the statistics I cannot say that this model is making money, but we do know that the membership model at Costco and Sam’s Club is a main source of income for these retailers and since the net worth of Jeff Bezos was recently valued at over $50 billion by Forbes magazine I would say his e-commerce platform is doing something right.

What’s next?  Since we already have wearable technology that tells us to exercise and keeps track of our steps and calories, our heart rate and other vital statistics the sky is the limit.  Soon, this data will be communicated openly and freely to our insurance companies to determine our premiums or our doctors to determine our treatment plans.  With convenience comes freedom and with freedom comes access to your personal data.  

This is the future, this is the new reality, this is the new convenience, but it will be customized specifically for you, so breath easy and shop away.  I plan to start tomorrow with my first button for Charmin, because you never want to run out of toilet paper and just use your imagination where that button will be stuck.  

The Continual Disappointment with Airport Food

Airport food

I still to this day cannot understand why airport food continues to be so poor.  Come on.  Is there any reason why you need to subject us to such torture? It shouldn’t be that hard to satisfy air travelers? We are usually tired, frustrated that our flight was delayed again and our expectations are really not set that high. We are a captive audience. You have us at your will as we are running between flights. We actually expect to pay too much for a really bad meal. I don’t believe it has to be that way and despite recent efforts to lift the quality and ambiance, I still give airports a C+ grade.

I have seen some impressive showings over the past few years, specifically in Chicago at Frontera, Rick Bayless taco shop and in Atlanta in the Intetnational terminal.  I’m not quite sure of the location name, but an impressive meal with some real flavor and creativity.   They used fresh ingredients and had an impressive wine list. I ordered a hand tossed, Margharita pizza and dined at the piano bar, so they are at least trying to step up their game in some locations.

We have even seen entire terminals transformed into interactive cafes to accommodate travelers needs for recharging, refueling and instant gratification.  The new Delta terminal in LaGuardia is very impressive with touch screens at every chair, charging stations and small tables instead of uncomfortable chairs spread throughout the entire terminal.  It feels much like a small cafe, but despite putting a pretty bow on the package, the food still was disappointing.  You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.  Specifically, my meal at Crust was terrible.  A Fritatta so dry, a saltine would have tasted like an ocean and it only cost me $13.  What a deal.

It’s just frustrating that millions of dollars and endless hours are spent on these types of improvements and the thing that should shine the most, the food, continues to disappoint.  The norm continues to revolve around bad chain accounts and frozen ingredients. Way too many times am I disappointed with poor execution and cooking and the trend of bad food, continues.

Delta Laguardia1 image

Let’s take another example of my recent meal at Tony Roma’s in the Newark airport.  After a full day of meetings and no lunch I found myself very hungry and utterly emaciated, so I ordered the filet medallions and half rack of ribs. A little treat since this had been my only meal today. Keep I mind, my expectations are extremely low at this point as I am very hungry and desperate for anything that resembles a meal. It’s like when you haven’t eaten in three days, even a slice of Bologna is the star of the charcuterie plate.

The steaks were done well, cooked medium as requested, tender with good flavor. My loaded mashed potatoes came with cardboard as an added bonus. The broccoli was at least fresh, not frozen and the ribs were decent. Small, very little meat, but tender and flavorful despite being drowned in sauce.

Here’s my biggest problem, I paid $26.99 for this meal. I couldn’t imagine the meal I could get for that price at a white table cloth establishment or fast casual restaurant. A lot better than here I am sure. Price to value is my issue with not only airport food, but chains in general. I had an $18 meal at Applebee’s a few year back that was so bad I pledged never to go back, and I haven’t.

Since Tony Roma’s is known for their ribs I figured that is what I should order. In additon to this staple menu item they offer five different sauces for the ribs for which they are so well known.

Let’s review these sauces.
1) TR’s Original – not too bad. Tangy, ketchup based and slightly sweet.

2) Carolina Honey’s- so peppery and terrible I have nothing good to say. No vinegar or flavor whatsoever.

3) Blue Ridge Smokey’s – not too bad, slightly smokey, sweet and fairly balanced. Partial bitterness at end, but not too bad overall.

4) Maker’s Mark Bourbon- if I was Makers Mark I would be embarrassed. No bourbon and I would pull my name from this chunky mess immediately if I was them.

5) TR’a Red Hot- heat is the only thing I get, no flavor. No balance, no respect.

At least the mix of 80’s and 90’s alternative music made me happy as a Gen X’er and my meal partially worth it.

So here’ so the deal.  As air travelers, most of the time on corporate accounts, we are a captive audience willing to and expecting to pay a lot for food.  We are simply looking for and desiring a good meal composed of real food.  Why is it so hard to satisfy this simple request?

We will continue to wait, please don’t continue to disappoint.

12 Things To Do With All Of Those Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Photo Credit: Wholefoods.com

It’s that time of the year again.  Cold mornings, apple cider, haunted houses, hay rides and the best of all, carving pumpkins.  I love to sit down with the family and try to avoid cutting off a finger each year.  Designing, creating and carving is always a tradition that I look forward to, but the best part of carving process is collecting the seeds.

My youngest daughter Cate loves Halloween.  It’s her favorite holiday and we typically try to cram as much into the month as possible.  We soak up every opportunity to dress up, decorate the house with spooky stuff and get scared.  We eat everything pumpkin from pancakes to cookies and I personally try to sample as many pumpkin beers as possible.  However, as most of you are probably aware, the amount of pumpkin flavored products has gotten out of control.  There is pumpkin flavored everything.  I have seen everything this season from pumpkin vodka and lasagna to toothpaste and breath fresheners. Nothing says clean and fresh like pumpkin.  As you would figure this has led to many products hitting the marketplace that just simply taste bad.  It is proof that some things should just not include a pumpkin flavor and I ask one thing, please stop.

Now I can get back to the purpose of this blog post, pumpkin seeds.  The rewarding thing about eating these delicious treasures is not just the nutritional benefits,  but the hard work you have to put into getting them ready.  First,  you need to scoop out the guts, then separate, then wash, then dry, then bake, then season and finally you get to eat them.  This process is not only time consuming, but annoying and disgusting to most.  I have one daughter, Ava, who hates to dig out the guts and one that loves to dig them out.  Each participate in the process, but they both share the love and appreciation of all that hard work while they’re eating them.

It’s our family tradition and a Halloween ritual like most Americans to carve pumpkins together, make the seeds and enjoy them during those cold fall evenings with a hot cup of tea, coffee, cider or chocolate.  Being a foodie family and getting bored with the traditional salt & pepper seasoning, we have over the past few years gotten creative in how we flavor them.  Last year was Madras curry, spicy cilantro-lime and cinnamon and sugar.  This year was adjusting the recipe and using coconut and avocado oil instead of olive oil.  Whatever your palette desires, I wanted to take it to the next level this year and provide a number of other ways to prepare pumpkin seeds that went beyond simply baking.  Take a look at these sweet and savory ideas and enjoy them this season, like we plan to do.

Happy Haunting.

Sweet Treats

pumpkin brittlepumpkin seed granola

  1. Pumpkin seed brittle from Bon Appetit – http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/pumpkin-seed-brittle
  2. Caramelized pumpkin seeds from the Foodnetwork – http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/sandra-lee/caramelized-pumpkin-seeds-recipe.html
  3. Nut-free, grain-free pumpkin seed granola via Detoxinista – http://detoxinista.com/2012/09/pumpkin-seed-granola-nut-free-grain-free/
  4. Apple-pumpkin seed oatmeal breakfast pie from Yummly – http://www.yummly.com/recipe/Baked-Apple-Pumpkin-Oatmeal-Breakfast-Pie-_Gluten-Free_-565969?columns=1&position=31%2F59
  5. Pumpkin brittle from Martha Stewart – http://www.marthastewart.com/340197/pumpkin-seed-brittle#No%20%28Pumpkin%29%20Guts%2C%20No%20Glory%3A%2012%20Snackable%20Pumpkin%20Seed%20Recipes%7C/274532/pumpkin-seed-recipes/@center/1006802/halloween-pumpkins%7C340197

Savory Eats

pumpkin seedspumpkin seed spinach

  1. Mexican macaroni and grilled corn with pumpkin seeds from Rachel Ray – http://www.rachaelray.com/recipes/mexican-macaroni-and-grilled-corn
  2. Vegan gluten-free pumpkin seed spinach crackers via Yummly – http://www.yummly.com/recipe/Raw-Pumpkin-Seed-Crackers-With-Spinach-_Vegan_-Raw_-Gluten-Free_-1275455?columns=1&position=3%2F59
  3. Baked pumpkin seeds done five different ways from Foodnetwork – http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/photos/reinvented-pumpkin-seeds-5-ways.html

The Dish on Springtime

Photo credit: Trattoria632.com

As winter begins to fade into the warm mist of spring and trees awaken from their long sleep, so do our taste buds.  The cold season forces our physical being to retreat into a deliberate hibernation for which our tongues are included.  We succumb to and embrace the earthy, subtle tastes of root vegetables and slow cooked casseroles subconsciously accepting the reduction of color and brightness to our palate.  There is a culinary beauty during this time of year and the dishes that it provides, but there is nothing like the smell of a ripe tomato that the summertime brings.

The sun is beginning to poke out of the clouds and the ice is melting off the lake. It’s a time of awakening. We are again reminded of colors, aromas and flavors that only the spring and summer can bring. We are again hopeful and inspired by the greening of grass, the smell of honeysuckle and lilac and the blooming tulips.

Our lives revolve around the changing of the seasons.  We rely on these changes to refresh our bodies and recharge our souls.  Rich, decadent flavors of the holiday’s slowly evolve into winter staples like a warm bowl of chili or a nice chocolate stout.  All of these dark flavors mirroring the short sunny hours and grayness of the year.

Then, right when we hit a level of depression that makes us want to scream, we start to hear the chirping of the birds again and we finally spot the fat red breasted Robin sitting in the thick green branches of the pines in the yard.  Spring has come!  At last, a new hope has blossomed and a new day has risen from behind the snow banks, giving us hope once again that flowers will bloom, fruits will mature and aromas will fill the air.

Don’t get me wrong, I love winter and all the beauty it brings, but nothing beats the hope that a warm spring morning can hold.  It inspires creativity and awakens the taste buds to realize that they will once again, feel alive.  Farmer’s markets will soon be a normal Saturday visit and be abuzz with all the earth has to offer.

These delicious gems include early spring fruits and vegetables of all shapes, sizes and colors.  Bright greens of asparagus, artichokes and peas will be complimented by rich, vibrant reds of rhubarb and radishes. Flowers will peak up from their long winter nap and we will once again be reminded of the joyful flavors that spring and summer bring.

As the days begin to get longer and the smells stronger, don’t forget to stop and take a deep breath. Pause and take it in. Because before you know it, another summer will have flown by and harvest completed. Take advantage of what every season has to offer. Each provides its own reminder of what it is like to be alive and kicking.

In case you are wondering what to prepare in these first days of spring, just think about all of the excitement that spring brings to the table.  I have attached a couple yummy looking recipes that help you take advantage of the spring harvest.  Below is a delicious pea and bacon risotto recipe compliments of Food and Wine Magazine, contributed by James Tracey.

For all you gluten free folks out there I have also attached a rustic rhubarb tart recipe that looks glorious from the picture compliments of the Bojon Gourmet.  I plan to make it once I see my first rhubarb sprout.

Enjoy.

 

GLUTEN FREE Rustic Rhubarb, Almond and Honey Tart

image

http://www.bojongourmet.com/2014/05/rustic-rhubarb-almond-and-honey-tart.html?m=1

 

Pea-and-Bacon Risotto

pea-bacon-risotto1

TOTAL TIME:50 MIN

SERVINGS:6

  • 6 ounces lean bacon, diced
  • 2 cups frozen baby peas, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 7 cups simmering chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 cups small pea shoots
  1. In a skillet, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp, 6 minutes. Drain the bacon on paper towels; reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat.
  2. In a food processor, puree half of the peas with 1 cup of water.
  3. In a large saucepan, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is evenly coated with the oil. Add the wine and simmer until almost evaporated, 3 minutes.
  4. Add enough hot stock to just cover the rice and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the stock has been absorbed. Add more stock to cover the rice. Continue cooking and stirring, adding more stock as it is absorbed, until the rice is al dente and suspended in a creamy sauce, 25 minutes. Add the pea puree, the remaining peas and the bacon and cook, stirring, until hot. Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the butter, reserved bacon fat, cheese and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with the pea shoots and serve.

The Five Napkin Burger

Why would I come all the way to New York to get a burger? Because I wanted a burger that was dripping with flavor and oozing with everything that NYC has to offer. The excitement of multiple flavors living harmoniously together in an orchestra of delicious decadence.

I also was looking to spend at least $20 on a burger.

The burger thing still keeps trucking along and by the looks of the Five Napkin burger on Monday night this place is one to not pass up on your next visit.

I was awaiting the delivery of my original five napkin burger like a hyena on the seringetti awaiting its next kill. My eyes are drawn to the track lighting and the decor that tame my hunger until the burger arrives.

They swiftly swoosh the burger in front of me and despite the exploding ketchup that coated my khakis and the guy next to me’s shoes like a good shine, the experience was excellent. The burger was dripping with gruyere cheese and caramelized onions that melted in your mouth.

The pink tinted beef and soft sweet, white bun complimented the experience and left me both fat and happy.

Yes, it took me five napkins to enjoy.

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