Wednesday, January 30, 2008

New Works from an Old Friend

I recently had the opportunity to photograph a number of paintings by my good friend Josh Pitcher. I worked with Josh quite a few years ago when I got my first real restaurant job. He taught me so much about cooking and life that I will owe him for years to come. Although it was a pretty lousy job, we had some great times there - it was a fun environment to work in. Josh and I would often play music late into the night after working at the restaurant, and occasionally play open mics together.

Josh's sculptures are some of my favorite of his works - primarily his granite pieces. He also does mixed media paintings of tools, portraits, self-portraits, and abstracts. This photo shoot consists mostly of abstract acrylic on canvas painted between 2005 and 2007. Josh sells his art at various shows throughout Illinois, but you can call him directly if you see something here that you like. Most of his work is untitled, so I've numbered them on my flickr account. If you are interested in a piece, check out my Flickr account or click the photo on the slideshow and note the number. If not, just enjoy the free art show!


Josh Pitcher
Peoria, IL
(309) 692-1476
(309) 712-3840

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

¿Tenga Clase?

Someone asked me a while ago if Mexico had all dirt floors. I know that it was partially in jest, but I think people have serious misconceptions when it comes to imagining industrialized Mexico. Sure, there are areas where people live in shacks built from used automobile parts and scrap metal, raise farm animals in the street, and have dirt floors, but it is hardly representative of the entire country. When it's bad, it's really bad - but even I was surprised to find the amount of upscale places that were accessible by a good portion of the population; at least in Monterrey where jobs are abundant. This excludes the American tourist traps along the coast where you expect to find high class living.

I thought I should post a few of the more upscale food related photos that I took in Monterrey. I found a nice cafe called Tok's in a newer shopping center a few miles from downtown. The menu indicated that they hire students from the local culinary school. Although it was just a cafe, the decor was really upscale and the plate presentation was decent.

I suspect that Tok's might be a chain restaurant, but I was unable to find any other locations online.

Their Chili Relleno is among the best I've ever had.

This is an upscale supermarket that carried a lot of quality food. They had about a dozen different kinds of granola available in bulk. They also had a nice selection of beer and liquor, but it wasn't cheap.

Ok, so this one isn't food related, but it is one of the coolest equatorial sundials I've seen. I don't fully understand all of the intricacies of this, but I suspect there is more to it than I have gathered in my research. If anybody has a better understanding of this type of sundial, apparent solar time, or the equation of time, please point me to a resource that could help explain it. Thanks.

Monday, January 28, 2008

South Padre Island

After Mexico, I spent a day at South Padre Island. The water was pretty chilly and the sky was overcast, but it was nice. I ended up with a couple decent pictures and enjoyed some fantastic seafood.

This is a Portuguese Man O' War sans its tentacles. I was fortunate enough to catch it while the light was brilliant.

I like the industrial gray tones and the reflection of this shot.

This was lunch at Pirates Landing in Port Isabel. The decor was a bit gimmicky, but the oysters were superb and the view was outstanding.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Good Thai!

Alright, so the title of this post is corny as hell, but food is great at Na Na Thai in Bloomington. Although I still love the Thai House, Na Na Thai has a few dishes that just aren't offered there. While it's not much to look at from the outside, the inside is beautifully decorated in a very modern fashion that is contrasted by the more traditional Thai decorations.

We started with mussels that were cooked in a broth with basil and lemongrass. It was very delicious on its own, but we found it was a bit more balanced with the addition of the house chili sauce (the multicolored sauce in the photo). They told us that there were eight mussels per order, but we received ten, which was nice. The fried tofu was nice and crispy - exactly as it should be. It was served with a tasty sweet and sour sauce with crushed peanuts.

Becka had the Pad See Ew (I've seen this spelled a dozen different ways), and proclaimed it to be very delicious. She reported that the noodles could have been seared a bit more and the eggs better incorporated, but that it was good. I had the Duck Curry which was excellent. The waiter informed us that the ducks were cooked Peking style in Chicago and brought in fresh. It was superb, and contained a fair amount of duck. It could have been spicier, but I failed to indicate that I wanted it prepared in the authentic Thai manner. It was a bit different in that it contained green beans, but they were fresh and offered a nice contrast in texture.

Note: these were taken with my phone, so please excuse the poor quality.

Mussels and Fried Tofu

Pad See Ew

Duck Curry

George Bush Intercontinental Airport

Just wanted to mention that Houston was the worst airport that I've experienced so far. It was very difficult to find the correct terminal because my airline was not listed on the sign. Finally, someone was able to assist me and I took a "shuttle" across the entire airport to what appeared to be an entirely separate building. When I finally reached the correct terminal, I had to go through security again, which did not happen at any other airport while taking connecting flights. Seriously, it was like the airport was designed by a child.

And when I finally passed security I was treated to this:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

La Diligencias or El Cabrito... Pt. 2

Now for the front of the house and a bit more about the food. It should be noted that I was only able to photograph a small portion of the food I consumed. I was generally so busy that I didn't always have time to snap photos, or I was in an area that I didn't feel comfortable toting my camera.

This is the dining area of Las Diligencias. It is pretty upscale for the district and draws a diverse crowd.

A couple of the servers requested that I take their picture. They were really very proud.

When I returned to Las Diligencias to take pictures, they presented me with a traditional Northern Mexican Dish called Machacado con Huevos (Crushed Dried Beef with Eggs). Since cattle are rare in this region, they preserve all the beef they can by salting it and curing it in the sunlight. The resulting meat is called Carne Seca, which is sort of similar to our Beef Jerky. Basically, it's a scramble with bits of dried beef, serrano chilies, onion, and tomato. This dish is often paired with Queso Fundido con Chorizo (Melted Cheese with Spicy Mexican Sausage) and eaten like a taco. I will definitely be making this one in the future.

This is Sopa de Mariscos (Seafood Soup). It was based on a tomatoey crab broth and garnished with shrimp, fish, mussels, octopus, squid, and a frog leg. I didn't get to see them make this soup, but it was delicious. The frog leg was a pleasant surprise.

Most of the beer that I drank in Monterrey were brewed by Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, a brewery in Monterrey. This model is a Marzen with a beautiful amber color and an off white head. It's mildly malty and finishes very dry. Next to Negra Modelo it's my favorite Mexican beer. CCM also brews Carta Blanca and Bohemia. All the beers were damn fresh, especially the Carta Blanca on tap at the hotel for 10 pesos.

Again, this beer was much better on tap. It's an American Style Lager, and I suspect it's brewed with rice. However, unlike its American Counterpart, this one actually has flavor. It was a bit maltier and hoppier than most American Lagers. And again, 10 pesos...

So this isn't a great picture, but I just had to talk about Gloria's. They're not made at the restaurant, but they are so delicious that I had to get a recipe. Basically they are pecan candies made by cooking milk with sugar over low heat, stirring constantly for a LONG time, and then adding the crushed pecans. There is an imported version that's sold in Mexican grocery stores, but they pale in comparison to the real thing. The imported version is like a pecan caramel, where these are smooth and buttery with a ton of pecan flavor. I will post the recipe once I've perfected it. They sent me home with an entire bag of these, two of which actually made it across the border!

Well, that's it for this post. I have more Monterrey pictures that I hope will be mildly interesting, and those will appear in later installments.


Las Diligencias or El Cabrito... Pt. 1

Sometime last week, I embarked on a journey to Monterrey, Nuevo León via bus from Southern Texas. I had but four goals and no particular agenda.

1. Work in a restaurant to learn new culinary techniques and recipes.

2. Drink Carta Blanca and Indio beer.

3. Eat tons of food.

4. Don't get rolled.

Well, I am happy to report that I accomplished all of the above goals. However, the American dollar is weak and Monterrey is expensive, so it wasn't long before I ran out of money. I did, however, eat a ton of expensive food, a fair amount of cheap food, and drank a modest amount of beer.

When I first got off the bus, I wandered to the University Metropolitan Area where I found a nicer looking restaurant situated caddy corner to a place called El Cabrito (The Goat). Because Northern Mexico lacks an abundance of cattle, their specialty is goat. I had eaten goat cheese and drank goat milk, but never eaten goat meat. The restaurant that I went into also specialized in goat, but was significantly more upscale. As it turns out, both restaurants are owned by the same person, and the goats are roasted whole over a wood fire at El Cabrito. The upscale restaurant, Las Diligencias, gets their meat from El Cabrito, but serves it in a much trendier fashion. As it turns out, goat tastes similar to lamb, and I found it to be very delicious, especially when braised in salsa.

After eating a huge meal at Las Diligencias, I began to speak to the waitstaff and ask if I could see the kitchen. Once the owner arrived, he was happy to show me around. Using the hostess as a translator (my Spanish is weak), I arranged to come back later that evening to work for a few hours. They taught me some recipes and showed me how to cook various dishes. I learned some secrets to cooking goat and how to break one down. I also taught them a few culinary tricks. It was a wonderful experience for everybody.

This is El Cabrito where the goats are roasted on spits over a wood fire. The skinny one is liver that's been wrapped in bacon.

This is where they break down the goats after they are done.

Cabrito al Carbón

This woman made about five tortillas to my one. But they were impressed that I knew how to make a tortilla. Here, she is reheating tortillas that she made earlier in preparation for a large party.

I only wish that I could have spent more time with the friendly people at Las Diligencias. Once I showed interest in their establishment, they opened up and treated me as a guest in their home. They gave me free food, knowledge, and shared cherished recipes. They shared their secrets and livelihood with me, and they probably would have even put me up for a couple of nights had I asked them. It was amazing.

To be continued...

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Rio Bravo...

Today was a day of biking/hiking near the Rio Grande. I managed to get several good shots of some wildlife. The Javelinas (I call them pig dogs, but they are more closely related to rhinos) are quite used to people, but I did manage to get too close to one of them. He subtly let me know that I was in his personal space and I backed off. I also saw a roadrunner which was pretty swell. My favorite picture was the Green Heron (apparently they are pretty rare) which I managed to capture by getting a bit dirty and sitting peacefully by the water for a while. Other bird folk were up on the overlook using their high dollar zoom lenses and spotting scopes trying to takes its picture. I feel like I got the more intimate shot.

The very curious green heron

The roadrunner

The Javelinas

Here is a tattered building where Mexicans sometimes hide until it's safe to cross.

As always, there are more pics on my flickr page.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Revisited...

As per usual, I work on New Year's Eve catering in some form or another. This year was no different in that respect, but very different in another. It was a chance to revisit a former employer and say hello to a few old friends. What was different, however, was the lack of old friends to say hello to. Things have greatly changed over the past few years - some for the good and some for the bad. I left the Gala with mixed feelings of happiness and longing. I sometimes miss the rush of the kitchen, working nights, and being the one behind the flambé station. But it's also pretty nice having health insurance, a pension, and the satisfaction of helping people rather than serving people. In any event, it was nice to be back in the midst of things, and I also snapped some nice photos.

Sleeping Buddy

I randomly snapped this with my phone while Buddy was sleeping. I thought it was nice, but then I think all pictures of puppies are excellent! (of course, it's been photoshopped)

Sizzling India

Becka and I ate at Sizzling India a while back, but I simply haven't had time to blog about it. The meal was pretty decent as usual. It's definitely not the best Indian food that I've ever had, but the service was really excellent the other night. I will say that I have better luck ordering off of the menu as opposed to the lunch buffet. The food tends to be slightly less mushy, which I prefer, as I like to see what I'm eating.

I ordered two of the Chili Bajji appetizers as a meal, and they kindly threw in the traditional side dishes. Bajji are stuffed chillies dipped in a garam (or gram) flour batter and deep fried. The stuffing usually consists of ground chickpeas that are mildly spiced with cumin and other seasonings. They weren't the best I've had, but they were sufficient. Sizzling India serves three standard condiments on the side: a tamarind sauce, a cilantro mint sauce, and a tangy chutney. My favorite combination is a 50/50 mix of the tamarind sauce and the cilantro mint sauce. It provides a nice sweet and sour tang to the dish, but also adds moisture as the bajjis can be a bit on the dry side.

Becka had some sort of vegetable curry, but I can't remember exactly what was in it. She said it was very good, however. The sides included white rice, a corn soup, dal, a mushroom curry, a vegetable curry, a tangy yogurt sauce, and a mango custard with canned fruit cocktail floating in it. I liked all of the sides except the tangy yogurt and the mango dessert. I'm just not a fan of canned fruit cocktail - it's just not...right. The custard was decent. Also, the corn soup was a bit bland, but edible.

And then there's Naan. There is just something about Indian flat bread cooked in a tandoor. I could make a meal out of Naan and curry any day.