Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I have a confession to make: I am a dried-bean novice.

And I eat a lot of beans. After being vegetarian for about 15 years, I have only used lentils in their dried state. (Do lentils even count? They take no time.) Other beans just seemed like too much work.

I've been satisfied with canned beans—they're a great convenience food and really good for you. It's so simple to just open a can, rinse the beans, and add them to a recipe or salad.

While shopping last weekend, I finally decided to take the plunge and make dried beans instead of canned. I chose black beans, because they're one of my favorites and I could imagine using a whole batch in just a few days.

I was getting ready to soak the beans before going to bed Monday night. Just for good measure, I checked with the old standby, The Joy of Cooking, which suggested that black beans don't need to be soaked at all. Apparently, soaking them only eliminates a tiny portion of the gas-causing sugars.

So I went to bed and left the bean-making for yesterday.

After picking over and rinsing the beans, I just boiled them with a chopped onion and jalapeno, adding salt and pepper when they were almost done.

And the results?

Holy crap! My black beans are actually black! I've always hated how my black beans turn out brown after I cook them out of a can with other ingredients. Seeing perfectly black black beans in restaurants was frustrating.

Who knew all it would take was a super-simple method of cooking dried beans? OK, probably a lot of people, but whoa—I am so happy with these. They're prettier, have a firmer bite and taste better than their canned counterparts.

The only sad thing is that the process stained my favorite pot. It's enameled cast-iron, and its creamy interior has been stained before. I think the blue-black ring should come out with further cooking or a good baking soda scrubbing.

I am definitely going to be using dried beans more often. They're much easier to use than I thought, not to mention delicious.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tam Deli & Cafe

Living in South Austin, getting up north to eat doesn't happen all that often.

But recently, I checked out Tam Deli and Cafe, a little Vietnamese place on North Lamar. The man and I split all the dishes so we could try everything.

We began with a veggie steam bun. It was much larger and fresher than most steam buns I've tried in the past. It was stuffed with a veggie filling that seemed heavy on taro. It was warm, mild and comforting.

Next came the Bahn Mi Chay. Stuffed with carrots and jalapenos, it had a great flavor. The bread was great—crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, but the filling could have used something more hearty. Maybe tofu?

The special house egg noodles with vegetables and tofu tasted fresh, and the veggies still had a little crunch. The sauce on the noodles was quite mild, but was made much better with the vinegar sauce it was served with and the red sauce on the table.

Dessert is where we chose our own dishes. He got sticky rice with coconut sauce. The purple rice was well done and only mildly sweet, and the salty coconut sauce was fun to dip in.

I got the Che with tapioca and bananas, served warm. Suspended in a sweet-salty and slightly sour coconut milk, the tapioca was soft and comforting. I think more desserts should be served warm - it just gives me the warm fuzzies.

Overall, I had a tasty meal at Tam. The toughtest part was choosing dessert. They have amazing-looking cream puffs, more varieties of Che (including one with sweet corn, which I LOVE), variations on sticky rice and cookies - I had to force myself to put down a delicious-looking box of tuiles. I'll definitely be back, at least for dessert.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ugly Soup

I get on these food kicks (don't call it a rut!), and lately I've been making lots of soup. For some reason, when the weather got to 90 and stayed there, I couldn't get enough of the stuff.

My most-made soup the last several weeks is one I call Ugly Soup. It's kind of like a Vietnamese-style hot and sour soup, spicy with chiles and sour with lime juice.

It's delicious, and pretty good for you. But it's ugly. Really ugly.

It's got a whole head of shredded cabbage boiled in it, and that stuff just ain't pretty. But boy, is it tasty! I put a little fresh cilantro on top to dress is up a little, but it's clearly drab. The cabbage is light - almost grey, and tofu looks like, well, tofu - beige and square.

Tomatoes and pineapple make it more tart and fresh-tasting, and the color from the tomatoes helps a bit, too.

I could probably make this stuff a couple times a month and still not get sick of it. Even in the heat, it's light and fresh and feels nourishing to eat. The hot, sour and slightly sweet broth is irresistible, and I love the slight crunch of the cabbage.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blue Dahlia Bistro

On a recent Friday evening, I checked out Blue Dahlia Bistro before heading to the Off Center for a show.

Since it was an early dinner, we were able to catch some great happy hour deals.

The man and I shared a tableful of snacky foods on the back patio.

To drink, he had a Belgian beer, while I had a fresh lemonade with pomegranate.

First was the tartine with brie, apricot jam and walnuts. I think this might have been my favorite dish of the evening. The brie was room temperature and soft, and the jam lent a sweet-sour note and the walnuts a nice crunch.

A platter loaded with hummus, tabbouleh, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh breads arrived next. The breads, especially the olive bread, were tasty. The tabbouleh was probably the best thing on the plate—very fresh and herbal.

A white bean and mint gazpacho was quite mild. After adding salt, it woke up a little, but didn't hold up to the rest of the meal.

We'd gotten to dinner so early, we were going to be too early for the show. Too full for dessert, we opted for some warm after-dinner drinks. He got a latte; I got a chai.

Sipping it on the serene back patio was really enjoyable. The only problem were the flies. Throughout the meal, we had to swat at swarms of flies to prevent them from landing on our food. Kind of distracting, but overall the meal and the setting were really nice. I'll definitely be back to sample more of the menu.

Friday, May 15, 2009

El Meson

Since Las Manitas closed a while back, I've been looking for a place that makes really good vegetarian breakfast tacos. Last weekend, I checked out El Meson, which is waaay over by the airport.After finding the secluded little place, I was delighted by the charming interior, with tiled tabletops, small two-tops and larger booths.

Orders placed at the counter, we found ourselves at one of the two-tops.

Within just a few minutes, our order was up: two tacos for me, and huevos motulenos for the man.

Tacos: black bean, mushroom and cheese; black bean and fresh cactus.

Huevos motulenos with beans, potatoes and tortillas

The tacos were good. I'd heard the tortillas were fresh, but when I asked at the counter if they were homemade the reply was, "not today." Still, for store-bought, they were good and corn-y. The black beans were delicious, and had some fresh peppers and onions in them. The cactus was fresh and still a little crunchy - so good, and it also had some heat from fresh peppers. So much better than canned.

The salsa made it even better. It was smokey, tangy and hot with chile de arbol.

I got a taste of the huevos motulenos, too. The two sauces were very fresh and vibrant, and the potatoes were well seasoned.

Despite the distance, I think I'll return to try lunch. The calabicitas plate sounds really good.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cauliflower Soup: Better with Air Conditioning

There are so many good veggies at the market now. I got an incredibly gorgeous golden cauliflower recently at Sunset Valley.

My usual method of cooking cauliflower is roasting - I find it really brings out the flavor without having to add much of anything else, except for a little bit of butter and salt.

I've been eating a lot of soup lately, so I tried a creamy cauliflower version.

To start, I chopped the cauliflower and roasted it until it was golden brown.

As it was roasting, the house got hotter and hotter. That's not so unusual, but the air conditioning was on. I checked the vents, and air was coming out, but it wasn't cold. Uh oh. Now, I had roasting vegetables and I had to eat a bowl of hot soup pretty soon.

I added the cauliflower to a pot of sauteed carrot, onion potato and vegetable broth and boiled it all together for a few minutes.

I added fresh milk and parsley and whirred it with a hand blender until it was smooth-ish (I like some texture).

The result was delicious, and really pretty. I love the pale orange color. I'd thought about adding some Full Quiver Cheddar for sharpness, but I forgot. (I blame the heat.) It was good, even without the cheese, but I may try it next time.

Eating hot soup in a hot house is not the most comfortable thing in the world, but when the soup turns out really well, it isn't all that bad.