Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fist of Basil and Pla Koong at Nidda

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 11:05 PM

A couple of years ago I pilfered some Thai Basil seeds off of my friend Brittany's plant, stuck them in a pot, and they decided they wanted to grow. The leaves are smaller than what you get at a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant but they are still full of flavor and help add an essential flavor layer when trying to recreate these cuisines from home. I don't do a lot of Vietnamese dishes at home only because it's so cheap and accessible and we eat it all of the time. On the other hand, I'm infatuated with Thai food and the beautiful simplicity of the ingredients that combine to create a sensory symphony of flavor (waxing a bit too poetic, I know.)

Nidda used to be Bangkok Place and I was really good friends with the previous owner, Marty Chuenpreecha, one of the founders of Patu in the Village. Marty took over the space at Bangkok Place (inopportunely located next to Erotic Cabaret and their window display of mannequins bedecked with fabric daisy pasties and fishnets.) The teensy little Thai cook named "Nao" (NOW) came with him and I swear she could have taken a nap in the giant wok she cooked with in the kitchen. When Marty moved to California to be with his family and a friend took over business, Nao stuck around long enough to see that the recipes were passed on correctly to the other cooks. I don't know if she's still around but you can still tell that she was there.

Bangkok Place epitomized Thai food for my palate because of the love that I knew was in the food. But every now and then I come across it again and I can tell that the cook is stirring the dish with their heart. I've tasted it at a handful of places like Asia Market (1010 W. Calvacade), Thai Restaurant (5757 Westheimer), and finally Nidda (1226 Westheimer).

Pla Goong @ Nidda
Spicy Charbroiled Shrimp Salad w/ Lemongrass, shallot, keffir lime leaves, fish sauce, lime juice, Thai chilies

My Fruit Sticker Collection

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 10:53 PM

I love stickers, almost as much as I love fruit so this is like a 2 for 1 deal for me whenever I buy something new from the produce department. Whenever I get a new sticker (yes, I know there are some duplicates) I stick it inside my cabinet door before washing the fruit. Can you identify any of them?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My First Trip to the Canino Mercado and a Stuffed Squash Attempt

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 11:17 AM

Last weekend we ventured out to the north Heights Canino Mercado Farmer's Market. Even though it wasn't at its seasonal peak, it was still awesome. We picked up some baby globe calabacita squash, as well as some nopalitos (prepped cactus), green beans, guavas, strawberries, habaneros, chili piquins, and a pumpkin to carve. It was beautiful and I could have stayed there all day had Husby been willing to stick around a little longer.

Last night, I decided to experiment with the squash in a dish inspired by my mother-in-law Amal, who is the queen of stuffing squash. When you cut into her cousa meshe (Lebanese stuffed squash) it is packed so tight it looks like it grew that way, already filled with rice, pine nuts, and sometimes a little ground beef.

I washed the squash, cut the tops off, and used a little baby spoon to scoop out the innards and put them aside in a bowl. I used a muffin tin to hold them in place while I sauteed some garlic, olive, and onion. Then I threw in the squash, a few dashes of balsamic vinegar and about two TBSPs of tomato paste, and cooked it down for about ten minutes. I salted to taste but still felt like it needed something, so I sprinkled on about a TBSP of chicken masala from Chandrika Spices. It is blend of chili powder, dhana jeera (a mix of cumin and coriander), shahjeera (caraway seeds), cinnamon and clove. It is like being able to add Techni-color to your ho hum dish.

I filled the squash with the improvised 'ratatouille' and put the tops back on (not necessary, just cute as a button), put the oven on about 400F and popped the muffin tin in for a good fifteen minutes. I was really surprised that the Husby liked them because of the cute factor but he did! Yay! The older son squeezed the squash and ate the filling. The little refused to try it at first but after he saw that Annie liked it (our dog) he ate not just the few bites I insisted on but almost his whole serving!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Himalaya or Bust

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 9:11 PM

My family and I frequent the Hillcroft restaurant strip at least weekly and were on our way to London Sizzler, a modern Indian restaurant we've been to a couple of times and really enjoyed. It is in a shopping center at the northwest corner of 59 and Hillcroft and is host to a few restaurants and stores including a new spice shop we dropped into first. Chandrika Masala is family owned and has rows upon rows of preblended curries, whole and ground spices, flours, lentils, and many things I've never seen or heard of before. The owner was kind enough to walk me through the store and explain the uses for some of the items, like a merchant tour guide. He boasted that the curries are all blended freshly in their warehouse on Murphy Rd. Their rice is cleaned and hand packed with 'no powder to be found'. The store was packed with soap nuts and jaggery, dried pomegranate seeds, chutneys and myriad other ingredients to be explored. We bought a bag of chicken masala and fish masala with a promise to return.

Instead of heading back over to London Sizzler, we poked out heads into Himalaya, a North Indian-Pakistani restaurant a couple of doors down. We like what we saw and opted for a table there. The menu was written on three large dry-erase boards that hung on the walls, along with a large painting of a Mexican market and a map of Karachi. One board was for the meat dishes and desserts, one for the daily specials and the other was soley for vegetarian meals.

Five other tables were filled with families of all different cultures and we tried to sneak a look at their plates on the way to our table. The owner, a man named Kaiser, came over for our order and we accepted all of his suggestions as he took charge. The more mild chicken-boti for the boys, a fish curry for my husband, and for me the hara tikka masala, a chicken and green curry dish.We also ordered a side of daal, and two pieces of naan.

And as we were super hungry my husband asked about an appetizer but the owner shook his head.

"You won't need it."
We begged with famished eyes and he said, "Okay, I will send you something."
A few minutes later, two large vegetable samosas were sent out and we cracked them open and split them up between the four of us. They were gone before we got them.

While waiting for our food, I overheard a conversation from a table of about ten people sitting near us.
A woman was asking another older woman, "What do you call this, Mom?"
Near the Indian mother-in-law was another older woman who laughed and said, "We call it pan!"

A Chinese couple with two daughters walked in and sat down to eat, and an Indian man with his Caucasian wife sat behind us. The atmosphere was one of a family diner with a bustle of activity from the customers, the kitchen with it's order-up bell, two waiters running food and refilling waters to cool the happily burning tongues, and the owner keeping reign over the show.

Soon our food arrived- first the chicken boti and a big bowl of rice, then the bread and the fish and the masala and the daal. It was all so good with simple ingredients and complex flavors.

The chicken boti was juicy and mild enough for our four and eleven year old boys, but still jaunty with just a kick of spice.

The fish curry was awesome- two moist fillets of snapper (though we joked it was probably tilapia, the way every 'white' fish is in Houston, smothered in a curry of roasted tomatoes, sauteed onions and fresh chopped coriander.

My hara tikka masala was a creamy but not too rich dish with onions, mint and coriander leaves, green chilies, garlic, tomatoes and yogurt to name a few of the ingredients. It's one of those dishes that you keep eating just one more bite of until you regret it.

And the daal! How could something so homely be so good? Piping hot, creamy and rife with small chunks of garlic, which I love, and ginger, which I would normally avoid but didn't mind here. Toasted cumin seeds, fried onions and fresh coriander topped it off. It is by far my favorite daal in town.

The naan was large and soft and served without the unhealthy shmear of delicious ghee that I love and my husband avoids, but I didn't miss it one bit.

We did wind up with leftovers which I took care of last night and were just as good as the previous day.

Go to Himalaya- it's right off the freeway. Five minutes from the Galleria on 59 and it is well worth the 'trip'. Don't give me the "I don't leave the Loop line"- it's pathetic how much those chumps miss out on. Most of the good stuff, the really down-home-from-somewhere-far-away one star cuisine that trumps any Michelin ranked restaurant any day of the week, is outside the loop. The rest are just diluted versions to fit the Great White Palate.

6652 Southwest Fwy
Houston, TX 77074-2210
(713) 532-2837