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Eat! The city feels like it’s poised for a sprint. It’s the start of the social food season in Austin– that mad dash from SXSW to summer that’s chock full of festivals, fundraisers, and plenty of great food. Here are some of the biggies I’m looking forward to this year:
Austin Smoke Experiment
March 10, 2013
Each year, there is wonderfully inventive food programming on the periphery of SXSW if you know where to look. I really enjoy the “Food Experiments” series of cook-offs, which focuses on a central theme each year and invites amateur and emerging cooks from across the city to compete. “Smoke” is the flavor du jour for 2013, and I can’t wait to see what my fellow bloggers and other amateur chefs in town are going to create. There are 25 competitors, and Brooklyn Brewery is a sponsor of the event as well, so your $15 ticket will get you plenty of nibbles and booze.
Wine and Dine with Paul Qui
March 21, 2013
When Paul Qui opened his Hole in the Wall location of EastSideKings, the city fell all over itself to go slurp ramen in an alley by campus. It’s no surprise, then, that the buzz for his new brick and mortar, Qui, has reached a dull roar in advance of its opening. Austin’s Top Chef will be offer a sneak peek of the restaurant in a 5-course dinner with wine pairings benefitting the Austin Food and Wine Alliance. The $250 tickets will likely sell out quickly, so go join the Alliance’s mailing list to get first dibs when they’re released.
East Austin Urban Farm Tour
April 15, 2013
If you want to learn more about the food community in Austin, I can’t recommend any event more than the East Austin Farm Tour. This tour showcases four of Austin’s urban farms: Boggy Creek Farm, HausBar Farms, Rain Lily Farm, and Springdale Farm. Along with farm tours, each stop will feature chef tastings and wine and spirit pairings. The $45 tickets benefit the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance; it looks like ticket sales have been delayed, so check the Farm Tour website often to snag a pair when they’re released.
April 25, 2013
This is where the locals will be before the Food and Wine Festival begins. Chilling out on the grounds of the Salt Lick, and enjoying Texas beef prepared by some of Austin’s favorite chefs (and probably a few out-of-towners.) The chef lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but the Austin Food and Wine Alliance has earned a reputation for working with the best, so it’s sure to be big. Tickets will be sold on the Food and Wine Alliance website in advance of the event.
Austin Food and Wine Festival
April 26-28, 2013
Dozens of superstar chefs are coming to town for the second annual Austin Food and Wine Festival, and a few locals sharing the spotlight as well. I attended the Food and Wine Festival last year, and it was heavy on the bacchanal. According to event organizers, this year’s programming is more balanced, and one can only hope there will be more food at the festival to soak up all those wine samples.
Big news! A cookbook by the Austin Food Blogger Alliance Cookbook (AFBA) is being published by The History Press in April. I’ve been a member of AFBA since it was founded in 2011, and I now serve as President on the Board of Directors, so this project is very special to me. The book features 70 recipes from bloggers all over Austin. Each blogger who submitted a recipe helped to edit and test other recipes in the book, so this collection is full of proven crowd favorites. The photos were either submitted by bloggers, or taken by professional photographers in AFBA.
My recipe for Roasted Brussels Sprouts, inspired by Paul Qui, will be featured in the book. There’s even a photo of my dish on the back cover! Please consider buying a copy of the book (or four) from the Austin Food Blogger Alliance during our pre-sale period. Each copy is $25, and proceeds of the sales will further activities by AFBA. (We’re a real nonprofit– last year we raised $6,000 for Bake A Wish, hosted educational events, and performed lots of community outreach. All on an operating budget so tiny it’s cute!)
As if all this hype isn’t enticing enough, check out how GORGEOUS this book is. My friend Maggie’s Peach Gallette is on the cover.
What are you waiting for? Go grab a copy. We’ll be preselling the book for just a few more days. After that, it will be on sale at Amazon and lots of other places books are sold.
After much trial and tribulation, the Austin plastic bag ban is here! Starting today, those filmy, annoying single-use plastic grocery bags are no longer available at grocery store check-outs in the city. Addie Broyles did a great write-up on the specifics of the Austin bag ban, which has some interesting loopholes. There’s also a lawsuit challenging the ban.
I’m personally in favor of the bag ban. I find plastic grocery bags to be wasteful, and I hope that eliminating them from store counters will cut down on litter around the city. Reusable bags are not quite as convenient as the throwaway type, but they typically hold more groceries and are more comfortable to carry in from the car. Plus, they can be very stylish! Here are some of my favorite places to get reusable grocery bags around the city and on the web.
Almost every local grocery store sells reusable bags at check-out (duh). Usually a few vendors at the Citywide Garage Sale also sell handmade fabric grocery bags. I also like to shop for bags at Ten Thousand Villages on South Congress. They usually have several sizes and varieties of fabric or reusable bags and totes that although pricy, are stylish and durable. Bonus: these bags are made by artisans in developing countries who are paid fair wages for their work.
If you make your own bags, or have a nice friend to do it for you, Fabricker and The Common Thread have the prettiest fabrics in Austin. They’re also locally owned! If you don’t have a nice friend to make grocery bags for you, Taskrabbit can be a great way to find someone who can do that for you. The service isn’t targeted towards creative types, but since there are so many talented creatives in Austin, I have had success finding them there. Austin quilter Gina Pina also has a lovely selection of custom sewn bags and pouches on her online shop. She uses stylish, colorful fabrics, and her work is stellar. The only drawback is that her bags are on the small side– not perfect for replacing grocery bags, but they’re just right for cosmetics, jewelry, and smaller purchases.
Whether or not it lasts, the Austin bag ban is a good thing. in my opinion. It’s good for the environment, good for crafters, and a good way to add a little style to your weekly grocery shopping.
Work and life have been extremely busy lately. Good busy, but also the draining kind that makes it hard for me to get going sometimes. I’ve been keeping afloat by looking at pictures of baby animals and also watching this little affirmation:
I hope your 2013 is off to a great start! You can do anything good!
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Dallas and Houston for my job lately. It means I have less time than before for cooking and blogging at home, but getting to know these cities and their food cultures has been really rewarding.
If you’ve been following along on Twitter or Instagram, you probably know that I’ve been lucky enough to eat out at a lot of great restaurants lately. In Dallas, I’ve become a Whole Foods connoisseur– did you know that all four locations in the city have different gluten-free hot bar items? I do!– and some of my favorite meals have been at Smoke and Whiskey Cake.
My favorites spots in Houston so far are Down House, Juicy in the Sky, Revival Market, and Benjy’s, although I’m just scratching the surface there. At Down House in particular, the cocktail menu is just lovely, and the restaurant is full of charming little references to Charles Darwin. (Instead of generic plastic folders, they send out your check in a Darwin book. Very cute.) They also have the my favorite Negroni in town so far– I’ve tried 12.
This weekend in Houston, I visited the Eastside Farmer’s Market (lots of food trucks!) and the Sugar Land Farmers Market (lots of goat cheese!) along with one of the city’s loveliest urban farms, The Last Organic Outpost. The Last Organic Outpost is deep in the Fifth Ward northeast of downtown. They host lots of classes on urban gardening and also grow organic produce. Wandering around the farm on Saturday morning was the perfect antidote to a hectic week– there are eggplants, peppers and herbs galore growing on the farm right now.
Forager Mark Vorderbruggen was also on hand that day for FarmFest, the Last Organic Outpost’s annual fundraiser. I have been a fan of Mark’s blog, “Merriwether the Adventurer” for a long time, and he is the most knowledgeable forager that I have ever met. He had a table set up with dozens of Texas’ wild edible plants, and it was awesome to hear him speak about where to find each plant in the city and how to prepare it so that it is suitable to eat. I wish that he could come with me on a trip to my family’s farm in Iowa to help identify the treasures lurking in the timber there. I know that I have seen dandelion greens and roots there, and I wonder if the wild rhubarb is any good.
That’s all for now. I have a whole separate post in the hopper about Wine and Swine and some of the other Austin food adventures I’ve been having. Until then, it’s back to Houston for work this week, and then off to Dallas for the next week. Wish me good food and safe travels!
Mark your calendar for next Wednesday, July 25 from 6 to 9 p.m. for “Cupcakes & Cocktails” – a happy hour fundraiser for bringing Bake A Wish, hosted by the Austin Food Blogger Alliance. Bake a Wish is a newly-formed 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose volunteers provide birthday cakes and other baked goods to children in shelters and foster homes, the elderly, disabled, and other underserved communities in the greater Austin area.
Although Bake a Wish just recently received their non-profit status from the IRS, they have a long history of community service in Central Texas. Their volunteers turned out in spades for Austin Bakes for Japan and Austin Bakes for Bastrop, two community bake sales I helped to organize last year. And in the past three years, Bake A Wish has delivered nearly 2,000 birthday cakes and sweets to people in need in Central Texas. These aren’t just any cakes and cookies, either. Their “Goodie Gallery” gives you a sense of what beautiful, special confections the volunteers make for kids who might otherwise go without.
The funds raised at Cupcakes & Cocktails will help Bake a Wish enrich the lives of more children, by purchasing supplies and helping to spread the word about their important mission. Tickets are just $35 and include cupcake-themed cocktails prepared by the Carillon Austin, small bites from chef Josh Watkins, plus nibbles of cupcakes and other sweets prepared by some of Austin’s best bakers. There will also be a huge silent auction and plenty of folks to mingle with at the event. (Including yours truly.)
If you haven’t gotten the hint, I hope you’ll join me at the event! Some of my close blogging buddies are putting it together, and I know it’s going to be a lot of fun for a great cause. Let me know if I’ll see you there. Pretty please?
Austin’s food trailer scene is one of the fastest-moving in the country, and I love keeping track of what’s new over at Food Trailers Austin, Austin Food Carts, and the Trailer Food Diaries. These blogs are run by folks who are pretty deep in the scene, and they’re a wonderful resource for navigating Austin’s mobile food vendors. (You may recognize Tiffany of the Trailer Food Diaries from this interview she did with me earlier this year, and she’s currently fundraising for her latest Trailer Food Cookbook: Portland Edition.)
Every time I read my friends’ food trailer blogs, I make a note of the places that I want to try, and now there’s a stack of post-its by my computer about a mile high. In the interest of gastronomic pleasure (and decluttering some of those post-its), I met up with a friend last Friday to check out some of the newer trailers in town that we both wanted to visit.
We started the night at Adoo’s BBQ near the Palmer Events Center on Barton Springs Rd. This spot has good reviews on Yelp and other social media, and our visit there lived up to expectations. We arrived around 7:30 and ordered a heaping plate of beef brisket. Owner Adam plated it up for us and told us a little bit about the trailer; he started it with a loan from his Grandma, who gave him the nickname “Adoo.” The brisket — smoked daily over pecan chips in the smoker next to the trailer– was tender and hot. Adam’s spicy barbecue sauce was the perfect complement to the bread I used to sop it up.
Next time I visit Adoo’s I’m going to make a point to save room for BBQ beans, made fresh daily by cashier Stephanie, and I’d like to try some smoked sausage. They were sold out on Friday night by the time we arrived, which was just as well since we were hitting up other trailers that night.
After Adoo’s we went to Jessie St. Eats, a well-established trailer park a little ways south. Jessie St. always has a great mix of trailers on its property, and there is great people watching in the evenings. (Bring your own lawn chair to guarantee a good seat.)
There were a few trailers at Jessie St. Eats that caught our eyes when we arrived: Choco Sutra for its sensual menu of drinking chocolates, The Ice Cream Social Bus for its delectable looking ice cream flavors (PEANUT BUTTER MOLE!) and toppings (CHOCOLATE DIPPED KETTLE CHIPS!), and Bahn Bahn for its $6 foot-long Bahn Mi Sandwiches.
None of these were on the agenda for Friday, unfortunately. We wrote them down on a Post-it note, though, so that we would remember to come back another week. Instead, we opted to try Gypsy Kit, a funky purple trailer towards the back of the trailer park. Open since May 2012, the Gypsy Kit has garnered praise online, and their menu has a lot of great looking savory options. The Cali wrap I tried on Friday was a solid dinner choice, but I wish I had ordered more adventurously from the board of specials displayed outside the trailer. (I’m talking about you, bacon kimchi fries.)
We finished the night at South First Food Court, where my friend Evan and her husband RJ own Bufalo Bob’s Chalupa Wagon. South First is one of my favorite trailer parks in town because the trailer owners there do a great job of hosting events, talking with patrons, and making the atmosphere welcoming and friendly. Every Thursday they have live music, and on Friday nights, RJ breaks out the DVDs and plays old movies on a projector next to the Chalupa Wagon. (Abbot and Costello was on the docket last Friday, The Three Stooges the week before.)
Lard Have Mercy is the newest trailer in this park– owner Chris opened up shop just two weeks ago. The trailer’s slogan is “Deep Fried and Dee-lish,” and its menu lives up to the promise. Everything is deep fried, and clever names like “Hollaback Girl” brand offerings like deep friend bananas on a stick with Lard Have Mercy’s signature tongue-in-cheek style. The dusky darkness that enveloped the trailer park while we waited for our order was just right for movie watching. However, I didn’t have enough light to get a picture when Chris delivered our powdered sugar-dusted banana with a side of raspberry dipping sauce. Looks like I have the perfect excuse to go back another time and try it again!
Whenever I sit down to write this post I get distracted by work, or email, or cookie dough, or any of the millions of other things that sound more appealing than talking about the last several months of my life. But after a long spell of avoidance, it’s time to start taking care of my blog again. I have missed sharing the stories, photos, and food that cobble together my days.
I love blogging, and of all my hobbies, it’s the most like the canary in the coal mine of my mind. When life gets tough, my blog goes dark. I suspect this is true for many bloggers, since it can be scary to share the not-so-nice parts of your life with the internet. But life isn’t always nice, and things don’t always work out the way you want. And even though it scares me, I think it’s okay to blog about that, too.
All of this is leading up to the announcement that Rami and I aren’t together anymore. At least, we’re not living together anymore and I’m not sure whether our marriage is going turn out, or how.
If you know Rami and me in real life or if you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know that food (and by extension, this blog) has been a huge part of my marriage. Rami inspired and encouraged me to pursue my passion for cooking, and he has served as recipe guinea pig, dinner date, photographer’s assistant, and dish washer to support my blog as well. He has also been my best friend for the past seven years. The hardest thing I’ve ever learned is that a deep friendship is not enough to sustain a marriage.
Out of respect for him and for my privacy, I am not going to discuss the specifics of our relationship any further in this space. From here on out I’ll be sharing the new world I’m building for myself. This include redefining my relationship with cooking (for one), relearning to do my own dishes (by hand), and navigating the treacherous waters of dining and drinking in Austin alone (with a camera). I don’t have many words to share yet, but I have been taking lots of pictures lately. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram these aren’t new, but I think they offer a hopeful glimpse into what’s shaping up to be a beautiful life.
The Austin Food and Wine Festival starts today! The city has been buzzing with excitement for this event for months now, and the hype for the Festival reached a fever pitch this week. I was lucky enough to receive a press pass to the Festival, so I’ll be recapping the sessions that I attend and live tweeting from Auditorium Shores all day today and tomorrow. There are about a dozen sessions that I’d like to attend, but I’ll only be able to squeeze in six along with the Grand Tastings, so I have been studying up to help get ready for all the goodness.
As part of my preparation for the Austin Food & Wine Festival, I called up my friends Nathan and Amy Russell of Nathan Russell Photography for their advice on taking pictures at the event. Nathan and Amy have a great perspective on capturing eye-catching candids at events. They’re experienced wedding photographers, so they spend a LOT of time thinking about how to take great photos in challenging lighting conditions like the tents and harsh sun at the Austin Food and Wine Festival.
Here’s a rundown of their advice for getting great photos at the Festival. Nathan writes:
“We spend nearly every weekend photographing food & wine festivals. Or as they’re often called, weddings. Here in sunny Texas people love a good outdoor wedding, which if you think about it isn’t a lot different from an outdoor festival. There’s lots of tents, food, drink, and a sun. When you’re shooting an environment like this, there are a lot of things you can’t control. Getting good photos is about figuring out what you can control and using it to your advantage.
So whether you’re heading out this weekend with a top of the line SLR, a point and shoot, or nothing but Instagram, here are a few tips for improving your photos of the festivities.
Take a lot of photos
One of the biggest secrets of pro photographers is that we take a lot of photos to get the ones that are really amazing. It was true back in the days of film, and it’s true now. Fortunately it’s a lot cheaper now, so you don’t need be getting paid for your images to be able to afford a lot of photos. There’s stuff going on all around you, so take as many photos as you can. Some of them probably won’t be that great, but that’s how you get the amazing ones.
Canvas Your Subject
When you’re snapping all of those extra photos, don’t stand in one place and photograph the same thing over and over. You’ll get a whole lot of one image. Instead, canvas your subject. Move around. Try different angles, move closer, get higher, get lower. What does it look like from the other side? Then when you get home, you can decide which angle worked best because you’ll have so much to choose from.
Shoot to Tell a Story
Instead of taking 100 photos of your friends with their wine glasses at various stages of full, do a photo essay. See if you can capture the story of the festival just through images. It means taking a lot of photos, and shoot everything. Shoot people, shoot food, shoot wine, shoot menus and signs, shoot “scene setting” photos of the location. Most importantly, go into the weekend with the mindset that you’re going to shoot to tell a story. If you do, you’ll see opportunities for photos that you might otherwise miss.
Fill up the Frame
One of the biggest differences between a boring snapshot and a great photo is how it is framed. Snapshots are really often taken from pretty far away from the subject, with the subject right in the middle of the frame, and whole bunch of distracting stuff going on randomly in the background. Instead, get close! Fill up as much of the frame as possible with your subject. You might need to move yourself or your subject. Get closer, kneel down, whatever you need to do. It’s a really easy way to dramatically improve your photos. Here’s two pictures of the same centerpiece we took at a wedding. The first photo shows just enough of the table to be really distracting. So we moved in so the centerpiece filled as much of the frame as possible.
Turn Your Camera
Sometimes filling the frame means you need to turn your camera. If you’ve got a point & shoot, don’t forget to take some photos in portrait (vertical) orientation. And if you’re shooting with your iPhone, don’t forget to turn it into landscape mode. Do whatever uses more of the frame, based on your subject. This sounds ridiculously simple, but you might be surprised when you start looking at your photos to realize you probably don’t turn you camera that often. Here’s another picture of the same centerpiece, but this time I turned the camera to frame it up even better.
Shoot at an Angle
Sometimes photos of food look really good when they’re taking from straight above. But other times, shooting at an angle makes for a much more pleasing shot. You can use more of the frame, and it adds depth and dimension to the photo. To take a really successful food or detail shot, figure out where the light that’s hitting your subject is coming from. Position yourself so that that light is hitting your subject at about a 45 degree angle from your camera, then find the right angle on your subject, and shoot away.
Shoot in the Shade
Sunlight is great, but in the cloudless Texas skies, it can often be blaringly bright, and really harsh. It seems counter-intuitive, but that kind of direct sunlight doesn’t necessarily make for great photos. It casts really harsh shadows that can work against you, it makes people squint, and you can end up with photos that are way too contrasty. A good solution is to look for shade. Find the shaded side of buildings, trees, and trailers. Those kinds of areas get enough light for great pictures, but the light isn’t direct, so it makes nicer softer photos. In this photo you can see there’s really bright sunlight out this day. But we put everyone in the shade to get a nice group photo.
Turn off your Flash
If you’re looking at your photos, and you don’t like what see, try turning off you flash. That’s right, I said off. In fact if there’s one button on your camera that you need to know about besides the shutter button, it’s the button that turns off your flash. There’s a good chance that it’s not adding anything at all to your photo and if it is, it’s probably just adding harsh, ugly light. For instance, if you’re standing in a crowd, trying to take a picture of Paul Qui 500 feet away on a stage, and your camera’s flash goes off, that tiny light isn’t doing anything to light up Paul Qui, It’s just lighting up the back of the person’s head in front of you. Your camera is a pretty smart gadget, but it’s not smart enough to know you’re trying to take a photo of Paul Qui 500 feet away. It thinks you’re trying to take a picture of something much closer, and so your flash is lighting up stuff closest to it. The stuff between you and Paul, and that’s not what you wanted.
And even if the flash is hitting your subject, it’s probably just making it ugly. This is especially true of photos of things like plates of food. Flash is never going to work. Instead, turn it off, Face your subject toward the nearest light source, and try using that instead.
The Trouble with Tents
You’re going to probably be taking a lot of photos in tents. Tents are a problem for the best cameras. Here’s why:
See all that light coming in from the sides of the tent. Your camera is trying to make a nice exposure for what’s going on out there. Meanwhile your subject inside the tent is in complete shadow, and so it comes out looking dark and underexposed. Your photo looks something like this cake photo: (foodwine5)
So what can you do to fix it?
Well, if your camera has manual controls and you know how to use them, the goal is to purposly overexpose your photo. Instead of going by what your camera thinks, push your aperture and shutter speed down, or your ISO up until your camera meter reads +1 or +2, and take the photo again. Your subject should be in better light. That’s what we did here:
That looks okay, but the background is so bright, it overpowers the subject. So we moved around to the otherside of the table to get a closeup of the cake. From this angle the light outside is hitting the subject nicely, and the background is darker because it’s inside the tent. If you’re using a point and shoot or a phone or you don’t know how to shoot on manual, then this is a good way to fix the tent issue.
If that’s not possible, your only other option may be to turn that flash back on. If you do, remember the flash is lighting up whatever is closest to it, so try to make sure there aren’t other objects between you and your subject.
Calling all you cheapskates, foodies, and staycationers– it’s time for Austin Restaurant Week (ARW)! Now in its fourth year, ARW 2012 boasts 47 participating restaurants, which will offer prix fixe lunch, brunch, and dinner menus at lower-than-usual prices ($11 – $16 for lunch/brunch and $26 – $36 for dinner.)
Don’t think I’m judging when I call out the deal-seekers among us; I’ll be hitting up several of my favorite spots during Restaurant Week, taking full advantage of the discounted menus. If you plan to brave the crowds with me, don’t forget to:
- Scope out menus for all the restaurants online before you go
- Make your reservations early. If the reservations available through the website are full, try calling the restaurant directly
- ARW patrons are notoriously flaky, so it’s worth calling popular spots the day-of to see if any tables have opened up
- Budget extra for wine pairings and cocktails
- Tip your servers and bar staff extra– just because the tab is cheap doesn’t mean you should be!
Here are the restaurants and menus that I’m craving this time around:
Asti: Rami and I ate dinner at Asti the night we got engaged, so I have a serious soft spot for this Hyde Park bistro. I count their ricotta brullee with brandied cherries– featured on the ARW dinner menu– among my top five desserts in the city. If you want to splurge, add an order of the white bean dip with breadsticks to your prix fixe selection.
Botticelli’s South Congress: Their $36, four-course ARW dinner is a great deal, with entrees like the Pork Cotto in Camachia and the Cherry Venison Bolognese with Sweet Potato Gnocchi that run $25 on the regular menu. They’re offering a wine pairing, too, if you’re feeling boozy.
Foreign & Domestic: I love eating at F&D any time, but chef Ned Elliott’s Prix Fixe meals are always my favorites. He’s put together a killer three-course dinner for $36; I’m especially intrigued by the Roasted Redfish with Strawberries and Brown Butter.
Roll On Sushi Diner: My friend Cathy introduced me to this sushi spot on Burnet Road this week, and they charmed the chopsticks off me! Roll On’s usual lunch special gets an upgrade for ARW, and they’re offering an appetizer along with signature fusion rolls like The Guaca-Rolly and The Beefy Texan for just $11.
the backspace: I’ve been meaning to check out Shawn Cirkiel’s latest restaurant, and the ARW three-course meal for $26 is just the excuse I needed. Go with a friend and plan to share– their ARW dinner menu allots one pizza for every two people in the party.
TRACE: This swanky restaurant inside the W Hotel has hands-down my favorite ARW lunch menu. I’m having a hard time choosing between their Lamb Burgers with Tatziki Mayonnaise and the Roasted Loch Duart Salmon since both are favorites of mine on the regular menu, too. Pro tip: if you plan to stop here for lunch, make it a long one. You’ll want to hang out in the ultra plush Living Room lounge outside the restaurant for at least one cocktail afterward.
Uchiko: Duh. Uchiko’s the hottest restaurant in town right now, and you’d be silly not to at least try to get a reservation there on the cheap. Their famous Brussels sprouts are on the ARW dinner menu, too! I’ll be there next Monday with girlfriends toasting to Paul Qui’s recent Top Chef victory.
Images in this post are courtesy Austin Restaurant Week.