HIMALAYA RESTAURANT AND SUBHLAXMI GROCERS

At the intersection of Hillcroft Ave and U.S. 59, is a small shopping center housing several of Houston’s ethnic treasures.  This center is located at the edge of the Mahatma Gandhi District, officially named in 2010.  The area is filled with Indian and Pakistani establishments — mainly clothing and jewelry stores, restaurants and bakeries, and grocers.

Recently, we’ve made several visits to Himalaya Restaurant, which features some of the best Indian and Pakistani cuisine in Houston (Anthony Bourdain dined there on his visit to Houston this month).

IMG_7463Inside, the restaurant is modest and tidy, its walls filled with glowing articles about the restaurant:

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Chef/owner Kaiser Lashkari is usually visible, chatting with diners, offering menu suggestions, and boasting (rightfully) about his food:

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Our favorite dishes at Himalaya are rich and complex, full of spice and heat.  Among those we enjoyed are Aloo Chana Masala (chickpeas and potatoes simmered in curry sauce):

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Paneer Hara Masala (the restaurant’s “signature vegetarian dish”):

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The Chicken Kabab Platter, which has 2 skewers of Chicken Seekh Kebab and 4 pieces of Chicken Tikka Boti Kebab (our favorite of the two):

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And the Spicy Rocket Nan (be prepared to fight over the last piece of this):

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Other dishes we liked included Chicken Tikka Masala (my son’s favorite):

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Chicken Biryani:

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An appetizer of Vegetable Samosas:

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And Baigan Bharta, a vegetarian dish made with eggplant:

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We also tried the popular Hunter’s Beef, a Pakistani-style beef pastrami, which was chopped, sauteed in butter and spices, and served with chopped tomatoes and magic mustard sauce, which was interesting:

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In addition to the great food, another plus is that the restaurant is BYOB (provided each diner orders an entree and a nan).

On a recent visit, we waddled out of the restaurant, bellies full and mouths on fire, over to Subhlaxmi Grocers, located in the same center.

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I’d been wanting to go there for some time to see if they had the Indian or Persian basmati rice I’ve been searching for, which of course, they did:

This is unlike the basmati rice commonly available at grocery stores.  Indian and Pakistani basmati rice, I’ve learned, is aged at least a year.  The aging process dehydrates the rice, and when the rice is cooked, it expands much more than rice that hasn’t been aged.  If you’ve eaten in Persian or Indian restaurants, you’ve no doubt noticed the extra-long rice (like in the Chicken Biryani pictured above).

The store was filled with all kinds of things — produce, spices, beans, condiments, sweets — many of which I’d never seen before, such as:

I came home with lots of bottles and packages of new things to try — white poppy seeds, dried limes, pickled cut mango — and stocked up on spices, and that aged Basmati rice.  My mind is racing thinking of the Indian and Pakistani specialties I can try my hand at, although I’m pretty sure I don’t have to worry about Anthony Bourdain dropping in for dinner.  I’m looking forward to exploring other establishments in the Mahatma Gandhi District, especially some of the bakeries.

EXPRESS ROLLS

Express Rolls, a fast, casual dining concept new to the Houston area, invited me to visit and try some of their items, providing me with a $50 gift card as an incentive to accept their invitation.  I hadn’t previously heard of Express Rolls, and was curious, so I gladly accepted.

Express Rolls currently has 7 locations (with 3 more slated to open by September) — 5 in Houston, 1 in Pearland, and 1 in Katy.  I visited the newly-opened one in Shepherd Square, at 2055 Westheimer Rd.

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The modest interior was colorful, clean, and bright:

Express Rolls offers a variety of prepackaged Japanese and Vietnamese items, with an emphasis on fresh and healthy.  The items are prepared and packaged at a central location, and delivered twice daily to each location to ensure freshness.  Whether dining in, or grabbing a few items to take for lunch, Express Rolls provides a lighter, healthier alternative to most of the fast food options around.

Towards the back of the restaurant are refrigerated shelves, where you’ll pick out your items.  If you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time choosing from the many options:

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Although some of the items may look like what you can find at your local grocery store, the difference in freshness is noticeable.  For example, Express Rolls’ sushi has soft sticky rice, unlike the rice in the grocery store version, which is usually drier and harder.  Same thing for the dumplings — Express Rolls’ gyoza wrappers are soft and pliable, unlike the drier, leather-like ones of the grocery store version.

Among the offerings are sushi assortments:

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Individually-wrapped sushi items:

Fresh salads with miso, wasabi, or sesame vinegar dressing (no slimy lettuce found!)

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Gyoza (pork or vegetarian) with a soy dipping sauce:

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Traditional or spicy garlic edamame:

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A variety of summer rolls — I loved the Perfect Pair combo, which came with two grilled pork rolls and two Hawaiian beef rolls (the grilled pineapple was something different, and went really well with the beef):

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And several different vermicelli bowls and rice bowls.  You select the bowl from the case, and when you check out you’re given a separate package of vegetables to add to your bowl:

IMG_3490This is just a sampling of what you’ll find — there are also soups (miso, wonton, Vietnamese chicken noodle), kids’ meals, bento boxes, and more.

At the register, you’ll be given any sauces that go with your items, and if you’d like, they’ll heat your soups, dumplings, etc.

I was happy to have discovered Express Rolls, and in fact, grabbed a few things for lunch on my way to work today.  Express Rolls is a welcome (and healthier) option for a quick, fresh meal.

CHAPPELL HILL RANCH WEEKEND


We spent the Memorial Day weekend in Chappell Hill, a small rural community about 70 miles from Houston.  We almost didn’t make it due to heavy rains and flooding in the days prior to our arrival — the area received nearly 18 inches of rain in 24 hours, and the Brazos River was overflowing in areas.  Where we were staying wasn’t affected, but our prayers are with others in the area who lost their homes, property, livestock, and in a few cases, their lives.  Just outside of Chappell Hill we passed this completely submerged farmland:

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I cannot get this image of a cow that drowned out of my mind, and seeing it (and another one), was heartbreaking:

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We rented Rockstar Ranch last fall, and were excited about returning.

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The spacious and comfortable house, guest house, and property make for a great place for “city folks” like us to unwind.

There was a large porch with lots of rockers — perfect for watching the sun rise and set:

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I especially enjoyed the beautiful flora around the property:

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Mariesii variegated lacecap hydrangea

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Trumpet vine

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??? — anyone — ???

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Knock-out roses

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Commelina erecta (white mouth dayflower or slender dayflower)

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Buddleia (butterfly bush)

And we all got a kick out of the fauna in the area:

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Little green frog on the kitchen window

Up close and personal with the neighbor’s cows:

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Watching you

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Stalker cow

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Does this weed make my butt look big?

Rocking on the porch while watching the deer was a favorite activity:

And then there was this little fella that was in the pool — we think it must have washed out of the pond with the heavy rains:

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There were lots of insects too, most of which we weren’t too thrilled about — except for the fireflies.  Yes — fireflies have returned to the Texas hill country!  I’ve been in Texas since 1983 and have never once seen a firefly.  Each time one lit up, someone would squeal with excitement.  Well, maybe not squeal, but at least one of the kids would say “cool.”

Much of the weekend was spent just hanging around the ranch — swimming, cooking, rocking, reading.  But we did venture out to a few local places.  Our first stop was for barbecue lunch at the Chappell Hill Bakery & Deli.

There was the usual assortment of smoked meats, and a wide variety of sides to choose from:

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The barbecue was OK, and none of us liked the barbecue sauce, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining about the sides, including the creamy mac ‘n cheese, the tangy pepper cole slaw, and the loaded mashed potatoes:

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On the retail side of the store, there were shelves full of pickled things, salsas, condiments, jerky, and refrigerated cases of meats, sausages, and cheeses.

But what makes this place worthy of a visit, in my opinion, is the bakery.  Treat yourself to some pillowy kolaches and giant pralines loaded with pecans (there’s also cookies, cinnamon rolls, breads, and cakes).

 And whatever you do, don’t leave without a pie!

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I don’t know how many different types of pies they bake, but the one that we flipped over (and made a second visit to pick up one to take home) was the pecan pie–not too sweet, and brimming with pecans.  With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it had us all swooning.

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We also had lunch at the Southern Flyer Diner in nearby Brenham.  The restaurant is located at the Brenham Municipal Airport, and is open every day from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.

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The diner’s 1950s decor, complete with waitresses in poodle skirts, cherry-red vinyl clad chairs and booths, and a jukebox is cute and kitschy.

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Part of the fun is watching the small planes fly in and out.

As I stood there watching the planes, one landed and parked right in front of the diner.  Two older women got out and went inside the restaurant for lunch.

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As a family that thinks twice about having to drive more than 10 minutes to go out to eat, I was fascinated by the idea that people would actually fly there for lunch.  But according to the owners, pilots are always looking for a reason to fly, and a burger is as good a reason as any.  The burgers are jokingly referred to as $100 Hamburgers — pilots call them that because they burn about that much in gas to fly there for a burger.  (In fact, there’s a subscription website called the 100 Dollar Hamburger, where pilots can find places to eat  at or near an airport.)

The food was classic diner food, all freshly prepared.  The portions were generous and the food was very good.  Highlights of our meal included chili with cornbread (onions, cheese, and jalapeños available):

 Boneless Buffalo wings (all white meat):

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Fajita beef quesadilla:

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And a juicy 1/2 pound burger topped with sautéed mushrooms and swiss cheese.

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There were also root beer floats and milkshakes made with Blue Bell ice cream (this is Brenham, after all, home of Blue Bell Creameries):

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We also took a stroll down Main Street in Chappell Hill.  There’s just a handful of establishments, all with an old-timey feel, and many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places:

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My favorite was the Post Office on Main Street, with its charming garden maintained by the Chappell Hill Garden Club:

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I long ago gave up on my fantasy of owning a ranch.  Being able to rent one as lovely as this is the next best thing to owning one.  I’m already looking forward to our next weekend at the ranch, whenever that may be.

 

 

GOODBYE TO LILO

Last week we said goodbye to Lilo, our sweet shar pei:

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Lilo was just shy of 11 years old, and lived longer than any of our other three shar peis, which was incredible given all of her health problems.  You may have heard that shar peis are prone to a host of health issues, and Lilo had, I believe, all of them, including chronic ear infections, swollen hock syndrome, and entropion.

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Lilo joined our family when she was 10 months old.  We had owned two shar peis — Dexter and Har Gow — who were best friends.  When Har Gow died unexpectedly, we needed a new companion for Dexter on an urgent basis.  We contacted Har Gow’s breeder, and the only dog she had available was Lilo.  She told us that Lilo had been with two other families, but it didn’t work out (including a vague story about an elderly owner that couldn’t care for her).  The breeder assured us that Lilo was a great dog without any problems.  She sent us these photos:

In hindsight, nothing the breeder told us really added up.  As soon as Lilo arrived, we knew she was not as the breeder represented.  She was, for lack of a better word, dull. We subsequently learned that her mother had died during childbirth, which the breeder neglected to mention, which explained a lot.  She had a cherry eye, which the breeder also neglected to mention.  She also forgot to mention that she had tacked Lilo’s eyelids twice, but that it had failed to correct the drooping eyelids (we never really did see Lilo’s eyes).  Lilo was timid, and cowered every time my husband came near her (for at least six or seven years), which led us to believe that she had been abused at some point, although the breeder denied it.  She wasn’t cuddly or playful, and fought with Dexter.  After a few months we contacted the breeder about sending her back.  But then, as if Lilo understood our conversations, she suddenly quit fighting with Dexter and settled in, as though she realized staying with us was maybe not so terrible.

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Dexter and Lilo

So if Lilo wasn’t smart or cuddly or playful, what was she?

She was ours.

We all grew on each other, and Lilo became an integral part of our family.  She was a fierce watchdog, with a menacing bark.  She stayed close to us, and was always right there begging for table scraps.  She slept in our room and snored loudly — we used to joke that it was our white noise, kind of like falling asleep to the sound of the ocean.  If you put your face up to her muzzle, she would reward you with wet sloppy kisses.  She loved to lay in the driveway and soak up the sunshine.  She hated thunderstorms and loved marrow bones.  No matter where she was in the house, and no matter how swollen and painful her hocks were, if she heard the treat drawer open, she came running.  She was our Lilo.

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My Facebook followers knew Lilo as “stalker dog,” and I loved to photograph her poking around corners:

Dexter died in 2010, and we now have two duck tolling retrievers — Jasper and Maisy — wiith whom Lilo got along just fine.

We noticed a few weeks ago that Lilo had suddenly lost a lot of weight and was becoming disoriented, and we knew that our time with her was drawing to a close.  We agreed that as long as she didn’t appear to be in pain, we wouldn’t put her down.  And so we provided Lilo with the best hospice care we were capable of, and hoped that she wouldn’t suffer.  I don’t know if that was the right decision, but it was our decision.  It was hard watching her go.  It was like watching a shopkeeper close up for the night — first he hangs the closed sign, then he sweeps up, empties the cash register, closes the lights, and finally, he locks the door.  A few days before she died, Lilo hung up the closed sign and stopped eating and drinking.  Then she became bedridden.  She was not really alert in the day or two prior to her death.  And then, finally, she closed the lights and locked the door.  My employers, who are decent people, were understanding, and I was able to be with Lilo in those final few days, staying by her, comforting her.

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Jasper kept the vigil too, watching over her.

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In a final act of love and compassion, after Lilo passed away my husband cleaned her up before we took her body to the vet for cremation, bathing and blow-drying her.  He swaddled her in a fluffy clean blanket, and cradled her as we sat in the vet’s lobby waiting for assistance.

She was ours.

Rest in peace, sweet Lilo.  We love you.

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TEXAS ROADWAYS IN SPRING AND GRAYZE RESTAURANT

This weekend we took a short road trip to San Antonio.

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There was a ton of traffic as folks headed home from Spring Break, but I honestly didn’t mind, because the wildflowers were in full bloom and were incredible.  They were everywhere along Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 90.  Among the highlights were the plentiful pink patches of Texas Buttercups, also known as Showy Primroses:

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Brilliant red Drummond Phlox:

And loads of Texas Bluebonnets (of course):

Usually bluebonnets are the star of the Texas spring wildflower show, but this year I believe they were outshone by the Indian Paintbrushes:

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We got to San Antonio in time for brunch, and after 3 hours of internet research in the car (Carsick?  Who me?) we decided on Grayze, near the Pearl District.  It’s only been open since January, but seems to have attracted attention with its “modern take on classic dishes at affordable prices.”

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We were surprised to discover that the only option for Sunday brunch was a buffet, which was not on the online menu.  If we’d known that, we probably would have picked another restaurant — self-control is an issue at buffets, and I always feel like maybe I should make sure my affairs are in order before partaking.  As it turned out, it was a good thing we didn’t know about the buffet, and had no choice once we got there, because it was a delicious surprise, and at $16, a great value — it would have been a shame to skip it.

This was not your ordinary breakfast buffet, with sad pans of burnt bacon, watery eggs, and rubbery pancakes.  Oh no, this one was full of tempting dishes, including mustard-maple glazed salmon:

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French onion macaroni and cheese:

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An outstanding roasted mushroom medley:

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Addictive candied bacon (yep, that’s right):

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Bison chili scrambled eggs, with tomatillo salsa:

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And a great barley salad and pile of fresh fruit:

Each week the buffet features a French toast creation.  Last week it was crème brulee French toast, and the week before that it was Fruity Pebbles French toast.  This week it was S’mores French toast, with peanut butter in the middle, topped with marshmallow Fluff and a chocolate drizzle.  I’m pretty sure you could hear my pants pop open at this point:

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There was also smoked brisket hash, heirloom tomato salad with ricotta cheese, cold roasted pork shoulder with chimichurri, chicken sausage, thick slices of toast with apricot butter, and strawberry crumble with whipped cream.

Diners at a nearby table were enjoying the “mimosa kit,’ which I think is a wonderful idea.  $26 gets you a bottle of Prosecco and a carafe of orange or grapefruit juice, and everyone gets to make their own, in whatever proportions they are up for.

The space had an ice house feel, very casual.  Lots of families, dogs, good times.  We’ll be back!

BLACK WINTER TRUFFLES

There’s a Houston woman named Jeanne DeBell Polocheck, who is known locally as The Truffle Lady.  This is because Jeanne imports fresh truffles weekly when they’re in season, and sells them to local restaurants and lucky individuals.  The truffles come from Les Pastras Organic Farm, an organic olive farm in the village of Cadanet in Provence.  Jeanne sells the truffles, as well as truffle salt, truffle oil, truffle honey, organic olive oil, and a few other items she imports from France, through her Facebook page The French Market, and also at the Memorial Villages Farmers Market.

Before the black winter truffle season ends, I splurged and bought a  45-gram  order of 3 truffles.  They don’t come cheap — this order was $80.

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Beautiful, no?

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I always thought truffles were sniffed out by pigs, but the farm uses dogs to hunt truffles.  These are the cuties that found my truffles, Éclair and Mirabelle:

I would appreciate it if my dogs, Jasper and Maisy, would get off their backs and go find me some truffles:

The truffles are only good for about 10 days, and storing them in a jar of rice in the refrigerator helps keep them fresh as long as possible.  (The truffle-scented rice is a treat for another day).

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I am fascinated by my truffles.  They’re like pets.  I take the jar out, open the lid, and inhale deeply pretty much every time I open the refrigerator.  I almost hate to use my truffles.  But, of course, I do.  Jeanne advised me that they need a base of fat and salt to bring out their flavor.  Say no more.

I don’t like to make elaborate dishes with my truffles.  I prefer simpler uses.  One way I particularly enjoy them is over scrambled eggs (scrambled, of course, in a generous amount of butter, and seasoned with salt and pepper).

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Mine, all mine.

Our favorite way to enjoy them, however, is shaved over buttered baked potatoes, preferably Mountain King Butter Golds (these are, incidentally, the best potatoes we have ever had — family is still talking about them from Thanksgiving.  Watch for them.).

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Mountain King Butter Golds

It’s nice to have a truffle shaver, although a sharp paring knife will work to cut thin slices from the truffle.

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Truffle shaver

I promise you, a buttered, sea salted, truffled baked potato is a special indulgence that you will not soon forget.

I shared one of my precious truffles with my friend Susan, and she sent me this quote from a feature on The Huffington Post (which also gathered some great-sounding truffle recipes) — “It’s a crazy world out there, and you never know what will happen.  One day, you could be minding your own business and suddenly be presented with an opportunity to buy a real black truffle. . . .  If you can afford to, you should absolutely do it this one time, so that you can experience what black truffles really taste and smell like. Oh, you’ve had truffle oil?  Forget everything you think you know about that and dive into the real thing.”  Excellent advice!

The season for black winter truffles is just about over.  It won’t be too long, though, before summer truffles come into season.  Milder in flavor, and about half the price of winter truffles, they are nice too, and fun to play around with (truffle ice cream was quite popular with Jeanne and her friends last summer).  But be warned, they are gateway truffles, and soon you’ll be craving the hard stuff (i.e., black winter truffles).

CHINESE ALMOND COOKIES

Happy Chinese New Year!   Chinese year 4714 began on February 8, and is the Year of the Monkey.  The monkey is the ninth animal in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle (other monkey years include 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, and  2004).

People born under the monkey sign are purportedly clever, and intelligent, especially in their careers and financial affairs.  “They are lively, flexible, quick-witted and versatile,” and “their gentleness and honesty bring them an everlasting love life.”  But they are also “jealous, suspicious, cunning, selfish, and arrogant.”  They are perfect matches for those born under the sign of the ox and rabbit and are bad matches with those born under the sign of the pig and tiger.  Check your compatibility with monkeys here.

To celebrate the Chinese New Year, I baked a batch of Chinese Almond Cookies.  I remember having these in Chinese restaurants as a kid growing up in New York, but I don’t see them anymore.  Give these a try — who knows, maybe your family will go ape for them.  :)

CHINESE ALMOND COOKIES
Print
Recipe type: Cookies
Author:
Ingredients
  • 2-3/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, slightly softened
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • ⅓ cup whole blanched almonds
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon water
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Place flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Cut butter into pieces and add to flour. Pulse until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add the beaten egg and almond extract, and process until combined and dough forms. Transfer to a bowl.
  3. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet, flattening slightly. Press an almond on top of each cookie. Using a pastry brush, brush tops of cookies with egg yolk mixture. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until just beginning to brown. Remove to wire racks to cool.
  4. Makes approximately 2 dozen cookies.

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Ready for their egg wash

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The egg wash gives them a nice gloss

Beautifully golden and glossy

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I think they should start serving these in Chinese restaurants again

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Happy Year of the Monkey!