BAKED CARDOONS WITH BREADCRUMBS AND PARMESAN

We’ve been enjoying glorious spring weather here in Houston.  Cultivated bluebonnets are appearing in neighboring yards:

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Frilly azaleas are in full bloom (on the heels of the redbuds, lorapetalum, and Japanese magnolias).  It’s almost as if the city were spray painted with big splotches of pink, purple, and white:

Those are what I call azaleas!

These huge azaleas tend to be found on older homes.  Landscapers today tend to favor Encore azaleas, which grow in tidier formations not much more than about 16 inches tall, and promise to bloom year round.  (The “bloom year round” thing, unfortunately, is kind of a joke.  They manage to choke out a few blossoms in the warmer weather, but they are decidedly not spectacular.)

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  Encore azaleas

I came across a tree that was filled with birds that I didn’t instantly recognize.  There must have been 30 of them, flitting about, eating the berries on the tree.  I sat and watched them for a while, completely mesmerized.  I later learned that they were Cedar Waxwings.

 

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Cedar Waxwings

The farmers market was packed this weekend, with people coming from all over to enjoy the great weather.  I came home with some beautiful produce, including tender broccoli side shoots (we love these):

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Green onions in bud (I think these look like baby leeks, but am always told they are green onions):

And never-cease-to-delight-me candy-striped Chioggia beets:

IMG_2495 Don’t be fooled by their plain exterior

The beauty within

Most of the produce came from Atkinson Farms, one of my favorite vendors.  As I completed my purchase and started to walk away, I noticed something on a back table, a sort of Land of Misfit Vegetables.  Beep, beep, beep — I backed up to get a better look.  Wait.  Was that . . . .   Could it be . . . ?  Cardoons?

Mr. Atkinson confirmed that they were, in fact, cardoons.  Up until then, I had only read about cardoons, and at this point, my nose was probably twitching with excitement.  I asked him what do you do with them, and he answered with the same answer I get whenever I ask him about any vegetable he sells — “eat them.”  I told him I figured that out, and he kind of smiled and very patiently explained to me how to prepare them.  Turns out, they are a bit of work, which is why, he said, people don’t like to buy them.  Silly people.  He handed me a bunch, told me they were on him, and to let him know what I thought of them.  Oh, Joy is my new middle name!

Cardoons, like artichokes, are thistle-like members of the sunflower family.   Mr. Atkinson was right, they are a bit of work.  You first have to strip the leaves, which are bitter, and trim the outside layer, which is stringy.  I’m not sure how to describe the inside of the stalk — it looks like a series of tubes.  As the stalks mature, they become hollow and more stringy.

Next, the prepared cardoons need to be simmered in salted water for about 30 minutes until they’re tender.  Then they’re ready to be used in any number of ways — sliced and added to pasta, breaded and fried, gratineed, etc.

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I topped my cardoons with a mixture of 1/2 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, then dotted it with about a tablespoon of butter and baked at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the topping was browned.

IMG_2574Looking at cardoons, you might expect them to taste like celery.  You would be wrong, and really, why would you want to go to all that trouble for something that tastes like celery, when you could just eat celery?  You may have heard that they taste like artichokes.  More accurately, they taste EXACTLY like artichoke hearts.  And for that, the hassle is worth it.

PELI PELI AND IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE

Last week, my husband and I were invited to attend the soft opening of Peli Peli’s second restaurant, located inside the Galleria at 5085 Westheimer in the space formerly occupied by Gigi’s Asian Bistro.  Peli Peli’s popular original restaurant, located at 110 Vintage Park Blvd., is in the Tomball/Spring-Cypress area, and was always just a little too far for us, so we were excited to have one closer to home.

Peli Peli, which means bird’s-eye chili, is a spice that was discovered centuries ago in South Africa.  Per the restaurant’s website, “Peli Peli’s cuisine, known as South African Fusion, features authentic South African delicacies along with American steak, chicken and seafood favorites that are prepared in Chef Paul Friedman’s South African style. This style includes marinades, seasonings and spices used in South African cuisine with Dutch, Portuguese and Asian influences.”

The interior is striking:

The bar was packed:

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We chose a South African chardonnay to have with dinner:

IMG_6012We tried two different salads to start.  The Caesar Salad was a fairly traditional Caesar Salad, presented with a pretty little cheesecloth-wrapped lemon, and the Peli-Peli Salad was made up of fresh field greens and baby spinach, topped with red onion, shaved carrots, red cabbage, tomato, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and caramelized pecans, tossed in a strawberry balsamic vinaigrette.  Both were fresh and smartly dressed:

For our appetizer we had the Stuffed Mushrooms, meaty little morsels stuffed with “secret breading,” herbs, and spices, topped with a mild, creamy sauce:

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For our entrees, we sampled the Peli Peli Shrimp Scampi–shrimp sautéed in a spicy Peli-Peli butter sauce, served on a bed of rice pilaf:

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And the Chilean Sea Bass, pan-seared in a Peli-Peli butter sauce, served on a bed of sautéed spinach, topped with a lemon butter sauce, which was our favorite dish of the evening:

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We each had a choice of two sides, and chose (clockwise from upper left) Carrot Bredie, Sautéed Baby Spinach, Couscous Extravaganza, and Mango Coleslaw:

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For dessert we shared a delicious Sticky Toffee Pudding, a moist cake, smothered with homemade sticky toffee, and topped with vanilla ice cream (maybe they should call it Licky Toffee Pudding, because believe me, you’re gonna want to lick every last drop of that toffee sauce off the plate):

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We really enjoyed our meal, from the stunning décor, to the eager staff, to the well-executed food.  For April, the restaurant is by reservation only (tip:  make your graduation dinner reservations now!).

Last night we attended another special event — In Pursuit of Balance, or IPOB, which was held for the first time in Texas.  IPOB describes itself as “a non-profit organization founded in 2011 to promote dialogue around the meaning of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay.”  Thirty-one of the thirty-three member IPOB wineries were present to share tastings of their pinot noirs and chardonnays.  I sampled a lot of great wines, and I’ll leave the descriptions of those wines to those more knowledgeable than myself.  But there were also some beautiful small plates from a variety of Texas restaurants, including:

Dry-aged strip loin with Peruvian purple mashed potatoes, wild mushrooms, and blackberry demi from Pappas Bros. Steakhouse:

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Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings from Underbelly:

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Cobia with Cedar and Oyster Mushrooms, from my favorite chefs at Pass & Provisions:

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Dill-Cured Atlantic Salmon with Avocado Mousse, Fennel, Seeded Cracker, Lime, Chile, and Herbs from Pax Americana:

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Lamb Tartare from laV in Austin (love the presentation):

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Savory Bread Pudding with Mascarpone, Spinach, Mushrooms, Pine Nuts, and Pork Debris from Backstreet Café:

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Comte Grilled Cheese with Mixed Seafood Salad and Watercress from Mark’s American Cuisine:

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And Country-Style Paté from FT33 in Dallas:

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On the way out, there were also beautiful chocolates from Cacao & Cardamom:

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This was a great event, especially for wine lovers, and it was pretty exciting to have it here in Houston.

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