Paying my bets, or how does gnocchi sound?

24 04 2009

I’m not writing about travel today, but I am going to get to food.  I’m paying off a bet this Saturday night, and I’m actually looking forward to it.  A few weeks ago some friends and I competed in a 10k challenge, taking place during the 32nd running of the Capitol 10,000 in Austin.  It was a boys vs. girls throwdown.  Only four guys stepped up to the plate to compete, while eight girls came ready to run.  The total time of the boys would be compared to the total time of the four fastest girls, and the losing team would have to make dinner for the winning team. 

I’m always up for a challenge…I’m a competitor on many levels.  Just last night I got into it with Chris trying to name the three different types of rocks (for some reason I was convinced a “conglomerate” was a “type” of rock, but alas, I was wrong on that one).  I played volleyball in high school and college.  I absolutely LOVE games.  Trivia Pursuit?  I’m down.  Rock Star?  I’m on drums.  42?  I’ll shake.  So when the idea of a boys vs. girls challenge was thrown out there, I was definitely up for it.  For the most part, the attitude of the girls was just to have fun, it’s not about winning (I had to suppress my inner competitor to agree with that one).  Besides, we girls knew going into the contest it would be tough.  One of the participating boys (the guy who’s idea this whole thing was in the first place, actually, hmmmm….) runs 6 minute miles and recently qualified for the Boston Marathon.  Another of the boys averages about 7.5 minutes miles, and Chris can do around 8 minute miles.  Me?  I run 9ish minute miles, which, by the way, I happen to think is really fast.  The other seven girls who ran the challenge all run about the same.  We’re consistent, if nothing else.  Our only hope was that my brother-in-law, the one remaining member of the guys’ team, would be so slow, we might have a chance.

The morning of the race was pretty chilly for March.  I think it was actually in the 30s (though highs would probably reach the 60s).  Chris and I got up, dressed, and drove around the corner to pick up my brother-in-law, who was covered from head to toe…running pants, long sleeve shirt under a t-shirt, hat, gloves…I start thinking, okay, we may have a chance.  He’s going to get so hot, he’ll have to walk…right?  Well, no such luck.  He did get hot, and he did not run all that fast, but run he did, and he finished in plenty of time for the boys to pull off the easy victory.

The day after the race, the results circulated: 

Boys’ total time — 3:21:36

Girls’ total time — 3:51:25

Almost a half hour slower!  Next year I’m going to suggest doing it the way certain Olympic events are judged…toss out the fastest and slowest times and use what’s left.  Maybe that will help.

Anyway, all this is a lead in to what I think should be a delicious feast tomorrow night.  A few of the girls and I met for lunch earlier this week and planned the menu.  I’m making potato gnocchi with a basil pesto and homemade baguettes.  Amanda is bringing a huge salad, Carrie is doing steaks and dessert (we’re thinking something along the lines of a tres leches but with more of an Italian feel), and Mary is preparing an antipasti plate to munch on while we finish up dinner.  And everyone (boys included) is to bring a bottle of wine.  A simple, classic Italian dinner that I think is going to be delicious and sure to please everyone.  Besides, I’m *really* excited to get to use my ricer again…

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Houston with family

6 04 2009

A few weekends ago Chris and I decided to show my sister, her husband, and their two kids what we like about Houston.  We lived there for many years, and my husband is originally from Houston (mostly — I like to tease him about this but it never gets me very far…he has huge Houston pride).  Several months ago my sister may or may not have said something to the effect of “I like Dallas better than Houston” within earshot of my husband (this is subject to dispute) and at that very moment he formulated plans to take them to Houston and show them what they have been missing.

We thought long and hard about the plans…there is so much to see and do and, more importantly, EAT in Houston!  We did not have much time.  We would also have to tailor this trip for kids — include things everyone in the family would enjoy.  We also wanted to keep costs as low as possible.  We would drive in Saturday morning and return by early afternoon the next day.  We would have to make time to drive up 45 to Chris’s parents house, acclimate the kids to my in-laws, then head back in for dinner and what-not.  Within those restrictions, we saw a lot, and I think we all had a great time.  The weather did not want to cooperate (it rained constantly and was unseasonably cold) but we were able to work that to our advantage…see, it actually rains in Houston.  Here in Austin, at least up until a few weeks ago, we were starting to forget what rain looked like…

Chris and I picked up the crew in my friend Mary’s Honda Pilot (thank you Mary!!) at 6:30 in the morning and hit the road, coffee in hand.  The kids tuned in to The Incredibles in the back-back and the rest of us settled in for the drive.  We made it to our first stop by 9:15 and headed in for a quick, “light” breakfast…

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…at Crescent City Beignets.  To me, one of the great things about Houston is its proximity to New Orleans and its own Cajun culture.  So, we ate a few freshly-fried beignets and drank cafe au lait and we were on our way. 

We headed straight to the Children’s Museum, and on this day the museum was celebrating the grand opening of its expansion with free admission, all kinds of musical and dance performances, and I think the space was now double in size.  There was a lot going, and there were TONS of people, but we got there right when it opened at 10 and managed to handle the crowds without getting separated too many times.  The museum is absolutely fantastic…the kids had a blast, and I really want to take them back on a less-crowded day.  My nephew had a lot of fun navigating the “Powerplay,” which I can only describe as a three-story structure of almost petal-like platforms enclosed by netting.  It’s part maze, part jungle-gym…it’s really cool.  My nephew and Chris went back later and Chris tried it out himself.  They both had a blast.  Here are a few shots from the side…

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We tried all sorts of pulley and lever contraptions, messed around with static electricity, and tried to do the climbing wall but the line was too long.  I don’t think we saw half of everything there, but what we did see was really cool.  We also checked out a few of the performances.  First, we saw the dance of the Lion with Lee’s Golden Dragon (my nephew really thought the dragon was coming after him…and really it kind of was!).  I mean, it was right on top of us.

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Later I enjoyed the dance of the Mixteco Ballet Folklorico with my sister and niece.  I still have not mastered the dancing photography (you may remember this from my Buenos Aires post) but I do kind of like the effect I end up with…

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By lunch time, the museum was really starting to get crowded, plus, we had a tight schedule to adhere to (this was my job — keeping us on schedule), so a little after noon we headed over to Rajin’ Cajun for lunch.  Chris and I used to love coming here for muffalettas and po’ boys…but today, I decided to give the crawfish another thought.  They were never my favorite in town when I lived here, but I have to say…they were pretty tasty, and seeing as how they are really hard to find in Austin, they really hit the spot.  Chris got an oyster po’ boy and onion rings.  I think everyone was very satisfied with lunch.  I took a few shots of the carnage…

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After lunch, we headed over to my favorite museum in town, the Menil Collection.  There are so many reasons I love this museum, from the beautiful building designed by Renzo Piano that nestles so perfectly in the surrounding residential neighborhood of gray and white bungalows, to the grounds where I have spent many a warm afternoon lounging under huge oak trees, to the expansive interior filled with natural light, to the impressive collection of modern and surrealist works (including a huge collection of Magritte’s paintings) as well as antiquities and a large collection of objects from Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Northwest.  The kids especially loved all of the masks, tools, accessories, and weapons.  And I don’t think I mentioned another great thing about the Menil — it is free. 

Though we planned to walk over to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel next, the rain forced us to hop back into the car and drive the three or four blocks.  The Byzantine Chapel is part of the Menil Collection, and the way I understand it, these 13th century frescoes were stolen from a chapel in Cyprus in the 1980s.  The thieves broke the frescoes into 38 pieces and attempted to sell them on the black market.  The Menil Foundation in Houston managed to buy all 38 pieces with the knowledge and approval of the church of Cyprus and spent two years restoring them.  Today, they are the only intact Byzantine frescoes in the western hemisphere, and the building that holds them is a simple and fitting spot to admire the masterpieces. 

Next, we drove around River Oaks for a little bit, checking out the huge houses…some are really beautiful.  Others…they’re just huge.  At this point in the day, we are ahead of schedule due to the rain (we had planned on spending an hour or so on the grounds of the Menil, but no such luck).  So…what could we do inside in Houston…hmmm…of course.  The Galleria.  Suffice it to say, we were not the only people who had this idea.  It was packed!  The guys dropped my sister, the kids and me off and set out to find parking.  We headed in and immediately ran in to a fashion show.  After checking that out for a while, we met up with the guys and watched the ice skaters for a while (and my sister and I used this opportunity to leave the kids with the guys while we checked out a few stops).  Finally, it was time to head north.  The kids felt instantly at home with Chris’s parents who were really excited to have kids in the house.  When we left, my mother-in-law was in the midst of a ping pong match with my nephew and my niece was bouncing around watching them. 

Our night began with a late dinner at the best Mexican food restaurant in Houston, in my opinion — the original Ninfa’s on Navigation.  It is so hard telling people that my favorite Mexican food is Ninfa’s, because someone will invariably say “Oh, I’ve been to a Ninfa’s here.”  IT IS NOT THE SAME!!!  It is SO not the same.  Every other Ninfa’s is awful.  But the one on Navigation is where it all began, and it’s fantastic.  It starts when you walk in and right there, two women expertly making tortillas.  There is nothing better than homemade tortillas.  Also, every single time I’ve eaten there, and I’ve eaten there more times than I can possibly remember, I have had fantastic service.  Every time.  And I continue to recognize the same wait staff from years ago when I first ate there.  No matter how busy or big your party, you will be in great hands.  And of course, the food is great.  We started out with the queso fundido con rajas — the server prepares each cheese-filled tortilla tableside with two utensils.  It’s impressive, delicious, and a great way to start.  The margaritas are also a must.  Even the house margaritas.  Delicious.  I also devour my weight in the pickled carrots and chips every time I go.  They are highly addictive.  When I first started eating at Ninfa’s they were always on the table…now, you have to ask for them, but rest assured, they have them.  For the entree, it’s really hard to beat the beef.  We ordered enough beef fajitas for the table and before long we had a platter of beef, onions, peppers, and nopales in the middle of the table and other plates with frijoles borrachos, frijoles refritos, rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream scattered about.  I usually ask them to throw in some grilled shrimp as well.  All of this with all of the homemade tortillas you can eat…makes for a great, and extremely reasonably-priced dinner.  I like to go back every time I’m in town.

After dinner we decided to hit up four different bars (thanks to Chris being more than happy shuttling us around)…two of which were old favorites from Chris’s and my days here.  First, we enjoyed a beer at the West Alabama Ice House.  Though it was cold and rainy, we settled up to the bar under the front cover and it wasn’t bad at all.  Chris and I once lived right across the street in the upstairs portion of  a duplex and have fond memories of this place…from the free hot dogs on Fridays (while they lasted) to the late-night blasting of New York, New York!  We also met so many fun characters over there…

Next, we stopped in at Rudyard’s…I always loved that place.  We used to see bands upstairs (especially when the Asylum Street Spankers came to town)…play darts downstairs…and its a great place to eat and drink a pint.  Even though it was a Saturday night we were able to sit right down at a table for a drink (I think more than half of the crowd was crammed into the outdoor smoking area).  Though it has been a few years since I’ve been here, it still seemed like the same great place I used to love.

For our next stop, we wanted to go upscale, so we headed downtown to the State Bar.  Do people not go here anymore?  Is this more of a happy hour spot?  I’m pretty sure we were the only people there.  Nice views, nice interior…but really quiet!  It was midnight by this point, but people go to bars at midnight, don’t they?  We didn’t stay long.  Our last stop was the bar at the Hilton by the Toyota Center.  The Hilton was not there when we lived in Houston, but I have been there before and think the lobby is pretty cool (especially the glass light fixtures).  Once we finished our drink, we headed back home to get a few hours of sleep.

The next morning we picked up breakfast at the Hot Bagel Shop on Shepherd and the bagels are still delicious.  The cream cheeses are delicious.  And, they make these breakfast bagels I absolutely love — bagels filled with eggs and bacon.  YUM.  The plan was to take breakfast over to Hermann Park and hang out for a few hours.  Of course, the weather had another idea.  We were able to eat our bagels at a picnic table, but by the time we made it over to the reflecting pool, the rain was coming down.  We didn’t get to see the Japanese Gardens…and Chris was especially sad he couldn’t show our niece and nephew how to slide/roll down the hill by Miller Outdoor Theater.  Oh well…next time.

Our last planned event also had to be nixed…we were planning on going out to the San Jacinto Monument (which, I hear may be the tallest monument column in the world?).  It is also a very important part of Texas history…but alas, we were a few miles east of Houston on I-10 and the rain was just getting worse.  As a side-note, with all the rain, we were able to show how quickly and easily Houston floods…and how everyone there just deals with it!  It did not seem like a great idea to head out to a low-lying area where we could get stranded, though, so we decided to head back home.  I think everyone was pretty exhausted by the fast-pace of our trip…but really, when you only have less than 36 hours to experience a city with as much as Houston has to offer, you have to keep moving!