Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jumping to Conclusions

Recently, a large construction project has begun adjacent to our humble abode. The crews have built a new road, and hundreds of huge trucks hauling rocks and dirt have come and gone. This flurry of activity piqued my curiosity.

It seemed possible that this could be a long-awaited road that would cut my commute by about 40%. Could it be true? I've considered asking one of the workers about the purpose of the project, but I never got to it.

Sunday, the appearance of a small sign at the entrance to the construction site ended the mystery:
"Improving Austin: Upper Walnut Creek Regional Detention Center"

Detention center! In my back yard?! Oh noes, there goes the neighborhood! I even started to think about how I would blog about this shocking turn of events. Oh how the sympathetic comments would pour in! Since we are planning on buying a house in the near term, I was going to take the position that living in an apartment can actually be a good thing. If a nuclear waste dump goes in, you can leave after the lease. If you are a homeowner, then you are well and duly hosed.

So, today, I got around to actually Googling the "Upper Walnut Creek Regional Detention Center". What type of miscreants would they be foisting on us, the innocent citizens of northwest Austin?


There will be no hardened criminals and insane inmates (constantly plotting escape) next door. Apparently, detention centers of this ilk are used to wrangle up and rehabilitate errant storm waters. This can reduce risk from floods and stream erosion in downstream areas. I felt pretty silly about this little leap to conclusion. The crisis has been averted. Our neighborhood is safe for the time being

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Finger Food Fotos:

My second place potato appetizer.
Shannon's championship Apple Cinnamon Ice Cream Tart
Prosciutto-wrapped Asparagus. Check out the heart-stopping butter sauce.
Tastes so good makes a grown man cry
Mia plating her amazing bruschetta platter.
The Good Times Sandwich is under construction. Note the chaos.
Munch Madness: the bracket
Sweet, smokey bacon wrapped around the choicest sausage. Angio-Tasty
Jeff intently prepares his appetizer, face perilously close to the deadly knife

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Finger Food Fest Wrap Up

Finger Food Fest Menu:
Mini Apple and Cherry Pies: (Kristin)
Devil's Chocolate Mousse Eggs: (Patrick and Shannon)
Cinnamon Apple Ice Cream Tarts: (Shannon)
Hawaiian Chicken Skewers: (Roxanne)
Prosciutto-wrapped Asparagus with Butter Sauce: (Rob)
Salami, Tomato, and Buffalo Mozzarella: (Jeff)
Baklava: (Kishore and Karla)
Cheese Bacon Hash brown with Wasabi Mashed Potatoes: (Chris)
Bacon-wrapped Sausages, "Angio-Tasty": (Carl and Jenny)
The Good Time Sandwich (pulled beef brisket with spicy cheese sauce): (Danny and Chris)
Bruschetta Platter: (Mia)
Black Bean and Banana Empanadas: (The Stockton's)

Turnout was great, and there was a loud and jovial atmosphere all night. We had even stronger attendance than the Guacamodown with most of the original participants coming back for more.

Our smallish kitchen prep area grew chaotic at times (ala Iron Chef, Top Chef, or Hell's Kitchen), adding to the ambiance. With crock pots, toaster ovens, the oven, and the microwave running full bore, those who couldn't take the heat were advised to stay out of the kitchen.

The 3 randomly selected judges for each food match up had the enviable task of tasting each food, making comments, and choosing a winner for that round. Judging was definitely not all fun and games. At one point, Carl was forced to resign his judgeship due to a sudden onset of fullness.

A great highlight of the evening was the dramatic reading of the judge's comments. Our MC's, Patrick and Chris would read selected comments, and we all tried to anticipate the winner based on see-sawing praise and critiques.

Munch Madness:
As we moved through the single-elimination bracket, the tension grew (and the stomachs grew fuller). The victorious food item advanced to the next round while the other entry was served up to the grateful masses.

Tangible excitement filled the air when each successive fallen finger food made the march of shame to the "Devouring Table", where the hungry masses fought for positioning to get the first taste. (hat tip to Chris Floyd for providing this paragraph).

At the end of the night, our kitchen was a low-grade disaster area, but it could have been much crazier considering the amount of food flying everywhere. We did have one small red wine spill and one knife to finger mishap (thanks to our uber-sharp Shun knives featured in an earlier blogging.)

The group brought some seriously good food with really impressive presentation. There was not a bad dish in the house, and the night flew by. The evening was a huge success.

Stand-out Dishes:
Roxanne and Michelle's Hawaiian Chicken skewers featured a jaw-dropping presentation built from the top half of a pineapple. I would eat the aloha out of this dish if given another shot at it.

Patrick and Shannon's The Devil's Mousse Eggs certainly featured the most unusual culinary concoction of the evening. Chocolate and hard-boiled egg whites is not an obvious pairing. Yet, the richness of the egg worked well with the bittersweet chocolate in a finish reminiscent of a chocolate custard.

The Black Bean and Sautéed Banana Empanadas were perfectly executed. The puff pastry crust was flaky and flavorful, and the rich filling was accented with a little heat from a touch of cayenne. This item could be served at an upscale South American restaurant…totally cravable.

Danny and Chris Floyd brought some good vibes and an awesome sandwich creation with their Good Time Sandwich. It featured tender pulled beef brisket with a tangy cheese sauce served between miniature toasts. I would like to have this again as a full-sized sandwich.

Kudos to Carl and Jenny for creating a clever cartoon character and name for their bacon wrapped mini sausages. Apparently, the bacon in their crowd-favorite appetizer was selected for its prodigious fat content. The name of their dish: Angio-Tasty. How fitting.

Kristin's mini pies were cool. Even cooler was her theme song: Warrant's "Cherry Pie".

The Championship:
Congratulations to Shannon for winning best in show with her Cinnamon Apple Ice Cream tarts. She layered homemade apple cinnamon ice cream and apple dip into from-scratch tart shells to create a winning finger-food dessert. Judges raved about the combination of hot and cold temperatures, the delicious apple flavors, and excellent overall flavor profile. Incidentally, in a "House Divided" finale, it was my savory potato fusion dish that she vanquished.

What's Next?
With the Guacamodown and the Finger Food Fest in the books, we're already looking forward to the next food challenge. In a late-night brainstorming session, we settled on a preliminary working concept for the next event: Soup or Salad Showdown. So, dust off your Salad Shooters and your most soup-er recipes. We'll see you at the next Austin food challenge.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Nice Weekend...

Kickball...Defense Rules:
On Friday night, our intrepid kickball squad pulled out yet another victory. Once again, we played stellar defense (something that we Austinites have not seen much of this year. I'm looking at you, Longhorn secondary), earning the first shut-out in the league this year. We moved to 5-1 on the year with sole possession of first place.

Kickball defense may sound easy, but, folks, that red rubber ball can be tough to corral. It's a little too big to reliably catch with hands alone. One must use the arms and body to 'bear hug' the ball on pop ups. At the moment of the catch, there is a lot of recoil, as the ball is very bouncy. This is due to Newton's 2nd Law of kickball physics. The other challenge is in throwing out baserunners. An 8-inch rubber sphere has the aerodynamic qualities of a block of wood, and it's hard to grip. As a result, most throws to bases end up looking like Stephen McGee passes.

Defense requires concentration and a lot of coordination. It's a lot of fun.

Lending an air of credibility to our league is this nifty website with our standings.

Finger Food Fest Fabulous Fun for Friends and Family!
Saturday night, we hosted the hotly anticipated Finger Food Fest cooking challenge. The event was a rousing success, eclipsing the fun of the Guacamodown.

The head-to-head matchup structure worked perfectly, and the quality of the cooking was unreal. We have some serious culinary talent amongst our group of friends and family in Austin.

Some tidbits:
  • We had more than 20 attendees with 12 different and unique food entries
  • Props to Erin and Andy Chun for making the trip all the way from California for the event (well, they just happened to be in town, but it was great to see an old friend again)
  • Someone (to be revealed in the full writeup) actually entered a concoction called "The Devil's Chocolate Mousse Eggs". Yes, these devilled eggs featured a chocolate filling. Fabulous.
I'll do a more full write-up soon with pictures.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Are you a math moron?

Back when Shannon taught 7th grade math, she would often bring home her work in the form of gigantic piles of ungraded worksheets, tests, and homework. She still brings home the mounds of paper, but now, thankfully, they are covered in igneous rocks and simple machines, not fractions and algebraic torture.

Some of these ungraded items lacked the all-important answer key. Someone, usually Shannon, would have to work the assigment correctly one time to generate the key.

One day, I was drafted into this duty. "Piece of cake," I thought. After all, by profession I crunch through numbers like wafer thin saltine crackers. I calculate margin percentages on the fly, net out revenues, and tabulate margins with the best of em. Fractions are nothing. Ha! Our numbers are in the tens of millions, billions even!

Well, this stuff kicked my medulla oblongata. A familiar dull headache and a sense of suffocating claustrophobia swept over me as I waded into the math problems. 30 painful minutes later, the deed was done; the beast had been slain. My brow was drenched in sweat, and my neck ached with the nostalgic pain from the "Homework Hunch-over" of years gone by.

A wise person once said, "Math is not a spectator sport." I couldn't agree more. Broadway musicals, operas, and sporting events are for spectators. Math homework is something much more painful, and ticket scalpers would never be able to make a living off of it.

Since that day, I never touched another math homework or test. I had been humbled and shaken to my core. Math was as rough as I remembered. Kudos to all the math teachers out there who work on this stuff every single day!

Slate Article: "The Math Moron"

Monday, November 13, 2006

Finger Food Face-Off Countdown (5 Days to Go)

We have five days left until the fabulous finger food face off. In honor of the big upcoming event, we'll be posting some appetizer factoids:

  • Amuse-bouche (uh-MYUZ-boosh) is similar to but not to be confused with hors d'oeuvre. This is a tidbit, often tiny, served as a free extra to keep you happy while you are waiting for your first course to come. It gives you an idea of the chef's approach to cooking and the restaurant's attention to your appetite. [from www.wordsmith.org].
  • The correct spelling for hors d'oeuvre is hors d'oeuvre. This french loosely translates as 'outside the main work'
  • Appetizer sales are a key driver of restaurant profitability via higher average checks.
  • Pre-main course fullness can result from appetizer consumption. Diners must use foresight to avoid this unfortunate condition.
  • Fondue is a tasty opening course, but its 70's kitsch makes it too cheesy for most people to enjoy.

Super-Sizing Kiosks

Human behavior can be so interesting, especially when guided and influenced by marketeers. We all know that fast food is a big problem, but nobody told the corporations and franchise owners that sell the stuff. Their financial livelihoods are tied up in selling more of their food while weathering the threats and attacks that result from selling a harmful, yet appealing product.

At your local Subway sandwich shop, you may have already seen automated kiosks where customers configure their order without human intervention. These kiosks are coming to fast food restaurants and drive throughs in a big way very soon. These new robotic fast-food pushers are more effective at upselling than the usual minimum wagers. They also reduce the shame factor of making a huge food order. The result is larger orders and faster throughput.

We also get to avoid the inevitable message garbling that can sabotage a food order. How many burgers have been needlessly slathered with mustard, ketchup, and onions? Sure, you can use a napkin to crudely scrape this foul condimental melange aside, but then what do you have left to dry your tears?

So, thanks to the new kiosks, fast food just got a little faster and a little easier on the psyche (and rougher on the old lipid count). Yay? On the plus side, the McRib is back. Maybe I can find a non-judgmental kiosk to sell me one on the down low.

New fast food kiosk article

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Humor: Frito Lay Angrily Introduces Line of Healthy Snacks

Frito Lay has been forced to roll out healthy snacks, and they don't like it one bit.

From The Onion (Note: There is some adult language in this news story):
Frito Story

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Every recreational athletic league for adults has at least one "That Guy." He is the weekend warrior who pushes his frail and aging body way past its recommended tolerances. Every game is a life and death struggle, a war against a ruthless enemy. Inevitably, something snaps, pulls, or tears. The weekend warrior is unable to relive the fading glory of his past athletic conquests. Sadly, I have become "That Guy."

In my zeal to win a Ball-Busters kickball game several weeks ago, I pulled both stupid quadriceps muscles. They refuse to heal, probably because I have followed none of the treatments recommended online (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). I've hobbled around in every game this year because true weekend warriors must play through the pain.

Our last kickball match was a big one. We faced the juggernaut, Ivan Drago team of our rec league, "The Bumblebees". While the rest of us struggle to field a full roster each week, their dug-out floweth over with substitute players. While the rest of us saunter up the kickball fields in a mismatched array of sweatshirts and t-shirts, this team marches in with stunning yellow and black uniforms. They have spared no expense to win this league, as shown by the custom lettering on the backs of their uniforms.
Bumblebees: "I must crush you...in kickball"

We played a valiant game, but in the end "The Bumblebees" prevailed, 7 to 5. I'm sure we'll see them again in the year-end championship tournament. We may not have fancy uniforms, but we will have a few tricks up our mismatched sleeves.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

11/18: Mark Your Calendars

Finger foods, hors d'oeuvres, appetizers: these are the party animals, the social butterflies of the culinary world. Wherever, folks are throwin' em up to YMCA, clucking in the chicken dance, or just starting a restaurant meal these little morsels are probably somewhere nearby. In a meal of a hundred bites, they are the first step. They whet the appetite and appease grumbling stomachs. This might be the greatest food category in the world.

We are going to be harnessing the awesome party-starting power of the appetizer in another iron chef Austin cookoff. Unlike the fairly narrowly defined Guacamodown, the parameters for this cooking competition are wide open. Hot, cold, classic, or deconstructionistic culinary nihilism; it's all good. This is going to crazy fun.

The details are still in the works, but here be the prelim infos:
-Saturday night, November 18th around 7:00 p.m.
-Shannon and Chris' place
-Competition: tournament-style with a bracket and head-to-head, app-to-app matchups.
-Awards for creativity, presentation, taste, etc.

What majestic flavors will emerge from the collective genius of this gathering? Will we say buena sera to the next great antipasto? Domo arigato to cutting edge sushi? Will we surrender to the delicious power of canapes or crudites? Will we be graced by an amuse' bouche? That, my friends, is up to you.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Several months ago, we hosted the first ever "Guacamodown." Several of our friends take guacamole very seriously, so the idea of a cookoff sounded like fun. Drawing inspiration from shows like "Iron Chef" and "Top Chef", we set up a guacamole showdown.

For those of you who are not familiar with guacamole, It's a simple concoction of avocado, onion, jalapeno, tomato, and some seasonings. The avocado is a fruit with lots of good nutrients and health benefits. It has tons of fat, but it's good fat, I think. Avocado is an odd cooking ingredient, as its creamy, fatty green pulp requires very strong supporting ingredients and flavors to bring any new tastes to the party.

We wanted to see how our friends could take basic guacamole to the next level. We sent out the invite a few days early for a Tuesday night Guacamodown. Surprisingly, 20 people showed up with 10 different guacamoles (comprised of more than 60 fresh avocadoes). We were not expecting the level of guacamole excellence that showed up that night.

We had beautiful presentations, including one guac with a cool mosaic design made of diced tomato, onion, and cilantro. We had innovative ingredients, like bananas, grapes, goat cheese, and nuts. Each chef presented his or her guacamole with a theme song playing in the background. We had LL Cool J, The Jackson 5, and lots of funky salsa type music. Oh, and we had plenty of Dos Equis to wash it all down.

The competition was a huge success, and we all agreed to have another cooking competition in the near future. This time, it would definitely not be guacamole. You see, eating a pound of guacamole can do frightening and disturbing things to a person.

So, get ready. Saturday, November 18th at Chris and Shannon's place: Finger Food Fest aka the Appetizer Cook Off is coming. We'll see you there.