Why would you ever pay Kraft to do this for you?
Why would you ever pay Kraft to do this for you?
Nicholas L. Hall

Do It Yourself

Top Five

My wife is a recovering ketchup junkie. When we first got married, she would break my heart every night around 6 p.m. As soon as dinner hit the table, it was doused in ketchup. Wild mushroom risotto? Ketchup. Red beans and rice? Ketchup. Meatloaf with a ketchup glaze? Actually, she ate that with applesauce. Weird.

She's gotten better about it over the years, although it's arguable that Sriracha has ousted ketchup from its throne. One thing we've always been able to agree on, ketchupwise, is the futility of the "house-made" or, God forbid, "artisan" stuff. For better or for worse, there really is no improving on ketchup. Heinz has that one tied down tighter than if Archie Bell were a dominatrix.

So if ketchup is out, how do we decide which condiments deserve a homespun reboot? To me, there are only a few reasons to bother making your own condiments, and none applies to ketchup. You should make your own if: you can make it better than you can buy it; it's difficult to find premade; it's ridiculously simple to make; or the ingredients are on hand and making it yourself takes less time than it would take you to get it from the store.

Here are my top picks for condiments (perhaps a bit loosely defined) you should make at home:

5. Vadouvan

I suppose, technically, you could call this a spice. Depending on how you make and use it, though, it easily falls into condiment territory. I first encountered vadouvan at a pop-up dinner from Oxheart chef Justin Yu where a cucumber was roasted in the curry-like blend of spices and alliums. I've used mine in a sort of pan-cultural spin on Yu's roasted cucurbit, mixed with the Korean dish nasu dengaku, eggplant broiled with a miso glaze. I mixed a bunch of my homemade vadouvan into the glaze, allowing the dusky and earthy flavors to add further depth to the sweet and savory topping. I've never seen my kids eat zucchini that fast.

Though vadouvan is not particularly difficult to prepare, it is time-consuming. This is an instance in which items one and two from the list above apply. Real, quality vadouvan can be a bit difficult to find in stores, and nothing beats a freshly made batch. Plus, making it at home gives you the option to keep it coarse or grind it into a fine paste, as well as control over the moisture content of the finished product. Set aside a weekend, buy all the onions and shallots you can find, and make vadouvan. I'm doing it regularly these days, if only to stave off the inevitable fever dreams that accompanied the vadouvan withdrawal I suffered after that first taste. Chefs are pushers, I swear.

4. Yuzu Kosho

This is another example of reasons one and two. I first started hearing about kosho a few years back, at around the same time I started noticing mention of vadouvan on cooking blogs like Ideas in Food and Studio Kitchen. I had no idea what it was. I've still only just begun experimenting with the stuff, and I'm already hooked. Basically, it's a combination of chiles and citrus zest, cured in salt. It's intensely aromatic, bitterly pungent and prickly with chile heat. It is far more than the sum of its parts, and it only gets better with time. When I made my first batch, the first day found it pleasant but unbalanced. After a few days in the fridge, it sparked and popped like fireworks, and I found myself eating it on, and in, everything. It's absolutely insane as a topping for grilled fish and works wonders when tossed into a bunch of simply steamed vegetables.

I've never seen kosho in the store, but I've never really looked too hard for it. I'd be a bit surprised if it isn't available at one of Houston's many Asian markets. I have had a premade version of it, once, a gift from a kindhearted Houston chef (more on that later), and can testify that it can't hold a candle to the fresh stuff. In jarred form, it's like an overly aggressive yet somehow muted ghost of itself, focusing on salt and garlic for its punch, and not something I can see using as a straight topping. It's not bad; it's just different. If you're going to try kosho, do it right from the start.

3. Mayonnaise

This one's great, as it meets all of the requirements for homemade condiments. Flavorwise, real mayonnaise versus the jarred stuff is like the difference between chocolate and carob. You can kind of see what people are thinking when they substitute one for the other, but nobody is really able to fool themselves into thinking the substitution is acceptable. Unless, of course, they haven't had real mayonnaise. Which many people haven't. Which is why you should make it.

Aside from the vast flavor differences, and the fact that you can't get real-deal mayonnaise in the store, mayonnaise is both simple and magical. Three ingredients (four if you count salt), three minutes (less if you use an immersion blender) and amazing results. If you want to get fancy, add finely chopped herbs and garlic for aioli. Make it today. Hell, make it right now. Slather it on your sandwiches (scrambled egg being a favorite of mine), spoon it over grilled fish, eat it out of a bowl with steamed vegetables.

2. Whipped Cream

This entry almost got booted by compound butter (soften butter, fold in flavoring — try vadouvan — mold into a cylinder using plastic wrap, refrigerate, slice to use) but won out for the sheer ridiculousness of Cool Whip. For starters, nondairy whipped topping (and its nominal-dairy ilk) is disgusting. It's a textural nightmare, tastes like plastic and is overly sweet. I don't usually get so serious about food (not intended as a joke), but I actually take slight offense at a tub of Cool Whip accompanying the pies on a Thanksgiving buffet. It's just such a sad and careless food product.

The kicker is that actual whipped cream, and its pedantically sweet sister chantilly cream, are ridiculously easy to make. Put cream in a bowl. Beat it. Not too long, or you'll have butter. Which inadvertently reminds me of another positive of real whipped cream: If you screw it up, you get butter! Don't screw it up, and you have one of the best simple pleasures on the planet. True whipped cream is light and fragrant, with a subtle and pleasing sweetness even before you add sugar. It is worlds away from the tub stuff and amazingly delicious. Sweetened, maybe with a bit of bourbon whipped in, it turns perfectly ripe fruit into a decadent dessert while still managing to seem somewhat wholesome.

1. Salad Dressing

If you regularly buy bottled salad dressing, you're dead to me. Do you have oil? Of course you do. Vinegar (or pretty much any other acidic liquid)? Come on, now. Put them in a mason jar in a three-to-one ratio of oil to vinegar, screw the lid on and shake the crap out of it. Make your kids do it for you. It's fun. Throw in a pinch of salt and pepper, a handful of herbs, maybe a minced shallot. Sometimes I make mine in a tall pitcher, using an immersion blender. I throw in huge handfuls of herbs, no need to chop, and buzz the whole thing up in a minute flat. I've recently made both kosho and vadouvan vinaigrette, and they were amazing. I can't remember the last time I bought salad dressing, but it's been awhile. I think you'll find the same is true for you.


Treat Yo' Dog
Peanut butter, banana and yogurt popsicles for the pup.

Popsicles and cool treats are not just for people; dogs deserve a little treat to cool down, too. My dog, Abby, loves to run and play outside during the summer, just like any dog does, but sometimes cold water or a dip in the pool isn't enough to cool her down.

Although grocery stores sell ice cream treats for dogs, I decided to make a delicious treat for my dog at home. It's a lot more fun and satisfying to make something for your dog than to simply buy it in a cardboard box. And you can control what goes in it.

Thanks to my favorite Web site for recipe ideas, Pinterest, I have found a delicious popsicle treat every dog will love (this fact is based on the reaction from my dog; I did not try this frozen treat).

After looking at the recipe once, I knew Abby would go crazy for these popsicles. First of all, they have yogurt and peanut butter in them. My dog absolutely loves licking what's left of my yogurt cup and could eat peanut butter by the spoonful all day long. Although she would be licking the roof of her mouth nonstop if she had peanut butter all the time.

So, to begin making your homemade doggie popsicles, start by mixing 18 ounces of plain nonfat yogurt — make it healthy for your pup. Then add half a cup of peanut butter and stir until the peanut butter blends with the yogurt. It takes a little effort to incorporate the two ingredients together.

By the time you have a creamy mixture, your dog will already be by your side wondering what you're creating. Dogs have a sixth sense for peanut butter, I swear.

Now, mix in a four-ounce jar of banana baby food. This surprised me a little bit at first, but it's almost like a liquid, making it much easier to blend into the peanut butter and yogurt than a smashed banana. Plus, dogs are our babies, so it's fitting to use baby food.

Finally, sweeten the popsicle blend with one tablespoon of honey and stir until everything is smooth and creamy.

Fill small plastic or paper cups to the top with the popsicle mix and stick a dog bone half way into the mixture to serve as the handle (and an extra treat once your dog finishes the popsicle). It's almost like the cone on a Nestle drumstick, except it's not filled with chocolate.

Stick the popsicles in the freezer and wait until they're completely frozen to serve to your dog.

If you use paper cups, peel away the paper to serve the popsicle to your dog. But if you use hard plastic cups, wet a knife with warm water and gently run the knife around the edges of the cup to remove the popsicle.

I recommend the hard plastic cups like the ones I used so you have a container to place the popsicles back into to save for later. By Molly Dunn


Openings & Closings
Blind items and other "fun" activities.

A busy week brought us some bad news, some intriguing news, some good news and a couple of interesting blind items. Let's get that bad news out of the way first.

Samba Grille closed two Saturday evenings ago after service. The downtown restaurant — which won our 2011 Best of Houston® award for Best Steak House — had always struggled to find the right amount of traffic with its Bayou Place location. The closure comes just as Bayou Place had been made "whole" again by Napoli filling the long-vacant Mingalone location next door.

Said chef David Guerrero on his Facebook wall last Friday evening: "I left my soul, heart and passion in this place. Thanks to everybody who showed me love and support and who believes in this cuisine." CultureMap indicates that Samba Grille may be reopening in a new space, however, citing rumors that the investors are looking for a spot that could offer better crowds to the deserving restaurant. Guerrero's own post on Facebook seemed to indicate a return, too: "We'll be back soon," the chef wrote on Friday. "Salud."

In better news, Alison Cook takes time away from reviewing at the Chronicle to report a bit of breaking news: Fantastic French restaurant Aura is moving from Missouri City into Sugar Land's Town Square. But what will happen to the old Aura location?

"When Aura Sugar Land opens this fall, [owner Frederic Perrier's] Missouri City restaurant will become an Italian restaurant with French Riviera overtones," reports Cook, "superintended by Perrier's onetime colleague Jose Alem, whom he is bringing in from Austin." The new Sugar Land location will be styled Aura Brasserie Moderne and hopes to open this fall.

Also opening soon is the first Houston location of Elevation Burger on Kirby near Highway 59. According to a tip left on Swamplot, the opening has been delayed while the structure housing the burger joint is thoroughly remodeled. Which is great and all, but...where is the parking, again?

Swamplot also reports that the construction of the giant new Alamo Tamale Company facility is under way in Northside off the Hardy Toll Road. Writes the real estate blog: "The 23,000-square-foot Alamo Tamale Company development at 809 Berry Rd. just west of Irvington will include a bakery, a reception hall, a restaurant and cantina, a dessert bar, and — yes — an on-site tamale-construction facility. Plus: a drive-thru meant to accommodate about 20 tamale-pickup vehicles."

In intriguing news, a big celebrity chef is heading here from out of the state — and it's not David Chang.

Eater reports that Caesars Palace restaurateur Bradley Ogden is moving from Las Vegas to Houston. Eater Vegas writes that there are several possible locations for Ogden's new Houston spot, which will be called Ogden Pub: "[T]here are 'three letters of intent on spaces, two across the street from each other five minutes from River Oaks and the other near the new Exxon construction south of The Woodlands.'"

Expect Ogden Pub to be "quick," "casual," "communal," "fun" and "farm-to-table," the last two descriptions remaining the most ambiguous of the bunch. Doesn't all food come from a farm somewhere and eventually end up on a table? And what's your definition of fun? Mine involves whipping tennis balls at little kids who won't sit down at restaurants.

Now for those promised blind items...

I received an e-mail from a source regarding a restaurant for sale on "Lower Westheimer near Montrose," which is described in the confidential listing as a "$325,000.00 Turn Key operation, including all FF&E" as well as a "great opportunity for an experienced chef and/or operator to purchase a highly acclaimed, full service, turnkey restaurant."

The ad further states that the restaurant currently offers a "favorable long term lease in a stand-alone building located in the heart of the 'Foodie-Centric' Montrose/Lower Westheimer area" and even has "exclusive parking." Which restaurant is for sale? Let the games begin!

My guess would be Bambolino's, which is the only one left of the original 17 locations in town — and which occupies a very substantial piece of real estate on a very hot strip of land along the Westheimer curve. It's still owned by the Laurenzo family, which is hard at work opening a brand new El Tiempo next door to Ninfa's on Navigation. Could they be looking to jettison an old brand that's no longer working for them?

Meanwhile, the owners of two very popular bars — one of which is more of a cantina — have been looking at spaces downtown for a third concept, reportedly near the space where the OKRA charity bar will be moving in. It wouldn't be their first foray into the downtown market, which means that I have much higher hopes for this place — should it actually even open — than I would most other downtown ventures. As Samba Grille can attest, downtown is a tough market. By Katharine Shilcutt


First Look at Mia's
The first of Carrabba's three new restaurants opens on Kirby.

While the chain of Carrabba's Italian Grill restaurants exists across the nation — there are more than 230 locations these days — the original Carrabba's itself was founded here in Houston in 1986. John Charles "Johnny" Carrabba III and his uncle, Damian Mandola, opened the first Carrabba's on Kirby. And although the chain was sold and franchised long ago, Johnny Carrabba still owns that first location — and he has big plans for the old girl.

A few months ago, Carrabba announced that he'd be expanding the old Carrabba's into a brand-new space a few blocks down on Kirby. And along with that new Carrabba's — to be rebranded as Carrabba's Johnny IV — two more restaurants would be moving in. The first of those two was Mia's, which opened nine weeks ago.

Mia's looks as if it would be right at home in Austin or Dallas despite its native Houstonian roots. This isn't just a comment on its architecture or building materials (I've long resigned myself to the fact that Hill Country-style limestone facades are de rigueur in Houston now) but a comment on its overall feel. Inside, it's as though you've stepped into the suburbs even though you're square in the middle of the Loop. Young families eat at tables that have been shoved together in long rows; women host a Bible study in one corner; kids home from college slurp milkshakes and watch ESPN on the flat-screen TVs. But for all of this, it feels flat and fake.

"I feel like I'm on a movie set," I whispered to my boyfriend as we waited for our food to come out. Everything inside Mia's is beautiful and perfect — almost too perfect. The design is meant to evoke an old-timey, small-town restaurant/soda fountain right down to the tall, tin-capped ceilings and 1940s-era light fixtures. Collections of antique cheese graters or Depression glass juicers are neatly organized and shadowboxed on walls in rooms with fake fireplaces and pre-faded signs. Again, it's all lovely. But it has an unsettling feel, like the uncanny valley of restaurant designs.

Luckily, the food fared better than I expected, despite being fairly expensive for a counter-service, fast-casual place. It's a blend of casual American dining — chicken strips and burgers — and something verging on barbecue but not quite (there's no brisket or sausage here, but there are ribs and pulled pork). The menu is entirely made up of the sort of innocuous middle-ground territory that can please every member of a family, no matter how picky.

And because this is a slick, corporate-run joint (Johnny Carrabba's team knows how to run a restaurant, that's for damn sure), the service is impeccable, too.

"Is this your first time here?" asked a chipper young man as we approached the counter earlier that night. When we both nodded yes, he launched straight into a friendly explanation of how the Mia's "experience" works: You order, give them your name and they bring your food to you. That simple. You don't even have to take a number. We made our choices, I grabbed a Shiner Bock on draft ("It's served at 33 degrees!" the chipper counter man told us while my beer-nerd boyfriend grimaced silently) and we went to find some seats.

Not a short amount of time later (fast-casual does not mean fast food here, it would seem), our orders came out: a basket of fried chicken strips and a pulled pork sandwich. My sandwich came with potato salad and baked beans, the chicken strips with Texas toast, fries and jalapeño-cream gravy. Each was served in cute, black-and-white tin trays. And aside from a few minor complaints, the food itself was good.

The pulled pork was surprisingly of the Texas — not the Carolina — variety (I don't know why the latter is more prevalent in Houston), with thick shreds of pork butt in a tangy, deep red barbecue sauce. The diced onions and pickles on top were a nice touch, but I wished the bun held together better. The baked beans were a bizarre pinto bean soup with black pepper and bell peppers in a soupy broth, but the excellent mustard-y potato salad tasted like homemade.

The fried chicken strips were soft and yielding, with a terrifically crunchy yet light batter. On the other hand, the Texas toast was simply two buttered and barely toasted pieces of thin white bread, and the fries were soft and mealy. The latter was a particular shame because they were well-seasoned otherwise.

On the whole, however, it was mostly inoffensive stuff. I want to go back and try the milkshakes I saw everyone around me enjoying, and I'm very curious to sample the Meatball Burger, a dish symbolic of Carrabba's Italian heritage that stands out to me as full of something that I think Mia's is lacking overall: a true personality of its own. Perhaps I'll love it and grow to feel more fondly toward Mia's overall.

Mia's isn't going to lack for business either way; it seems purpose-built to offer middle-of-the-road food at slightly above-average prices for the folks who are busily gentrifying the Inner Loop pockets of Houston once again. It's a smart niche to fill, and Carrabba is doing it well — and we still have Grace's, which Carrabba plans as an upscale Italian restaurant, to look forward to. By Katharine Shilcutt


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