After Hours: Encounters With Magical Beings

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research , and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

Good Neighbors / Dragons & Monstera Be That Way / ” Best Bird Ever !

Good Neighbors

When death, illness or disaster strikes, the instinctual community response is delivering food. When you are inspired to help neighbors that you haven’t met yet, one reliable way to make sure a gift reaches them is through the nationwide network of food banks organized by America’s Second Harvest . This organization makes uncommonly efficient use of food and money donations, 98% of which go directly to feeding the hungry.

Many of the network’s food banks along the Gulf Coast are now disaster victims as well, having lost their buildings and supplies in Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. America’s Second Harvest has mobilized to transport food donations from all over the country to the region and help the banks resume operation. The network’s home page has a locator for the local food banks and rescue organizations that are serving as drop-off points. There is a response form as well for cash gifts, with the promise that 100% will go to the hurricane relief effort. Corporate donations of truckloads of dry products or transportation are also being accepted. Details are at the site.

Dragons & Monstera Be That Way

Once again, Melissa’s World Variety Produce has come up with varieties of fruit that push the concept of “exotic” way beyond its usual culinary confines.

With deep purple-red spiky scales for skin, Dragonfruit looks like the previously unsuspected missing link between the artichoke and the bird of paradise. The entire interior is edible, once you get past the startling color – intense magenta or bluish pink (Melissa’s ships both, depending on what’s available) – and the glistening wetness of the surface. After such visual pyrotechnics, the dragonfruit’s taste is surprisingly restrained, vaguely tropical but not so reminiscent of any one fruit that you (or at least, I) can put a finger on it.

The Monstera fruit defies credulity. It’s strange enough at first sight, being long (mine approached nine inches), covered with interlocking green hexagon tiles and shaped like a cudgel with a handle. Leave it be, though, and it will astound. This fruit peels itself as it ripens. The hexagon skin tiles fall away as the fruit underneath softens. (Not all at once, either; ripening can last several days, unless the fruit is wrapped in plastic first.) And what’s revealed is not an expanse of pulp, but individual compartments that encase fruity plugs. Pull one out and it brings to mind a stubby potato stick, or a julienned carrot. The feel is akin to banana, and the taste suggests banana, pineapple and papaya. Once the novelty factor ebbs, spoon out the pulp for eating or popping into the blender for a one-of-a-kind smoothie.

Amid such peacockery, the Keitt mango seems positively retiring. It’s larger than the norm, but otherwise does nothing to draw attention to itself. It doesn’t even change color to signal that it is ripe. But when it is, it delivers firm, succulent flesh that is uncommonly easy to cut away from the seed. And it’s tasty, too.

“Best Bird Ever!”

Part of the appeal of a road trip is scouting out new food experiences. One that proved worth the drive topped off a recent visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY (a museum which, by the way, has great merit for the cultural history it engrossingly lays out, for those of us who aren’t particularly fans of the sport). My boyfriend had been on alert about a semi-nearby barbecue joint ever since seeing it featured in an episode of the Food Network show “$40 a Day.” Our party followed his urging and detoured some 40 minutes to Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Que on Oneonta, where a neon animation of a hatchet-wielding cook chasing a chicken signaled our arrival. The omens were favorable.

Brooks, a nearly 45-year-old restaurant that evolved from a poultry farm, was built to serve the masses. It boasts a seating capacity of 300, as well as the largest indoor charcoal pit in the Northeast. Despite an enormous, well-populated parking lot and a switchback line at the dining room door, the wait for a table was short-lived. It wasn’t even 30 minutes before we were in sight of rooster-patterned wallpaper within, a mid-20th-century mural of the egg-to-platter life cycle of a chicken, and framed mementos from “$40 a Day” host Rachael Ray’s visit, including a menu inscribed “Best Bird Ever!” (in handwriting as extroverted as her TV personality).

The chicken is good. In fact, it was far and away the tastiest and most tender of the bar-b-que samplers that swamped my table. Brooks’ bar-b-que sauce, which it sells online and by mail order, is of the smoky, somewhat sweet variety, and the kitchen adds eggs to the marinade for the chicken.

What most grabbed my attention, though, was our friendly speed demon of a waiter. He was depositing the drink orders before my party returned from the salad bar. “You’re on top of things!” I exclaimed. “You have to be,” he laughed.

He later provided the capping moment of the experience. As we were littering the table with crumpled, soiled napkins, he leaned toward the other woman in our party.

“You said you wanted strawberries with your cheesecake, didn’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t have room for dessert,” she protested.

He looked at me and smiled. “Carrot cake for you?”

“Oh, I wish!” I sighed.

“I can make wishes come true, ma’am,” he countered. “I’m the dessert genie!”

Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Que is at 5560 State Highway 7 in Oneonta, NY. As for our tipster Rachael Ray, she’s got a new Food Network show called Tasty Travels and both a cookbook and magazine coming out this fall.

Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.

Posted in: After Hours, Food