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David and I have been re-doing several rooms in the house for the last few months. We hired my friend Robin to consult on colors and do a design plan for the living room, and we finally finished it yesterday. I took a few pictures – I’m a crap photographer, hopefully Robin will take some good ones and put them up on her website. In the meantime, here’s some eye candy for you.

In other news, I have a really crappy cough. The only thing that seems to be working for it is a homeopathic remedy I found online. Apple cider vinegar simmered with cayenne pepper and honey, diluted with a litte water. Tastes foul, but can render me cough free for an hour or two. I probably smell like a salad.

My new job is great. Tons to learn, I am not going to lack challenges in this position. School starts on Weds, and thus begins the ball-buster year that is 2007. Wish me luck.

Austin Food Bytes Archive, 4

I’m adding my unpublished Austin Food Bytes articles back up for posterity, as I no longer work for the place that published them. Enjoy!

Austin Food Bytes
A Weekly Column on Eating and Cooking in Austin
By Michelann Oster

This week we’re featuring a new column on what makes Austin a great town for food shopping, cooking and eating. Each week we’ll spotlight a restaurant, store, event or recipe. If you’re new to the Austin area you’ll glean information on where to get the best grub, and if you’re a long-timer you might learn something new!

Sandwiches with a Twist

Some of us already know and love Vietnamese food, while others relegate it to the “exotic foods” category, and stick to their BBQ and Tex-Mex. If you’re famililiar with Vietnamese food, you probably think of “pho” — savory soup with rice noodles, thinly sliced beef, and a variety of garnishes from fresh basil to sliced jalapeños. If you’re more adventurous, you might like “bun” — a big bowl layered with lettuce and cucumbers, rice noodles, and grilled pork, shrimp or egg rolls. These are standards available at most of the fine Vietnamese restaurants in town. But when you think about having Vietnamese food for lunch, do you think of BBQ sandwiches?

Vietnamese sandwiches, or Bahn Mi, are made with French bread rolls, fresh vegetables, and grilled meat — usually pork. My favorite Bahn Mi is at Tam Deli and Café on north Lamar. Just a quick hop down 183 gets you there — call ahead if you’re in a rush and would like your meal to-go.

Tam Deli’s Bahn Mi consists of a warm French roll, perfectly cooked BBQ pork, julienned pickled cucumber, carrot and jalapeños, cilantro and mayo. It’s a simple, filling, and most importantly an inexpensive ($3.50) lunch. And if you need a little pick-me up to get you through the rest afternoon, get some Vietnamese iced coffee to go with it. Espresso-style coffee is mixed with sweetened-condensed milk over ice. This highly concentrated combination of caffeine and sugar guarantees that you should be able to peel yourself off the ceiling right around quittin’ time.

Whether your tastes are traditional or adventurous, give these sandwiches a try. You won’t be disappointed!

Tam Deli and Cafe
8222 North Lamar, 834-6458
Wed-Mon, 10am-8pm

Ba Le Vietnamese Bakery and Deli
8624 N. Lamar, 491-9188

Austin Food Bytes Archive, 3

Austin Food Bytes
The International Soup Tour of Austin

Leaves are changing, mornings are chilly, and summer seems to be long gone. I love fall, I love being able to wear my sweaters for the two months of cool weather in Austin , but I don’t love head colds. Yet they seem to be a fact for me and many other this time of year. Still, one way I endure my yearly bout with congestion is through the ingestion of a great many soups. I’m not talking about Campbell ‘s Chicken noodle, I’m talking the variety of savory and spicy soups that can be found all over Austin.

Asian Soups

As you may have guessed from my first column, I’m a huge fan of Asian food. I mentioned pho last week – it’s a clear broth, rice noodles, and thinly sliced beef with a variety of herbs, chilies and veggies on the side as garnish. When I have a head cold, I take full advantage of the jalapeños. Be warned, too many of these floating in your soup can render it inedible, so add them gradually until you find the right amount. I like Tam Deli (featured last week) for pho, I also like Triumph Café on Spicewood Springs.

Another great Asian soup is the “Just Wonton” soup from Noodle-ism on 5th street . “Just Wonton” is a little joke — this soup has pretty much everything in it. It contains lots of wontons, chicken, beef, shrimp, veggies, and a whole lot of garlic and chili. Ask for the spice paste on the side, and adjust as necessary. The broth is slightly salty, but the garlic and spice give it a lot of extra body. I love this soup on cold evenings.

When I lived in San Francisco Thai food was all the rage, and I got seriously addicted to it. A staple at most Thai restaurants is Tom Ka Gai. It’s a lemongrass and coconut milk soup with chicken and mushrooms. It’s tart and slightly creamy, and often quite spicy with strong ginger accents. I like the Tom Ka Gai at Thai Kitchen on Guadalupe.

If you’d like something healthy and savory but not so spicy, try a bowl of udon. Udon noodles are thick wheat noodles, and the broth is usually chicken based, or sometimes dashi, a broth made from kelp and fish flakes. If you’ve ever had miso soup, dashi is the broth sans the miso (the cloudy stuff). The udon at Wiki Wiki Teriaki is healthy and delicious, and you can have it with your choice of tofu, chicken, shrimp, beef or shrimp tempura.

Mexican Soups

The two types of this soup I’m most familiar with are Tortilla Soup and Posole. They’re both available several places, and each restaurant has it’s own take on them.

For posole, I go to Taqueria Arandas. They have posole on the weekends. It’s a spicy broth with chunks of juicy roasted pork and hominy – large, soft corn kernels. It’s usually served with a side of tortillas — corn, flour or crispy tostada, and shredded lettuce, lime wedges and chopped onions.

For a fancier, spicier and more New Mexico style of posole, try South Congress Café. Their posole is very dark and rich, and has a stew-like texture. Be warned, it’s very, very peppery.

Tortilla soup is usually a kicked up version of them more traditional chicken soup. It can have vegetables or not, cheese or not, and usually includes some tomatoes. Curra’s has a great tortilla soup that features lots of vegetables and a whole roasted chipotle pepper. You can adjust the spiciness level by smashing it into the soup a little or a lot.

For a tasty and fast tortilla soup, pick some up in the Café on the Run section of Central Market. It’s flavorful, basic, and they don’t stint on the chicken. They also have a special soup they only carry occasionally called Chicken Guajillo. It’s kind of like the tortilla soup but without the tortilla. It’s very rich, very spicy, has a distinct red chili flavor. I like to add my own tortilla chips and a little cheese for a very kicked up version of tortilla soup.

Taqueria Arandas #3
6534 Burnet
Austin 78757
Hours: Daily, 7am- midnight, No credit cards at numbers 1 and 4

6801 Burnet Rd.
Austin 78757
Hours: Sun-Sat, 9am-10pm

614 E. Oltorf
Austin 78704
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 7am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-11pm

4001 N. Lamar
Austin 78756
Hours: Daily, 9am-9pm

4477 S. Lamar
Austin 78745
Hours: Daily 9am-9pm

1600 S. Congress
Austin 78704
Hours: Brunch Daily, 10am-4pm; Dinner 5-10pm Daily

3808 Spicewood Springs
Austin 78759
Hours: Mon
-Thu, 7am-7pm; Fri, 7am-11pm, Sat, 8am-11pm

107 W. Fifth
Austin 78701
Hours: Mon-Thur, 11am-10pm; Fri, 11am-11pm;
Sat, 12pm-11pm; Sun, 12-9pm

Wiki-Wiki Teriyaki
10000 Research Blvd. # 139 Austin, TX 78759
Mon — Sat 11:00 AM — 9:00 PM

Thai Kitchen
3009 Guadalupe
Austin 78705
Hours: Sun, Noon-12am; Mon-Thu, 11am-12am; Fri, 11am-2am; Sat, Noon-2am

Austin Food Bytes Archive, 2

Austin Food Bytes
Coffee: You can sleep when you’re dead.

Americans love their coffee. Austinites love it even more. This week, I’m featuring three of my favorite java-stops in north-central Austin .

Austin is choc-full of coffee houses, and I don’t mean the Starbucks on every other corner, or the Seattle ‘s Best, or even Peets (RIP). There are a plethora of locally-owned cafes that do brisk business and have a dedicated clientèle. To me a good coffee house needs to have more than just coffee — it needs atmosphere and individuality. Good food doesn’t hurt either. These are just a few of my favorites:

Flightpath Coffeehouse
5011 Duval St
Austin , TX 78751
(512) 458-4472
Mon-Fri 8am-12pm;
Sat-Sun 8:30am-12am ;

Flightpath is one of my favorite places to curl up in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee and a good book. Located on Duval street at 51 st, it’s spacious on the inside with a variety of seating, and has a patio as well. They provide free wireless, and it’s a favorite grad-student hangout, laptops abound. The walls are painted a lemony-yellow and often feature local artists. They have a few snacks, a variety of juices, beer and wine, and the normal array of coffee and espresso drinks. They also have a frozen blended coffee that kicks the frappucino’s ass. It’s called the Carrollton , and it’s made with New-Orleans style chicory coffee. The perfect blend of caffeine and sugar, it tastes like the light version of an espresso-vanilla shake.

Pacha Coffee House
4618 Burnet Rd.
Austin , TX 78756
Mon-Thu 7-7, Fri 7-9, Sat-Sun 8-7

Known mostly to Allendale locals, Pacha Coffee House on Burnet (just north of 45 th) is a lovely little gem. The interior is decorated in a South American style, and features imports from the region for sale. They have a great food menu, featuring locally made tamales, empanadas, muffins and scones, and other house made items like pasta salads, soups, and quiche. The food is always fresh and tasty, and the coffee is excellent. I especially like the rich and spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate. Pacha has a small back patio with four tables where you can sit if you have a canine friend with you. Pacha kindly provides a water station for it’s four legged patrons.

La Dolce Vita
4222 Duval St
Austin , TX 78751
9-12 Everyday
Happy hour 4-7

For a swankier, more continental coffee experience, try La Dolce Vita on Duval, a few blocks south of Flightpath. While essentially a coffee house, La Dolce Vita features house-made gelati (Italian-style ice cream), sorbetti, pastries, and a full bar with one of the best liqueur selections in town. The inside has tightly packed, candle-lit tables, there’s a more expansive patio in the front and to the left of the café. If you’re feeling especially decadent, try your gelato Legato style – drenched in a shot of the liqueur of your choice. One of my favorite touches, you get a tasty little almond biscotto with your coffee. La Dolce Vita is a great place to wrap up your evening after a fancy dinner out or a trip to the theater.

So, next time you need a quiet moment alone with your coffee, eschew the chains and try some local joe.

Austin Food Bytes Archive, 1

Austin Food Bytes
“All things in moderation, including moderation”

No one likes to diet during the holidays. My department abounds with goodies, it seems as if there’s at least one party every weekend, and then comes the actual holidays. Who wants to miss out on all that good grub?

Still, sooner or later, we have to pay the piper, and I prefer to pay him now rather than when my clothes suddenly don’t fit in January. It’s far easier to eat salads and other fresh fruits and vegetables when the weather is balmy. Hot, rich foods are far more tempting when the weather starts to cool. But there are lots of healthy alternatives to normal cold-weather fare, making it less calorically costly to indulge when the indulging is good. Here are my favorite calorie crunching comfort foods:

Don’t neglect the grill
I know it’s a nippy 50 degrees outside, but don’t let your grill gather dust during the off-season. Don a sweater and brave the chill, or get a plug-in indoor grill or stovetop grill and stay inside.

Quick and easy grilling can save you time and carbs. Central Market has a wide selection of pre-marinated skinless-boneless chicken breasts and pork tenderloin, both of which have low fat content. To really control what goes into it, use a dry rub instead of a marinade and serve with your choice of sauce or garnish. Most BBQ sauce is fat free.

Central Market also has some lovely pre-marinated fish — I really enjoy the salmon and catfish. You might consider skipping the rice or potatoes some nights and just serving your main course with a steamed veggie, garnished with some lemon or orange juice and a little salt and pepper. Or, you could roast a couple of sweet potatoes which are much higher in nutrients than regular potatoes.

If you’re craving that cheeseburger, try some grilled chicken instead. North By Northwest not only has some of the best burgers in town, they have a couple awesome chicken sandwiches. If you have the willpower, you can opt for a side salad instead of fries. NXNW also has a pizza topped with a spring green salad and smoked salmon. Garnished with capers and a little goat cheese, it’s flavorful and filling, and significantly healthier than your average pizza.

Both Zen Japanese Food and Wiki-Wiki Teriyaki have teriyaki bowls of excellent quality. Your have your choice of grilled meat, vegetables and rice. At Zen, you can choose brown rice, white rice, or udon noodles for your teriyaki bowl. Brown rice is much lower in carbs and higher in fiber and nutrients than white rice. I’m not usually a fan, but the flavor of the sauce is strong enough that I actually prefer the brown rice at Zen.

Tex-Mex Lite:
Tacos can be surprisingly light and awfully tasty. Taco Deli, just up the road, has some great combinations. The grilled fish tacos are delicious and cheese-free. The vegetarian options are also quite nice. Most of the authentic taquerias in town, including Arandas and Taqueria Vallarta Jalisco have a good selection of grilled-meat tacos you can order with tasty dressings such as lettuce and tomatoes or chopped onions with cilantro. Add a little salsa, and you’ve got a spicy, healthy, quick meal. For extra caloric savings request corn tortillas instead of flour, and avoid the cheese.

See my previous article “”The Soup Tour of Austin“”

By making a few, not too painful adjustments when you’re not in the midst of holiday festivities can help make your holiday enjoyable and healthy.

Further Adventures of Cone-Dog

Simon loves to play with/chew/bury and unbury rawhide bones. With the cone, this presents all sorts of new possibilities. The whole point of the cone is to keep him from being able to reach his front foot with his mouth. So grabbing things involves positioning them in such a way that they are sandwiched between the cone and the floor. When he tried to playfully grab his grungy rawhide bone this evening, he ended up chasing it all over the living room – every time he grabbed for it, the cone would push it underneath him or away from him. He did eventually manage to secure it, but as soon as he dropped it, it started all over again. David learned an interesting trick – place the bone inside the cone, but as far to the side as possible and watch Simon manuver his head around until he can reach it. Tomorrow I’m going to try it with doggie treats.

One moment of sadness, sometimes his ears itch, and he can’t reach them, so he scrabbles his paws helplessly against the cone. I try to scratch his ears whenever I remember.

In general Simon’s spirits are much improved, and the paw is improving, though I think it will need a few more days before Simon can be cone-free.

The Sad Saga of Simon

Don’t you love alliteration?

Simon has been through some trauma lately, and as a result he’s confined to a cervical collar, or head-cone for a week. It’s very sad, but the comedic potential is endless.

Tonight I took Simon for a walk for the first time since the advent of the cone. Normally he gets really excited and grabs the leash in his mouth and pulls me towards the door. This time he was forced to jump up in the air in order to grab the leash through the cone, but missed repeatedly. On the walk, he ran into trees and bushes with his cone when he’d try to sniff them before marking. Around the house he usually follows at my feet, occasionally nudging me with his nose. Now I know he’s there when I’m gouged repeatedly in the calf by the sharp plastic edge. It’s kind of like having a little plastic robot dog, like in the original Battlestar Galactica. Simon usually curls up in the corner right outside our bedroom after we go to bed. Last night he kept slamming into the wall and whimpering.

Light a candle for my brave little dog, and maybe I’ll post more pictures

Belize Wrap-up

So we’re back from Belize, after the harrowing couple of days described in the last post. Much relaxation was had, I even had my first hot rock massage. When I told David this, he envisioned people hitting me with hot, jagged rocks. Actually, I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out they use the (very smooth) warm rocks as massage tools during your massage. It’s very, very nice.

This guy is future Ceviche, he just doesn’t know it yet. Ceviche is the national dish of Belize, I think. Every restaurant had it, and it was usually the cheapest thing on the menu. Every place’s ceviche was different, but they were all really good. I’m pretty much spoiled on fresh fish now.

This is the front of our modest hotel, Corona Del Mar. It was adequate, though in the tropics you rarely get the amenities of a Motel 6 at the more pricey places. I was in shock in our $50 Amerisuites room in Dallas. Shampoo! Kleenex! Wireless Router! Couch! These would have been luxuries indeed in our small room. We were hoping to do yoga while we were there, but there was too little floor space for one, let alone both of us. Still, the staff was very nice, and there were no hidden charges, so they get a thumbs up. Word to the wise however, don’t get the dive package from them, they book with the worst dive operation on the island. Use Ecological Diving. We found out too late.

Here’s the view from the Hotel’s private wharf. I spent a lot of time on it in a hammock. One of the nice things about San Pedro, most of the tours/dive boats/water taxis will pick you up from the dock of your hotel (eventually). The view was very lovely, and there was usually a nice breeze.

Here is me in not anything resembling my natural habitat. Notice the look of panic and the awkwardly splayed fins. We took an all day sailing and snorkeling trip on Thursday. I am fairly useless in the water, but David was kind enough to tow me along when I couldn’t keep up, or swim in the right direction, or see because my mask kept filling up. Still, I saw a lot of really cool fish and a couple of rays, and that was pretty fun. We swam (and I use the term loosely – I floundered, David towed) through an alley between two coral reefs, and it was teeming with life, and I don’t just mean the 200 snorkelers.All in all, I’m glad I semi-conquered my fear enough to do some snorkeling, it was very cool.

I’m running out of witty commentary, so it’s mostly going to be pictures from here on out. Here’s a ray David photographed.

David got to spend some time in an octopus’ garden on his night dive.

Huge school of fish, photographed by David. David took all the underwater pictures, as I was too busy clinging to my floaty thing for dear life and swallowing sea water.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for my next piece, an expose on a growing international problem, bad punctuation and how you can help stop it before it’s too late.