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Going full boar at Catalan September 24, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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Every now and then, a meal becomes an event you’ll never forget. That’s what happened Sunday at Catalan, one of Houston’s top-rated restaurants.

Chef Chris

Catalan, an anchor of the newly thriving Washington corridor, has caught the eye of many a writer in the couple of years since it’s opened, right up to the New York Times, and master chef Chris Shepherd is a big reason why. His bold, no-holds-barred, what-the-hell style has earned him a following that’s as passionate as his own commitment to his art. But what really drew me was his staunch advocacy of the buy local movement. He plans his entire menu around what he finds at the local farmers’ markets and what local growers can provide him.

“It’s not just the right thing to do; it means better quality,” he explained when I met him on Friday. He was already cooking up plans for Sunday’s feast, and when he invited me, of course I couldn’t resist.

It all started when Farmer John Laughlin showed up on his doorstep with a wild boar. Laughlin’s farm kept getting raided by these wild hogs, and nothing he did could drive them away.

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The New Houston: It’s not what you think September 22, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Houston, Texas.
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Houston is a double-hitter in my book this week. I just finished a piece for Continental Magazine about my new hometown, and Spirit, the inflight magazine of Southwest Airlines, just featured my story “Meet Houston,” the intro to an excellent package of stories about the city by a fine lineup of Houston journalists (including, incidentally, a couple of my former colleagues at the Chronicle”.

Downtown_Skyline_and_Buffalo_Bayou_-_1AThe New Houston: Its not what you think

It was the perfect New Houston moment: A Pavarotti-like voice pulsed over the green lawns and the sparkling lake of Discovery Green. A sumptuously dressed cast beamed Macbeth from an inflatable screen, towering over a thousand people of all ages, colors and sizes. Some lounged in lawn chairs or on blankets spread on the green grass; some watched from the patios of nearby restaurants. Some munched hamburgers; others drank beer.

This was the Grand Opera’s first Citycast, performed at Wortham Center and broadcast live on public radio and at public places including Discovery Green, the new showpiece of art, culture and green technology that Houston wrested from a jumble of parking lots in 2008.

This was not the Houston of the cattle drives or the oil tycoons or the petrochemical industry, which is what most people think about when they think of this city, if they think of it at all. Which is a shame, because they are missing out on one of the country’s truly great international metropolises.

To read the rest of the story, click Meet Houston.

To read the rest of the package – “Live” and “Play” by Natalie Bogan; “Work and “Learn,” by Bill Hensel Jr.; and “Eat” by Dai Huynh, click Southwest_Spirit_September_2009. Warning: it’s a large file and will take some time to download.

Beyond the Alamo in San Antonio August 26, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in San Antonio, Texas.
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San Antonio's West Side is alive with color, culminating in a collection of murals that tell its stories.

San Antonio's West Side is alive with color, and scattered with murals that tell its stories.

There’s a touch of irony in the Alamo’s stature as the No. 1 stop on the San Antonio tourist trail. The Alamo was all about the battle to wrest Texas from Mexico. Though Santa Anna lost the war, he won the battle in San Antonio, and the Mexican spirit has prevailed – which is the other part of what people come to see. Hispanic influence touches everything: the art, the literature, the music, the cuisine, the activism. And that’s a huge part of what makes San Antonio so special.

Tracy and Peter on the River Walk

Tracy and Peter on the River Walk

In honor of Travel Detective Peter Greenberg, who has invited me to appear on his excellent travel show, Peter Greenberg Worldwide, I’ve put together a list of my favorite off-the-tour-bus San Anto sights and experiences. Listen to the podcast here, and browse Peter’s site for a wealth of travel news. Peter’s logged more miles than anyone I know, and amazingly, he finds time to serve as a volunteer firefighter in Long Island on the weekends. And please add your favorite San Antonio haunts in the comment section below.

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Roads Less Traveled hits the Houston Green Scene August 11, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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I’m excited to announce some new collaborations that will be taking Roads Less Traveled to a greater audience and in a greener direction.

YolandaGreenChannel 39’s Going Green With Yolanda Green, Houston’s only TV program dedicated to sustainability, is now featuring my blog on its website, http://www.39online.com. Going Green is an exciting initiative in itself, with Yolanda bringing conservation initiatives to a whole new audience. From the new smart grid technology to invasive species, Yolanda is on it, and all her episodes and a whole lot more can be viewed on the website. Since my focus is sustainable travel – including attractions here at home in Houston – it seemed a perfect fit. Scroll down to the area next to Going Green Highlights to find Roads Less Traveled.

HoustonGreenScn121I’ll also be collaborating with Houston Green Scene, which will feature a weekly column from my blog pertaining to sustainability at home and sustainable travel elsewhere. Houston Green Scene is an innovative new website and forum founded by local entrepreneur Mona Metzger covering green initiatives in the Houston area.

Especially if you live in the Houston area, but even if you don’t, take a minute to check out Going Green With Yolanda Green and the Houston Green Scene. You can also follow them on Twitter – @HoustonGreenScn and @YolandaGreen39 – and on Facebook.

Other environmental initiatives I’ve become involved in are the Last Organic Outpost, an urban farm in the inner city that’s currently planning a knockout Harvest Festival and the Transition Houston group, part of a rapidly growing global movement preparing for a sustainable transition to a less petroleum-dependent future. More on both of these later — but meanwhile, it’s good to know that there’s a whole lot going on in Houston’s green scene, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

Matagorda: The Secret’s Out August 6, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Nature tourism, Texas.
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Hundreds of miles of coastline stretch from Corpus Christi to Galveston. I’d always wanted to explore that stretch in between where the Colorado River meets the sea. But aside from a state park on an island that is no longer accessible, nobody I spoke to could say much about what I might find there.

This only made me more curious. So one day I picked up the phone and started calling around. And before I knew it, I was packing my bags and headed for the coast.

What I found surprised me: spectacular beaches, abundant wildlife, great food, a fascinating history, fishing to die for and friendly folks who will make you feel right at home.

What I didn’t find was an overabundance of tourists. A couple from Fort Worth, a father and daughter from Houston, a family from Pearland and a handful of locals — but mostly, miles of white sand pounded by surf and backed by graceful dunes.

Take a look for yourself; I think you’ll see what I mean. And read the story in the Aug. 9 Travel Section of the Houston Chronicle or the San Antonio Express-News – or click here for the online version.

SA chefs vie for trip to Tahiti July 31, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Texas.
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On a May visit to San Antonio, I happened by the new Bistro Bakery, the latest offering by the prolific and popular French chef Damien Watel. He had brought in his mother to help run the place, and the two were running hither and yon to keep up with the overflowing crowd.

Damien, a descendant of a chef who served French King Louis XIV, has been my favorite San Antonio chef since he turned an old laundromat into Ciao Lavanderia, which serves infallibly fabulous cuisine. I liked him even better when he converted the neighboring nail salon into Ciao Vino, perhaps the city’s best wine bar. Since then, he’s opened two new restaurants in the exclusive Stone Oak development on San Antonio’s upscale north side.

His project made headlines recently when he got into trouble with the Stone Oak property association for installing a sculpture of a fork without authorization. Watel responded to the censure by erecting an also controversial “Wall of Censorship” partially obscuring the offending fork.

Little wonder, given the hyperactive Watel’s peripatetic pace, that he’s thrown his hat into the ring for a free getaway vacation in Tahiti.

Today I received this item in a press release from Tahiti Tourisme North America:

“Damien Watel and his girlfriend Lisa of San Antonio are battling it out with more than 20 other couples for a trip to Tahiti.

The couple (both professional chefs) entered Tahiti Tourisme’s “Invest in Your Love” video contest by submitting a video, Recipe for Tahiti, on why they need (and deserve) an escape to the beautiful islands of Tahiti.”

What’s even more fun: You can vote for Damien’s vacation here:

“Now it’s up to the public to decide who gets to move on to the finals.  Voting for this round is open to the public and runs from July 25 through August 8.  Videos that receive the highest number of public votes by August 8 move on as finalists and then the winner will be selected from an expert panel of judges.

Visit investinyourlove.com to watch the videos, vote and for information on how to enter to win a trip to the South Pacific island paradise of Tahiti.   There are four more contest periods to submit a  video for a chance to win, running until the end of November.”

I don’t know about you, but I think he’s earned it.

Marvelous Matagorda July 25, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Nature tourism, Sustainability, Texas.
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East Bay at sunrise

Hundreds of miles of coastline stretch from Galveston to the Coastal Bend. I’d always wanted to explore that stretch in between where the Colorado River meets the sea. But aside from a state park on an island that is no longer accessible, nobody I spoke to could say much about what I might find there.

This only made me more curious. So one day I picked up the phone and started calling around. And before I knew it, I was packing my bags and headed for the coast.

What I found surprised me: spectacular beaches, abundant wildlife, great food, a fascinating history, fishing to die for and friendly folks who will make you feel right at home.

What I didn’t find was an overabundance of tourists. A couple from Fort Worth, a father and daughter from Houston, a family from Pearland and a handful of locals — but mostly, miles of white sand pounded by surf and backed by graceful dunes.

Last week I got to spend a couple of glorious days soaking up some of the best this region has to offer. On Aug. 9, the story will appear in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Meanwhile, here’s a preview.

Biking Bohemeo Style July 11, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Biking, Houston, Texas.
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Last night I followed up on a welcome invitation from Patrick Taylor, organizer of a new biking group over on Houston’s East End. I couldn’t think of a better way to meet new friends and explore my new city than this one — so I packed up Bessie and headed east.

Bohemeo’s, it turns out, is a pretty cool little cooling-off spot in itself – tucked inside the Tlaquepaque Market (an East End community center that’s as much fun to visit as it is to say), it’s a coffeeshop (yes, free wifi), restaurant, bar, and art & music venue all wrapped up in one.

Bohemio's, the East End's first art and music coffeehouse

Bohemeo's, the East End's first art and music coffeehouse

And now, it’s also the departure point for the city’s coolest new biking club.

Patrick Taylor checks Lajla Cline's tires in preparation for our inaugural ride.

Patrick Taylor checks Lajla Cline's tires in preparation for our inaugural ride.

It quickly became apparent that this group was not going to be like the bicycle club I trained with for the MS 150. No padded bicycle shorts or gloves here, and barely a helmet to be seen. The important thing here, I was told, was to have a good time.

“I work hard enough during the daytime,” said Elise, who was fetchingly attired in a denim dress and pink headscarf. Her hobby is biking from bar to bar, and “the getup is really important for that,” she confided. Note to self: I need to work on the getup!

There was an impressive turnout for the group’s first ride. I guess it shows the power of Facebook – and Patrick’s organizing skills. Or maybe it was just a good idea whose time had come.

Ready to roll

Ready to roll

Our first ride took us down the new Columbia TAP Trail, a rail-to-trail project inaugurated in March, and past scores of new trees planted as part of Mayor Bill White’s Million Trees + Houston Initiative. We cruised through East End neighborhoods and the TSU Campus to the McGowan Street Trail, a bike trail that parallels Brays Bayou and runs through the so-called “River Oaks of Houston,” a wealthy black neighborhood where you’ll find the mansions of famous locals like Beyonce Knowles.

The bayou here is sadly paved in concrete, unlike the Buffalo Bayou in my neighborhood, which was mercifully left intact. But the skies opened up here to the prettiest sunset I’ve seen in awhile, and I can honestly say the breezes were refreshing.

We did seven miles on this first round, and got back to Bohemeo’s before dark — in time to drink a cold one and enjoy some live music. A little soggy for a public appearance indoors, unfortunately — so the music will have to wait!

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished

A farm with art – and heart July 6, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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After a month of travel, these thirsty boots were aching for something more than the road — a place to dig in and put down some roots in the heart of this vast city. And right in the heart of one of its most blighted neighborhoods, I found it.

Cidette Rice, 5, Last Organic Outpost volunteer (and rock star)

Cidette Rice, 5, Last Organic Outpost volunteer (and rock star)

It’s a place where I can roll up my sleeves, grab a tray of squash seedlings and a shovel and put them in the ground. A place where I can reach down and run my fingers through dirt as soft and rich as that of my mother’s garden. A place that draws kindred spirits from far and wide and from right next door to work that soil. Folks like Cidette, who worked side-by-side with me to plant about 100 squash plants on Saturday, and a host of others who have contributed to an exuberantly lush expanse of vegetable abundance on a back street in Houston’s Fifth Ward.

The Last Organic Outpost is more than a garden, it’s an urban farm. It’s the brainchild and the lifework of Joe Nelson Icet, who has poured his sweat and his muscle and his life’s savings into this acreage and the other lot that surrounds his home.

“It’s not just about gardening; it’s about building a community,” Joe said.

Joe Nelson Icet, founder of the Last Organic Outpost, at the gate of his community farm

Joe Nelson Icet, founder of the Last Organic Outpost, at the gate of his community farm

About 10 years ago Joe was trying to figure out what to do with himself after a rough divorce. His job as a refrigeration maintenance man paid the bills, but didn’t fill the hole in his soul. He was looking for a mission, and as he began to plow up his yard and fill it with vegetables, he found it: to create an urban farm belt on the vacant lots in the inner city.

He found other abandoned lots to cultivate, and a community of people to help him. He found artists to come and lend their creative touch to the spot. And then he found the love of his life to help him – or, more accurately, she found him.

The vivacious Marcella Murff is now the red-haired, barbecue-cooking, bikini-wearing muse of the garden, and Joe’s never been happier.

I discovered the Outpost just days before departing for a monthlong global sojourn, and I lamented the fact that I wouldn’t be around to help for awhile.

“No worries,” said Marcella brightly. “Just think of how your garden will have grown when you come back.”

The whole story is here in Lisa Gray’s account in the Houston Chronicle, the article that first led me to Joe, and I’ll always be grateful.

“Fertility is the gateway to the soul,” Joe told me. “We start with the land and we heal it, and we end up healing ourselves.”

I looked around me at the assorted crew that had gathered to weed and hoe, a group as diverse as the vegetables they’d come to tend; I looked down at my own too-white, too-soft hands, and I saw that he was right. I grabbed a shovel and I dug in.

Farmer Joe gives Maddalena Romano a lesson in weeding.

Farmer Joe gives Maddalena Romano a lesson in weeding.

Time for a photo break!

Time for a photo break!

Patrick Taylor, flower child of the day

Patrick Taylor, flower child of the day

John Brand: From Farm to Kitchen June 1, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Sustainability, Texas.
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It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.

His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.

“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.

Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.

“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”

It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.

“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”

Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.

He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.

“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”

Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.

Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.

What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.

Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.

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The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.

Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.

It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.