Thursday, February 26, 2009

The good, the tasty and the fried at the Houston Rodeo

It's rodeo time and based on what I've been hearing, the food there is a decadent delight for your taste buds and a great way to put on the poundage.

But the rodeo only comes around once a year so we must indulge - because after March all that yummy stuff will be gone for another 12 months.

In fact, some of the food is so good the rodeo is starting a new competition this year called the "Golden Buckle Foodie Awards."

The judging for the Foodie Awards will be March 5, but in order to get your mouth watering, I've gone out and talked to a couple of the vendors.


One thing that always fascinates me is all the things that are fried at rodeos. Sure, you can get French fries, onion rings and all the basics, but the company "Fried What" has kicked the whole frying experience up a notch and has come up with a way to fry just about everything.

"Some of the strangest things we've fried is hot chocolate, key lime pie and watermelon," said Norma Bowers of Fried What.

This is the second year Bowers and her team will be frying up delights at the Houston Rodeo. And you'll be happy to know that they use transfat free oil. So while deep fried Twinkies may never be considered healthy, at least you don't have to worry about your cholesterol.

In fact, chocolate dipped fried Twinkies are one of their best sellers. Other rodeo favorites include pickles and fried Snicker bars and Milky Ways.

Bowers says there is a secret to frying and it all has to do with the batter. Her company uses three different types of batters depending on the type of food you are planning to fry.

"Our own secret recipe batters are made fresh daily. While we can't give you the recipe, the batters can be purchased at our booth," said Bowers.

This year Bowers says they plan to bring even more fried goodness to the rodeo including fried sundaes.

"We take marshmallows and bananas and cover them with either hot fudge or caramel. Then, we dip them in our secret batter and fry until golden brown. Finally, we top with ice cream, whipped cream and chopped peanuts," said Bowers.

Now that sounds, mmmm...mmmm...good. You can check them out in the Kids Coral next the Little German Kitchen.


I'm beginning to think that when in Texas, where's there smoke; there's meat. That's because smoking meat is a specialty the state takes seriously.

In fact, New Braunfels Smokeshouse has been smoking meat since 1945 and has been a rodeo vendor since 1972.

"We've watch the rodeo grow. We started out in the old Astros Hall and were there until they closed that building down. We then went through the growing pains of the new building," said Mike Dietert of New Braunfels Smokeshouse. "We now have two booths. One is in the main lobby and the other one is in the rodeo plaza tent."

Getting prepared for the rodeo isn't easy. Dietert and his team came to Houston a week before the opening day to set up equipment and get ready. They have a number of loyal clients that look for them at the event and they aim to please.

"Our most popular items are the sausages, turkey legs and baked potatoes with all the trimmings," said Dietert.

All of their meats are smoked at their facility in New Braunfels and Deitert says their secret all has to do with quality.

"You got to have quality product from start to finish. I've worked with them for almost 42 years and my client manager has worked with them for the almost the same amount of time," said Dietert.

Deitert says he started out with the smokeshouse when he was young and learned a lot along the way. Their goal is to give the customer a quality product and give them a fair deal for what they buy. They also try new things to keep the customer happy.

"A couple of years ago, we introduced wurst kabobs at the rodeo and people seemed to like them," said Deitert.

And what's not to like? The wurst kabobs have five different kinds of sausage so customers get to try a little of everything just with one item.

"It's got some cheddar wurst, jalapeno wurst, apple wurst, bratwurst and a pork and beef sausage," said Deitert.

It sounds like this kabob could be a sausage lover's dream.


Both Fried What and New Braunfels Smokeshouse will be competing in the Golden Buckle Foodie Awards on March 5.

Other categories include:

o Best Burger

o Best Taco/Burrito

o Best Baked Potato

o Best Bar-B-Que

o Best Fried Food

o Best Food-on-a-Stick

o Best Dessert

o Best Seafood

o Favorite Food

If you want to find out what the judges think are the best tasting rodeo foods, drop by The Kids Country Stage located on the east side of Reliant Astrodome next to Reliant Center. They will start tasting and judging at 9:30 and will finish around noon.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Beads, hurricanes and Mardi Gras at the Galvez

Can't make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras? Just drive on over to Galveston.

At least that's what I did. Besides, after witnessing Hurricane Ike, I felt like I needed to celebrate the re-birth the island, too.

And people really did celebrate - even in the rain. I know some say that it wasn't quite as packed as other times, but others told me it was just different.

"Usually we're all crammed downtown to watch the parade. This year, because of the hurricane damage, we were along the Seawall so it was a little more spread out," said one parade watcher.

Of course, after the parade is over is when some of the real fun begins.


Being a newbie, I had no idea what I should do for the parade. Do you line up down the streets? Is it like Bourbon Street and it's best to get a room with a balcony?

I soon discovered that you can do both. But the best place to see the Grand Night Parade is from the Hotel Galvez.

"This is our 24th Annual Ball. Usually it's at the Tremont House, but because of Ike damage, we decided to hold it here instead," said Christine Hopkins, who works as a representative for the hotel.

Hopkins said the Tremont had about three feet of water damage in the lobby area and is still being renovated. They decided Hotel Galvez would make a great alternative.

"This hotel was built in 1910 after the last big hurricane. It was built to show Galveston's resiliency to survive," said Hopkins.

If you haven't been to Hotel Galvez, it's beautiful. Located by the seawall, it was protected by the storm surge. In fact, they only had water damage in their lower level.


Hotel Galvez went all out for the ball. The theme was African Adventure and everywhere you looked, there was something inspired by the theme.

There were lion statues at the valet, grass hanging from the light fixtures and masks strategically placed throughout the hotel. But everything was so tasteful, that I thought the hotel always looked like that (yes, I really do need to get out more).

"We usually have about 400 people at the ball and we're happy that the same number showed up this year," said Hopkins.

Yup, Mardi Gras was definitely alive and well at the hotel. But here was the question I was asking: What do you wear to a black tie African Ball?

"You can wear a long gown or you can come in costume," said Hopkins.

Wow...that's some range. But people took up the challenge.

I saw a few guys dressed up like they were going on safari, others had on colorful African smocks, and some were dressed like tribal leaders. I even saw a couple Egyptian inspired outfits.


The music was great, the costumes were spectacular, but the food was out of this world.

Executive Chef Jerry Helminski let his creative juices flow and developed an African inspired menu that included nearly 25 different items.

Some of them were: Egyptian Barmia (sweet & sour okra), Sebha del Hdaree (vegetable stew with dates and almonds), D'jej Emshmel (chicken with preserved lemon and olives), and Ghanmi Meshwi b'Matisha Mkalia (roasted leg of lamb with tomato chutney and pearl pasta).

If these don't sound familiar, don't worry. I had no idea what they were either, but I tried a little of everything and it was fabulous. My favorite was the vegetable stew with dates and almonds.

Helminski has been the executive chef at Hotel Galvez for the last two years, and had a lot of fun creating the menu.

He told me he's worked in a number of cities to get his chef experience, and enjoys living in Galveston. He says the only challenge is attracting people outside of Galveston to come to the island to visit.

"But once they come out and experience something like this event, I'm sure they be back again," said Helminski.

I agree. The food was great, the people were friendly...and I hear they have newly renovated spa rooms that could be perfect for a weekend getaway.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Experiencing the "Goode" old Armadillo Palace

Here's a confession: Before moving Houston, I had no idea what Honky Tonk was.

Sure I had heard that Dire Straits Sultans of Swing song where they say "He can play honky tonk just like anything," and of course, the Rolling Stones "Honky Tonk Woman." But you know, those songs do not prepare you for Goode's Armadillo Palace on Kirby.

Let me just say, that I love, love, LOVE the giant armadillo outside the place. Every time I see him, he totally makes me laugh. I think it's the red laser beam eyes. Or may it's because he has steer horns (he's a true Texas armadillo) and smoke comes out of his nose (click on the image to see a bigger version).

Whatever, it is, you know going in that it's going to be a night to remember.

And it was. If you've never been, you have got to go. It's a Houston classic and decorated in that Texas style that you only find in good old bars.

There is stuff hanging off the walls, off the ceiling and off the beams. But it's not just stuff; it's cool memorabilia that makes the Armadillo what it is. You're going to see giant horns on the wall, pictures, steer heads and old rifles. The bar seats are even in the shape of saddles.

This place is like stepping into the wild West --if you had to cram all the West into one room. And this is exactly why I'm bringing my parents there when they visit. It's like a western museum with live music and a whiskey bar.

Yes, that's right. They have a whiskey bar, which is one of the reasons why I decided to go. Because frankly, I had never heard of a whiskey bar before.

They also have food that ranges from BBQ to venison chili to Frito pie.

But if you don't like Honky Tonk, don't worry. They have other bands. They just happened to be playing Honky Tonk when I was there.

So what did I think? Hmmmm....let's just say I'm not sure if I'm a big fan of that style of music. Like the whiskey, it's an acquired taste.

Still...I love that giant armadillo.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Could you win the Amazing Race?

Thousands of people send in video tapes for their chance to get on the Amazing Race, but only a select few are chosen. Houston's Jodi Wincheski was one of them.

"I also wanted to be on the show since the first episode," said Wincheski.

The cool thing is Wincheski isn't some wanna-be-actor. She's actually a 40-year-old single mom who works as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines. In other words, she could be your next door neighbor.

Wincheski said was hoping to do the race with her best friend from Oregon, but it didn't work out because of their schedules. Instead, she decided to audition with 37-year-old Christy Volkmer, another flight attendant.

But the two women didn't just want to be on the show; they wanted to win.


If you have ever seen The Amazing Race, you know that they make the contestants do crazy things. They may have to brave heights, run up hundreds of stairs, or crab-crawl while carrying the biggest chunk cheese you've ever seen in order to get to their destination. The race is definitely not for the out-of-shape couch potato.

So what does it take to compete? Well, unless you are already a fitness fiend, it takes months of training.

"We started training as soon as we heard we were accepted," said Wincheski. "We started in May and the show was shot in November."

Wincheski is a dedicated fan of The Amazing Race and has not missed a season. She told me that no two women have ever won and Season 14 promises to be the most extreme race to date.

"I can't tell you about the race, but I can tell you that's it's their most extreme race. There are extreme temperatures and extreme tasks," said Wincheski. "Christy and I knew that we would be challenged."


Wincheski says they focused on strength training. She worked out four days a week with weights and tried to do cardio on the other days.

"My boyfriend Eric used to be a professional baseball player, so he put the training program together for me," said Wincheski. "I told him I wanted to put on muscle and lose weight."

Eric came up with a workout which supersets muscles. Basically what this does, is work select muscle groups so that the body is working continuously to get the maximum amount of benefit in the shortest amount of time.

Eric's program had Wincheski working opposing muscle groups on alternate days. So on day 1, she would work her back, legs and biceps. Then on day 2, she would work her chest muscles, shoulders, triceps and abs.

In addition to the training with weights, Wincheski also did other activities including indoor rock climbing and archery lessons. But she also did some unusual tasks.

"My dad had a weird dream that we would need to climb a rope during the race, so we set one up in the backyard. You just never know and we wanted to be prepared for everything," said Wincheski.

Rope climbing was only the beginning of their random fitness tests. To prepare for the challenge, the women did everything from bowling to shooting hoops to get ready for the race. But Wincheski's secret weapon was her passion for beach volleyball.

"Beach volleyball is good for stamina," said Wincheski. "We have a court set up in the backyard."

I checked it out and she was telling the truth. The entire backyard is filled with sand. Very cool and definitely something I may do if I ever buy a house. It was like having beachfront property - without the ocean of course.


Wincheski looks lean, strong and incredible. She said before Eric's workout, she needed to drop a few pounds and didn't have the muscle tone she has now.

"On Eric's workout, I got a lot stronger and I'm glad. There's a reason why guys always win. We had to build up upper body strength," said Wincheski.

She told me that after you watch the first episode on February 15, you'll understand why strength was so important. But until then, here are two of Wincheski's workout moves:



Works: Hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes.

You'll need a sturdy chair for this exercise. To increase the challenge, perform the exercise holding hand weights.

Step 1: Start with your legs together beside the chair.

Step 2: Step up with your right leg onto the chair.

Step 3: Bring your left leg up and keep it bent.

Step 4: Step down off the chair, with your left leg landing on the ground first.

Step 5: Repeat the move again, beginning with the left leg first.

Do three sets of 10 on each leg.


Building up core strength was also important. Wincheski did four different ab exercises to flatten her tummy, tone her muscles and build up core strength.


Works: Abs and rotator cuff

Step 1: Sit on a stability ball holding a hand weight. Walk your feet away from the ball and roll down until only your shoulders and upper back are on the ball.

Step 2: Lift the weight over your head. Wincheski uses a 10 pound weight, but if that's too heavy,you can use a lighter weight.

NOTE: If you are a beginner and this is tough, don't use any weight at all and keep your arms at your side rather than over your head.

Step 3: Slowly raise your upper body to a seated position on the ball, bringing the weight over your head as you do.

Try not to use momentum to bring your body up, but use your ab muscles. A way to resist using momentum is to raise your body while slowly counting to four.


In case you're planning to enter the Amazing Race next season, Wincheski says it's not all about strength. Communication is also important.

"Christy and I promised to stay a team and not fight," said Wincheski.

They also studied languages and geography before the show, because they had no idea where they were going to be sent.

"I brushed up on Spanish, Portuguese and Italian and Christy focused on German and French," said Wincheski.

Most importantly, they maintained their friendship and focused on each other's strengths, rather than tearing apart their weaknesses.

Amazing advice, from two amazing women.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dust off your boots. It's Rodeo Uncorked!

Most of you may be thinking the rodeo doesn't start until March. But I just found out that some of the really good stuff is happening on February 8. And when I say good stuff, I mean stuff that's going to taste good going down.

This Sunday is the 6th Annual Rodeo Uncorked! Roundup and Best Bites Competition at the Reliant Center.


I didn't realize wine was part of the rodeo at all. I thought it would be all beer tents and BBQ. But now that I do know, I'm not going to miss out on this wine and food tasting extravaganza, and if you're a foodie you won't be able to resist it either.

"The event has grown so big that this is the first year that it's going to be at Reliant Center," said Gigi Wark, Houston Rodeo volunteer.

When Gigi told me this, I imagined 500 people and a bunch of tables. Of course, I keep forgetting that this is Texas and big really means SUPER BIG! So how big is big? Well, they are expecting 4000 people. No really. This event is practically a small town of food-loving and wine-drinking people.

Last year the event sold out, but this year because it's bigger than ever, you may be able to get tickets at the door. Individual tickets are $100 and a table of 10 is $1800. But with your table, you get to start tasting the wine 30 minutes before everyone else. Plus, you get a swanky gift bag filled with goodies and you'll be recognized in the program.

But if you just want to go with a friend or your significant other, the individual tickets aren't too shabby. You get in at 6:30 and can sit at one of the many bar tables set up around the room.


Here's the question I had: Is the wine and food included with my ticket? The answer is yes! And you can snack and sip all night long, which is a good thing because there's going to be 65 restaurants and 200 wines.

"I attended Best Bites as a guest for two years before I got on the committee. I'm not a wine expert, but it was the first time that I didn't feel guilty dumping out a glass that I didn't really like, which is what the whole idea of the event is," said Gigi.

You can do the same with the food which is going to include stuff like wings and banana pudding, roasted sirloin on Brioche, ahi tuna, smoked brisket and blackened steak sandwiches. There's also a whole lot more, but you can check out some of the items on the menu by clicking here.

And then there's the wine. It's from all over the world and they are all award winning wines -- so basically you are getting the best of the best. But be careful not to get too much of a buzz. You still got to drive home at the end of the night.

"My favorite part is sampling all the restaurants. My husband and I are the type of people who always go to Pappas because we know it's going to be good. This opened our eyes up to what was out there. Now we make a point of going to one new place a month," said Gigi.

Sound like a good idea to me.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Can a penguin predict spring's arrival?

Usually it's the groundhog that predicts the coming of spring, but not in Galveston. Over on the island, it a very cute and very talented Rockhopper penguin named Hendrix.

Hendrix comes from the South Pole, so he's apparently an expert on cold weather and knows exactly when spring will arrive.

I must say, the little dude looked dashing in natural tuxedo. And with his spiky blond crown, he kind of reminded me of Daniel Craig in James Bond.

However, Hendrix didn't need any gadgets to do his job. In a few short minutes, he was able to predict that spring would arrive on March 14.

I hope he's right. I don't like sleeping with my socks on and there have been a couple of nights this January that were a little bit on the chilly side. Plus, my flip flops are getting dusty.

Hendrix also gave a little speech, but unfortunately I don't speak penquish so I couldn't make out what he was saying. But Moody Gardens Animal Husbandry Manager Greg Whittaker was able to translate the penguin language for me.

"Hendrix says, without a doubt, the summer will be here for another six weeks," said Whittaker. "According to him, spring in Galveston will be here precisely on March 14."

So how does a penguin make his prediction? Surprisingly, it's just like the groundhog and all about the shadow.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Party like a rock star

It's been a long time since I heard the five B's of 1980s rock, but on Saturday night they were all there.

If you're over 30, you know who they are. They are Bon Jovi, Billy Idol, Bryan Adams, Pat Benatar and of course, Blackheart - as in Joan Jett. The weird part was that they weren't just there in music. They were there in costume.

So where was I? I was at the Legends of Rock and Roll Fundraiser put on by TIRR Foundation, which is an organization that raises money for brain and spinal cord injuries. And it was - wait for it - totally awesome!


This is the third year that TIRR Foundation has put on a fundraiser. Every year they are something different and just as cool.

"We were having it at the House of Blues, so Legends of Rock made an appropriate theme for that venue," said Brooke Reichek of TIRR Foundation. "The party chairs were excited about the rock star costumes and the theme in general."

I was pretty psyched about the costumes, too. Because where else would you find 250 people dressed up in rock star garb, mullets and spiked, overly teased hair? (see slideshow)

I swear I saw everyone from Elvis and Madonna, to Gem and the Holograms, to the bee girl from that Blind Melon video. It was a great night of people watching.

"The event is put on by the Junior VolunTIRR's. These are the young professionals of the organization. For the past two years, the fundraiser went to support Camp Xtreme, which is a week long overnight camp for wheelchair dependent children to make them feel like regular kids," said Brooke.

But this year's event was even more special.

"This year for the first time we are going to split the proceeds to support a clinical trial. There are two young girls who are currently in a wheelchair, but if their injuries are taken care of by the time they are four-years-old, there is a chance that they will walk and lead normal lives," said Brooke.

Now, those are two very good reasons to squeeze into leather pants and hot pink spandex.


I swear I meet the best people in Houston with my job, and Saturday night was no exception. That's because one of the moms, whose child would be going through the clinical trial, was at the party.

She was dressed as Madonna in her early "Get into the Groove" phase, but her energy and determination to find a way to help her little girl would put the Material Girl's ambition to shame.

"My daughter, Elena, is paralyzed from the waist down, but from the waist up she's a tiger," said Juliet Porras.

Elena is only 20 months old, but she's been pretty busy fighting for her life since the day she was born. She's already beaten phase III cancer, met Lance Armstrong and has got the attention of some of the best doctors in Houston. Not bad for someone who hasn't even had her second birthday yet.

Because the cancer tumor was found on her spine, she's currently in a wheelchair. But her mom is determined to give her little girl the best life possible and thinks a neurosurgeon from Memorial Hermann and his colleague may have the answer.

"Dr. Baumgartner is working at getting the research passed so they can take stem cells from Elena's hip and introduce them into her spinal cord," said Juliet.

Taking cells from bone marrow isn't exactly going to be a happy day at the zoo for little Elena, but if everything goes well, she'll be in and out of the hospital before nightfall.

So Juliet has found the doctor and the possible treatment to get her daughter walking, but there is one big catch: It costs $300,000.

That's where TIRR comes in. With their help, she's determined to raise the money and spread the word.

"Elena had her first chemo treatment at two days old. She's already overcome so much and I know she's a fighter," said Juliet.

Yup, she's right. This little is girl is a fighter...just like her mom.