UPDATED: HISD Students Are Cooking Up Change

Courtesy of Healthy Schools Campaign and HISD
Winning students from last year's Cooking Up Change competition
"Cooking up Change" is a competition for high school culinary students that challenges them to create school menu items that are healthy, compliant with USDA guidelines and within a budget of a mere $1.40 per meal. It's the same kind of budget constraint that food services programs in public schools face every day.

Updated 4/1/2015, 1:17 p.m.: A big "congratulations" goes out to Westside High School Students Jose Acosta, Jalien Noel and Alejandra Olivares (see photo below). They won the competition with their Cajun Chicken Drumstick with Black Bean Hoppin' John, Texas Cabbage and Greens and a Pineapple Dessert.

Photo courtesy of HISD
Westside High School students won the 2015 Cooking Up Change competition

The Houston competition is this Saturday, March 28, and seven teams from four Houston Independent School District campuses are participating. This year, the teams hail from Barbara Jordan, Davis, Milby and Westside high schools.

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Fourth Annual Bento Competition Takes a Look at the "Fifth Flavor"

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
The winning bento by Junko Janvier from this year's Bento Competition, sponsored by the Consulate-General of Japan in Houston, H-E-B, SATAKE and Glen Gondo.

There were smiles all around as five competitors gathered around two tables in the H-E-B Community Room at Bunker Hill and I-10 to create the most beautiful bentos that they could from the random meats, cheeses and vegetables provided. Competitors had only ten minutes to make a winning bento. Themes ranged from very cute to neat, practical bentos anyone could proudly claim as his or her lunch.

The winner, Junko Janvier, had a great deal of experience in making bentos, as she just recently came to the United States from Fukuoka, Japan. The other competitors were Runa Katayama, Sayaka Stephens, Joshiah Ho and Yuko Ouchi.

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VOM FASS: A Playland of Oils, Vinegars and Spices

Photo by Phaedra Cook
A stack of barrels at VOM FASS hold dozens of different vinegars. Samples are available of everything and the white spoons under the taps catch any accidental drips.

VOM FASS, the new oil, vinegar and spice store at 2424 Times in Rice Village, is not huge but the well-organized space has a whole lot to offer. To the left is a triangular stack of barrels. To the right are bottles, jars, sets and dispensers of spices and spice blends. In the back right corner stand earthen jars glazed in dark purple.

Within the barrels are thick vinegars: fruit, several types of balsamic and even one made with beer. Some have been aged for years. The oldest balsamic pours slowly in a rivulet as viscous as honey.

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8 Holiday Foods I'd Like to See Banished Forever

Photo by Suzi Duke
"You found this where, Aunt Meg? I'll pass thanks."
It won't be long until Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, bringing friends and family together to celebrate over a good meal. Some of those holiday feasts can be massive in scale, and there tend to be a few dishes unveiled that are rarely, if ever, brought out the rest of the year. Some of them are almost universally loved, but others? Others are abominable horrors that this writer would be happy to see forever banished from his family's table.

8. Fruit cake

Seriously, fruit cakes are like an unfunny joke that refuses to go away. I'm sure someone somewhere loves these textural nightmares, but I have yet to meet anyone under the age of 70 that does. Is anyone really happy when their Aunt Meg shows up with one of these things in tow?

7. Cheese Logs

While certainly not in the "culinary horror" category that fruit cake resides in, there's always been something vaguely unsatisfying to me about most cheese logs and cheese balls. It's not the cheese, and it's not the nuts they're usually rolled in. I like both of those things on their own. But something weird happens when the two are mixed. It's a texture thing I guess, but I don't like it. If I try to dig out a little cheese for a cracker, the nuts seem to act as an armor-like barrier.

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Houston's Best Flaming Dishes and Drinks (in Honor of Pride Week)

Photo courtesy Oceanaire
Have your dinner (or dessert) with some flair.
Everybody loves a good show at dinner, and in honor of Pride Week here in Houston, we're looking at some of the most flamboyant flammable dishes in town.

To flambé a dish is to do more than merely set food in a pan on fire. In order for something to be flambéed, sauce containing alcohol must be lit on fire, either with a match or lighter or by tilting the edge of the alcohol-filled pan toward the burner until the heat ignites the liquid.

The surface of burning alcohol reaches temperatures greater than 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes chemical reactions to take place in the food/sauce that's been ignited. The technique is frequently used in the preparation of desserts, because heating the sugar to such temperatures causes it to caramelize.

Whether it's a dessert, a main dish or a drink, though, a little fire sure makes things more exciting.

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Make S'mores With the Marshmallows From Petite Sweets

Photo by Molly Dunn
This marshmallow is topped with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and studded with toffee bits.
Petite Sweets is known for bite-size cupcakes, creamy custards, beautiful macarons and other delightful treats. But, you probably didn't know this West Alabama dessert shop sells a variety of marshmallows.

Arrayed in glass jars on the counter, there was a green one decorated in crushed pistachios, a few white ones with caramel drizzle, almond slivers and coconut shavings, and one I could easily identify as cookies & cream. "Petite Sweets makes marshmallows?"

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The Spicy Stuff: Ro-Tel Five Ways

Photo by Catherine Gillespie
Ro-Tel and Noodles Two Ways

Anyone born south of the Mason-Dixon line can tell you how to crowd-pleasing queso with only two ingredients. I'm no big fan of Velveeta, but its partner Ro-Tel has become a staple in my kitchen over the past few months.

Until I began writing this story, I had no idea Ro-Tel was native to Texas. The canned tomato and chile mixture was born in not-to-distant (at least by this state's standards) Harlingen in the 1940s, according to wikipedia.com, and it can be acquired for just under a dollar at most local groceries. So stock up and try tossing a can of the zesty veggie blend into your next pot of anything.

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Decoding Difficult Menus: What the Heck Is a Meuniere?

Photo by F. Cuauhtemoc
You want the huitlacoche? Are you sure about that?
With all of the unique ethnic restaurants in Houston, deciding what to order at an exotic eatery can be a challenge. Not necessarily because it all sounds amazing--sometimes you just don't know what the heck any of the words mean.

Listing every ingredient and cooking process used in every restaurant around Houston or even by every ethnicity with a restaurant in town would be insane (though very helpful). Instead, we've compiled a list of some of the words and phrases seen most commonly on menus at restaurants that range from Mexican to Indian to upscale American. We've defined them for you here, so next time you see huitlacoche on a menu, you can confidently say, "Yes, I'll have the corn smut, please."

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Lonely Leftovers: Get More From Your Spinach-Artichoke Dip

Photo by Ninacoco
Spinach and Artichoke Dip in its original form

Someone once told me that it's not a party without spinach and artichoke dip. Keeping this old adage in mind, I made a batch of the gooey three-dairy dip for my recent housewarming. Only I forgot to take the casserole out of the oven until everybody had filled their bellies with Lone Star. Not wanting to put an entire container of cream cheese to waste, I wrapped seven-eights of the stuff up in tinfoil and put it in the fridge.

Unless you're having another party sometime really soon, there is not that much that you can do with old artichoke dip. I can tell you firsthand, it's not like hummus. Snacking on this Super Bowl Sunday staple alone in early April makes you feel pretty bad about yourself.

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Leftover Rice From Indian Takeout? Make Kheer

Photo by Sara Maternini
Kheer is an easy dessert for a busy night.

We have a lot of extra cooked rice in the house these days. My husband has been on an Indian cooking kick, and he successfully made several amazing batches of rogan gosh, fish masala and chicken vindaloo. He has been less successful in gauging how much rice we would consume with these dishes, which is why when every last drop of curry has been consumed, there's usually a plastic container of basmati rice left.

I have this thing about throwing out food (I have been called a "leftover hoarder"), so rather than just dump the orphan grain, I decided to resurrect the rice by making kheer.

Kheer is a rice pudding of sorts that you've probably encountered at the terminal end of an Indian lunch buffet. Traditionally served just a bit cool and boasting a sweet-flowery flavor, kheer is a wonderful sweet comfort food for spring.

I first tried kheer when I was volunteering in Himachal Pradesh. Despite the fact that I was perpetually battling gastrointestinal problems due to being unaccustomed to local water and produce, I always made room for a large bowl of dairy-heavy kheer at the end of my meals. In northern India, vermicelli is often used instead of basmati rice to make kheer. Ecurry.com provides a fairly labor-intensive recipe punctuated by many drool-worthy pictures.

Back in the States, I tried the more common rice-based kheer, which I prefer for its heartier texture.

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