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If any time is picnic season in Houston, that time is now. We have a few more weeks of weather under 90 degrees and the weekends are bustling with activity. From festivals to farmers markets, Houstonians are out and about and soaking it all in. I, for one, am all about the great outdoors: Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Memorial Park, the list goes on... My husband and I like to pack up our trusty picnic basket, complete with wine glasses and corkscrew, our little pup Lulu, and we're off to explore. While we tend to stick to sandwiches and salads for our picnic lunch, I try to spice things up with unique selections from local joints so I always have my eyes peeled for interesting new dishes...

Star Ingredient of the Season: Red Cabbage

Cabbage has long graced picnic baskets in the form of coleslaw, but it is red cabbage with its exciting ruby hue that wins this week's title as Star Ingredient of the Season. At its peak through the spring season, we tend to see red cabbage as a topping on some of our spring and summer time favorites like fish tacos, hot dogs and pulled pork. It makes a fantastically colorful accent and offers excellent nutritional value as its red color comes from anthocyanins, an antioxidant compound also found in beets and berries.

Like lettuce, red cabbage offers a subtle taste and crunchy texture perfect for salads. Great with mayonnaise for a coleslaw sidedish or a spicy cilantro dressing for a topping to your Baja fish tacos, red cabbage is versatile enough to be enjoyed with many different flavors. Red cabbage also holds up better than lettuce, so it stays fresh for longer and can be enjoyed at room temperature.

The Jain Cabbage Salad at Pondicheri- fragrant and fresh with red cabbage, lentils, walnuts and mint

Image: Megha Tejpal

In a Starring Role at: Pondicheri

Pondicheri
2800 Kirby Dr.
713-522-2022
pondichericafe.com

At Pondicheri, the aromatic cafe that occupies two levels at Upper Kirby's posh West Ave, you'll find food that's exotic but casual. It's undoubtedly one of Houston's most flavorful restaurants serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. With a full-service restaurant on the first level and the more recent Bake Lab addition upstairs, the dynamic menu goes above and beyond food alone. Authentic Indian dishes are paired with fresh pressed juices, chai teas and a changing menu of seasonal sweets. The overwhelming scent of cinnamon and cardamom will warmly welcome you into the bake lab where a la carte items are available, in addition to spiced nuts, pastries, masalas and more.

It was on the daily menu at the Pondicheri Bake Lab that I discovered the Jain cabbage salad. Made with red cabbage, lentils, walnuts and mint, this fresh concotion is layered with unique flavors and so vibrant in color, it practically jumps off of the plate. Mint is a popular herb often used in Indian food and in this dish not only does it compliment the red cabbage and lentils, but its fragrant aroma makes it a picnic basket favorite. Priced by the pound, it can easily be a hearty lunch or simply a side to a beet roti flatbread. Either way, Pondicheri is one Houston restaurant bold enough to transform red cabbage from a plain old topper to a main attraction.

Unfortunately for Houstonians, picnic season will be over before we know it. While we can take advantage, it is these fresh dishes which liven up our get togethers and give us something to look forward to as we dig into our picnic baskets. For your next outing in the park...think picnic, think Pondicheri!

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