26 October 2007

Sinead O'Connor and the Strathmore

We saw Sinead O'Connor the other night at the Strathmore in Bethesda, MD. She came out of retirement and released an album (I'm aging myself I suppose by saying "album" instead of "CD") called Theology this year. I don't own it but I'm going to buy it. It's a 2-disc release. The first disc called "The Dublin Sessions" is acoustic and the other disc ("The London Sessions") containes a plugged in multi-piece band version of the same songs. Visit http://www.sineadoconnor.com and Sinead O'Connor's MySpace page for more information and to listen to some clips.

Having never seen her live before, I thought the concert was very good but I was distracted by her constant hand-signal interaction with the sound man. She was having trouble with the drums being over mic'd at the start, once or twice with feedback in her earpiece during the show, her mic not being turned up quite enough, etc.

Her voice while still powerful and simultaneously sweet has a courser quality and lacks range at the high notes. But her delivery is haunting, vibrant, intense and interesting as always. My impression of her from her early career was that she approached music from internal rage and anger and now it seems to flow from inner beauty and peace. Even so she performed the oldies and goodies with verve with especially great renditions of "I Am Stretched on Your Grave" and "Thank You for Hearing Me". One of the highlights of the show was the acapella four-part harmony sung live of "In This Heart". I think she performed three new songs including one that is a movie theme song for a film that will be release around Christmas. All of the new work was gorgeous and soul satisfying. The mix of acoustic and full band songs kept it interesting and there was an obvious mutual appreciation between audience and artist.

Twenty years after the release of her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, Sinead O'Connor still defies definition: rock, pop, alternative, spiritual, rythmic, relevant, current... yes, yes, yes and more.

I suppose I should also say something about the Strathmore. I'd never been to this venue before but will seek it out in the future. In fact, Handel's Messiah is playing there in December and I would love to go to that. The hall is absolutely beautiful inside. The ceiling undulates like a gentle wave stopped in motion and the blond wood interior does everything it should acoustically in that space, not to mention creating a calming, modern and beautiful space. The walls and the shape of the hall made me feel what I imagine it would be like to be inside a grand piano. Go if you get a chance so you can feel for yourself what I mean by that because I can't explain it!

23 October 2007

Something like writer's block

Searching for a job sort of sucks your will to live (mine, I mean), or at least to write. I can't tell you how tired I am of tweaking the resume, writing cover letter after cover letter. It takes so much time and effort and that's a big part of the reason I have not been blogging. It's not exactly writer's block, because I am writing something every day toward my job search. I'd rather be writing the blog honestly - it's a lot more fun that writing cover letters!

Along with being unemployed, one cuts back on extra-curricular activities such as dining out and buying wine. In other words, we're not eating out at nice restaurants very much these days or going crazy at the wine shop. But one must still have nourishment of the body and mind to keep oneself sane. To those ends, what have we been doing lately?

In an effort to help bring on some autumnal weather, I made a really nice stuffed pork roast in late August. For that I used a large center loin portion of pig, opening it up with a knife 'til it laid flat on my board, and then stuffed it with a great combination of flavors. Whenever I make cornbread or biscuits, I save the leftovers in the freezer and then use them for applications like this. Crumble those up, chop up an apple, toss in a good handful of chopped pecans, chopped onion, and a healthy pinch of a spice blend I just discovered this summer, which I'll tell you about in just a sec. Anyway, put all that in a skillet with a little butter and a just a little broth but not so much that the mixture is wet, and cook it to a bread-stuffing consistency. in other words, slightly crumbly but not dry, not packed but not too loose either. Then spread this along the opened loin, roll the meat, tie it with kitchen twine and roast on 350 degrees Farenheit 'til done -- that depends on how thick the meat is, etc so I can't give specific timings. Even without a gravy or sauce, the roast should turn out nice and moist because of the filling if cooked until just done, not overdone.

As for the new spice blend I came across this summer... I was thrilled to find out that the famous spice catalog Penzeys was opening retail stores. We went to the Rockville, MD location which was the closest one to us at the time. The coolest thing about the store is that there is a sample jar of each and every item in the store which you can open and smell. I love that. Needless to say, we bought a lot of stuff that day including... drum roll please... Bavarian Seasoning. So tasty and lends an authentic Bavarian flavor to pork, AND best of all, it is SALT FREE. To tell the truth, I bought this spice mix thinking that I would make my own sausages. I haven't done that yet but still want to do that soon. I even bought casings and put them in freezer so I would having everything I need when I decide to do it. Anyhow, don't save the seasoning just for making sausages -- use it to flavor your pork roasts, turkey breast, chicken, cooked carrots and boiled potatoes and anything else you want to have that Bavarian flavor without salt! If you don't have a Penzeys store near you, order online or from the catalog. They make great gift boxes, too, which are a wonderful idea for newlyweds or a holiday present for anyone you know who loves to cook. Normally, I'm not a fan of spice blends because I tend to make up my own as a I go along, but I couldn't have replicated this particular authentic flavor by myself. Oh, btw, a Penzeys retail location opened in Falls Church, VA recently on Route 7. I was there the other day and noted that a bottle containing 3 Madagascar vanilla beans was less than $7! What a bargain.

Well, for someone who complained about being sick of writing, I sure did manage to write a lot here on the blog today. I urge you to check out Penzeys catalog, website, retail store especially for the finest quality herbs and spices. And definitely try a stuffed pork roast. Note there's no recipe - just throw a bunch of stuff together and stuff it in a piece of pork! You can hardly go wrong!

09 August 2007

Long Time No Blog

It's not that I haven't cooked at all for the past two months, it's not that we haven't eaten out. I've been surprisingly short on time for a person who is unemployed. I expected that I would have time to write this blog every day once I didn't have to go to work. But somehow or another, the days fill up and before you know it, your eyes are drooping, your head is slumping forward, chin to chest, the drooling starts, and eventually, you end up prone on the sofa with the tv blaring and all the lights on. (I don't really drool... I just wrote that for effect.)

Quick Highlights:
June: Dad's b-day/Jimmy's b-day (my step-brother)/Father's Day
We had a combination celebration at my house. Who was here: Dad, of course, Jimmy and his wife Sue Ellen, Wayne (my other step-brother), my paternal grandfather, my mother-in-law, my partner 'R', and me. The weather was fantastic so we all sat outside in the front yard. I made a pulled pork barbeque and chicken a la Minnie (recipe below) and coleslaw. To make it easy on myself, I bought potato salad and 2 kinds of dessert. My other step-brother, Wayne, brought us a watermelon.

Chicken a la Minnie is named after R's maternal grandmother who used to fix chicken this way. I never had the pleasure of eating hers but was told about it by another relative. This is a delicious, down-home, sloppy barbeque kind of food. I'd recommend wearing a bib or at least not wearing something white when you eat it.

Chicken a la Minnie
1 fresh 3lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 bottle Carolina Treet sauce*

Place chicken pieces in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil on high heat and allow to boil about 2-3 minutes, then turn the heat off and cover the pot for about 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place chicken pieces in a baking dish. Pour about 1/3 bottle of Carolina Treet all over the chicken. Pour about 1 cup of the cooking water over the chicken. Cover with foil and bake about 1 hour, basting and turning over the pieces about half way through cooking.

* Carolina Treet Original Cooking Barbecue Sauce: I buy this at Food Lion whenever I visit Lumberton, NC. Right on the bottle it says if you can’t find it where you live, call, write or email and they will ship anywhere. Look ‘em up at http://www.carolinatreet.com

July: R and I went to Myrtle Beach, stopped in Calabash to eat some local fried seafood and meet up with R's Aunt Mary, and stopped in Lumberton (his parents' hometown) to visit other family and do some food shopping. Aunt Betsy took us around to a bunch of local farmers and we were able to buy a bushel of field peas and a bushel of butter beans. Uncle Billy made arrangements with the Scottish Packing Company for us to go buy some goodies. We bought a 12 lb wheel of Wisconsin cheddar cheese, 2 Boston Butts, some country sausage, casings and seasoning to try making our own sausages at home. When we got it all home, most of it went in the freezer. The cheese was cut (haha, having a 3rd grade moment) and some given to each of the parents. The field peas and butter beans all had to be blanched and frozen. That was a lot of work.

Also in July, the Falls Church Farmers Market is in full glory -- all the colors are truly a vision. We bought about 4 quarts of peaches which had to be skinned, sliced, and frozen. A lot of work again. And other week in July at the Farmers Market we bought a bushel of tomatoes. I remember as a girl helping my grandmother can tomatoes and tomato juice and I thought it would be a good idea to give it whirl on my own. Well, when you raise the tomatoes yourself and you have jars left over from last year and you have all the equipment already that's required for canning, it's a pretty cheap endeavor but a lot of labor. I had nothing. I had to buy jars, buy the canner, buy the tomatoes... and give blood, sweat and tears to the job. I ended up with 5 quarts of homemade tomato juice, 3 quarts of homemade Italian tomato sauce, and 4 quarts of homemade tomato soup. It took me about a day and quarter to get all that done. Of course my grandmother would have whipped that out in a couple hours, but she had 50 years under her belt and I had none. I'm not sure how often I will choose to do this in the future but I can at least say I've done it once. How good those tomatoes are going to taste this winter (!) when all that's available in the grocery are firm, gased, unripe, not-in-season, yucky things that can hardly be called tomatoes.

This summer I've also been growing tomato plants along with some pots of herbs. It has been so dry here that the plants all require some daily watering and it's just in the last week that the tomato plants are starting to bear ripe fruit. They are delicious. My grandfather started these plants from seed in March in an egg carton using the pilot light in the oven to keep them warm. He is a very experienced gardener. I don't know the breed of these tomatoes, but they are larger than a large cherry tomato but not much. These could be Campari tomatoes or something close to that breed because they are sweet like that and get really beautiful red.

This has gotten so long, trying to get caught up with the past 2 months, and I still have so much I want to write about. I want to give you a good recipe for Pissaladiere and tomato soup, for refried beans from scratch (totally worth the effort), for salsa verde. I want to tell you about our CSA (community supported agriculture) farm and what we've been getting in our share this year. I want to tell you about the dairy products we've been getting from the Farmers Market -- fresh homemade mozz and mascarpone and yogurt from a farm that raises and milks their own cows in Loudoun County. All that and more, hopefully all coming soon.

31 May 2007

A Correction and a Worry

In a previous post, I mentioned the Central Market. It is actually called the Capital City Market, and more commonly known as the Florida Avenue Market. There has long been talk of "revitalization" here, which has encountered stiff opposition. The market's future seems once more in question with a development concept to build condos above a retail commercial space. (Oooh, that's a new concept, NOT!) The Florida Avenue market is a unique and vital wholesale and retail commercial location in the District catering particularly to immigrants and restaurants. While a general "clean-up" might make it a bit more hospitable for your average upper middle class consumer, making it look and feel like every other condo complex in any city seems such a shame. I'm afriad the war against diversity is winning and that the homogenization of city scapes everywhere will prevail. See this article for details and additional links.

23 May 2007

A Real Find also turns out to be a Disappointment

We had friends for brunch on Saturday. Not in the Hannibal Lechter sense. They had a baby recently and they hadn't seen our house that we moved to in November. After trying for weeks to marry up our schedules and find a time that we could actually spend a couple hours together, we made a brunch date for Saturday. I planned a menu of potato frittata (which I prefer to call tortilla espanola), grilled asparagus, chicken breakfast link sausages, fresh fruit salad and these puffy, chewy custard buns from the Chinese bakery, mimosas and coffee. The day I went to the grocery for provisions, the asparagus was a bit wanting so I decided to make a spinach salad instead. Then I decided I would add a sour cream cake, the handwritten recipe for which I had discovered recently among my grandmother's recipe cards. I liked the name of it particularly: "Sock It To Me Cake" which is better than "Sour Cream Pound Cake."

Friday night, I made the cake so it would have plenty of time to cool before glazing. My grandmother's recipe card said cooking time of 45-55 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven. After 45 minutes exactly, I pulled the cake out and it was, shall we say, mahogany on top -- in other words, kinda burned. I let it cool a bit and flipped it out and cut myself a piece to see if it would be serviceable for the next day's dessert. Turns out it was super light and fluffy and yummy, slightly crumby and dry from the over cooking but not burnt tasting, and I thought once the glaze was on, it would be fine, especially with coffee. I went to sleep thinking about how my grandmother's recipes come through every time. She really delivers when it comes to food.

Saturday was so much fun. We had plenty to talk about, did the house and yard tour, got all caught up on each others' news and the baby was adorable and quiet for the most part. We made it through a bottle of bubbly and oj with the frittata and everything else. Now it was time for cake, which I served with sliced fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream and coffee. Not dry at all, not burnt tasting at all. Just about perfect if I do say so myself. Pretty much irresistable evidenced by the fact that by Monday evening, there was no evidence of it left anywhere!

I was at the grocery yesterday picking up some fresh veggies for dinner and thought I would get a boxed cake mix to make that Sock It To Me Cake again soon since it was so good and disappeared so fast. Oh, to my happy surprise the boxed cake mixes were on sale -- I bought TWO. Happiness is buying two boxes of cake mix on sale.

Get home, unload the groceries, putting away the boxes of cake mix and lo and behold on the freakin' side of the cake box is the recipe for my grandmother's Sock It To Me Cake. My "Real Find" of the recipe card written in my grandmother's graceful hand came from the side of a Duncan Hines box. The discovery of this is a disappointment but won't stop me from making it again (especially since I have TWO boxes of cake mix).

Sock It To Me Cake (aka Sour Cream Pound Cake) - as written on my grandmother's recipe card, not the side of the box!

Cake batter:
1 box Duncan Hines Golden Butter cake mix
1 8-oz container sour cream
1/2 C Crisco brand vegetable oil (other brands make the cake fall!)
1/4 C sugar
1/4 C water
4 eggs

1 C chopped pecans (I used walnuts)
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon

2 Tbsp milk
1 C confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Blend cake mix, sour cream, oil,
sugar, water and eggs (one at a time). Beat at high speed for 2 minutes (important for lightness). Pour 2/3 of the batter in a greased and floured Bundt pan.

Combine filling ingredients and sprinkle over the batter in the pan. Spread remaining batter evenly over the filling mixture. Bake at 375 for 45 to 55 minutes, until cake springs back when touched lightly.

Cool right side up for about 25 minutes, then remove from pan. Prepare glaze and pour over cooled cake.

Asian Salad and a movie

For the past couple weeks I've been craving some seared tuna (raw in the middle) sliced thin over a crunchy, crispy salad. I like a salad with seared tuna in two main varieties: Asian or Southwestern. Last night was the night and Asian was the style.

For the dressing I used a bit of yellow miso paste, a couple drops of lite soy sauce, fresh orange juice, a few drops of Chinese rice wine, a little minced garlic, a lot of grated ginger, freshly ground black pepper, a drizzle of roasted sesame oil. (If the dressing is too thick or too salty, add a little water.)

For the salad (4 dinner-sized servings):
1/2 small head savoy cabbage, shredded
1 medium heart of romaine
big handful of bean sprouts, stringy ends trimmed off
big handful of snow pea pods, julienned
1 small yellow bell pepper, julienned
3 scallions, green part only, cut on the bias
2 medium oranges, segments only, skins removed (What's the technical term for this method? I'll have to look it up.)
big handful of sliced almonds
big handful of julienned carrots (I buy them already done)
chopped cilantro (optional)
La Choy brand crunchy chow mein noodles for topping (find in the asian packaged goods aisle in your regular grocery, usually bottom shelf)

For the tuna, about 1 pound of sashimi grade should cover your 4 main course salad servings. I drizzled the tuna pieces with a little toasted sesame oil and then sprinkled a combination of a southwestern dry rub mixed with a mild chili powder. (Well, dinner was mostly Asian inspired but needed that little bit of southwestern zip.) Get a grill pan nice and hot to just about smoking and set each piece in. Leave for about 2 minutes before flipping and cooking another minute or so. Don't forget to sear the sides also. Remove from the pan and let it rest while you toss the salad with the dressing and put the crunchies on top. Slice the tuna and set the slices on the salad to serve.

On another note, I watched a quirky movie this past weekend called Everything is Illuminated, not a movie about food but nonetheless contains a funny food scene involving vegetarianism. The film itself is a very odd road trip with interesting characters all searching for their own stories and making new memories along the way. One of the best lines in the movie comes toward the end. The old Ukranian lady who collects items to remember the dead says something so truthful to the young man, Jonathan, who comes to find out about one of them. Holding a small jar containing a wedding ring, this lady says something like, "You are not here because of it. It is here because of you." This physical thing, symbol of a history, a memory, only exists because someone seeks out that history. Without a person or a society taking that journey back in time to learn the history, the thing/event doesn't exist at all, it has no relevance. The title is so appropo for this film on so many levels. If you've seen it, I'm interested in your comments. If not, I recommend you do!

14 May 2007

Herb butter for grilled corn

You've probably seen this done many times and never done it yourself. It couldn't be easier or tastier or say "Summer!" any louder.

We went to the Central Market this weekend near the intersection of Florida and New York Avenues in The District. It's a loud, industrial, dirty, primarily wholesalers market that covers about eight city blocks. We didn't see the entire thing -- it's just too big and some places are not open on the weekend, but there were a few interesting things that stood out. One of them is a West African grocer and butcher. The butcher counter was absolutely packed and all you could hear was the din of Bantu (maybe?) over the butcher's saw cutting goats. The second thing that we liked was a vendor called The Mexican Fruit Stand (I think that's what it's called). Kind of a mini-green grocer, all fruits and veggies from Mexico. We bought a crate of corn on the cob and some lovely tomatoes. I spent most of Sunday shucking and boiling and de-cobbing corn to have in the freezer for the winter.

I saved out a few ears of corn to eat this week. Last night I grilled corn and made herb butter for it. This is how it goes:
~1 stick of organic unsalted butter
good quality chili powder to taste (I used one that wasn't very spicy but had a good chili pepper flavor - something I found in a latino grocery)
a pinch of kosher salt
a handful of chopped fresh cilantro
a squeeze of fresh lime

Chunk up the butter and dump everything in the food processor. Whiz around until everything is well incorporated. Plop out onto a piece of wax paper and roll/shape it into a log and refrigerate until ready to serve on hot, grilled corn on the cob. Serve with an iced cold Margarita. :) It (the buttered corn or the 'rita) is a great southwestern accompaniment for grilled flank steak. It would be great to garnish a nice charcoal-grilled steak with a little pat of this as well. Does this herb butter on corn scream summer to you?! It does to me! Woohoo, summer has arrived!

03 May 2007

Eating Out Over and Over Again

The night I came home from Vegas we at out. The next two nights I ate salads for dinner at home. They were pretty good salads, if I do say so myself. The first night I had a grilled tuna medallion coated in yellow miso paste and grilled very rare sliced thin over an Asian themed salad. The second night I had a very rare grilled tuna medallion of Southwestern flavors (chili powder and cumin) over a Southwestern themed salad. Then we went out to eat Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, cooked a big lamb fest at home on Sunday night, ate out again on Monday night and Tuesday night. Whew. It was literally eating out over and over again, or at least that's how it felt.

The ones worth talking about:

Friday night we ate out at Euro Bistro in Herndon
Saturday night was The Melting Pot in Arlington
Monday night was Ardeo in Cleveland Park, DC
Tuesday night was Oyamel and then Titus Andronicus at The Shakespeare Theatre

Euro Bistro -- It says Euro, but has a definite Austrian/Tyrolian focus as you can tell by the daily specials menu typed on a sheaf of paper, and an Asian fusion flair on its regular menu. I would highly advise ordering from the specials menu. You won't be disappointed. In fact, without fail, order the Sauerbrauten. This is a very tender piece of beef in a slightly sweet and sour sauce served with spaetzle (potato noodles) and red cabbage. This is not what I ate on Friday night but have had it there before and it is excellent. If you like white wine, get the Anton Bauer Greuner Vetliner, which is full bodied enough to have with a meal, dry enough to pair with just about anything.

The Melting Pot -- we ordered "The Big Night Out" and surprisingly did not feel disgusting when we left about two and half hours after arriving. Cheese fondue, salads, main course variety of meats, chicken, shellfish and vegetables in broth fondue, chocolate fondue (actually pecan, caramel, and chocolate) for dipping strawberries, bananas, pineapple, pound cake, brownies, marshmallows, and cheesecake. Yummy yummy in my mouth and tummy! This is a meal event where you need to take your time and enjoy the food and the companions you're with. If you were a big fondue-er in the '70s, you will feel like reminiscing.

Ardeo -- modern American cuisine, menu heavy on fresh fish. The peaky-toe crab appetizer served with micro cress and geletinized mango (or something like that) was tasty. The halibut served over a pancake of fresh English mallow peas in a buttery foam sauce was very good. Nice decor, very unobtrusive excellent service. There is nothing distracting about this place. Next up would be the one right next door called Bardeo, a wine bar and cafe with a completely independent menu.

Oyamel -- another Jose Andres small plates house, it doesn't disappoint. Recently re-opened from its move from Crystal City to the theatre area in DC proper, Oyamel serves Mexican antojitos, or appetizer sized dishes including individual small soft tacos. Be brave, order the grasshopper taco -- roasted brown and crunchy, they are hardly recognizable by not-so-close visual inspection and have a wonderful lemony citrus finish, like a good glass of French sauvignon blanc. There is almost nothing else "weird" or "creepy" on this menu. Oh, if you're drinking, order the Classic margarita made with Herradura Silver tequila. If you like a less sweet drink, ask for Cointreau in it instead of the Triple Sec that comes in it. To chronicle what else we ate...
  • Nopalitos - a salad of the cactus leaves with tomatoes in a lime dressing

  • Camarones al epazote - shrimp cooked in tequila, shallots, adobo, and epazote - a kind of petroleum smelling herb that is native to the south of Mexico and gives American Mexican food a more authentic Mexican flavor, especially refried beans.

  • Machuco relleno de fríjol con salsa de coco - a fritter of plantains stuffed with refried black beans and topped with coconut sauce - this was terrific

  • Pescado Mexicano al Cambray - fish tacos

  • Tacos de Chapulines - grasshopper tacos

  • a mushroom salad special of the day

  • a chili pepper stuffed with a stewed meat served at room temperature - maybe one of my favorites-- it's circled in red on the menu

  • another special of the day - grilled baby corn served with crema sauce

We were too crunched for time to order dessert. Have to save something for next time!

Titus Andronicus -- brutal and compelling, it tells a story of death and dismemberment not only in the physical sense but also in the emotional and societal sense. It is a timeless story as all of Shakespeare's works seem to be. In this stage production, Aaron steals the show, and there are some disconcerting even distracting misplaced things like Ninjas and modern suits and ties. I know this is to reflect the agelessness of the story but it's entirely unnecessary for a sophisticated Washington audience. While the story is serious and sorrowful and regretful and revengeful, the director and cast do well at inserting light-hearted moments and you are not afraid to laugh out loud. (Although the script itself is edited in the film version simply called Titus, rent it and watch it. It features excellent performances by Jessica Lange and Anthony Hopkins. ) This one is all about revenge with an absence of consciousness and next up is Hamlet, which is all about revenge with a conscience. We're seeing that in June.

No more eating out for a while if I can help it. Back on the healthy eating bandwagon.

what I ended up cooking

My last post was about what to cook for the family Sunday night. Had a lot of trouble deciding and so we went with three of the four starters that I had under consideration. We had rillettes and cornichons (see my earlier post about that), not your average spinach dip with crudite, and mushroom spread on baguette toasts (see earlier post about New Year's Eve snacks for those two). We served a South African sparkling wine with all that called Krone Borealis. If the cork hadn't popped itself out of the bottle, it would have been pretty bubbly but as it was, it ended up being kind of frizzante instead, but dry and clean. I think we picked this up at the sparkling wine tasting at Cleveland Park in December for about $25.

For the main course we had grilled lamb kebobs; zucchini, yellow squash, vidalia onions, and campari tomatoes; basmati rice mixed with grilled corn and fresh mint; and a yogurt sauce (my version of tsakziki). We got a leg of lamb cut into kabob sized pieces from the Lebanese Butcher. I marinated the meat in a little extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, fresh rosemary, and minced garlic, then skewered them and grilled them outside on a charcoal grill. For the veggies, I cut the zuchs, squash, and onions all into think rounds, tossed with a little extra virgin, salt & pepper, and rosemary, and skewered them. Since I didn't have enough room on the grill with all that meat, I put them under the broiler until they were just fork tender. I didn't skewer the tomatoes, but gave them the same treatment. For the rice dish, I grilled 4 cobs of corn the night before so that some of the kernels were charred slightly with grill marks, then let them cool and cut the kernels off the cob. After the basmati rice was done cooking and still hot, I tossed the corn and rice together (used about 3 cups uncooked rice -- whatever that turns out to be when cooked) with a good pinch of salt, half a stick of softened unsalted butter. At the very end, stir in a big handful of chopped fresh mint leaves and serve room temperature. (This is a very summery dish and great to take to a picnic or cookout. It's easy and since it doesn't have mayo, can sit out and there's no fuss about what temperature you serve it. It's lighter than other starchy dishes you could take and it will be a big hit. Everyone loves this dish.) Finally, the yogurt sauce: about 1 cup of good quality low fat yogurt, the juice of one whole lemon, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt, a whole medium sized juicy cucumber sliced paper thin (maybe best to use a mandoline for those not very skilled with a knife), a generous 2-3 cloves worth of minced garlic. This is good with the rice, the veggies, and the meat!

For wine with the meal we offered 2006 Bellevue Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine for the white wine drinkers and Yarraman Estates Hell Raiser Cab-Merlot blend for the red wine drinkers. The white is grapefruit all the way. The red was pretty light and fruity and paired well with lamb. The lamb itself probably could have stood up to something stronger but with the summery vegetables and rice, the light red was just the right match in my opinion.

For dessert we had chocolate panna cotta (see an earlier post for the recipe) topped with fresh whipped cream and coffee. The panna cotta was just about a disaster. I made it the same way I had done it a few weeks before and set it in the fridge to congeal. When I checked it after about 2 hours, it looked like chocolate soup not pudding! So I dumped all the contents of the ramekins back into another saucepan and warmed it up, stirred in some extra gelatin and poured that back into clean ramekins, set it in the fridge and crossed my fingers. Well... the result was a very thick, overcooked custard instead of a pudding. Oh well, everyone still enjoyed it, I think mainly because it was good and chocolately but not too sweet. Anything would be good with freshly made whipped cream anyhow.

Well, that was Sunday night. We ate out on Monday night and Tuesday night as well so I will have entries on those shortly.

27 April 2007

What to cook?

We are having the family over for dinner Sunday. What to cook? The weather is supposed to be sunny and warm, so it might be a good day to grill. On the other hand, I want something easy so that I don't have to 1) work hard all day and 2) can spend time with my guests instead of preparing dinner.

Some options I'm considering.

For starters, one of the following:
- crudite and not your average spinach dip
- cheese, crackers, nuts, fruit
- baguette toasts with mushroom spread
- pate and cornichon with crackers

For main course, one of the following:
1) fried chicken with potato salad and collards
2) pork loin roast with hashed sweet potatoes and creamed spinach
3) fish fillets sauteed with tomatoes, capers and olives, served with orzo tossed in lemon butter, and grilled asparagus
4) lamb kebobs, grilled zucchini and yellow squash, and rice mixed with grilled corn and mint

For dessert, one of the following:
- vanilla ice cream with bananas flambeed in rum and brown sugar (Bananas Foster)
- brownie with ice cream
- mixed berry clafouti
- sour cream cake with mixed berries
- strawberry shortcakes
- chocolate panna cotta

What do you think?

23 April 2007

Vegas, Baby

Just got back from 3 days in Las Vegas. Five of us were celebrating the 35th birthday of a very good friend. As the tv commerical will tell you, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But I can tell you a few things:

1) See "O" at the Bellagio. It will be worth every penny you spend for the tickets. It is a complete enchantment. This is a production of the Cirque du Soleil for which they created and built a special stage. The stage in and of itself is fascinating. Sometimes it's simply a solid surface and other times it gives the illusion of people walking on water and other times, it is deep enough to entertain high divers and scuba divers!

2) Trattoria del Lupo at the Mandalay Bay serves excellent pizza and pasta by the chef and restauranteur, Wolfgang Puck. Through the glass window you can see the fresh pasta hanging like laundry from the drying racks. The prices are very reasonable.

3) The Buffet at The Wynn. I'm not usually one who enjoys a buffet but this is exceptionally good featuring standing rack of lamb encrusted in spices, prime rib, a Chinese station, an Italian station, a cold seafoods station, a dessert station (with loads and loads of bite sized selections), and more that I'm sure I've forgotten. It is $40 per person but take your time and enjoy it and get your money's worth.

4) Shopping at the Venetian -- many of the stores you would see in an upper-middle class mall but with a canal and gondolas and opera singers and street performers. When you walk into the shopping area, look up. The lighting and the painted ceiling will convince you that you are outdoors. Secondly, take a deep breath, and that too will convince you that you are outdoors. The air seems like fresh outdoor air, not the typically stale air inside a mall.

5) The fountain water show in front of the Bellagio is fantastically beautiful. The streams and jets of water dance in coordination to the music and runs every half hour in the evenings. It's romantic. Especially when the vibrant crescent moon hangs just so in the sky, just left of center of the hotel itself in the background on a clear and lovely evening.

6) Pamper yourself at The Bathhouse spa at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay.

The rest, I'm afraid, really needs to be left unsaid. ;-)

13 April 2007

Two meals this week

I last left off talking about Easter weekend and everything we had to eat and drink... well, not everything. I made dinner Sunday night. I don't know what to call it. It's was a baked rigatoni in bechamel with lots of vegetables.

To start out, I had chopped, blanched and shocked a whole head of broccoli, including the stems (trimmed and peeled the woody parts off first) and a bunch of asparagus. I put a box of frozen chopped spinach in the microwave for a couple minutes and cooked half a box of rigatoni. Once all that was prepped, I started a bechamel in a large pan. Bechamel is basically a roux with milk or cream. I livened mine up with a finely minced onion and some pasted garlic (used the mortar and pestle for this), made golden in the butter (about 1/2 stick) before adding the flour (about 1 1/2 Tbsp). After the flour is incorporated and absorbed well by the butter, no longer raw, add milk or cream (about 2 cups maybe?) until it thickens over med-low heat. I made mine not too thick by using little flour because, once off the heat, I added fresh ricotta cheese, which really thickens it up. To the sauce, I tossed in the broccoli, asparagus, spinach, pasta, and a hearty handful of frozen peas, salt and pepper, and mixed it all up with a wooden spoon. Put the whole mixture into a sprayed baking dish, and topped with a blend of freshly toasted bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. I put that into a hot oven for about 35 minutes and served it piping hot. And while I would normally think of pasta and bechamel as heavy and rich, it didn't seem so with all the veggies that were in it. This makes enough for 6-8 generous plenty portions. But think about that -- 1/2 a box of pasta for 8 portions and the rest is veggies.

Yesterday I knew I needed to cook but didn't really know what to make. I needed something super quick and easy because I was going to the gym in between work and home. I found a recipe on Everyday Food and, as I usually do, I adapted it.

Mediterranean Pita Pizza
4 six-inch pitas, split open
store bought hummous (or make your own; I used a roasted garlic flavor, store bought container)
3/4 lb ground lamb, browned and drained
12 kalamata olives, pitted
1-2 yellow bell pepper, sliced
couple handfuls of chopped flat-leaf parsley
feta cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 425 and spray two cookie sheets with spray oil. Lay the pitas cut side up on the cookie sheets. Spread each pita half with hummous, scatter on the bell pepper slices, kalamatas, lamb, parsley and cheese. Pop into the oven for about 15 minutes or until the pitas are crisp and the toppings are warmed through. Don't go by whether the cheese has melted or not because feta doesn't really melt. Makes 4 servings.

A good addition (or substitute for another item, such as the parsley) to this would be a box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed with all the water squeezed out. If you don't like lamb, you could use lean ground beef, turkey or chicken. If you like eggplant, substituting babaganoush for the hummous would be another good version of this. Adapt it. Make it your own.

09 April 2007

The Food and Wine Frenzy that was the Weekend

I love my brother-in-law and his wife and I love it when they come up from Charlotte, NC to visit us, but thank goodness the visits are usually short! No offense to them but, my god, we eat and drink a lot whenever they visit and by Monday I just feel like I need to fast and detox. They got a late start on Friday and didn't get up here until late, so we didn't get a chance to go to dinner together -- maybe a good thing.

As it turns out, our favorite wine store in Cleveland Park was having a tasting on Friday, as they always do, so we decided to pop in there and see what was going on and we needed a few bottles to restock for warmer weather anyhow. We tasted some beers from Bells Brewery (bought a 6-pack of the Amber Ale) and then about three wines from the very southwestern tip of Australia and two wines from the southeastern area of Australia. The two Yarraman Estate wines we tasted were both very nice and at a very nice price so we bought a bottle of each. The white was a combo of Semillon and Verdelho: dry, crisp, tart. Not quite as grapefruity as a NZ Sauvignon Blanc but very kiwi and citrus. The red was a combo Shiraz Merlot. With a couple good swirls of the glass, the tannins faded into the background and was smooth all the way. We then proceeded to buy another 16 bottles of various recommendations from Tony and things we have tried over the past year or so and know we love. And then we went for a late Vietnamese dinner.

Saturday I worked out and skipped lunch. The rest of the fam went to a place in Pentagon City that specializes in crepes. In the afternoon, we met up at the new Whole Foods Market in the Fair Lakes area of Fairfax, VA in the wine loft. The place is pretty cool but you can spend a fortune in there just tasting what's available. Select your wine, decide whether you want a one-, three-, or five-ounce tasting. Stick a glass underneath the spigot, insert your wine bar debit card, and press a button. It runs the gamut from very inexpensive to very (insanely) expensive and makes for a fun afternoon, as long as you don't have to drive!

Everyone came over to our house after that and we had some nibbles. My father-in-law had recently purchased a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon rated 98 points which he spent $100 for and he very graciously wanted to share it with all of us. So we each had a little bit of it with him. After a few minutes in the glass, it was delicious and lovely. I didn't write it down because I personally couldn't bring myself to spend that much on a bottle of wine. I've had others that were that good (to my tastes anyway) for about $20. I believe in affordable wine, especially for everyday drinking.

For nibbles we had:
- blanched and shocked asparagus spears with homemade mayo to dip in
- "Cheap Trick" cheese (I like to call it that but I got the idea from Jacques Pepin's Fast Food My Way) which is a blend of all the little bits of leftover cheeses you have in the fridge with a spoon of cream cheese, a little honey and some lime juice, brought all together in the food processor and then pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries folded in and spread on crackers
- toasted baguette slices topped with tapenade

We then all piled in the car and went to dinner. Yes, we ate again. Bamian, located in the bustling Bailey's Crossroads area, is a wonderful Afghan restaurant serving up delicious traditional foods including little dumplings filled with meat and covered in yogurt sauce with fresh mint, a bread pastry filled with savory and creamy potatoes, grilled lamb ribs, and stewed pumpkin. We had a delicious meal, courtesy of the parents - thanks again! We four "kids" then went off to a place called My Bakery, a Bolivian cafe. We ordered one pastelito to share and coffee and tea. A pastelito is kind of like a beignet if you have ever been to New Orleans, but it has cheese inside, so you get this wonderful combination of savory (salty from the cheese) and sweet from the dough and the powdered sugar, along with the crispy, crunchiness and heat from the whole thing being fried. Good thing we shared.

Oh yeah, then there was Sunday, Easter Sunday. It's our family tradition to eat lunch at a Greek restaurant on Easter Sunday. For the past few years we have very much enjoyed the Athena Pallas restaurant. They serve traditional Greek Easter bread, the special Easter soup (which I think is kind of an avgolemeno [egg-lemon] soup with the addition of organ meats of chicken), a roasted lamb, grilled sea bream, roast suckling pig and various other specials for Easter. I ordered the Greek Salad for my main course and just had one bite of the galaktibouriko, a phyllo pastry stuffed with fresh custard and drizzled with orange blossom honey and nutmeg.

And there ended the feeding frenzy that was Easter weekend 2007. Well, not really because I made dinner. That entry is for another day.

02 April 2007

Taco Pizza

If I were a certain television personality whose books are strategically located everywhere these days, I might say, "Yum-o!" but since I'm just me, I say, "Yum!"

We are all often conscientious about what we eat, cautious of the pounds we're adding to those hips when we have a slice of bread or a sliver of cheese. I was kind of craving a taco salad the other day and pizza at the same time and thought to myself that I couldn't really afford to splurge twice in one week. So I came up with this ingenious idea to make a taco pizza. OK, so it's one really big splurge that is probably equivalent of two, but I feel better knowing that I only splurged once. Get my logic?

For the pizza crust, if you have a bread maker, do this from scratch. If you don't have a bread maker, buy a ready made crust.

For the bread maker version, try this recipe for Cornmeal Pizza Dough from The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger:
1 1/2 C water
1/4 C olive oil
3 2/3 C unbleached all purpose flour
1/3 C medium grind yellow corn meal
2 1/2 tsp bread machine yeast
Put it into the bread maker, set to the Pizza setting. This usually takes about 90 minutes. While the bread maker is doing the hard work, prep your toppings.

1 can refried pinto beans
1 package of shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 8-oz container of low fat sour cream
2 ripe avacados, peeled, seeded and chopped, mixed with a generous pinch of salt and a good squeeze of fresh lime to keep it from turning brown
Fresh tomato salsa (see below)
Taco meat (see below)
A generous handful of scallions and cilantro, rough chopped
Shredded iceberg lettuce

Fresh Tomato Salsa:
2-3 large ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
1 bunch scallions, chopped (use a larger portion of whites than greens)
a handful cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 lime
2-3 serrano peppers, chopped (adjust heat by leaving in seeds or not or somewhere in between)
minced garlic to taste
a generous pinch of salt
a less generous pinch of sugar

Gently mix this all together in a bowl and let the flavors meld at room temperature. In fact, do a melding dance in the kitchen while you imbibe a cerveza in anticipation of the taco pizza. Refrigerate leftovers (as if there will be any). Or just use your favorite jarred salsa... but know that is a total cop-out.

Taco meat:
Lean ground beef (you could probably substitute ground turkey or chicken if you wanted a healthier version)
a lot of salt (after all, that is what makes taco seasoning in a packet taste so good)
a bit of garlic
onion powder (or use fresh finely minced if you prefer)
a lot of cumin
a little hot sauce such as Texas Pete or Tabasco
some good quality chili powder (ancho or chipotle or a combination of those would be nice)
maybe a half can of Rotel
(or just do the meat with a packet of taco seasoning)

Brown the meat thoroughly with either the packet or all the seasonings. The important thing about the seasoning is to make the meat taste seasoned enough to permeate through the pizza crust, beans, sour cream and avacado. The reason to call it a taco pizza is because you are supposed to taste "taco". So season well. Drain completely in a colander until the mixture is dry. Set aside.

Some assembly required
(Those are the dreaded three words at our house during the Christmas season!)
Spray a jelly-roll pan with oil and put your pizza stone on the lower rack in the cold oven. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. When the dough is done, place it on the prepared jelly-roll sheet and shape it to cover the entire sheet, making sure the edges come up on all four sides. Prick the dough with a fork all over. Bake on the middle rack about 12-15 minutes. It won't be completely cooked but should start showing signs of doneness; don't let it get too brown. Remove from oven, but leave the oven on.

Open your refried beans and spread them evenly over the crust. Top the beans with shredded cheese. Top the cheese with taco meat. Put the whole thing back into the oven until the crust is done, and the cheese looks melted and gooey, maybe another 3-5 minutes or until the look of the crust makes you feel like you can't wait another second to eat it.

Next, spread that sour cream all over and sprinkle with your chopped avacado, scallions and cilantro. Using a slotted spoon to drain all the liquid off, scatter your chunky fresh tomato salsa all over. Cut that taco pizza into pieces and serve each piece with some shredded, crunchy iceberg lettuce.

After you eat this, you will not want to go back to regular ol' pizza again! Yum.

Note: Because the toppings tend to be moist (like the salsa and the sour cream), I recommend inviting some friends and trying to eat it all up while it's fresh. Leftovers are okay if you drained the meat and the salsa really well, but will probably only be good for one day and then your crust starts to get soggy. If you end up with leftovers, relive your college days and have some cold (taco) pizza for breakfast.

26 March 2007

Food and Movies

Not the food you take TO the movies, not even the food you buy AT the movies (can you call that food really?). No, I mean the food IN movies.

In movies like
Like Water for Chocolate
Fried Green Tomatoes
Under the Tuscan Sun
and plenty of others I don't recall right now, food features. Food may as well be one of the main characters, a protagonist of sorts. How did it come to be that food features so prominently in film? Maybe it all started with the slapstick pie-in-the-face of silent films.

How can entire movies be about food? I guess they are not so much about the food itself but what the food signifies. And what does food signify? Both in real life and in the movies, food is ...
creative, an outlet for creativity
love, a display of loving
lust, desire, sexual
giving (not just the food itself but also giving of one's own creativity)
family, home
a reason to gather together
comfort, comforting
sharing (as in sharing the experience of eating good food)
relating to one another, individually or across cultures, through food
memory (do you have childhood memories about food?), history

Most of my memories (the good ones at least) are about food. Actually, I have a bad one about food, too: Too much watermelon, throwing up on the kitchen floor, having to clean it up. In the movie The Witches of Eastwick, do you remember the scene about the cherries? I couldn't eat cherries for a few years after that.

Food is one of those things that you use most of your senses for. (You see it. Is it visually pleasing? You taste it. Does it have a good flavor? You feel it in your mouth. What is the texture? You smell it. What's the scent? When you cook, you also hear it. Is it boiling, is it searing, is it crackling, is it still? ) And maybe since we all eat, it's one of those things we can all understand and appreciate in our individual experience, whether limited or broad. And maybe that universality is why food is so well used in film as representing all those various aspects of life.

What do you think? What are some other movies where food features and what does it symbolize?

It's been nearly a month already

Time flies, not only when you're having fun. Time just flies. Since I last posted, I went to Santa Monica on a business trip and managed to see the inside of LAX, the inside of a hotel, the inside of an office building, and that was about it. My hotel was about two or three blocks from the ocean and the pier and I never even saw the water. So I can't even say that I ate anything particularly good on that trip either because I ate room service while I was working through dinner. Overall, the trip sucked -- although productive from a work sense, it sucked from a culinary, seeing and doing sense.

We went to The Who concert at the Verizon Center downtown. It was a fabulous show. I've never seen so many people my parents age having such a good time, screaming out the words, and just being thrilled to be there. The band performed some of their most well known hits and had some super graphics in the background. You'd never guess that Daltry and Townsend are in their 60s based on the performance they gave us that night. With classic moves from swirling the microphone to the windmill arm motion on the guitar, they delivered the whole package and gave a real crowd pleasing performance.

Saint Patrick's Day came and went. We skipped the corned beef and cabbage and green beer and Irish soda bread. In fact, I think we went out for Vietamese food that night. We live very close to Eden Center in Falls Church, which is a community of stores, services, and restaurants/cafes catering to the very dense Vietnamese population in the DC metro area. We love the grocery and several of the eateries and have made good acquaintences and friends since we started frequenting them nearly seven years ago.

Daylight Savings Time came and went. The first day of Spring came and went. I usually think of March as a long month. Wonder what happened this year.

We had the fascia, soffits, gutters and downspouts all replaced on our house this month too. Ah, the expenses of home maintenance.

All during that time, our Aerogarden was growing and we were clipping and all of a sudden we had enough to make a mixed herb pesto to coat a flank steak. I had clippings of cilantro, mint, sweet basil, purple basil, dill and chives. I put that in a food processor with almonds, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (left out the cheese), and had just enough to slather my flank steak and broil it. Yum. About a week or so later, I had another bunch of clippings and made a stick of herb butter. We had a pat or two of that on steamed asparagus one night.

Last night we had three parents over for dinner. I made an hors d'oevres platter of 3 cheeses (brie was the most popular, an aged smoked gouda, and gruyere); almonds, walnuts, and dates; and canapes of thin pumpernickle squares smeared with a mixture of dijon mustard and cream cheese, then topped with a piece of smoked salmon, a sliver of cucumber and a frill of dill. We served a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc. For the main course, we had chicken roasted over a bed of root vegetables and a side of steamed broccoli. Wines with the meal were Tavel rose (semi-dry) and a Languedoc red (young, fruit forward, light red). For dessert, I made a chocolate panna cotta with homemade whipped cream to top it off and store-bought almond (not marzipan) biscotti (from Whole Foods, so they may as well have been homemade, they were delicious). I didn't serve any dessert beverages -- I didn't want the folks to not be able to drive home!

The chickens were not quite three and half pounds each from the Lebanese Butcher. I got two of them thinking about having left overs for another night this week. They were beautifully barely pink and super fresh (I didn't really want to know HOW fresh), not yellow like the Perdue factory ones. I stuffed them each with half a lemon and a big handful of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (apparently I was going to Scarborough Fair). No trussing. No roasting rack. I stuck my hand under the skin of the breast and rubbed a little pat of the herb butter in there and on top, then set the two chickens atop a bed of baby carrots, fingerling potatoes, chopped parsnips, and chopped onions (all the veggies had been tossed with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper beforehand) in a roasting pan. Shoved that in the oven at 400 degrees Farenheit for approximately an hour, hour and 10 maybe. I set the chickens on a cutting board and covered them with foil while I dished up the root vegetables onto the platter and dished the broccoli up. Then I cut the chicken (leg and thigh pieces, wings, breasts) and laid the pieces on top of the root veggies and we tucked in. The chicken was juicy and the veggies just giving to the fork.

Chocolate Panna Cotta
2 C heavy cream
half a vanilla bean, split
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (more if you like a more choco flavor)
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
orange zest - about 2-3 pieces using a vegetable peeler (optional)
1 pkg powdered gelatin

Combine all ingredients except gelatin in a small sauce pan and bring to barely a simmer. Remove from heat and allow to cool about 7 minutes. Add gelatin (about 2 tsp of gelatin powder, not quite a whole large packet) and warm again over very low heat until gelatin dissolves. Do not boil. Strain through fine mesh into a vessel with a spout (such as a liquid measuring cup). Pour the strained liquid into 4 ramekins or espresso cups and chill in the fridge at least one hour (or up to 1 day ahead). Top with fresh whipped cream. So much better than plain old chocolate pudding! This is very rich so make sure your portion size stays small or your guests won't be able to eat it all and it's too good to go to waste.

Saturday night, not wanting leftovers because of the mini dinner party with the parents on Sunday, I dug out a package I had put in the freezer of 8 small lamb ribs. Seared those very simply seasoned with salt, pepper and rosemary and served with butternut squash (simmered and then mashed with a little finely zested orange and a drizzle of maple syrup), and braised brocoli di rape. Very satisfying and no leftovers.

Well, that's mostly what we've been eating and drinking and doing. How about you? Eat anything good lately?

01 March 2007

What we've been eating

I've been wanting to tell you for a couple weeks now that I made some really good homemade pumpkin and spinach ravioli in a sage brown butter sauce with a dollop of fresh ricotta on top . The reason I haven't written about it yet is because I keep forgetting to write down for myself how I actually made it so I could edit and share on the blog. We've invited a couple to dinner this weekend, one of whom is vegetarian, and I think this pasta dish will be perfect... which means I need to re-create it.

Using Chinese wonton wrappers (I'm tellin' ya, these little noodles are handy for more things than you can swat a broom at) - specifically the yellow kind that are made with eggs - place a teaspoon or so of filling between two of them, boil them in a very gentle boil, and then toss them in the brown butter.

For the filling, 1 can of organic unseasoned pumpkin, 1 bunch of washed and spun spinach with the tough stems removed, very finely chopped 1/2 small onion, garlic to taste, nutmeg to taste, brown sugar to taste, salt and pepper to taste, a handful or so of grana-padano (substitute parmesano-reggiano or pecorino-romano depending on if you want stronger or milder or using up whatever you have already), a smidge (couple tablespoons maybe) of half-and-half.

Wilt your spinach and set it aside.

In a pan, heat a little butter or olive oil, wilt the onion and garlic, add the pumpkin, brown sugar and spices until warmed through. Add the wilted spinach and mix well. On low heat, add the half-and-half (or use cream or milk if you prefer more or less fat) and stir to blend it in. Take the mixture off the heat and mix in the cheese. Set the mixture aside.

Prepare a floured surface. Beat 1 egg. Set out your wonton wrappers, keeping extras covered with a damp towel. Place filling on each round wonton wrapper, coat the edge of your wrapper with egg by dipping your finger or brush into the beaten egg, lay the second wrapper on top and seal the edges well while trying to squeeze out any extra air. Set each ravioli onto the floured surface while you continue to work quickly. Drop a few at a time into very gently boiling salted water. When they come to the surface and the wontons look cooked, take them out with a slotted spoon and glide them into your pan with the brown butter sauce.

The brown butter sauce takes patience -- unsalted butter over low to med-low heat. I added sage and red pepper flakes but don't if you don't want to. You don't want the butter to separate but just to slightly turn color. Once it starts to turn, it will turn quickly so watch it very very carefully and take it off the heat once you've achieved your color. If you mess up, hey, it's just butter. Toss it and start again. Toss the cooked ravioli in the sauce, turn onto a pasta dish and put a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese on top for serving. This amount of filling should make about 36 ravioli I think.


The other night I made a Greek salad with baked chicken -- I know it sounds pedestrian compared to some of the other things I've written about but when you marinate the chicken and make your own salad dressing and add all the right ingredients to your salad, it's better than eating out!

I prefer boneless, skinless chicken thighs to breasts but if you prefer white, this recipe obviously still works. In a ziptop bag or other container, place chicken pieces, garlic to taste, dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste, pour natural plain yogurt or buttermilk to cover, and mix. Let rest at room temperature about 20 minutes. In the meantime preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake until about half done, turn over, and cook the rest of the way. Can't give you times because it will depend on the thickness of your pieces of chicken. You could instead broil or grill this. Baking makes it easy and gives you more time to chop up everything for the salad. When your chicken is done, let it rest, then slice it for topping off your salad.

For the salad I use romaine lettuce because I like the variety of the leafy green part with the crunchier white parts. Slice a yellow bell pepper (cored and seeded) into rings. Use good quality kalamata olives and feta cheese (if you have a choice, choose fetas which are stored in water, these will have a better brinier flavor). You don't need to, and in fact shouldn't, use too many olives or too much cheese. A little bit goes a long way with some of these stronger flavors. Chop a good handful of walnuts (I always think of walnuts going well with Greek food, maybe it's the astringency in the walnuts). Add very very thinly sliced red onions. If they are strong, put them on a separate dish, squeeze fresh lemon juice over them and allow them to sit while you finish putting things together. At the last minute, rinse the onions of the lemon juice and dry on a paper towel before adding into the salad. You can't have a Greek salad without cucumbers and tomatoes, so chop up some of those and toss in. If you have a jar of them hanging around, add a couple of those little pickled green hot peppers. You can find them in any grocery in the pickle aisle. (If you didn't want chicken, because sometimes you ate chicken 5 nights in a row already, treat yourself to a good quality canned tuna packed in olive oil, or better yet a fresh piece of grilled tuna, to top off this salad.)

For the dressing: a little red wine vinegar (we make our own which is unspeakably easy), fresh squeezed lemon juice, a little water, a very little good quality honey (clover honey is often just sweet without a good rich honey flavor - go for something like an herbal or wildflower honey which is not too expensive but has a little more depth, which you can tell by comparing colors). Add a little chopped garlic (unless you put too much in your chicken already), dried oregano, salt and pepper, rosemary (optional), and finally whisk in some good quality extra virgin olive oil. Your ratio of oil, acid, and water should be approximately in equal thirds. If you like a thicker dressing, reduce the amount of oil and whisk in a dab of yogurt.

Finally, I made "from scratch" buttermilk biscuits and ground my own pork country sausage a few days ago. I'll write about that some other time. Admittedly, it wasn't stunning, so you're not missing anything. :)

22 February 2007

Homemade Rillettes

Rillettes - decadent, a once-a-year maybe kind of treat. The final result is pâté-like in texture but without any kind of organ meat flavor. It's a cold, salty, fatty paste spread onto slices of bread, toast or crackers. I realize this doesn't sound very appetizing but it's inexplicably simple and good.

So what is rillettes and how do you make it at home? Rillettes may best be explained by how you make it at home, which is something like this:

1 lb pork belly, skin removed (this is hard to find, try your local Chinese grocery meat counter)
2 Tbsp fresh lard (I cut some of the fat off the extra pork belly, rendered it, and chilled it)
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 large bay leaf
1-2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 whole cloves
1/2 to 1 C water

Cut the pork into 1" square pieces and set into the crockpot. Add everything except the water -- pour about 1/4 -1/2 C of water in, just enough to prevent anything from sticking. Cook on high for 1 hour, stirring occassionally, or until the meat has a pale golden hue. Reduce heat to low and cook for an additional 8-9 hours. During the long cooking time, remove, strain, and reserve the liquid fat, discarding the spices. Add water as necessary to prevent sticking.

Let the meat cool completely. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the meat to a smooth consistency, adding reserved liquid if necessary to aid the process. Transfer the paste to a suitably sized crock or jar and refridgerate until completely cold. Warm the reserved fat/liquid and pour enough of the reserved liquid over the top of the chilled paste to form a seal. Chill.

When ready to serve, slice some French bread (toast it or not), scrape the fatty seal off the top of the rillettes, and spread over the bread. Serve with some French cornichons and champagne.

Honestly, it doesn't taste like pig fat, it tastes like a very mild, salty pâté. Impress your friends with this super easy delicacy. HOWEVER...

This is a heart attack in a jar. Be sensible about how much of this you eat at once. Perhaps the saltiness of it alone will be enough to help you minimize your intake. Be sure to get in some exercise, too, if you're going to eat this.

15 February 2007

Caldo verde

Caldo verde is a Portuguese soup that makes a quick weeknight dinner when it's cold outside, which it has been here for the last few days with wind chill temps around zero farenheit and 3 inches of ice and snow.

Anyhow, caldo verde (I probably am spelling that wrong) features linguiça, a specialty Portuguese sausage. If you can't find it, use a mild or spicy Italian sausage instead. Slices or crumbled, brown the sausage in a sturdy soup pot, remove the meat to papertowels to drain. Add 1 large yellow onion, chopped, and 3 cloves of minced garlic over medium heat until wilted but not browned. Potatoes: use about one and one half pounds of small red or white potatoes cut in half, and then cut into thin semi-circles. Add the sliced potatoes to the pot and stir to coat with the grease, adding a little olive oil if needed, and then cook about 2-3 minutes. Add one pound of washed and chopped kale. This will be voluminous in the pot. Using a wooden spoon, gently turn the greens with the potatoes from the bottom. Once it's all well incorporated, add low-sodium chicken broth (about 8 cups). Bring your pot nearly to a boil, then put the lid on slightly ajar and let simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

We had pear clafouti for dessert. Sounds fancy right, but it's way easy! I even cheated and used pears from a jar. So butter a baking dish and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar. If you are using real pears, make sure they are slightly firm but scented and ripe. Peel and core the pears. Put each pear half or quarter or slices of pear into the prepared baking dish. Make the batter: 3 whole eggs, 1/3 C granulated sugar, 1 C milk, 2/3 C all-purpose flour (sifted), 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1 tsp lemon zest (optional), 1/4 C pear liqueur such as Poire William or pear schnapps (optional, but if you leave it out, add a 1/4 C milk). This should be about the consistency of pancake batter (that is sort of what the recipe is anyway). Pour the batter over the pears and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven about 45 minutes or until the batter starts pouffing and very slightly browning. The middle should be just a little custardy next to the pieces of fruit, similar to a not-too-eggy flan in texture in the middle. You can do the same recipe with any fruit in season, substituting the appropriate fruit liqueur for the Poire William. For example, make this with fresh cherries (pitted or not, but warn your dinner guests if not), and use kirsch. Cherry clafouti is the traditional version of this not-too-sweet dessert. Serve with a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream or even some natural plain yogurt. A dessert with a fancy name is just as simple as sliced fruit and pancake batter!

01 February 2007


José Andrés' original tapas restaurant and bar, Jaléo, in Washington, DC is still a standout after many years. (See also my previous entry on Zaytinya, another José Andrés restaurant.) Being within a few short blocks from the Verizon Center arena and the DC theater district, it's bound to be full most evenings. The crowd makes for an atmosphere bustling and exciting with anticipation, not only for the fine food and drink but for the events that the diners will be attending nearby. It helps that the inside feels authentically Spanish, too, with tiles and mosaics and murals of Spanish flamenco dancers (and live ones certain nights of the week). A little piece of old Madrid right in the heart of Washington.

Beverages on the menu include a couple cavas (Spanish sparkling wines), several different types of sherry, and sangria traditional or sparkling. I haven't tried the sparkling sangria yet but the regular leaves nothing to be desired so why switch? I think the brandy in it must be the secret ingredient. Sangria in Spain meets its match at Jaleo.

The tapas menu has some very traditional items and many very inventive and original tapas, which is Andrés' forté. If you are an adventurous eater, all the better because the menu is sure to delight you. One of my favorites is a cold dish of julienned apples with julienned manchego tossed with a little extra virgin olive oil and garlic. The color of the apples and the cheese match so closely that it's hard to tell what you have on your fork until it's in your mouth and bursting with sweet and tart and salty and crispy and chewy, and that's the lovely surprise of it, that something so simple could be all those things at once. But we didn't have that the other night. We tried a few new things, things on the specials menu and a couple of old tried-and-trues (we ate A LOT! but skipped dessert). Unfortunately I don't have the exact names of the items but will try to explain them well enough that you could order them if you go.

From the specials menu we had:
- a cheese which looks like cheddar because it's quite orange in color, but is actually a sharp goat's milk cheese; somewhere between smooth and crumbly in texture, it has a subtle smokiness from the Spanish paprika that lends its color to the cheese. The marriage of the cheese with the fig paste served as accompaniment was good, but the cheese alone spread on a chunk of crusty bread, even better.

- a dish of setas, or wild mushrooms with roasted potatoes in a creamy sauce that incorporated a light blue cheese. The mushrooms and potatoes are meaty enough to stand up to the rich and flavorful sauce, so you get a blend of earthy flavors, each distinguishable from the other.

- black rice with calamari (squid)and aoili -- in this beautiful and perfectly balanced dish, the risotto is made black by squid ink. I suppose it's more for effect or to not waste something that's edible, but the ink doesn't add flavor, only drama and intrigue. Who doesn't like a little drama and intrigue when it comes to rice?! Add a few bite sized pieces of calamari cooked to perfection, top with a little aoili, and there you have it.

From the cold tapas menu
- Pan con tomate y jamón serrano -- Spanish imported cured ham with a paste of sundried tomatoes spread onto nice crusty bread. Yum.

- Endibias con queso de cabra, naranja, y almendras -- Leaves of endive containing orange segments, sliced toasted almonds, and tiny crumbles of goat cheese. Refreshing.

From the hot tapas menu
- Butifarra casera con 'montgetes' or homemade grilled pork sausage with white beans - the casing was snappy and the beans were somewhere between smooth and toothsome. The sausage had a good pork flavor without being "piggy" if you know what I mean.

- Espinacas a la Catalana-- spinach sauteed with pine nuts, raisins and apples-- sounds like it would be sweet but it's not. The spinach is just barely wilted and so it's sharpness is softened by the creamy pine nuts and the natural sweetness in the raisins and apples. This dish glistens with olive oil without seeming drenched in it.

- Mejillones al vapor -- mussels steamed in their own juice with fresh bay leaves and olive oil. A really simple dish, this allows for the briney natural flavor of the mussels to really shine. Dip your crusts of bread in the juice for a treat.

From the seasonal menu
- Rabo de toro estofado al vino tinto -- braised oxtail with garlic mashed potatoes. The potatoes are more pureed than mashed so it doesn't feel so heavy. The meat is succulent and the sauce rich.

Also on the menu, some entrees and paella. Although we've had the paella here before and enjoyed it immensely, it's the tapas and sangria that keep us coming back (and the valet parking which will keep your car until after the show -- BONUS!) The service is also nothing to sneeze at. The wait staff are well versed in the dishes and keep the food coming at a proper pace. If you're seeing a show, let them know when you place your order.

OH! And although we did not order dessert the other night, the flan is an all-time fave. I don't recall I've eaten it anywhere else where it has been as smooth and luscious and luxurious in the mouth as it is at Jaleo time and time again. Get the flan! The regular coffee is also an aromatic rich, dark coffee like they serve in Spain - mmmm.

I was going to make this a joint entry about seeing Richard III at the Shakespeare Theatre right next door after eating at Jaleo but this entry is already long and so I will sign off here and save Richard for another day. If you haven't read or seen Richard III (or even if you have), rent the 1995 version of the film starring Ian McKellan and Kristin Scott Thomas. This version uses WWII as a backdrop which is quite fitting as a parallel but obviously not historically in context.

31 January 2007

Don't abandon me yet

I know it's been a while, but don't leave me yet. I am working on a couple posts for you devotees, it's just been busy and I've been sick with a little cold and having the wintertime blues. In the next few entries I'll update you on my AeroGarden, talk about food in movies (I just saw the film "Fried Green Tomatoes" for the first time about two weeks ago which inspired me on the topic), and highlight anything interesting that we've been eating and drinking for the past week or two. Stay tuned.

Oh, I may even write about seeing Richard III at the Shakespeare Theatre. He's perfectly sinister!

19 January 2007


...on two fronts! First of all, let me tell you that last night's soup supper (the Italian Escarole Soup, see yesterday's blog entry) was scrumptious. I don't usually like to have last night's leftovers for today's lunch, but in this case I really didn't mind one bit. When raw, eaten in salads or whatever, escarole tends to be bitter, like many leafy greens. But something happens when you wilt it in chicken broth. It's like Ebenezer Scrooge the morning after his fitful night with the ghosts of Christmases past - that escarole went from bitter to happy in about 3 seconds flat.

The second success story is that my Aerogarden has started to sprout! (See the earlier entry in my blog about what the Aerogarden is.) I have removed the plastic caps on all but 2 of the plants now. The chives so far seem to be the most hearty of the gourmet herbs. The basil and purple basil are up, too. The cilantro and mint have germinated but aren't quite as big as the others yet. The last to arrive, it seems, will be the parsley and the dill.

Moving on from achieved successes to things I hope I will be successful in doing eventually...

I went to Borders last night and picked up a few things to read. Thanks to an article about heritage pork and pork belly called "Where the Belly Meets the Plate" in the Washington Post Food section this week for a tip on a book called Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. On a whim, I thought it would be fun to learn how to make my own sausages, proscuitto and pâté. This is my kind of self-help book! Some people's definition of success would be being able to afford to buy it rather than having to make it. I have to first succeed at getting through the book. We'll see how it goes from there!

Tangent: heritage pork. Tried it once and it was marvelous. It has a depth of flavor, luxurious mouthfeel and texture, and a visible marbled quality that is completely different than the pork you buy in the regular grocery. Ever wondered why people say frog, snake, rabbit, alligator, anything else "tastes like chicken"? I think it's because mostly, industrial chicken you buy in the grocery or order at many restaurants doesn't taste like anything. Extrapolate that to almost any kind of mass produced, homogeneous, food item. Meat and poultry should taste like the sum of its parts: what it ate and where it ate it should make a difference in the way it tastes on the plate. This is what farmers raising heritage breeds try to achieve-- not falsely or in a forced way but mostly true to the way our great grandfathers raised pigs and other animals and crops. Do you remember eating food off the farm and what it tasted like? Does our food from the grocery today taste anything like it? (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals provides some more insight into this.)

I also picked up La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange: The Original Companion for French Home Cooking. This book is a meticulously precise guide (hm, guide seems too lenient) to everything you need to know about cooking French food at home, and I don't mean "gourmet" food. Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, while similarly comprehensive, and which many a home cook used as their seminal text, is gourmet and La Bonne Cuisine is probably more for the gourmand who wants to cook as well as eat. I've only flipped through it so far. I imagine a person could spend a lifetime reading and referencing this tome. It has, afterall, been in print continuously in French since 1927! I'm not sure this book would be ideal for a beginner cook. Although it is painstakingly precise, someone with more experience in the kitchen would probably gain more benefit than a novice. So what success will I associate with this book? I don't know yet, but right now it just feels like something I need to conquer!

18 January 2007

Oh, Baby, It's Cold Outside!

Ah (or Ew), it finally feels like January in DC, which means... Soup's on! Well, it will be tonight for dinner. On the menu, an Italian Escarole Soup with rosemary crackers. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, Escarole = Chicory, so look for one or the other label at your green grocer. This is what I think I will do to make a wonderful (hopefully) pot of steaming soup for a cold winter's night.

I thawed half a package of lean ground beef and a package of spicy Italian sausage without the casings. I'll mix those together and loosely ball them into very small meatballs, which will get browned and then set aside. (If you buy your sausage in the casing, all the better. Just brown the whole sausage, remove from the pan, slice on the bias instead of all this mini-meatball preparation.) A little extra-virgin olive oil in the pan with a chopped onion and a bit of minced garlic, maybe a pinch of red pepper flakes until the onion is soft. Return the mini-meatballs, add chicken broth (I plan to use stock that I made and froze a couple months ago, and probably will need to add a can of low-sodium broth to it). When it comes to a boil, open a can of canellini beans and plunk those in (actually, I like to rinse and drain canned beans to help reduce the sodium and remove the goo, technical term, that's in canned beans). Then add escarole, washed and roughly chopped, into the broth until just wilted. Season with salt and pepper, top with fresh flat leaf parsley, and serve it hothothot! Even shave a little Parmesano-Reggiano at serving time maybe. A crusty, crunchy rosemary bread would be a sublime accompaniment to this soup, but I picked up a small bag of rosemary crackers at Trader Joe's the other day to try.

A quick, simple, humble and yet satisfying, warming, and mostly healthy, weeknight supper. And by the way, for those of you who have a hard time getting your daily dose of leafy greens, soup is a great way to do it. Add a package of frozen chopped spinach to almost any kind of soup or stew. Besides the health benefits, the dark green leaves are often just the right color to make your dish look complete. The ubiquitousness of spinach, especially the frozen kind, makes it easy to use in everything. I even add some of the prewashed bagged kind in my tuna salad! Sounds weird, I know, but try it!

If you desire a change in your choice of leafy greens, something exotic (or at least less mundane), try a quick sautee of watercress (Chinese variety, or ong choi would be best if you can find it; it's not as peppery as the regular kind) in a few drops of sesame oil with thinly sliced garlic cloves and a generous pinch of salt. When it starts to wilt, add a couple or three tablespoons of chicken broth and maybe a tablespoon or two of rice wine. Look in the produce section of your best Asian or Oriental market for snowpea leaves, which are the leaves of the plant itself instead of the pod. Same prep as the watercress. Both of these are vibrant green and they pair well with a steamed whole fish (with scallions and ginger) and rice, grilled lemongrass chicken, or anything with an Asian flair. Or make it Italian by swapping the sesame oil for olive oil and add a pinch of red pepper flakes. So quick, so easy, so delicious and so nutritious! The most time consuming part is washing the greens. I put all the greens in a big bowl of cold water and kind of swish them around really well, then pick the greens out of the water by the handful (removing stalks, trimming ends and thick stems or whatever as I go), and dump them into my salad spinner and spin the water out. As you can see, an aversion to spinach is no reason not to get your daily dose of greens!

17 January 2007

The Lebanese Butcher

The Lebanese Butcher is a real person and a real place and it's the place I'm going to talk about. The place is a restaurant which is attached to a little market, which as you might expect from the name of the place has a butcher in the back. The Lebanese Butcher (the person) also owns The Lebanese Slaughterhouse and butcher shop in Warrenton, VA where one can purchase whole goats, lamb, baby cows (veal), and adult cows (beef). (What's with food euphemisms anyway?) The slaughtering and butchering are all performed to halal standards. See also this Wikipedia entry about the slaughtering process.

But getting back to the restaurant... It's a neighborhood place. Don't get gussied up to eat there because it's a bit diner-like in terms of atmosphere but without the shine and gleam of chrome and waxed pleather booths. It's a small place, probably seats 28 people max, with old beat-up tables and chairs and an open grill kitchen. The food is served on plastic plates but you get real utensils, not plastic. The service is haphazard mostly. But the food is excellent - the food is THE reason to go - and it doesn't hurt that the price is right. We've been there enough to know there are a few "go-to" items:
- Lubieh - on the appetizer menu, these are green beans cooked with tomatoes and garlic and generally served cold. This is one of my personal favorites of Lebanese cuisine and The Lebanese Butcher's version is just perfection in a bowl. I personally don't eat the whole garlic cloves (although I probably should since I have to endure the goodnight kiss from my dinner partner and mate) in the dish but savor the sweetness it lends to the beans.
- Hommus - the smooth version with lots of tahini
- Lamb Ouzi - the tenderest parts of roasted leg of lamb served over a nutty yellow rice with yogurt sauce on the side. For roughly $10 you can be warmed and comforted and sated, and still have enough left to take home. The dish comes with a variety of pickled items on the side, such as magenta-purple radishes which are super crunchy and have a nice bite. (A chicken version of this dish is also on the menu.)
- Lamb Feteh - same lamb as above, moist and tender, and falls apart when you put your fork to it. The difference is that the lamb is served over a layer of chopped and fried pita (and how can that be a bad thing?!), then coated generously with fresh cool yogurt and sprinkled with sumac and pine nuts. Mmmm, heaven (but no pickles). Again, somewhere in the $10-11 range, and plenty to take a bit home.
- Soujouk - a kind of lamb-based, spicy, tangy Lebanese sausage that comes in both a platter and sandwich form.

OK, it's lunchtime as I write this and I am making myself hungry! So last couple things to say are:

1) Where this place is located:
If you look it up online, it's either 109 or 113 E Annandale Rd (between Hillwood Rd and S Maple Ave) in Falls Church, VA

2) I really want to go see the slaughterhouse in Warrenton, VA. If I get around to it, I will write about it here. Watch this space.

15 January 2007


For Christmas, I received a science experiment, so to speak. Have you seen these AeroGarden things? The maker of this product refers to it as a "Kitchen Garden Appliance" and I think it's for people whose thumbs aren't green. My thumb isn't exactly GREEN but it's not the kiss of death either. I mean, I've grown tomatoes and lettuce in my yard before. I've had herbs in pots growing on the deck in the summer.

Well, that's just the thing, isn't it? Summer. It's not summer (although here in the Washington, D.C. area right now, you certainly wouldn't know it's January by the weather lately). The reason I call the AeroGarden a "science experiment" is that the person who ... what's the right verb... owns this thing doesn't have to plant a seed or once get their hands dirty, not once has to get down on their hands and knees to dig or cover a hole, so coming from a gardening family it's hard to say the right verb is "to grow" or "to raise." Basically, you get these little containers that you place into designated holes in the "machine", I'll call it, and you cap the containers with a little plastic top. You fill the tank with water and some nutrient tablets, plug in the grow light and in a few days, the seeds will germinate. The machine seems to vibrate a little and the water trickles from the base somehow up to the seed containers and then back down into the tank underneath, so you can sometimes hear a very faint trickle. The grow lights, which are super-duper powerful, turn themselves on and off in a 16hr on/8hr off cycle, which you can set yourself and it doesn't have to be according to your sleep schedule if you don't want it to (but it's so bright you might need it to!)

As the plants grow, you raise up the grow lights so they don't burn the foliage and prune from time to time, using your clippings all the while. And in a few weeks you have, in my case, a veritable plethora of herbs. Apparently the company offers different combinations of things such as Italian, Indian, or French packages of seed containers, or you can get the all Basil package or the salsa garden package, etc. You get the idea. Check out the AeroGarden website for more info, and check this space for how my "garden" grows. I'll eventually have some photos on this site I guess.

12 January 2007


As you might tell from the dearth of posts, I've been uninspired. I made a beef stew in the slow cooker the other day and it was just gloppy -- too much flour, not enough juice. It had a hearty beefy and red wine flavor, and the meat was tender and the carrots and potatoes were creamy, but it was gluey. I just couldn't get past that. I overestimated the amount of moisture that would be self-made in the slow cooker. Note for next time.

January is comfort food month, at least to me, hence the beef stew. I also did something I call "train wreck," which is browned ground meat (of your choosing, but drained of course), a chopped onion, can of chopped tomatoes (or fresh if you have them in the summer), can of low sodium broth (your choosing of veg, beef, chicken; or use a can or bottle of beer, the hoppier the better in my opinion), chipotle or ancho chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper, touch of good quality cinnamon. Sounds kinda like chili, right? Let the flavors meld, then add some uncooked maccaroni and let it cook in the broth til the noodles are done and most of your liquid is absorbed. Take it off the heat and add shredded cheese, stirring until melted and melded -- cheddar is good, so is mozz, but if your mixture is spicy, mozz tends to get lost. Serve with a drop of reduced fat sour cream or plain yogurt to smooth out the spice if you like.

You could pretty easily I think do a Greek version of train wreck and call it pastichio. Instead of cumin and chili powder, use oregano and um ... oregano (?). Instead of letting the pasta absorb all the liquid, put the mixture into a sprayed baking dish and bake it til slightly crusty on top and the moisture is absorbed. Hm, cheese for this: Try Kasseri or Feta or Halloumi (known in our family as "squeeky cheese" for the sound it makes when you chew it)! I haven't tried this yet so if you do, let me know how it goes!

That's about all I've cooked since the year started and honestly I haven't been much in the mood to drink anything except water. Maybe my body is telling me something: After all the richness of December, January shouldn't be comfort food month.

04 January 2007

NV Domaine Saint Vincent Brut

I didn't talk about the sparkling wine in yesterday's blog yet -- let me take a moment now. In my opinion, and I'm not a wine expert, a sparkling wine goes with nearly any savory food. Well, not all sparkling wines go with all things because as with any wine you have a great variety between sweet and dry, but you know, generally speaking...

Anyhow, just before the holidays we went to a tasting of sparkling wines at Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits and found a few very nice traditional Champagnes and some methode champenoise sparklings, some Astis, and a few non-traditional sparkling things too.

One of the sparklings we found was the NV Domaine Saint Vincent Brut made in New Mexico, and this is methode champenoise. This is crisp without being overly dry and it offers continuous small bubbles without being frothy. It's not so complex that it requires food but it's nice with appetizers. The best thing about it is that it's about $9 to $10 a bottle. This is the kind of sparkling wine you could drink just about every day!

03 January 2007

New Year's Eve Snacks!

Unlike most people I know, I don't like to go out on New Year's Eve. I prefer to make festive at home by watching bad television from Times Square, sipping on something bubbly, and munching on a few tasty bites through the night. This year's new year's eve menu went something like this (and something resembling some recipes follows):

- won-jitas (aka Mexican wontons) with guacamole
- baguette toasts with mushroom spread
- not your average spinach dip
- pate de campagne with festive salad
- a less than average cheese plate (because I had 2 kinds of cheddar and a feta)
- veggie "samosas"
- dessert plate of cream puffs, piroulines, and bite-sized brownies
- Domaine St Vincent sparkling wine from ... New Mexico!

Brown some extra lean ground beef in a skillet and drain. Return to the heat and season with salt, pepper, chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, a small can of chopped green chilis drained (or I suppose substituting a packet of taco seasoning for all that I just mentioned would do the trick) and a hearty handful of shredded cheese (monterey jack or sharp cheddar or anything you think of normally going with Mexican food), and warm the mixture until the cheese is melted. Working quickly, put a little of the ground beef mixture in the center of a square wonton wrapper, then seal well. Set each sealed wonton onto a sprayed baking sheet. When the sheet is full, lightly spray with cooking oil and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until the outsides are golden and crispy. Serve with guac or salsa. If you want to make your wontons look more festive because it's new year's eve, you can put the filling in the center, roll the skin into a tube, then seal on either side by twisting in opposite directions, like a hard-candy wrapper or "firecrackers".

Mushroom spread
2 eight-ounce packages of sliced mushrooms (or use a blend of mushrooms), put into food processor to chop finely
1/4 cup shallots
1 1/2 Tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
a twirl of extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 C sour cream

Heat oil in pan, toss in shallots, chopped mushrooms and thyme. Cook on med heat until all the moisture cooks out. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper to taste, stir in sour cream. Slice a baguette very thinly on the bias and toast the slices until very crisp, then spread the room-temperature mushroom mixture on the toasts.

Not your average spinach dip
For those of you who prefer a mostly white spinach dip that is sweet and full of mayonaise with hardly any spinach, skip this.
10 oz box of frozen spinach, thawed and all water squeezed out
a good pinch of minced garlic
extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C fresh chopped flat-leaf parsely
1/4 C fresh chopped mint leaves
3 oz soft cream cheese
~1/3 C grated parmesan cheese

Heat the oil, add garlic until golden, toss in the thawed, squeezed spinach just to warm through and meld the flavors. All the stuff in your pan goes into the food processor with the cream cheese, parsley and mint. Once it's well blended, put mixture in a bowl and then mix in the parmesan. More the consistency of a "spread" than a "dip," you will note the color of the finished product is more green than most any other spinach dip and just more fresh-tasting. Depending on your preference and what you're serving it with, you probably don't need to add salt or maybe very little. Parmesan usually has a nice saltiness to it, and if you are using salted crackers or chips to go with, well then, leave out the additional salt... or not.

Festive salad
Belgian endive, separated into leaves and spread attractively on a platter
Toss together the following:
- watercress leaves, stems removed
- orange segments cut into pieces, skins removed and squeezed, reserving juice
- pomegranite seeds
- just a little bit of feta cheese crumbles
- toasted pine nuts
- not too many chopped olives - use kalamata or moroccan oil cured olives for a briney flavor but don't over do it
- scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped into rounds
- a few chopped mint leaves
- mix the reserved oj with a light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
Toss all that together with the dressing and fill the endive leaves with the watercress mixture. The red pomegranite against the bright green watercress looks very festive!

Veggie "Samosas"
Dice into small cubes a potato, a carrot, an onion
Saute with extra virgin olive oil
Add part of a bag of bagged coleslaw mix
Add part of a jar of prepared curry sauce, just enough for the veggies to be sauced but not runny (I use a jarred curry from Trader Joe's)

Cook until the cabbage from the slaw mix is wilted, toss in half-a-handful of chopped flat leaf parsley, then set aside.

Unroll a package of refrigerator crescent roll dough (such as Pilsbury brand). Set 4 triangles onto an ungreased cookie sheet, stretching the dough slightly as you set them down. Fill each of the four triangles with the curry mixture, then top with the remaining 4 triangles, again stretching to the same size as the first set. Pinch them closed and bake according to the directions on the crescent roll package (I think at 375 degrees about 12 minutes or until puffy and golden).

You'll have loads of extra filling, so do another package of crescent rolls or make some rice and eat the filling over rice the next day.