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.