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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Blackstone Coffee Company - My Newest Café Crush

Across the street from UMW sits an unassuming coffee shop in the Eagle Village shopping center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I will admit that I thought this coffee place was another chain, a renamed Starbucks meets Caribou meets Joe's. I had a coffee bean on my shoulder and a bad attitude to back it up.

But assumptions only made an ass out of me. Working behind the small counter inside the lovely, wood tabled and stone decorated shop stood the owner and founder of Blackstone, Don Merritt.
He has one of those smiles that makes you like whatever he's selling before he tells you what it is.

"We roast all of our own coffee beans, just so you know," Don said. I'd just ordered a medium coffee, dark roast, room for cream.

I was giddy, but kept a straight face. Don let me know in one sentence that he was doing what I value most in a restaurant, keepin' it local. As local as possible that is. I was crushing pretty hard on Blackstone. Then I saw they do French Press. Pause for harps and angels.

Around that moment I made the silent, sacred Foodieverse pact; I would revisit, reorder and review this cool café.

As I left Blackstone after my first visit; I picked up the scent of free WiFi by the quantity of full tables with twenty-somethings packing serious laptop and headphone paraphernalia. It was a great open space for people to study, surf and just vibe. The atmosphere was decidingly non-corporate, and welcoming, which is a major turn-on for repeat customers.

It wasn't long before I was back.

An elderly gentleman in front of me in the line cracked a few jokes with Don and then said, with all seriousness, "I'd like some wookie."

Wookie wasn't a sexual innuendo, rather, the name of a pumpkin seed, walnut and dried cranberry bejeweled cookie. It was stunning - toasted greens and creamy browns with gems of ruby. I had to have it in my mouth.

Don didn't hesitate to tell me that the wookie was sweetened only with honey, and something he was quite proud of concocting.

"Wait, do you make your own food here?" I asked. I had been trained by other coffee shops to expect prepackaged, frozen and reheated café goods, not fresh, homemade healthy stuff.

"Sure do. Everything is made in house," Don said. "Except the bagels! We get those shipped in from New York, half cooked. We finish them here."

Knowing the food was made from scratch made every delicately chewy bite of that wookie a masterpiece. And as the slow release of carbohydrates and sugar hit my bloodstream, I swear the whole place took on a glow.

So why should everyone come to Blackstone for their caffeine fix? Because each cup, and each plate of food, ranging from deli sandwiches to muffins, scones and more, are dream builders. No kidding.

You buy from Don and you get expertly roasted, hand selected coffees and, even better, you are part of the mortar that binds his future. Pretty cool in my book.

Don let me know before I left his shop on my most recent visit that he'd just acquired his liquor license, and will soon be hosting wine classes for those of us food nerds who want an education with our calories. I'm all in.

One last note - there's even a book exchange located in the shop. You like what you're reading? Take it. Bring it back when you're done so someone else can read it too. Or donate a book you own, and share the literacy.

I've got such a wookie for this place. Yeah, I said it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The 2012 Build a Better Burger Challenge - and a Little Girl's Dream

I guess I lied. I'm not a little girl by any stretch of the imagination. But I do have a dream. That dream is to submit the winning beef burger recipe to the Sutter Home Wine's Build a Better Burger Challenge. (Click the link to visit their website and learn more about the competition.) I've entered three times, and not once have I made it to the coveted stage of finalists in Napa Valley California.

But I know why.

My recipes weren't winners. One entry, formerly titled "Tropical Mango Gouda Bacon Burger"  later changed its name to "Loser Burger" (click the link to read the 2009 post on the delicious loss.) These aren't bad burgers, but they aren't wow burgers either.

I'm restless as the entry date nears. I pull the sheets off my husband at night, kick and sweat while dreaming of the possibility that I may win. Me. The winner.

I have learned the language of burgerese and while I may not be fluent - I find my bilingual approach may inspire a new slang in the world of hamburguesas. Oye como grill marks.

In roughly two weeks I will be inviting a panel of select eaters to my home to test the burger recipes I concoct. The winning recipe will be refined and remade several more times before I click "send" and wait for word of my status in the patty world.

Pictures, updates and mistakes to come. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Harold McGee - Your New York Times Octopus Recipe Ruined Me! aka Octopus Odyssey 2

When I wrote the first part of this blog-journey, I was sure that the second post would be gloating about how easy it was to cook delicious fresh octopus at home. That didn't happen.

To recap part one, I found a recipe posted in the New York Times (although it was from 2008 - quality recipes are never outdated.) Click here to view the recipe I was salivating over.

A beautiful stroll through the DC Wharf left me with a fresh cephalopod and a dream. That dream was to recreate the tender sweet taste I'd enjoyed numerous times at sushi restaurants. It seemed easy enough, right?

The recipe wasn't really a recipe. He mentioned a few techniques that don't work, and then swore that blanching followed by braising the octopus in a low-oven would allow it to gently cook in its own unctuous gelatinous fat and juice, creating an always-tender, always tasty dish.


I will admit that I was amazed at how the octopus transformed from a limp, wet, dangling blob to a firm, round and inflated animal the instant it hit the boiling water.

From flat to fat - a blanched octopus comes alive!

Things were looking good. The eight legs had plumped and firmed, and looked good enough to eat. But I waited. Just like Mr. McGee had instructed. I placed the bouncing sea-creature in an enamel coated cast-iron pot with a tight fitting lid (no, I can't afford le creuset but Martha Stewart's line works just as well.)

The oven had been preheated to 200F, and I placed the pot in the oven and let him do his thing. After one hour, I checked in to see what was happening.

One hour of braising yielded a rich pink cooking liquid

The octopus had shrunk a little, and the oceany-perfume of its flesh permeated my little kitchen. The author of the recipe had been correct - dry braising the octopus let all of the natural juices accumulate and soon the pot was thick with cephalopod jelly-liquid.

The shriveled dark reality

But as the hours wore on, yes, hours, the octopus became more and more pathetic. The author recommended four-five hours of braising in its own liquid, and I stayed the course. By the time I pulled the ocean oddity from the oven, it looked ugly, dry, and shriveled like a little old man.

Unappetizing to look at - but I've been wrong before

But I am not one to judge a book by its cover. So, I sliced into one of the eight arms and felt the grossest sensation I've ever felt. The skin of the octopus had melted into a sticky, gluey substance that clung to my fingers and rubbed right off the octopus, revealing a pale beige flesh underneath.

I was thoroughly grossed out by this point

Still - not one to back away from a food challenge, I ate the slice of braised octopus. It was disgusting. It was dry and rubbery, flavorless, and refused to break down in my mouth. I made my husband take a bite, and he vomitted in his mouth before washing it all back down with lots and lots of juice. He claimed he couldn't get the nasty taste out of his mouth. And - the best part - our house stunk.

C-ya Cephy
The octopus' final resting place was a leftover grocery bag and my dumpster outside. It has been several days and I can't get the smell out of my fridge. My kids hate me. My husband refuses to try my next recipe.

I would consider the odyssey of the octopus a failure. But - I am not deterred. I will continue my search for the perfect octopus recipe. My gut tells me that octopi need no more than a few seconds of cook-time to yield the sweet, delicate, shrimp-like taste I am so fond of. My journey has ended for now, but I will travel the seas again until I get it right.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Playing with my Octopus

I was so excited to grab a feelski
I love octopus. In Japanese, it's called tako. In Spanish, pulpo. In my mouth, yummo. Sorry Rachel Ray.

While  perusing the DC Fish Wharf last Saturday, I spotted a small selection of whole octopus. I'd never cooked one - but have wanted to try. The price was only $4.99 a lb. making my two point five pound cephalopod irresistable.

Safe in a plastic bag and set on ice, I embarked on the journey home. While my husband drove; I googled. There were several recipes that mentioned strange things like adding a wine cork to the boiling liquid, a nickel or a penny, or beating the crap out of the eight-legged squish monkey to tenderize it before cooking.

I settled on a post in the NY Times that discounted the crazy methods and laid out a few simple techniques. First, blanche it for thirty seconds. Second, dry-roast the octopus in a 200F oven for four-five hours, allowing it to simmer in its own luscious brine. He swears it's worked everytime, and since he writes for the NYT, I'm inclined to believe him.

He briefly mentioned the notion of freezing. He claims some of the sweet, scallop and shrimp like flavor was lost with freezing, but also lost after sitting in the fridge for a day. Fresh is best, but his fresh means still suctioning, and unfortunately my fish monger doesn't have access to still attacking talons.

So, I'm doing my own thing. Kind of. I froze the semi-fresh blob for a day and then thawed it in my fridge for another two days. I'm about to blanche it in boiling, salted water for thirty seconds, and then dry roast it for a few hours.

This post is part one of what I hope will be a glorious celebration of strange sea creature-eating. To be continued...

defrosted tentacled blob of deliciousness

Monday, July 16, 2012

Full Fridge and A Place to Call Home

No, that's not really my fridge - but it's pretty damn close
This story starts outside of my fridge. It's a day when there are friends around, and food is both enjoyed and shared by all.

"Peggy-Sue, I just love this dip you brought! How did you make it?" one friend asks another.

"It's a family recipe; my grandmother brought it over from Naples. She made the best Italian food," Peggy-Sue replies.

And somewhere nearby, I am listening, watching, and wondering what my stories would have been, had I known my heritage more fully.

Before anyone thinks I want them to feel sorry for me; let me put a stop to it. I am proud of the half of my identity that I do know; a hodgepodge of ethnicities all stemming from an Eastern European starting point. My Bubba, Yiddish for grandmother, was full-blooded Russian Jew. Her husband claimed German ancestory, but his relatives had lived longer in Missouri than not and probably had a few new shades added to the mix. My mother obviously was a fifty-fifty blend of the two, born with blonde hair like spun golden wheat that over the years darkened into a heartier winter brown with auburn swirls. She had both her mother and her father's Pacific blue eyes and skin that was a reddish white that freckled easier than it tanned.

But what about me? I was born with soft brown skin, big dark eyes and even darker brown hair. I looked nothing like anyone else in the family before me, even my older brother whose father was a perfect match to our mother's coloring.

My older brother Jason and me - 1980
I grew up believing I was half Mexican, the daughter of a man my mother didn't know, but had a night of fun with. No name, no picture, just an idea of someone who may have been my father.

Around nine my face started changing. My short cute nose suddenly lengthened and curved, taking up a large portion of my face. My eyebrows grew fuller and together, and my lips thickened. My maternal uncle, the man who loved me unconditionally and raised me as his own daughter (and whom I call my Dad) told me he thought I might be Middle Eastern. I was horrified.

My mother came over for a visit and my Dad told his sister (I hope you didn't skim too fast over the last paragraph and are now scratching your head over that statement!) that I looked Persian. She agreed, telling me that she thought maybe I was actually half Iranian. This conversation took place at the beginning of the Gulf War in the summer of 1990. I didn't know the difference between Iraq and Iran, and the only thing I heard my family say was "You're one of them, the enemy."

I refused to accept the possibility, and guiltily, I continued to tell people I was Mexican until I was married in 1998. For the year leading up to my marriage, I was constantly approached by strangers asking if I was Iranian, Saudi, Afghani or even Indian. Iranian was the most common assumption, but sometimes even Greek or Armenian came up. One Iranian neighbor told me that I look exactly like the women in his country. He was sure that I was Iranian; and somewhere around that time, I decided I was too.

I started telling people that I was Middle Eastern. I didn't plan it out very well, and when someone would ask what country - I would say either Saudi Arabia or Iran to save myself the humiliation of saying "Actually, I don't know what I am or where my dark coloring comes from."

Over the year I got better and better at lying, creating an entire world where my unknown biological father hailed from, and the reasons why I didn't speak the language or follow the religious customs. I think there was a point in time where I started to believe my own lies about myself, and took a conversation with my grandmother to shake me back into reality.

"So you think you're Indian?" she said.

"No! I don't," I replied. I almost told her "I'm Middle Eastern!" but then I remembered who I was on the other end of the line; a woman who had known the truth of my birth.

I let the conversation fall from there. My grandmother later sent me an email calling me out for the lies I'd been telling about myself. I cried, angry at her for not understanding. I wanted to blame my Dad and my Mom for telling me that was who I might be - but that was just an excuse. The truth was, I clutched that lie for so long because it made me feel like I belonged somewhere - like I had a home.

I know it sounds silly - especially considering that I did have a home with my mother's side of the family. A loving home, a home with delicious food and wonderful parties, and even better memories. But the thing is - when you have an entire half of your life that has no shape, no vision, no place, you spend a very long time trying to make sense of it.

I have oftened wondered if people who are born blind dream in pictures. I think the half of myself, the half without a biological father or connection to the way I look, is just like being born half-blind.

But there's a beauty to blindness. An object is left up to the imagination, and instead of being one thing, it can be everything. I was thirty before I realized that not knowing wasn't the badge of dishonor I had believed it to be. Instead - it meant I belonged everywhere, to everything, and everyone. I was half Russian-German-Jew and half the Human Race.

The fridge for me symbolizes this idea in a very succinct way. There's Vietnamese fish sauce, fermented soy bean paste, anchovies, capers, ceviche, fenugreek leaves, frozen burritos, ketchup and a dozen other ingredients in there that span the globe. I don't have one great food culture to tell my friends about at the next pot-luck party. I have every great food culture to talk about. I think that's pretty cool.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Chaat Masala, Ripe Cantaloupe, and My Bubba

Canary melon and cantaloupe
I hated cantaloupe as a kid. The smell was musky, like a damp armpit, and it was a fact that I hated all melons. Even watermelon. But every time my brother and I were sent to our Bubba and Papa's house for the weekend, there was sure to be freshly sliced cantaloupe on the breakfast table. Bubba loved it with a little salt, and a side of cottage cheese. Sometimes, I would be polite and take a bite, but mostly, I made it clear I wasn't having it.

My melon revolution started in the spring of 2000. It was around that time I met my friends Ana from the Ukraine and Ravi from India. They were long time pals who willingly bounced me into their fold. Ana and I worked together for a short time in a computer and packaging center, and Ravi owned an Indian restaurant in town.

I was also the young mother of a newborn and a toddler; the latter of which had embarked on a journey with solid foods that I didn't want to impede.

It all collided near the fall, when Ana called me and said Ravi had gone to prison. I wasn't sure what he had done, but it had something to do money and dishonesty. Ana was left to clean out Ravi's apartment and invited me to help her. By the time the afternoon was over, I had a new painting of Saraswati, a woven tapestry of Krishna and Radha, two pots, four plates, and a dozen or so boxes of masala mixes from Ravi's kitchen.

I loved Indian food, but had no clue how to cook anything outside of Mattar Paneer, a sweet and savory tomato broth with peas and chunks of fried Indian cheese called Paneer. Masala was a new word in my vocabulary at the time, but cooking was an old friend who revved my excitement for the new supplies I'd brought home.

One masala, or spice blend,  in particular was a package called Fruit Chaat. Cubes of ripe, juicy melons and what looked like sliced cucumbers were piled high in a bowl on the package label with a generous sprinkling of brown spices.
Another variety of Fruit Chaat
I opened the metalic pouch and took a sniff - a hard sniff, which caused me to sneeze three times. I was overwhelmed by the burn of pepper and confused by the other smells I couldn't place. The label listed ingredients that sounded more familiar as herbs or even fruits to me; things like dried mint leaves, dried mango powder, dried and crushed pomegranite seeds, cinnamon, ajwain, asafoetida powder, red chiles, cumin, black salt. Huh?

I licked my finger for moisture before dipping it cautiously into the sandy-brown powder with whole chile pods flecked throughout. Then I tasted it, head on, no fruit to canvas the sensation.

I was shocked at how much I liked it and how odd it tasted. It was salty-ish, but not too much, and spicy, enough to make your mouth tingle and your lips burn. But the depth went beyond those tastes, as sour and then nutty, sweet and then smoky, citrus then Christmas-y enveloped my senses. What could it all mean? But something told me I wasn't supposed to answer that question, rather - I was to enjoy the moment and the barrage of new flavors I'd been introduced to.

I knew I liked this spice mix, but I wasn't sure how I could use it. Certainly I wouldn't put it on melons, those detestable rounds of smelly, squishy fruit that made my stomach turn. Or would I?

My husband had bought a cantaloupe a few days prior because he loved them and he also wanted to teach our oldest son to like them too. If left to me, my son may never have known what a melon was. If not for Ravi going to prison, I may not have had the chance to learn to love cantaloupe too.

Eager to test the chaat on fruit, I grabbed the ripened melon off the counter and went to slicing. I annhilated the poor globe of sweet orange flesh. I'm pretty sure at least 75% went into the garbage, but the remaining few chunks were all I needed. I sprinkled the masala over the wet sunshine wedges and took a bite. The once unpleasant muskiness of cantaloupe somehow turned sweet in my nasal cavity. The squishy, unpleasant texture felt juicy and nourishing in my mouth. The spices of the chaat hit every tastebud I had and smacked my head backwards with flavor.

Freshly sliced cantaloupe sprinkled liberally with spicy Fruit Chaat
I was in love with cantaloupe. Chaat cantaloupe that is.

Fast foward to 2012 and you'll find a variety of ripening melons on my counter top. Except watermelon, I still hate that one. And close by, there'll be a jar of spicy Fruit Chaat, waiting to perk up my palate.

But cantaloupe has a special place in my heart. After my Bubba died in August of 2011 from a stroke, I found myself connecting certain foods with my memories of her. Cantaloupe is no exception. When I slice the skin off the fruit and take that first whiff, I am reminded of Sunday mornings in her and Papa's home, a warm place that offered bowls full of love and sweet ripened cantaloupe for the taking.
Papa and Bubba 1978
Of course, she'd probably have puked if she ate my kind of cantaloupe, but it's the thought that counts.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

When a Great Restaurant Turns to Shit

I'm not going to name names in this blog. But I really want to talk about how sad it makes me to see a restaurant I once loved turn to shit because the owner has forgotten why he started in the first place.

This particular restaurant started as a dream in a man's head. This man, a chef at another Thai restaurant in town that was owned by a money-hungry Chinese family, was unhappy being someone else's bitch. He knew he had what it took to open his own fine-dining establishment and blow up the city with immense, bright and bold flavor.

I knew about the restaurant before he even quit his job with the Chinese family. I was one of the special few, including several of the wait staff at the originating restaurant that were patiently waiting for our friend to make his move. (I'll call this friend Watch from here on out)

Watch traveled back and forth to Thailand, hand selecting all of the decorations for his new restaurant. He fronted all the money he had to his name, borrowing the rest from banks across the globe. He wanted one thing even more than his restaurant; he dreamed of bringing his wife and young son over from Thailand to set up residence on the east coast.

Watch would often tell me that my youngest son Jorge reminded him of his son. He loved our family, and soon we started hanging out together at friends' homes, where Watch would cook and we would all drink and laugh throughout the night. I learned a lot about Thai cooking, and my lips suffered traumatizing burns more than once from the fiery hot food Watch and fellow Thai friend Latdawan would make.

When the day came for Watch's restaurant to open, we were one of the first customers. I celebrated his success by ordering a full-on Thai feast, complete with frog legs and scallops and strange named dishes that tasted like bird chiles, garlic and lemongrass. Everything tasted delicious. Each time we'd come to visit, Watch would come out to greet us, and his plump face would glow as he talked about his son, then nine, preparing for America.

Then - our family moved away. We tried to find Thai food close to what Watch had produced and couldn't even come close. Nothing was as fresh or vivid as what he had served us. For years, we dreamt of the day we could come back and visit our old friend, taste his wonderful food, and capture a moment close to what we'd experienced before.

All those dreams broke into little bits of detritus when we took a trip to the state where Watch ran his restaurant. The staff were different, and no one knew us, or how we'd been there for the owner of the restaurant so many years before. We asked to speak to Watch, and after overcoming a few communication barriers, we finally saw him. It was a sore sight to see. Watch's once plump cheeks and rounded belly had gone concave. He was a gaunt, thin man who hardly resembled the friend we'd remembered. He took a moment before he recognized us and before smiles and hugs were exchanged.

I told him he looked different, and he shared with me that he was busy preparing for the next restaurant he was opening a few cities away. I asked him if his wife and son ever made it to America, and he said his son had, but not his wife. Then, with a sweet smile, he took my hand and led me into the kitchen to show me something he was incredibly proud of, and something that made me cringe. There stood his now fourteen year old son cooking in the busy kitchen. Watch told me that his son runs the kitchen now, and the other staff are his sous chefs.

I wondered if his son even had a chance to go to school. Watch explained that why he works on the other restaurant, his boy manages the restaurant there. After a few awkward moments, my family took their seats and we ordered one last feast - excited for what was to come, even if our excitement was tinged with worry for the teenage boy being exploited in the kitchen around the corner.

One by one our dishes were brought to the table. Some were familiar, some had changed so much we couldn't recognize them. Everything was good, but nothing, not one plate, was great. We noticed the worn, stained carpet that replaced what was once a beautiful jewel blue canvas across the floor of the elaborately decorated restaurant. The dust had accumulated so thickly on the window sills and portraits that it was impossible to move, it too had become a permanent fixture of this dilapidated establishment.

Everything was run down, older, worn. The food was lackluster, uninspired, crafted in the hands of a child who, according to his father, liked to stay up till 2 in the morning playing XBOX 360. A boy who probably didn't want to be standing next to a hot wok carrying on his father's dreams.

I was sad to see the change, and when we left, my husband and I both commented that Watch lost his magic. In his effort to expand, to have more revenue and notoriety, he lost the very thing that made him stand out in the first place, his attention to detail. It's sad when a great restaurant turns to shit, when a man forgets what his dreams were and when a boy is made to forget his own.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Reformation of a Seriously Picky Eater

The Face of a Picky Eater - aka My Husband
I try not to out people when I blog. It isn't fair. Everyone deserves their secrets. But when learning comes from sharing those secrets, I think it's worth the momentary humiliation. Sorry honey - I owe you a back rub for this one.

I met my very picky husband when I was sixteen years old in Las Colinas, Texas. He was older, working at Firestone, and subsided on a diet of mostly canned or prepackaged cheese products, tortillas, beans, eggs and chips.

On our fourth date, at the apartment he shared with his sister, he decided to surprise me with dinner. He bought a Boboli pizza shell, slathered Velveeta on it, and burned it in the oven. Even at sixteen I knew that was pretty crappy.

I did the nurturing thing many of us girls do in new relationships, and made efforts to cook for my new boyfriend. Once I brought him a flour tortilla fried in butter and stuffed with American cheese, bacon and pickled jalapenos. When I brought it to him, piping hot and wrapped in tin foil, I told him what it was. He stammered for a few seconds before telling me he didn't like bacon, or any pork for that matter. That was the first of what would be an endless list of things my boyfriend and then husband refused to eat.

The menu of no-no's included spaghetti because it looked like worms, peas because they looked like bird poop, shrimp because they felt like eating a human finger, mushrooms because they felt like slugs, any ethnic food outside of his mother's village-style central Mexican cuisine (which although tasty, is also quite bland and lacking typical items like lamb, goat, fish, offal, etc.) all seafood except canned tuna, and anything with or looking like milk, aside from ice cream.

Once we married and had a child, he had no choice but to eat whatever I made, or risk starvation. Since we were poor in the beginning, he didn't have the option of getting fast food. Quickly I learned that a very picky eater can change into a very good eater, and even a little bit of an adventurous eater with the right techniques.

First - regardless of what they hate, if you cook it well it has a better chance of being eaten. Spaghetti was one of my first victories in the war against my husband's gag-reflex. I learned to perfectly boil the noodles to al dente, and toss them in a fresh sauce drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with shaved fresh pecorino romano. A minced basil leaf added enough pretty green color to make the dish not only smell incredible, but look like it came out of a magazine. What my husband and I both realized was that the spaghetti he had been exposed to as a child was a pot of broken noodles cooked until mushy and drowned in a bland tomato sauce, and it kind of looked like barf. No wonder he didn't like spaghetti for so many years.

Second - make it look great on the plate. As mentioned above, the little touches like a freshly minced basil leaf, shavings of fresh hard cheese and glistening beads of good quality olive oil stimulate the brain and the stomach and override even the strongest sense of rebellion. It's easy to turn away a plate that looks nasty. Spend a few extra minutes on the details, and watch how quickly the plate gets licked clean.

Third - when #1 and #2 aren't enough, chop up the hated ingredient small enough so that it can't be seen. Mushrooms are a great example. But please, don't use canned mushrooms. Please. Anyone would think they were slugs too if that was the only forest fungi they'd been exposed to. Fresh mushrooms, regardless of the type - from button to portabella to shitake, need to be cooked in such a way that the rich, almost meaty flavor blocks out the sensation of soft and a little blubbery. I can't tell you how many friends I've seen cook their mushrooms to a sluggish slop and ask me what they are doing wrong. My answer is always the same. Stop f#@!^% with them.

Add some fat to the pan (butter or olive oil is best) turn up the heat to medium high, sprinkle the mushrooms with salt and cracked pepper, place them in the fat and don't touch them. Stop it! I said don't touch them. You need to let the heat and the pan work their magic on those little nobs of goodness. Trust me. Right when you think you need to stir them, count to 60. Then stir them once. They should be all dark golden and steakish on the cooked side. Repeat the same step again and then turn off the heat. If you've never had a caramelized mushroom, you will be shocked at how much flavor they actually have when cooked right. Now that recipe above goes more with #1, but - once you've cooked them well, and you know the beautiful recipe you want to add the mushrooms to, chop them up nice and small. Use them and maybe just maybe, don't tell your picky eater they are in there. They'll never know. It's not lying if they don't ask.

Finally, my very last step in training a picky eater to eat well, involves guilt. I would like to thank my Jewish ancestors for instilling in me a healthy sense of guilt that I can share with my family on occasions where they refuse to do my bidding. When steps #1, #2 and #3 have failed, I have been known to pull out my magic guilt-saber and slice through resistance like butter. Only better. But I caution my readers to only use this step sparingly, and only when you know the dish on the plate is so damn good that your little guilt-trip wont leave any lasting scars.

The result? A person who can stare in the face of any cuisine and salivate. A healthy wide-reaching eater who will appreciate the finer tastes in life. For my husband specifically, we were able to overcome almost all of his food phobias, except the milk --which is fine since it turns out he has lactose intolerance and I've smelled, I mean felt, the reprecussions of his dairy intake.

The biggest shock was the day he decided to try raw oysters with me. He sucked them back like a trooper, and now we have frequent oyster and beer dates that we both look forward to. My husband went from a guy who kept his arms crossed and his nose up when presented with new, strange foods, to someone that is excited to try the next exotic thing I find.

The effort has been so worth it. Thanks honey.

A happy eating man indeed!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Kohinoor Dhaba - A Delicious Dive in Arlington, VA

I'm going to be brutally honest. When my husband and I pulled up to the tiny, cracked and crumbling parking lot of the even tinier dilapidated building that houses Kohinoor Dhaba (and a nail shop), we almost turned around and left. My husband looked at me with pure terror, and I calmed him down by reminding him that the reviews on UrbanSpoon were high. We were taught a lesson by K.D. that should have stuck in first grade, "Don't judge a book by its cover." I am so pleased that we were so wrong about this restaurant.

K.D. is on the second floor and in the heart of the industrial side of Arlington, VA. There's a bus depot, several large warehouses, and homeless men who've come to own their respective begging corners. The area isn't high-class, and if you are expecting hoity-toity dining, go ahead and drive away. But, if you like amazingly good food and don't mind a dining room the size of a large bathroom, then walk up those green carpeted steps and enter Kohinoor Dhaba Indian Restaurant.

They feature a $10 all-day buffet that includes steamed basmati rice, Butter Chicken Curry, Fish Curry, Tandoori Chicken, multiple vegetable curries, simple iceburg and tomato salad, fresh chile peppers, and sauces. An order of naan, two giant triangles per person, comes with the buffet too, as does all the ice water you want. If you prefer a bottled beverage, you'll pay more.

I'm not a big buffet person. I find the food tends to be old and stale. But that's not the case with K.D. They replenish their trays frequently and the kitchen turns out high-quality, full-flavored curries that don't all taste like they came from the same masala spice mix.

We ordered a side of potato-pea samosas. Two giant samosas are only $3.50. What a deal. The manager brings them to your table within five minutes of ordering and then takes the time to bring you the tamarind and mint chutneys that accompany the fried pastries. They were hot, crispy, oily and delicious, just how I like them.

My husband only likes my Indian cooking. He is picky and a bit of a whiner, so when he told me he loved this place, I knew we'd struck gold. We came back a week later with our two sons, and both of them loved the tiny restaurant. My oldest even ordered another side of samosas for the road.

I stole a menu on my way out and see that they offer a bevy of freshly made curries, ranging from Vindaloo *(they spell it Vandalu) to Mughlai style cuisine. I'm eager to try their Lamb Rogan Josh, (meaning lamb cooked in its own luscious fat.)

I want to add that a day or so after our first visit to K.D., we visited a much fancier Indian restaurant in Alexandria that had a larger dining area, a full wait staff, white clothed tables and reimagined, modern Indian cuisine. We hated it. It was expensive. It too had raving reviews, but when I looked at the clientele, it was all preppy-Americans who probably didn't know the first thing about real Indian cooking.

K.D.'s customers are a mix of all kinds, even those from the sub-continent. My rule of thumb is that if people from the country are eating at a restaurant, the food must be good, and most likely authentic.

We will be back to enjoy the food at Kohinoor Dhaba. Hopefully, you'll give them a try too.

Fredericksburg's Finest: FoodĒ

This review is so long overdue that it's embarrassing. I'd canvassed this location multiple times, in old town Fredericksburg, taking detailed notes and ordering a wide variety of menu items to gain a fuller appreciation for the scope of deliciousness this free-ranging restaurant offers.

I've met with both owners, Chef Joy and Hostess/Food Runner Beth, who eagerly spoke about the vision they had while living in Georgia. They saw a dwindling economy and a disregard for food quality; folks with limited incomes werent eating as well as they should and as they could. Thus FoodĒ was born.

Grilled Veggie Pita
It's easy to miss the restaurant. It hides behind a well-used chalk board and wrought iron fence on Caroline Street. I only came because I'd been told about it from a friend who knew I loved good food, and loved local fresh food even more.

I came around four to find they were closed until four-thirty. After lunch service, they clean and revamp the menu for dinner. A new menu is produced daily, based on what is available and what has inspired Joy in the kitchen. I was the first person through the gate at four-thirty, and I was met with a warm, gentle smile from Beth who seemed genuinely happy I was there, as if I were an old friend whose company she enjoyed.

The welcome continued as I made my way through the country-style front door of the restaurant. Scott and Tori, who work in tandem as both hosts and order-takers, explained the way FoodĒ operates. You get a paper menu, decide what you want to eat and drink, then you order right at the register and take a seat. I paid with my credit card and noticed no opportunity to tip. When I asked how I could tip the servers, Scott explained to me that FoodĒ doesn't allow them. Their motto: "Gourmet for the rest of us," means that even those who are a little tighter in the wallet can enjoy a high-quality meal without worrying about losing extra cash on a 15-20% service tip.

I took my seat and listened to the lovely folk music playing softly on speakers above and watched as each customer came in, receiving the same hearty welcome I had. There was a homey-feeling in FoodĒ that I had only felt one other place, in my childhood kitchen growing up. The servers were like cousins who couldn't wait to bring you their mom's cooking and watch your face light up with absolute enjoyment.

The first time I visited FoodĒ I ordered an appetizer of warm bread and mixed marinated olives and an item that had just been put on the menu by Joy, a warm spinach salad slathered in bacon jam with a fried poached egg on top. The appetizer was exactly how it sounded, a hefty chunk of warm, fresh crusty bread served alongside a bowl of mixed olives. I found the olives to be too many compared to the size of the bread, but didn't mind. They were tossed with a saute of onions and fennel, which added a freshness that cut the brininess of the olives.

Warm crusty bread and mixed marinated olives with fennel and feta
The salad with the poached fried egg was as close to a miracle as I have ever experienced. Tori and Scott both watched me cut open the egg, standing a few feet back to allow me the moment of glory, where creamy yellow yolk merged onto softly wilted spinach that wore a lacy veil of bacon jam. I don't want to talk dirty, but that was food sex if I've ever had it.

Poached fried egg over sauteed spinach with bacon jam, shavings of asiago and crunchy grilled bread
As soon as I took the first bite, Scott approached the table and asked if the egg was cooked right. "Oh yes, yes it was." I sipped on my spicy ginger soda, allowing the bubbles to work on my palate the way a cigarette calms the nerves after a wild session of love making. They'd done me right with that dish.

I left, committed to return and explore this restaurant so that I could write an honest review. Each time I returned I was met with the same love I'd experienced on my first visit.

The chargrill burger of all burgers
On my second visit, I ordered a medium-rare chargrilled burger with a condiment they call tomato-jam and I call holy-sauce. It's nothing like ketchup. It's slow cooked and sweet and has depths deeper than the Atlantic, and I would venture to say it is better than any sauce or dip I have ever tasted, ever. Ever.

A closeup of the juicy free range beef and that luscious tomato jam

The burger rocked. It was appropriately smoky from the charring and pink in the center, just how I'd ordered it. The soft brioche bun soaked the juices of the burger and held on to them like a warm flavor blanket. The fries that came alongside were dusted with sea salt and herbs and were crisp and hearty. They were great, but the burger was the star of the show.

Beautiful pappardelle noodles with slow simmered marinara

It was a sultry bed of pappardelle with rich marinara and melted asiago that greeted me the third time I came to visit. It was bathed in drizzles of warm peppery olive oil. I licked my plate.

I revealed my review-writing intentions to Beth and Joy. They didn't hesitate to stand outside with me as I prepared to leave with a doggy-bag of freshly baked chocolate chip cookes, and tell me about the challenges and rewards of serving fresher than fresh, inspired and reenvisioned cuisine to a clientele of emerging food purists.

I fell in love with these ladies that afternoon. They really care about what they are doing and thankfully, they don't plan on changing a single thing.

A few months passed before I was able to come back. I'd been traveling across the country, and was afraid that FoodE might have been a dream, a fig and pig morsel of my imagination. (Hint hint, the Fig and Pig on thick rosemary bread looks divine!)

Rustic Italian Salad
As I walked through those iron doors once more, every employee remembered not only my face, but my name. The same smiles, the unabashed gratitute for my patronage still permeated the walls of this amazing restaurant.

I ordered the Rustic Italian salad, which featured fresh pole green beans tossed in a creamy chevre dressing, and topped with crisp roasted fingerling potatoes. An odd and yet so sensible combination that had just been added to the menu by Joy that morning.

It was followed by a grilled veggie pita served alongside herbed potato salad and crisp romaine leaves tossed in a light Italian-inspired dressing (pictured above.) It was fresh and simple, and perfect.

As I was leaving, I saw Joy and Beth sitting outside on the open-air tables talking to another customer, a woman who had recently visited a four-star restaurant run by the former chef to the White House. Beth called me over and introduced me to the customer as a food blogger, and the customer pointed out the fancy menu she'd taken from the place--truffled and tiered items with an astounding price tag. $198 per person minimum.

I looked at Joy's face as the woman described the dining experience she'd had and how no food could quite compare. I sent Joy a mental note that her food, her cuisine, was not the food of high-pinkies and tall champagne glasses, and it was still the coolest kid in school. It was real, and it spoke to me and other diners in a way that only food made by the hands of someone who loves what they are creating can. Four stars are nice, but a sky full of lights is what you get at FoodĒ. There's no comparison.


Cookbooking It

I've had a lot of friends ask me "When are you going to make a cook book?" This question has bothered me because, I don't like cook books. I don't buy them, and I don't think cooks need them. With the internet, Food Network and the Cooking Channel, you don't need to spend $19.99 on an illustrated food book with anyone's name on it. Really. But, what I've learned in my years spent playing in the kitchen, is that not everyone cooks the same way. I like to experiment, and my mistakes are just as important to me as my successes. When my health became an issue in my life, I started thinking about our family's favorite meals and how most of them, if not all of them, reside in my head. Not a scribbled note, a circled magazine recipe, a passed-down letter to my name. If I die, my poor sons won't ever be able to recreate those favorite comfort-food dishes that have become a staple in our home. So, to honor them more than me, I decided to go for it. Yes, I said it. I've decided to make a cook-book.

It's been a slow start. I've got about three, possibly four recipes down. The funny thing is that I don't often remember what I know how to cook until I cook it. So maybe this cook-book is a good idea for me too. I've also decided not to only include recipes the kids like. I'm putting it all in, even the "gross" stuff. The title? That's simple. It's something that captures my desire to be a part of my sons' lives forever, even when they've flown the coop. I've named the cook-book "Dear Future Daughter In-Law." :-)

Below is a recipe that is going in my book for middle-eastern beef-stuffed cabbage rolls in a spiced tomato-wine broth.They don't really like this one, but one day, it will remind them of me, and hopefully, how much I loved them.

Mahsi Malfouf

2 small heads of napa cabbage, leaves blanched in hot salted water and set aside to cool.
2 cups of ground beef (or lamb, turkey, chicken, etc.)
1 cup uncooked basmati rice
1 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
5 cloves fresh garlic, mashed
2 eggs
1/3 cup ghee (clarified butter or if you can't find, substitute extra virgin olive oil)
1 large yellow onion or 2 small ones, minced
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 pinch spanish saffron (the real threads, no powder!)
1 tablespoon of turmeric powder
1 whole star anise pod, dried
2 sticks of cinnamon
1 teaspoon grains of paradise, whole (buy online if you can't find, or skip completely)
5 whole cloves
1 teaspoon of crushed red chiles (dried) divided into 1/2 teaspoons
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
1/3 cup ras el hanout spice blend (buy online if you can't find at your store, is great as a kabab marinade spice too)
2 cups of sweet baby tomatoes (grape/cherry), pureed in blender with:
2 cups of chicken stock
1/2 cup merlot
6 tablespoons Hunts Tomato Paste
salt and pepper to taste
after blanching the cabbage leaves and letting cool, cut a triangle out of the bottom of each, removing the tough center. You can mince up half of these "cores" and add to the ground beef stuffing mixture. Otherwise, discard.
Melt the ghee on medium high heat. Add 1/2 the onion, 1/2 the garlic, saffron, and the entire bell pepper. Sautee for about 10-15 minutes, until the vegetables have softened. Add the cup of basmati rice, and sautee in the ghee and vegetables, adding more if needed. Saute the rice until golden. Stir in 3 tablespoons of tomato paste. Stir till the tomato paste has coated the rice and vegetables. Remove from heat, scoop into a bowl and set aside to cool.
Mix the ground beef with the eggs, turmeric powder, half of the dried crushed chiles, half the grains of paradise, the cinnamon and ras el hanout. When the rice mixture has cooled, mix that into the beef too. Season with a generous sprinkle of salt (roughly 1 teaspoon) and a few pinches of black pepper.
Now it's time to start the sauce. Take the remaining onion and garlic and saute on medium high heat with olive oil until they are soft and fragrant. Add the star anise pod, the whole cloves and the remaining dried chiles and stir, lightly toasting the spices. Then, add the pureed sweet tomatoes and the merlot to the pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce down by half, then reconstitute by adding the chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 10-15 minutes until the sauce has reduced by 1/4. Set aside. It's time to preheat your oven to 400F.
Lay the cored and blanched cabbage leaves one at a time in front of you with the cut side down. Place one tablespoon of meat and rice stuffing into the center of the cabbage leaves. Bring the two pointed cut edges together and up around the stuffing. Tuck in the sides, then roll the top down creating a tight cigar shape. Place in a glass baking dish. Continue until all of the cabbage leaves are rolled. If you have extra meat stuffing, place it in a large ziplock bag and remove as much air as possible before sealing. It will keep in the freezer for about six months!
Pour your sauce over the stuffed cabbage rolls. It should sink down to the bottom as well as completely cover the top. It will be extremely wet looking, but don't worry, as it boils in the oven the rice will absorb the excess liquid and all that will be left is a thick tomatoey sauce clinging to the softened cabbage rolls.
Bake for one hour. The first thirty minutes, keep the rolls tightly covered with foil, and remove the foil during the last thirty minutes. When most of the liquid is gone, the rolls are ready to come out.
Let them sit for about 15 minutes before serving. Your house will smell like a spice bazaar and your mouth will feel like it took a trip to Morocco. Enjoy!

New Blog - New Direction

I cannot believe it has been over a year since I posted on this blog. The cliché of time flying is both absurd and perfect when pondering why it has been so long. But here I am, back and more excited than ever to blog about the thing I quite possibly love more than my own children, food.

But I want to go further than I've gone before. I want to talk about food in a way that not only makes you want to eat, but think. I want to share my favorite restaurants, tell you why I like them, and maybe even bitch about the ones I really didn't enjoy. I want to share recipes and most important, cultures behind those recipes, so both your and my understanding of this world we share becomes a little fuller, and a little more accessible with every blog post.

If you're still there reader, thank you. I hope we have a long and edible future together.


A delicious semi-homemade pizza with caramelized portabella mushrooms and red onions, seared shrimp, chévre and micro arugula. It's just something I threw on. ;-)