Monday, September 26, 2005

Eating DC and MD: From swordfish to ziti

Mr. Tart and I just returned from a four-day trip to Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. We had a number of memorable meals, but unfortunately none were captured on film, so just imagine!

We visited the American Indian History Museum (Smithsonian), where we encountered perhaps the tastiest cafeteria fare in the country at the museum cafe, Mitsitam, which means "Let’s eat!" in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples. In keeping with the theme of the museum, the cafeteria had stations that offered native foods from different tribes' culinary traditions. Mr. Tart had buffalo chili on frybread, while I partook of a lobster roll and wild rice salad ( We shared a very rich and cinnamony Mexican hot chocolate, too. Other choices included tamales, corn pudding, venison, and turkey. It took me about 20 minutes of wandering around and visiting the various stations to narrow it down! Everything was delicious, and I loved the idea of eating food that matched the museum.

Our fanciest meal came that evening when we dined at a well-reputed seafood restaurant in downtown DC, Kinkead's ( Mr. Tart ate there once seven years ago and has dreamed about it ever since. We ended up at a very cozy circular booth, ordered a bottle of Reisling, and oohed and ahed over the menu. They do fish, and they do it well, and they know it. The menu was divided up into the "Kinkead's classics," the other dishes they're offering seasonally, that day's specials, and a list of fish they could prepare just as is, with no sauces or sides. (I think there might have been a lamb and a chicken dish too, much not much that lived on land.) I had a crab and corn chowder, decorated with shrimp, while he started with lobster. Our main dishes were chili-rubbed snapper on a bed of roasted chilis and corn/sweet potato/chili hash with a tamal on the side (him) and pistachio pesto-coated swordfish in roasted tomatoes and braised veggies like baby artichoke and greens. Everything was so good we kept sneaking bites off each other's plates! After a meal like that, we didn't need dessert--but we ordered it anyway. I ended up with ganache-covered chocolate mousse while he had a trio of cremes brulees (lavender nectarine, white chocolate, raspberry macadamia).

Mr. Tart needed a root canal shortly thereafter--but it had nothing to do with that meal!

At my cousin's wedding, we ate lots of Italian--Aunt Kathy's homemade baked ziti and pizzelle cookies dipped in chocolate at their house, then a pasta bar at the catered reception (three types of pasta, three sauces, shrimp and chicken and roasted red peppers to add). The wedding cake sported chocolate chips, a not-too-sweet cream cheesy icing, and six smurf figurines. Plus they had a chocolate fountain!

The least formal meal--but just as yummy as the others--was in tiny Westminster, MD, at Fall Fest. Vendors were selling the ubiquitous fair foods like funnel cake (not that there's anything wrong with funnel cake, mind you) and fresh-squeezed lemonade, along with sweet potato fries (a welcome change from the regular). But what thrilled us (Mr. Tart, parents, brother, aunt, and cousin) the most were all the Maryland crab dishes available. We sampled crab soup and two types of crab cakes (one deep fried, one grilled). Those were heavenly--large chunks of fresh crab with very little filling--and my cousin declared them the best crab cakes he's ever eaten, and I tend to agree. Dessert was kettle corn, my personal bete noire.

I love being married to a fellow foodie and traveling to places with "eating" as one of the scheduled activities!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

mmmm, chocolate

You must check out the Scharffen Berger website. I agree with them that they do make America's finest dark chocolate.

I had recommended SB's cacao nibs to a friend (which, by the way, are fabulous. nutty bits of unprocessed chocolate that are great in baking--I've used them in place of nuts in quick breads and as part of pecan pie filling)so he looked up their website. We stared at it for nearly a 1/2 hour and I was on the verge of drooling. I think I should make this page my default for Explorer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Hungarian suggestions?

One of my book clubs is reading Embers by Hungarian author Sandor Marai, and we're getting together for a potluck Hungarian dinner before the discussion on Monday. The host is making Chicken Paprikash--mmm! I'm in charge of a dessert, but when I checked Epicurious for Hungarian desserts, most of the reader reviews were unimpressed with the recipes. Any ideas?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

my canning adventure

Growing up, we spent nearly every school holiday doing some sort of housework. My mom says I exaggerate, but that is my perogative as a formerly indentured child. My brother remembers having to clean out the garage. But I remember canning. Every Labor Day, we canned peaches. My mom would blanch them and pile them up in the sink. And then we kids would peel of the skins, slice the peaches in half, remove the pit, and place the halves tidily in the quart jars. Mom would then take over--adding the syrup, fixing the lids and placing the jars into the water bath. We canned and preserved a variety of other things (apricots, tomatoes, beans, corn, and on and on) but what I remember most is the peaches. Perhaps this is because in fifth grade, all of my friends were going to see Back to the Future on Labor Day and I had to beg--BEG--my parents to let me go. They agreed, but only after I spent the entire morning in the kitchen with the peaches. For me, peaches became the symbol of the conflict between family responsibility and independence.

This fall, for some reason, my sister Michelle and I decided that we wanted to do some canning. Michelle's mother-in-law told her that peaches were the easiest to begin with, but we refused. It is good to purge the demons of childhood (which we both agreed accounted for part of our interest in canning) but it is best to not face them directly. We agreed on fruit butters. Our first plan was to do apple, plum, and peach (baby steps!) but we quickly realized that we wouldn't have enough time. So, we scaled down our ambitions to just peach and plum.

First, we had to cook down a pulp of fruit and sugar. This took a looong time. Here is the beginning and the end of the plums.

Even though the cooking took a long time, it did not require much activity. This allowed me some time to watch parts of Spy Kids, 3-D (my niece's choice) and Ocean's Twelve--I had no idea what was going on, but Brad Pitt is pretty.

And finally, it was time to fill the bottles and begin the processing:

When our first batch was finished, we proudly called our mom. As we were talking with her, we heard the jars popping, which mom assured was a good sign of the seals actually sealing.

After all of our work (five hours from start to finish!) we only had seven half-pint jars. But, we are excessively proud of ourselves. And the butters are quite tasty, too. We thought that they might make good gifts, but after so much effort, we both decided they are too precious to give away. We are still waiting to see whether the processing worked. For now, the jars are waiting quietly on Michelle's counter. I am awaiting her call later today for the verdict.

Friday, September 16, 2005

cheese and the unconscious (or, pass the Stilton)

Just heard this charming report on NPR. The British Cheese Board says different types of cheese eaten before bed give you different types of dreams. Board secretary Nigel White says blue Stilton eaters have wacky dreams and cheddar eaters dream of celebrities, for instance.

For the record, I had some gouda last night before bed and nothing happened. Tonight I'll try brie and see what happens.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Eating L.A.: The 3rd & Fairfax Farmer's Market

Yesterday we made a pretty exciting foodie discovery about our new environs: the L.A. Farmer's Market. This is a year-round, permanent market that's been around since 1934. It's not really a farmer's market in the sense that I'm used to, with booths and all that. This is more permanent, so in addition to a couple of produce stands, there are restaurants, a cheese shop, bakeries, lots of places to buy cheesy tchotchkes, butcher's stands. Something about it felt like a heavily concentrated dose of New York. Some of the things we saw:

Mark with rugelach:

We'd already eaten lunch when we went to the Farmer's Market, unfortunately, but I can't wait to go back and eat at the Gumbo Pot. Oh, I want a muffelata.

Empanadalicious (or, Large and in Chard)

Friday night is generally my most ambitious cooking night of the week. Friday and Saturday are my days off, so there's plenty of time. Plus, because Mark and I work opposite schedules, those are the only two nights we can actually eat dinner together at home. Granted, there's something to be said for cooking for oneself--Nigella Lawson has a great essay about it--but these days I get damn well about enough of that. So, I'm happy when there's someone around to eat the food I make without having to just take it out of the fridge and nuke it, alone, several hours later.

This Friday I made black bean, sweet potato and corn empanadas and sauteed red chard. I cheated and used frozen puff pastry, so it was much easier than it sounds. The filling was sort of made up as I went along, so I'm not sure of exact amounts. I sauteed some green onions, garlic, and lime zest with cumin, coriander, oregano, some red pepper flakes and a teeny bit of cinnamon, sort of "deglazed" the pan with a little veggie stock when things started to stick, then added black beans and roasted red pepper. I took it off the heat, salted and peppered, and added some cilantro and lime juice. I transferred all that to another bowl, added a cubed, cooked sweet potato, and mashed that all up together (leaving some larger chunks for texture--don't put this in the food processor, just manually smoosh it up a bit). Then I stirred in some corn kernels.

Incidentally, this is my favorite little kitchen gadget at the moment: a citrus zester.

For citrus peel, it works so much better than a box grater or even a microplane, I think. With other graters, the zest just seems to get stuck in the grates. I find myself adding lemon or lime zest to all sorts of stuff now, and it really perks up a lot of dishes. Pasta primavera with a little lemon zest? Mmmm good. Anyway, back to the empanadas.

While I was doing all that, my frozen puff pastry was defrosting on the counter. After making the filling, I rolled out a sheet of dough so it was a little bigger than normal (a 12-inch square, I'd guess?) and cut it into four pieces. I beat an egg, thinned it with a little milk, and brushed that on the edges of the square (yes, this is me using the washing machine as a prep surface--our counter space is a bit scarce):

Then I put about 1/4 cup of filling in the center of each and topped with some queso fresco cheese. This is a crumbly, mild Mexican cheese that I'm newly infatuated with.

Then before I fold it up, I top each with a little bit of butter. Gilding the lily? Hell yes. But c'mon! It's butter! Butter good! Oh, and about now you'll want to preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pull two corners together so you have a big triangle and seal the edges by pressing them down with a fork, like so:

Make a couple little slits in the top so they don't explode in the oven. Put those on a greased cookie sheet and stick that in the fridge while you repeat the whole deal with the other sheet of puff pastry (they come two to a package, so you should have 8 empanadas in all). Take the ones that have been chilling, brush them with the egg wash so they come out all shiny, and bake about 20 minutes while you let the other batch chill. Voila!

To go with it, I cooked some red chard. I boiled it first for about 10 minutes to soften it up (I know the current trend is to undercook most veggies--I do it too--but trust me, this is good). Then I sauteed for a couple minutes in olive oil and garlic. I salted and peppered and added a squeeze of lemon:

Dee-lish! We had a nice riesling to go with it. A satisfied diner:

love and ice cream

I once had a relationship that revolved almost entirely around frozen confections. We ate popscicles together on our work breaks. We stopped for ice cream on the way home. We met at 7-11 for for slurpees that were excessively cheap in celebration of some store anniversary. We worked together one summer mowing lawns, and in the context of sweaty summer days and hard physical work, ice cream can quickly become associated with romance. The relationship, of course, didn't last past summer.

And it's not so unreasonable, this association between love and ice cream. Sarah Machlachlan got it--that a love better than ice cream is really something. And Eve Ensler's latest metaphor for female empowerment is ice cream. Vanilla ice cream, she says is the food that most resembles mother's milk, and so depriving ourselves from it is like severing ourselves from our own genesis. It's suprising that ice cream hasn't been employed more extensively as a metaphor; it is, after all, a powerfully evocative substance. But perhaps it's better to keep ice cream away from metaphor, art, and poetry. The results can be disastrous, as evidenced by Kurt Weill's "Ice Cream Sextet" (which you can listen to a clip of here, if you dare).

This summer, suffering from a lack of love, I decided to buy an ice cream maker (this one from Cuisinart, which I highly recommend). And I have come to the conclusion that sometimes--only sometimes--ice cream is better than love. There's something wonderful about gathering up ingredients and transforming them into lush, cold magic in less than 1/2 hour. I've made green apple sorbet, apricot sorbet, banana gelato, a chocolate ice cream that about did me in (I had to give some of it away, it was so daunting), chocolate sorbet (inspired by Tara's enthusiasm for Trader Joe's sorbet), and coke slush. Is it terrible to admit that the coke slush was my favorite?(a can of coke, 10 minutes--amazing)

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Cute food?

Today at the Farmer's Market, I found these:

Mexican gherkins. It's hard to say what they taste like. The farmer said they tasted like cucumbers that have already been pickled (a little bit sour and sweet). I think they taste a bit lemony. I've only eaten one and I thought it was kind of gross, but that may be because I'd just beeng drinking coffee. I will see what I think later.

But aren't they adorable (like little watermelons)? And to be honest, I bought them because they are cute.

Really, they are irresistible in their cuteness. It is a bit silly to buy food because it's cute. But, I think that's why the farmer planted them. He told me they grew them because they are so much fun. He told me that they grow on a vine that's about the width of a hair. I think he was exaggerating, but I love the image that creates in my mind--tiny cukes hanging heavily from delicate green threads. I don't even care that I don't find them very tasty--they have been delighting me all day. And they were, after all, only $1.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Spicy Wedding

Mr. Tart and I have now been happily married for a month and have finally recovered from all the stress and the madness, leaving us time to play with all our new wedding presents! Interestingly enough, although we carefully evaluated what we still needed in our home and came up with some specific items (getting married in our 30s, we already had plenty of towels, appliances, and the like), most of our friends and family bypassed our registry list and came up with inventive ideas of their own--and many of them were cooking-related! Our loved ones clearly "get" that we're foodies.

Our foodie gifts included a subscription to a wine-of-the-month club, a gift certificate to a new restaurant in Boulder founded by "French Laundry" proteges, a turkey roaster, cheese paraphernalia (platters, plates, knives, labels), rice cooker, cookie jar, good knives, baking dishes, handmade serving bowls, Irish tea set, Japanese pasta bowls, and other good stuff. (The one item to which we reacted quizzically was a "carrot curler" that arrived in a "Sur la Table" gift box with no tag or card. We stared at this bright orange plastic implement for a while, wondering if we'd really ever use it. According to the directions, we can also use it for curling parsnips. Apparently every bride and groom get one gift that makes them wince or scratch their heads--this one's ours!)

Appropriately, the other two tarts found very cool stuff that we love. Melissa, who spent time in London and has a great appreciation for tea, picked out a burgundy teapot with two beautiful cups in a traditional pattern and added a tin of gourmet tea:

Take a closer look at the tin--it's called "wedding tea" and the bags are actually silky cloth pyramids with the white tea leaves inside. And in addition to the leaves, there are flowers too--rosebuds. It smells, oddly enough, like chocolate, and it's delicious. (Mr. Tart asks for it by name on most mornings now.)

Tara and Mark also found something delightful: a box of Provencal goodies from Penzeys!

Packed in this wooden crate, nestled in between bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and nutmeg, were a pepper grinder, three vanilla beans, and about twenty jars of French herbs and spices--tarragon, herbes de Provence, thyme, lavender, and lots more. We just sat around smelling them for a long time. Now I need to figure out how to use some of the less common ones (or at least the ones I'm less familiar with, like "French Four-Spice Powder").

Tara's gift, however, posed a problem: we now had hit herb impasse in the kitchen. In between my herbs and spices, Mr. Tart's, and the new ones, they wouldn't all fit on the allotted shelf, and we had some duplicates. Some of his spices dated back to grad school--which was over a decade ago! So I decided to do a sniff and taste test to get rid of all the dead ones, combine jars, keep all the freshest ones, and give the older ones away.

You know how most of the cooking gurus say to get ride of herbs and spices after six-twelve months because they lose their potency? After tasting a lot, I discovered that many of ours still had the flavor I associate with them. They were old, or old-ish, but still seemed like they'd do their job. Is this just a cover-up, a conspiracy by spicemakers to make us replace the jars continually? Anyway, it was much fun to play with all our jars and make room for them and start cooking with them enthusiastically. Plus the drawer where we're storing them smells so good now!