Thursday, August 31, 2006

the only grocery store I know of that has groupies

One of the hardest things about leaving California was abandoning our local Trader Joe's. Grocery shopping elsewhere felt like trying to date again after a breakup. Remember the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy is preparing lobster with some woman after breaking up with Annie, and he tries the same joke and it falls flat? That's how I feel about my local Safeway. No sense of humor. And Whole Foods? You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you.

Anyway, because we're doing without our cars on a daily basis in DC (we're keeping them with relatives in the Maryland suburbs for weekend excursions and such, but that's it), we're really limited to what we can walk to or ride the Metro to. So we were thrilled when we learned that a new Trader Joe's was about to open. It's DC's first, and in our neighborhood, no less. It opens tomorrow morning, in fact.

Now, I know that my emotional attachment to Trader Joe's is irrational, but I don't think I fully realized until tonight that other TJ's shoppers share my feelings. Tonight we happened to be in the area of the new store, so we thought we'd walk by to check it out. (Yes, knowing full well it wasn't open yet.) We got there and found a small crowd of excited shoppers gathered outside, along with a Trader Joe's employee stationed outside to answer people's questions. "Can I camp out and be your first shopper in the morning?" said one woman.

I'm going to take my camera to the grand opening tomorrow to try to capture the weird culture of fandom surrounding this store. Visions of cheese samples will be dancing in my head tonight.

tea in D.C.

So now that Mark and I have moved across the country to Washington, D.C. and are neatly tucked into our tiny-but-wonderful Dupont Circle apartment, we're starting to turn our attention to exploring our new environs. Our favorite neighborhood gem so far is Teaism, a teahouse that serves an interesting mix of affordable Asian and Indian fast meals, along with a dose of American comfort food. Oh, and really, really good tea.

On our first visit, Mark had a veggie bento box and I had a handroll bento box. The fun part was that I got to assemble the handrolls myself: the box contained sheets of nori, tea-cured salmon, miso mayonnaise, wasabi, sushi rice, and braised cabbage. There's even a little instruction sheet in the box to guide you through the process, should you find yourself hopelessly flustered by the concept. Mark's veggie bento box had -- I wish he were here right now to refresh my memory -- sweet potatoes with some sort of peanut sauce, baked tofu, edamame, and sushi rice. (I have a feeling I'm forgetting something.) We each had ginger limeade, which was delicious, but sort of the wrong beverage for the meal. I could see myself just popping in for one on a really hot day, though.

For dessert, we shared jasmine creme brulee. Lately, I've had too many creme brulees (or should that be "cremes brulee"? hmm) with wimpy sugar crusts that don't do that great cracking thing when you break it with the spoon. This one, though, was perfect in that regard. And the sugar was almost --but not quite -- burnt, just the way I like it. The jasmine scent was very faint, though.

Service is a bit of a downside: Most of the seats are upstairs, but you have to wait for your food downstairs, where you clog up the small space that's also needed by the people waiting in line to order their food. All those factors make things a little chaotic.

Even so, I liked Teaism so much that I went back for lunch today, where I had a pot of Moroccan mint tea and a side of tea-cured salmon with naan and lime pickle. I can't wait to go back for breakfast sometime -- sourdough waffles, french toast, chicken apple sausage, Irish oatmeal ... yum.

Anyone out there know the D.C. food scene, especially Dupont Circle? What else should we make sure not to miss?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What, you mean I'm not in Paris after all?

To celebrate the first week of school and my completing my major projects over the summer (like writing a CD-ROM to accompany a first-year French textbook), Mr. Tart and I went out to dinner at a French restaurant in Denver, one we'd heard good buzz about: Z Cuisine. We loved it! Arriving early to snag a table in this tiny bistro that seats only twenty-some people, we snuggled into a corner and ordered our aperitifs: a peach kir royal for him, a chilled Lillet for me. Upbeat French music, including even funky Manu Chao, played in the background while we scrutinized the menu scribbled on a chalkboard. Not many choices--maybe five appetizers and five entrees--but still too many for the decision to be easy. The chef doesn't do frou-frou or trendy and he also doesn't limit himself to one particular region of France, as he offers hard cider and galettes from Normandy, cassoulet from the southwest, tartiflette from the Alps, and a few iconic classics, like Nutella crepes and creme brulee. The food is mostly traditional French, but with a few twists, as you'll see below. And that was just Saturday--apparently the menu changes significantly each day.

My appetizer, though not particularly French, delighted me: dungeness crab cakes on a tomatillo guacamole. They were both delicate and meaty, and I never would have thought of pairing tomatillos with seafood! Mr. Tart's appetizer, though, knocked our socks off. A long platter of small and ulta-sweet cantaloupe wedges flounced with a thick prosciutto, served with a thinly-sliced yellow heirloom tomato and a huge round of buffalo mozzarella so fresh that it oozed, topped with a dollop of a mustardy vinaigrette, with the whole platter sprinkled with tiny nicoise olives and toasted pinenuts and purple basil. When only the milky, tomatoey sauce and few nuts remained, we shooed the server away and tore off hunks of baguette to sop up every precious drop.

After that, we could have eaten canned tuna and gone home happy. But then the main course arrived. My galette, a savory crepe made with buckwheat flour, held firm, curly shrimp, several kinds and colors of wild mushrooms, and asparagus cut on the diagonal, all swimming in an unctuous bearnaise sauce made even more grown-up by truffle oil. Fabulous, filling, and French.

I had urged Mr. Tart to order the "Colorado Tartiflette" because I really, really wanted to see what it was. (It came with bacon, which I don't eat, so I wasn't going to order it myself.) You see, tartiflette is a simple Savoyard dish (from the Alpine region of Savoie in France), hearty winter peasant fare with potatoes and bacon and a very pungent cheese called Reblochon baked in a way that recalls other traditional cheese, meat, and potoato meals (such as gratins). (Want to read more about reblochon? Oui, oui! Click here!) I lived in Savoie for a year and have never seen a professional tartiflette since. (I've tried making it myself with turkey bacon and reblochon I snuck back into the country; it turns out okay but just isn't the same.)

So here's this daring chef, serving in the middle of the summer a hot, heavy dish with a funny name that the majority of his customers have certainly never heard of. It didn't help that the server described it as "sort of like a quiche"--it's nothing like a quiche! It doesn't include eggs! Anyway, the chef's Colorado version used local fingerling potatoes, which taste buttery to begin with, a braised fibrous cut of bacon an inch thick, and then--genius!--Fort Collins' MouCo's ColoRouge cheese as a stand-in for the reblochon. I think he also doused it in cream, and it grew a little crackly on top from being broiled. Mr. Tart loved it. And I loved the idea.

The other element that impressed me about this restaurant is that most of the plates and platters and pitchers are authentic hand-made French pottery (complete with authentic hand-made chips along the edges). Sturdy, decorated with a motif specific to where the chef found them (similar to my Savoyard pottery, but with a different kind of bird), in deep shades of green and blue and mustard, they looked like they just belonged with the food. I know very well how pricey these pieces are and how hard it is to get them back to the US intact: after twelve years of visits to Savoie, I finally have 4 plates, 4 bowls, 4 tea cups, a teapot, and a couple of serving dishes. I can't imagine what it took to bring back a restaurant's worth! Ths use of the pottery is yet another indication of the chef's dedication to both authenticity and simplicity.

During our meal, I imagined that we were sitting in a bistro tucked out of the way somewhere in Paris. When I looked out the front window and saw SUVs and the streets of Denver, it was jarring and dissonant. I left Z Cuisine with a luxuriantly happy tummy, feeling a little homesick for France, but thrilled that I was able to share this meal with the love of my life, and certain that we'll be back. (For the record, the other French restaurants in the area that we really like are Denver's Le Central, famous for its mussels and its affordability; Bistro Vendome in Larimer Square for the best brunches and frites ever; and Boulder's L'Atelier for fancy French food that always tastes exquisite.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

gratuitous nephew pictures: Carl devours a book

Carl expresses interest in reading a book.

Can you tell Carl is a scientist's and a computer programmer's son? Given the choice between a book about numbers and a book about farm animals, he opts for the numbers book.

Carl is pleased with his selection.

Carl is very interested in the numbers book! He reads intently.

Correction: Carl is very interested in chewing on the numbers book. Open mouth, insert book. Drool copiously. Bon appetit!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

food tourism

Here's a question for you all: Imagine you're a tourist in the United States, and you're interested in having some uniquely American food experiences. Not just American foods -- I'm talking about the whole experience surrounding the meal. What can you have here that you can't have anywhere else?

Mark and I were thinking about this while we were in Europe. Our list so far:

1. Breakfast at a greasy spoon diner. You know, the Waffle House or something like that. Hash browns -- smothered, covered, diced, etc. -- served by a surly waitress who calls you "honey."

2. Barbecue, obviously. At a place that gives you bibs, wet naps, and a roll of paper towels on the table.

3. A bucket of soft-shell crabs and a beer, at a place where they cover the picnic tables with newspaper.

That should get you started. Discuss.

school lunches

Most of us think of school lunches in these terms, with gloppy pizzas, mystery meat, and canned fruit cocktail if we were lucky. But that's not true around the world! My friends and colleagues, Mary and Mohammed, who recently spent a year in Morocco, showed me their daughter's preschool lunch menu. Preschool! It's amazing! (Both the variety and the quality, plus the fact that four-year-olds will eat these dishes without begging for macaroni and cheese instead.) Take a look at some of the offerings, taken from the May 2006 lunch menu (one of each of the following courses per day):

First courses:
creamed leeks
rice with tomato coulis
grated carrots with orange juice
leek soup
lentils with sauce
vegetable gratin with potatoes, zucchini, carrots, and creme fraiche

Second courses:
tagine with meatballs
tagine with fish
potato gratin with cheese and ground beef
spaghetti bolognese
couscous with meat and seven vegetables (this was served every Friday)

oranges and yogurt
chocolate flan
caramel flan
vanilla flan
seasonal fruit salad

I had to use my French-English dictionary to look up some of the translations--this food is that fancy! But there's one final dish I wanted to mention, just to show that some dishes are indeed universal in their appeal to children: now and then, the Moroccan preschool also serves chicken nuggets.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

white balsamic magic

Here's my newest recipe creation, and yes, you must use white balsamic vinegar:

Creamy White Balsamic Vinaigrette

1/4 c . white balsamic vinegar
1/2 c. vegetable oil (or a bit less, if you like your vinaigrettes tart)
1/4 c. olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1/2 Tbsp fresh thyme or tarragon
1 1/2 Tbsp plain yogurt
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Whisk by hand or in blender until emulsified.
Excellent with a salad of butter lettuce, grapes, red onion, and carmelized walnuts.
Makes a whole lot.

Monday, August 14, 2006

when a vegetable loses its veg

My parents used to always joke about having to lock their car doors in late summer, lest someone fill up the car with unwanted zucchini (the joke, of course, being that the vegetable is so prolific that by late summer it is rendered nearly unpalatable). And all of that excess leads to creativity and efforts to transform the zucchini until it no longer resembles its former vegetal self. This summer my parents' usually abundant harvest met with unfortunate circumstances, and they are actually welcoming gifts of zucchini from the neighbors. But I have had an abundance of zucchini (not from my own efforts, but thanks to my fabulous CSA farmer). And last week, I ended up with a very large zucchini. And what can you do with a very large zucchini (especially when you are tired of eating zucchini) but make zucchini bread? The recipe that follows is an adaptation of my mom's recipe. It will make two loaves or 24 muffins. Now my only problem is that my abundance of zucchini has been transformed into an abundance of zucchini bread!

Zucchini Bread

3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar (preferably superfine)
2 cups grated zucchini
3 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
3/4 cup almond flour
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 cup cocoa nibs

Heat oven to 350. Lightly beat eggs. Whisk in oil. Stir in sugar, zucchini, and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix together dry ingredients and add to zucchini mixture. If making loaves, grease and flour the pans. Bake for one hour. I suggest muffins for the easy peasy muffin tin liners. I failed to clock the baking time, but how about bake until a toothpick comes out clean?

Hi y'all--Sarah here--just had to add a relevant photo to Lis' post. Here's what happens when you go two days without looking in your vegetable garden in August: your zucchini turn into clubs!

Friday, August 11, 2006

a foodie in Milwaukee

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Wisconsin, first at a French teachers' convention in Milwaukee and then visiting my parents in Green Bay (where I also used my second cousins as guinea pigs to try out some techniques I learned at the conference). During that short time, I had a number of memorable meals--in fact, perhaps the best restaurant meal I've ever experienced in Wisconsin!

Milwaukee brought with it everything from a gloppy and disappointing "Wisconsin cheddar soup" via hotel room service to smoked salmon pinwheels tied with chive strands at a reception at the glorious art museum to celebrate the 19th century French prints exhibit and us, the French teachers from around the country. (I've never been feted at a museum before! Milwaukee treats teachers like they're treasures.)

Milwaukee turned to be more internationally flavored than I would have expected. Predicatably, many restaurants and stores reflected the state's German heritage, like Usinger's Sausages, whose dense and spicy aroma spilled out into the street and even drew me, a near-vegetarian, into the store, where sausage counters lined three of the four walls and people took numbers and milled about with blissful expressions. The air was pork. Usingers offers only pork: you can find all sorts of authentic German sausages, plus "luncheon meats" like Schinkenwurst and Leona Bologna, but don't look for a turkey bratwurst or, heaven forbid, a veggie dog.

That day, I opted for a less intense but still German "luncheon" experience down the street at Mader's, which I now see from the website touts itself as "Wisconsin's most famous restaurant." Well, most of the menu--and the decor--was German (dark and heavy and sausagey), but I followed the lead of my fellow diners: as it was Friday, the locals knew to order the fish fry. For a ridiculously small price (maybe eight dollars or so), my plate boasted two fried cod fillets, two broiled, coleslaw, french fries, and half a slice of rye bread with butter. (Why rye? That seems to be the case at every Wisconsin fish-serving restaurant I've visited.) While the meal was reasonably tasty and not too greasy, I just wish the fish had been local, like a walleye. (By the way, Friday fish frys are so ubiquitous in Wisconsin that even the downtown Indian buffet in Milwaukee restaurant advertises its Friday fish fry!)

But Milwaukee offers more than just fish and hearty, meaty fare. I also traveled to West Africa, Morocco, and France--indeed, all over the Mediterranean--in a matter of days! I loved African Hut with its mushy, spicy, peanutty, unidentifiable vegetably stews. My vegetarian platter's two stews and rice steamed and sent off aromas of cinnamon and spinach and who knows what herbs and spices. "Banfi" consists of "peanuts cooked down and stratified at alternating temperatures with a blend of choice vegetables and herbs," while the stewed spinach description also hinted at exotic flavorings without actually naming them. (Yes, I took notes from the menu; I'm a nerd. Or a foodie. Or both.) What really knocked my socks off, though, was "Geelrys," a South African rice dish that translates as "yellow rice." Oh, what a prosaic name for this sweet, salty, buttery, turmeric-yellow, cinnamon-infused grain dotted with raisins. It was soft and addictive and I'll never think of rice the same way again! Here's a recipe for it that I found online.

Speaking of spices, I could smell The Spice House before walking past it. Like Penzey's or Denver's Savory Spice Shop, it sells all kinds of herbs, spices, blends, vanillas, and so on in bulk. While Mr. Tart and I are pretty well supplied, I did find caramelized ginger "chips" for sprinkling directly into batters or granola, chamayo chili powder, a dill-flavored chip dip seasoning to mix with sour cream, and their version of Old Bay seasoning. (Ironically, Mr. Tart and I had recently had a long discussion about Old Bay with fellow Tart Lis, and then I read an article about it in a cooking magazine, so I was planning to pick up some at the grocery store, but of course the Old Bay tins are huge, so I was happy to find a little baggie which will easily fit in our the spice cupboard.)

Another very good and unpretentious meal cooked by someone who actually grew up in the area where the dishes originated was at the Au Bon Appetit, a French restaurant with a Middle Eastern flavor courtesy the Lebanese owners. Or maybe you could call it a Middle Eastern restaurant with a French flair. Whatever. All I know is that the menu ranged from a garlic-studded poulet basquais and ratatouille to falafel and shwarma, and that everything we ordered was flavorful and interesting. "We" here refers to me and my cousins Mike and Dan, who have lived in Milwaukee for years but had never tried this restaurant despite all the rave reviews they'd encountered. When they heard that their little cousin (the one they and their brothers used to torment with empty french fry bags and watermelon seeds), now all grown up, would be visiting their city, they took me out to dinner here. (Merci beaucoup!) We split a bottle of red wine--they let me pick, since they're mostly beer drinkers and I'm the French teacher--and an appetizer of olives and a not-too-salty feta, and then they had chicken dishes with pita bread on the side and I tried the couscous and vegetables. We all cleared our plates (even Dan, who didn't think he liked olives or feta).

My very favorite restaurant meal in Milwaukee--indeed, in all of Wisconsin--came on my last day there at yet another ethnic restaurant. I had just given the talk I went there to give, and I was exhausted and proud of myself and wanted to treat myself to a good meal. But I didn't want to drive in an unfamiliar city, so I picked a place within walking distance. Yaffa, which considers itself an Israeli-Spanish-Moroccan restaurant, was perfect. I sat on the patio overlooking the river and perused the short menu, of which half a page was devoted to describing teas served by the pot. (Tea-crazy me took that as a good sign.) I sat and read and people-watched while waiting for the food to arrive, feeling myself finally calming down. My Moroccan spice-rubbed salmon, perfectly done and little crispy on the seared edged, lay on a bed of what the menu had called as a chickpea puree. Surprisingly, this didn't mean hummus. The puree was chunky like upscale mashed potatoes, but light, redolent of olive oil and saffron, and not just a hint of saffron: the flavor was intense. Sorry to be graphic here, but even my little belches the next day tasted pleasantly of saffron. To prolong the experience, I then ordered dessert and met a rich and lovely melting chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and a dollop of something so unctuous and sweet and creamy that it reminded me of fromage blanc, which I've only ever found in France. Oh, I was so happy--I was melting along with the cake.

To conclude this perfect meal, and to remind myself that I was still in Milwaukee and not somewhere along the Mediterranean, I stopped at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart on the way out of town, where I spent a good fifty dollars on cheese--and this was after putting half of my basket back on the shelf! I found cheeses that I never knew existed, like an aged cheddar with veins of rocquefort bleu running through it, and a benedictine cheese made with a mix of cow, goat, and sheep's milk. Others tasted better than I would have expected, such as the Wisconsin gruyere, and some I haven't even opened yet! (I'm saving the goat cheddar for when I really need it.) Mr. Tart and I took the cheese to a picnic with my in-laws to celebrate our first anniversary, and everyone raved about it. I also brought the shop's catalog home, and it's already covered in highlighter and drool. Yay Wisconsin! Vive le fromage!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

a perfect breakfast

For me, there's something compelling about granola. Perhaps it's because my parents were never keen on buying their children sugary cereals, so my mom's honey-laden granola was the next best thing. I loved snitching bits of the buttery oats before they were transformed in the oven (then I would snitch out the crunchiest clumps, looking for the bits of sugar hidden inside). As a child, I'd eat my granola with copious amounts of milk. While I still like that combination, I try to vary my granola eating. For a perfect breakfast, I recommend the following:

Begin with jam you've whipped up from an excess of fruit lingering in your fridge:

Cherry Plum Jam
2 cups pitted, quarted plums
1 cup pitted Ranier cherries
1/3 cup sugar (add more to taste, if desired)
3/4 teaspoon allspice

Mix all ingredients. Cook over medium heat until thickened. Refrigerate until cold.

Add a layer of plain yogurt (if you can find it, goat's milk yogurt).

Top with a handful of granola.

Maple-Honey Granola (adapted from Hell's Backbone Grill)
4 cups rolled oats
1 cup bran
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut
1 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup flaxseed
1/2 cup cocoa nibs
1/2 T. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. honey
1/3 c. maple syrup
1/2 T. vanilla extract

Mix first seven ingredients. Heat remaining ingredients for about 5 minutes. Coat oat mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Friday, August 04, 2006

party theme suggestions?

Dear Loyal Three Tart Readers,

Mr. Tart and I need some ideas! We're hosting a Labor Day party but want to create it around some kind of food theme. We're thinking about grilling, but aren't feeling inspired--we do brats and turkey dogs and rosemary-balsamic veggies all the time, kebabs are a lot of work at the last minute (can't leave the meat in the marinade too long, lots of impaling required), burgers seem prosaic. We need a gimmick! (And it has to appeal to kids under age four as well as grown-ups, including a hostess who doesn't eat much meat.)

What would your ideal Labor Day BBQ involve? Please help us plan!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

boozy summerlicious drinks

Slushy Watermelon Mojitos

Like the best Icee you've ever had! And much easier than regular mojitos which require you to squeeze limes and muddle mint.

5 cups cubed seeded watermelon
1 cup sparkling water, chilled
3/4 cup white rum
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1 6-oz can frozen limeade concentrate (undiluted)
mint sprigs, raspberries, & lime slices for decorating (optional)

Arrange watermelon on a single layer on a baking sheet; freeze about 2 hours. (Cut very small pieces if you're in a hurry--they'll freeze faster.)

Combine frozen watermelon, sparkling water, rum, mint, and limeade in a blender; process until the consistency is very smooth. (Note: I have to do this in two batches even with a decent-sized blender.) Garnish as desired and serve right away!

Nonalcoholic version (also very good and kid-friendly): Substitute more sparkling water for the rum.

Serves 4-6 (depending on the size of the glass--I say, make it a big one. It's been a hot summer!)

Recipe adapted from Cooking Light magazine.

Sarah's Garden Sangria

Feel free to substitute with whatever you keep in your cupboard, fridge, or backyard. Quantities of the flavorings are approximate, depending on how fruity, sweet, or alchoholic you like your sangria.

1 nectarine or peach, cut into wedges
1 nectarine or peach, finely diced
1 cup raspberries or sliced strawberries
1 cup whole raspberries or finely diced strawberries
4 or more long sprigs of mint and/or lemon balm and/or lemon verbena
2 sliced lemons
2 cinnamon sticks
4 or more Tbsp spiced or white rum
6 or more Tbsp orange liqueur (like Grand Marnier or Triple Sec)
6 or more Tbsp sugar (I like to use vanilla sugar)
1 bottle dry red wine (like a Spanish rioja)
club soda or sparkling water, chilled

Mix all ingredients except for diced fruit and club soda.
Muddle them to release the juices.
Let sit for at least several hours.
Strain mixture into pitcher, pressing on fruit to extract juices.
Fill tall glass with ice, add wine mixture halfway, and finish with club soda. Top with finely diced fruit.