Friday, May 30, 2008

Sweet Talking

When Giz and Psychgrad chose us for the Arte y Pico award earlier this month, we newbie bloggers were so touched that the ensuing post was halfway between endearing and saccharine. Krysta, one of our awardees, has since then politely informed us that she "doesn't take compliments well"... by which she means "Puh-lease. Can we save the valley girl 'Your my BFF For-4eva!' emoticon language and pretend for one minute that we're actually adults who simply enjoy one another's company?" So I'll pretend to be veteran blogger and contain my enthusiasm for the people below.

While checking up on Melissa a few days ago over at Alosha's Kitchen, I skimmed her 'More Awards' post, to see if it was anyone I knew. Bing! Melissa, apparently, appreciates our zany food choices and the back and forth banter of a two voice blog. She appears to also be hinting that the purpose of our blog is to evangelize for male home cooking. Melissa, honey, I hate to break it to you, but that struggle took place a year ago and would have required blogging with more profanity than our current public would appreciate ("Dear. Can't you even make dinner once???? I slave away every night, etc."). All glib remarks aside, Melissa's enthusiasm for cooking and expanding her culinary horizons is absolutely laudable: she approaches the foodie blog world as a resource and it's exciting to watch her cooking style evolve over time. It also helps that she's one of the most unabashedly friendly folks out there. The sincere affability that I was talking about at the beginning? Yeah, that's Melissa.

There are three folks to whom we would like to pass this award:

-- Cathy over at The Noble Pig. Cathy is my most recent addition to my mental short list of blogs I check every day. She blogs about wine!! Do you have any idea how rare that is on the foodie blogosphere? And she does it really well: she knows a ton, but she's able to communicate to your average Joe. I guess it helps that she's working to set up a vineyard in Willamette Valley (how freakin' cool is that?? Best Pinot Noir in the country is produced there!). And I love her for calling her husband "the Wild Boar." She's fantastic, go check her out.

-- Ruth over at Ruth's Kitchen Experiments. Ruth works for the Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, which is wickedly awesome to begin with. Some of my best friends from high school were American Protestant outreach workers posted in Geneva, so knowing Ruth feels like I've come full circle. Ruth is also recently married (with a super cute post about her one-year anniversary shebang). But the real reason that I'm giving this award to Ruth is that she's created a Food Event that I'm convinced is going to become The Next Big Thing: Bookmarked Recipes. The gist of it is that you submit a dish that came from a recipe clipping, an earmarked cookbook, or a bookmarked blog post, and Ruth posts the compilation every Monday. Now, which one us doesn't have a massive, overwhelming collection of magazine clippings, cookbooks, and blog bookmarks?? Just like everyone makes pasta for Pasta Presto Night, everyone has recipes bookmarked for Ruth's event.

-- And finally, a new friend: Molly over at A Year in the Kitchen. Molly, out of all of us, truly deserves this award because her blog has an actual purpose. She created her food blog "as an exercise in discipline" and vowed to write every day. What makes her even more unique is that she successfully blogs without photos, an accomplishment that my prose, at least, would not allow me to aspire to. Molly's a great writer. Check out her hysterical posts on Rachel Ray if you need to be convinced.

All right ladies and gents, go frolic and be merry. We have one of our best friends from college coming out to visit us this weekend, so we may be sporadic over the next few days. I hope not, but you never know. In the mean time, I'm off to clean the scum out of the bathroom and stash the dirty clothes under the bed. I refuse to believe that we're the only ones out here that have an immaculate kitchen but a disastrous every-other-room.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Red Snapper Delight

There is something I have to admit. It's about my past. A sordid detail - yes, thats right, I grew up in the Midwest. Don't get me wrong, I love Chicago and Naperville, where I grew up, is a really nice suburb. But, fish was just not readily available to the home cook. My father grew up out on the Chesapeake, so he would bring home a nice piece of fish every time he could find one - but, it's the Midwest, that isn't so often. The problem is not that no fish is sold in the markets, it's that the fish has, for the most part, been frozen and tends to be fairly low quality - even if you make the run over to Whole Foods. The classic fish dishes I grew up on are fried Catfish and seared Salmon. My father has certainly prepared other fish as well, but those two are the ones that would happen regularly.

Now, however, I leave on the East coast - soon (so very, very soon), I will be living on the West coast. It is really high time I got to know my Snapper from my Striped Bass - and learned to cook them too. Neen and I have done a few seafood dishes since we have gotten out to D.C., but mostly they have revolved around either clams or mussels. So this weekend I decided to give cooking fish a try. Lucky for me, I just happened to have a recipe from last month's Food and Wine magazine for "6 quick fixes for fish fillets." The decision on which to make was easy enough: their picture of the Sea Bass Fillets with Parsley looked divine. Now, being F&W, when they say "quick fix" they mean that it takes only 4 prep-bowls, 3-4 trips through a blender (for various pieces of the sauce), and approximately 1 hour of hand time. This is not exactly what I would call a "quick fix," but the chef is well repaid for the work when the dish is served.

The original recipe called for using Sea Bass, but I have always been addicted to Red Snapper for my light, flaky fish cravings - this started when I was young and we would go to Thai restaurants and they would have a fried Red Snapper glazed with "Thai sauce." Here, the preparation of the fish itself is a little complicated, but the basic idea is to bread the fish with a mixture of bread crumbs, parsley, salt, and pepper. It is worth noting that the method they use for breading is one of the most successful that I have worked with. First they coat the fish in flour, and then they coat that in egg, before dredging in the bread crumbs. I have never tried breading in that order before, but it worked very well.

Once breaded, the fish is cooked in oil and butter and then topped with a lemon-parsley cream sauce. The flavors work together perfectly. The Red Snapper comes out light and flaky, covered with a crispy shell of bread crumbs. The sauce on top carries enough of the lemon flavor to excite the palate if the fish is very fresh, or mask some of the fish-y flavor if the fish is slightly old. You might wonder how I know that ... well, because we actually made this dish twice. Once just after purchasing the fish then again a couple days later to use up what was left. I thought about cooking a different recipe, but I couldn't find one that I had most of the ingredients for and looked as delicious as this recipe is.

All this to say, if you can get really fresh red snapper, it is an amazing dish. And the breading technique is well worth remembering.

"Red Snapper" Fillets with Parsley Sauce
Cook Time: 40 min (or so F&W claims)

1.75 cups fresh bread crumb
1 cup finely chopped parsley
salt and ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot minced
1.5 cups chicken broth (low sodium is best)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons creme fresh
.25 cup extra virgin olive-oil
all purpose flour
2 large egss, beaten
4x6-oz Red Snapper Fillets

Preparation for Sauce:
1. In a small saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add the shallot and cook over medium heat until translucent (~1 min). Add chicken stock and lemon juice then boil over high heat until reduced to 1 cup (~15 min).
2. Whisk in the creme fresh with 1/2 cup parsley and 1/4 cup bread crumb. Scrape sauce into blender and puree. Strain sauce back into saucepan and warm gently.

Preparation for Fish:
1. In a large bowl mis 1.5 cups of bread crumb with .5 cup of parsley. Add 1.5 teaspoons of salt and 0.5 teaspoons of pepper.
2. If you haven't already, remove skin from fillet. Put flour and beaten eggs into two shallow bowls.
4. Season the fillets with salt and peppers, then dredge them in flour, dip in the beaten egg, and coat with the bread crumb mixture.

Cooking the Fish:
1. melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the oil over moderate heat.
2. When the butter starts to brown slightly, add the fillets to the skillet until browned on the bottom (~3 minutes). Flip the fillets and cooking until just white throughout (~2-3 minutes).
3. Transfer to plates, spoon sauce alongside, and serve.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mint 2.0: Rice Paper Rolls

Yesterday was Memorial Day. Do and I fully intended to go to Arlington National Cemetery, both to pay our respects and to appreciate the full magnitude of both the day and the place. It's apparently the thing to do on Memorial Day in this town. A freakin' convention of Motorbikers pour into town to be there, the President shows his face, etc. The cemetery even holds a special 3x year ceremony in the heat of the sun for mad dogs and English tourists who have a taste for pomp and circumstance.

We never made it. It was too damn hot and sunny. And Do refused to wear sunblock or to strip down to cooler clothing. We're talking Memorial Day at Arlington Cemetery, he didn't want to sh
ow up in a t-shirt. So we missed it. We spent the day on computers in a coffeeshop and then cleaning the house. It was okay. A little bittersweet, but okay.

2 weeks until Do leaves for California, 3.5 until me and my Dad start our grand coast-to-coast roadtrip.

The big overachieving success of the weekend were these Vietnamese rolls. I'd clipped the recipe from Bon Appetit magazine, pretending that I'd be cool enough to follow-through but speculating that, really, the recipe would be another long term resident in my clippings folder. Along with the recipes that call for unfindable ingredients or 2-days worth of prep work.

Well, the recipe does involve a lot of prep work. Some less onerous than I'd feared: we picked up a package of grated coconut (so much for the 'fresh' part. You pick your battles), all the greens and peppers can be finely diced in the food processor, and the rice paper was surprisingly easy to find (Whole Foods) and to use (dunk each piece in warm water for 3 seconds before using). However, the recipe cavalierly calls for peeled, cooked shrimp... and Do finds pre-frozen seafood not worth eating. So I got my first experience peeling, deveining, and sautéing shrimp. The deveining part was particularly...exotic.

The end product was surprisingly refreshing and light, even though we probably wolfed down two servings each. There was that sea-taste, and the green crunch, and the delicate rice paper-fresh mint combination. We ended up adding whole mint leaves to the outside of each roll, to maximize that refreshing, summery flavor. It was lovely, really. Perfect for a weekend summer lunch. There was much self-satisfied 'I actually made that!' head-swelling going on. Mission accomplished; recipe conquered.

The catch, as we discovered 24 hours later, is that leftover rolls lose a lot of their fresh flavor. The zesty dipping sauce helps cover that somewhat, but they're still better the first time around. Since the technique itself (minus the shrimp) isn't particularly hard or time-consuming, it'll be interesting to experiment with different innards. The possibilities of stuffed rice paper rolls now appear endless...

Given that this was a victory over an intimidating clipped recipe, I'm sending
this over to Ruth's Kitchen Experiment's Bookmarked Recipes, a (somewhat)new weekly event that could sure help us get through our giant file folder of magazine clippings!

Shrimp and Coconut Rolls (Bon Appetit)

Makes about 15 rolls, serves 3-4 as a meal
  • 10 oz peeled cooked shrimp, cut into 1/4- to 1/3-inch pieces
  • 2 1/2 cups thinly sliced iceberg lettuce (about 1/4 large head)
  • 1 1/4 cups finely grated peeled fresh coconut
  • 1/2 unpeeled English hothouse cucumber, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (1 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 6 teaspoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam), divided
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons sugar, divided
  • 3 teaspoons minced seeded red or green serrano chiles, divided
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint leaves (N: try whole leaves, and more of them)
  • 15 8- to 9-inch-diameter rice paper rounds (spring roll wrappers)


  • Combine shrimp, lettuce, coconut, cucumber, 1 tablespoon lime juice, 4 teaspoons fish sauce, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 2 teaspoons chiles, green onion, and mint in large bowl.
  • Moisten kitchen towel. Squeeze out excess moisture and lay towel flat on work surface. Fill large bowl with warm water. Following the directions on the package, submerge 1 wrapper in water until beginning to soften, about 20 seconds (mine took 3 seconds). Place on damp towel. Place 1/4 cup shrimp mixture in 3-inch long strip down center of wrapper. Fold in sides of wrapper over filling, then roll up tightly, enclosing filling. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. [DO AHEAD Can be made 8 hours ahead. Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper, cover with damp paper towels, and refrigerate. Let rolls stand at room temperature 10 to 15 minutes before serving.]
  • Mix 1/2 cup lime juice, 2 teaspoons fish sauce, 4 teaspoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon chiles in small bowl. Serve rolls with dipping sauce.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Emergency Gourmet: Mint Pea Soup & Tip for Over-Spiced food

My life is honestly less interesting when we don't post. I mean, first of all, I become less interested in food and ingredients and presentation in general. Dinners degenerated to leftovers, canned/defrosted goods, and even (gasp!) ramen. I come home and find myself lackadaisical and apathetic and bored. And boring.

But just as bad, when I don't blog, I feel too guilty to go visit my bloggie-friends. And we really do have the best bloggie friends ever. You guys keep visiting and posting even when I (metaphorically) refuse to get out of bed and actually communicate. Thank you for not giving up on us. I especially want to give a shout-out to Krysta, who went out of her way to find some key ingredients at her local African-Caribbean grocery store to support my Chiebu Djen odyssey. I am completely floored and energized by her thoughtfulness. Apparently that Chiebu Djen struck a cord: my Dad also bought and mailed some dried fish for version 2.0. So expect some heavy duty Chiebu Djen to surface within the next few weeks!


Earlier this week, Do and I had a couple of his graduate student pals over to dinner. Let me rephrase that: Do remembered 24 hours ahead of time that he had invited them over a month ago. We had just gotten back from Chicago, there was dirty laundry and half-unpacked luggage all over the place (and in an apartment as small as ours, even one suitcase can feel like an invasion), and the fridge was empty. Deer in Headlights moment. Oh and did I mention that one friend is vegetarian (there goes the quick roasted chicken idea) and the other turns out to be lactose-intolerant (ack!). To top it off, it was a Tuesday night. So we had to leave work, shop for ingredients, prepare food, host a dinner, and have them out the door by a reasonable hour.

Oh God.

It was this blog, of all things, that saved us from my rapidly approaching panic-attack. Do faced this minor calamity by very simply going to our blog and skimming through our 'All Time Favorites' posts. About 40 minutes before our guests arrived, he propped up his laptop on the kitchen counter and threw together his Pasta Arrabiata, which took about 15 minutes and next to no ingredients. Brilliant.

Do talks over Neen for a moment, before remembering to grab the talky stick: Well, as we all know I like spice. Something that I have always been curious about is how to tone down a spicy dish once the damage is done, so to speak. I have noticed before, that dishes that involve tomatoes tend to require more hot sauce to get the same amount of kick. So, floating in the back of my mind has been this idea that, if I just add more tomato sauce, the heat of a dish should decrease. Well, after adding 4 Serrano peppers, red pepper flakes, and cayenne pepper to my Pasta Arrabiata - I got a chance to test that hypothesis.

It worked like a charm. Before adding the additional tomato sauce, Neen was crying after taking one bite of the sauce. I added in two tablespoons of tomato sauce and all of a sudden Neen found the sauce pleasant, even slightly mild. Mild! From crying to mild in 10 seconds or less. I love it.

I have been trying to figure out why, but the internet has been no help. Capsaicin, shown to the right (image stolen from Wikipedia), is the molecule that binds to receptors on the tongue, giving the sensation of spice or heat. It is a pretty standard looking hydrocarbon. Since I don't know exactly how Capsaicin binds, it is hard to be sure why tomato is affecting it, but it may be a weak acid-base reaction. The back tail group (the part from the HO to the NH-C=O), which is conserved across a family of molecules with similar effects, has a couple possible acidic or basic components. It may be that the tomato sauce, being slightly acidic, is reacting with the molecule. Of course, that would suggest that lemon juice or any other acidic addition should have the same effect. And that is easy enough to test (oh yes, that is an experiment coming soon to a kitchen near me)! If it's not an acid-base reaction, then it may be a more complicated interaction between the Capsaicin molecule and something more specific that is found in tomatoes. Possibly an interaction resembling the Capsaicin-Dairy Fat interaction. Dairy fat dissolves Capsaicin, so that when you eat a spicy, dairy food, the Capsaicin can't bind to the receptors on your tongue because it is all tied up with the dairy fat. Which is why cream-based food doesn't tend to taste as spicy.

Neen grabs the talky stick away before Do scares all the readers away with too much science talk.

In the meantime (ahem), I forged ahead with the absolute best emergency recipe in my arsenal. This is my bang-for-your-buck, gourmet-in-30-seconds Ace. Giz and Psychgrad, if you host another Tried and True event, I'll be sending this recipe over. Mint pea soup. Ridiculously refreshing and light, perfect for a summer meal or an appetizer.

This soup is a godsend. It required no cooking, no prep, no exotic ingredients. In fact, chances are you may have all the necessaries in your pantry right now. Literally, you throw all the ingredients in a blender and have at it (or, if you have an immersion blender, throw the ingredients straight into the serving bowl). Serving it in wine glasses makes it fancy-shmancy; ah, the deceptions of presentation! For our dinner on Tuesday, I even had enough time left over to make homemade garlic croutons.

Someday, when I'm a harried mom or a broke, harried graduate student, this soup will be my saving grace. The original recipe is from "Real Simple: Meals Made Easy," the cookbook that introduced us to our first kitchen. The book has a whole section of No-cook meals, as well as no-shop meals, 30-minute meals, etc. When we sooner or later lose the luxuries of time and disposable income, and have to set aside overachieving cookbooks like Silver Palate or Madhur Jaffrey, Real Simple will be there for us. We will still eat well. Thank God. Because I'm so freakin' tired of apathetic dinners.

We're sending this Mint Pea soup recipe over to Joelen, who is compiling Blender recipes for her monthly Tasty Tool event. We can't think of a single better use for your blender!

Mint Pea Soup. Serves 4

2 10oz packages (4 cups) frozen peas, thawed slightly
3/4 cup fresh mint (or more!)
4 scallions, roughly chopped (1/4 onion works too)
3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp sugar
Optional garnish: torn mint leaves, plain yogurt/creme fraiche, or croutons.

Place all the ingredients in a blender. Puree until smooth, at least one minute. Pour in individual bowls. Garnish with mint leaves, a dollop of creme fraiche or plain yogurt, or garlic croûtons.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The. Move.

Mega, mega writer's block on the food front. Apologies. We're moving to California next month, and I think that the 'cleaning out the pantry' mentality is having devastating effects on the quality of our dinners. It's hard to work up enthusiasm for cooking or eating when the mentality revolves around cans, leftovers, minimum purchases, and just making do.

It's going to be epic, the move I mean. We both start graduate school in Berkeley in August, but what happens between now and then is less regimented. Do, as our resident scientist, is to report for duty at a Berkeley lab as soon as humanly possible. My program has no such expectations and I absolutely refuse to lift a pinkie finger this summer: it'll be my first summer without a job or internship or scholastic requirement since pre-high school. So we've cut a deal: Do moves out in early June and gets to find us a place to live, my family and I pack up all our stuff and load it in a pod, and then my Dad and I drive the car across the country. Don't even talk to me about gas prices.

The father-daughter cross-country drive is going to be a ball. My Dad, characteristically, has gone a head and planned out every day, every stop, every motel. Phase 1 will snake us through the South-East, visiting much of my paternal side of the family (free bed!), a civil war battlefield, a renowned Bar-B-Q joint, and an ice cream factory, before landing us in Austin for a week plus. [My folks have retired to Austin, and I haven't gotten a chance to spend more than a long weekend there]. Then phase 2 will be new territory to me: El Paso, Tucson, Pasadena, Fresno, and finally, the Bay Area. We should roll in to Berkeley in mid-July.

Needless to say, suggestions about places to hit up on the way, food-related or otherwise, are more than welcome!

We haven't yet figured out how/how often we'll be able to stay in touch with you all. We don't even know if you'd be interested in my adventures from the road (mmm, truck stop food. Again.), or in Do's photoless cooking attempts while he crashes in Oakland with a bachelor buddy from college.

I'll definitely at least try to do something. Even this mini-break from blogging has left me really missing you guys.

Finally, tonight, we have a free evening and several dishes on the backburner. Expect some real, food blogging very soon!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dinner alone


Dear Do (because I know you're reading this),

Right now, you're in the air somewhere between here and Chicago. Which is a shame, because cooking dinner isn't nearly as fun without you. I mean, I was almost too lazy to assemble my fajita/burrito, even though you'd prepared and carefully packaged all the components last night. As for utensils, a plate, a place mat? Forget it. I ate dinner while standing in the kitchen. Why bother taking the extra time? Which is kind of funny, given that I'm the fastidious one who insists on napkins and place mats.

I'm bemused at how little I want to cook, with no one to cook for. Is it because there's no one to share the resulting creation with, no one to appreciate the intimate moment known as dinner time? I feel completely lethargic and culinarily apathetic. I really enjoy cooking with you, for you. I find it really fun to participate in your culinary adventures, offering unwanted tips while washing your prep bowls, sampling your creations and trying to argue you out of adding wine and/or hot sauce. I love how you always find something worth complimenting when I set dinner on the table, and how any less-than-optimal parts of the dish are always the recipe's fault, never mine. The two of us huddling over cookbooks on Saturday mornings, over tea, passing recipe clippings back and forth, is disgustingly endearing. I love how much you, and we, have gotten into cooking. It really makes my day, every day.

You should have landed two minutes ago. I'll see you in 39 hours.

Oh, and Do? I just accidentally bit into one of the many jalapeños that you added to the fajita chicken. It nearly seared my taste buds off; what on earth were you thinking??

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Potluck contributions from the road

Okay. As I write this, we are in Charlottesville, VA, on a romantic get-away weekend full of wine tasting and gourmet food. It's a for real vacation: I've even taken Monday off.

However! It's also Krysta's very first potluck. Think of it as a blogosphere House-warming. Blog-warming? There's no way that we were going to miss this. Romantic vacation or no romantic vacation, we will be in Krysta's backyard in California this afternoon, sipping mojitos and shooting the shit. Because that's what friends are for.

So we've stopped the car in Charlottesville and found a coffeeshop. Not that this is any great sacrifice: we just came from a wine tasting in Barboursville (one of Virginia's most renowned vineyards) and are heading towards a gourmet dinner and bed at our favorite Joshua Wilton House in Harrisonburg. We figure that Krysta's in California and they're three hours behind, so we shouldn't be the last ones to show at her party.

And, much to my delight, we've stumbled across Charlottesville's Mudhouse Coffeeshop. I feel like I'm on a pilgrimage: one of my more thought-provoking non-food authors, Lauren Winner, waxes poetical about this coffeeshop and even titled her second book Mudhouse Sabbath, after this establishment. I won't go into how interesting her ideas and perspectives are, because it's not good manners to talk religion at a party. Suffice it to say, this is super exciting. I feel like I should be asking for an autograph from the barista. ;)

Anyways, our contributions to Krysta's party are a strawberry spinach salad and the services my favorite grill-meister. We're assuming that Krysta has a backyard grill (it's California, right? Who doesn't have a backyard? And if you have a backyard, why wouldn't you have a grill? We certainly would.), and you always need someone to flip the burgers, so Do is volunteering. He figures he'll be less of a hazard in your backyard than he would in our kitchen!

Do actually really enjoys making burgers; it's a great lazy meal for us. After reading a Minimalist column about the Perfect Burger, he's gone absolutely wild. Burgers stuffed with blue cheese or cheddar, burgers stuffed with pesto, burger made out of ground lamb, burgers glazed with bar-b-q sauce while cooking, burgers topped with paté... As you can see to the left, his most recent permutation was a cheddar cheeseburger topped with an egg over easy. It was messy as hell to eat, but delicious and really entertaining. He would tell you about it himself, but he's busy taking advantage of the free wifi to submit computer jobs to his lab computers. In a perfect state (i.e., distracted) to be volunteered for grill meister duties! :)

As for the salad, it's really no big deal. Strawberries are on sale here these days, super juicy ones, and strawberry-spinach salad can tempt even the carnivores to eat their greens! This salad is nothing more than strawberries, spinach, thyme, mint, and a dressing made out of oil, sugar, and lemon juice. The dressing isn't phenomenal, so I'm not going to give you a recipe for it, but the idea of including fresh mint and thyme was a good one. If anyone has any tips for what dressing to serve with a strawberry-spinach salad, I'm all ears!

A toast to the hostess!

And now, back to our romantic vacation...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Chieboujen: Neen's work in progress

[I'm a day or so late in getting this post up because, much to my surprise, I found it really hard to write. I've written about my relationship with Africa so many times for scholarship/admission essays that it feels like the story and the feelings are no longer mine. Like they belong on my business card or to some University admissions office. Not that it helps that these events took place 10 years ago, and my identity has grown and been shaped by much since then. This all required some unforeseen processing. Anyways. Sorry for being late.]

When I was six, my family moved to Senegal; when I was nine, we moved to Gabon. With a little luck and a little bribery, my folks got my brother and me into excellent local public schools where we were the only Americans amidst lots of little French expats and upper-middle class Senegalese or Gabonese. Needless to say, with no English outside the home, we went from no knowledge of French to bilingual in about 5 days flat. Kids are amazing like that.

I have come to realize that the expat experience for a kid is entirely different from that of an adult. As as child, I had barely an inkling that Senegal was undergoing an important Presidential election, that Zaire was imploding right next door, or that scary-ass forms F.G.M. were taking place in the empty lot around the corner. I was completely oblivious to socio-political history: I couldn't yet differentiate between the 'normal' and the 'abnormal' because 'norms' changed every time we moved. Even poverty. My 7 year old self saw the beggars, the lepers, the villages to which we donated our old clothing... but was completely oblivious to the magnitude of the poverty or the gross inequality among classes (well, okay, when I was 11 even I was grossed out by the fact that there was a swamp shantytown directly across the street from the gleaming, mile-long Gabonese presidential compound). If anything, America was weird with its clean, empty suburban roads and its gratuitously huge cinemas. Squeaky clean. Kinda creepy.

Then my family left Africa when I was 12 and I didn't return until two summers ago, when I got funding to do my B.A. thesis research in Mali. It was a pretty intense summer. My first extended period of time away from Do, the aid project that I was studying turned out to be a glorious, expensive fiasco, and here I was, an adult, submerged in a culture that I had happily navigated with ease as a kid. Like I said, intense. In that soul-searching, God-searching, priority-rethinking kind of way. [Okay, this post now officially gets this 'Existential Ruminations' label.]

Just before I was to leave Mali, my host father (who turned out to be my father's baptismal godfather from back in their Peace Corps days...small world...) arranged to serve Chiebujen at a large party. This was a lovely, personal goodbye gesture: Chiebujen (pronounced Cheboojen) is the Senegalese national dish. It's a very hearty fish and vegetable stew served over rice or couscous. Imagine if you will, a platter the size of your coffee table, piled high with rice/couscous, with fist-size hunks of fish, cabbage, yam, carrots, okra etc, and 10 or so people squatting around eating with their hands. It was so delicious. Addictive. Particularly so because I had far away memories of these flavor combinations. Even as my adult head was feeling seriously alienated by a culture that I thought would be familiar, Chebujen felt like home to my taste buds.

So I'm going to recreate it. Given that I'm working with American ingredients and very vague childhood memories, this is probably going to take numerous permutations. Please, anyone in the blogosphere, your suggestions are more than welcome (I'm particularly looking at YOU, Mom and Dad).

For Monday night's take on Chebujen, I combined a Nytimes Thebu Djen recipe and a Thieboudienne recipe that Chicago's Field Museum distributed during an exhibit on Senegal in 2004. The process of combining two fairly complicated recipes on the fly, all the while comparing the flavors to the echoes somewhere in the recesses of my memory, hard. Especially because, when I did get the flavors right, they provoked emotional flashbacks like no other. You know how the senses provoke more emotional recollections than words do? Songs, taste, places, pictures? yeeeah.

Monday night's Chiebujen was no where near perfect, but it was definitely heading in the right direction. The recipe below is exactly what I did, errors and all, and the italics are what I'm going to change next time. In general:

- It needs to be exponentially hotter. Scotch Bonnet peppers, here we come.
- I need to use whole (cleaned) fish. And more of it. This fish cube idea is for toubabs (West African for gringo).
- I need to track down dried snail or a more authentic version of dried fish than Herring. Herring?! WTF?
- No homemade or tinned chicken broth. Bouillon cubes all the way. Wish I could find the Maggi brand.

I need to track down an African market; my folks suggest that there may be one near Adams Morgan.

Neen's first take on Chiebu Djen
(Ideas for next time in Italics)
Serves 6-8.

3/4 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
4 scallions (white and lower green parts), trimmed
4 cloves garlic, peeled (I'd increase)
4 Serrano chilies. (Oh my gosh, this needs to be upped. Either increase by 150% for starters, or go to scotch bonnet peppers)
1 lb firm fleshed fish fillets, such as tuna, shark or swordfish, cut into 1/2" pieces (yeah, the whole cubes of fish is so toubab. And there wasn't nearly enough fish flavor. Next time: 2 whole red snappers (3-4lbs total), cleaned, scaled, and cut into thirds)
3 onions
2 garlic cloves
1 red bell pepper (Umm, check if this is a Toubab addition)
1.5 oz dried fish (I could only find dried herring, talk about not authentic! Next time, go to an African market and try to find yete (dried snail) or guedge (dried fish), or at worst dried cod. And double the quantity.)
1.5 cups peanut oil (we're deep frying? Really? Check out other recipes)
1 can (6oz) tomato paste (Halve the quantity of tomato paste and water)
4 large carrots
1 small green cabbage
1 sweet potato (standing in for yucca or yam, try to find one of those. Oh and add 0.5 lbs calabaza or butternut squash)
4 cups chicken broth (Make it using bouillon cubes, preferably Maggi)
Chicken bouillon cube (Shouldn't need this if follow above instructions)
12 Okra pods.
12 1/4" pieces of tamarind
3 cups rice (For God's Sake, try to find some long grained variety that isn't Jasmine rice.)
  1. In the food processor, mince cilantro, scallions, 4 garlic cloves, and 1 stemmed Serrano chili.
  2. Create a pocket in the fish by slicing horizontally through the center of each piece, leaving one side attached. Fill the opening with about one teaspoon of the cilantro mixture. Pack the fish in a bowl, cover with any remaining cilantro mixture, and fridge until needed.
  3. Prep work time! Assemble in one bowl 3 chilies (stemmed, split in half), 3 onions (chopped), garlic cloves (minced), bell pepper (diced), and dried fish.
  4. Pour peanut oil into 2 gallon dutch oven over high heat until a piece of onion dropped into it sizzles vigorously. Add your prepped veggies from Item 3, stir occasionally until onions begin to brown (10min). In the meantime, in a medium bowl (or your now empty veggie prep bowl!), whisk tomato paste with 1 cup water. When the onions are just beginning to brown, add diluted tomato paste. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally to keep from scorching, 15 min.
  5. In the meantime, turn oven to warm setting (200 degrees). Prep carrots (cut into six pieces) and sweet potato (peeled, cut into six pieces), set aside, and prep the cabbage (cored, cut into six pieces), set aside. When the stew is ready, add chicken broth with 3 cups of water and a Chicken bouillon cube to the stew pot. Turn heat to high and return to a simmer. Add the carrots and sweet potato and simmer for 5 min. Add the cabbage and okra, cover and simmer for 15 min. Add the stuffed fish and cook 5 minutes more or until the fish is cooked through and the vegetables are fork-tender.
  6. Using tongs, carefully transfer the vegetables and fish from the stew to a platter, cover with aluminum foil and place in warm oven. Bring the remaining stew to a boil, add tamarind. Add rice, reduce heat to low and cook until tender and all the broth has been absorbed. (10-20min). (I had to add a little extra water).
  7. On a wide communal platter, spoon a portion of rice, mounding it in the center. Add veggies and fish around the sides. Serve Immediately.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Help - I Found another Scientist in My Kitchen!

Neen and I are subscribed to three food magazines. And we love 'em. Every month when a new magazine arrives, Neen very carefully goes through and reads the articles and then clips the recipes that interest her and put them into a folder for later use. Once she has finished, I pick it up and do the same thing. By the time we are finished, it is usually time for the next one to arrive (though, really, more often than not the next one is sitting on our table which is why we finally sat down to finish with the old issue).

For Chanukah last year, Neen's mother bought me a year-long subscription to Cook's Illustrated, and now I think I am in love (sorry Neen). There are a number of reasons why I love Cook's Illustrated, and the pictures don't even make the list. The real advantage to cooking with them is that they are scientists. Really, they are! They may not know everything about protein folding or combustion, but they know a lot about how to test recipes, and they tell you about every step. Last year, when I first started cooking, the part about cooking recipes that really bothered me is that, unless one wants to make mountains of a dish and eat it for the next three weeks, it is not possible to test all of the parameters of a recipe. Does the addition of this extra component hurt or help? Do you really need to roast that first, or can it just be browned? I am definitely a scientist when it comes to these kinds of questions - I want answers! And since the method for testing is reasonably straight-forward (the hard part is thinking up all of the things you want to test), I was pretty bothered about not having the answers.

Here is where Cook's Illustrated comes to the rescue! They have already done it for me. When I picked up the recipe for Creamy Tomato Pasta Sauce, I could read the two pages of text associated with the recipe and learn that, indeed, using a full Italian soffrito (the mixture of celery, carrots, onions, garlic, etc.) in this recipe makes it too vegetal. So your better off just using onion and garlic - keep it simple. The kinds of tomato used also have a significant impact on the flavor of the sauce - even the difference between canned whole and crushed tomatoes makes a difference because of the calcium chloride that is often added to the whole tomatoes as firming agent. I love that - I didn't know that calcium chloride was a firming agent! But there it is - I learn something every time. If you haven't ever read a Cook's Illustrated I would highly recommend it. They don't do that many recipes in an issue (usually around 10), but each recipe is worth reading, and they also do a lot of tests on cooking utensils and ingredients (which is the tastiest Turkey on market - you might be surprised by the answer). Besides, at $6.00 an issue they are really a steal.

With their recipes, given the care that goes into generating them, I am usually pretty careful not to modify unless I really think they missed a flavor component that I want (heat, for instance...). In this case, however, as I was reaching for the Serrano peppers I forced myself to stop. Maybe not everything has to be hot, right. The rest of recipe was straightforward to make and extremely delicious. The flavor of the sauce was rich and deep. It had a fuller flavor then I usually associate with tomato-cream sauces, but without the monotony that can develop from too much RICH and CREAM flavor and not enough tomato flavor. This was avoided by the addition uncooked crushed tomato at the very end when adding the cream, which brightened the flavor profile of the dish substantially. Neen commented that she didn't even miss the meat! There actually were pieces of prosciutto put in, but they were small enough that I didn't really notice them. So for a vegetarian version, just remove all meat from the dish.

Oh... and when I said maybe not everything needs heat - well, I was wrong. This is definitely a sauce that could take some extra heat. And I would be very tempted to add just the smallest touch of vinegar (really, really small). The flavor is very delicate and I like how it gives it just a little more body.

Pasta with Creamy Tomato Sauce (Do's take on Cook's Illustrated's version)
Serves 4

3 Tbs unsalted butter
3 oz thick ham or pancetta, minced
1 small onion, diced fine
1 bay leaf
generous shake of Red Pepper Flakes
2 Serrano Peppers, stemmed and chopped
1 tsp vinegar
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbs tomato paste
4 oz oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained, rinsed, patted dry, and chopped coarse.
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs dry white wine
2 cups plus 2 Tbs crushed tomatoes (from one 28 oz can)
1 pound short pasta
1/2 cup heavy cream
Ground black pepper
Grated Parmesan, for serving
  1. Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add ham, onion, Serrano peppers, bay leaf, pepper flakes, and 1/4 tsp salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is very soft and beginning to turn light gold, 8-12 min. Increase heat to medium-high, add garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly darkened, 1-2 min. Add 1/4 cup wine and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid has evaporated, 1-2min.
  2. Add 2 cups crushed tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, partially cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened (spoon should leave trail when dragged through sauce), 25-30min.
  3. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil. Add pasta and 1 Tbs salt and cook until al dente.
    Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water; drain pasta and transfer back to cooking pot.
  4. Remove bay leaf from sauce and discard. Stir cream, remaining 2 Tbs crushed tomatoes, 1 tsp vinegar, and remaining 2 Tbs wine into sauce; season to taste with salt and pepper. Add sauce to cooked pasta, adjusting consistency with up to 1/2 cup pasta cooking water. Serve immediately, passing Parmesan separately.

  1. We're submitting this to Ruth's Kitchen Experiment's Bookmarked Recipes, a new weekly event that could sure help us get through our giant file folder of magazine clippings!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Redemption in the Side Dishes

So I have a dirty secret. Last week, I made a meal out of a box.

I don't think you realize quite how serious this is: I have just lost all my moral high ground. Do's the one who waxes poetical about his childhood memories of Hamburger Helper, Do's the one who wouldn't let me throw out the Riceroni packages that had been left behind in our kitchen by the previous tenants. It's my role to be all snooty and expostulate on the value of daily family dinners from scratch, knowing what's in your food, that there's more to dinner than caloric intake.

Yeah, well. Part of being partners is being a bad influence. Do has become a sexy gourmet chef who makes dinners from scratch every other day... and I cooked out of a box last week.

Last weekend, I dragged Do back to that wonderful Indian grocery store in Rockville to restock on those addictive Kaju Kati Indian sweets. Do took advantage of my vulnerable state (I did pounce on 3 boxes of Indian sweets) and selected 4 boxed Indian dinners. Well, one thing led to another, it was a long week, I was feeling both uninspired and lazy... and... well.

He loved it. I loved it. We had seconds. And it took only an hour, mostly because I insisted on rescuing some dying veggies from the fridge and transforming them into side dishes. Boxed spice mixes may be the secret to eating Indian food on a weeknight. Well. I'm not quite ready to admit the error of my ways yet. But this could be the secret to surviving graduate school.

To accompany our boxed dinner, a South Indian chicken-coconut curry, I threw together some super quick sautéed spinach and some spiced rice. I'm including the recipes below because both were ridiculously simple but memorable, probably because of the spices. The spinach was smokey and spicy... not hot spicy but interesting spicy. I thought that the mustard seeds had moved beyond "roasted" and into "slightly charred," Do enthusiastically finished it off in its entirety: no leftovers.

The rice dish we had discovered before, and our opinion was confirmed: it's really impressive for a "supporting actor" role. It's not sexy, it won't make your guests' jaws drop, but it's solidly good and will keep you coming back for more. The spicing is subtle but unmistakable, and the bouillon cube gives the rice a heartier flavor. Less feminine, romantic Jane Austin and more Lara Croft.

Both recipes used mustard seeds, but we're still trying to distinguish what particular flavor mustard seeds deliver. Maybe the fact that we couldn't pick mustard seeds out of the flavor composition is a sign that both dishes were correctly spiced. Cool. Or it could mean that mustard seeds don't taste like much. Less cool. Hm. Clearly further experimentation is required. Aw, shucks.

Sautéed Spinach in Mustard Oil (inspired by Julie Sahni)
Serves 2 as a side, but is extremely amenable to proportional division

1 lb fresh spinach
1 Tbs mustard oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 dry chili pods
1 garlic clove
Lemon juice and salt, to taste
  1. Cut the stems off the spinach and wash the leaves.
  2. Heat the oil in a skillet over high (but not smoking). Add mustard seeds. Keep the pot lid handy, as the seeds may fly all over as they pop. After 5 seconds, add the chili pod and fry until it turns several shades darker. add garlic and fry for 10 seconds. (I'm asking you to be quick is to prevent the mustard seeds from burning. This will be more or less of a concern depending on how high you have the heat.)
  3. Pile the spinach leaves on top and cook, turning them often and quickly, until they look wilted and moist. Continue cooking until most of the moisture evaporates and the spinach leaves are glazed (3-4 min).

Gently Spiced Rice with Peas (Madhur Jaffrey)
Serves 2

1 Tbs vegetable oil (I used walnut oil this time, worked great)
1 tsp whole black mustard seeds
1 cup long-grain rice
1.5 cups chicken or veggie broth (we use bouillon cubes for simplicity)
1 tsp salt
1 cup (or more!) peas, fresh or frozen

Over a medium flame, heat oil in a pot with a tight fitting lid. When hot, add the mustard seeds and wait until they begin to darken (10-20 seconds). Stir in the rice, and the peas. Stir for one minute. Add broth and salt and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce flame to very, very low. Leave to cook for 25 to 30 minutes.

(n.b. Jaffrey suggests adding the peas in the last 5 min of cooking if they are frozen, I didn't find that this extra juggling was necessary).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Poulet Basquaise

On Monday this week (yeah, the post has been in the pipeline for a little while...), I made a dish that I fell in love with. Really. The recipe comes out of our Bistro Cooking cookbook, which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on a copy. Ours comes from a used bookstore in Austin, and it is fabulous. We have made a number of recipes out of it in the last 6 months and they are consistently surprising. My only caveat is that, despite having an entire chapter on potatoes, they are mostly potato gratin dishes (which I am reluctant to make just because of the time requirement for slicing all those potatoes). The rest of the cookbook has fantastic recipes, most of which are fairly simple to make but have a distinctly French flavor. High marks overall. (Though, I don't think I will be so bold as to recommend it to Kate, over at Thyme for Cooking.... There are some distinct advantages to living in the French countryside....)

The dish in question, in case you managed to miss the title of the post, is Poulet Basquaise. The dish is centered around the contrast of sweetness of bell peppers/chicken and the spice of hot peppers, but actually only calls for two hot peppers (seeded) to be used. Of course, since there are only two of us, I halved the recipe. I just didn't halve the hot peppers - and I didn't seed 'em either. :) This is yet another example of the dilemma that Neen finds herself in almost constantly. The pleasure of having a lover that will cook her dinner (and enjoy doing it), while simultaneously wishing that he would lay off the heat. The problem is that I really enjoy hot food, and there are very few dishes that would not be improved by adding some hot pepper. I am trying to be better, though - if only so that she will keep eating what I cook. Last night I made a pasta dish (to be described later) that I was very tempted to add Serrano peppers to, but I didn't! It took so much self-control not to add those little packets of delicious heat. They would have tasted great... I hope she appreciated it!

Back to the Poulet Basquaise, though. The dish worked out really well, but it was not at all what I had expected it to be. It was cooked in three different pots. One pot for the noodles (of course), one pot for the tomato and onion sauce, and one pot to bring them all and in the darkness bind them... Wait, that's not it. The other pot was for the fusion of chicken, bell peppers, hot peppers, ham, and garlic. I also added a reasonable dash of white wine. The result was fascinating - after cooking for an hour while covered the bell peppers released so much liquid as to make an almost soup-like mixture. The flavors had melded together to form a seamless whole that tasted richly of chicken and yet also light, almost spring-like with the flavors of bell- and Serrano peppers. One taste was enough - I was sold. I loved the combination of the chicken, garlic, and Serrano peppers all brought together by the sweetness of bell-peppers. The flavor of the wine offered additional complexity to the flavors, without being over-bearing.

To serve, the directions were very specific: the tomato sauce should put down and then the chicken placed on top. Of course, I added noodles (it sounded like a noodle kind of dish) so I put those on the bottom of everything.

I should note that while this dish quickly gained a spot in my heart, Neen had a couple of reservations. The chicken came out looking fairly dilapidated and the chicken skin had a flabby texture. Also, the sauce, since it is so broth like, will seep to the bottom of a bowl making it tricky to get a piece of chicken, noodles, and sauce all in one bite. I have two suggestions for modification to the recipe to correct for these issues. One, I would coat the chicken in seasoned flour before browning. Two, I would use the extra flour at the last step to make a roux for the soup and thicken it slightly. Not too much - you might loose the lightness of the flavor, but I would want to thicken it just enough that it can grab onto pasta noodles.
[Neen inserts: or we can serve the dish over rice, as the original recipe suggests, and thereby bypass the whole problem....]

Patricia Wells' Poulet Basquaise: Chicken with Hot Peppers, Ham, Tomatoes, and Onions
4-6 Servings

4 small, mildly hot green chiles (such as serrano), or 2 hot green chilies, or 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes (I doubled the quantity of chiles)
1 chicken (3-4 pounds), well rinsed, patted dry, cut into 8 serving pieces, and at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 Tbs vegetable oil
12 fat garlic cloves, cut into thin slices
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
2 lb tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded and chopped (or substitute 1 28oz can plum tomatoes, drained)
White Wine (my addition)
  1. If you're a weenie, Core and seed the chiles. Slice into 1/8-inch strips; set aside
  2. Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper. Ina deep 12-inch skillet, heat 3 Tbs of oil over high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the chicken and brown on one side until the skin turns an even golden brown , about 5 min. Turn the pieces and brown them on the other side for an additional 5 min. Work in batches, if necessary.
  3. Return all the chicken to the skillet. Add the garlic, bell peppers, chiles, and ham, burying all the ingredients admist the chicken pieces. (Add a general cup or so of white wine). Cook covered, over medium heat, until the chicken is cooked through and the peppers are meltingly soft (45min-1hr). The pan will make a lot of crackling noises as the peppers give off much of their liquid. Turn the mixture from time to time, and adjust the heat to avoid scorching. You want a tender sauce.
  4. Meanwhile, in another large skillet, heat the remaining 2 Tbs of oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Ad the onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until very soft, about 5 min. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking for another 30min. The mixture should be soft and well-blended. Season to taste with salt. (The dish can be easily made ahead at this point. Reheat both mixtures separately.)
  5. To serve, layer the tomato and onion mixture on a preheated platter. Cover with the chicken mixture, and serve immediately, with white rice. (oops, I used noodles).

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Our First Award

Woah! I opened up my laptop this morning to discover that Giz and Psychgrad have given us the Arte y Pico award! Good Morning, sunshine!

All you veteran bloggers may scoff (ah, those silly awards, really just a popularity contest) and all our non-blogger readers may be puzzled (It's a friggin' jpeg image... what's the big deal?), but we newbie bloggers who wear our hearts on our sleeves are really touched. Someone out there loves us! Or at least finds our thoughts and our writing interesting! Validation! Recognition! It's like moving to a new school and having one of the really nice local girls (or in this case, two really nice local girls) invite you to eat lunch at their table. We feel special!

In this case, the two nice girls are actually Giz and Psychgrad, a mother-daughter combo whose blog we read daily. I've mentioned them before, specifically "It's been lovely to follow their blog since we "met" a couple weeks ago, in part to see how other duo blogs balance the two voices, in part because what woman doesn't see echoes of herself in others' mother-daughter interactions? I almost feel as though I know them, even though blogging can bring out intimate personality quirks while concealing basic identity characteristics." By now we communicate almost daily: Giz provides encouragement to Do when his wine posts scare off the rest of our readers, Psychgrad and I exchange banter over interfaith Passover experiences, etc. These ladies have shown us that bloggie-connections aren't merely a tool to increase your daily hits, but can blossom into actual, honest-to-goodness, Friendships. Thank You, Giz and Psychgrad. Knowing that you find us worth reading is a great compliment.

This award was created by an blogger-craft artist in Uruguay and is not limited to the Foodie community. These are rules that come along with this award:

1) Pick 5 blogs that you consider deserve this award with their creativity, design, interesting material, and also contribute to the blogger community, no matter what language.

2) Each award has to have the name of the author and also a link to his or her blog.

3) Each award-winner has to show the award and put the name and link to the blog that has given her or him the award.

4) Award-winners and the one who has given the prize have to show the link of "Arte y pico" blog, so everyone will know the origin of this award.

5) Display these rules on your blog.

Interesting material, creativity, contributions to the blogger community... hmmm... After some exemplary joint decision-making negotiations, we would whole-heartedly like to extend this award to:

--Krysta, our favorite Evil Chef Mom. Like Giz and Psychgrad, we consider Krysta a Friend. Her blog is everything we aspire to: it's witty, it's sarcastic, it's whimsical, it's thoughtful... in short, it's real. Krysta doesn't pretend that everything she cooks or does is glossy magazine-perfect (how boring!), she gives it to you strait up. red stained hands, guilt-induced beet ice creams, kitchen fiascos, Krysta is the real deal. And I'm eternally indebted to her: she reminds Do not to kill himself while grilling indoors.

-- Kim at Yummy Mummy Cooks Gourmet, whose every post makes us nearly pee in our pants from laughter. Whenever I'm having a hard day, a five minute visit to Kim's blog will a) make me laugh so hard I get the hiccups, b) remind me that my "hard days" can't shake a stick at her daily routine, yet she approaches motherhood with such practical joviality... wish I could do that!, and c) help me appreciate that my coworkers aren't nearly as annoying as, say, Dora the Explorer.

-- Kate at Thyme for Cooking, whose blog was the first that I found where the writing is just as important as the food. Kate is a wonderful storyteller, sharing tales of the expat life in rural France ... complete with mice and cross-cultural book clubs and fuel outages. I feel an affinity with Kate's perspective, having lived almost half of my life as an expat in French-speaking countries. That, and I uphold her writing style as my model for blogging: it succeeds in being witty and personal and substantive while avoiding the too-common pitfalls of navel-gazing or 'jump to the food' posts.

-- Lisa of Lisa's Kitchen, who excels at Indian vegetarian food. It was Lisa's blog that inspired us to give up meat for Lent, and Lisa's recipes that got us through the six weeks while actually enjoying our dinners. I kid you not, this very morning, while menu planning for the upcoming few days, Do said "oh, I shouldn't make that Malaysian Chicken salad recipe [that he had just enthusiastically clipped from a magazine]. We should really have more vegetarian dishes this week." I kid you not. DO said that. Thank you, Lisa, I never thought I would hear such statements come out of his mouth. You have permanently changed our eating habits.

-- And Jennifer at Becoming a Foodie, an eclectic, artsy D.C. babe who shares Do's affinity for mixed drinks. She's way cooler and funner than we are: she does tastings with atypical soda pop instead of wine, and she invents her own mixed drinks with idiosyncratic names like "the Bee's Knees" or "Honey, drink this!" Jennifer is off on vacation in Paris right now, and we miss her terribly!

Thank you ladies, your blog updates make our day more delightful.

Friday, May 2, 2008

An Introduction to Alsacian Whites

Recently I have been spending my time exploring many and sundry mixed drinks. Most of these have been posted, and there are a few more coming in a later post (found a great one the night before last night called a "New York, New York" - it is a derivative of a Manhattan and really good). But one of the things I have not been talking about is wine.

This may not be a thrilling topic to many in my audience - most of you probably know enough about wine to know your own preferences (and you don't need me butting in!), but wine is one of my passions so I am afraid I will subject you to my ramblings anyway.

Late last year, Neen and I went to a fabulous Bed and Breakfast in the Shenandoah Valley called Joshua Wilton House. This wonderful little Inn has a great restaurant on the ground floor, and then five delectably cute little rooms on the second floor. The staff is extremely polite and attentive, and the food at the restaurant is fantastic. They get a large portion of their food from Polyface Farm, which many people have heard about when reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivores Dilemma. What that means is that their basic ingredients are fantastic, and their chef does a wonderful job of enhancing the natural flavors without overshadowing them. We stayed there two nights, and we ate at the restaurant both nights (after the first night we felt it was necessary).

But the real reason I am talking about all of this, is that they also have a great wine list. A really, really great wine list. It is not the biggest collection you will ever see, but the bottles are very well selected and the sommelier (whose name is escaping me) selected two knock-out pairings for our two evenings with him. The second one of these was a real shock to me. An Alsacian white that didn't burn the top layer of my tongue off from the acidity.

To explain why this is shocking to me takes just a little bit of an explanation, so please indulge me for a moment. When Neen and I were backpacking around Europe the summer of 2006, we wound up in Alsace during a small town's wine-fest. Of course we made time to go see it - it was a blast, I loved tasting the differences among producers all from the same region. And, of course, since we were walking around with a notebook and asking questions about the wines, nobody charged us for the pleasure of tasting their wine. It was a lot of fun. One of the things I learned, though, was to be scared of Alsacian wine. Why? Because I was tasting their Rieslings, and my tongue had long been trained on German Riesling, which is a different ball game. Completely different. The Alsacian wines were very acidic, and so the only way to make them enjoyable was to age them long enough to tone the acidity down. That meant sweet wines (since these are the wines that they were selling already aged). So, for me, an Alsacian wine had a chance of being good if it was old enough, but a young Alsacian - well, I'm chemist, if I want hydrochloric acid to drink, I can get in lab. It's much cheaper.

So when I said to this Joshua Wilton Sommelier, "I trust you, you should pick," and he comes back with an Alsacian white, my gut falls to the floor and I just want to crawl into a corner and hide. I take a first sip and suddenly the sky opens and an angel descends. Okay, so maybe not. But it was a fabulous sip - the wine, a Marcel Deiss Pinot Blanc, was everything you could ask for. It has an off-sweet body with lots of fruit and enough acidity to give it structure. It was a perfect balance between the sophistication that keeps the mind engaged by a wine and the unadulterated pleasure that keeps the tongue wanting more. The label is still in my notebook.

So earlier this week I opened another of Marcel Deiss's wines. This time a Riesling. I know, after the long description of the horrors of the Alsacian Riesling, I went back to it. I had to try. And I am glad I did. The Riesling was another home-run success for this vintner. Again it showed the fruit of the Riesling, but gave it a sharp, slightly acidic accompaniment that really helped the wine keep me mentally engaged and give it enough body to pair against the food. (I will post about this meal later, because the Poulet Basquaise was a great dish in its own right and the pairing worked really well for me).

If you haven't tried it before I highly recommend something produced by Marcel Deiss. They are more expensive than I will usually pay for a white, but they are wines worth trying at least once (and great for an occasion)!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Zola: Swank Restaurant meets Americana Diner

Since my post a week ago (woah, has it really been a week? Thanks for those who missed us, we feel loved!), much has happened. The mystery date took place: dinner at Zola's and a theatrical rendition of The Screwtape Letters at the Shakespeare Theatre (the general consensus was that it works better as a book than a play). Do fixed my camera (yay!!). We were extremely lazy on the food front. We've got a couple items to share with you over the next few days, but first I want to blog about the restaurant where we went for our date. There are very few reviews of it online, and the website is the ultimate in non-descriptive, so I feel it's important to throw in my two cents. The restaurant is in Washington D.C., near the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop.

Dinner was at Zola's, a self consciously hip restaurant that attracts the flashy, urbane crowd and puts up with the tourists that wander over from the Spy Museum (in the same building). Their approach to food mirrors the composition of their diners: some snazzy ideas executed with top-quality but down-home ingredients, generally riffs on American classics. Hamburger sliders made with ground lamb (amazing). Cheesy French fries using aged Gouda cheese, which you could dip in ketchup or in a sherry mayonnaise (I wasn't in love, but I was super full at that point). Our main courses included a ribeye steak with mashed potatoes and rabbit loin with a bed of asparagus and gnocchi. The chefs definitely treat their meat with loving kindness, as both of our cuts were perfectly cooked, handled, and seasoned. They weren't using any razzle-dazzle techniques, unlike solidly high-end, innovative places like Citronelle, but that kept them accessible as an "American" dining experience, albeit a high quality, very capable one. The vibe was "Just because we cook Middle-American food doesn't mean we can't be sexy."

A note to the wise: they are not super vegetarian-friendly, unless your form of vegetarianism allows you to eat fish. And ahem, not to be déclassée, but the $30/person pre-theatre menu is a steal.

Zola's is also known for their cocktails: in addition to the bartenders behind the too-hip-for-me bar (though I qualify as both young and urbane, my public-servant-business-casual apparel did not reach the right hipness level...), they have a list of 10 or so drinks with cute Spy-related names. Do got one, the Zola, that was really fun: transparent, not-too-sweet, with a raspberry at the bottom. Very sexy. Mine, the Jade, was, well, a mess. Syrupy sweet, highlighter green, without much else to say for it. Ah well. Their wine list was also impressive, and their by-the-glass options included a fantastic Australian Shiraz (a big compliment from us; we're super picky about hearty reds).

The vibe was kind of odd, with the tourist families in flip flops and the late 20s crowd in expensive suits. The decor echoed the mismatch by playing on the Spy Museum riff, walking a fine line between kitsch diner and upscale too-cool-for-you. To their credit, the waiters were extremely pleasant and appeared to treat all diners equally. I'm not sure whether the Zola's pulled it off almost-seamlessly or whether it remains a slightly awkward juxtaposition. I'm leaning towards the latter, perhaps because I could never entirely forget the mismatch and just enjoy my dinner (admittedly, this may be because I'm a girl and am consistently assessing whether my clothes make me stand out).