Strip Mall Saigon

Though it’s lesser-known than some other Asian cuisines and has fewer dining options, Vietnamese food has so much to offer the curious chow hound, with its fresh, healthful Buddhist slant and its curious Cantonese and French influences. When sampling Vietnamese cuisine, you may detect a harmony of taste sensations, or find yourself struck by the delicate balance of flavors. This is no mistake – Vietnamese cooking is designed around the very concepts of balance and harmony, appealing to the five senses, and playing off yin and yang. The Asian principle of “five elements” influences Vietnamese cooking not only in appealing to the five senses, but efforts are made to incorporate the traditional five colors (white, green, yellow, red, and black), as well as five spices, and five types of nutrients, all in the name of balance and harmony. Sounds like hard work, but all that effort seems to have created a cuisine that is really something special. And it’s really quite fascinating (and delicious) to learn about!

For those unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine, a great introduction can be had at the artful and friendly Falls Church, Virginia restaurant, Present (6678 Arlington Blvd, 703.531.1881). This unassuming strip mall staple was named one of the area’s 100 Very Best Restaurants by the Washingtonian, and was given three starts by the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema (and he’s not exactly giving those stars away!)

I’ve been eating Vietnamese food for many years now, but my dear friends Mac and Christopher, who dined with me, were new to this type of cuisine, so it was fun to see their reactions to the fresh new flavors and presentations. Mac had never seen the traditional Vietnamese-style summer roll, with bright pink shrimp visible through the  semi-transparent rice paper. However, the star of the appetizer round was Present’s “Smokey Petal,” a delicate and meaty sauté of baby clams and herbs, served in an impressive, edible rice cracker bowl (pictured above).

I should mention that it had stormed quite heavily the day of our visit, and the restaurant had lost power for a while, which resulted in a bit of confusion with the service. However, the staff is very friendly and helpful. Knowing that Mac was new to Vietnamese food, our waiter let him know he was ordering the wrong spring roll, and urged him toward another choice. Hmmm. Upon serving our entrees, when the waiter noticed that the chef prepared the tamarind duck for me instead of the orange duck I’d ordered, he assured me that the tamarind duck was a better dish anyway. Why worry? (While this would anger some diners, I’m pretty easy – and I was torn between the orange and tamarind duck to begin with.) In all, the three of us were quite pleased with Present’s offerings, and found the service and decor to be pleasant and charming. We shall return.

Shortly after moving to DC, my friend Justin introduced me to another Virginia strip mall favorite offering Vietnamese fare: the popular local chain Phở 75 (1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209, 703.525.7355, among many other locations). Pronounced “FUH”, phở is a traditional Vietnamese soup – spiced beef broth, noodles, and shaved onion, with your choice of meat, such as brisket, eye of round steak, or even tiny meatballs, all for under 8 bucks for a large bowl. Adventurous eaters may want to try the tendon or tripe! Here, phở is served with delicious accompaniments such as fresh lime, anise-y Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, and jalapeño slices. (I’ve heard that these accompaniments are not exactly culinarily authentic, but they sure make for a great eating experience!) Squeeze bottles of Sriracha hot sauce and hoisin sauce are shared on each table. Something interesting: I’ve heard that, traditionally speaking, phở is the only Vietnamese dinner dish served in individual portions; all other Vietnamese dishes are meant to be served family-style.

Be warned, you are coming here strictly for the food. The restaurant is about as charming as a warehouse, and you’ll likely have to wait a bit. But it will be well worth it.

To be sure, one of the perks of being a Washigntonian is our proximity to all of the great Asian communities of northern Virginia – and the fantastic markets and restaurants therein. However, there are some great choices right here in the District as well, including the Vietnamese offerings at Phở 14 (no affiliation with Phở 75, 1436 Park Road NW, Washington, DC 20010, 202.986.2326). On an unassuming block in Columbia Heights, Phở 14 offers the traditional soup for $7.95 – 8.95, as well as a decent selection of other Vietnamese fare, including salads and rice dishes ($8.95 – 10.95), as well as stir-fry and vermicelli dishes with meat selections that run the gamut from tofu to pork meatballs to chicken to squid ($7.95 – 13.95). You can also try another famous Vietnamese dish at Phở 14, the bánh mì sandwich (starting at just $3.99), a must-try for any aspiring international foodie.

Bánh mì is actually the name of a type of French-influenced Vietnamese baguette, but it has come to be known as the type of sandwich served on it as well. The sandwich is packed with savory delights – pickled carrot and daikon radish, cilantro, mayo, a touch of soy sauce. Again, we see the French influence in Vietnamese food with a surprise ingredient: liver pâté. Your choice of several varieties of meat are available to make a traditional bánh mì: beef (pictured below), pork, chicken, fish or tofu. Bánh mì sandwiches have an almost cult-like following, and Phở 14 provides a worthy contender at a great price. (In fact, in addition to the bánh mì’s unique and fantastic flavor, the sandwich’s loyal following may have something to do with its budget-friendliness as well! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one priced over 6 bucks or so.)I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll add Vietnamese food to your list of things to try if you haven’t tried it already. Your first taste won’t be your last – phở sure!

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Turning Japanese

Tiny orbs of orange salmon roe exploding in your mouth like tiny firecrackers… delicate slabs of sea urchin (uni) melting away on your tongue, so sweet and creamy, they belong on an ice cream cone… rare and precious horse mackerel magically appearing on your sushi sampler, making you feel like some sort of dignitary… you close your eyes and chew slowly, tasting the incredibly fresh, salty richness. You think, This is the very taste of the sea

Hey, this ain’t so so bad for a Monday night!

Okay, so maybe I’m going  a little overboard. But guys, I’m tellin’ ya, Kushi Izakaya & Sushi (at CityVista 465 K St NW, Washington, DC 20001, 202.682.3123) really is something to write home about. I was joined by my handsome and intelligent friend Yoshi, and since he was born in Japan, I was extra-thrilled to benefit from his extensive food knowledge. We began with the spectacular Chef’s Sashimi Choice ($40, pictured above), which is  a sampling of 8 types of fish, two pieces each (we received three pieces of most), including the aforementioned delights as well as otoro (extra-fatty tuna), shrimp, salmon, and more.

We moved onto a couple of Kobacki (small plates) including some cherrystone clams (pictured left), and the beloved subject of many of our conversations, pork belly. If you’re not familiar with pork belly, it’s basically a bacon steak. What could possibly go wrong? (In fact, the other night, Yoshi and I had a long conversation about pork belly via text message, in which we even traded several pictures. I may have met my foodie match with this guy!) Anyway, the pork belly was braised in a Japanese-syle in broth with a bit of okra and carrot, and was served with a smear of beautiful mustard. It was meltingly tender, fatty, and delicious, as pork belly should be.

Next we sampled a few offerings from the grill. Kushi grills in two styles: Kushiyaki (wood grill), and Robata (charcoal grill).

The Kushiyaki (pictured above) comes in small 2.5-ounce portions ($3 – 10), perfect for sharing and tasting. We tried the (right to left) pork belly (of course), chicken thigh, chicken liver (with a sweet and crunchy grill flavor on the outside, and a rich, dense texture on the inside), chicken breast with plum sauce and shiso leaf, and asparagus wrapped in bacon. I know what you’re thinking: how much pork fat could we possibly cram into one dinner? After this night, I’m not sure if I’m going to the gym or to hell…

A Picnic at Wolf Trap

What better way to spend a summer evening than a nice picnic at an outdoor concert? Last night, Brant, Eric and I enjoyed a lovely picnic dinner at Wolf Trap in Virginia with music courtesy of one of our favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams. Here’s a picture of Dar and me at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland back in August 2009 – isn’t she adorable?

When you’re like me and your musical tastes vary away from the mainstream (my roommate says I listen to “suicidal lesbian music” – thanks Scotty!) it’s nice to have friends that like the same kind of music that you do. Eric and Brant are also eager eaters, so they are fun to cook for, and delightful to spend time with in many ways. We kept the menu simple: BLTs with goat cheese on toasted french bread, sesame noodles (recipe below), and Ina Garten’s Ultimate Ginger Cookies.

Sesame Noodles

Cook according to package directions:

  • 1 lb Whole Wheat Spaghetti

While pasta is cooking, whisk together the sauce ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp Sriracha (more or less to taste)
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 3 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted (reserve some for garnish if desired)

Drain the pasta and toss it thoroughly with the sauce ingredients while still warm. When it is cool, toss it with the following veggies:

  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
  • 1/2 cup sugar snap peas, trimmed and steamed
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 1 english cucumber, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped (reserve some for garnish if desired)
  • 3 or 4 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced (reserve some for garnish if desired)

Chill and serve. Serves 8 – 12.

We finished up with a sweet treat, Ina Garten’s Ultimate Ginger Cookies, recipe here:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/ultimate-ginger-cookie-recipe/index.html

Since I’m unable to resist the urge to mess with a good recipe, I had to add cashews to Ina’s recipe. I must say, the results were fantastic. I added a cup of whole, roasted, salted cashews at the end of the mixing. The mixing broke the nuts up a bit but they stayed pretty big and added some nice crunch and flavor to the cookies. I highly recommend this recipe with or without the cashews.

I’m a huge Ina Garten fan, and I have this fantasy where I somehow get invited to one of her parties in the Hamptons. If you ever watch her show, you know she’s flanked by more gay men than Lady GaGa, so I can’t help but think this fantasy could someday come true. A boy can dream… Anyway, in true Ina fashion, I even put the cookies into “glassine bags and tied them with ribbon” just like I saw on her TV show (I know, I’m a total freak). But before you judge me, I should tell you that when I originally planned this, I thought Brant’s daughters were joining us for the concert, and I was planning this special touch to impress them. I was also going to serve the noodle salad in festive Chinese take-out containers but I stopped short when I found out the kids weren’t coming. I’m coo-coo, but not THAT coo-coo.

SpiceBoy’s Take 5

Okay, y’all – here are five quick, exciting things I wanted to share with you, in no particular order of coolness.

1. The Delicious Gelato and Sorbet at Pitango.

http://www.pitangogelato.com/

With appearances at local farmers markets and storefront locations in the metro DC area, Pitango offers some serious gelato. I must say I haven’t tasted anything like this since I was in Sirmione, Italy – no lie! I tried two flavors: Crema (vanilla custard) and Hazelnut (made from imported Italian nuts), and they were both absolutely heavenly. More good news – free samples on those tiny plastic spoons! Other flavors I sampled included the sublime white grapefruit and dark chocolate orange. $4.95 for two scoops (up to two flavors) and $6.50 for three scoops (up to three flavors). It’s also a really nice, friendly atmosphere – and how do they keep all that stainless steel so clean and shiny?

2. Singer-Songwriter Jennifer Haase

Super-talented and super-cute songstress Jennifer Haasse (rhymes with “classy”) is hard at work on her second album, “No More Invitations,” the follow-up to her fantastic debut “The Listening Chair.” Roseanne Cash says: “Jennifer Haase is a unique and gifted songwriter with the voice of an angel. I highly recommend her.” Well! Far be it from me to argue with the likes of Ms. Cash! “No More Invitations” is slated for release in the fall, and Jennifer has arranged a fundraiser to drum up the last few dollars for the release of the album so friends and fans can take part in the process – and she’s offering lots of fun prizes for those who participate. (Yours truly will appearing in the liner notes, y’all!) “New Pink Sweater” is the first single, and it’s perfect for a steamy summer afternoon. Give it a listen – it’s guaranteed to have you taking the top down on the Cabriolet and flirting with all the boys on the corner (or girls, if you’re into that kind of thing):

I highly recommend this folk-pop diva. Visit her on the web www.rhymeswithclassy.com. Also, you can (and should) buy her music on iTunes.

3. The Travelzoo Top 20

So much cheap travel, so little vacation time. No shizzit, Travelzoo has it all in one place, having combed all the bargain travel sites and distilling it into one weekly email. You can subscribe here:

www.travelzoo.com

Tree and I are going to Guatemala in November and we only paid…wait for it…$399 each. That’s four nights, including airfare, folks. With prices so low it sounds like a scam, I can only tell you that the majority of my vacations from the past five years have come from the Travelzoo Top 20, and while they haven’t been the lap of luxury, the deals have been incredible. You’ve got to check it out.

4. Trailer Park Queen Jolene Sugarbaker

On of my very favorite web personalities in the whole wide world is Jolene Sugarbaker, the Trailer Park Queen. When I’m stressed out at work, all I need to do is click on a Jolene Sugarbaker cooking video and I’m instantly transported to the trailer park and all my troubles are behind me. My day is immediately transformed, and I just know that Jolene loves me! Try it sometime. Here, you can watch Jolene make shrimp dip in a plastic ashtray!

Jolene’s blog – http://trailerparktestkitchen.com/ – has lots of great videos, recipes, and a fun store with tons of trailer park fashions. You’re gonna love her!

5. The Summer Menu at 1789 Restaurant

http://www.1789restaurant.com/main/index.shtml

1789 Restaurant in Georgetown (1226 36th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007, 202.965.1789), chosen as one of Gourmet Magazine’s Top Tables in America, is a real gem. In an historic, Federal period house, their dark wood walls, fine antiques, and fancy table settings make give the impression that 1789 is cost-prohibitive, but the menu is surprisingly reasonable, with small dishes ranging from $9 – 20. And did you know that they have a fabulous summer menu coupon you can print from their website, offering three courses for $35.00? (Offer expires September 15, 2010.) I tried the summer special with my dear friends Matt, Mac, and Christopher (pictured below, right, with little ol’ me). To say the least, we were not disappointed. We tried several of Chef Daniel Giusti’s thoughtful, summery offerings using only the freshest local ingredients, including the selection of country terrines (pictured, below), Wianno oyster gratin, soft-shell crab (pictured, above), crispy pork belly (with a wonderful shaved fennel salad), and day boat scallops (with roasted beets and rich Hudson Valley fois gras). For dessert, the cherry lattice and the icebox cake (pictured, below) were standouts. Be warned, jackets are required. You’ll have fun making a special night of it – we did!

Cupcake Karma

There must have been some divine intervention going on when I decided to have my visiting family members help out in deciding who has the best cupcake in DC. Get this – we drove to three different bakeries (two in Georgetown and one in Dupont Circle, both neighborhoods notorious for NO PARKING) and I found parking right in front of each bakery. Right in the middle of the afternoon!!! Now that’s some serious cupcake karma, y’all! Just TRY to convince me that God wants me to eat healthy…

The visitors (left to right) my nephew James (15), my little sister Tree, my big sister Patty, my niece Kayla (13), and my mom Ginny, all came to visit DC for a long weekend. In addition to trudging around seeing the sights in the 97-degree heat (“Look! There’s the Washington Monument! There’s FBI Headquarters! There’s my out-patient rehab clinic! There’s the Capitol!”), I thought it would be fun to sample some of DC’s designer cupcake offerings. As you may know, the boutique cupcake bakery trend has hit DC with a vengeance and has shown no sign of slowing down anytime soon. We figured we could handle 4 different bakeries over the span of 4 days/3 nights.

Here are the contenders:

Red Velvet Cupcakery

675 E Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

http://www.redvelvetcupcakery.com

Cost: $3.25 per cupcake ~ Value: 3/5

Not a bad price, but not a great one either.

Service: 3/5

Service was no-nonsense, but felt a little rushed. There was a line and the space is rather small and awkward, which probably creates a need for staff to keep things moving, but the staff weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. A smile would have been nice. You’re selling cupcakes, folks, not burial plots.

Selection: 3/5

Red Velvet Cupcakery has a good basic selection of cupcakes, including their signature cupcake the Southern Belle, a classic red velvet cupcake done just right. Other selections we tried include Peanut Butter Cup, B-Day, Black Velvet, and that day’s special, the Peach Cobbler Cupcake.

Comments: This Penn Quarter outpost is characterized by fluffy, moist cakes and even fluffier, lighter-than-air whipped frostings. The crowd favorite was the Peanut Butter Cup, with a light, whipped peanut-butter icing with a hint of saltiness. The Morning Call cupcake (espresso-chocolate cupcake with espresso-dusted buttercream and a chocolate covered coffee bean on top) was another crowd-pleaser. These were the first cupcakes we tasted, and Ginny’s impression was that they would be “hard to beat!” The Devil’s Food cupcake had just the kind of rich, dense chocolate flavor you look for in that type of cupcake. James kept scraping the paper liner with his teeth! Can’t take that boy anywhere…

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Georgetown Cupcake

3301 M St NW
Washington, DC 20007

http://www.georgetowncupcake.com

Cost: $2.75 per cupcake  ~ Value: 4/5

A solid, reasonably-priced cupcake for the value-conscious snack-hound.

Service: 5/5

We found all of the staff to be knowledgeable, super-friendly and well-trained. They kept the line moving along at a brisk pace, without making you feel rushed. Impeccable service. Special kudos to cupcake-packer extraordinaire Rob Dickers, whose hand is prominently featured in this cupcake-packing action shot.  This guy is delightful, and a real pro!

Selection: 3/5

Georgetown Cupcake has a fantastic, extensive selection, certainly worthy of a 5/5 rating. However, the day we visited the availability was limited, and several of the selections we were looking forward to (including the Salted Caramel and the Peanut Butter Swirl) were simply not on the menu. We found that the menu on the day of our visit was rather mundane. In fact, there were no selections AT ALL with peanut butter, which I consider to be a major flub for any cupcake bakery, any day of the week. Selections we did try included the Red Velvet, Chocolate-Squared, Vanilla-Squared, Toffee Crunch, and Chocolate Mint.

Comments: Already very popular and known for lines up the block and wait times in excess of an hour (we waited outside the store about 15 minutes on a Monday at 4 pm), Georgetown Cupcake is about to get even bigger with it’s own reality show “DC Cupcakes” having premiered on TLC July 16th, 2010 at 10 pm. Specialty ingredients like Vahlrona chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla, as well as designer toppings like fondant flowers truly make these cupcakes extra-special. The cakes were dense and moist and the frostings ranged from a thick, rich slab of ganache on the Chocolate-Squared cupcake to the fluffy vanilla-scented cream cheese frosting on the classic Red Velvet cupcake. James thought the mint flavor in the Chocolate Mint was something special and authentic, and just about everyone agreed that the Red Velvet was the best we tasted. The Toffee Crunch had real toffee flavor, and overall these were undeniably the prettiest cupcakes we saw. While James asserted that the flavors were superior, he doubted that the superiority of the cupcakes outweighed the wait-time differential required to obtain the actual cakes. This would have to be taken into serious consideration…

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Hello Cupcake

1351 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

http://www.hellocupcakeonline.com

Cost: $3.00 per cupcake ~ Value: 3/5

Average value, but would the cupcakes be above-average?

Service: 2/5

Unfortunately, on this particular day, the service was rather indifferent and not very friendly.

Selection: 2/5

We were met with a very limited selection when we visited. We were told that more cupcakes would be available later in the day. (Again, no peanut butter!!!) Luckily, we were able to snag the very last Vanilla Gorilla (banana cupcake with vanilla frosting), which had come very highly recommended. We also grabbed the Dreamsicle (orange cupcake with vanilla cream filling and orange buttercream, pictured), You Tart (lemon cupcake with lemon cream cheese icing), and a couple of HC Originals (think basic vanilla and chocolate combinations). In all, the selections were not diverse enough to excite these experienced chow hounds!

Comments: Aside from the exceptionally good Vanilla Gorilla (they got the banana cupcake JUST right), we all agreed that Hello Cupcake’s offerings, while good, were not great. One taster commented that they were almost like – gasp! – supermarket cupcakes. With such heavy competition here in DC, Hello Cupcake did seem to fade into the background a bit for this group of tasters. However, kudos go out to this bakery for offering both a gluten-free and a vegan selection every day.

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Baked and Wired

1052 Thomas Jefferson Street NW
Washington, DC 20007

bakedandwired.com

Cost :$3.85 per cupcake ~ Value: 2/5

A bit spendy, but in all fairness the cupcakes are a bit bigger that the competition.

Service: 5/5

A neighborhood style and a homemade look of all the baked goods gives this place a special kind of vibe that makes you want to stay and hang out for a bit. We interacted with three different staff members and they were all super-charming.

Selection: 5/5

Baked and Wired has an excellent, fun selection of cupcakes and on the day we visited we were overwhelmed with exciting choices. Some of the imaginative selections we tried included the Chocolate Doom, Razmanian Devil (lemon cupcake with raspberry jam center and lemon buttercream icing), Chai Latte, and the Unporked Elvis (banana cupcake with peanut butter icing and chocolate drizzle.)

Comments: Baked and Wired was not originally on my short list for this cupcake sampling, but after the uproar among my friends, I had to add it to the itinerary at the last minute. (This was not such a big deal, since it’s only a few blocks from Georgetown Cupcake, and as we know, the parking gods were on my side with this endeavor.) This place has a loyal and vocal following, and with several of my friends insisting they offered the best cupcake in town, I knew we had to check it out. The cupcakes are the biggest I’ve seen, and we were the most excited about trying these selections compared to the other contenders. In fact, Tree and Kayla and I had driven over to pick up the cupcakes and we were tempted to pull over and eat them in the car. We were going to come home empty-handed and tell the rest of the family: “Mayor Fenty has called for a city-wide moratorium on cupcakes until the City Council agrees on a budget for the fiscal year!” But in the end we agreed that even though Ginny and James might buy this ridiculous story, Patty would never fall for it. Baked and Wired cupcakes definitely had a homemade texture and flavor. However, some of the comments on the icing indicated that it might be “too sweet.” We were disappointed to find that the Unporked Elvis cupcake was really just a mundane banana bread, and the peanut butter icing left a lot to be desired. However, we could tell that this bakery uses high-quality home-style ingredients, and they accomplished a taste just like homemade. In all, Baked and Wired really is delightfully different than the other places.

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So who’s the winner? Believe it or not, we were split right down the middle with Ginny, Tree and Patty voting for Red Velvet as the overall winner, and Kayla, James and I voting for Georgetown Cupcake. Since ties are so lame, I decided to break the tie myself and give a few extra points for the cupcakes we agreed were the prettiest. Therefore…

Overall Winner of Spice Boy’s Best in DC: Georgetown Cupcake ~ Great textures and flavors, high-quality, gourmet ingredients and special fondant toppings and touches gave Georgetown’s flagship cupcake bakery an edge over the rest.

Runner-Up: Red Velvet ~ Penn Quarter’s stately southern-style lady is not to be missed. Moist and light cakes and fluffy frostings made this contender a very close second place!

Honorable Mention: Baked and Wired ~ Even though this bakery wasn’t really in the running with the others in terms of overall cupcakes, their imaginative flavors and neighborhood vibe made them worthy of a special mention and definitely another visit. I can’t wait to try their biscotti, too!

The longer I’m around, the surer I am – family is what it’s all about. Throw in a few baked goods, and things just don’t get any better! In the end, does it really matter who has the best cupcake? Nah! The fun is all in the sampling and spending time with your peeps. Enjoy life!

Cute and Delicious

I seem to be missing that gene that people have that prevents them from eating animals that were cute when they were alive. In fact, the fluffier and cuter the animal was when it was alive, the more fun I will probably have breading and frying it. Anyway, I have no reservations about eating rabbit, hence a recent farmers market dinner I’d like to share with you, Braised Rabbit Ragout over Cheesy Fresh Corn Polenta with Sauteed Rainbow Chard.

The previous weekend, I had been to the Alexandria, VA farmers market (at 7:30 a.m. in the rain no less, with my friend Christopher) and I had picked up some beautiful white corn and golden beets which I still had on hand. The following Thursday I was at the Penn Quarter market and looking for a few more things to round out a dinner menu for myself and a couple of buddies who were coming over.

Getting meat at the farmers market can be tricky, because even though the quality is fantastic, the meat is often frozen – and on this particular day I needed something fresh for my guests. I was able to find fresh rabbit from Maryland (“Just killed yesterday!” the man boasted), for 9 bucks a pound. Not exactly cheap, but I’ve never cooked a whole rabbit before, and I thought it would be nice braised into a ragout over some polenta studded with fresh corn and cheese. Surely this was more of an autumn-style menu but I was excited about cooking a whole rabbit, and the menu was suddenly taking shape in my mind.

For the first course, I roasted up a few golden beets to make a Golden Beet Napoleon with Fresh Ricotta and Lemon-Tarragon Vinagrette. I love fresh beets, especially the golden ones, because they make the whole kitchen smell wonderful – roasty and nutty – and when you peel them, they don’t discolor your hands like the red ones. I tossed them in some olive oil and roasted them at 350 for about 45 minutes, then cooled them slightly and peeled them under cold running water. While still slightly warm, I sliced them into rings and tossed them with a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette

Lemon-Tarragon Vinagrette

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

1/2 tsp Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp honey

salt and pepper

a few leaves of fresh tarragon from the balcony garden

Whisk all ingredients together with a few Tablespoons of olive oil

Toss the excess vinaigrette with some salad greens. Mix a few Tablespoons of fresh ricotta with whatever fresh herbs you have on hand. (I got my ricotta at the farmers market. You can also use goat cheese, which pairs beautifully with beets.) Create a bed of dressed salad greens. Build your napoleon on top of the greens, with layers of beet and herbed ricotta. Garnish with toasted walnut halves. My napoleons looked kind of crazy, probably because I went a little overboard with the cheese. No one complained.

So here’s the basic idea for the ragout. I sauteed 4 slices of chopped bacon and then removed it from the pot. Over medium-high heat, I seared the whole rabbit (seasoned generously with salt and pepper) on all sides in the bacon fat until it was golden brown, then removed it from the pot. I turned down the heat a bit and sauteed 8 oz of cremini mushrooms with a couple of sliced candy onions, also from the farmers market, then set those aside with the bacon. I added a little olive oil to the pot and sauteed a half a chopped Vidalia onion and about 5 cloves of garlic and some chile flakes, then added a tablespoon of flour and let it cook for a minute or so. I deglazed the pan with about 2 cups of wine then added 2 cups of crushed tomato and about a cup of milk. (Before you ask, I’m accustomed to using milk in braises and ragouts, as it helps to break down the meat). After bringing this to a simmer I added the rabbit back in to braise for about an hour and a half. I added in chicken broth as needed to keep the rabbit mostly submerged. I also added: a bay leaf, some dried basil, salt and pepper, and a pinch of sugar.

When the meat was falling off the bone I removed the rabbit from the pot so it could cool down enough to handle. At this time I adjusted the seasoning, added a handful of fresh herbs from the balcony garden (tarragon, oregano, parsley, thyme), and added back in the bacon, mushrooms, and candy onions while allowing the sauce to reduce. I shredded the meat off the bone and added it back into the sauce. The ragout was deep and rich in flavor, and the meat was tender and delicious, which just the slightest hint of lean gaminess that is characteristic of rabbit meat. For me, this is really the main trait that distinguishes rabbit from chicken. In fact, my feeling is that just about any recipe that calls for chicken can easily be made with rabbit.

The rabbit was served over polenta with Parmesan cheese and the niblets from one ear of white corn mixed in. Also on the side was some rainbow chard sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chile flakes. Voila!

A Weekend on the Cape

My favorite place in the whole, wide world is Cape Cod. The ocean, the smell of scrub pines, the cranberry bogs – when I’m surrounded by it all, I immediately relax (for proof, see pic below of me asleep in hammock.)

It’s no secret that when I travel, I tend to plan my trips around where and when I can stop by my favorite eating establishments, and find new ones. What can I say? It’s an alternative lifestyle. Having spent summers in East Harwich since I was a kid, each visit the Cape is no exception. To me, Cape Cod also means family, and on my recent weekend visit there I was able to see most of my clan.

I tend to agree with critics when it comes to the great Cape Cod fried clam debate. The consistent winner of all the critics’ choice awards seems to be Cooke’s Seafood (locations in Mashpee, Hyannis, and Orleans), and I have to agree.

I’ve tried MANY a fried clam all over new England – enough to make a cardiologist gasp – and I always come back to Cooke’s. On this trip, my sister Tree, my Mom and I visited the Orleans location (Route 28),where we were unable to eat inside the restaurant or on the patio like normal people, since the dogs were in the car and they couldn’t be left alone for 5 seconds. (Leaving them all alone at the house was out of the question because Tree is insane. Don’t even ask.) Anyway, we had a lovely picnic under a tree on the outskirts of the parking lot, with a nice water view. The WHOLE clams (clam strips are a travesty and will not be discussed here) were plump, sweet, and succulent as usual, with a coating just as crispy, crumbly and delightful as can be. Tree enjoyed a New England delicacy, the coffee shake. She is, after all, our resident authority on fancy drinks (see “Notes from Costa Rica,” which details her love affair with mango smoothies.)

You may be aware that the very bane of my existence is picky eaters, and my dear sister unfortunately happens to be one. Oddly, though she’ll be vexed by something as innocuous as, say, a large chunk of tomato, she happens to love mussels. Yes, mussels, those oil-dark, oval, bearded mollusks that only 7% of the population will even look at, let alone put near their mouth. Though many believe they are evil incarnate, those in the know will tell you that these shelled beauties are sweet and meaty, and lend themselves to any number of simple, delicious preparations. Inexplicably, Tree loves them. And I love her for it; sharing mussels has become one of our sibling bonds.

So on the odd occasion that Tree and I find ourselves alone together, like on one particular night on the Cape, we decided to cook up a batch. This time, we steamed them up in a spicy tomato sauce with wine and fresh basil, fra diavolo style.

Mussells Fra Diavolo

Serves 4

2 Lbs Mussels, cleaned and de-bearded

1 28-oz can crushed tomato

1 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp red chile pepper flakes (more or less to taste)

1 Cup dry white wine

pinch of sugar

fresh basil leaves, torn

salt and pepper

1/2 lb spaghetti or linguini, for serving

1. Using a pot that has a tight-fitting lid (you’ll need the lid later), heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red chile pepper flakes and sauté for an additional minute or two.

2. Deglaze the pan with wine and stir in the tomato, oregano, and sugar. Season the sauce with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the flavors come together and the alcohol cooks off, 10 – 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.

3. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the mussels. Cover tightly and boil for about 8 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels have opened. Throw in the basil, reserving some for garnish, and give the pot a final shake.

4. Serve the mussels over pasta with or without cheese, depending on which side of the seafood-and-cheese controversy you fall upon. I think it’s kind of nutty to say that EVERY seafood flavor clashes with EVERY cheese out there and none of them could possibly pair well. I like to eat the mussels off the top of the dish, then sprinkle parmesan over the pasta. It’s delicious. Call me crazy.

I take a backseat to my brother-in-law Jimmy, the true cook in my family, the grill-master. I must say, everything he touches turns to gold. Therefore, I decided to make a few easy appetizers for our family dinner the next night, while Jimmy took charge of the grill. My niece Kayla assisted me with some really easy no-cook smoked salmon bites. All of the ingredients are available at Trader Joes (we stopped at the one in Hyannis at exit 6). The smoked salmon there is really a good deal! If you can’t find “popped” style potato chips, a sturdy potato chip, like a kettle chip, will work fine.

Smoked Salmon Bites

(Adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine)

4-oz sliced smoked salmon

1 bag Popped Chips (available at Trader Joe’s)

2 Tbsp crème fraîche

1/2 tsp lemon zest

baby arugula leaves

fresh chives, chopped

Mix the crème fraîche with the lemon zest. Cut the salmon into bite-sized pieces. Lay out the chips on a platter. Top each chip with an arugula leaf, a piece of smoked salmon, a tiny dab of crème fraîche, and a sprinkling of chives. These are wicked easy bite-sized appetizers everyone will love.

What better way to finish a meal – or to finish a lovely weekend with family – than with a sweet treat? My family’s favorite sweet shop on the Cape is Herbert’s Stage Stop Candy (411 Main St, Dennis Port, MA). They have fantastic fudge in every flavor imaginable ($7.95 a pound), and lots of old favorites like truffles and turtles. For me, the star of the show is Stage Stop’s cranberry cordials, which make a great gift for folks back home. They are local cranberries enrobed in scrumptious milk or dark chocolate – a true taste of Cape Cod.

I’ll be back soon…

Confessions of a Chile-Head

Guest Cook: Paula B., Minot, North Dakota

What we’re exploring: The Supermarket

What we found: Habañero Chiles

Why use them: They pack a super-punch of delicious heat, perfect for chile-heads like my friend Paula and me. They’re also super-cute!

Cost: Extremely low, especially since just one or two will knock the socks off the whole village

So a couple times a year I get to see my friend and colleague, Paula B., who hails from the mysterious land of Minot, North Dakota. You may have read about this place in a storybook or seen it in a science fiction movie, I don’t know. I’m not sure what or where it is, exactly, but she says she lives there.

In the land of Minot, they practice this ancient ritual called “canning” which I have heard of, but have never practiced. I think I first learned of it from a cave drawing or a petroglyph or something. Anyway, Paula still does it because where she lives she can’t always get the freshest or best-quality produce year-round. It’s a way to preserve produce for later in the year, and also a way to set aside delicious jams, jellies, veggies, and more.

Paula and I tend to see each other at work-related events far from either of our homelands, and we always make time to compare notes on recipes and our love of chile peppers. On a recent business trip to Orlando, Paula brought me a fabulous gift of her very own Peach-Habañero Jam, labeled “XTRA SPICY” and even offered to share the recipe!

Peach-Habañero Jam

3 pounds ripe peaches, peeled and quartered

l/2 medium-size orange, quartered and seeded

2 Red Savina habañeros, (seeds and all)

4 cups sugar

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 Cup honey (the lightest, mildest you can find)

1. Combine peaches, sugar, and honey in a Dutch oven; stir well. Cover and let stand 45 minutes. Position knife blade in food processor bowl; add orange quarters and chiles. Process until finely chopped, stopping once to scrape down sides.

2. Place orange, habañero chiles, and an equal amount of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until orange rind is tender.

3. Bring peach mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to medium-high, and cook, uncovered, 15 minutes, stirring often. Add orange mixture. Bring to a boil; cook, uncovered, 20 to 25 minutes or until candy thermometer registers 221 degrees, stirring often. Remove from heat; stir in almond extract. Skim off foam with a metal spoon.

4. Quickly pour hot mixture into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace; wipe jar rims. Cover at once with metal lids, and screw on bands. Process jars in boiling-water bath 5 minutes. Yield: 6 half-pints.

This jam is fantastic. It has a great backdrop of heat that goes nicely with the complex sweetness. I enjoyed my fist taste with some creamy brie (see photo) and it was a worthy pairing.

Let’s talk about habañeros. Apparently they are often mistaken for Scotch bonnet peppers. These two are easily confused because they are similar varieties of the same species. They are also similar in appearance and heat level. So what’s the difference? How do you really know if what you’re buying at the supermarket has the correct label of habañero or Scotch bonnet? My opinion? They’re so similar, who really cares?

I love heat. I ate hot chile on a nearly-daily basis for the ten years that I lived in New Mexico, and I built up quite a tolerance. However, these peppers intimate me and bring out my inner wuss. I use habañeros or Scotch bonnets in only a couple of recipes, such as my jerk pork. A half to one whole pepper spices up about 8 servings. (I may share that recipe at a later time, but I warn you in advance, it’s not authentic.) I also make a simple pineapple salsa with habañero, lime, and cilantro to top fish tacos.

So let’s talk about just how HOT habañeros are. The scale used to measure the heat of chile peppers is known at the Scoville Index – named for Wilbur Scoville, a chemist who developed a method to measure the “heat” of the chile pepper (I’m sure it’s very technical to understand, so let’s not bother, ok?) Let’s suffice to say that the Red Savina Habañero mentioned above places at 350,000 – 575,000 heat units on the Scoville scale, as compared to a jalepeño, which scores 3,500 to 8,000 (wow – big difference!) That’s some serious heat, folks.

It was once explained to me that capsaicin, the chemical in chile peppers that makes us taste heat, attaches to the tongue in such a way that the molecule is not “knocked off” when we drink water. That’s why cold water really does nothing to dilute the heat. However, fat molecules will dislodge the capsaicin from your tongue, so milk will cool down your mouth (or, even better, ice cream). Sour cream, of course, will also have that cooling effect to ease the burn brought on by chile heat, which is probably why we see it paired with spicy Mexican dishes. Or think of a cooling yogurt raita served alongside a spicy Indian dish. Or the creamy brie mentioned above, served with Paula’s spicy jam. Is this making sense now?

Anyway, I’m not exactly Mr. Science, so you may want to check my facts before you quote me on any of this. All I know is I loves me that hot chile pepper kick from time to time!

Farewell, Morels…

What we’re exploring: DC’s Penn Quarter Farmers Market

What We Found: Morel Mushrooms

Cost: Extravagant

Why use them: Incredible taste, Short season

As late spring turns to early summer, we must say goodbye to another one of our dear friends, the morel mushroom. Earthy, precious, and kind of cute – alas, he is only around for so long. The morel is also terribly expensive, so when I do decide to shell out the cash for some, I also take to heart that age-old kitchen advice – “Don’t screw it up!”

Again, these are the days when it’s best to keep it simple and let the true flavors of the ingredient shine through. In fact, morels are so precious, I’d advise you to treat them like a top secret operation. That small paper bag handed over by the farmers market guy even suggests something covert. Just give him and a quick nod and rush home – hide that bag in the fridge until you have a moment alone. I’d advise just a simple saute in butter – this is no time for margarine – finished with some sea salt and black pepper, best eaten alone in the kitchen. Enjoy them one at a time, standing up by the window, savoring the deep, dark flavors of the morel. Let yourself be transformed from the heart of the city to the deep woods in an instant. Mission accomplished. Until next spring…

Myself, I took it a step further and made a simple brunch dish for my buddy Matt and me, with asparagus and another fun farmers market staple, the quail egg.

Morel Mushrooms with Asparagus and Quail Eggs

Serves 2

10 – 12 Morel mushrooms, halved if large and cleaned

8 – 10 thin asparagus spears

1 Tablespoon butter

4 quail eggs

1 Tablespoon minced shallot

2 teaspoons minced chive

Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Bring 2 pans of salted water to a boil – a small one to poach the quail eggs and a larger one for the asparagus. Trim the asparagus and blanche for 2 minutes, then rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Cut asparagus into 2-inch lengths. Dump the water from the pan and carefully dry it so you can use it to saute.

2. Melt the butter in the pan and add the morels and shallot. Saute for about 4 to 5 minutes, until they are just about cooked. Add in the chives asparagus, just to heat through, another minute or two. Divide the morel-asparagus mixture among two plates.

3. Now, poach your quail eggs in the other pan. They just take about a minute each – Carefully crack the quail eggs into the boiling water and and let them boil for a minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and dab the bottoms on a kitchen towel. Top the morel-asparagus mixture with two quail eggs each. (One would suffice, but why not two? They’re ridiculously small.) Finish with salt and pepper.

Ingredients like morels, ramps, the mysterious fiddlehead fern and garlic scape (both of which I have yet to figure out) are all the more precious because of their elusiveness. They’re here and then they’re gone. Joyfully, we can count on them like old friends to return next year for their all-too-brief visits.

I’ll be waiting.

The Gayest Salad in the History of the World

What we’re exploring: Dupont Circle Farmers Market

What we Found: Edible flowers

Cost: Minimal

Why use them: They’re tasty and they look fancy!

Uses: In salads; as a tasty garnish for meat or fish dishes; as a dramatic topping for soups

What do they taste like: Nasturtium flowers – peppery (like arugula); Chive blossoms – oniony (think chives times five)

Wow. To say I’ve outdone myself would be an understatement. I have single-handledly and accidentally created The Gayest Salad in the History of the World. I went to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market again this week, with the innocent idea of grabbing some salad greens, and just look what happened. Here’s how it all came together:

  • Mesclun Mix (including radicchio)
  • Arugula
  • Nasturtium Flowers
  • Chive Blossoms
  • Blueberries
  • Hazelnuts
  • Goat Cheese

The resulting salad has some peppery flavors from the arugula, radicchio and nasturtium, as well as some sweet-tartness from the blueberries and the vinaigrette. The hazelnuts give an earthy crunch and the chive flowers lend a nice oniony hit. The mild creaminess of the goat cheese is a nice foil for the base salad’s sharpness. The dressing is a blueberry-balsamic vinaigrette, using some blueberry-balsamic vinegar I picked up on my last trip to Maine. (The recipe follows; regular balsamic will work just fine.) Just look at the colors – purple from the radicchio, blueberries and chive flowers, orange and yellow from the nasturtiums. As you can see from the photo, the resulting salad, while both tasty and pretty, is without a doubt The Gayest Salad in the History of the World. It needs its own theme music. In fact, I fail to see how you can even eat it without wearing a tiara.

I posted the photo on my Facebook page and here were some of the comments:

Cielo P. show me the flower power…hehehe

Ivan F. Gayer than a clutch purse

John M. Serious LOL

Brant B. It looks delicious, though!

Matt D. Delicious salad Matthew! And it’s so gay, straight men will take 2 bites and switch teams… which is why I am making you prepare it for me as my secret conversion weapon.

Few great things in life are created alone. My friend Matt D. was with me when I made the salad (for our lunch), and he helped to choose hazelnuts as the crunchy element. (The other option was Marcona almonds – hazelnuts were a good choice, Matt!) Also deserving some credit here is Becky, the super-charming Lettuce Lady from the farmers market, who threw in an extra handful of nasturtium flowers with the mesclun mix at my request, even though the boss lady said no. What can I say? I guess I’m charming, too.

Blueberry-Balsamic Vinaigrette

2 teaspoons minced chives

2 teaspoons minced shallot

1/2 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 Cup blueberry-balsamic vinegar (or regular balsamic vinegar)

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 Tablespoon blueberries

Whisk together all ingredients except olive oil and blueberries. Slowly whisk in olive oil to emulsify. Stir in blueberries. Allow dressing to sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to blend. Mix again before serving. And remember, the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice (see photo – Yes, Micah is actually wearing a t-shirt that says this.)

Later in the day I brought some of this salad to Micah’s birthday barbecue at Seth and Ben’s place. I couldn’t help but notice, even though a few people ate a bit of the salad (what my Mom would call a “no-thank-you helping”), most of the guests simply gawked at it. The one straight male guest actually looked a little terrified when I unveiled it. His girlfriend confessed she was not a fan of goat cheese but politely enjoyed some of the blueberries (Thank you, Terri).

When it came time to leave, Seth asked if I wanted to take my platter, which still had at least half of the salad on it. Thinking back, it sounded rather like a plea. Noting that I would be back next week for another party, I said I would just get the platter then.

Seth agreed, and mentioned that next week I shouldn’t trouble myself to bring anything.

“Just bring yourself,” he said.

I’m not quite sure how to take this.