Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Farro - no, not the Egyptian King, the grain....

From Wikipedia: There is much confusion or disagreement about exactly what farro is. Emmer, spelt, and einkorn are called farro in Italy, sometimes (but not always) distinguished as farro medio, farro grande, and farro piccolo, respectively. Regional differences in what is grown locally and eaten as farro, as well as similarities between the three grains, may explain the confusion. Barley and farro may be used interchangeably because of their similar characteristics. Spelt is much more commonly grown in Germany and Switzerland and, though called dinkel there, is eaten and used in much the same way, and might therefore be considered farro. Common wheat may also be prepared and eaten much like farro, in which form it is often referred to as wheatberries.

So, we had farro for dinner last night and, according to the paragraph above, there isn't even a really good definition of what it is! I can tell you though, prepared this way, it was delicious. Cyn put the recipe together and asked that I share it here.

Farro with Mushrooms and Sun Dried Tomatoes
(Serves 4)

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
1/2 cup chopped onion

1 1/4 cups sliced shitake mushrooms
1 1/4 cups whole white mushrooms (1" dice)

6 oz farro (pearled if possible)
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 cups vegetable stock (water may be substituted)
1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes, sliced into strips
1/4 cup marsala or sherry
1 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
rosemary sprigs for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F

1. In a braising pan on medium high heat add the olive oil and onion. Stir about 2 mins until soft. Add the mushrooms and farro, cooking 2-3 mins to toast the farro. At this point there should be some noticeable caramelization on the bottom of the pan. 

 Add the soy sauce and stock. Stir to de-glaze the pan. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cover.

2. Transfer covered braising pan to the 400 degree oven; cook for 35 minutes.

3. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes (this is important!)

4. Stir in sliced sun dried tomatoes and parsley. Garnish with rosemary. 

As a side dish we made broccoli rabe which was added to a fry pan with slow roasted red onion, fresh garlic, roated garlic and Thai red pepper and a tablespoon of EVOO. Just add the broccoli rabe and a couple of ounces of water, cover and sweat it down until cooked!

The farro had an almost nutty flavor and the cooked consistency reminded me of wild rice. Somehow the flavor profile was both sweet and salty. The dish turned out to be surprisingly filling.

Our beverage of choice for this meal was a Sam Adams offering that I had not seen before. This small batch run of Tasman Red IPA was really good. I found it in a small liquor store when we visited Connecticut over the holidays. Too bad I didn't buy more of it.

P.S. Check out the new "About Me" and "Favorite Photo" Pages I've added!


Friday, January 20, 2012

Five "favorite" beers?

A while back, I wrote a post about the five best restaurant meals I'd ever had. It wasn't easy to cut the field to five since I've been fortunate enough to have had many great restaurant meals over the years. The other day, a friend and I were talking about the great selection of beers that are widely available these days and he asked me what my favorite beer was.

I'm rarely speechless, but in this case I stuttered, stammered and started spitting our various names along the lines of "well, there's xxxx, but wait, I can't forget yyyy, oh jeez, then there is zzzz." This went on for a while until I finally admitted that there wasn't a singular answer. As I noted in the restaurant post, sometimes it's the time, the place, the company and in this case, the food you're eating at the time that makes a beer memorable. My friend convinced me to try to define the five best beers I've ever had and do my best to recall the "when and where".

So, in no particular order, here goes. These are not necessarily my five favorite beers (although some of them are) but they do represent some very memorable moments in my beer experience.

Who can forget their very first beer? Well, OK, maybe you can, but I haven't. I was in, of all places, the Andes Mountains of Venezuela on vacation with my parents. We were on a cruise that had Caracas as one of the ports of call and took a land tour to a German Village high up in the Andes. I remember a couple of things very clearly; the roads were scarily narrow on the repeating switchbacks up the mountain; the driver seemed to be blissfully unaware that there were no guardrails protecting against what would surely be a fatal plunge over the side; and as a young teenager I thought it was way cool to see the fear in my Mother's eyes as we rounded every turn. The village had been settled by Germans fleeing WW2 and remained pretty authentic to German culture. So, that afternoon, with lots of pork, sauerkraut and other German delicacies, I had a bottle of Polar beer - apparently, to this day, the beer of choice in Venezuela.  I remember the beer tasting great. My parents repeatedly told me this was a "special occasion" and not to think this would be typical. I kind of remember sleeping most of the car ride back to the ship.

Fast forward to my college years in Philadelphia. Without giving away the specific year, I'll tell you that it was during a period when the drinking age had been dropped to 18 in many states - Pennsylvania being one of them. Coors had just starting shipping their beer east of the Rocky Mountains and Miller Lite was running their iconic "Less Filling, Tastes Great" commercials with the likes of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner staring. Sure, I drank my share of these very commercial beers along with plenty of Gennesee Cream Ale, Schaefer, Schmidts, Pabst and Piels. After all, we were on a college budget and they were widely available. I do, however, remember one of my fraternity brothers coming back from a semester break with a four pack (yes, a four pack) of something very different. Everything about it was new to me. It was bottled (we drank mostly canned beer back then), it had a fancy looking label and it was imported! As odd as that sounds now, it was pretty uncommon back then. This particular beer opened my eyes to the fact that not all beer tasted the same - nor did it look the same. It was brown and opaque instead of pale and transparent.

Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout remains today, one of my favorite beers. Samuel Smith has been brewing beer in the UK since 1758. They offer a broad range of styles, all good, but in my opinion, none better than their Oatmeal Stout.

Many, many years later, I was finally initiated into a club that you can only be a part of if you find yourself in Manhattan. I was attending a work related event in NYC with my wife and we had a free afternoon. Since we were both from the general area (NJ and CT respectively) we knew our way around Manhattan pretty well - or so we thought. Some friends asked if we wanted to go with them to McSorley's. Huh? Well, turns out that it is the oldest continuously operating saloon in NY. Been there since 1854. It's a hole in the wall on the on 7th Street just east of 3rd Ave.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of history to the place. Four of us went and were lucky enough to get a table (this doesn't happen often since there aren't many). But we didn't get just any table. We were seated at what we were told used to be "John Lennon's table". Yes THAT John Lennon used to frequent McSorley's to sit, sip and write lyrics. The waiter (who was born around the time of Noah) pointed out some carvings in the wooden table and swore they were made by JL himself. What about the beer you ask? Well, McSorley's serves one style - Ale. When your waiter asks what you want, the only answer is light or dark - they serve two ales of different color, both brewed specifically for them. It's served in 7 oz. mugs, so order at least two at a time. Somehow, the waiters carry eight mugs per hand and can deliver sixteen to a table on each trip without a tray! The beer isn't memorable, but the experience is.

Last year Cynthia and I went to a beer pairing dinner at a restaurant in our local area. Tuscarora Mill is located in Leesburg, VA and is one of our favorites. Every couple of months they do a special beer dinner event that consists of inviting a craft beer manufacturer to bring 5-6 beers and have the chef pair courses specifically to them. We signed up for the Bell's Brewery dinner, not knowing much about them but really liking what we saw on the advance menu. Since we were just two, we were seated with three other couples that we didn't know but were obviously beer enthusiasts (otherwise why be there, right?). Even before the first course was served, they started asking us if we were there for the Two Hearted Ale. Um, sure, and the other 5 beers being offered. They raved about this particular ale and insisted it was, by consensus, their absolute favorite beer.  Turned out to be a great group of people and we had a lot of fun with them.

I believe it was the third course (and I honestly don't remember what the food was) but when this beautifully colored, perfectly balanced ale was served, I was converted. Bell's is out of Michigan and fortunately is now being distributed in our area. I try to always have some Two Hearted Ale stashed away in my beer fridge, you know, just in case.

Finally, I am on an IPA kick. For those of you not beer savvy, IPA stands for India Pale Ale. The origin is said to be based on the type of beer that British sailors had on board when they sailed to India because itstood uo to the long journey better than water. There are literally hundreds of IPA being brewed now, some OK, some good, and some great. It is a crisp and bitter(ish) beer with hints of pine and other floral elements. There are single IPAs, Doubles and Triples, mostly distinguished by their alcohol content. A few months ago we were visiting our favorite local beer seller, Cork and Fork, in Gainesville, VA and one or the staff suggested I try Green Flash West Coast IPA.

I bought a 22oz. bottle, put it in the beer fridge, and promptly forgot I had it. A few weeks ago I "found" it hiding behind some other bottles and decided it would go well with the spicy vegetarian dish we were having that night. Wow, wow wow! Alert the press. New favorite. Fortunately it seems to be readily available around here so it will now be a part of my reserve stash.

Are these the best 5 beers I've ever had? Probably not. Do they all bring something a little special to the plate, a time, a place, a taste or good or new friends? You bet. The great part is knowing the list will continue to evolve over time.

How about you?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


In about 10 days I'll be traveling to Amsterdam for business. Although I've been there several times before, it will be the first time since I started writing this blog. I'm looking forward to the food since my expereinces there have always been good in the past. I arrive on a Sunday which means I'll have my first Meatless Monday overseas! Should be interesting.

That first night, I already know where I will be eating. It's a (mostly) European, British based restaurant chain called Wagamama. They specialize in Pan-Asian food in a fun and friendly atmosphere. I just love their menu. I'm hoping to have enough content from there for a future blog post.

Until I get back, here are a few pictures from previous trips to Amsterdam.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Now, about those potato pancakes....

Last week, an unexpected trip to the vet derailed our plans for potato pancakes on Meatless Monday. For those following along, Cooper is doing great. The antibiotics have beaten back the Lyme disease and he is running around like normal.Since I didn't quite get over not getting them last week, Cynthia agreed to make the potato pancakes this week. However, as she often does, she took a traditional preparation and added her own touches.

Typically, potato pancakes are pretty straight forward - shredded potatoes, diced onion, eggs and flour to bind them together. Tonight we wanted to "veg them up a bit". We started by shedding a really big russet potato on the largest side of a box grater. The shredded potatoes were triple rinsed in cold water to remove as much starch as possible. 1/2 of a large sweet potato was shredded the same way and added to the rinsed russet. Finally, two medium carrots were shredded the same way. Separately, the following were diced: red onion, green onion, and jalapeno pepper.

The russet/sweet potato mixture was strained through a colander and as much water as possible was pressed out by hand. All the ingredients were combined in a large mixing bowl. To get the pancakes to hold together during frying, you need to add eggs and flour. We added three eggs and three tablespoons of flour (this will depend on the amount of potato you've used). The goal is to mix everything together and have it all be coated by the egg and flour but not be a gloppy mess.

Add about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil to a a shallow non-stick fry pan and get the oil good and hot (375 F if you have way to measure the temp). Test the oil with a very small piece of the mixture to make sure it is hot enough. We use a fork to add the mixture to the oil so that it remains loose and not "packed". Fit as many as you can comfortably in the pan and turn when the first side is golden brown.

The second side always  takes less time. Remove from the oil onto something to absorb the excess (we use a brown paper grocery bag). Salt immediately while still very hot. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate and enjoy with your favorite topping - or as is. We like applesauce and sour cream.

The vegetables added a nice mix of sweet and spicy to the crunchy potatoes. Comfort food at its best.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sometimes it just isn't meant to be....

This Meatless Monday dinner was supposed to be potato pancakes with homemade applesauce and sour cream. I was really looking forward to it but it will have to wait. Those of you that have been following along know we have two cocker spaniels, Cooper and Jack.

Cooper has lyme disease (actually, most dogs test positive for it) which occasionally flares up. It typically manifests itself as soreness in his hind legs to the point that he is hesitant to walk on them. The good news is that it is completely treatable and the medication works quickly.

Well, today, out of the blue, he started exhibiting the symptoms. Cynthia called me at work and told me she  needed to travel the nearly one hour to our Vet for the pills and get him started on them right away. Long story short, by the time we each got home, it just seemed easier to go out and let someone else make dinner. A salad and baked ziti filled the meatless requirement but I'm holding out for the potato pancakes soon.

P.S. Cooper is doing much better and the medicine is obviously working.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Kimchi and Gumbo?

This year for Christmas, Cynthia and I gave each other a gift that will last all year. We "promised" that on the first Saturday of each month we would go out to eat at a place we had never been before. It's not that we don't eat out, but like a lot of people, we have our favorite places and tend to frequent them. This gift will make us work a little harder at finding new, and hopefully, interesting spots. Based on our experience last night, we're off to a good start.

Mokomandy (apparently for Modern Korean by Mandy) is an interesting creation that, as their website says, "is a casual fine-dining restaurant based upon the marriage of a Cajun woman to a Korean-American man". The food is clearly the product of both cultures but isn't, in any way, an attempt to create a fusion of the two.

The first impression was good, we were greeted warmly and our reservation got us seated right away. The atmosphere is fun, family friendly and a bit loud. If you're looking for intimacy, this might not be the best choice.The mixed drink and beer menu is great. They offer quite a few, out of the mainstream choices in both categories. They also have a nice selection of wine.

The menu was designed in a way to promote "grazing". They offered snack sized portions as well as small, medium and large plates. As advertized, there was representation from both Korean and Cajun cultures. We decided to order several things and share them to try and experience a lot of different tastes.

We started out with one of the snacks - probably because neither one of us could quite figure out what it was. Fava "nuts" turned out to be fava beans roasted to a crispy perfection and seasoned with cajun spices. Cynthia thought the spices were reminiscent of a charged up Old Bay. What a revelation, these things should be outlawed! It's a good thing the plate was snack size because we would have eaten them until we exploded had there been more.

We ordered two small plates, one from each culture. The seafood gumbo was true to New Orleans and contained oysters, shrimp, catfish, trinity (a mix of bell pepper, onion and celery) and rice, all complemented by a dark roux.

From Korea came foie gras dumplings. The perfectly steamed dumplings contained braised duck and were topped with a beautifully seared piece of foie. These were complemented by a small salad of radish, onion and spouts and a house made plum sauce.

Next came two medium plates which served as our main courses. The Cajun offering was a shrimp etoufee. If you like the essence of shrimp, you would love this dish. The perfectly cooked shrimp are complemented by rice, trinity, butter and a house made spice blend. Accenting the dish were crispy shrimp chips which added texture.

The Korean classic bulgogi beef was as good as I've had it anywhere. It was served with laver (sheets of pressed seaweed to make rolls if you so desire), purple rice, white rice, black garlic, banchan (Korean for small dishes, in this case spicy kimchi and yellow squash skitakii). The bites we were able to put together combining the beef and other elements on the plate were perfect. The intense beef flavor combined with the spicy yet refreshing kimchi and the subtle squash and skitakii married perfectly together.

We were pleasantly sated at this point but decided to split a dessert. What's more classic in the Cajun culture than beignets? Nothing - so we ordered them. Obviously house made, they were served piping hot with four sauces and the requisite powdered sugar. If we had never had them freshly made at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, we would have been impressed.

All in all, a really wonderful experience. Mokomandy is nearly an hour from our house. If it were closer I could imagine it becoming our "go to" spot. There are still a lot of things we want to try on the menu - and we will definitely be back.

Mokomandy on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

So you say you don't like okra....

...well, you might want to consider the dish we had this week on Meatless Monday.

One of the second tier goals of committing to a full year of Meatless Mondays was for me to expand my horizons, particularly as they relate to vegetables. Don't get me wrong, I'm not really a picky eater. In fact, having worked for the Japanese for more than a decade and traveling to Japan frequently, I know that I have experienced my share of, shall we say, non-traditional fare.

In the vegetable world, there are stars, there are bit players and then there are those that are misunderstood. I'm thinking that okra is in that last category. I suspect most people think of it as a "southern vegetable", and it isn't popular in large areas of the country. I never saw it growing up in NJ and, now that I live in VA, I'm not sure it's any more popular here. Sure, I've had okra here and there over the years, in Cajun dishes mostly. I've also had it battered and deep fried. Quite tasty that way - but then again what isn't tasty when it's battered and deep fried?

So, in that spirit of expanded horizons, I mentioned to Cynthia that I read about an okra and chickpea stew online and asked her if she was up for making it. Silly question really, she never shirks from a food challenge. So, this Monday night we had what turned out to be a soul satisfying, yummy, and very healthy dish that, as usual, was even better when I ate the leftovers for lunch the next day.

Here is the recipe she put together.

3/4 pound fresh okra, stem ends trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
10 sprigs fresh cilantro, plus more leaves for garnish
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup bell pepper, any color or combination of colors, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, finely diced
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 can Muir Glen fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 cup vegetable broth
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 pound cooked chickpeas (15 ounces can works well if you’re time constrained  but I encourage you to try cooking them from dried - the flavor is superior)
salt to taste, I usually use a little less than a teaspoon 
your favorite hot sauce, I use sriracha here, to taste
Chickpeas slow cooking with a New Mexican chile pepper and bay leaf
Cook okra for two minutes in rapidly boiling salted water.  Shock in ice bath.  Drain on paper towels and set aside.
  1. Tie cilantro sprigs together with kitchen string.
  2. Heat oil a tsbp of the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add bell and jalapeno peppers. Cook, stirring, until soft, 2 to 5 minutes. Transfer half to a bowl and set aside.
  3. Add onion, garlic, ginger, and black pepper to the pepper in the pan. Cook, stirring, until the onion is soft, 3 to 6 minutes.  Add cumin and cook another 30 seconds. Mix in tomatoes, broth, okra, cilantro sprigs.  Reduce heat to medium; partially cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the okra is soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in chickpeas and salt; cook for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat; discard the cilantro sprigs. Stir in hot sauce and check seasoning. Serve sprinkled with the remaining bell pepper and cilantro leaves, if desired. 
We served it with whole grain na'an bread and a side dish made up of the leftover spinach dip from New Years Eve that we added chopped cucumber to. The coolness of the salad was a perfect offset to the spicy main dish.

IPA from one of my favorite brewers, New Belgium, completed the meal.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year!

The other night, like so many others, we celebrated the end of another year and the beginning of the new one. For me, 2011 was really good and I have every reason to believe that 2012 can be even better. I wish the same for all of you.

There are many ways to celebrate New Year's Eve. Our particular choice, more years than not, is based on a tradition that comes from my wife's family. We stay home, enjoy a variety of food and drink and try to make it to midnight. Some years we do, others we don't.

I've asked Cynthia to guest write the rest of this blog entry since she brought the tradition that we now enjoy together.

I have not always been a ‘good eater.’  But I come by it honestly, my Dad was a white man.  And when I say white man, I mean he liked his food white.
Or in varying shades of beige and brown.  Breast of chicken, mashed potatoes and a piece of Wonder Bread.  That was my Connecticut Yankee Dad’s idea of a great meal before he met and married my Ukrainian and Culinarily Adventurous Mom.   And my Mom and her family tell the story of his re-education with varying shades of honest glee - since they were able to open up his white world and show him a kaleidoscope of herbs and spices.  But the going was slow, and took many years.
During my Dad’s days of food epiphanies, first I, then my brother, made our way into the world.  And dinner became, shall we say, interesting.  Tomatoes?  Not a chance.  Anything with mayo?  Not gonna happen.  Canned tuna, a staple of the time?  Can’t you smell that?  What’s wrong with these people who eat something that smells like that?  (Still can’t get past the lid opening of a can of Chicken of the Sea but bonito canned in olive from Portugal?  Oo la la.  So it was a challenge to feed two pieces of zolotah (Ukrainian translation of ‘gold’, phonetically - which is what our Baba called us grandbabies). 
So, how did my Mom enjoy a New Year’s Eve at home with husband and two small children?  She gathered everyone in the living room, set up the coffee table with a smorgasbord of color, flavor and prepared dishes, and to up the ante and keep the kids interested, she let them cook their own food in hot oil on short sticks!  NYE Fondue was born.  Rock on, Mom!  
(While this might seem crazy to you parents out there today, remember we also rode our bikes without helmets, walked to school on main roads without an adult holding our hand and played out of doors out of sight for a good part of every day.)  
As dangerous and glamorous as it seemed to my brother and I at the time, we each had a parent providing their undivided attention to the cooking process.  And we ate everything - a feat heretofore unheard of in our household.  Perhaps the spirit of adventure was captured when moving the food away from the kitchen table and onto the coffee table, with pillows as chairs and hot spears as utensils.  I highly recommend an adventure to get a picky kid to try something new --- pair it with something that could put a kids' eye out and you can't fail. 
And so a tradition was born.  Every New Year’s Eve, when we’re feeling like staying home, we revisit the Fondue.  More often than not, we feel like staying home just to have A Fondue.  Here are the basics, for anyone interested in adopting a tradition:
Buy some shrimp and enjoy a spicy shrimp cocktail whilst you cut, stir and assemble.  A martini can only magnify the celebratory feeling, so grab your favorite gin or vodka and create.  My current favorite is Belvedere and I like 'em dirty, using a French vermouth to clean the dust out of the glass and pouring the excess down the drain.  Extra olives and a spear of cucumber tipped with Szechuan pepper salt rounded out my cocktail of choice.  Al went with a beer tasting - I wasn't willing to trade the food space in my stomach for brewskis.

You must have a pot and a stand especially for fondue, unless you’d like to gather ‘round the stove.  I highly recommend an electric fondue pot and ours is from Cuisinart.  With a traditional fondue pot, moving back and forth between the stove and the stand and its can of Sterno, is something you’ll have to do to keep the temperature steady.
Essentials for the fondue include bite sizes pieces of beef, breaded chicken and twice breaded cubes of cheese, typically mozzarella and munster.  Any oil with a decent smoke point, canola, peanut, even regular old vegetable oil, will work well.  I prefer peanut oil, but only because that was the oil we used.
There MUST BE dipping sauces for the meat and dips for the crudites.  At least three dipping sauces for the beef, chicken and cheese coming out of the hot oil - something sweet, something tangy and something gloppy.  This past Fondue, it was A-1 steak sauce (a must have since I was old enough to taste it, not because I adore it, because like Fondue, it’s tradition), a thick hickory honey BBQ sauce, and a sweet and hot Thai chili sauce.  A platter of fresh vegetables always accompanies the Fondue, since everyone knows they cancel out the fat calories.  Dips this year were a fresh cayenne laced spinach dip and a homemade bleu cheese - they adorned baby radish, carrots, blanched and shocked broccoli, red, orange and yellow peppers and persian cucumbers with a Szechuan peppercorn salt. 

And because you can never have too much spice in our house, a Kajun Krab dip/spread from our local grocery that my good friend and fellow foodie Suzanne turned me on to.  It’s wonderful on a buttery cracker, kind of like a cold spicy crab cake in a bite. Kind of.

Other munchies included lemongrass chicken stix from Trader Joe’s and two last minute, made up on the spot, crostini.  (I love challenging myself to come up with something interesting and tasty from stuff I have on hand.)   Giant white beans that had been marinated in a sort of Italian dressing hit a crostino with a topping of julienned Peppadew and Al’s balsamic dressing.  Baby artichokes got a quick chop and mix with a  little minced shallot, mayo and pecorino romano, then a quick broil to brown.  Both were easy, fast and delicious. 

Nice chunks of aged cheddar and a good pepperoni rounded out the snackfest.  Typically we’d have some summer sausage or good salami and a few more cheeses, but it was just the two of us this year.  

I know it sounds like a lot of food, but we think of it as a tasting menu and we do pace ourselves.  And there are always leftovers which make a New Years Day lunch a snap.  Enjoy!

Pea on this, Pea on that

Peas have a reputation.  And it ain't good - starchy and a weird color, very often the color of something a babe has recycled. But in fa...