Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Meatless Monday Meal Without Planning

Another Meatless Monday has come and gone and the best laid plans of Al and Cyn....well, you know the rest. Over the weekend, like we usually do, we talked about a couple of possible dishes. First, there was going to be a lentil and pasta dish that sounded very yummy. It was from a recipe I found on Lidia Bastianich's website. For those of you who may not know who Lidia is, you need to check her out here. If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of her restaurants, do. One of the five best meals I've ever had was at her flagship restaurant in NYC, Felidia.

At some point, I think it was Sunday afternoon, the plan had morphed into a vegetable lasagna that Cynthia has been dying to make. By the time we went to bed that night, we hadn't reached consensus and I gave Cyn the green light to surprise me. Fast forward to Monday and that's when everything changed.

It was a beautiful 65 degree day in Northern Virginia and while I was at work, Cyn couldn't resist getting out into the garden. Spring, it seems, has sprung, or at least had on Monday. You see, we garden a lot, flowers, vegetables, herbs and, did I mention we are building a koi pond starting next week? We are, but more about that in a future post. Needless to sat there is a lot of winter clean up to do before the real spring gets here. So, when I got stuck at work a little later than usual, and Cyn lost track of time and worked in the garden all day and the next thing we knew it was 6:00 PM and neither one of us had considered what was for dinner. Time to scramble.

Fortunately, we tend to keep a pretty well stocked refrigerator and Cyn is particularly adept at improvising. Remember the French green lentils from the Sheperds Pie post a week ago? Well, we had some left over in the fridge and they became the base of our first course. Add some yellow and orange bell peppers, a few beautiful sweet peppadews, cucumber, onion, barrel aged feta cheese and calamata olives. Thin slice some eggplant and zucchini on a mandolin, and cook them very briefly on both sides (use a grill pan with ridges to make it pretty if you have one). Combine, drizzle with your favorite dressing (we mixed our homemade balsamic vinaigrette with a Greek dressing  from a restaurant called Lefteris in Mount Kisco, NY that had been given to us by a good fried (thanks Judy!). The finished salad was rich, very flavorful and could easily have been a main course.



As they say on the late night commercials, but wait, there's more....

Not knowing how filling the salad would be, we planned to have a second course of a angel hair pasta with the garlic roasted tomato sauce we had canned last summer. It's a very basic marinara sauce that we love to keep on hand as much as we can. Honestly, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a summery fresh tasting tomato sauce eaten in the winter made from the tomatoes you grew yourself.




Can't get that taste from those cardboard tomato imposters you find at the supermarket in February. Like I said, I'm not sure we needed the pasta course, but it sure was tasty.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Really, really local food


One of the best ways you can go local and 'get in touch' with where your food comes from is to grow it yourself. Almost everyone at some point or another has brought home a little pot of herbs as an impulse buy from the supermarket, tried to nurse a Christmas rosemary through the winter, or been seduced by the seedling tomato plants at their local garden center. All get snapped up for the promise of helping make a tasty meal even tastier and the satisfaction of having grown it oneself.

Some of us like to take that promise of food nirvana and turn into a hobby. WARNING: this hobby may turn into a slight obsession, primarily after sampling your first heirloom tomato, still warm from the sun. Or opening your coldframe in January or February and harvesting mixed greens for a sublime salad, the produce so fresh and tender, it needs little more than a sprinkle of sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of your favorite oil.

Mesclun mix is a lovely combination of greens, lettuces and herbs that originated in Provence, France, according to Wiki. Originally the composition included chervil ( a wonderful slightly anise-y fernlike herb), arugula, leafy lettuce and endive. Our modern definition of mesclun typically includes any mix of baby lettuces, herbs and greens. If you've never grown your own food, here is the place I'd recommend you begin. Mesclun. Cheaper to grow than a box o'greens snagged in the produce section.

To begin, you need something to contain the dirt. A cheap plastic flower box fits perfectly on a sunny windowsill or tucked in a sunny corner of your yard, find them in your local big box store, the one with the blue logo beginning with W. Purchase enough potting mix to fill. And then pick out a package of seeds. If you're like me, this will be difficult as all the pretty packages only serve to distract you from your mission. "Oooo, calendulas! That marigold is a new and interesting shade...those violas are a lovely shade of lemon and violet....and nasturtiums with white splashed leaves.....well, we must have some of those as well!" (All edible and colorful additions to your salad, btw)

If you'd like to bypass the potential seed plethora, order online. There are some very good seed companies out there, each with excellent descriptions of their own mixes, and when to plant them. Most lettuces and greens that you'll want in a salad are Spring and Fall crops, not so happy in the full sun of Summer. Order now! My favorites are: The Cook's Garden, Johnny's, Southern Exposure and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. All have a nice mesclun blend for growing and dining pleasure.

Sidenote: If you can find chervil seeds, and you will online but probably not locally south of the Mason-Dixon, snap them up. They prefer a shady spot that is nice and cool with a little moisture. Simply sprinkle on the ground, add a little topdressing of compost or leaf mold, water lightly and walk away. A ferny little plant emerges that is incredibly beautiful, in addition to tasty and prolific, as long as its requirements for shade and temperate climes is met. In Northern Virginia, my chervil generally sets seed and disappears in late May, only to reappear again as seedlings in November, which will overwinter, if I can keep my paws off of it around Thanksgiving.

If you're interesting in hunting bigger game, consider investing in a cold frame. Our latest Juwel coldframe is from A.M. Leonard's and is situated on the southeast side of our home, snugged up against it for additional insulation. Gardener's Edge and the Garden Supply Company also have good models to choose from - if you have a spot for it. Once the chance of frost disappears here, I dismantle ours and store it behind the shed. Leaving it in place through the season is also an option.

Our coldframe rebuild is typically the first weekend in November, leaving just
enough time to get some seeds in the ground that may be ready for Thanksgiving dinner garnish. This year half the frame was filled with a mesclun mix, Bright Lights swiss chard, Red Cardinal spinach, purple top turnips and watermelon radish. We've been enjoying the bounty since the end of December, which is when the first baby greens were ready for a hair cut. The biggest leaves get snipped off for consumption, allowing the smallest to grow up and replace them, ensuring a never ending supply. The picture to the right was taken the week of Thanksgiving, about 3 weeks after planting.

Now all this may seem like a lot of work for a salad. I won't lie, it is much easier (and faster!) to grab the cellpak of greens at the grocer or plop the tongfull of mesclun from the bin into the plastic bag. But neither of those activities do a thing for my soul. But planting, growing and eating my own produce certainly does. It's my meditation and Moment of Zen. Om.


From bottom to top, two leaves of Red Cardinal spinach, chervil, next three on left are Bright Lights swiss chard, balance is a few choice leaves from a mesclun mix of seeds.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Vegetarian Sheperds Pie Even A Cattleman Can Love

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Most weeks I let Cynthia pick what we have for Meatless Monday dinner. I'm never disappointed, This week however, over the weekend I asked her to make a lentil Sheperds Pie. I had been bouncing around the internet and had seen a couple of different vegetarian recipes. We both love traditional Sheperds Pie, so it seemed a good idea to try a vegetarian version.

As she typically does, Cynthia decided to use the recipe as the only slightest of suggestions. What we ended up with was a lentil and mushroom Sheperds Pie that was richly satisfying and gave both a mouth feel and taste that was distinctively "meaty" but was completely vegetarian.

Here's what she came up with.
Ingredients
1 1/2 cup French green lentils
1 small onion
4 cloves
1 garlic clove
8 oz package of baby portobello mushrooms, diced
2 tsp grape seed oil
1 small shallot
1/2 tsp thyme
 1/4 cup Maderia
1 oz sweet butter
2 carrots, 1/4 inch diced
1 leek, white part in 1/2 inch dice, green part fine chopped
1 small turnip, 1/2 inch dice
1 stalk celery, 1/4 inch dice
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp gravy master
1/2 cup mushroom stock, made from Better than Bullion
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup frozen corn
 4-5 medium Yukon Gold potatoes

Preparation (Lentils)
  • Cook lentils in water with the garlic, thyme and the small onion studded with 4 cloves Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, 30-45 minutes. Set aside.
    Preparation (Vegetables)
    • Fry mushrooms in a very hot pan with a small pat of butter and grape seed oil (for vegan, all grape seed oil)
    • Add finely chopped shallot and then de-glaze pan with Madeira (Marsala, Port, Cognac, and even water will work if you prefer no alcohol)
    • Add carrots, leeks, turnips and celery
    • Add butter (for vegan, not dairy substitute), flour, Gravy Master and mushroom stock
    • Salt and pepper to taste. Cook to a firmness you prefer
    • Add frozen peas just long enough to defrost. (in season, fresh peas would be nice)
    • Transfer to a mixing bowl and combine with lentils
      
    Preparation (Potatoes)

    • Simmer quartered potatoes in milk (we use milk to add a creaminess to our mashed potatoes, for vegan, use water). You can mix in turnip, parsnip, celeriac, apples, rutabaga, sauteed cabbage or onion or both, fresh herb pesto to make the potatoes as fancy as you want....you get the idea)
    • When cooked mash the potatoes and fold the frozen corn into the mash.
      Preparation (the final dish)

      • Butter (or vegan substitute) a 10# casserole dish (it should be at least 2" deep)
      • Add vegetable and lentil mix.
      • Spoon, pipe or add anyway you like (be creative!) the potato and corn on top of the vegetables (we would also consider polenta in place of the potatoes)
      • Bake in a 375 degree F oven until the potatoes began to brown and the vegetables are bubbling. Remove from oven and serve steaming hot. Enjoy!


      Tuesday, February 21, 2012

      "He who controls the Spice, controls the universe!"

      Do you know the quote? It's from the 1984 movie adaptation of the novel Dune, the seminal SciFi novel written by the great Frank Herbert and spoken by his creation Baron Harkonnen. The spice he refers to is an illicit geriatric drug the gives the user a longer life span and heightened awareness.

      For the purposes of this post, I'd like to paraphrase a bit and say that:

      "She who controls the spice(s), controls the food."

      Here, spice is neither illicit nor a drug, and I don't know if it will increase my life span but it certainly does provide me with heightened awareness (of the food).

      Used correctly, spices elevate food from sustenance to the realm of pleasure and can activate any or all of the 5 elements of taste perception: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami.

      There seems to be a belief, held by many, that "spicy" food means "hot" food. Although peppery hot food is certainly spicy, not all spicy food is hot. Far from it. There are literally thousands of spices available to the adventurous cook that can be used to enhance the enjoyment of any dish, from the simply hamburger to the most involved haute cuisine.

      When I decided to write a post about spices, I asked Cynthia to guess how many individual spices we had in the house. Her response was along the lines of, "I don't know,um, a lot?" Turns out she was right, we have a  lot of spices

      The main spice drawer

      The rest of the spices

      Saturday, February 18, 2012

      Building a Better Taco - From Leftovers!

      Some of the best meals come from leftovers because, at least in my opinion, many foods seem to reach their peak of flavor a day or even two after cooking. In our house, with only the two of us to eat what we cook, there are almost always leftovers - this makes me happy.

      The other day I wrote about the Spicy Pork Tenderloin that we had for Valentine's Day dinner. There was plenty of pork left over that we knew would only get better after a few days. On Thursday we decided to make tacos using the pork, but in keeping with our commitment to less meat in our diets, we decided to use  the pork more as a flavoring than as the featured element.

      So, we waded into the refrigerator and started pulling out a little of this and that to construct our tacos. It didn't take long to realize we would need tortillas and that we didn't have any - that's when Cyn decided to make them from scratch. It was actually a pretty simple matter of combining flour, salt, non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening and water to make a dough. It was then divided into golf ball size pieces and allowed to rest. When it was time to eat, the rounds were rolled out into flat circles and cooked on the stove top on medium high heat in a DRY pan.



      The first side took about 30 seconds and the second side less. Cooked tortillas were moved to a damp kitchen towel in a 200 degree F oven to keep them warm.
       
      OK, back to the taco fillings. We found an avocado, some onion that had been picked with beet juice added for color, fresh pineapple, radish, red cabbage and yellow pepper. Our refrigerator is often a minefield of little covered dishes, plastic containers and  partially used veggies. To us, that's a good thing.

      We blended the avocado with Meyer lemon juice and sea salt to make a spread and simply chopped everything else into manageable pieces. Prior to construction it looked like this.


      Putting together a taco like this is great because you can pick as many or as few of the ingredients as you like. Mine went together like this....a generous helping of the avocado spread went down first. A modest amount of the pork (I'm sure it was no more than 1/2 ounce) was followed by cabbage, pickled onion, yellow pepper, radish and my personal favorite, pineapple. 


      Each bite of the taco had distinct notes of sweet, sour and spicy. The cabbage and the radish added a great crunchy texture too. Here is what Cyn's looked like.


      We each ate a whole, really stuffed taco and split a third. All in - probably 1 1/2 ounces of meat for two people. Not vegetarian, but clearly we were using meat more as a flavoring in this dish.

      We often eat our salad course last, and that's what we did for this meal. It was a simple plate of roasted red and yellow beets, blood orange sections and Cherry Glen goat cheese, all drizzled with our homemade balsamic vinaigrette.



      See, aren't left overs great?

      Thursday, February 16, 2012

      Valentine's Day Dinner - Spicy Pork Tenderloin

      One of the many perks of being married to my beautiful and talented wife is her ability to produce a restaurant quality meal at home. So, when she told me I could have anything I wanted for Valentine's Day dinner, I quickly asked for for the Spicy Pork Tenderloin she had made several times in the past. The recipe is based on one from the Gourmet Cookbook, one of Cyn's favorite cookbooks that complies many of the best recipes from Gourmet Magazine.

      I love pork, in fact, I love almost anything from the pig (OK, maybe not scrapple). For me, it's more than just "the other white meat". It is a perfect canvas for a wide variety of dishes that run the gamut from subtle to in your face . This one is clearly in the latter camp. Here is her version of the recipe.

      Adapted from Gourmet

      Ingredients (for pork)
      1 tsp fine sea salt
      1/2 tsp black pepper
      1 tsp Cyn's house made curry powder (you can use a store bought curry powder too)
      2 tsp ancho chile powder
      1 tsp cinnamon
      2 pork tenderloins (2 - 2 1/2 pounds total)
      2 tbsp grapeseed oil (or other high smoke point oil)

      Ingredients (for glaze)
      1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
      2 tbsp finely chopped garlic
      1 tbsp cholula chipotle (or tabasco, but the cholula is better)

      Preparation (the pork)
      • Preheat oven to 350°F
      • Stir together salt, pepper, curry powder, ancho chile powder and cinnamon. Coat all sides of the pork with this rub.
      • Heat oil in an oven safe 12" heavy skillet over moderately high heat until just beginning to smoke. Brown pork on all sides and ends - about 4 minutes total. Leave pork in skillet.


      Preparation (the glaze)
      • Stir together brown sugar, garlic and cholula then pat mix onto the top of each tenderloin before roasting.

      Preparation (the oven)
      • Roast in the middle of the oven for about twenty minutes or until the center of each tenderloin is 140°F. Let stand in skillet at room temperature for 10 minutes. (temperature should rise to approximately 155°F while standing).
         
      Slice the pork to desired thickness and serve with juices from the skillet spooned over the meat. Hint: Don't ignore the "pork candy" that has formed on the bottom of the skillet. The combination of spices, pork juices and brown sugar make a taffy like substance that I'm thinking of patenting and marketing.


      Cyn served this perfectly medium rare and fork tender delight over a bed of creamy polenta and with mustard green that had been quickly blanched in boiling water, chilled in an ice bath to retard the cooking and then sauteed with sliced fresh garlic until (mostly) tender. Any restaurant chef would be proud to serve this finished plate.










      Wednesday, February 15, 2012

      Dairy Free Mexican Chocolate Pudding...

      You've read it here before. I'm not much of a dessert guy. It's not that I don't like sweets, I just prefer savory foods and I have to put a lid on the calorie count somewhere. Last night however, as part of our weekly Meatless Monday dinner, Cyn made a dairy free, vegan, Mexican chocolate pudding that was pretty amazing. Once again she has managed to successfully sneak tofu into my diet - and get me to like it! If you love rich chocolaty desserts, you'll love this.

      Ingredients
      1 14 oz package of silken tofu
      12 oz of semi sweet chocolate chips (she used Ghirardelli)
      1/3 cup simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil)
      2 tsp cocoa powder
      1/2 tsp cinnamon
      1 tsp chile powder

      Preparation
      • Melt chocolate in a double boiler, cool
      • fold in the tofu, simple syrup, cocoa powder, cinnamon and chile powder
      • blend on high speed for 1-1 1/2 minutes (using a hand mixer may take a little longer)
      • refrigerate the mixture in a container until fully chilled and set
      This recipe makes approximately 8 servings.


        Really? Could it be easier?  The texture is wonderfully smooth. The taste has a chocolate depth from the cocoa powder and the cinnamon and chile (used in a lot of Mexican chocolate recipes) give just a noticeable back note of heat. One little hint: the better chocolate you use, the better this will taste.

        Enjoy!

        JWsMadeWLuvMondays

        Tuesday, February 14, 2012

        Forbidden black rice with scallions and sweet potatoes...

        It was another Meatless Monday and Cyn was looking for something new to make for us. We've committed to trying to not go back to the "same old" things each week. After all, one of the benefits of Meatless Monday should be to expand your horizons into new vegetables, grains and other non-meat products.

        One of her favorite sources of inspiration is Epicurious.com. This time found she stumbled onto a recipe which included a somewhat unusual ingredient - forbidden black rice. Forbidden rice is a strain of Chinese black rice which is considered to be both food and medicine in China. Forbidden rice takes on a dark purple color when cooked because it is rich in anthocyanins, which act as powerful antioxidants. The rice contains more vitamin B, niacin, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc than white rice.

        The ":forbidden" name comes from the belief that, in ancient China, this strain was reserved for the Emperor and his subjects were forbidden from consuming it. It should be noted that Lotus Foods first introduced Forbidden Rice into the USA in 1995 and has trademarked the term.

        Here's the recipe, adapted from Epicurious.com 


        Yields: 4 servings


        Ingredients
        3/4 cup Chinese black (forbidden) rice
        1 1/2 cups water
        3/4 tsp salt
        2 tbsp vegetable oil
        5 scallions, chopped
        1 large leek (white and light green parts only), cut to 1/2" pieces
        1 tbsp minced peeled fresh ginger
        1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced into 1/2 " pieces


        Preparation
        • Rinse rice well under cold water in a sieve. Bring rice,water and 1/2 tsp salt to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook covered until tender and most of the water has been absorbed (about 30 mins). Let stand covered and off heat for 10 additional mins.

        • While the rice cooks, heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over moderately high heat and saute scallions, leeks, ginger and sweet potato, stirring until coated well, for about 2 mins. Reduce heat to moderate and add remaining salt and pepper to taste. Cook covered, stirring occasionally until potato is tender.
        • Add rice and toss gently to combine. 



        The rice turns a very deep purple color when cooked, has a noticeably nutty taste and a chewy texture that is reminiscent of wild rice. The vegetables add a great sweet element to the dish. 




        The other course of the evening was a salad of arugula, Cherry Glen fresh goat cheese, toasted walnuts and blood orange sections. We tend to eat our salads as the second course, preferring the lighter course to finish the meal. Cyn made a sherry vinaigrette dressing that perfectly complimented the salad.


        After three and a half months of Meatless Mondays I am totally convinced that the flavor profiles we've been developing in these meals are every bit as satisfying as those in meals containing meat!

        Sunday, February 12, 2012

        Tomato Pie, Porkroll and Oyster Crackers

        I'm originally from Trenton, NJ. I don't say I grew up there because I run the risk of being reminded that I haven't quite grown up yet, but that's another story and not at all the subject of this post.

        Trenton is the state Capital but has always suffered by being somewhat equidistant from New York and Philadelphia. It's not famous for very many things. There's the "Trenton Makes, The World Takes" bridge


        spanning the Delaware River. That catchy slogan refers to the fact that Trenton, in it's heyday, was a highly industrialized center of manufacturing specializing in pottery, suspension bridges, iron, steel and rubber products, mostly, those days are gone.

        There was the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, where George Washington crossed the Delaware river from Pennsylvania to surprise and defeat the Hessians. This was Washington's first victory and may have been the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Trenton was even briefly the Capital of the the United States, in November and December of 1884. It was considered as a possible permanent Capital until the southern states insisted on a location south of the Mason-Dixon line.

        There are even a few people you've heard of that call Trenton their home town.


        Two sitting Supreme Court Justices, go figure.

        But for me, there are three things that make Trenton memorable; tomato pie, pork roll and oyster crackers. Yup, it's all about the food. These three foods are indelibly tied to my childhood in Trenton and conjure up strong and pleasant memories more than a half century later.

        Trenton Tomato Pie, is as local a term for a food variant as you'll find anywhere. It's what people in Trenton call their pizza, and for the most part, it is pizza, with one very significant difference. Tomato Pie construction demands that the sauce goes on last. That's right, the order of construction is dough, cheese, toppings (if desired) then, and only then is the sauce spread on top before  going into the oven. The result is a much more intense tomato experience than a pizza where the sauce is under the cheese and toppings. Oh, did I mention it is always, always, always a thin and crispy crust? None of this deep dish stuff in Trenton.

        I remember going off to college in Philadelphia, a mere 35 miles away, and going into various pizza joints asking for "tomato pie". They looked at me like I was from Mars. It was that specific to Trenton. Better? For me, yes, but I was weened on it. DeLorenzo's has been serving authentic Tomato Pie in Trenton since 1947. If you're ever anywhere near, go to DeLorenzo's. This is one of their's.



        The second, and probably most misunderstood food, that brings me right back to my childhood is Pork Roll. Also known as Taylor Ham, it is a breakfast meat whose roots go back in Trenton to at least the middle 1800s and possibly to the Revolution. The product, as it is sold today, was developed by John Taylor of Trenton, NJ in 1856. Compared by some to Spam, mild salami, summer sausage and even bologna, it is, in my estimation, like none of these. It has an intense "haminess", is naturally salty and is one of the true tastes of my youth. It is something almost every kid in Trenton sees on his breakfast plate very early in life. The "roll" part of the name comes from the shape the product was typically sold in.

        There are other minor manufacturers of similar products, most noteworthy Case's, but if you're from Trenton, pork roll = Taylor Ham. A classic breakfast sandwich of the region is Taylor ham, fried egg and cheese on a hard roll. The sliced meat is usually cooked on a griddle or in a frying pan until slightly crispy. I can tell you that you don't have to travel very far from Trenton to get that "what are you talking about?" look when you ask for Taylor ham. Today, it is available in a somewhat wider region, even here in our local Wegmans in Northern Virginia where it is sold in both the original roll form and in 4 and 8 pre-sliced packages.


        I should note that my wife, who has a wonderfully developed sense of adventure when it comes to food, won't get anywhere near it. No problem, more for me.
        Lastly, and another Trenton original, are oyster crackers. Yes, those little pillows of crispiness that we add to soup these days were originally made in Trenton by the Old Trenton Cracker Company (O.T.C.). Here is a great history of the O.T.C. company. It details the birth of the company in 1847 in Trenton by an English immigrant named Adam Exton. 
        I can remember being given these in their original form (like the ones pictured below) as a snack very early in life. They were crisp, crumbly and exceedingly dry but somehow I loved them. They are still available today in the original form in some supermarkets.
         We all have special food memories from when we were kids. These are some of mine. What are yours?


        Friday, February 10, 2012

        Tallula's in Arlington, VA

        So, it was the first Saturday of the month already and we needed to pick a restaurant from the Top 50 in Northern Virginia list. Originally, we had settled on a restaurant in bucolic Clifton, VA called Trummer's on Main, but after looking at their most recent online menu we felt uninspired and went back to the drawing board. Cyn did the research while I shivered in the arctic temperatures of Amsterdam. Her suggestion? A restaurant called Tallula in Arlington, VA, much closer to Washington, DC. I think it was the gnudi that got her. More about that later.




        Tallula turned out to be a rather discreet atmosphere, almost club-like, with lots of wood and low lighting. I liked the feel as soon as I walked in. Since we both had appetizers, mains and desserts, I thought it might be fun to alternatively record our thoughts on each course.

        Al

        I settled on a roasted sweet potato soup with whipped goat cheese, chorizo oil and pumpernickel croutons for my first course. Since I like my hot soups hot, I was disappointed that it was served kind of lukewarm. I'm not sure if this was the chef's intention or not, but I would have preferred it hotter. The soup had a clean sweet potato taste and was silky smooth. The whipped goat cheese was a nice touch but the chorizo oil was lost on me. I could see it, but I didn't really taste it. The pumpernickel bits were very nice, adding a little texture to the soup. All in all, good, but somewhat under seasoned and missing some element that I haven't yet been able to figure out.

        Cyn

        Seared beef carpaccio, with quail egg, crispy parsnips and a smoky shallot dressing was my choice of starter. Beautiful presentation, a circle of thinly sliced beef rounds were under a mound of arugula and crispy 'snip strips, a personal favorite, with a quartered hard boiled quail egg nesting in the greens as well. The smoky shallot concoction was hidden under the arugula in the center of the round o'beef. It certainly pleasing to the eye and each individual ingredient well prepared, but the arugula and vinaigrette were palette killers when paired with the subtle beef and quail egg. There was simply too much of both for the beef to support. Arugula and the dressing were nice together. I think I may have mentioned the dressing as a 'remoulade gone rogue' at the time.

        Al

        For my main course I picked the porcini ravioli of chestnut and cabbage, with mushrooms, sweet potatoes and Fontana cream. All of the pasta dishes were offered in smaller and full size portions, a nice touch I wish more restaurants would follow. I chose the smaller portion anticipating that I would want the cheese course for dessert. Turns out, I made a good decision. The "smaller" portion was actually quite generous and, due to the components, rich and filling. While the first course was a bit of a disappointment, this one made up for it. The ravioli were clearly house made, the dough having been blended with porcini, making it a medium brown color, and the chestnut and cabbage filling was savory with a little unexpected sweetness. The mushrooms and sweet potatoes added to the dish without distracting from the ravioli and the fontina cream sauce was flavorful but light on what was an already hearty dish.

        Cyn

        As an official Short Rib Slut, I couldn't resist the spinach and ricotta gnudi with Yukon Gold potato, braised beef short rib and mustard greens. And I would like to say right up front that I enjoyed this dish, but would love to hear what the chef intended, as I didn't 'get' it. In my mind, I pictured pillowy clouds of gnudi on a bed of short rib and gravy with a nice hit of mustard green to cut all the richness, and hey, if they wanted to add potato, who I am to complain? What arrived was a pillow of pureed potato topped with the aforeimagined (yes, I know it's not a word) short ribs and their glistening juices, slightly chewy pan fried gnudi atop that, and fried mustard green shards over all. Thank goodness I was prescient enough to order the half portion! While each component was delicious, the heavy on heavy on heavy could have benefited from a slight tweaking of the ingredients, for my taste. If you must have a base, do something interesting like turnip, carrot or parsnip- and for goodness sake, I'm all into fried greens as much as the next person, but not on uber rich unless you're superman and can make the oil clinging to the greens a non issue.

        I think my discontent may stem from the kitchen re-heating each component, and not actually cooking anything for me. Not a sin, of course it happens all the time, and I do like a meal to move along. Did I mention we were through three courses and were back out the door in a little over an hour?

        Al

        One of my favorite surprises is when I find a restaurant offers a cheese course. For me, I find this much more satisfying after a meal than a sweet dessert. Tallula offered a nicely thought out cheese and house made charcuterie selection. From their selection of six, I ordered two goat's milk cheeses (cave aged Cardona from Wisconsin and a Cherry Glen Ash from Maryland (one of my very favorite cheeses), and a beautiful cow's milk Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue from Vermont. Again, the portions were very generous and they were served with a port fig compote and crostini which were a bit over toasted.

        Cyn

        Anytime there's a plate or platter of multiple items for tasting on a menu, I'm your gal. For dessert I decided to tackle the Cookies and Confections - cashew snickers, hostess cupcake, cheesecake brownie, mint chip ice cream and oatmeal cream pie, in mini portions. I would go back to this restaurant just to eat that cashew snickers and the peanut butter ice cream they substituted for the mint chip for me (bad schnaps experience in college still prevents me from enjoying some mint flavors....). Hostess cupcake- dry and forgettable. Cheesecake brownie - kind of forgettable as well. The oatmeal cookies were very, very good, but the cream in between was all but MIA and added little, if anything to the party.

        Al

        For me, after a slow start, Tallula was a mostly redeemed itself with several nice and unexpected touches and good value for what they served. Was it a Northern Virginia Top 50. I guess, because it said so in the magazine.

        Cyn

        I realize I'm pretty hard on restaurants. Especially ones that have such a lovely menu and build my expectations. While I enjoyed my meal, rather than go back to Talullah, I'm up for visiting the attached Eat Bar and sampling that simple and clean, but elevated menu. The kitchen at T is doing some lovely things, but I think they're getting in their own way to fussy things up when they shouldn't.

        Tallula on Urbanspoon

        Sunday, February 5, 2012

        A quick and easy Meatless Monday meal...

        Sometimes you're in a hurry, or you get home late from work and haven't planned dinner. The fridge looks pretty sparse or you just don't feel like peeling, washing, shopping, sauteing or any of the other cooking chores that need to be done.

        Well, that happens to us sometimes and when it's Meatless Monday, we have a fallback plan. Grilled cheese! Everyone likes grilled cheese, right? We do too, but not that white bread slathered with butter and filled up with Kraft singles that our Moms (bless them) made for us.

        We like to keep a pretty wide variety of cheeses in the house at all times. In fact, here's a picture of what is on hand today. I pulled them all out of the refrigerator to take this shot.



        Another "must have" for us in some sort of frozen rolls, you know, just in case. We find that the Alexia brand Ciabatta rolls with rosemary and extra virgin olive oil toast up beautifully. In fact, we're not big users of prepared foods but everything we've tried from Alexia has been great.

        The key to making a good grilled cheese for us to is to get a mix of flavors yet still retain that gooey, running, cheesy melt that we love. A few weeks ago, we found ourselves home late with no dinner plans. Perfect night for grilled cheese. Since the rolls are frozen, they need to be defrosted in the oven. Simply follow the package directions. The next step, and this is important, is to cut off a very thin slice from the rounded top of each roll, or simply use them inside out. This allows the sandwich to sit flat on the griddle or in the frying pan when cooking. Next, get creative. Pick and mix cheeses that you like. The only requirement is that one of them should be a good "melting" cheese. On this particular night we picked  fresh mozzarella, munster, and 2 y.o. sharp Vermont cheddar.


        Cut pieces to size to fit the rolls, lightly butter or oil both sides of each roll, assemble and place in a pan on medium to medium high heat.  I'm pretty sure you don't need any further instructions on how to cook a grilled cheese.


        If you want to make it even a little more special, add a nice thick slice of tomato, preferably fresh from the garden in season, or thinly sliced pear. Either way the result is a perfectly, soul satisfying little piece of comfort food that, when paired with a fresh salad or a hot bowl of tomato soup, makes a no fuss Meatless Monday dinner. Enjoy!

        Friday, February 3, 2012

        Wagamama

        That's right, Wagamama. It's a British based, Japanese inspired, pan-asian chain of restaurants located mainly in Europe (there are two in the US, both in Boston). They serve fresh, affordable and delicious food in a casual and fun atmosphere. In Japanese, Wagamama means a 'naughty child'. Willful and determined, the child that is said to be 'wagamama' demands constant attention and is unable to comprehend why its desires cannot be instantly gratified. I suspect this is clearly where the brand gets some of its cheekier elements!

        In my opinion, there is no better place to have a meal with friends, particularly on that first night in Europe when you're trying to beat the jet lag. It's bright, loud, fun and fast. I took a party of ten to the Wagamama in the Leidseplein area of Amsterdam last Sunday.


        The menu is full of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai foods that you will probably be familiar with. They also serve beer, sake and wine. We ordered a lot of appetizers for the table to share, including: duck gyoza, ebi gyoza (shrimp stuffed), edamame (sprinkled with chilli garlic salt), yakitori and chilli squid. All arrived piping hot and were clearly made to order.

        Having been to Wagamama locations in both London and Amsterdam before, I knew what I wanted for my main course. The chilli chicken ramen is a huge steaming bowl of noodles in a spicy chicken and pork soup topped with marinated and grilled chicken breast, beansprouts, red and spring onions and chillies and garnished with coriander and lime.


        Love them or hate them, one of the usual strengths of chain restaurants is the consistency of the food from visit to visit. The broth in this dish was the same deep flavored, spicy, soul satisfying mixture that I remembered. It was perfect for a cold night along the canals. The chicken remained tender and juicy.

        I managed to shoot pictures of a couple of the other mains around me:

        The chicken katsu curry

        and the chilli men with prawns

        both looked and smelled delicious.

        There have been rumors of a Wagamama opening in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC for almost two years now. If anyone from corporate is reading this, what are you waiting for?

        P.S. Sorry about the quality of the pictures. Didn't realize they were so poor until I went to load them.

        Thursday, February 2, 2012

        Meatless Monday in Amsterdam

        When I realized that I was going to be in Amsterdam on a Monday, I immediately started to wonder what the challenges of staying meatless might be. For those of you that travel, I'm sure you know that meals can often be scripted, restaurants can be chosen for you and food options can sometimes be limited. Now don't get me wrong, Amsterdam is a completely cosmopolitan city with a very broad and exciting food scene. I just didn't know in advance where I would be eating my three Monday meals.

        Breakfast was easy. I ate at the hotel buffet and able to stick with fresh fruit, cereal and yogurt. OK, I admit there might have been some aged Gouda cheese that migrated onto my plate. I'm in Amsterdam after all. Have to eat the Gouda while over here.

        Lunch was during a scheduled meeting, brought in by the meeting organizer. I had called ahead to one of my European colleagues and mentioned I was not eating meat on Monday's and after explaining that no, I wasn't a vegetarian, he told me that he would see what the caterer could do. But that was more that a month ago, so the day of the meeting I was entirely pleased to see a beautiful dish of pasta with steamed vegetables brought in for me - just me. The sandwiches and other food looked good too, but I did get a few looks that might have bordered on jealousy from some of the other meeting attendees. Thanks for taking care of me Mike!

        On to dinner. I was fortunate to be invited to join a group at a wonderful restaurant called De Kersentuin. The name translates to The Cherry Orchard and the restaurant is located in the Bilderberg Hotel. Turned out I was in for a real treat.

        Soon after being seated our group was treated to an amuse-bouche plate with three offerings. The first was a tall shot glass of pumpkin soup with a Parmesean cheese foam. Second was a perfectly savory mushroom panna cotta topped with chopped pine nuts. The third little bit was a satiny smooth parsnip puree with a small piece of crispy potato. All three were delicious and I promise you this picture, and the ones to follow, do not do the food justice.

        To my pleasant surprise there were appetizers, soups and main courses available that were meatless - and not just available, but,as it turned out, wonderfully prepared and presented.

        Following the generous amuse-bouche, I felt I didn't need an appetizer, so i moved right to the soup. My choice was a cream of parsnip with roasted walnuts and a "cloud" of rorippa (I admit I had to look this one up). I didn't lick the bowl(mostly because my boss was sitting directly across from me) but I wanted to. It was that good.

        The meatless main choice on the menu that evening was a porcini risotto. It was beautifully plated with a fried egg, grilled bolets, beetroot, smoked celeriac, marinated spring onion and a cream of caramelized onion with a frothy sauce of Parmasean cheese. Quite the mouthful both figuratively and literally!

        Those of you that follow along know I'm not big on desserts. But when someone says "cheese course", I'm all in. And then someone said cheese course. The chef picked out four beautiful locally made cheeses for us to sample. Unfortunately, at this point I was a bit overwhelmed and didn't pay close enough attention to the presentation to get the names. I did manage to snap this picture.

        Lastly, my companions on both sides of me were kind enough to let me take pictures of their main courses. They were both worth noting and I'll share them here.

        The roasted leg of venison was served with turnip with cinnamon, cream of quince, fondant potato and a Jamaican pepper sauce.

        The Thai curry of giant prawns were served with stir fried bokchoi, finely shredded spring onion, coriander and pandan rice.

        Thanks for sharing Johanne and Jay.

        All I can add is that you are in Amsterdam and want a memorable meal, check out De Kersentuin.