Thursday, July 23, 2009

Just Try It

I’m usually pretty good about trying out unfamiliar foods. I think it’s my duty as a citizen of the world. I also figure my friends have pretty good taste, so if they like it, it’s a good bet that I will, too.

But not always. Sometimes it’s a texture thing, sometimes it’s a taste bud thing. I can’t help it, but it disappoints me in my equal-opportunity, food-loving soul.

A couple of anecdotes to illustrate.

"What just happened?"
A few years ago The Ladies got together for a belated New Year's celebration dinner at Georgia Brown's, which is known for its "Low Country" cuisine—Southern food with Native American and West African influences. None of us had been there before, and we settled in for some warm comfort on a cold January night.

Ali and Kim both ordered the crispy chicken livers as their starters. Now, my first thought was, "Chicken livers, gak." But they were both so enthusiastic that I started to reconsider, and asked Kim if I could try hers. She was thrilled by the prospect of converting me (or possibly by the prospect of me barfing at the table, I don’t know). So when the food came, she forked me up a piece of the fried organ and handed it over.

It smelled great—like the most incredible fried chicken you’ve ever smelled. It looked yummy—a little golden fried nugget of goodness. I put it in my mouth. The ladies watched breathlessly. I thought, "Ooh, hey, that’s pretty goo--"

And then something happened. What had gone in as a fantastic little morsel of poultry organ just… disintegrated in my mouth. It was like it turned to powder or something. It was a solid piece of meat, and then it… wasn't. Squick.

Kim, who was watching my face this whole time, said, "Uh oh. I know what just happened. Not working, huh?"

I swallowed whatever it was that had just happened and replied, "Yeah, no. What was that?" The Ladies chuckled and gave me props for at least trying it, and I went to town on my shrimp and grits to recover. The wine helped, too.

"Quelle suprise!"
We’d been in France for a little less than a week. A group of us had rented a house in a little tiny town very close to the Mediterranean, so lunches and dinners were full of the freshest seafood I’ve ever had—mussels and oysters and langoustines right out of the sea. (I don’t even really like oysters and I was eating them like it was my job.) But after four days of that, I was kinda hankering for something from terra firma.

After a morning of shopping and sightseeing in Montpelier, Kim, Andy, Roland and I decided to hit a bistro for lunch. The waiter handed us menus, and my eye fell on "Andouillette." I thought, "Ooh, sausage! Like in Louisiana!" (This story is also an illustration of why you really should try to learn some French before you go ordering stuff in a restaurant in France.) So when the waiter came back, Kim ordered mussels, Andy ordered… something, Roland ordered steak tartare, and I blithely said, "Andouillette, s’il vous plait!" Andy and Roland both looked at me in some surprise as le garçon walked away.


"Andouillette, I had that in Paris," said Roland. "That’s tripe sausage."

Whuh-oh. My mind began to race."Well, we’re not in Paris. Maybe that’s just a Paris thing. What I ordered is that awesome spicy sausage, like what they put in gumbo. We're far away from Paris. It’s fine."

Kim, Andy, and Ro all looked at me with a bit of challenge in their eyes. So I took a breath and said, "You know what, I'm gonna try it. I'm in France, right? Gotta try new things!"

Our food came, and I took a look. Didn't look too alarming—looked like a sausage, and there was a boiled potato on the side and a little ramekin of that kickass French mustard.

The other three all watched as I cut into my andouillette. The smell hit me first. I don't know how to describe it, except to say that it smelled like "No." All right, fine. Some things that smell gnarl can taste divine. Look at all those stank-ass French cheeses, for example.

I cut a piece and was not encouraged by the innardsy-looking interior. I put it in my mouth and chewed. "Hmm. Kind of tastes like 'no' as well." Andy was watching me from across the table, fork poised above whatever he had ordered. I cut another piece and thought, "Maybe with some mustard. French mustard covers all manner of sins." I gave the piece a generous dunking and put it in my mouth. Nope, still not happening.

One more try, this time with a bit of potato and even more mustard. The third time was not the charm. I looked at Andy, and he very sympathetically held out his hand and said, "Do you want me to take it?" I handed over my plate with a pathetic, "I tried, I really did!" He said, "I know, and I’m very proud of you." Kim smiled and passed me the bread, and Roland offered me some of his steak tartare to help me recover.

The wine helped, too.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Beach Eatin'

Every year The Ladies and I go to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware for a long weekend. We’ve been doing this for about 16 years now, and it’s one of my favorite times of year. It’s our chance to get together and hang out for a few days, leaving husbands and kids and jobs and real life for a little while. We loll in the sand, walk on the beach, sometimes get in the ocean, read trashy magazines, and catch up on each others’ lives.


And we eat.

Over the years things have changed a bit, of course. Kim no longer burns herself crispy because she refused to put on sunscreen (“I’ll do it in a minute”). We now consider anything lower than SPF 15 to be ridiculously irresponsible. We haven’t had hi-jinks involving lost shoes or pool break-ins or shrubbery for a while now. We don’t drink quite as much wine or go for quite as many giant cocktails before dinner.

But in all the years of Ladies’ Beach Weekend, one thing has remained constant.

We eat, and we eat well.

Here’s how it goes:
We usually leave Friday morning around 10. We load up the car, make sure we have enough quarters for parking, and check on the EZ Pass for the bridge. Whoever’s driving goes, “So does anyone remember how to get there?” We chat talk about families and jobs and guys and crack each up other until we get to the Bay Bridge, when we all shut up and freak out a little bit inside.

We hit 404 and wonder whether Elmer’s is still open, and if there’s two and if it’s the one on 16 that closed or the one on 404. We comment on the houses as we mosey through the tiny towns that strictly enforce their speed limits.

We turn onto Rt. 1, roll past the outlets, check out what’s playing at the movie theatre (in case it rains), and wonder if they’ll let us check in early at the hotel. Windows come down as we turn onto Rehoboth Avenue, and we check out stores and restaurants that are new since last year. This is about the point when someone asks, “So where are we eating tonight?”

Because one of the great things about Rehoboth is the excellent dining that can be had there. Sure, there’s Grotto’s pizza (which even sounds disgusting—who named that company?) and Dotte’s saltwater taffy (never understood the appeal) and Jake’s Seafood (so lame it hurts my feelings)—places very much catering to families with kids who need something fast and easy. Totally understandable. But there is also some outstanding cuisine to be found, if you know where to look.

And where to look? Is in the Dining Guide.

Some enterprising person has put together a book of menus of many of the dining establishments in this little beach town, and that book gets put in many of the hotel rooms in town. Brilliant.

We get into our room, unpack, put on swim suits, and grab towels and sunscreen and water and books and Us Weekly—and the Guide. On the beach, Kim reads some of the menus out loud.

“Roasted quail with chorizo, wild rice and fresh herb stuffing, sautéed celeriac, malt whisky and maple syrup.”

“House-made gnocchi with shredded duck confit, pearl onions, grapes, chanterelles, walnuts and brown butter reduction.”

“Pan seared sea scallops with bacon risotto, oven-roasted tomatoes, sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, English peas, sherry-thyme pan reduction.”*

Holy shit.

At some point, though, we have to make a decision, and we call for reservations. Here, now, I’d like to share with you the Ladies’ Beach Week Dinners, 2009:

Friday night -- Eden (
The other three -- Lobster and crab tower, mango salsa, guacamole, roasted peppers, balsamic reduction (I am not even kidding you when I say that these girls talked about “The Tower” off and on all day)

Me -- Roast pork polpettes, braised black eyed peas, baby corn, black garlic, garlic greens. (These were little pork meatballs that I could have made a meal of by themselves. Very hearty, very homey, very Southern.)

Ali -- Grilled soft shell crabs, eggplant couscous, warm green tomato gazpacho, deviled aioli (This was kind of a self-dare, as she’d never had soft shell crabs before. Seemed to go well.)

Kim -- Pork tenderloin, creamy grits, slow roasted pork belly, braised local green beans/cherry salad (We told her she wasn’t allowed to order the scallops AGAIN.)

Michele -- Wood oven roasted USDA prime ribeye, bliss potatoes, arugula, mushrooms, black garlic vinaigrette, truffle butter (Hey, sometimes a lady just needs a steak.)

Me -- Pan seared local rockfish, lobster pomme puree, roasted baby corn, watermelon radish, lobster vin blanc (This blew my freakin’ mind. The fish was so creamy, the lobster added incredible richness, and the radish kept everything from getting too out of control. Incredible.)

Saturday night – Espuma (
Harissa martini (red, spicy, Mediterranean, strong)

Appetizers: (I think these are right. Girls, correct me if I’m wrong.)
Kim -- Roasted local organic beet salad, grilled bleu cheese sandwich, wild mushroom vinaigrette

Ali -- Tartare of sushi grade tuna, cucumber "caviar", avocado mousse, tarragon, watermelon consommé

Michele -- Laura Chennel goat cheese and carmelized onion tart, roasted red peppers, belgian endive, fig puree, balsamic "foam"

Me – “Bacon and Egg (and Cheese) Salad” -- bibb lettuce, bacon lardons, black truffle-parmesan vinaigrette (This was kick-ass. I don’t know how he did it, but the chef managed to somehow bread a soft-cooked egg, so that when I cut into it, the outside was slightly crispy and the inside was still warm and runny. Killer. Magic.)

Ali -- Neo-classic Espuma paella -- shrimp, tender chicken, chorizo, saffron, mussels

Kim and Michele – fish special, which was great, but I can’t tell you what it was. Sorry. Deal.

Me -- Duet of Hudson Valley duck, cauliflower mousse, cippolinni agrodolce, radicchio, cherry glaze (I think I won on this one, frankly.)

Sunday night – Back home
Ice cubes and air.

People go to the beach for different reasons. For us, Ladies’ Beach Week is a constant in an enduring friendship of four very different women leading four very different lives. And the food we have every year helps cement the memories we make every year. And that's pretty delicious.

*All from the Blue Moon menu --

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Starting the New Year Off Right

January 1, I wake up late after a night of fairly restrained revelry with the usual suspects. It’s a gorgeous day, although pretty cold, of course. I hang out in bed for a while, looking out the window and thinking about what to do with the new day and the new year.

Suddenly it hits me. “I’m going to start this year off with bacon. Oh, hell yes.”

One shower and several layers of clothing later, I set off. First thought: The Diner on 18th St. (Note: it’s not that The Diner’s food is that good; I just happen to know they make a perfectly adequate bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich.) For some reason, I thought that everyone else in DC would still be wrestling with hangovers and I would have no trouble getting a bar seat. Well, they were certainly dealing with hangovers, but they were doing it in public, and mostly at The Diner. The crowd around the door was at least three deep—way more crowded than on a usual Saturday or Sunday.

Hmph. Plan B.

Down the hill to Jolt ’n’ Bolt. Their coffee is always way too hot (how do they do that? Do they brew it in molten rock at the earth’s core?), but their bacon-egg-and-cheese on an everything bagel has never disappointed me. I walk into the tiny place, and… it’s packed. Clearly I’m a moron for thinking I’m the only one who needs bacon this fine January morning.

Okay, fine. I’ll go to my local corner coffee shop, even though they overcook their bacon and never put enough cheese on my sandwich. But they’re super friendly, and I support my neighborhood businesses as much as possible, so back up the hill I go. I walk up to the counter and look behind the lovely Latina proprietress to the bagel rack. Wuh-oh.

“Do you have any bagels left?”

“No”—and here she shakes her head ruefully, sensing my disappointment—“No more bagels this morning.”

Okay, this year is not starting off as well as I had hoped.

(Now I know some of you are thinking at this point, “Girl, just go to the store, get some eggs and bacon, and make your own damn sandwich!” Well, that would certainly be one solution, but a) I don’t really cook, and b) the whole point was to have someone make something yummy with bacon in it for me. So shut up.)

Well, now what? I’ve been walking around for an hour and a half, and I’m starving, and I’m still determined to get me some bacon.

Then—it comes. Inspiration comes like a bright light from heaven above, like God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Five Guys.

Ooohhh, Five Guys.

And I’m off to Columbia Heights with renewed vigor! I get into the red-and-white tiled place, and it’s not very crowded. Good sign… I go to the counter and give my order—little bacon cheeseburger with lettuce, ketchup, and mustard, and small fries (which is still like eight potatoes’ worth). I pay the guy, get my number, go fill my soda, and find a seat by the window to read The Princess Bride and wait.

“251!” Woo, my number! My bacon, finally!

I take the bag from the guy and go back to my seat. Pull my foil-wrapped burger out of the mass of fries that surround it like bamboo. Nom a few fries. Think to myself, “Wow, this is a big burger! Did they give me a double by mistake?” Open the foil.

Double burger.


You guys.


Oh, man, who did I piss off?

I take not-my burger back to the counter. “This isn’t my burger.”

“It’s not?”

“No, I ordered a little bacon cheeseburger with ketchup and mustard, and this has mayonnaise, which is vile, but more importantly, it does not have bacon.”

“I’m so sorry, I’ll make you a new one right away.”

Good heavens. Okay, so back to my window, my book, and my 29 pounds of fries. A few minutes go by and I’m startled by a voice at my ear. “Here’s your burger, ma’am. So sorry for the mix-up.” I assure him that’s no problem, and he hands me my sandwich.

I open it.

It’s my burger. It’s my bacon.


I happily tuck in, thinking this day might turn out okay after all.


I’m about 3/4 through my happy lunch, and there’s another voice at my ear. (What up, Five Guys guys, why you gotta sneak up on a person like that?)

“We messed up your burger, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s okay, I’ve got the right one now, thanks.”

“Here’s your money back.” And he hands me my $4.57. I stare at him for a sec and then say, “No, it’s okay, I got my burger, so we’re all good now.”

He says, “It’s Five Guys policy that if we screw up your order, it’s free.”

After all of that, after all of the walking around and the disappointments and the lack of bagels and the wrong burger, I finally got my New Year’s bacon.

For free.

That’s a way to start the new year off right.

This Blog's Raisin d'Etre*

I love food.

I love it.

I think food is one of life’s great pleasures.

I think the taste buds are some of the human body’s most sensitive parts.

I believe in butter.

I believe nearly everything can be made better with bacon.

I believe there’s a reason that the word “sated” applies to both food and sex.

I will try just about anything, although it may take some convincing at first. I have eaten tripe sausage. I have eaten ground grasshoppers. (I am still hoping to try the grasshopper tacos at Oyamel.) I have eaten pig cheeks right off the pig. I have eaten duck cracklings and lived to tell the tale. I have not tried marrow yet, but am looking forward to doing so.

I do not like mayonnaise, but understand its use as a binding agent and sauces base. I will admit that freshly made is probably far superior to Hellman’s. Prove it to me, someone.

I am fine with raisins.

I like bananas, but generally don’t like them in stuff.

I am trying to get better about sushi and other textured things.

God. Food.

All of this is not to say I’m a cook, because I certainly am not. I can make some stuff, but as a single chick with an inadequate apartment kitchen and a gas oven that I’m afraid of, I just don’t cook much. Fortunately I have friends who do, and who are willing to let me come over and chow down. Having said that, I will put my deviled eggs up against anyone’s any day.

I am fascinated by the food industry, even though I’ve never worked in it. I think chefs are some of the most passionate people in the world. I am hooked on just about everything on the Food Network, and I want to be Guy Fieri’s personal assistant. (Hey, someone’s got to keep that hair bleached and pointy!) I want Padma's job. Bourdain is my food TV boyfriend.

I’m in no way a food snob, but I do get disappointed by sad tomatoes or indifferent preparations or bad service. I’m also not all about the highbrow. Give me a Ben’s half-smoke all the way and I’m as happy as I am with the three-course prix-fixe at Oya. I’ll happily drink Bud one night and white Bordeaux the next.

So I’m starting this blog. My hope is that this will give me the kick in the pants I need to write more, serve as a “food diary” so I don’t forget some great experiences, and hopefully entertain some people. Let me know what you think, and if there’s some place that you think I need to check out, whether it’s nouvelle cuisine or a kick-ass chili burger, sing out!

And I need to especially thank The Ladies for the idea and the encouragement. You know who you are, and you know I love you.

* Yes, I know it’s “raison.”