Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Friday Night Bites

Friday night after a very insane workweek—hell, after a very insane Friday—it’s time to head out for Vanessa’s post-birthday happy hour and dinner. So Karina, Melissa, and I pile into Mel’s car and head out to meet Vanessa, Michael, and Alden in Alexandria for some drinkies and noms.

First order of business: Booze. Rustico is known for their beer selection, which makes Alden and Michael quite happy. I, however, am in need of something stronger after my week of not killing anyone, so I opt for my go-to—Ketel martini, slightly dirty, three olives. The edge effectively taken off, it’s time to look at the menu.

Rustico is also known for wood-oven pizzas, and Karina and I had been dreaming all day of the duck confit and cracklings pizza with brie and sautéed onions oh my god. Along comes the waitress, Karina orders, and we’re both so excited. Then the waitress gets a look on her face. Uh oh.

“Sorry, we’re out of duck.”

Did I just hear that right? Who runs out of duck? Especially when you have a pizza like that on the menu? “Out of duck.” Bah. Jerks.

All right, back to the menu. I spy something called “sesame crusted pickles,” which makes me curious. I ask the waitress what’s up and she tells me they’re basically fried pickles. I ask if they’re slices or if it’s a whole pickle (I’ll get to my reasons in a minute), and she says they’re slices. So I go for it.

They’re not slices, they’re spears.

Here’s the thing about fried pickles. If you’re going to do them, do them in THIN SLICES. I don’t know if you know this, but pickles are wet, and wet things don’t hold batter too well, and what does stick falls off after frying, leaving you with just a hot pickle, which is exactly what happened with these spears. And no one likes a hot pickle. (Insert your own joke here.) When the pickle is sliced thin, there’s less surface area to cover, so the batter sticks better. Best fried pickles I’ve ever had: The Penguin in Charlotte, NC. Go next time you’re in Charlotte. (You can tell them I sent you, but they won’t care.)

Two disappointments in a row—this is bumming me out. Will the third time be the charm? Let’s order another martini and find out!

I’m liking the look of the lamb short ribs, which Alden had ordered as his app while I was having my disappointing pickles. So I order them, while Karina, Alden, and Mel all get the mussels with white wine broth, bleu cheese, chorizo, and polenta, and Vanessa and Michael get a pizza with pancetta and bacon. (These are my people.)

Success! My ribs arrive and they’re quite literally falling off the bone. In fact, when I go to pick them up, the bone comes right out. Good sign. They’re slow roasted with smoky, sticky barbeque sauce that gets me licking my fingers, and they’re accompanied by a chickpea salad and minty yogurt sauce. The salad is a perfect balance for the rich meat and zippy sauce, and the yogurt isn’t too minty.

As I’m enjoying this, Karina, Alden, and Mel are all losing their minds over the mussels, and I have to admit, that polenta with the bleu cheese and chorizo business was INSANE. Polenta done wrong can be so bad, but this was ever so right. Karina would like me to tell you that she very nearly put her whole head in the bowl to lick up the last of the goo. And I would not have judged her for that.

So a successful dinner after a shaky start! What now?

Dessert, of course.

Vanessa is a big fan of the cupcake (of cake in general, really—or more specifically, of frosting), so it being her birthday sphere (TM Mr. Chileman) and all, we mosey across the street to Buzz Bakery, home of such delights at the Red Velvet Cupcake and the 9:30 cupcake, which is basically their reimagining of the Ding Dong (which I refuse to call “King Dons”). Tonight, Vanessa orders an individual red velvet cheesecake (which is so light it’s almost like mousse) and a tiny cupcake (birthday sphere, she can do what she wants). Melissa gets the caramel bread pudding, on which they pour EXTRA caramel sauce, I order peanut butter mousse tart. This is how I feel about it:

So the week ends up pretty well. Happy birthday girl? Yep.

Happy hour(s)? Indeed.

Happy tummy? Oh hell yes.



The Penguin:

Photos courtesy of Melissa!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Self-Dare -- #1

I recently made a mid-year’s resolution to try foods that I have previously been too chicken (heh) to try. Whether it’s organ meats or entire fish or things that I feel on a primal level shouldn’t be eaten—I’m going to do my best to go for it. (I’m not talking about rocks or pants or lipstick or anything—actual food.)

So it was in that spirit that I found myself perusing the menu at Cashion’s. I was enjoying a delicious cocktail, made by the adorable K-Man, of Hendrick’s gin, shaved lemon zest, and a whole apricot (which I’m generally not a fan of, but it worked in the garnish capacity), chatting with Wee Kate, and deciding what to eat. Cashion’s has an excellent menu that changes fairly often, so it’s always worth reading. But there’s one constant under “Starters” that I’ve always avoided.

Veal sweetbreads.

For years I, like many others, labored under the delusion that “sweetbreads” is just a nice way of saying “brains.” (The way of saying brains is “brains”.) This is not true. Sweetbreads are actually thymus glands, usually from cows, pigs, or lambs. (And if that doesn’t make you want to just run right out and try them, I don’t know what will!) However, Roland and Andy have eaten them many times and declared them delicious, so I decided to go for it.

After getting some assurance from the K-Man that they were indeed wonderful, I took the plunge. The sweetbreads themselves are veal, and they’re gently fried until just golden. They come on a bed of sautéed spinach with currants, pine nuts, and apples. The meat is dense and not particularly gamey, which for some reason I was expecting. It didn’t fall apart in my mouth the way chicken livers do. Just very savory, with a kind of creamy density balanced a nice light fried crispiness on the outside. The combination of that with the salty spinach, sweet currants, and pine nuts had me doing my happy food dance on my barstool. Wee Kate did try a small piece, bless her heart, and did not seem utterly repelled.

Oh, and the sweetbreads were paired with a Domaine Pascal Berthier Saint-Amour Beaujelais, lightly chilled. Perfect.

So Self-Dare #1 turned out pretty well. Next up: bone marrow.

Hoo boy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Western Eating, Still Proceeding

First of all, I would just like you to know that the “Center Pier” of National Airport (I refuse to call it Reagan) has disappointing breakfast options. I do not need pizza or Chinese food or a Potbelly sandwich at 7:30 in the morning. Where’s the damn Starbucks? (Shut up, don’t judge.) And Dunkin’ Donuts coffee rivals only their muffins in vileness.

So my trip west wasn’t off the best start. I was headed to Seattle, then to Montana the next day with the family. I did end up getting a pretty decent caprese sandwich at a French bistro-ish place in O’Hare, but then I was stuck in the middle seat next to a crazy lady (she had a tattoo on her face, y’all!) on the flight to Seattle, so it wasn’t all that enjoyable.

So let’s skip all that and get to the fun stuff.

I arrived in Seattle safe and sound, and my sister Sarah picked me up. After heading over to Mom’s place and getting her all packed up and squared away, Sarah and I were both ready for some food, some wine, and some catching up. Sarah lives in Ballard, which is the Scandinavian neighborhood in Seattle, and which is also home to some really good food (not just lutefisk). Sarah said, “I thought we’d get burgers at Scooter’s.” I had never been there, but any place called Scooter’s is okay with me.

Turns out Scooter’s is this little tiny—like five seats at the counter tiny—drive up place that’s been around for years, and apparently used to be a Dairy Queen. They’re known for their onion rings, but both Sarah and I agree that onion rings are more trouble than they’re worth, most of the time. So we popped in, each ordering a bacon cheeseburger with fries, and decided to also try a chocolate malt, which neither of us had ever had. However, being devoted fans of Jonathan Richman, we went for it.

Chocolate malts are awesome.

The malt powder adds a slightly salty creaminess to what would otherwise be a chocolate shake. Unfortunately, we left most of ours in Sarah’s freezer. Oh well.

Let’s talk about Scooter’s burgers. They are exactly what I wanted from a tiny, years-old neighborhood dive. Big, flat, just greasy enough, with crispy bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes. Scooter’s does a secret sauce that seems to be just mayonnaise and ketchup, but it’s perfect with the rest of the burger. Go there next time you’re in Ballard.

All right, so the next morning we picked up Mom and headed for the airport for our trip to Montana. Nothing much to report, except that Horizon Airways serves local microbrews on their flights from Seattle to Montana (and back), and they don’t charge you for it. Thank you, Horizon!

After one hell of a bumpy flight (during which Sarah had to comfort a very terrified 17-year-old girl sitting next to her and assure her that we were indeed going to live), we stopped at Applebee’s for a nondescript but necessary lunch. Then we were off on the last leg of our journey to Gardiner (pop. 500 and change), where we would spend the next seven days with 13 more members of our family, eating, drinking, hiking, whitewater rafting, eating, looking for ghost towns, encountering wildlife, touring Yellowstone, and eating. Again. Some more.

A sampling:

My late grandmother’s cream-and-cinnamon coffee cake and cinnamon rolls, brilliantly recreated by my 14-year-old niece.

Bacon just about every damn morning, and my aunt’s homemade strawberry rhubarb jam.

Beef skewers with peppers and onions, cooked on the grill by Uncle Mike.

Thai beef salad, chicken and basil with green beans, shrimp sate skewers, and yellow curry chicken soup with sweet potatoes, pineapple, and other stuff, made by my sister and my Thai cousin-in-law. (Is that even a thing? He’s my cousin’s husband, so that's what I'm calling him.)

Giant sub sandwiches from The Pickle Barrel in Livingston, Montana, which is a lovely little town with some fantastic signs from the 40s and 50s.

My Aunt Marge’s famous turkey casserole, for which she actually shipped the ingredients (and some cookies) to my sister. She also made her INCREDIBLE chocolate cake with caramel frosting for my cousin’s birthday. I’m still running on the sugar high from that one, I swear.

My sister Maria's chicken with grilled zucchini, squash, and potatoes with her mango avocado salsa. I don't dig the mango so much, but it worked beautifully with the creaminess of the avocado and the heat of the peppers.

Spaghetti and some killa meatballs, made with beef and pork by my cousin Patrick and his lovely bride Jennifer. This amuses me because Patrick was a notoriously picky eater as a kid. His mom made a lot of hamburgers back then…

(Speaking of burgers) Insanely huge buffalo and elk burgers from Helen’s Corral Drive-in in Gardiner, home of Helen’s Hateful Burger. Elk is quite gamey, but really good. It’s the kind of meat that you take a bite of and your brain just goes, “Okay, I just ate caveman food.” My buffalo bacon cheeseburger is on the right:

I ate the whole damn thing.

Oh, and deviled eggs. I challenged my sister Maria, who has worked as a professional cook in the past, to a Deviled Egg Throwdown (with apologies to Mr. Flay), and she good-naturedly accepted. With my niece acting as scorekeeper and the rest of the family (except those allergic to eggs), Maria and I each made 10 deviled eggs.

I kicked her ass.

After a slow start, I pulled ahead and won, 7 and a half to 3 and a half votes. (Somebody wussed out on the voting.) To Maria’s immense credit, she was an incredibly gracious loser, and even admitted that my egg was better.

It’s all about the mustard, people. That’s all I’ll say.

Suffice it to say, by the time we got back to Seattle, I was really hankering for salad. Fortunately, Sarah knows a great pizza place that serves up a really fantastic salad of bitter greens, chick peas, tomatoes, cheese, and wonderful tarragon dressing. My system was very happy about that.

Back in my little apartment in DC, finally, I was that curious mix of relieved and sad to be home—relieved to sleep in my own bed, but sad because I didn’t have a great dinner to look forward to, and I didn’t have my family.

But I have my DC family here, and they like to eat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Few Musings on Travel Food

Just got back from a trip to Montana, bookended by a couple of days in Seattle. I'll post a more comprehensive account of the actual vacation/meatfest later, but for now, a couple of ponderings on sustenance while traveling:

Why does airplane coffee smell so good, but taste like hot ass?

A full pack of Twizzlers will make your whole bag end up smelling like strawberry by the end of your flight, regardless of whether the pack is open or not.

All food items on airplanes/in airports appear to cost $7. Snack box on the plane? $7. Starbucks chicken ciabatta? $7. Bag of mixed nuts and bottle of water? $7. I know that the number 7 is supposed to have some kind of magical qualities or something, but don't you think that's just weird?

People in first class still get fed on planes. I know this because they separate the fancy folks from the proletariat with a sheer curtain. Way to make a person feel like a serf.

Big props to Horizon Air for not charging for beer on the flights to and from Bozeman, and for promoting local Pacific Northwest microbrews!

Whoever said Dunkin' Donuts coffee is awesome is a dirty liar.