Monday, April 30, 2012

A Feast for the Senses

Have you heard of Feastly? No? You will.

Don't worry, I am obsessed with all things local food and I only learned of the underground supper club myself a month ago from my friend Grace, who is buddies with the founder. I was intrigued, soon after to be talked by Grace into hosting a Feastly dinner within a few weeks. Well, it took a little convincing, as I hardly have the capacity (or silverware) to host a proper dinner for folks other than a handful of friends or family at my tiny apartment. Certainly not anyone paying for a meal. After a talk with my friend and fellow foodie, Carina, we decided to co-host a dinner. But since her living situation also presented some large-dinner-party-hosting challenges, and because we wanted to include an educational component to the meal -- Carina is also a food educator, heading up the second year program over at Brainfood -- we decided to hold it at our favorite urban farm in town. It happened this Saturday, and it was great. A little cold. A little damp. More than a little exhausting. But great.

Since it's springtime, we decided to focus on spring herbs. Hence the menu:
  • Deviled quail eggs with tarragon, garnished with micro mustard greens, pickled asparagus and turnips
  • Cucumber almond soup with dill (truly a bike-powered feast... you'll see)
  • Fresh bread with homemade herb butter (nice mashing, dinner guests!)
  • Risotto with asparagus, shiitakes, and crumbled sage
  • Mixed greens with strawberries and fresh herb vinaigrette (not too shabby on the mixing, dining friends!)
  • Spring carbonara with spicy greens and duck confit
  • Honey lavender icecream and ginger spice cookie sandwiches (hands down the crowd favorite)
  • Handmade dark chocolate truffles with lavender, cardamom, and orange zest (yes, dessert #2)
Since it's springtime, our first date got rained out. The original dinner was slated for right smack in the middle of a rash of thunderstorms. (How the heck was I going to keep Ryan from eating the two dozen meticulously crafted lavender ice cream sandwiches in my freezer? And what was I supposed to do with 10 pounds of cucumbers?? These are the struggles I deal with. I made a lot of pickles and made Ryan promise to keep away from the ice cream while I was asleep.)

Dinner guests gathered at Walker Jones Farm at 6pm this past Saturday evening for the rescheduled feast. It was chilly. It was overcast. And in fact it rained not once but two separate times over the course of the 3-hour dinner. (Really, weather gods??) But our guests (and our helpers) persevered long enough to make it to the truffle course. That's my kind of spunk.

The gathering kicked off with some rhubarb and orange spritzers -- alas, no booze to keep us warm at this DCPS site -- and an overview of the history and purpose of the farm by Farmer Sarah herself:

After the appetizer course, guests went on a tour of the farm and snipped herbs that they would later mince for the salad dressing and herb butter.... The adventurous dinner guests were good sports. They worked in teams to make their own dressing out of the ingredients I handed out: lemon juice (squeezed by two guests who opted out of the herb harvesting due to poor choice of farm footwear), spicy mustard, creme fraiche (because we needed an emulsifier and wouldn't you know it I left the quart-sized bottle of olive oil on my kitchen countertop), salt, black pepper, and a mix of just-harvested herbs. Yep, here I am blathering on about my homemade mustard:

They marveled as Ryan churned up the cucumber almond soup on the bike blender. They laughed as they smooshed herbs into a bowl of butter, then decided to put the butter dish atop a cluster of candles to warm it enough to slather it on the bread. And, in some cases, they came back for seconds (and in one case, thirds) of risotto and carbonara.

The food was great. Our guests were great. I think we may have covered the cost of ingredients (or at least come close) for this labor of love of food. All in all, the dinner was a success, though one that would not have been possible without the help of two of my favorite people:

Jeff -- photographer extraordinaire, who managed to capture the beautiful meal in spite of low lighting and finicky camera settings, and may have saved me from a nervous breakdown about three times earlier in the day

And Ryan -- fearless sous chef, who almost lost a few fingers to frostbite while washing cucumbers in icy water, who humored me by wearing the chef's hat bike helmet while blending our soup course -- safety first! -- and tirelessly supported me through the whole evening.

Thank you. I owe you an ice cream sandwich.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Veggie Time!

You'd never guess it with today's gloomy, rainy weather, but earlier this week was just gorgeous. Take Thursday. Clear and sunny and warm: a perfect afternoon for a garden scavenger hunt and some spring planting with a dozen or so boisterous kiddos from a nearby elementary school. It's all part of my local farmers' market's Youth Garden project, which teaches elementary and middle school students in Columbia Heights how to sow, care for, and harvest vegetables in the North Columbia Heights Green.

[Incidentally, this particular community garden is so well hidden I only discovered it after living in CH for five years, and even so had to be shown where it was by one of its founders, and then had a heck of a time finding it again on my own two weeks later. I know! Me! Lover of all things local food and gardening and Columbia Heights! I am humbled. Granted, the first time I saw the Green was later in the evening after a couple of beers at Wonderland, but still.... Though I will say that a friendly stranger who claimed to have lived two blocks away from the garden his entire life had never heard of it. Like I said: well hidden.]

The youth garden project is linked with Kid Power's "Veggie Time!" program, where students study food issues and environmental sciences, operate citywide urban gardens, sell produce and prepared foods at markets and restaurants, and use the profits to support home and community service projects focused on nutrition. In the case of the CH Green, Kid Power helps students promote and sell the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors at the Columbia Heights farmers market. And wouldn't you know it, coordinating market days for the Youth Garden project is part of my job now -- how cool is that?

Before we could plant anything in the raised beds, which would eventually produce those market vegetables, Katie and I had to go over a few ground rules: Don't bother the bees and they won't bother you. No running with sharp tools. No standing on the beds.

Then we pulled up the cover crops -- winter rye in one bed, clover in another -- and composted them. These young gardeners weren't slouches. Look at that stack of rye!

Then it was time to loosen the soil -- boy, do these little people love wielding shovels. That soil was well loosened by the end, let me tell you. Finally, we got planting. Squash, okra, basil, tomatoes... mmm.... add a little water, and the plants look great. Ready to start cranking out a bumper crop, I should say.

Looking forward to next week, when I'll head out with students from the nearby middle school....

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Give me a brake!

Readers, you know I love puns. And I love learning how to fix things. And I love my dear Ollie. And now I can take even better care of her than ever, with my growing repertoire of bicycle maintenance skills. I've been patching tires and cleaning chains for some years now, but fiddling with brakes has always made me a little nervous....

No, you're not the only ones to shake your heads with incredulity. My bike class compatriots at The Bike House were surprised as well. It's true: I have ridden well over 10,000 miles at this point and only this weekend replaced my brake pads for the first time. Til about 48 hours ago, I'd always taken Ollie to a bike shop, fearing some small but disastrous installation error might lead to brake failure and the subsequent careening down a hill through a busy intersection toward my own imminent death as I smashed, pancake-style, into something made of steel and/or cement. (Sorry, dad, I should've probably warned you to put down your cup of coffee before reading this post.)

A couple of months ago, I'd noticed I had to grip the brake levers pretty tightly to get the brakes to make contact on the wheel. I thought I needed to replace the pads, and after purchasing a new set over at The Bicycle Space one afternoon I tried to cajole my bike-savvy gentleman friend into helping me install them. He pointed out that I had plenty of brake pad surface left, and that I could simply tighten the cable and wait on installing new pads. So I did. Because of course there is way less room for error tightening a brake cable than installing a slip-in brake pad...? I assure you it made sense at the time. And I did it all on my own a few days later. But at the first bike-mechanics-in-training class over at Annie's Hardware earlier this month, instructors Carol and Faye pointed out that I would do well to install some new rear brake pads.


At least I already had the new brake pads handy. Our second class finished up after I removed Ollie's old brake pads but before I spilled the various flat, concave, and convex washers all over the pavement in front of the hardware store. But with some help from a friendly volunteer mechanic, and some reworking of the brake cable once more (this time to loosen it), Ollie and I biked home with fresh new brakes. Ahhh. (See, dad? A happy ending!)

I'm not saying I'm an expert now -- chain cleaning and tire patching will remain my milieu for awhile yet, I suspect -- but should you have any lingering fears about fixing your bike, fear not. For free help with brake installation, cable and derailleur adjustments, wheel truing, and more, head on down to The Bike House: at Annie's Hardware in Petworth on Saturdays from 12-3 or, once the Bloomingdale farmers' market starts up next month, in front of Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale on Sundays from 11-1.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Invest in patch kits

Sure, I mean, you should probably have one or two on hand, but at the rate I'm going through 'em, I'd suggest you buy *stock* in patch kits! Check out this "good morning" flat. Sheesh.

I wonder if REI sells them in 10-packs.... :s

Monday, April 2, 2012

Strawberry shortcake stampede

I spent my mornings last week teaching a week-long "Intersession" cooking class to a dozen 9th graders at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. Were it not for the amazing staff and students, I would not have been able to haul myself and an average of about 50 lbs of ingredients and equipment uphill to Petworth for a 9am class each day, let me tell you. Wooh! (Just like the old days on the bike tour. Actually, I think on the days I dragged along the food processor, Ollie weighed about the same as she did as we huffed our way down the Pacific Highway. In short: too much.) As a group, we made a whole bunch of soups and salads and spreads that week. Pickles and kim chi and bagel chips and garlic bread, too. Even a few desserts. And some fried  food.

Wait... what?? Yes.

See? I'm not a purist. I encourage mostly healthy, mostly fruit and veggie-based diets. To be completely fair, though, the frying came in only during the "Feed a Family of 4 for $15: The Great Grocery Store Challenge" activity on Thursday. I was so proud of my student chefs, as they worked in teams to plan a menu, shop at the local Safeway, and prepare delectable meals that included a minimum of 1 protein, 1 starch, and at least 1 fruit or vegetable. Dishes like chicken fried rice with carrots and shallots, egg and turkey bacon breakfast sandwiches with a side of pineapple, and porkchops and strawberry shortcake graced our classroom that day. Speaking of strawberry shortcake...

There was something of a stampede during the final day of Intersession, as we invited the various students and staff to join us for fresh herbal lemonade and just-baked strawberry shortcake following the whole-group presentation. Those who tasted our class offerings – as well as those who were not quick enough to try the many dozens of samples – asked for the recipe so they could make their own at home.

Strawberry Shortcake

This shortbread recipe is adapted from a fluffy biscuit recipe in my old, falling apart paperback copy of The Joy of Cooking. It makes about 6 large (or 12 small) servings.


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 TBSP sugar
  • ¾ cream or milk (we made ours with ¼ cup whipping cream + ½ cup whole milk)
  • 1/8 cup chilled butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2 pints of fresh strawberries
  • 1 pint whipping cream (get that Cool Whip away from me, I mean real cream!)
  • 1-2 tsp sugar
  • vanilla extract (the real stuff, if you can get it)

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Wash and chop strawberries. Toss in a bowl with 1 tsp sugar.

In another bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar together. Mix in butter with your fingers. Stir in the milk/cream until combined. Knead slightly on a floured surface (or in the bowl, if you want a bit less of a mess), then press into a lightly floured baking pan to a thickness of about ¼ inch. (We used a toaster oven pan.) Bake for about 12 minutes, until just lightly browned. Cool slightly, then cut into squares or rectangles.

Beat the pint of whipping cream with a spoonful of sugar and a splash of vanilla until fluffy. (This might take as little as 3 minutes or as many as 15 minutes, depending on if you are using a hand mixer like I do, or a fork like DeMarco did.)

Top shortbread pieces with freshly whipped cream and a few spoonfuls of chopped fresh strawberries. *Beware of adding too much sugar to your whipping cream. You can always add more, but you can't take it away. Just ask the morning cooking crew from March Intersession….

What's that? You're wondering why there is no picture of a finished shortbread, eh? Did I mention the stampede? I was lucky to escape with my body and camera intact! Yes, the shortbread is that good. And the students made it that well. Hope I get to work with them again some day.