Thursday, December 27, 2012

A bacon birthday

Wouldn't you know it, I had a few extra shrimp and some pitted dates around the apartment last night, which my gentleman friend wrapped in some needing-to-be-eaten bacon and handily tossed into the cast iron skillet to roast while I packed for our jaunt up to New York and points north. Not a bad happy birthday midnight snack, is it, washed down with a nice Belgian ale? My apartment still smells of (ahem, free-range, local) bacon this morning. Yes, 35 is going to be a good year....

(Don't give me that look. I needed something to balance out all of that healthy seafood over the Christmas holiday. I'm not a big dessert eater, and I'm trying to bulk up for the winter! It's going to be a long, cold one!)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Feast of Seven Fishes

After the recent Great Goose Debacle, my family made a pact to have a poultry-free Christmas holiday this year. Actually, we decided to take a break from meat altogether for a few meals. When I happened to mention this to my friend Griffin a few weeks ago, he made a joke about the Feast of Seven Fishes that his Italian-American, Catholic relatives have celebrated for years.


I was raised Catholic. I love Italian food. And food traditions. I studied in Rome for the fall semester, the one leading up to Christmas, my junior year of college, for crying out loud... How could I not have heard of this before my (almost) 35th year?!

There is, of course, a simple explanation: I do not know everything about food. Yet. But I am a tenacious researcher. And I decided, after reading up on the history and skimming the list of typical, fried Seven Fishes fare, that the Vincents would be departing from that menu quite drastically.

Our Christmas Eve dinner began in earnest with five of us sitting down before a small vat of my brother's now famous ceviche, this time made with shrimp and a white fish he knew only as "basa" (our first two of the seven fishes). Then came dad's also famous crabcakes (fish #3). Sure, there were some non-fish items -- my kale salad, for instance, or the platter of macaroons mom brought out -- but our feast was decidedly fishy. As mom and dad made their way to church on Christmas morning, I got working on our seafood-laden brunch. I warmed up a few pints of lobster bisque (fish #4) and got working on the rice, sweet potatoes, avocados, and other tasty fillings for our sushi luncheon: slicing up wild Atlantic salmon (#5) and part of a beautiful tuna steak (#6) along with the meticulous process of deveining, peeling, flattening,and steaming shrimp (#7 -- yes, I'm counting it twice, it was that much work!). Good thing little brother didn't get around to making a salad that day, as there was not even an inch of space in my belly for it after we cranked out roll after roll of fresh sushi, topped with wasabi and pickled ginger.*

I think this seafood themed holiday may have to become a tradition. Maybe next year oysters and snails will make an appearance.... Yum.

*Much as I love sushi -- and I do love it quite a bit -- my favorite part has always been the pickled ginger. What's that? You say you want to make your own pickled ginger? It's easy! Here's how:

Easy Pickled Ginger

Peel and thinly slice 1/2 lb fresh ginger (young, if you can find it) and toss with 1/2 tsp salt. Meanwhile, combine 3/4 cup rice vinegar with 1/2 cup brown sugar and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Simmer until sugar dissolves. Stuff ginger into a clean, heat-tolerant glass jar -- I used a wide-mouth pint jar -- and pour the sugar-vinegar mixture over it. Cool on the countertop, then cover and store in the fridge. It should be good for a few months. If you don't scarf it all in the first week.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Eat more whole grains

So batch #2 of homebrew (name TBD) is underway. This time, it'll be a Dark Belgian Strong Ale, started using a kit I picked up during the jaunt up toThree Stars Brewery recently. Funny, Amanda, Jessica, Kenton, and I arrived too late for the brewing demonstration, yet with plenty of time for tasting the four beers they had on tap. But, really, what could we have learned, us semi-pros with a whole, single batch of homebrew making under our collective belts? Well, probably a lot.... One thing I could maybe show the master brewers a thing or two about is cooking with spent grain. Because I'm an expert now. At least on whole grains.

Bread and another round of some pretty darn tasty veggie burgers emerged from my kitchen after the pumpkin ale brewing this autumn. With this darker malted grain for the Belgian strong, brewed for the cold weather, I cranked out some pretty stellar falafel -- who doesn't love falafel? -- on brewing day, then biscuits with scallions and parmesan using the hearty whole grains to feed the masses. But my favorite thing so far may well be the pretzel rolls Carina, Kenton, and I made after we racked the dark ale into the secondary fermenter. 

Check out Carina's expert racking method. (Yes, we're getting fancy here.) And here's Team Pretzel at work.

Delicious. And not just because of the generous application of sea salt. They were good and good for you!

Admittedly, the pretzels were a little more work than the other recipes, but so worth it... especially hot out of the oven and slathered with (homemade, of course) spicy mustard. I toasted the spent grain and then ground it up in my coffee grinder the day before my sous chefs arrived. I'd gotten lots of practice during the two prior weeks, teaching five classes of 3rd graders about the parts of the grain and the importance of eating whole grains. Part of the lesson involved making whole wheat flour and white flour using coffee grinders and sifters. It was a pretty informative lesson for me as much as it was for the kiddos.

Did you know
that white flour (aka all-purpose flour or even 'wheat' flour) isn't all that good for you? You know, that stuff that most of us have used -- myself included -- for baking all of our lives? I was horrified to learn during my lesson prep how little nutritional value even 'Enriched' All-Purpose Flour has in it. "You see," I explained to each group of rapt 8-year-olds, "when you eat anything made from flour, unless it says 'whole wheat,' you're only getting the endosperm part of the grain." That means you pretty much only get the carbs and miss out on the other two main parts, the really good things that whole grains have in them: the bran (where all the fiber is that helps keep your digestive system running smoothly) and the germ (where the fat-soluble vitamins hang out).

"Don't be fooled by packaging that tells you that the loaf of bread you're holding is 'wheat' bread. That just means it comes from the wheat plant. Look at the label." A number of the parent volunteers in class were as concerned as the students to learn this, but I tried to minimize the freaking out by pointing out how a good food detective can easily tell by looking for the words WHOLE WHEAT. "That means that it has to be made from the whole wheat kernel, right? And have all of the parts of the grain ground up in there, and have all of the vitamins that should be there? Otherwise, the company is breaking the law?" one astute young student asked. Exactly. And don't fall for that "Enriched" flour -- it's better than nothing, but they don't put everything back in. And it's usually bleached. (Blech.)

Now, readers, I'm not saying you should never, never, ever use all-purpose flour again or you are sentencing your friends and loved ones to a life of malnutrition and diabetes. I'm just saying you might want to try mixing WHOLE WHEAT into your baking when you can. It doesn't work for everything, but you can sift in at least some whole wheat flour into most recipes and things will turn out just fine. And if you need some ideas for ways to use whole grains -- spent or otherwise -- you know who to call. (Me.)

All spent grain recipes mentioned in this post are based on ones I found on the Brooklyn Brewery blog.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Choked up

While I do try to eat locally and seasonally as much as possible, I keep telling folks that I am not a purist. And I am capable of letting someone else take over my kitchen... a little bit, anyway. Especially when there is positive reinforcement.

I present Exhibit A: the delicious artichokes that my gentleman friend made for our luxurious lunch this rainy Sunday afternoon (along with a heck of a tasty flank steak grilled up out on the back porch, but the photos I took of that before gobbling it up didn't turn out so beautifully so you'll just have to use your imagination). Lord, do I ever love artichokes, and these were perfect.

Turns out the recipe for steaming the delectable thistle relatives came from Grandma Mil -- Kenton's paternal grandmother. (God bless grandmas and moms who pass along the culinary traditions.) The secret -- can you keep a secret? is it even a secret if I'm posting it out there for an indefinite number of unknown foodies reading this blog from an indeterminate number of computers, forevermore accessible in cyberspace? -- is celery seed! And fresh celery chopped into the boiling water, along with lemon slices and rings of fresh onion. Dunked leaf by luscious leaf into an herbed butter and garlic sauce, our first meal with me not dominating the kitchen was simply divine. A girl could get used to this. (Okay, maybe I made the dipping sauce while the head chef was out manning the grill. And some mashed potatoes. You know, just to round out the meal.)

Heck. Forget roses. If a man were to show up on my doorstep with a bouquet of artichokes, I'd be hard pressed to resist pretty much anything. And if he came in and steamed them for me... and did the dishes afterwards....

Monday, December 3, 2012

A town called Arlington

The other night, as we scarfed lentil soup (and a crazy carrot and buttermilk salad that may warrant its own blogpost sometime), my friend Jeff looked across the dinner table at me with a sad face and confessed to a fear that I was going to abandon DC for Arlington. Let me assure you, friends and readers, that while I have been spending quite a bit of time wandering around Clarendon with my paramour in recent months, I am still A DC Girl. I will admit that I have come to love a few Courthouse-area coffeehouses and eating establishments, and maybe I even checked out the "hoppy hour" at the hip but unassuming Rabbit once or twice in the past week, but that's not enough to make me want to move there.

I am not cool with the rationale that instigated the separation of the former southwest corner from DC proper back in the 19th Century, but "separate but equal" ain't such a bad thing when it comes to car and bicycle lanes. Yes, this town could show the District a few things.

It's a solid street ride with aggressive traffic, narrow lanes, parked cars galore, and rarely a bike lane to be found the whole way West through my beloved city, but the instant I cross the Key Bridge into Virginia -- bam! -- instant, dedicated bike trails and bike lanes the whole way. Aside from the hills, this place is a cyclist's dream! God bless the Custis Trail, which avoids the mile and a half straight of uphill riding through Rosslyn. (The time a few weeks ago when we cut through Rosslyn was, I believe, the night Kenton vowed he would give up smoking. It is entirely possible that I will have to make a follow-up music video purely about biking up those hills.) After trying out a few different routes in recent weeks, it now takes Ollie and me less than 45 minutes door to door from my apartment to get to my gentleman friend's place in Arlington.

THANK YOU, whomever had the foresight to design such a bike-friendly town. For sure the DDOT could take a page or three out of Arlington's city planning book. Okay, fine, it's not that there's no progress to make DC more bikeable. I mean, there are Share the Road signs... that motorists patently ignore. And the 14th Street bike lanes are more continuous than they used to be a few years ago... not that the delivery trucks parked in them have changed in the interim. There's a dedicated bike boulevard along the iconic stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to The Capitol... clogged with tourists on Segways. Okay, um, let's see... Well, we are getting a much-needed cycle-track tomorrow -- finally -- after many months of foot dragging and stops and starts. Ah, a nice 12-block, East-West stretch of protected riding in the heart of the business district. So help me, I'd better not see yet more SUVs parked in this dedicated bike lane.

Don't worry, Jeff: Ollie's not moving to Arlington. But with farmers' market season wrapping up for the winter, she will soon be exploring more of the bike trails around there on the weekends.