Pizza, Pizza!

My first time making pizza from scratch!

Eataly DC: Far Away, So Close

Rumors of the imminent arrival of  the Italian-based artisanal grocery chain, Eataly, in our nation’s capital have been rumbling since last July.  If and when Washingtonians are blessed with the advent of the holy grocery store, this is what I would wish for.

Shiitake Fritti con Salvia at Eataly New York's birreria. Image: Amy Loeffler

As franchise operations go it’s tempting to paraphrase Seinfeld’s classically uncouth, eight-ball-jacket-wearing David Puddy regarding Eataly’s expansion into Washington, DC. His comments about Elaine’s obsession with another Italian chain, Benetton, might go something like this: “Elaine, the Eataly on 5th Avenue is just like the Eataly in DC.”  But those who’ve been fortunate enough to make the sojourn to the franchise’s only other U.S. outpost in the Big Apple will notice a slightly different stamp to Lady Columbia’s gustatory rendering of the high-end Italian grocer.

Exquisite pasta at Eataly NYC. Image insatiablecritic.com

I spent inordinate amounts of time at Eataly NYC last summer, a lot of it at the birreria.  It is much more than a three-ring circus. It’s more of a stationary traveling roadshow that remains contained like a box of chaos off 5th Avenue just above Union Square. I actually overheard one of the brewers at the beer garden comment to some friends that he didn’t need to go to shows or see live music.”Dude, I work in a concert,” he mused.

Video: Youtube, Eataly Torino

While Eataly NYC is an origiastic bumper car tour of food stuffs with throngs of international tourists and natives alike jostling for positions at the artisanal pasta counter, or a smidge of bar space at the rooftop beer garden, Eataly DC is more of a controlled and steady buzz of activity. Nestled in three floors of the formerly just-barely-breathing Georgetown Park Mall, it retains the same high-rent appeal as a destination for tourists and Washingtonians, just like Eataly New York’s 5th Avenue locale, but the sheer massiveness of the New York establishment is traded for smaller pockets of space and multiple levels at the revamped Georgetown shopping center (unexpected as proprietors were hoping to outsize the 50,000 sq. foot facility in New York according to reports from Eater DC).

Fashion culture probably means you can get the same Merino wool sweater in Georgetown that you can in New York. Not so with gastronomy. Image: Angela Fazio

The smaller size keeps the mayhem to a steady roar versus the unbridled consummania that seems to permeate Manhattan, and is welcome for the owners of a shopping mall that was rotting like so much spoiled fruit. No doubt the controlled consumerism will be chalked up to DC conservatism, but in truth, Eataly DC feels more like a temple where Italo-philes can worship food history along with food as fetish. This is primarily due to the store’s dedicated teaching space (similar to the original Torino location) where everyone from school children to retirees can come to shop and also educate themselves about the food supply chain and food production, as well as indulge in cured meats, pastas and vegetables of ottima qualità. Eataly DC’s appearance is timely and should be a nice complement to other culinary efforts from area chefs like José Andrés who have successfully melded food and food policy in this town.

Desserts at Eataly NYC: Image: Thisisgonnabegood.blogspot.com

Almost-Famous Pecan “Sandies”

Image: Amy Loeffler

By now you’ve come down from the Valentine’s shakes; caffeine-induced jitters from o.d.ing on the wide array of confections as diverse as  salt caramel and cardamom ginger, and varying degrees thereof depending on the quality of the selection that came boxed in holiday wrapping.*  Whatever flavors remain by Easter are only the weird lonely ones left in the cocoa repository, like that unnatural chartreuse-filled confection that no one ever eats til around March 14th. If it ever gets eaten at all.

Whether or not you dutifully devoured that box of chocolate on February 14th, there’s little time left before the next choco-loaded holiday gorge-fest descends upon us in the form of bunnies and chicks birthed from cocoa pods and chocolate molds; creations cloned to simulacraic perfection down to each fur-inspired groove in every shiny, snappy rabbit ear and artful etching of egg shell. No schmaltzy celebrating of Valentine’s individuality here. Easter chocolate is all about replicating DNA.

I find the the uniformity of Easter chocolate pleasing in its abundant familiarity. In fact, human beings are programmed to recognize the familiar. And also the famous. It’s in our genetic construction. The ability to perform facial recognition was an evolutionary necessity in forming relationships and memories. Now instead of using recognition skills for grand things like fleeing flesh-eating mammals, we use them to network at cocktail parties.  But what evolution made as a survival mechanism, post-modernism has fashioned into a ridiculous obsession with celebrity.

Image: HH Gregg

I personally am reminded of our propensity to fete the famous constantly. And I owe my almost-famous experience to the starlet Sandra Bullock. Why? Because I am without fail accosted by strangers, co-workers, acquaintances and well-wishers alike who are compelled to tell me that I resemble the Academy Award-winning actress at every turn.

I wish I actually DID possess some of the DNA of the petite, almond-eyed and dark chocolate-tressed actress. But I don’t. So, it’s bittersweet to have strangers compliment you on looking like someone else.  It’s at once an affirmation of some sort of superficial aesthetic to which I secretly aspire, and also a denial of oneself.  I don’t look like Sandra Bullock at all in my opinion. We have similar almond-shaped eyes, but mine are more like a rich suede, caramel brown and hers are mocha java. Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think I’m unattractive, but Sandy (that’s what her friends call her) is an exquisite rendering of the human form with a meticulously chiseled  T-zone, punctuated by the most perfectly button-shaped nose thanks to genetics. It’s as if God made that nose out of play-doh and slow-cooked kilned it himself over several days to get the right shape and symmetry. Just like a chocolate Easter bunny’s meticulously made ears.

My doppelganger, Sandra Bullock Image: Celebslife.net

Though, I’m not gonna lie. I have actually fantasized during spells of under/unemployment about sending my head shot to the former Mrs. Jesse James’ agent at United Artists with a friendly, hand-scribbled note saying,  “If you need someone to play Sandy’s sister/cousin, I could be the Stephen to her Alec Baldwin.”

Me, the author. Image: Amy Loeffler

Some time ago I conceded that these unending compliments/remarks from strangers (mostly) come from a place of genuine good-heartedness, but after the millionth time a passerby in the mall has sped-walked by and forced eye-lock with me to say, “Hey, you know who you look like?” it really didn’t feel like a nicety. I began to feel like the Sandra Bullock comments were a real intrusion. Kinda late for real life stuff and I don’t need the equivalent of a face-to-face sales call taking up precious miliseconds. Do you really need to take the time to tell me this, Mr. Random Mall Shopper?

Video:Youtube

I imagine the internal chemical reaction that occurs when a stranger sees me (or anyone else who has a famous person doppelganger); the recognition response stimulating the brain to release endorphins that in turn cause the affected person to become possessed and speak as if my eternal salvation depends on me knowing that I resemble a famous actress.

I know this complaining might sound like unfeeling bitchiness. Who cares if someone wants to say something nice to you, right? And it’s not like I can’t relate to the rush of endorphins that a brush with fame can spark. I was reduced to becoming a stammering thirteen-year-old girl myself when I was an intern at Northern Virginia Magazine and had the opportunity to interview real culinary rock stars. It happened during an interview with cookbook author Lucinda Scala Quinn. I spoke to LSQ about her tome, Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys, but it wasn’t the interview itself I remember so much as the little piece of conversation that happened before the interview.

AL: Hi, I’m calling for my interview with Lucinda?

LSQ: “Oh, hi, yes. Can I call you back in five minutes? Martha’s on the other line.”

Martha?! As in Martha Stewart?! THE Martha Stewart? I thought she only existed in dreams on highly sought after real estate, like a puff of cumulus clouds above the the long stretch of 5th Avenue that borders Central Park. Or on a sprawling estate in Connecticut with the Madonna privacy package of blast walls on the grounds to obscure the view from passersby. In any case, far away from mere mortals.

I imagined LSQ in her bustling office in Manhattan on W. 26th Street, silently mouthing the need for an errand to be run to an editorial assistant while she was on the phone with me, and gesturing to editorial assistant #2 about photos for a looming deadline.

I was just a telephone line, and a one-degree of separation from the Queen of Domesticity herself. Or so it seemed.

LSQ was gracious and thoughtful, and I actually ended up buying her book for my nephew, who was a one-time aspiring chef. But what I stuck with me afterwards was, what was this affliction people have for seeking out fame in any incarnation? And by people, I meant me too.

So, I’ll continue to be polite when acquaintances I’ve just barely met after 2.5 seconds or the cashier at Target starts to say, “Hey, you know who you look like?” because I know what’s coming.  It’s flattering. But, God, is this what it’s like to be famous? Unless cookie dough becomes legal tender, I would much rather be wealthy.

Pecan Sandies

Image: Amy Loeffler

*********************************************************************************************

As a tribute to my sometimes doppelganger, Sandy Bullock, here is a palate cleanser between cocoa-centric holidays. This crumbly shortbread cookie recipe for Pecan “Sandies” exhibits burnt-caramel notes and is a nice segue between the Valentine holiday and the impending assault of sweets that Peter Cottontail is sure to unleash on us in April (See Martha Stewart’s recipe below, with one addition from me.)

Pecan Sandies

Recipe from Martha Stewart.com

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup chocolate, rough chopped (high-octane, please, at least 60% cocoa content)**

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy; beat in vanilla and salt. With mixer on low, gradually add flour, beating just until combined. Fold in pecans.
  2. Roll dough into 1 1/2-inch balls, and place on two baking sheets, 2 inches apart. With the dampened bottom of a glass, lightly flatten each ball.
  3. Bake until cookies are golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer to wire racks, and let cool.

Cook’s Note

For best results, line cookie sheets with parchment prior to baking.

*(Side note on chocolate: Hopefully your S.O./husband/wife/paramour was thoughtful enough to purchase REAL chocolate for you that did not come pre-packaged in a red cellophane-wrapped heart-shaped box. Especially on a day devoted to amor, no one should mess around with Hershey’s. Go for the good stuff. And by “good stuff” I’m talking at least 72% cocoa liquor; single-origin Venezuelan; no less than $7 per bar, baby.  Anything other than high-quality cocoa is not going to hold up to the antics of the boudoir on el Dia de San Valentin, or any other day, like say, your anniversary. ‘Cause when you’re exchanging spittle at lightning speed, the cheap stuff does not hold up; too waxy and saccharine for all that body heat.)

**The chocolate is my addition. In case you fear slipping into chocolate withdrawal before Easter.

 

 

 

 

At Virtue Feed and Grain, There’s More Than Patience on the Menu

 

My tumbler of pinot. Image: Amy Loeffler

Patience is the virtue featured on the menu at the Armstrong’s most recent adventures in restaurateur-dom. It’s a reference to the necessity to wait for good food that is slow-made and farm-fresh. But I would add humility to the list of admirable qualities that are on display at Virtue as well.

When I talked to Cathal Armstrong about his penchant for using his trusty iPad in the kitchen last year, conversation wandered to the yet-to-be completed project that is now Virtue Feed and Grain.  As a native Alexandrian I told him that while I lamented the demise of the once-upon-a-time indie record store that would become Virtue’s space, it was heartening to know that we wouldn’t have to stomach a corporate, faceless chain restaurant forever inhabiting the former bones of the Olson’s space. But instead of taking credit for rescuing the previous haunt for punky, gothy, nerdy, and yes, even normal, NoVa teens, Armstrong expressed dismay and humbly answered, “It’s sad when those places go away,” he said.

Now the space where connoisseurs of local indie rock gathered is again a hot spot for locals, and local fare. This time however, it’s not licorice pizza on the menu.

On a recent visit, it was difficult not to make mental notes of where the cash register was (now the hostess stand), and the magazine rack where I used to buy NME, or whatever British music rag I thought was the gospel at the time. Where I used to rummage for Dead Kennedys records and ask staff about auditory esoterica (ok, I was not cool enough to rummage for DK vinyl; admittedly I was rummaging for New Order and The Cure), is now the kitchen. Pretty appropriate that the very spot that was the haven for those with discerning musical taste is now the spot where chefs make tasty fare.

Farm-house chicken at Virtue Feed and Grain. Image: Amy Loeffler

The offerings at Virtue are comprised of traditional, and also self-described “weird” entrees (weird=organ meat-based dishes from Ireland). When I visited I opted for the farm-house chicken and chips. Nothing fancy, but satisfying on a fall day. My entree was swaddled in a sauce of mainly chicken stock, mirepoix, and a splash of veal stock that gave the otherwise sheer sauce a bit of depth and heft. Big fries, not quite steak size, were exactly the right implement for soaking up any excess liquid I could not slurp off the meat or the bones.

I wasn’t quite sure about the tumbler that my pinot noir came in, however. At first I thought it was trying too hard to be rustic. As I ate, though, it kind of reminded me of the day after a party when there aren’t any more clean glasses, so you end up drinking whatever wine is leftover in a coffee mug or a preserve jar. Another virtue perhaps? The ability to laugh at yourself in your jammies while drinking out of a kiddie mug?

Taylor Swift, and Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong, don’t take themselves too seriously. Video: Youtube

Cathal and Meshelle don’t take themselves too seriously either, and I would venture to say that if most of the menu copy isn’t written by the missus, she’s had a hand in it; there is a self-awareness evidenced by the constant elbow in the ribs of the overuse of the farm-to-table terminology, but still manages to maintain a reverence for the product that they sell.

Patience, humility, and the ability to laugh at yourself, are all virtues to practice often. I’m glad that the Armstrongs, along with Mr. Thrasher, are practicing virtuists.

It’s Simple. It’s Compound. It’s Butter.

Image: Amy Loeffler

I was introduced to compound butter during family outings to Sunday brunch in the basement of the Smithsonian Castle. On special Sundays we would all pile into our mammoth 1977 baby blue Ford LTD station wagon (the pre-wood paneling model that would define the Country Squire model) and head into the city from Alexandria.

Sure there was a roasted meat station, a waffle station, and the all important dessert station.

But out of all the attention-getting food stations, I remember most vividly the bread baskets and the butter that flanked them.

There was the regular whipped butter at which I still marveled as to how the texture was so finely whipped that it allowed the butter fat to dance coolly on my tongue and still coat the inside of my mouth.  Could I do this at home, I dared to dream? My pre-teen self was awed by what seemed like such an extraordinary amount of culinary detail that even the butter would be elevated to heights of exoticism like “honey” and “strawberry,” all whipped into clouds of dairy dreams.

Culinarily speaking we are light years away from 1977. We are so food aware now that I think even the term “rate of iterative change” not only applies  to computers, iPhones, and technology in general, but culinary know-how as well.

Compound butter has evolved too, but it’s still an efficient way to use up herbs you probably already have on hand from the Thanksgiving feast. And, yes, will even make you feel as fancy as a 12-year-old being allowed to gorge on pastries from the dessert station.

I made some simple recipes with things you may already have on hand from cooks101.com and bohemainrevolution.com The cranberry was my own concoction.

Smoked Paprika Butter

from 101cookbooks.com

4 tablespoons unsalted organic butter, room temperature
1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt

Cranberry Butter

(If you made your own sauce, just spoon it in there.)

4 tablespoons unsalted organic butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon leftover cranberry sauce
A few scrapings of nutmeg from a grater
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Lemon Tarragon Butter
4 tablespoons unsalted organic butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon tarragon
2 teaspoons lemon juice to taste
salt to taste

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life (and Food) According to Lindsay Nixon

Image: Lindsay Nixon/BenBella Books

I’ve been wrestling a lot with career path decisions lately, so when I finally caught up with cookbook author and deliberate life-liver, Lindsay Nixon (aka the Happy Herbivore), I found her recipes, and unapologetic nonconformity, intriguing.

She speaks as matter-of-factly on her blog about the importance of nurturing the most minuscule, seedling-sized dream on the path to acheiving self-fulfillment as she does about her job as a vegan chef.

But sometimes overcoming the barriers to a plant-based, meatless meal are as elusive as the search for eternal happiness itself. For example, just for kicks, let’s see a show of hands. How many carnivores out there find themselves uninspired and reticent to set foot in the kitchen even after they’ve committed to dipping their toes in the vegan pool to tackle a recipe? Funny how little things pop up on the “to-do” list like eight loads of laundry when “make banana flower skillet” is tops. Do we even know what banana flowers are supposed to taste like?
Somehow cooking becomes more of an obligation instead of an escape when the familiarity is gone.  Given the ambiguity would-be vegan chefs face in the kitchen, it’s not shocking that the ability to cook hearty, and throaty “mmm”-inducing dishes that ignite your pleasure centers like a vintage Lite-Brite board seems out of reach for the uninitiated, vegan or not.

According to Nixon, however, cooking vegan meals can be a simple, and, yes, pleasurable, affair.

Said Nixon via email,”I find most vegan cookbooks call for weird, obscure ingredients and involve complex methods that take hours to prepare. I think meat-eaters, and even vegheads, can be easily put off by that.”

Lindsay Nixon, aka The Happy Herbivore. Image: Lindsay Nixon/BenBella Books

Plant-based eating does not have to be a vision quest for esoteric ingredients or a frustrating exercise in preparing enigmatic proteins that attempt to stand in for meat in stilted ways. (I recall some tofu tacos I whipped up in high school that looked like they could have been the main course from a low-end Mexican take-out restaurant. If that restaurant were on Mars.  And that restaurant served space colonists. Space colonists who thought an anemic plate of pasty, white mush covered in a mysterious sauce the color of the burnt orange Martian landscape looked satisfying after that interminable light-speed journey from Earth.)

Nixon’s first cookbook, The Happy Herbivore, is in fact less like a “vegan” cookbook, and more like a tome for everyday cooking that just happens to be populated with plant-based recipes. And whether you’re a militant herbivore, or a just trying on vegetarianism for size at snack time, this book is a handy reference guide for go-to entrees, side dishes, and desserts.

“The Happy Herbivore Cookbook, tells the story of my life through recipes and food. The food of my family’s roots, my husband’s, the places I’ve been, it all comes alive in my recipes,” said Nixon. (No doubt Nixon’s cornbread recipe (below) is a product of serious time spent below the Mason-Dixon Line).

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and certainly a spigot of traditional holiday recipes will gush forth in print and on the Web to reach riot control force in the next week (I actually just received the Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit). Even just a few vegan side dishes are a no-fuss and de riguer way to make up for the cutesy blob of can-shaped cranberry sauce that might be present at your table (we know, it’s purely for nostalgia’s sake, right?). Also, take a gander at Lindsay’s pumpkin and sage pasta dish that was recently featured in the New York Times, or spare the bird and ponder an entire vegan Thanksgiving with the HH’s recommendations.

Even better, whip up a batch of cornbread and red lentil dal right now while you ponder living a life fulfilled (recipes below).

Go on now, time’s a wasting. Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think. (Seriously, self-actualization aside, it is almost lunchtime).

Cornbread (serves 6) - This is my favorite cornbread recipe. It’s quick and simple — the kind of recipe you can whip up at any time because you always have the ingredients on hand.-L. Nixon

1 c cornmeal
1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine salt
1 cup non-dairy milk (such as fat-free soymilk)
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
2 tbsp raw sugar (optional)

Preheat oven to 400F. Whisk cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Add non-dairy milk, applesauce, maple syrup and sugar, if using, on top. Using a spatula, stir until just combined. Pour batter into a nonstick shallow 9″ pie dish, or other oven-safe dish. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Red Lentil Dal (serves 4) - Dals are essentially thick stews made with lentils and traditional Indian spices. This dal is easy, delicious and cheap. Make it once and it will never leave your regular rotation, I promise.-L. Nixon

1 small onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp ground ginger
1/2 c dried red lentils
2 c vegetable broth
1 tomato, chopped (save juices)
3 ounces tomato paste (5 tbsp)
1 tbsp ground coriander
2 tsp garam masala
salt, pepper, cayenne to taste

Line a medium pot with 1/4 cup of water and cook onions and garlic until translucent. Add turmeric, cumin, paprika, and ginger, and cook for another for another 2 minutes, adding water if necessary to prevent sticking and burning. Add lentils, broth, tomato, tomato paste, and coriander, stirring to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes or until lentils are cooked and orange-ish. Add garam masala, stirring to combine, and let rest for 5 minutes. Add salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.

Note: if tomatoes are out of season, use 1/4 cup tomato sauce or two peeled canned tomatoes.


 

Latte-Heads: Go South!

beans

Coffee beans mid-roast. Image: Aliana Ramos

Seattle. Portland. Brooklyn. San Francisco.

All are temples of revered urban coffee culture and conjure images of quirky, rough-around-the-edges, artisanal caffeine-centric hang-outs; the kind of places where you could talk for hours with other java-heads about the black gold in your cup.

But look out. South of the Mason-Dixon line there’s a coffee revolution that’s been quietly fermenting and gaining steam (pun intended). Let’s just say if you wanna know what the fighetti (hipster) italiani are drinking but can’t make it to Rome before the end of the year, go South, coffee drinkers.

What’s causing this directional change in the aromatic winds? One company in particular, the Muddy Dog Roasting Company, (recently named one of the 17 fastest growing coffee companies in the United States by CNNMoney) is causing the caffeine compass to point decidedly Southward.

Java-head Jim Pellegrini, roastmaster and owner with his wife Debbie, demonstrate that coffee culture born of renovated tobacco barns (or in Pellegrini’s case, industrial park-like office space in Morrisville, N.C.), instead of perpetual drizzle is capable of rivaling more traditional temples of roasting religion.

I caught up with Pellegrini and his coffee a couple of Saturdays ago on a bright fall day amidst an eclectic and somewhat hodgepodge group of hyperlocals hawking everything from locally sourced produce (as in bitter greens grown-50-feet-away-in-the-backyard-of-the-market local), cheesecakes, chocolate, even Bloody Marys, at the Rebus Works farmers market in Raleigh.

Pellegrini’s array of nut-brown offerings were displayed in full force. But one in particular caught my attention.

Give me your, dirty your gritty, your fighetti
Though Pellegrini will gush about any of his blends and single batch coffees, among the most intriguing for the palate and the nose is the current iteration of his modern espresso; the somewhat recently unveiled Trastavere.  And it’s got an enticing backstory.

For those of you haven’t poked around Rome in the last, oh five years or so, Trastavere is a Roman neighborhood located on the banks of the Tiber River. A beautiful people-place populated by what Italians might call fighetti (translated as “hipsters”, but interestingly enough I saw the definition of the word in Spanish “pijo/a” which I was already familiar with as being, I dunno, not so much Jack White as Paris Hilton).

“I call it the Durham of Rome,” says Pellegrini. “All the cool kids are there, but at the same time it’s still a little dirty and a little seedy.”

Hipsters aside, what Pellegrini detected on a recent summer trip to the madre patria was that the coffee was different. “Not better. not worse. Just different,” he says on his blog.

Enter the Liberica bean: a primary component in Pellegrini’s Trastavere, his Contemporary Roman Espresso blend. Here’s the kicker: Pellegrini has the ONLY allotment of these beans in the entire United States. So, to paraphrase Dave Chapelle in his send up of the glories of working a fast food job, you gots to go through Pellegrini if you want that Italian, skinny jeans, nerd glasses feeling.

Back to the bean itself, some sleuthing on Pellegrini’s part revealed that Italian coffee giant Lavazza had integrated vertically into agriculture in India and hence began sourcing its coffee beans from more tropical climes in the Southasian nation.  That source change manifested itself in Pellegrini’s coffee cup in heady aromas of spice, sandalwood, almond and hints of blueberries. A very different roast than what he remembered from his last caffeine-inspired sojourn to Italy five years ago.

And tasting Trastavere last Saturday was indeed a treat for me. Not only because of Pellegrini’s enthusiasm and knowledge about the product, but because I was sampling something that few coffee drinkers have experienced; the flavor profile imparted by the sandalwood notes was part lounging in the sun and being cooled by the radiant and refreshing temps of a boutique hotel’s crystalline waters while an elephant meanders by (hey, it’s my fantasy), and part café culture. As in reading a book at an outdoor café with a scarf and a jacket on and happy to be oblivious while people chit-chat around you in chic foreign tongues.  (Yeah, describes the early part of my junior-year-abroad in Madrid before I could understand the smack people were talking.)

Trastavere is not a “traditional” espresso blend, and will most likely change over time. But as Pellegrini discovered this summer, tradition is a word that isn’t above some tweaking, even among die-hard, Italian caffeine connoisseurs.  “It’s not the coffee that’s the tradition. It’s the coffee ritual that’s the tradition. The coffee is the artifact.”

Green Beans
Like a lot of smaller businesses, sustainability is a priority for Pellegrini and Muddy Dog, and because of their size, they have the ability to touch many more aspects of the business with green technologies.

Pellegrini himself grew up on a farm where his father practiced organic farming when it was completely gauche and meant, “puny, pest-ridden vegetables.” His respect for farming has also transferred itself to the coffee. “The only person who can make your coffee better is the farmer. Everyone else just screws it up,” says Pellegrini.

More to the point though, his commitment to sustainability stems from two fundamental tenets: “he’s got kids, and he’s human.”  But for a small businessperson making simple assertions about wanting to be green because of human commonality can be costly when the, er, beans hit the proverbial roaster. Muddy Dog Roasting Company’s roaster produces zero carbon emissions. It’s a pricey badge of honor that he and his wife are proud to brandish for a low carbon footprint, but the reality is many small businesses probably couldn’t shoulder the $50,000 increase in expenses. (According to Pellegrini a regular commercial roaster retails for about $30,000 dollars. The roaster he uses at Muddy Dog cost about $80,000.)

Sustainability can be directly measured in carbon emissions, but Pellegrini’s also a big believer in the human connection with suppliers, and also ironically the oft-maligned middle man, who is in reality a very large part of the reason why Muddy Dog Roasting Company can exist at all.

“I actually value my relationship with importers a lot,” he says. “What we need is more transparency not more bureaucracy,” he says of the coffee supply chain.

Companies the size of Muddy Dog rely on making associations with suppliers who have existing relationships with importers.  Pellegrini could not possibly run a business this size of Muddy Dog and expect huge container ships to worry about moving small lots of coffee from the many places he sources his product to Morrisville, N.C. where he’s located.

Says Pellegrini, “When there are only two bags in the whole world, I can make hay with that.”

And what about fair trade? It’s one of the most polemic issues regarding the production of coffee or chocolate. Pellegrini finds Fair Trade labeling a little wonky.  While he has “Fair Trade “coffees, he also sells products that are, “not fair trade-certified, but are fairly traded.” Wrestle with that one, java-heads. In the coffee-sphere the labeling takes precedence, and sometimes wrongly so.

Good thing we have a roastmaster to guide us through the maze of products out there, and point us in the direction of quality coffees that are as unique as the taste of his Trastavere blend.

“I think the reason people buy coffee from a guy like me is that I should be able to tell you everything about it.”

 

Take Comfort: Anise Fusion Is Not Your Average Take-Out

One of Anise Fusion's signature dishes, Lolli Pop Chicken. Image: Anise Fusion

Most of you may know that the Sherpa (aka me) took leave this summer from the psychological and culinary comforts of Ms. Lady Columbia’s environs for a taste of the big city. Specifically, Noo Yawrk Cideee. Yes, that’s right, Cookie, Sunnyside, Queens to be exact, the most ethnically diverse Borough in this big, swirling pot of humanity called New York.

Translation? The range and diversity of  comestibles is off the charts here. Within a two-block radius of where I live I can sample cuisine from Turkey, Romania, Korea, Peru and Thailand. And that’s not counting the food truck on the corner where I can get chicken, beef and tongue tacos at any hour of the day or night.

Being from the Washington-metropolitan area I’m no naïf when it comes to ethnic cuisine, though. The District and Northern Virginia owe a lot of their culinary heritage to political upheaval in far away lands that caused fleeing populations to seek political asylum in the nation’s capital. I’d be willing to bet that chefs who made their way to D.C. from overseas in the 1970s not only opened restaurants out of the financial necessity, but also to traveled back to their native lands, at least mentally, to reclaim intangible remembrances of native lands by cooking their way home with every entrée and appetizer that they served to hungry Washingtonians.

Banh Mi and bubble tea, kimchi and Korean barbecue, as well as every iteration of Ethiopian lentils, have all been within easy gastronomic reach during my lifetime as a native Northern Virginian.

But New York had even more surprises for me.

Take the restaurant that’s around the corner from my apartment, Anise Fusion.

Situated in a neighborhood with no shortage of Pan-Asian take-aways, there’s already been a surprisingly healthy amount of Internet buzz about this restaurant.

Why? Because it’s not your average Chinese, order-by-number place.

In addition to the restaurant’s own facebook presence, reviews have been coming in at a steady clip on the restaurant rating site yelp.com since the establishment’s opening on July 28th. Mere rumors of their opening a couple of weeks ago even prompted some lively commentary on the local online pub sunnysidepost.com between Chef Peter Chang and some residents who bemoaned the advent of yet another lackluster Chinese take-out joint.

“We are high-end take-out,” says Lily Chang who manages the restaurant with her aforementioned husband Peter; brother and Chef John Huang; and sister-in-law, Natda Khamnil, the Thai component of Anise Fusion. Indeed, the restaurant’s facebook page displays elegantly plated and appetizers and entrees that are not the common take-out fare.

Restaurateur Lily Chang peddles in high-end take-out by melding Indian and Chinese flavors. Image: Amy Loeffler

But the haute cuisine-stylings of the food here are not the only contributors that make AF an excellent choice for those who seek an uncommon destination for Asian cuisine on-the-go. Many of the dishes on the menu reflect Lily and John’s upbringing in India as part of the ethnic Chinese community in Calcutta, a population that has existed there since at least the 13th century (though Chang’s family arrived a little more recently, just after World War II).

It's not all fusion here. The Thai Chive Pancake appetizer is one of the many classic Thai dishes the restaurant offers. Image: Amy Loeffler

Signature dishes like Lolli Pop Chicken are more than a manifestation of Chang’s Indian roots: it’s their comfort food. The relatively obscure Indian/Chinese culinary miscegenation also serves to boost the upscale factor of what might just be plain fried chicken or a classic Tandoori dish at other take-out spots.

It’s easy to taste why this twist-on-fried-chicken dish has quickly become customer favorite. The subtle heat and earthiness imparted by a panoply of Indian spices, a flavor profile that hints at turmeric and fiery chilies, is turned askew by the frying of the chicken, which accentuates the slight astringency of the traditional Tandoori flavor. This earthiness is nicely balanced, however, by a rich roasted pepper remoulade that accompanies the dish. “On our menu we don’t really have Indian dishes, but we do have Indian spices,” says Lily.

That said, don’t miss out on the Thai cuisine here, either. The menu has all of the standards from familiar Tom Kha and Tom Yum Soup on the appetizer side to Red and Panang Curry along with traditional Thai Basil sauce for entrees of red meat, fish or chicken.

Beverages are also an eclectic smattering of Indian and Thai libations: Mango Lassi and Thai Iced Tea or Coffee are the stand-outs on the drinks list.

Nibbling on a Thai Chive Pancake I ask Chef John Huang where he would like to be in a few months. “Maybe a bigger space?” he says looking around the nicely decorated but decidedly barely-there dining area (to be fair it is primarily a take-out operation at this point, but judging by the foot traffic that came in during our interview, I would hazard that they could easily fill a dining room on a regular basis).

Then Lily points to a photo that hangs on the wall of her husband Peter, who works as an Italian chef. “We could do Italian/Indian/Chinese,” she says, laughing at the prospect of a an expanded menu in the not-too-distant future.

Before I left Anise Fusion I actually found out that Natda, the Thai ambassador of the bunch, and I call the same apartment block home and she lives in the building next to mine; she’s another transplant like me.

And while I long to sit for a spell and gulp a Guinness and codwich at an old haunt like Eamonn’s in Old Town, living in the most ethnically diverse Borough in New York has reminded me again of how powerful food memories are, and the hold that they have over our nervous systems. But I don’t mean the sheer pleasure of eating. That whether it’s Calcutta, India, Thailand, Alexandria, Va., or Sunnyside, Queens, “comfort food” has a lot more to do with our brains than our stomachs.

 

Lucky Peach: Consider Yourself Changged

After the editorial bloodletting of vaunted food publications like Gourmet Magazine in 2009, David Chang’s brand-spanking new, tatted up and spit-polished food publication, Lucky Peach, is a welcome addition to the roster of culinary-oriented rags.

Chang chose the inaugural issue to be a low-tech paper showcase of the most Asian of noodles: ramen, in all its fresh and freeze-dried iterations. (Ruth Reichl even chimes in with a confessional about plying her own son with high grade, homemade stock ramen in an intro to a ramen tasting round up.) And also, eggs. Recipe after recipe on eggs (because eggs go with ramen).

The problem for me is: I like this magazine. A lot. But I don’t LOVE it. At least not the way that I had hoped.

However, there’s still quite a bit that will drag you away from an evening spent in a vortex of Family Guy reruns, and get up off the couch to actually throw on an apron and try some of the techniques Chang talks about in his narrative-style recipes.

Why? Because some of the recipes are so stone simple, yet they maintain a whimsy that’s so igniting you have to try them. The Arzak Eggs in plastic brought me back to the days when I was four years old and anticipated Halloween by making Kleenex ghosts by enrobing one kleenex around a bunch of rolled up ones and tying off the end (don’t judge, I said I was four!). Except these are, like, ghost eggs swaddled in plastic. It’s cooking  and arts and crafts class rolled into one!

Another recipe I attempted from the magazine was Ko Egg, soft-cooked eggs with fingerling potato chips and caviar. Not gonna lie, the potato chips did not turn out perfectly for me, but hey, at least it got me thinking about eggs and frying micronized potato chips. I am actually committed to mastering the frying of these itty-bitty spuds to golden crispness now. In the process I also learned how to boil an egg so the center isn’t overdone; so it stays a little glossy. And I even embellished Chang’s recipe, since, sorry, I don’t have caviar on hand, but I did mince some jamon Serrano and sprinkle it on top of my gelatinous oeuf.

One of my complaints about this publication content wise is that it’s a little too steeped in Chang himself and his Momofuku endeavors. Reading can feel like you’re being sucked into an advertorial, not a piece of journalism. At times the editorial is so heavily coated in PR it’s like slogging through the copious amounts of mayonnaise in a cheap, soggy tuna salad sandwich. I liked reading it, but I felt like I do when I walk through the Air and Space Museum in D.C.; these are objects that are sanctified by the fact that they’ve been in space, and the enormity of the phallic-shaped monuments is thrilling to behold, but let’s be honest: it’s a public relations monument to fund the space program, no matter how much you dress it up in freeze-dried astronaut ice cream, or in this case, freeze-dried ramen.

Also, just as the Air and Space museum is devoted to phallic structures, Lucky Peach, (at least the first issue) is heavy on that y chromosome. Save for Reichl there isn’t one female, chef or otherwise, in the whole publication, and it’s pretty hefty-sized for a magazine.

Fingerling potato chips did not turn out as expected, but Dave Change has inspired me to perfect my frying technique.

I was, however, very proud of my glossy egg.

Further, at times Chang gets trapped in a funnel cloud of Lower East side-centered chit-chat with buds Tony Bourdain and Wylie Dufresne. There’s a rather lengthy conversation surrounding why we Americans settle for substandard, industrial schlock that involves sports metaphors and terms like “mediocritization” which would have been more intriguing as a video (and probably will appear as such in the app Chang has planned). In print it just seems to go on forever and as a reader you get the impression the nuanced behaviors of the Chang, Bourdain, Dufresne trifecta would have made better moving images than words on paper.

Many of the references in this conversation are also jokey slams about the gentrification of Brooklyn.  I get the reference, but I don’t know if I feel making the talk all clubby-clubby for a privileged few who happen to vacation regularly or live in New York is what I want in a magazine. I’m not sure this will translate to an audience that exists outside the New York-metro area. Or maybe Dave Chang doesn’t care about this?

Chang’s magazine may not deliver the moon, but it is a welcome addition to the pantheon of culinary rags out there, and perhaps, dare I say with squinty apprehension, a sign that the journalism industry is coming back? Unfortunately for me the gossip is too insider-y and at times, sort of ho-hum. I feel like Lucky Peach was a little like the Magical Mystery Tour and everyone thought that something exciting would happen simply by virtue of the fact that the The Beatles were filming something, and surprise!, nothing happened. For this reason, I’m anxious to see the iPad app that Chang is promising too. If his previous appearances in video are any indication, (his vbtv appearance with José Andrés was gust-bustingly funny, and his self-effacing humor endearing) and he can capture more of these spontaneous moments he’ll have a strong piece of food entertainment on his hands.

Until then I’ll hang on to my copy of Lucky Peach and keep it on the coffee table in the living room because there are still egg recipes I’m eager to try from this issue. Peach season may almost be over, but I hope with some fine tuning, Lucky Peach season is just beginning.

Why B.R. Myers Can Choke on His Article

Many food writers have responded to B.R. Myers’ hissy fit in The Atlantic, “Fed Up: Gluttony Dressed Up as Foodie-ism Is Still Gluttony.” This article as Mike Steinberger points out was launched with a laser-like trajectory from South Korea where Myers resides and was meant to quite purposefully cause convulsions among a certain segment of the population. Namely those involved in writing about food. Myers makes innovative assertions in his piece that 1) chefs tend to be individuals who enjoy overindulging (shocking), 2) that foodies are responsible for tainting the pleasure of eating and confusing it with sex (paging Dr. Freud!), and 3) that food writers employ annoying narrative tools like hyperbole. Enlightening commentary to be sure. That is if you happen to be living on the same Pre-Freudian, post-hyperbolic, and psycho-analysis-free planet where Myers himself lives.

First can we please dispense with the word “foodie”?  At last year’s Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier both attendees and panelists bristled at this term and the inadequacies of the word in describing those who make food writing their profession. (I won’t describe here and now why I personally find this term irksome, but referring to Anthony Bourdain, Michael Pollan and others as “foodies” is a little akin to calling Gandhi a “community organizer.” I’m not saying food writers should be revered in the same way that Gandhi is, I’m just pointing out that the term is not an apt description). Why? “Foodie” carries with it connotations of someone who is ignorant of the responsibility of having a public platform to write about food; it conjures images of self-proclaimed bloggers who “just like to eat,” and I wouldn’t put any of the aformentioned individuals in these categories.

The subtext of Myers’ article is the real issue here and that subtext is the fact that he is a vegan; and also how annoying he finds both foodie and food culture’s propensity to be sanctimonious, including the foodie morality that exalts the pleasures of food above all else, even at the, and especially, the expense of, animal suffering.  He’s even taken the time to read most of the Best Food Writing Anthology of 2010 and a few assorted other tomes on food writing to prove his point. If his diatribe was meant to illuminate the virtues of not eating meat (one of them being that you can give yourself the go ahead to be self-righteous), his article accomplishes little in this regard. My own personal reference point: when I was in high school I volunteered for an animal rights organization in Alexandria, Va. and most of the staff there was vegetarian. Not one of them ever made attempts to convert me to the Tofu Side. Their weapon was to lead by quiet example. Even Myers’ defender and co-contributor to The Atlantic James McWilliams’ argument for eschewing pleasures of the flesh makes a more poignant, powerful and also timely case for vegetarianism. Myers’ argument just tends to be a little too heavy on the personal grudge side (Fess up, Bourdain. What did you do?!)

“The Next Floor”: A shortfilm about real gluttons and no doubt plucked from Myers’ subconscious. Video: Youtube

The very people Myers lambasts (chefs, restaurateurs and food writers) for reducing the ephemeral elegance of, say a tantalizing bearnaise sauce, to mere fetishism are in fact the very ones responsible for stirring a great awakening of concerns related to animal welfare, as well as environmental and human health regarding food consumption and production.  These are in fact the very people that Myers really needs to co-opt. What he does not seem to realize is that, while yes, in our current zeitgeist there is a hyper-awareness about food, more importantly people like Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan also have the ability to promote the incremental change needed to propel society at large towards a more enlightened view of comestibles. It only stands to reason that as the public at large becomes more preoccupied with food as spectacle, this interest will serve as a gateway towards nutritional health and environmental stewardship, and ultimately concern will surely blossom into advocacy for animals in general. This certainly isn’t going to happen overnight, and it won’t change with one article. But it’s not difficult to imagine a not too distant future where the trend to decrease meat consumption leads to a trend to decreased farming of animals, and ergo the horrors of factory farming.  It’s a short leap from getting the public to care about how animals are treated when we raise them for food, to grappling in a collective way with insecurities surrounding the killing of animals for food.

The other aspect of this article that is as tired as a late 90s pop song (and also McWilliam’s response) is the age-old tactic of those who play the fetish card and fold their arms in smug victory as if to say,” ’nuff said” and then drag out Alice Waters across the food debate stage as well as the associated Slow Food movement to illustrate their point about the snobby nature of foodies.  Myers writes this about Water’s mecca of food culture, Chez Panisse, in his article:

“…grilled rack and loin of Magruder Ranch veal as a typical offering-which is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it.”

This is such a hackneyed tactic on the part of Slow Food detractors like Myers. Primarily because Slow Food in its original Italian iteration actually was born of a leftist political movement in the mid-80s, and as led by Carlo Petrini its mission was to protect the environment and defend consumers, not a competition to see who can ingest the most rarified and expensive morsels. And speaking of rarified morsels, Myers mentions Tony Bourdain’s eating of seal, bats and guinea pig as an indictment of foodie immorality: “I’ve eaten raw seal, guinea pig and even bat, ” says Bourdain in his latest offering “Medium Raw.” But these aren’t examples of gluttony gone wild.  I can order guinea pig at the local Honduran eatery in my neighborhood any day of the week (it’s called cuy), and you can bet that the elite, foodie establishment (whoever that is) isn’t eating there. So, is Myers saying that meat is good enough for poor people but not for him? I would also hazard to guess that Tony Bourdain isn’t randomly ordering raw seal off the “animals-beaten-to-death-with-a-club” side of the menu. He probably ate seal because “No Reservations” was filming in a community where seal was common fare. Last I heard seal was *not* the daily special at any midtown Manhattan eatery. In this regard Myers is actually the one employing hyperbole here, or at the very least stretching the word the meaning of exotic to fit his own argument.

Here in D.C., where The Atlantic is housed, establishments like D.C. Central Kitchen are testament to the power of not only food , but food policy and have become a model of financial sustainability. I would submit the rise of empowering nonprofits like these is due in part to the increased hyper-awareness and “fetishization” of food that Myers loathes.  That’s to say nothing of our chefs who are unabashed proponents of sustainability: Rob Weland at Kimpton’s Poste (who incidentally attended the Terra Madre conference at the birthplace of Slow Food in the Piemonte last year), Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong at Restaurant Eve who painstakingly take the time to work with suppliers who care about the sustainability of the products they provide, as well José Andrés who has built a mini culinary empire in this city by espousing not only trendy molecular gastronomy, but also the use of sustainable ingredients.

People who really treasure food and breaking bread (or other assorted meat-based dishes) with others aren’t gluttons. They’re humans. It makes me wonder if Myers actually has warm blood pulsing through his veins or an anti-freeze-like substitute, because if he did he might understand that while food, is yes hopelessly fetishized in the milieu of our capitalist framework, it could not exist as the powerfully political tool it has become without the “annoying” food worship of the masses.

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