I can make complex meringues, reduce a delicate sauce, and cut a pie crust together until the exact moment when it is mixed and not a moment after. I can't paint, sing, pretend I care about things I don't, choose flattering makeup, run 10 miles, or any number of other talents that the young yuppie often has, but I can cook. I don't know how or why, but I get it. Which is why the seeming miracle of a poached egg is so perplexing to me. Every time I try this, I end up with some nasty form of flavorless egg drop soup, crunchy with egg shells that got away and littered with bits of egg that are more boiled to death than poached. I have some sort of neuro-block it would seem against paying attention to a cooking egg. I can't soft-boil either, for much the same reason. My inflated sense of self importance almost makes me believe that there is some sort of cosmic conspiracy that will insert something shiny into my field of vision within 3 minutes of touching an egg. And I do so ever love shiny things :-)
All of this is quite tragic given the delicious uses of half-cooked eggs. Soft cooked eggs are delicious in salads, with vegetables, and even as a meal themselves. Of course their most common incarnation amongst DC food lovers is as the critical component of Eggs Benedict. At summer brunches throughout DC, deals are cut, relationships blossom, marriages falter, houses hypothetically decorated, clothing evaluated, hippies scorned, and babies longed for. Brunch is where the young yuppie cuts their teeth on the DC restaurant scene. Is the food often second-rate to that of normal meals? You betcha. Does that make it any less appealing to linger for a long meal with friends with nothing else to do all day after sleeping off the previous night? Not a bit.
With an old friend in from out of town and a new one just arrived for her first big-kid DC job, brunch was calling. Thanks to the recommendations of DC Concierge, I chose Creme in U Street to inaugurate the season. I couldn't believe that despite a good friend living across the street, I had never noticed the place! It was tiny, and didn't take reservations for brunch, so our group of 6 had to wait about a half hour for a table, which isn't bad, especially since the same cosmic forces that interfere with my egg preparation seem to affect the ability of anyone I care about to be on time to anything, while driving my own paranoia about being late to such a degree that I am chronically 15 min early. All in all, this means that no matter what, there is a half-hour wait, so no problem.
I saw two things on the menu that intrigued- Chicken and Waffles, that Clydes favorite that is oh so good after a night of beer tasting (and facilitates the brunch attendance of any self-respecting dude who is not trying to sleep with you), and the Eggs Benedict with wild mushrooms. Our table had both. The Mushroom Bene, as the Eggs Benedict was called, was fabulous. The mushrooms were fresh and tasty, the Hollandaise rich and not too salty, and the poached egg in that perfect miraculous form that so eludes me, with a runny yolk and firm solid white that requires rapt attention by a chef who is swamped with a brunch crowd. So simple, but in may of the brunch factories of DC, the details are lost, and you get either a protein shake of raw eggs fit for a dude trying to 'get huge' or chewy hard-boiled eggs reminiscent of the less delicious parts of a polish deli. The chicken (white and dark) was proclaimed better than Clydes (bonus, since Clydes doesn't even offer white meat with their Chicken and Waffles- well, they do, but its sans the spices which make the chicken worth eating). The waffles were thick and fresh and the salad a little salty though better than your average garnish. I also had the bacon which was thicker than I like, but I imagine perfect for most people's preference. Roasted potatoes and an Eggs Benedict with crab rounded out our selections, and all was delicious. Portions were sizable without being ridiculous, and all were happy.
I also sprung for the expensive Hibiscus Mimosa. While too expensive at $12 for a flute, it was just delicious enough that I will probably continue to be annoyed at the price, but order it anyway.
The atmosphere was loud, but conversation wasn't too hard, as the tables were small and intimate. Hard to hear the servers, but tolerable. The interior is tidy and modern.
The best part? The prices were super affordable- $10-14 for most mains, with an option for a $16 unlimited mimosa (not the hibiscus kind however). This makes a $20 brunch a real option.
What do I take away from all of this? Poached eggs and mushrooms are inspired. And I now have a source of them for a reasonable price that will keep me from initiating any more egg disasters, and do wonders for my self-esteem :-) Yea Creme!
Years ago, when I was living abroad, my dad sent me a weekly garden report detailing events back home in Chicago, to help me stay connected. They were hilarious. At my prompting, he has restarted this tradition, and I will be publishing them here. Look for archived posts soon!
This Weeks Garden Report.
The garden has been in a terrible state of neglect for well over a year now. I have always suspected that the garden was incapable of self-governance and I have been proven correct. The various factions are fighting amongst themselves while the weeds are multiplying from within and infiltrating from the perimeters. The situation demands a strong leader. Because of the chaos out there I have decided to once again come to the rescue. Memorial Day weekend will see the change of a lot of policies out there. First off, in memory of the passing of my little fuzzy friend, Lightning, all Day Lilies will be trampled and mowed to the ground. He had a special love of trampling Day Lilies and I feel he would wholeheartedly approve of this action. The lawn is in a terrible state, although a big part of the problem is a female dog. Male dogs at least have the manners to go pee in a corner, they don't feel the need to pee in the middle of the lawn and create dead spots. I know she does this on purpose, just to piss me off! Another problem with the lawn has been the execution of the Honey-locust tree. It left a huge scar on the lawn and the chips from the stump grinding seem to be everywhere. This action was taken because that overgrown primadonna could not take instruction and grow right. The uncooperative attitude of that stupid tree was endangering the house. I had a long talk with it but it still refused to cooperate, so now it is part of someone’s firewood pile. Harsh, maybe but an example had to be set! All that aside, a reseeding program has been initiated. With the help of some timely rain, obscene and probably illegal, amounts of chemicals, recovery is expected. As always, Creeping Charlie is a problem. Charlie seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Although it has been eliminated from the lawn for the most part, it still creeps in from the perimeter. In an effort to control this problem, several radical measures are being taken. First, all Hostas are being shifted to the southern frontier. They will be planted along the fence line. This should help control that border once the present infiltration of Charlie is dealt with. It will also cut down on the amount of weedwacking, a huge side benefit since I’m too cheap to replace my broken weedwacker. Also along this border the Burning Bushes have been caught hiding the creeping Charlie, in retaliation the Burning Bushes will be sent into exile to the yard next door. They brought in on themselves! On the northern frontier the two scraggly Pines are to be transplanted to the side of the house. Looking thru my neighbors windows no longer holds any fascination for me so I’m blotti’n ‘em out. On hold for now, but a possibility before the end of the year, is the elimination of the Forsythia bushes. No fault of their own, but the dog has taken a likin’ to digging under them. She gets all muddy, tracks it inside and somehow it is my fault. It’s a shame, they have been troopers since planted almost 20 years ago, but some sacrifices must be made. Along the western frontier, good progress has been made in the civilizing of Wayne’s world (yard). My guerrilla gardening efforts are paying off. Ferns have replaced most of the weeds from his edge. That campaign should be over by the end of this growing season. The other edge of the western border is totally out of control. Charlie is doing a re-enactment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I have a massive attack planned for this very afternoon, unless I find something better to do. Temporarily the Russian Sage and Winter Creeper have been replanted in hopes of slowing Charlie down. The shed tear down project is going slow. There are too many tough decisions to make as to what to throw out and what to make room for in the garage. An additional complication is that some of my best performing and loyalist plants are around it. I refuse to sacrifice them. A relocation program must be initiated first. Work to be done. I gotta get to it. Forget it the Cubs game just started, I just found something better to do, oh well!
So sometimes I am lazy. Now that Mott's Mart, the local mini-mart, takes credit cards, I am doomed on these lazy days. Today, as I, the big fancy food blogger, checked out with an armload of ramen noodles and Diet Dr. Pepper, I won't lie, there was shame.
At the same time, I vowed to dig deep, and do what my dad did when I was growing up- turn Ramen delicious with all sorts of yummy stuff from the fridge. Upon opening the fridge, I discovered all that was in there was some squishy tomatoes with which I plan to make sauce this weekend, and some left over egg whites from the 4 egg yolks I used to make Thin Mint Ice Cream earlier this week. I figured, hey this will be good, I will make egg-drop noodle soup.
Well, suffice it to say, curdled egg yolks, slimy noodles, and enough MSG to kill all the rats in the kitchen of a giant-slice pizza shop at 1 am (look for a review of this in Embarassing Things I Love- Part 5) were not enough to convince anyone that I was a culinary genius. Or that its even safe to let me near the stove unsupervised.
Yuk. Well, at least I have a whole sleeve of Hit cookies to dull the pain.
I hate being sold to. I walk out of stores as soon as someone asks if there is anything they can help me with, and I never ever ever ever buy anything from someone who is selling door to door. Or at work.
With one critical exception- Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies. There is no substance on earth quite as divine. This year, when someone at work was selling (well, mentioning loudly in the hall he had girl scout cookies on offer, since we work in a gov't building that doesn't allow any charities but its own), I pounced. I had previously actually ordered Thin Mints on the internet and had them shipped to Singapore when I lived there. I expected to convert the population. Instead I spent four hours explaining the different between scouting and the Hitler Youth. The best I came up with was "well, I think they let Catholics in".
Anyway, I have three boxes in my freezer, and had been patiently waiting for the mint in my garden to get big enough to use my brand spanking new ice cream maker to make what I was sure would be the seminal dessert of our time.
I found a what looked like a great recipe for mint chocolate chip ice cream. I figured, shouldn't be a problem to replace the chips with the far more delicious Thin Mints. A whole tube of them. Maybe two tubes. Well, maybe 1 1/2 because someone ate 5 or 6 spoonfuls of the cookie crumbs on the way from the food processor to the ice cream maker.
I used half as much mint, as I didn't want to do in the poor little mint plant. Basically you seep the mint in the milk/cream (make mint milk tea in effect). Then make a custard with 4 egg yolks. Yep, 4. Good stuff, mix in the remaining cream, and throw it in the mixer.
Well, I was disappointed when I took it out of the machine to put it in the freezer to get nice and hard. It was too eggy- for some reason I never like frozen custards as much as I think I will, given the preponderance of ingredients I love (eggs, milk,, sugar). I am curious how different types of egg would taste- maybe free range organic would have a different character since they are not all corn fed and white-y. For more on why this would make a difference, and my the reason I am thinking of driving 4 hours to get eggs like the fancy chefs, check out: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Anyway, I didn't hold high hopes for the ice cream when I dug it out tonight after a long day running around and scooped it out of the 20yr old Ricotta tub that my mom has been using to send me pasta sauce for ages in. Last night's disappointing taste after 30 min of eager waiting for the ice cream machine got the ice cream relegated to a crummy container so it could think about what it had done. This strategy seems to have been effective, quite to the surprise of the shred of rational me left in matters of ice cream. A night in the freezer did the ice cream a world of good. Its as though the mint came into its own over night, the cookies softened just enough to make pretty marbling, and the eggy taste dissipated into the freezer vent (or the ice cube tray, yuk). The flavor was a delicate spearmint, with rich dark chocolate cookie undertones. It scooped like a Baskin-Robbin's ad (did you know that they actually use mashed potatoes for ice cream pics, or so says a food stylist friend of mine).
It was awesome!! And so pretty. I now want to make it last to show it off, but the likelihood of that is about nil. Guess I will just have to convince myself all that slow churning the machine did burned off the calories!
The need seemingly came out of nowhere. I had tried the stuff here and there before, enjoyed it, and been fine. Others claimed they couldn't live without it, but I never got what the big deal was about.
And then, on a wild weekend in California not too long ago, I thought I would just have a little taste, it had been months, and what was the harm. And then, poof, like that, it consumed me. I think about it all the time. I dream about it. I have spent every last dime of disposable income on it in the last month, and a bit on the credit cards. As soon as I get it, I think, 'whew, that's the last time', and then two days later there I am again, in dark street in Chinatown looking for it without even realizing it. Friends I have known for years, who I never knew had a problem, crawl out of the woodwork looking for company to score now they know I am one of them. It starts with thinking I'll just have one little roll, what could the harm in that be, and then, $150 and two hours later I am looking at the scattered remnants of 4 giant rolls that were overflowing with the good-stuff.
Yea, I have a sushi problem. I went years being fairly indifferent to the stuff, and woke up one day and can't get enough. I love tempura, teppanaki, udon, miso, all sorts of what should be gateway Japanese food. Somehow, they never sucked me in. And then, boom, a taste of sushi out West, nothing extraordinary about it, and I can't get enough.
The result? I have been trying sushi places all over town, and you, dear readers, will benefit from the reviews as I begin to post. I have even had a recent adventure with making it myself, which turned out better than I thought. Unlike most addictions that inspire this sort of craving, the home fix was delightfully explosion and felony free. More on that tomorrow.
So what am I comparing? Well, ask 10 sushi lovers what the ideal measure of the craft is, and you will have 10 different answers. As a fresh food advocate, and flavor purist (lets pretend I didn't just post about a love of Ikea meatballs), I am supposed to like the simple, fresh, perfect sashimi or nigiri best of all. I do like them. But they are not what creeps obsessively into my thoughts. In fact, its not even the simple elegant maki that get me. Its the big, expensive, ridiculous rolls with names out of a disaster preparation public announcement: volcano roll, dynamite roll, typhoon roll. Yea, I'm an American. No subtlety here.
Consistently my favorite? The Rainbow Roll. Like a california roll, with the added bonus of a wide variety of fresh sashimi toppings, it showcases a range of the core fishes in a sushi chef's arsenal, and leaves plenty of room for creativity. So at each place I review, you will see a little note about the rainbow roll. For better or worse, its the place the comparisons begin.
Enjoy! And if you hate sushi (and read this far anyway for some reason), hang in there. This addiction is not sustainable in the long term, and I will eventually have to find my way back into the light :-)
So yea, this has nothing to do with food. Other than I was eating pizza when I saw it. DC has no good pizza places. Papa Johns is about all I order. It makes me sad. There is your food note for the day.
Now on to the real subject of this post.
I was watching the Daily Show, when the profiled this Pope blooper, or 'Plooper' as I believe they called it.
So, this mothers day got me thinking. Well, it also got me complaining about how we all got tricked into being jerks if we don't honor Hallmark with all we do a few days a year, but thats besides the point. Marketing worked, and I was thinking about my Mom. Maybe my memory has been colored by the nostalgia of passing years, and a sadly lacking robust adult relationship with her, but I remember the mom of 20 years ago as a domestic goddess. Halloween costumes were handmade, clothing was sewn, the house was immaculate, and dinner was always homemade (and awful for you, but oh so tasty). My mom doesn't pursue these sorts of things anymore with the relish she used to (I think she was the one woman on earth genuinely happy to get a vacuum cleaner for Christmas), but the one thing she still does is make Lasagna. Its our Christmas tradition. These past few years, even though I don't go home anymore and my cousin comes out here for drinks and escape, I still make it.
My family loves its traditions. Not the solemn, reflective, values-based traditions that ground the average corn-fed Mid-Western family, but rather the uproarious, beer-flowing, love-you-for-what-you-are-but-still-gonna-mess-with-you-about-it, show-love-through-food-not-touching, help-build-a-porch-for-you-when-you-need-it kind. On one hand, it means that serious conversations are impossible to have, and relationships that are not natural simply don't deepen. This is sadly why every conversation my mom and I have is something along the lines of "What, I'm working, I'm so busy, you don't understand, how's the dog?, gotta go." On both ends.
On the upside, it means that the few things we have left to connect about, especially now that we don't travel together any more, are these little traditions. For me, and my mom, I think Lasagana is where it all began.
For all the stress and sadness that is elsewhere in her life, my mom retains tremendous pride in this dish. She still makes it right, from start to finish each time. And she is still utterly unable to communicate how to make it to others with annoying, off-topic details like measurements. Its something you have to grow up tasting, watching. Grow up complaining about with the family like the spoiled brat you are, but then bragging about to friends when ma's not listening. Grow into wanting to make yourself. And grow-up to realize that its one of the only things you have left that ties you to your mom. Its precious, beyond the perfect balance of flavor and texture. Its the past of my family, and the future of a relationship.
Here are my mom's own words about this tradition. You can try to make it all you want. But some things are their history as much as they are their substance.
"When Mother's Day rolls around each year it [directs] my thoughts [to] my family. Particularly my daughter and husband. I think how caring they are to me. It makes me think about making my famous lasagna which they love. Learning to make this was an interesting part of my life. When I was 11 years old my neighbor was an older Italian man and one day I started to ask him questions about his sauce as it smelled so good. He said he would show me. We took all the ingredients, tomatoes, garlic paste, sauce, water and gently stirred and the most important factor is to simmer for 3 patient hours to get the well blended taste. Then a few years later I lived for a couple of years with a Sicilian lady and helped her and she asked if i would like to learn to make lasagna the real Italian way. Of course I said yes. She showed me how to mix the ricotta, mozzarella cheese, parsley eggs, milk and then how to layer. The sauce I used from what I learned several years before. This recipe came our very satisfactory for the real Italian way. I served to my family and they love it. It makes me so happy as they deserve it and just these thoughts give me a happy mothers day."
I thought my awkward days of trying to fit into the cool crowd were long gone, relegated to past Junior High dances and makeout parties I would rather forget. I mean, I think I am a pretty interesting person, not awful to look at, with decent taste and a successful job, right? Then why, when I take my beloved mutt to the unofficial dog park just a few blocks away, am I suddenly made to feel like I just turned up in un-ironic flannel and leg warmers to fashion week?
Why? Well, its simple. These are dog people. I thought I was a dog person. I like dogs better than cats, I enjoy a good game of frisbee as much as the next girl. But I was wholly unprepared for the social scene that is the urban dog park. Last week when I was there, someone took pity on me sitting in the corner all designer-poop-bag free and came over to talk. Relieved that someone was willing to chat with me, even though my modest pooch didn't support the upper-east-side crest of a fancy doggie day care, I asked her the requisite dog-related questions: Which one is yours? How old is he? etc. In response, she whipped out a framed photograph that she kept in her purse of her dog's wedding. Yea, read that sentence again. Its as ridiculous as it sounds.
Now, I like to think I have played the cocktail circuit enough for work to be able to think quick on my feet no matter where the conversational tsunami may take me, but none of my rigorous self-taught etiquette prepared me for what the follow up to "oh, here are mira's wedding photographs. We had such a lovely ceremony" might be, when 'Mira' is a 75lb Chesapeake. Ummm...congrats? Where did they honeymoon? Are they registered?
I love my dog, don't get me wrong. He's about the best dog in the world. But he does not need clothing, psychotherapy sessions, daily grooming for self-esteem, reasoned discourse about desired behavior beyond "No! and Good dog!", or a pretty little doggie bride.
So no, I am not one of those 'dog people'. All of this is a admittedly defensive preface for the real meat of this post which is how to make a doogie birthday cake. Which is exactly the sort of thing 'dog people' would do. I will just keep telling myself that I did it ironically, and hopefully be able to believe it :-)
Hammer Dog turned 5 last Fri, on May Day. The East is Red and so is my dog. The weather has been beautiful, just cool enough to sit outside comfortably at night with a sweater. Perfect al-fresco dining. I needed an excuse for a dinner party. I figure a little appreciation of the best dog ever, who, for 5 years, has left my shoes happily unchewed, was in order.
I made a leg of lamb, rubbed with honey, cinnamon, cardamom, salt and pepper. It was delicious, and Hammer Dog loves lamb bone above all other treats. Except the laser pointer light. He would forgo food, water, and attention for that little red dot.
But the crowning achievement of this party was the doggie cake. I had never done this before, and wanted to make something that actually looked like cake. I couldn't believe this worked. It smells like death itself, and definitely should cool outside, but there is nothing a dog loves more than something smelling somewhere between dirty diapers and rotting rat carcass. Gross, but true.
Anyway, here is the recipe:
Ingredients: 4 cups dry Dog Food 1 cup flour 1/2 cup cornmeal 1 Tsp baking soda 1/2 cup olive oil 2 eggs 1/4 cup ketchup 1/4 cup oyster sauce (optional, really any savory good that your dog likes will work here) Salt & Pepper 3/4 Can of Beef Broth
4 large potatoes 1/4 can Beef Broth Food coloring
Directions: Put the dog food in a food processor and process until almost the consistency of flour. Mix with other dry ingredients Add oil, eggs, sauces and spices and mix. Mixture will be very thick. Add beef broth until mixture has the consistency of lumpy cake batter, about 3/4 cup.
Pour batter into a greased springform pan. Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Remove and cool before frosting, preferable outside as this will stink something awful at this point.
Frosting: Peel and boil potatoes until soft in salted water. Remove, strain, and cool. Using the back of a spoon or your hands, push potatoes through a colander so that you have a pie of small tubular mashed potatoes (this keeps them from being lumpy for people to eat if you are also serving them at dinner, and more easily spreadable for frosting. add food coloring to make them a vibrant color (it really looks better if silly), and add about 1/4 cup beef broth to thin and for taste.
When the cake is cool, grease a frosting knife and spread the potatoes on the cake as you would normal frosting. I also wrote a birthday message on the cake in mustard.
For bonus fun, leave the cake accessible to annoying people- it looks so real, and delicious, that they will inevitably be compelled to try. Enjoy the gagging.
Seriously though, Hammer LOVED THIS. He stared at the oven the whole time it was cooking! He was terrified though of the candles!