Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sweet Potato Fries at Home

For brunch, I had baked sweet potato fries, with an egg and some coffee.

The sweet potatoes were inspired by this recipe. But really, that recipe's way too complicated. Just cut your potatoes into spears, toss with a little olive oil and salt, and bake at 450 for 15min. I added a little chopped garlic at that point, tossed, and roasted them for another five minutes or so. They were exceedingly tasty.

To go with it, I pan-fried an egg in a little butter. These are posh fancy pasture eggs from Whole Foods, so I feel ok about eating them, even if eggs still gross me out. I'll work on finding some backyard eggs, but, until then, they're pretty decent. Maybe it was my imagination, but the yolks seem to have a distinct lemon flavor that would make a nice Hollandaise.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Odd Ingredient du Jour: Ginkgo Nuts

First, a little botany lesson. Because I love ginkgo trees.

Their leaves are so pretty!

Ginkgo trees are classified as gymnosperms, which is the older method of seed-bearing among plants. Conifers are another common example (I'll refrain from geeking out about the cycads...just know that you never want to hit the botanic gardens with me).

Basically, it means their seeds aren't enclosed inside a flower, and instead are in cones or exposed on short stalks. And it means ginkgo trees are extremely ancient. That "living fossil" stuff biology teachers get excited about? That's the ginkgo.

More ginkgo porn. So pretty.

People have been noshing ginkgo biloba seeds for a long time, particularly in Asia. And it just so happens that the DC area is full of ginkgo trees, and that fruiting season is right now. In addition to the pretty leaves, you'll know these trees by the foul odor emanating from the sidewalk, and the squashed orange goo everywhere. Yes, the fruit reeks. But it's also a nice glowy orange color, and adorably wrinkled.

Naturally, I have some around the corner from my house in their full reeky glory. So I had to investigate. I just foraged them from the ground, because the putrescent flesh isn't what we're after anyway.

At this point, I had to consult the internets for advice, having neither tasted ginkgo nuts before nor any idea what to do with them. Instructables to the rescue!

Following the tutorial's advice, I soaked the fruit for an hour in warm water, then removed the seeds. (Also do be aware that ginkgo fruit technically contains urushiol, aka the chemical that puts the "poison" in poison ivy. I've never had issues, but if you're paranoid/sensitive/not a risk-taker, glove up)

This is what they look like, de-fruited.

I wanted to consume them right away, so I skipped ahead to roasting them in the oven. I cooked them at 400 degrees for just over ten minutes, not quite sure how to tell if they were done, because the outer shell does not turn green, just the inner meat. The explosion solved my little dilemma.

Seriously, if you want to scare someone, explode some ginkgo seeds in their oven. It sounded like a cannon went off in there. Maybe I'd try a lower heat next time, but the survivors were indeed done.

They look like slightly translucent olives when cooked and peeled.

And the taste? That was what I was most curious about, since most people dislike them or claim they're an acquired taste. The short version would be "they taste like buckwheat-flavored jelly beans". But they're actually pretty complex- kind of woodsy and earthy, with an odd chewiness. The second one I ate was significantly more bitter than the first, but there's a touch of bitterness to all of them. On top of all that, the toasty buckwheat flavors resound most prominently.

I'm not sure what to do with them next. Most recipes I see them in are very strange to the western palate- congee, eggy savory custards, and the like. I'm going to think about it and hopefully come up with something good. The flavor is unique enough make all the effort worthwhile at least a few times each year.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

DC Food Roundup

Our friends got married here in DC last weekend, and the in-laws came out to join in the festivities. So naturally we ate out lots. Hence, a roundup.

PS, the clouds were really gorgeous yesterday:


The standout for the week, both for sheer absurdity and for tastiness, would be the "BBQ Burger" from Del Ray Pizzeria.

I hadn't had enough time with the menu, and our waitress had been great about beer recommendations (didn't get her name, but the chick with long black hair and purple streaks is great), so I took her rec on this, too. It's shredded pork shoulder, on a burger, covered with cheddar and jalapeño. Otherwise known as completely awesome.

Also delicious this week was Super Pollo. The Andean countries of South America have an obsession with chicken. Sometimes fried, sometimes rotisseried with spices. This stuff is the latter. Pretty cumin-heavy, rubbed inside and out before cooking. Sort of like the Mexican spice rubs I'm completely obsessed with.

The chicken at Super Pollo is the best we've had in town, but their sides leave something to be desired. I had fried yuca, which was decent, but is much better at Señor Chicken in Alexandria. The green sauce is always to die for- pretty spicy, no idea what's in it. But excellent on anything and everything.

We also ate at the Cheesetique again. They seem to have enlarged their menu lately, and that's a very good thing. I had a "Madrid Melt"- Manchego cheese, Jamón serrano, and membrillo. I love all those things alone and in combination. So I was shocked to discover how well they meld when heated together. The jamón's slight mustiness and the manchego's creaminess complemented each other perfectly. The quince added a sweet note that my mother-in-law, who ordered the same sandwich, but had never had jamón or membrillo before, described as grape jelly-like. That, for me, was the most fascinating thing- everything was so well paired, it became something completely different and new and brilliant, and none of the components were very distinguishable. That's really rare, and a great achievement in its own way.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Odd Ingredient du Jour: Naranja Agria

With lunch ("multigrain pilaf" from Trader Joe's), I had some of this, mixed with sugar and soda water to make a tasty beverage. It's an unusual ingredient, but one I find pretty useful, so I thought I'd discuss it here.

It's mock bitter orange juice, bitter orange being an integral ingredient in many Latin American recipes. I first heard of it trying to make Rick Bayless' jicama salad in "Authentic Mexican", but it's also common in meat marinades. Real bitter orange juice comes from Seville oranges, which produce extremely sour citrus flavor (apparently it's reminiscent of grapefruit) and are generally unavailable in the U.S. Bayless suggests using a mixture of lime and grapefruit juice, in addition to orange zest, as a substitute rather than bottled mix. I did that the first time I made the jicama salad, but it was expensive and a huge hassle. Next time, I bought this huge bottle of mock bitter orange instead. It contains orange juice, Seville orange oil, grapefruit juice, and a variety of preservatives. And it's huge. I don't make nearly enough Mexican food to use up this bottle in a timely manner, so I started experimenting with it. It works well in homemade vinaigrettes, but my favorite use is cocktails and mocktails. It's extremely bitter, but flavorful and a little floral. I haven't tried making tinto de veranos* with it yet, but I bet with enough added sugar it could function as a stand-in for the orange Fanta.

(*Tinto de veranos are the best drink ever. But the Wikipedia page is kind of wrong. I lived in Spain for a summer, traveling and drinking widely, and always saw them made with orange Fanta, never with lemon soda. And definitely never with Sprite)

Friday, October 7, 2011

In Defense of Pi

...the pizzeria, not the number. I suspect 3.14159...can hold its own.

So, Pi is a pizza place in St. Louis that specializes in deep dish. You may recall the kerfuffle back when Obama shanked Chicago in the heart by calling it the best deep dish he'd ever had. Pi is pretty damn good, so we were happy to hear that Pi would be opening a DC outpost around the same time we moved out here.

We ate at Pi DC a few weeks ago. To clarify: I, not a Chicago native, ate there with three Chicago natives. Who love their deep dish. We all found it extremely tasty, though I thought they were still ramping up to full Pi deliciousness as compared to their St. Louis locations. I didn't take any photos, and didn't blog about it. So why now?

One of my fellow dining companions from that night emailed me the WaPo food critic's assessment of Pi DC.

I generally appreciate food critics in the cities we've lived. We've been lucky to have a slew of good ones- Jason Sheehan, before he moved on to Seattle; Katharine Shilcutt in Houston; Ian Froeb in St. Louis. You may note these are all the alt paper critics: somewhere along the way, we discovered they represented our food interests better than the newspaper critics. Perhaps that's my problem with Mr. Sietsema. I'm still trying to figure out the DC food scene, and what perspective everyone brings to the table. But this review just leaves me puzzled.

First, I think there are some unreasonable expectations. We're talking about deep dish born in St. Louis, purporting to be Chicago-style. As anyone familiar with restaurants should know, cuisine is a product of where it's created. Go try some Italian food in St. Louis, for example. No Italian would ever mistake it for their cuisine. Frankly, I'm from America and had trouble recognizing it as Italian food. It's not Italian food; it's St. Louis-style Italian food. Think deep-fried, breaded ravioli ("T-ravs"), pasta cooked to death, thin, sweetish red sauce on everything. It's peculiar, and some of it is disgusting, but you can see clearly the blending of Italian ingredients with Midwestern sensibilities.

Now let's talk about deep dish. I've only had it in Chicago a few times, but it has a few distinctive characteristics. The biggest one, I think, is density. Chicago deep dish is a meal. Eating an entire pie might kill you. They're laden with cheese and meat, and collapse into an oozy, artery-clogging pile on your plate. The crust is crisp, and has a deep-fried appearance that often spits grease as you bite in.

If we're talking "authentic", I'd say the best deep dish in St. Louis is actually from Black Thorn Pub. It's dense, it's oozy, one slice hits you like a load of bricks to the head. Jon had two, and had to go home and pass out afterward.

I guess all this leads up to the big tell: Pi isn't really Chicago-style deep dish. It's *better* than Chicago-style deep dish. If St. Louis didn't already have an eponymous pizza style, this stuff could hold its own. Maybe a better name would be "St. Louis deep dish"?

So what's different about it? It's less dense. It's a drier pie. Less sauce, less cheese, but still more of both than a conventional pizza. It tastes healthier, even if it's probably not. That alone to me means it's not real Chicago-style deep dish. The crust is better, too- it keeps the crispiness, and a light greasy sheen, but it's no longer soaked in the stuff.

So why do these dumb Chicagoans in DC seem to love it if it's not Chicago-style, and if it's allegedly *SO* awful? I have two theories that I think explain it better than delusional "homesickness".

1)The urban professional class (ie, Pi DC's target market) is more concerned about their health, generally speaking, than Midwesterners. Pi's pizza has healthier topping options, and tastes less greasy, than most of what's available in Chicago. Chicago transplants enjoy the nostalgia of deep dish, in a tastier, possibly healthier package, maybe more than they would enjoy the real thing if it were available.

2)Expectations. I've lived in Texas, I know great barbecue. Do I expect to find it in DC? No. Would I be really happy to find good barbecue, even if it's not Luling City? Would I maybe go a little crazy and evangelize about how awesome it is? Um, yeah.

And sure, there's a little homesickness wrapped up in it, too. I can't help but wonder what Minnesota-raised Sietsema's review would look like should a hot dish place open in the District.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Simple Breakfast at Home

For breakfast, I had ciabatta rolls, with almond butter and datil/raspberry jam, and pumpkin spice coffee to drink.

These cute little things are actually homemade sourdough ciabatta rolls from (again) "Ideas in Food". It's due back at the library (again) this week, and I just don't want to let it go. Perhaps a book I'll be buying.

The rolls need improvement, flavor-wise. There's not enough sourdough in the recipe to be noticeable, and I used all white flour for texture reasons, so the result is really bland. But beautiful. And they were relatively easy to make, and about on par with the ciabatta rolls I'd buy at Trader Joe's.

On to the good stuff.

I covered said ciabatta in almond butter and this stuff. It was kindly brought back from Florida for us by our friends Brian & Stephanie, and is unbelievably delicious. Especially for something I'd never heard of before. Datil peppers are pretty spicy, but have a nice round, fruity flavor that goes perfectly with the raspberries. This jam has way more depth than most pepper jams, and is really fabulous with almond butter. Dangerously delicious, indeed.

The coffee, Trader Joe's pumpkin spice blend, is odd. The first time I made coffee with it, I used the recommended 2 tablespoons per cup, and it nearly killed me. I've toned it down since, but the flavors are just really strange. I think it's intended for people who add lots of sugar and cream to their coffee; maybe then the flavors would be mellow. Black, it's extremely astringent and bitter, with heavy overtones of nutmeg.

Finally, a cooking note.

I don't care what any cookbook says, everything gets cooked on my pizza stone (left) from now on. I've had a few bread mishaps lately, so put my ciabatta head to head on metal baking sheets and the pizza stone to test whether that was the issue. The pizza stone bread is fully cooked, with a crisp bottom, while the baking sheet bread is just cooked, yet burned on the bottom. Pizza stone wins.