Anyone who has ever been to Northern Virginia (where I grew up) can attest to the fact that it is an entity on its own, completely unrelated to the rest of the state. While the whole of Virginia is considered to be the South, Northern Virginia is most certainly not. It is as Northern, Yankee, metropolitan, and progressive as a suburban area could ever be. It is not the South, dammit. It’s different.
Please consider the evidence - there is no Southern food in Northern Virginia. None at all. There is New Mexican, Peruvian, French, French, French, and Italian, but no traditional Southern food. And yet, I somehow managed to fall in love with cornbread, greens, hushpuppies… I love it all.
There is no marked Southern accent, certainly not one as defined as you would hear in Central or Southern VA. And yet, I use “y’all” in every day speech. My friends from home make merciless fun of me for it, but I still say it.
Perhaps Virginia seeped its way into me. Stealthily, it leaked through the Silicon Valley that is Northern VA, dripped through the massive malls with parking lots that look like Benz dealerships. Somehow, there is a little bit of the South in me.
Northern Virginia ain’t got nothin' on North Carolina (for the uninitiated, that’s pronounced Noth Caralahynah) when it comes to being the South. I had the pleasure of visiting NC for the second time this year, this time for a science blogging conference. Oh, what’s that? You didn’t know I was a giant dork? Sorry, but that’s just how it is.
There is some seriously good Southern food to be had in NC, along with people with a completely awesome Southern drawl that I could listen to all day. After the conference, at which we were served excellent pulled pork from Bullock’s and Locopops (if you have never had a Locopop, I feel very sorry for you. Check them out the NPR podcast about Locopops) my new blogger friend Aaron and I went in search of good Southern food. And we found it, at Crook’s Corner.
Nothing says Southern food like a pig up on a pole. Inside though, Crook's Corner was way more arty and urban than I predicted from the wall of hubcaps outside.
I must have stared at that menu for a good twenty minutes before deciding on shrimp and grits. I think I made the right decision. Huge shrimp, bacon, mushrooms and scallions were piled on top of cheesy, creamy grits. The grits were just stupid good. This may be because they were about 60% butter and cheese, 40% creamy white corn. Not a bad ratio.
There were also giant cheddar jalapeno hushpuppies that were just eh (innocuous cornbread more than hushpuppy) and a giant biscuit, as big as my head.
I also can’t forget to mention the infinitely polite server who looked like he had a mother of a hangover, and did I mention the giant pig on a pole? It was awesome.
There may be a bit of the Southern belle in me yet. Just don't expect me to bat my eyelashes. Or wear pastels. Or giggle. And really, I am not that friendly. So ok, maybe it's just the Southern y'all and the food that I love. I am ok with that.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
My butt hurts.
An unconventional start to a food blog post, I know, but it hurts! I was shoveling my car out from yet another mountain of compacted snow when I slipped and fell. I don’t know how I managed it, but I fell exactly and precisely on my tail bone. Not on my side, not on my behind… Nope, directly on the tail bone. Ouch. I flailed on the ground in a dramatic fashion hoping someone would come by and help me up, or maybe even shovel my car for me out of the goodness of their heart. Yeah. So that didn’t happen. After a couple more loud groans (ok, curses) I got up and finished the job. My butt still hurts though.
As much as I love winter - sledding, skiing, snowball fights, fur trimmed hoods, and all that - I hate hate shoveling my car and hate falling even more. Boston winters are not for ninnies. Boston winters are, however, for all day stews, chilies, and mugs of hot tea to squeeze while watching the snow wreak havoc on all those unfortunate enough to be caught outside.
My saving grace at the end of a long day of hobbling around with a sore bum and a cranky demeanor, was a bowl of chili that had bubbled happily away all of the previous Sunday. While I realize that the chili wasn’t true, conventional Texas Red (it had beans in it. Three kinds of beans, even. Gasp), I did have a real live Texan assisting and directing the chili-making. Does that count? Do I get some cred back, JC?
We basically put every manner of chile and spice into the pot that we could find. The Hatch green and red chiles that I brought back from San Antonio eons ago? Toss them in. Chile powder from my masala dabba? Sure. A can of chipotles in adobo sauce? Sounds good. Luckily, the searing heat of the chili mellowed during the cooking to a rather bearable, but still runny nose-inducing spiciness. The smokiness of the chipotles and roasted dried chiles combined with the other spices into a really complex and multi-layered taste. I can say with some certainty that it is the best chili I have ever tried. And it came out of my kitchen! And it made my butt feel better. Or maybe it just helped me forget, as I was happily wiping my nose and drinking cold water.
Texan-directed three bean chili
1 red onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, roasted, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
5 roasted chiles, such as Hatch (if you are fortunate enough to have a few stashed in your freezer) or poblanos, seeded, peeled, and chopped. I used a mix of hot and mild Hatch chiles.
2 dried, ripe (red) Hatch chiles or other New Mexican chiles
1 can chipotles in adobo sauce, pureed
1 can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 can black eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1 can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
42 ounces of whole canned tomatoes (that’s one big can and one small can), crushed roughly by hand, liquid reserved
1.5 - 2 lbs beef chuck, 85%, cut into 1 to 2 inch cubes (we actually only used 1 pound but would have liked more. I upped the amount of meat for the recipe)
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground chile powder
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried epazote (I don’t actually have any idea what this tastes like on its own. Smelled pretty good though – a little minty).
3 sprigs fresh thyme (why thyme, you ask? Because it was in my fridge)
1) Preheat oven to 325F.
2) Roast dried chiles in a dry skillet until slightly darkened and fragrant. Cover in
boiling water to rehydrate for about 30 minutes. Strain liquid and reserve.
2) Salt and pepper the beef aggressively. In a heavy, oven-safe pot, brown meat in batches over high heat for a couple of minutes on each side, until a brown crust develops. Remove meat from pot to be added back later.
3) Lower heat. Add onion to same pot and sauté, scraping up the browned beef bits from the bottom. You may need to add oil at this point if the meat didn’t let out enough fat. Add garlic, dried spices, and thyme. Sautee for a couple more minutes to toast the spices and soften the onion.
4) Add bell pepper, Hatch chiles, rehydrated chiles, and chipotle in adobo puree. Swish around for about 5 more minutes to make sure the chiles are making friends.
5) Add tomatoes and their liquid, beans, reserved liquid from rehydrated chiles, and the browned beef. Season with salt and ground black pepper. Bring to a boil. Remove and throw away the scary, atomic rehydrated red chiles.
6) Transfer giant, heavy and hot pot to the oven and let it be for 4 hours or so, until lots of the liquid has evaporated, the flavors mellowed and beans softened, and most importantly, until the meat is falling apart. It should melt under the slightest touch. OMG.
7) Serve garnished with cheddar cheese, scallions, cilantro, fresh lime, and tortilla chips.
Please consider this recipe as a submission to Leena’s virtual chili cook-off. Hope the Texan presence during the chili making isn’t considered an unfair advantage.
Monday, January 14, 2008
I have a special pot of pity reserved for all grad students world wide. Grad school is hard, it takes forever, and requires more patience than you ever thought could fit into your body. For this reason (and because she is seriously awesome – a Master's degree in Gastronomy? The very definition of awesome), I am posting a link to a survey that Leena, at Leena Eats, has to administer for her dissertation on food blogs (awesome again). Her dissertation, folks. This is serious.
Help a fellow student out. If you are a US resident (sorry to exclude) spend 10 minutes of your time sometime between January 14 - 28th clicking away on a survey about food blogs. It’s a mitzvah.
Take the poll HERE.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
I am bound to get some pretty interesting hits from that title, ain’t I…
Have you ever day dreamed (or night dreamed) about walking into a restaurant and ordering every last thing on the menu, just to try a little bite of everything? To have a big long table covered with every manner and variety of food? If you have, let me know. We may have to be friends.
This long held gluttonous fantasy of mine just came true and I couldn’t be happier about it! World events conspired to make it happen. My friend Allen and his fiancée are planning their summer wedding. Minor snag in the plans, however – Elizabeth is in the Congo. Yep, the Congo. Thanks, State Department.
So what do you do when you have to plan the menu for your wedding dinner and your fiancée is in a war-torn African nation until the end of the month? Why, you procure a surrogate fiancée, of course! One that's a good eater, preferably. That’s where I come in.
Allen and Elizabeth’s catering company, Tastings, is run by a husband and wife team - she bakes and he cooks (could you imagine anything more perfect?). Tastings held a mass, well, tasting for all of their clients. They made cold and hot appetizers, entrees, sides, starches, cakes, candies, and dessert bars, a complete list of which is too long to reproduce here. Their clients had the chance to try a little (or a lot) of everything to decide what they would like to serve at their event.
Not everyone there was planning a wedding – some people were working on Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, which made me laugh because my Bat Mitzvah party was at my house and I think we ordered pizza, which I enjoyed that waaaay more than all the stuffy black tie affairs I attended as a thirteen year old. Seriously. Thirteen years old and wearing a prom dress... There is simply no need. But I massively digress.
The aftermath of two trips each to the entrée and dessert table (to get a taste of everything, not for sport) was extensive. Other than complete sensory overload from tasting about 60 different items in one evening and my pledging allegiance to a diet of brown rice and steamed vegetables for the next twenty years, the evening was marked by the birth of a draft version of Allen and Elizabeth’s wedding menu. I love milestones.
And I love it when life finds funny ways of giving you what you want, of fulfilling your fantasies.
Friday, January 04, 2008
New Year’s was a party. A paaaarty. I will not go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that my guests consumed almost all of the hard liquor in my house, and that's saying something. Yeeaaah. I think all I have left is some Triple Sec. I am glad that things didn’t reach the Triple Sec level of desperation. As it was, the end of the evening was not pretty. No offense to pediatricians, but their dispassionate treatment of various body fluids is borderline inhuman. I am not now, nor will I ever be a pediatrician. (My unbudging distaste for children helps nothing in this regard). Make of that what you will.
Besides the astronomical alcohol consumption, the New Year's party was set apart by the fact that I prepared pretty much every item from a recipe, most from cookbooks. This is rare for me. I have a house full of cookbooks but can rarely be bothered to use them. Something about forethought and planning that gets in my way. I made a concerted effort to make things out of books this time around and I was not disappointed.
The menu for that fateful (and booze-full) evening:
Crudites with hummus (perfunctory raw veg. Completely perfunctory)
Almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon (these were crack cocaine, I kid you not; from 1080 recipes)
Melon wrapped in prosciutto
Walnut halves with gorgonzola dolce and red grapes (Deen Brothers cookbook)
Baked brie with dried cherries and almonds (recipe posted here)
Samosas with cilantro chutney (specialty Chez Archna)
Mushroom caps stuffed with bread crumbs and prosciutto (1080 recipes)
Mixed mushroom and goat cheese tartlettes (recipe from my Mom. Need to ask where she found it).
Lemon tart (I have made it before and it was as gorgeous on New Year's as it was the first time, from Silver Spoon)
Fudge brownies dipped in chocolate and topped with chili powder, red salt, or walnuts (for the wimps) (brownie recipe adapted from Gale Gand’s Chocolate and Vanilla. The freaky toppings were my special flourish).
Archna’s homemade samosas stole the show. Starting from scratch, she made the dough, the filling, folded the samosas (with help), fried them, and made a cilantro chuntey that could make a toilet seat cover taste like haute cuisine. I may have to beg her to tell me the recipe beyond: "Garam masala, to taste." Whose taste? Taste what? Measure, woman! Measure!
The alcohol gluttony was out of hand, the food consumption was a close second. For me, anyway. You know, they say (and by they I mean my grandmother) the way you spend New Year’s eve is the way you will spend the rest of the year. By that measure, I will spend the next months eating great food, drinking with my friends, and dancing on chairs to Salt ‘n Pepa’s Shoop. Old school, baby.