Sunday, November 19, 2006

Holiday Successes

Aside from being a whirlwind of shopping, eating, and various commitments, the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas has also been full of new experiences. I got my first Christmas tree, went to my first holiday party for work, sent and received holiday cards to and from "old" (college) friends, made a buche de noel by myself, and tried two recently opened restaurants.

The New York Deli in Carytown isn't technically new, but it was completely made over in the fall and has a different menu, atmosphere and clientele. What used to be somewhat of a grungy, mediocre deli is now an attractive bar/eatery that's open later than almost any other place in Carytown. I heard rumors that not all of the food was actually available at first because the owner spent so much money on redecorating, but I only ordered one item off the specials menu, so I can't attest to that being true.

What I can say is that the appetizer I tried didn't taste as good as the decor looked. It was supposed to be crab, spinach and artichoke dip, although I didn't taste any crab, nor did I detect any artichoke flavor or texture.
The accompanying chips were homemade from flour tortillas, and they were slightly soggy but still tasty. Overall the appetizer wasn't inedible, and it wasn't overly creamy, yet it didn't stand out as anything special. I kept thinking that I could have made a better spinach artichoke dip at home, which isn't what's supposed to happen when you go out to eat. Despite the $2 rail drinks and PBR specials, I don't see any need to go back to the new New York Deli.

In contrast, Cous Cous, a Moroccan/Mediterrean venue, has already been graced with my presence twice. Located on Franklin Street in the Fan, the restaurant seems to be another success for the owner of Sticky Rice. Though Cous Cous matches the energy and hipness of Sticky Rice, it is a step up in sophistication. For example, I would never think of doing a saki bomb at Cous Cous, but it does happened from time to time at Sticky Rice.

Clearly, the owner didn't intend for a duplicate of the pan-Asian hot spot with Cous Cous. The menu includes a large section of "meze," which are essentially tapas, though there are also salads, soup and entrees to choose from. The wine list is diverse but manageable, and the two desserts I tasted were satisfying and rounded the meal out perfectly. I was especially fond of the Manchego Fritters (fried cheese balls with a mango coulis), the Kefka (meatballs), and the spinach, which was sauteed with apples and raisins. The food at Cous Cous, like its image, is elegant and unique without being pretentious.

If you've never tried a buche de noel, please let me know and we can make arrangements to change that. I wait for Christmas every year just for the unbelievably delicious roll of white cake and chocolate whipped cream. If you can master a sheet cake and whip your own cream, it's not a hard confection to master. I guess I have high standards when it comes to the yule log, and I consider it a victory that I made my own mouthwatering version of one of my favorite desserts. The leftovers are in my fridge, although I'm not expecting them to last more than a day or two - some things never change.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Restaurant Week '06

Last year my Richmond Restaurant Week experience was outstanding. My
boyfriend and I went to Comfort, which serves Southern style cuisine
in a casual (but not too casual) environment. I've only been once,
but I'm just waiting to go back for macaroni and cheese, fried
chicken, and bread pudding.

The basic Restaurant Week meal is three courses - an appetizer, entree
and dessert - for around $20. I'm not sure if all of the restaurants
have to coordinate the price, but they give a tenth or so of it to
local food banks, so it's almost silly to not eat at one of the twenty
or so participating locations.

This year we went to Rowland Fine Dining, a small Fan eatery that has
always seemed a bit fancier than the others. I'd seen some excellent
reviews about it and some that weren't as interesting, but Restaurant
Week seemed like a good excuse to try a place like Rowland. Wednesday
also happens to be half price wine night, which I absolutely did not
plan on, but it was a lovely perk. Most of the wines on the list
were around or under $30, and we had a nice bottle of Italian Barbera.

My first impression was that it's not much different from any other
Fan venue - a small, narrow room with booths and cozy tables on one
side and a bar on the other. The decor was a little more polished
than some of the neighboring bars and restaurants, and the food,
though not overly exciting, was also slightly upscale from other Fan
cuisine I've sampled.

I had the most trouble choosing a Starter, and I'm still not sure that
I made the right decision. I chose the "Creamy Cremini Soup," which
was quite tasty, and it was garnished with two strips of roasted duck.
While I enjoyed the soup, I was also deciding between "Sweet Scallops
with Corn Pudding and Leek Butter," and "Butterbean Cake with
Cucumber, Tomato and Avocado Salsa." My boyfriend had the Butterbean
Cake, and it was delicious, and the perfect starter size.

There were three entree selections: Cinnamon Pork Tenderloin with a
Granny Smith Cider Sauce, Iron Steak with some variety of mashed
potatoes in a generic brown mushroom sauce, and the Fish of the Day,
which was blackened with Crawfish Etouffee. If I hadn't eaten pork
tenderloin last night, I probably would have gone with the first
choice (I can never resist cinnamon). However, considering last
night's meal, I had pretty much settled on the Fish, and was even more
pleased when I found out it would be rockfish. The Etouffee, a New
Orleans "stew" usually made with vegetables and seafood, was
spectacular with the Cajun flavors of the blackened rockfish. I
haven't eaten okra since I was pretty young, but I have a newfound
appreciation for it after the etouffee. My dish was garnished with a
whole crawfish, which I was happy to break apart when I finished.

Dessert was the most disappointing point of the meal, though it may
also be the part I scrutinize the most. The special was a "chocolate
torte," which was more like a 2" square of light chocolate cake with
chocolate glaze in the middle and whipped cream on top. There was a
pear and apple cobbler for dessert, which was decent but didn't
compare to the apple pie I made recently. It wasn't even warm.

I'm glad that I can cross Rowland Fine Dining off my list of places to
try; without Restaurant Week I probably would have been wondering
about it for quite some time. Comfort may now be sooner on my dining
rotation than I would have expected.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Pastry Breakthrough

On the night of the Apple Harvest Festival, after being surrounded by all sorts of apple products and happy people eating them, I decided to dive into my 1/4 bushel and make my very first apple pie. I've had my mom's crumb top deep dish pie recipe for a couple years; I just haven't been ambitious enough to make my own crust, plus I'm not always partial to desserts that aren't made with chocolate. I was also inspired by Shannon, the friend I went to the festival with, because she was planning on baking that night too.

One of the differences between Shannon's endeavors and mine was that she has an apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer, and I don't. I didn't even have a recipe for pie dough, but the Food Network website came to the rescue (as it often does). Barefoot Contessa's "Perfect Pie Crust" - the link is at the bottom - has both butter and Crisco in it, which I remember my grandma using, so I figured that would be worth a try. The instructions also said that she uses a food processor, which seemed much easier for a beginner like me.

The dough seemed to turn out alright, and while it was in the fridge I mixed the crumb topping (more butter...the pie couldn't be that bad). Then I realized that my mom's recipe involved lemon juice to keep the apples from turning brown. I only had orange juice, which worked just as well, although it definitely made the pie sweeter.

I didn't have enough of just one kind of apple, nor did I have the recommended varities, so I ended up using a special blend of Fuji, Staymen, and whatever else happened to be on the top of my overflowing produce drawers. As I worked on the apples, I kept hearing the words "apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer" in my head. My first attempt at peeling was with a paring knife, which was OK for a small red apple with soft skin, but some of the others were tougher. I'm not sure if I committed some kind of baking sin, but I got out my vegetable peeler and from then on I could strip the apples more quickly (though not as quickly as an apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer probably could).

Cutting wasn't too bad, and soon I had coated the apple pieces in orange juice. That was when I realized that I don't have a rolling pin. I do, however, possess various types of liquor. My Triple Sec bottle still has some flour on the outside, but it did the trick, and I assembled the crust, apples, and crumb topping just as my oven reached 400 degrees.

After a few hours of work, the smell of the pie baking was enough to make the whole experience worthwhile. I enjoyed eating it too, because it was very sweet and had an equal ratio of topping and crust to apples. It wasn't the same as my mom's or grandma's pies, but it was the way I like my non-chocolate desserts, so I consider it a personal baking victory. The only problem is Barefoot Contessa's "Perfect Pie Crust," which makes enough for two pies. I might need to borrow an apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer for my second attempt.,,FOOD_9936_29717,00.html

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Autumn Harvest (Another Festival)

Considering there are so many seasonal festivals that go on in the Richmond area in September and October, it's not surprising that I managed to attend two in three weekends. The first was the Carytown Wine Festival at the very end of September, which involved a small tasting glass and several local wineries giving tiny samples in the Carytown Court parking lot. I'm nowhere close to being an expert, but almost all of the wines I tasted were too sweet to appeal to me. The souvenier glass and the experience were worthwhile, although I'm not rushing out to buy any Virginia wines quite yet.

The second event I went to was in Syria, Virginia, about an hour and a half northwest of Richmond. My friend and I drove through miles of countryside to Graves' Mountain, to check out one of their two Apple Harvest Festival weekends. The Graves' Mountain Lodge and farm includes several acres of orchards, a restaurant, picnic pavilion, and other features that allow them to host entire festivals.

Compared to the small scale of the wine festival, the Apple Harvest Festival was enormous. With several arts and crafts vendors, huge outdoor and indoor seating areas, multiple activities for children and adults, and large bins filled with freshly picked apples, I had a hard time focusing my attention. Aside from the apples, my first priority was to try Brunswick Stew, and the cornbread, apple butter, cider, and applesauce that came with it.

I'm not a fan of lima beans, and avoided them to the best of my ability. The stew was otherwise quite tasty - it had a tomatoey base, potatoes, corn, and small pieces of pork. After I smeared apple butter on my cornbread, I finished it off with a spoon, and the other apple goodies were fine but not exceptional.

Somehow I managed to resist funnel cake and homemade apple butter donuts. I did however, listen to a bluegrass band, browse the tent crafts, and do a lot of walking around in perfect October weather. I spent the last half hour leaning deep into some wooden bins to hand pick Staymen, Fuji, Winesap, York, and Red Delicious apples. My friend and I ended up with a half bushel between the two of us, and we had a drowsy drive back to Richmond in the midst of colorful fall foliage. In my opinion, days like those are the most appropriate way to celebrate autumn.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Farewell to Serving

I can only recall one occasion on which I've been so mad at a waiter or waitress that I wanted to leave a bad tip. Ironically, it occured on the day that I found out that I was hired for a full time job and wouldn't have to serve anymore.

One of my good friends was visiting that weekend, so we went out with a few other people to celebrate, and to try a wine bar that I've been interested in since it opened about six months ago. Enoteca Sogno, a small wine bar on Broad St. in the Fan, is run by the same man who owns Mamma Zu, Edo's Squid, and 8 1/2 - three amazing venues for Italian food. None of them are known for friendly service, but I've never had an issue like I did at Enoteca Sogno.

I have to admit that it wasn't even my issue, nor would I have cared so much if I hadn't spent the past 11 months in the restaurant business. From the very beginning of my time waiting tables, I was taught to never argue with a guest, to always make the customers feel comfortable, and to act as if you were hosting them in your own home.

I never felt fully at ease that night, and I don't think that anyone I was with felt like they were being graciously entertained either. During the process of ordering, one of the members of our table asked for the NY Strip well done, and the waiter flat out refused to let him order it that way. Not only did he insult a customer's taste by saying that the meat would be ruined, he broke what is essentially the first rule of serving: to never, ever let a guest feel wrong.

In my restaurant experience, I was always instructed to gently tell a diner that the chef recommended a dish a certain way, but if the customer didn't change his or her mind, to recommend something else or simply accept the order as it was and move on. If I was afraid of putting in an order for well done steak (which I never was), I might have even put medium well on the ticket in the hopes that the guest wouldn't notice or wouldn't care. Arguing with a guest just isn't part of serving - it's left to the managers.

If the meal had been exceptional and I felt strongly about returning to Enoteca Sogno I might have considered speaking with one of our waiter's bosses, but the food didn't make up for what happened. I had fresh pasta with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, which was was delicious, but the gnocchi pesto (a sad replacement for a steak) was mushy and close to inedible. I tried another pasta dish on the menu that was only so so, and the view onto E. Broad St. isn't the most desirable in Richmond. I'll continue to patronize the owner's other three eateries, but Enoteca Sogno is one home to which I don't want to be invited back.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Home Cooking

With the onset of cooler weather, a new school year well underway and football on every other channel, it's hard not to think about fall. For some reason the first cool breezes bring me right back to high school - field hockey games, various anxieties from being in a different class, the anticipation of wearing all of my new clothes even if it's still too warm. The shift from summer to autumnalso affects the way I think about food. I was so excited to see squash in the grocery store that I bought one (butternut) to go with baked pork chops and broccolini.

Food from home has distinct tastes and feelings, combined with memory, comfort and an expectation for familiarity. My mom's steamed broccoli is better than mine, even though I prepare it exactly how she does. My grandma's Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meals follow a traditional pattern, and there is something soothing in this consistency. These holidays coincide with the beginning of fall, when grilling slows down and there are different vegetables to buy at the grocery store.

I tend to eat differently at home, for the sole reason that I don't get the food on a regular basis anymore. I haven't even had brisket since my senior year of high school, and matzoh ball soup was something I've only eaten once or twice since I started college. My aunt's homemade challah is such a treat that I ate three doughy pieces of it, and was even able to ignore the raisins because I wanted to savor every possible bit.

My dad has been eating jerk seasoning on his grilled chicken for years, and he had just made a fresh batch on Friday when I came home. I don't think I've ever eaten my own jerk chicken, but I was happy to have a sweet, spicy chicken breast all to myself on Saturday. It's the kind of meal that needs little accompaniment - broccoli and fresh bread the perfect simple side dishes.

There are some very specific culinary moments that remind me of autumn in Pennsylvania. Seeing squash is one of them; another is biting into a crunchy, slightly tart apple. I happened to bring some McIntosh apples back from the Farmer's Market in Harrisburg, and it easily outshined any apple I've eaten in Richmond. I used to get excited about "locally grown VA Gala apples," but I can't trick myself into liking them when I know what I can find at home.

Wherever I am, fall brings back old feelings and familiar ingredients, promising that the end of summer shouldn't be mourned, because there are just as many cooking possibilities on the horizon.

Monday, September 18, 2006


I've been reading Anthony Bourdain's second autobiographical book, A Cook's Tour, in which he travels all over the world "in search of the perfect meal." In case you're not familiar with the author/TV chef, he wrote Kitchen Confidential, and has had shows on both the Food Network and the Travel Channel. Some of his food experiences make me cringe, while others make me crave very specific dishes. Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, is one of meals I can't get out of my mind since I read about it.

In one of the chapters Tony, that's what we used to call him in my house, and it's how he refers to himself in the book, eats pho for breakfast in a Saigon market. He describes it better than I ever could:

"Is there anything better to eat on this planet than a properly made bowl of pho? I don't know. Precious few things can approach it. It's got it all."

Last night I couldn't wait any longer to have pho again, and went to Vietnam 1, a small restaurant I hadn't tried yet. One of my favorite things about the soup is that it's served with a basket of fresh bean sprouts, basil, lime, and sometimes cilantro. I like to add all of those to the steaming bowl, along with plum sauce and that Sriracha chili sauce that seems to turn up in restaurants of all origins. Pho can have all different cuts of meat in it (among a variety of other items); I chose eye of round and flank last night, and they were delicious and tender. The soup is beyond's a wonderful layering of flavors that, as Tony says, is "spicy, hot complex, refined, yet unbelievably simple."

I'm not an expert on Vietnamese food, let alone pho, but it's hard to think of many meals that satisfy a craving the same way. One line from A Cook's Tour echoes my thoughts: "the whole experience is overwhelmingly perfect."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Eating for the Sake of Others

A couple weeks ago one of my best friends from college and I were sitting around, talking, and sharing music with each other. My friend has a job which allows her to listen to her iPod all day, and she was playing songs from the four albums or so she listens to the most. When we started on some of my music, we discussed how differently music sounds when you play it for someone else for the first time. Especially when that person has musical taste you trust and respect. It's a separate level of judgement for a song, and you already know that you like it, but there's pressure on you when someone you know is being exposed to your current favorites.

After I'd thought about this for a little while, it dawned on me that sharing new restaurants or cooking with another person generates a similar feeling. When I cook for friends for the first time, or when I make something that my guest has never had, I try to analyze the food from another perspective. If I take visitors to one of my favorite restaurants, I worry about how they'll see it, and constantly wonder if I made the best choice.

Last weekend, for example, my grandparents came to visit me in Richmond, and they wanted to take me out for a nice dinner. My first instinct was Can Can, not only for the food but because it has such an exciting atmosphere, but my grandma wasn't overly thrilled with the menu because they serve a lot of seafood. I knew that my grandparents aren't so in to Asian or Mexican cuisine, and they've already been to the White Dog, so I opted for Italian. The options were even more limited because they came on a Sunday, but Edo's Squid is open - thankfully - all weekend. The meal went smoothly for the most part, and I was rewarded with my grandparents' praise of the food along with a hefty container of leftovers: sausage and pasta.

I had the same anxious feeling a few days ago, when I baked a cake that I don't indulge in very often (chocolate with peanut butter chips and chocolate peanut butter icing) to bring over to a friend's house. They have a comparable passion for dessert, so I knew that they'd eat it, but I still wanted them to enjoy it as much as I do. We ended up eating nearly the whole thing by the end of the night, so I didn't have to wonder how much everyone liked it.

It's difficult to try to inflence someone's tastes, but it's still fun to compare opinions and share personal preferences, whether musical or culinary.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Classy Fan Eatery

One of my friends asked me last week what I think the best restaurant in Richmond is right now. I didn't have too hard of a time answering, but it was interesting timing because I had plans to visit Style Weekly's favorite restaurant the same evening. My meal was impressive, although nothing about it stood out enough to make me feel strongly about the whole experience.

Dogwood Grille and Spirits, located on Main Street in the Fan, is similar in size and style to many of the other neighborhood establishments. Style critics picked it as the best Richmond restaurant because of its willingness to take chances while maintaining local flavor preferences. There is definitely a bit of Southern flair on the menu: deep fried baby chicken, cocoa dusted pork tenderloin, and filet paired with lump crab meat. Style also mentioned that "the atmosphere is 'in limbo between retro and refined,'" and that patrons are comfortable wearing jeans while dining on fairly sophisticated cuisine.

In my opinion, the wooden booths, dim lighting, and brick walls created a simple yet elegant environment. I chose to sit at a table in the front corner of the restaurant, under the neon pink open sign, looking directly onto Main Street. There were at least four different kinds of fresh orchids on the ledge in front of me, which suggested that Dogwood isn't afraid of its classy side. The wine list gave me a similar impression: a wide range of reds and whites, separated by local (American) and imported, were all mixed together regardless of their price. We settled on a pinot noir from Oregon, and it was definitely a good value at $28.

True to the rest of the restaurant, the service was casual and close to impeccable all at once. The waitress recited the specials well, but she didn't come by the table too often, except to distribute more bread. My dining companion and I agreed that the bread tasted a little too salty, though it was still good enough to eat. I had one of the entree specials, crabcakes with red potatoes and wilted spinach. The dish came with the crabcakes piled on top of the spinach and potatoes, all of which rested on a creamy dill sauce. It was garnished with rings of red onion and a white substance which tasted very much like sour cream. The crab was definitely fresh, and the flavors blended well, but I couldn't remember all of the details because there were so many layers.

The same happened with the other special, filet served with a blue crab sauce, fingerling potatoes and grilled asparagus in a peppercorn sauce. While the crab and filet were delicious, the asparagus stood out for it's incredible crunch and an outstanding smoky flavor. I would love to know how the chefs prepare it.

One of the drawbacks at Dogwood, which Style Weekly also discusses, is the high price on some of the menu items. Both of the specials, for example, were $32, and I can understand it for the filet but not for the crabcakes. It's especially noticeable because of how laid back much of the experience is.
It may not be at the top of my list, but that could change over time. I'd probably have to go back at least once to judge the restaurant fairly, but I can say with certainty that it's a great option for a special occasion.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Can Can - Round 2

Looking across Cary Court, a little shopping strip separated from Cary St. by a parking lot, I had a pretty good view of Duro. I had the privilege of eating at Can Can again, this time in one of their outdoor sections, and seeing Duro's sign reminded me of the quality difference between the two restaurants (despite their close proximity). I don't need to rehash my visit to the "non-Italian pasta" place, but my second experience at Can Can certainly was equal to, if not better, than my first.

Eating on a tiny patio under red umbrellas only added to Can Can's European feel. We sat in the grouping of tables that was on the side of the restaurant rather than next to the front door, and it was very peaceful. The waiter spilled a miniscule amount of champagne when the cork popped out, and apologized profusely, saying he would "see if he could do something" for us. Our starter, fondue with homemade bread
(I had it the last time - only $3), was delicious. We received a large bread basket with the bread of the month, a soft white loaf flavored with lavender and rosemary, and a rustic French rye. I almost ruined my appetite for dinner but managed to finish most of my meal because it so tasty.

I ordered "Summer Vegetable Ragout and Wild Mushroom Risotto" without knowing totally what to expect. When the dish arrived, I was happy to see an assortment bright green vegetables on top of the risotto, with large pieces of wild mushrooms. The risotto was rich and flavorful, and the peas, squash, baby artichokes, beans, and cherry tomatoes were crisp and fresh. It was an ideal summer dinner, and I was thoroughly pleased with my choice. I also tasted the "Crispy Pork with Apple and Arugula Salad," which consisted of a large, fried pork cutlet served with fresh arugula, apples, and golden raisins in a light, creamy dressing.

Between the champagne and the wonderful food I was more than content, and all of a sudden dessert arrived. The waiter wanted to apologize for the champagne spill, which wasn't even significant, so he brought us the restaurant's "Peanut Butter Pyramid." In the middle of a white, rectangular plate was a chocolate pyramid filled with a soft peanut butter mixture. It was resting on a layer of something crunchy and sweet. On one side of the pyramid was a row of sliced bananas with a light caramel sauce, and on the other was homemade banana ice cream. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not the biggest fan of bananas, nor of fruit with my chocolate, but this was an amazing dessert. The combination of the cold ice cream with the intense peanut butter and chocolate pyramid was outstanding.

Can Can continues to thoroughly impress me, as well as many others, because the dining areas and bar are always crowded. And fortunately I live in Richmond, where it's not hard to walk into a restaurant at 8:00 on a Saturday, because I wouldn't be too thrilled to settle for the establishment across the street.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bargains and Produce

Please excuse my absence from Mad About Food...I was on vacation for a couple weeks and didn't write because I was taking a break from absolutely everything. Now that I'm back, I'd like to catch up on a few interesting items.

I had some great bargain experiences in Richmond
before I went on vacation. Capital Ale House, at both the downtown and Short Pump locations, has hamburgers for $1 on Monday nights. The burgers are full-sized and delicious, and cheese is only 15 cents more. Lettuce and a slice of tomato are included, and I shared a French fries appetizer that could have fed three hungry people along with their burgers.

Another great deal I finally took advantag
e of was Acacia's fixed price menu (Monday-Saturday) and half-price wine night every Tuesday. The dinner features three courses: a choice of soup or a salad, one of five entrees and seven sides, and a dessert. Acacia is one of the most elegant restaurants I've ever been to, and eating a full meal there for only $22 is quite an opportunity. I chose a salad with goat cheese and pecans, blackened rockfish and braised garlic white beans, and pound cake with cinnamon sorbet. Everything was excellently prepared, and having gone on Tuesday, the wine special was an added treat.

About a month ago I received a sizeable gift
of homegrown vegetables from a friend; she'd taken too much produce from her aunt's garden and was generous enough to share with me. I received red and white potatoes, black raspberries, zucchini, two kinds of beans, and a kohlrabi. I had never seen or heard of a kohlrabi before, but it's sort of a cross between a turnip and a potato, is light green, and looks like an alien vegetable. I forgot to take a picture before I cut it up, but this is very close to what mine looked like:

I researched a couple recipes on the Food Network's website and decided to roast the kohlrabi with potatoes. It was slightly crunchy and sweet, and was a tasty accompaniment to the pan-seared lamb chops I made. I modified anothe
r Food Network recipe for those, and made a sauce in the pan out of onions and red wine. This picture was taken before I added the wine:

Another notable meal I made with my fresh vegetables was a zucchini, asiago and prosciutto frittata with homefries. There isn't much to say except that it was absolutely delicious:

Fresh vegetables really do taste better, and I'm lucky I had the chance to cook with homegrown produce.

Looking back on a lot of my summer food creations and outings, I can pinpoint some that were especially memorable. What was your summer culinary highlight? (No one ever posts comments so here's a great opportunity!)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mega Meatball Pizza

One of the things I like about Rachael Ray's recipes is that they're simple enough to allow substitutions and minor changes. Her "Mega Meatball Pizza," for example, is made of store bought pizza dough and an easy, meaty topping. (Pizza dough is convenient to make from scratch because it's cheap and doesn't require much attention. After you mix the ingredients, all you have to do is let it rise.)

To make Rachael Ray's pizza, I used homemade pizza dough, sprinkled it with rosemary like she said, and baked it. I followed her instructions for the meat and tomato paste mixture but I opted for ground turkey instead of sirloin. In addition, I added some spinach at the very end, and used fresh mozzarella instead of shredded. The recipe made a generous six servings (it said it would serve four), and the last time I did it I made three little pizzas and froze the other two before baking them again. I think Rachael would be proud...even though she might not recognize the recipe.,,FOOD_9936_30613,00.html

Monday, July 24, 2006

Lacking Limani

Limani was one of Richmond's best restaurants, with the freshest fish I've had in an inland location, and a classy, elegant environment to highlight the cuisine. Everything there was good - the cocktails, the desserts, the side dishes, and especially the seafood, which was prepared with only lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper before it was placed on a wood-burning grill. I remember the actual moment that I discovered the end of Limani's existence. I was walking down Cary St., and instead of passing by the familiar cobalt blue doorway, I saw a new name and red paint on Limani's entrance. The familiar and enchanting smoky smell of grilled seafood was gone, with only the name "Duro" on each of the doors, and no further clues about the former venue.

I soon learned that Limani's owner decided to reopen his eatery as Duro, a pasta restaurant that isn't supposed to be Italian. Duro r
efers to "durham," or the type of flour used in the hand-made noodles. I had my doubts about a restaurant that claimed not to be Italian when it features pasta, but I felt obligated (and curious) since Limani was such an amazing dining experience.

My friend and I started with the "Stuffed Purses" appetizer ($8), which were pasta "purses" filled with fontina cheese, marscapone, and pear. They were sweet and light, with a certain richness from the marscapone and the shallow pool of parmesan cream sauce. Unfortunately the starter was the best part of the meal. My Bellini, which I settled for because Duro doesn't have Limani's fabulous cocktails, was made with peach schnapps and cheap sparkling wine. I know because the waitress said they were out of champagne, and that she was already sending someone to get diet coke so she would have them pick up something sparkling.

Limani's servers were always knowledgable and attentive, but I wasn't impressed by the waitresses at Duro. Similarly, the food was decent but not extraordinary. My entree, Sonoma Shrimp, consisted of four medium-sized "tiger shrimp" and hand made linguine. There were also fresh spinach leaves and some "oven-dried" tomatoes tossed with the pasta, and a fairly boring sauce that tasted like chicken stock. As my friend said, it was difficult to tell if the chef was trying to highlight the shellfish or the pasta, and neither was particularly inspiring.

The other dish I tried was supposed to be pulled chicken with eggplant gnocchi, but the meat came out as a whole half of a chicken. There was no information on the menu regarding the sauce, which tasted very strongly of onion, and the gnocchi was edible but not very flavorful. I had no desire to try dessert, even though the tartufo at Limani was exquisite. Duro has a long way to go before it can live up to the standards set by its predecessor. And I'm not rushing back for any non-Italian pasta.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Trendy Dining

Since Can Can opened over a year ago, I've been resisting the urge to eat there. It's a mere five minutes from my apartment (on foot), but its snobby air and trendy reputation always made me wonder if the walk there would be worth it. All of my curiosity was eased on Sunday when my friend and I tried to go to Duro - the former Limani - right across the street from Can Can. When we found that Duro was closed, we crossed Cary to try our luck at the fashionable French eatery.

Both of us were pleasantly surprised by the interior, which had an upscale European feel to it. The booths and tables are set up in various sections, so you can sit almost anywhere and still feel like you're in a small restaurant. In contrast, the impressive bar spans an entire span of the restaurant, and there is an area in a front corner with baskets of bread and pastries for sale. I had tried the bread once before, and it is worthy of a French bakery. Our waitress brought three different kinds to the table (olive, French rye, and baguette) with olive oil.

I ordered a Bellini, which is champagne and peach puree, and it was sweet and refreshing. The last cocktail I had out was at 3 Monkeys. It was supposed to be one of their signature Monkey martinis, with lemon, simple syrup and club soda, but it was flat and bland. It's nice to know that some trendy spots care about the quality of their drinks.

Our appetizers were just as appealing as my Bellini. I got a half dozen mussels for $3 with lemon and mignonette (a peppery oil and vinegar sauce). They were beautifully presented over ice, and tasted very fresh. We also shared fondue ($3), which was served warm in a small bowl with 3 long, soft pieces of brown bread. For my main course I chose a shrimp salad ($11), which was gigantic but light. There were small shrimp mixed with baby arugula, roasted red peppers, white beans, and a crisp lemon vinaigrette. It was a perfect complement to the fondue and mussels, and I enjoyed ordering multiple, reasonably priced items as opposed to one entree.

Although my friend and I went to Can Can just to try it out, I know I could go back for a drink, appetizer, or a full meal. Other popular restaurants, like Davis & Main, have let me down on more than one occasion - with unevenly cooked pork and salmon. I didn't find any flaws in the food or the service at Can Can, but I was too full for dessert. Judging by the quality of the bread and everything else I tasted, I may have to return in the near future for something sweet, and I'm sure it will live up to my high expectations.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Grill Season

I have a friend whose parents used to grill all year round, in any weather condition, at various times of the day. As jealous as it made me, I believe that grilling is especially magical in the summer, when corn on the cob is in season and party guests contribute warm weather desserts like banana pudding. On my past two visits home, I had the privilege of participating in two delicious cookouts.

One of the meals, which took place on Father's Day, centered around grilled prime rib. None of us had eaten prime rib from the grill before, but my dad used his trusty copy of How to Grill (by Steven Raichlen) as a guide. I've never followed the book's instructions myself, but I know that any grilled item my dad has made with Raichlen's help has been a success. Father's Day was no exception; the meat was so succulent that I can't remember what else we had, although I know all of the side dishes were also tasty.

For his 4th of July cookout, my dad smoked a chicken, two pork shoulders and a brisket. We sliced the brisket, pulled the pork and chopped the chicken to make barbeque sandwiches. I brought Extra Billy's barbeque sauce (hot and regular) from Richmond, and my dad made his own vinegar sauce for the sandwiches. We also had cole slaw to put on them, along with my mom's potato salad, a green salad with pine nuts, tri-color rotini pasta salad, and crisp green beans with sesame seeds, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Paired with locally brewed beer, the meal was flawless, dessert was just as appealing. The aforementioned banana pudding was a perfect complement to the grilled food, and we also had homemade chocolate chip cookies, turtle brownies, and a lemon curd cheesecake with raspberry sauce. Parties like these don't happen too often, certainly not all year round, but the fruits of the grill are not soon forgotten.

Food Photos

Here are a few pictures of meals I've made in the past couple months. The first is a chicken and green bean stir fry I made in my wok (I composed the recipe as I went along):

Next is a recipe from the Food Network's website (,,FOOD_9936_33515,00.html). I watched Giada de Laurentis make this on her show and it looked so easy that I had to try it. I followed her instructions exactly, and the escarole and white bean soup was delicious. It would also be excellent with hot sausage or chicken:

This photo illustrates the preliminary stages of salmon burgers (chopped fresh salmon, dill, and bread crumbs), which were very tasty but didn't hold together too well. I'm going to look into some other recipes for salmon burgers and see if I can find one to improve the one I have now:

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Eating on Boulevard

For a couple years I've been hearing about Buz and Ned's Barbeque - how it's the best barbeque in Richmond, how I just have to go, etc. I'm no expert, although I know I've been treated to good barbeque from my dad's grill as well as authentic North Carolina style on a few occasions. However, I have to be in the right mood for it, so I hadn't gone it to Buz and Ned's until last Saturday.

My first experience there was also my first barbeque experience in Richmond, and I don't think I need to look any further. For $7.50 I got two huge pork barbeque sandwiches and two side dishes. The meal was more than enough for two people, and the meat was smoky and wonderfully tender. When we ordered we had the option of hot sauce and cole slaw on the sandwiches, and I asked for both. The result was a delightful combination of saucy pork, crunchy slaw and Crystal hot sauce, which is flavorful and not overpowering. Another favorable aspect of the sandwiches were the buns, which were soft but didn't fall apart underneath the heavy meat.

Our side dishes were macaroni and cheese and baked beans. The beans were cooked with bacon, which gave them a savory undertone of smoke, although I was more interested in the mac and cheese. Buz and Ned's version wasn't too cheesy, but it was cooked casserole-style and turned out to be a great accompaniment to the sandwiches. The mild saltiness of the cheese and the mild pasta flavor was a nice way to break up bites of pork barbeque.

I loved the food at Buz and Ned's, but it was also fun to eat on wooden picnic tables outside, right on Boulevard, underneath the huge billboard sign pointing to the building. They recently added indoor seating, although I think everyone has to order from a counter in the front before they sit down. Barbeque isn't about decor or atmosphere, so I thought that everything about Buz and Ned's was appropriate. I'll be happy to eat there with disposable silverware, off plastic trays, anytime I have a craving for barbeque.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Fan Dining: Plan B

Thursday night I tried to go to dinner at 3 Monkeys (see "Brunch in the Fan") around 7:45, but I was too hungry for the thirty-five minute wait. As we walked down the ramp and on Main Street, my companion and I tried to figure out why 3 Monkeys is such a popular place. Yes, the food is good, and yes, it's still only been open for a couple years , but there are a lot of other (possibly better) options in the Fan. We moseyed toward Joe's Inn for a minute or so until we realized that we could branch out and eat somewhere different. One such option is The White Dog (not to be mistaken for The White Dog Cafe in Philly), which is a couple blocks east of 3 Monkeys on Main. Located in a partially underground corner building, its appearance echoes its reputation as one of the neighborhood's most underrated eateries, despite loyal customers and several awards.

I had been to the White Dog three times during college, and my last visit wasn't too recent, so I was excited to go back. The food is always great, and the atmosphere strikes me every time I walk down the steps into the narrow building. From the entryway, while you peruse the specials on the chalkboard and wait to be seated, you can just see the dimly lit, wooden bar and a row of booths along the right wall. Colorful paintings by a local artist line the wall above the booths, and small candles on the tables give off just enough light to highlight the art. There is a certain sophistication in the restaurant's simplicity, and the food is also casual but impressive.

Our meal began with Valdubon Consecha Ribera Duero, a red Spanish wine that was supposed to have chocolate and fruit flavors. It was slightly sweet and full, and it went well with our appetizer. The "Crispy Fried Spring Rolls," of which there were four, had a nice balance of textures and flavors. They were accompanied by a "sweet and spicy apricot chutney," which reminded me a little of mashed sweet potatoes.

I had a hard time deciding between the salmon, halibut, and pork shank specials (I had already tried the vegetarian special, Vegetables in Phyllo Dough, on a previous visit), but I ended up ordering Seasoned Tuna with Ginger-Sesame Slaw off the menu. The fish was perfectly prepared at a medium temperature and was blackened on the outside from the crust of seasoning. I'm not usually into cole slaw, but The White Dog's version was light with an intense ginger taste, and it was extra crunchy from white sesame seeds. The vegetable of the day was green beans, which rounded out my meal beautifully. I also had the opportunity to taste the "Grilled Flank Steak in a Mongolian Marinade," which was tender and beautifully arranged with creamy mashed potatoes and green beans.

There aren't many restaurants like The White Dog that you can just wander into at dinner hour on any given night. It's a taste of fine dining without the stuffiness and pretention of a fancier establishment: the service is attentive at just the right level, and the food is consistently delicious.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Festive Weekend

As the weather continues to grow warmer, I'm quickly learning about Richmond's fondness for festivals. Many of them are family oriented, yet they appeal to a variety of ages and interests. Soon after I attended the Strawberry Street Festival in May (which took place at William Fox Elementary School on Strawberry St.), I saw advertisements for a four day Greek Festival as well as a Strawberry Fair during the first weekend in June.

I had attended a Greek Festival before, so the volume of the music and the variety of culinary choices weren't too overwhelming. There was a large tent for a la cart food, including spanakopita, tiropita, chicken and pork souvlaki, moussaka, baklava, and more. On my first visit I bought a spanakopita and tiropita, both of which were flaky and delicious, as well as assorted pastries and a souvlaki wrap (a grilled pork kebob in a pita with grilled peppers and onions and tsaziki sauce). One of the huge tents that were set up was solely designated for grilling the meat, and part of my decision to eat souvlaki was based on the tempting aroma drifting across the courtyard. The gyro tent was by far the most popular, but I was happy with my choice. I was also pleased with the baklava, and two days later, when I returned to the festival, I treated myself to a "baklava sundae." It was basically just crumbled baklava layered with soft serve icing, but I was very impressed with the combination.

The Strawberry Fair, which was set up right next to the Randolph-Macon College Campus, was a completely different scene from the Greek Festival. Neverending rows of white tents formed long passageways, and the stands bore a range of crafts and food. I bought a huge flat of strawberries for $10, and they lasted an entire week (including strawberry shortcake that was eaten by a few people). I probably would have bought strawberry bread too, but the stand was already out of it when I had a sample. Luckily, they were also selling strawberry lemonade, which was refreshing and not too sweet.

Events like these are a way for everyone to enjoy food, nice weather, and a summer mentality. This past weekend there was a seafood and beer festival on Brown's Island, and there is another Strawberry Festival on Strawberry St. on June 24th to benefit the Children's Museum of Richmond. I remember going to the Watermelon Festival in Carytown last August, and I'm excited to do it again. I hope to see you there!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Late Night Eating

Contrary to the opening statement of my Mac and Cheese entry, I went out for food both Friday and Saturday after work this weekend. The first venture, at the Galaxy Diner, was successful as I was finally able to order a double portion of macaroni and cheese. It was worth the wait. They don't use the most flavorful cheese, but it is well proportioned with the noodles, has a creamy consistency, and is ready in less time than it would take me to go to Kroger for Kraft.

For dessert I had fried oreos. They sound a little odd, but think about it for a minute...there are four warm, chocolatey oreos with fried batter around them, and the soft cream in the middle of the cookie sandwich melts into the chocolate wafers. They're even served with ice cream and chocolate syrup, so you get the hot/cold effect that makes some desserts absolutely wonderful.

The second late night outing was to Joe's Inn (it's open until 2, which is very convenient). We sat in the room by the bar, which wasn't loud or smoky. Plus, the waitress was pleasant and helpful, so I didn't feel like I was imposing on anyone like I do sometimes at the diner. I ordered a cup of vegetable soup to start, which was homemade, and chicken fingers with marinara sauce. Joe's Inn is well known for its mountainous spaghetti entrees, which I have yet to try, but the marinara sauce was surprisingly flavorful and chunky. The chicken fingers were great too - crispy and juicy and tender all at the same time. The Galaxy Diner may be closer to my apartment, but Joe's Inn is slowly becoming my favorite eatery for any time of the day.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mac and Cheese Please

It's not often that I come back from work with the desire or motivation to go out for food. Last weekend was an exception, although it may be the only venture of its type. Due to its proximity and a lack of options, I decided to go to the Galaxy Diner for a quick bite. The diner isn't always my first choice but it's consistent, and they have excellent macaroni and cheese.

Macaroni and cheese is one of those foods I've loved since I was a kid (especially my mom's homemade version). I remember having boxed Kraft for dinner as a treat when baby-sitters came over, and being thrilled when I went over to friends' houses and their moms were serving mac and cheese. However, it wasn't until last year that my appreciation for it fully developed. My roommate was completely obsessed with Velveeta shells and cheese, Kraft, and a bunch of other brands and varieties. She ate it at a few times a week, and it's because of her that I have cravings for elbow shaped pasta with creamy, cheesy sauce.

On this particular night I had forgotten about the diner's mac and cheese (occasionally it's my main goal when I go to Galaxy), but there were bowls and bowls of it in the pickup window when I walked by. The aroma was much too tempting and I knew what I wanted before I sat down. I ordered a Philly steak (being from Pennsylvania I should have realized this was a huge mistake) and double mac and cheese.

Everything was fine until the waiter came back to say that they were out of my much desired side dish. Crushed, I ordered fries and cucumber salad, and brooded over my loss. It wouldn't have been so terrible except that this was not my first experience at Galaxy with depleted mac and cheese. In fact, I think I've only managed to attain it two or three times out of multiple visits. To make matters worse, my plate arrived with cucumber salad and stewed tomatoes. Yuck. Our server said he could change it, but I'd had enough at that point. I ate my sub (which wasn't too bad considering) and left as soon as possible. Next time I'll just have to make my own, or rely on Kraft, which is always there when I need it.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Chocolate Delinquency

Few things have made me feel young in my first year after college. Paying monthly bills, student loans, rent, etc. was an immediate launch into adulthood, and I forget that I'm mistaken for a college student at times. I purchased a new computer recently, and had to say goodbye to the background of strawberries and chocolate that had served as my computer wallpaper for 4 years. Dessert transforms my attitude into that of a little kid, and last week I indulged in two events with vast amounts of chocolate.

The first was a benefit for CHIP (Children's Health Involving Parents), and a $25 ticket bought several local wine samples and various chocolate treats. While the wine vendors gave out little sips of a few of their products, the chocolate was unlimited. It was also beautifully presented in the Main Street Train Station, which was renovated within the past few years. There were several chocolate fountains (white, milk and dark) and two peanut butter fountains, which I had never seen but was thrilled to try. Dried fruit, fresh strawberries, pirouline cookies and other items accompanied the fountains; many other chocolates covered the tables. One of the best pieces I tried was a Guinness chocolate, which was dark and creamy and rich.

It was the kind of heavenly scene that is almost too good to be true. Sure enough, towards the end of the evening, my companions and I (along with two other 'young adults' we were talking to) were yelled at by one of the women standing near us. One of the organizers was speaking to the room about the event, and we hadn't even realized what was going on because so many other people were making noise. We were far from the loudest in the room, yet the woman decided to scold us because we were the unquestionably the youngest attendees.

Two days later I went to the University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies' Chocolate Festival. It differed from CHIP's Chocoholic in that the $10 ticket allowed you to take one item from fourteen stands. A few of the same stores that had their products at the train station were giving out samples at the Chocolate Fest. There were two fountains, and the vendor who had provided Guinness chocolates at the CHIP event also had chocolate made with
cabernet and martini mix. For the Love of Chocolate, a little store located a mere block from my apartment, also participated in the festival. They let us have one of everything they'd brought, and my friend and I filled our complimentary Chinese takeout boxes with different samples.

While I was walking around at the CHIP benefit and the University of Richmond festival, I noticed that very few people were unhappy (aside from the cranky woman at the Chocoholic event). There are studies that show that chocolate can elevate one's mood, and being in its presence is enough to feel just a little bit better. I don't see anything wrong with being happier, or feeling younger, and I don't think others should either.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Revising Rachael Ray

Two weeks ago I happened to catch an episode of 30 Minute Meals on the Food Network. Rachael Ray was preparing food to feed a crowd, and her "Not-Sagna Pasta Toss" appealed to me because of its simplicity. I've never mustered the motivation to make real lasagna (besides one time when I was in Italy, but it was easier there for some reason). The idea is to mix the ingredients so that the pasta has the same flavors as lasagna but isn't exactly the same consistency:,,FOOD_9936_32884,00.html

I usually end up with my own interpretation of Rachael's recipes, and this endeavor was no different. I'm not overly fond of ricotta, so I opted for mozzarella, and I chose ground chicken instead of sirloin. This led to a few other changes - chicken stock instead of beef, and no Worcestershire sauce (Rachael uses it because it goes well with red meat). I also decided to break up sheets of lasagna instead of a short, curly pasta. Rachael suggested this option on the show and I'm partial to wide, flat noodles.

Like the recipe says, I sauteed the meat in some olive oil until it was cooked through and then added a chopped onion. I wasn't cooking in my own kitchen, and didn't have any fresh garlic, so I had to use garlic powder. Normally I love a lot of garlic, but I think the dish turned out better without it since the powder didn't cut into the chicken and onion flavor so much. I did use allspice, salt, pepper, and red chili flakes, and continued cooking the chicken until it started to brown. I didn't know how the red wine would taste with white meat because it's often used with veal or beef. However, it emphasized the sweetness of the allspice, chicken and onion even more, and I think it provided an interesting layer of flavor. I added a large can of diced tomatoes last, and let the sauce simmer for ten minutes or so (a little longer than the directions call for).

The hot pasta water didn't blend with the shredded mozzarella the same way it did with the ricotta on the show, although it did melt the mozzarella enough so that when I added the pasta it didn't break up into weird shapes. I followed the instructions and tossed the pasta with parmesan cheese and half of the sauce, and then I topped it with the rest of the sauce and more mozzarella - I ended up using all of the two cups in the bag. My pasta dish was a little creamier than Rachael's because of the extra cheese, and the flavors varied slightly, but it's nice to know that I can cheat if I ever want lasagna.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Brunch in the Fan

I didn't know what my weekends were lacking until I moved to Richmond. Sure I'd heard of it and participated in it before, but brunch is a serious meal here, and many restaurants offer it on Saturday and Sunday. This past weekend I indulged in brunch twice, at two very different places. Neither of the two eateries were my fallback brunch spot, which is the Galaxy Diner in Carytown. The diner is close to my apartment, and consistently serves both breakfast and lunch food: omelets, hashbrowns, biscuits, black hole pancakes (they have oreos in the center), breakfast sandwiches, burgers, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, macaroni and cheese, etc. The diner comes through when you want french toast at 9 p.m., but having to choose between two types of cuisine at one time of the day makes brunch that much more special.

I've only been to Joe's Inn twice, but I understood it's allure immediately. It's cozy and slightly old-fashioned, and the portions are huge. I composed my own omelet (ham, spinach and provolone) when I tried Joe's Inn the first time, and it was memorable enough to go back. "The Big Breakfast," which I opted for on Saturday, includes pancakes or french toast, two eggs any way, homefries and ham, bacon, or sausage. It's only $6.50, and is the perfect combination of sweet and savory breakfast foods. I had three huge pancakes, scrambled eggs, and ham (served on two plates), and I didn't need to eat for the rest of the day. The homefries at Joe's Inn, which I dream about from time to time, are made with red potatoes and onions, and are almost as good as the ones my dad makes. Three thin slices of grilled ham complemented my eggs, and the pancakes weren't completely made from scratch (I could taste Bisquick), but they did the trick.

Sunday I walked to another (very different) popular Fan brunch spot. 3 Monkeys, which is also a bar that serves food until 1 a.m., is always crowded on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I can't say I've had great service at 3 Monkeys, but there are notable breakfast pizzas and outdoor dining on a covered porch. One of the best brunches I've had there was a spinach, feta and roasted red pepper omelet with homefries (theirs are cubed potatoes fried with a reddish orange seasoning) and toast. The breakfast pizzas are big enough for two people and are also satisfying, with eggs and other toppings on a crust that's not too thick or too thin.

Maybe it was because of "The Big Breakfast" the day before, but my most recent experience at 3 Monkeys wasn't what I remembered. My friends both chose lunch food - a chicken pesto sandwich and a beef tenderloin wrap with fries. I selected an omelet I haven't had, with country ham, brie, and asparagus for $8. I love ham for breakfast, but there was an overpowering amount compared to the cheese, eggs and asparagus in my omelet. The brie was also a little too strong with the ham and asparagus, and I think there were only 5 or 6 small pieces of the vegetable. I could tell that the ingredients themselves were fresh, yet they weren't put together in a way that brought out their positive qualities. I'll probably go back to 3 Monkeys at some point, but for $1.50 less, brunch at Joe's Inn is looking better and better.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Brief Tribute to Ice Cream

Ice cream comes in so many varieties, it's impossible not to find the perfect flavor. Mint chocolate chip, strawberry, cookie crumble, chocolate almond, peanut butter supreme, black cherry, vanilla, chocolate chip cookie dough, butter pecan, and even strawberry cheesecake bring people joy to people of all ages. I'm not overly fond of the non-chocolate flavors, but I appreciate differences in tastes and the value of a cold, delicious treat.

When I was home two weekends ago I had the pleasure of visiting the 3B's ice cream shop twice (to my knowledge, it's been around for awhile but no one's sure of what the 'B's actually mean). For anyone who hasn't been to Harrisburg, 3B's is an old-fashioned looking wooden stand, and there a few in the central Pennsylvania area. The one closest to my house doesn't have indoor seating, and it's located in a small parking lot on the corner of two major roads. I had the pleasure of eating a kid's cup (two huge scoops) of Nutty Milky Way and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup. My companions indulged in Caramel Apple and Chocolate Marshmallow. One of my other favorite varieties, Death by Chocolate, is no longer on the extensive 3B's list, although Turkey Hill makes the same flavor and having it from a carton is almost as satisfying eating it out of a cup with a plastic spoon.

I recently tried Maggie Moos for the first time (the type of shop where they fold the toppings into the ice cream), and I definitely prefer it over Coldstone. The ice cream is much tastier and creamier, and the choices for add-ins aren't quite as overwhelming. I had cinnamon ice cream with brownies and hot fudge at Maggie Moos, and I'm eagerly anticipating all of the possible combinations I can concoct at the store in Richmond.

Easter dessert at my house is always ice cream and homemade hot fudge. We have the traditional ham, baked potatoes, salad, and pineapple (fresh and crushed) for dinner, but Easter often overlaps with Passover, and the Jewish half of my family is usually in town to celebrate with us. This limits dessert choices to items that don't have any type of leavening, hence the decision to serve ice cream. My mom's hot fudge is the best. She has a knack for achieving the perfect combination of brown sugar, evaporated milk and semi-sweet chocolate chips, and it's the ideal end to a fairly salty meal. I've tried and tried, except somehow I can't quite get my hot fudge to the same heavenly consistency and taste.

When I can't get to 3B's or have my mom's hot fudge, I turn to Bev's in Carytown (a mere two minute walk from my apartment). The ice cream is homemade, and includes flavors like Espresso Oreo, Cinnamon, and Dirty Chocolate as well the standard types. The employees also allow you to pick your own brownie for brownie sundaes. They then proceed to microwave the brownie before scooping ice cream and a topping onto it. If that sounds good, it gets even better: instead of whipped cream, you can choose an additional topping. I'm picky about whipped cream and would rather have crushed oreos or chocolate chips or peanut butter cups on my sundae, so in my opinion, Bev's is doing a great job of keeping a customer.

Another way to relieve an ice cream craving is Ben & Jerry's, which is an entire posting in itself, or Edy's Girl Scout Cookie flavors. My personal favorite is the Thin Mint. The cookies are crushed into chocolate ice cream that has a solid taste but isn't overpowering, resulting in an exquisite blend of mint and chocolate in an unbeatable texture. Edy's also makes Tagalong and Samoa ice creams. Unfortunately, all of the Girl Scout varieties are only available for a limited time. This isn't as big of a setback as it sounds, however, because all of the other brands and ice cream stores are just waiting to be chosen and eaten.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Converting Veal into Pork

It's not often that I have time to cook a full meal. If I do, the food ranges from a fallback dish I'm very familiar with to new, more time-consuming recipes. Two weeks ago I found myself with a night off and I decided to experiment with a potato and fennel dish in February's Gourmet. I also had pork chops on hand, so I searched through my aesthetically pleasing Boulevard cookbook. Boulevard is an elegant restaurant in San Francisco, and the cookbook itself was actually nominated for an award because of its beautiful photography.

Anyway, what appealed to me at the time was a recipe for veal chops stuffed with porcini mushrooms and asiago cheese. I figured the ingredients could also go well with pork, so I decided to alter the recipe a little according to the contents of my freezer. After a trip to Kroger, I changed the flavors again slightly because there weren't any porcini mushrooms (I bought cremini instead, which are my favorite mushroom).

A few pages before the veal chop recipe, Boulevard includes a page with this sentence:

"There is a lot more to cooking than getting to the end of the recipe." (It's an intelligent cookbook.)

That was something I actually thought about a lot while I was making this meal, because it turned out to be a little trickier than I'd anticipated. I'm certainly not a professional chef, but I do consider myself somewhat experienced in the kitchen. When the amount of water I added to the pot with the braised fennel and potatoes continued to evaporate at a fast pace, I continued pouring more in. I think it ended up being four times the amount the recipe requested. The dish turned out slightly more well done than I'd prefer, but was still very flavorful because of the fennel (at the end of the recipe it calls for the addition of chopped fennel fronds, which gave everything another layer of anise flavor).

The pork chops weren't "bone-in-center," nor were they thick enough for the sage, mushroom and asiago "sandwiches" in the instructions. I did my best to cut into the center of the chops without going all the way through, and I managed to get a couple slices of cheese, sage leaves, and pieces of mushroom inside before I started to pan sear the pork in olive oil. The recipe also involves a meat thermometer, which I don't have, and I had to gage the cooking time for pork instead of veal. The instructions say to add butter and sage leaves to the pan "about 2 minutes before you think the chops are done," which made me laugh because I was doing everything according to what I thought was going on with the pork chops anyway. I ended up throwing a quartered zucchini into the pan while the pork finished (my original plan was to saute the zucchini) and finishing the sauce on the stove by reducing the pan juices with sherry.

It was a more challenging meal than I've made in awhile, but all of the time and effort paid off because the plate looked appealing and tasted even better. The veal chop page in my cookbook is a little splattered with olive oil, but it's a nice reminder that I can improvise and still achieve desirable results.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dining Out/Intro

On Monday night a couple came into Sensi (the restaurant I work in) to inquire about eating dinner. It was after six o'clock and they were the only customers (probably due to the fact that people don't always think restaurants are open on Monday, and the warm weather, and the beginning of spring break for Richmond schools). The couple looked around and noticed that the dining room was empty. They told the hostess that they didn't want to spend $100 to eat "this kind of meal" by themselves, that they could do that at home, and that they would come back another time for a real dining experience. While I can understand the couple's discomfort at being alone in a restaurant, it made me think about why people go out to eat.

Maybe it's because we feel like being waited on, or don't feel like cooking, or have a craving for something we would never make at home. Maybe it's because the best meal we've ever had is at a restaurant that's right in the neighborhood, or because we're celebrating a special occasion. Maybe it's because we feel like dressing up and being seen, or because nothing compares to feeling like a regular. Whatever the reason, eating out is something that appeals to many and interests me as both a diner and a restaurant server.

The couple from Monday night couldn't have been too set on trying Sensi, or they would have at least stayed to have a drink at the bar. How much should dining out depend on other customers? Does it really make a difference if others are eating in the same restaurant? As one of my co-workers said, there always has to be a first table, and there have to be people who try a place before it develops a clientele. I don't think the number of diners should impact the decision to eat somewhere or not (unless, of course, it has a bad reputation or looks unsanitary). Chances are the couple could spend their $100 in a crowded dining room and have an inferior experience due to more noise and less attentive service.

There are several factors involved in eating at home (your own or someone else's) vs. eating in a restaurant: time, convenience, money, control, consistency, etc. When I go out for a meal, I try to keep all of these in mind while I rate the food and the atmosphere and everything else that composes a "dining experience." I find almost anything that has to do with going out for food, cooking, or eating to be interesting, no matter how many other people happen to be sharing the experience.