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Archive for June, 2010

We interrupt these self-indulgent ramblings to bring you an actual recipe.  Enjoy.

  • 1 small seedless watermelon
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and quartered
  • 4 oz. feta
  • handful of chives
  • olive oil, the best you’ve got, as needed

Using a sharp knife, remove all of the peel from the watermelon.  Cut the watermelon into 1-inch thick disks.

Preheat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.  Cut half of the disks into 1-inch-thick lengths, and then crosswise into 1x1x3-inch blocks.  Place a handful of watermelon blocks in the skillet and sear.  (Do this in batches; don’t overcrowd the skillet!)  When the first side gets a nice charred crust, about 1 to 2 minutes, flip the blocks and sear the second side, about 1 minute.  Remove from the heat and place in a large mixing bowl.

Using a vegetable peeler, shave the unsliced watermelon and the red onion into thin slices.  Add to the mixing bowl with the seared watermelon.  Crumble the feta into the bowl.  Mince the chives and add half of them to the salad.  Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil over the salad and toss to combine, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle the remaining chives on top.  Enjoy!

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At the other extreme from the Vegetarian Havens are the Palaces of Carnivory, temples of meat so unrepentantly focused on the sins and joys of the flesh that an unsuspecting vegan who wanders into one might get basted with a cider-and-vinegar mop and tossed on the grill.  From the steakhouse to the barbecue joint, from the seafood shack to the gastropub, these are places where foie gras may be used as a garnish, vegetables are cooked along with chorizo or pancetta, potatoes are sauteed in duck fat, bacon appears in desserts.  Just as my Lovely Vegetarian Wife and I rarely frequent high-end vegetarian restaurants (why pay all that money, I ask, if I can’t get at least a little rabbit or butifarra or a few tacos al carbon?), we rarely devote much time or money to strictly Meat-and-Potatoes places, for the obvious reasons.  However, it is a sign of a healthy marriage to be willing to indulge one’s partner’s culinary inclinations enough to make a detour to Kansas City just to get some barbecue.

I shouldn’t call this just “some barbecue”, though.  For several years, I have read books by Calvin Trillin, my favorite unauthoritative authority on eating, which tout Arthur Bryant’s as “the greatest restaurant in the world”.  I’m not sure I would go that far, especially given the caveats in the paragraph above, but it is superlative barbecue, worth driving to Kansas City for, even if you live in, say, Poughkeepsie.

Don’t expect to be coddled after your drive, though.  Don’t expect to be the only person who drove through the night to get there, either.  When I visited the original establishment at 18th and Brooklyn at five o’clock on a Tuesday night, the place was packed with a healthy mixture of locals and culinary gastronauts from out-of-town.  The only decoration to speak of was a giant jug of barbecue sauce in the front window and signed pictures of celebrity patrons all along the top of the walls, the latter a design feature I associate with cheesesteak joints in Philadelphia.

The servers at the counter take that Philly gruffness to a whole new level, however:  They make the guys at Pat’s Steaks, who bark at you if you momentarily waver between getting your steak “Wiz Wit” or any other way, look like trained concierges, fresh out of hospitality school.  At Arthur Bryant’s, you go up to the counter, tell ’em what you want, and move on down the line.  Don’t waste their time with your hemming and hawing.  They’ve got people to feed.

Figuring that it might be a long, long time before I had a chance to come here again, I wanted to sample as much as I could.  I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of ham, turkey or sausage:  I feel that the real test of a barbecue joint comes from the cuts of meat which can only be made tender by long, slow smoking.  I narrowed my choices down to the beef (brisket, I believe), pulled pork, ribs and “burnt ends” (the tougher, chewier ends of the brisket).  I decided to get a “combo”, which allowed me to choose two of those options and only cost a dollar more than any one meat alone; I settled on beef and burnt ends.

Well.  They called this a “sandwich”.  I called it “dinner”, “breakfast”, “lunch” and “dinner the next day”.

Nanoseconds after the words “Combo, please—beef and burnt ends” were out of my mouth, three slices of white bread hit a piece of wax paper.  One giant handful of meat was thrown on top of the bread.  Another giant handful was added to this.  An enormous ladleful of sauce was slathered all over, around, underneath and through.  (I had a momentary panic when this happened:  Barbecue sauce is often the ruin of many a barbecue, which is all about properly cooked meat.  It turned out that I had nothing to fear:  Instead of that gloppy sweet stuff that usually passes for barbecue sauce [excuse me—BBQ sauce], this was a remarkably balanced blend of smoky chiles and tangy vinegar that perfectly complemented the meat.)  Three or four slices of white bread were flung on top before the whole mass was bundled up into a football-sized package.  That poor bread never stood a chance.

I had foolishly told my Lovely Vegetarian Wife, “Oh, I’ll just eat the sandwich in the car.”  All illusions of being able to eat this without a fork, a knife, a roll of paper towels and perhaps a fire hose had been thoroughly dispelled by watching the assembly of the football.  Sitting at an open table, I ate as much as I could.  The meat was perfect:  Tender, smoky, juicy, highlighted but not overwhelmed by the sauce (or, more accurately, the sauce-soaked bread).  After eating almost to the point of bursting, I looked at the football:  I had barely made a dent in it.

The good news is that the meat was just as good the morning after (and the afternoon, and the evening).  I wish I had taken some pictures of the actual “sandwich”, but I’m not sure that such carnage would have made it past the censors.

The Militant Carnivore was sated.  Stay tuned for further road trip posts about that Aristotelian mean between the Vegetarian Havens and the Palaces of Carnivory:  Those places where you can have your meat and eat your vegetables, too.

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Road Trip

16 days.

22 states.

7,459 miles.

I had the good fortune to be able to start the summer with a cross-country road trip with my Lovely Vegetarian Wife.  It was a shocking reminder of just how achingly beautiful this country is, from the towering granite monoliths of the Sierra Nevadas to the Martian-esque landscapes of southern Utah, from the rolling wooded mountains of West Virginia to the gently undulating hills of Wisconsin.  It was also a chance to reconnect to family and long-lost friends, easily picking up the thread of friendship after ten years’ absence as if we were still in the middle of a conversation, and to enjoy their warm and generous hospitality, Homeric in scope and heartfelt in its offers of shelter, conversation and food.

Ah, yes.  The food.  This is a cooking blog, after all.

Spending two weeks eating everywhere from gas station parking lots to four-star (well, three-star) restaurants, from friends’ kitchen tables to rain-soaked campsites in the woods—everywhere, in other words, but my own home—I got to thinking a lot about food, as is my wont.  Can one travel a long distance on the interstate without dying of scurvy?  Is it possible to find fresh fruits and vegetables on a long trip?  Are there still great regional specialties to be discovered and enjoyed in hidden parts of this country, or have McDonald’s and Cracker Barrel conquered all?

Over the next few days, I hope to compensate for my two weeks’ absence from this blog by sharing some of my thoughts about what’s good to eat in these here United States of America.  I’d like to start by discussing that rarest of dining establishments:  The Vegetarian Haven.

What you see is nothing less than the finest falafel in the country.  Granted, I’ve probably only had falafel at half a dozen establishments over the years, so I really have very little basis for this claim, but I take it as a matter of faith.  Amsterdam Falafel Shop, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC, is an essential stop for any serious eater in the nation’s capital.

Amsterdam Falafel sells only three things (besides beverages):  falafel, fries and “virgin” brownies.  (If you have to ask what that means, I’m not the person to explain it to you.)  This makes Amsterdam Falafel a vegetarian establishment, which is great for my Lovely Vegetarian Wife.  Generally, I have mixed feelings about vegetarian restaurants:  It’s nice for my LVW to fearlessly order whatever she wants, but when I’m at a restaurant (especially a higher-end restaurant), I like to be able to get dishes that I wouldn’t have the inclination or means to make at home.  This includes organ meats which I don’t have experience in handling (e.g., foie gras or sweetbreads), elaborate dishes that include meat and/or seafood as a supporting ingredient (e.g., jambalaya) or dishes which are just completely out of my purview (e.g., sushi).  (Despite Mark Bittman’s recent article about the joys of making sushi without raw fish at home, raw fish is my favorite part of the sushi experience.  I’m not about to buy ten one-ounce pieces of half a dozen kinds of fish and spend hours wrestling with sushi mats at home.  Leave it to the experts, I say.)

At Amsterdam Falafel, I have no such reservations.  It’s a one-trick pony, but oh, what a trick it is.  When I’m in the mood for falafel, this is where I want to be.  (If I’m 3000 miles away, I make my own.)  This is the sort of Vegetarian Haven that I gladly frequent, time and time again.

What sets this place apart from other falafel stands is the condiments bar.  They have a selection of twenty-something freshly made condiments that you can add to your falafel at will.  My Lovely Vegetarian Wife and I both go for the yogurt-dill tzatziki and addictively-good roasted cauliflower; I like to finish mine off with roasted eggplant and the garlickiest garlic-parsley sauce ever created.

The fries are much better than they need to be (and served with a variety of sauces, the best being peanut sauce and garlic mayonnaise); the refills at the soda fountain are free.  Is there are a better lunch for two to be had for under $20?

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If they called it “mayonnaise”, you would never eat it.  But since it’s called “aioli”, you can’t get enough of it.  It’s been so ubiquitous on restaurant menus over the past few years that I propose that the last decade be renamed the “Aioli Aughts”.

Aioli (or, by the Catalan spelling, allioli) is simply mayonnaise with a lot of garlic added to it; mayonnaise, in turn, is simply an emulsion of eggs and oil.  I can think of no better example of cooking-as-alchemy than making mayonnaise:  Can you imagine anything less appealing to eat than raw eggs and a cup of vegetable oil?  But when mixed together correctly, they form a rich, flavorful sauce which doesn’t look anything like its constituent parts and which is light years better than Hellemann’s (or any other jarred mayo).  The addition of garlic—a lot of garlic—and using olive oil instead of a neutral vegetable oil are no-brainers; throwing a little pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) into the mix provides a ton of flavor and great color.  Serve this with potatoes (sweet or otherwise),  sandwiches or any sort of fried vegetables.

  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1 T Dijon mustard (preferably Maille)
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 t pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika), plus more for garnish
  • 1 c (or more) olive oil

Roughly chop the garlic and place in a mortar-and-pestle with a little salt.  Pound the garlic into a puree, then add to a blender with the mustard, lemon juice, egg, pimentón and lots of black pepper.  Blend over medium speed until thoroughly combined.  With the blender running at medium, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until a nice creamy emulsion forms.  (You may need a little less olive oil, or a little more.)  Taste for seasoning and serve with a little extra pimentón sprinkled on top.

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I must be ready for summer, because I’ve been cooking with tomatoes a lot recently.

This is a great recipe for less-than-perfect tomatoes.  An added bonus is that they’re delicious hot, room temperature or right out of the fridge.  I like them best as part of a light alfresco dinner, perhaps with some goat cheese or mozzarella, a few olives, a little prosciutto…

  • 4 medium tomatoes
  • 1/2 c cooked cracked wheat or quinoa
  • 1/2 c bread crumbs
  • 1/4 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1/4 c fennel fronds (or other herbs), finely chopped
  • 1 shallot, peeled and minced
  • olive oil, as needed

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Slice the tops off the tomatoes; reserve.  Using a spoon, scoop out all of the tomato seeds; put the seeds in a mixing bowl.  Put the tomato shells in a baking dish.  Set aside.

Into the bowl with the tomato seeds add the cracked wheat, bread crumbs, Parmigiano, fennel fronds shallot and a drizzle of olive oil.  Mix thoroughly to combine.   Add salt and pepper to the filling to taste.

Pack the tomato shells generously with the filling; it should be piled above the top of the tomatoes, just on the verge of spilling over.   (The top ones in the picture below are going to get more filling; the bottom ones are just about right.)

Drizzle a little more olive oil on top of the tomatoes, then bake for 15 minutes.  Put the reserved tomato tops back on the stuffed tomatoes; drizzle the tops with some olive oil.  Bake the tomatoes for about 10-15 minutes more.  The tomatoes should be tender with wrinkly skin; the filling inside should be warmed through.  Serve immediately or refrigerate until later.

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