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…yet gladly cooks up huge hunks of Dead Cow for his No Longer Vegetarian Wife:

serves 97, with leftovers for sandwiches

  • 1 cow

Slaughter and butcher cow.  Build fire.  Cook meat.  Devour with bare hands.

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East Coast Holiday Trip

Oh, my.

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind tour of the East Coast, a “This-is-your-life, Militant-Carnivore” kind of experience.   It was delightful (if a little exhausting) visiting friends and family in eight different states to celebrate Saturnalia, Christmas, Winter Solstice, lunar eclipses and all of the other observances of the passing of the seasons and the rebirth of the light in the time of darkness.

Delightful, exhausting and filling.  Very filling.

I’m still stuffed.

My New Year’s Resolution is to actually post one recipe—a real, honest-to-God recipe, since this is a cooking blog, after all—per week for the coming year.  But for now, a brief montage, a highlights’ reel of the best eating, drinking and cooking from the Militant Carnivore’s 2010 Holiday Season.

#10:  Borscht at Veselka (New York, NY)

When my Polish father-in-law (jokingly?) suggested going to a Polish restaurant in New York, my Lovely Vegetarian Wife said, “Well, a friend of mine went to a Ukranian restaurant in the East Village and loved it.”  I’ll let others fight over the distinctions between Polish and Ukranian cuisines.  All I know is that the borscht at Veselka’s Cafe (the carnivorous version for me, the vegetarian one for my LVW) is all I want to eat when it’s cold outside from now on.  Why haven’t I been making soup with beets all of my life?

#9:  Pan-Fried Risotto Cakes (in-laws’ house, New York)

When your Lovely Vegetarian Wife makes killer mushroom risotto for dinner one night, here’s what to do for brunch the next day:  Form patties of the leftover risotto, dredge them in flour, pan-fry them in olive oil and butter, and serve piping hot.

#8:  West Indian Curry and Roti (friends’ house, Maryland)

I highly recommend that everybody become good friends with someone of West Indian heritage.  A lifetime of rib-sticking chicken curry and roti (thinly rolled flatbread with chickpea puree inside) awaits you.  To the Emperor’s Parents (and to the Emperor’s Grandmother, the genius behind this stultifyingly delicious meal), many, many thanks.

#7:  Victory Hop Devil, on cask at Zeno’s (State College, PA)

None of my friends in the Pacific Northwest understand, but what can I say?  I’m from Pennsylvania.  When I want a bracingly bitter IPA, I want my Hop Devil (but on cask, please).

#6:  Et Tu, Brute? salad (parents’ house, Pennsylvania)

I invented this variation on the classic Caesar to suit the oo- and icthyphobic needs of my Lovely Vegetarian Wife.  The salad uses escarole instead of romaine for a little more oompf, and the dressing depends on little more than mashed garlic for body and character (no eggs, anchovies or Worcestershire sauce here).  The salad is, in fact, little more than garlic tempered slightly by lemon and escarole.

And the name?  That’s ’cause this salad kicks the s*** out of a Caesar.

#5:  Steak Tartare, White Dog Cafe (Wayne, PA)

The holidays are definitely a Militantly Carnivorous time of year.  If I had any restraint at all, I would limit my meat consumption to the significant roast centerpieces of a holiday banquet (and its attendant leftovers, of course).  However, sometimes you just need some steak tartare.  Every meal should start off with a Negroni and a plate of freshly chopped tenderloin served with duck egg, caperberries, Dijon mustard and cornichons.  Even breakfast.

#4:  Grilled Pork Tenderloin (in-laws’ house, NY)

I was really pleased with how this turned out:  I butterflied the tenderloin, mashed up some garlic and rosemary (my winter vacation was essentially spent pounding garlic and rosemary together), added some orange zest and olive oil, and smeared it over the tenderloin.  I let this marinate in the fridge all day, then grilled it at night.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well the orange flavor carried through into the pork.

#3:  Baked Stuffed Acorn Squash (parents’ house, PA)

Back to the vegetarian highlights:  This recipe is inspired by one from Gourmet magazine (may it rest in peace) for a pumpkin stuffed with cheese, bread and chicken stock.  Fondue in a pumpkin, basically.  I’m glad I added some broccoli to the vegetable stock before stirring it in with the Fontina and bread cubes:  It makes the dish more like an actual vegetable entree and less like a culinary dare (“Dude, get some cheese up in that pumpkin!!!).  It also serves as a pretty decent side dish for those eating roast animal as the main course.

#2:  Shrimp Salad with Apples and Celery (in-laws’ house, NY)

I would have walked back to the East Coast for this.  When I first spent the holidays at my in-laws, all I heard was everybody raving about my mother-in-law’s shrimp salad.  Every year, a clamor would go up, insisting that shrimp salad be part of the Christmas Eve repast.  Now, my voice shouts as loudly as anyone’s:  It’s just not Christmas Eve without this salad.  It is perfect.  Just perfect.

#1:  Roast Beef with Garlic and Rosemary (sister’s house, West Virginia)

This is what I look forward to all year.  This is what my family has been eating for Christmas dinner for as long as I can remember.  This is what I plan to eat for Christmas dinner for the rest of my life.  Standing rib roast.  Garlic.  Rosemary.  Salt.  Pepper.  Merry Christmas to the Militant Carnivores.

I can’t believe that tomorrow marks the first anniversary of The Militant Carnivore Cooks for his Vegetarian Wife.  Thank you to everyone who has loyally read this blog, provided comments, suggestions and constructive criticism, and then told their friends and relatives to check it out as well.  I’m looking forward to another great year of cooking and eating and of sharing my adventures with you.

Happy New Year!

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Through the miracle of the Internet and social networking, I recently reconnected with an old high school friend and was pleasantly surprised to discover that our mutual nascent interest in cooking had, if anything, taken even stronger root in his life than it had in mine over the past decades.  I like to think that I’m a pretty ambitious cook, but I quickly realized that I was small potatoes compared to him.  He regularly cooked with spices that I had never even heard of; he liked to make his own ice cream; he corned his own beef.  When I found out that he had cured his own guanciale (a wonderful Italian bacon made from hog jowls), I decided that I needed to swing through Minneapolis and learn from the master himself.

When I arrived, he had already prepared the crème anglaise that would serve as the base for homemade strawberry ice cream.  Since it was a beautiful summer day, he was intending to fire up the grill; in addition, he was planning a menu of broccoli with garlic and anchovies, new potatoes with brown butter and sage, and salad with a homemade vinaigrette which included, among other things, aniseed.

Have I mentioned that I love the Upper Midwest?  Minneapolis is a fantastic city, and not the least reason why is the presence of great co-op grocery stores.  The Guru and I went out to procure some meat for the grill; I had to remind myself that we were making a casual dinner for four, not a full-blown Argentine style asado.  Even so, we got way more than we needed (but leftover grilled meat makes great road trip food).  After careful consideration, we got some flatiron steak, which is a fantastic cut of beef that is rather hard to find, and some bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.  The beef was grass-fed and the chickens were free range (as if you had to ask).

Back in his kitchen, the Guru multi-tasked with much more grace and confidence than I can ever muster while cooking:  steaming broccoli, chopping vegetables, whisking vinaigrette, sauteing potatoes.  I was given charge of the grill, which I considered a high honor.  And also a profound challenge:  Steak and chicken are both wonderful when grilled, but they must be treated in completely different ways.  Steak needs to be briefly seared over high heat and served medium-rare; chicken needs to have its fat carefully rendered (but not right over the coals, lest it cause flare-ups), and then needs to be slowly browned to crisp its skin and cook it through—but not overcook it.  Add in the fact that I was making bruschette on the grill as well, and that I hadn’t grilled anything in over a year, and I felt a little in over my head.

I am happy to say, “In that extremity I bore me well,/A true gentleman, valorous in arms.”  The meat came out perfectly.

Which is only fitting, or else the meat would have fallen far below the caliber of the Guru’s dishes.  With a bottle of chilled rosé, and an icy-cold bowl of strawberry ice cream for dessert, it was undoubtedly one of the finest summer meals that I have ever had.

More importantly, it was a fantastic experience, talking with an old friend, meeting his Lovely Omnivorous Wife (as well as his father-in-law and brother-in-law, both of whom happened to be in town).  It was fun to catch up on each other’s lives, and to talk cooking with a fellow enthusiast.

When I had to leave, all too soon, the Guru sent me away with a guest-gift, more valuable than all the wealth that Ulysses would have taken home from Troy:  a slab of his own homemade guanciale.   I have no idea how I will reciprocate when it is my turn to host my friend, the Guru of Guanciale.

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Spending twelve hours on the road makes you hungry.  Unfortunately, if you drive twelve hours from wherever you are now, odds are that you’ll end up some place where the dining options are not as refined and diverse as you’re accustomed to.  When driving across the country, it’s all too easy to fall into the McDonald’s or, perhaps even worse, gas station junk food trap.  The thrill of the Quarter Pounder fades, alas, even before the first bite is taken:  Like movie theater popcorn, the smell is irresistible, but the taste makes you wonder, almost instantly, “Why in the hell did I buy this?”

When you’re traveling for several days, these concerns take on added urgency.  I don’t know if anybody has ever died of scurvy on the Interstate Highway System, but I’m not ruling it out as a possibility.  Perhaps I’m imagining things, but a gas station repast of, say, Doritos and Coca-Cola only seems to compound my dehydration and fatigue as I’m slogging down the road.  It’s not only bad for me, but it makes me feel awful.

So, road food is an important issue.  Having criss-crossed the country a few times, I feel like I’ve picked up a few pointers about eating and snacking on the road:

1)  Drink lots of water. Obviously, this is always good advice, but you don’t realize how dehydrated you become as you drive, because you’re just… sitting there.  But you’re sitting there perspiring, of course, losing the hydration that helps you stay alert, keep a comfortable body temperature, etc.

2)  Plan ahead. With a good cooler and a few ice packs, you can bring 3-4 days of fresh foods along with you before they start to get a little wonky.  Since fresh produce is difficult to come by on the open road, bringing fruits and vegetables is imperative.  Some of my favorite road trip snacks:

  • apples (Last forever, don’t make a mess.)
  • oranges (It helps if you have somebody riding shotgun to peel for you.)
  • sugar snap peas (Extremely convenient, and very refreshing.)
  • Belgian endives (Ditto.)
  • cheddar cheese (You want something savory and with a little fat, but this is obviously not the place for that overripe Epoisses.  Something that you can rip chunks off of is good.)
  • spiced pecans
  • granola
  • oatmeal cookies
  • dried fruit (Cranberries are good, cherries are better; mango is fantastic, if you can find it.)
  • soppressata (For any Militant Carnivorous urges.  This does require the use of a knife, though, which can get a little dicey at 80 mph.)

3)  Balance sugar and salt. Your body wants both.  If you plan ahead, you can moderate the doses of sweet and salty foods; making oatmeal cookies with whole wheat flour and dried fruit, for example, satisfies your sweet tooth while providing some important nutrients as well.  Moreover, it keeps you from eating too much sugar too quickly, which leaves you (OK, me) feeling rather, well, “sugared out” for lack of a better term.  Similarly, you can bring hard pretzels and salted nuts along (pistachios are great, because the shelling necessitates a moderate pace of consumption—provided you have somebody in the passenger seat to shell pistachios for you), or you can succumb to your cravings and get a bag of gas-station Doritos.  You know which choice will let you respect yourself more.

4)  Embrace the generosity of friends. They want to see you well-fed.  If they want to send you on your way with a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels (Sweet and salty!  Score!) and a few slices of leftover (Vegetable Deluxe!  Double Score!) pizza, as our Guardian Angel of the Rockies did, let them.

5)  When you see a produce stand, go there. You can never be sure where the next one is coming from.  A personal favorite:  On I-90 in eastern Washington, after you’ve been driving through hours and hours of fairly desolate desert and industrial farm country, you round a bend in the highway, smack your head against Mount Rainier which, somehow, has materialized out of thin air, and then notice a big sign that says “Cherries”.  Follow the sign to the produce stand and buy a five-pound bag of Rainier cherries in the shadow of Mount Rainier.  It will make you happy.

At this point, I can almost hear my loyal readers cry, “What about cooking?  Did you cook anything on the road?”

Truth be told, we brought so many tasty snacks in the car (and stopped at so many delicious places to eat) that we rarely brought out the Coleman stove and whipped up a campsite meal.  One dinner that I did enjoy:

Black Beans with Orange

  • 1 can of black beans
  • 1 orange

Heat up black beans in pot on Coleman stove.  When the beans are hot, halve the orange and squeeze its juice into the beans.  Stir.  Serve.

Not really much of a recipe, but I think it was a definite improvement on plain black beans, and a reminder that cooking is just being creative with whatever you have on hand.  But the real cooking adventure—the culinary telos of this whole expedition—was a day spent cooking with an old friend whom I will call, simply, The Guru of Guanciale.

That is a story, however, for another post.  Stay tuned.

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Unlike a good compromise, a good restaurant leaves everybody happy.  On our recent cross-country trip, my Lovely Vegetarian Wife and I visited some establishments—some old favorites, some new discoveries—which are models of what restaurants can be:  Reasonably priced, with varied and well-thought-out menus.  Elegant, but not pretentious.  These are places that I would recommend at any time for eaters of any persuasion.

We happily welcomed a recommendation from a friend for Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah.  Frankly, we figured our odds of finding a decent restaurant between all of the national parks in southern Utah were fairly slim, so we were excited by the prospect of dinner and a beer along with a chance to stretch our legs.  We were somewhat concerned when we realized that I had forgotten the directions to the restaurant, but our fears were assuaged as we drove into Boulder and realized that the entire town basically consists of a bend in Highway 12, around which is clustered a group of restaurants and stores.

Upon finding Hell’s Backbone not yet open for dinner, and judging the menu to be a little too haute for our mood (and, frankly, for our fairly grubby, just-been-camping appearance), we went next door to the Burr Trail Outpost & Grill.  This was a little more our speed:  casual, laid-back, run by wilderness-loving and heavily tattooed hipsters.  If the weather had been any warmer, we would have eaten outside on a shady patio, but large room-length windows gave us great views of the nearby hills and canyons.

What gave this restaurant a place of distinction on our trip is the fact that they served not only a vegan sandwich that I would happily eat, but also one of the best cheeseburgers that I have ever had.  The vegan sandwich was set off by two condiments:  a curried green tomato relish and an onion marmalade.  Normally, I would find the presence of curried green tomato relish to be a warning, a sign that the vegetarians in the kitchen were running amok with the spices to compensate for an umami-less dish; here, however, it perfectly complemented the roasted vegetables in the sandwich.  Using onion marmalade (essentially, caramelized onions) as a sandwich topping was a brilliant stroke, providing the same heft and tang as good aioli but without those pesky animal products getting in the way.

But enough about the vegan dish.  Let’s talk about the cheeseburger.  I got the bare-bones version:  meat and cheese, no curried tomatoes, no rococo embellishments.  The meat was juicy, tender, perfectly seared.  The bun was perfectly sized (and that, for some reason, is a rarity with most burger establishments), soft but just strong enough to keep from disintegrating completely before the last bite.  In fact, the burger only had one problem:  The meat was unsalted.  Salt, as my readers all know, is the single most important ingredient in the kitchen.  Good beef can be served with just salt, but it can’t be served without it.  (Alas, it seems like a well-seasoned hamburger patty and a tender hamburger patty might be mutually exclusive entities.  Some charity should award a million dollars to the enterprising chef that can resolve this conundrum.)

Fast-forward a few days:  Upon arriving in the DC area, we met up with my family at Samantha’s, one of my favorite restaurants on the planet.  The beauty of Samantha’s is that it’s just a restaurant:  Not a chain; not a temple of haute cuisine or molecular gastronomy; not a bistro, gastropub or trattoria.  It’s just a restaurant, and a damn fine one at that.

It’s perhaps fortunate that it’s as hard to get to as it is:  Tucked in the corner of a busy intersection, with a parking lot that holds about five and a half cars, you have to plan ahead to get there.  And that’s all for the good, because it might otherwise be unbearably crowded.  As it is, there’s always a steady stream of customers from all ages and demographics:  Large family parties, couples going on dates, parents with small children in tow.

They’re not here for the decor, which is pleasant, if unremarkable.  They’re here for the, for lack of a better term, pan-Latino cuisine.  There are the usual Mexican staples (tacos, burritos, etc.), pupusas for the neighborhood Salvadoreans, Argentine-style steaks with chimichurri and many of the other foods that you might associate with a Latin American country.  I won’t vouch for the authenticity of any particular national specialty, but everything I’ve had there has been delicious, no small feat for a restaurant with a menu this broad and prices so reasonable.  Their cilantro-and-jalapeno-laced ceviche might be the perfect summer appetizer, refreshing and bracing with lime.  My Lovely Vegetarian Wife got a spinach burrito, which reminded me of a giant, overstuffed cannelloni (which is a very, very good thing):  It may have contained more vitamins than we had eaten in the previous week on our road trip.  As for me, I can’t ever resist the fajitas al carbon.  I mean, seriously—is there anything in the world more delicious than skirt steak served with flour tortillas, with a side of frijoles a la charra?

I didn’t think so either.

The last restaurant which deserves kudos (the ancient Greek word for “shout-out”) is one that, alas, my Lovely Vegetarian Wife did not get to enjoy.  I was visiting some friends in Madison, Wisconsin, which is simply one of my favorite cities in the United States.  Wisconsin seems to take all of the uber-German-ness of Pennsylvania Dutch country and amplify it; you can easily find restaurants there with pickled pigs’ ears on the bar, for example.  Madison adds its funky, progressive, hip spin to this dairy-mad bucolic paradise and creates a city that I love visiting whenever I can.

I was admittedly a little crestfallen, then, when my friend suggested that we go to Papavero, an Italian restaurant, instead of a purveyor of traditional Wisconsin food.  Secretly, I had been hoping for some place where I could get bratwurst, fried cheese curds and a PBR.  Wanting to be a gracious guest, however, I yielded to what I noted to be my host’s rather unrestrained enthusiasm for the prospect of dinner at Papavero.

Boy, am I glad I kept my mouth shut.

It was nothing less than one of the best Italian meals of my life.  There was an appetizer of burrata, which really should be all you need to hear to know how good this place was.  I can’t resist sharing a little more, though:  The antipasto misto di verdure, which had the most fantastically decadent braised Swiss chard, doused in butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano.  The textbook trofie con pesto Genovese, which I gladly bartered with my friend for some of his perfectly cooked hanger steak with arugula.  The artisanal cocktails, which were so much better than they needed to be at an Italian restaurant.  The after-dinner espresso and excellent selection of grappa (there are few things sadder than discovering that an Italian restaurant at which you have just enjoyed an abundant repast has neither an espresso machine nor grappa).

And it was a damn shame that my Lovely Vegetarian Wife wasn’t at this restaurant because, out of the five pasta dishes on offer that night, four were vegetarian.  (And they were all serious dishes—no pasta primavera nonsense.)  A request of all Italian restaurants:  Since vegetarians don’t eat your secondi offerings of meat and fish, can you please follow Papavero’s lead and make sure that there are several vegetarian choices among the pastas?

All of these restaurants stand as Omnivore’s Delights:  Places where carnivores and vegetarians alike can eat and be happy.  Tune in again for my final road trip installment:  The Militant Carnivore Cooks On The Road.

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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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