Two great things happened today, both of which helped distract my attention from Governor Sanford's sad struggle of heart vs. head, the continuing unrest in Iran, and the incessant pounding of hammers on my roof top (the latter so disturbing to the cat that I allowed him the forbidden pleasure of sleeping in my closet on the cashmere sweater pile). Note to self: whenever I think my job is tough, I need to remember that I could be nailing shingles on a pitched roof under the steady glare of a Georgia sun. But back to the good things....
Today I picked up our first share of vegetables and assorted protein from Oasis Garden, a small produce market/garden shop that launched a CSA this summer. CSA - that's community supported agriculture, a way to purchase fresh, seasonal foods directly from farmers. Essentially, you pay for a share and every week you get surprised with a box of whatever they happen to be producing. I talked about doing this last year after we unexpectedly found a box a vegetables (including The Carrot) on our doorstep. But the closest outlet was Columbia (one hour to the east) or Athens (1.5 hours to the northwest). And while I'm all about fresh produce, I'm not about a two-hour drive for a head of cabbage. So for the past two weeks, I've been like a kid at Christmas (or a meydele at Hanukkah) - eagerly anticipating this delivery. And, Kate, our friendly purveyor of produce at Oasis Garden, did not disappoint. This week's share includes....
- one eggplant
- one pound of crookneck squash
- 1 slicer tomato
- peaches (3 white / 2 yellow)
- one cucumber
- two bottles of juice
- one pound of turnips
- cherry tomatoes
- grass fed ground beef
- and peach flavored drinkable yogurt
The other great thing that happened was a visit from the FedEx man. He was bearing a package from my friend and fellow blogger, Luisa Perkins, who lives and writes in New York. Luisa sent along a copy of her new cookbook, Comfortably Yum: Food for Body and Spirit. If you rush out to Amazon to procure a copy of your own (which I'm instructing you to do at this instant), you'll note that I played a small role in the naming of this impressive collection of Luisa's recipes. Dulce de leche squares, lahmadjoun, cowboy stew ... yum indeed. But, wait, before you rush off to participate in a bit of Internet commerce ... there's more. Luisa also included a batch of Bacon Chocolate Chip cookies. There's a story there too, but Luisa tells it best. So pop over to her site to see how this delicious delivery came to be. Thanks, Luisa, for the cookbook, for a truly delectable batch of cookies, and for helping me discover that you can forge real friendships on the web not simply virtual ones.
Grass fed ground beef. Turnips. Homemade cookies. A cookbook to peruse. And a new roof over my head.
Living. The. Dream.
On my way home from work today, I passed a car that was painted to look like a box of Kellogg's Corn Pops. I don't mean it was simply bright yellow and red. I mean it looked exactly like a box of Corn Pops, including the words "Corn Pops" and the cereal's nutritional information presented in a box by the hole where you put the gas in. I know ... awful syntax. Forgive me. And I don't know the official name of the automotive orifice that receives the gas. So forgive me for that, too.
In my travels, I've seen the Hershey's Kissmobile and a Red Bull car, too, but I don't think this was a promotional vehicle. Why now after Americans have enjoyed that sweetened puffed corn for more than 50 years? And it wasn't something cute and modern like a Kia Soul (don't you love those hamsters?). It was an old-style (early 80s) Caprice Classic with tinted windows and chrome rims.
Now, my sister ... she would probably drive a Cocoa Krispies car, but I can't imagine loving a cereal so much that I'd want to ride around town in a box of it.
I've just bitten into Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, and it has gotten me thinking about my consumption of candy. I'm not nearly as far gone as Steve Almond, the author of said monogram. He begins thusly ... The author has eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life.
Every day? Of his entire life? I like candy as much as the next person (unless that next person is Mr. Almond) but that seems a bit excessive to me. I do have before me my two new favorites, and I did eat a piece of each today. And yesterday. And probably will tomorrow. But I'm not willing to make a lifetime commitment to either ... or any of their equally sweet brethren. But back to my 'candies du jour' ...
First - puntini drops. Tiny, sophisticated Italian jujubes. In orange. Green apple. Lemon. Strawberry. And, egad, blackberry. I'm rapturous about these little things - to the point that Marian looked at me and suggested I rein in my effusiveness as she spit (gasp) one of these succulent gems from her mouth into the city streets of Aiken, where I acquired them. I'll say this about that ... if you're used to Sour Patch Kids, I can see how the subtle flavor of puntini drops would be lost on you. (And now I'm ducking.)
Next up - Bajadera. Croatian nougat. You'll have to trust me on this one. Two layers of chocolate bookending a creamy layer of hazelnut and almond nougat filling. (Eyes rolling back in my head.) Added bonus - deluxe packaging, like cigarettes back in the day when smoking was sexy and and cultured and slightly ritualistic. Try one of these and see if it doesn't light you up.
I've also been nibbling on Coca-Cola flavored Haribou gummis. But those are not a fleeting fancy. They've been a constant since my childhood years in the motherland. My dad still puts them in my stocking at Christmas. Wait ... that sounds like a lifetime commitment. Maybe I'm a candyfreak, too. At the very minimum, a gummifreak.
What kind of candyfreak are you?
How did I end up on the business end of a ten-ounce gorgonzola filet in a high-priced steak house when I had been salivating for weeks over the prospect of a plateful of spicy Malaysian rendang, tender beef slow cooked with a paste of ground onions, lemongrass and chili, simmered in rich coconut curry gravy? I’ll tell you how. A few weeks before I arrived in our nation’s capital for a little rest, rejuvenation, and culinary spelunking, a smoky two-alarm fire gutted the kitchen of Penang, one of my most favored destinations in Washington DC for Asian fare. I remembered the rendang being fiery, but it appears the folks at Penang had “kicked it up a notch” since my last visit.
So there we stood at the corner of 19th and M Street – thwarted, rudderless, and surrounded by a gaggle of late night noodle shops, strip clubs, and liquor stores. Defenses down, we let the churlish winds and our gnawing hunger sweep us past the heavy brass-handled wooden doors of Smith and Wollensky, one of the nation’s premiere steak houses, and spent our evening in the company of a grim gathering of pin-striped dinosaurs who are just now realizing that their era has come to an end. The recession has been hard on all Americans and nowhere is the collapse of the financial markets more evident than the main dining room of S&W, located mere blocks from the White House.
The interior of Smith and Wollensky is impressive, in a cigar smoking, ascot wearing, private club sort of way. Acres of gleaming brass, creaky wide plank wood floors, throne-like leather booths, and apron-clad waiters (with names like Big Guy and Bobby C) tag-teaming the smattering of tables filled with joyless suits, clearly not the volume of activity to which the establishment has become accustomed.
“Two firms in the neighborhood have closed,” explained Bobby C, when I inquired about the sparsely populated and somber dining room. Even the chef’s table is hushed – at most locations, a convivial gathering of foodies but, in this kitchen in this capital city, more akin to a wake (and not an Irish one, mind you). “I don’t see any of my regulars anymore.”
Apparently he doesn’t see many irregulars either. With corporations clamping down on travel and discretionary spending, Bobby C finds himself on this chilly evening tending two 40-something ladies in the heart of the quintessential old boys club. “It’s rough,” he says as he covers our laps in carefully pressed green and white linen napkins. I’m sure it is, Bobby. I don’t suppose the $199 bottles of port and $95 glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue Label are flying off the shelves in this economy.
We start with a couple of glasses of Grey Goose on the rocks (I almost order a Cosmo or a strawberry daiquiri simply to watch the boys slip into a state of apoplexy) as we peruse the menu, a single sheet of paper in a worn wooden frame. It’s hard for me to concentrate as I’m surrounded by engraved brass plaques bearing the names of Smith and Wollensky’s most frequent patrons. Here’s Dr. Robert Finkel, Wosenyelesh T. Ebba, and Thomas Vecchlo, Esq. And there on a really big plaque, Erika and Amin Tarzi, because (I kid you not, the Big Guy really said this) “they understand the concept of tipping.” I could hear them hissing over my shoulder all evening – “Excuse me, you’re in our seats.”
If the Tipping Tarzis weren’t enough to make me feel as if I had crashed a private party, there’s the menu itself – secretive, cliquish, totally devoid of descriptions. Crab Cake. Our Shrimp Cocktail. Wollensky Salad. I felt like a teacher taking attendance at a school for starters. If you are accustomed to a slow seduction by suggestions of deliciousness, by colorful adjectives and mouth-watering verbs, Smith and Wollensky won’t be cooking your breakfast in the morning. If you can tolerate receiving every bit of information you need to make an informed decision about your meal from a peevish waiter with an ego the size of his ample midsection, then you’ve made a love match.
I choose the Big Guy’s favorite, the aforementioned gorgonzola crusted filet mignon and, reluctant as I am to admit it, I’m not disappointed. The creamy blue cheese is draped over my perfectly grilled filet like a pashmina over bare shoulders. Smith and Wollensky also serves lobster, lamb chops, chicken, and fish; but the beef – butchered and dry aged on site – is clearly the wisest chose. The sesame teriyaki tuna steak, billed as sushi grade, was bland and a bit recalcitrant, requiring a knife with a serrated blade. The sides (ample enough for two) are as straightforward and unadorned as the entrees. We shared a puritanical plate of steamed broccoli and truffled (that’s as exotic as Smith and Wollensky gets) macaroni and cheese.
When S&W opened in DC ten years ago, Alan Stillman, founder and CEO of the high-priced steak house chain, waved off suggestions that perhaps the market was saturated with upper end restaurants. “60 dollars is less than it costs for a good tie,” he said. I’m not sure where he buys his ties and when he last ate at one of his restaurants, but I left three hundred and twelve of my hard earned dollars on the table before we thanked Big Guy and Bobby C for their company. Granted, we let the Big Guy talk us into a $10 slice of celestial coconut cake and a $69 bottle of dessert wine, but even without that strong finish we still topped $200. You can buy more than a dozen Isaac Mizrahi silk ties at Target for that much smack.
I’m not averse to dining opulence. I once bought a bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage at a wine auction for $350 and had to be talked out of drinking it in the car on the way home with three Krystal cheeseburgers and an order of fries. And last fall, I powered my way through a 22-course meal at Dwarika's in Kathmandu. But after exiting those heavy wooden doors into the windy DC night, I felt irresponsible. My meal left an aftertaste – a bad finish, as they say in wine circles, like all the mortgages Americans couldn’t afford, the eye-popping executive bonuses that could no longer be justified, the double-digit stock returns that couldn’t be sustained. I ordered (and enjoyed) the gorgonzola filet but, with a pinch of perspective, it began to taste like Oscar style steak – another of S&W’s offerings – a meal long out of fashion.
Smith and Wollensky’s new neighbors, the Obamas, have altered the palate of Washington DC and the appetite of the nation. Hope doesn’t taste like a $45 bone-in porterhouse. It tastes like a plate of pork carnitas from a taco truck in Chico, California. It tastes like a bubbling bowl of oxtail soup at Big Mama’s Soul Food in Augusta, Georgia. It tastes like fiery beef rendang made by Malaysian immigrants in cramped basement kitchens.
I loosen my belt, tighten my scarf, and slip into the foot traffic on 19th Street – my fellow Americans from here and afar, bundled up and bustling by the anachronism that is Smith and Wollensky, on their way to the noodle shops, the harshly lit falafel joints, the late night Mexican walk-ups, and the other culinary gems of our nation’s capital.
Those of you who followed the 'food resolutions' thread heard it loud and clear - more soup in 2009. So ... voila. Try this curry pumpkin soup for January. Marian has taken it to enough parties and gatherings to have a small army of soup zombies at her beck and call. Seriously, it's a winner.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, also chopped
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
- 1 15 ounce can of pumpkin
- 28 ounces chicken broth
- 2/3 cup water
- 1 cup 2% milk or plain yogurt
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add chopped veggies, and cook until soft. Add the curry powder and the pumpkin pie spice. (This is when people start coming into the kitchen to see what is going on.) Cook and stir for about a minute. Then add the pumpkin, the broth, and the water. Bring up your heat a bit until the soup boils. Reduce heat and simmer covered for about 15 minutes. Let it cool down a bit and then work it over with your handy immersion blender. If you don't have one, you'll have to use a food processor or a blender. Remember - blending hot liquids is an art form! When your soup is smooth, stir in the dairy product you have chosen and add salt and pepper to taste. You can dress it up with a topping when you serve it - a few artfully placed spicy pumpkin seeds, an abstract yogurt line drawing, or maybe just some freshly snipped parsley.
If you make it, let me hear from you. Otherwise, stay tuned. I'll share another one of our favorite soups in February.