Finding peace in peas

I was one of those moms who made baby food, I admit it. Not all the time, mind you, but once you realize that baby food is just regular food mashed up, it seems sort of silly to pay somebody else to do it. My daughter’s particular favorite was mushy peas. I would cook up a cup or so in some hot water until they were reasonably soft, whiz them up in a blender with a bit of the leftover water and a pinch of cumin, then pour them into an ice cube tray to create individual servings that I could pop out and warm up whenever I had a hungry girl to feed.

I thought of this yesterday because a young woman from our neighborhood whom we had met on occasion over the years, died after a — terribly, blissfully — brief struggle with cancer. Her parents bravely kept friends and family informed of her illness through a blog, filled with memories, hopes, dreams, and wishes. I don’t know that I could do the same.

A few days ago, one of her parents wrote of the joy of seeing their daughter eat five peas. It brought a thrill of hope: perhaps the five peas might lead to a crust of bread, a bowl of soup, a miracle. When she was a baby, there would have been a different kind of joy in the same sight, the unspoken promise in watching this tiny creature take her first bites into solid food and the mysterious adventures ahead: an onion bagel with cream cheese, Pad Thai, a five-tiered wedding cake.

Sometimes our dreams are unceremoniously taken from us without warning, and all we are left with are the memories — memories that we wouldn’t trade for anything, even as we curse the loss of the memories that we thought were yet to be made. Today I’ll savor the sweet taste of peas, and their assurance of springtime, and soft breezes, and the tug at my heart as I watch my own daughter grow to taste life on her own.


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Gazpacho Galore

It’s 102 degrees out — or it was the last time I checked, which was at 11:30 this morning. With a massive July heatwave affecting at least half of the lower 48, one’s thoughts naturally turn toward any kind of food that requires no cooking. Thank God for gazpacho.

My kitchen counter is overflowing with tomatoes this summer. Time for gazpacho!

Because it’s July, I also have a bumper crop of tomatoes in my garden which need to be eaten in copious quantities on a daily basis before they rot on the kitchen counter. I could, of course, also slice them and put them outside to sun-dry so that I can relish in their intense flavors when the snow begins to fly, but, honestly, I don’t want to go out there. It’s too hot, even for this Florida girl.

Gazpacho is, of course, so easy to make that I am embarrassed to bring it up at all, but I have learned that sometimes the simplest recipes are the ones that people are afraid to make. A basic gazpacho requires no more than a blender and a lot of tomatoes — you can pretty much do anything you want with it at that point. You’ll also see fancy bistros touting dishes like White Grape Gazpacho on their sidewalk chalkboards, so, if you’re so inclined, go ahead and experiment.

On the left, golden pear tomatoes in the blender; on the right, a variety of red tomatoes pulsed into submission.

However, tomatoes are generally cheap and plentiful this time of year, not to mention incredibly flavorful and refreshing on a seriously hot day. There are basically two types of gazpacho — chunky or smooth, rather like peanut butter. The chunky version is generally tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers (and salt and pepper), pulsed in a blender to a loosely chunky consistency. Just chop ’em up and throw them in, skins, seeds, and all.

I call this my Bloody Mary Gazpacho, which I made with red tomatoes, celery, and cucumber and a touch of Tabasco. Topped with a chunky celery leaf guacamole and cucumbers that were briefly marinated in apple cider vinegar.

The smooth version is pretty much the same, only blended to a smooth consistency and then strained through a sieve. I personally like to make the smooth version, because it makes a lovely cold soup to which I can then choose to add more chopped veggies, including tomatoes, cukes, and zucchini, as well as chopped fresh herbs such as basil, dill, parsley, or oregano. It’s a nice touch to add a dollop of creme fraiche or Greek yogurt to serve as a creamy yet tart counterpoint to the sweetness of the tomatoes.

Yellow Tomato Gazpacho, inspired by the amazing version at Busboys and Poets, one of my favorite DC restaurants. I kept the soup simple and focused on the sweetness of the yellow tomatoes, then topped it with chopped avocado and a spoonful of labne (a Middle Eastern thickened yogurt).

You’ll want to let the gazpacho chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving; it’s so easy to make that you can blend it up before work — or going to the pool — and then enjoy its lovely refreshing coolness when you get home. A perfect pick-me-up when you are soggy and wilted from an overdose of global warming.


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Blais-ing a trail to a veggie top chef

Mike Isabella, left, and Richard Blais, right, divided only by Tom Colicchio's huge bald head and their different approaches to fine cuisine.

I love “Top Chef” and I love a theme meal, so last night’s finale episode of “Top Chef All-Stars” offered a perfect excuse. The two finalists were Richard Blais, from Atlanta, and Mike Isabella, from right here in DC. I suppose I should’ve rooted for the hometown dude, but I just couldn’t do it — Mike is certainly an excellent chef, but, seriously, his on-air persona is so cocky that it’s just hard to like him.

Carla finally scoops up the Fan Fave win, declaring that she'll put the 10 grand into her new business, selling scrumptious itty-bitty cookies.

Besides, local DC fave Carla Hall (Hootie!) won Fan Favorite, so all’s right with the world. Love her and her determination to put “love” in her food. She’s right, of course; just like how an actor or a pitcher sometimes “just phones it in”, so can a chef. If there’s no passion behind the technique, the result is ho-hum. There’s nothing truly tasty about nutrition with no soul.

Richard Blais' Flip Burger — the Birmingham (AL) location

So, I went all out for Richard and decided to come up with a variation from the menu for his restaurant Flip Burger. If I ever have a reason to go to Atlanta or back to Birmingham (yes, we spent a couple of days there on our honeymoon and it was actually a very cool place), I would probably want to check it out, except for the flaw that I inevitably find at most restaurants: the lack of vegetarian options.

I promise I won’t preach about this, but, honestly, why is it that world-class chefs consistently resort to the falafel? Blais offers one vegetarian burger, called a Fauxlaffel, and I don’t even get the “faux” part. It’s described as a chick pea patty with tzatziki. Sounds like a falafel to me.

A few months ago, we were pretty excited to hear about a new restaurant opening up on Capitol Hill called DC-3 — a hot dog place. Fun! Except, when we went there, the only vegetarian option was a falafel dog. Seriously? Because a falafel doesn’t taste quite right on a hot dog bun with mustard and sauerkraut. In a world full of pretty good commercially-made vegetarian hot dogs, it seems like a no-brainer to have something on the menu that actually tastes like a hot dog.

Not to mention that a really good chef ought to be interested in making really good vegetarian food — rather than phoning it in. Textured vegetable protein is crying out for some culinary prowess. Richard? I know you can do it!

I took on the challenge myself for the big finale meal, and honestly, the results were fabulous — and there was even a meat-eater in our midst. I chose the Chorizo Burger from the Flip Burger menu, making really yummy handmade patties from soy chorizo combined with ground soy “beef” and soy “sausage”.

Not being the amazing trained chef and technician that Richard Blais is, I came up with my own approximation of the required smoked mayo and romesco ketchup, and both really added a great punch of flavors to the burger, which was also topped with Spanish Manchego cheese, hash browns, and a fried egg. Seriously? Delicious.


Richard clearly has the same affinity for Brussels sprouts as I do, and so I chose a dish of caramelized sprouts from Flip Burger’s salad menu, substituting a dash of Liquid Smoke for the pork in the Ginger Bacon Vinaigrette




Taking traditional recipes and translating them into a vegetarian — or vegan or heart-healthy or diabetic-friendly — version can be challenging sometimes, but there’s nothing more satisfying than making something your own. Be your own Top Chef.

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Real food for busy people

Fresh dairy delivered to my door? Why did I not think of this before?

I have been on a bit of a hiatus lately from Cooking on the Fly, busy with other commitments and life in general. Two things have come out of this rush of busy-ness: home delivery and smoothies.

When I say “home delivery”, I don’t mean that a Peapod truck is pulling up outside my house with boxes of Cap’n Crunch and Hamburger Helper. I like to pick my own groceries and browse the aisles, even if it means braving the store on Sunday afternoon. I don’t mind getting a mystery box of fruit and veggies from a CSA at a local farm — that’s an adventure, like having Christmas every week — because what could be more fun than trying to figure out what to do with 10 pounds of kohlrabi, a bag of purslane, and a couple quarts of Kiwi Gold raspberries?

My journey into home delivery actually began when I started noticing South Mountain Creamery trucks around my neighborhood. I checked out their website and found that they were a local dairy farm that delivered a variety of products right to their customers’ doors.

There’s something romantic about the idea of opening up your front door and finding a glass bottle of milk standing on the doormat. At least, it’s romantic to those of us who didn’t grow up in a time when that was a fact of life, like women wearing hats and gloves in the summer and children walking to school in freshly-starched clothes.

Delivery items

Ah, I love opening my door and finding these on the mat! You can see we've already started sucking down the eggnog. We also added granola to our order this week upon the recommendation of a friend — and it is truly sublime.

The first delivery came on my birthday, which was also election day. It was definitely the highlight. A half-gallon of freshly-pressed apple cider, a quart of skim, a pound of sharp cheddar, and a dozen fresh eggs.

With the holidays approaching, I’ve added egg nog to the order, and it has to be the most heavenly egg nog ever. Just slightly sweet with a distinct nutmeg flavor, this nog is so thick and creamy that I feel like taking a bath in it. Move over Lewes Dairy nog — which has always graced our Christmas breakfast table in past years — but South Mountain Creamery has come to town.

Smoothie and blender


Which leads me to smoothies. A couple of months ago, my husband was reading the October issue of Runner’s World and they actually had an interesting nutrition article. Instead of the usual chit-chat about bagels with peanut butter and pasta with tomato sauce, they extolled the virtues of nutrient-rich smoothies, both savory and sweet.

This struck a chord with me. Our daughter regularly leaves for school as the sun comes up, walking about 10 minutes to catch the subway, so she’s always in need of breakfast on the run. Enter — the smoothie! Now I just whip one up in the morning and hand it to my daughter as she stumbles sleepily out the door.

spinach smoothie

... and after.

The Runner’s World article gave me some good ideas about smoothies, such as slicing bananas and freezing them to toss in the blender, and it also introduced me to using ingredients like spinach and almonds, while encouraging me to experiment. Since I am always looking for convenience, I now keep my freezer stocked with a wide variety of frozen goodies, like strawberries, blueberries, goji berries, chocolate flavored silken tofu, and chopped spinach. I have also become enamored of unsweetened almond milk, which has a creamy texture and slightly nutty flavor, as well as Silk soynog (sorry, South Mountain, but we can’t eat dairy all the time).

Smoothies have often become my lunch of choice lately; as the days have become increasingly busy, these frozen powerhouses have become my favorite lunch-on-the-go. Besides, I figure a low-cal smoothie at lunch means I don’t have to feel too guilty about that half-glass of egg nog for dessert.

Spinach Eggnog Smoothie

Depending on your mood — and how your clothes are fitting — you can make this with Silk soynog or the real thing. Either way, it’s tasty!

1/2 sliced frozen banana

1/2 cup frozen strawberries

1 cup frozen chopped spinach

1/4 cup eggnog or soynog

1 cup unsweetened almond milk

1 tsp. honey

1 tsp. ground flaxseed

Dump all the ingredients into a blender and process until smooth. Yup, that was easy!

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Lettuce entertain you!

What could be more fun than taking a break from the school day for a run around the garden?

I went grocery shopping yesterday, not so much because I needed food (although I did) but mostly because I had received a Facebook notification that our local Whole Foods grocery stores were giving 5% of yesterday’s sales to the Farm at Walker-Jones Elementary School, not too far from where I live here in DC. That pushed Trader Joe’s right off the list as the grocery store of choice, because I am a sucker for anything to do with local farms and public schools: I’ve been a DC public school parent for 12 years thus far and I waited patiently for 7 years for a spot in the community garden around the corner from my house. ‘Nuf said.

Upon entering the store with my reusable bags, I stopped to check out the display about the beneficiary of the day and had a lovely conversation with John, who, along with his wife, runs the Farm at Walker-Jones. It’s always nice to meet a kindred spirit and it was great to see the pictures of the kindergarten class that he works with — amazingly, for an hour each day!

Watkins Living Schoolyard

My daughter went to Watkins Elementary School in our neighborhood several years ago and her class was only lucky enough to get about an hour a week working in their Living Schoolyard, but it was worth every moment. I’ll never forget when the kids in her class wanted to use some particularly tall sunflowers for a measuring project — their 3rd grade teacher gamely helped uproot the plants in question and they all carefully carried these 6-foot-tall specimens from the garden up two flights of stairs, while a clean-up detail swept up all the detritus left along the linoleum tiles.

In any event, as some of you have begun to figure out by now, the meals I cook are often inspired by the moment — in this case, looking at pictures of 3/4 acre full of lovely green leaves at Walker-Jones and also by the “Top Chef” finale in southeast Asia (Singapore, to be exact), which aired last night. At Whole Foods, you are immediately swept into the produce section, glistening wetly in every color of the rainbow, and I was instantly greeted with rows of beautiful local lettuces. Lettuce = lettuce wraps = Korean yumminess.

This is my version of a perfect Indian Summer meal (it was 85 degrees yesterday) — it’s quick, nutritious, low-fat, budget-conscious, and is also a really fun meal for kids. I made it with a simple tangy sweet potato salad on the side; remember that you can really use any toppings you like for the filling, such as chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, even pickled beets. Just don’t forget to break out some extra napkins!

Tell me that's not a beautiful plate of food. And a snap to make!

Korean-Inspired Lettuce Wraps

1 pound ground protein (I used a soy product, but turkey, etc. would work, as would rinsed and drained cooked black beans)

1 onion, chopped

2 Cubanelle or other sweet peppers, chopped

3 TB Gochujang Sauce (Korean sweet & spicy condiment; barbecue sauce would work too)

2 TB canola or vegetable oil

salt and pepper to taste

1 head of green leaf lettuce, leaves removed, washed, and patted dry

1 cup grated carrot

1 avocado, sliced

1/2 cup chopped cashews (optional)

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute for 5 minutes, then add peppers and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add protein and stir to combine and cook until completely browned (especially if using an animal protein). Stir in Gochujang Sauce and allow to warm through; add salt and pepper to taste.

To assemble wrap:

Lay a piece of lettuce on the plate and place a large spoonful of the hot filling in the center. Add grated carrot and a slice of avocado on top and sprinkle with cashews. Fold the lettuce around the filling and enjoy!

Sweet Potato Salad

4 large sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces and cooked until tender but not soft. Rinse in cold water and set aside.

for the dressing:

3 TB almond butter

2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

1 TB soy sauce

1 tsp red wine vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. You may add up to 1/4 cup of cold water if the mixture is too thick.

to make the salad:

Place sweet potatoes and dressing in a bowl, folding together to coat. Sprinkle with 2 TB chopped fresh herbs, such as chives or cilantro (0ptional).

Serves 4

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It was a dark and stormy night…

It’s a windy and gray morning in late August. The clouds are hanging low in the sky, obscuring the view of the Washington Monument and other DC landmarks, and a cool breeze is blowing through the heavy pink and purple blossoms on the crape myrtle trees. The dogs are stretched out on the floor by the open back door, their nostrils twitching at the scent of impending rain.

And somewhere in the world, it’s happy hour.

My family recently spent two weeks on the New England coast, where we reveled in the best pizza in the world (Pepe’s in New Haven), munched on the most amazing local corn (a variety known as Butter and Cream), and sucked down the best summertime beer ever made, Thomas Hooker‘s Watermelon Ale. It’s seasonal and we bought the last seven bottles in town to bring back home, trying to extend the vacation as long as possible.

But it was an entirely different drink that made for some all-too-happy hours at our little beach cottage: the Dark ‘n Stormy. This tasty libation, (the national drink of Bermuda, according to the Gosling’s Rum website) is exceedingly popular along the New England coast (where Block Island is known as the Bermuda of New England) and the local package stores all carry the necessary ingredients: Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and Bermuda-style ginger beer. Most people are familiar with the more heavily-spiced Jamaican variety of ginger beer, which fills the nose with its peppery flavor; the Caribbean (or Bermuda) style is slightly sweeter and not quite as spicy.

While in New England, we picked up Gosling’s 151 Proof Black Seal Rum and Barritts Bermuda Ginger Beer, which was the preferred brand locally. This drink packs a serious punch and could not be simpler: fill a highball glass with ice, pour in about 4 or 5 ounces of ginger beer and top with a shot (or two, depending on your stamina) of the rum. Some people add a slice of lime, but this is entirely optional. My husband drank the cocktail as it was, sipping some rum off the top before it began to sink into the ginger beer, but my parents and I liked to stir it up with a finger, then slurp the rum off our fingers before proceeding with the rest of the drink. Personally, I am a bit of a lightweight when it comes to alcohol — especially with 151 proof rum — so I found that it was not a great idea for me to drink my Dark ‘n Stormy while preparing dinner, otherwise our meal would have featured charred bits of oversalted dish towels.

On the hunt for ingredients:

An assortment of rum and ginger beers. You may notice that the bottle of 151 is running on empty.

Upon our return to DC, with a scant half-bottle of Black Seal and three cans of Barritts, we rushed to Hayden’s, our local liquor store, to replenish our bar. Luckily, they had the rum, but no ginger beer. We checked around for ginger beer, but kept finding the Jamaican style, which I thought would have an overpowering flavor. When we got home with the rum, we realized that it was 80 proof — perfect for me, actually, but not quite what my husband had in mind. He checked the other local liquor store, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, and heard that the 151 proof Gosling’s is not easy to get in our area. I suspect that Rick’s journalistic instincts have now been piqued and that he will be on the search.

However, Schneider’s did yield Gosling’s Ginger Beer — oh, happy day! We did a tasting comparison of Gosling’s and Barritts, with the result that Rick prefers the sweeter Barritts but I really like the slightly spicier Gosling’s, which is still not nearly as highly-spiced as the Jamaican kind. My parents also found the Gosling’s ginger beer when they got back to their home in Florida; my dad said he also heard that the Dark ‘n Stormy is popular at the bar at the Cocoa Beach Pier, although he’d never heard of the drink before. Many years ago, when I was a waitress back in Cocoa Beach (including up at the Pier), dark rum and ginger ale was a standard drink, but I never worked anywhere that carried ginger beer.

Gosling’s for dinner and dessert?

A quick gander at the Gosling’s website also revealed a recipe for Bermuda Onion Soup, which inspired me to create the following recipe. A somewhat cooler evening than is usual for late August made it possible for me to whip this up for dinner last night — and I saved my Dark ‘n Stormy for dessert!

Bermuda Black Rum Onion Soup

3 large onions, preferably Bermuda, sliced

4 cups stock (I used mushroom, but vegetable or chicken would work)

2 – 3 cloves of garlic, sliced

2 bay leaves

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Gosling’s Bermuda Black Rum (or another variety of dark rum)

1 tsp. sugar

salt and pepper to taste

for garnish:

thick slices of toasted bread (sourdough or a French baguette)

sliced Swiss or Gruyere cheese

dried oregano

optional: additional drizzle of rum

Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and add sliced onions, turning to coat in the oil. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rum, sugar, and bay leaves and continue to cook over low heat, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until the onions are soft and slightly golden and the liquid is reduced by half. Add the broth and stir in salt and pepper to taste. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes.

Turn on the oven broiler and ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls, leaving about an inch or so at the top. Place toasted bread in the center of each bowl, top with sliced cheese and a pinch of crushed oregano. Put under the broiler until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown.

If you wish, drizzle with a few drops of black rum just before serving. Serve immediately. This recipe will feed 6 happily.

September 1, 2010: Here’s some musing about ginger beer from today’s Washington Post.


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Attack of the Tomatoes, Part 1

This is just one day's worth of tomatoes from my little urban garden.

It’s the middle of July and my vegetable garden is beginning to overflow with tomatoes. I’ve also got some cucumbers that went from cute little green pups to slightly obscene 14-inch-long two-pounders overnight, but that’s another story. Right now I am focusing each day on what to do with the tomatoes while they are perfect and fresh, so that I can enjoy the memories in January when I am over the winter euphoria.

Because it’s July, it’s also bloody hot, so we are mostly eating a lot of raw tomatoes: in salad with a nice vinaigrette, on bruschetta, or just munching on them like apples or cherries, depending on the size. As usual, I’m growing several varieties this year, including Grape, Strawberry, Roma, Better Boy, Big Beef, and, of course, a wonderful heirloom tomato called Old German, which I plant each year in honor of my in-laws (and maybe now my husband, since he’s turned 50).

But sometimes you just wanna cook, so I opted last night to make a Tomato and Basil Bread Soup, which is delicious served hot, but also is terrific cold if you can chill it for about three hours before serving. I really hadn’t thought before to make a bread soup during the summer, but I recently had an amazing version of this soup at Acqua Al 2, a wonderful new Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill (a real favorite of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many other members of Congress from both sides of the aisle), and it reminded me that it would be a great recipe for using up some of the tomatoes taking up real estate on my kitchen counter.

Even though I actually had to turn on the stove to make this beauty, the cooking time is pretty quick, so your kitchen shouldn’t get too overheated. We had this as a main course, so I included garbanzo beans for a little extra protein, because that’s what I had on hand, but it would work great with cannelini beans or even chunks of Italian sausage (make sure it’s already cooked when you add it to the soup). Whether you grow your own tomatoes or pick them up at the farmer’s market, this soup is a great way to enjoy summer’s bounty, and is particularly good when followed by a glass of chilled Limoncello. Buon appetito!

Tomato and Basil Bread Soup

1 baguette, slightly stale and sliced into 1-inch slices

4 cups vegetable stock

3 cups fresh tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped

1/2 cup packed basil leaves, finely sliced into a chiffonade

2 cups cooked garbanzo beans (canned is fine — just rinse in cold water)

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 TB balsamic vinegar

Olive oil

Salt & pepper to taste

Grated parmesan cheese (optional)

Toasted baguette slices and fresh basil for garnish (optional)

In a large stockpot, heat 3 TB olive oil over medium-low heat, then add baguette slices and stir them around to coat in the olive oil. Allow them to brown lightly, turning down heat to low if they are cooking quickly and drizzling with a little more olive oil. Add the tomatoes, stock, and garlic and stir all the ingredients together; the bread will start to break apart, thickening the soup into something akin to a stew.

Let the soup come to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes. Add the chick peas, basil, vinegar, and salt and pepper and allow to simmer for a further 5 minutes. Serves 4.

To serve hot: Ladle into bowls and garnish each, if you wish, with 2 toasted baguette slices, a tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese, some fresh basil, and a little drizzle of olive oil.

To serve cold: Allow the soup to cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 – 3 hours before serving. Garnish as above, or just top with a dollop of mascarpone.


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A Big Salad for Big Papi

This Cobb Salad is almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

When the weather gets hot around here, as it usually does in DC during the summer, my family often requests the Big Salad for dinner. A Big Salad is, of course, a perfect summer meal, since it doesn’t require heating up the kitchen and you can pretty much throw anything you want into it. It is the summertime version of a casserole — all the little leftovers that are taking up space in your refrigerator can generally take up residence in a Big Salad just as you might use them up in a casserole: half a cup of shredded carrots, that Tupperware container that still has a few spoonfuls of tuna salad, a handful of toasted pine nuts, and so forth.

Last night was the Home Run Derby, and through a roundabout route, I was inspired to make a salad to accompany this annual slugfest that takes place the night before the All-Star Game. I am a baseball fan; my dad is from Connecticut and raised me right — meaning that I follow the Red Sox. My husband and I were Baltimore Orioles fans for several years (okay, I admit that I rooted for Boston when they came to town) and had season tickets for all the Sunday games, but Cal Ripken’s retirement and the constant internal turmoil caused by owner Peter Angelos finally wore us out.

We tried being Washington Nationals fans after DC finally got a team, but, honestly, they make it really hard to enjoy watching their games. Another error, another half-hearted run to first base, another phenom pitcher who doesn’t live up to the hype. The stadium vendors wear shirts that say “Eating is not a spectator sport” — likely referring to the fact that a lot of fans seem to spend more time lined up for half-smokes at the Ben’s Chili Bowl stand than actually watching the game — but, at Nationals Park, I’m not convinced that even the players would agree.

The Big Salad of choice last night was a classic Cobb Salad. Hopefully some of you have already made the connection between the Home Run Derby and what is often called the “quintessential American salad”, but here’s how my brain got there for those who are scratching their heads:

Home Run Derby = Anaheim (where it was held this year) = California = Hollywood = Brown Derby Restaurant = Cobb Salad.

The Brown Derby Restaurant, early 1960s. Photograph by Chalmers Butterfield.

The Cobb Salad was the signature dish of the Brown Derby Restaurant, a landmark of Hollywood during its glory days from the 1930s through the 50s. Sadly, the original restaurant is gone, but the salad still remains as a truly American creation, rumored to have been dished up out of bits and pieces from the kitchen by owner Robert Cobb in 1937 as a late-night snack for famed movie theater owner Sid Grauman. It features cold chicken, crumbled bacon, chopped tomatoes and avocado, and sometimes includes crumbled blue cheese and chopped black olives. I chose to make the classic version which includes a really wonderful blue cheese dressing made with a red wine vinegar base.

Not unlike a good baseball game, the key to the Cobb is layers. When you order it in a restaurant, it should arrive with each ingredient lined up across a bed of lettuce. You can then choose to mix it all up together or savor each flavor independently. A Cobb Salad is a team of individuals — together they can form a perfect amalgamation of flavors, but they can also each stand alone if necessary, supporting each other and enhancing the overall result. A classic salad is the perfect metaphor for really good baseball.

Big Papi encourages Ramirez to cool off in between swings at the Home Run Derby. Of course, it may have just been a diversionary tactic — if it was, it worked.

Last night’s Home Run Derby was a big night for Big Papi — David Ortiz, the 34-year-old designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox. Ortiz had a tough season in 2009 and people had pretty much written him off for this year, but he seems to be back in form, with 18 homers so far this season and 57 RBIs; he became the first Boston player to win the Derby, hitting 32 long balls in Angel Stadium. The best part of the Derby, however, was probably the display between Ortiz and his closest rival of the night, Hanley Ramirez, a 26-year-old fellow Dominican who was briefly with the Red Sox before being traded to the Florida Marlins. He openly considers Ortiz to be his mentor and their supportive relationship was clearly evident as they cheered each other on during their at-bats. If the Red Sox and the Marlins were to square up against each other in a World Series, there is no doubt that Ortiz and Ramirez would be fierce competitors, but they’d probably go out together for a salad afterwards.

We generally don’t think of avocado and chicken as ingredients that fit together and they rarely share the same plate other than when part of a Mexican menu. But, somehow, within the confines of the Cobb Salad, they are logical, even perfect, companions, the mild flavor of the chicken balanced against the subtle nuttiness of the avocado. Add in the smokiness of the bacon, the sweet tang of tomato, and the sharp bite of the blue cheese, and you have a group of individual flavors that should not fit together in a logical way, yet add up to a mouthful of Utopian delight. If you have ever loved the Red Sox, or the Cubs, or the Mets — have a Cobb. It’ll make perfect sense to you.

Here’s a link for the perfect Cobb Salad recipe — it takes a little time to assemble but is worth the effort.


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On the importance of birthday cakes

Madison's first birthday was the day before Thanksgiving and we had six houseguests, so I whipped up a quick chocolate layer cake with whipped cream for the frosting. I topped it with roses because her middle name is Rose.

I love birthday cakes. Growing up, birthday cakes were not a big part of our birthday celebrations, probably because my mom, who is an amazing cook, is not really a huge fan of baking. She also had a full-time career to manage along with her family, so birthday desserts tended to be something fairly simple like strawberry shortcake (my mom makes the best, with huge homemade lightly sweetened biscuits and fresh whipped cream) or, if I was lucky, I got to pick up a Pepperidge Farm cake out of the freezer aisle, preferably Devil’s Food or Coconut Layer.

A classic Devil's Food cake with a rich marshmallow-like frosting.

I happen to really enjoy baking, however, and I have always made it a point to make birthday cakes for my daughter’s birthdays. It helps that her birthday is in late November, a time of year when I enjoy warming up the kitchen anyway — she might be out of luck had she been born in August. Because her birthday often falls on or near Thanksgiving, I have made a concerted effort to not just stick a candle in a pumpkin pie, although I have occasionally been tempted.

Ah, the 5th birthday cake — it was a Clifford the Big Red Dog party, so I used a 16" x 16" pan to make a chocolate pound cake (much sturdier when you want to cut a shape), then I drew out a template and carved it out. A lot of work but totally worth it.

For family birthday dinners, I have generally made a classic Devil’s Food cake — not because it was Madison’s favorite, but because, as you probably guessed, it is one of mine. In recent years, she sometimes flips through my cookbooks and makes a different request; when my niece Kelsey was visiting just before her own birthday one year, she chose two different varieties of cupcakes from “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero — they were amazing cupcakes and you really would never have known they were vegan at all. For birthday parties, I sometimes went over the top and created enormous creations swathed in colored frosting that left Madison and her friends smeared in food coloring for days.

My most recent foray into birthday cakes was for my husband Rick, who just celebrated his 50th birthday. We gathered our friends and family at the Biergarten Haus, a new German-style beer garden on H Street here in DC, not far from our house. Rick is a first-generation American whose parents, who are of German descent, grew up in Eastern Europe and Germany, settling in the United States in the early 1950s. So, it seemed appropriate to celebrate at a place that would remind him of that heritage, and we had a great time dancing the polka and drinking way too many litres of schwarzbier.

Because there were a lot of things going on at the time — final exams and term papers for Madison, work commitments for both me and Rick, and an onslaught of houseguests — I confess that I first looked into just ordering a birthday cake, rather than making one myself. But here’s the thing: I’m picky about cake, and a decent cake from a good bakery is not inexpensive, and I simply could not bring myself to spend a minimum of $150 on the type of cake I wanted.

One of the things I really wanted for the cake was to include an edible image of Rick when he was 3 years old dressed in his lederhosen. It seemed like a must-have, and a quick search on Google yielded that it was pretty easy to order custom cake toppers printed on edible sugar paper. I chose to order from Icing Images and a perfectly-sized image arrived in the mail just 24 hours later, at a cost of about $20.

We celebrated my husband's 50th in style with a personalized Sunshine Cake, complete with edible lederhosen. It was a hit, and he was inordinately touched by the custom beer can candles — although that may have just been a result of a few litres of good German beer.

Since it was June, I wanted to make a cake that wouldn’t seem overly heavy, so I went for a cake recipe that is quite popular in Florida, where I spent much of my youth; it’s citrus-based, of course, and is generally known as a Sunshine Cake. I wanted to do a Grand Marnier buttercream, so imagine my joy when a jaunt through not only provided me with a Gourmet Magazine recipe for Sunshine Cake with Citrus Butter Cream, but the buttercream recipe actually included Grand Marnier. Some things were just meant to be.

I made two 9 x 12 layers and changed up the Gourmet recipe slightly by spreading the bottom layer with orange marmalade (something you’ll find in a lot of the older Sunshine Cake recipes) before adding the first layer of buttercream. It was quite easy to add the edible photo, which I just had to trim down to fit so that I could add beer can candles (which I customized with tiny labels of Winged Lion Lager, the amber beer that Rick brews for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill).

So, the next time you’re faced with the prospect of a birthday cake, I am hoping that you’ll be inspired to make something original for that special birthday boy or girl. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the store-bought variety — I crave those Pepperidge Farm cakes every time I walk past them in the supermarket — but there’s a certain sense of accomplishment you’ll get out of the ooh’s and ahh’s that come with “You made that yourself?”

Here’s the recipe I used as the basis for Rick’s birthday cake:

Sunshine Cake with Citrus Butter Cream

If you’re looking for more cake inspiration, check out my friend Kim’s blog, Sweetly Savory. She makes very cool fancy cakes with fondant and other fun stuff.

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Passing the Buck

Making "chipa" in Paraguay — they sound scrumptious.I am cheating a bit this week and am sending my readers to check out a terrific blog post that was written by a high school girl in my neighborhood who is spending a semester as an exchange student in Paraguay. I’ve known Ann Elise since she was probably about five years old — she’s smart, friendly, and pretty spunky, too, judging by how fearlessly she seems to be embracing a very different life in Paraguay.

She is blogging for her friends and family about her life in another hemisphere and it is very engaging reading. I was, of course, especially captivated by a post she did all about food; it’s possible that the local food may be one of the biggest culture shocks for Ann Elise, as it might be for many American foodies — and for any kid who grew up on Capitol Hill, where the farmer’s market at Eastern Market, overflowing with fresh produce, is central to the community. As she notes, the people of Paraguay eat a lot of meat and carbohydrates, which are plentiful and cheap, and not much in the way of fruits and vegetables, which are pretty expensive. They also eat several small meals throughout the day besides a large midday meal, with a salty snack in the midmorning and a sweet snack in midafternoon.

Having grown up in hot climates, this sounds pretty familiar to me. In Paraguay, Ann Elise is having an empanada for her salty snack — in Florida, we were more likely to have french fries from Wendy’s, dipped in mayonnaise. Not to be indelicate, but you sweat a lot when you live in a hot place and that salty snack is essential to keeping your body in balance.

Ann Elise’s sweet afternoon snack generally features dulce de leche (caramel); as I wrote in an earlier post, when I was a child in the West Indies, our midafternoon snack often consisted of a can of sweetened condensed milk, which is not that different. I heartily approve of Ann Elise’s preferred method of eating dulce de leche — all by itself, with a spoon! Why mess with perfection?

Her blog post was featured on the AFS Intercultural Programs website and is well worth the read:

I’m hoping that Ann Elise will bring back recipes and give her neighbors some hands-on lessons when she gets home — she seems to be pretty skilled at making “chipa” now!

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