Tag Archives: Capitol Hill

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Cooking

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Cooking

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.


Filed under Cooking

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 epicurious.com 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cooking

Safeway Snobbery

A fireplace and wifi at Safeway? Okay, that is kinda nice.

Two new Safeway grocery stores have opened up in Washington, DC in the past couple of weeks. One is just off Capitol Hill in the Waterfront neighborhood and the other is in Georgetown. The one at Waterfront is nestled between public housing projects and riverside condominiums; the Georgetown store — long dubbed the “Social Safeway” in reference to the well-heeled single yuppies eyeing each other longingly across the cereal aisle — has a parking lot filled with Lexus SUVs tagged with diplomatic license plates.

I will say up front that I am a Safeway Snob, and not necessarily in a good way. My experience with Safeway in DC goes back more than 20 years, when I first frequented the “Soviet Safeway” in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, nicknamed for its tendency to run out of everything, leaving its shoppers to peruse shelves bare of pretty much every basic necessity except the occasional loaf of Wonder Bread and a half-eaten banana.

Things didn’t improve when I moved to Capitol Hill, where my husband and I would wheel our portable shopping cart on the three-block trek to what some called the “Social Security Safeway”; that particular store’s claim to fame came from some snappy investigations in the 1960s by local resident and Washington Post columnist Marguerite Kelly, exposing the store’s practice of raising prices — coincidentally, of course — on the same day that welfare checks were issued to low-income families. There were not a whole lot of grocery stores in the city at that time, so the aisles were so crowded that you could barely move your cart. We used to try to shop during Redskins games, since we didn’t really care about football and it was the one time when you could count on the store being empty.

My hairdresser was really excited about the new Safeway by the Waterfront and told me that it was beautiful and that I needed to check it out — she’s a Safeway Snob, but in reverse. Actually, I have a lot of friends who swear by Safeway and shop there religiously, but it has just never been my cup of tea; they just never seem to carry the kinds of foods that I like to buy. I’m sure my friends think I’m a Whole Foods Snob or a Trader Joe’s Snob, and they could be right.

But there was such a hubbub about the Social Safeway on opening day last week that I impulsively pulled into the underground garage as I was passing by. Crowds of shoppers streamed up the escalators clad in carefully-distressed jeans and Gucci loafers; my first vision was a gleaming sushi bar nestled beside a gourmet cheese display where a cheerful employee gave out samples of an imported Gouda being sold for $17.99 a pound. Black truffles were located in a locked plexiglass case in the produce section for $999.99 a pound. Welfare moms need not apply.

I’ll admit that I called my husband and gushed “Wow, this place is really cool!” I was standing next to the automated deli kiosk where I had just placed an order for a roasted vegetable sandwich on focaccia with garlic aioli, which seemed like a steal for $6.99. Excited shoppers were lined up at the gelato bar, bursting with over two dozen exotic flavors, the cabernet gelato beckoning like an amethyst jewel.

Alas, I had no time to shop, so my husband and I decided to stop at the Waterfront store on Sunday. It was all there — the sushi bar, the Starbucks, the wi-fi café featuring a central gas fireplace. And, as we began going through the aisles in search of food, there were all the other things I remembered: the Wonder Bread, the cans of Hormel Chili (on special with your Club Card), the towering pyramids of Spam. The produce section was definitely better than I remembered from the past, and I was pretty intrigued by the fresh garbanzo beans, like miniature tomatillos in their papery green husks.

But, yeah, for me, it’s still just Safeway. Some people dislike Trader Joe’s in the same way, while I can look past its deficiencies (like those shrinkwrapped packages of zucchini — why, Joe, why?) to find well-priced food that I want. Safeway sure doesn’t need me, serving its purpose for so many others as it continues to thrive, building a Shining Store Upon a Hill that brings yuppies together to share cappuccino and coy glances and provides candy-free checkout lanes for tired working moms with three kids under the age of 5 stuffed into a shopping cart with a week’s worth of juice boxes and Rice Crispies.

Still, I have to admit, the fireplace and wifi is pretty nice, especially on a rainy and unseasonably cool spring day. Maybe I can learn to live with Wonder Bread.

Wonder Bread Soufflé

I used to adore this dish when I was a kid — it was a recipe that my mom would make only for dinner parties. She made amazing cheese soufflés from scratch using the recipe from the huge Larousse Gastronomique that graced our kitchen, but she also liked this recipe when she had to whip up something elegant after a long day at the office.

One loaf of Wonder Bread, crusts removed and each piece buttered

3 eggs

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

3 cups shredded cheddar cheese

2 teaspoons snipped fresh chives

Make the custard by combining the eggs, milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper in a bowl. Butter a 13″ x 9″ baking dish and place a layer of bread in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle 1/3 of the cheese, then continue with two more layers of bread and cheese. Pour the custard evenly over the whole dish, being sure that all the bread is soaked in the custard, then sprinkle the chives over the top. Place in the refrigerator for at least one hour and as long as overnight, then bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 40 – 45 minutes, or until risen and golden on top. Serve immediately.

1 Comment

Filed under Cooking, Uncategorized