Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (3)

Dish to die for: Liege-style waffles

We enjoyed hiking – and eating -- on the Billy Goat Trail so much, that the next day we went back for more. This time we started off at the Palisades Farmers’ Market, which sets up in the parking lot next to Black Salt Restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard. Here we found a Belgian couple making Liege-style waffles before our very eyes. The smell was warm and sweet, drawing us closer. I looked around for syrup, sugar, or other toppings, but found none. “Non”, said Madame, “everything is already inside.” Honey had been folded into the batter, and the aroma we smelled was pearl sugar caramelizing on the outside of the waffle as it baked. An aroma that held us firmly in its grip until we handed over our $4 per waffle (you can also get 3 for $10). It was money well spent: eating these waffles felt like ingesting warm little packets of gladness.

Bellies aglow, we continued to work our way around the farmers’ market , picking up some fruit for the trail and also some veggies to take home. I stopped by a pile of baby pumpkins.

"These would be great with dinner!" I announced. Chris looked uncomfortable, shifting from leg to leg. “Do you think we had better ask if they are meant for cooking?“ “What do you mean? It’s just a squash.” I remembered my mother marveling that Americans do not think of pumpkin as a food, but rather as a Halloween accessory.

Dutifully, I asked at the farm stand if these pumpkins could be cooked. The woman looked a bit doubtful herself, but gamely proferred that “some people” did cook them. With this inconclusive information, it would be up to me to demonstrate that pumpkin was indeed just another squash that could be cooked like any other: baked, put in stews, used to sweeten chicken soup ever so slightly -- this latter being my mother’s favorite use. But that would come later.

Right now, we had the Billy Goat Trail Section B to conquer. Just as for Section A, access to the trail is from the parking lot across from the Old Angler’s Inn on MacArthur Boulevard, about a 10 minute drive from Black Salt. Head down the hill, cross the bridge, but instead of turning right on the towpath as you would for Section A, turn left to reach Section B. Section B of the Billy Goat Trail is a kinder, gentler walk along the Potomac River. Being less strenuous, you can take the time to notice the smaller wonders along the way. Chris is good at that:

Another advantage to choosing this milder terrain is that you are left with sufficient time and energy to contemplate other activities in the area. On the way back from our “hike” (more like a rolling stroll, really), we made a stop at the open artists’ studios at Glen Echo Park that we had had to skip the day before: we admired the oil paintings of J. Jordan Bruns, the artist-in-residence in his round studio in the Chautauqua Tower, and poked in and out of the yurts that serve as studios and galleries.

Glen Echo itself is like a palimpsest with traces of its past identities still visible through the successive layers that have followed. Buildings remaining from its days as an amusement park are still in evidence, with names like Crystal Pool, the Dentzel Carousel and the Hall of Mirrors. The Tower is the only vestige of its Chautauqua period in the late nineteenth century,while the yurts arrived as fallout from a 1971 crafts event on the Mall in Washington that never happened. Perhaps it is this refusal to adhere to any one period of time which makes Glen Echo one of the most magical places in the DC area.

....continued in The Billy Goat Food Trail (4)

But meanwhile: Happy Halloween!!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Late season bokchoi

Chris brought me baby bokchoi from her garden, still producing late in the season. What to do? Here’s what:

Ingredients: (all quantities to taste)

Sesame oil

Olive oil
Soy sauce
Garlic, chopped fine
Ginger, cut into slim match sticks
Scallion, chopped (rough or fine, either way)

Baby carrots, sliced lengthwise in quarters

Baby bok choi, finger torn

Red currants

Pine nuts
Trader Joe's frozen brown rice (don't believe me that it's amazing? See reviews here.)

Heat the garlic in a little sesame and olive oil over medium hi.
When the garlic starts to turn golden, add ginger and scallion. Give them a stir from time to time.

After a minute or two, add sliced baby carrots and a splash of soy sauce; stir well.

While the carrots are cooking, slash a gash in the packet of Trader Joe’s frozen brown rice, and start cooking in the microwave as the package directs – for 3 minutes.

Then add the torn up bok choi, currants and pine nuts (if I had thought about it ahead of time, I might have toasted the pine nuts, but just throwing them in worked fine).

Stir fry until the bokchoi wilts .

That’s it. Put the brown rice in a bowl, and top with the veggies.

Pairs nicely with a fruity white wine.

Most satisfying meal I have in a while! Certainly better than the nasty gigot at Bistrot Francais in Georgetown last night (oops, that's the Antoinette Id in me coming out!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (2)

The Irish Inn at Glen Echo

Dish to die for: fig salad with dark chocolate sauce

City girl that I am, learning the seasonality of foods has not come easily to me. When I was doing my fieldwork in a Palestinian village, I noticed one summer evening that a lot of people were sitting outside their houses peeling cucumbers. It took me a while to figure out why everyone was having the same thing for dinner. When I lived in Massachussetts, it took a couple of years of riding around to admire the foliage for me to realize that fall was the season when apple stands would appear on country roads. Now in Washington, an October hike on the Billy Goat Trail has taught me that late summer to fall is the season for figs.

The Billy Goat Trail Section A requires concentrated rock scrambling, and by the time we were done, some post-hike refreshment was in order. Heading back to DC along MacArthur Boulevard, the Irish Inn magically appeared, just in time to fulfill this need. I say “magically” not only because an Irish pub was conjured up at just the moment we were wishing for a place to quench our thirst, but also because the Inn is right next to Glen Echo Park, arguably the strangest and most magical place in all of greater DC. I made an abrupt and impulsive turn to the right, and before we knew it, we were seated on the generous outdoor patio perusing the beer list.

The beer selection at the Irish Inn is actually less impressive than its long list of whiskies. It was too early for a shot, so we stuck with the tried and true and ordered pints of Guinness. The pub menu had some intriguing takes on traditional fare: fish and chips made with Guinness battered cod, bangers and mash with peas and whisky sauce, a Black Angus burger with Dublin cheddar. But there were also some unexpected dishes, including this one:

Figs with dark bitter chocolate sauce sounded too tantalizing to pass up. Still sated from our picnic on the trail, we ordered one to share and were pleasantly surprised when our two halves of the salad arrived separately composed on individual plates. Nice touch. Our responses were predictably separate as well: Chris loved the fact that so many of her favorite foods were all in one dish. I homed in on the figs and dark chocolate combination, feeling that too many other flavors (salty, peppery, gingery) overcrowded this unusual pairing of sweet on sweet. I wanted to savor this strange combination, focus on what made it work. Figs and dark bitter chocolate is not your everyday fruit and chocolate sauce combo. Unlike raspberries, for example, which are acidic and contrast beautifully with creamy chocolate, pairing figs and dark chocolate is a study in different degrees of sameness. Figs’ fruitiness is anchored in earth tones, taken to darker depths by the somber intensity of the bitter dark chocolate.

I wanted to know more about this dish. “Yeah, he makes something with figs every year at this time”, our waiter informed us, jerking his head back to the kitchen. “It’s fig season then?” The waiter looked at me as if I were daft, nodding confusedly. I found myself bonding with this newcomer to my tastebuds. Sure, the more uplifting fruits of summer have their sprightly place, but figs brought even further down to earth by a serious chocolate companion seem more fitting for the fall. As for all the other tempting choices on the menu…they will have to wait til winter.

Irish Inn at Glen Echo on Urbanspoon

For the Billy Goat Food Trail (3) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (4) click here

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (1)

Figs Fine Foods
4828 MacArthur Blvd, NW

Dish To Die For: labneh and za'atar sandwich on toasted Barbari bread

We found Figs by chance. It’s easy to overlook, tucked away on the sunken level of a small strip of storefronts in the Palisades. But, for reasons that will become obvious as you read this series of posts, we have come to see this section of MacArthur Boulevard as base camp for hiking the Billy Goat Trail, and have gotten to know what the neighborhood has to offer, which is quite a bit.

Figs presents itself as a Lebanese restaurant/deli, but in fact its Middle Eastern scope is  wider than that. Sandwiches here are made with Barbari, an Iranian style loaf that is sturdier than Levantine pita bread, and densely covered with toasted sesame seeds. Still, chef/owner Reem Azoury's focus is on foods that reflect the everyday choices of the people of the Levant, getting more to the core of daily life than the usual roster of Lebanese foods offered in DC restaurants. For my picnic sandwich, I chose labneh, a tangy yogurt cheese, and za’atar, dried wild thyme soaked in fresh pressed olive oil.

When I was doing my fieldwork in a Palestinian village, I ate both of these foods on an almost daily basis – mostly for breakfast, but also for lunch, dinner, or whenever I needed a snack. The family I lived with would make labneh from scratch, adding a little yogurt starter and salt to milk and bringing it slowly to a boil. Waiting for the mixture to thicken took patience, but eventually a mass thick enough to slip into a muslin bag had formed. The bag would be tied at the top, looped over the kitchen spigot, and left overnight for the whey to drain into the sink below. By morning, a cheese awaited. It was gently placed into a shallow bowl, and the middle hollowed out with the back of a spoon. This depression created a small well into which olive oil would be poured, ready for dipping.

On my sandwich, though, the olive oil from the za’atar performed this function. Slices of cucumber and tomato rounded out the family of flavors. Eating this on Section A of the Billy Goat Trail, I marveled at how well the nutty crunch of the toasted sesame seeds complemented the creamy tang of the cheese, the bread’s alto to the labneh’s soprano. They were the leading characters in this aria, with the other ingredients working as a supporting cast. With each bite, I applauded madly. Brava, Maestra Reem.

Making labneh at home

Making labneh from scratch never really worked for me at home – despite the instruction I was given and the opportunity to watch the process first hand. (Fadwa, if you are reading this, please feel free to give us some tips!) Fortunately, my Middle Eastern friends back in the States let me in on a secret: it’s not really necessary to start from Step 1. You can simply buy some good, plain yogurt – Greek style, for example – add salt, and let it drain overnight. If you would like to simulate the experience of draining the whey from a muslin bag, this recipe has step by step pictures that nicely illustrate how to do it. But equally, you could line a colander or even a coffee cone with cheesecloth, leave the yogurt in it overnight and the result will be satisfactory. For storage, form the labneh into ping pong sized balls (or smaller) and store in a jar of olive oil.

Hiking the Billy Goat Trail A

Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is the most strenuous of the three sections, and involves rock scrambling for a significant part of it. Unless you are intent on keeping up a brisk rate, allow three and half hours for the roundtrip, including time for admiring the magnificent vistas and picnicking on the cliffs or on the small beach. The parking lot for the trail is across the road from the Old Angler's Inn on MacArthur Boulevard, about a 10 minute drive from Figs. Cross the bridge at the bottom of the hill, hang a right and walk along the towpath until you reach the sign for the Billy Goat Trail turnoff. Get a good work out for 1.7 miles going out, then relax returning along the flat towpath. For where to go post-hike, see my next post.

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

For the Billy Goat Food Trail (2) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (3) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (4) click here

Figs Fine Food on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bloggable by a thread

GERO, Rua Aníbal de Mendonçam 157, Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, TEL: 55-21/2239-8158

Normally, Gero would not be the kind of experience I would blog about. I said from the outset that I would not use this space to bemoan disappointing dining experiences, and this was a betrayal of huge proportions.

There we were in Ipanema, Rio’s trendiest neighborhood. Dining guides and accepted wisdom sent us to Gero, the first of the Fasano group, with promises of innovative Italian cuisine and fresh pasta prepared on the spot. Chris’ first comment should have alerted me. “This is a place that both Monica and Harriet could really get into”. Now, Monica is a Hollywood agent, with academy award winning clientele, and Harriet has a stunning home in the hills of Santa Barbara. A red flag should have gone up to tell me that this was going to be the kind of place where the glamorous outdid the gastronomic. I missed it.

As we settled into our respective caiprinhas and white wine, an array of breads and spreads was laid out before us. Saving my carbs for the pasta, I shunned all of this. It had been so long since I travelled in Europe that I had forgotten to beware of the customary “couvert” charge for the little starters that appear unordered – most definitely not on the house. The custom was replicated here, in this case boosting the bill by a whopping $25. Mercifully, we only found out about that later.

I had arrived with a decisive yearning for fish – and Italians do fish so well – but the price points on the menu dictated pasta. Grouper with basil sauce sounded good, but not so good as to warrant $40. Anyway, the pasta was what all the fuss was about. Since the gnocchi with calamari and scallops seemed to satisfy the pescatory requirement, I decided to go with that. Chris also compromised on the exorbitant lamb chops with truffles, ($60) and settled instead on pasta with foie gras. (My look of “oh how gross” was returned with the tart “Only you and Jillian Michaels could malign this combination”).

To start, we decided to split the green salad (splitting charge: $5). Though mostly green leaf lettuce, it was fresh and included a leaf of endive and a single spear of asparagus. All would have been well, had we not been offered what turned out to be an extra shot of olive oil. The salad had already been dressed, and this unnecessary flourish sent it over the top.

My misery reached full throttle when the gnocchi arrived. Tiny little morsels, they were immersed in a pool of butter. Rather than succulent scallops and perfectly grilled calamari sitting recognizably alongside them on the plate, the mollusks had been shaved to a nearly invisible (and correspondingly tasteless) skein.

I turned to Chris: “Can you believe how the gnocchi are swimming in butter?”

“Ever seen them doing the backstroke?” she cracked right back. It was the perfect joke at the perfect moment. But it dissolved the ire that I needed to send the dish back. Relief at finding humor in this horror of a restaurant mugging kept me from acting, and I suffered through the meal, picking at the dish and not quite being able to get through it. Chris polished off her two patties of foie gras, washed down by muscat to cut the richness. She looked quite green by the end of it, but that was to be expected, I sniffed.

It was Chris that found that elevating moment. In the bathroom of all places. There she found…a never-before-in-a-restaurant accoutrement…a dental floss dispenser. She came back to the table beaming. So there you have it. Not a food moment; not even mine, but bloggable, just by a thread.

Photo credit: Jan Chipchase

Notes on dining in Rio: Rio is not really known for its restaurants, and in fact, my favorite food moments in the city have been on the beach, where you can buy grilled shrimp with a splash of lime right from your beach chair. Still, we did have some pleasant dining experiences while we were there. Although none was to die for, here are a few I would happily go back to:

Carretao is a neighborhood churrascaria in Ipanema. At $29 for all you can eat grilled meat and elaborate salad bar, it was a good antidote to Gero, and more fun too. Drinks and dessert are extra.

Garcia & Rodrigues in Leblon is another down to earth place, and has a wine store and bakery on the premises as well as the restaurant.

Rio Scenarium is a nightclub in the hip Lapa neighborhood, recently reclaimed from drug traffickers. You will mostly be going for the live music, samba dancing, and three floors worth of Brazilian collectibles, but it has surprisingly good food. People from 20 -75 years of age are on the dance floor. Make a reservation, come early, or be prepared to wait in a very long line.

Opium’s patio on the Rua Farme de Amoedo in Ipanema is the perfect place to have a drink at the end of the day and watch people coming back from the beach. Beautifully presented but overpriced Japanese food.