Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Last Week

Walking the streets of Washington DC last week and seeing the throngs of people who had come to celebrate, I was more than moved. DC was Barack Obama EVERYTHING. Not just your typical hats and t-shirts, I saw bottles Obama hot sauce. I saw Obama breath mints (labeled: For Powerfully Fresh Breath). It was perhaps the MOST indescribable, words-can’t-do-it-justice event I may ever witness. Being in the midst of this sea of humanity sharing a common feeling makes one feel like they are a part of something bigger; much bigger.

While President Obama stirs the social consciousness of a nation with unparalleled skill and grace, it is difficult to ignore that the last administration was so disliked that electing a Cocker Spaniel would have brought at least a small measure of enthusiasm. As Marine One carried the newly dethroned former President Bush away from the Capitol Building and over the crowd, the 1.8 million people on the mall cheered and waved a long overdue “bye-bye”.

In the midst of all of this excitement, there was food. Lots of food. From burger dives to amazing restaurants, we covered our bases this week. We drank at famous bars where presidents have walked and walked as many miles as our feet could carry us. Since everyone out there saw the TV coverage, I’ll take you on a journey through our culinary week. If you’re in DC, I’ll list MY personal favorite restaurants and even tell you about a surprising clunker (in my humble foodie opinion). And I’ll gladly share our pre-inaugural Frittata that was just perfect on this most auspicious of times.

It began by landing in Washington on Saturday. I wanted to attend the concert on Sunday, so arriving early was a must. As with most visits with my mother, our week began with a visit to the market. We hit a couple and I must say that Harris Teeter is my new favorite store but that story is for another time.

Have I shared my Dijon and Thyme roasted pork loin recipe before? Well if I haven’t, I will again because that was dinner. After the markets, mom and I descended upon her kitchen with passion. Once the Dijon marinated pork was in the oven, I set to work on some roasted rutabagas while mom pursued a bacon and vinegar spinach. Like most roasted meats, the secret to succulence is temperature. If you choose not to use a thermometer and your roasts come out perfect 100% of the time, you have my admiration. After about 90 minutes at 325 degrees, the thermometer read 150 degrees and my pork was done. A good rest later, and she sliced like a filet; perfectly juicy, cooked through with just a hint that there used to be pink in the center. The perfume of the Dijon and thyme filled the space and everyone was mesmerized. Mom’s spinach was elegant and delicious and the rutabagas fit in perfectly. Our first night was a success and the left over pork made for quick sandwiches for the rest of the week.

Monday two friends arrived from Tampa after driving all night. We had a night of festivities ahead but first they needed to go get their inauguration tickets and get some much needed sleep. I decided to fuel them up with a quick frittata.

There is no secret to making a great frittata but there are a few tips. As a rule, any flavor that might spark up a good omelet is good for a frittata. The difference is in the cooking process. Most frittatas in my repertoire are born from foraging the refrigerator this morning was no exception. Things like last-night’s-potatoes or leftover ham are the types of ingredients I shoot for. In this case, there was half a bag of fresh spinach left as well as mushrooms, bell peppers and my mother’s always overflowing cheese drawer. These were colors that would paint the canvas of a special breakfast. While I do share the frittata recipe below, PLEASE take MANY liberties with your own version. The cooking process is the important part and not the ingredients.

While there were other delectable cooking adventures (someday I must share the open faced steak and egg bagel with blue cheese sauce… YUM!), the DC restaurant scene and nightlife were not lost on us. Most notably, was the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel. People from all walks of life and in all manners of attire were in this place. I was wearing jeans, as were many others but there were plenty of tuxedo clad gentlemen in route to various functions. The history at this hotel is rich. Closed for years and almost demolished in the 80’s, The Willard was fortunately swept up in the city’s fruitful gentrification that followed. Restored to reflect its past, it is a DC landmark. Ulysses S. Grant would stroll to the bar for a cigar and libation at the end of a long presidential day (I think I would have liked him). Word got around about this and folks trying to push their causes or agendas would gather in the lobby hoping to get an audience with the president. I’m not sure how the president felt about this but the term lobbyist was born. Below is my friend Will and I. He is enjoying the Willard signature drink, the Mint Julep, introduced to the bar by Henry Clay.

Will and I at the Willard
The night goes on to include tequila shots at the The Old Ebbitt Grill, greasy after midnight burgers on DuPont Circle and general celebration. I think I’m too old for this but Will was the one sick the next morning, not me.

I was sad to see Will and Amanda go after the inauguration but they had two young kids to get home to. Mom and I continued the week’s adventure. One thing I like to do when I’m in culinarily diverse cities (such as DC, New York or San Francisco) is eat foods that I can’t get elsewhere. This led to me do some internet research on the city’s Ethiopian fare. As I expected there was a large Ethiopian community in Washington. I found Etete on and the reviews were quite favorable so I convinced mom to meet me there after work. I didn’t realize that she had never eaten Ethiopian food and I was surprised to learn that she had avoided it on purpose. Apparently she wasn’t keen on the whole eating-without-utensils idea. If you have not had Ethiopian fare before, you do, in fact, use your hands. Meals are served family style in a tray with your entrée, vegetables and sauces placed on various parts of the large plate. Injera, a spongy pliable bread that looks like a crepe and has a lovely sourdough taste, is served with the meal. It is your only utensil and is used to scoop. The various spice mixes, such as Berbere and Mitmita are combinations of Ethiopian flavors such as local peppers, paprikas and garlic. They are often hot and are somewhat reminiscent of Indian flavors. Often paired with lamb, beef or chicken, the dishes are difficult to pronounce but easy to eat. We stuffed ourselves and I was please that mom couldn’t get a good parking place because I needed the extra walk. Oh… and a huge benefit to Ethiopian dining is that your wallet will not suffer. A bottle of wine and dinner for 2 was about 60 bucks before the tip at one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in town.

Another night was a new restaurant for me. Palena in Cleveland Park is where former White House chef Frank Ruba offers unbelievably wonderful and creative fare such as King Salmon and Beet Ravioli. His spectacular plating is also pared with simple elegance in other dished such as roasted free range chicken that must be ordered 45 minutes in advance so that it can be roasted fresh. Normally I would look for something more unique on such an elaborate menu but the bartender told me that the chicken was the house specialty. Really? With choices from Skate to Lamb to Sturgeon, this guy was pushing the chicken. Fine I took the bait and ordered the chicken. It is simply presented on a white plate with a tender and mild dressing beneath it. The chicken is small as far as chickens go, but since I was served half of a bird, it was plenty. So how good could this be? I’ve eaten lots of chicken. Who hasn’t? Well the crust was as perfect as any roasted chicken skin could be, and beneath, the meat was so moist and sweet and tender that it was like savory chicken pate. Unbelievable. I may never roast another chicken at home.

I tasted the sturgeon that my mom ordered and if fish could be described as rich, that would be the word for this fish. The taste was clean and fresh and buttery. We also nibbled on a pate and a cheese tray as appetizers and while typically way to small as with most fine dining establishments, the flavors were just remarkable. This is now on my list of “MUST DO’s” for Washington DC. Unlike the Ethiopian restaurant, this place is not as wallet friendly but I didn’t think $200 for the 3 of us was too crazy (especially since we ordered a number of drinks –I had a Long Island Iced Tea).

Before I move to the recipes, I have to vent just a little. I was disappointed with one establishment this week and it just goes to show you that celebrity does not a hit make. Last season on Top Chef a guy named Spike was a fan favorite who went deep into the competition.

In 2008, he used his celebrity to help him open a wonderful little concept place in a prime part of Capitol Hill right on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Good Stuff Eatery was his creation based on wax-paper wrapped fresh burgers he recalled from his childhood. I love this idea because I believe to my core that there are never enough great burgers on the planet. Unfortunately this was not one of them. Now there was nothing particularly wrong with this burger but there was nothing particularly right with it either. There were a few specialty burgers on the menu and I hear their sauces and milk shakes are highlights but I started with his generic Farmhouse Cheeseburger, fries and a coke. If I’m gonna spend 10 bucks on that (which is not above me), it better be a damned great burger and this was just OK. “OK” as in I-could-make-you-just-as-good-a-burger-at-home “OK”. Still disappointed, I left thinking I should give one of the house specialties a try before passing final judgment so perhaps one day I will return but for the time being, I do not recommend The Good Stuff Eatery. I did love the concept of the “Obama Burger” though.

There are at least 3 other good food stories this week but in consideration of your time, I’ll wrap up with the following two recipes from this week. I didn’t take any photos of the pork but I promise, it’ll become a staple in any kitchen that tries this. It is too easy and too good.
Thyme and Dijon Roasted Pork Loin

1 medium sized pork loin
¼ cup Dijon mustard
Handful of fresh thyme sprigs, stems are OK because we’ll fish them out later (1 tbsp if using dried)
Salt and pepper to taste

Season loin with salt and pepper. Coat with the mustard and thyme and refrigerate for 2 hours. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Before cooking, allow pork to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Place in the oven and cook for 45 minutes or so. More important than time is to remove the pork when the internal temp is around 150 degrees. Allow to rest for about 15 minutes before slicing.

This Frittata was simply delicious. Try this one or any variation of your own.

Inaugural Frittata

1 tbsp canola oil
1 tbsp butter
1 medium red onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 cup mushrooms, diced
2 scallions, diced
4 cups washed fresh spinach
6 eggs
½ cup milk or cream (I had heavy cream and used it)
½ cup Pecorino-Romano cheese
1 cup Pepper Jack cheese

In a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat, add the oil and melt the butter. Sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is translucent and fragrant. Do not brown the garlic. Add bell pepper, mushrooms and scallions. Cook until mushrooms give up most of their water and it evaporates, about 10 minutes. Add the spinach and allow to wilt down but not completely. In the meantime, mix the eggs, milk or cream and Pecorino-Romano in a mixing bowl. Lower the heat to medium low and add the egg mixture. Cook until done around the edges, about 3-4 minutes. Place under broiler until top is just set, about 1 minute. Remove, top with Pepper Jack and place back under broiler until top is bubbly and just beginning to brown.

Carefully use a paring knife or thin spatula to separate the frittata from the pan and slide onto plate. Serve in wedges.

Serves 6-8.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great recap of the week, tho you may have been a little rough on Spike. Others share your sentinment, however. I had such a great time while you were here, hope we can engage you almost as throughly once we are in Phoenix.
Love, Mom