The Gleeful Gourmand: May 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hell Freezes Over In Our Garage

Even before I had kids, there weren’t a whole lot of things I said “never” to. I’m a firm believer that saying “never” simply sets one up for failure – especially when it comes to food. For instance, there are some foods I dislike, but I have tried each and every one of them, sometimes multiple times just to make sure of my opinion (salmon still grosses me out, cottage cheese makes me shudder at the mere thought, and I cannot abide by olives).

There was one particular thing I did say “never” to, however.

“I will never, NEVER get a minivan,” I’d boldly proclaim whenever the subject came up. “I will find a way to make it work, but a minivan will NEVER be in my garage.”

I didn’t scoff at other people who had them; Lord knows I could see the benefits, and had even driven a couple on occasion and found them practical and useful. But I still didn’t want to own one. And then this past December we went for an ultrasound to see what we thought was going to be one baby. Turns out, there were two babies. I was utterly speechless, while my husband simply sat there and laughed nervously. When I finally found my voice, the very first thing I said was, “Oh no, we have to get a minivan.” The enormity of the situation, this life-altering news was completely summed up in that one sentence. Our lives were turned upside-down, and that “never” that I thought was the one I could get away with was a sudden reality.

I’ve owned a few different cars over the years. My very first was a 1981 Nissan Sentra hatchback, with the 5th gear broken. It whined in protest anytime it approached 50 mph, so it was really only good to go to school, and maybe to the mall. My second was what I felt was my “real” first car, a used Toyota Corolla. I researched it thoroughly, and settled on red. When I finally bought my own car with my own money, it was a brand-new Toyota Corolla, also in red. It was a great car, and served me well for many years. But after I had my son, I found that getting his baby carrier in and out of the Corolla was really difficult. Not only was it a tight squeeze, but my height was also a problem – I was constantly banging my head, and my back practically screamed as I moved him back and forth. It was time for a new car. Right around that time, ads started running for the Nissan Rogue. I’ll never forget that I actually saw the ad on the show “Heroes,” in what is now widely regarded as one of the most blatant ad placements ever (“Daddy! You got the Nissan Rogue?! Can I drive it to school??”).

I didn’t care. My eyes were ablaze. I wanted that car. I researched it, of course, and drove a couple of other cars, but I knew what I wanted. And I got it – in red. It was everything I dreamed it would be. Plenty of space for kiddies, sporty, and fun for me. It was MY car. I loved that car so much.

In my heart of hearts, I knew that with three kids, the minivan was going to be practical, easy to use (hello sliding doors!), and was a true necessity. Several of my friends had Honda Odysseys, and they all loved it. They promised me that I would love it too. But I’ll tell you the truth, when we finally purchased it this past weekend, I felt deeply unhappy. As I drove my Rogue for the very last time to the dealership, I blasted a final song, The Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow.” I felt the words were fitting:

“I’m a dead man walking here. That’s the least of all my fears.”

I even said out loud to myself, “It’s just a thing.” But what it felt like was something much different. It felt like part of my identity was being stripped away. I had always owned a red car. This one, thanks to a hideous color Honda calls “red,” was polished metallic. And let’s be honest, thanks to the media and other outlets, the moment you purchase a minivan, you are lumped as a woman into a label: Soccer Mom. Even if you don’t have a kid who plays soccer, it doesn’t matter. It’s a stigma, and you are a driving billboard for it. It doesn’t matter who you are as a woman, your likes or dislikes, etc. If you have kids, a minivan, and are vaguely interested in organized sports, you are now a Soccer Mom. There is very little else about you to the outside world that matters. You are one of the nameless thousands that shuttles rugrats and have no personality. And that was exactly my fear. That my identity as a woman with a real personality was suddenly being stripped away. It seemed utterly unfair: My husband got to keep his awesome Acura MDX, but my beloved car had to go.

Here’s the reality now that I actually own the Honda Odyssey. I really, really like it. It’s a great car. It’s unbelievably comfortable, it handles like a dream, and they made some really smart choices. Its dashboard is actually fashioned after their luxury line, Acura, so I kind of feel like I am driving Buck’s car. Until it comes to parking, at no point do I feel like I’m driving a boat. There are more cupholders than I can shake a stick at, and the storage is incredible. There are so many little extras that are really neat, and also really helpful. The truth is, it’s going to be a great vehicle for our expanding family for years to come. And Buck has already promised that when the kids are grown enough, I can get whatever car I want, so hello Aston Martin (yeah right)!

I think in the end, all those “nevers” are really what you make of them. The reality, versus what you’ve built up in your mind rarely coincide. Maybe to the outside world I look just like thousands of other moms driving around Richmond. But the reality of my life and what I make of it is up to me. In the meantime, I’m going to count my cupholders (er, blessings) that I can actually afford to drive a nice car like this. I’m going to love every inch of the extra lumbar support, space, and beautiful interior (until the twins come along, and that goes to pot). And I’m going to crank the stereo up, rock out, probably go to some soccer games, and enjoy the hell out of it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Blood, Bones, & Butter," A True Disappointment

Let me say right off the bat that I was really excited to read Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir “Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.” Not only is Hamilton the chef/owner of the restaurant Prune in New York City, but she’s also a bona fide writer with an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Food & Wine, just to name a few. It was after reading one of her excellent articles recently in Bon Appetit about her family in Italy that got me very excited to read her book.

The reviews on the back cover of the book simply glowed. Both Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali practically fell all over themselves with such effusive praise and pedestal-placing words that I thought, “Oh man, this is going to be so good!” I mean, how often do you get a food book that comes along that’s written by an actual, good, writer?

Well, I was really disappointed by Hamilton’s memoir. Maybe it’s because I let the hype cloud my opinion beforehand, but by the end of the book I was really questioning both Bourdain and Batali’s ability to discern good writing. Here’s what Hamilton is great at: She’s great at writing articles. They are finely crafted, well paced and a delight to read. She’s funny, brutally honest, and truly cares about the food she’s talking about. What she’s not good at is writing an entire book.

The memoir starts off really strong with her recounting of her childhood in New Hope, New Jersey with her four brothers and sisters, her French mother and her artistic father. I enjoyed reading about her mother’s love of cooking, and her memories of how her father would throw a huge party every year with roasted lambs on a spit. She does an excellent job of defining her setting, and making the reader experience what she experienced as the youngest of five out in the country. I could also feel her despair as a teenager when what she thought was her loving, happy family suddenly came crashing to an end with her parents’ sudden divorce. She tells it through her childhood memory’s eye, and I got the sense that even after all these years, she’s still trying to sift through and figure out what went wrong.

From there she pretty much tells in chronological order how her own young life started to spiral out of control as she got involved working in restaurants around her own small town. She bounces into college, she bounces out of college, and into catering for a summer camp (a particularly fun and interesting section to read), and then suddenly she’s landed in New York City with her sister and is heavy into drugs and a soulless catering gig.

Here’s where I began to have a problem with her writing. One moment she’s found a festering space for a restaurant that no one wants anymore (but will become her famed restaurant), takes it, begins to clean it, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, she’s back in time on a European excursion where she learns some more cooking. Then, again just as suddenly, it’s four years later and she and her restaurant are a huge success, and she’s appearing on The Martha Stewart Show. There is no in-between. What should have been one of the most interesting and intriguing sections on how she became such an incredible chef, the trials of opening your own restaurant, etc., felt instead like a huge chunk had been mysteriously omitted. She even fails to tell why she’s on Martha’s show, and how she came to be asked to appear. It’s incredibly disjointed in that way.

Here’s another example: For most of the book we understand that Hamilton is a lesbian, and has several monogamous relationships with women. Then, seemingly out of the blue, she has fallen for an Italian man who comes into her restaurant, and suddenly, bam! She’s married him – a little bit because of love, and a little bit because of his green card issues. She never lands on which it is. But what she does divulge is that even though they’re married, they don’t live together. But they also have two sons together. She doesn’t go into any type of depth about why that is, and I have to say, it’s unbelievably annoying and baffling. I mean, to each her own, but I just kept finding myself wondering “How did you get from this point A, to this point B?” She never fully explains.

But she does go into great depth about her vacations with her husband to Italy to visit his family every summer, and these are arguably the best chapters in the book. It’s clear that while she may not be passionate about her husband (she waxes at length about his shortcomings), she is passionate about his family, and Italian cooking. This is where the prose truly shines as she revels in all the earthy, simple delights of Italian food. But just as I began to truly enjoy these passages, she started harping on why her “marriage” was falling apart, and then the book ended so abruptly I was left scratching my head. You could just tell that she had sat around with a writer’s group and they had all agreed that ending it in such a fashion would be edgy and artsy and soulful, but it’s not. She comes off at the end as being an incredibly unhappy woman. There’s an entire chapter missing that could somehow tie it all together and make sense of it.

Let me wrap up by saying this: Hamilton is a good writer, but not a great one. If you really want to read something enjoyable by her, go check out her articles, because they truly shine. But do yourself a favor and skip the book.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Liquid Gold, Nectar of Life, Sweet Tea

Here’s a confession that might result in my southern credibility being stripped from me: I had never tasted sweet tea, or even heard about it until I was out of college. I know. I’ll let the collective gasping subside.

Growing up in Virginia, my parents loved iced tea. In fact, one of my favorite things my mom did in the summertime was to brew tea in the sunshine in an earthenware crock outside on the back deck. But she and my father would sweeten their tea with Sweet ‘N Low, which, let’s be honest, is not the same as true sweet tea. Mostly that’s because the granules added after the fact simply sink to the bottom of the glass. And despite the frequency and length of time in which you stir the tea, the sugar never really dissolves. So it’s better than drinking unsweetened tea, but it doesn’t truly satisfy.

Sweet tea is a southern staple. Ask for it in almost any restaurant here in Virginia, and they’ll have it on hand. The deeper south you go you’re looked at aghast if you order unsweetened iced tea. Go above the Mason Dixon line, and you might just find it in Maryland if you’re lucky, but any state above that and they look at you with a sigh of resignation and disgust as they tell you that they have regular iced tea that you can sweeten yourself.

When I began working after college I would go out to department lunches on Fridays, and that’s where I was introduced to sweet tea. I never ordered it for myself, but some of my colleagues would order it – usually asking for half sweet tea and half unsweetened. I had never heard of such a thing. I honestly can’t remember when I had my first true glass of sweet tea – I remember having raspberry iced tea at Applebee’s, and that was pretty good. But one thing is for sure: 11 years later, I am a devotee of true sweet tea. I don’t know how I managed before without it, and spring and summer is just not the same if it isn’t present. Eating barbecue without it seems beyond my scope of belief (though I admit that lemonade is a nice stand-in in a pinch).

Of course I make it at home now from a great recipe I found a few years ago. I use only a ½ cup of sugar, and I like it better that way, because I personally find it to be sickly sweet if any more than that is added (while most southerners will take it as sugary as possible). So even if you don’t live in the south, go make yourself an ice-cold pitcher, sit on your porch, and raise a glass to summertime with this southern classic:

Sweet Tea (makes 2 ½ quarts)

3 cups water

2 family-sized tea bags

1/2 cup sugar

7 cups cold water

1. Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a saucepan; add tea bags. Boil 1 minute; remove from heat. Cover and steep for 10 minutes.

2. Remove and discard tea bags. Add sugar, stirring until dissolved.

3. Pour into 1 gallon container; add 7 cups cold water. Serve over ice.

P.S. - In this month's issue of Southern Living Magazine, they are having a sweet tea bonanza with tons of variations on the drink, and lots of recipes actually using sweet tea. Check it out on newsstands or here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Inn at Little Washington

This year for our 6th anniversary, my husband and I took off in the early afternoon and headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains for an unforgettable meal at The Inn at Little Washington. Tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Washington, VA, the restaurant (there is also a hotel) has earned legendary status among East Coasters as one of the best places to eat. It was recently awarded Five Stars by the 2011 Forbes Travel Guide for the 21st year in a row making it one of only 23 restaurants in the U.S. to hold that distinction. It’s also the only restaurant in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area to have ever received Five Stars.

So I’m sure you can understand that I was more than a little excited to finally experience this particular restaurant. When we finally pulled up into the drive of The Inn at Little Washington (it took us precisely two hours from Richmond), we were immediately greeted warmly and asked for our name. By the time we got inside, the matire’d already knew exactly who we were, and seated us promptly. Although the dining rooms themselves are small, they are decorated in a way that makes it feel cozy and intimate, rather than crowded. Our only complaint the entire evening, however, was about the lamp hanging over our table: its fringes were so long that it came close to obscuring our view of each other.

But enough about the damn décor. Our waiter was one of the many highlights of the evening. He was engaging, warm, attentive and funny, and never once overbearing – exactly the way waiters should be. There was also a sommelier on hand to answer any questions about the extensive wine list. We were presented with pre-printed menus that had “Happy Anniversary to Mr. & Mrs. Robinson” scrawled across the top, which was a lovely touch. But my first experience of being charmed that evening came when I ordered sweet tea for my beverage (let me just say I can’t wait to go back and eat there again when I’m not pregnant!). The tea came unsweetened in a beautiful glass with a round of lemon and a sprig of mint, and also a tiny ceramic pitcher of simple syrup to use at my will. This could be trouble, I told my husband, but I was utterly enchanted. What an ingenious idea! This southern beverage staple was just made ultra classy. I knew that the rest of the meal would be just as unforgettable.

We were served obligatory bread (which was just okay), and then we were also given four different spoons of miniscule amuse bouches: a crispy risotto ball, a miniature loaded baked potato which was literally the size of my thumbnail, pork belly, and one other that I cannot remember that my husband ate. Then, on top of that, we were presented with a shot of Minted Pea Soup and a small Gruyere puff. The soup was warm and delicious, like drinking spring in a shot glass, and the puff practically melted on the tongue, it was so tender and perfect.

For my first course I chose the Beet Fantasia: Three Varieties of Roasted Beets, Beet Mousse and Citrus Salsa. If you know me at all, dear reader, you will know that I was in beet heaven. The plate was artfully designed, and each small mound of beet loveliness was accompanied by a dollop of crème fraiche. There were also three small cubes of Absolute Citron Vodka and gelatin. Yes, I had one. And boy, did it pack a punch! Buck had the Chilled Maine Lobster with Braised Celery Hearts and Citrus Vinaigrette, which was equally delightful.

The second course was something I truly could not resist: Macaroni and Cheese with Virginia Country Ham and Shaved Black Truffle. Oh, my. Here’s what made this particular Mac and Cheese so wonderful: The cream was smeared on the sides of the plate, rather that heavily soaking the noodles and cheese, and the top was crusty and crunchy with buttered breadcrumbs, and tons of Parmesan. Since Parmesan cheese is my favorite, I was smitten. Sometimes gourmet Mac and Cheese can end up being too heavy a dish, no matter how small. This was a salty, perfectly portioned delight. I also liked that they used rigatoni instead of the classic elbow macaroni. Buck chose the “Lasagna” of Local Morels, Country Ham and Asparagus, which was very tasty but could not compare to my dish (sorry, hon).

The main course was just as excellent. I had Pan Roasted Maine Lobster with Baby Bok Choy, Grapefruit and Citrus Butter Sauce. It was a very simple dish, yet executed with care and attention. The sauce I could have easily had in a cup and drunk straight from, and the lobster was cooked perfectly. I enjoyed the baby bok choy, and the sweet pearl onions, which combined with the grapefruit slices helped cut the butter sauce. Buck’s entrée was equally as spectacular (and I loved the name): Pepper Crusted Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon Capped with Seared Duck Foie Gras on Charred Onions with a Burgundy Butter Sauce. It was decadence defined. My only problem with it was that the pepper really was heavily crusted on the tuna, and I ended up choking on some of it. Buck claimed to like that part, but then he too ended up coughing as well. If they scaled back the amount of pepper, I think it would have been perfect. It was designed to have a bit of foie gras with every bite of tuna, and it delivered.

Dessert. Oh, dessert. After agonizing over the choices, each one looking more ridiculously delicious than the next, I settled on the Warm Granny Smith Apple Tart with Buttermilk Ice Cream. It was a true treat, but I actually need a knife to cut through all those layers of phyllo dough. However, it melted once on the tongue, and I was really happy that I didn’t have to share any of it at all (Buck is allergic to apples). I also really enjoyed the Buttermilk Ice Cream, which had a nice subtle tang. Buck chose the Spring Fling: A Miniature Strawberry-Ruhbarb Cobbler, Limoncello Pudding Cake, and Ruhbarb Frozen Yogurt. It was delicious, but they weren’t kidding when they described the cobbler as miniature: there were maybe one or two small mouthfuls to be had of it, which wasn’t enough. Also, each of our plates boasted a strip of golden fondant with “Happy Anniversary” piped in chocolate across it – a really nice touch.

To cap off our evening, which was perfect in company and culinary delights, we were sent home with a box in the design of the Inn, which held several different cookies and chocolates. The Inn at Little Washington truly lived up to all the hype we had heard about it. And here’s something else to blow your mind: The chef, Patrick O’Connell, is entirely self-taught. Granted, he’s been in the business now for 23 years, but still. No Culinary Institute of America, no Cordon Bleu; just a true passion for food and a natural-born genius. Believe me when I say that making the trip to The Inn at Little Washington is entirely worth it.