I Love Charles Smith and My Husband Knows All About It 01.30.2011

Where to begin about my love for Charles Smith?  An accidental love that began  superficially, but now -- only a week and half later after meeting -- is solid, real, and, yes, tasty.  

I was at my local wine-and-beer, walking up and down the aisles looking for a fabulous, inexpensive wine to jump out at me.  The label of the 2008 Charles Smith Chardonnay called "Eve" immediately caught my attention.  A simple label with bold, block lettering on a pale creamy background, and a big apple with a bite taken out of it.  I'll admit it:  I love a good wine label.  It's not always led me to good wine, but enough so that I haven't stopped picking up bottles just because the label was fetching.

I used to be a red wine snob but have embraced whites in the past few years, particularly West Coast Chardonnays.  And it doesn't matter that it's the dead of winter, a good white makes me happy any time of year.  

I've drank Chardonnays in which an aroma or flavor became a little too much -- spending too much or too little time at some stage of the wine-making process.  But that is not the case with Eve.  Eve is balanced; whoever did the stomping on the grapes did it just right.  

Charles Smith, native of California, is a former rock band manager in Scandinavia (and a former sommelier).  He has set up his wine empire in the Walla Walla Valley of Washington State and the current wine production is called the "Modernist Project".  I like the vintner's explanation because this is how Eric and I are about our wine consumption:  "a response to how people generally consume wine today, that is immediately…as in immediately after being purchased at a market, restaurant or bar, to be drunk straight away."  

I went back to the wine-and-beer to find more Charles Smith wines.  A snow storm was heading our way, and I was in the mood for red.  I knew the power would go out and nothing would make me happier than sitting in front of the fire place drinking a glass of red wine.  The clerk at the wine-and-beer urged me to get "The Velvet Devil" -- a 2008 Merlot.  He promised it would be fantastic, and it was.

Also priced at $17.99, "The Velvet Devil" is smooth.  Red wines have weight and thickness in their taste and, again, I have to say, this was balanced.  

Charles Smith has another Merlot called "Holy Cow".  (As a Hindu, I am obligated to try "Holy Cow".)  I also want to try his Syrah, called "Boom Boom!"  

The clerk at the wine-and-beer also told me about Charles Smith the man ("He's totally crazy.").  Crazy as in:  he's got passion, temper, and taste -- all elements of a cult of personality ripe for a following.  It doesn't hurt that the product is wickedly delicious.

Lunch with Andrew: ICI Urban Bistro 01.25.2011

My favorite place to sit (and eat) at ICI Urban Bistro at the Sofitel in Washington is a table for two, up against a wall, and right next to a wall panel.  So, a sort-of corner table.  There is an illusion of privacy while being open to the whole room.  If I can grab that seat, I do.

I’ve been going to the restaurant at the Sofitel – called Café 15 in its first iteration – for years.  When the restaurant changed from Café 15 to ICI Urban Bistro, the décor and style of the space changed from traditional/contemporary to sleek and modern.  It’s a soothing space in which to enjoy fantastic French food.

In the past few years when I’ve been there for lunch, I’ve ordered the “30-minute lunch” – reasonably priced, with four small-portioned courses. 

I recently met my friend Andrew there for lunch after a morning of marathon meetings.  Andrew and I have been dining together for nearly a decade and have known each other longer.   We eat, we talk, we discuss food and wine, and on occasion Andrew will vent about chargeable hours (not typical lunch conversation) or his obsessive marathon and/or triathlon training (also not typical lunch conversation).

Andrew was not at the restaurant when I arrived.  Five minutes, then 10 minutes went by after our scheduled lunch date.  Up until almost four months ago, I had worked in the same office as Andrew and knew things could come up – client matters, deadlines moved up, etc.   And knowing that he likely was in the middle of something important, I sent him the following 12 emails, in quick succession. 

Email 1:   I’m here.
Email 2:  Where the @&$! are you????
Email 3:  I can't freaking wait all day.
Email 4:  I have other things to do
Email 5:  Other people want to have lunch with me
Email 6:  What's wrong with you?!?!
Email 7:  Jesus. Christ.
Email 8:  This. Is. Outrageous.
Email 9:   If you're not here in FIVE mins, I'm leaving!!
Email 10: This is Ridiculous.
Email 11:  And don't freaking blame [name of boss].
Email 12:  You have got to be kidding me!!!

Open communication in friendship is key. 

Andrew finally arrived.

We both went with the 30-minute lunch menu, priced at $26.  This is what I ordered:

  •     Appetizer -- Chantrelle Crepes (with chicken and tarragon veloute)
  •     Main Course – Branzino a la Plancha (bass with Virginia farm winter squash puree and rainbow Swiss chard; espelette and pear emulsion)
  •     Salad – Chioggia beets salad
  •     Dessert – Mini desserts (chef’s choice)
I’ve eaten the Chantrelle Crepes before and they are divine. Creamy, warm, and just the right amount of tarragon. 

Beets are one of my favorite vegetables and as far as I’m concerned, there is no bad way to prepare them.  I do, however, have a grand love for the way the French prepare beets.  Bistro Francais in Georgetown has on top of their very simple salad small, cubed strips of beets – I would be perfectly happy eating a large bowl of cubed strips of beets. 

I digress – the beet salad at ICI was delicious.  If you’re on the fence about beets – well, first of all, that’s crazy – Chioggia beets are probably the best beets to eat.  They are from Chioggia, Italy and are known for their mild flavor.  Their color also is not the intense red, but rather pinkish.

The Branzino a la Plancha – which I’ve never eaten before – is a fish I’m not crazy about.  I decided to go with this main course because I was even less crazy about the other two options:  Moules Chorizo (no mussels, please) and Roasted Amish Chicken.  The bass turned, however, out to be satisfying. 

I must disclose that while I enjoy fish on occasion, it’s not something I crave or turn to with great enthusiasm.  The fish curries my mother made throughout my childhood burst at the seams with flavor and spice and had not one, single hint of fishiness.  Any hint of fishiness and I’m turned off.

Even though the courses in the 30-minute lunch are small, by the time we got to dessert, I was full.  I very well could have gone without diving into the desserts head first, but the desserts at ICI are expertly made and worth writing home about.  I ordered a coffee and bit away at the chocolate desserts.

What I love about the 30-minute-lunch is that all your courses arrive on one plate.  It’s simple, elegant, and so satisfying. 

And I have to rave about the customer service:  incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.

If you get to ICI before your meal begins, head over to Le Bar right across from the restaurant.  An elegant space with loungy-seating:  perfect for a glass of champagne before a meal.  Le Bar also has a menu and is great for quick bite, especially at lunch. 

Finally, if you can’t make it to ICI during the winter, you must head over there in the spring or summer time.  Eating outside (facing 15th and H Streets) is an absolute pleasure.  ICI’s summer soup selections also are fantastic.

Pizzeria Paradiso: Part Deux (but not as good as “Hot Shots”) 01.22.2011

When my friend Kathryn walked into Pizzeria Paradiso for our lunch date, I held up my green notebook in which I keep restaurant / cooking notes.  The first item:  “Pizzeria Paradiso is dead to me.”  And that was before I had anything to eat.

Pizzeria Paradiso has a policy of not seating you unless your entire party is present.  I understand this, especially when it’s busy.  When I got to the restaurant for lunch at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday, the restaurant was maybe a third filled.  Empty tables everywhere you looked.  I was refused a seat.  I was ready to purchase wine and get the bill rolling, but no.  No seat for me!

So, I sat at the bar with a glass of the 2008 Monferrato Bianco and scribbled in my green notebook:  “Pizzeria Paradiso is dead to me.”

Kathryn arrived, we were seated. 

As you may know, this was my, “I’m-giving-Pizzeria-Paradiso-one-last-chance” visit.  I ordered my usual:  the Atomica with extra red pepper.  I also ordered some focaccia to start.  The bread was fabulous.  It really was.  I swirled it around in a puddle of parmesan cheese, olive oil, and salt, and it was fantastic.   I was starving, yes, but the bread was fresh and oh-so-fluffy.  And, really, what is better than fresh bread and olive oil? 

Kathryn and I went to college together.  We don’t see each other often – work, life, husbands, babies, living in complete opposite parts of town, etc. – but when we do, there is no small talk.  So while we waited for our pizzas – not too long – we got right into our lives – a wonderful thing to happen among friends.  

Our pizzas arrived and I have to say, the Atomica was remarkably better than my last visit to Pizzeria Paradiso.  No skimping on the ingredients and the crust was soft and crisp all at once:  perfect.  I had asked for extra red pepper but it still was not hot enough for me.  I kept sprinkling more hot pepper flakes, never enough to my satisfaction.  Why does my mouth have to be on fire?  Because I am Indian.

Final assessment:  Pizzeria Paradiso is not dead to me: it is in a coma.  I’m going to take a break.  I’ll go back, but not anytime soon.  Not being seated in a mostly-empty restaurant has me vexed.  We live in a world where customer service is crumbling, and I don’t like it.   I respect structure, and for the most part, rules.  I’m not asking for entitlement, but when there are numerous empty tables in a restaurant that does not take reservations, it really is not a big deal to let a paying customer take a seat.

Lunch at Redwood: Butternut Squash Soup 01.18.2011

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my friend Lee at Redwood Restaurant in downtown Bethesda and have to rave about the butternut squash soup.  If you've never ventured out here, I highly recommend it.  The area has been gussied up with with high end boutiques, reliable brands (Le Crueset, Blue Mercury, Apple, among others), and fantastic eateries ranging from quick-dining restaurants to a gelato shop.  Along Bethesda Lane -- a courtyard saddled by an apartment building -- also sits Redwood Restaurant, which is owned by Jared Rager, who also started Mendicino Grille, Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, and Blue Ridge. 

I've dined at Redwood a handful of times since it opened and always wish I had more time to spend there.  Redwood promises fresh, organic, locally grown ingredients.  But in addition to the delicious food, the space is open, peaceful, and warm, and conducive to lingering with good wine.  Whenever I've shown up there for dinner, it's packed.  The large bar area is filled with people who I am guessing wanted a table but were happy to settle for a small space to get a bite to eat.

The restaurant also has a bar area tucked away behind a wall where people can eat on a first-come, first served basis.  Eric and I have eaten in this area several times and I have to say, it's really nice.  Romantic even.

During my lunch with Lee, I started with the butternut squash soup. I got a cup, which was a mistake.  I should have ordered a bowl, a few slices of bread, and called it a day.  The soup was not too thick and was topped with truffle butter (swoon) and chives.  And -- are you ready? -- beautiful, gorgeous, delicious chestnuts.  I loved each bite into each chestnut.  I've eaten a lot of things in my life that were chestnut flavored or eaten food with ground chestnut, but never an actual chestnut.  I know:  it's crazy.  But now, I'm sold:  whole chestnuts.

And had I not had a pile of work waiting for me after lunch, I would have had a glass of red wine with my meal.  Alas, work. 

Gastronomic Goal No. 1 for 2011:  Make time to linger at Redwood.

Chicken Curry: One Billion People Can’t Be Wrong 01.07.2011

As far back as I can remember, chicken curry has been a regular part of my eating life.  I grew up eating chicken curry that was incredibly savory, with meat falling off the bone, and the juices satisfying enough to mix with rice and eat.  I have vivid memories of eating only rice with the chicken curry juices, much to the frustration of my mother.

For the longest time, my mother exclusively used drumsticks.  And as far as I could tell, many of the Indian friends we had in Houston also used drumsticks in chicken curry.  My mother moved on to other parts of the chicken, and then eventually boneless breasts, which, as you might imagine, drastically changed the composition of the curry. 

She goes back and forth between boned and boneless, but keeping to a relatively vegetarian diet these days, doesn’t make chicken curry that often.  I’m not complaining.  The Indian vegetarian food she makes is fantastic.

When I first started cooking in my early 20s, Indian cooking scared me.  It seemed complicated.  It is, in fact, quite simple.  There are a standard set of spices and their potency depends on how long and at what temperature they are cooked,; and then of course, you apply the same theory to the chicken, beef, seafood, or whatever you’re cooking.  This took a while for me to understand, and a little while longer for me to put into successful practice.

And because of my fear of Indian cooking, I took the easy way out and cooked with boneless breast, which was a tragic mistake.  The flavors don’t dance the same way without bone.

I’ve used a number of recipes over the years – note that my mother does not use a recipe, only her memory – and my favorite one (and most simple) is from a cookbook called “The Classic 1,000 Indian Recipes”, by Wendy Hobson.  I love this cookbook and this particular recipe. 

Here are the ingredients, I’ll go through my process below:

·      5 tbsp oil or ghee (I use 3 tbsp)
·      2 onions, thinly sliced (I only use one; not a fan of lots of onion)
·      5 cloves garlic, chopped (I use 6; huge fan of garlic)
·      1 inch ginger root, chopped
·      ½ inch cinnamon stick
·      4 cloves
·      4 black peppercorns
·      2 bay leaves (I usually use 4-5)
·      1 black cardamom pod (Can be found at Indian grocery stores; I use green if I don’t have black)

·      12 chicken pieces, skinned

·      1 tbsp ground aniseeds
·      1 tbsp ground almond
·      1 tbsp ground coriander
·      1 tbsp ground roasted cumin
·      ½ tsp ground red chili
·      ½ tsp ground turmeric
·      Salt

·      14oz canned tomatoes, chopped (I include the liquid)
·      2/3 cup plain yoghurt
·      ¾ cup water


·      ½ tsp garam masala
·      1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro (I use a hand full of cilantro)
·      1 small green chili, chopped

While I am getting all the ingredients out, I brown the chicken in a bit of vegetable oil – about 5 minutes each side.  Madhur Jaffrey did this in a chicken curry recipe I read years ago.  I have no recollection of the explanation, but the result is great. 

Once the chicken is slightly brown, I put it aside on a plate and pour out the fat and remaining oil.  Without cleaning the pan, I put in 3 tbsp of oil for the next step.   Indian food uses an excessive amount of oil, so I always decrease whatever amount asked in a recipe.  And I only use vegetable or canola oil – never, ever use olive oil.  I was up in Maine once visiting my in-laws and in a moment of desperation used olive oil.  It was…look, it was so horrible I can’t talk about it.

1.     Okay, so heat the oil and fry the onions, garlic, ginger, and whole spices over medium heat until everything is golden brown.

2.     Next, stir in the ground spices, tomatoes, and salt.  Cook until oil appears at the surface.

3.     Add the yoghurt and (the recipe says) “cook until all the liquid has been absorbed”.  I’ve always been unclear on this.  Does this mean that the liquid is all gone or that the yoghurt and other liquid have meshed well together?  I cook until everything is mixed well together.  

4.     Then, add two-thirds of the water, cover, and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

5.     Add remaining water, increase heat to medium and cook for another two minutes until “the sauce is the consistency you prefer.”  My preference is for a thickish sauce, that is more brown in color.  I get the consistency, but I’ve never been able to get the color.  I have no idea how my mother does it, but her curry is always perfectly brown.

I like to let any kind of Indian food sit for a bit before eating so all the spices have time to age, as it were.  I mix in chopped cilantro, cover, and let it sit until the meal.

A note about cilantro:  I love it.  I can’t get enough of the flavor, the texture, and the aroma.  I tend to overdo it on the cilantro garnish. 

For the rice, I make 1 ½ or 2 cups of basmati rice, and cook it with butter, salt, a bay leaf, a few cloves, a cardamom pod, and a cinnamon stick. 
Beer is the common alcoholic beverage to go with curry, but I find champagne does the trick, too. 


Momofuku 01.04.2011

Since starting a business several months ago, I willfully have taken the word “hope” out of my vocabulary.  I know, I know.  Hope is so good.   Hope sustains us.  But it doesn’t stimulate commerce and it doesn’t create jobs, and, as an instructor recently told me, “Hope is not a business strategy.”  Well, hope crept back in a few weeks ago when we received a cookbook from our friend Emily:  Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan. 

One reason I love cookbooks is because they fill me with a hope that has an immediate possibility of flourishing:  Hope of a good meal, hope of good conversation, hope of good drink, and hope of satiated guests.  I hope for all of it.  When I first flipped through Momofuku, hope was coming out of my pores.

Momofuku is fabulous to look at and read. I haven’t finished reading it, and I’m having trouble putting it down.  It’s a casual read with intermittent swearing and tremendous passion for and about Chang’s work.  It’s not organized like a typical cookbook, and while that might be frustrating, it isn’t.   There isn’t, for example, a glossary.  And it’s written as stories – not the first time this is been done, but it’s done well here.
David Chang, who is Korean, is the chef behind the Momofuku group of restaurants in New York City – Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, Ko, and Milk Bar & Bakery.  Peter Meehan used to write the “25 and Under” food column for the New York Times; he now writes a bi-monthly column called “Grass Fed”.  If you haven’t read his work, I highly recommend it.  And if you pick up Momofuku, you’ll know why I make the recommendation. 

My attention immediately was drawn to the ginger scallion noodles.  It’s an easy recipe and the result was spectacular.  The first time I try a recipe, I stick to it to the letter but I was short on scallions and didn’t have the right noodles on hand.  I used 2 cups of chopped scallions instead of 2.5 cups, and used traditional Oriental noodles instead of ramen noodles. The ingredients can be adjusted up or down, but the noodles need to be ramen. 

Chang and Meehan say that if you have the ginger scallion sauce on hand, you’ll never go hungry – I agree.  Once I made it, I could envision using it with chicken, fish, and sticky rice, among other things.   I also took a few tastes right out of the mixing bowl – divine.  

The ingredients are: 

  •        2.5 cups scallions – thinly sliced, whites and greens
  •         ½ cup finely minced peeled ginger
  •         ¼ cup grapeseed or other neutral oil
  •      1.5 teaspoon usukuchi (light soy sauce)
  •      ¾ teaspoon sherry vinegar
  •      ¾ teaspoon kosher salt

Mix together, let sit for 20 minutes, and it’s ready to mix in the noodles.  The sauce can be left in the fridge for up to two days.

It was fantastic.  The scallions and ginger instead of fighting for attention create a crazy-big flavor.  This recipe made me aware of sherry vinegar and it’s powerful taste, and it’s ability to meld other ingredients.

A note about the chopping and slicing:  everything in this recipe needs to be thin or minced to the tiniest bit, and I cannot do either of those things.  I just cannot.  I’ve tried chopping, slicing, and mincing as small as possible but it never works out.  Is it my hands?  Is it because I’m Indian?  Who knows?

The cookbook also has a few kim chi recipes, and I am anxious to try the Napa cabbage version.  There are a number of Korean food carts throughout downtown DC and when I was working downtown, I became an addict.  My friend Andrew introduced me to the cart on 14th and L Streets, NW, which satisfied my desire for spice.  My friend Gregg introduced me to the cart on Vermont and K Streets, NW, which satisfied my desire for kim chi with a serious kick.

Momofuku also features Chang’s famous cereal milk custard, which our friend Emily has tried and about which she raved.  The recipe is in there, along with caramelized corn flakes.  I may have to take a week off and make as many of the recipes as possible. 

Ah, but there’s one more recipe that may make my head explode from pleasure:  shaved foie gras.  Chang discovered a torchon of foie gras in his fridge that had been forgotten.  In the spirit of innovation, he decided to grate it.  It was light, but once it hit the back of his tongue, it was “creamy, fatty, sweet, and cold”.  What’s not to love about that?  Also, the photo of the shaved foie gras is beautiful.

This is not a cookbook for someone looking to make quick, easy meals.  We often don’t have a luxurious amount of time to cook, but once (maybe twice) a week, one of us is able to make an extensive dish.  We remain hopeful we will be able to cook extensively throughout the week.  At some future date.