Monday, September 28, 2009

Brunch at the Blue Duck Tavern

Although the Blue Duck Tavern is not a place I am likely to visit outside of the affordable confines of Restaurant Week (yikes!), my aunt and uncle were in town helping my cousin set up her new apartment and graciously invited me to the Blue Duck for an interesting brunch.

Interesting could be the watchword for this restaurant. Walking in was like entering a scene form Stargate. I felt like I was entering the foodie temple of the Sun god. The entrance itself is a set of huge, black, double doors that a) don't look like they open, and b) have no discernible sign that they lead to the restaurant. (Leap of Faith?) Once inside, one immediately goes up and down a series of small stone steps, while sunlight floods through a wall of windows. We had seats by the kitchen, which apparently is the place to be, so one can watch the chefs as dishes are prepared and served.

If anything Anthony Bourdain writes it to be believed, having an open kitchen must be absolute hell for a chef. I was expecting a milder version of Bourdain's wild, profane kitchens or even the fast-paced world of Bill Buford, but what I got was more akin to a sedate episode of Iron Chef America. Frankly, I forgot they were there. Perhaps it is a little more exciting for dinner service, instead of a sleepy brunch, but let's be serious here, folks, we all know I was more interested in eating the food. Luckily, the food was as interesting as the ambiance.

We started with mimosas and croissants, which were excellent. The jams, cream and honey were perfect. I ordered the sour dough pancake with port poached figs and fig molasses. (!!) The tangy and gooey chunks of fig combined with the light and fruity fig molasses (oh my), balanced the denseness of the pancake, keeping it from feeling too heavy. It was a sin to leave a morsel on that plate, which was not even a plate. My giant pancake was served in an equally huge skillet. In the succinct words of my uncle: "Big? That thing is a Buick." After croissants and jams, it easily defeated me.

My one reservation about this restaurant, as I mentioned, was the price. My aunt's eggs benedict looked a little on the small side for $17. Now, I know I am not brunching at Denny's or IHOP and that the best ingredients cost a little more, but I am still going through vicarious price shock for this brunch. (Thankfully, my aunt and uncle were picking up the tab).  Sure, I had a truck of a pancake, but I have to wonder if I had ordered another, smaller, dish, would I have left hungry and poor? Perhaps the added cost is a necessary offering to the Sun god. That being said, I loved my fig pancake and would be happy eating here again.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fluffernutter Fans Unite!

I absolutely, positively love the Fluffernutter. Check out this effort to make it the official sandwich of Massachusetts. If you have not tried this Northeastern delicacy, believe me, my friends, you are truly missing out. Nothing complements peanut butter like a sweet, sticky layer of Marshmallow Fluff (which is very low in calories. Bonus!). When I was a kid, my mom and grandmother used to make these babies for me, always cutting them up into triangle-shaped quarters because I was convinced they were more filling (and fun!) that way. My dad and I used to eat them together with an extra layer of grape jelly to make lunch time extra specially ridiculous.

Lately, I've been bringing Fluffernutters to work for lunch. Let me state for the record, nothing takes the edge off that 20-something-being/dressing/acting-like-a-grown-up-sucks angst like sitting on a bench, reading a book and eating a Fluffernutter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Soups and Spaghetti Squash: Hooray Fall!

Fall is easily may favorite season. (Favorite!) Not only because I love the cooler weather and changing leaves, but because it is the best season for being with family and eating some tremendous food. As part of my ongoing efforts to celebrate the beginning of Fall, I decided to indulge my wistfulness with a Italian Sausage and Tortellini Soup. Initially, I liked the recipe because it is similar to my mother's meat sauce recipe, (which will be making an appearance at some point), but in soup form. My thought was that if I made my mother's sauce, my delicate sensibilities would be completely overwhelmed with nostalgia; Thanksgiving is just too far away to start getting homesick now. My hope was that this soup would fill my current flavor needs, while allowing me to continue developing some new recipes and cooking traditions of my own.

Unfortunately, this soup only got me about halfway there. As I have repeatedly written, I am rookie in the kitchen.  I couldn't make stir-fry until I was a sophomore in college, and only then under supervision. One thing I still have to learn is to trust my instincts. If I did, I might not have used the full 2 tablespoons, each, of dried basil and oregano which was called for in this recipe. As I was adding my ingredients I read the recipe four times before I could believe I was reading it correctly. I stood over my steaming pot, holding my full measuring spoon thinking: No, no. Surely not. I pulled out my mom's meat sauce recipe as a reference; Hmm. Significantly smaller amounts of herbs. I even checked the online recipe reviews, a valuable resource for identifying recipe deficiencies. Only a few reviews mentioned reducing the herbs. Really? OK. I tipped my herb-laden spoon with the rapidity of pulling off a Band-Aid and quickly stirred the herbs about, attempting to blend in what I immediately knew was a mistake Damn!

However, this experience demonstrates a very good lesson. If something in a recipe seems off, especially when it is far off from your normal relationship with your most common ingredients, chances are it is a misprint. Or, even if it is not a misprint, I know what I like. If you know you prefer fresh herbs to dried, trust yourself enough to say, "Gee, I am not wild about a mouth full of dried herbs. Maybe I should change this recipe a bit."

The soup wasn't ruined, it was generally good, but it did have a canned, processed taste. Not to dis canned soup, but the whole point of making soup at home is to have a really fresh taste. Bygones. I only have four more servings left to go. Riiight. In its defense, this recipe does have what I like to call, a lot of wiggle room. The dried herbs could easily be replaced with fresh or cut in half or even to one-third, but the ratios of broth to meat to veggies are good, so you can safely experiment with your favorite vegetables or other ingredients if zucchini isn't your thing. (But seriously, if you don't like zucchini, you should really reconsider). In the end, I managed to accomplish what I wanted; I wanted a way to harness my warm and familiar Fall flavor memories, while learning a little more about myself as a cook and, hopefully, developing a few new recipe ideas of my own.

And just because I can't bear to have my first Fall post be a bit of a fiasco, I'll leave you will a Fall favorite that is absolutely rookie-proof.

My first spaghetti squash of the season!

Coming up on the Cranberry: sadly, my cooking class this weekend was cancelled, but I will be baking the ever-popular Pistachio Cake for a friend's housewarming. Get excited.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Late Summer Corn Chowder

Is it Fall yet? Whenever I pass my closet these days, I can't help eyeing my big sweaters and duck boots. The deceptively cool weather in DC has been a real tease. So what better way to invoke the spirit of Fall than a hearty corn chowder with bell peppers and potatoes? The best of both seasons, this Corn and Bell Pepper Chowder is quick, flavorful and great for a weeknight meal (and lunch box leftovers). The only improvement I might suggest would be some crumbled bacon, if you want to fatten it up a bit.

I am not sure what will be on the menu this week. I did have a sudden and intense craving for creamed pearl onions recently. AND... I have a cooking class on Fall fruit desserts coming up. Sweet!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chorizo Cheesy Goodness

So what, you my wonder, became of all that lovely chorizo? Funny you should ask. I had the sausage; I had the cheese; I had the cilantro... Perhaps I was inspired by The Arugula Files recent corn quesadillas, because quesadillas are on the menu tonight. Chorizo makes even the dullest of dishes seem delightful, doesn't it?

Ok, I have it on good authority that this might not be the most appetizing image, but let me tell you, this chorizo cheesy goodness was delicioso.


2 medium whole wheat tortillas
2 chorizo sausages, casings removed
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
about a handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
4 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded

light sour cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sauté chunks of chorizo and onion, breaking up chorizo with the back of a spoon until both are browned and onions are soft. Add cilantro and jalapeno. Grease a large baking sheet. Place on tortilla on the baking sheet. When chorizo is cooked through (it will feel firm) spoon saute mix onto tortilla. (Try to avoid scooping too much of the sausage grease onto the tortilla. You don't need the extra fat for flavor and it will make the tortilla soggy). Top with cheese and remaining tortilla and bake until cheese it melted. Serve sliced with a dollop of sour cream.

Unintended bonus: the wheat tortilla had a subtle sweetness that complemented the spicy chorizo. Yummers.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Risk: An Afternoon of Culinary Domination

OK, I am about to bring you in on a Wicked Cranberry secret. When cooking for people who are not my boyfriend or my immediate family, I am a hot mess. Unless I have made a recipe at least twice (and know where the potential pitfalls are) I won't prepare it for anyone outside my supportive circle. But this day was about Risk, and I knew I had to be bold if I wanted to conquer not only my nervous nellyism, but the hearts, minds and tummies of my opponents. Game on.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip

1 cup (light) mayonnaise
1 cup (light) sour cream
2 cups Asiago cheese, grated
1 14-oz. jar of marinated artichoke hearts, drained and finely chopped
5-6 oz. fresh baby Spinach, sautéed and chopped (or use frozen)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium loaf of sourdough
1 baguette, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the first six ingredients in a medium bowl. Hollow out the loaf of sourdough to create a bowl. Reserve the top and insides of the bread bowl. Pour dip into bread bowl, replacing top and bake for 1 hour. Serve with baguette slices and chunks from the inside of the bowl.

I used regular mayo and sour cream, as I was serving it to a bunch of dudes, but Asiago is a strong enough flavor that you could easily sub out light mayo and sour cream and it wouldn't detract from the overall taste.

"Game on," quickly became, "Better safe than sorry." Between you, me and the lamppost, I did, in fact, purchase the ingredients for an auxiliary appetizer, Rachel Ray's Chorizo and Mushroom Queso. (In my defense, I had some extra jalapenos, red onion and cilantro, which would have dressed it up some). However, now I have a lovely bunch of Chorizo sausages for dinner some night this week, because this Artichoke dip was a huge hit. Soon enough, the boys were going at the bread bowl itself, using the hunks of bowl to scrape up any errant bits of dip. Bwha-ha-ha-ha!

After a few hours of gaming, just as my guests were lulled into a beer induced buzz, my boyfriend and I hit them with a one-two, buffalo chicken bites and pasta salad combo. Having soaked cubes of chicken breast in buttermilk and Crystal sauce overnight, my boyfriend dredged them in flour and deep fried them for about 8 minutes a batch, then doused them in butter and Crystal hot sauce. Yum. (These bites are a Fry Fest original recipe, (care of our Master Guest Chef SO) from our annual deep-frying theme party).

Sadly, the pasta salad (here), which included mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes and olives tasted bland to me. I even substituted some of the oil in which the sun-dried tomatoes were packed for a portion of the olive oil, but to no avail. Although I wasn't wild about it, it was a good, cool match for the hot and spicy buffalo bites. P.S. The boys seemed to enjoy it.

Finally, the pièce de résistance! Peach and Blackberry Shortcakes with Blackberry Cream. All who remained, the few, the brave, the hungry, were taken down by this dessert. I bided my time, rising early the day before to beat the berry lines at the Court House Farmers' Market. I braved the overly moist shortcake batter (too much buttermilk, ack!) which stuck to everything, abandoned my cookie cutters as useless, formed little shortcake patties in my hands and peeled, pitted and sliced 2 pounds of peaches. And it was totally worth it. Not only was this dessert fantastic, I have a little filling and blackberry puree left over. Ice cream toppings anyone?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

DC Food Blogger Happy Hour - Success!

Thanks so much to everyone who organized and attended the DC Food Blogger Happy Hour tonight. It was wonderful to see you all. I got to meet some of my current favorites, Mary of The Arugula Files and some new faces, Katy of Dirty Radish and Stephanie of Sassy Dining, whose blogs I am looking forward to checking out.

Any now for something completely different:

Fontina, Mushroom, Red Onion and Jalapeno Pizza, a.k.a. my supper.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back in the Saddle

You may have noticed that my blog posts have been a little thin on the ground the last few months. My apologies. Over the last few months there has been a noticable spike in the demands from the other parts of my life. I must admit that when it came to dinner, I was not above the occasional can of Beefaroni. I may even have a box or two of Spiderman Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheese in my pantry, right now. That's right. While fresh and natural is always the best choice, sometimes, I just don't have the energy to clean, chop or saute. Sometimes I need to open a can and bless my microwave. However, several months of this kind of eating has not done good things for my health or my general living habits. Therefore, I spent the better part of a day this weekend, combing through my cookbooks and cooking magazines for some new directions.

Summer Tomato and Bell Pepper Soup. Comforting and familiar flavor combo, but ultimately gave me a wicked hankerin' for a true gazpacho.

This simple soup is ideal for those nights when you just can't bear to turn on the stove. Other than being pretty generous with the application of my goat cheese garnish,  I followed fairly closely to the recipe. Usually, when I make a recipe for the first time, I follow it closely to make sure I know how it is supposed to taste, before I change it to how I want it to taste. I served the soup as a side with sirloin steaks and onion and red pepper confit.

Grilled Chicken Breasts with Honeydew Salsa 

While just about everyone on the planet would prefer chicken with the skin on, I just couldn't bring myself to use anything but skinless. I love me some crispy chicken, but I still have some foodcation pounds that don't need any help sticking around.

The salsa was delicious. Because I was only cooking for myself and my boyfriend, I grilled half as much chicken, but made a full batch of salsa. (I really like sauces. A lot). This is a wonderful dinner for a hot summer night. I used a jalapeno, but doubled the amount listed in the recipe. As everyone knows, not all chiles are created equal, so it is important to test the strength and spiciness of one's chiles while cooking. For this reason, and because I like my dishes spicy, I always feel free to play with the amount of chiles I use. However, I still think this recipe could have stood a bit more heat, but overal this recipe is a good bet.

Apple Galette. A trusty standby.

Frankly, I cheated a bit. I've made this recipe many times, but I had a frozen Whole Foods pie crust taking up space in my freezer and a bunch of Granny Smiths that were this side of mealy. I had to make something out of them and a galette sprung to mind.

I love this recipe because it is so easy and versatile. I like to think of galettes as a lazy baker's pie. It doesn't have the same level of juiciness that a pie would, but it fills that need and takes a fraction of the time. I only had raspberry preserves in the fridge, hence the purple tinge. Previously, I've made it with marmalade instead of apricot preserves. (Sadly, my boyfriend does not like apricots. Weird, right?) You can really use whatever apples and jellies you have on hand. It is so easy and looks deceptively fancy with the apple slices arranged in concentric circles. Go to it!