Friday, August 1, 2014

Cocktail: Horse's Neck

Looking for a good way to use up some ginger syrup, I came across this recipe for the Horse's Neck in the latest issue of Imbibe magazine. Although the recipe calls for a highball glass, the lowball seemed more appropriate to me, given the ingredient amounts. And the Imbibe cocktail stylist apparently agrees, since the recipe photo shows the drinks in a lowball too.

Cocktail: Horse's Neck
Adapted from a recipe by Garrett Vleck, The Shady Lady Saloon, via Imbibe magazine

1 1/2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. ginger syrup (see recipe)
4 dashes angostura bitters
Chilled club soda
Large lemon peel (removed from an entire lemon if you can do it without it breaking)

Combine the bourbon, ginger syrup and angostura bitters in a lowball (rocks) glass and stir to combine. Fill with ice and top with club soda. Garnish with a giant lemon peel.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

10 Tips for Cooking Great Pasta (featuring Penne with Bacon, Zucchini and Peas)

Although it can be hard to pick, when people ask what my favorite dish to prepare is, "pasta" is usually what I think of first. Over the years, I've picked up a number of techniques that can make almost any pasta dish better.

Below are my 10 tips for great pasta, most of which are embodied by the accompanying recipe for penn with bacon, zucchini and peas, a great summertime pasta.

1. Undercook the pasta by about a minute; finish it in the sauce. Perfectly cooked pasta is "al dente"--cooked through but still a little chewy. Cooking pasta in its sauce helps unite the flavors between pasta and sauce, however, it also means the pasta continues to cook. So if you cook pasta al dente and then add it to still-cooking sauce, the pasta will overcook. The solution is simple: undercook the pasta by about a minute then add it to the sauce to cook for its final minute. Not only does the pasta pick up flavors of the sauce, it's perfectly cooked. Undercooked pasta will be very chewy, almost crunchy, and edible, but definitely in need of longer cooking.

2. Use shallots, in place of garlic, to provide subtle pungency that won't overwhelm the vegetables. I love cooking with garlic in pasta, but in the summer, when I want the fresh vegetables to shine, I sometimes replace garlic with shallots, a happy medium between the pungency of garlic and the sweetness of onions. Shallots come in various sizes. When recipes call for 1, that's usually about 2 tablespoons minced.

3. Let vegetables sit undisturbed for 3-4 minutes at a time to promote browning. After sauteing the aromatics--i.e. some combination of garlic, shallots, onions, sometimes celery and/or carrots--other vegetables are added the dish. If you start stirring them immediately, they will cook more evenly, however, letting them sit undisturbed will allow them to brown a bit, adding flavor. Leave them just a couple minutes, then stir and leave another couple minutes, browning multiple sides.

4. Deglaze the pan with dry vermouth. When recipes say to "deglaze," they mean to add a liquid to a hot pan that food has been browning in. The liquid cleans off the browned bits, incorporating them into a sauce. We often have dry vermouth in the fridge, usually as the result of a purchase for martinis. But we don't drink martinis that often, so the vermouth just sits there. Pasta sauce is a great way to use it up. It works just as well as white wine to add a little acidity and wine flavor to the sauce.

5. A pinch of red chili pepper flakes adds just enough heat. I like my pasta with just a touch of heat. Adding red chili pepper flakes to a pasta sauce distributes that hotness evenly throughout the sauce, giving it just enough bite. Freshly ground black pepper, in contrast, should be added at the end, since cooking makes black pepper less flavorful.

6. A dash of nutmeg adds a hint of spice. Most people associate nutmeg with baked goods like pies, but it is a wonderful spice to add to savory foods. Just a dash is a welcome component of a pasta dish. I find it's particularly good with tomatoes.

7. Reserve pasta cooking water to make sauce. As pasta boils, it leaches starch into the cooking water, which means this water is not only pasta-flavored but also can help thicken pasta sauce as a lower-fat alternative to butter or cream. Dip a Pyrex measuring cup into the pasta water to reserve about a cup just before draining the pasta, then add this "pasta cooking water" to your sauce. This works especially well to pull together a chunky sauce.

8. Use butter near the end to add richness. Sure, you can sauté pasta sauce ingredients in butter, but olive oil works just as well. To still get that buttery richness, stir a little butter in the sauce right at the end.

9. Stir in toasted nuts for crunchy texture. Pasta and its sauce ingredients tend to be mostly chewy, so tossing in some toasted nuts (or seeds) adds a little textural variety to a dish. I love toasted walnuts or pecans in particular for pasta.

10. Stir in fresh herbs at the end to wilt slightly. A sprinkle of fresh herbs on pasta looks pretty and adds bright flavor, but to incorporate herbal flavor into the sauce more, I suggest adding it near the end of cooking, especially for something like basil or fresh mint.

Penne with Bacon, Zucchini and Peas

1 lb. penne rigate pasta
2 tbsp. pine nuts
1/2 bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 shallots, minced
Salt, to taste
1 yellow and 1 green zucchini (use more if small), cut into pieces about 1-inch long and 1/2-inch wide
Dash of grated nutmeg
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
1/3 cup dry vermouth
1 cup fresh peas
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, larger leaves torn
Grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook 1 minute less than package directions for al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta's cooking water, then drain the pasta and set aside.

2. Heat a small frying pan over medium-low heat. Add pine nuts and toast until fragrant and lightly browned, about 5 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. Set aside when browned.

3. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until browned and crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain off the bacon fat.

4. Heat olive oil in the sauté pan. Add the shallots, season with salt and sauté a few minutes until softened, then add the zucchini and season with a dash of nutmeg and a pinch of red chili pepper flakes. Sauté for about 10-12 minutes until the vegetables start to brown, leaving the vegetables undisturbed for a few minutes between stirring. Add dry vermouth to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon to remove any browned bits from the pan. Stir in the fresh peas, reserved pasta cooking water and partially cooked pasta. Taste to pasta to ensure it has cooked to the desired doneness (i.e. al dente--chewy but cooked through). After about a minute, stir in the toasted pine nuts, cooked bacon, butter and basil. Serve pasta in shallow bowls topped with grated parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Feed: July 30, 2014

Absolut Vodka

The Feed is my weekly round up of interesting food-related stories from newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Carman, who writes the Post’s $20 Diner column, considers the notion of “value” when it comes to eating out, teasing out Americans’ predilection to value quantity over quality in judging whether they’re satisfied with a restaurant experience. It reminded me my recent review of a restaurant that serves very good food, but for which I faulted a bit when it came to providing “value,” given that I didn’t think the quality was quite a match for its high price.  

Washington Post: “Vodka, the Disraeli of Spirits,” by M. Carrie Allan.
I admit it. I’ve become an anti-vodka snob. That barely used bottle of Absolut pictured above? It’s years old. And there are far fewer cocktails on my site made with vodka than those made with gin, rum or tequila. I’m not alone either, as Allan notes it has become maligned in craft-cocktail circles, despite still selling strong to the general public. Yet, she makes a good argument for why vodka, basically a blank canvas, is the ideal base spirit for showcasing other flavors.

New York Times: “Hold the Regret? Fast Food Seeks Virtuous Side,” by Julia Moskin.
With profits from restaurant chains like Chipotle and Sweetgreen that sell better quality, healthier fare, Moskin examines the state of this so-called “farm to counter” movement and its impact on the fast food industry.

New York Times: “Chefs Move Beyond New York,” by Rebecca Flint Marx.
In a move that’s good news for eaters everywhere (except maybe New York, but they already have enough good options), chefs training in famous New York establishments are increasingly leaving the Big Apple when they depart those posts to open restaurants in other cities.

Buzzfeed: “46 Life-Changing Baking Hacks Everyone Needs To Know,” by Jessica Probus.
Chris gets credit for finding this one, a great list of tips by Probus, some of which I already knew but quite a few I didn’t, like the first tip: use a wet finger to retrieve eggshell bits from a bowl of cracked eggs. If that works, it will mean an end to chasing those suckers around the bowl with two spoons.

It happened with wine and now possibly with cheese: European producers are pushing to have certain names of cheese considered generic in the United States apply only to cheeses produced in specific European regions, cheeses like parmigiano-reggiano (parmesan in the U.S.), feta and gorgonzola. Soon that tall green can might contain “parmesan-like cheese” (some think it already does).

A fun visual from Eater, celebrating all those dishes we’re all getting tired of at this point (kale Caesar, truffled potatoes, chicken for two, etc.).

Eater: “23 Eye-Opening Charts of Major Food Trends,” by Daniela Galarza.
Here’s another great story of visuals: graphs analyzing various food trends based on Yelp data of key words in user reviews.

I get it, not everyone likes bacon as much as I do. And some people don’t eat any meat at all, or cheese, or butter. They’re called vegans! And they’re about to get a restaurant in downtown D.C. that will allow them the freedom to order something other than the plate of roasted vegetables at the bottom of the dinner menu.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Restaurant: Macon Bistro & Larder (Washington, D.C.)

Macon Bistro & Larder

Lavandou closes. Pulpo closes. Dino closes (or rather moves to Shaw). And (sniff) Palena closes. Things have been looking grim for fine dining in Upper Northwest D.C., particularly Cleveland Park, where a series of closures means there are currently four vacant restaurant store-fronts in the neighborhood. One could conclude that, with all the recent attention to new restaurants around 14th Street, Shaw and H Street NE, there is no reason to venture into this part of town for food.
But the conclusion that dining in Upper Northwest D.C. is dead is quickly proven false by the phenomenally good Macon Bistro & Larder.

Judging by the always-crowded dining room, this casual Southern-with-French-influences restaurant was exactly what the area needed. Located in the Chevy Chase Arcade, a historic building of shops just south of the Maryland border, Macon isn't without restaurant neighbors, but it is far and away the best of the cluster in Chevy Chase, D.C., representing an infusion of quality cooking and service almost without parallel for this sector of the city. In fact, given how much attention other neighborhoods are getting for their new restaurants, it's shocking (in a good way), that Macon's owners decided to open their business where they did. I, and other area residents, are all the more grateful for it.

Macon's swanky charm and energetic vibe are immmediately apparent upon entering the space. It's more bistro than larder, painted in cool shades of gray with olive accents that recede against artful photos and posters, including a map of sorts illustrating Macon's grounding in Macon, Georgia and Mâcon, France. There's a healthy buzz among the patrons that fill the dining room and spill out onto the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk, but the restaurant is never too loud for comfortable conversation.

(top) pickled cauliflower and cheese coins; (bottom) fried pickles

Dinner starts with a delightful amusé, currently sour pickled cauliflower with cheese coins, crunchy little cheese biscuits like gourmet versions of cheese fish. Our server's suggestion to choose a snack to nibble on while we make our menu selections leads us to a quickly devoured plate of fried pickles. The cukes' spicy breading is perfect for soaking up the cumin-spiced tomato aioli. All of these early treats taste great with a couple of cocktails, such as Water Lillets, a sumery concoction of gin and Lillet Blanc with the refreshing punch of grapefruit. We haven't even gotten to the meal proper yet, and already we could tell how well chef Tony Brown has married Southern and French tastes.

(top) fried green tomatoes; (bottom) bibb lettuce salad

But the next dish is all Southern, and it's a must-have. Macon's fried green tomatoes are extraordinarily good. If you've never tried this classic, you may not want anyone else's version. At Macon, thick slices of warm, tart green tomatoes arrive encased in a crisp, salty fried breading and served with generous chunks of smoky pork belly, spicy tomato aioli (the same one that comes with the pickles) and a side of watercress. During our first visit, we liked all the food, but this was our favorite.

Another night we ordered a bibb lettuce salad with beets, radishes and buttermilk dressing. Although not as much a show-stopper as the fried green tomatoes, the salad is good and worth getting for the rosemary-spiced pecans that adorn it.

(top) roasted pork tenderloin; (middle) short ribs; (bottom) roasted chicken breast

It can be hard to choose an entree at Macon, since they all sound so good. Roasted pork tenderloin rides the new wave of slightly less-cooked pork, arriving from the kitchen at a medium-rare to medium and garnished with spicy-sweet chipotle peach preserve that adds just enough zip without overpowering the meat. Given how often I see them around the dining room, the short ribs are a clear favorite. The tender, flavorful meat has a good sear to crisp its edges and is served over grits with a topping of crispy shallots. The moist and flavorful roasted chicken breast is also very good and is plated with bacony collard greens cooked just right.

Fried chicken and waffles

When our server told us the night's special was fried chicken and waffles, we instantly knew we had to have it. The Southern specialty was oh-so-satisfying. Boneless thigh meat is fried to a dark brown and served on a belgian waffle with honey-hot and bourbon-maple syrups. It's dishes like this that should entice you to get to Macon early; we had a 6:30 reservation and were the lucky last party to enjoy that evening's special.

(top) 'Mac'-on cheese; (middle) roasted Brussels sprouts; (bottom) Essie's biscuits

Macon's entree portions are not huge and the sides they come with are fairly small too. All the more reason to order some additional sides. The 'Mac'-on cheese isn't a unique take on mac & cheese; it's just rich and satisfying the way you want it, made with spiral pasta, cheddar cheese sauce and a crunchy panko topping. Roasted Brussels sprouts' bitter flavor is tempered with smoky bacon lardons, buttery roasted garlic and the earthy sweetness of black strap molasses. The house-made biscuits are also very good. I can't decide if I like them better smeared with honey-butter or pepper jelly. You won't have long to decide though, since your table will scarf these up quick.

(top) blackberry cobbler; (bottom) coffee praline sundae

When it comes time for dessert, you might not have much room, but it would be a shame to pass up blackberry cobbler served in a mason jar warm but not too hot, making it enjoyable even on a hot summer evening with its cool topping of crème fraîche. If something cold is more to your liking, the coffee praline sundae hits the spot. The strongly flavored coffee ice cream is decked out with bourbon-caramel and pecans.

Before leaving, don't forget to snag one of their sea salt caramels, which are divine. Commercial caramels never taste burnt enough--these are almost smoky in their darkness with a pleasant amount of salt to balance the sweetness. You might even be tempted to buy more from the larder (the "larder" referring to the restaurant's small offering of pantry treats available for sale to take home, including the biscuits, pepper jelly and cheese coins).

The service during both our visits to Macon was prompt, friendly and knowledgeable. During our first visit, our very-busy server always remembered to circle back with us, and made a point of getting an answer from the kitchen for me about the ingredients in one of our dishes. He also quickly righted a misstep that happened when our entrees arrived before our appetizers. On our second visit, our service was just as good, as our server, Allison, offered many good tips and paid particular attention to our wine needs, offering tastes of several by-the-bottle offerings before we settled on a sauvignon blanc--one of the better ones I've had.

When Palena closed earlier this year, I wondered whether we'd find another restaurant close to our home that could become a favorite place for special occasions or any other time we just wanted really good food. Turns out, we didn't have to wait very long for Macon Bistro & Larder to come along and fill the gap.

Macon Bistro & Larder, 5520 Connecticut Avenue NW (in the Chevy Chase Arcade between Livingston and Morrison Streets NW), Washington, D.C. (Chevy Chase). (202) 248-7807. Reservations: Open Table.

Macon Bistro & Larder on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer Vegetable Pasta Salad

I enjoy a good pasta dish any time of year, but when it's really hot outside, pasta salad is a good way to transform the usual hot fare into something cold but still quite satisfying.

This pasta salad is a pretty classic combination of summer vegetables, herbs and cheese. Instead of roasting the red pepper, I sauteed it along with the zucchini and garlic. I've recently fallen for the authentic Greek feta cheese and recommend that in this dish, but feel free to use a domestic version if that's what's on hand.

Summer Vegetable Pasta Salad
Elements adapted from Roasted Red Pepper, Artichoke and Olive Pasta Salad by Baker By Nature

1 lb. farfalle pasta
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into julienne (pieces about 1-inch long and 1/4-inch wide)
1 zucchini cut into julienne (pieces about the same size as the bell pepper)
Salt, to taste
1-2 tsp. dried oregano
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
2 tbsp. pine nuts
6 oz. jar of marinated artichoke hearts, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup pitted olives, kalamata or a mix
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
12 or so fresh basil leaves, cut into 1/4-inch ribbons

1 tsp. minced red onion
Pinch of salt.
2-3 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain pasta and set aside to cool.

2. Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the red pepper and zucchini and season with salt, oregano and a sprinkle of red chili pepper flakes. Sauté until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

3. Heat a small frying pan over medium-low heat. Toast the pine nuts, shaking occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5-7 minutes. Set aside to cool.

4. In a large bowl, combine the pasta, sautéed vegetables, pine nuts, artichoke hearts, olives, feta and basil.

5. Make the dressing: add the onion and salt to a glass measuring cup or bowl. Mash with a muddler or the back of a spoon until juicy. Add the vinegar, mustard and pepper and whisk together with a fork. Add the olive oil and whisk until emulsified. Pour over the salad and toss to combine.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Taking a Short Break

Cook In / Dine Out is taking a much needed rest this week. I'll be back next week with new recipes and restaurants. In the meantime check out some recent posts by theme:

Last week was all about summer, including a stop by the Smithsonian American Indian Musuem's cafe, ideas for summer produce, food-related beach reads and the Beach Breeze, a good summer cocktail.

I've been growing an herb garden this summer, so I've been writing about its progress and featuring lots of recipes with fresh herbs like basil, spearmint and parsley.

Summer Cocktail Week 2014 is chock-full of ideas for refreshing warm-weather drinks.

I had a recent spate of Mexican posts, including recipes for tacos, an apple margarita and a guide to D.C.'s Mexican restaurants.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Cocktail: Beach Breeze

Summer is for...lazy afternoons with cocktails. Who can argue with that? Whether you're at home on your balcony or deck or enjoying warm weather at a beach or lake, nothing beats a refreshing, cool drink at your side.

This drink is loosely based on the Rainbow Beach Swizzle by Jesse Card. Card's version features more rum--four kinds in fact--plus pineapple juice. I dialed back the rum a bit, omitted the pineapple juice (for the sole reason that I had run out and didn't realize it) and added some ginger syrup.

For more summer cocktail ideas, check out my recent Summer Cocktails Week.

Beach Breeze
Adapted in part from Rainbow Beach Swizzle by Jesse Card

1 oz. fresh lime juice
8 spearmint leaves
1 oz. light rum
1/2 oz. falernum
1/2 oz. ginger syrup (see recipe here)
Float of blackstrap rum
Mint sprig and lime wheel garnish

Add lime juice and mint leaves to a cocktail shaker and gently muddle the leaves. Add the rum, falernum and ginger syrup and fill the shaker with ice. Shake until cold then strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Carefully float the blackstrap rum on top of the drink (it works well to slowly pour it over the back of a spoon). Garnish with mint spring and lime wheel.