Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Restaurants

Without a doubt, 2013 was a hot year for new restaurants in D.C. So much so, that, given my focus on cooking over restaurants, I really couldn't even begin to keep up. New D.C. restaurants I would have loved to visit this year, but didn't get to include Rose's Luxury, Doi Moi, Etto, Ghibeilina and Thally. There's always next year! That said, we did enjoy a number of great meals this year in new and established D.C. restaurants. We also ate well during sojourns to New York City, Portland, Oregon and Rehoboth Beach, Delware. Here were our most memorable bites:

Best Starter: Corn Bread with Bacon Marmalade, Range (Washington, D.C.). The first morsel I ever tasted at Bryan Voltaggio's sprawling Friendship Heights outpost was one of my all-time favorites. The sweet and smoky bacon marmalade was sinfully delicious and unforgettable. Honorable mentions: Bread Basket, Le Diplomate (Washington, D.C.); Chilled Pea Soup, Blue Hill (New York, N.Y.).

Best Salad: Beans Salad with Sugar Snap, Green and Yellow Beans, Toasted Hazelnuts, Eataly (New York, N.Y.). On a sweltering hot summer day, a recharge lunch in Manhattan Italian food mart Eataly turned into a surprisingly delightful lunch, the highlight of which was this salad of contrasting textures. Honorable mentions: Misticanza, Casa Luca (Washington, D.C.); Salad of mixed greens with idiazábal cheese, Jaleo (Washington, D.C.).

Best Pasta: Smoked Potato Gnocchi with Duck Ragu, Casa Luca (Washington, D.C.). After having been wowed by last year's visit to Fiola, we were just as impressed with Chef Fabio Trabocchi's new casual downtown restaurant, where Chris had this incredible gnocchi. Honorable mention: Tagliolini with Porchetta and Smoked Mozzarella, Osteria Elisir (Washington, D.C.).

Best Meat Dish: Pork Chop for Two with Stuffing, Ma Peche (New York, N.Y.). Chris teased me for a long time about my interest in Momofuku. Then I took him to one of David Chang's restaurants. He doesn't tease me anymore. We were both smitten with Ma Peche and especially this amazing pork dish, which was the inspiration for what I served us on Christmas this year. Honorable mentions: Pork and Foie Gras Canelones, Jaleo (Washington, D.C.); House-Made Bratwurst, Grüner (Portland, Ore.).

Best Seafood Dish: Lobster with Heirloom Tomatoes and Eggplant Puree, a(MUSE) (Rehoboth Beach, Del.). There was a lot to love about the tasting menu we enjoyed last summer at a(MUSE), but I chose this lobster dish because I loved its artful presentation and the honey-paprika sauce that accompanied it. Honorable mention: Arctic Char with Summer Squash, Table (Washington, D.C.).

Best Pizza: Salsiccia Dolce, Posto (New York, N.Y.). We've enjoyed the pizza at Posto for years, but I didn't write about it until this summer. We've tried several pies there, but we always come back to this sausage, caramelized onion and basil pizza, which is our favorite pizza anywhere these days. Honorable mention:  Luigi (ramp pizza), Graffiato (Washington, D.C.).

Best Roast Chicken: Roasted Barbecue Chicken, Blue Duck Tavern (Washington, D.C.). Although roasted indoors, this juicy bird had all the flavor of outdoor barbecue thanks to its brine. It inspired my own experiment with Smoke-Brined Oven BBQ Chicken. Honorable mention: Peruvian Roast Chicken, Del Campo.

Best Dessert: Dark Chocolate Napoleon, Le Diplomate (Washington, D.C.). The beginning bread basket and closing dessert were the highlights of our meal at Le Diplomate. I loved this architectural wonder of a dessert, a chocoholic's dream. Le Diplomate still has this on their menu, although their pastry chef, Naomi Gallego, is now cooking at Blue Duck Tavern. Honorable mention: Coffee Mousse with Hazelnut Dacquoise, Del Campo (Washington, D.C.).

Best Cocktail: Vegetal Gin & Tonic, Jaleo (Washington, D.C.). Spanish-style gin & tonics have become very popular this year. One of the best places to enjoy them in D.C. is at the Jaleo bar, where you can watch the bartenders craft them with assorted aromatic touches. Honorable mentions: Agave Stinger, Commerce (New York, N.Y.); Playground Meltdown,  Range (Washington, D.C.); Martinez, Graffiato (Washington, D.C.).

Best Service: Del Campo (Washington, D.C.). I ate at Del Campo several times, and during each visit I was impressed with the friendly, knowledgable service from a staff that was clearly interested in what was coming out of the kitchen and made me feel right at home. Honorable mentions: Blue Hill (New York, N.Y.), Graffiato (Washington, D.C.).

Best Overall Restaurant Experience: Range (Washington, D.C.). In theory, Range shouldn't succeed. It's a giant restaurant in a shopping mall with a menu that covers every base from Italian to seafood to steak (it even has a cigar lounge). But both diners we ate at Range were remarkably good, proving the restaurant's name could aptly apply to how well it pulls off such varied dishes.  Honorable mentions: Del Campo (Washington, D.C.).a(MUSE) (Rehoboth Beach, Del.).

Monday, December 30, 2013

Best of 2013: Desserts

It might be hard to believe if you visit around the holidays, but normally, we don't eat dessert often at our house. Certainly, it's not with every meal or even every week. But every now and then, it's nice to have a really good sweet treat. Not some "light" diet-oriented dessert. Uh-uh. I'm talking something satisfying and decadent. I'd rather have dessert only every now and then and have it be incredible than have low-cal desserts all the time.

Cakes and Pies

I loved this unique Coffee Cake with Coffee Frosting from a recipe by The Pioneer Woman was the perfect winter treat, while Melissa Clarks' recipe for Strawberry Shortcake with Lemon-Pepper Syrup was just as good for summer. Another unusual but tasty cake was the Gin & Tonic Cake, inspired by my favorite cocktail. For out-and-out decadence, nothing tops this Chocolate Truffle Cake, from a recipe by Chef Naomi Pomeroy.

For Thanksgiving, I was blown away by Fine Cooking's recipe for Bourbon-Caramel Pumpkin Tart. And my Apple Custard Pie with Gingersnap Cookie Crust was my effort to combine the best of apple pie and pumpkin pie into one holiday treat.

Ice Cream

I didn't make as much ice cream this year, but when I did, I went for interesting, seasonal flavors. Last winter, I created the By the Fire Sundae with maple-bacon ice cream, a brown butter blondie, caramel and smoky whipped cream. In the spring, taking advantage of my favorite herb, I made Mint-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. And in the summer, I discovered that sweet corn is just as great for dessert as a dinner side in Sweet Corn Ice Cream with Blackberry Sauce.

For lovers of ice cream pie, there's also this wonderfully festive Cereal Milk Ice Cream Pie with Compost Cookie Crust, an ode to the creative ideas of Momofuku Milk Bar Chef Christina Tosi (whose cookbook I got for Christmas--so look for more Momofuku treats next year).


As usual, December featured lots of cookie recipes. My favorite were the Molasses Sandwich Cookies with lemon filling (we paired it with Almond Lace Cookies in this year's Dallas Desserts Holiday Bakeoff with Dallas Decoder). I also shared a recipe for Chocolate Saltine Bark, a longtime simple holiday favorite.

Another first this year: I attempted to create several original cookie recipes. My favorite were the Peanut Butter, Oatmeal and Chocolate Chip Cookies, which were like three great cookies rolled into one.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best of 2013: Main Dishes

Experiments with brined roast chicken, an amazing beef stew and a host of broiled salmon entrees were among my favorite main dishes this year.

Beef and Pork

What makes Jacques Pepin's Beef Stew in Red Wine Sauce so good? Perhaps it's the combination of pearl onions, baby carrots and mushrooms with no potatoes. Or the touch of pancetta (or bacon, which I used). Or maybe that the wine cooks slowly in the oven with a whole bottle of wine. Regardless, it was my favorite beef dish this year. Truly exquisite. Other good beef dishes included the Beef Wellington with Gorgonzola, a perennial Christmas tradition in our house, and this Traditional Beef Stroganoff, which I adapted from several recipes seeking an "authentic" recipe for old-school Beef Stroganoff.

My favorite pork dish was these Sweet and Sticky Baby Back Ribs that appeared in The Washington Post, a wonderful indoor way to make flavorful summer ribs. I also enjoyed Le Pigeon (Portland) Chef Gabriel Rucker's recipe for Pan-Seared Pork Chops with Thyme and Bacon and my simple weeknight dinner recipe for Orange Pork Stir Fry with Ginger and Chard.

Chicken and Turkey

I got experimental with chicken this year. Seeking to replicate one of my favorite restaurant dishes, the roast chicken at Palena, I made Spice-Brined Roast Chicken, which turned out fairly close to what you get at the restaurant. Wanting to bring the smoky flavors of outdoor barbecue into the kitchen, another brining experiment yielded this tasty Smoked-Brined Oven BBQ Chicken. Lastly, taking advantage of seasonal sweet corn, I came up with these Roasted Corn and Chicken Enchiladas.

Apart from Thanksgiving, I didn't do much with turkey this year, although we did enjoy the Thanksgiving Leftovers Tacos I invented to use of all those great Thanksgiving dishes.


Broiled salmon is something I turn to again and again, since it's so easy to prepare quickly during the week and lends itself well to a variety of flavors. This year, I experimented more with Asian flavors, like the umami-rich Dashi-Poached Salmon, Garlic-Ginger Broiled Salmon with Miso-Braised Mustard Greens and Mustard Broiled Salmon with Miso and Honey-Braised Greens. Another salmon dish I liked served with greens was Broiled Salmon with White Bean, Kale and Bacon Ragoût. And if tacos are your thing, Salmon Tacos offered a nice variety to my usual broiled fillet.


Most of the pasta and grains best dishes I featured Friday are vegetarian, but there are a couple other great dishes I wanted to include here: The Vegetable Napoleons with Red Wine Sauce, which is a great dish if you want a dramatic presentation, and Yogurt Kuku, a sort of Middle Eastern frittata, that I served alongside a selection of favorite mezze dishes.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Best of 2013: Pasta and Grains

Best Pasta and Grain Dishes of 2013
Top L to R: Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce, Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Mushrooms, Parsley Pesto Spaghetti. Middle L to R: Modernist Mac & Cheese with Bacon and Roasted Cauliflower, Roasted Tomato Risotto, Bolognese-Style Lasagna. Bottom L to R: Farro Bowl with Sugar Snap Peas and Kielbasa, Sausage-Zucchini Pasta, Multi-Grain Risotto with Broccolini and Brussels Sprouts.

My lists of the year's best cocktails and salads, soups, starters and sides were pretty lengthy. For my favorite pasta and grain recipes, I decided to limit myself to my 10 favorites, which are a great mix of styles, original and adapted recipes and ingredients from all the seasons.

1. Modernist Mac & Cheese with Bacon and Roasted Cauliflower. I adapted this recipe from Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold. Their technique for the cheese sauce is so simple and works very well: just water and sodium citrate (the sodium salt of citric acid, available from Amazon). The sauce is amazingly smooth and comes together much faster than the traditional roux-to-béchamel-to-mornay version.

2. Butternut Squash, Goat Cheese and Sausage Lasagna. This alternative to tomato-based lasagna is one of my absolute favorites. It's perfect for fall when squash are in season, which go so well with goat cheese, sage and sausage.

3. Roasted Tomato Risotto. What makes this risotto special is the homemade roasted tomato and fennel broth I made first and used instead of store-bought chicken or vegetable broth for cooking the risotto, which includes additional roasted tomatoes.

4. Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce. During the late summer, when tomatoes are in season, we eat massive quantities of them. One of my favorite ways to do so is a simple, quick pasta sauce with fresh basil.

5. Lasagna, Bolognese Style. This was the first dish I ever made from a recipe by lauded Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan, who, sadly, passed away this year. If you're used to the tomato-ricotta version of lasagna, this version, made with bolognese and béchamel is a nice change of pace. (After Hazan's death, I also made her Pasta all'Amatriciana, which is also amazing.)

6. Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Mushrooms. Admittedly, recreating Mike Isabella's very popular Graffiato pasta dish is a lot of work. So, if you're in the mood for an intensive cooking project, feel free to tackle this. Despite the effort, the result is a very rewarding dish with amazing sweet corn flavor.

7. Multi-Grain Risotto with Broccolini and Brussels Sprouts. Who says risotto has to be rice? This multi-grain version, adapted from a recipe that appeared in The Washington Post, uses farro, wheat berries and barley.

8. Farro Bowl with Sugar Snap Peas and Kielbasa. Speaking of farro, the quick-cooking whole grain is the perfect base in this summery dish with sugar snap peas, turkey kielbasa and mint.

9. Parsley Pesto Spaghetti. This Bon Appétit recipe is as basic as pasta recipes get, although isn't that often when they're best? The magazine selected my photo among their "Cook the Cover" submissions (mine is #2).

10. Sausage-Zucchini Pasta. Vegan sausage? Normally, I wouldn't be interested. But at a friend's urging, I gave the Field Roast brand a try in this pasta dish and was pleasantly surprised at how well it stood up to the other ingredients in this dish.

Honorable mention: Okay, I just can't limit this to 10. And since the Pasta all'Amatriciana snuck in up there at #5 anyway, I'm not going to flinch in also sharing this Mushroom-Bacon Risotto, a perfect late winter dish to warm yourself on a cold night.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Best of 2013: Salads, Soups, Starters and Sides

What inspires your cooking? For me, inspiration comes from a number of sources, from the more expected places like memorable restaurant meals and classic recipes that can use an update, to the more unusual, like a chapter in a novel where a character makes lentil stew. This year's best salads, soups, starters and sides drew from a mix of inspirations, chasing the seasons as a way to showcase fresh and interesting ingredients.

Salads: Simple, Seasonal and Restaurant-Inspired

Proving the old adage that simple is best, my favorite salad this year was a Celery and Peanut Salad inspired by the age-old snack of celery with peanut butter. The recipe was a hit with readers (especially my mother) and even got in a mention in the (now sadly discontinued) New York Times Diner's Journal. Another simple but delicious salad: Sliced Fresh Tomato Salad, dressed lightly with olive oil, lemon and lemon basil.

I frequently drew inspiration from restaurants to create interesting seasonal salads. The fresh takes on Caesar salads from Palena and Graffiato were the inspiration for this Caesar Salad Update. The Mustard Greens Salad with Roasted Cauliflower, Almonds, Grapes and Chicken was inspired by starter from The NoMad. Agave-Mezcal Chicken and Curry Roasted Cauliflower Salad was inspired by one of the monthly seasonal salads at Sweetgreen. And Buck's Fishing and Camping's wonderful homemade cottage cheese and beet starter was behind this Roasted Beet and Cottage Cheese SaladBroiled Peach Salad with Watercress, Sugar Snap Peas and Toasted Hazelnuts was inspired by a rejuvenating lunch we enjoyed at Eataly as a respite from the oppressive summer heat.

Several classic restaurant salads became quick favorites this year. Early in the year, I discovered the Canlis Salad made zesty lemon dressing and copious fresh mint contrasting with the rich, and the Nostrana Salad with bitter radicchio; both also feature buttery herb croutons. In March, a project to update a series of classic dishes yielded three great salad recipes: A Cobb Salad  with fresher ingredients, a healthier take on Wilted Spinach and Bacon Salad and a Smoky Waldorf Salad.

In the winter, kale, still the most popular of the hearty greens, is great for salads. I gave it the crispy treatment in this Crispy Kale and Roasted Chickpea Salad. For hummus lovers, I deconstructed (or rather "reconstructed") popular ways of serving the dip into a salad, Reconstructed Hummus Salad. Once summer comes, we're all about the tomato panzanella, and I loved this Roasted Tomato Panzanella adapted from a recipe by Little Ferraro Kitchen.

Soups: Hearty Beans, Legumes and Chili

The most incredible soup I had this year, in fact one of the best things I ate period this year, was Smoky Pinto Bean, Red Wine and Bacon Soup, a recipe from New York Times writer Melissa Clark. I'm looking forward to making it again this winter.

Beans or legumes showed up in several other great soups. Sadly, the food world lost Italian cook Marcella Hazan this year, who will be remembered for her wonderfully flavorful recipes, like Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Bean) Soup. This Basic Black Bean Soup was inspired by the classic Silver Palate recipe. And the novel Life Among Giants was the inspiration for this Lentil StewParsnip-Carrot Soup with Tahini and Roasted Chickpeas adapted from a Smitten Kitchen recipe. Cold Chickpea-Tahini Soup from a Mark Bittman recipe.

I also turned out a whole week of chili recipes, including our favorite BBQ Turkey-Bean Chili Stew and this Thai-inspired Chili. Earlier in the year, I made this Moroccan(ish) Spring Stew, which is sort of like an African riff on my turkey chili.

Trend-watchers may enjoy my Chicken Miso Ramen inspired by the current ramen craze. And of course there's kale: Sausage, Kale and White Bean Soup. Warm or cold, Sweet Corn and Carrot Soup is great for late summer. But when it is cold, Smoky Butternut Squash and Apple Soup hits the spot.

Appetizers: Elegant Crostini and Party Favorites

Caramelized Celery Crostini was my favorite appetizer this year. After caramelizing so many onions, I decided to try a similar technique with celery, which seemed perfect for a summer crostini. Later, I offered another crostini for Thanksgiving, Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Crostini with Crispy Shallots.

Dips are a great way to feed a crowd. A mix of pickled and fresh jalapeños and roasted pistachios added extra fire and crunch respectively to Spicy Pistachio Guacamole, inspired by the dip we enjoyed a Chef Alex Suptak's Empellon Cocina. And if you love hummus, this Smoky Smooth Hummus, is a must.

Buffalo chicken wings reimagined as mini-burgers was the inspiration for Buffalo Chicken Sliders, which are great for sporting events.

Sides: Perfect Rice, Seasonal Produce and Thanksgiving

The side dish that most enchanted me this year was Bon Appetit's recipe for Perfect White Rice, which will allow me to say "goodbye" to soggy white rice for good.

Side dishes are a great way to highlight seasonal produce. In the spring, I enjoyed these simple and refreshing dishes of Fava Beans with Shallots, Mint and Pecorino and Smokey-Sweet Braised Dandelion Greens. Come summer, Sauteed Summer Squash and Sugar Snap Pea Medley made great use of two farmers market summer staples. For the fall, I transformed applesauce from baby-food puree into something more fitting for grown-ups, Applesauce with Bacon, Caramelized Onion, Maple and Walnuts. I also enjoyed this Stuffed Acorn Squash.

Thanksgiving is the year's best occasion for side dishes, like Cheesy Scallion-Corn Biscuits with Homemade Compound Butter, this Bon Appétit recipe for Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Bourbon-Maple Glaze and Smoked Almonds and my Fresh Take on Green Bean Casserole.

Lastly, a vegetarian Middle Eastern dinner was the occasion to make both Baba Ghanoush and Quinoa Tabbouleh. Delicious classic sides.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Best of 2013: Cocktails

Best cocktails of 2013

Looking back on 2013, there are several key themes that emerged in my cooking: working with the seasons, learning the classics and experimenting creatively, all of which played out in the cocktails I featured on Cook In / Dine Out this year. Here were the highlights:

Spring in a Glass Cocktail
The Spring in a Glass cocktail was marked by herbal freshness appropriate to the season.

'Tis the Season

In the winter, I turned to dark spirits like whiskey and bold flavors from Italian amari, nut liqueurs and grapefruit. The Rye in January is an elegant rye drink with the herbal-cinnamon Czech liqueur Becherovka, grapefruit and Italian Cynar. Enchanted by the idea of a winter forest, The Woodsman combines smoked whiskey with walnut liqueur, sweet vermouth and a homemade rosemary-brown sugar syrup. I featured a pair of classic Drambuie cocktails perfect for winter: a '70s-era Prince Edward and locally sourced Tabard cocktail (named after D.C.'s Tabard Inn). For a guilty indulgence, I made The Siberian, a vodka and Kahlua milkshake.

As the weather warms in spring, I was inspired by brighter flavors like herbs and citrus, even vegetables. Spring in Glass combined mint, cucumber and fennel, the latter coming from D.C.-based Don Ciccio & Figli's Finocchietto, a fennel liqueur.  For Cinco de Mayo, I came up with the Margarita on Fire, a spicy/smoky concoction of mezcal, tequila and habanero shrub.

I kicked off summer with a whole week of cocktails. It included the Teagroni, a tea-based Negroni from Kevin Liu's Craft Cocktails at Home; a Summer Cosmopolitan with gin and fresh ingredients; and two smoky Mezcal cocktails that originated in New York's Mayahuel Mexican cocktail lounge. An experiment with cocktail foams resulted in the herbal Garden Martini. The flavors of Thai cooking were the inspiration for the Bangkok Breeze, featuring basil, rum, ginger and coconut. For my friends' wedding, I created a refreshing summer punch, The Lady Lawyer, with gin, mint and lemon.

Fall finds drinks inspired by the harvest as well as the coming chill of winter. Roasted tomato simple syrup was the key ingredient in my Smokin' Hot Tomato, featuring mezcal, Grand Marnier and habanero shrub, and Tomato at Night, which included (legal) moonshine, Aperol and lemon. For Thanksgiving, I came up with the (Wild) Turkey and Cranberry, a potent and festive (aren't they the same, when you're talking cocktails?) mix of whiskey, Aperol and cranberry bitters. A trio of cocktails made good use of apple brandy, including Jeffrey Morgenthaler's Norwegian Wood and Washington Post cocktails columnist Carrie Allan's modernized Scotchem.

Heisenberg Breaking Bad Cocktail
The Heisenberg, honoring the series finale of Breaking Bad

The Show Must Go On

Entertainment continued to be a rich source of inspiration for original drinks. Following last year's ever-popular Happy Endings-themed Whore's Bath, I created another cocktail for a departing show: The Heisenberg, consisting of whiskey, Becherovka, maple, lime and habanero. Dallas Decoder and I teamed up for another series of Dallas-themed drinks, including The Drew, a sophisticated mix of mezcal, Grand Marnier, Cynar, habanero and flamed orange peel, and The Judith, a rightfully bitter mix of gin, Chartreuse, grapefruit shrub and angostura bitters.

The cocktail highlight of the year were my Oscar cocktails: a series of 10 drinks honoring the year's 9 Best Picture nominees plus a bonus drink for Skyfall, a twist on the classic James Bond martini that nods to elements of the film. My favorite were the Life of Pi, which illustrates beautifully the bold visual style of the film, the Django Unchained, a fiery, irreverent take on Mint Julep, and The Argo, which represented the Best Picture winner with Canadian whiskey and Middle Eastern-inspired spiced syrup.

The Last Word cocktail
The Last Word: a classic prohibition cocktail revived by a Seattle bartender.

Classics 101

Early in the year, D.C. bartender Derek Brown wrote a piece for Table Matters arguing for bartenders to spend more time with classic drinks. "For every cocktail you create, try learning nine classic cocktails first," he said. Although I didn't quite achieve that balance, I did make an effort to learn classic drinks, including their history.

Take the Last Word, a gin and chartreuse cocktail from the prohibition era that made a comeback recently due to Seattle bartender Murray Stenson. Former Washington Post spirits columnist Jason Wilson honored D.C.'s signature cocktail, the Rickey, with his Nice Rickey. The Singapore Sling, an oft maligned cocktail, is actually rather good when made with quality, fresh ingredients. I also had fun making The Vesper, the classic James Bond vodka and gin martini.

A few other classics everyone should try: Mojito, Mint Julep and Gin & Tonic, the latter of which gave me a chance to taste a number of American small-batch gins (plus drink a lot of G&Ts, my favorite cocktail).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Restaurant: Casa Luca (Washington, D.C.)

Casa Luca Washington DC

Few dishes excite me like the prospect of a really good pasta. Perhaps that's why I'm instantly smitten with Casa Luca. The casual cousin of Chef Fabio Trabocchi's fabulous downtown Italian restaurant Fiola puts its selection of pasta dishes front-and-center on its menu.

When we visited Fiola last year, my favorite dish was the lobster ravioli, served with a generous helping of the ruby crustacean. The pastas at Casa Luca are no less exciting and no less generous. 

Agnolotti comes filled with a spicy-smooth puree of kabocha squash paired with walnuts, brown butter and, in an interesting move, artichokes. The campanelle all'amatriciana is bathed in a luscious tomato sauce with thick pieces of guanciale. 

Best of all though is the smoked potato gnocchi with duck ragu. Its smokiness is perfectly balanced with the meatiness of the ragu, and the gnocchi have just the right texture. Chris ordered this, but I swiped more than my usual share of bites from his plate because it was so good. I recommend an order of grilled crescia--a lard-enriched flatbread--to help sop up all the wonderful pasta sauces.

Although pastas dominate the menu, Chef de Cuisine Erin Clarke oversees a short selection of fish and grilled meat dishes, plus a rotating selection of weekday specials. Although less expansive than sister restaurant Fiola's menu, Casa Luca's menu is easier on the wallet. Except for dishes meant for two, Casa Luca's entrees range from $18 for the fusilli pasta to $36 for the filet mignon, about $10 less than similar offerings at Fiola.

In addition to breads, the restaurants lengthy list of antipasti includes salumi, cheese, "piccoletti" (little bites) and salads. My favorite salad is the misticanza, a vibrant mix of winter greens, apple, grapefruit, oranges and pistachios. Burrata arrives at one meal with roasted tomatoes and basil like a richer winter version of summer's favorite caprese. At another meal, it's served over radishes and garnished with an olive-mushroom tapenade. 

A bottle of wine to wash down those pastas won't set you back much at Casa Luca. All of the selections available by the glass at $13 can be had by the full bottle for $28. It's a nice selection of Italian whites and reds. We sprang for a cabernet, merlot and sangiovese blend from Umbria that worked well with both our pastas.

By the time you eat through all that pasta, you might be tempted to pass on Pastry Chef Tom Wellings' varied creations. But maybe you could split one? They're certainly good. His cake-and-ice-cream combos like hazelnut coffee cake with caramel gelato and bread pudding with pumpkin gelato both hit the spot. Chris and I were a little too full to enjoy one those, so we sprang instead for the Sicilian Cassata: a tart-sweet combination of pistachio and orange semifreddo with grapefruit sorbet and a few mini vanilla meringues.

Although downtown is already host to a number of great Italian restaurants, Casa Luca is a welcome addition on the more casual end of the spectrum, especially for its excellent homemade pastas.

Casa Luca, 1099 New York Avenue NW (At 11th and I Streets, Entrance on 11th Street), Washington, D.C. (Mt. Vernon Square/Metro Center). (202) 628-1099. Reservations: Open Table.

Casa Luca on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 23, 2013

Coffee Cake with Coffee Frosting

Coffee is such a great dessert flavor. It's often paired with chocolate, but I don't think it needs to be. It should stand on its own.

Which is exactly what you get with this cake. It's not a "coffee cake" in the traditional sense--a spice cake with a crumb topping. No, this is an actual "coffee" cake. As in flavored with coffee. And the frosting is coffee too. If you love your coffee with lots of sugar or if you're a fan of coffee ice cream, I think you'll like this cake too. It's decadent and sure to give you a coffee buzz too.

This is the first recipe I've made from Pioneer Woman writer Ree Drummond. I entered it in my office holiday dessert contest this year. Turns out I'm not the only coffee lover at work, as it took the top prize.

Coffee Cake with Coffee Frosting
Adapted from Coffee Cake (Literally!) by Ree Drummond for Pioneer Woman

2 cups all-purpose flour (9 1/2 oz.)
2 cups sugar (16 oz.)
1/4 tsp. table salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the cake pans
3 tbsp. instant coffee crystals
1 cup water, boiling
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. vanilla extract

12 tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
16 oz. confectioners' sugar
2 tbsp. instant coffee crystals
1/4 tsp. table salt
4 tbsp. heavy cream


1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two round cake pans. Place a round of parchment in the bottom of each pan. Grease the parchment then flour the parchment and sides of the pan.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt.

3. Melt two sticks of butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. While the butter is melting, stir 3 tbsp. of instant coffee into 1 cup of boiling water. Once butter has melted, add the coffee. Let butter/coffee mixture boil for about 10 seconds, then turn off the heat and set aside.

4. In another bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, baking soda and vanilla. Pour the butter/coffee mixture into the flour mixture and stir until mostly combined. Add the buttermilk/egg mixture and stir until well combined. Divide the batter into the two cake makes and bake until set, about 29 to 31 minutes (note: original recipe called for a baking time of 20 to 22 minutes, but I found the cake needed significantly more time in the oven). Allow cakes to cool completely before frosting.


1. Add butter to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium-high speed until lightly and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add powdered sugar and beat to combine. Add instant coffee, salt and cream and beat until combined and smooth.


Place the first cake layer flat-side down on a cake plate. Smooth a layer of frosting over the rounded top of the cake with an offset spatula. Place the second layer of cake rounded-side down on top of the frosted bottom layer (so the flat side is on top). Frost the top of the cake and then teh sides.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ewing Molasses Sandwich Cookies

This recipe also appears this week on Dallas Decoder, representing the Ewing family in the Dallas Decoder Holiday Bakeoff II: Ryland vs. Ewing.

"Mama used to make these when we were kids. She said the dark molasses reminded her of the crude oil coming out of daddy's fields. They were my favorite, although I had to move quick if I wanted any, since J.R. usually hid them away in his room and told mama some story about how daddy had invited the ranch hands to the house since it was holidays and they'd eaten them all. Now my Annie makes them and they're just as good as I remember. Sandwich cookies are a multi-step process. If that's too complicated for you then, well, you're probably a Ryland and better off with some lace cookies that have far fewer ingredients to keep track of."  - Bobby

A coworker made these for our holiday party dessert contest this year, and I thought they were really delicious. I asked her for the recipe and made them myself the next day. I love the contrast of the rich molasses with the light lemon filling.

It's easy to over-bake the cookies, so be careful not to, since their high sugar content will make them too hard.

Molasses Spice Lemon Sandwich Cookies
Adapted from Cook's Country, America's Test Kitchen

Makes 30 to 36 cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 tsp. table salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (plus 1/2 cup for rolling cookies)
1/4 cup dark unsulphured molasses
1 large egg
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Pinch salt
3 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 cups confectioners' (powdered) sugar

1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat 1 1/2 cups sugar, molasses, egg and melted butter until combined. Scrape mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the dough is firm, about an hour.

3. Preheat oven to 375 F with racks in the upper-middle and lower-middle positions.

4. Line two baking sheets with Silpat or parchment. Place remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl. Shape dough into 3/4-inch wide balls and roll in the sugar. Place on baking sheets, leaving 2 inches of room between them (the cookies will spread). Flatten slightly to keep the balls from rolling around when you put the them in the oven. Bake cookies for 8 to 10 minutes, rotating backing sheets halfway through (top to bottom and front to back). Cookies are done when they are spread and the tops being to crack. Cool on baking sheets for 3 minutes and then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

5. Make filling: combine salt, butter and lemon juice in a medium and mix with a fork. Add the confectioners' sugar and beat with the fork until combined and smooth (you could try using a whisk, but I didn't have much luck with that).

6. Assemble cookies: Spread the bottom side (i.e. the flat side) of a cookie with about 1 tsp. of filling. Find another cookie that's approximately the same side and press the bottom side of that cookie onto the filling, making a sandwich. Repeat with all the remaining cookies.

Ryland Almond Lace Cookies

Almond lace cookies

This recipe also appears this week on Dallas Decoder, representing the Ryland family in the Dallas Desserts Holiday Bakeoff II: Ryland vs. Ewing.

"My mother Judith is known far and wide for these lace cookies. They're a lot like her: beautiful and brittle looking, but touch them too long and you'll get burned. See, you have to handle the cookies while they're still hot. Rylands are tough enough to do that though. If that turns you off, you're probably a Ewing. Maybe their fussy sandwich cookies are more your speed." - Harris

I first had almond lace cookies as a child when one of my mother's friends brought over a batch around the holidays. I thought they were so interesting and unlike any other cookie I'd ever had. I asked her for the recipe, but she wouldn't share it. Given that this was pre-internet, tracking down a recipe back them was not a simple thing if you didn't know where to look.

So years later and armed with Google, I was able to finally get my hands on the "secret" recipe for these amazing cookies. The ingredients are quite simple. The trick here is in the presentation.

You do not have to roll them up. They may be enjoyed flat, and for the sake of your fingertips, you may want to serve them that way. But they look really cool rolled up. After baking them for 5 or 6 minutes. Let them sit on the hot baking sheet for about a minute. Then, working quickly, use a spatula to transfer them one at a time to a work surface. Flip the cookie over, roll it around the handle of a wooden spoon and then pull the spoon out. Repeat with the others. Be careful as you do this, since they are hot. Try to handle them as little as possible.

Finding the window to roll them is the challenge. Take off the sheet too soon and they fall apart. Wait too long and they crystallize and cannot be rolled. It may take some practice to get it right. I bake them in batches of six, since I find that I can successfully roll six cookies before they get too hard. I wouldn't recommend trying to do more than that. I use two cookie sheets and roll one batch while the other batch is baking.

Almond Lace Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup almonds, chopped or pulsed in a food processor to a coarse crumb

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Prepare two baking sheets with Silpat or parchment.

2. Combine butter, corn syrup and brown sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

3. In a large bowl, stir together flour and almonds. Pour butter and sugar mixture into bowl and stir to combine. Spoon teaspoonful-sized rounds of dough onto the baking sheets, spacing them about 3 inches apart to allow plenty of room for the cookies to spread (I recommend no more than 6 cookies per sheet). Bake for 5 to 6 minutes until the cookies have spread and are golden brown around the edges.

4. Remove cookies from oven and allow to cool for about a minute. Then, if desired, quickly roll up the cookies one at a time by rolling them around the handle of a wooden spoon. (Careful--they will be hot and you must do this before they get too cool. Finding the right moment to roll them may take some trial and error. Alternatively, the cookies may also be served unrolled.) Set aside to cool completely.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Beef Wellington with Gorgonzola Cheese

Beef wellington with gorgonzola cheese

For a long time, Beef Wellington was a dish that I'd heard of but never had and didn't really know what it was. All I knew was that it was something fancy, possibly difficult to make.

Years ago, I decided to find out what it was. It's been a Christmas staple ever since.

Beef Wellington is a roasted filet mignon with pate, mushrooms and herbs wrapped and baked in puff pastry. It's origins are disputed. Forklore pegs the dish to a 19th Century Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. However, written evidence of the dish first appears in the United States in the 20th Century, and there's even a claim that it's from New Zealand.

Above: Step-by-step assembly of the Beef Wellingtons. Below: ready to bake.

The version I make is adapted from a 1998 recipe that appeared in Gourmet magazine. It substitutes gorgonzola cheese for the pate, which works wonderfully with the mushroom-shallot mixture and the beef.

Beef Wellington with Gorgonzola Cheese
Adapted from a recipe by Gourmet, courtesy of Epicurious

Serves 2

Olive oil
Two 1 1/2-inch thick filets mignons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
1 tbsp. minced shallot (about 1/2 a small shallot)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp. fresh thyme or chopped fresh rosemary (optional)
1 puff pastry sheet, thawed
2 tbsp. crumbled gorgonzola cheese
1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Spray a 9 X 13 baking dish with olive oil. Pat the filets dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Place in the baking dish and roast for about 15 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reaches 120 to 130 degrees (note: the original recipe says to roast for 12 minutes until a temperature of 110 is reached, but I prefer the meat to be more medium-rare to medium than rare as the recipe calls for). Allow to cool.

2. Meanwhile, heat butter in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add mushrooms, shallots, garlic and herbs and sauté until softened and lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Place puff pastry sheet on a floured work surface. Roll sheet out to make a 14-inch square, then cut into fourths (you'll only need half of the sheet if making two servings).

3. Place 1 tbsp. of the crumbled gorgonzola cheese in the middle of the pastry square. Top with half of the mushroom mixture. Place a partially cooked filet on top of the mushrooms. Fold the corners of the pastry together, brushing the point where the corners connect with egg to seal. Brush the seams with egg and press together to seal. Seal any gaps and press the pastry around the filet to enclose completely. Place prepared pastries in a 9 X 13 baking sheet sprayed with olive oil, brush all over with egg and refrigerate at least 1 hour up to 1 day until ready to bake.

4. Preheat oven to 425 F. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the pastry is golden. Serve immediately topped with a savory beef madeira sauce (see below).

Beef Madeira Sauce

The original recipe calls for a sauce made of 1 cup of beef or veal demiglace and 2 tbsp. madeira boiled for a minute to thicken them. Since I can never seem to find demiglace, instead I boiled 2 cups of beef broth until it was reduced to about 1/2 cup, added 2 tbsp. madeira, boiled for another minute. Reduced heat to medium-low and added 2 tsp. of arrowroot powder dissolved in 1 tbsp. of water to thicken. Season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Feed: December 18, 2013

Mac & Cheese: classic comfort food.
The Feed is my weekly round up of interesting food-related stories from newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Seasonal & Savory: “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” by Angela Buchanan.
I must be living under a rock, since I’d never heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes until this year, and I now I feel like I’m seeing references to it everywhere. Seeking a good explanation for this Italian-American Christmas tradition, I stumbled across Buchanan’s excellent post. Her dishes sound amazing, particularly the seared scallops with crab roe, seafood lasagna and olive-crusted baked grouper. If you’re D.C.-based and want to try this at a restaurant, here is Washingtonian’s list of local feasts.

NPR: “Sriracha Maker Told To Hold Its Sauce For 30 Days,” by Mark Memmott.
Bad news for sriracha fans: Huy Fong Foods, the major U.S. producer of the popular spicy condiment, is facing further government oversight requiring it to hold produced sauces for 30 days before shipment. Good news for sriracha fans: There’s a new documentary all about the origins of the hot sauce.

NPR: “Chowing Down On Meat, Dairy Alters Gut Bacteria A Lot, And Quickly,” by Michaeleen Doucleff.
A lot has been written lately about “gut bacteria,” the microorganisms that live in your intestinal tract that scientists are learning are increasingly important, linked not just to digestion but a host of other bodily issues, including obesity. Doucleff writes about a Duke University study that looked at how the “microbiome” as these critters are called are affected by diets high in meat and cheese, as opposed to one high in grains and vegetables. One guess as to which one was more beneficial.

Washington Post: “Comfort food: She may not have coined the term, but she’s an expert nonetheless,” by Phyllis Richman.
Nice to see Richman’s byline in the Post today. For those that don’t know, she was the paper’s restaurant critic before Tom Sietsema. In this essay, she writes about comfort food, a term she possibly invented. She denies it, but also points out that some pretty reputable sources credit her 1977 Washington Post article on shrimp and grits.

Washington Post: “Punch: For the holidays, nothing bowls over a party like it,” by M. Carrie Allan.
Writing about boozy punch for the holidays, Allan made me chuckle when talking about how punch brings people together and thus should not be served if you’re trying to escape your relatives. “You’ll have no excuse to escape while they unwrap the cheese ball and talk about your aunt’s bursitis.” Nice. In looking into the drink’s history, she picks a very reliable source: David Wondrich, author of Imbibe (which I mentioned during my summer drinks week) and his newer book, PunchThis Christmas-themed punch from D.C. bartender Gina Chersevani sounds like it would hit the spot during the holidays.

New York Times: “A Life of Noodles Comes Full Circle,” by Julia Moskin.
Noted American ramen chef Ivan Orkin has opened his first New York City ramen shop, Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop. Moskin uses the occasion to profile him and discuss his influences on his journey from the U.S. to Tokyo and back.

New York Times: “Are Nuts a Weight-Loss Aid?,” by Michael Moss.
I really hope there’s truth in this story by Salt Sugar Fat author Michael Moss, because we eat nuts like fiends in our house.

Mashable: “Fired Chef Takes Revenge on His Restaurant's Twitter Account,” by Seth Fiegerman.
The headline pretty much says it all. Quite amusing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Drambuie Cocktails

Mixology wasn't really a household word when I was a kid, and my father's cocktail of choice rarely veered from a classic martini, so I wasn't exposed to many liqueurs in my youth. But Drambuie was one I remember having around the house, which sometimes got poured over my parents' dishes of ice cream (never mine, I swear).

Drambuie is a Scottish herbal liqueur made from Scotch whisky, honey, herbs and spices. Because of this, it's a natural to pair with Scotch. The classic Drambuie cocktail is the Rusty Nail, roughly two parts Scotch to one part Drambuie.

For something along those lines, but a little more interesting, the Prince Edward is perfect, pairing Scotch and Drambuie with Lillet Blanc and orange bitters. Jim Meehan's PDT Cocktail Book sources to cocktail to Stan Jones 1977 work, Jones Complete Bar Guide.

For something different, I suggest the Tabard Cocktail, named after D.C.'s Tabard Inn. It pairs the liqueur with tequila and sherry and was featured recently in the New York Times holiday cocktails coverage.

Prince Edward

(Pictured above)

2 oz. Blended malt Scotch whisky
3/4 oz. Lillet Blanc
1/2 oz. Drambuie
2 dashes orange bitters
Orange twist (garnish)

Combine whiskey, Lillet, Drambuie and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until mixed and cold and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with orange twist.

Tabard Cocktail

1 1/2 oz. reposado tequila
1/2 oz. dry amontillado sherry
1/2 oz. Drambuie liqueur
2 dashes Regan’s bitters, or other orange bitters
Orange peel (garnish)
Sprig of fresh thyme (garnish)

Combine tequila, sherry, Drambuie and bitters in a shaker with ice. Shake until cold and strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with orange peel and fresh thyme sprig.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Mustard Broiled Salmon with Miso and Honey Braised Greens

Mustard Broiled Salmon with Miso and Honey Braised Greens

Fish for the holidays? Sure, why not. Not everyone eats beef or pork, and even those that do might welcome a dish that doesn't make them feel like they need a nap afterwards. Fish is "lighter," but it doesn't have to be light on flavor.

Mustard is the key ingredient in this dish, which also benefits from Asian flavors: white miso, sesame oil and soy sauce. Broiled salmon is super easy and fast to make. So not only will this please your family, but it won't take up all your time to whip up.

I served this with honey-braised collard greens. It would also be good with roasted Brussels sprouts and perhaps mashed potatoes with a little wasabi kick.

Asian Mustard Broiled Salmon with Miso and Honey Braised Greens

Serves 2

Collard Greens:

1 tbsp. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
1 bunch collard greens, stems removed, chopped into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tsp. honey
1 tbsp. white miso
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. dark sesame oil


1 lb. salmon fillet
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. low-sodium soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced (may substitute 1/4 tsp. garlic powder)
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice (juice from 1/2 lime)
Toasted sesame seeds


1. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and chili pepper flakes and sauté until fragrant, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Add the collard greens and stir to coat with oil and garlic. Coat until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add chicken broth and honey and stir to combine. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until the greens are tender, about 10-15 minutes (thicker greens require longer cooking time).

2. Remove lid and continue cooking if there is much moisture remaining (pan should not be completely dry though). Drop miso into pan and squeeze the lime over it. Stir to break up the miso so it combines with the remaining juices in the pan.


1. Preheat oven broiler with rack in top position (about 5 inches from broiler).

2. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with olive oil. Place the salmon fillet on the baking sheet, skin-side down. Combine the olive oil, mustard, soy sauce, pepper and garlic in a bowl and pour over the salmon. Broil salmon for 5 minutes. Turn fillet over and broil another 5 minutes. Remove skin and check for doneness (broil additional couple minutes if desired).

To serve:

Divide the collard greens between two plates. Place a salmon fillet on each pile. Squeeze the lime over the salmon and sprinkle with sesame seeds.