Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014: Restaurants

Best Restaurants of 2014

The D.C. restaurant scene continued its dynamism this year. Last year, I wrote about how 2013 was a landmark year for new restaurants; this year felt no different as D.C. welcomed places like DBGB, Fiola Mare, The Partisan and Rural Society. The slate of openings, however, was also accompanied by a number closures, most notably one the city's four-star restaurants, CityZen, and a beloved personal favorite, Palena.

This year we visited restaurants in D.C., New York, Portland, Dallas and Santa Fe, and found gems in all of them. Here are some of our very favorites.

Fried Green Tomatoes, Macon Bistro & Larder

Best Starter: Fried Green Tomatoes, Macon Bistro & Larder (D.C.). I'd never had fried green tomatoes before trying them at Macon Bistro and Larder, but I'd always wanted to try them. I quickly became a fan of Macon's thick slabs of green tomato fried to perfection and served with smoky chunks of meaty bacon and tomato aioli. Although Macon has plenty of interesting starters, this has become our must-have when we go there. Honorable mentions: Roasted Butternut Squash with Pumpkin Seeds, Le Verdure at Eataly (NYC); Pickled Beet Soup with Cherry Compote and Dried Corn Crumble, Mitsitam Cafe at The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (D.C.); Tableside Guacamole, Oyamel (D.C.).

Best Salad: Insalata di Mele con Gorgonzola, Coppi's Organic (D.C.). I love apples in salad, and this creation featured roasted spiced apples with pine nuts, gorgonzola cheese and bitter mesclun was a spot-on balance of flavors. Honorable mentions: Caesar Salad with Fried Oysters, Aggio (D.C.); Roasted Carrot and Kale Salad with Chestnuts, Pistachios and Buttermilk Dressing, Bread Feast at Bread Furst (D.C.); Grilled Bitter Greens with Pine Nuts, Currants and Aged Balsamic Vinegar, Le Verdure at Eataly; Black Kale, Apple and Warm Pancetta, Lupa Osteria Romana (NYC); Bibb Lettuce with Red-Wine-Poached Pears and Burrata, Thally (D.C.).

Best Pasta: Mafaldine with Pork Ragu, Lupa Osteria Romana. Lupa has been our favorite New York City restaurant for years. The Greenwich Village outpost in the Batali-Bastianich restaurant collective excels at making great pasta and this hearty pasta special we enjoyed early this year continues to uphold its tradition of quality. Honorable mentions: Chittara with Meatballs and Ragu Pomadoro, Aggio; Strip Steak Lasagna Béchamel, Coppi's Organic.

Salt Air pork chop

Best Entree: Grilled Sweet-Tea-Brined Pork Chop, Salt Air (Rehoboth Beach, Del.). We enjoyed a lot of good entrees, so it's hard to choose a favorite, but we were particularly taken with Salt Air's flavorful pork chop topped with charred scallion honey-butter and served with the wonderful accompaniments of smoky bacon beans, collards and corn bread. We've been going to Rehoboth Beach for years, but just visited Salt Air for the first time this year. It won't be our last. Honorable mentions: Shenandoah Valley Pork Shoulder with Potatoes, Mushrooms and Braised Red Cabbage, Bread Feast at Bread Furst; Grilled Chinook Salmon, Clyde Common (Portland, Ore.); Barbecued Brisket, Lockhart Smokehouse (Plano, Tex.); Fried Chicken with Waffles, Macon Bistro & Larder; Steak Fajitas, La Plazuela (Santa Fe, N.M.); Wine-Braised Beef Shortribs with Mushrooms and Parsnip Puree, Tía Pol (NYC).

Best Pizza: The Smoky, Comet Ping Pong (D.C.). We rediscovered Comet Ping Pong this year as a really great place to spend an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon for great pizza and beer. It's hard to pick a favorite pizza. I mentioned The Smoky, made from bacon, smoked mozzarella and smoked mushrooms, a pizza that teases your nose before your taste buds. But we also love the sausage and potato pie Time-Out, the sausage and pepper Stanley and the meatball and tomato Jimmy. Honorable mentions: Gorgonzola Pizza, Arcuri (D.C.); Everything but Anchovy Pizza, Nicola Pizza (Rehoboth Beach, Del.); Salciccia Dolce, Vezzo Thin Crust Pizza (NYC).

Bûche de Noël, Bread Feast at Bread Furst

Best Dessert: Bûche de Noël, Bread Feast at Bread Furst. I didn't write a post about Bread Feast--the pop-up from former Palena Chef Frank Ruta that set up weekly dinners this fall in my neighborhood bakery Bread Furst--because I didn't visit until its final night. This is good news though: Ruta has a new gig next year in Georgetown cooking at Capella. Since this post is about looking back, I'm happy to share that Bread Feast was fantastic and has me primed and ready for Ruta's next act. This dessert was one of the evening's standouts: gingerbread rolled with cream cheese frosting and served with cranberry ginger sauce. Absolutely divine. I'm not sure if Ruta, his sous chef Aggie Chin or the bakery was responsible for this--perhaps it was a collaboration, which might explain why it was so divine. Honorable mentions: Hazelnuts and Mascarpone in Chocolate with Coffee Orange Gelato, Aggio; Twix Mousse Pie, Ripple (D.C.). Honorable mentions: White Chocolate Ice Cream Pie, Clyde Common; Raspberry Tiramisu, Coppi's Organic; Blackberry Cobbler, Macon Bistro & Larder.

Best Cocktail: Smoked Sage Margarita, Secreto (Santa Fe, N.M). This cocktail has just about everything going for it that I like in a cocktail. First off, it's a margarita, a drink I can pretty much never turn down. Second it's full of smoky flavors, which I love, and third, it's got an herbal component, which I find so refreshing and fun in cocktails. That Santa Fe's Secreto is just an all-around great bar with friendly staff and other great drinks makes this easily our favorite cocktail experience this year, and we had a lot of really great ones. I even tried making this myself. Honorable mentions: The Chairman, Aggio; Cima Coppi, Coppi's Organic; Avocado Margarita, Meso Maya (Dallas); Amaretto Sour, Pepe le Moko (Portland, Ore.); Ms. Rosemary Bulleit, Thally.

Macon Bistro & Larder

Best Service: Macon Bistro & Larder. Macon is a busy place, but every time we visited we felt welcomed and cared for. The servers don't just bring food, they offer helpful suggestions, show enthusiasm for the food and, importantly, a desire to please. Honorable mentions: AggioLa PlazuelaSalt Air, Thally.

Best Overall Experience: Macon Bistro & Larder. We have felt so fortunate to welcome this Southern-meets-French bistro to our neighborhood. I love its style and its food, which so far has always been excellent. It's become one of our new favorite hangouts, especially for celebratory occasions. Honorable mentions: Aggio, Bread Feast at Bread FurstLa PlazuelaSalt Air. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best of 2014: Theme Weeks

Regular readers of my blog have probably noticed that I often write with a weekly theme. I find it a good way to organize my thoughts and share a variety of posts on the same subject. Sometimes I'm more explicit about it that other weeks--I may announce the theme at the beginning of the week updated throughout the week as new stories are posted. Other weeks the theme is "looser," like a collection of recipes that may share a key ingredient or cuisine.

The themes I put the most effort into are the ones I'm most proud of. They may involve greater than usual research or experimentation. Below are the themes I consider highlights from this last year (click on the title to go to the week's main post or any of the other links for specific stories).

Under pressure

Pressure Cooker Week

A new generation of cooks are rediscovering pressure cookers as a versatile tool for achieving slow-cooked techniques in a fraction of the time. And a new generation of devices have addressed the safety concerns that made pressure cookers the stuff of our childhood nightmares. I discussed features of modern pressure cookers, particularly my model, a Fagor Duo 8-quart pressure cooker; shared recipes for Mole Chicken Chili, Chicken Paprikash, Quinoa Salad with Cauliflower and Barbecue Spareribs, a recipe that has proven to be one of my most popular; and in the introductory post, I shared additional pressure-cooker resources.

And the Oscar goes to...

Oscar Cocktails 2014

For the second year, I invented cocktails representing all of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture (plus a bonus cocktail for a film that wasn't nominated but resulted in this year's Best Actress award, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine). Highlights included American Hustle, a "forgery" of a Pimm's Cup; Captain Phillips, an African-inpsired play on the Screwdriver; and The Wolf of Wall Street, a riff on the vodka martini that was the most popular of this year's Oscar drinks. Included with the week were a couple of Oscar party (1 and 2) snacks as well.

Favorite salad dressing? It's a toss up.

Spring Salad Week: Salad Dressings

Salads get lots of attention, salad dressings not so much. For my spring salad week, I put the focus on the vinaigrettes and creamy mixtures responsible for pulling together and complementing the various leafy, meaty, fruity and crunchy ingredients we toss into salads. In my introductory post, I offered tips for dressing salads, and during the week shared recipes for a lighter take on ranch dressing made with Greek yogurt, old-school French dressing, lemon-tahini dressing, a childhood favorite - blue cheese apple cider vinaigrette and that simple workhorse, basic vinaigrette, which I used to dress a pizza salad.

Please, don't be bitter.

Cocktail Bitters Week

Readers who like my cocktail coverage should definitely check out Cocktail Bitters Week if you missed it. This was one of my most substantial efforts this year, representing a significant amount of research into cocktail history and experimentation with various contemporary cocktail bitters to present a week of content that that explored bitters role in cocktail history as well as the modern craft cocktail renaissance. For the research, I leaned heavily on two great works: Brad Thomas Parsons' Bitters and David Wondrich's Imbibe!, both of which are discussed in my introductory post. Posts covered classic cocktails with classic bitters like the Manhattan with Angostura bitters and the Sazerac with Peychaud's bitters and classic cocktails with a modern twist like the Old Fashioned with Fee Brothers' Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, the Fancy Gin Cocktail with Boker's Bitters (a modern rendering of an old fashioned recipe) and the Improved Tequila Cocktail with Bittermens' mole bitters. I explored quite a few modern bitters creations like a G&T Martini using Scrappy's lime bitters and a Smoky Paloma made with Bitter Tears' bacon-peppercorn bitters.

Where there's smoke, but not necessarily fire

Smoky Recipes Week

I love the smoky taste of grilled food, but as an urban apartment dweller, I unfortunately cannot enjoy true grilled taste at home. This smoky recipes week kicked off summer with the true grilled flavor of simple grilled salmon but also ways to use smoky flavors in recipes prepared indoors, like smoked cheese and paprika in a smoky tuna (noodle) casserole and broiled vegetable skewers.

Herb(an) garden
Growing an Herb Garden

This wasn't a true theme week, but a recurring theme throughout the late spring and summer as I tried my hand at growing an herb garden this year. Turns out I have a green thumb after all, as I cared for an enjoyed fresh basil, mint, thyme, rosemary, sage, tarragon and chervil. I provided updates on the garden at 6 weeks (including how I started the garden) and 12 weeks and shared recipes for dishes such as linguine with fresh herbs, first hints of summer salad, pasta with peas, bacon and parsley, bacon barley kale corn mushroom soup and chicken breasts with tarragon-lemon-garlic sauce.

I think tomatoes are just peachy.

Tomato Week(s)

Tomato week actually stretched into 2 weeks this year, which I don't apologize for, given that tomatoes are my favorite vegetable and are only in-season for a few months. I started and the weeks with Middle Eastern salads: Fattoush, tomato and pita salad, and Tabbouleh made with freekeh, a smoky wheat grain. Other recipes include penne with roasted sungold tomatoes, peach and tomato salad with tofu and a Greek salad refashioned as a soup. I also created a special mashup sandwich: the PBLT&J. The highlight of my tomato recipes this year though was the Tipsy Gazpacho Cocktail, a drink I created inspired by the classic cold Spanish soup that was selected as a finalist in the Washington Post Top Tomato recipe contest.

My computer has an unusual affinity for this photo.

Apple Week

Apples are a wonderfully versatile fruit that sometimes don't get enough credit. They make a great snack raw and taste great in salads, soups, desserts, cocktails and other dishes. For this theme week, I explored this versatility with an apple tasting and recipes for a smoky apple crostini, an apple-potato soup with apple chicken sausage, roasted stuffed caramel apples and two great apple cocktails (1 and 2).

Depending on who you ask, one or all of these things can refer to "bruschetta."

Food and Language Week

Language is a fascinating subject and food, given its ubiquitous and international status, has its own unique connection to language. Like the cocktail bitters week, this was another theme that required significant research, both academic and original. I tied the theme to the release of The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky, which discussed and used as a source along with other research to discuss how fajitas, bruschetta and the martini are all food terms whose meanings have evolved in recent years.

Go Southwest, young man.

The American Southwest

Chris and I love Tex-Mex and other Southwestern cuisines and spent a fair amount of time eating it this year on trips to Texas, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. We wrote about great restaurants in Dallas and Santa Fe (and generally not so great ones around national parks). We had particular affinity for the barbecue at Lockhart Smokehouse in Plano, Texas. Our experiences inspired my cooking in a number of ways, including a Southwestern fall grain bowl, smoked sage margarita, a mole-brined roast turkey with mole gravy for Thanksgiving and a spicy turkey posole with Thanksgiving leftovers.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best of 2014: 14 Original Recipes

Ramen Noodle Pork Tacos
Ramen Noodle Pork Tacos

The recipes on my blog are a mix of those I've adapted from other sources and originals that I've come up with on my own. They both serve an important purpose: the former allow me to learn from others and share things that I like and the latter allow me to be creative. As I pick up more techniques and expose myself to more ingredients, I find it easier to be creative. There's a foundation that I know will result in success for what I set out to achieve. At least that's the plan, and thankfully it seems to work most of the time.

I combed through my original recipes to find these 14 original recipes that I think were my most creative and interesting for the year.

Salmon Soba Noodle Soup. This year, especially during the first half of the year, I made an effort to try more Asian cooking, particularly Japanese, since it's been so hot lately (especially ramen). With this simple soup, I was attempting something new with dashi, the umami-rich Japanese broth made with bonita (dried smoked fish flakes) and kombu (dried seaweed). Since dashi, soba noodles and salmon all cook quickly, this is a wonderful soup for a winter weeknight.

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce. I count this as an "original" recipe, because I don't follow anyone's recipe for making this. It's something I've made for years based on how my mom did it when I was a kid. So chances are you've probably had spaghetti like this at some point. That said, I absolutely love this spaghetti. It's a favorite in our household.

Cauliflower, Asparagus and Mushroom Risotto. This wonderful spring vegetable risotto had the unlikeliest of beginnings: it was inspired by a Twitter typo and subsequent back-and-forth tweets between me, Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan and my neighborhood farmers market, New Morning Farm. Just goes to show that you never know where you'll find inspiration for the next great dish.

Ultimate Club Sandwich. When it comes to a traditional sandwich, the club is king. It's also highly customizable. For this "ultimate" take, I thought about what ingredients would go into the ideal club: quality toasted bread, smoked turkey, roasted tomatoes, thick smoky bacon, spicy mayo, avocado and cheese. Hungry yet?

Mac & Cheese Fondue Bake. Ever since the cronut crossed a croissant and doughnut, food "mashups" have been all the rage. I attempted a few fun ones this year, including this mac & cheese casserole, which crosses the classic childhood comfort food with the flavors of grown-up Swiss cheese fondue.

Ramen Noodle Pork Tacos (pictured at top). This was my peak of my creative endeavors this year, a tongue-in-cheek recipe, that's actually quite tasty, mashing up the current fever for ramen with the fever for street tacos into one delicious dish.

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake. The components of this dish are not original--the cake and mousse recipes come from other sources (including my friend Jason's blog, The Aubergine Chef)--but I'm including it here because the idea to combine the two was mine, inspired by a birthday cake I made for myself over 25 years ago.

Chickpea "Potato" Salad. It's like the classic picnic potato salad but make with canned chickpeas, which significantly cuts down on prep time, and nonfat Greek yogurt, which cuts the calories over the mayonnaise-dressed version.

Bacon Barley Kale Corn Mushroom Soup. The name is a bit of a mouthful, but I could think of no better way to describe this easy soup that combines so many wonderful summer flavors.

Peas 3-Ways Risotto. I made a lot of risotto this year and I won't apologize for it. The Italian grain dish is the perfect vehicle for showcasing a multitude of fresh vegetables available in the spring and summer. This version is all about peas, incorporating sugar snap peas, shelled English peas and pea shoots.

Triple Smoky Apple & Blue Cheese Crostini. The combination of smoked blue cheese, smoked sea salt and chipotle chili powder make this lovely apple-based appetizer "triple smoky."

Moroccan-Spiced Meat Loaf. Northern African flavors were an inspiration for me this year and this meatloaf, which came out of a chat I had over Twitter one night with Cathy "Mrs. Wheelbarrow" Barrow, was my favorite expression of them.

Southwestern Fall Grain Bowl with Turkey, Squash, Pecans and Sage. All the best flavors of fall are wrapped into this hearty grain bowl with a Southwestern twist. It's another dish that ideal for a weeknight (or as lunch the next day).

Judith's Mole Cookies. I love mole sauce, the spicy Mexican sauce of nuts, chiles, raisins, chocolate and spices that comes in many combinations. This year, I started using the sauce for other purposes, like brining a Thanksgiving turkey breast. I also tried turning the ingredients into a cookie, which worked rather well. These cookies were a crossover with my husband's Dallas Decoder blog, representing the character Judith Ryland in our imaginary third annual Dallas Holiday Bakeoff.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Pot Roast with Vegetables

One of the best cooking lessons I've learned is that when you want to make a classic recipe for the first time, always consult America's Test Kitchen. Their collection of classic recipes coupled with their intensive testing and tweaking means that you're (almost) guaranteed to end up with a great result out of the gate.

I wasn't disappointed by their recipe for Pot Roast with Root Vegetables, which I turned to when I wanted to make pot roast for the first time.

Braising, where you cook a piece of meat for a long time in time, is ideal for making a tough cut of meat tender. Cook one of these cuts fast like a steak and you'd probably be disappointed with it. Cook it long and slow and you will end up with something delicious that's also generally more affordable than typically tender cuts. I used a top-blade roast, which is one of the recommended choices for this recipe.

Roasts need to be tied while they cook to prevent them from falling apart--they can do that when they're on your plate. Some may come already tied, but if they don't (or the tying job doesn't look very good), you can tie it yourself with some simple string. Here's a good video showing how it's done.

Then you start by browning the meat in a little oil, which adds flavor.

 You need two sets of vegetable for this dish: first, the aromatic vegetables that flavor the braising liquid and are discarded, and second, the root vegetables that are cooked and served with the meat.

My mother made pot roasts a lot for our family when I was a kid. But strangely, I'd never made it myself until now. We were pretty happy with it. I definitely recommend this version that also braises vegetables along with the meat. You have all that good flavor from the braising liquid, so why not extend it to make a great vegetable side. I served the roast and root vegetables with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts.

Pot Roast with Vegetables
Adapted from a recipe by America's Test Kitchen

3 to 3 1/2 lb. boneless beef roast, such as top-blade (what I used), chuck-eye or seven-bone
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery rib, diced
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup low-sodium beef broth
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 1/2 cups water (use more or less as needed in step 3 below)
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 1/2 lb. carrots (about 8 medium carrots), sliced 1/2 inch thick (about 3 cups)
1 lb. small red potatoes, halved if larger than 1 1/2 inches in diameter (about 5 cups)
1 lb. large parsnips (about 5), sliced 1/2 inch thick (about 2 cups)
1 lb. celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 2 cups)

1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 300 F. Pat the roast dry with paper towels and, if not already done, tie it with kitchen twine to hold it in place while it cookies. Sprinkle the roast with salt and pepper.

2. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Set the roast in the hot oil and brown on each side, about 2-3 minutes per side, 8-10 minutes total (reduce the heat to medium if the oil starts to smoke). Remove the roast and set aside on a plate.

3. Reduce heat to medium. Add the diced onion, carrot and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to brown, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and sugar and cook, stirring frequently, until, the garlic is fragrant. Add the chicken and beef broths and thyme and scrape a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits. Return the roast and any juices that accumulated on the plate to the Dutch oven. Add enough water so that that level of liquid in the pot comes halfway up the side of the roast. Cover the pot with a lid, bring to a simmer over medium heat, then transfer the pot to the oven. Roast in the oven, turning every 30 minutes, until the meat is very tender and a fork or sharp knife slips easily into the meat, about 3 to 3 1/2 hours.

4. Transfer the roast to a plate. Pour the liquid through a mesh strainer (press on the solids with the back of a large spoon to extract as much liquid as possible) and discard the solids. Return the braising  liquid to the pot. Allow the liquid to settle for 5 minutes, then use a wide spoon to skim off excess fat off the top of the liquid. Discard the thyme sprig. Return the roast to the pot and add the sliced carrots, red potatoes, parsnips and celery root. Cook until the vegetables are almost tender, about 20 to 30 minutes.

5. Transfer the roast to a carving board and tent with aluminum foil. Add the wine to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Increase the heat under the pot to medium-high and bring to a boil. Cook another 5 to 10 minutes until the vegetables are quite tender. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon and reserve the liquid.

6. Cut the meat into 1/2-inch slices. Serve on plates with a side of the cooked root vegetables. Pour about 1/2 cup of the braising liquid over the roast and vegetables.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Restaurant: Coppi's Organic (Washington, D.C.)

If food has personality, then classic Italian cooking is the food with a friendly smile and a warm embrace. Everyone has their favorite comfort food: mac & cheese, ramen, grilled cheese. For me, it's Italian.

Unfortunately, 2014 was a rough year for good Italian in my neck of the woods. Early in the year, Dino decamped to Shaw to become Dino's Grotto, and then in the spring, Palena closed its doors, a shocking development for what was one of the city's best restaurants. Sure, the Vace Italian Deli remains a wonderful place for Italian goods (and pizza), but the departure of these fine restaurants left a noticeable gap in Cleveland Park.

Perhaps its fitting that the restaurant bringing good Italian cooking back to Cleveland Park is one that's faced its own share of hurdles.

Coppi's Organic was an institution on U Street years before that neighborhood became as red-hot as it is today. A friend of mine who worked in the area in the early 2000s remembers it fondly. Of course, the U and 14th area we know today is vastly different than it was a decade ago, and Coppi's became of a victim of that redevelopment when it had to close in 2012 due to its building being renovated.

Flash-forward 2 years and Coppi's has found a new home in Cleveland Park, taking the former spot of Lavandou, a French bistro that hung around the neighborhood a long time but never made much of an impression on me. Coppi's is a massive improvement.

Cima Coppi cocktail
I first got to sample Coppi's food and drinks during a D.C. Food Bloggers Happy Hour and was so impressed I knew I had to return soon for dinner. (Note: This review is based on our subsequent dinner experience and not the happy hour.) We enjoyed a laid back dinner of hearty, well-made Italian classics with friendly service.

Our favorite way to start a good dinner is with cocktails, and Coppi's doesn't disappoint. Bar Manager Nikolai Konick has designed a fantastic cocktail menu of craft cocktails made with interesting ingredients and house-made syrups, as well as Italian-style Negroni (or inspired) drinks. I had the Cima Coppi made with Acqua di Cedro, a citrus liqueur our server explained is made from citron, a type of citrus fruit prized more for its rind than its flesh. With a gin base and a spicy rosemary-serrano syrup, it's a refreshing tipple with a nice kick. We also enjoyed the Fig Limonata made with Mahia, a Morrocan-style brandy flavored with fig and aniseed, lemon juice and aged balsamic vinegar. Vinegar has been winding its way through cocktails again in the form of shrubs, so I was intrigued by the use of balsamic in a cocktail, which is a great idea.

Insalata di Spinaci Novelli

What came from chef and owner Carlos Amaya's kitchen was no less impressive. We started with a round of salads. Chris sprang for the Insalata di Spinaci Novelli, a classic combination of spinach, Italian bacon, mushrooms and walnuts with a balsamic vinaigrette. While that was good, we liked my Insalata di Mele con Gorgonzola even better, a wonderful arrangement of spiced and oven-roasted red apples upon a bed of mesclun greens with toasted pine nuts, dried cranberries and gorgonzola cheese. I'm a sucker for apples and blue cheese together and the duo really shined in this dish, one of the best restaurant salads I've had this year.

Insalata di Mele con Gorgonzola

It's hard to resist good pasta in an Italian restaurant, and we were in the mood for it the night we visited Coppi's. We weren't disappointed by our dishes, both of which can be potentially too "heavy" in the wrong hands but were expertly executed, their richness tempered with a hearty helping of vegetables and a light touch with the sauces.

Strip steak béchamel lasagna

I loved my selection, a strip steak béchamel lasagna that was the evening's special. If your vision of lasagna involves too much gloppy tomato sauce and ricotta, then Coppi's lasagna may be just the thing to rekindle your interest in the dish. Thin layers of pastas sandwiched chunks of steak with mushrooms, red peppers and lasagna and creamy béchamel without a tomato in sight.

Gnocchi con Melanzane

Ever the gnocchi lover, Chris got the Gnocchi con Melanzane, which consisted of appropriately pillowy gnocchi in a sauce of sausage, sundried tomatoes, onion, pepper flakes, pecorino cheese and plenty of herbs.

Raspberry tiramisu

Despite being pretty stuffed, I really wanted to try a dessert, so we went with another evening special, a variation on Coppi's regular tiramisu with fresh raspberries. The classic Italian dessert was cool and creamy the way it should be with a nice coffee aftertaste.

Cleveland Park has lately proven itself a difficult place for restaurants, as evidenced by the aforementioned closures (the spaces of former Dino and Palena are still vacant, unfortunately). But Coppi's was doing brisk business the Saturday night we sampled it and for good reason. This is the kind of classic Italian cooking that I love, made with a clear understanding of ingredients, the right balance of excess and restraint and delivered with care and attention by the friendly serving staff. Although I didn't literally get a hug at Coppi's, my appetite enjoyed the familiar embrace of good, satisfying Italian cooking.

Coppis' Organic, 3321 Connecticut Avenue, NW (at Newark Street), Washington, D.C. (Cleveland Park). (202) 966-0770. Reservations: Open TableCoppi's Organic on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sue Ellen's Peanut Butter Blossom Cookies

Peanut butter blossoms

This recipe also appears this week on Dallas Decoder, representing Sue Ellen Ewing in the Dallas Decoder Holiday Bakeoff III: Sue Ellen vs. Judith.

Although Sue Ellen doesn't spend a lot time in the kitchen as an adult, she would sometimes make Peanut Butter Blossoms for John Ross around the holidays.

The classic Betty Crocker recipe is one that Sue Ellen perfected during her years on the Texas pageant circuit. Even if cooking wasn't her showcase "talent," the judges appreciated well-rounded contestants (figuratively that is, Sue Ellen never ate cookies back then, having to keep her figure pageant-ready). They sure impressed J.R. though--it's one of the reasons he started paying closer attention to this stunning brunette.

They are a much better choice for serving children than Judith's Mole Cookies, which are hot and spicy. And honestly, isn't mole something you eat with enchiladas?

The cookies also symbolically represent Sue Ellen's loving relationship with her son John Ross, as each cookie is finished with a Kiss.

Peanut butter blossoms

Sue Ellen's Peanut Butter Blossom Cookies
Adapted from the classic Betty Crocker recipe

Makes about 3 dozen

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar, plus more for coating the dough
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky, I used the latter)
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
36 Hershey's Kisses, unwrapped

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter, 1/2 cup sugar, brown sugar, peanut butter and egg on medium speed until combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture and beat on low speed until combined.

3. Place about 1/4 cup sugar on a small plate. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls and then roll the balls in the sugar to coat. Place sugar-coated dough balls 2 inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone baking mat. Bake until the edges are light golden-brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Remove cookies from the oven and immediately place a Hershey's Kiss in the center of each cookie, pushing down a bit on the kiss until the cookie cracks around it. Allow to cool on the baking for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely. Cookies will need to cool for several hours for the chocolate kisses to fully firm up again (be careful not to bump any of the chocolate tips with your arm while working with them).


Judith's Mole Cookies

Judith's Mole Cookies

Mole Cookies

This recipe also appears this week on Dallas Decoder, representing Judith Ryland in the Dallas Decoder Holiday Bakeoff III: Sue Ellen vs. Judith.

Like Sue Ellen, Judith Ryland doesn't spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but she does have a few recipes nestled among the tricks up her sleeves.

Take these mole cookies for example. She got the idea from her drug-dealing buddy Luis. They are inspired by the flavor of mole sauce, the complex and spicy sauce from the Oaxacan region of northern Mexico. Judith grew to love mole during her "business trips" and thought it could be clever to incorporate the sauce's nuts, seeds, spices, chocolate and chiles in a cookie.

They sure beat the socks off Sue Ellen's Peanut Butter Blossom Cookies, a recipe so easy a child could make them. Pity poor Candace lost her hands. Judith could have put her to work making these.

The cookies also represent Judith's tumultuous relationship with her son Harris, as they are finished with a kick.

Mole Cookies

Mole Cookies

Makes 3 dozen

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground clove
1 tsp. ancho chili pepper (use more or less as desired)
1/2 cup toasted almond slivers (see note)
1/4 cup unsalted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1/2 cup raisins

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar, sugar and peanut butter on medium speed until combined. Add the vanilla and eggs and beat until smooth.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, clove and chili powder. Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture and beat on low speed until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and beat a few more times to combine. Stir in the toasted almonds, pepitas and raisins.

3. Spoon golf-bowl-sized balls of dough 2-3 inches apart onto a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone baking mat. Bake until the cookies look dried out and browned around the edges (it can be hard to tell they are browned, since they are, well, brown, but they will color a bit on the edges and look somewhat dry), about 12-14 minutes. Cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

Note: To toast almond slivers, heat in a small frying pan over medium-low heat, tossing occasionally until lightly browned and fragrant, about 8 minutes.


Sue Ellen's Peanut Butter Blossom Cookies

Last Minute Gift Ideas for Food and Drink Lovers

A silicone baking mat, like this one by Silpat, provides a nonstick liner for baking.
Is there someone in your life that likes to cook, eat or make (and/or drink) cocktails? If you haven't found a good gift for them yet, here are some ideas, just in time for 2-day (or overnight) shipping or a quick (hopefully) trip to the mall.


Silpat silicone baking mat. Remember the days when you greased cookie sheets? Most home cooks have discovered parchment to line baking sheets, but, although easier than using Crisco, they require cutting and, if you buy parchment in rolls, you have to deal with them rolling up in your pan (my solution to that is to crinkle them up first). A silicone baking mat can make things even easier. They make cleanup a snap, don't roll up under your cookies and are reusable. The 11-5/8-Inch x 16-1/2-Inch size fits a standard half-sheet baking sheet. ($25, however frequently on sale--half off at Amazon as of this writing.)

Stainless steel citrus juice press. If you use lemons or limes a lot in cooking or cocktails a citrus squeezer is an invaluable tool for quickly and easier juicing those fruits. Their double-bowl design keeps the juice from squirting in your face and they are generally designed to trap larger sides (you still might need to strain out smaller ones). Although I've long used a painted one, I recommend getting a stainless steel model like the Norpro or Innovee, since the acid in citrus fruit can wear the paint off over time (and you don't want that in your food or drink).

Garlic Twist. I work with garlic a lot, often minced as an ingredient in a pasta sauce, pan sauce or spread for fish. For many years, I used a garlic press for this, but I was always unsatisfied with the fact that a significant portion of the garlic clove remained in the press and that you cannot control the size of the mince. Then I discovered the Garlic Twist, which is a vastly superior tool. First, it minces the entire garlic clove, second, you can control how fine the mince is by how many times you twist the device (by adding a little salt, you can get an even finer paste-like mince). 

The Arctic Chill cocktail muddler is a great replacement for a worn-out wooden muddler (and a better choice, in my opinion).
Arctic Chill Cocktail Muddler. Looking to replace a worn-out varnished wooden cocktail muddler? Consider this stainless steel and plastic muddler, which I recently reviewed (positively) on my site. It makes quick work of citrus, fruit and herbs for making drinks. Cocktail muddlers are also useful for other tasks (like mashing garlic and anchovies into a paste for salads).

ISI Cream Whipper. You know how fun it is to eat whipped cream out of the can? Well, with an ISI Cream Whipper you can enjoy homemade whipped cream anytime you want. The device is easy to use and clean, plus it has applications for experimental cocktail infusions.


Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving by Cathy Barrow. In an age where you can always buy things like canned tomatoes and pickles, the art of preserving food is danger of being lost. This book by Barrow, a local D.C. author and Washington Post contributor, provides instructions and recipes for those wanting a better quality canned good or just the satisfaction of doing it yourself.

A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford. I picked this book up because it was written by the son of the man who runs the farmers market I visit most Saturday mornings during the summer and fall; however, I loved the book because it offers great insight into modern-day farm life (my very short review).

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky. It's not only what we eat that changes but also how we talk about food too. Jurafsky, a linguistics academic, explores this fascinating side to eating (my review).

Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails
Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald and Alex Day. This gorgeous book is a must-have for craft cocktail lovers. It's full of recipes, beautiful photos and tips on techniques and recipes (my review).

The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Serious cocktail lovers will also love this book, which has a stronger focus on technique with excellent writing (my review).

The Tastemakers by David Sax. You may dismiss food trends as silly nonsense, but there's a reason your refrigerator probably has butter in it and not margarine (and probably the opposite 30 years ago). Like it or not, food trends shape what we eat at home and in restaurants, and Sax offers a fascinating look at them.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg. For anyone who's ever wondered what it's like to open a restaurant (or who really likes pizza), this memoir is a delightful read about the all-consuming experience.


There are a lot of wonderful food and drink magazines, which make great gifts. Your food lover may already subscribe to Bon Appétit or Food & Wine, but chances are they don't get Lucky Peach, a collaboration with Momofuku chef David Chang that mixes essays and recipes in a fresh, irreverent format. For the cocktail lover, consider a subscription to Imbibe, the quarterly that covers spirits, wine, beer and other (even nonalcoholic) drinks.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Washington Post Food Section Cookie Issue

Congolais French Coconut Macaroon

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a huge fan of the Washington Post Food section. During my blog's first year, I featured its stories (along with those of the New York Times' then Dining section) in a weekly "battle" called Food (Section) Fight, which the Post's Food section won. Although I discontinued that feature in 2013, I still continue to include Post Food section stories in each edition of The Feed, my weekly roundup of interesting food-related stories.

One of the best things about the Post Food section is its regular special issues. I look forward to all of them--the Top Tomato recipes issue, which I was featured in this year, is a definite favorite, as are the two Thanksgiving issues--but the one that is the most fun is the holiday cookie issue. I feel like a little kid when I unfold the paper on the first Wednesday of December to a beautiful full-page spread of cookies. Beautiful cookies. They featured more than two-dozen recipes this year. It's always an interesting mix, always something new.

Lemon Sablés fresh from the oven.

I made two of this year's cookie recipes and loved both of them: the Lemon Sablés and the Congolais, a type of French coconut macaroon. 

The Lemon Sablés are a recipe by Heather Ross of Wildflour Baking, a bakery in Alexandria, Virginia (if you like beautifully decorated cookies, check out the pictures on Wildflour's website, they are exquisite). Sablés are a classic French cookie not too dissimilar from a shortbread. The recipe in the Post includes an optional lemon-sugar glaze, which I omitted because I was taking the cookies to work. I think they would be delicious either way.

Congolais, headed to the oven.

The Congolais also make their home in Alexandria and are also of French origin. The recipe is from Bastille pastry chef and co-owner Michelle Poteaux. The sablés were very good, but the congolais were exquisite. I loved these! And they are so easy too. The Lemon Sablés require a little more effort because you must first chill the dough and then slice the cookies, but that's really not very hard either. 

Lemon Sablés
Lemon Sablés

Recipes (from the Washington Post website):

Congolais (French coconut macaroons)